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Yesterday I tweeted out an article, Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets. The title, and frankly, the story is a bit slanted. I wasn’t totally comfortable about the piece…but I really hate the soft drink industry. So much of our obesity problem would go away if people stopped drinking the stuff. The funding does not necessarily entail a particular conclusion. Rather, conclusions can lead to funding. But, we’ve all seen the research which suggests that pharmaceutical companies do trials which have suspiciously high success rates. And scientists are human beings,and it seems that even unconsciously biases can slip in. We need to balance the tensions and not get carried away by an extreme perspective about the nature of human motivations. Scholars are no saints.

But the ultimate focus should be on the science. That’s really what’s at the heart of the matter. My friend Kevin Klatt, who studies nutrition at Cornell, outlines his own concerns at length about The New York Times piece, Funding: Tales of Defamation:

Until the industry funded research argument is balanced by an equally loud message that non-industry funding is highly limited, those shouting the loudest do little to address their own issue. This notion that researchers seeking industry money are doing conflicted research does little but subtly suggest that academic researchers find a new job or risk having their reputations threatened due to their funding source (no, I’m not being dramatic – go look at article’s written about Susan Jebb). Keeping up with the academia lifestyle is busy enough without a bunch of people who aren’t in your field telling you how you should fund yourself. If you get the time, I’d also urge you to consider educating individuals’ to encourage NIH to fund nutrition research that has been established as a priority by organizations like ASN. As evidenced by the seemingly consistent stream of low-fat vs low-carb studies in the literature, NIH doesn’t seem to be paying attention to these.

What’s a scientist to do? This is a fallen world, and we are of it. Obviously there are cases where the conflict of interest is extreme. But often funding from private sources is what researchers have to do to keep their work afloat. If money was what scientists were after…they would actually go work for their funders.

Second, I want to point you to what’s going on with Kevin Folta. He’s a passionate researcher at University of Florida who works on GMOs. You know where this is going. The Radical Activist Attack on a Teacher:

When asked about my speaker fees I always just say, “Take what you think would be customary and donate it to my outreach program.” We’re talking thousands of dollars here.

In Fall of 2014 the Monsanto company offered support for the program, and I thought that was great. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, my workshops were teaching everyone from kids to scientists, so I was glad to welcome their support.

It never was a secret. At universities, our records are public, and people know where our funding is from. You can probably find it online if you look hard enough, but just ask and I’m glad to tell you about who sponsors my research or who sponsors my outreach.

Last week the public information voluntarily hit the right activist ear, and they went ballistic. Screams of “Shill!” could be heard everywhere from drum circles, to hackeysack games, to the Whole Foods Gluten Free Bisque Repository. After all, $25K is a lot of money, so to most people this was the smoking gun of high collusion they always suspected. Heck, anyone that talks about science must be getting paid off.

Kevin’s been put on blast by activists. It’s Mon$santo all the time. He’ll persevere, because he didn’t do anything wrong and untoward. But now those who are not heavily engaged on the topic are going to have to discern whether Monstanto is poisoning our crops and buying our scientists.

I guess it shows that sometimes the substance of science matters less than style. No one really knows anything about nutrition. I exaggerate for effect, but you know of what I speak. In contrast, we know a fair amount about GMO. But in both cases there are passionate public debates, and egos being bruised and reputations shredded.

I’m glad I’m not very controversial!

• Category: Science • Tags: GMO 
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FileStack_retouchedAfter my post on GMO and its enemies the usual suspects have been on the attack, accusing me of being a shill for Monsanto. The reality is that I’m a mammalian evolutionary genomicist. I don’t work in applied agricultural genetics, though I have no problem with that discipline. In fact, I’m a big fan. And, because of where I’m based out of I know people who work in and on GMO, and I know their motivations. I can tell you that they sincerely think their research is going to help people. In fact, feed people.

41rxx-UtsWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Nevertheless, a common refrain is that objections to GMO have to do with objections to capitalist mass agriculture. The issue isn’t the science of GMO, but big ag. As you know, I don’t buy this. But let’s set that aside. This spring one of the panels at the Biotechnology Literacy Project (BLP) Boot Camp had to do with government regulation of GMO. I was shocked by the greatly increased regulatory hurdles that GMO face in comparison to more traditional techniques (it’s analogous to what gene therapy studies have to go through).* This enormous overhead imposed by regulation means that small operations, in particular academic laboratories, can’t do viable research on GMO that can get funded. Though CRISPR technology opens up myriad possibilities of modification of food plants studied by a few labs here and there, no researcher can devote the resources necessary to jump through all the hoops placed in front of this work.

Which type of operations can handle this regulatory straight-jacket? You guessed it: Monsanto. That explains one reason so many mass production crops are GMO. That’s big ag’s bread & butter. So will anti-GMO activists, who are concerned with industrial agriculture, and not the genetic technology, argue for changing the regulations to make academic research more viable and accessible for small and medium sized labs? To my knowledge no one in that community is pushing for this.

* If you engage in some Google punditry you’ll encounter documents which suggest that GMO research approval is easier in the USA than elsewhere. This is true. But, from talking to those who work in the field it’s still a big haul for a normal sized laboratory.

• Category: Science • Tags: GMO 
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Over at Slate Will Saletan has a very long piece Unhealthy Fixation: The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer. The survey is useful if you are unfamiliar with the topic, though it will be sadly familiar to the rest of us. Saletan makes two observations which I think need highlighting. First, he asserts that “the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies.” Basically it’s a shell game, and the reason is that those who oppose GMO obfuscate the fundamental roots of their objections (consciously or subconsciously). Saletan notes:

Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.

The concrete and coherent objection to GMO which lies just under the surface of the arguments put forward by activist groups like Greenpeace is that the technology is part of the agricultural-industrial complex. But as many have observed, if the problem with GMO is their connection to big agriculture, then why aren’t the arguments simply recycled from those used against industrial agriculture? There are two dynamics at work. First, there is broad popular suspicion of “genetically modified organisms.” Using GMO as a hook, and engaging in FUD, is more effective than arguing against corporate agriculture. Second, as Saletan implies in the piece, even anti-corporate considerations aside there are genuine concerns rooted in the idea that there is something “wrong” with genetically modifying organisms (in fact, with the emergence of cheap CRISPR, we’re potentially at the precipice of a revolution of small scale agricultural innovation, though right now it is unlikely to happen because of regulation).

This sentiment is very broad, and, it is not ideological. Or at least it wasn’t as of 2006, when the EATGM question on for the GSS was put to over 900 respondents. It asks:

Which statement best describes your own view about eating foods that have been genetically modified? 1. I don’t care whether the food I eat has been genetically modified. 2. I am willing to eat genetically modified foods, but would prefer unmodified foods if they are available. 3. I will not eat food that I know has been genetically modified.

The results:

Screenshot from 2015-07-18 16:02:54

As you can see, there’s no ideological difference. The slightly greater skepticism of Democrats can probably be attributed to socioeconomic variables. The less educated, the poorer, and women, are all more skeptical of GMO on the whole. These are groups more well represented among Democrats, and some of these are the most liable to vote and identify Democrat despite not being particularlly socially liberal (e.g., poorer minorities).

gmo1 But that’s nearly 10 years ago. I’m not sure that the lack of ideological polarization will be so evident now. As documented by Saletan, and earlier in Slate by my friend Keith Kloor, the really high octane activists and public intellectuals behind the anti-GMO push are on the cultural Left. Last year Oregon had a GMO food labeling ballot measure. It lost narrowly. But as you can see in the scatter plot to the left there is a very tight correlation between a county being Democratic and favoring labeling. Second, there was an earlier attempt to pass such a ballot measure in 2002. It was destroyed at the polls. If trends continue it seems entirely likely that labeling will succeed in Oregon in the next go around. Americans intuitively are biased toward transparency as a good.

Screenshot from 2015-07-18 16:22:39 The fact is that the majority of the public remains skeptical of GMO foods. And large majorities support labeling. Which prompts one to ask: why did the labeling measures not pass in Oregon and California? I think the critical aspect here is that attitudes of skepticism toward GMO are wide but shallow beliefs. Only a small minority of the population has very strong views on the topic. Those opposed who have very strong opinions and engage in activism on the topic tend to come from the liberal intelligentsia. Anyone who has been involved in science and policy around this topic (I have friends who work on GMO crops) will vouch for this. Similarly, those enthusiastic about the potential of GMO tend to be a small number of plant scientists (who also, are be politically liberal on the whole, as they are mostly academics). It is true that large agricultural firms are notionally pro-GMO, but here’s the reality: big ag is making money, it doesn’t need GMO. In fact, because of public sentiment and preference big ag naturally sees organic labeling as a profit center! The regulations are such that really only large firms have the resources to overcome the hurdles put in front of research in this area in terms of safety and oversight.

DescartesBaby Once the issue of GMO become salient, as in the ballot measures here on the West coast, then people become more cautious. Anti-labeling arguments start to be more persuasive, and those with business interests that might intersect with agriculture might come to different opinions, as the precautionary principle starts cutting in other directions. GMO has not become culturally polarizing. Yet. Most peoples’ opinions are inchoate and instinctive. I believe they derive from folk biological intuitions about essences. Ultimately it’s about the fact that people don’t understand genes in any prosaic sense, but they think that they’re somehow magically involved in the nexus of who we are in a deep and fundamental sense. That’s why the translocation of fish genes into tomato is so uncomfortable for people; they imagine that the essence of the fish is somehow being mixed with the essence of the tomato, and that just feels wrong. Genophobia of this sort is comprehensible in a cognitive anthropological framework. Just as we are likely wired for Creationism, I think we’re wired for being very skeptical of the concept of GMO, because of the implicit connotations of muddling categories which we view was fundamental. And, just like Creationism, we can overcome these deep intuitions. Much of natural science in the modern world consists of overcoming and updating of deep intuitions.

410tL5IwqTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_ But, the deep intuitions can be harnessed toward political movements. In the United States Creationism is not just a sentiment and intuition, but a formalized social-political project which fuses some elite suspicions of scientific naturalism with populist skepticism of common descent. Modern Creationism has a particular intellectual pedigree, but it works with the raw material of gut human feeling. Creationist sentiment is old, as old as our species. But Creationism as a potent political movement is new, and its affiliation with the edges of American conservatism is actually a feature of the past generation. It has a history of how it got from where it was, to how it got to where it is. In American Grace Robert Putnam and David Campbell report data that political and religious affiliation co-vary and influence each other (with the former often effecting the latter!).

I am mildly optimistic that this will not happen with GMO, and that is because scientists are anti-anti-GMO, and, politically liberal. It seems very likely that a GMO food labeling measure will pass in the near future. And I believe that this will galvanize a backlash among scientists on the whole. Something similar happens on the Right with Creationism. Whenever the movement actually scores a victory, elite Republicans, who invariably accept the science of evolutionary biology, become alarmed and roll back gains made by Creationists. Unlike evolution, GMO are not just abstractions in a laboratory. When GMO becomes pervasive enough, or at least the knowledge of how pervasive they are becomes more common, then the public will likely make peace with their reservations, just as they have with in vitro fertilization.

• Category: Science • Tags: Genophobia, GMO 
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41rxx-UtsWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are a topic I have some interest in, even though I don’t talk about it much. That’s partly because I’m a genetically modified organism; on the order of 8% of my genome was inserted by viruses. More importantly a moral panic about GMO is currently an obstacle to their utilization in full. Yes, GMO are in corn and soybean, but their application is constrained by explicit and implicit bars. Of course these constraints are quite popular. This is why Chipotle is removing GMO from their food. It’s a matter of capitalism, not science or health.

Often when you drill down to it fear of GMO come down to two issues. First, there is the “wisdom of repugnance.” People who are not aware of how common horizontal gene transfer in the natural world is are frightened by the idea of “fish genes in tomatoes.” How about snake genomes in cow? That is not something man hath wrought. Then there is the issue of corporations and monoculture. But this is not a necessary function of GMOs. Organics are very popular with corporations because they can charge a premium through price discrimination (the poor can’t afford organics, while the upper middle class will pay more for them). And monocultures in food production has been an issue which goes back at the latest to the Irish potato famine. Well before transgenics of the scientific sort.

I was curious about opinions about GMO in the General Social Survey. I found the variable TOMATOES. It states: “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do. (Is that true or false?)”

The correct answer is obviously false. But I was curious what proportion of the population would answer “true.” Here are some demographics….

True %
Sex Male 28.3
Female 31.9
Highest level of education Less than HS 48.6
High School 33.4
Junior College 36.3
Bachelor 18.1
Graduate 17.6
Political ideology Liberal 26.8
Moderate 33.3
Conservative 28.3
Belief about nature of God Atheist 25.2
Agnostic 23.2
Believe in higher power 20.5
Believe in God sometimes 30.1
Believe with some doubts 34.6
Know God exists 31.8
Belief about nature of Bible Word of God 38
Inspired word of God 31.3
Book of fables 18.2
Age 35 and under 34.5
35 to 64 24.7
65 and over 40.8
Correct number on vocab test 0 to 4 59.1
5 41.5
6 40.7
7 28.6
8 13.6
9 to 10 7.1

I decided to check these variables against a logit regression. The results are as so:

Logit Coefficients Test That Each Coefficient = 0
B SE(B) Exp(B) T-statistic Probability
WORDSUM 0.413 0.099 1.511 4.173 0
DEGREE 0.226 0.15 1.254 1.504 0.134
SEX -0.841 0.367 0.431 -2.291 0.023
POLVIEWS 0.063 0.127 1.065 0.491 0.624
BIBLE -0.068 0.242 0.934 -0.28 0.779
GOD -0.076 0.145 0.926 -0.525 0.6
AGE -0.003 0.01 0.997 -0.258 0.796
Constant -0.433 1.406 0.649 -0.308 0.759

The big variable here that remains very significant is WORDSUM. The score on a vocabulary test from 0 to 10 which has a correlation with general intelligence of 0.71. Perhaps only the intelligent can really comprehend or understand this question? Looking at the descriptive results above it shouldn’t be surprising. The educational gap turns out to mostly be explained by WORDSUM. If your remove WORDSUM then DEGREE becomes a very big deal.

Note: the question was asked in 2010, and the sample size was on the order of 1,000 (depends on the crossing variable). Also, I understand some people will claim that the question is priming respondents and confusing people with minimal science understanding. I would suggest you’d get confused if you aren’t very smart or thoughtful. Or, you think “genes” are unnatural and the reason we can’t have nice things.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Genetically Modified Foods, GMO 
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The title comes from a result in a survey commissioned by the department of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State. I’ve highlighted the response in the context of others. The issue here is that about the same proportion of the public also supports mandatory labelling of “genetically modified organisms” (GMO). This can be parsed in numerous ways. One common tack, even accepted by many scientists who reject the fear of GMO, is that the public has a right to know what is in its food as a matter of principle. But what if we put the proposition forward that the public has the right to know what quantity of DNA was in its food? I think perhaps many who make the argument that the public have the “right to know” might acknowledge that this is not an absolute right, and that there isn’t something in our “Natural Rights” that includes food labelling. The reality is that if the public has a right to know, we still have to delimit what it has the right to know (there are many facets and aspects of food production).

A major problem when addressing GMO is that many people deny that the GMO element as such is the issue at the heart of the debate. Rather, they suggest that the public has the “right to know.” Or, the problem is agribusiness. Or intellectual property. And so forth. But from what I have seen and heard much of this is an artful dodge when you corner people and smoke out the true concerns. The reality is that GMO makes people uncomfortable, and that discomfort is to a great extent not predicated on a rational basis. Therefore they appeal to other avenues of objection which can give their intuition a solid basis of argumentation. That’s fine as far as to goes, but let’s be clear and honest that the major elephant in the room is the “wisdom of repugnance.”

• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: GMO 
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Golden Rice

Golden Rice

The two major issues where liberals in the United States get tagged as “denialist” or “anti-science” is on vaccination and GMO. A major problem with this thesis though is that in aggregate the social science doesn’t support this. I’ve used the GSS to check on GMO attitudes, and education/intelligence (or lack of) are the strongest predictors of skepticism, not ideology. And the best social science doesn’t seem to indicate strong political valence to anti-vaccination sentiment at the grassroots.

But sometimes looking at aggregates misses the important dynamics. I’d argue that the reason people keep thinking that there is a correlation between anti-vaccination opinions and anti-GMO opinions and the Left is that the the most vocal elite expositors of these positions hail from the cultural Left. Policy positions that start out non-ideological can quickly become polarized when elites lead in a particular direction.

The state of Oregon had a ballot measure on genetically modified organisms and labeling. Oregon also legalized marijuana. We have county-by-county results for both, as well as results for the governor’s race. I brought them together and generated some scatter plots. As you can see below:

1) There is a strong correlation on the county level for support for legalization of marijuana and GMO labeling (R2 is just the square of the correlation, and explains proportion of variation in Y explainable by variation in X).

2) There is a strong correlation on the county level for support for Democratic candidates and GMO labeling.

I am aware that not all of those who support GMO labeling are denalists. Some of them are scientists. But my personal experience with those who support GMO labeling (there was a measure in California a few years back) is that their rationales are inchoate, and often not “reality based” (i.e., they are more about fear than anything else). Though there is no strong political valence on the grassroots at this point, I predict that if GMO labeling keeps coming up over and over, and it becomes a social movement, you’ll see it become Left-tinged as people like Michael Pollan start polarizing opinions. Of course in some places, such as Europe, the anti-GMO position has swept society to become the dominant one.


Raw data:

County Yes, Marijuana Yes, GMO label Democrat for governor
Baker 41 32 27
Benton 60 52 59
Clackamas 51 47 46
Clatsop 57 50 46
Columbia 53 45 43
Coos 53 50 42
Crook 41 31 29
Curry 56 52 41
Deschutes 51 46 46
Douglas 45 41 34
Gilliam 41 23 32
Grant 35 32 25
Harney 34 26 24
Hood River 57 54 59
Jackson 53 55 43
Jefferson 44 32 34
Josephine 50 49 35
Klamath 44 36 28
Lake 38 29 23
Lane 60 57 57
Lincoln 62 53 54
Linn 47 38 35
Malheur 31 32 25
Marion 48 42 41
Morrow 34 27 28
Multnomah 71 62 70
Polk 47 42 41
Sherman 38 23 28
Tillamook 58 45 47
Umatilla 37 32 29
Union 41 33 31
Wallow 39 35 28
Wasco 49 40 43
Washington 55 48 52
Wheeler 36 32 29
Yamhill 50 41 41
• Category: Science • Tags: GMO 
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Credit: Puma

There has been recent talk about GMOs and political orientation recently. Keith Kloor has pointers to the appropriate places. The general impression on all sides seems to be that elite voices against genetically modified organisms are on the Left. To my knowledge this is correct, especially in the United States. But is this true more broadly? We can use the General Social Survey to explore this further. It has a series of questions relating to genetically modified organisms. All except one were asked in 2006 (the exception was 2010).

For replication here are the variables:


Column: POLVIEWS(r:1-3″Liberal”;4″Moderate”;5-7″Conservative”)

There results are presented below (rows add up to 100% for each question).

Attitudes toward genetically modified foods by ideology in the general social survey
Lib Mod Conserv
Don’t care whether or not food GMO 15 16 17
Willing to eat but would prefer non-GMO 55 53 52
Will not eat genetically modified food 30 30 31
How much influence should group X have?
A great deal of influence 9 8 6
A fair amount of influence 30 32 33
A little influence 42 35 40
None at all 20 25 21
Business leaders
A great deal of influence 5 4 3
A fair amount of influence 17 17 17
A little influence 41 43 45
None at all 37 37 35
Medical researchers
A great deal of influence 48 41 44
A fair amount of influence 40 43 43
A little influence 10 12 10
None at all 2 4 3
Elected officials
A great deal of influence 8 12 9
A fair amount of influence 44 44 36
A little influence 38 34 41
None at all 11 11 14
Do group X agree on the risks of GMO?
Medical researchers
1 – Near complete agreement 13 6 11
2 26 19 22
3 40 55 45
4 13 11 14
5 – No agreement at all 8 9 8
How well does group X know risk of GMO?
Medical researchers
1 – Very well 33 34 34
2 36 28 38
3 16 22 17
4 8 10 6
5 – Not at all 6 5 5
Elected officials
1 – Very well 3 3 4
2 7 7 6
3 23 28 24
4 33 37 35
5 – Not at all 35 26 31
Business leaders
1 – Very well 3 3 6
2 13 5 7
3 27 27 24
4 27 37 35
5 – Not at all 30 29 28


What this tells us is that elite opinions matter a lot in public discourse. The gap between liberals and non-liberals is not really there on this issue at the grassroots. That could change, as people of various ideologies tend to follow elite cues. This is why the strong counter-attack from within the Left elite is probably going to be effective, as it signals that being against GMO is not the “liberal position.”

Addendum: Just so people who haven’t been reading me know, political moderates tend not to be very intelligent.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: GMO, Politics 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"