Christie Wilcox Takes On Anti-GMO Scaremongering In The Atlantic
    By Hank Campbell | January 13th 2012 07:55 AM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Ari Levaux, a food columnist, wrote about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in The Atlantic. Fair enough, it is a hot-button issue among anti-science progressives and they need to sell pageviews over there so it isn't much of a surprise.  He's a syndicated columnist so they don't check his stuff in advance but I guess the fact that he does restaurant reviews for the Albuquerque Weekly Alibi is good enough for them to trust his take on complex biology topics.(1)

    Unfortunately, he was completely wrong and Scientific American blogger Christie Wilcox is having none of it.

    The science is a study published in Cell Research showing that microRNAs (miRNAs) from food can get into our blood. Okay, that happens millions of times per day but it was Levaux's claim that in GMOs, “new DNA can have dangerous implications far beyond the products it codes for” that annoyed Wilcox.

    Well, that is the precautionary principle run amok, which we have warned about many times, and another example of the bizarre 'trust scientists on global warming but not on food because they are out to kill us' mentality prevalent among the kookier leftwing fringe of environmental groups. If Republicans said this nonsense, it would be called anti-science but since it is all people on the left, this gets dismissed as False Equivalence (Winner of the Top Science Media Cliché of 2011 Award!) and people who hate science on the left are not called anti-science, they are anti-corporation.  But it's anti-science if you don't have a political agenda.
    So if miRNAs are dangerous – guess what? – you’re already ingesting them every time you eat. And, to get a little gross, let’s be clear: when we eat something, we don’t just ingest the miRNAs from the species we intentionally eat. Did you know, for example, that foods you eat are allowed to contain mold, hair, insect parts, and even rat poop? All of those bits of organisms which we inadvertently eat have DNA, and – you guessed it! – miRNAs, too. If miRNAs are so dangerous, we would never have been able to eat anything previously alive in the first place.
    What? No veal?  You can bet I am writing me a letter to Congress if that happens.

    "Perhaps what ticks me off most, though, is that Ari’s scaremongering overshadows the very real and interesting implications of the science he failed to cover," Wilcox writes, and this is really the key point, whether it is kooks on the left who think precisely-controlled genetic changes tested for a decade are more dangerous than random cosmic ray mutations, or kooks on the right who think belching poison into the air won't be a problem. Science can educate us, science can help us, science can hurt us - but in order to know the difference we have to let it work.

    (1) And in fairness to The Atlantic, they now put a big ol' disclaimer up saying they had nothing to do with his content.  I haven't seen a publication run from a writer so fast since the most popular guy on Psychology Today, Satoshi Kanazawa, got clobbered for claiming an evolutionary psychology reason why black women were ugly.

    The Very Real Scaremongering of Ari Levaux By Christie Wilcox, Scientific American
    H/T RealClearScience for the link


    I'm not sure how fast the Atlantic ran away from me, but they posted another of my stories this morning. They should be apologizing to me for the awful headline they chose and refused to change.

    Also, the piece was re-written two days ago. It might be less interesting to you as it will hopefully be more difficult to trash.

    Gerhard Adam
    But the status quo, according to Monsanto's web page, is,

    There is no need to test the safety of DNA introduced into GM crops. DNA (and resulting RNA) is present in almost all foods. DNA is non-toxic and the presence of DNA, in and of itself, presents no hazard.

    Given what we know, that stance is arrogant. Time will tell if it's reckless.

    Actually it is this statement that is reckless.  As you well know, every plant and animal consumed contains DNA, so to suggest that somehow DNA is implicated as a potential hazard isn't just disingenuous, it's simply wrong.  At its absolute outer limit, the study dealing with microRNA is simply indicating that there is some possibility of interactions that had previously not been known. 

    There is nothing here implicating DNA, nor RNA in general.

    It seems like the entire piece is devoted to arguing with Monsanto rather than discussing the study.

    A tomato with fish genes? Not so much. That, to me, is a new plant and it should be tested. We shouldn't have to figure out if it's poisonous or allergenic the old fashioned way, especially in light of how new-fangled the science is.

    Statements like this exacerbate the problem since they deviate even farther from the central issue of genetics and the role of microRNA.  Instead you're simply introduced some arbitrary question about toxicity and allergies.  Perhaps your example works as a metaphor, but it certainly isn't science.

    I'm not necessarily a big fan of GMOs or corporate involvement of this nature, but this article doesn't help by presenting information that is either out of context, wrong, or conflated with other data to produce a concern where none exists.  In short, this article doesn't help.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Can you really claim you were giving science a chance in writing about this?  I get that biology is tough and you have a column to put out so not everything can be researched thoroughly but this took a kernel of fact and then extrapolated a whole bunch of anti-science paranoia from it.

    You're trying to simultaneously contend you rewrote it because of its many flaws but it was not wrong - and that's not easy.
    "You're trying to simultaneously contend you rewrote it because of its many flaws but it was not wrong - and that's not easy."

    None of the flawed architecture was load-bearing. The conclusion was the same, though better written.

    As the re-write states:

    "This study had nothing to do with genetically modified (GM) food, but it could have implications on that front. The work shows a pathway by which new food products, such as GM foods, could influence human health in previously unanticipated ways."

    The column was about Substantial Equivalence, not how miRNA is evil. At least Discover noticed that.

    Gerhard Adam
    The column was about Substantial Equivalence, not how miRNA is evil. At least Discover noticed that.
    ... but it actually isn't.  You talk about testing for biochemical and toxic effects and yet fail to relate how miRNA fits into this, if at all. How can we test for the effects of miRNA if we barely know how it works?  Isn't this effectively arguing that we need to stop GMOs because we're assuming that they will introduce miRNA which may have a detrimental effect?

    Therefore without actually knowing what the effect of all miRNA is, we can't very well perform biochemical or toxicology tests.  Yet, if this were a real concern, then doesn't it affect ANY form of genetic manipulation including hybridization?  This would also be a factor in artificial selection of animal breeds.  After all, these practices are conducted without consideration because they are considered to be subject to "substantial equivalence". 

    Mundus vult decipi
    Good post. It was a syndicated feed the atlantic picked up (likely for free) and used to bulk up their on line offerings. free content for the AM. That they gave critics access in real time is actually a huge improvement in magazine editing practice. i think it has nothing to do with any progressive cabal which this site seems to have bought into. a v weird "fake" political category one might hear on Fox, but nowhere else outside that asylum

    Hi Greg, 

    I think we have to call a spade a spade. Claiming equivalent numbers of left wing and right wing people dispute the science behind global warming would be silly.  Likewise, claiming right wing people have an anti-science agenda when it comes to food is equally silly. The numbers don't lie, both sides pick their 'acceptance' of science based on world view, not evidence.

    Not everything is Fox News-ish because it paints uncomfortable truths about the left when it is merited - unless you claim that the numerous sites painting the right as anti-science for their silly beliefs is MSNBC-ish.
    One evening, during the drearily sodden summer of 1816, Lord Byron and his friends read Fantasmagoriana, (a French translation of a German book of ghost stories—they were intellectuals after all) in his Villa Diodati in Switzerland (they were rich intellectuals). Afterward, Byron suggested they all write a horror story. Everyone did except Mary, the wife of his friend, Percy. She kept demurring, saying she had not yet thought of anything suitable. Then one night they discussed the rumor that Erasmus Darwin had electrically "galvanized" a piece of a worm; an electric current had made the vermicello twitch. Mary Shelley began writing a moral cautionary tale of what happens when arrogant science meddles with nature: “Frankenstein.”

    In 1816, the Industrial Revolution had just begun. Dizzying technological advancements such as the spinning jenny displaced workers from their livelihoods. Angry bands of men, calling themselves Luddites, smashed machines, murdered industrialists, and fought with the military.

    That humans have been altering the genetic structures of their food for 10,000 years gets lost in the shouting. As an example, the wheat we use for bread came about from the crossing of at least three different species of wild grasses from two different genera. This new food had new proteins and chemicals that were never, ever part of the food supply before.

    Nearly 200 years after fabulist Mary Shelley raised Romantic objections to to new technologies, contemporary Luddites contend that we are playing god and meddling with forces that we cannot possibly understand.

    About two hundred years ago, Britain's Quarterly Review howled about "[L]ocomotives travelling twice as fast as stagecoaches!" Some physicians predicted that the incredibly high speeds (nearly 20 miles per hour) would cause psychological harm. Others predicted that passing trains would cause pregnant mares to spontaneously abort. "We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour," the Review admonished."

    Worries about new technology have often proven to be overblown.

    Worries about new technology have often proven to be overblown.
    We would never let just anyone have access to anthrax so anything that is a societal issues needs to be a policy one, that's no problem, but asking hard questions isn't anti-science.  Insisting on an irrational precautionary principle is anti-science.  There can never be 100% nothing can ever be harmful by any measure.  GMOs have been more tested than any advancement in history, including nuclear bombs.