Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The double standard in the GMO debate

As a scientist who writes about GMOs, I get called "shill" on a fairly frequent basis. Sometimes, the mere fact that my twitter handle is "BioChicaGMO" is enough evidence for a person to call me a shill
My Twitter Handle seems to be my undoing
(as an aside, the reason why I went with BioChicaGMO is because BioChica was taken, and since the spouse suggested that I start a twitter account to promote my blog, I thought it made sense. I'd probably choose something different if I were to start all over again. BioChica was my Xbox GamerTag. I used to play fairly frequently before the kid came around.)

Hey spouse, after you finish reading this, let's play a round of Portal. It's been a while.

Anyway, getting back to the main point of this article, the sector of biotech I work in has nothing to do with agriculture, and biotech is a huge umbrella term for many, many sectors. In the different websites I write for, I've tried to be as transparent as possible and have made my LinkedIn profile public. Accusing me of being a shill for Ag is equivalent to accusing an organic apple farmer of being a shill for McDonald's because they're both in the food industry. The shill-gambit is used very often in topics surrounding biotech, such as vaccines or GMOs, and it's a shame because it doesn't really help support any argument.

However, in reading many articles about GMOs, I'm always struck by the double-standard that exists when it comes to financial motivations. Why is Dr Mercola as popular as he is, when he sells supplements promoted in his articles? How isn't that a conflict of interest? Or take, for example, the Institute for Responsible Technology: its founder writes an article about gluten allergies and GMOs, with the only evidence being material from the website itself, and then encourages you to buy items that they recommend.

It's a guarantee that I'm funded by GMO related corporations!
The Non-GMO Project is another example, and I'm going to highlight this by following the story of Dr John Fagan, a molecular biologist who became part owner of a company named "Genetic ID" around 1998. Genetic ID is a company that does DNA testing to determine if foods contain GMOs. Genetic ID is also one of a handful of labs that is used by the Non-GMO Project for its certification process, and is a "Non-GMO Project Approved Lab". Therefore, the greater the customer demand for non-GMO certified products, the more money flows towards Genetic ID and towards its owners.

The Non-GMO Project's website has a lot of information geared to highlight the value of a GMO-free diet. For example: "a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights", or "Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe", or "The long-term impacts of GMOs are unknown, and once released into the environment these novel organisms cannot be recalled." There are no references or citations provided for any of these statements, so their validity cannot be assessed. If you visit the website's section on GMO Science, it points you to a document entitled "GMO Myths and Truths". The website explains this document by stating that it's "an evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops. This 2014 document is prepared by the preeminent researchers and scientists: Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson, and John Fagan."

I just want to pause here for dramatic effect, and to make it clear that the author of the scientific document that the Non-GMO Project provides is the same guy that owns one of the labs that the Non-GMO Project uses for its DNA verification process.

The article was about Autism and GMOs and how there's no evidence
suggesting that eating GMOs causes ASD. But it doesn't matter because
apparently I'm funded by Monsanto.
I reviewed the first chapter of GMO Myths and Truths a long time ago and the rest of the chapters I've slowly debunked, although not as directly. The document embodies "Gish Galloping" which basically consists of throwing so much information and so many references at a person that they could never debunk your argument. Instead of providing 1-2 references that encapsulate an argument, 50 references are provided most of which don't really support the argument being made. I've been sent the document several times in the course of my discussions on GMOs, particularly on Twitter. If you scan through "GMO Myths and Truths", you may be stunned by the seemingly overwhelming evidence against GMOs and you might freak out, and that's what the document is intended to accomplish. But if you peel back the document's polished, shiny exterior and look at it in depth, you'll see that most statements are hypotheticals of things that might happen. There's a difference between what's possible and what's probable. Is it possible that I might get struck by lightning while getting bitten by a hammer-head shark? Sure. Is it probable? Not really. So many, many statements made in GMO Myths and Truths are presented as possibilities, yet the probabilities are never addressed. And I'm sorry, but any document that supports Seralini's study loses all credibility.

The person never did come back to resume our chat... 
Anyway, John Fagan is one of the authors of this document. The elegance of it is quite admirable: scare the bejeezus out of people about what's in their food by producing a "scientific" document with all the right words and language, thereby increasing the demand for non-GMO verified products. In fact, John Fagan is the Executive Director for Earth Open Source who put together the "GMO Myths and Truths" document and several other similar publications. The organization's goal is to "restore the open source roots of the food system – collaboration, transparency, and shared knowledge and resources – to help feed humanity, increase equity, support self-reliance and foster healthy ecosystems."

The success of an entity such as the Non-GMO Project relies on pressure from groups such as GMO-Free USA to persuade companies into believing that the Non-GMO Project label will be of value to their customers. With systematic and well-coordinated campaigns against companies, non-profit groups such as GMO-Free USA and GMO Inside have managed to convince companies to create GMO-free products: Similac recently announced that it was making GMO-free formula, General Mills decided to take the GMO-free plunge with Cheerios, and Hershey's has decided to go non-GMO. GMO-Free USA also shuns GMO-free labeling if the certification isn't through the non-GMO project. And guess who is on the board of advisors for GMO-Free USA?  John Fagan.

Nothing that John Fagan has done here is illegal. Nothing here is different from what many other companies out there are doing. I write this to highlight the double standard that exists when it comes to GMOs: if I had written this exact same story, replacing Dr Fagan with an executive at Monsanto, and if the organizations listed advocated for biotech, I'd like you to think of the outrage that would exist as a consequence.

They're onto me! They've discovered that I've taken
the Secret Oath of Scientists
Well-designed studies that receive industry funding are discarded because of their "ties to ag", but a poorly designed study that receives funding from non-GMO organizations is ethical, and if flaws in the design are pointed out then it's considered to be a "smear campaign" orchestrated by shills. Last week, I got a comment asking me about the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) dirty dozen: every year the EWG puts together a list of fruits and veggies that have the highest amount of pesticide residue, and advises people to eat the organic version of these. The EWG's methods have been found to be flawed, and there's no evidence that eating the organic version of the fruits and veggies on their list is "healthier". Additionally, EWG receives funding from the who's who of organic companies including Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farms, Earthbound Farms, and Dr. Bronner Soaps. I consider this a double-whammy: 1) no science to back them up and 2) funding from groups that benefit from their scientifically-questionable publications. Again, replace the characters in this story with a company against whom you may have a bias. Let's use Coca-Cola as an example: let's imagine that Coca-Cola gives funding to a non-profit who puts together a glossy brochure comparing caffeine free products between different companies. There's no difference between Sprite and 7-Up, but they claim that caffeine free Coca-Cola has less caffeine than caffeine free Pepsi, and they recommend buying Coke. The difference is 2 parts per billion, but that's not in the glossy publication or in the press release. What would you think? Would your spidey senses start tingling? I assume that it would. So explain to me what the difference is between this hypothetical scenario and what the EWG actually does with their dirty dozen?

The double standard here is mind-boggling.

I'm going to quote from an article that I wrote a while back on a related topic: "The truth is that universities do not have a litmus test to measure your ethics. Companies do not have a sorting hat to determine if your moral standards are a proper fit. As such, there are unethical individuals in both areas. More importantly, there are many individuals with a clear sense of what is wrong and right. Science is science. Crummy science can be produced in publicly funded labs. Amazing studies can be published by individuals affiliated with an industry. There are many examples of both."

Fair enough... But this person should also look at who sponsors Seralini.
So whatever criteria you use to determine if someone is a shill should be applied across the board. Whatever criteria you use to determine if a study is scientifically sound should be used universally. Whatever standards you use to determine if an organization should be trusted should be applied to all groups, whether it's GMOanswers or Non-GMO Project. I can tell you that I've never received a penny for anything I've written related to GMOs, nor do I have a side business that benefits from what I write. I wonder if the authors of "GMO Myths and Truths" can say the same.


  1. You hit the nail on the head. I recently wrote a blog on being a shill. It requires two things. 1. incentive to spread information, 2. Information is contrary to scientific consensus.

    In this definition, Fagan, Mercola, Smith, Shiva, Hari, Oz and the rest are the real shills. They profit from false or misleading information.

    My job (our job) is interpreting peer-reviewed science from a consensus for the public, for no compensation. Amazing how that is considered crooked.

    1. Exactly! I've often thought that a less scrupulous person would just jump on the "shill" bandwagon: there are speaker fees to be made, travel opportunities, etc. And the opportunities to create a business out of pseudoscience are seemingly endless.

  2. Great article. I'm curious to hear any thoughts you might have on pro-GMO advocates "taking ownership" of the term shill in internet arguments. For example, the hashtag #shillarmy has gained popularity recently, partly in response to the Food Babe Army. It seems that hijacking the word in this way might take the power out of it and point out the ridiculousness of it being used so often, but I'm uncertain that it would be effective. Thoughts? Dr. Folta, if you're still around, I would be interested in your thoughts on this too.

    1. That's a great point and agree with you. I've seen a lot of clever ways that people have used to take the power out of the shill-gambit. There are plenty of memes and images of shill-iness: the most common one I've seen is a business card for a shill. Not only are these great ways to "take ownership" for the term as you pointed out, but also help diffuse tense situations when the shill-term is hurled at you.

  3. The last time I looked at our national organic magazine it had articles propounding the wonders of organic fertilisers etc. The authors run businesses supplying these supplements and also had paid advertisements in the same magazine. Somehow this double standard did not raise any alarm bells.

  4. Thank you for this. I want to provide insight into how the double standard exists. The problem is less intentional deception and more delusion.

    From the start, there is a belief that the badness of GMOs is so self-evident that no right thinking human being could possibly support them. Once you've watched (and accepted) The World According to Monsanto and Food, Inc. it is blindingly obvious that evil men are ruining the world and "if you aren't outraged you aren't paying attention".

    And once you're swept up in the fever of glyphomania, starting a business to meet the needs of your friends and family seems like the only ethical thing to do. There's this terrible poison and you're going to fight it and actually help people by selling them something.

    See also the Seralini-endorsed homeopathic remedy digeodren that will cure your glyphosate poisoning....


    1. Wow. I had no idea about the homeopathic remedy.

      I agree with your previous comment. Figuring out someone's motive is difficult, and I think we should err on the side of caution and give them the benefit of the doubt. My guess would be that the vast majority of people who benefit or support pseudoscientific businesses probably believe in them whole-heartedly, whereas it's only a small fraction of individuals who create the business out of convenience.

    2. I don't think it's a coincidence that Jeffrey Smith and John Fagan come from the Maharishi cult. In their cases, replace the watching of The World According to Monsanto and Food, Inc. with accepting whatever Vedic dogmas their cult feeds them. That's where their bias comes from. The fact that they've managed to make a living from this, while a great incentive to continue seeing things a certain way, is probably secondary.