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The real Frankenfoods [and they’re not GMOs]

SweertPotatoHarvest

Sweet potato harvest (image from Wikipedia under license)

Gene transfer between different organisms is nothing new. The sweet potato, for example, arose naturally through incorporation of genetic material from Agrobacterium, an organism widely used, as it happens, in commercial gene transfer. Artificial mixing of genes from different organisms happens whenever we breed hybrids, from mules to zorses to hybrid garden flowers. The problems of seed ownership and licensing, monoculture, and crossbreeding are not specific to GMOs, but arise with every proprietary brand. An extreme example of genetic manipulation is the transfer of the gene for human insulin into yeast, a development of enormous benefit to Type 1 diabetics who, previously, had to rely on insulin extracted from pigs’ pancreas.

Ironically, as the article below points out, “conventional” breeding methods, whose products are accepted even by the most scrupulous “organic” farmers, involve far more uncertainty, and far more unnatural violence to the genetic material itself, than does controlled gene transfer.

Much genetic manipulation involves transferring specific genes between one variety and another of the same species. This achieves in a controlled manner goals previously sought by the more uncertain procedures of cross-breeding. Other examples, such as transferring the gene for vitamin A production into rice, or transferring genes enhancing drought tolerance into peanuts, are obvious value, especially in developing countries. One proposed application involves transferring the genes for omega-3 production into the feedstock used in salmon farming, without which farmed salmon lack a valuable nutrient found in the wild. This makes the Scottish Government’s blanket ban on GMOs all the more deplorable.

The Logic of Science

franken foodAnti-GMO activists are excellent at stirring up emotions and creating fear.  They are better at frightening gullible people than just about any group that I can think of (though anti-vaccers give them a run for their money). Their posts are full of images of grotesque mutations, giant needles sticking out of vegetables, and bizarre genetically hybridized organisms. The real question, however, is whether or not those fears are justified (spoiler alert: they aren’t). You see, it’s fine to present a fact that also evokes an emotion, but when you are exaggerating or ignoring the truth in order to scare someone, then you are committing a logical fallacy known as an appeal to emotion, and that is exactly what anti-GMO activists are doing.

The term “Frankenfood” is perhaps the greatest embodiment of this fallacious line of emotional manipulation, and honestly, it’s brilliant propaganda. It is simultaneously evocative and memorable. It’s…

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Be it fracking, or GMOs, or anything else, supporting science isn’t the same as supporting big business

Royalphil.JPGReposting from The Logic of Science because we need evidence-based policies, whatever they may turn out to be, not doctrinaire decisions. And all too relevant to Scottish Government’s arbitrary and unwarranted bans on GMOs and fracking; for the latter, my Scottish friends will be interested in Prof Zoe Shipton‘s talk in Glasgow Wednesday week at the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, open to all: http://royalphil.org/

Of course major companies have a special interest in these matters, and of course there are and should be regulatory concerns, but this is true of any large-scale productive activity whatsoever. And of course we can label polices left-wing or right-wing, and then use direction finders instead of brains, but that way disaster lies.

The gravest problems facing us now are global warming and food security. Now more than ever, we need rational debate, and evidence-based policy-making, regarding fracking, GMOs, and nuclear. Instead we have foreclosure of discussion by arbitrary blanket bans. No wonder the Scottish Government can’t find candidates for the vacant job of top scientific adviser.

The Logic of Science

Hardly a day goes by without someone accusing me of being a “shill.” You see, I have the audacity to say that we should be getting scientific information from reputable scientific sources (i.e., the peer-reviewed literature), rather than trusting blogs, conspiracy theorist websites, etc. In the minds of science deniers, however, that can only mean one thing: I have sold my soul to Monsatan/Big Pharma and am now a hired gun who roams the internet spreading propaganda. Even those who don’t go quite to that extreme often claim that I am “in love with Monsanto” or am a big supporter of pharmaceutical companies, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have never received any money from a corporation, nor do I particularly like big business. In fact, I dislike large corporations and detest many giants, such as Walmart.

So if I don’t like big business, why would…

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Scotland’s boneheaded ban on GM: the scandal just got worse

Arms_of_the_Royal_Society_of_Edinburgh

Arms of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, bitterly critical of the Scottish Government’s handling of the GM issue

The Scottish government is becoming notorious for ignoring scientific advice, or not even asking for scientific advice on scientific questions. The latest example is the blanket ban on GM technology, which has drawn a blistering reproof from the country’s most respected scientific and intellectual organisation, the Royal Society of Edinburgh. This comes hard on the heels of the decision to ban fracking, when the scientific advice is to allow it within a suitably stringent regulatory framework. It is not as if GM food represents a new technology; it has been in use, and intensely studied, for over 20 years (see e.g. here).

But just when you think that things couldn’t get any worse, they got worse. Responding to criticism, the First Minister’s official spokesman has explained that since GM technology is “by its very nature hugely controversial”, it would endanger the reputation of the Scotland’s valuable food and drink sector. What evidence did it have for this assertion? None.

And just to ram the point home, he added: “Sometimes you have to be bold and take decisions that you think are in the national interest, and that’s what this was about. If ministers sat on their hands, and decided that they weren’t going to take any decisions until they had a report, scientific or otherwise, telling them what to do, you guys would be saying ‘when are you going to get your finger out and do something’. Sometimes you have to take bold decisions and do what you think is right for the country.”

So now we know. We have a Government that is prepared to decide “what is right for the country”, without waiting for any “report, scientific or otherwise”, that would supply the necessary evidence on which to base its decisions. How can such a Government even begin to develop a rational policy for food and energy, the most important problems facing the world today?

We (all of us) make up stories with ourselves as heroes, and, with the best of motives, choose our opinions to suit our self-images. Rational consideration of alternatives is a deeply unnatural activity. And so we have people who see themselves as Good Environmentalists advocating policies that deeply damage the environment. And politicians abdicating leadership to pander to them.

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