Edible Education 101 and GMOs

Last week, Dr. Pam Ronald gave a lecture about genetically engineered crops in Michael Pollan and Raj Patel’s Edible Education 101 class. After the 1-hour lecture, she sat down with Pollan and Patel to debate and discuss the issue. The New Yorker wrote a story about it, and now you can watch the video!

Dr. Ronald surveyed the students in the class during the lecture which had some interesting and dramatic results.

What did you think? Let’s discuss it in the comments.

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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.

  • Ha! I got a few minutes in and realized that was Frank’s silks on the podium.

    Still watching though. Certain to have more comments later.

  • The talk Pam gave was terrific, which was about the 50 min or so. If you are looking to watch in segments, the Q&A starts when they walk over to the 3 chairs around the midpoint.

    Thoughts during the Q&A:
    1. (~55min) I thought the way Pam phrased the answers to Pollan’s question about why companies didn’t start with consumer benefits (which I think is untrue) was good. First actually there was the tomato (which he even mentioned), and also the papaya. He totally ignores these to go right to RR. But Pam notes that herbicides sprays are reduced in number, no-till is easier so less fuel and soil disruption, and that Bt reduced pesticides. These are things that do benefit everyone, in fact.

    2. (~1:03) Patel claims Europeans vaccinate more and attempts to undermines Pam’s comparison to GMO fearmongering. Is this true? I thought in France there was a major measles problem (actually not due to Wakefield but some other misinfo), and I know in the UK there have been several outbreaks blamed on the Wakefield drama. I got boosters before I went to the EU a few years back because the rates were so bad. But I think this was a strawman by Patel.

    3. (~1:04) Patel implies that the Royal Society of Canada has a different take on safety and seems to quote-mine about their issue with substantial equivalence. But it’s my understanding that Canada’s system actually evaluates all new traits–not by technology, but because of the outcome, meaning GMO or no–goes through the same regulatory path. I actually think that’s a better way as well. But it wasn’t what Patel implied. Input from Canadians here would help me to understand this.

    He also here undermines the idea of consensus by ignoring the big EU study of hundreds of EU projects and that large report they did. Pam deftly notes that there is, in fact, scientific consensus–but not political consensus. WHOMP.

    4. (~1:08) Pollan returns to try to undermine consensus, saying that academics make the global warming case but that much of the GMO research is corporate (but not all). Pam notes that in fact what we have for GMOs is not modeling and prediction but now many years of evidence to look at. WHOMP II. And yet Pollan brings up Seralini at 1:20….

    5. (~1:22) Pollan says that scientists who speak against the consensus are attacked, yet fails to note that he himself called Seralini a “fringy French scientist”.

    6. (~1:25) Patel says that we aren’t being nice to GMO skeptics the way IPCC is. Really?

    7. (~1:28) Pollan says to Pam: “I think you do us a disservice by mushing all genetic alterations together” Ha ha ha ha ha–I’ll bet he says that to the anti-GMOers all the time, amirite?

    8. (~1:34) Patel is aerated about golden rice and claims GMO failures, and then comes around to ask Pam if there are “other ways” of doing things and asks if she can see other ways than splicing. (ARGGHH: Nobody said there aren’t other things to try as well–the fixation with GMO is really among the anti-GMO folks. Nobody is withholding other strategies or tearing up fields.) Pam notes that farmers should be able to choose what’s right for them. “It’s not an either/or.” This irks me a lot–for anti-GMO it’s just “no”, that’s where the exclusivity problem comes from.

    9. (~1:37) Monocultures. Pam notes that it’s not an issue unique to GMOs.

    10. (~1:40) Pollan asks after all the years of GM what have we got? Weeds. Pam notes it is not the genetic engineering that’s causing weeds–it’s the use of the herbicide. We’ve had for 15 years a less toxic herbicide Pam notes. She keeps stressing the need for proper rotation and IPM.

    11. (~1:44) Michael Pollan “Let’s say I love glyphosate…” Ha! Somebody make me that ringtone…

    12. Near the end Pam tries to get them to understand that GMO ≠ industrial agriculture. There are uses for small farms in developing nations. I wish it was pointed out more strongly that it actually a major part of problem to conflate these things.

    • Richard R

      Re: 3. Royal Society of Canada is similar to your National Academy of Sciences and is not a regulatory body.

      I have not read their report, but I did listen to this:


      My biased personal interpretation – RSC report found no defect in safety, no defect in regulatory system, but a perceived lack of transparency due to keeping company information confidential. Public trust in regulatory system has been damaged by activists. Suggestions are to restore public trust by implementing precautionary principle.

    • Thanks for the glimpse into this Mary. I have not had a chance to view it yet, and don’t know that I’m inclined. Pollan simply is not a credible source for me anymore after we found out he intentionally deceived his editors to promote his views, and he has constantly revised of his message depending on which audience he is in front of. He had/has such potential to communicate, but he has squandered it on the lowest denominator.

      I was curious about this Edible Education course, though. That sounds very interesting. It was disappointing, but not unexpected, that virtually all the speakers were alternative/organic promoters, and that even fewer were actual farmers (They have some women farmers at the very end of the series). He devotes so much time and energy to attacking conventional agriculture, I would hope he would at least give them a chance to present their position. Dr. Ronald stands out as the only exception that I could see.

    • Keith Hayes

      Yeah, I watched this last night and was struck by how determined Pollan and Patel were in trying to redirect the discussion to their pet narratives. At least Pam handled it well. I don’t think I would have been so patient.

      • Yeah, exactly. And I agree, I totally lack the patience for that, couldn’t have done it either.

        I found it very interesting the number of times they tried to return to undermining the consensus. This means that must be something that’s actually having some impact on people–that there is that weight of the scientific bodies on it.

        • Keith Hayes

          This means that must be something that’s actually having some impact on people–that there is that weight of the scientific bodies on it.

          Perhaps. I also think it gets more and more difficult to argue that something ubiquitous and widespread is harming people when nobody has actually been harmed.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Mary, Thanks for the blow by blow. I have dial up and old computer…So, no video.

  • BuckarooSamurai

    Doing some research on my own I decided to look of the LD50 of Glyphosate and I was somewhat shocked to find out its non-toxicity. For example the LD50 of Caffeine is approximately a little less that 200mg/k and we willfully consume caffeine everyday in beverages. The LD50 of Glyphosate is orders of magnitude higher at about 5000+mg/k. When I found this out I became very angry with groups who want to fear monger about it. I was sympathetic because I understood it as a herbicide and we should be careful about such things even if I disagreed with them, but when I found this fact out I realized they either didn’t bother to check, have absolutely no scientific background, and or are willfully spreading misinformation.

    I think we can’t let people like Pollan get away with insinuating as he did there that some people disagree that it is non-toxic when such evidence is preliminary at best and complete hogwash at worst. This simple fact is easy enough I think for most laymen to understand once an LD50 is explained to them.

    It was also really aggravating to not get an answer from Pollan or Patel on why they fear GMO but not random mutagenesis via chemical baths or radiation. They simple would not answer and hand wave about how there is no testing on GMO. Not only is that false but completely ignores that there is no testing on any of these other types at all.

  • Pam Ronald

    Thank you all for your comments, which are very interesting to me. I was curious how the audience saw the discussion. Now I have some insight

  • I am surprised the word evolution did not enter the conversation. Pests and plants evolve creating resistance. We use IPM to counter the primal force of life, but evolution is a persistent farming opponent. The descent of all life from a common ancestor might be worth considering should genes seem threatening, don’t we share much of our basic cell mechanisms will all life on earth.