Genetic Modification Plus Big Pharm Equals Anti-Science Hippie Meltdown
    By Hank Campbell | February 14th 2012 11:04 PM | 27 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    What's the one thing that could make anti-science progressives dislike genetic modifications and medicine even more than they do now?  Putting them both together.

    Scientists at the Vienna University of Technology have perfected a process to introduce bacterial genes into the fungus Trichoderma and make it produce N-Acetylneuraminic acid - Neu5Ac or NANA - which is a natural carbohydrate involved in biological functions like toxin neutralization, cellular adhesion and glycoprotein lytic protection. NANA is important for treating viral infections. The raw material used by the fungus is chitin, which makes up the shells of crustaceans, so it's totally organic and sustainable.  Except it's also genetic modification.

    Viral Infections are treated with antiviral drugs, the kind that make pharmaceutical companies rich, and antiviral drugs are often derived from NANA.  NANA is expensive to produce, it costs around $2,500 per gram - that's right, that's about 40 times as much as gold and even more than whale vomit.  So producing it cheaper is good for poor people, right?  Well, so are genetically modified foods, since that means poor people can grow their own local, organic food and not have to buy it from Europe and have it hauled in on emissions-belching boats and trucks. That doesn't stop anti-science hippies from being against it.

    Biotechnologist Astrid Mach-Aigner say their new method to produce NANA is eco-friendly and also cheaper because the materials are abundant.  However, it involves changing an organism using precision science rather than random mutation by cosmic rays so it is still going to be wrong to progressive kooks with their 'natural' fetish.  For the rest of us it is good news because cheap materials keeps costs lower all down the production chain. Trichoderma is very common, it's in soil, it's in trees.  Chitin is also very common. After cellulose, it is the most abundant biopolymer on the planet, found in  the carapaces of crustaceans and the shells of insects.

    The fungus Trichoderma has been genetically modified so that it can produce NANA from chitin,  like in these crab shells. Thanks, science! Credit: Vienna University of Technology / Creative Commons license - Hans Hillewaert.

    Put them together and it's like a Batman/Superman World's Finest team-up of terrific science wizardry; a way to make cheaper drugs using abundant, natural, renewable resources.  They estimate that in just the oceans, ten billion tons of chitin are formed every year - hundreds of times more than the mass of all the people on earth. Thus, chitin is completely sustainable for chemical synthesis.

    "We knew that Trichoderma can degrade chitin – that's what the fungus naturally does in soil", says Astrid Mach-Aigner.  "Usually, Trichoderma breaks down chitin to monomer amino sugars."

    Bacterial genes had to be introduced into the Trichoderma genome  to produce the desired chemical product but with the new genes, two extra reaction steps are now possible and pharmaceutical N-Acetylneuraminic acid is produced. Presto, the new Trichoderma line can now be cultivated in bioreactors and produces NANA from chitin. 

    The method has been patented by the Vienna University of Technology and they intend to use it for the cheap and eco-friendly production of pharmaceuticals on an industrial scale in the near future. Help people live better lives, advance science, get rich.  That's the way it should be.


    In response to your ad hominem attack on "progressive kooks" - I am not sure Progressive or any political label applies to me, but I am a colon cancer survivor who grows my own organic food. I am not sure why you must polarize people who eat food into good and bad camps to make your point.

    I also challenge your statement saying that, ".... with genetically modified seeds poor people can grow their own organic food." Misleading statement, and at best an oxymoron - by definition in USDA Organic Standards, genetically modified foods can not claim to be Organic. Also these Poor People that you seem to champion will have to pay the Rich Seed Company for the right to plant the same seeds next year - and they will have to pay Royalty Fees, and they will have to buy expensive Chemicals from said Seed Company to make the GM food grow.

    I am not anti-science, my lab is my body, and with GM foods there are just too many unanswered questions. I am glad that folks like you who seem to have all the answers and the moral superiority to demean anyone who differers with your opinion regarding food are well aligned with your mega ag corporations who pay you to write such drivel.

    Organic food is simply a process, it is not nutritionally or structurally any different.  If you think organic food is preventing cancer, well, maybe it does - that is called the placebo effect. That does not make it science.

    If a poor person in a remote area can grow their own food instead of relying on inconsistent and vaguely colonialist aid programs from other countries - and all they have to do is buy some seed - that's terrific.  I am not sure when this sense of entitlement about free came into force but it's silly.  I grew up on a farm and we had to buy seed. We also had to buy a tractor.  John Deere was not painted as unethical for selling tractors.
    Aloha Hank,

    80-90% in agreement with you though I do think the language may have been a little harsh for the sensitive types.

    Anon referred to the buying of seed. I believe s/he is referring to the legalities of planting seed from a plant grown from plants that were grown from patented seed. Currently it is illegal in most places, though who's really enforcing it if I grow a GM papaya 'tree' in my backyard that I grew from the seeds of a GM papaya I bought at the store? Probably nobody.

    Also, what qualifies as organic these days is just some legalese jargon. I believe you are referring to growing pest, disease, and/or drought resistant GM plants that do not require any or as much insecticide or fungicide during cultivation. The "kooks" (not my word) are only familiar with Round-up ready crops and fail to see the full potential of GM technology.

    Lastly, many herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides can have some potentially nasty long and short term effects, (less nasty than hunger, but still nasty), both to the applicators and the environment. Rarely are there measuable amounts of these chemicals ingested by the consumer and usually only when misused or used in off label methods such as using a systemic pesticide like imidacloprid in large doses during flowering or fruiting.

    Still, most non source pollution in the form of pesticides and fertilizers is the result of home owner use (or misuse) and not from agriculture. The use of well engineered crops can and will reduce the overall dependence on these types of chemicals. As the world population grows new methods of agriculture with less dependency on inputs will be necessary to meet demand and keep price down.

    If one is that concerned about the environment and health of the world population the most effective thing they can do is most simple thing in the world and easy for everybody- don't reproduce.

    Good to hear from the sportsmen community.

    Yes, I tried to make the point that a 'natural' poison isn't superior to a synthetic one in any way other than it allows people to pay a fee and slap on a label.  No one in America is doing spot checks for organic farmers and if people think they are really buying 'organic' food from a developing nation just because it is in a Whole Food, they deserve to be P.T. Barnum'ed.

    I've tried more moderate approaches to awareness that Big Organic is actually no different than a corporate farming advocacy group. They spend a lot of money on marketing.

    Organic food, as we have noted many times, need only be 95% 'organic' - the rest can be completely synthetic if the farmer determines it is 'essential' or, the funniest part, if the farmer does not 'have access' to organic seed it needn't even be organic seed.

    If Big Organic were honest with consumers they would slap 95% Organic on their labels and create a way to certify that no herbicides or pesticides of any kind - not natural, not synthetic - were used in the food.  But if that happened, organic food lovers would suddenly be faced with $15 tomatoes and would have to accept that you can't actually grow all foods every season of the year, so they pretend they don't know what is really happening.

    Thus why I use the term intellectual placebo.  Organic food is a sugar pill for the brain.

    Do yourself a bit of a favor and actually look up the meanings to "ad hominem" and "organic" before attempting to use them in conversation.

    I can't say it better than the comment above.

    GMO crops are not organic, they are modified to withstand heavy doses of Roundup which would have otherwise killed them- OR to produce their own pesticide! The ingredients in Round-up are in Agent Orange.

    Toxins in Toxics Out. Cancer has affected my family as well, and surely it will affect me. I am trying to live a healthy life that will protect me from that fate.

    No wonder people don't trust GMO's when the companies refuse to make unbiased long-term studies. If there were nothing to be afraid of they would have done that.

    We should be helping the developing world with Permaculture methods and remediation, along with mitigation of climate changes. Oh But excuse me, because you don't care to learn about those words so you'll just happily brush me off as a "Hippie" whatever that means.

    If you want to call Anti-Science those who want actual scientific studies to be performed on Strikingly New Organisms created by Man before ingesting them, then you sir, are simply an Asshole.

    If you want to call Anti-Science those who want actual scientific studies to be performed on Strikingly New Organisms created by Man before ingesting them, then you sir, are simply an Asshole.
    This is the problem.  The studies have been done, testing has happened for decades, not so much as a single stomach ache has occurred, yet you are fine with being poisoned by E. coli in 'organic food' and having people die every year and insist a minor modification puts people at risk. The science is settled but because it disagrees with your world view, anyone who disagrees is an asshole.  You condemn poor people to starvation and insist woo solutions like 'mitigation' will magically make food grow in places, which is in defiance of fact.  You are clearly in a wealthy western country because that smug tone coupled with goofy unscientific idealism is what hurts developing countries.

    Finally, I hate to puncture your bubble or billions of dollars in marketing hype, but 'organic' food is not pesticide- or herbicide-free, it is simply synthetic pesticide- or herbicide-free.  Strychnine has killed far more people than Roundup, but it is completely legal to use on organic food.  If you did not grow your own produce, and you eat it without washing it, you are a moron - just like if you eat produce you get in any store or farmer's market, despite what they claim.  Organic does not mean what you think it does - it means maybe 95% organic and there is no condition at all on it not having pesticides.
    Trying to reason with Hank, is kinda like giving a lesson to a pig, he won't learn and all it will do is get him in an uproar.

    GM for IS structurally different.
    Hank, name on Third Party Independent - Peer Reviewed Study, to back up you specious claim that they have never even caused a stomach ache. There have been no such studies done because the biotech folks own the seeds and prevent this type of research.

    But hey, there are some Hanks in this world - some people call the close minded dimwits. But not me, we need ridiculous claims for GM food to make them look like even bigger liars and charlatans than they actually are.

    GM for IS structurally different.
    Noooo, that is why the USDA only considers 'organic' food a different process.  Having no science basis you are now invoking a Vast Big Business Conspiracy and calling other people dumb. I don't call anti-science people dumb, I call them kooks.  That the same demographic also believes in astrology, ghosts and that vaccines are causing autism just means I can narrow down the places I would need to go to ridicule them all at once; basically to a Whole Foods store.
    "GMO crops are not organic"

    "Toxins in Toxics Out."

    You don't know what "organic" means, you use nonscientific hippie jargon like "toxins" and you have a froth-mouthed opposition to any scientific research that disagrees with your confirmation bias and attempt to dismiss it via circumstantial ad hominem.

    You, sir, are the very image of an anti-science asshole.

    I like turtles.

    Yes they go down really well.

    I just want to let you know, Mr. Campbell, I'm a fan of this website and tell my friends about it. I'm very pro-science AND an old hippie AND an organic gardener.

    This is really fascinating stuff. Too bad you stuck your foot in your mouth taking pot-shots at progressive stereotypes like that. We all know that a new development with a powerful corporate interest behind it can get ramrodded through regulatory agencies whether it's safe or not. But not everyone gets it those kind of agencies, by and large, perform a valuable function for science setting safety standards for the various new consumable achievements of science. I guess it's the nature of their job that, if they do it well, they either get taken for granted or vilified. But nobody else is keeping the hucksters at bay, or in the trenches trying to avert global climate catastrophe. We've got a seriously burgeoning anti-science political culture here in the USA that would slash any kind of regulatory agency, FDA, EPA, SEC, whatever, all in the name of some nationalistic anti-totalitarianism. You are a very good science writer, sir. You make it interesting. And you should discuss hot button topics like genetically modified foods. But try to keep the interest up without alienating people who vote, okay?


    Too bad you stuck your foot in your mouth taking pot-shots at progressive stereotypes like that.
    I'm all for sane food hippies, I am closer to being one of them than 99% of the readers of this article, because given my way nothing that my family eats would be touched by anyone but me; not grown, killed or processed.  But I would use a rake and that is what the anti-science hippies I am ridiculing basically do not believe in - if they had been around when the rake was invented.  They set an artificial standard; a random cosmic ray mutating food is awesome but a thoroughly tested ,controlled and limited modification is somehow dangerous.  It's the definition of anti-science.

    That sort of backwards attitude is not new.  People used to say science was full of it for contending that washing hands was good and Pasteur was excoriated for 'modifying' food by naturalists.

    Is there a big business interest in food?  Sure, organic food companies make far more money selling a mental placebo like an organic label to consumers than Monsanto or anyone else makes selling GM foods.  I want to alienate some people who vote.  The problem we have in America is that we create two large umbrellas so the right has to accept cranks who think more pollution is good and evolution doesn't happen while the left accepts crackpottery like that vaccines are bad and, despite any evidence, GM foods are dangerous.  I wrote a short piece today on the new EU science advisor and that same anti-science belief is her biggest concern about Europeans.  So it isn't just America.  

    Thanks for the kind words!
    I totally agree with your perception of anti-evolution apocalyptic CO2 mongers to the right and anti-process purists to the left. But the right doesn't have to "accept cranks who think more pollution is good and evolution doesn't happen". They cultivate them. The lord is their shepherd and that's what shepherds do. As for the left I don't think it helps open anybody up when the voice of reason is given to using ad hominem attack headlines.

    Well, attacks go both ways. Comparing people on the right to sheep is not exactly constructive, nor is claiming 50% of America is intellectually immature, right?  30% of Democrats don't accept evolution and 39% of Republicans don't either.  That is no big victory for the left.   We could contend the right becomes implicated in more goofy anti-science positions because science and science media skew so heavily left.  It is easy to ridicule Republicans in a blog if you will never see one in the hallway - no 'liberal guilt'.  UFO believers, anti-vaccine, ghosts, astrology and plenty more crazy positions are all primarily left wing people yet they get little attention in the media, but last month we were treated to 6 different science media sites talking about how anti-science the right is because 11 years ago George Bush took a moral stand and limited federal money for hESC research to existing lines.  
    "Too bad you stuck your foot in your mouth taking pot-shots at progressive stereotypes like that. "

    Not ONE of you would be complaining if this were an article about an avenue of science that Conservatives oppose and the author chose to refer to an accurate generalization of that movement. Not ONE of you, though I'd be willing to bet anything most of you yourselves can't go a day without directing such at your Right Wing counterparts. Hell, YOU can't even finish your post without engaging in the same behavior you're screeching at him for.

    But because he dared to call YOUR spade a spade you have to fein indignancy and he must be endlessly chastised. Get over yourselves. All you've managed to do is solidify his point.

    Not a "hippie meltdown": Genetically Modified Foods, The American Academy of Environmental Medicine

    American Academy of Environmental Medicine
    ha ha WHAT????  You and the 5 other homeopathy people who have heard of that will be impressed by their claims, but not many others.
    Arsenic is, of course, completely natural and therefore 'organic' - but you shouldn't want it in your baby food.  Yet it is there. 

    The study points to organic brown rice syrup, an ingredient often used as a healthy alternative to high fructose corn syrup, as a potential source of arsenic in food.

    The results show cereals bars, energy shots and even infant formula s made with organic brown rice syrup contain particularly high levels of arsenic, compared with products without this syrup. Some cereal bars have concentrations of arsenic that are 12 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) safe drinking water limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb), the researchers said.
    Oh high priest of all-things-science, bless this genetically modified meal we are about to eat for there is not a single published clinical study proving they are safe to eat for humans.


    Well, there is not a single published study proving I did not travel back in time and create GM foods as some secret plot with Hitler to launch the Fourth Reich from an Antarctic Fortress.  You do realize that study you just claimed was necessary for GM foods does not exist for anything in science or medicine and never has, right?   People die from drinking water.
    "Oh high priest of all-things-science, bless this genetically modified meal we are about to eat for there is not a single published clinical study proving they are safe to eat for humans."

    If you can take a brief break from your attempts to revise reality to fit your narrow sollipsism, jmaybe you can point us to a single peer-reviewedand published clinical study which clearly demonstrates that organic food is safer and more nutritious than GMO.

    I don't think you can, but that's just because you're a liar.

    Why do they hype GM food?

    Well, I'm convinced. A piss-poor song posted to Youtube by a bunch of Marxist-dogma indoctrinated hippies who make their disadain for science and technological advancement evident multiple times throughout is clearly a better source of scientific fact than the men and women who have spent decades studying and researching the field.

    Maybe next you can post the ditty about how vaccines cause autism so TEH PHARMABIZZZ can make money.

    Why is it none of you "OMG CORPORATIONS ARE TEH EVILZ!111" crowd never acknowledge the fact that organic food is a multi-billion dollar industry with ties to people and companies like the English Royal Family, the estate of Paul newman and Dean foods inc? Oh, right, because it;s inconvenient to do so.

    I am looking at your "anti-science progressives" comments from a different perspective. I know several people, myself included, who are anti-Capitalists, viewing the efforts of Big Pharma and Big Agriculture to control our health and food availability for profit to be disgusting. There is no real push to end AIDS, for instance, while Big Pharma can make thousands of dollars per year per person (i.e., from me, for instance) to treat HIV, rather than curing it. And there have been so many efforts to control people's access to their food of choice (such as raw milk from a producer they personally know) in the news lately, surely you have seen them. We progressives want science to actually be used to help everyone, and to preserve the planet's integrity. All that said, there *are* some ignorant progressives, who for instance, buy into the "anti-vaccine" hype, or the "no GM foods of any sort" hype, AFTER they had already decided they didn't like the Big Whatever for political reasons. They simply sought out reasoning to help persuade others who are also ignorant. When I present them with scientific evidence of the benefits of vaccines, or explain that not all GM causes harm, they sometimes read my material, other times they don't know why, if I agree with them politically, I would not feel the same way. Basically, they have been too busy living their lives to delve deeper into the science of whatever issue, but if they are spoken to respectfully, as with most folks, they can be reasoned with. One brought up the valid point of the recent evidence of plant RNAs being found within animals cells (rice RNA, I believe), which caused the animal cells to metabolise things differently. That is a decent point. If we create a plant that can make something, and its RNAs can make it into our blood and cells via our digestion, then potentially, we could cause our own cells to make something unintended, such as botulinum toxin. So this person *is* aware of some of the science, and is also persuadable by data. While I usually like your topics, as others have already pointed out, it is the delivery that turns some off (or pisses some off). Progressives tend overwhelmingly to be pro-science, but we are quintessentially aware of the potentials for misuse, particularly with a profit motive, and a layers of anonymity for corporate people to hide within. Anyhoo, cheers, and I look forward to reading more from you over time.

    I think that you have a point, about delivery and scope.  Do all conservatives in America like being painted as anti-science because 39% of them deny evolution while only 30% of the left does?  No, they do not, yet it is standard fare throughout quite literally all (the rest) of science media.  Same with hESC research and conservatives and global warming.  So one person writing about the anti-science of the other side is not only not bad, it is absolutely necessary, or else the field gives in to a cult mentality.

    Progressives are not overwhelmingly pro-science, they like science that matches their beliefs.  You happen to be a 'sane hippie', meaning you are a liberal, and attribute positive motivations to people around you, which is fine - I do it too until the evidence is obvious to the contrary.  Progressives are social authoritarians and vilify science (and scientists) that do not match their beliefs.  I am also a sane hippie, about food and freedom, yet I would never call myself a progressive because those are the people who want to ban Happy Meals, ban goldfish sales, ban clearing out dead trees because runaway wildfires are 'natural'.  They want to ban everything and use the government to bully people into their beliefs.

    While we can't trust the motivation of all scientists, what progressives attempt to do is frame them through a logical fallacy - if they were honest and cared about people, they would never work for a corporation. Assuming that scientists are corrupt unless they work for Greenpeace is at the pinnacle of the anti-science mentality. I am not buying anti-bacterial soap and any vaccine a a drug company chooses to produce but those people who claim scientists are unethical because they work for Merck or Monsanto are as ridiculous as people who claim engineers are causing global warming if they work at Ford.