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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Evolution does not infer amorality

Christian evangelists Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron have challenged two atheists to a debate over the existence of God that will air live at ABC’s website on May 5. What caught my eye in the article that introduced me to the debate was this quote by Cameron:

Atheism has become very popular in universities – where it’s taught that we evolved from animals and that there are no moral absolutes. So we shouldn’t be surprised when there are school shootings.

Teaching evolution is responsible for school violence? Perhaps if no one had ever committed a wrong in the name of religion there might be some inkling of reason to consider his proposition (which also presumes that evolution and religion are mutually exclusive). But people commit crimes regardless of spiritual belief. And when religion is involved, the criminal always points to dogma, not it’s absence, as justification for his acts. No one has ever hurt another human being out of atheist fanaticism.

The Bible is not the only source of morality. And I’m grateful for that. If we all lived by it’s exact words we’d be stoning our children, keeping slaves, and offering our underage daughters to house guests for non-consensual copulation. Where might an atheist, then, get his or her moral sense? I agree with Albert Sweigart:

[…] I don’t think we have a moral mandate because God said so. I think we have a moral mandate because our actions, nevertheless what we think, make a difference. We affect the people around us in material and emotional terms, and our actions set an example for others to follow.

We have a moral mandate to take responsibility because we are in the rare position among life forms on earth to think, reflect, and take consideration of consequence. I think to fail to excogitate on our actions with our unique mental capabilities is tragic. And we see the problems that arise out of this failure, both in problems of hurt emotions and damaged relationships, and in problems of brutal violence and conflict.

Our ancestry from millions of years ago doesn’t limit our intellectual capability to find solutions to these problems today. It doesn’t impede our moral imperative to heal ourselves.

From what I can tell, most atheists take the ethical position of humanism. While humanism may not contain moral absolutes, it certainly objects to murder and other forms or cruelty and injustice. If there’s anything immoral suggested by Kirk Cameron’s statement, it’s that blaming science courses for deadly violence without sound reason is intellectually, socially, and ethically irresponsible.

There is no connection whatsoever between the teaching of evolution and school shootings. There does however seem to be a link between the promotion of creationism and a delusional cognizance of one of the greatest achievements of science.

Observations of time

Time is especially peculiar. Mathematically, it’s a dimension just like space. But time is perceived far differently. There is no direct evidence for the past or future, for instance. They cannot be observed. There is also the unexplained ‘velocity’ of time. It passes all on its own. What accounts for these profound differences between time and space?

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Still reading

I finally finished The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and have moved on to The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., and Sharon Begley. Schwartz is a neuropsychiatrist who studied philosophy premed and has a special interest in Buddhism. I bought the book primarily to gain a better understanding of the inner workings and deliberate changeability of the mind and brain (precisely what the title suggests). Little did I know when I grabbed it rather whimsically off the shelves at Books-A-Million that the authors would also be delving into philosophical and spiritual matters such as free will and Buddhist mindfulness, attempting to explain them within a neuroscientific context. How uncannily appropriate is this reading considering recent discussions in this blog?

I haven’t been writing as much because I’d prefer to continue my self-education a bit further before relaying or debating ideas. Though I’ve noticed there’s plenty of conversation going on here without me! (154 views today: another record high!)

Existentialism as science?

This post is a result of considering the comments from my previous post.

Perhaps with the aid of some thoughtful comments by my readers I’ll be more able to quickly clean this draft up into something coherent.

If there is any philosophy that can eventually be scientifically proven, existentialism appears to be it. One of the primary tenets of existentialism is that human experience and all things meaningful are inherently subjective. The limits of human knowledge can easily be demonstrated. So at least in a general sense, subjectivity can be shown as part of the human condition by that observation.

One’s understanding of truth and meaning can likewise be shown as subjective assuming neuroscientists eventually pinpoint how these ideas are constructed in the brain. This is not to assert that truth and meaning cannot transcend subjective experience, but that the intrinsic subjectivity of humanity necessitates equally subjective ideas. Thus, any absolute or transcendental truths are outside the scope of human understanding and verifiability. Even scientific objectivity is ultimately subjective in the sense that it’s always relative to human experience.

Science depends on the validity of the observer. Studying the observer has the power to validate science itself by showing that observable reality is superior to other possible realities because it is the only reality we experience. It is ‘superior’ in a subjective sense as that’s the only sense we have. Perhaps to an absolute being, absolute reality is superior. However, we are not absolute beings.

Scientists can verify a fact with rigorous, peer-reviewed experiments. Philosophers can question the nature and scope of that fact, but my argument is that such questioning is pointless. The only reality we experience is the reality we observe. It follows that the only truth we experience is the truth we observe. What purpose do truths outside our experience serve? And if we cannot observe them, how can we possibly know or understand them?

In a sense, existentialism is like a philosophical version of Einstein’s relativity. The only truth we can know is relative truth. We are our own frame of reference. And although we can imagine what it’s like to see things from another point of view, we must always compare and contrast with our own perceptions in the end.

Agreement with others does not make a perception more likely to be absolute. It only shows a likeness in observational capacity with members of our kind. We could all be dreaming the same dream, and in absolute terms, all truth would be illusion. But that’s irrelevant. What we experience is real because it’s what we experience. Reality’s nature is beyond observation and is consequently beyond human knowledge and significance.

A better school system, a better social system

Sometime around 1992, Amherst built their own high school. Before that, the Amherst kids attended Milford Area High School. After the development, MASH—as it was called—dropped the A to become MHS, where I served four years of hard time.

Many of my friends were from Amherst, New Hamsphire. There was a day that MHS had off (probably a teacher’s meeting or something) and Amherst didn’t. The geek that I am, I went to AHS for a day.

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