April Fools 2009 at Biofortified

posted in: Science | 9

So last week I said to my spouse Ariela, ‘which would be funnier, if the Biofortified Blog got bought out by Monsanto, or instead, taken over by Greenpeace?’

“Oh, Greenpeace. Definitely!”

Plus given that I just heard that Monsanto already has a blog, it wouldn’t quite be as funny. So a little creative photoshopping later and a couple post ideas in my brain I set the stage for a little April Fools prank on our readers, and my fellow bloggers, too. Biofortified By Greenpeace!

Greenpeace Takeover header
Greenpeace 'Takeover' header

I looked for famous dead people with common enough sounding names, and decided on William Harvey, born on April 1st, 1578. This physician also died in 1657, and left a few quotes lying around the literature, one of which I used in a post. Then, after coming up with a believable sounding title, Director of Global GMO policy, it was time to write a little something to get people riled up.

“William Harvey’s” first post, Are GMOs a plot to rule the World?

It is a common refrain from the anti-GE crowd. Because genetically engineered crops can be patented, the argument is that biotech companies will control the world’s food, when in reality they want to make money selling improved seeds. Will started out with an argument that all GE crops will necessarily involve patents and contracts and control of food. This is not true – publicly funded GE crops, particularly the humanitarian ones, have and will have no such restrictions.

This is why Greenpeace has a strong stance against genetic modification, because as a corporate technology it inherently requires that farmers be unable to save seed. We also seek to eliminate hybrid crops, because these are another method for maintaining the dominance of seed companies over farmers. Hybrids do not breed true – and so farmers have to keep re-buying seed. Recently, we have added seedless watermelons to our growing list of ‘farmer suicide’ foods, because the triploid seeds must be purchased every year.

Note: there is no such thinig as a corporate technology. Technologies are applications of knowledge, and can be used for bad, good, capitalism and socialism. If genetic engineering was so corporate – why would the Chinese government be such a big player in this field?

The argument that not being able to save seed does not often spread into arguing against hybrid crops, although I have heard it in a couple cases. But what I have not heard are statements that seedless watermelons are immoral – but here’s the thing – if people who used that argument were consistent, it would logically follow that seedless watermelons are immoral. But no one is arguing that – because it is not about the seed saving itself – it is about being a ‘GMO.’

These plant breeder protections are there for a reason – so farmers and breeders can maintain control of what they produce, because it is their intellectual property.

Yes, Percy Schmeiser actually tried to argue from the basis of plant breeder’s rights that he should be allowed to keep his seed, even though it contained the intellectual property of a biotech company. (It was a dramatic turnaround in his legal argumentation.) The inherent contradiction of first claiming that living things couldn’t be owned, and then claiming that he owned a living thing escaped him.

Next, Golden Rice, the moral dilemma:

It is clear that the very attempt to address malnutrition in developing countries through genetic engineering is immoral precisely because it presents us with a moral dilemma.

Two things wrong with this argument:the complaint that a moral dilemma is presented is not a counter-argument that foils the dilemma, and second – Golden Rice was not dreamed up by the biotech companies – its genesis is due to Ingo Potrykus who wanted to address malnutrition in southeast Asia.

Nor is it up to debate whether it is right to test this unsafe food on children. Before they have long-term studies proving the safety of this GMO in the diets of children, it is wrong to test it on anyone else’s children. Let these genetic engineers test it on their own kids before poisoning children in other countries. (If they did this, however, we should take their kids away for reckless endangerment.) Golden Rice is racist, classist, and is utilizing strategies that have not been seen since the Third Reich.

Ah, the Nazi claim – which came out a month ago when word came out that a nutritional study involving malnourished kids was being conducted with Golden Rice. But of course, the call for extensive testing before… um… testing was almost comical in its contradiction. Of course, the kind of testing they were calling for was treating Golden Rice as a safety hazard, while comparing the humanitarian effort to Nazis.

As soon as we allow a purportedly humanitarian GMO to be grown on Asian soil, the biotech companies will press hard for their for-profit GMOs to be allowed through local regulations.

That is their fear. And so the argument over Golden Rice is really not about Golden Rice per se, but other crops created through the same process. People with nutritional security arguing that others cannot use a particular method to achieve nutritional security because of what they fear those others might grow to feed themselves farther down the road?

Now, on to the second post, Risks of the Gaps.

The quote at the beginning, “All we know is still infinitely less than all that remains unknown.” really came from William Harvey. Anyone who might have googled it would have had their confirmation that yes, April Fools is alive and well. James caught on with the first post, but this one was full of tougher stuff.

I thought I would start with a tie-in to other publicly contentious scientific issues, global warming and evolution. While being all over the place with the logic of what someone is to do with gaps in our knowledge, it served as an opener that was as hard to write as it was to read.

What these researchers are admitting by even doing this research is that there are huge safety risks involved in genetic modification, and they are hard at work filling those gaps in the GMO safety net after-the-fact.

Ah, the tried-and-true ‘they are studying it, therefore there’s something wrong with it.’ I picked this bit of ill-logic from reading anti-evolution screeds for a few years.

Or post-mortem, I should say. A scientist and author, Jeffrey Smith, has chronicled a laundry list of food safety hazards created by genetic engineering, from dead sheep to increases in allergies. Merely from growing GMO soy in England in 1999, the harvest at the end of the season was enough to increase soy allergies by a whopping 50% earlier the same year. Genetic engineers are frantically trying to figure out what went wrong, while nations around the world (except for the totalitarian regimes of China, Brazil, Cuba, Australia, and the US) continue to reject GMOs.

It is unbelievably easy to find articles referring to Jeffrey Smith as a scientist, or even a professor. His resume even almost sounds as if he’s done work with genetics – but he has no background in science. (I could just hear Anastasia either fuming or giggling upon reading that title.) Nor does he understand the scientific method – an anecdotal story about dead sheep might just be about a poisonous fungal toxin (such as this) if anything at all, but one wonders why no one has attempted to test their hypothesis that it was the GE cotton that did it? You have to wonder why they are avoiding such a simple experiment – perhaps because science is easiest when done by press release.

I loved the part about the soy allergies, because ‘William’ said that the crop grown in 1999 affected the allergies of people earlier the same year. That is essentially what the European soy allergy claim is about. And Mary was right to ask for a reference, and all roads lead back to a single article that was not describing peer reviewed research. Another press release by a dubious source.

But every time they close one gap, they open up two more. Sure, the gene expression is below the natural variation, but this just means that that is not the reason why GMOs are unsafe. That gap is filled, but it opens up even more gaps – researchers now have to investigate every single gene that was affected! If those genes are not sufficient to explain what we think is going on, then they have to sink deeper into the mire of endless scientific experimentation.

You may call it ‘moving the goalposts,’ but as long as science continues to not find the danger that we are looking for in GMOs, the danger must still lurk somewhere in the gaps in our knowledge.

Assuming what they would like to prove. The danger is in there somewhere… you just have to keep looking, and you only stop when you find it. In truth, you can never guarrantee 100% safety through science, there is always uncertainty, however small. So demanding 100% certainty is an abuse of science as a guide for decision making.

Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed my little joke, it appears through emails and comments here and elsewhere that my co-bloggers figured it out. In case anyone didn’t notice, the sidebar changed to say:

Biofortified is a group website devoted to eliminating factual information and restricting discussion about plant genetics, especially genetic engineering. The site is underwritten by Greenpeace International, written by grad students, professors, and the occasional guest expert.

And the Comment Moderation Policy that appeared below it:

Any comments that fail to recognize that GMOs are an evil plot to take over the world will be deleted or disemvoweled. Critical comments about Biofortified’s parent company, Greenpeace, are cause for a permanent ban. Comments that make factual errors in favor of anti-GMO activists will be automatically approved without review.

Hehe. Nothing like that to seal the deal. The icing on the cake was having “William” a maker of biodynamic wine in Marin. It was just too fitting to be unbelievable. But it was believable for a second (or so I heard), because the arguments being made in condensed and contradictory form were real. And sometimes they’re much worse.

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.

This is known as “Poe’s Law.”

But before I go, there is one thing I learned first-hand while setting up this joke: It is exceedingly easy to write something factually inaccurate and logically unsound and put it out there. I wrote each post in about 20 minutes, assembled from a hodge-podge of common misconceptions, position statements, and playfully self-imploding strings of logic. My review of those joke posts that I wrote myself took two hours. Imagine the time it takes to carefully research a response to incorrect claims when first encountering them. That’s the task we have ahead of us, and though it sounds daunting it will be worth it.

I will leave the blog as-is for another day, after which I will restore the images and sidebar text to its original and proper form, saving the content here for posterity.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.