Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Thursday, June 30, 2016

You say tomato, I say GMO

Between Istanbul, the Brexit, and Donald Trump, you might have missed the hot debate raging in the journal Trends in Plant Science on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Never fear, I am here to bring you up to date. The tiff started a few months ago when a Belgian team led by Stefaan Blancke published an article entitled "Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition"1. Blancke’s team addressed what they saw as a paradox. GMOs and other biotechnologies have revolutionized agriculture—simultaneously improving human nutrition and reducing environmental impacts of agriculture—but they are widely opposed by the public. Bernie Sanders wants them labelled, Jenny McCarthy wants them vaccinated, and the European Union has effectively banned anything that doesn’t have the genes it was born with (so to speak). If so many people from so many different backgrounds are skeptical, isn’t that good evidence that something isn’t right? Blancke and crew respectfully disagree.

They propose that one of the reasons GMO opposition is so widespread is because anti-GMO arguments happen to be intuitive and common sense. We are receptive to anti-GMO messaging because it is in line with our expectations and folk understanding of biology. GMOs seem unnatural (not what Nature/God intended) and disgusting (who wants to eat cornflakes with scorpion genes or chew tobacco enhanced with firefly juice?). While there is a large body of scientific evidence showing that GMOs are safe (in my favorite study they feed miniature pigs exclusively on genetically modified corn for a year 2) and despite economic evidence that GMOs could reduce malnutrition and poverty (1.4 million life years have already been lost over opposition to vitamin-a-producing golden rice 3), anti-GMO arguments make sense on a gut level and most of us conclude that biotech is dangerous and immoral.

An infographic from ecobayou.com on GMOs and "other facts worth knowing." I think we should close the borders until we figure out what is going on with papayas.

Nuff said surprised baby.

For example, consider the plight of the Enviropig. Researchers at the University of Guelph inserted some E. coli genes into Yorkshire hogs that let the pigs digest plant phosphorus. The modified pigs didn’t need phosphate added to their feed and they excreted 20-70% less phosphorus than unmodified Yorkshires. This was an important breakthrough because global stocks of rock phosphate are extremely limited (peak phosphorus is likely within the century and you can’t grow anything without phosphorus 4), and because nutrient pollution from pig excrement is a big problem in agricultural areas. After the initial gene treatment, the Envirpigs were raised normally for ten generations with no ill-effects for the pigs or the pig meat. However, after a decade trying to bring the piggies to market, it became clear that regulatory hurdles and cultural obstacles (nobody wanted to eat the unnatural beasts) were too great and the pigs were destroyed.

Based on an image search of "GMO foods" apparently syringes and food coloring are the main tools of genetic manipulation. I thought this image was particularly hypnotic from an article entitled OBAMA FIGHTS TO SPREAD GMO FOODS THROUGHOUT EUROPE.

But the point of this post isn’t to persuade you to stop worrying about GMOs and love Round-up-ready Russets. I’m interested in the clash of scientific ideas and egos. Enter Ivan Couée, a French researcher from my institute at the Université de Rennes. Couée found Blancke’s arguments simplistic and offensive and wrote a rebuttal entitled “Hidden Attraction: Empirical Rationality in GMO Opposition. 5” He accuses Blancke of framing the issue as a battle between rational scientists and the irrational public (kind of a non-starter in scientific outreach circles) and invokes the precautionary principle: a mix of “better safe than sorry” and “keep the cat in the bag” 6. Couée points out that many of the same arguments currently used by GMO proponents (feed the world’s hungry, reduce environmental impact of agriculture) were also used to justify widespread chemical fertilizer use during the “green revolution” after World War II. Nutrient pollution is now one of the most pressing environmental concerns (and the reason for my employment), second to loss of biodiversity but more urgent than climate change 7. Couée doesn’t actually say that GMOs are dangerous or bad, he just defends people’s right to be suspicious.

I know that percentages can be confusing, but I gotta think yellow squash and zucchini are getting a bad rep.

Blancke quickly riposted with my favorite feint in the whole exchange, “The Need to Understand GMO Opposition: Reply to Couée. 8” He explains that Couée sidestepped the issue of comparing the strength of the evidence of the pro and anti camps and goes on to say that the point of the original article was not to belittle the public’s position on GMOs, but to help scientists better understand why people don’t accept the science. He writes,

. . . we think that comprehending how concerns and beliefs about GMOs arise from untrustworthy sources facilitates, rather than impedes, the development of a conciliatory framework. In our experience, when scientists learn about the intuitive and emotive basis of public concerns, they do not put them aside as irrational. On the contrary, they tend to take a more lenient attitude towards GMO opposition, simply because they now better understand where it stems from and why it exists.

At some level, Blancke realizes that we have blown past the edge of science here. As with climate change and evolution, the problem isn’t with the strength of the evidence—public acceptance is limited by other factors (maybe some group therapy and a PR campaign). His goal is to help scientists understand the general public so they can frame their findings in a way that evokes trust rather than disgust. Feeding GMO corn to miniature pigs for another year isn’t going to convince people biotech is safe anymore than a shiny new climate model could convince skeptics that global warming is manmade. In fact there is a lot of evidence that no "traditional" interventions reliably change what people choose to believe (check out Konnikova's I don't want to be right).

And this is where we get to the all-important question: why do we believe what we believe. I think most of us believe our beliefs are justified by the evidence (otherwise we’d believe something else right?). However, I think that thinking this way overlooks how small our understanding is and how big the systems we live in are. There is no way we can have informed opinions of most the issues we are faced with. Our worldview is not the sum of consecutive rational considerations, we decide what is true with heuristic shortcuts and trusted information sources (family, friends, news outlets, social groups, religious leaders etc.). This is as true of scientists as it is of accountants or high-school teachers. As Bloom and Weisberg wrote in their 2007 article “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science,”9

. . . rather than evaluating the asserted claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim’s source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. Consider, for example, that many Americans who claim to believe in natural selection are unable to accurately describe how natural selection works. This suggests that their belief is not necessarily rooted in an appreciation of the evidence and arguments. Rather, this scientifically credulous subpopulation accepts this information because they trust the people who say it is true.

And therein lies the beauty of Blancke’s argument (and Couée’s too). When you realize that your beliefs are built on the same kind of patchwork of evidence and trust as others, it is easier to accept alternative interpretations and perspectives. In the evidence-based model of public opinion, where you think strength of argument determines adoption, dissenting views are either threatening or frustrating (if your evidence is weaker you've got to change tack and if it's stronger than why don’t more people accept your position?). Understanding that our positions on GMOs, climate change, and evolution (not to mention virtually every other scientific or social issue) are primarily based on intuition and social dynamics takes the sting out rejection and makes you humble about your own beliefs.

A cool Pew Research Center study on differences in beliefs of the general public and AAAS scientists. The largest gap between scientific and public opinion was on safety of GMOs, where only 37% of U.S. adults responded yes versus 88% of scientists.

Intellectual humility doesn’t imply that all positions are equally valid or that it is impossible to compare the misinformation content of contrasting worldviews. Clearly not all evidence is created equal, and not all interpretations are equally justified. For me, intellectual humility means making room in your belief system for curiosity and wonder. Persistent curiosity prepares you to abandon incorrect assumptions and leads you to explore multiple dimensions of what is known, increasing the likelihood of an informed decision. Intentional wonder reminds you of how much we don’t know and helps you assess the strength of your conclusions. Intellectually humility makes you think twice before retweeting or sharing a link that promotes an opinion you are not qualified to evaluate. It reminds us that people will believe, or not, what we disseminate, based on our apparent trustworthiness, and that we are responsible for what we broadcast. Intellectual humility allows us to empathize and love people who see the world through a different frame. Like high-school debate, it lets you slip between belief systems, feeling out their coherence and blur, only to emerge more balance and complete.

But enough philosophizing! What does this mean about GMOs and the larger question of communicating scientific beliefs? Since Couée hasn't replied to the reply yet, I’ll let Dr. Blancke close this out with a couple paragraphs of counsel.

Even though individual people may not always experience a personal advantage by purchasing and/or consuming GMOs, it will certainly help to inform the public that, for example, (i) Biotech corn contains less mycotoxins and is thus healthier than conventional maize; (ii) herbicide-resistant crops require less tilling and, thus, improve the soil quality; (iii) Biotech crops enhance insect biodiversity; (iv) Biotech crops help reduce poverty in India, and so on.

Finally, our approach suggests that people who are genuinely concerned about the environment may intuitively adopt strategies that have the opposite impact on what they set out to achieve. GMOs can be a formidable tool in the realization of a sustainable form of agriculture. By leading people to choose the wrong adversaries and to urge policy makers to take counter-effective measures, negative GMO representations may indeed exert a fatal attraction.

Actually, I'll let the folks at unexplainedmysteriesoftheworld.com have the last word: "So does all of this tampering with the environment disturb you? After all, at least scientists are not creating human/animal hybrid creatures, right? Wrong. The truth is that human/pig hybrid creatures will soon be legally grown inside of the United States. This is being publicly announced and almost nobody is getting upset about it."

1.         Blancke, S., Van Breusegem, F., De Jaeger, G., Braeckman, J. & Van Montagu, M. Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition. Trends Plant Sci. 20, 414–418 (2015).
2.         Chen, L. et al. Long-term toxicity study on genetically modified corn with cry1Ac gene in a Wuzhishan miniature pig model. J. Sci. Food Agric. n/a-n/a (2016). doi:10.1002/jsfa.7624
3.         Wesseler, J. & Zilberman, D. The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition. Environ. Dev. Econ. 19, 724–742 (2014).
4.         Elser, J. & Bennett, E. Phosphorus cycle: A broken biogeochemical cycle. Nature 478, 29–31 (2011).
5.         Couée, I. Hidden Attraction: Empirical Rationality in GMO Opposition. Trends Plant Sci. (2015). doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2015.12.002
6.         Arrow, K. J. & Fisher, A. C. Environmental Preservation, Uncertainty, and Irreversibility. Q. J. Econ. 88, 312–319 (1974).
7.         Rockström, J. et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009).
8.         Blancke, S., Van Breusegem, F., De Jaeger, G., Braeckman, J. & Van Montagu, M. The Need to Understand GMO Opposition: Reply to Couée. Trends Plant Sci. (2015). doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2015.12.001

9.         Bloom, P. & Weisberg, D. S. Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science. Science 316, 996–997 (2007).

1 comment:

  1. I've been waiting to see something like this. Not just a bit of good commentary on the GMO debate, but a good philosophical ground to stand on for fence-sitters.