Better discussion of GMOs in NZ needed and the Food Matters Aotearoa line-up

By Grant Jacobs 06/02/2015 22


(I’ve since posted an op-ed and brief comments on a press release. This is more concise and likely better suits most readers.)

On Tuesday I was told of a conference in New Zealand featuring Gilles-Éric Séralini, whose most (in)famous and widely criticised publication I have previously written about on two occasions. This research was widely panned for it’s poor science and unethical treatment of research animals. Arjó and colleagues analysed the paper in the journal Transgenic Research summarising,

A recent paper published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology presents the results of a long-term toxicity study related to a widely-used commercial herbicide (Roundup™) and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified variety of maize, concluding that both the herbicide and the maize varieties are toxic. Here we discuss the many errors and inaccuracies in the published article resulting in highly misleading conclusions, whose publication in the scientific literature and in the wider media has caused damage to the credibility of science and researchers in the field. We and many others have criticized the study, and in particular the manner in which the experiments were planned, implemented, analyzed, interpreted and communicated. The study appeared to sweep aside all known benchmarks of scientific good practice and, more importantly, to ignore the minimal standards of scientific and ethical conduct in particular concerning the humane treatment of experimental animals.

Called the Food Matters Aotearoa Conference, the keynote speakers without exception are strongly opposed to genetic modification whose arguments have been criticised as being poor science. (The meeting covers other food-related issues, but I wish to just consider the genetic modification (GM) related aspects.) 

Keynote speakers often set the tone of the meeting. If we were to stand on our soapbox we might be blunt and say this keynote line-up looks decidedly unsound, an anti-GM love fest, and hardly helpful to bringing better understanding of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) to New Zealand. I’ve looked into this further below, but let me briefly deal with the organisers behind meeting then tackle something more positive before returning to a deeper look at the conference itself. Those interested in details should note the Footnotes.

Perhaps it is no surprise to find that the conference organisers are all members of GE Free NZ. (GE = genetic engineering.) These same people form the Food Matters Aotearoa Ltd company used to administer the meeting. It would seem, then, a reasonable possibility that it is a GE Free NZ event, with GE Free NZ having set up Food Matters Aotearoa Ltd to administer the event.[1] (I haven’t seen a statement to this effect on the conference website.)

Genetic modification deserves discussion, especially in the light of over-restrictive legislation in New Zealand compared to legislation elsewhere. But good discussion. Lining up ‘exotic’ keynote speakers does not encourage exploring issues, but re-entrenching biased views and flawed arguments for some, and alienating others. We need less of that, not more. What might be better alternatives?

Advocacy by groups (like GE Free NZ), by their nature, seek to re-enforce the views of the group’s members, to pitch positions at political bodies and regulatory organisations, and to recruit more people to their view.

Advocacy pushes an already-held point of view. If anything it often shuts down full discussion. It tends to create ‘us’ v. them ‘them’: aside from creating rifts, it tends to proceed in adversarial fashion.

None of these things really help the important players in this – ‘ordinary’ New Zealanders. They’re no better off; if anything, worse off.

More important I think is: if this isn’t what is useful, what might be?

I dislike just being negative about these sorts of things and try make a point of offering positive suggestions along with any criticism. My suggestions aren’t meant to be final or even especially well thought-out, but rather to be ideas to encourage readers to offer better ones. Pitch in! – use the comments below.

One thing might be to show people GMO plants. How many people have seen GMOs in front them, in real life? It might be an effective way of showing that they’re variants of existing plants, for example. An unhappy irony is that current laws might prevent people from even seeing the things they are talking about, so this might be limited to television.

Another might be for larger-scale farmers to explain what is usual for them. Why they do the things they do. A number of the suggestions or concerns I see raised by those that oppose GMOs strike me as contrary to normal farming practice. Sometimes I suspect some of the suggestions may only make good sense for those growing in a very small scale, say, growing your own vegetables. (As I do!) Understanding what large-scale farmers do, and why, might help. You might say similar for other industries involved, like those involved in transporting and distributing food.

Educational opportunities exist. Perception of risk is a common issue with things people are opposed to. One recent article on that is worth reading is Christine Wilcox’s Risk, trust, and GMOs: can understanding fears help alleviate them? A related element is understanding how genes (don’t) relate to species. There are others.

Filling in educational gaps may be harder to tackle, in that it easy for people to feel they are being told ‘how things are’. Remember here that my concerns here are not with the few who noisily oppose GMOs or are activists, but with the wider community – New Zealanders in general, the people on the street. It’s very hard to get through to those who have taken on a stance in too strong an ideological fashion—some would say futile—but issues about food safety and so on are for the country as a whole and legislation wants to reflect their interests rather than a noisy few.

Better understanding of general perceptions might help. For example, my overall impression is that most New Zealanders consider GM plants to be as safe as their non-GM counterparts from a edible food safety point of view, and see commercial issues as separate issues.

Any other suggestions? Mine are very much off-the-cuff, so don’t feel nervous putting them in the comments below!

—=+=—

Turning back to the meeting we can see the anti-GE/GM viewpoint dominating every facet of the event: the keynote speakers in particular, the organisers, the advertising, and (some of) the sponsors.

Let’s open with a thought: dressing up advocacy as discussion is being untruthful, really. It’s also in the end unhelpful to the organisation in question. One thing I have advised ‘anti-’ groups before: don’t pretend to be something you are not – you’re just setting yourself up to be pointed out as being dishonest. If you are an anti-GE group organising a meeting to advocate for your cause, then just say that.[2] This meeting does not look like a ‘discussion’ of a topic. Keynote speakers are selected to set the tone of a meeting. The ones chosen for this meeting are towards one end of a spectrum—not a good one, unfortunately—and suggest a staged an event to promote a cause. Why pretend otherwise? There should be no harm in saying it as it is.[3]

All of the highlighted key speakers from the conference flyer (PDF file) oppose GM and have come under strong criticism of what they advocate. I lack time for a detailed examination of each in turn. In it’s place I have linked to one example each illustrating their opposition to GM –

  • Dr Vandana Shiva. Michael Spector, writing in the New Yorker, has a long piece covering her “controversial crusade against genetically modified crops”.[4]
  • Prof. Gilles-Eric Seralini’s research has been very widely criticised, including in letters to the editor[5] and in subsequent academic publications. (One of his rare public supporters[5] was Prof. Heinemann, of Canterbury University, who is also speaking at the meeting. Séralini will be visiting Canterbury University for the first talk under the Food Matters Aotearoa banner.) Séralini’s approach to managing the media publicity for his paper came under strong criticism, too, requiring that journalists not ask other scientist’s opinions before the release date – an extraordinary thing to do.[6] The Science Media Centre has collected some experts’ responses to Séralini’s study of GM maize. I have covered the re-publication of this paper and the absence of fresh peer review previously.
  • Prof. Don Huber. A background piece on Don Huber can be found at the biofortified website.
  • Prof. Gu Xiulin has been quoted by the Chinese edition of the Wall Street Journal as having written “GMO is a magic knife that can annihilate mankind and destroy the environment…” on Weibo. We should be fair and allow that this may have been lifted from wider context, and for the foibles of 140 character communications, but it is quite a sweeping dismissal of GMOs. (Sina Weibo is China’s internal equivalent of Twitter and Facebook.)
  • Chef Jerome Douzelet has previously presented his ‘dialogue’ with Gilles-Eric Séralini in France (see below).

One way to consider this line-up is that it should be quite straight-forward to find people with expertise in the respective fields who are able to critique both these people and those whose views they oppose, but the meeting has elected to present those with views from the end of the spectrum that match their own interests.

Marketing for the meeting particularly highlights a staged ‘dialogue’ between two anti-GMO/pro-organic speakers. This isn’t a substitute for a panel looking at issues. This dialogue isn’t original: the two have previously presented this in France. (This Google translation features grammatical flaws as automated translations tend to: the original French is here. The organisation hosting it is CRIIGEN, founded and presided over by Séralini.) The dialogue is also looks to be a promotion for the English translation of a book written by these two that is to be released at the meeting,

A new book translated just for the conference, ‘Culinary Delights or Hidden Poisons’ (3) written by Professor Seralini and Jerome Douzelet, is a dialogue between a scientist and a chef

(Similarly, the translation of the report on the earlier presentation of the dialogue in France notes at the bottom, “NB: This conference is organized in the framework of the promotion of the new book by Gilles-Eric Séralini and Jerome Douzelet, cooked pleasures and hidden poisons, dialogue between a chef and a scientist”.)

The opening speaker for the meeting is Fiona Lady Elworthy. Her late husband was a founder of the Sustainability Fund, which has been active in opposing GM in New Zealand. She is patron of Organic NZ: their brief on her writes that “Important mentors in Fiona’s life include Vandana Shiva”, another speaker at the meeting. Dr. Jessica Hutchings and Prof. Jon Hickford are listed co-Masters of Ceremonies.[7]

One of the national speakers is chartered accountant who believes his heirloom apples can cure cancer; while not GE-related it is, to be polite, scientifically suspect. I could go on.

This raises a point. As a scientist I wouldn’t dream of associating myself with this lot. I’d be happy to speak to media about GMOs in general terms (I’ve written on GMOs before – some articles are linked at the end of this piece), offer to clarify or correct poor computational biology or numerical work I’ve seen in some of arguments presented, but I wouldn’t put myself in a meeting keynoted by people like those at this meeting. Keynote speakers are meant to set the tone for a meeting and these have, to be (very) polite, a poor science track record.

We could also look at the press releases. Beyond obvious (and plentiful) advocacy, several have statements that are, too be frank, pseudo-science. Below are a small sample. I have little doubt that someone has made the claims reported in these press releases, but to use them in advertising the meeting suggests a (very) low standard of science:

“Glyphosate, our most widely used herbicide has been implicated in the steady rise of childhood autism, predicted to affect up to 50% of children in ten years” (2nd Feb; this notion is from Stephanie Seneff, whose has very badly confused correlation and causation. Never mind the herbicide claim, a rise of autism to 50% is silly and scare-mongering. Some observations on this can be found here and here.)

“Professor Seralini of CRIIGEN Institute in France study on rats found that long term ingestion of genetically engineered RoundUp resistant corn” (26th Jan; this is Séralini’s widely criticised work referred to earlier. Also in 10th Jan, ‘Pinkwash – baleage wrap conceals true cause of rural cancer’)

Is public discussion really helped by pushing ideas that have been widely pointed out to be in error?

The strident tone of Food Matters Aotearoa can also be seen at their Facebook page.

Sponsors, too, are indicative of the standard of a meeting. As an example, the New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine is not a scientific journal, but a magazine featuring conspiracy-theory oriented material and wayward ‘advice’ and ideas from many unsound sources. As just one example (among literally hundreds), the last quarterly edition put out in the latter part of last year headlined ‘treatments’ for Ebola that included homeopathy and MMS, both, and I’m being polite again, are bone-headed suggestions. I’ve previously covered a NZ member of parliament’s endorsement of homeopathy for Ebola, something that earned international attention.[9] Fellow scibloggers have looked at MMS and several of us have written on homeopathy (myself included).

The closer you look, the more apparent the this sort of material is simply not useful for advancing a discussion on GE/GM and GMOs. I would be good, though, to think about what might be alternatives – share your ideas in the comments.

Footnotes

Things keep getting in the way, as they do in life. For several months now I’ve been meaning to write more on a need to revisit GMOs in New Zealand, with a view to moving past some of more unhelpful polarised stuff that gets tossed about. These include aspects of risk perception, the recent polls of people’s views about GMOs, and more. There are also a huge list of science things that I’d like to write about, if only there were the sort of time needed (and a better way to get past pay-walled research literature…), including epigenetics, the role of endogenous retroviruses in our lives, the recent mitochondrial therapy stories, precision medicine and many more. Instead I’ve been attending to job and grant applications. As I’m not fast at writing these things, I’ve tried to get this out before the Food Matters Aotearoa meetings get underway.

Thanks to Peter Griffin for links to the articles on Vandana Shiva and Don Huber.

1. I learnt from the event organiser for the conference that there is a company, Food Matters Aotearoa Ltd. This company has presumably been set up for the purpose of processing the attendance fees, paying the event managers, etc., in a way that limits the organisers’ liability, as I imagine is usual and recommended practice for organising meetings.

The sole director of Food Matters Aotearoa Ltd is Jon Muller, who heads the Wellington branch of GE Free NZ. His email address on the GE Free NZ website suggests he is currently secretary for GE Free NZ. There are only two shareholders, each with a 50% stake in the company: Susan Joy Lees, who heads GE Aware Nelson (the Nelson branch of GE Free NZ) and Claire Annette Bleakley, who heads the Wairarapa branch of GE Free NZ. Claire Bleakley is current the president of GE Free NZ. Susan Joy is currently their information officer and, judging from the common email address, correspondent for their head office. It would be useful to know if any proceeds of the meeting are to go to GE Free NZ.

These same three are the named organisers of the event.

The conference ‘About us’ page writes,

Food Matters Aotearoa is a partnership of business, community, education and organic groups, who support  the promotion of sustainable agricultural methods for nutritious food production, essential to our wellbeing.

but there are no members outside of GE Free NZ listed in Food Matters Aotearoa Ltd. (This description reads more like a reference to those speaking than those making up Food Matters Aotearoa Ltd.)

GE Free NZ’s website say that they “fully support Food Matters Aotearoa”. My reading of the situation is that it would be more accurate to say that it is GE Free NZ event—rather than an event by others that they ‘support’—and that Food Matters Aotearoa is the formal vehicle that they are managing the event through. (A cynic might suggest the company is being used as a front, to avoid GE Free NZ openly putting their name to the meeting. In any event, balance is best conveyed by the choice of speakers and the keynote speaker list is certainly biased towards those opposing GM. Not being up-front about the organisers behind the event won’t can’t save that.)

GE Free NZ is formally RAGE Inc. This is likely to be an incorporated society; there is no listing in the companies register.

I can’t help noting that there are press releases referring to Food Matters Aotearoa dated before the incorporation of the company.

(On a light-hearted note, you’ve got to love legalese: “A person who is not a natural person cannot be a director of a company”. Righty-ho. No zombies allowed?)

2. I once advised this to an anti-vaccine group, pointing out that in naming themselves to be an advisory group, when they knew they were an advocacy group, people would point out that they weren’t being truthful and they’d have no option but wear the criticism because it was true. By contrast if they simply claimed to be what they were, no-one could criticise it. Just my opinion, but hiding motivations behind fronts very rarely works in your favour.

3. It’s one of those things I find striking, that so many ‘anti-’ groups feel a need to present themselves as something ‘more’ than they are. It’s almost as if they are scared of their own shadow.

4. This is not particularly relevant to the topic at hand, but I’m struck by reports that Vandana Shiva asks a $US 40,000 appearance fee plus a business-class round-trip ticket from Delhi. If true, that’s a queenly sum (and, purely financially speaking, I’m in the wrong business).

It seems interviewing her was quite some effort, as this response by the New Yorker editor to Vandana Shiva protesting about Michael Spector’s piece reveals.

5. I’d link to this, but at the time of writing Science Direct is not retrieving the URL. My impression is that the original paper and all the correspondence in reply to it has been deleted. Entries for these still exist in PubMed, but links from there to the papers fail. I will update this footnote if I get further information on this. It’s frustrating as it makes it difficult to illustrate the initial objections to the paper. There were many responses. All but one or two were highly critical, in particular of the small sample sizes and of the unethical treatment of the lab animals. One of the rare responses supporting the paper was by Jack Heinemann. In lieu of this I offer reader this analysis of the paper and responses by Arjó and colleagues (open access). Their abstract—included in the opening passage of this article—reads,

A recent paper published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology presents the results of a long-term toxicity study related to a widely-used commercial herbicide (Roundup™) and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified variety of maize, concluding that both the herbicide and the maize varieties are toxic. Here we discuss the many errors and inaccuracies in the published article resulting in highly misleading conclusions, whose publication in the scientific literature and in the wider media has caused damage to the credibility of science and researchers in the field. We and many others have criticized the study, and in particular the manner in which the experiments were planned, implemented, analyzed, interpreted and communicated. The study appeared to sweep aside all known benchmarks of scientific good practice and, more importantly, to ignore the minimal standards of scientific and ethical conduct in particular concerning the humane treatment of experimental animals.

A recent paper Jack Heinemann has contributed to, which may be is a likely topic for him to present at the conference, that claims a lack of consensus on GMOs has come under criticism by Kevin Folta. (The style used in this criticism isn’t my style—I prefer to be less ‘shouty’—but the points made may be of interest to readers.)

6. It is usual practice for journalists to contact other scientists for comments on work about to be released under media embargoes as a quick way of vetting the quality of the work, if it might have obvious issues and so on. By obstructing this, Séralini prevented others from pointing out issues with his work before the media release, meaning that any ‘balance’ could only come later after the story had already made it’s run.

7. On one page the it says Jon Hickford is sole Master of Ceremonies but on the page introducing him, he is listed as co-M.C. Searching other speaker introductions, Jessica Hutchings is also listed as a co-MC. I am assuming that listing Jon Hickford as sole MC is an error and in fact the two are joint co-MCs.

8. The president of GE Free NZ, Claire Bleakley, is also a homeopath and has previously worked with Steffan Browning on GMOs.


Other articles in Code for life:

Séralini GMO maize and Roundup study republished with no scientific peer review

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part two – is the law out of date?

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part three

Scientist as activist

The public and new research: peer review, initial reports and responses to extraordinary claims

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”

Carrots for my neighbour

Haemophilia — towards a cure using genetic engineering

Supporting homeopathy for Ebola loses natural health brief but more needed


22 Responses to “Better discussion of GMOs in NZ needed and the Food Matters Aotearoa line-up”

  • I ought to have added to this that sometimes I feel this is like a wide playing field, flanked by two embankments, with noisy types on the back row of each shouting across those that really matter—most of New Zealand.

    It makes you want to push both little back rows out of the match, so we can engage with majority in the middle.

    (Before anyone suggests I’m on a back row myself, I’m an independent consultant, not an employee of a company that makes GMOs.)

    The current legislation for GMOs in New Zealand seems to mostly represent those from one back row.

    Lobbying tends to do that, I guess? – have legislation reflect a few with strident voices.

    There really wants to be a reflection of what I guess we can call middle New Zealand, and a way to engage with them rather than, say, those who have organised this meeting. (Their selection of keynote speakers speaks for itself: the choices are at the end of a spectrum.)

    It reminds me, too, of a small communication effort I was involved in many years ago. Dunedin holds science festivals. (Good ones, too!) In one event they’d simply asked if any biologists who felt they have time to turn up in a room and be available for people to ask questions about GM. There was no preparation and little advice – we simply turned up. It was very small scale naturally, but the direct communication I thought seemed to ease some people’s concerns well.

  • Amazed that you give Kevin Folta so much Kudos.He is a “strawberry” plant biotech engineer with no medical expertise who claims to be a public scientist while working at a US University highly dependent on US Agri chemical funding. It is not Folta’s shouty style that should concern you but his hidden COI’s.
    A high GM diet and astronomic increases in glyphosate use in US since 1996 appears to be linked to a marked rise in kidney disease in the US and Globally with possibly particular impacts in the South Pacific sugar cane and oil palm regions. Please research further. Glyphosate has been linked to an epidemic in deadly kidney disease in Sri Lanka. The research is compelling see Channa Jayasunamma research on “Glyphosate, Hard water and Nephrotoxic metals’
    US Graphs showing Acute kidney injury since 1996 plotted against increased glyphosate use on corn and soy since the introduction of GM and increased planting make it hard to dismiss correlations as coincidence.NZ is experiencing the same increases in renal diseases and a concerning obesity epidemic. We are very dependent on GM Soy and corn in our processed food production.
    Glyphosate use has almost trebled since the start of the so called dairy boom 2004 and the now common practice of crop desiccation using Transorb and other glyphosate formulations recommended by Agrichem companies. Intensive dairy has increased an already high glyphosate dependency in NZ Agriculture which makes Prof Don Huber’s excellent work on glyphosate activity in soil and water almost compulsory for kiwi farmers like myself and NZ medical practitioners concerned with Public Health. There is no middle ground or middling costs when it comes to kidney disease/T2 diabetes in young people.

  • Very interesting topic 2 points on the whole GMO in our food
    1 We should have the right to know if GMO’s are in our food. This should not be done be certification (certification is a costly process which is passed on to the consumer) of non GMO because this has the effect of turning non GMO foods into luxury items that most can not afford every day. The GMO foods should be labeled !
    2 With the advent of the TTP companies like Monsanto, will be able to peddle their wares a lot easier, with less restrictions.

  • I’ll try reply to comments later (I have things to do), but a quick thought:

    The responses I have gotten to date don’t deal with the main point of the article: what might be a better approach to discussing GMOs.

    It’d be nice to hear thoughts on this, it was the main point of this, after all! (Seeing that this meeting wasn’t it, left me thinking what is.)

    Bear in mind I’m interested here in involving the main public, the large majority who probably haven’t engaged much with GM/GMOs and may feel they can’t, rather than either group on the far ends. (See my first comment, above.)

    Bear in mind also that this ought not to be framed as a “debate”, but a discussion. Debates are argumentative and also tend to revolve around “winning over” the audience rather than substantive material.

    The FMA meeting doesn’t help this as the keynote speaker list (if not most of the rest of the speakers, too) are to one end of the spectrum, so it’s not set as a sound starting point for discussion.

  • Philli,

    Short version: it boils down to what Alison said in the end.

    Another article about the need to take care over correlation and casuation is by Peter Deardon here at sciblogs:

    https://sciblogs.co.nz/southern-genes/2014/03/26/cheesecake-makes-you-fat-but-correlation-is-not-causation/

    “Amazed that you give Kevin Folta so much Kudos.”

    You’re playing that up a bit: my only reference to him is what is essentially a throw-away addition at the end of a footnote.

    I’m also wonder if you’ve mixed names up. You seem to be objecting to ideas promoted by Huber, but the article I linked to for him is by Rob Wllbridge, not Kevin Folta.

    Please note that the main reason I linked these articles to each of the keynote speakers was not to critique their work (I said I didn’t have time to do that), but, as I wrote, to give “one example each illustrating their opposition to GM. I’m sure you agree Huber is opposed to GM. My reason for this was to illustrate that the keynote speakers are all oppose to GM and hence that the meeting isn’t trying to present a balance, but what we might expect to be the view of an advocacy group like GE Free NZ. Leading off with people only on one end of a spectrum not a sound base for discussion on a topic.

    Secondary to that, what the arguments they offer have problems.

    Jayasunamma’s paper is not research, but an hypothesis – an idea. I don’t blame you for getting this wrong – many websites will be saying it is research and and not everyone appreciates the difference between an hypothesis and research. Hypothesis = idea. (There are more formal definitions, but you get the gist right?) Research, in the sense used in science, is where you test if an idea is right; in her article she just suggests an idea. It says it is an hypothesis clearly at the top of her article. (http://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/11/2/2125) You can read one critique of her idea here, but there will likely be others:

    http://www.glyphosate.eu/glyphosate-and-chronic-kidney-disease-sri-lanka

    If you are interested in a topic, you want to also read the criticisms of people’s ideas – it helps to sort out if their ideas are sound or not. It is hard to pick out what things on the web are offering sound material – there are a lot of websites claiming silly things about GMOs and to make it even more difficult there are also some scientific journals that have no real checking of the articles sent to them and so publish some terrible nonsense. (I think Alison has written on this, she might provide a link to her article.) It’s doubly hard if you’re not a scientist as science research papers usually aren’t very easy to read. I ought to know, I’ve been reading them for a long time! I’m offering the article above just as a starting point (It’s just the first one I ran into): it’s your interest and would encourage you to search for and read critiques too.

    “Please research further.”

    Best not to tell others what to do? (Besides, what you’ve written is actually outside of what I was writing about: it’s your interest, not mine. See my previous comment.)

    You don’t give a source for your later comments, but I wonder if they originate from Samuels & Seneff. I’d suggest steering wide of Seneff’s work.

    Just for what it’s worth: you objected over qualifications earlier: Seneff works in artificial intelligence* and Samuels looks to be a sound technican. Neither are biologists and I have to admit the gaffes in Seneff’s work are pretty embarassing for someone with an MIT background. One example is (somewhat ironically here) very badly confusing correlation for casuation.

    The Samuel and Seneff paper is also speculation and published in a journal (Entropy) which seems to have no real peer review – i.e. authors could write essentially any silly thing and it’d be published. (Good science usually makes it to journals with proper external peer review – the external bit of that is important, too.)

    There are plenty of critiques of Seneff’s work, you should be able to find them easily enough. ‘Orac’s style is a bit hard-hitting, but you could use it just to get you started: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2014/12/31/oh-no-gmos-are-going-to-make-everyone-autistic/ It’s just the first I ran into; if you’re interested in this you should search out critiques and think about the points they make.

    (* I also wonder if Seneff is retired or is on some post-retirement position as her undergraduate degree is from 1968.)

  • Derek,

    As is your habit you take a lead to move to your own interests! I didn’t write anything about labelling or the TTP. (See my comments before my reply to Philli.)

    Mandatory labelling has flaws and there are business conflicts there as well, but that’s a topic for another day. Have to say throwing ‘Monsanto’ around gets very old fast: it’s a straw man argument.

  • I appreciate the desire for education. But I’m told by scicomm folks all the time that the deficit model (that folks just need education and information), really isn’t the issue.

    And I respect your optimism for some kind of fruitful discussion. There are certainly some people for whom that is the right route.

    But I think that there are times when the science-trained folks in the community with the weight of evidence (say, in this case, the consensus folks) to push back. I’m writing from the US, where we are seeing what happens when education on vaccine science isn’t enough. There are consequences. Now the folks with the consensus of science on their side are beginning to align and speak out in ways that may really help. (Let’s leave climate science aside for now too, but that’s quite parallel.)

    Pushback towards misinformers is certainly not for everyone, and I wish you well on an effort for better discussion with the folks to may not be currently engaged. But I think there’s also room for some people who call out misinformation in the strongest terms. These efforts don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They can be on different channels.

    Although I lived through the days of the AIDS epidemic, I wasn’t focused on it. I was peripherally aware of it, for sure. But I’m glad some of the folks in the movement pushed for research and technology to advance. I was reminded of this when watching “How to Survive a Plague” recently. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/nov/10/how-to-survive-a-plague-review

    “Gradually, members of Act Up (who included scientists, chemists, and researchers) were accepted onto the boards of those struggling to oversee the crisis, their literate, informed and practical responses to floundering drug development becoming a key part of the search for a cure.”

    Act Up was very controversial, and some people thought them too pushy and confrontational. Yet they supported the tech and the research, and pressed to get the work done. Seems to me there are some cases that warrant this. And I think people who are preventing progress in plant science and synthetic biology, using lies and fear, need to be challenged. Or we stand to lose research and access to technologies that can really make a difference going forward in times of rapid climate change and population growth.

  • Grant, in using a blog to target this event you also can be accused of “yelling from the back row”.

    I was asked to chair a session at the meeting early on in the piece and said yes. The reason for this (as I have explained to many people now), is that no problem will be solved if you try to ignore it. Good quality discussion is a key to understanding, so my main objective in chairing a session will be to insure that that is what we get.

    I agree that the public need to be better informed about the issues at hand (as they need to be on many other matters), and in this respect I urge you to condense what you have written into something more media friendly and then get it into the mainstream media. I also urge you to attend the event and challenge the thinking and conclusions of those who you claim need to be challenged.

    One of the strengths of NZ is that we still have free media, although I feel they are at times too easily distracted by frippery. We also have a literate public, so provided they are told about issues by responsible media outlets, they tend to make sound assessments of the various qualities of any argument around them. In the case of GMOs, the level of public interest waxes and wanes, suggesting to me that it is not the issue either scientifically, or from a public health perspective that things like obesity are in NZ, or Ebola in Africa.

  • “Good quality discussion is a key to understanding, so my main objective in chairing a session will be to insure that that is what we get.” – thanks, Jon, I couldn’t agree more re discussion & understanding. I hope the session goes well.

  • I’ll be at the conference in part Jon, so look forward to catching up and hearing some of the debate/discussion. In defence of Grant though, I don’t think he is “yelling from the back row”. It is no controversy that controversy surrounds the international speakers who are coming out to keynote at Food Matters. That context is really important and worth pointing out as Grant and others have done. This could be a really useful event, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – I think that’s a concept that will get a decent airing on the weekend. Can these guys deliver the robust evidence to back up some of the claims they make? We will see…

  • Ada –

    You’ll see in Footnote 5 I included the New Yorker editor’s response (which linked to her’s):

    http://geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/09/02/new-yorker-editor-david-remnick-responds-to-vandana-shiva-criticism-of-michael-specters-profile/

    A note, though, if you don’t mind, that I didn’t offer Spector’s article or the editor’s response as tit-for-tat. The article was used as a source to show her opposition to GM (something she hardly denies, of course) and the editor’s reply simply because I was impressed with the amount work they’d done trying to secure the interview. (It’s common for some blogs, like mine, to toss into footnotes tangential tidbits the writer chanced on while researching the story – along with background notes that help but that would disrupt the follow of the thing if put in the main text.)

    Sorry I’ve taken so long to get back to people, I’ll try get back to others later tonight. Just one of those weeks.

  • “I was asked to chair a session at the meeting early on in the piece and said yes. The reason for this (as I have explained to many people now), is that no problem will be solved if you try to ignore it. Good quality discussion is a key to understanding, so my main objective in chairing a session will be to insure that that is what we get.”

    I hope you can see that I made no judgement either way on your decision to be part of the event, I simply noted that you were an MC.

    Secondly, I realise that you don’t mean it this way but some people might read “as I have explained to many people now to imply I haven’t looked hard enough and “should” have seen this. In practice, I tracked down references to ‘Food Matters Aotearoa’ over recent months – I didn’t see your name beyond mentioned that you were an MC.

    I appreciate your aims – hopefully you can assist that questions raised from the floor are given fair opportunity, which is always good.

    For what little it’s worth, I originally meant to write to you and ask a few questions, but on reading the draft I thought it might just be a bother and I let it go.

    “I agree that the public need to be better informed about the issues at hand (as they need to be on many other matters), and in this respect I urge you to condense what you have written into something more media friendly and then get it into the mainstream media. I also urge you to attend the event and challenge the thinking and conclusions of those who you claim need to be challenged.”

    I’ve written a piece intended as an op-ed and have sent it to the NZ Herald. They don’t give feedback on these things, but seeing that is hasn’t appeared in today’s edition my suspicion is that they’re unlikely to print it – disappointing perhaps but others tell me getting op-ed’s in is hit-and-miss.

    I can’t attend – money and time limitations, and I’ve rather put what money I have elsewhere. (As a consultant attending events of any type come straight out of my pocket. Roughly speaking it’s about $1000 for a one or two day event in the North Island, all up. There are literally dozens of events I’d love to attend, including quite a few science communication events, but unfortunately my budget doesn’t extend to flying around the country every few weeks! In any event I have other things on the boil.)

    “One of the strengths of NZ is that we still have free media, although I feel they are at times too easily distracted by frippery. We also have a literate public, so provided they are told about issues by responsible media outlets, they tend to make sound assessments of the various qualities of any argument around them. In the case of GMOs, the level of public interest waxes and wanes, suggesting to me that it is not the issue either scientifically, or from a public health perspective that things like obesity are in NZ, or Ebola in Africa.”

    While we have a free media, my own perception is that it frequently falls when it comes to science coverage, as media around the world does. It’s why we need the SMC. I know at least in the earlier days some journalists, etc., were reading sciblogs as a source for information. (I wish they’d speak up and ask things more, though; perhaps too busy.)

    As one example, one of the few pieces I’ve seen covering the meeting read like a barely reworked take of the organiser’s press releases – no critical thought involved or expressed.

    (Another recent example was interview coverage of Claire Bleakley, who heads GE Free NZ and is one of the organisers of the Food Matters Aotearoa meeting. In it Claire says she has treated people with cancer with homeopathic remedies. Homeopathy is essentially as ‘bunk’ a ‘remedy’ as there is: basically water with a nice story. No critical examination of that or her ‘treatment’ of these people. The journalist has expressed that she wishes she’d done better, and good for her, but this is the sort of thing I see in media from time to time that concerns me. [The editor needs to carry the can for accepting, though, I think.])

    “Grant, in using a blog to target this event you also can be accused of “yelling from the back row”.

    I’ve left this last, as I feel it’s missing it’s target and, as I said in my piece, I dislike negative stuff (my reply here, that is).

    It’s the tone that would make something ‘yelling’, not that I wrote at all. I was well aware of this issue when I was writing – part of the reason I’ve chosen a softer tone that others might.

    There is a place for push-back too; see Mary’s comment. I’m not fixed about these things, I think it’s who you’re trying to reach in each article/whatever.

    The analogy is intended to be one of shouting over the middle at the other back row i.e. not engaging the large group in the middle. My point about a better discussion & if there are better approaches was how to engage those in the middle, as it were. (And media.)

    Phew. That’s enough for one night!

  • Hi Mary,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment and sorry I’ve taken so long to get back to you. This long-ish reply is mostly saying that I mostly agree with you!

    “I appreciate the desire for education. But I’m told by scicomm folks all the time that the deficit model (that folks just need education and information), really isn’t the issue.”

    I wasn’t meaning to suggest education only in the sense of the deficit model.

    I’m well aware of the ‘deficit model’ arguments. I prefer not try see things only in all one model of communication or another, but rather than different modes are needed/wanted by different people, so a mix is useful.

    Put it another way, if the deficit model is the only thing going, that’s going to be of limited use, but I still feel it can fit into a wider range of approaches (and should).

    “And I respect your optimism for some kind of fruitful discussion. There are certainly some people for whom that is the right route.”

    Bear in mind my main ‘target’ was not those actively campaigning (either way).

    “But I think that there are times when the science-trained folks in the community with the weight of evidence (say, in this case, the consensus folks) to push back.”

    Sure, I agree, but that’s back to who your intended audience is.

    (Ironically push-back is, in a sense, often deficit model.)

    “I’m writing from the US, where we are seeing what happens when education on vaccine science isn’t enough. There are consequences. Now the folks with the consensus of science on their side are beginning to align and speak out in ways that may really help.”

    I’ve been watching this from the sidelines. I find it hard to tell if it’s really people saying lots of stuff, or if it’s that people previously, let’s say, cautious about vaccination are seeing the measles cases and realising that there was a point to it all, after all.

    “Pushback towards misinformers is certainly not for everyone,”

    I’ve done some of this on vaccines and homeopathy. (Interested readers can search the blogs using the search box in the upper part of the right-hand pane; if you want to search just mine, you can use ‘site:sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life’ to limit google searches to the one bog).

    Thing is I don’t stand by one model for everything, but try to judge (heh) what approaches might work for what things – including using different approaches for different audiences within the one topic.

    I may be unusual for that? 🙂

    “But I think there’s also room for some people who call out misinformation in the strongest terms. These efforts don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They can be on different channels.”

    My own thoughts, too. I think it can be useful to have those who know a bit about things to put the ‘straight’ story without ‘drama’; others can pick up on that. (A little of that has happened with my and Alison’s pieces on this.)

    “Although I lived through the days of the AIDS epidemic, I wasn’t focused on it. I was peripherally aware of it, for sure. But I’m glad some of the folks in the movement pushed for research and technology to advance. I was reminded of this when watching “How to Survive a Plague” recently. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/nov/10/how-to-survive-a-plague- review

    “Gradually, members of Act Up (who included scientists, chemists, and researchers) were accepted onto the boards of those struggling to oversee the crisis, their literate, informed and practical responses to floundering drug development becoming a key part of the search for a cure.

    “Act Up was very controversial, and some people thought them too pushy and confrontational. Yet they supported the tech and the research, and pressed to get the work done. Seems to me there are some cases that warrant this. And I think people who are preventing progress in plant science and synthetic biology, using lies and fear, need to be challenged. Or we stand to lose research and access to technologies that can really make a difference going forward in times of rapid climate change and population growth.”

    Interesting, new to me. Sounds a bit like recruiting a ‘noisier’ side to communicating efforts to achieve stuff – ?

    It’s fair to say that scientists in general tend not to speak out to loudly, preferring to just point to the science issues. Siouxsie has written a piece ‘Scientists need to step up and engage!’, using the mitochrondrial donation fuss in the UK as her example. It’d be easier to translate her message to GMOs, too.

    https://sciblogs.co.nz/infectious-thoughts/2015/02/08/why-scientists-need-to-step-up-engage/

    I was writing to you explaining how the legislation in NZ affects things, but I might put that up as a separate post – that way this much gets out sooner!

  • The Food Matters Aotearoa organisers have released this rather ‘interesting’ press release, titled Food movement censored:

    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/CU1502/S00367/good-food-movement-censored.htm

    In it they seem to let their true colours shine (I can’t but help think of the pop song), closing with a push for opposing GM.

    As for their claims of censorship, it really is hard to imagine that the Food Writers Guild has formally tried to censor writers. Aside from that the I imagine the Food Writers Guild members have very different views on food, I doubt editors would wear “censorship” and they certainly ran their own press releases and advertising widely.

    My own thought is that the organisers feel a need to find someone to “blame” for their lack of success from what apparently has cost over $100k and taken a fair amount of effort. My suspicion is that most of the media simply thought it wasn’t worth reporting. Boring, ordinary answers are often right 😉

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