Increasingly one can't help but notice the tone of many of today's hot button science topics have decidedly left the realm of science and become firmly entrenched in advocacy.  My choice of discussion is Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) foods.

While I don't intent to pick on Steve Savage, since he is clearly a very knowledgeable individual, I couldn't help but be struck by his recent article which seemed to cross far over the line into advocacy.  Moreover, I certainly don't intend to impugn anything about Steve as anything other than that we have a disagreement on this topic.  

Let me begin by clearing out some basic issues regarding GMO foods.  There is absolutely no doubt about the science.  We have clearly identified specific genes, we have isolated genes/traits that we want, and we have successfully integrated them into a plant's genome.  Unfortunately, this is where the science stops, because that is all that science can do or lay claim to.

Certainly one may wish to extend this argument to the safety of these GMO foods, and it's likely that they are probably safe.  Can we claim this unequivocally?  No. What we can claim is that if the constituent components of the plant are safe, then in combination we can claim "substantial equivalence" and assume that the new combination is safe. Even Monsanto acknowledges that the ability to test these foods, especially on human populations simply isn't possible (1).  In addition, given the long term usage already enjoyed by many of these crops, there have certainly been no overt indications of anything related to food-born conditions and nothing that would specifically implicate GMO foods.

However, no matter how much one may favor GMO foods, one cannot claim that safety has been established in any scientific sense of the word (2).  For those that wish to dispute this, consider this quote from the same article.
Europe may ban the use of neonicitioid insecticides as seed treatments without clear evidence of their primary role in honey bee colony collapse disorder. The ban could diminish yields in the large rapeseed, oil crop.
Here we have a situation in which there is some significant circumstantial evidence regarding the connection between neonicitioid insecticides and honey bee colony collapse disorder [CCD] and yet the criticism regarding a ban is that there is no "clear evidence".  Also note the qualifying phrase "primary role" as if a secondary role might be considered acceptable.

Why should a standard of lacking "clear evidence" be acceptable when considering the safety of GMO foods and yet when it seems prudent that the precautionary principle should be considered given the risks to honey bees, we're told that nothing should be done because the science has established no "clear evidence".  After all, if the argument is that no overt evidence of illness makes GMO foods safe, then shouldn't evidence indicating the toxicity of neonicitioid insecticides to honeybees be adequate to indicate they are dangerous or at least quite risky?

In other words, we don't need clear evidence of safety regarding food, but we do need clear evidence that toxins may be impacting honey bees.  Why the double standard?  

Of course, this is going to cause all manner of braying from those that will insist that anyone questioning at the holy temple of science must be blasphemers and therefore "anti-science", the reality is that we know very little about the systems that we are claiming absolute actions over (3).

We know little about our own microbiome and only recently became aware that even this microbiome has even greater dependencies on internal viruses.  Yet, we confidently introduce new chemicals, never before introduced into the human digestive system and confidently declare that they can do nothing wrong.  There can't be any impact ... why?  Because we say so.  It certainly isn't because we know or because we understand the intricacies of this environment.  We are simply claiming it so, because this is about advocacy, not science.

It is almost ironic that the following sentence occurred:
It is an ethical question with ramifications for global political stability. This is a discussion which needs to happen before significant food shortages occur.
While other posts routinely ridiculed and continue to ridicule precisely such predictions when the topic is human population growth.  Yet, this is still the 800-lb gorilla in the room.  Why is there an ever-increasing demand for food?  Why can't we feed the people we currently have?  Why should we believe that any of these problems are actually solvable given the current system and methods by which they are implemented (4)?

The libertarians wish to argue that no one should have a right to tell others who can have children or how many, while apparently being not quite as adamant about freedom when it comes to determining what you actually eat.  Then it is rationalized away on the grounds that it is "safe".  Again, we are struck by the contradiction that those same people argued against the governmental "nanny state" mandating the use of helmets because they were safe [is that the definition of irony?].

A mini-van is probably safer than a motorcycle, but I don't expect that most people would wish to have a law passed requiring everyone to drive one, because the science says its safer.

So, let's knock off the advocacy stuff.  GMO's are not about science, they are about politics, public perception, and economics.  Anyone can make any argument they like about how unscientific opposing views are, they can rant against activists, and they can argue that Greenpeace has better PR than Monsanto.  

Guess what.  It doesn't matter.  Because despite claims to the contrary, this article highlighted one very important point.  Europe can do what it wishes, because it is a large customer with plenty of money.  The same reason why the businesses didn't use GMO wheat.  It was never about the science, it was about the money.  

The only regret any of these businesses have is in wondering whether going with GMO wheat may have been even more profitable than going without.  Whatever their choice, you can bet it has nothing to do with the science (5).  
"Wheat is not keeping pace with corn and soy yield increases," said North Dakota Grain Growers Association president Byron Richard. "We have to be competitive with other commodities."
But then, advocacy is great.  Any success regardless of how small can be claimed as the reason for being an advocate, and any failure can be brushed aside as due to the incompetence or interference of those that wish to stop humanity from achieving utopia.

The truth of the matter is that GMO foods cannot and will not live up to the scientific hype.  It may be a useful technology, but it is hardly any better candidate for longevity than other means.  In fact, it may be worse since it may well accelerate evolutionary pressures just as antibiotics have done, as well as raise all manner of secondary production costs.

In the end, businesses will follow whatever path they deem to be the most profitable, regardless of the science, and it certainly isn't a scientist's place [unless they wish to engage as any other layperson] to advocate for one solution or another when it comes to business practices.  So if anyone wants to discuss the ethics of GMO's, that's fine.  If anyone wants to discuss the moral obligation to help others and feed the world's starving, no problem.  But spare me the scientific excuses, because if one can't solve the problem today given there is already enough food, then that already tells me that no one actually knows how to solve it tomorrow.  They're simply wishing.

(1) It's interesting to note that Monsanto doesn't make the wild claims that many advocating the scientific position do.  I find their candid approach to the realities of GMO foods to be quite refreshing after hearing from so many of the cheerleaders.  I also don't regard Monsanto as being evil for being engaged in GMO foods.

(2) Please don't argue that no one has gotten sick, so that proves GMO food safety.  In the first place, no one can make such a claim.  In the second place, no one would even know, for precisely the same reasons why food safety can't be tracked.  So, to claim otherwise is simply nonsense.  While there may be no apparent or overt indications that anyone has gotten ill, it cannot meet the standard for "clear evidence".  We simply don't know and can't know at this point.

However, a problem emerges if one cannot be assured that all genetically modified foods are actually equivalent.  This occurs with the addition of pharma crops; crops not intended as primary food sources, but modified to included pharmaceuticals. 

(3) Also, let's be clear on "false equivalence".  Claiming that introducing a gene that produces a bacterial toxin is no different than normal plant breeding is disingenuous.  I would challenge anyone to demonstrate that any amount of breeding, cross-breeding, etc. would ever produce a plant that contained the genes for Bt toxin.  Therefore it is novel, and it is hardly equivalent to other methods of plant hybridization.  Accuracy isn't the issue.  I'm sure if there were a gene for cynanide production it could be specifically placed, but that would hardly render the resultant product safe.

Again, this is clearly evidenced by pharma crops and demonstrates the false nature of claiming that simple plant hybridization would ever result in a potato capable of producing insulin.

(4) Of course, one needs to consider that there will come a time when the problem is not solvable.  Humans will reach their population peak and there won't be any more magic left in the scientist's bag of tricks.  So there is a legitimate argument that can be made that we need to think of those solutions now rather than have them forced on us later.

A note for those that think space exploration is the answer, it is important to consider the numbers.  There isapproximately a 200,000 person net increase every day, so if colonization is to resolve the human population crisis,then this represents the number of people that would have to leave the planet every day just to maintain a stable population.  This is clearly already an impossible task.  [Additional NOTE:  These are the numbers for today's population and don't address any additonal growth]

(5)  So, it appears that the proposed solution is to create a kind of "OPEC" for wheat-growers?  Yeah ... that'll work. 
Though any market roll-out of a genetically altered wheat would be years away, the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) said Thursday it had signed up grain growers in Canada and Australia in a deal that would align the nations against any international backlash if and when a biotech wheat was introduced.