Rejection of Science Not Unique to Climate Change

By Keith Kloor | April 19, 2012 11:19 am

That’s the title of my latest post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. Specifically, I discuss the controversy over genetically modified (GM) crops, and why there is no scientific basis for being opposed to them–especially if you care about the issue of food security in a warming world.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, climate change, GMOs
  • Mary

    Interestingly, this just came across my twitter feed too–from the UK:

    Suffolk: Farmer predicts GM crops within a decade as drought takes hold“I would be quite surprised if within 10 years we are not starting to
    have genetically-modified drought-resistant varieties of various crops.”

    When the climate stuff actually hits the fan, the tune will change.

  • kdk33

    The advantages of GM crops are indisputable. They have been shown to require fewer pesticides and less land, are cost-effective, produce greater yields, and can be engineered to contain additional nutrients and be drought and flood resistant. This seems like the kind of technology that would be embraced to improve food security in a warmer world.Funny.  I’m thinking drought and flood resistance and nutritient would be desirable attributes in THE world.  One might even speculate that these are attributes we’ve been pursuing via breeding for some time.  Interesting that it is framed as a response to a warmer world.What does warmer have to do with it?There is certaintly some psychology on display here, but I don’t think it is exactly what Kahan has in mind.

  • kdk33

    The advantages of GM crops are indisputable. They have been shown to require fewer pesticides and less land, are cost-effective, produce greater yields, and can be engineered to contain additional nutrients and be drought and flood resistant. This seems like the kind of technology that would be embraced to improve food security in a warmer world.

    Funny.  I’m thinking drought and flood resistance and nutritient would be desirable attributes in THE world.  One might even speculate that these are attributes we’ve been pursuing via breeding for some time.  Interesting that it is framed as a response to a warmer world.

    What does warmer have to do with it?

    There is certaintly some psychology on display here, but I don’t think it is exactly what Kahan has in mind.

    … with formatting

  • Keith Kloor

    @3

    What’s the psychology on display? The post is about the potential for GM crops to help reduce expected vulnerabilities in an expected warmer world.  

    Absent global warming, GM crops would still be beneficial to the environment and people.  

     

  • Keith Kloor

    Just as an aside, this thread, should it develop, is about biotechnology, what the science says about GM crops, and any rebuttals people might want to offer about concerns or risks associated with GMO’s.

    For once, I’d like to see a thread not devolve into competing arguments about climate sensitivity, etc.

  • Jarmo

    I guess that in the minds of greens, GM is closely linked with agribusiness, corporations and mass-produced food…. all evil things. They’d rather have organic farming everywhere, subsistence farming in developing countries and rooftop gardens in metropolises.

    Of course, the latter are not going to feed the world.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Keith,

    IMO your post at Yale and here would benefit if you spent a little more time exploring the political/economic objections to GMOs rather than the objections which are based on scientific misconceptions and/or irrational risk assessments. I think all of your regular readers would agree that is a bad thing. thus it is uninteresting.

    i disagree with Lynas’ suggestion that there is no basis for the idea that GMOs as a technology will primarily benefit large multinationals in the future to the detriment of their clients. Perhaps, as BBD noted in the other thread, this situation is changing for the better, but it’s disingenuous to pretend that the manner in which this technology has been deployed (e.g. sterile seeds) for the last couple of decades isn’t at least partly responsible (and rightly so) for some people’s lack of enthusiasm.

  • Mary

    @Marlowe: there are no sterile seeds. That’s a lie about the technology.

  • Keith Kloor

    Marlowe,

    I gave voice to the political/economic objections in the quote from Pamela Arnold, which she deftly swatted away.

    That said, sure I can take them up in full on another post, but why don’t we stay focused on the environmental/health objections which arguably drive the anti-GMO movement every bit as much as the Monsanto/bogeyman angle. 

  • Louise

    Mary – are all farmers of GM crops able to retain some of the seeds from their harvest to plant the following year?I fully support the science of GM foods and believe it is the only way to feed the growing global population but am concerned that subsistence farmers may find themselves locked in to buying expensive new seed each year rather than holding back some of the harvest to plant the following year.

  • Mary

    @Louise: There’s a technology agreement for some products–sort of like a software license. But that’s not the case for all projects. And that’s not the same thing as the mythical “terminator” sterile seed claim that a lot of people make. 

    But there are plenty of other situations with plant patents–like this cool stuff Floyd does: Floyd Zaiger a fruit innovator to the world. He holds patents on his fruits.

    Again, many of the arguments go back to the business  model–and that’s fine to have as a discussion, but it’s not the science. If you hate patents, ok. But people need to stop pretending that’s a GMO issue.

  • kdk33

    Keith,No.  Your post is about “biotechnology, what the science says about GM crops, and any rebuttals people might want to offer about concerns or risks associated with GMO’s”.  (At least that is how you would like to constrain the topic in #5.)  It is an interesting topic, and completely independant of climate change.Yet you framed the topic as a response to a warming world.  Why do that?  It clearly isn’t necessary, and you seem to want to take it back in your #5.So, yes, I think there is some psychology on display.  On obsession with CO2, if you will.  You have it right in your #5.  You have it wrong when you start your yale post with “cultural congnition” studies and Dan Kahan.

  • kdk33

    Keith,</P>

    No.  Your post is about “biotechnology, what the science says about GM crops, and any rebuttals people might want to offer about concerns or risks associated with GMO’s”.  (At least that is how you would like to constrain the topic in #5.)  </P>

    It is an interesting topic, and completely independant of climate change.Yet you framed the topic as a response to a warming world.  Why do that?  It clearly isn’t necessary, and you seem to want to take it back in your #5.</P>

    So, yes, I think there is some psychology on display.  An obsession with CO2, if you will.  </P>

    You have it right in your #5.  You have it wrong when you start your yale post with “cultural congnition” studies and Dan Kahan.</P>

    Apologies for the double post, but I very much prefer paragraphs

  • Keith Kloor

    @12

    The controversies surrounding GMO’s can be discussed independent of climate change. But you should remember that my post was for a site called, The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

    That means that every column I write each week for that site is going to have a climate change angle.

    As it happens, I think the specter of climate change does make the GMO issue that much more salient–for the reasons laid out in my post.

  • kdk33

    @14,I think CC has zero relevance to GMO.  People need to eat now.  We have bad weather now.  Crop ranges are limited now.  Pests and disease affect crops now.  Nutrition materrs now.

    As they will in the future. 

    But,we each have our own psychologies. And paymasters.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    I think limiting the discussion to just GMOs (or just climate science) is a bit of a mistake. I believe we should also examine the source of opinions and beliefs on subjects ranging from recent controversies about vaccines, BSE, pesticides and malaria to older topics such as eugenics, evolution, IQ and racial characteristics. 

    Science has been used as shield and sword by people ranging from brilliant scientists to illiterate but passionate partisans. No part of the political spectrum has avoided taking the wrong side on a scientific issue in both modern and historical times.

    GMOs are a vital part of the planet’s future. Doing it right is really important. Addressing the concerns of rational objectors is a very good idea. Making sure that intellectual property concerns are servants to the public good rather than a master is a good idea, too.

    But trying to separate GMOs from the climate debate also obscures the part they can play in both adaptation and mitigation, although that’s probably another discussion. But we should remember that mass urbanization is good for the planet, and GMOs can help. And also that GMOs can be created to deal with different climates…

  • Keith Kloor

    Kdk33,

    I don’t disagree with anything you say– except that climate change will have relevance in the future.

  • hunter

    Sadly the rejection of science in most science areas is by non-scientists. with AGW the scientists are spreading the anti-science meme.

  • Fred

    Not everyone believes GMOs are safe. Here is an interview with a retired Purdue University professor (35 year tenure) who believes they are dangerous. If I can do the link right…And here is a Reuters article that also describes some of Dr. Huber’s concerns about GMOs.I wonder if anyone here is able to rebut Dr. Huber’s concerns about GMOs?  Lets see…

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Why did everyone, including many famous scientists and renowned humanitarians, jump on the eugenics bandwagon? What has reaction to GMOs been so location-specific? Are Europeans that much smarter than Americans and Brazilians? That much dumber? Did anti-GMO sentiment in Europe start with the people, the science, the politics or the media? Why did it play out so differently elsewhere?

  • Michael Larkin

    Just look how you have phrased the title of this post, Keith. I don’t reject climate science, it’s more that I’m sceptical of certain aspects of it, specifically, CAGW. I’m less sceptical about GM food science. It’s quite possible that for some others, their positions would be the other way round.Just because you or someone else begs to differ, doesn’t mean that I’m a “rejecter”, which I think is a euphemism for “denier”. All it means is that I take a different view from some others. It’s quite normal for people to have different scientific views: even scientists working in a particular field do so. It’s just that some fields have become so politicised that it’s impossible to have a reasoned and productive debate. And in the eyes of some, if others disagree with their view, that means they are bound to be as mendacious and obstinate as they perceive them in *all* scientific areas.The way you have phrased the title is broken, Keith. It’s part of the problem. “Rejection” is a value-loaded word. “Rejection of science” carries with it the connotation of “Rejection of truth”. But Science and Truth are not synonyms. Newtonian science was not truth, but nonetheless it was very definitely science, and good science to boot.Science is almost by definition *not* truth. If it were, then no scientific progress would be possible. Long ago, we would have discovered the “truth” about the world and our evolution as a thinking species would have ceased.God save us all from “settled” science–a political/philosophical stance which by its very nature is anti-evolutionary.

  • Michael Larkin

    I put in para breaks in the above (double-spaced to try to be sure), but they don’t appear to have worked.

  • Mary

    @Fred: a lot of us would love to see what Huber’s evidence is. As things stand now, nobody knows. It’s impossible to refute evidence-less claims. We’d love to see a peer-reviewed paper of some sort with the data.

  • Keith Kloor

    Michael (21)

    What headlines are value neutral? The headline, like the post itself, was written for a site with an audience expressly interested in climate change-related issues.

    I can’t help it if some are going to get hung up on the climate change context for this particular post. 

    It should also be clear who this post was directed at.

  • Fred

    A little further web searching and the answer to Huber’s concerns are available.

    The answer seems to be they are not warranted. The comments in the referenced link are very informative. Some good linked scientific articles that address the safety of GMO crops.

  • Jack Hughes

    Greens have a fantasy world where we sing Kumbaya while cycling to our co-operative organic farms. Disease is in the past because we still enjoy modern medicine as well as woo-based alternative therapies. Our hi-tech gadgets arrive in the post – brought to out door by a cyclist of course – and are powered by windmills.Middle-Earth with iPhones.The climate is perfect and static – gentle rain at night and soft breezes by day – except stronger winds near the windmills and very sunny near the solar panels. Snow at Christmas time for the children.GM crops play no part in this dream: they are the spawn of the devil. Technology – boo. Big companies – boo. Men – boo.

  • Michael Larkin

    Keith Kloor Says:

    April 19th, 2012 at 5:48 pm
    Michael (21)
    What headlines are value neutral? The headline, like the post itself,
    was written for a site with an audience expressly interested in climate
    change-related issues.
    I can’t help it if some are going to get hung up on the climate change context for this particular post. 
    It should also be clear who this post was directed at.============================I’m interested in “climate change issues” (what weasel phraseology–not that you originated it), too.You might like to check out the current thread on Judith Curry’s blog (“the righteous mind”–don’t read into that that I’m saying you have a righteous mind; that’s just the identifier for the thread). That might clue you in as to why I think your your post is broken and pointless, and why Judith Curry gets so many hits on her blog. Her posts are rarely broken or pointless, but rather thought-provoking and encouraging of genuine debate. Just like yours sometimes are, else I wouldn’t come here at all.

  • BBD

    I’m interested in “climate change issues” (what weasel phraseology”“not that you originated it), too.

    I’m saying nowt :-)

  • Keith Kloor

    Michael, 

    I honestly don’t know what your complaint is. I thought it was just the headline that irked you. Can you be more specific why the post is “broken and pointless”?

    Again, I will repeat: there is probably nothing in this post that would interest climate skeptics. It was not written with that audience in mind, or directed at it.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Hmm. The assumption that people interested in climate are not also interested in other subjects… interests me… as does this post… as does climate change…

  • Keith Kloor

     Tom (3),

    I know that you are generally interested in the themes of this blog.  

  • BPW

    Alright, I don’t often venture in, but I will. In my line of work, I spend a LOT of time with scientists. I am intimate with the world of grants and funding. I make my living that way as  am a consultant on research equipment.A few years back, I worked with a group in New Mexico who discovered that a fungus which is symbiotic with desert plants is what allows then to grow in desert conditions. They can splice the fungus into, say, a tomato plant and it thrives without water. Is this something which is considered GM in the food world?  I was always of the opinion I was working with someone who discovered the holy grail of food growth. Growing tomatoes in the desert? Bravo. Is this wrong?Anyone doubting my story should Google the Jornada Range and go from there. 

  • Steve Mennie

    @ Terminator seeds are a myth? Jeez, I gotta get out more. You have a source for this?

  • Steve Mennie

    @# 11 Mary that should have been..

  • Mary

    Here @Steve: Is Monsanto Going to Develop or Sell “Terminator” Seeds?

    “Monsanto has never developed or commercialized a sterile seed product. Sharing many of the concerns of small landholder farmers, Monsanto made a commitment in 1999 not to commercialize sterile seed technology in food crops. We stand firmly by this commitment. We have no plans or research that would violate this commitment in any way.”

    Yes, that’s how pervasive the myth is–foodies have been lying to you for over a decade, and the prominent foodies and activists have all been told this over and over by plant scientists. Yet they continue to make this claim and raise outrage (and dollars) with that.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    @Mary

    I admit to being pleasantly surprised that Monsanto has backed away from using terminator seed technology, although time will tell if they continue on that path.  Regardless, it appears that they have achieved the same result (i.e. dependency by design) via  legal means with their ‘technology stewardship agreement’ which “specifically states that the grower will not save or sell the seeds from their harvest for further planting, breeding or cultivation.”

    I think it’s a bit disingenuous of you not to mention this, since the primary objection to terminator seed technology is primarily an economic one rather than scientific.

  • Steve Mennie

    @Marlowe…I agree and I am also pleasantly (but suspiciously) surprised and thanks for the added important context.

  • Mary

    @Marlowe 36: We covered that in comment 11 already. You can dislike the agreement, and you can hate plant patents, but they are not specific to GMOs.

  • BBD

    Mary @ 38

    Am I right in thinking that conventional hybridisation does not yield true-breeding strains? So that in most cases, if the farmer allows an F1 hybrid to self-fertilise and uses the seed, the next crop will be less homogenous than the F1 cross? And that as further intra-crop fertilisation occurs, the desirable characteristics of the F1 hybrid are increasingly diluted.

  • Mary

    @BDD: Yes, hybrids can be different in succeeding generations. So they may reproduce but they might not be the same as the original plant, and be somewhat unpredictable.

    When the corn genome project was published there was a great example of why farmers like hybrids. Look at the images on the right, with the parental corn ears and the offspring of them. If you wanted more corn yield per acre, which would you want?

    But that is also not a GMO issue–farmers have been using hybrids for decades because of the positive characteristics. And they expect to buy new certified seed later to get the same performance. That’s part of why some of us get confused with the “they can’t replant!!!1!” argument. They don’t intend to… But you also don’t have to make and use hybrids. And some plants (like bananas) don’t even grow from seed.

  • BBD

    Mary

    To be clear, this was my point:But that is also not a GMO issue““farmers have been using hybrids for decades because of the positive characteristics. And they expect to buy
    new certified seed later to get the same performance.

    Apologies if I was vague. I seem to be getting worse :-)

  • BBD

    Mary

    On a lighter note, is this not what keeps cannabis seed companies in business?

    :-)

  • Mary

    Heh. I happened to be looking at the Cannabis genome browser recently. I got to say “Purple Kush” for scientific purposes.

    May I also say that knowing your way around plant genomes may lead to fun projects in retirement. And the restrictions around non-commercial, non-food GMOs…well…ahem….

  • BBD

    Madam, as an English gentleman I am obliged not to over-interpret your comment.

    :-)

  • Mary

    @Marlowe: I also realized you should hear from a farmer who uses these seeds with the tech agreement to understand his perspective on them. Check out his post here:
    I Occupy Our Food Supply Everyday

  • kdk33

    Keith,

    I waited some time before making this observation.  To respect your wishes to not derail the GMO thread.  I hope the pause was sufficient.

    Anyway, you have at least twice now appealed to “but, my employer” to excuse having entangled GMO and CC.  An entanglement you, at least tacitly, agree is unneccesary, but desirable in the context of you finanacial well-being.

    Imagine if you will a young assistant professor in a climate related field.  A new mortgage, 2 babies, and momma wants new shoes.  Tenure awaits.  “But, my funding”.

    The perversions in the climate sciences are not hard to find.

  • Keith Kloor

    @46 

    All you are doing is repeating yourself–and personally insulting me, to boot. I would suggest you avoid the latter if you want to continue to comment at my site. 

    I have already said to you upthread that “I think the specter of climate change does make the GMO issue that much more salient.”

    In the future, I plan to write more about the issues surrounding GMO’s. I can virtually assure you that some of those times will include climate change as part of the context, regardless of the venue. That’s because GMO’s and climate change are going to be increasingly mentioned in the same breath by many scientists, just as it is was done by Nina Fedoroff in her AAAS speech. You should listen to it. It’s an excellent talk. A lot of discussion about the rejection of science.

     

  • Marlowe Johnson

    @45thanks for the link Mary and apologies for not realizing you had addressed the issue @ #11.

  • kdk33

    No, I wasn’t insulting you at all. I’m surprised you took it that way. Sorry. 

    I was hoping to illicit a thoughful response… 

    (Disagreeing with scientists is not rejecting science, BTW). 

    Before GMO’s can be relevant in a warming world we would need to know what to engineer them for.  And we don’t.

    GMO is relevant today. Will also be relevant in the future. Whether GMO is relevant to cliamte change is an altogether different question. 

    Sorry you took offense.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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