Should science be a democracy?

posted in: Commentary | 77
DNA sign by Thomas Hawk via Flickr.
DNA sign by Thomas Hawk via Flickr.

A January 2015 survey conducted by agricultural economists at Oklahoma State found that 82% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains GMOs. The same survey found that 80% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains DNA.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. After the initial face-palm, my feelings of intellectual superiority gradually ebbed when I realized that my husband would be in the 80% of the population that doesn’t know that all food, unless it’s highly processed, contains DNA. My better-half has a degree in International Relations and Peace Studies. He is a consultant with high-tech companies. He’s amazing at his job and can charge a premium for his consulting fees. It’s safe to say that he is well educated and knows what he’s doing. However, his last biology class was 17 years ago. He’s reviewed every article I’ve written, and nearly every time it’s been followed by questions on matters that I’d consider to be basic science.

Sometimes, I’m a bit bewildered that he doesn’t know that DNA is in the nucleus of every cell, but I always plop down next to him with a pen in hand and eagerly explain it to him. He can describe my thesis in human epigenetics, what a sequencer does, and what the I’d-tell-you-but-I’d-have-to-kill-you project I’m currently working on. But if I hadn’t taken the time to explain it to him, he’d be in that 80%.

Writer Ben Lillie questioned whether 80% was a believable number: the order of the questions in the survey may have biased results. Sure, 80% might be inflated and the wording of the survey may have introduced bias. But think of all the viral articles on scientific subjects that you’ve seen in Twitter and in your Facebook page that are false or unfounded. Read the comment section in any popular article about GMOs. Whether it’s 80% or 50%, there’s a significant portion of the population that can’t determine the accuracy of popular “scientific” articles. There’s a portion of the population that doesn’t know that DNA is in all food.

This whole topic raises the question of whether scientific matters (such as food labeling) should be decided by a public that is not educated in the technical aspects or nuances of an issue. Should scientific matters be decided upon democratically?

Here are just a few examples: the Shasta County Board recently decided to look into chemtrails; Portland, Oregon rejects adding fluoride to the city’s water; Humbolt county votes to ban GMO production.

If we, the people, get to decide on such important scientific matters democratically, then why do we spend billions of dollars, on institutions such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, USDA, FDA? Do we just fund them so that they can come up with recommendations and guidelines which we can then ignore depending on whether we find it convenient or if our favorite celebrity endorses it? I can use the term “we” here because I pay what feels like a kajillion dollars in US taxes, even though I’m not a citizen.

Dubai Air Show by Alexander Babashov via Flickr.
Dubai Air Show by Alexander Babashov via Flickr.

Each of the examples above has been extensively studied and guidelines have been offered. The EPA, NASA, and the FAA joined forces to write a document about chemtrails (believe it or not); the EPA and the Department of Health and Human services have done scientific assessments on the fluoridation of water; the FDA evaluates the safety of all GMOs and regulates them (if you’re of the opinion that the FDA is “bought off”, then here’s a report on GMOs from the National Academy of Sciences). Our tax dollars funded every one of these efforts, yet we’re still taking these issues to the ballot box.

There are MANY matters where I know very little and feel comfortable deferring to experts: what material should be used when highways are built, what water purification system my county should use, and so on. My taxes paid for all these projects and they impact me directly. I spend 2 hours a day in my car. If those highways are not built properly, if the on ramps are not sturdy, if the Bay Area bridges are not properly maintained, I could be hurt or even die. I fail to see why we defer to subject matter experts on these topics, but not on others. I don’t see any direct ballot measures to decide on the amount of concrete used when paving a road. Yet somehow, we feel that it’s appropriate to tell farmers in Hawaii what they can and cannot plant. Somehow, we the people, think we know something that a professional in his/her field doesn’t.

I asked a few of my colleagues whether they thought that scientific matters should be decided upon by the public, which led to some great discussions. Most people’s first reaction was “yes, it should be left to the public”. But upon further thought, there’s was always an “oh, but then there’s X”, where X was an example or an issue which would make them change their mind. For one colleague it was “oh, but then there’s all those ridiculous viral articles on Facebook… No, it shouldn’t be democratic.” For another colleague it was “oh, but then there’s all those vaccine conspiracy people… No, it shouldn’t be democratic.” In the end, the consensus amongst my colleagues seems to be that we the people should defer to the experts in their field, who should transparently and openly present their suggestions, which we enact.

The ideal solution here is education: my husband should have had to take science classes all the way through college. All college degrees should have courses that teach students how to read a basic scientific paper and to evaluate it critically. That is the true solution to this argument, if only we could achieve it.

In the meantime, there are a few things we can do:

1) Encourage children in our circle of influence to take science classes in high school and college, even if they’re pursuing a career in an unrelated field.

2) Scientists should step up their communication skills. There aren’t many scientists in the private sector involved in science communication or education. Many of us have been trained in presentation skills. Giving concise explanations or pitches are often required in the private sector. There’s no reason why you can’t expand that skill into a part time hobby.

3) Remember that we all have gaps in our knowledge. Working to fill those gaps rather than mocking them will go a long way.

Perhaps, if we work to educate ourselves and others, then science can become more of a democracy.

Follow Layla Katiraee:

Layla Parker-Katiraee holds a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and a Bachelors degree in biochemistry from the University of Western Ontario. She is currently a Staff Scientist in DNA Sequencing Product Development. All views and opinions expressed are her own.

  • Ray Kinney

    It is only natural for people to want to know what is in their food. educated, or relatively uneducated, it is just good sense to know as best we can, what is in our food. It should be even more important to very educated people, just what is in their food as well. And, it should be especially important to very educated biologists, just what is in our food. To leave it to corporations who make the processed foods, to tell us it is really okay to eat the food they sell us because they would not ever put anything in their products that could be harmful is just plain crazy, and only somewhat less crazy to blindly believe that food quality assurance is totally covered by the scientists that are paid by the corporate system to fund results that are supportive of corporate interests, but not fund reasearch that likely could demonstrate data that might be more likely to demonstrate adverse outcomes to the corporate interests. Educated biologists of all people ought to be concerned about just what might be in their food, because they are very aware of the awsome complexity of the science of food and the science of toxicology, and should see many potentials within the system where problems could easily crop up.

  • Ray Kinney

    Biologsts, of all people, should best know where the data gaps exists, and that within the data gaps is where adeverse effects could be hiding. We may be subject to varying degrees of anthropomorphism and ego that tend to claim all knowing intelligence… but skepticism is a hallmark of a good scientist, and their are many ways for the very educated to get it wrong. Questioning the scientific data about the ultimate safety of pesticide resistant GMOs is only intelligent, all scientists should be concerned to be trying to use as much effort to demonstrate possible adverse effects as in doing the corporate line if research that has the bias of funding supportive research more than corporate unsupportive research. I think that GE offers a world of good food innovation for us to explore, but so far the science is too stuck in the pesticide resistant corporate profit mode of product development than in finding GE applications with better science overall. Food labeling, and extensive food biochemical monitoring, as much as we can manage to do, IS intelligent and ultimately necessary. Avoidance of such monitoring, is not really very intelligent, in this way I think that corporations tend to make us all less intelligent.

    • Hi Ray, we discussed this in a previous post ( It all boils down to this: nothing is 100% safe. Even water. There’s the possibility that the water you drink may contain a water-borne pathogen. If you buy spinach, it may have a deadly bacteria. Should spinach carry a label stating this information? By your standards, when is anything truly “safe”?

      I’m not advocating for not questioning scientific data. Questioning scientific data is the hallmark of a good scientist. My argument here is that if there’s a scientific consensus on a topic and the majority of experts in a field agree on whatever that topic may be, then why are we voting on such matters? If we’re not going to accept the conclusion from experts in a field, then why do we fund scientific research?

    • I had a look at this, and it looks like they are cagey with their claims. It’s also unsourced. Can you provide the studies that led them to this?

      Their statement:

      Herbicides in widespread use such as atrazine, 2,4-D, and glyphosate, are considered EDCs, and
      the fungicide vinclozolin is a known EDC.

      So glyphosate isn’t a “known” EDC according to this. Do you agree with that Derek? Why aren’t you demanding labels for vinclozolin instead?

      • Derek Bickerton

        Mary, did you see the little numbers in brackets every so often in the statement? And if you did, didn’t it occur to you to follow them to the end of the statement? If you’d done this, you would have found no less than 209 references.

        Your last question is irrelevant. I never called for labeling just for glyphosates. I simply said that a label for glyphosate products would be scientifically justified. I hadn’t even begun to discuss other pesticides.

        • Ewan R

          Perhaps you can point us to the references that cover glyphosate? The document doesn’t give “numbers in little brackets” (as you put it so patronizingly) anywhere near the *single* statement about glyphosate. The paper could have 5 references, it could have 5000 references. If none of these references cover glyphosate (they don’t appear to, at least not by searching for any key words in the descriptors of the references) then what exactly are we to take from this? Zero evidence is provided regarding glyphosate.

        • No, I saw no references for this in my copy. What were they? Please give me the numbers.

          • Derek Bickerton

            The numbers by themselves are useless unless you can see what part of the text they relate to.
            Here’s another link:
            Scroll to the bottom and you’ll see the 209 references: numbers before each one refer you to the place in the text where the item is referred to.
            I really shouldn’t need to explain this to anyone who claims scientific literacy.

            • What you are doing, Derek, is called a Gish Gallop. You are throwing 209 references as if that number makes your case. It does not. There are no numbers near this claim that I quoted from the work you supplied.

              Since you are so familiar with the work, you supply the references specifically for this claim. Give me the 5 you think make the case that glyphosate isn’t a known EDC, but you think it somehow needs to be labeled whereas the known EDC doesn’t.

              Why do you think there aren’t numbers associated with the glyphosate claims?

              • Derek Bickerton

                Search me, but here’s a few papers for starters:
                Romano, R., Souza, P., Nunes, M., & Romano, M. (2012). Perinatal exposure to a commercial formulation of glyphosate reduces the mRNA expression and increases the protein content of beta TSH in the pituitary of male offspring.
                Howe, C. M., Berrill, M., Pauli, B. D., Helbing, C. C., Werry, K., & Veldhoen, N. (2004). Toxicity of glyphosate‐based pesticides to four North American frog species. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 23(8), 1928-1938.
                Hokanson, R., Fudge, R., Chowdhary, R., & Busbee, D. (2007). Alteration of estrogen-regulated gene expression in human cells induced by the agricultural and horticultural herbicide glyphosate. Human & experimental toxicology, 26(9), 747-752.
                Mensah, P. K., Muller, W. J., & Palmer, C. G. (2011). Acute toxicity of Roundup® herbicide to three life stages of the freshwater shrimp Caridina nilotica (Decapoda: Atyidae). Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C, 36(14), 905-909.
                Thongprakaisang, S., Thiantanawat, A., Rangkadilok, N., Suriyo, T., & Satayavivad, J. (2013). Glyphosate induces human breast cancer cells growth via estrogen receptors. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 59, 129-136.
                Wang, G., Xiao-Ning, F., Yu-Yan, T., Qi, Ch., Shen-Di, 2011,Parkinsonism after chronic occupational exposure to glyphosate,Parkinsonism and related disorders, 17 (6):486-487.
                Gui, Y.X., Fan, X.N., Wang, H.M., Wang, G., Chen, S.D., 2012, Glyphosate induced cell death through apoptotic and autophagic mechanisms, Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 34 (3):344-349.
                Modesto, K. A., & Martinez, C. B. (2010). Roundup® causes oxidative stress in liver and inhibits acetylcholinesterase in muscle and brain of the fish Prochilodus lineatus. Chemosphere, 78(3), 294-299.
                Glusczak, L., dos Santos Miron, D., Crestani, M., da Fonseca, M. B., de Araújo Pedron, F., Duarte, M. F., & Vieira, V. L. P. (2006). Effect of glyphosate herbicide on acetylcholinesterase activity and metabolic and hematological parameters in piava (Leporinus obtusidens). Ecotoxicology and environmental safety, 65(2), 237-241.
                Menéndez-Helman, R. J., Ferreyroa, G. V., dos Santos Afonso, M., & Salibián, A. (2012). Glyphosate as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor in Cnesterodon decemmaculatus. Bulletin of environmental contamination and toxicology, 88(1), 6-9.

                • 1. Romano, R–this is a poster, not a paper, with no evidence to evaluate. Not peer reviewed. Did you see this poster and the data Derek? Were you at that conference?

                  I was going to say I was surprised that was in the Endocrine report you are talking about–I would think they’d have stuck to peer review. But it doesn’t seem to be in there.

                  Did you just bait-and-switch that Derek? Or which of the 209 references was this exactly?

                  Should I continue, or did you do that on the rest of the papers too?

                  • André

                    Romano et al.?

                    We should indeed be scared!

                    « Glyphosate Roundup Transorb was diluted in a watery suspension and administered to the mothers once a day, p.o. from GD18 to PND5 (post natal day) (50 mg/kg or 0 mg/kg for control group). »

                    And they write with remarkable disingenuity: « It is not known whether the dose used in this study is in fact the levels of exposure of population to the glyphosate herbicide. »

  • I have asked many forced-fluoridation fanatics to tell me how much accumulated fluoride in the body they think is safe. So far not a single one of them has been able to answer the question.

    • “Forced Fluoridation Fanatic”? That is quite a big leap there. Keep some perspective, please.

      And the “Forced Fluoridation Freedom Fighters” site is not only overboard in its language, the modified imagery from South Park is obviously racist. Please choose better sources for your arguments.

    • Note: After denying the racism of the imagery on the anti-Fluoride site, it has been removed. Dan Germouse left a comment which egregiously violated our community standards and is barred from further commenting.

  • Tom

    I’d point out that sometimes these issues involve a moral/philosophical component that can’t be solved by deferring to experts.

    For example, regarding Portland rejecting fluoridation, this may well be due to the libertarian lean of western states like Oregon. Someone who is libertarian could concede that there’s no proof of harm from fluoridation but still argue the government shouldn’t be putting additives in people’s water without their permission.

    Similarly many GMO opponents might not be motivated by concern about health risks, but instead oppose them because they’re creations of corporations they despise, or because they have a broader objection to industrialization

    • The libertarian view express by “Tom” is not well thought out. Water plants use numerous additives besides fluoridate and adjust the content of other minerals. It would be impossible for community water supplied to provide “designer” water to individuals. Everyone would need their own water and sewer systems.

      If the government shouldn’t “put additives in people’s water without their permission,” the water would end up being totally unsafe (i.e. “raw”) because there are people who object to chlorine, etc.

      The anti-fluoridationists won’t acknowledge that fluoridation is simply the adjustment (up or down) of fluoride so that people get a safe and beneficial amount of this mineral nutrient.

  • Ray Kinney

    No, I don’t need a label to declare total safety. But, if the spinach was grown using irrigation water from a source that has a cyanobacterial bloom in progress, that happens to be producing BMAA toxin in quantity, that also has increased cadmium, and significant levels of pesticides from Ag runoff and roadside spray, then I hope that a future environmental monitoring scheme for food safety would detect these potential problems and be very comprehensive in assessing and getting any problems corrected in a timely fashion. none of this should have to go on a label. If this spinach were GMO pesticide resistant and pesticides were used on it, yes, I think that it should be stated on the label.

    • Hi Ray, that would be a logistical nightmare and we’d have to completely change the way food is produced. Let’s give a real simple example: lemon-water containing only water and lemons. The lemon-water company generally does not own the lemon tree farm. The lemons that go into that lemon-water come from many different farms, possibly from different regions in the country. Each of those farms will use farming practices (pesticides, herbicides, etc) that are best suited the environment where those lemons are grown. And you want every single one of those practices labeled?
      The only way to achieve what you’re asking for is to have the lemon-water company own the lemon farms in a single location, so that everything is grown as per the label’s specifications. That would lead to more monocultures, more corporate ownership of farms, etc.

  • qetzal


    I don’t see anyone advocating to just “leave it to the corporations.” That’s why we have the FDA the USDA. If you think they don’t do a good enough job, that’s one thing, but arguing against blind belief in corporate interests is a strawman.

    It also misses the point. I agree that biologists, specifically food and crop scientists, should be in the best position to recognize where there are potential gaps and safety issues. The problem highlighted by the OP is that there are many cases where the biologists HAVE assessed the gaps and issues, and concluded that there are no significant concerns. GMO is a case in point.

    So, if you agree biologists are in the best position to assess this issue, and the vast majority of thrm agree that GMO per se poses no health risk, and that labeling would serve no useful purpose, why is labeling a good idea?

    Should every food be labeled for whatever anyone insists on, regardless of reasoned assessments? Should food be labeled “Warning: contains carbon, which is known to be capable of causing injury ordeath in some forms!”?

  • Ray Kinney

    Rather than food labels stating organic status, I think that non organic status should be stated on all foods that are not organic. I want more science done, and better science done, and always moving in a direction of increasingly better monitoring of foods for quality. Funding so that experts can do the research is essential, and reaching a consensus of safety as currently understood is good as well, however it is very important that those scientists that still had very significant questions that thought should be clarified before declaring should be honored as well, and listened to as valuable researchers and extra care should be taken in answering those questions. I’m afraid that too often corporate pressure biases the science to avoid asking some questions that need to be asked.

  • Ray Kinney

    So, if the new wave of pesticide resistant GMO crops that will include dicamba and 2-4D resistance as well as the glyphosate as is currently used, you feel confident in the total safety and scientific assurance that all necessary toxicologic testing for regulatory purposes AND for assurance of medically significant toxicology has been done and done accurately… and that there are not significant data gaps yet needed to be done? And, you are ready for widespread use of these technologies? So, you are saying that the biologists HAVE assessed all the appropriate data gaps already? Wow, I doubt it, and I’d sure like to talk with those other scientists, that were not in the majority… to see just what questions that they still might have. The majority is NOT the whole ballgame. The quality of the questions is of great importance.

    • Ewan R

      What one generally finds though is that the quality of the questions remaining from the minority are simply terrible. Seralini and his ilk, for instance, ask terrible questions in the bloody first place, and then botch their way through a series of poorly designed experiments in order to get the answers they wanted in the first place so that a fawningly ignorant support base can keep harping on about questions and science and gaps and corporate malfeasance.

      You make a deal (below, assuming this reply winds up in the right place) about exciting questions etc. The problem is these questions looking for nebulous unexplained risks in the supposed gaps of knowledge simply aren’t exciting. They’re dull. Given the work already done they’re essentially guaranteed to further human knowledge not one jot. They are a waste of time, resources and minds. There is literally nothing exciting about going on a snark hunt, regardless of how you package the experience. Why no, nobody has discovered snarks yet, but have we turned over rocks anticlockwise on a cloudy night under a full moon? Why aren’t you getting excited about this prospect? What else have you to do?!

    • qetzal

      To be clear, I’m not arguing that every GMO crop has been proven safe. I don’t have a personal opinion on dicamba & 2-4D resistance, since I haven’t read anything specific about them and I don’t know what safety testing has been done nor what their regulatory status is.

      My main point is that there is very strong consensus amount knowledgeable biologists that GMO crops are not unsafe per se. That is, a new GMO crop may be safe or unsafe depending on the traits that have been engineered into it. But it is not automatically unsafe simply because it’s GMO. And because of that, there’s not rational scientific basis for labeling foods as containing GMOs.

      You claim below that you don’t continue to use the term “total safety,” yet right here you challenge me as to whether I am confident in the “total safety” of these particular GMOs. I respectfully suggest you should reconsider whether you are really taking a consistent stance here. From my perspective, it seems clear that you’re not.

      I agree the majority is not the whole ballgame. But at the same time, there will ALWAYS be dissenters on any scientific topic. There are scientists that claim HIV doesn’t cause AIDs, that MMR causes autism, that evolution and climate change are conspiracies, even that the Earth doesn’t revolve around the Sun. So it’s not enough to simply point to scientists in the majority. Somehow, we have to reach a point at which we can decide whether those minority views have any reasonable validity.

      Obviously, you think those minority views are (or at least may be) still worth considering. But what’s your basis for saying that? If most knowledgeable biologist disagree with those minorities, and if you yourself are not a knowledgeable biologist with the background to judge for yourself, why should the knowledgeable majority credit your opinion more than their own?

      • The rational reason for requiring labeling is quite simple:
        The plants used in many GMO foods are RoundUp resistant, and therefore have been sprayed with glyphosate, the active ingredient in RR, as well as surfactants that have never been tested.
        The Endocrine Society, a widely-respected body of scientists, has just issued a statement naming glyphosate as an endocrine-disrupting chemical, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals do permanent damage to one’s health.
        The Endocrine Society has called for far more rigorous testing of these types of substance.
        Now please explain to me why labeling GMO fords is irrational and unscientific. And please moderate my comments. Or is it because they’re unanswerable?

  • How come my comment has been on this page for 24 hours and hasn’t even been moderated yet, let alone answered. Is it because you don’t know how to do what I suggested–explain why and how the Endocrine Society isn’t scientific?

    And while we’re about it, since when has food labeling been “a scientific matter”. Is the labeling of kosher food a scientific matter? Since it obviously isn’t, then logically you should be if favor banning kosher food labeling

    • You comment did not appear because we did not see it yet, sorry about the delay. You should check our comment policy page for more information about how to avoid having your comments held up in moderation.

      As for your argument about Kosher labeling, that is not logically sound. No one is talking about banning labels that are not put up for scientific reasons. The argument is instead about whether a label should be required when it is not scientific in its basis.

      • Derek Bickerton

        Here is the logical, science-based argument for GMO labeling.

        Use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, has increased tenfold in the past two decades.

        Plants that are RoundUp-resistant have been sprayed with, and therefore have absorbed, glyphosate, so any foods made from such plants will contain some glyphosate.

        The Endocrine Society, a hundred-year-old organization of scientists with 17,000 members, has just issued a statement naming glyphosate as an endocrine-disrupting chemical.

        Endocrine-disrupting chemicals cause far-reaching and permanent damage to the production of hormones vital for human health, leading to several types of cancer and disorders of the nervous system.

        Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can have these effects at extremely low doses, “typically in the part-per-trillion to part-per-billion range”, according to the Endocrine Society’s statement. Such levels never are and never have been tested.

        Therefore, contrary to what you state, the call for the labeling of GMO foods is logically and scientifically valid. Consumers have a right to know when a substance may be harmful to them.

        • Derek, I won’t try to evaluate the accuracy or relevance of the claims in your comment. But as a justification for mandatory GMO labeling, it fails. At least it fails for every single GMO labeling bill whose text I have read, either bills in legislatures or in ballot questions. Each of those bills requires the GMO label without regard for whether the genetic modification was for glyphosate tolerance for something else. They equally fail to mention whether glyphosate was used, as it often is, for non-GMO crops.

          • Precisely. Like most labeling shoutees, they have no grasp of what the actual label laws say. I always joke that the things most of them tell me they need a label for–monocultures, patents, and herbicide–are not unique to GMOs nor are they included in any of the label legislation so far. It’s a typical mis-fire. They didn’t even write their own label laws to cover what they hate. But that’s because it’s non-sensical, and they can’t admit that.

            Just yesterday I was reading an interesting piece on glyphosate:

            In most cases, glyphosate is used regardless of whether it is a GMO, and it does an excellent job of controlling the weeds. It’s not that more chemical is used if it’s GMO. The timing of the chemicals is just different.

            They cannot understand this.

          • Derek Bickerton

            Then both of you, Charles and Mary, implicitly accept that on the evidence I have presented, a labeling bill that substituted “glyphosate-sprayed” for “GMO” would be scientifically and legally defensible. That said, the fact is that both of you seem to misunderstand the role of glyphosate in non-resistant crops. Jeff Greybill’s piece that Mary quotes from contains a revealing half-truth: “The timing of the chemicals is just different”.

            Glyphosate on non-resistant plants is used ONLY for immediate pre-harvest drying-out, whereas it is applied to resistant plants throughout the growing season, i.e. at any time post-emergence. A farmer would have to be a raving lunatic if he sprayed non-resistant crops with glyphosate at any other stage. And at that stage (at least according to industry manuals, and I’m sure you’ll believe THEM) seeds are fully developed and can no longer absorb chemicals. So you actually wouldn’t have to include non-GMO crops in a legitimate labeling bill.

            Question remains, what about foods made from GMO crops that haven’t been sprayed with glyphosate? Well, glyphosate is just the most widely used of a number of pesticides –read the Endocrine Society’s statement (the link is in my first comment on this post) and you will see how many other pesticides are already KNOWN EDCs (not to mention the unknown unknowns!)

            And still we haven’t got to the real meat of the issue: in Layla’s words, “Should scientific matters be decided upon democratically?” The hidden assumption is that science speaks with a single voice: there is a vast majority that is permanently right, and a handful of scientific losers who are permanently wrong. Anyone who knows the first thing about science knows that this is nonsense. Science develops constantly, and the new ideas that will be gospel tomorrow are always a minority today. The issue of EDCs is a case in point. Take the Graybill piece Mary quotes. He says “If you could go to the North Pole and you had instruments that were fine-tuned enough to detect parts per billion, you could find a trace of every manmade chemical that’s ever been produced in the environment”. Well, maybe, maybe not. But now here’s the Endocrine Society telling you that EDC effects occur typically in the part-per-trillion to part-per-billion range. Let’s get some discussion of THIS, rather than quibbles about what language is permissible on labels.

            • Eric Bjerregaard

              “used ONLY” wrong. in no till it is sprayed before seeds are planted.

              • Derek Bickerton

                Thanks for the correction. But if the crop isn’t sown yet, it’s kind of irrelevant to the argument, isn’t it?

                • Eric Bjerregaard

                  No, Derek, You are the one that tried to start a labeling discussion. That is what is off topic. I probably should have ignored. But I am a buttinsky. Further I have read several articles that disagree with your endocrine disrupting stuff. So, no to mandatory labeling, and no to democracy.

                  • Derek Bickerton

                    So why did the “several articles” convince you when the Endocrine Society statement didn’t? Let’s hear some scientific arguments for a change, instead of just you personal preferences.

                    • Ewan R

                      As far as I can see the Endocrine society, in a far larger paper, mention glyphosate twice, once in a table, once in text. The text reads.

                      Herbicides in widespread use such as atrazine, 2,4-D, and glyphosate, are considered EDCs, and the fungicide vinclozolin is a known EDC.

                      Thus there is no conclusive evidence presented, and indeed no conclusive statement that glyphosate or glyphosate based herbicides are EDCs, they are considered such (thus uncertainty is ascribed to the assessment) whereas vonclozolin is known to be an EDC (which demonstrates a degree of certainty)

                      Several articles can convince when they contain actual, y’know, science looking at the claim. The “statement” by the Endocrine society boils down to a single row in a table, and a single sentence, neither of which are supported by any citations. Consider your straw thoroughly grasped at.

                    • Derek Bickerton

                      When a body consisting of 17,000 scientists issues a formal statement on an issue, “are considered” means that they, as a society, are quite sure that certain substances ARE EDCs, but that this claim has not yet become general knowledge, therefore they may not be describable as “known” EDCs. Learned societies are very careful in their choice of words—they have to be, to retain the respect of the scholarly community. Interpreting these words as you or I might use them is convenient from your point of view, but ignores the context.

                      Incidentally, if not surprisingly, no-one has commented on the strange fact that a society with a 17,000 membership has committed itself to views that are in direct opposition to those put forward on this site. Is this “scientific society” actually “anti-science”?

                    • Ewan R

                      No Derick, if they were sure, they’d have said they were sure. They’d have provided citations. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill here, this is a single relatively throwaway sentence vague enough to be meaningless buried within a far larger report focusing on other things (the bulk of the citations, for instance, are on BPA) – to consider this to be a formal statement on the issue is extremely disingenuous.

                    • André

                      « …When a body consisting of 17,000 scientists issues a formal statement on an issue, “are considered” means that they, as a society, are quite sure that certain substances ARE EDCs… »

                      Is it really a « body consisting of 17,000 scientist »?

                      How does it – if it were true – give it more credibility to, say, a single scientist?

                      Is it really a « formal statement » ?

                      Reading the document you take as a Bible, it appears that « glyphosate » appears twice, in contexts which are a far cry from a formal statement.

                      And if the Endocrine Society were as convinced about the status of glyphosate as an EDC, how come is there no other document to substantiate that satus on its website?

              • André

                « whereas it is applied to resistant plants throughout the growing season, i.e. at any time post-emergence » is WRONG too!

            • No, Derek. Don’t tell me what I do. I do not agree with you on any level. But if you need to tell yourself stories to get through the day, go ahead. Just don’t try to legislate your fictions, like the anti-vaxxers are trying to do. It’s a terrible side of history to be on

              • Derek Bickerton

                Just like Eric, personal opinions instead of scientific arguments. Surely somebody on this site can counter the gross misinformation being spread by the Endocrine Society? Otherwise I’ll have to conclude that no-one HAS an answer. As for the anti-vaxxer, guilt-by-association stuff, that has no placed on a rational, scientific siye.

                • Eric Bjerregaard

                  Derek, go back and read your comment. It contained no science. It is just your opinion of what this society said. You posted no logic, or facts to back up your contention that we should believe you. Then 2 faced as you are jump on me for making a comment about something I read. The exact same thing was done by you. and

                  • Derek Bickerton

                    Eric, you make it painfully clear that you have not the slightest idea how scientific debates are conducted. I did not give a single personal opinion, I gave some facts about glyphosate that are not I think in dispute and some claims by the Endocrine Society. Your next move was to discuss the contra papers you claim to have read and show that their arguments were superior to mine. Then I would have shown which claims seemed to me to best supported and you would doubtless have challenged my statement. Fine, that’s what real scientists do, all the time. Do you seriously think you win scientific arguments by saying ” I have read several articles that disagree with your endocrine disrupting stuff”? Big deal! But instead of engaging me in proper debate, you resort to personal abuse: “Then 2 faced as you are…” Don’t you realize what you are doing is admitting to everyone that you can’t refute me–otherwise you’d just DO it!–and that you’re a sore loser to boot. If you have a decent argument, let’s hear it. If not, why can’t you man up and admit it, as I’d do if I were in your situation?

                    • Eric Bjerregaard

                      Derek you make it painfully clear that you did not read the 2 articles posted. You did not provide sources. You simply claimed to quote the endocrine society. That is your personal opinion. How do I know you did so accurately, and not out of context? You provided no direct source. So, I simply mentioned that I had read differently. You attacked and I pointed out that you have done no better and that you are therefore 2 faced. A comment I believe to be true. Further because of my long history of reading the comments of Layla and Mary I will speculate that the 2 authors I posted will be shown to be correct.

                    • Derek Bickerton

                      What two articles did you post? Are they the same as, or different from, the two articles in your first sentence? No-one can debate anything at this level of vagueness. Btw, did you know that “Repeating an insult makes it true” is an urban myth?

                    • Derek, as far as I can tell you are not engaging in a scientific debate. You are posting a link to a source that you claim supports an argument you are making, and challenging others to debunk it. And it turns out that it doesn’t support your argument, and you are getting quite aggressive and digging your heels. A scientific debate means presenting evidence – not picking fights. Please consider toning it down a little and realize that we’re here for conversations and discussions. Take a look at our comment policy:

                    • Derek Bickerton

                      Karl, this comment is outrageous. “I” am “getting aggressive”? “I” am “picking a fight”? What about the author of the comment I was merely responding to, in which I was described as “2 faced”? I am “not engaging in scientific debate”? Did you not read my post on April 16 at 2.01 a.m., where I laid out point by point a logical and scientific argument? And did you not read the kind of answers I got?

                      You have a double standard, one for GMO advocates who can say what they like, unscientific and/or abusive, and get away with it, and another for GMO opponents who are welcome only for as long as they just whine vaguely about safety, raise softball points that you can easily swat down, and never make comments that you have a hard time dealing with. Well, at least you have demonstrated to your uncommitted readers the emptiness of your claim to be here “for conversations and discussion”, and saved me from having to waste any more of my time here.

                    • Eric Bjerregaard

                      I posted 2 links after you asked me about the articles I had read. Those are 2 regarding glyphosate safety.

                    • Derek Bickerton

                      They are both blog posts. To treat blog posts as having more authority than scientific papers is just laughable. Real scientists pay no attention to blog posts, they go straight to the primary literature. In my latest reply to Mary M. I cite 10 scientific papers showing that glyphosate is an EDC. Read them and then come back and tell me that it isn’t.

                    • Eric Bjerregaard

                      Blog posts sometimes contain links to studies, which you would have noticed had you actually read them. I find them useful. and btw another thing you should have noticed. I never claimed to be a real scientist.

            • Charles Rader

              Please Derek. I have not “implicitly” accepted your “evidence”. I am just too lazy to trace and read your posted source, and my scientific background is sufficiently different from human toxicology that I might well not be able to evaluate it competently – so others can do that. I simply chose to make the argument that your evidence about an endocrine-disrupting chemical, even if correct, is irrelevant to the labeling issue.

              I CAN use my common sense to unravel your claim that the glyphosate is “in the food” for a GMO and not in the food for a pre-harvest dessication use. I am not an idiot. If the glyphosate is used to kill the plant, it has gotten into the plant. And it has gotten into the plant within about a week or harvest. And the newly dead plant has not exposed the glyphosate to any metabolism which might diminish it. For the herbicide tolerant crop, the glyphosate is used many months before the harvest, and undoubtedly diminishes within the crop even if only because the plant gets many times larger. This, of course, is still only an argument about herbicide tolerant crops, and says nothing about several other GMOs, and nothing about the use of several other known endocrine disrupters which might be used if glyphosate had not displaced them. Frankly, Derek, the mandatory GMO label could be designed to give consumers information which they consider useful – even if some of us are not convinced that it is really useful. But the large print three letter GMO sign is explicitly designed to facilitate a propaganda campaign and its proponents actively object to any attempt to make it more informative.

            • Ewan R

              whereas it is applied to resistant plants throughout the growing season

              This is catergorically untrue. Glyphosate is likely to be sprayed only once to control weeds, this is the beauty of the system – not that one runs around spraying willy nilly whenever one sees weeds, but that one applies the herbicide during the most impactful time (generally during emergence where weeds can outcompete the crop and meaningfully impact yield) thus reducing time spent out doing stuff to the crop.

              Once corn and soy have established their stand further weed control is largely unneeded as they outcompete anything that will emerge later (once the canopy closes it is nigh on impossible for a weed to grow, what with there not being any light for the first few feet (in the case of soy) or first 8+ feet in the case of corn.

              From what I recall general use of herbicides on GR crops you have a recommendation of application of a pre-emergence residual herbicide treatment followed by an over the top application of glyphosate during early V stages – this is sufficient to control weeds.

    • Exactly Derek! Philosophical labeling is not a scientific matter. That’s why it is handled by a 3rd party system that works so well. We’ve covered that here before:

      And that’s exactly why the philosophical issues associated with GMOs are also best handled in that manner. The Non-GMO label system is well-suited, already in place, and supports your philosophical problems with GMOs.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Worry, Worry more and worry constantly eh Ray? Layla explains why you will never get “total safety” and you continue to use the term.

  • Ray Kinney

    I do not continue to use the term ‘total safety’, I never have. My concern is with trying to promote more movement in the direction of safety on a continuum. When I talk with most scientists in the fields of toxicology, pathology, ecology, geology, climatology, paleoanthropology, immunology, environmental assessment, oceanography, etc. we always seem to gravitate strongly to asking new exciting questions, to seeking a path forward, trying to ask better quality questions as individuals and together. On the other hand, on this blog, when asking questions that would spark excitment and creative response among other scientists in those other fields of study, instead here the attitude seems so fearful and defensive, and outright aggressive far too often. Too often, sarcasm seems to prevail, why is that?

  • Ray Kinney

    Layla, I feel you are missing my point. No, I do not want every one of those practices labeled. I want cooperative investigative attitude to prevail within the whole system of food production. I want to find win-win opportunities for improvements for quality and safety. I want better transparency of research, production, and delivery. I want inclusiveness from all areas of science that could contribute. I want funding that has that social responsibility as the primary goal, with the profit potential first having to account for the usually externalized costs onto society before figuring the correct profit. I don’t want to cause immediate upheaval to achieve all of this, but to move much more perceptively toward it. The quality of the questions is important to continually evolve. We need to question ourselves, our assumptions, those of others, and of authority as well. We need a more questioning attitude, more curiosity, and less direction from the profit motive to only ask certain questions and not other questions. Why does the organic agricultural community seem to me to be so much better at sustaining this kind of intellectual and scientific attitude than the non-organic agricultural sector?

  • Ray Kinney

    qetzl, The regulatory agencies for agriculture don’t seem to have enough connectivity to these issues either. Where is the creative, cooperatively questioning attitude? The FDA, the USDA, all the other DAs, and EPA seem to be increasingly indistinguishable from corporate interests. The revolving door of management between the agency admin and the corporate executive job reversal is so often clearly conflict of interest, and resulting best management practices… are not. There is a distinct air of fox guarding the henhouse. IMHO.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Ray Kinney

    April 11, 2015 at 5:44 pm · Reply

    No, I don’t need a label to declare total safety Say what? And while I’m at it. Just how?? ” I think that corporations tend to make us all less intelligent.” Does IBM, Ford, or GE make us less intelligent. Get a Grip. Your list of I wants is an attempt to reach Nirvana. Not Happening.

  • Ray Kinney

    Layla, re: your opening line: “A January 2015 survey conducted by agricultural economists at Oklahoma State found that 82% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains GMOs. The same survey found that 80% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains DNA.” This reminds me of those awful ambiguous highschool multichoice questions, asked by less than the best teachers… that you could just not answer with any degree of intellectual integrity because of the way the questions were worded. The survey may not have asked the questions clearly. Since all foods do obviously contain DNA, many respondents that are also in favor of food labels in general, would likely also then want all food labeled as normally done since they realize that it contains DNA. Of course, there would probably be as you imply, those people answering that did not ‘have a clue’. How was the survey question asked?

  • Robert Wager

    May I ask what tests not already done you would like to see added to the evaluation process for all GE crops and why?

  • Ray Kinney

    qetzal, If the majority of the scientists that declare GMO ‘safety’, and therefor have no need for GMO labels, receive money from the chemical producer industry that is selling them all (since about 98% GMOs are pesticide ready), does that not give pause about the confirmation bias issues??? The ‘majority’ may need to update their Q/A Q/C protocols.. and a few assumptions/conclusions might shake out?? No?

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Ray, no. How many times do I have to post this before you will read it?

  • During the Bush administration, I was on a scientific project that needed to use stem cells. It was a follow-on to the human genome project, and we needed to know what the basic state of DNA is in cells before they differentiate. A worthy and foundational piece of information we needed to make progress on may fronts.

    It was a big grant-funded NIH deal. And we could not do the science because of the election of our dear leader. I sat in a room with a couple of hundred scientists as we watched other countries kick our butts because we couldn’t do the work that was needed.

    I’ve watched democracy get in the way of women’s reproductive health. I’ve watched democracy put creationism (and textbook labels) into schools.

    I understand we have a democracy, and sometimes the wrong things will happen because of mobs. But it’s certainly not science and can really set back health and progress. And we should really think about whether we want the folks with pitchforks, or the scientists, to decide what science gets done and gets taught.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Hi Mary, While we are sliding closer to democracy, we don’t have one yet. The fed gov’t was set up to be a constitutional republic. Largely to prevent democracy. As the founders were aware that the majority could vote to subjugate the rights of the minorities. The senate, Bill of rights, electoral college, lack of federal voting rights, And appointment, not election of, are examples of methods installed.

    • What do you call the process in places like California–where for $200 you can put anything on the ballot for the voters? I saw a hilarious article about that the other day.

      There’s a “Shellfish Suppression Act”. God Hates Shrimp, you know.

      And in CA we were facing mob decisions (not science) with Prop37. Luckily sane people turned out in higher numbers. But that won’t always be the case. People can vote directly on issues that impact their neighbors.

      • Derek Bickerton

        Sorry, forgot to include this. Should interest everyone, because it’s a statement representing the views of endocrinologists generally:

        “As the global scientific and medical community continues to express concern over EDCs and their harmful effects on human health, public policies should be grounded in the latest available scientific evidence. Over the last two decades there has been burgeoning scientific evidence based on field research in wildlife species, epidemiological data on humans, and laboratory research with cell cultures and animal models that provides insights into how EDCs cause biological changes, and how that may lead to disease. However, endocrinologists now believe that a shift away from traditional toxicity testing is needed. The prevailing dogma applied to chemical risk assessment is that “the dose makes the poison.” These testing protocols are based on the idea that there is always a simple, linear relationship between dose and toxicity, with higher doses being more toxic, and lower doses less toxic. This strategy is used to establish a dose below which a chemical is considered “safe,” and experiments are conducted to determine that threshold for safety. Traditional testing involves chemicals being tested one at a time on adult animals, and they are presumed safe if they did not result in cancer or death. A paradigm shift away from this dogma is required in order to assess fully the impact of EDCs and to protect human health” (page 2 on the link I gave you).

        You know, guys, the trouble with science is, the damn thing keeps on CHANGING!

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        The first term that occurred to me was lunacy. Then I read your link and again wondered how you find all the info you link to. Your comment and link reminded me of a discussion I had with a friend about the voting rights of a few demographic groups. My concluding comment was essentially that everyone should have equal rights to advocate idiocy and vote against individual liberty. BTW I believe you are correct about god hating shrimp. That is why he made them taste so good.

  • Ray Kinney

    Robert W., First, i would like to know definitively, if glyphosate ( and formulations) alter the shikamate pathway in beneficial bacteria in human gut, in other animal gut, in soil microbiome, and in aquatic organisms. If any adverse effects on beneficial bacterial assemblages happen in any of these pools, it could have important implications for food quality, safety, and agricultural sustainability. Second, I would like to know if glyphosate and/or formulation components increase chealation of metals in many soil types, and if by doing so, they can faclitate the mobilization of any of the toxic metal lead (Pb) into roots, or even into other crop tissues. Root crops are known to be subject to picking up lead from soils with or without chealators present, other plant tissues are seemingly more protected. Does glyphosate product application increase any of this type of translocation? These are only my first two crop eval questions, answers could be far-reaching in effect. Yes, and I’m interested in far more widespread evaluation of lead content across the product spectrum.

  • Ray Kinney

    Robert W., My concerns re: bacterial effects are with both application exposure uptake, and with legacy soil lead uptake associated with glyphosate, and with consumption of food residues.

  • Ray Kinney

    Robert W., And, since it appears most likely that dicamba and 2,4 D will now be included in the pesticide resistant GMO paradigm, to increase applications of these associated chemicals into and on crops, soils, and into the wider environment, that I would like to see the same crop testing questions applied to the environmental toxicologic potentials of these pesticides as well. I guess that that would be my third question of concern for inadequacy of crop testing done to date. I’ve read a lot of papers that hit around some of these issues, but on the whole do not appear to be very definitive for crop safety and food supply sustainability.

  • Mlema

    I don’t think anyone here would seriously argue that science is a democracy. But labeling isn’t science. It is, at some level, a political decision. All the labels on our food were indirectly put there by advocacy and vote.

    For instance, if the FDA decides a particular food is safe, and we label it for possible allergens, and also the sugars, protein, calories, etc – then why do we list the ingredients? Because people want to know, even when they don’t understand what the ingredient names actually mean. Also, we list country of origin, for which we have only political reasons. And, here again, there are plenty of ingredients from other countries in our food – and they’re not labeled because they’re ingredients in food that was processed in the US. Food only has to be labelled as coming from another country if it wasn’t subsequently processed in the US. US producers believe that given a choice, US citizens will buy US goods – even if they’re composed of ingredients from another country. So we label “country of origin” selectively – due to the political influence of US food companies, who have every right to lobby to promote their food as being from the US, even if it contains ingredients from other countries.

    So no, science isn’t a democracy. But labels aren’t science. Therefore, we can’t defend not-labeling based on science, even if GMOs are safe. Since you didn’t grow up in the US, you haven’t learned yet that in the US we demand the freedom to make irrational choices and we refuse to accept even the most educated opinion unless it agrees with our own. 🙂

    Lastly, we have historical evidence that the ongoing balance between government oversight and corporate greed is often upset to the detriment of the population. This has happened in banking, manufacturing, etc. We are suspicious first and trusting never. I do believe that the battle over GMO labeling is about regulation, lack of science education, and distrust of corporations. After all, Monsanto is the public face of GMO and they have a bad track record for developing dangerous products and then lying about them.

    It doesn’t matter how many times you tell people that Monsanto has reduced the toxicity of the kajillions of tons of pesticide we use, how GMOs have helped farmers, etc. There are a growing number of problems in our agriculture, and GMOs have become the poster child of trying to gain some control over where our food comes from – whether that makes scientific sense or not.

    I hope you’re never unfortunate enough to experience the tragedy of an infrastructure failure which happens because the tax dollars you trusted to protect you, and ensure expert results, weren’t up to the task. We’ve had the Tuskegee experiment, Watergate, clandestine wars, unsuspecting citizens infected with syphilis, PCBs, dioxin, etc. – it’s really useless to expect Americans to trust the government, or any authority for that matter. Best to support a tax structure that will relieve some of the personal burden you mention and shift it to those who reap millions and billions using the same infrastructure – and put it into developing the highest quality educational system possible. The US isn’t doing so well in that regard. We can do much better. Wouldn’t it be great to not have to have this website? 🙂

    • Mlema

      “unsuspecting citizens infected with syphilis” – is a mistake. This was the Tuskegee experiment. But people weren’t infected with syphilis, there were syphilis patients who weren’t treated. Sorry for the mistake.

    • Hi Mlema,

      I agree that some of the information on the label is not guided by science. But the information added is placed there by the manufacturer to boost sales (you provide the excellent example of country of origin), which is why the Vermont labeling bill is being fought on the ground that it infringes on commercial freedom of speech ( But the information that the manufacturer is compelled to disclose, is guided by medical authorities/FDA. I think an excellent example of this is the label for food for younger infants. Manufacturers have to provide a breakdown of the amount of fat in food, except for baby food, because parents are not supposed to limit the amount of fat in a child’s diet (

      Regarding your point on the list of ingredients, I’ve never actually considered that. My guess is that it may have started because some individuals might genuinely not like a flavor on the list (like people who hate the flavor of cilantro may want to avoid canned goods that have cilantro in them). In contrast, a transgenic vs non-transgenic crop doesn’t add/remove any flavors.

      Yes, our governments have done horrific things in the past with our tax dollars, which is why I also think that the decisions and recommendations that our agencies provide should be done transparently.

  • Democracy has a limit