Saturday, November 13, 2010

Old Spice GM

Hello parents.
Look at your child.
Now look at this child.
Now look at your child.
Now back to this child.
Sadly your child is not a mutant like this child--but they could be if they starting eating genetically modified corn!

At least, that's what the anti-GM advocacy groups would like you to think. Unfortunately for them, eating GM corn is effectively no different to eating non-GM corn... If this needs any more explaining, read through some of my previous posts ;)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


This will be my last post on this blog for a while. I have a lot of other things happening in my life at the moment that need my full attention, but I may come back to this some time in the near future.

To finish everything off, I thought I would look at the controversy surrounding the labelling of GM food and food products.

I can completely understand why people would want food that is or contains genetically modified components to be labelled. It allows for everyone to make their own choice as to whether or not they will eat GM food and food products (here again I would like to stress that GM foods are safe for human consumption, assuming that they have undergone the testing required by their governments).

So below are the current labelling rules in place for Australia/New Zealand, US, Canada, and Europe

Australia/New Zealand - in 2001 it was ruled that "any food, food ingredient, or processing aid produced using gene technology and containing novel DNA and/or novel protein or having altered characteristics to be labelled as 'genetically modified'."

US - From what I can find, the US position on GM food is that mandatory labelling is not necessary because food produced in GM ways is no different to food produced in 'traditional' ways (this is potentially one of the smartest things to ever come out of the US, and I mean that with absolutely no offence intended to anyone from the US - this statement is just so fantastically correct)

Canada - From what I can tell from the above article, the Canadian government aren't quite sure yet which way they want to go - seems like they see the sense in labelling, but also understand why people might not want to enforce labelling

Europe - Similar rules to Australia/New Zealand

Sunday, October 24, 2010


In many science articles, indeed in most of them, you will come across some form of statistical data. This can be in terms of numbers of things affected by something, expected outcomes, or percentages, for example.

More often than not, these statistics have been drawn from some scientific source, and along the path from source to published news article, they will get warped, misinterpreted, and even taken completely out of context.

Oftentimes, the reporter will emphasise something that, scientifically, has little meaning. An example of this I mentioned in a previous post—just because a certain number of test mice died when eating food from a GM crop, for example, does not mean that the crop is unsafe.

A lot of the time, the reporter will see this one piece of information, and miss or ignore everything else around it. Sure, a couple of mice died, but the sample size (the amount of mice tested) might be in the tens, or hundreds, or even thousands. Just because some of the mice died, doesn’t mean that it will be statistically relevant to anything.

Any number of factors could have influenced this outcome, from environmental conditions, to the genetic makeup of the individual mouse. Again, these are things that reporters will often miss or ignore.

The way statistics are presented can have a large impact on the way they are received. For example, it is much more impressive to say that some new drug has caused 100 deaths, than to say it has cured 200 people.

When talking about statistics, particularly percentages, a frame of reference is important. Say for example, you come across this sentence: 10% of patients in a study were adversely affected by a test drug. 

We have no way of knowing from that sentence how important this really is. Does it mean that 10 out of every 100 people will be adversely affected? Or that 10 out of every 100 people might be adversely affected?  And how many people were there in the study anyway? If there were only 10 people, and one of them was adversely affected, technically this is still 10% of the population size, but could something else be the issue? Just because 1 person was affected, can we really say that 1 out of every 10 people in the world will be affected?

Usually scientists will cover all of these bases within their reports, and of course to them it all makes perfect sense. But it is easy to see how when such statistics are taken out of context by the reporter, they can be blown out of proportion, or presented in such a way that is just plain confusing, and doesn’t represent what the scientist was trying to say at all.

Now of course this isn’t just the fault of the reporter, perhaps scientists need to be more careful when explaining their statistics?

Friday, October 22, 2010


Much of this controversy has to do with a public perception of little or low regulation of the science when creating/testing/producing GM food crops and products. I think it’s about time I dedicate a post to what really happens.

All of the following information I gained from, where Dr Brent, the Chief Scientist for Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), is responding to an article that discussed this apparent lack of regulation. I find the response very open, informative, and easy to read.

In the response, Dr Brent states how the approval of all GM food depends on the outcome of an independent pre-market safety assessment, which is performed by the scientists at FSANZ. The assessments are published on FSANZ website, in their entirety, and are open for comment by the public before anything is approved. The evaluation process used is based on principles developed internationally, which is followed by Canada, Europe, Japan, and the US.

It is important to note here that FSANZ is an independent organisation, not run by any agricultural company or anything like that (more about that can be found here:

The companies themselves must also adhere to strict data requirements for the entirety of the project (from the initial lab stuff, all the way to extensive field trials under commercial agriculture conditions). 
“These data must be further supported by biochemical and animal toxicity studies, generated in independently certified laboratories, on any new protein arising as a result of the introduced genetic change. To complete all of the studies necessary for the regulatory assessment generally takes between five and ten years and costs many millions of dollars. All data from these studies must be provided in extensive detail such that every individual measurement and reading is provided, not just summaries or averages as is the case for published material.   The strength of this system is that regulatory scientists around the world can independently assess the information and critically evaluate the results. Like other regulators, FSANZ does not hesitate to demand more safety studies where necessary.”

Here is another interesting point:
“The small group of studies often cited as showing harmful effects due to GM foods have, without exception, been discredited by the weight of mainstream scientific evidence and opinion, including that of the UK Royal Society, and by regulatory agencies around the world. Comprehensive assessment of the studies shows that they failed to conform to accepted methods and protocols, failed to properly identify the material being tested, or failed to reach conclusions based on rigorous and logically consistent interpretation of the results. Those who criticise the internationally agreed testing regimes for GM foods are conspicuously quiet when asked to elaborate in open forum on their proposed alternative methods for testing GM foods, and to submit their proposals to scrutiny by the broader scientific community.”

As far as environmental risks go, that’s for the Gene Technology Regulator to take care of. Again, the testing performed is rigorous and transparent, and no GM product will be approved unless it is proven unconditionally to be safe for human consumption as well as for the environment.

“Together, FSANZ and the Gene Technology Regulator represent a combined system of regulation that is serving Australians well. To imply a connection between the consumption of GM foods and ill-health in people is both misleading and unsupported by any credible evidence.”

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What experts?

I’d like to take a look at what experts are being called upon by each side of this controversy.

Obviously on the pro-GM side we have the scientists, who conduct the research and testing of the GM crops. It can hardly be argued that these scientists are the experts on the science of GM.

But what about all the other factors?

Being an expert on the scientific intricacies of GM does not make you an expert on the political implications of allowing/disallowing it, or an expert on the policy needed, or an expert on farming practices, for example.

On the flip side, just because you are an expert in policy, politics, or farming, that does not mean you are an expert of the science.

All of these disciplines play a big role in the controversy, putting forth their ‘professional opinion’ on matters raised (and sometimes their personal opinion too).

Yet, on the anti-GM side, I find it hard to identify any actual experts (but here we run into the issue of what is an expert?).

There are many activist groups and political parties that present data and ‘facts’ as though they are experts on the matter, but can they really be classed as experts when they are not directly involved in the science, farming, policy, political side of it all?

Few scientists seem to be actively aligned with anti-GM groups; however, many politicians and policy makers are. But as I just mentioned, how can these people be expected to present professional opinions on the science involved when they are not scientists themselves?

So why do so many people trust these activist groups more than the scientists? It could be something to do with the scare tactics mentioned in the previous post, or it could involve an ingrained distrust of science (for whatever reason). It could also be due to the active presence that anti-GM groups maintain in the public and media, while the scientists seem to sit back a little, dealing with government and non-government organisations more so than the public or the media.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Scare tactics

One thing I’ve noticed when looking at how both sides of this controversy communicate their beliefs is that they both use scare tactics.

On the anti-GM side, graphic pictures are commonly used to show how eating GM food will mutate, maim, or even kill (including children in these pictures seems to make the message more impressive). A search for ‘genetically engineered food’ in Google images will show you a vast range of such images.

They are also quite fond of using a semi-standard picture of a piece of fruit or vegetable with a syringe sticking into it, sometimes with a ‘scientist’ or ‘doctor/nurse’ holding the syringe. I think this is to emphasise the fact that the fruit/vegetable has been ‘messed with by science’. Many people have a phobia of needles, so using images such as this would add the fear factor for people who suffer from such phobias.

On the pro-GM side, images are not used so much to get the message across. Rather, they tend to emphasise the need for new technologies in food production, stating facts and statistics of how current food production techniques will not be able to keep up with future demand.

Both sides are guilty of using scare tactics to try to get their point of view across. How do these tactics affect your view of the controversy?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Frameworks (part 4 - Paradigm Shift)

Another framework that can be applied to scientific controversies is that by Thomas Kuhn – a ‘paradigm shift’.

Kuhn describes this in his book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1962).

According to Kuhn, a paradigm is basically the basic, accepted theories and practices of science at a particular point in time. This science is known as ‘normal science’ – it operates within its paradigm, and allows research to move ahead rapidly.

The paradigm is supposed to be rich enough to cover everything that comes up – it helps to define what is appropriate scientific research/work, and gives theoretical foundations to work from. If a new problem arises, the science within the paradigm should be able to come up with a solution to it.

However, occasionally a problem arises that the ‘normal science’ of the paradigm can’t solve – this is known as an anomaly.

According to Kuhn, when there are too many anomalies for the paradigm to cope with, a crisis occurs. During a crisis, science is more open to new theories that can deal with the anomalies. Eventually, one theory, or set of theories, wins out and becomes the new paradigm.

So, how does GM fit into this?

The previous paradigm could be the ‘normal science’ of creating new plant varieties or improving current plants by traditional breeding methods. Now, though, we are seeing a different way of doing this – genetic engineering. I believe we are seeing a paradigm shift; the shift from traditional breeding to genetic engineering.


I don’t think that genetic engineering came about from a crisis, at least not in the way Kuhn is talking about. There may have been small crises in the sense that old techniques were inefficient, or pests were becoming immune to pesticides etc, but there wasn’t a crisis in terms of rising anomalies.

I argue that paradigm shifts can occur without a crisis happening. New paradigms are borne out of new theories and techniques, but these new theories and techniques are not always borne out of problems or anomalies. Sometimes someone comes up with a new/better theory or technique by accident, or even if there was no real problem with the old one.  I think this could be the case with GM – the technique of genetic engineering was discovered, and then it was discovered that this technique could be applied in such a way as to enhance crops.

Of course I could be wrong – I don’t know why genetic engineering was first applied to crop plants, or whether genetic engineering was created for this purpose in the first place.