Obama vowed to use the best science in his policy decisions, has he?

"We will restore science to its rightful place". Oh what sweet words. Has Obama lived up to his vows? A recent story suggests that a change of administration at the White House does not necessarily mean that the best science will be of high priority when informing the public.

Karl Haro von Mogel recently posted that a USDA Report by Cyndi Barmore, The Unexplored Potential of Organic-Biotech Production, has been pulled from the USDA website after complaints from the organic industry.

An excerpt from the report: "The divide between organics and biotechnology is an artificial construction maintained by ideology rather than science. A governmental decision to change organic regulations to permit the use of biotechnology could have far-reaching policy implications for global agriculture. Allowing producers to gain organic certification for biotech crops could encourage the development of a new type of environmentally sustainable agricultural production with greater benefits for the consumer."

The report is science-based, practical and well-grounded in science. Why pull the report?

A source inside the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service told me that good science is now secondary to political considerations. Instead of an open discussion of sustainable agriculture, scientific consensus is beings suppressed if it conflicts with the financial interest of the organic industry.

Under the Bush Administration, people on the right wing of politics denied the science of global warming until the glaciers melted before there eyes. Will progressives make the same mistake? Must we run out of water, land and food before we use science-based knowledge to create a more sustainable agriculture?


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Wonderful way to start off your posts! Welcome to Scienceblogs. I look forward to reading more of your work.

Yeah, I would like to know the answer to pulling that report.

It surprises me, because the people he has named to many positions are really sci-friendly. That includes Kathleen Merrigan (who is not anti-GE despite what you hear on the intertubes), Rajiv Shah and Roger Beachy as well.

Argh. This reminds me of when I was doing the required farmwork shift for the CSA I am in, and people started talking about homeopathy and all sorts of other nonsense.

Why is it that so many people who purport to care about the consequences of unsustainable agriculture tend to have such a dogmatic anti-Western science viewpoint? Drives me mad...

However . . . While I'm a great fan of skepticism where it comes to administration science policy, the biotech industry has never had the best track record with, shall we say, honesty. They are represented by an enormous public relations apparatus and solid support within the Republican party. For them to cry political repression is the height of hypocrisy. Just take a look at Vindana Shiva's book "Biopiracy" for a view into how the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service and their business colleagues (at Monsanto for example) operate.

OT: Pamela, I'd be interested to hear any of your opinions about Michael Pollan. I loved The Omnivore's Dilemma, but since then I've gotten a bit tired of his schtick, and I've started to question just how balanced his espoused viewpoints are. I guess I still haven't made up my mind...

Fair point EMJ, but for me the more frustrating thing about this is what it says about the dogmatic tendencies of the core of the organic movement, rather than the idea that the biotech industry is being "politically repressed."

@James: I would say the core of the organic movement doesn't think that having fish genes in their tomatoes qualifies as organic. However, as Pollan highlighted in "Omnivore's Dilemma," the organic movement has been hijacked to a significant extent and the regulations on what even qualifies as "organic" has been watered down over the years. I haven't read this report but it sounds like a similar objection would apply.

"The divide between organics and biotechnology is an artificial construction maintained by ideology rather than science..."
And that's fine by me. The Organic movement is as much an aesthetic movement as it is anything else, and should stay that way.
Actually, I think the best move for the organic movement would be to abandon the Organic label entirely: leave it to the Walmarts, ADMs, etc. all at once instead of letting them debase it gradually. Instead they should set up a private non profit with a new label/certification/set of rules they would have complete control over, one that doesn't have to answer to the USDA.

(drat, I used too many external links and got caught in the spam filter. Apologies for the double post, once the filtered one appears)

But the question is, what is the purpose of organic? If the purpose of organic is to be natural for the sake of being natural, then I agree with you that "fish genes in their tomatoes" would clearly be inappropriate -- but I would also ask that I be counted out, because that's just blind dogma.

On the other hand, if the purpose of organic agriculture is as a means of minimizing negative environmental impact and to strive for sustainability, then one would hope that people who supported those goals would not be absolutists about the means of achieving them. "Fish genes in the tomatoes" is not a reasoned argument; it is an empty appeal to emotion. You need to tell me why "fish genes in the tomatoes" leads to an undesirable outcome.

Of course, I guess that's exactly the problem: The core of the organic movement doesn't actually have any ultimate goal whatsoever -- the proximate goal of promoting an "Oh noes, teh scientists!" worldview is an end in itself.

FWIW, I interpreted Pollan's critique of the watered-down nature of "organic" certification in The Omnivore's Dilemma to be concordant with this idea, i.e. I thought he was saying that "organic" certification was focused too much on avoidance of specific fertilizers & pesticides than it was on environmentally sound/sustainable farming practices.

Obama's approach seems to be to try and please everybody thereby pleasing no one. Many of his decisions or (in)actions can be seen to follow this trend of promising just enough to both sides to keep them from causing a problem while simultaneously doing nothing that actually solves the conflict. At least Bush didn't have any trouble doing what he thought was right even if he was mostly wrong.

Biotechnology is going to be a huge sticking point for those who have fallen whole-heatedly for the naturalistic fallacy that lies behind a lot of organic farming practices. Perhaps it is best to leave the 'organic' label behind - I did like the suggestion of ecologically-based farming that I read earlier. It's about time for a new certified label that actually had 'best environmental practice' as it's main selling point.

By David Hooks (not verified) on 23 Oct 2009 #permalink

When I read Pollan last year, he seemed to have a degree of anti-science bias. In particular, I remember that one part of his narrative involved the development of organic agriculture, and described an iconoclast doing experiments to show how you could raise crops "organically" more efficiently than the more chemistry-based horticultural developments of the time (this was in the late 1800s, IIRC). While Pollan cast this as discrediting science, I thought it displayed a good example of how bad science can sometimes displace or marginalize good science.

Nearby, he had--in the midst of a rather lengthy anti-science rant--one of the best definitions of science I had ever seen. So it seems he doesn't quite understand what science is, which may be the bigger problem here, activists thinking "science = Monsanto" or something.

By truth is life (not verified) on 23 Oct 2009 #permalink

@James (#9): "Fish genes in the tomatoes" is not a reasoned argument; it is an empty appeal to emotion. You need to tell me why "fish genes in the tomatoes" leads to an undesirable outcome.

Fish genes was just a metaphorical example. Bt-toxin genes would be a more accurate one. For why this should be a concern consider Jeffery M. Smith's testimony before Congress in 2007:

In the case of Bt crops, for example, the agency assumed that Bt toxin, used by organic farmers, had a history of safe use and could therefore be handled and consumed in GM crops without extensive safety testing. This assumption ignored the fact that:

- The Bt-toxin in crops is often thousands of times more concentrated than the spray version.[2]
- Bt in crops is usually produced in a molecular form that is more likely to provoke an immune or toxic response.[3]
- Natural Bt spray degrades quickly and can be washed off, [4] while crop incorporated toxins are consumed directly.
- Farm workers exposed to Bt elicited an antibody response.[5]
- Approximately 500 people who were exposed to Bt during aerial spraying for gypsy moths reported allergic-type reactions of the skin, eyes and upper respiratory tract.[6],[7]

Click on link above to view the sources he's using to support his claims. Say what you will about the organic movement, I don't think you can assert that their concerns are merely "emotional".

Okay, but even if I accept all of that at face value (and I'm not qualified to evaluate the truth claims in there), that's an argument against Bt-toxin genes in tomato plants, not an argument in favor of blindly saying, "Natural is teh awesome!"

If the core of the organic movement is willing to consider on a rational level whether a particular proposed technology is a net positive or net negative in terms of sustainability and environmental impact, then why would they feel so threatened by a paper that even broached the idea of whether genetically-modified crops could be beneficial to the goals of organic farming? If you follow the link to the Biofortified blog, you can see that the reaction from a number of organic advocacy groups and bloggers was pretty knee-jerk.

Also, uh.... doesn't it follow from Jeffery M. Smith's argument that the organic movement ought to abandon Bt-toxin, because it is harmful in large enough amounts and/or not properly washed off of food? Because that pretty much describes half the problem with chemical pesticides... (runoff being the more pressing problem, of course, but still... if we're going to take a fundamentalist approach, why is Bt-toxin acceptable at all if it can cause a negative reaction? Because it's natural? Nice. So are poisonous mushrooms. Good luck eating those...

@EMJ 12
Something is wrong with with the sources on the site you linked to. All the links lead to articles about plants with glyphosate resistance rather than plants that produce B.t. toxin. I had a quick scan through the 90 sources at the bottom of the page but didn't see any that showed any problem with B.t. plants - did I miss some?

By David Hooks (not verified) on 23 Oct 2009 #permalink

It's become a modern comedic cliche' to say that "reality has a liberal bias". Can the same be said for science? To hear some speak about it as a discrete something, it seems some think so. Clearly the conservative movement as informed by its swelling ranks of religious fundamentalists, paradoxically, think it does too, and so would like to see less of certain kinds of it.

RT David Hooks: No, nothing is wrong with the site - something is wrong with the Author, though. Jeffrey Smith has a habit of making lots of claims that aren't backed up by peer-reviewed science. His most famous one is his claim that GE soy made allergies skyrocket in the UK - one year before it was even grown! I debunked one of his recent claims about Obama (which would seem to fit with the discussion of politics here) where Smith and others turned a lone statement into a 'campaign promise' that Obama would label GE crops and apparently didn't even know what the original source was!

Thanks, Pam for plugging this issue. It is my hope that with the unique combination of people heading the USDA that not only agriculture could change for the better, but our institutional tendencies to continue the status quo in our thinking.

I wouldn't call Obama progressive unless he changes a lot of what he does. His promotion of the executive privelege/secrets BS of the Bush regime should be enough of that. Virtually everything Obama has done is political - his continued appeals to "bipartisanship" as if that is some magic wand that will make everything better suggests he is either really, really naive and stupid, or he's doing it for the power and doesn't really care. He talks out of both sides of his mouth on DADT, DOMA, Health care (the public option), spits on progressive bloggers...the list goes on and on. I'm not really surprised by this, to tell you the truth. He's better than the alternative, but that doesn't say much.

Ok that 'story' is a 'cherry picked' incident use to illustrate a point the writer is trying to make. In other words that one story has nothing to do with Obama thus cannot be used to discredit him since he didn't commit any of the nonsense dredged up from the annals of the public service.

If you want to discuss Obama's delivery on making science relevant in public policy, why don't you compare him to the previous administration's respect for science. If you do you'll realize how wonderful it is that an American President now stands up for science, which goes far to set the tone for actions that louder than words.


What about the financial interests of the biotechnology industry? Why a double standard? Why protect the interest of the biotechnology industry whose goal, through patents, it to create vertically integrated monopoly of food production whereas organic by its nature is more open source by using available public domain seeds.

What we should realize is that there a political strategic considerations that can sometime take priority over some Mosanto monopoly hiding behind corporate sponsored 'scientific papers'

By "H.R.Giger" (not verified) on 23 Oct 2009 #permalink

Madam, I applaud your efforts and the science you have used that proves we can have our cake and eat it too: that Africa will be able to use the fruits of this science to grow better drought resistant crops. I sure hope so, but would like you now to explain plausibly how GE seeds are gonna make its way to Africa into the hands of farmers there to grow the flood and pest resistant rice crops.

Do you know what has been happening to farmers in India? You know: the ones who commit suicide because they can't afford to buy the supplies they need and can barely break even. Or how the crops commercial farmers grow in India are used to feed livestock in Australia while rural India goes hungry?

Nevertheless, combining the genetic engineered plants with organic farming may well help alleviate toxic chemical runoffs into the environment and reduce excessive water use for farming. That is a great invention: the result of applied science.

But calling such farming 'organic' would be false advertising because 'organic' carries certain expectations in consumers mind that excludes genetic tampering. All this to say it is not as cut and dried as you make it and things are not always what they seem: science papers are sometimes advertisement infommercials to endorse business models.

@Mary Yes but that report doesn't address the full issue.
re-read my post: there are still six unanswered questions of ethics.

FYI see this first hand account report from India on the subject of farmer suicides
it might prove more enlightening than a report from a industry funded think tank.

EMJ: "They are represented by an enormous public relations apparatus and solid support within the Republican party."

Roger Beachy, the president of the Danforth Plant Science Center (Monsanto's non-profit division), has been selected by Obama as chief of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and Islam Siddiqui, the VP of Science and Regulatory Affairs at CropLife USA, has been nominated as Chief Agricultural Negotiator for the U.S. Trade Representative's office. I quess these 'unregisted' lobbyists appointments by Obama are all Republicans' fault.

By whaleface (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink


Farmer suicides in India have been occurring since the early 1990s but GE crops were only commercialised in 2002, there is more going on than Monsanto hawking patented seeds to poor farmers. In reality, a long-term drought plus a decrease in governmental support to farmers has caused many to go into debt. Being unable to repay what you owe is incredibly shaming in Indian culture especially to the members of the higher castes and suicide is seen as the only way out.

By David Hooks (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink

@David& Mary

Exactly the point of the report whose results I don't disagree. But read its conclusion and note that although the report dismisses correlation between GE cotton farming and suicide rates, it does conclude that systemic business practices and socialeconomic context play a large role in long term problems in India: notably the usurious banking practices and lack of support for the farmers not to mention cultural factors as you point out. However the report does NOT exclude the fact that Mosanto style business models encourage and further entrench the debts,dependency and risks the farmers must carry. One of my question to Pamela is how biotech directly enpower farmers in the developing world when the price of the technology excludes poorer farmers and only encourages business models siphon off food production to serve global markets rather than feed the poor-one of the ideals Pamela upholds.

dalani: "If you want to discuss Obama's delivery on making science relevant in public policy, why don't you compare him to the previous administration's respect for science. If you do you'll realize how wonderful it is that an American President now stands up for science, which goes far to set the tone for actions that louder than words."

Sure. I don't remember Bush removing funds for scientific study for nuclear waste disposal that will now put a end to a solution to the waste gather at power plants or new plants opening. Sorry, I guess we are suppose to pretend that didn't happen.

By whaleface (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink

If you want to discuss Obama's delivery on making science relevant in public policy, why don't you compare him to the previous administration's respect for science.

That Obama has better science policy than the clusterfuck of a President before him means nothing by itself. Simple regression to the mean is enough to explain that.

I fail to understand why the connotative definition of organic, meaing "whole", includes genes from different species.

I think that there is great potential for education here, but I sense that most of the commenters are derisive of any other view. That scorn is what leads people to distrust science and scientists in general. No one takes kindly to being patronized.

Courtney, your connotative definition of organic may be "whole," but the thing about connotations is that they are subjective.

And you're right, no one does like being patronized. But people also tend not to like it when people are willfully ignorant, when they ignore information provided, and when they, after doing these, they then presume to correct people who have studied the matter at hand.

By MadGastronomer (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink

The report cited although base on science, is essentially a document used to validate questionable claims regarding the word 'organic'. As many here have surmised, it is almost false advertising to pass off as 'organic' food that derived from GMO. It is similar to medicinal claims of some products. It is a gray area that has nothing to do science but more to do with consumer expectations and accuracy of widely accepted terminology.

The USDA like the FDA, is there in principle to protect consumers from potentially false. SO I think ethics rather than scientific accuracy was the basis of that report being retracted from the USDA website.

What is comes down to: why isn't GMO labeled as such? Then clarity would prevail because if a food product labelled as organic was also labelled as containing GMO then the consumer would be free to make their own choices. I have no problem with GE cotton because I don't eat the stuff, but foods are ingested and become a potential health issue.


Your words prove the truth of my original post: cherry picked facts are being used to discredit a public figure like Obama. You are doing exactly that: dredging up off topic facts, taking them out of context and distorting those facts to draw inaccurate generalized conclusions. The study of Yucca mountain nuclear storage has nothing to do with Obama's position on science nor does the actions of the USDA website related to that position.

dont get me wrong, i believe Obama is/will be a great president and appreciate what he is doing for science. I just want to be sure that the people he hires make science-based decisions.

@ MadGastronomer:

I didn't correct anyone. I simply said that I did not understand something, and mentioned the somewhat vitriolic attitude here. You, sir or madam, then lectured me on what I presume is my supposedly "willful ignorance."

I'll have you know that as the well-educated mother of a nearly-two-year-old daughter, I find this topic to be near and dear to my heart.

Furthermore, I teach environmental science at the college level, and I still find this to be a confusing topic.

I also find it difficult to find anyone who is willing to discuss the topic without ad hominem attacks or blase dismissal.

I was pleased to find someone on Science Blogs who posts on this topic, and I certainly intend to pick up Dr. Ronald's book.

However, I don't need to waste my time trying to ask questions and then, instead of having my questions answered, being blamed for my ignorance. You may rest assured that I will no longer follow this blog.

Seriously, Courtney? You're going to go off in a huff because one stranger on one blog was snotty to you when you were snotty? You may want to rethink going to any comments sections anywhere online, ever, because I'm really very mild compared to many people out there.
And your questions so far have reeked of willful ignorance. In the comments of a previous post, you asked why heirloom tomatoes couldn't feed the world, when the answer to that was the entire point of the post and the article it referenced. Heirloom varietals, while lovely, die frequently and have a low yield even when they don't. GE varietals are hardier, resistant to the things that kill the heirlooms, and have higher yields. If you didn't get that out of the article, I can only draw two conclusions: one is that you are not very intelligent and have poor reading comprehension -- a conclusion is would be condescending of me to come to, and one I rejected -- and the other is that you were willfully ignoring the explanation as set out, probably because you have some ideological reason to ignore the facts.

Your questions have come across as adversarial and anti-science, even if you didn't mean them to (just as the comments of myself and others have come across as condescending, even if we didn't mean them to). And on the internet, there's nearly always someone willing to return a serve like that.

By MadGastronomer (not verified) on 25 Oct 2009 #permalink

You idiot. Exactly how does the earth "run out of water" let alone "run out of land"?

@ RBMjr

if you think of things in the context of agriculture rather than in the context of a whole world cant run out of water type of arguement it makes perfect sense. Of course you have to actually consider the statement a little (and truly, only a little) more deeply than taking it as an abstract statement about the state of the entire planet.

Running out of land - clearly this is in reference to running out of available land for agriculture - ie using all that is usable and still not producing enough. Also factor in that agricultural land is lost every year due to soil salinity and other issues.... so yes, we can run out of land.

Running out of water - I assume you've heard of droughts? Enough said.

I believe this is a case of the pot calling the kettle "pot"

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