DESPITE overwhelming evidence to the contrary, roughly one in five Americans believes that vaccines cause autism — a disturbing fact that will probably hold true even after the publication this month, in a British medical journal, of a report thoroughly debunking the 1998 paper that began the vaccine-autism scare. says Michael Willrich, a professor of history at Brandeis University in todays NYT

Similarly, according to Dr Oz, the TV host, papaya genetically engineered with a snippet of a mild strain of a virus to make it disease free, causes infertility. This in face of overwhelming evidence from peer-reviewed studies that the papayas, which have been consumed for 15 years and have been embraced by farmers as the most appropriate method to control the deadly papaya ringspot virus, are safe to eat. In contrast, to GE papaya that carry trace amounts of a mild strain of the virus, conventional or organic papaya are chalkfull of the virus. How should such papaya be labeled?

It is the same story for GE cotton, a cotton engineered with a certified organic insect control agent called BT. The GE cotton is thriving with half the amount of insecticide, yet many still view it with suspicion. And vitamin A fortified rice has yet to reach the poor who need it because of concerns that the fortification was added with genes rather than synthetic chemicals that has been the norm for many years. The non-profit Golden Humanitarian Board has launched research and education programs to assist parents in understanding the dangers of vitamin A deficiency, which causes some 250,000 to 500,000 children to go blind every year. More than half of those children also die within a year of becoming blind.

As Willrich points out, the clear benefits to children’ s health is often obscured by the public’s deep and underlying fear of vaccines and genes. “Until officials realize that, and learn how to counter such deep-seated concerns, the paranoia — and the public-health risk it poses — will remain”.

The evidence against the original article of the vaccine-autism scare and its author, a British medical researcher named Andrew Wakefield, is damning. Among other things, he is said to have received payment for his research from a lawyer involved in a suit against a vaccine manufacturer; in response, Britain’s General Medical Council struck him from the medical register last May. As the journal’s editor put it, the assertion that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine caused autism “was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud.”

In the same vein, Oz and associates uses anecdotes to suggest that genetic engineering is dangerous, even though such stories are contradicted by a vast body of data and scientific experience and like Wakefield are riddled with undisclosed potential conflicts of interest.

But public fear of vaccines and genes did not originate with Dr. Wakefield’s paper or Smiths stories. Rather, their claims tapped into a reservoir of doubt and resentment toward these life-saving, but never risk-free, technologies.

“Vaccines have had to fight against public skepticism from the beginning. In 1802, after Edward Jenner published his first results claiming that scratching cowpox pus into the arms of healthy children could protect them against smallpox, a political cartoon appeared showing newly vaccinated people with hooves and horns”.

When iodized salt was first promoted in Kazahastan, it was thought to be a government plot to poison people. SImilarly, many view Golden rice (to be released through non-profit channels, with seed to be saved and replanted by farmers) with suspicion.

Nevertheless, during the 19th century vaccines became central to public-health efforts in England, Europe and the Americas, and several countries began to require vaccinations. Similarly, following an education campaign, iodized salt was eventually accepted today Kazakhstan is 94% free of iodine deficiency disorders.

Many people saw mandatory vaccinations and iodized salt as an invasion of their personal liberty. An antivaccine movement began to build and, though vilified by the mainstream medical profession, soon boasted a substantial popular base and several prominent supporters, including Frederick Douglass, Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw, who called vaccinations “a peculiarly filthy piece of witchcraft.”

Willrich goes on to describe the history of the vaccination movement:

“In America, popular opposition peaked during the smallpox epidemic at the turn of the 20th century. Health officials ordered vaccinations in public schools, in factories and on the nation’s railroads; club-wielding New York City policemen enforced vaccinations in crowded immigrant tenements, while Texas Rangers and the United States Cavalry provided muscle for vaccinators along the Mexican border”.

Public resistance was immediate, from riots and school strikes to lobbying and a groundswell of litigation that eventually reached the Supreme Court. Newspapers, notably this one, dismissed antivaccinationists as “benighted and deranged” and “hopeless cranks.” In the case of GE crops, research fields are destroyed in France and even when the vandals are caught, they are let go.

These kinds of opposition movements reflect “complex attitudes toward medicine and the government. Many African-Americans, long neglected or mistreated by the white medical profession, doubted the vaccinators’ motives. Christian Scientists protested the laws as an assault on religious liberty. And workers feared, with good reason, that vaccines would inflame their arms and cost them several days’ wages.”

Understandably, advocates for universal immunization then and now have tended to see only the harm done by their critics. But in retrospect, such wariness was justified: at the time, health officials ordered vaccinations without ensuring the vaccines were safe and effective. Lack of public confidence in government regulatory polices is one of the reasons that some consumers fear the process of GE.

“Public confidence in vaccines collapsed in the fall of 1901 when newspapers linked the deaths of nine schoolchildren in Camden, N.J., to a commercial vaccine allegedly tainted with tetanus. In St. Louis, 13 more schoolchildren died of tetanus after treatment with the diphtheria antitoxin. It was decades before many Americans were willing to submit to public vaccination campaigns again.”

“Nevertheless, the vaccination controversy of the last century did leave a positive legacy. Seeking to restore confidence after the deaths in Camden and St. Louis, Congress enacted the Biologics Control Act of 1902, establishing the first federal regulation of the nation’s growing vaccine industry. Confronted with numerous antivaccination lawsuits, state and federal courts established new standards that balanced public health and civil liberties”. Regulation of GE crops so far seems to be working. So far, not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment has been documented.

Most important, popular resistance taught government officials that when it comes to public health, education can be more effective than brute force. By midcentury, awareness efforts had proven critical to the polio and smallpox vaccination efforts, both of which were huge successes. For GE crops, the story is not so clear. Although the GE crops on the market, especially GE cotton and GE papaya have had clear economic and environmental benefits, much of the public is unaware of these successes.

“One would think such education efforts would no longer be necessary. After all, today’s vaccines are safer, subject to extensive regulatory controls. And shots are far more numerous: as of 2010, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that every child receive 10 different vaccinations. For most Americans, vaccines are a fact of life.

Still, according to a 2010 C.D.C. report, 40 percent of American parents with young children have delayed or refused one or more vaccines for their child. That’s in part because vaccines have been so successful that any risk associated with their use, however statistically small, takes on an elevated significance.

It also doesn’t help that, thanks to the Internet, a bottomless archive of misinformation, including Dr. Wakefield’s debunked work, is just a few keystrokes away. All of which means the public health and agricultural communities must work even harder to spread the positive news about vaccines and disease resistant papaya.

Health officials (and scientists!) often get frustrated with public misconceptions about vaccines (and genes); at the turn of the last century, one frustrated Kentucky health officer pined for the arrival of “the fool-killer” — an outbreak of smallpox devastating enough to convince his skeptical rural constituency of the value of vaccination.” Hawaiian farmers embraced GE papaya precisely because it was so effective against a disease that could not be controlled using other methods (organic or conventional).

Willrich points out:

“But that’s no way to run a health [or agricultural] system. Our public health leaders would do far better to adopt the strategy used by one forward-thinking federal health official from the early 20th century, C. P. Wertenbaker of the Public Health and Marine-Hospital Service.

“As smallpox raged across the American South, Wertenbaker journeyed to small communities and delivered speech after speech on vaccinations before swelling audiences of townsfolk, farmers and families. He listened and replied to people’s fears. He told them about the horrors of smallpox. He candidly presented the latest scientific information about the benefits and risks of vaccination. And he urged his audiences to protect themselves and one another by taking the vaccine. By the time he was done, many of his listeners were already rolling up their sleeves. [cant say scientists that talk about GE have always had such success]

America’s public health leaders and scientists need to do the same, to reclaim the town square with a candid national conversation about the real risks of vaccines and GE crops, which are minuscule compared with their benefits. Why waste another breath vilifying the antivaccination and anti GE minority when steps can be taken to expand the pro-vaccine majority and we can demonstrate that GE crops have reduced insecticide use?

“Obstetricians, midwives, pediatricians [and agricultural scientists] should present the facts about vaccines [and insect and viral resistant crops as well as the soon to be released vitamin A fortified rice] and the nasty diseases they prevent early and often to expectant parents [and other consumers]. Health agencies should mobilize local parents’ organizations to publicize, in realistic terms, the hazards that unvaccinated children can pose to everyone else in their communities [and the advantages of vitamin fortification and reduced applications of insecticides]. And health [and agricultural] officials must redouble their efforts to harness the power of the Internet and spread the good word about vaccines [and even some GE crops].

You can bet that Wertenbaker would have done the same thing”.

Comments

  1. #1 Office furniture
    February 9, 2011

    I can’t beleive people have the cheek to complain about vaccines- we are so lucky what modern medicine has done for us we’d be all dead in our infancy

  2. #2 turnipseed
    February 5, 2011

    @nsib

    turnipseed, you’re conflating a single blog, Respectful Insolence, with the tone of public health officials everywhere >.
    ——
    No, I am not. The two statements are completely independent and simply cite two aspects of the science community’s response to vax fear. I have no quarrel with ORAC’s “insolence”, but rather that of some of the commenters. As to public officials, I was simply commenting on what a previous post had noted. How is this conflating anything?

    Better yet, what is your point?

    I agree that a multi-pronged approach may be needed and I don’t see where my comment stated otherwise. I simply noted that if I get called names for posting a ling to the NYT and academics are shocked by resistance to their presentations, then a LOT more needs to be done–I think we agree, so that’s why I don’t see your point.

  3. #3 Ewan R
    February 2, 2011

    One measles rash gives a mother lifetime immunity as well as transfers passive immunity to a newborn infant. DOES THE VACCINE DO THIS? ….NO!

    Pediatrician source says differently –

    Most women have had either measles, or the measles vaccine, at some time in their lives. They have antibodies against measles in their blood, and these pass through the placenta to the baby during the last weeks of pregnancy. Thus, most babies are born with immunity to measles (and several other diseases).

    So yes, the vaccine does do that.

  4. #4 Ewan R
    February 2, 2011

    compared to the HUNDREDS DEAD from DTP

    Citation?

    This paper

    Suggests ~700,000 deaths are averted every year from use of the pertussis vaccination. Vaccinations cost practically nothing compared to improving nutrition long term (which is not a one dimensional problem in the way that vaccines categorically are) (even with vaccination being widespread the paper states that there are 45 million cases and 400,000+ deaths)

    One measles rash gives a mother lifetime immunity as well as transfers passive immunity to a newborn infant. DOES THE VACCINE DO THIS? ….NO! So legions of newborns from mothers with measles vaccine are left unprotected.

    Are we discussing DTP here or measles (which is a different vaccine but no doubt a similar story)? Also – is your stance therefore that 700,000 more infants should die horribly every year (and countless more have a far more adverse reaction to the disease than simply having a little bit of a cough) – wikipedia article claims

    Infants under one are also more likely to develop complications (e.g., pneumonia (20%), encephalopathy, seizures (1%), failure to thrive, and death (0.2%)). Pertussis can cause severe paroxysm-induced cerebral hypoxia and apnea. Reported fatalities from pertussis in infants have increased substantially over the past 20 years.”

    which I guess you’re just fine with countless millions suffering just so that infants can have transient protection from pertussis for a year – after which point they too can run the gamut of death, pneumonia, cerebral hypoxia and apnea just so that they can return the same favour to their kids.

    it seems the obvious solution would be to improve nutrition instead of pawning off ineffective vaccines

    ineffective? 400,000 deaths globally per year with the vaccine, 1.1 million deaths annually without the vaccine – what exactly is your baseline for effectiveness?

    I’m sure I need not remind you of the numerous RECALLED vaccines:

    So the fact that a system exists to pull slightly riskier than wanted vaccines from the market is proof of what exactly? Surely it’s of a market that doesn’t accept overly risky vaccines – keep on digging that hole though.

  5. #5 altın çilek
    February 2, 2011

    I wish I could link to a few scientific articles to address your concerns. But, the links would be far too numerous, and I already have a post awaiting confirmation thanks the number of links.

  6. #6 JohnR
    February 2, 2011

    Hinemoana, PCR does nothing to address the numerous vaccine adverse effects CAUSED by vaccines themselves….yes including death which is why the VAERS system was created in the first place. If vaccines are so safe, why has over $2Billion in compensation been paid out to vicitims of vaccines since 1989?

    I’m sure I need not remind you of the numerous RECALLED vaccines:
    * RotaShield (caused bowel obstruction in small children..yes better this than some harmless diarhea?)
    * Swine Flu vaccine – Guillian-Barre syndrome
    *H1N1 Arepranix – anaphylaxis and febrle convulsions
    http://www.healthzone.ca/health/newsfeatures/swineflu/article/728601–batch-of-h1n1-vaccine-recalled-for-severe-reactions

    Ewan, the only idiot around here is you. 6 dead from whooping cough is nothing compared to the HUNDREDS DEAD from DTP (so toxic it caused death, coma in babies and had to be replaced by the less reactive DTap). One measles rash gives a mother lifetime immunity as well as transfers passive immunity to a newborn infant. DOES THE VACCINE DO THIS? ….NO! So legions of newborns from mothers with measles vaccine are left unprotected.

    Furthermore, since it is malnutrition and not the measles virus itself that causes such a spike in mortality in developing nations, it seems the obvious solution would be to improve nutrition instead of pawning off ineffective vaccines…but then, what would I expect you to know about improving nutrition with your contaminated GMO crops?

  7. #7 Ewan R
    February 2, 2011

    Meh, in my semi coherent rage apparently my ability to multiply by 3 went out the window – 15 deaths, not 5.

    Benignity – killing kids every year since 1562.

  8. #8 Ewan R
    February 2, 2011

    We are exchanging benign childhood diseases in exchange for chronic degenerative disease. Better an “itchy rash” than cancer.

    Benign childhood diseases? I’m assuming the parents of the 6 kids dead from Whooping Cough in California are glad to know their kids didn’t die of anything serious.

    From wikipedia on measles –

    The fatality rate from measles for otherwise healthy people in developed countries is 3 deaths per thousand cases, or 0.3%.[6] In underdeveloped nations with high rates of malnutrition and poor healthcare, fatality rates have been as high as 28%.[6] In immunocompromised patients (e.g. people with AIDS) the fatality rate is approximately 30%

    (to put that in perspective prior to the measles vaccine ~500,000 cases per year were normal in the US (5 deaths, not to mention

    mild and less serious diarrhea, to pneumonia and encephalitis (subacute sclerosing panencephalitis), corneal ulceration leading to corneal scarring

    Mild itch my hairy behind.

    From the NHS wedsite on mother to child immunity –

    Passive immunity to measles, mumps and rubella usually lasts for about a year, which is why the MMR jab is given just after your baby’s first birthday.

    compared to:-

    btw: One measles rash – lifetime immunity passed on from mother to child. No vaccine can do this.

    You sir, are an idiot.

  9. #9 Hinemoana
    February 2, 2011

    @ John R

    I wish I could link to a few scientific articles to address your concerns. But, the links would be far too numerous, and I already have a post awaiting confirmation thanks the number of links.

    Here one though, from a sceptic’s website: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4180

    As for the SV-40 question: I assume you mean the polio vaccine contamination around the 1950’s? It has not been established that SV-40 causes tumours in humans (it does in hamsters but is generally fairly benign in most primates, barring the immunodeficient), or if it is not human transmissible. As far as I understand, being someone who studies plant pathogens instead of human ones, the medical research community is rather divided on that issue. In any event, it is something of a non-issue for modern vaccines as we now have PCRs to detect viral contamination.

    And I certainly hope you’re not calling polio a ‘benign childhood disease’.

  10. #10 JohnR
    February 2, 2011

    The problem I have with vaccines is the toxic list of ingredients used in their manufacture:

    *Thimerosol (ethyl mercury)
    *Aluminum
    *Formadehyde
    *Chick embryo culture
    *Aborted human fetus culture
    *Monkey kidney culture

    the list goes on and on. Lots of “interesting” stuff going on in one little shot that supposedly makes people “healthier”.

    Hinemoana, perhaps you can explain to everyone how in the hell SV-40 virus got into people’s bodies (as I’m certain you’re aware this simian monkey virus has been found in brain tumors and other chronic diseases). If it wasn’t by DIRECT TRANSMISSION thru contaminated Polio vaccines, then how?

    We are exchanging benign childhood diseases in exchange for chronic degenerative disease. Better an “itchy rash” than cancer.

    btw: One measles rash – lifetime immunity passed on from mother to child. No vaccine can do this.

  11. #11 The Other Lance
    January 31, 2011

    California suffered the largest outbreak of pertussis (8,500 cases) in 63 years in 2010. Not getting your shots has a direct effect on you and those around you.

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2010-07-27-pertussis27_st_N.htm

    http://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/outbreaks.html

  12. #12 Hinemoana
    January 29, 2011

    “More people died from Scarlet Fever than [Diphtheria] at the start of the 20th century (30,000 victims vs. 12,000)….and yet Scarlet Fever MIRACULOUSLY disappeared without the help of Merck! (astonishing).”

    I believe the disappearance was due to the development of penicillin. A vaccine for Scarlet Fever had been developed before penicillin – it’s just that penicillin and other antibiotics are so effective that the vaccine isn’t needed.

    “Yet it is DTaP being peddled with snake-oil precision by vaccine manufacturers since according to the CDC “infectious disease is only a plane ride away”….”

    Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis are present within most (if not all) developed nations. There is no need for a plane ride. Pertussis especially is dangerous because immunity fades after about ten years (whether by natural infection or vaccination), so adults are a constant source of infection for children.

    “Yellow Fever, and TB are also plane rides away and these do not show up on the schedule of vaccinations either.”

    That depends on where you live. Places where TB and Yellow Fever aren’t prevalent don’t require vaccination. TB can usually be treated with antibiotics in low-risk areas (i.e. outbreaks can be discovered and contained), while yellow fever requires a vector so often cannot spread anyway (some Asian nations that have the vector but not the disease require travellers to get vaccinated if they have been in affected areas, so as not to kick-start an epidemic).

    “Better to focus on the boogy-men of the harmless chicken-pox and measles (yes…it was harmless, just go watch some old cartoons!)”

    Chicken pox is usually harmless in childhood, but is more severe in adulthood. That has been recognised for a long time, leading to parents deliberately infecting their children so that they can develop immunity –the vaccine does the same thing without the need for itchy blisters.
    In developed nations with good nutrition, measles similarly has a low (but still very present) death rate. This is not so for malnourished individuals. Even so, why subject someone to a rather unpleasant illness when a little shot can prevent it, or at least greatly reduce the duration and severity of symptoms during infection?

    “Yet in 1977 Smallpox vaccine was discontinued. An entire generation of people has not had small pox vaccine and still there has been no resurfacing of small pox.”

    We don’t need the smallpox vaccine because it was essentially eradicated by immunisation: so many people in every part of the world were immune that there was simply no one left to re-infect people when they stopped being vaccinated. Unfortunately, very few diseases will be able to be eradicated in this manner, as most have environmental sources (animal carriers or insect vectors) or immunity that is not complete or not constant throughout ones lifetime (i.e. pertussis).

  13. #13 Hannah
    January 29, 2011

    According to the CDC: Herd immunity is more effective as the percentage of people vaccinated increases. It is thought that approximately 95% of the people in the community must be protected by a vaccine to achieve herd immunity.

    ———-

    Yet in 1977 Smallpox vaccine was discontinued. An entire generation of people has not had small pox vaccine and still there has been no resurfacing of small pox. So much for the theory of “herd immunity” being necessary to curb the spread of infectious disease.

  14. #14 Hannah
    January 29, 2011

    Thank you for the non-stop campaign of fear perpetuated by Big Pharma. Curious how only the diseases of which there is a marketable vaccine are the ones parents need to be vigilant against (even the harmless chickenpox until the vaccine was marketed in 2005!)

    More people died from Scarlet Fever than Diptheria at the start of the 20th century (30,000 victims vs. 12,000)….and yet Scarlet Fever MIRACULOUSLY disappeared without the help of Merck! (astonishing)

    Yet it is DTaP being peddled with snake-oil precision by vaccine manufacturers since according to the CDC “infectious disease is only a plane ride away”….

    Yellow Fever, and TB are also plane rides away and these do not show up on the schedule of vaccinations either. Better to focus on the boogy-men of the harmless chicken-pox and measles (yes…it was harmless, just go watch some old cartoons!)

  15. #15 Patsy
    January 25, 2011

    To Pam:
    I was hoping that you might know what labs currently train computational biologists (and bioinformaticians and the like, as Ewan R put it) for research groups in plant agriculture industry.

    I think I have to change my approach to find what I want, which is 1) depth in both biological principles and computer science/ applied mathematics/ statistics, and 2) crop improvement research. There must be some labs out there that collaborate closely on and contribute to joint research projects in crop improvement. But I don’t know how to begin looking for these labs.

    And thank you for your kindness. I’ll definitely email you about UCD graduate programs.

  16. #16 Patsy
    January 25, 2011

    To Ewan R:
    bench experiments -> building and using computational tools -> looking at and making sense of the analysis results -> “interpreting” meaningful information -> designing new experiments and tools
    A person who can oversee this process needs depth and breadth of biology and computer science/ applied mathematics/ statistics. It is already difficult to find “good” computational biologists, and bioinformaticians. But it is more difficult to find those who are faculty and whose interest areas are crop improvement.

    I’ll explain how I have come to fail at finding the desired PhD programs. As I am searching for them, I come to realize the following:
    1. Genomics and phylogenetics require expertise in computer science/ applied mathematics/ statistics, and some basic knowledge about biological principles. Basic sciences and medical researchers know a great deal about biological principles, but use simple computer science/ applied mathematics/ statistics. But, I want to be good at biological principles and computer science/ applied mathematics/ statistics.
    2. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of biomedical engineering, epidemiology, and biostatistics, PhD programs in these areas would offer best interdisciplinary instruction and research. Medicine is great. But, I want to do research to improve crops.

    Anyway, thanks for your encouragement! I’ll keep looking.

  17. #17 pam ronald
    January 25, 2011

    Hi Patsy

    UC Davis would be a great place to be. We carry out quite a bit of computational analysis in my lab and apply it to rice improvement. Please watch for our papers in PloS Genetics. At least one will be published soon.

    Hope to see you here at ucd.

    Please email if you would like further information about graduate programs.

    Pam

  18. #18 Ewan R
    January 25, 2011

    Patsy – I don’t know which universities run good computational biology courses, but I do know that witin the industry (both in biotech and in breeding) good computational biologists (and bioinformaticians and the like) are worth their weight in gold – as technology advances we find ourselves more and more data rich but lack the capacity to process data at the rate we can generate it – I can’t see that anyone other than computational biologists and comp scientists can offer a better solution to this issue (given that a lot of bench scientists, although fewer every year I think, balk at the sight of a complex excel equation nevermind anything that could be truly thought of as an algorithm) – good luck with your search!

  19. #19 Patsy
    January 25, 2011

    oops “, what are your thoughts on .” was not meant to be there.

    -Patsy

  20. #20 Patsy
    January 25, 2011

    Your comparison between genetically engineered crops and vaccine is interesting. I come from a developing country (Thailand) and certainly think that genetically engineered crops is one of the greatest human inventions! If you have time, can you write about PhD programs which train students in crop development research and take advantage of the machine’s computing power?

    I found your blog when reading about genetically engineered plant research. Also, you are in academia, so I thought that you might be knowledgeable about universities that are active in computational biology of crops. Of course, UC Davis and Cornell are great. But, I don’t see many labs that do computational analysis of crop genomes.

    I have a computer science background and would like to use it to do research to improve crops. , what are your thoughts on .

  21. #21 Pam Ronald
    January 23, 2011

    Jake, Ewan

    Thanks of the thoughtful discussion.

    Jake, for more info on the subject, check out biofortified.org

  22. #22 JakeS
    January 23, 2011

    If the farmers can grow more on their own land this goes a way towards solving the problem – won’t help those in cities who are stuck with the problems of distribution, but I think it’s a worthy goal to increase the productivity of subsistence farmers such that they can reliably feed themselves and their families even if it doesn’t impact everyone equally.

    You’re still assuming that they get to keep the same amount of land. Historical precedent is that they don’t – productivity increases are captured by transnats or local oligarchs by more or less overtly stealing the land that is surplus to the most immediate requirements for survival. Political reform that gives farmers the rights, the organisation and the tools to push back against that trend are more important than technical improvements when it comes to improving the food security of smallholders in developing countries.

    But anyway, we’re getting rather far afield. Thanks for answering my concerns. You’ve changed at least one mind today.

    – Jake

  23. #23 Ewan R
    January 23, 2011

    But that can be said for antibiotics as well… and we don’t stop putting them through clinical trials just because we have long experience with them.

    Well no, but it is hard to see why the RR gene in, for instance, RR2Y soy would behave enormously differently to the RR gene in RR1 soy, or why stacks would be enormously different, or Bt variants hugely different either – I’m not arguing against regulatory oversight, just highlighting that the 1st reg oversight was during the reign of a different president and that in my mind it isn’t surprising that subsequent slight variations on a theme haven’t hit stumbling blocks.

    Making food production more efficient won’t, in and of itself, help solve the political problem of making sure that the increase is not captured by the incumbents.

    If the farmers can grow more on their own land this goes a way towards solving the problem – won’t help those in cities who are stuck with the problems of distribution, but I think it’s a worthy goal to increase the productivity of subsistence farmers such that they can reliably feed themselves and their families even if it doesn’t impact everyone equally.

    If you have to source the seed grain from the US instead, because a US-based transnat holds an intellectual enclosure on the strain, it really doesn’t help much.

    This isn’t remotely close to the used, or proposed models for disseminating seed, and certainly wouldn’t apply to traits developed by non-profits etc.

  24. #24 JakeS
    January 23, 2011

    @Ewan#8:

    Thanks for taking the time to answer my concerns. I have a few quibbles, on the points not pursued further below, you may take me to be reassured.

    I mostly ask these questions because GMOs have been pushed rather hard in the WTO – and having people push something in the WTO usually means that they can’t argue the case on its merits. I’m glad to hear that this is an exception, although I’d still argue that countries should reserve the right to conduct independent reviews prior to introduction.

    the first GMOs (of which all other commercial forms are just variations on a theme)

    But that can be said for antibiotics as well… and we don’t stop putting them through clinical trials just because we have long experience with them.

    While it may be true on paper that you could feed everyone with what is now grown this doesn’t address the reality that we don’t, the political and financial will doesn’t exist to make it such that we could,

    But that’s sorta the point. Making food production more efficient won’t, in and of itself, help solve the political problem of making sure that the increase is not captured by the incumbents.

    and even if we should the food security of the most vulnerable in the world should not be at the whim of the richest – providing crops which perform better for people who are subsistance farming, and for nations who import massive amounts of food for survival rather than for pleasure is the only way to enhance food security.

    These are distinct problems. The problem of subsistence farming is usually distributional. This being the case, the easiest story to tell, absent serious land reform, is that United Fruit, or some local warlord, simply steal (in a more or less sophisticated and more or less legal manner) part of the land currently held by subsistence farmers and convert it to cash crops. And with serious land reform, it is not clear that efficiency gains are required for food security in the first place.

    The other problem, that some countries are net importers of food that cannot be comfortably done without, is a much better case. But even then it depends on how the crops are traded. If they are sold on credit they can end up saddling countries with unrepayable hard-currency debt. Which has, in recent history, been the favoured excuse for meddling in the internal affairs of developing countries – usually to their detriment, as anyone who has followed the string of catastrophes created by IMF structural adjustment programmes can attest.

    When you can grow your own crop and feed your family as well as have a surplus rather than relying on food aid from the US I’d tout this as a reduction in dependence on industrial countries.

    If you have to source the seed grain from the US instead, because a US-based transnat holds an intellectual enclosure on the strain, it really doesn’t help much. Now, when push comes to shove it’s kinda hard to actually enforce TRIPs against a country determined to violate them. But if history is any guide, that won’t prevent the Americans from trying.

    – Jake

  25. #25 Ewan R
    January 23, 2011

    New conversation new disclaimer – I work for Monsanto, the views expressed herein are entirely my own and not theirs, yadda yadda…

    Scott Smith @ #1

    Everyone should worry about what the transgenic proteins might do to their bodies and to the environment.

    Why precisely when they are highly characterized and studied? Is a single amino acid change in an enzyme involved in the synthesis of aromatic amino acids of major concern? Are you worried when you inadvertently consume variants of common enzymes due to unavoidable presence of bacteria on your plate? Do you fret upon trying a new dish incase a handful of proteins contained therein are slight variations on proteins you’ve eaten every day?

    JakeS @#7

    My first concern is that genetically engineered strains are novel organisms

    I think this goes a tad far – they’re the same organisms they were previosuly, with the addition of a handful of genes at best (smartstax has 8 if I’m remembering right) – unless you consider different varieties within a species as novel organisms then my feeling is that you should consider them slight modifications of extant organisms rather than completely novel (this may not alter the rest of your first question, but I am, if nothing else, a total pedant)

    So I’d like to know to what extent genetically engineered organisms are tested for (a) the rate at which they spread, (b) the rate at which their genes spread, through cross-pollination, plasmid-swapping soil bacteria, etc.,

    I’m pretty sure these are considered in the environmental impact assessment (or statement… whichever one comes first and hadn’t been done for RR beets) – the plasmid swapping bacteria fear seems a little unfounded – why would one suspect that DNA which has been integrated into the plants genome would be susceptible (or more susceptible) than any other segment of DNA to introduction into plasmids, and given that the two major traits utilized in the world today (HT and IR) source their genes from soil bacteria is this even a valid concern? Is reintroduction of genes already in or available to the plasmidome (I made that up, but given the perverse ubiquity of -omics in the literature I wouldnt be at all surprised if it had been used with a straight face at some point) a huge concern?

    My second concern is that those strains which are engineered to naturally synthesize pesticides need to be monitored for the pesticide content of the finished product, to ensure that they are in compliance with applicable pesticide pollution standards.

    A very brief look turned up absolutely no standards on application of Bt – as such it would appear, at least in a cursory first glance, that this fear is unfounded also.

    would expect this to happen as a matter of course, except for the fact that several genetically engineered strains were approved for general use during the reign of Bush the Lesser,

    As odious as Bush is (in either the lesser or slightly less lesser form) the first GMOs (of which all other commercial forms are just variations on a theme) were approved under Clinton who was in office for a full 3 years before the first commercial GMOs were released.

    My third concern is regarding the genetic diversity of genetically engineered strains. Genetically engineered crops are deployed by a small number of seed companies,

    GMOs don’t impact genetic diversity available – traits can be introgressed into multiple lines – current traits are available in diverse germplasm within the big-ag seed producers (Pioneer, Monsanto etc) through licensing and to smaller operations also through licensing – I think you belittle to a certain extent the germplasm diversity which exists in the hands of big-ag – it certainly isn’t a one size fits all model, with probably more diversity available to commercial breeding programs than has ever been utilized in the history of plant breeding.

    My fourth concern is economic. The problem facing the world’s agricultural sector is not technical, it is distributional. The world produces more than enough food to feed everybody, so when you have horrific urban slums and barely-fed subsistence farmers, it’s because somebody else is hogging far more than his fair share.

    While it may be true on paper that you could feed everyone with what is now grown this doesn’t address the reality that we don’t, the political and financial will doesn’t exist to make it such that we could, and even if we should the food security of the most vulnerable in the world should not be at the whim of the richest – providing crops which perform better for people who are subsistance farming, and for nations who import massive amounts of food for survival rather than for pleasure is the only way to enhance food security.

    then that story needs to have a plausible explanation for how genetically engineered crops (a) remove or reduce the dependence of developing countries on industrial countries and (b) aid and abet the emancipation of developing countries’ small farmers and urban poor.

    When you can grow your own crop and feed your family as well as have a surplus rather than relying on food aid from the US I’d tout this as a reduction in dependence on industrial countries.
    When you can feed your family and send your kids to school rather than off to spray pesticides on your crop then this aids in the emancipation of the disenfranchised in your country.
    It’s not just GMOs that can do this, conventional breeding can also (and tends to be overlooked as it lacks the wow factor and controversy of GMOs) – and neither of these approaches alone will solve the problems – nobody on either side of the debate should approach the situation assuming that this is what they’re meant to do.

  26. #26 JakeS
    January 22, 2011

    I’ll confess to being skeptical of “greenfield” genetic engineering – that is, genetic engineering that deploys viable specimen in bulk outside controlled environments like greenhouses and factories. I have four main concerns, that I hope the community here can help me shed some light on, since I have neither the time nor the necessary background to go through the primary literature.

    My first concern is that genetically engineered strains are novel organisms, and as such potentially invasive. So I’d like to know to what extent genetically engineered organisms are tested for (a) the rate at which they spread, (b) the rate at which their genes spread, through cross-pollination, plasmid-swapping soil bacteria, etc., and (c) the species that the gene can be transmitted to through the vectors explored in (b). A strain that spreads rapidly, and/or which spreads its genes rapidly and among a large number of indigenous species is potentially problematic, because if and when it is found to have some undesirable property (which will happen with some strains some of the time, particularly when deployed to uncontrolled environments like greenfield agriculture) it will be hard to get rid of it.

    My second concern is that those strains which are engineered to naturally synthesize pesticides need to be monitored for the pesticide content of the finished product, to ensure that they are in compliance with applicable pesticide pollution standards. I would expect this to happen as a matter of course, except for the fact that several genetically engineered strains were approved for general use during the reign of Bush the Lesser, whose regime suffered from such massive corruption as to cast doubt on the integrity of the approval process during his tenure, and the first year or two of Obama’s tenure (since even a clean broom approach, which there is little indication that Mr. Obama is pursuing, would take some time to clean out the Bush-era apparatchiks).

    My third concern is regarding the genetic diversity of genetically engineered strains. Genetically engineered crops are deployed by a small number of seed companies, which means that they risk reducing the genetic diversity of our food crops (the same problem potentially arises if and when a small number of conventional seed companies distribute the majority of the world’s seed grain). A potato- or banana-style blight in wheat or rice would be a catastrophe from which it is doubtful whether industrial civilisation could recover.

    My fourth concern is economic. The problem facing the world’s agricultural sector is not technical, it is distributional. The world produces more than enough food to feed everybody, so when you have horrific urban slums and barely-fed subsistence farmers, it’s because somebody else is hogging far more than his fair share. Until and unless the wealthy are forced to surrender part of their opulence to relieve poverty, there is no reason to believe that adding to the total pie (you should excuse the term) will provide a larger slice for the people currently subsisting at the edge of starvation. A far more plausible story is that any increase in production will be captured by the people who are already capturing the whole of the surplus, leaving nothing to those who are currently excluded from the largess.

    So if you want to tell a story where genetically engineered crops alleviate malnutrition and poverty, then that story needs to have a plausible explanation for how genetically engineered crops (a) remove or reduce the dependence of developing countries on industrial countries and (b) aid and abet the emancipation of developing countries’ small farmers and urban poor. Right now it’s not easy to tell that story.

    I hope that some here will take the time to reassure me on what are hopefully trivial matters of regulatory due diligence. Because with due regulatory diligence, I have no doubt that genetic engineering has gainful applications.

    – Jake

  27. #27 nsib
    January 22, 2011

    turnipseed, you’re conflating a single blog, Respectful Insolence, with the tone of public health officials everywhere >.< That makes me sad :(

    There's no perfect tack to take that will convince everyone; some can be convinced by logic, some by emotion, some only by personal experience, and some refuse to even consider that they may be wrong. Some people won't listen to any source they think is "rude", while others think statements laden with qualifiers are the sign of a weak position. In my opinion, we need a variety of people making a variety of arguments in favor of scientifically-defensible positions, since just as Pamela Roland said, laying out the facts in a dry way just isn’t cutting it.

  28. #28 turnipseed
    January 22, 2011

    I posted a link to the NY Times piece you quote at “Respectful Insolence” and was called a “concern troll” for my efforts.

    I am all for education, and for RESPECTFUL insolence, but sometimes the arrogance of some dismays me. If we only approach the fans of Oprah and Oz with insolence, we won’t get very far toward getting their kids immunized. But that the health officials mentioned in a comment above would be dismayed is part of the problem. They need to get out of their academic towers and realize what’s going on in Oz!

    I have received dozens of emails this week asking me to sign petitions to ban GM alfalfa. All these are complete with horror stories and dire warnings. I replied to some that came from friends encouraging them to search wider for answers, but have had no replies and may have lost some “friends”.

  29. #29 Mary
    January 22, 2011

    I was at a community meeting run by the CDC in the preparation for H1N1 vaccinations. They happened to have held one in my town.

    It was full of cranks. The crank-bat-signal was fully activated. The public health people who were trying to educate were dismayed by this.

    I appreciate the education idea. But I’ve seen what happens when they try, too. It was pretty futile.

  30. #30 Norm
    January 22, 2011

    It’s the product not the process. I still remember the furor over fluoride. As for problems with smallpox vaccines, pish tosh. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to have my hooves done.

  31. #31 Jeffrey Toney
    January 22, 2011

    Superb article. The NYT Op-Ed raised some very important points, and I appreciate your perspectives. Thank you.

  32. #32 Scott Smith
    January 22, 2011

    Life experience is a far richer and more intricate basis for informed opinion than science in many cases. You can keep your ledger on who is a scientist and who is not. It doesn’t make you right and them wrong. As a scientist and GMO supporter, I find it to be ironic that you urge vaccination education but don’t seem to embrace the same by supporting labeling GMOs, educating and empowering parents with choice about what they feed to their children and how to avoid GM food. Everyone should worry about what the transgenic proteins might do to their bodies and to the environment. “Trust me, I’m a scientist” Peter Venkman- Ghostbusters…is not good enough. Education about science and it’s risks enables informed choice. And sometimes, even armed with information, people still can disagree. And as long as they’re not harming anyone, let them live. Freedom is funny that way.