The day I unwittingly became a pro-science activist

posted in: Commentary | 101
fun facts
What kinds of Fun ‘Facts’ Fester in yonder tent? Credit: Jeff Fountain

Early this September I attended the National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa.  It’s an event that’s centered around the pure food movement, heirloom vegetables, and anti-GMO activism.  The speakers included Joseph Mercola, Jeffrey Smith, Andrew Kimbrell, and my personal favorite pseudoscientist, Vani Hari, a.k.a. the Food Babe.  For those unfamiliar with Food Babe, she is an anti-GMO, pro-organic public figure who attacks food and agricultural companies for what are essentially harmless practices.  The reason I mention her is because she inspired me to start my own Facebook parody page called Food Hunk, which is what sort of drove my foray into ‘activism’.  Food Hunk is to Food Babe, what Stephen Colbert is to Bill O’Reilly.  I joined a community of other wonderful Food Babe critics such as Chow Babe and Science Babe, with my page being a bit of a broader commentary on fallacious ways of thinking, such as the all-too-common naturalistic fallacy.

I’ve been interested in science all of my life, but only in the last few years have I become more involved with skepticism and the idea that you don’t need to be a scientist to think like a scientist.  As usually proliferated on social media, a constant barrage of anti-GMO fear mongering flooded my Facebook feed on a daily basis. I started trying to counter these claims with sound science.  Because many of those spreading erroneous info were good friends, I felt compelled to actually know what I was talking about and inform them, instead of simply calling them out their ignorance.  I became active in various online forums devoted to exploring the issue of genetic engineering, and found myself learning from some of the best science communicators on the topic.  Upon realizing that I couldn’t learn enough, I decided to go back to school and learn about biotechnology.  I’d recently left my fifteen-year career working in the wine industry and was exploring my passion for science.  My wife found a certificate program at CCSF called Bridge to Biosciences where I am enrolled today.  I am nowhere near as educated as many of the people I correspond with about science, but I’m always trying to learn and never pretend to wield knowledge I don’t have.  In my opinion, this is one of the most important components of skepticism.  If more people only stopped pretending to know what they do not know, we wouldn’t see the blatant misinformation that so predominantly surrounds the topic of GMOs.

Recently I was in a GMO enthusiast forum, when I noticed a post from Karl at Biology Fortified.  He mentioned the Heirloom Expo and was asking if anyone from the Bay Area was going to attend.  Santa Rosa is only about an hour from where I live, and so after realizing I didn’t really have anything planned for the day I thought, “How could I possibly pass up the opportunity to introduce Food Hunk to Food Babe?”  I put on my ‘I love GMOs’ t-shirt, (carefully concealed under my sweatshirt) and hit the road to Santa Rosa.

Zen Honeycutt at the Moms Across America booth. Credit: Jeff Fountain

My modest intention was to snap a few pictures and possibly end up with a nice photo of the Hunk and the Babe for my Facebook page.  At this point I was still sporting a hoodie over my pro-science t-shirt.  I had an ongoing line of communication with my pro-GMO internet collaborators, joking that I felt like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or a democrat at a Tea Party rally.  I truly began to feel alone, particularly as I walked past the booths of anti-biotechnology organizations like GMO Inside and Moms Across America.  They were handing out flyers damning GMOs as if they were trying to rid the world of malaria, and here I was secretly concealing my ‘I Love Malaria’ t-shirt.  Thankfully I felt like I had all 7000 member of the Facebook group (GMOLOL) cheering me on and offering suggestions for questions to ask the speakers.  My initial intention of possibly snapping a few photos to use as gags, started to turn into a feeling of not wanting to let my compadres down. I decided to try and pose some questions to Vani Hari.

I sat down near the front of the stage so I could easily pose a question if given the chance.  I had my question planned out.  The Food Babe’s most recent scare-campaign was directed at Starbucks Coffee for their Pumpkin Spice Latte.  In her ‘investigation’ she cites the International Agency for Research on Cancer as having grouped one of the chemicals found in caramel color (used in the beverage) as a ‘possible carcinogen’.  What she fails to mention is that the IARC also groups coffee itself as a possible carcinogen (group 2B), along with pickled vegetables and the cell phone in your pocket.  In fact the highest level they categorize (group 1, two levels above 2B) includes outdoor air pollution and alcoholic beverages.  If we are to use Food Babe’s judgment of what is ‘harmful’, we would be at a much higher risk by enjoying a nice glass of wine in the outdoor seating of a quaint little bistro in LA.  My question would be simple: “According to the IARC, what poses a higher risk of carcinogenic exposure, caramel color or the coffee itself?”  I never got a chance to ask her that question.

Vani Hari, aka the “Food Babe” spreading Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD). Credit: Jeff Fountain

What I’m going to recount next may resemble conspiracy, but I’m almost certain that Food Babe knew exactly who I was when she entered the auditorium.  Before going on stage, she stared right at me (I was only about 15 feet away), and summoned her handlers and event coordinator. They all whispered covertly for half a minute while occasionally glancing over at me.  For a moment I thought I might be asked to leave.  Keep in mind that I am still wearing my sweatshirt over my GMO shirt, and at this point I hadn’t spoken to anyone at the event about my intentions of being there.  But I had been all over Facebook posting about it in public groups.  I also know that she, or more likely someone that works for her, ironically pre-banned members of a Facebook group called Banned by the Food Babe.  You see, she has a reputation for immediately silencing anyone who dares ask actual science questions on her page, and so a group was created for people to discuss their bannings.  Many members were surprised to find out that they had been preemptively silenced just by joining this public group.  Thus, it makes logical sense to conclude that she must also know about the various Food Babe parody pages, and my face is plastered all over mine.  In fact, after hearing her speak and noticing just how concerned she was about herself and her image, I’ve concluded that there is no way that she could NOT know about a semi-popular Facebook page that is making fun of her.  My suspicions were further confirmed when I later saw her walking alone through another area of the expo.  She spotted me and quickly looked away.  She then met up with her handlers and they pulled the ‘don’t look now, but that’s the guy’ routine, which of course means all four of them simultaneously turned around and checked me out as they scampered away.  At the risk of sounding like a stalker, I only wanted to ask her a question.

Vani’s talk conveniently ran long and she decided not to field questions.  She stuck around to take some photos with fans, and when I tried to join the party, she avoided me like the plague.  I decided that since there would be no ‘Food Hunk meets Food Babe’ photo op, there was no more need to hide my true identity.  The sweatshirt was coming off.

Strangely, the very first interaction I had with anyone while wearing my pro-GMO shirt was with the infamous Jeffrey Smith himself.  For those unaware of Jeffrey Smith, he is an anti-GMO, pseudo-science promoting author, documentarian, and former politician for the obscure Natural Law party.  He was walking alone when I asked if I could take a picture with him.  He said, “Absolutely not. Not with an ‘I Love GMOs t-shirt’” I responded “Why, don’t you love insulin?” He kind of snickered so I asked one more time, “Please, just one picture?” He refused and walked away.

It was fascinating wearing my ‘I love GMOs’ t-shirt to the event.  I was receiving looks of real, visceral anger.  I even experienced some schoolyard bullying type of behavior, with people purposefully refusing to move as I walked by, or sticking out their elbows hoping to get a jab.  I remained respectful, never antagonizing anyone, even when people remarked about my shirt or my questions to the panel in disgust.  The best way I can describe it is this: through their lens, they were like a convention full of astrophysicists, and I was a moon landing denier.  They just couldn’t fathom how uninformed I was.  Yet when they questioned me, they were surprised at my tangible knowledge and desire for respectful conversation.  This wasn’t what they were expecting; they were either hoping to teach me something, or to be rude or hostile.  Still, I hesitate to keep referring to ‘them’ as if they are the enemy.  The people at this expo were mostly just good, well-intentioned people who want to do what’s right.  The problem is they don’t realize how full of crap the Jeffrey Smiths and the Vani Haris of this world are.  If everyone realized it, there wouldn’t be any Jeffrey Smiths.

food is medicine
It wasn’t all anti-GMO posturing at the expo, there were also some heirloom crops. Credit: Jeff Fountain

The Q & As with Andrew Kimbrell (another well-known GMO oppose) and Jeffrey Smith had me the most wary.  I have a decent understanding of the science behind genetic modification, but nobody can obfuscate and use ‘sciencey’ sounding double-talk like these guys.  Finally, opportunity struck and I asked if Andrew thought there was any inherent danger to GM technology, and whether there could be ‘good’ or useful applications for genetic modification through gene transfer.  I continued by citing examples of recent advancements in disease treatment. (Gaucher’s disease, Ebola, etc.)  To paraphrase, he responded by discussing the difference between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.  My guess is that he knew this jargon would only serve to confuse and simultaneously impress the majority of the audience.  He then completely twisted and botched the science into concluding with “No. There are no good uses because it doesn’t work” even though I just given him perfect examples of beneficial applications.  As Karl later explained to me, he has latched onto the canard that “genetic engineering is based on obsolete science” and he brings up the 1-gene-1-protein hypothesis and that genetics has disproven that.  He twists this to mean that GMOs don’t work.  However, the fact that some genes can code for different proteins does not in any way imply that transgenes don’t work – or even that they code for multiple proteins.  Nevertheless, Mr. Kimbrell can get away scot-free giving people a meaningless phrase like “GM does not work.”  Forget about the fact that he just spent half an hour trying to frighten a gymnasium full of people about the dangers of herbicide resistance, and Bt expressing corn – both traits introduced by GM technology that clearly “works.” Unfortunately, the majority of the audience doesn’t see the contradiction in these statements.

For the next speaker, Jeffrey Smith, I didn’t have questions prepared.  I just wanted to listen and pose whatever questions came up.  Eventually, he ended up living up to his M.O. by trying to scare people with debunked claims of GMO causing “leaky gut,” and links to autism, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes.  I asked him if that were the case, why do we see the same rates of these diseases and conditions in the European Union? He at first stammered about the EU still using glyphosate, but he had just said that it was the Bt corn causing the leaky gut, not the glyphosate resistance.  So I followed up by asking if it was because of pesticides, and not because of any inherent defect or danger in GMOs?  He started citing the debunked Seralini study, directing his attention towards an audience that probably didn’t know any better.  And then to my disbelief he said something to the effect of, “We know that correlation does not imply causation, but with what we know about Monsanto, and the government, and the industry-funded studies, and the USDA,… that’s when you get the causation.”

I said out loud to myself, and probably audible to a few people seated around me, “No, that’s when you get a conspiracy.”

After the Smith talk, I was standing outside the auditorium and reporting back to my siblings-in-arms on my smart phone.  An older white-haired farmer-type gentleman (a guess for sure – I don’t know what he did for a living) followed me out of the building and wanted to talk. He carefully whispered while looking over his shoulder, “I tell ya, you got a lot of balls wearing that shirt here with these people, but I think you’re right.  I listen to these guys, and the science is just not there.”  We talked for a few minutes and it was one of my favorite moments of the event.

expo collage
Lots going on at the expo. Credit: Jeff Fountain

I soon learned that a documentary film crew was at the expo, and after talking with one of them, I learned that they were interested in the questions that I posed to the speakers, and wanted to ask me more in an interview! Food Hunk in a film? Of course!

I don’t know how much of this, or if any of it is ever going to see the light of day in the documentary that was being filmed.  I know they can film countless hours of footage and most of it hits the cutting room floor.  I found out later that the director was nominated for an Oscar a few years ago. He took a few minutes to interview me on camera about what I was doing there, and I got to tell him about my page.  Again, I seriously doubt that any of it will be used in the film, but I’ll forever be able to tell my friends that I was interviewed by an Oscar nominated filmmaker about ‘Food Hunk’.  I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that.

Overall I’m happy with how things went in my first small attempt at pro-science activism.  But can we really call the act of simply asking questions ‘activism’?

I do know one thing: If this event comes back around next year and it’s hosting the same brand of anti-science speakers, I’m going to be there again.  Only this time I’m going to be more prepared, and I’m bringing friends.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Kavin Senapathy for providing editorial input for this post.

Follow Jeff Fountain:
Jeff Fountain left his career in the California wine industry in order to study biotechnology full-time as a student at CCSF's Bridge to Biosciences internship program. His love of science is only matched by his dislike of pseudoscience, which led him to create Food Hunk, a popular Facebook page that parodies the anti-GMO 'pure food' movement. You can also follow him on Twitter @JeffFountain.