A Skeptical Look at GMO Safety

Golden rice. Image via WikiMedia. (Golden rice. Photo via WikiMedia.)

Golden rice is touted as one of the highest achievements of agricultural GMOs. Enriched with a vitamin A precursor and designed for high yields, it has the potential to help millions of malnourished people all over the world, especially in Africa and South Asia. But how safe is it? Finding out may be difficult despite a mountain of research. Patents stand in the way.

All GMO studies are conducted or constrained by the agricultural biotech industry. Because of patents, seed companies control their products’ research. That opens a path to publication bias, as we saw in the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies omitted unfavorable studies of antidepressants. Independent research isn’t enough. We need unrestricted research that isn’t subject to omission by corporations.

Some agbiotech companies, such as Monsanto, have blanket agreements with universities (as opposed to companies that pick and choose which universities they permit to publish findings, which does little to rule out bias). Such research is least affected by industry control. What’s needed is a meta-analysis of unrestricted independent studies asserting that GMOs are safe for the environment and for consumption.

The burden of proof for GMO safety is on this unrestricted research, since their position is most likely to be neutral. What is their consensus? Furthermore, university scientists can’t gain access to seeds until they’re on the market. That means GMOs are being deemed safe before any independent research is even permitted. Surely we deserve higher public health standards.

And what’s in these agreements between the seed companies and the universities? There could be a clause that still allows the companies to suspend or withdraw studies. Without transparency, we have no way of knowing. That’s one of the problems with intellectual property law, especially where there are health and environmental concerns.

Biological patents—and the mess of red tape that comes with them—make research conditions opaque to the public and difficult for the scientists. The legalese involved in biotech research is complex, confusing, and intimidating. It’s already hard for researchers to find funding. Seed companies have shut down university studies while they were in progress. That’s not just an ethical concern, it’s a waste of money.

Please note that I’m not saying GMOs are unsafe. The GMO conversation tends to be highly polarized, and my position is often misinterpreted. My primary criticism is the ways in which patent law hinders science, particularly risk assessment. GMO research serves as a example.


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Right Wing News’ White Supremacy Propaganda

The following image was shared from Right Wing News on my Facebook timeline by a friend wanting me to debunk it. So I did.

Image

1. “Ask the average school student about slavery and they think that only white people had slaves”

What’s the difference between a school student and a student? Did they mean high school student? Without a source, this claim can be dismissed. I’m not about to conduct a poll to prove it wrong.

2. “In the 16th – 18th century, Africans enslaved 1.5 million white Europeans in the Barbary slave trade.”

Rewritten to be factual and grammatically correct: “Between the 16th and 19th centuries, pirates from coastal cities in North Africa enslaved as many as 1.25 million Europeans during the Barbary slave trade.”

The region of North Africa that we’re referring to, the Barbary Coast, is populated almost entirely by Arab-Berbers (97–99%). Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa west of the Nile. They are caucasian, not black. Furthermore, not all Europeans are white. The image is promoting a racist agenda by making it sound as if blacks were enslaving whites.

3. “Whites were the first to stop slavery in modern times…”

This is true. It’s also convenient that the time period is restricted to the beginning of the modern era. Even more convenient, of course white-dominated modern societies would be more likely to end slavery. That’s where most of the slaves were! You can’t end slavery in a place that doesn’t have slaves to begin with.

4. “…whereas slavery still continues in Africa to this day.”

The word “whereas” denotes a contradiction or comparison, but there is none. Yes, there is slavery in Africa. There’s slavery on every continent except Antarctica.

A poor boy and his sister

A poor boy and his sister were gathering coins from a wishing fountain so they could buy a meal, when the boy exclaimed, “There must be rich people wishing here because there’s a bunch of quarters!” His sister responded, “No, it’s the poor people who make the quarter wishes; they have more to wish for.”

– Me paraphrasing my girlfriend paraphrasing part of a novel that she read in second grade called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.

I’m an atheist and I have every right to celebrate Christmas

I celebrate Christmas because it’s a tradition I grew up with and enjoy. It brings family, friends, and even strangers together in a time of giving and good will.

I have been told by numerous Christians that I have no right to celebrate this holiday—whose traditions are largely pagan in origin—just because I have different beliefs (or lack thereof). That’s persecution, just like telling African Americans not to celebrate Christmas would be racist. It’s more than mere opinion; it’s oppression.

I pledge allegiance to what?

I wonder if the people who think that children should blindly recite the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools even know what the important words in the Pledge mean.

Can you answer the following from memory?

• What’s a republic?
• What’s a nation, and how is it different from a country?
• What’s liberty, and how does it differ from freedom?
• What’s justice, and how does it differ from retribution?

I’d be willing to bet that most adults can’t correctly answer all four of these questions. So why are we having children pledge to ideas they and most others don’t even understand?

And if advocates insist on including “God” in the Pledge—despite public institutions’ endorsement of religion blatantly violating the First Amendment—I’d ask that they define that word as well. Which god and why?

Just Tax the Rich Already

We’re in a recession because people aren’t spending enough. People aren’t spending enough because they’re not making enough. They aren’t making enough because working- and middle-class wages have stagnated while executive pay has dramatically increased.1 Corporations are making record profits2, and the money isn’t trickling down.

The gap between the rich and everyone else is wider than ever and increasing.3 It makes sense to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires and redistribute that money to services that help the lower and middle classes. Those services will create jobs. People will spend more money. The economy will improve.

Consider the alternative: spending cuts. What ends up being cut? Public services such as healthcare and education. These kinds of cuts lower the quality of life for the majority of this nation’s citizens.

I’ll take the first option.