Monday, November 14, 2016

The Future of FrankenFoodFacts

To my spouse and all my readers,

The past couple of days have been interesting, to say the least. I'm writing this blog a few days after the US elections, where in an incredible upset, a candidate that believes vaccine cause autism and does not believe in climate change was elected into office. There's a lot of other things about the president elect that concern me, but for the sake of this blog post, I'm going to keep it science focused. 

I write this article, genuinely struggling to figure out how to move forward as a science communicator. That people are in echo chambers, that experts are ignored, and that narratives have a strong appeal are things that I have long known, but now more than ever I struggle to figure out how to break through all that. And I'm fairly certain that it's not in the writing of this blog. Because if anyone wants to find out about GMO safety, all the information is already available to them. There is little that I can say that hasn't already been said.

In my draft blogs, I currently have a post entitled "Brexit and Organic Consumers Association". In the post, I was outlining the elements that these two movements have in common: appealing to people's fears and shunning expertise. I had written: "So it surprises me to no end that the public feels that expertise in certain topics is no longer relevant. And I don't know what to do about it, because in the opinion pieces I've written outlining the importance of experts and consultants, and the irony of having taxpayers fund their work and ultimately reject the suggestions that these experts make, I get comments from individuals accusing scientists of being "know-it-alls" or of being arrogant. Here's an example:
To some extent, I understand. An individual has an opinion and wants that opinion to be heard and respected. But we aren't all well versed in everything. I don't believe to know the solution to economic problems any more than I know how to build a deck for my back yard. I feel comfortable deferring to experts on both topics, not just the latter.

The problem is that when we turn to the wrong people for advice, they often provide incorrect information. Team Brexit said that the opinion of experts were not relevant. Bernie Sanders recently spoke about the dangers of GMOs and featured Jeffrey Smith from the so-called "Institute of Responsible Technology", whose lack of scientific knowledge has been highlighted in the past. Donald Trump has said that vaccines cause autism even though they don't." 

Rather than listening to experts, be they farmers speaking about agriculture, economic experts warning us about tax policies, scientists yelling at us about climate change, or military experts writing about a candidate's rhetoric, what ends up happening is that we believe in opinions that validate the biases we already hold.

The individuals who read this blog are already inclined to believe its content. I started this blog to document my journey as I learned about transgenic crops. With time, as I felt more certain about the safety of these crops, the tone and focus of the blog changed and I considered myself more of an advocate for GMOs. I will continue using this space to document my learning, but I don't think I'll continue promoting it. The people who don't believe in GMO safety aren't going to read it and I don't have the resources or the time to promote this blog so that it enters their sphere.

I'm not quitting science communication. Far from it (although a HUGE part of me does want to quit, to focus on my career so that I can further increase my income and my kid's success, and I'm working very hard on quieting that voice). Here's what I think I'll be doing going forward:

  • Focus on educating kids before their minds need to be changed. 
    • To this end, I'll be working more closely with Biology Fortified to create resources and tools for educators
  • Work with Moms4GMOs to try to get our message into new outlets and publications, so that we can decrease our reliance on social media as the primary method to broaden reach.
    • Social media bubbles don't pop very easily. The more we rely on social media, the more we're just preaching to the choir. 
    • The stark reality that social media has contributed extensively to the decline in factual information, and that speaking to kids and educators wouldn't necessarily rely on social media makes this option even more appealing.
I'm more than happy to answer questions and review papers, so if you have any, please send them my way. 


  1. This post saddens me but I'm also right there with you and while I post frequently on my Foodie Farmer facebook page, I seldom blog anymore. People aren't listening, don't want to listen, seemingly can't listen without chomping at the bit to simply post a rebuttal rather than a thoughtful response to a perspective that differs from what they believe is their own reality. We have to still "fight the good fight" but it gets tiresome. There are times to walk away and let the chips fall where they may. There are times to strategize a new approach, and then there's the space in between... which is where I'm at right now. Thanks for all of your knowledge that you have shared and know that it has not gone unappreciated.

  2. Dear Biochica,
    while I understand your bitterness and sympathize with you, I must underline a basic mistake in science communication, as far as so-called “GMO(s)” are concerned, i.e. to accept talking of them as if “they” were a consistent subject. Please forgive me for a little self-promotion: I invite you and your readers to freely download a paper I authored – which has a curious title: The necessary "GMO" denialism and scientific consensus, in Journal of Science Communication,
    Anybody who accepts to take one side (e.g. the otherwise very creditable “Moms4GMOs” group) shows to be deep inside a semantic trap, and reinforces the rotten, yet very successful “GMO” meme: this way, we (anybody who is evidence-biased - if you like the pun) will never be able to break the “GMO” iron cage. IMHO, we should tell those anti-GMOers who are in good faith that quite a few “GMOs” were discarded because unsatisfactory; we must not insist that “the technology is safe”, which is simply not true as an absolute statement – allow me another self-quotation:
    This way, maybe we won’t win the confirmation biases, but we stop encouraging a trench warfare on a nonsensical pseudo-category!
    Therefore, my unrequested advice would be to change your group’s name into a definition which goes much beyond the “GMO-nonGMO” blunder, e.g. Moms4AgriProgress – less immediate, but meaningful :-)
    Best regards from Lombardy!

  3. As a science educator, I share your frustration and concerns. I am especially frustrated with people who are selectively anti-science, completely accepting scientific consensus on some issues and completely rejecting it on others, without bothering to learn the science on either.

    That last bit is what frustrates me most. Often the pro-science folks are just as much in the dark as the anti-science folks, and both sides are more interested in "winning" than in learning.

    That is why I am such a loyal follower of your blog. You dig into the actual science and help people understand how to examine journal articles, even if they don't understand all of the technical jargon. Your work is tremendously appreciated by those of us who try to explain "real science" to the masses. I frequently refer people to your posts that dissect a journal article, sorting out the strengths and weaknesses of each. That is a skill that is desperately needed, and is far too rare.

  4. Hello Biochica,

    I am a new reader of FrankenfFoodFacts, alarmed like you by many of the phenomena we experienced during our recent election, and apprehensive about the years to come.

    Regarding GMO's I am somewhat undecided, partly due to a book / report which you probably are aware of, written by what seem to be two competent scientists "GMO Myths and Truths". Have you done a review of it? or do you know of a scientific review/commentary of it?

    Wishing you all the best in your endeavor to elucidate the issues of GMO's,

    Michael Chelnov

  5. Hello again BioChica,

    After writing the previous post, I searched on your site and found that you had partially reviewed GMO Myths and Truths.

    The conflict of interest point is well taken, although if one adopts the hypothetical perspective that Mr Fagan has always been concerned that GMOs are not really a known quantity and should be evaluated more thoroughly before being made available, he would have been motivated to form Genetic ID, and he would be continuing to present that same prudence in his paper. Profit motive is not the only possible connection.

    I am struck by his statement that: "biotechnologist still know only a fraction of what there is to be known about the the genome of any species, or about the genetic biochemical, and cellular functioning of our crop plants. that means that even if they select an insertion site that they think is safe, insertion at that site could cause a range of unintended effects, such as disturbances in gene expressionor in the function of the protein encoded by that gene. ( section: Is GM technology becoming more safe)

    I guess there is a divide in the camps along the lines of precaution vs potential utility, exacerbated by the urgency of industrial profit motive.

    He presents specific examples of unexpected results in the past and holds out the possibility of more over time, even with accepted GMOs. It can be said that this is fear mongering, but it seems to be based on some past events, and why take the risk if it is not necessary?

    Oh well, as you can see I am in the more prudent camp but I would like to read a thorough scientific review of even the 3rd condensed edition, if you know of one.

    Thanks for your patience !

    Michael Chelnov

    1. Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment. I think the most important take away about GMOs and their risks is that there's no evidence that they're riskier than traditionally bred crops. That does not mean risk free. There could be unintended consequences with a transgenic event, but that's why GMOs are tested, why substantial equivalence has to be demonstrated, and why you don't get it right on the first try. More importantly, the same risk regarding unintended consequences exists when two genomes are jammed together in hybrid crops. In fact, the Lenape potato, is a cautionary tale on unintended consequences in traditional breeding:

      There are several papers that have compared unintended consequences in transgenic vs traditionally bred crops. I've written a summary here:

      Let me know if you have any other questions!!


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