Tuesday, January 20, 2015

80% Want Food with DNA Labeled - GMOs, Education, and Policy

A recent survey 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 the spouse would be in the 80% of the population that doesn't know that all food, unless it's highly processed, contains DNA. Spouse, I hope it's OK if I share this, but it's important for this piece: the spouse has a degree in International Relations and Peace Studies. He is a consultant with high-tech companies where he coaches them in a style of project management popular among software teams. He's amazing at his job and can charge a premium for his consulting fees. He has the luxury of being able to work only 2 days a week so that he can fulfill his lifelong dream of taking care of Mr Chubby-Cheeks the remaining 5 days in the week. He can pick and choose consulting roles that fit his schedule. 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 to you what my thesis in human epigenetics was about, what a sequencer does, and what the I'd-tell-you-but-I'd-have-to-kill-you project I'm currently working on will do. But if I hadn't taken the time to explain it to him, he'd be in that 80%.

A recent article 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" literature. Whether it's 80% or 10%,  there's a portion of the population that doesn't know that DNA is in food, be it organic or conventional.

To me, this whole topic raises the question of whether scientific matters should be decided upon by a public who may not be educated in the technical aspects, as well as nuances of an issue. My question is: should scientific matters be decided upon democratically?

Here are some 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, etc, etc.

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, the USDA/FDA, etc? 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.

Each of the examples provided above have been studied and statements/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); etc, etc. Our tax dollars funded every one of these efforts, yet we're still taking these issues to the ballot box.

And no: I'm not sitting on some high horse where I think that I know better than everyone else and can dictate my suggestions to the populace. 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, etc. 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/off ramps are not adequate, if the Bay Area bridges are not properly maintained, I will suffer and may possibly 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 that we know something that a professional in his/her field doesn't.

I informally polled a few of my colleagues today, asking them whether they thought that scientific matters should be decided upon by the public and it led to a few 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...": 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 and myself seems to be that we the people should defer to the experts in their field, who should transparently and openly present their suggestions and plans, which we enact.

The ideal solution here is education: the spouse 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. But we're not there and it will take a while to get there.

In the meantime, I'll be doing 3 things. 1) I'll encourage Mr Chubby-Cheeks to take science classes, even if he decides to pursue a career in the humanities, 2) I'll continue encouraging my fellow scientists to engage with the public, even if they're in the private sector like me, and finally 3) I'll keep writing this blog for the spouse and for y'all and will happily explain any issue I'm able to.


  1. There's a disconnect on this point:

    the FDA evaluates the safety of all GMOs and regulates them

    Opponents of GMOs claim that the FDA has no mandate to evaluate the safety of GMOs. In fact the ballot question in the 2014 Colorado election made this explicit.

    Nathanael Johnson picked this up in his excellent series at Grist here:


    I'd like to see a change in the law to formalize the FDA safety evaluations specific to GMOs. It's not that I object to substantial equivalence, but that we've needlessly given opponents a weapon (so all I'm saying is to make the process mandatory, rather than voluntary).

    1. I absolutely agree. The "voluntary but not really voluntary" makes no sense. It gives opponents the argument that company's don't have to go through the regulatory process if they don't want to. At the same time, I gets in the way of a systematic, well-established workflow that companies could just work through to get the product onto the market.

  2. Policy should be founded in science, plain and simple. The problem is that the silent majority has a tendency not show up, leaving the vocal minority to dictate how policy develops. I formerly served as a county planning and zoning commissioner. The only people who attended these meetings were activists and retirees, folks I call "CAVE people" (Citizens Against Virtually Everything). Because they are the only ones who turn up, the impression is given that they represent the majority because if anyone else was passionate about the subject, wouldn't they too have taken the time to come and voice their opinion? The vocal minority is relentless in pressing their position and policy makers have to "listen" to their constituency. I read an article about that from a VT senator who voted for the labeling bill not because he believed in it but because of the number of signs he drove by to and from his office. He didn't vote because of science, he voted because of pressure.

  3. I just don't want my neighbor'so modified crops contaminating mine. I already have to deal with his prays damaging my fruit trees.

  4. What I grow varies, always vegetables. I am mostly concerned with my corn since what is grown around me is either corn or soybeans. I have to be concerned about cross pollination anyway because neighbor grows feed corn so I have to make sure that mine is planted early enough to pollinate before his.

    1. I'll have to look into the topic of genetic drift/contamination. I haven't read any papers on the topic. But wouldn't the inverse also be true? If your neighbor is contaminating your field, aren't you contaminating his/hers?


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