‘Chemophobia’ is irrational, harmful – and hard to break
June 13, 2016 4:42 AM   Subscribe

"We all feel a profound connection with the natural world. E O Wilson called this sensation biophilia: ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. That sense of connection brings great emotional satisfaction. It can decrease levels of anger, anxiety and pain. It has undoubtedly helped our species to survive, since we are fundamentally dependent on our surrounding environment and ecosystem. But lately biophilia has spawned an extreme variant: chemophobia, a reflexive rejection of modern synthetic chemicals."
It has become conventional wisdom among chemists that “chemophobia” is the root of many people’s trepidation about chemicals. Framing the issue as an irrational fear may not be the best way to improve chemicals’ public image, however.

When we target chemophobia, are we punching down?

Public attitudes to chemistry: The first national, in-depth study on how the UK public thinks and feels about chemistry, chemists and chemicals
While there is extensive literature about the public image of science, there’s little data specifically on chemistry. To unlock new insights we commissioned the social research company TNS BMRB to research current public attitudes, awareness, interest and engagement toward chemistry in the UK. Our study included a number of qualitative workshops and a nationally representative face-to-face public survey. Read about our research on the Nature website.

Public attitudes to chemistry: Communication Toolkit 2015

A positive future for talking about chemistry: David Phillips comments on our public attitudes to chemistry research and says that a first step in influencing attitudes towards chemistry will be for chemists to rethink their attitudes towards the public
posted by Blasdelb (122 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
In the UK, do they call "Big Pharma," "Big Chemistry?"
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:53 AM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


I liked chemistry in high school. I cook, and am aware that baking powder is chemicals, not a biological component of baked goods, so I'm adding chemicals to my food, quite cheerfully. Must be biologists who say that milk from cows given recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbgh) is just fine; I'd like to see some long-term studies. Somebody thinks it's okay to feed cows, pigs and chickens tons of antibiotics; pretty sure that's not working out so well. There are chemicals that are truly scary, like DDT. I think vaccines, a biological product, are fantastic, a gift for which I am genuinely grateful.

Chemists and Biologists work for big corporations, who assure us that whatever they produce is safe, healthy, will be fine in our bodies, in our air and water. Big corporations/ industries - beef, pork, chicken, pharma, dairy, farming - drive public policy. Big pharma does some great work, but check out that article about oxycontin. It's not chemists or chemistry I fear, it's greed, corruption and big corporations.
posted by theora55 at 5:10 AM on June 13, 2016 [66 favorites]


If I suffer from any fear on the chemphobia spectrum, it isn't a fear of chemicals, or a distrust of science, but the knowledge that science is not the a perfect mechanism powered by the engine of the scientific method, but a human culture, imperfect and incomplete in its execution. I know that natural isn't inherently good, and synthetic isn't inherently bad, just that synthetic gives us a tremendous new source of novelty, it gives us powerful tools with which we will do great things and make terrible mistakes.
posted by compound eye at 5:15 AM on June 13, 2016 [31 favorites]


I really think this is a combination of ignorance with completely justified suspicion.

We have a history of people being sickened or killed while being told certain substances are perfectly safe -- often due to a lack of caution, study, or scientific understanding, and/or the profit motive.

While I call out the most ignorant cries of "it has chemicals in it!" and "it's a toxin!" and "natural means safe!", I can still sympathize.
posted by Foosnark at 5:30 AM on June 13, 2016 [17 favorites]


Generally I read the MSDS and Wikipedia page before deciding if I should be scared of a chemical.
posted by ryanrs at 5:32 AM on June 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


Hammers are scary too (when misused).
posted by fairmettle at 5:35 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


The TV show Person of Interest had a cute aside about the inventor Thomas Midgley in the 1800's discovering a chemical that saved many lives by eliminating the use of Ammonia in refrigerators, but the law of unexpected consequences killed many more by destroying the Ozone layer due to Freon.

Heroin was named that as anything that got folks off Opium was just that a savior, a heroine.

I am deeply terrified of that DiHydrogenOxide, when out in a little sailboat with the potential of a million gallon overdose.

Oh antibiotics.

How do we have a long term prescient understanding of that law of unintended consequences?
posted by sammyo at 5:37 AM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hammers are scary too (when misused).

Yes but its easy to tell when a hammer is being misused. The thing with chemicals produced by modern industry is that 1) everything is opaque 2) we have no reason to trust the industry 3) people have been made sick because of things that they were told were safe.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:50 AM on June 13, 2016 [23 favorites]


"Must be biologists who say that milk from cows given recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbgh) is just fine;..."
There isn't just some hypothetical minority of biologists who say that its fine, but a solid consensus among the people who are paid out of the public purse to study this on our behalf who say that its fine:

Bovine Somatotropin. Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives Monograph (PDF)

"Report on the Food and Drug Administration's Review of the Safety of Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin". 1999. Retrieved 2 May 2009.

"Bovine Somatotropin". NIH State of the Science Statements. National Institutes of Health.

There is however a billion dollar organic industry dedicated to selling fear to consumers who seem to be quite capable of getting the public to ignore scientists in favor of their profitable corporate narratives.
"...; I'd like to see some long-term studies"
Over the last 50 years of research into the prospect and then use of rBGH, there has been quite a bit of work investigating each of the even vaguely plausible safety consequences of rGBH much of which has involved long-term studies to answer the kinds of questions they're useful for. That research was summarized in a review recently here:

Update on human health concerns of recombinant bovine somatotropin use in dairy cows
The 20 yr of commercial use of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) in the United States provide the backdrop for reviewing the outcome of use on human health issues by the upcoming 78th meeting of the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)/World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives. These results and further advancements in scientific knowledge indicate there are no new human health issues related to the use of rbST by the dairy industry. Use of rbST has no effect on the micro- and macrocomposition of milk. Also, no evidence exists that rbST use has increased human exposure to antibiotic residues in milk. Concerns that IGF-I present in milk could have biological effects on humans have been allayed by studies showing that oral consumption of IGF-I by humans has little or no biological activity. Additionally, concentrations of IGF-I in digestive tract fluids of humans far exceed any IGF-I consumed when drinking milk. Furthermore, chronic supplementation of cows with rbST does not increase concentrations of milk IGF-I outside the range typically observed for effects of farm, parity, or stage of lactation. Use of rbST has not affected expression of retroviruses in cattle or posed an increased risk to human health from retroviruses in cattle. Furthermore, risk for development of type 1 or type 2 diabetes has not increased in children or adults consuming milk and dairy products from rbST-supplemented cows. Overall, milk and dairy products provide essential nutrients and related benefits in health maintenance and the prevention of chronic diseases.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:58 AM on June 13, 2016 [39 favorites]


Chemists and Biologists work for big corporations

This is an untrue and offensive accusation. I am a biologist. I do not work for big corporations, unless you are so conspiracist as to consider NIH and NSF as big greedy corporations.
posted by Dashy at 6:01 AM on June 13, 2016 [27 favorites]


#notallchemistsandbiologists
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:07 AM on June 13, 2016 [13 favorites]


Chemophobia reminds me a lot of the trepidation that surrounds genetic research.

I've wondered how much of this is attributable to overall culture war. My quick observation is that many folks are completely fine with science as a purely intellectual, even noble, pursuit, but become mistrustful when applied to real life solutions. Because CAPITALISM! or some such thought shortcut.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:13 AM on June 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


Or repeated demonstration of the "oh shit, we didn't think of that side effect" effect.
posted by sammyo at 6:17 AM on June 13, 2016 [14 favorites]


this sort of stinks of the kind of rhetoric where you make up a title involving "Fallacy" for your opponents' position
posted by thelonius at 6:22 AM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Hammers are scary too (when misused).

For the record, I've cut back a LOT, and have been eating very few hammers these days.
posted by Greg Nog at 6:24 AM on June 13, 2016 [22 favorites]


I sympathize with people that have neuropathy or other kinds of poorly manageable pain. Sitting around 24 hours a day wondering what the hell is wrong and how to fix it must be nightmarish, having doctors that see you for 5 minutes and dismiss you must be annoying, and latching onto any theory or remedy can be comforting. We're still terrible at certain kinds of pain management and placebos are useful.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:29 AM on June 13, 2016 [8 favorites]


Hammers are scary too (when misused).


Please Hammer, don't hurt 'em!
posted by TedW at 6:29 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


I don't think it's so much "Because Capitalism" but because there's good evidence that large corporations and trade groups have worked to convince us that their version of science is correct, in the face of more objective public-interest research. Here are two examples from this morning's news:

Biggest US coal company funded dozens of groups questioning climate change

Faked data and lack of transparency plague global drug manufacturing

If you want a good overview of how widespread this kind of thing is, have a look at Robert Proctor's book, Agnotology. (Wiki link.)

I'm not against chemistry or chemicals, but the efforts of vested interests to manipulate public thinking around the dangers of various products, and their lobbying budgets, means we need to be very careful of what we believe.
posted by sneebler at 6:37 AM on June 13, 2016 [21 favorites]


How is that not "Because Capitalism"?
posted by phooky at 6:40 AM on June 13, 2016 [15 favorites]


> the "oh shit, we didn't think of that side effect" effect

I think that's not so much a "science" thing as just a "doing anything" thing. It's just that science is one of the only ways of doing things that ever holds its hands up to a fuck up.
posted by lucidium at 6:41 AM on June 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


because it's more specific than a glib phrase?
it's some evidence of bad intentions and bad behaviors
posted by kokaku at 6:43 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


"this sort of stinks of the kind of rhetoric where you make up a title involving "Fallacy" for your opponents' position"
This post is really about how when people actually listen to scientists and professional science communicators, rather than the internet skeptics and professional magicians who seem to love speaking for us, we have a very different message that focuses on the value of chemistry rather than the supposed stupidity of the general public. We live in a world that is rapidly dragging people out of poverty by the billion, eradicating diseases, exploring the solar system, farming more food on less land with less water and less soil erosion and pest management strategies that are both more effective and less harmful, allowing developing countries to grow their own food wealth with all of the agency and employment that that brings, as well as crafting ever more cute cat videos for global dissemination because of chemistry. Chemistry, ultimately, is bringing us both bread and roses.

There is a weird paralyzing faith in the inherent evil and omnipotence of corporations, regardless of context or evidence, that is so common in lefty communities - and it is just as cripplingly destructive as the cognate irrational fear of government that is so common in right wing communities. They both turn the healthy citizen oversight that is desperately needed to make our capitalist system work for us, rather than just capitalists, into this kind of mess of loose associations and conspiratorial thinking. We genuinely need an informed public eye acting as a watchdog to keep the chemists seeking to do some good in the world through industry honest and healthy but, like with so many other complex regulatory issues, eyes that compulsively see danger everywhere are no longer actually watching. We can't fight that faith, or the shortcut to smugness that it represents, by simply calling it names much less expect to end up with a public that will help us enact the good we want to do and reject the bad that can result.

What we need are better explanations of what we're actually doing.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:45 AM on June 13, 2016 [42 favorites]


I am a biologist. I do not work for big corporations

Other biologists do work for corporations, and their bosses will sometimes ignore, suppress or deliberately misrepresent their work.

My quick observation is that many folks are completely fine with science as a purely intellectual, even noble, pursuit, but become mistrustful when applied to real life solutions.

This is because real life solutions sometimes require unacceptable shortcuts that are sold to the public with science that is ignored, suppressed or deliberately misrepresented.

I tend to side with the "GMOs can be a great benefit to mankind" because the science appears to be there, but then I hear otherwise intelligent people insist gene-splicing is no different in scope or effect than animal husbandry or orchard grafts, I get nervous, as that is straight up bullshit. I wonder why they're selling me bullshit so hard, and why they think we're stupid enough to fall for it? What else am I missing? What else has been held back or hidden on the topic?

I'm thinking of corporate pushback against tobacco regulation, I'm thinking of instances where drug companies fudged the research and people died as a result (Vioxx in particular, that was a nasty mess.)

When discussing a new additive to food, or a self-perpetuating change to our system of food production, I would really like a huge, long list of worst-case scenarios and potential problems, and studies that demonstrate due diligence was taken in showing they weren't likely to be problems, or that mitigations can be quickly put in place in case there are.

When I hear someone get all self-righteous about a "war on science" or "chemophobia" I would like to remind them of leaded gasoline, thalidomide and hydrogenated fats.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:51 AM on June 13, 2016 [33 favorites]


I have Limited Liability Phobia.
posted by srboisvert at 6:53 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


How is that not "Because Capitalism"?

"because Capitalism" is bullying rhetoric intended to minimize and belittle
It's like calling serious and substantive objections "whining"
posted by thelonius at 6:56 AM on June 13, 2016 [7 favorites]



"because Capitalism" is bullying rhetoric intended to minimize and belittle
It's like calling serious and substantive objections "whining"


That's kind of the whole point. I called it an intellectual shortcut that allows people to instantly write off views, in this case, the notion of applied chemistry. Expounding upon the idea with "greed, corporations, corruption", etc. doesn't balance anything out. It remains a shortcut.


When I hear someone get all self-righteous about a "war on science" or "chemophobia" I would like to remind them of leaded gasoline, thalidomide and hydrogenated fats.


I'm reminded of what has happened to leaded gasoline, thalidomide and hydrogenated fats.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:12 AM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hydrogenated fats

Non- scientist and Omahan Phil Sokoloff, who had a heart attack when young, developed a national organization to aggressive promote replacing animal fats with trans fats because he was convinced the former caused his heart attack?
posted by maxsparber at 7:18 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'm reminded of what has happened to leaded gasoline

The lead spread through the atmosphere and settled into the ground, particularly in urban areas, which means, years after its outlawing, that it is unsafe for us to grow potatoes in our garden.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:23 AM on June 13, 2016 [13 favorites]


If you have a discussion with a global warming skeptic, one who's not a complete loon, you will basically hear the same arguments as in this thread, only with "distrust of government" replacing "distrust of corporations." They don't really know it's wrong, but scientists sure are wrong a lot and the system doesn't give the government incentives not to assert a crisis that needs regulation and taxes.

I don't think these concerns are equivalent but they are similar.
posted by mark k at 7:37 AM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


The scientific community describes chemophobia as a ‘non-clinical prejudice’ like homophobia or xenophobia

What amazingly noxious and counterproductive rhetoric.

From the Scientific American blog:

The dihydrogen monoxide joke punches down, in other words. It mocks people for not having had access to a good education. And the fact that many of its practitioners use it in order to belittle utterly valid environmental concerns, in the style of (for instance) Penn Jillette, makes it all the worse

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:39 AM on June 13, 2016 [21 favorites]


"I tend to side with the "GMOs can be a great benefit to mankind" because the science appears to be there, but then I hear otherwise intelligent people insist gene-splicing is no different in scope or effect than animal husbandry or orchard grafts, I get nervous, as that is straight up bullshit. I wonder why they're selling me bullshit so hard, and why they think we're stupid enough to fall for it? What else am I missing? What else has been held back or hidden on the topic?"
I genetically modify bacteria and their phages (bacterial viruses) for a living as a part of efforts to better understand them and how they tick. I do it because I want us to use these phages to replace antibiotics as they become increasingly ineffective in the face of resistance as well as treat infections that antibiotics were never effective against. I have never taken a corporate paycheck, though I might sometime in the future under the right circumstances because I want my work to actually mean something for real patients, and have no meaningful financial connection to any agribusiness concerns. So when I use this analogy, I can tell you straight up that it is not because I think you're stupid, but because I think I can walk you through why I think the analogy is not at all bullshit as a result of my professional experience.

As powerful as genetic engineering is, it has a hell of a lot of functional limitations. When thinking about the danger involved in creating creatures with novel genetic information, I see pretty direct parallels between my frustrations and the plausible effects my efforts can have and the frustrations and plausible products of animal and plant breeders who don't use molecular tools. Life on Earth can only exist in a form abundant enough for us to see much less use if it is already beautifully and delicately wired for survival, and just about any modification that has meaningful effects on a critter ends up being incompatible with life unless the system is understood well enough to tinker with it intricately enough to engineer pretty much exactly the effect we want. For me, this leads to endless frustration when death ends up as a pretty uninteresting phenotype to study, but for both breeders who do use molecular techniques and breeders who don't it just ends up being a frustration requiring either more understanding or more attempts. The potential for unintended effects are largely identical so long as obvious concerns that we figured out how to address in the 70s like engineering with allergens are considered. Even on an environmental scale, breeding sugarcane to resist the Sugarcane smut fungus without recombinant techniques will cause more sugarcane to be grown in sensitive wetland areas, use a fuck ton more water, and cause more some relatively nasty pesticides to be sprayed in generally vulnerable areas in the same way that recombinant sugar beets will help much more environmentally friendly sugar beets compete sugarcane off the market.

If what you are worried about is hypothetical intentionally negative results, like recombinant bioweapons or sabotage, genetic engineering wouldn't really be a good tool for that. For a bioweapon intended for use against humans or crops to be conceivably useful it ideally needs high infectivity, high virulence, no available countermeasures, and availability of an effective and efficient delivery system. That way a weapon for use against humans can be used as an area denial system, like landmines but somehow even worse, to prevent infantry from occupying or traveling through a location. Genetic engineering wouldn't really be a good tool for helping with any of these things because they are the result of hideously complex emergent systems we couldn't hope to directly manipulate in a 'productive' way. Older breeding techniques would be far more useful. For better or worse, both the United States and the Soviet Union perfected the destructiveness of bioweapon technology against both humans and crops well past the horrific point where it could ever conceivably be 'improved' in the 70s with a collection of terrifying bacteria and viruses. Since then the only work that has been done with bioweapons has been on countermeasures against them, which idealistically would be for defensive purposes and cynically would only make their deployment more useful.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:43 AM on June 13, 2016 [28 favorites]


"because Capitalism" is bullying rhetoric

That's exactly what the big kids always said when they took my lunch
posted by beerperson at 7:49 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


Mod note: Blasdelb, you made the post -- give it a chance to breathe and let others comment without threadsitting to steer the conversation.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 7:51 AM on June 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


That's kind of the whole point. I called it an intellectual shortcut that allows people to instantly write off views, in this case, the notion of applied chemistry. Expounding upon the idea with "greed, corporations, corruption", etc. doesn't balance anything out. It remains a shortcut.

Are you actually, seriously advocating for the position that there is not long-term historical evidence of harmful errors in the application of technology to the natural world, often accompanied by frantic industry attempts to minimize evidence of the harm as it emerges?

You can't be advocating that.

People feel instinctively their vulnerability to the poisoning of their environment. Not everyone is sophisticated enough to develop complex models of the interactions of corporations, government, and science that will allow them a reasonable assessment of the dangers of any particular technological development. But they are not being paranoid when they recognize that men in white coats have, historically, carelessly done some serious harm and then tried to evade responsibility. It took decades to force acknowledgement by corporate-employed scientists and doctors that tobacco is carcinogenic ("not a cough in a carload"). Industry is still putting forth scientists to oppose the very notion of climate change. Babies were born with horrific birth defects while men were left to suffer through the agonizing stages of syphilis untreated. If it embarrasses you to have to acknowledge science's mixed record, especially when the profit motive comes into play, the solution is not to get mad at people who have memories.
posted by praemunire at 8:07 AM on June 13, 2016 [20 favorites]


Plastics are doing wonderful things to and for oceanic biota micro and macro, agreed ?

And, as we all know, testing for side effects of new compounds is incredibly rigorous and thorough.
posted by y2karl at 8:15 AM on June 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


I bristle at having my rational concerns described as a phobia.

There are things in this world that can kill me due to allergies. I am very good at avoiding them. But when tomatoes (for example) are being engineered with genetic components from completely unrelated things, I have a fundamental right to know about it. We don't know what the specific allergic triggers are in things, so we don't know the risk of transferring those triggers unintentionally along with the desired genetic engineering goals. So wanting GMO labelling isn't phobic, it is rational.

As others have mentioned, there is a long history of disinformation, obfuscation, and outright lying by "big chemical." In this context, caution is rational.

Bhopal India is a rational reason for being reluctant to permit large chemical factories to move next door.

Superfund sites throughout the U.S. are a rational reason for distrust.

"Phobia" is infuriatingly dismissive.
posted by yesster at 8:21 AM on June 13, 2016 [18 favorites]


Not particularly upset about GMOs or applied chemistry but more with the punching down of straw humans. Right outside my favorite coffee shop are the caps of EPA test wells in the sidewalk because the building it is in sits atop a brownfield from the gas station that used to be there.
posted by y2karl at 8:23 AM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Leaded gasoline and thalidomide are both great arguments for more chemists in the employ of public regulatory agencies.

I'm sympathetic to people who have a fear of what the chemical industry does, because there are certainly no shortage of high-profile instances of industry allowing toxic chemicals to slowly poison people because to do the right thing would be unprofitable. DuPont's outrageous decades long deliberate indifference to poisoning people with perflurooctanoic acid is just the most recent high profile example.

This doesn't mean that I am willing to just give a pass to scientifically illiterate scaremongering. One particular bugbear of mine lately is the idea spread by organic farming proponents that industrially fixed nitrogen somehow makes food grown with it less healthy or nutritious. I know that it can mask soil depletion, and I do like the idea of biodynamic farms and permaculture, but if you don't like the idea of billions starving, you have to confront the fact that an industrial process invented by German chemists to prolong WWI is now essential to growing enough food for everyone to eat, and that isn't likely to change in the near future.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 8:47 AM on June 13, 2016 [22 favorites]


cntl + F "precautionary principle" not found. Scientists are classist, not exactly news at 11.

I can't speak about the UK, but in the US, People don't trust the chemical industry because that industry is explicitly allowed to hurt people in pursuit of profit until hurt people prove that they are hurt, and hurt enough that it matters to society (which is notoriously difficult to do in the US, especially if they are native american, latino, or black).

People will likely continue to distrust industry until industry adopts a principle of testing its products for safety before product release, not after problems are found and by the way it's too late because we're all walking around with flame retardants in our bodies.

Let's not even discuss the oil industry, and the fact that crude oil, including benzene and radium components, is deemed "non hazardous" by US Congressional Fiat, in the denial of all science.

It all seems rather simple, and a new term is only another attempt to pathologize legitimate health and safety concerns.

Give people something to trust, and they might trust you. Telling people that their lives are forfeit until further notice will continue to creep them out.
posted by eustatic at 8:55 AM on June 13, 2016 [12 favorites]


I really think this is a combination of ignorance with completely justified suspicion.

We have a history of people being sickened or killed while being told certain substances are perfectly safe -- often due to a lack of caution, study, or scientific understanding, and/or the profit motive.


But of course the only solution to this is more and better scientific study. Suspicion without any scientific basis is no more likely to keep you safe than trust without any scientific basis.
posted by straight at 8:58 AM on June 13, 2016 [8 favorites]


When I hear someone get all self-righteous about a "war on science" or "chemophobia" I would like to remind them of leaded gasoline, thalidomide and hydrogenated fats.

I'm embarrassed for other scientists who try to wash away the corruption in our field by blaming everyone else. Bad science hurts good science by making people mistrustful.

But beyond my personal embarrassment, the effects of corrupt science are devastating.

When it comes time to deal with, say, executive scientists at companies like Exxon Mobil who helped cover up years of climate change research, for instance, we have a strong contingent of social and fiscal conservatives in positions of power who to this day still believe climate change is a conspiracy of (other) scientists. And that is a phenomenon that could kill off most or all of humanity, if we don't get that under control.

Bad science has hurt, sickened and killed people when money and profits are on the line. We need to solve that problem.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 9:02 AM on June 13, 2016 [13 favorites]


Bad science has hurt, sickened and killed people when money and profits are on the line.

We should disambiguate "bad science," though: there's sloppy science which doesn't give accurate results (Theranos); there's misrepresentation of scientific results (poor science journalism, people like Jan Hendrik Schön); and there's the purposeful publication of misleading and false reports in order to make money (tobacco companies, Exxon-Mobil, perhaps Theranos again). All of these combine to lead to a distrust for all science, but not all are created equal in terms of overt malicious intent.
posted by Existential Dread at 9:12 AM on June 13, 2016 [12 favorites]


I cook with MSG all the time... I just don't tell people. This is why.
posted by -1 at 9:21 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


Theranos was a case of sloppy science to bring in VC money. Worse, it would have made incorrect medical diagnoses that could have been potentially devastating — just to make a lousy dollar. But worst of all is that people who would benefit from that kind of miniaturization of technology now have a perfectly good reason to be mistrustful going forwards. Corrupt scientists hinder our work.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 9:21 AM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think, as a chemist, it's not necessarily the science we need to be paranoid of, but other humans. We are all messy, prone to underestimating hazards and long-term consequences, and motivated by personal gain. Corporations are more often than not opaque with respect to these issues, because it limits their ability to make money and opens them up to liability. In my somewhat limited time in industry, I've seen ethical scientists who are very careful about safety concerns, and sloppy scientists who cut corners and risk the health of themselves and others.

We do need an informed public, though. Paranoia and fear of fluoridation and vaccines are damaging and frankly idiotic, and should be contrasted with justified concerns about the hazards of fossil fuels, climate change, fluoropolymers, and fracking chemicals.
posted by Existential Dread at 9:21 AM on June 13, 2016 [13 favorites]


Theranos was a case of sloppy science to bring in VC money. Worse, it would have made incorrect medical diagnoses that could have been potentially devastating — just to make a lousy dollar. But worst of all is that people who would benefit from that kind of miniaturization of technology now have a perfectly good reason to be mistrustful going forwards. Corrupt scientists hinder our work.

Yeah, but in that case it wasn't scientists, it was an unethical CEO and corporate structure.
posted by Existential Dread at 9:25 AM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Suspicion without any scientific basis is no more likely to keep you safe than trust without any scientific basis.

Despite our dismissal of "because capitalism" above, one inescapable part of the capitalist exercise is that actors are strongly incentivized to externalize costs. One of the reasons cars are cheap, as one example, is that the costs of roads, pollution and caring for accident victims do not show up on the bill when you buy one. The same is true of the processes by which many industrially-sourced chemicals are manufactured, tested and deployed. Particularly around medicine and agriculture, the suspicion (or real perception) that buying into that process may be a net negative for society is not an unreasonable one.

In that light, "we just need to do more research" is not a compelling argument, because the real issues are political.
posted by mhoye at 9:30 AM on June 13, 2016 [10 favorites]


Hammers are scary too (when misused).

Please Hammer, don't hurt 'em!


Better living through parachute pants?
posted by lagomorphius at 9:32 AM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


By most standards, I'd be classified as a chemophile. I'll happily use a squirt bottle of acetone to remove synthetic grease of unknown composition from my bare hands. I'm a fan of GMOs, a loud and obnoxious opponent of all things spiritual, and distrustful of the very concept of the natural.

But, the arguments against chemophobia seem really disingenuous. The problem isn't that the public doesn't understand all the benefits that chemistry has provided to mankind. (Though, perhaps it's true that they don't. And those benefits are staggering.) The problem is centuries of corruption and outright deception on the part of industrial chemists. It's not that we distrust chemistry because we're stupid; we distrust chemistry because of a long and well documented history of amorality and a willingness to lie to the public for profit. When an industry has captured regulators, disregarded all ethical constraints, and abused the voice of authority since our grandparents were infants, they have bigger problems than public relations. As heuristics go, "chemicals are bad for you" is one with significant historical validation.

Want the world to like industrial chemists? Then stop opposing transparency, meaningful regulation, and open science. Act like scientists, rather than businessmen, and we'll happily treat you like scientists. If you use the word "proprietary" in your papers, you aren't a scientist; you're an alchemist, and you're probably up to no good. The public should fear you.

I'd love to believe we live in a world where all the pointless anti-science protest is actually a false flag operation secretly funded by exploitative industries. Channel the activists into anti-GMO protests, and perhaps they'll forgot about the absurdity of discovery patents and the shocking abuse of antibiotics in the meat industry. Convince people to avoid food additives, and they'll feel good about paying you for 200g of sugar in every savory meal. Take Monsanto to the stand for some trumped up BT-Corn nonsense, and nobody will point out that Roundup Ready is horribly short-sighted and stupid. Sadly, I suspect this is not actually true.
posted by eotvos at 9:34 AM on June 13, 2016 [23 favorites]


Yeah, but in that case it wasn't scientists, it was an unethical CEO and corporate structure.

Scientists took a paycheck, some who were executive-level who almost certainly knew it was BS that could potentially hurt or kill people, if a product ever got to market. The effects are the same.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 9:37 AM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've always been skeptical about the prevalence of "chemophobia," and I didn't realize that it was a common belief among chemists. I don't see much of this attitude first hand, but rather as vague generalizations and second hand accounts that often strike me as pretty unreliable. I've just seen people misinterpret things I've said too many times to believe it when people tell me someone else said something crazy. I know a couple of public sector chemists, and they don't seem to think that 'chemophobia' is a big problem. In fact, they're very critical of the lack of neutral oversight in the approval process for non-critical advances. So maybe they're stupid and chemophobic too.

And man, I love stomping all over that dumb dihydrogen monoxide joke. I've been ruining that punchline for decades now.

Karma caught up to me on that once. I needed hydrogen peroxide right away, when I thought I saw a hand-labeled spray bottle of it sitting up high on a shelf, so I grabbed a stepstool and got it, and it's fucking water that someone had joke-labeled "Dihydrogen monoxide." Oh, ho ho. So hilarious. What an excellent and incisive burn. Good job, whoever thought that was funny.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:57 AM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


I am a chemist, working in industry. My frustration with chemophobia is the fact that "chemicals" aren't intrinsically good or evil. They're just chemicals! Everything is a chemical!

Legitimate concerns over pollutants, irresponsible use of pesticides/pharmaceuticals, etc, get swept up into this stupid binary of "natural" vs "chemical". The mistrust of chemicals gets exploited all the time by marketers to sell products that have no legitimate claims to being safer or better for the environment. There's no standard to which "all natural" products are held. Reducing everything down to a simplistic "good/natural vs evil/chemical" situation is where the Food Babe and pseudoscience take hold.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 10:04 AM on June 13, 2016 [23 favorites]


ALL governments and agencies have agendas. Some are more transparent than others.

It doesn't break down quite as easily as lefties fear corporations, righties fear government.
US government policy and agendas are so strongly influenced by corporate interest that it can take years for "the will of the people" or actions taken in interest of the public wafare to be implimated.

Corporations are regulated by government, yet the vast majority of politicians making those laws have financial ties that compromise their impartiality, as well as having little or no background in the sciences.

I personally don't want to drink rbST milk. Or consume ANY foods treated with hormones, pesticides or herbicides. Part of that is concerns regarding safety, and part of it is ethical and moral concerns.

I believe that we do not raise food producing animals in a humane and considerate manner, and we fail to recognize our ethical and moral obligations toward them. Additionally we fail to consider the matter of ecological degregation. We ruin habitats and ecosystems with impunity. We will never recover from the extinctions and loss of diversity caused by past and present actions in the name of "improvements."

It's not scientific knowledge that's going to doom us, but a lack of philosophy.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:56 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


We know science is self regulating, if there is an incorrect hypothesis it will be refuted by new data, new more accurate experiments. But there's a delta there, a gap where some detail is wrong. Not a big deal if it's the reason for a dinosaur head spike, but if it's a food additive that builds up over years until it causes harm, not so good for the inadvertent experimental subjects.

Some old guys told a story about working at greasy machine shop many years ago, there was a dance that night and one guy used a certain solvent, cleaned his had perfect. The guy telling the story went home and used soap and long scrubbing. I forget which solvent but it's not used anymore, the quick clean guy was dead a week later.

Quick dramatic lessons are hard but unambiguous.
posted by sammyo at 11:09 AM on June 13, 2016


Coincidentally, I was just reading Antidepressants and the Placebo Effect, in which the meta-analyses showing that antidepressants don't do nuthin' are discussed.

The initial published studies leading to huge numbers of antidepressant prescriptions were, unsurprisingly, industry-funded.
posted by clawsoon at 11:36 AM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


it was an unethical CEO and corporate structure

The fundamental asymmetry between fear-of-government and fear-of-corporations is that governments have at least some mechanisms inbuilt to make them accountable to the populace at large, while corporations are accountable primarily to their shareholders and only indirectly, via regulators, to the wider public.
posted by flabdablet at 11:41 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


I am a chemist, working in industry. My frustration with chemophobia is the fact that "chemicals" aren't intrinsically good or evil. They're just chemicals! Everything is a chemical!

And yet, I have never heard a person in real life claim this. I do know it happens every now and again, as with that foodbabe site, and I know there's some confusion about the labeling definition of organic and such, but I have known a fair number of people with some pretty fringe beliefs about this sort of thing, and I have never to my knowledge encountered someone who didn't understand what 'chemicals' actually were.

I see people explain it, just like you do here, all the time, though, and I expect that they are vastly overestimating how common the belief they're rebutting is.

I have seen people's positions, including some of mine, grossly misrepresented as 'chemophobia' often enough that I can't really take it at face value.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:45 AM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


And yet, I have never heard a person in real life claim this. I do know it happens every now and again, as with that foodbabe site, and I know there's some confusion about the labeling definition of organic and such, but I have known a fair number of people with some pretty fringe beliefs about this sort of thing, and I have never to my knowledge encountered someone who didn't understand what 'chemicals' actually were.

Respectfully, I see it all the time. Here's a peer-reviewed article that showed 30% of American undergraduates hold this conception.

I'm not sure what position of yours I'm grossly misrepresenting. I'm just frustrated with how the general public's lack of chemical understanding is frequently used to antagonise the discussion over the use of man-made products.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 12:15 PM on June 13, 2016 [8 favorites]


Scientists took a paycheck, some who were executive-level who almost certainly knew it was BS that could potentially hurt or kill people, if a product ever got to market. The effects are the same.

I see one scientist on that board, the epidemiologist Dr. Foege. The rest are lawyers, drop-outs, etc.

Theranos is nearly a textbook example of what happens when "smart" people decide that they don't need to consult qualified professionals.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:34 PM on June 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


No, I didn't think you were misrepresenting any of my positions, mostly because I don't expect you know any of them. I have had people do that, though.

For a very quick example, in a very lively group discussion of gross food once, I brought up a really disgusting boxed pasta sauce/mix thing I'd had once, and described it as 'chemically' tasting, which caused some goober to 'Actually' me, and explain that everything is made out of chemicals, as though I didn't realize that.

And I can't read that paper, but the abstract points out that this is a dual meaning issue. That is, there is the technical meaning of 'chemical,' but there's also a colloquial meaning that generally refers to synthesized or added ingredients. So when I say that something tastes 'chemically,' I am specifically referring to a dissonant artificial flavor that is doing a poor job of simulating the flavor they were probably going for.

There are lots of terms that have different technical and colloquial meanings, and there are lots of people who like to go around applying the technical meaning to uses of the word that are clearly colloquial. (Off the top of my head, 'theory' and 'fruit' are other common ones.)
posted by ernielundquist at 12:34 PM on June 13, 2016 [8 favorites]


I bristle at having my rational concerns described as a phobia.

If they're rational concerns, they aren't talking about you. They're talking about people who don't use some product because it "has chemicals" not the people who don't use a specific product because it has some specific chemical with known harms.

"I don't want to use that product because I'm not sure it's safe. The company says it's safe but I don't trust the company to be honest." Is a perfectly rational argument based in historic fact.

"I don't want to use that product because it has synthetic chemicals and toxins and it's made by a corporation and corporations are evil." Is chemophobia.

If you have concerns about a specific toxin or a specific chemical, that's rational. But being "synthetic" or "natural" has absolutely nothing to do with the safety of the product and there are a ton of corporations that are very good corporate citizens.
posted by VTX at 12:35 PM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


There really need to be more words. The 'nothing that has chemicals' people have a pretty specific category in mind; it just doesn't have a good name. We don't have a good split in popular terminology between elements, naturally occurring compounds (without life), chemicals that are products of co-evolution with living things, and chemicals that are novel products of human endeavour.

The no chemicals people are looking for the co-evolved ones, just be happy they don't call them Organic Chemicals.
posted by ethansr at 12:43 PM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


I think the place where chemophobia really comes in is in places like Michael Pollan's rules for eating. The first two are:

* Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. "When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can't pronounce, ask yourself, "What are those things doing there?" Pollan says.
* Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce.

These are essentially chemophobia. When my great-grandmother was around--my paternal grandmother was born in 1918, so that's a good timeframe for when my great-grandma was making adult food choices--the concept of a "vitamin" had barely been articulated and now, of course, many of those unrecognizable and unpronounceable things are, you know, widely recognized as essential to life and a major public health asset. Likewise many of the other scary words on ingredient lists (mono- and diglycerides, anyone? MSG? whatevs) are food components that people eat every day, all the time, none the wiser, but the above "sensible" guidelines encourage us to freak out when they show on ingredient list.

My ex husband used to point out that Fritos have three ingredients (corn, veg oil, salt). If you want to take them to be health food, knock yourself out.
posted by Sublimity at 1:48 PM on June 13, 2016 [14 favorites]


Epidemiologist/toxicologist chiming in to say, jeepers, people who are not toxicologists, chemists, biologists, etc. seem to have an awful lot of feelings about how safe industrial chemistry is, and whether public trepidation about chemical safety is a sign of ignorance. To you I say, oh, great. I'm glad you solved this situation, because heaven knows there's nothing like an outsider rolling his eyes to inspire confidence.

If I can put on my regulatory toxicology hat for a second, though, I'll point out that we have piss poor safety data on the vast majority of substances in commerce (and that's to say nothing of low-dose mixtures at environmentally relevant concentrations). REACH in Europe (and soon-to-be slightly reformed TSCA in the US) have been struggling with even defining safety for decades, but glad to see the internet army has been there, done that, closed the book!

When that article quotes, “it’s time for us chemists to stop feeling so unloved,” I ask for the umbrella of expertise to be extended to all scientists, including the armchair variety, at least until regulators make defensible sense of the industrial chemistry with which we all live.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:43 PM on June 13, 2016 [15 favorites]


> The no chemicals people are looking for the co-evolved ones, just be happy they don't call them Organic Chemicals.

Isn't that basically what "natural flavourings" are? In a sort of opposite way, seeing that on an ingredients list bothers me slightly because of the potentially more messy and environmentally damaging extraction process it involves.
posted by lucidium at 2:47 PM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think the place where chemophobia really comes in is in places like Michael Pollan's rules for eating.

Seriously. Pollan's philosophy isn't based on the idea that there may be some ingredients in commercially prepared foods that regulators mistakenly approved, which would be completely reasonable. It's an ideological view that "processed" or "complicated" things are bad because they aren't "natural." It's really hard to separate concerns about specific food ingredients from dogma like Pollan's (or less-respectable but similar pontificators like the Food Babe.)
posted by Ralston McTodd at 2:53 PM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


Like, I'm very concerned about about BPA and its cousins and it's hard to find any discussion that doesn't fall into one of three moralistic/pseudoscientific categories: it's a government/corporate conspiracy to poison us; it's a way for lazy Americans to blame exotic chemicals for obesity when they should be worrying about eating vegetables and exercising; and it serves us right for eating canned food instead of fresh.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 4:31 PM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


the Pollan rules always crack me up because it's like some theory by which my great grandparents would not be able to tell yogurt was edible just because it's in a tube

they'd probably love that shit, would probably eat way crazier stuff than people would now because they legitimately feared starvation

anyway
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:42 PM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


Just want to recommend Sheila Jasanoff's influential journal article "Technologies of Humility: Citizen Participation in Governing Science".
How have existing institutions conceptualized the roles of technical experts, decision-makers, and citizens with respect to the uses and applications of knowledge? How should these understandings be modified in response to three decades of research on the social dimensions of science? Can we respond to the demonstrated fallibility and incapacity of decision-making institutions, without abandoning hopes for improved health, safety, welfare, and social justice? Can we imagine new institutions, processes, and methods for restoring to the playing field of governance some of the normative questions that were sidelined in celebrating the benefits of technological progress? And are there structured means for deliberating and reflecting on technical matters, much as the expert analysis of risks has been cultivated for many decades?

There is a growing need, I shall argue, for what we may call the ‘technologies of humility’. These are methods, or better yet institutionalized habits of thought, that try to come to grips with the ragged fringes of human understanding – the unknown, the uncertain, the ambiguous, and the uncontrollable. Acknowledging the limits of prediction and control, technologies of humility confront ‘head-on’ the normative implications of our lack of perfect foresight. They call for different expert capabilities and different forms of engagement between experts, decision-makers, and the public than were considered needful in the governance structures of high modernity. They require not only the formal mechanisms of participation but also an intellectual environment in which citizens are encouraged to bring their knowledge and skills to bear on the resolution of common problems.
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:25 PM on June 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'm thinking of corporate pushback against tobacco regulation, I'm thinking of instances where drug companies fudged the research and people died as a result (Vioxx in particular, that was a nasty mess.)

This is not as good of an example as many people believe. Merck wasn't entirely above-board in their disclosure of the clinical study results, but we now know that Vioxx is not unique in its effects on cardiovascular risk. It's basically a class-wide effect for NSAIDs, shared with drugs like ibuprofen, which was not really known at the time, and which Vioxx probably helped bring to light. Celecoxib (Celebrex), the other selective COX-2 inhibitor, is still available, albeit with a black box warning. It is probably not any safer than Vioxx, but it was Vioxx that was the harbinger of bad news and the lightning rod of controversy, so it remains withdrawn and will be forever thus, while celecoxib continues to be used. Ibuprofen, meanwhile, can be bought at any grocery store or gas station. All of them will increase your risk of cardiovascular events, particularly if you've already had one.

Your takeaway from this story could be that the FDA overreacted to the dangers of Vioxx, or that it has underreacted to the dangers posed by other NSAIDs, and either way you wouldn't really be wrong, though personally I lean towards the former interpretation. Regardless, it's a great example of how pharmaceutical safety/efficacy is way more complex than simple narratives about the evils of Big Pharma.
posted by dephlogisticated at 6:46 PM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


or it could be that this "Merck wasn't entirely above-board in their disclosure of the clinical study results" is basically enough to be freaked out even if the result wasn't as fucked as it could have been

I mean the only thing that makes up "science" is the process of science, right? so if that process is fucked it kinda doesn't matter what the results were of it being fucked in that one single case
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:03 PM on June 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


Transparency... is the issue that slices through all of these science conversations. (And many other things);

To be pro-science without being critical of the applications of science is a fancy version of arrogance. Everyone would be happier to have more transparency in the health, food and agriculture industries, except for some shareholders in the business.

(I'm not the most health-conscious person, and I heart science, yeah, but I don't like being told to shut up and eat my GMOs without being allowed to ask any questions about it).
posted by ovvl at 7:45 PM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Your takeaway from this story could be that the FDA overreacted to the dangers of Vioxx

The FDA had numerous opportunities between 2000 and 2004 to recall Vioxx and did not do so. The takeaway of many people is that its leadership functionally colluded with Merck. The agency failed in its regulatory function and people died as a result.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 7:57 PM on June 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's interesting to hear from the people sceptical of chemophobia's existence. Their point of view underscores why anecdotes and statistically valid conclusions aren't friends and won't ever sit together in the caf.

I live in the rural part of a non-descript but affluent Western nation, and chemophobia is the norm.

I can't attest to the frequency of this belief in the general population, but if you haven't seen it at all I'd suggest you're overdue for a cross-country road trip, wherever you might live. Get out of up your own city for a spell.

Out here we grow the ignorance tall and hardy, like oak trees made of pure bologna.
posted by Construction Concern at 9:10 PM on June 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Objections to GM don't necessarily proceed from chemophobia or anything related to chemophobia; mine certainly don't.

I just don't like seeing food creeping toward the legal tarpit of intellectual property.
posted by flabdablet at 9:21 PM on June 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


flabdablet: Objections to GM don't necessarily proceed from chemophobia or anything related to chemophobia; mine certainly don't.

I just don't like seeing food creeping toward the legal tarpit of intellectual property.
I would suggest that this objection and "chemophobic" narratives do indeed have something very relevant and important in common, they are both most loudly voiced by businesses that seek to profit from the concern and fear they promote and they are both deeply misleading.

Would it surprise you to learn that the 1930 Plant Patent Act, has afforded patent protection to asexually reproduced plants, and has allowed commercially breed hybrid seed to dominate ever since, long before GMOs? Breeding seeds that are good enough to be commercially viable, even without recombinant techniques of any kind, is something that absolutely requires people with incredibly specialized educations who know what they're doing and they need to get paid somehow. Farmers today, at least the ones whose job it is to grow food rather than toys for rich people, have no interest in spending 10-40% of their summer working hours breeding seeds like many of their great grandparents did rather than making money, and they couldn't keep up with what professional breeders can do even if they tried. To remove plant patents would be to remove the ability of farmers to pay for outsourcing something they haven't been able to do effectively for nearly a hundred years. There are indeed an awful lot of contexts that patents are absolutely not even remotely fucking appropriate for, but the research and development that seed patents have allowed both companies and universities to invest in has paid off for everyone involved. The dynamic of patent protection allowing plant breeders work to become distributable immediately, but only pay them for the twenty years necessary to recoup their investment before becoming the published property of humanity freely available to all, forcing plant breeders to continue innovating if they want to continue getting paid has been working out well for both recombinant and non-recombinant plants. For example, this season, like last season, an awful lot of soy farmers are buying 'generic' RoundUp Ready soy from universities and companies because the patent ran out and fuck paying the old sticker price.

In the twentieth century, one of the central reasons why first world agriculture not only didn't collapse when the second world's did but also was able to support agriculture in the third world in becoming almost self sufficient, was the development of seed technology made possible by patents. Heirloom seeds will never be able to be anything more than sources of genetic information worth protecting and supporting through scientifically literate social programs and momentary toys for rich people. The 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act can also be relevant as a related kind of protection of varieties depending on context.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:56 AM on June 14, 2016 [5 favorites]


Ralston McTodd: "Like, I'm very concerned about about BPA and its cousins and it's hard to find any discussion that doesn't fall into one of three moralistic/pseudoscientific categories: it's a government/corporate conspiracy to poison us; it's a way for lazy Americans to blame exotic chemicals for obesity when they should be worrying about eating vegetables and exercising; and it serves us right for eating canned food instead of fresh."
If you want better than the standard clickbait, you'll have to go for the harder stuff. With BPA you're in luck, this is my third favorite piece of regulatory writing, written by Deputy Commissioner David Dorsey of the FDA in response to a Natural Resources Defense Council petition. It is accessible, effectively summarizes the regulatory context, describes the current scientific consensus at the level of a review, and performs a brutally polite smack down of the petition in question all within 15 short pages.

It seems our bodies rapidly and effectively convert BPA into BPA-monoglucuronide, which is both inactive and rapidly excreted. This means that all of the researchers who applied BPA to their various small model systems, from DNA methylation to obesity to thyroid function, were using dramatically non-relevant amounts. Indeed, this is one of those few cases where criticisms of scientists not studying the whole system man are actually relevant.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:12 AM on June 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


In the twentieth century, one of the central reasons why first world agriculture not only didn't collapse when the second world's did but also was able to support agriculture in the third world in becoming almost self sufficient, was the development of seed technology made possible by patents.
Am I wrong in understanding that in Europe it has only been possible to patent plant seeds since last year or so?
posted by blub at 5:16 AM on June 14, 2016


In Monsanto we trust...
posted by y2karl at 5:22 AM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


I tend to side with the "GMOs can be a great benefit to mankind" because the science appears to be there, but then I hear otherwise intelligent people insist gene-splicing is no different in scope or effect than animal husbandry or orchard grafts, I get nervous, as that is straight up bullshit. I wonder why they're selling me bullshit so hard, and why they think we're stupid enough to fall for it? What else am I missing? What else has been held back or hidden on the topic?
Are you worried about the scope or effect of de novo mutations?
posted by Human Flesh at 6:14 AM on June 14, 2016


blub: "Am I wrong in understanding that in Europe it has only been possible to patent plant seeds since last year or so?"
The short answer is sort of, but because this is Europe we're talking about it does get needlessly complicated.

At the moment the most important IP system used by breeders in the EU is the Community Plant Variety Rights (CPVR) system created by EU Regulation 2100/94 in 1994. However, the intellectual property protections of plant breeders in Western Europe have been - mostly - harmonized-ish with the US and increasing amounts of the world since the 50s under the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). The CPVR mostly just harmonizes and simplifies existing IP rights further within the EU and allows the EU to negotiate within UPOV as a single body, though there are still a lot of exceptions and things under national purview. Before UPOV, there were a hideous array of national systems and bilateral treaties that are difficult to generalize - but there absolutely were pre-war variety protections. However plant variety rights in the EU now exist in parallel with plant patent rights, which are different. They protect under European Patent law biological material including DNA which is isolated from its natural environment or produced by means of a technical process "traits" of genetically modified plants, and methods of biotechnology or genetic engineering. What exactly patent protections mean in the EU has been pretty chaotically changing since the Biotech directive in 1998, and are also difficult to generalize succinctly.

What we call patents they never did, but they're now calling something new a patent that we also call a patent, and I probably should have written 'intellectual property rights' to be more internationally consistent.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:23 AM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


I only know about this from what I have read in the Dutch media, but from what I understand, farmers here have always had the right to crossbreed varieties, even those seeds that had intellectual property rights attached. They explicitly mentioned an example, like: say, you have a variety of spinach that tastes great. Someone else has a variety of spinach that is resistant to a common spinach disease. Before this EU plant seed patent directive everybody had the right to mix those varieties to make great tasting spinach that is resistant to disease. With those new patent laws, we cannot do that anymore. So it seems to me that a fundamental right has changed last year and I think there is a big difference between "some intellectual property rights so that you're the only person/company who can sell a specific kind of seed" and "the right to dictate exactly what other people can do with the seeds you own". We did just fine with just the first kind of limited intellectual property rights, our agriculture did not collapse.
posted by blub at 7:23 AM on June 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


Coming back to this thread to recommend McGill's Office for Science and Society, which has lots of resources for the general public who want to learn more about chemicals in their day to day life. They've tackled lots of contentious issues, including BPA, allergies to GMO, nitrates in hotdogs, and even chemophobia itself.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 8:38 AM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


Are you worried about the scope or effect of de novo mutations?
posted by Human Flesh


I know "eponysterical" is kind of overused around here these days but i really really like this one
posted by Greg Nog at 9:56 AM on June 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


yeah as someone with allergy issues who already deals with shitty labelling practices, I really don't like more food-fucking-around-with

I mean yeah do it to feed billions of people, go for it, but do it so you can have a slightly higher profit margin and IDK I get a little irked

to me, the thing with splicing plants (like putting them into each other) and things like that is that it strikes me that nature has a sort of failsafe for you doing too much crazy shit. it seems like there is a difference between putting two trees together and the trees are like "yeah our genes work together that's cool" and just going in there with a chainsaw like "pretty sure this gene only does one thing, now it's a fish"

idk maybe that is dumb or something, but it doesn't feel super dumb
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:07 AM on June 14, 2016


blub, If you send me an article you're thinking of I can read Dutch, but while that is a sort of accurate description of what the Biotech directive in 1998 did, its still pretty misleading. Patents cannot apply to a whole plant variety, and all of the old protections for plant varieties still exist in parallel. However, specific genetically engineered traits of plants can be patented. So someone with great tasting spinach can't just breed in a disease resistance trait that someone else genetically engineered without negotiating royalties with the EU or directly with the company. The thing that is new, if sixteen years old can still be called new, is a special new protection for genetically engineered traits that was not needed before.

American plant patents have also always afforded roughly the same freedom to use other people's seeds as part of efforts to create fundamentally new seeds, and the kinky particulars of plant reproduction help draw clear boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable borrowing. Modern agriculture couldn't exist without intellectual property protections for plant varieties that we've had for generations on both sides of the pond. However, the 'new' protections for traits simply don't do most of the things claimed by generally agriculturally illiterate campaigners like force farmers to buy seeds (they've done that for generations), or open up farmers to lawsuits for accidental contamination (farmers only get sued for intentionally using genetic traits or marketing them), or harm organic agriculture in any way (it seems to be creating a market for it). The relevant thing it does do is set out a new class of traits that commercial seed breeders can't borrow for 20 years until the patent runs out. So its not a "right to dictate exactly what other people can do with the seeds you own," at least in the EU seed breeders can do whatever the fuck they want with other people's seeds aside from sell them as is, and can still do what ever the fuck they want with the traits other people breed. The only difference is that when a someone wants to use a trait that someone else went through the ridiculous processes involved in demonstrating safety and environmental friendliness, they need to negotiate a fair royalty with either the EU or the company to do that.

Breeding a shiny purple apple is indeed pretty different from genetically engineering apples to be shiny and purple in just how much more effort and expense is involved in the engineering and testing of the shiny purpleness, and the goal of that effort is a trait rather than a plant, so it does make sense that it would require some different extra protections. However, unlike what is usually portrayed, the dynamic between farmer and seed breeder is basically identical with those protections - exempting farmers attempting to do something unambiguously wrong. All thats different is the dynamic between seed breeders and each other as they compete to make the best seeds, and that dynamic is improved in a way that gives farmers access to better seeds.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:29 AM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's interesting to hear from the people sceptical of chemophobia's existence. Their point of view underscores why anecdotes and statistically valid conclusions aren't friends and won't ever sit together in the caf.

I read the whole thread and didn't see anyone say this. It is entirely possible that I missed something, though, and if I did, please correct me.

But unreliable narration is a real underlying issue here, and what that survey is largely addressing. Public attitudes are often quite a bit more nuanced and measured than many people seem to believe. If you're rebutting a specific argument, attribute it, and cite it if possible, because a major factor in people perceiving things as yes or no, black and white, pro- or anti- topics is rooted in hostile and inaccurate perceptions of the far more nuanced arguments that people are actually making; and the people whose opinions are being ignored or misrepresented are understandably going to stop listening to those who clearly aren't listening to them.

The people I know who have fallen into sort of crackpotty, "anti-science" circles have ended up there largely because they've been ignored and disrespected by their doctors, and the only people who weren't actively hostile toward them were quacks and quack-endorsers. (Two people, both with science degrees, so they didn't start out that way.)
posted by ernielundquist at 11:01 AM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is a Dutch article that goes into the new EU laws, and how apparently our government opposes them (and apparently how almost 40% of the global trade in seeds is Dutch - I had no idea). This article says: Zodra er een patent op een type groente is aangevraagd, is het voor andere kwekers niet meer mogelijk om die door te ontwikkelen (something like "once a patent is pending on a type of vegetable, it is no longer possible for other breeders to develop it further" - I hope develop is the right translation here). That seems in contradiction with what you're saying, that: in the EU seed breeders can do whatever the fuck they want with other people's seeds aside from sell them as is.

I hear you that some kind of intellectual property is probably necessary for seeds, and I had no problems with the laws as they were. But I'm a programmer myself, and have heard similar arguments in favor of software patents, about how they are necessary so that companies who spend a lot of research and development time on new techniques are protected, but in reality, almost all patent cases are clearly by patent trolls, and small companies really do get hurt (and large ones too). So, I tend to believe the Dutch farmers/seed breeders who say that this new patent regulation is not a good thing.

The only difference is that when a someone wants to use a trait that someone else went through the ridiculous processes involved in demonstrating safety and environmental friendliness, they need to negotiate a fair royalty with either the EU or the company to do that.
Do companies need to demonstrate safety and environmental friendliness if they just crossbreed two varieties of spinach (as in the example)?
posted by blub at 12:56 PM on June 14, 2016


...Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready seeds are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for re-planting, or to sell the seed to other farmers. This means that farmers must buy new seed every year. Those increased sales, coupled with ballooning sales of its Roundup weed killer, have been a bonanza for Monsanto.

This radical departure from age-old practice has created turmoil in farm country. Some farmers don’t fully understand that they aren’t supposed to save Monsanto’s seeds for next year’s planting. Others do, but ignore the stipulation rather than throw away a perfectly usable product. Still others say that they don’t use Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, but seeds have been blown into their fields by wind or deposited by birds. It’s certainly easy for G.M. seeds to get mixed in with traditional varieties when seeds are cleaned by commercial dealers for re-planting. The seeds look identical; only a laboratory analysis can show the difference. Even if a farmer doesn’t buy G.M. seeds and doesn’t want them on his land, it’s a safe bet he’ll get a visit from Monsanto’s seed police if crops grown from G.M. seeds are discovered in his fields....

No one knows what effect, if any, the hormone has on milk or the people who drink it. Studies have not detected any difference in the quality of milk produced by cows that receive rBGH, or rBST, a term by which it is also known. But Jeff Kleinpeter—like millions of consumers—wants no part of rBGH. Whatever its effect on humans, if any, Kleinpeter feels certain it’s harmful to cows because it speeds up their metabolism and increases the chances that they’ll contract a painful illness that can shorten their lives. “It’s like putting a Volkswagen car in with the Indianapolis 500 racers,” he says. “You gotta keep the pedal to the metal the whole way through, and pretty soon that poor little Volkswagen engine’s going to burn up.”

Kleinpeter Dairy has never used Monsanto’s artificial hormone, and the dairy requires other dairy farmers from whom it buys milk to attest that they don’t use it, either. At the suggestion of a marketing consultant, the dairy began advertising its milk as coming from rBGH-free cows in 2005, and the label began appearing on Kleinpeter milk cartons and in company literature, including a new Web site of Kleinpeter products that proclaims, “We treat our cows with love … not rBGH.”

The dairy’s sales soared. For Kleinpeter, it was simply a matter of giving consumers more information about their product.

But giving consumers that information has stirred the ire of Monsanto. The company contends that advertising by Kleinpeter and other dairies touting their “no rBGH” milk reflects adversely on Monsanto’s product. In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission in February 2007, Monsanto said that, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that there is no difference in the milk from cows treated with its product, “milk processors persist in claiming on their labels and in advertisements that the use of rBST is somehow harmful, either to cows or to the people who consume milk from rBST-supplemented cows.”

As more and more dairies have chosen to advertise their milk as “No rBGH,” Monsanto has gone on the offensive. Its attempt to force the F.T.C. to look into what Monsanto called “deceptive practices” by dairies trying to distance themselves from the company’s artificial hormone was the most recent national salvo. But after reviewing Monsanto’s claims, the F.T.C.’s Division of Advertising Practices decided in August 2007 that a “formal investigation and enforcement action is not warranted at this time.” The agency found some instances where dairies had made “unfounded health and safety claims,” but these were mostly on Web sites, not on milk cartons. And the F.T.C. determined that the dairies Monsanto had singled out all carried disclaimers that the F.D.A. had found no significant differences in milk from cows treated with the artificial hormone.
Monsanto's Harvest of Fear
posted by y2karl at 2:57 PM on June 14, 2016


From the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Eight Ways Monsanto Fails at Sustainable Agriculture

#1: Promoting Pesticide Resistance

Monsanto's RoundupReady and Bt technologies lead to resistant weeds and insects that can make farming harder and reduce sustainability.

#2: Increasing Herbicide Use

Roundup resistance has led to greater use of herbicides, with troubling implications for biodiversity, sustainability, and human health.

#3: Spreading Gene Contamination

Engineered genes have a bad habit of turning up in non-GE crops. And when this happens, sustainable farmers—and their customers—pay a high price.

#4: Expanding Monoculture

Monsanto's emphasis on limited varieties of a few commodity crops contributes to reduced biodiversity and, as a consequence, to increased pesticide use and fertilizer pollution.

#5: Marginalizing Alternatives

Monsanto's single-minded emphasis on GE fixes for farming challenges may come at the expense of cheaper, more effective solutions.

#6: Lobbying and Advertising

Monsanto outspends all other agribusinesses on efforts to persuade Congress and the public to maintain the industrial agriculture status quo.

#7: Suppressing Research

By creating obstacles to independent research on its products, Monsanto makes it harder for farmers and policy makers to make informed decisions that can lead to more sustainable agriculture.

#8: Falling Short on Feeding the World

Monsanto contributes little to helping the world feed itself, and has failed to endorse science-backed solutions that don't give its products a central role.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 3:16 PM on June 14, 2016 [5 favorites]


Monsantophobia: a reflexive rejection of bought influence, dubious safety studies, heavy-handed legal tactics, toxic dumping and coverups.
posted by flabdablet at 7:40 PM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


And don't forget polychlorinated biphenyls!
posted by y2karl at 8:58 PM on June 14, 2016


The whole "Monsanto forces farmers to not save seed" thing is a canard. This kind of intellectual property protection is not unique to GMO seeds, but also applies to hybrid seeds, but more importantly, you can't save hybrid seeds anyway, because hybrid seeds don't give offspring that have the same genetics, and thus, they don't have the same traits. Seed saving is generally not done in first world agriculture because of this, and also because it's not economically viable to save seeds (providing storage that keeps them viable throughout winter is cost prohibitive for individual farmers). So in general, farmers will want to buy new seed every year.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:04 PM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


Odd then that Monsanto spends so much time, energy, personnel and money suing the shit out of every small farmer in the nation gleaning seeds, isn't it ? Except, possibly, as the article noted, ...whoever provides the world’s seeds controls the world’s food supply.
posted by y2karl at 9:27 PM on June 14, 2016


The whole "Monsanto forces farmers to not save seed" thing is a canard. This kind of intellectual property protection is not unique to GMO seeds, but also applies to hybrid seeds, but more importantly, you can't save hybrid seeds anyway, because hybrid seeds don't give offspring that have the same genetics, and thus, they don't have the same traits.

Involving hybrid seeds in the discussion is a canard, because of backcrossing. Even so, if no one saves seed because traits don't propagate, then Monsanto has little to fear from farmers saving seed, because even if they did, whatever set of genes imparts glyphosate resistance shouldn't apparently make it to the next generation, anyway, based on this line of argument. So invoking the whole hybrid seed thing is kind of pointless. Again, even ignoring basic genetic techniques that would be known to a third- or fourth-year undergrad.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 12:22 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


a lungful of dragon: "Involving hybrid seeds in the discussion is a canard, because of backcrossing. Even so, if no one saves seed because traits don't propagate, then Monsanto has little to fear from farmers saving seed, because even if they did, whatever set of genes imparts glyphosate resistance shouldn't apparently make it to the next generation, anyway, based on this line of argument. So invoking the whole hybrid seed thing is kind of pointless. Again, even ignoring basic genetic techniques that would be known to a third- or fourth-year undergrad."
You've misunderstood the context.

While it is difficult to propagate hybrid plants and get useful seeds in the next generation because they're designed in a way that is kind of like building a genetic pyramid that falls apart the moment you propagate them past their intended generation, you absolutely can pick up the genetic pieces and build a new pyramid. The traits do propagate, they just don't do it in a way that produces commercially viable seeds. If you remember your punnet squares from school, breeding heterozygous traits with heterozygous traits will produce offspring with half heterozygous traits, one quarter of one homozygous trait, and one quarter of the other homozygous trait. Only this happens independently for each chromosome and each plant. Thus, to make unscrambled plants in commercially viable quantities, you need two parents that you can breed into the advantageous array. While it is incredibly difficult to make exactly the same plant, it is relatively trivial to breed the offspring of genetically engineered plants with other plants to create a new set of parents that will produce a new plant that contains the engineered trait - particularly if the trait can be selected for as easily as resistance to a pesticide.

There is no technical reason why genetic engineering can't be applied to plants bred to breed true, designed to produce advantageous traits in direct offspring in a way that makes it easy for farmers to save seed, and the Golden Rice trait has been bred into rice plants that breed true for this reason. However, most genetic engineering has been done in hybrid plants because it makes the distinction between fair use and theft easy to determine and because they are the seeds that commercial farmers want.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:16 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Mod note: Blasdelb, as we asked earlier, please give the thread a rest, and generally, making an advocacy post and then threadsitting to argue every point with commenters is not okay. Posting something because people may find it interesting and might like to discuss is one thing, posting so that you can personally control the conversation and lobby/debate for your position is a problem, as we've discussed with you before.
posted by taz (staff) at 2:35 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


This thread is a perfect example of why the very real and valid concerns about the actions of the chemical/biotech industry will never be taken seriously: there's a significant portion of the population for whom their villainous nature is a matter of faith, and facts be damned. Every fact is just reinterpreted to be part of the grand conspiracy. Even worse, if you mention any specific examples, it just devolves into an argument over the technical details of that particular example*.

This allows the population at large to ignore the real and important issues because it's the realm of "crackpots".


*But, because I'm a sucker, here's one: Monsanto is probably only slightly more ethical than Satan, but they actually only sue about 10 farmers per year, which is less than some local curmudgeons. Never losing these cases could be bought judicial influence, but could also be evidence of only suing the most egregious and blatant contract violations.

I can almost promise at this point that somebody will jump in with the case of that farmer who blatantly lied about how their crops got in his field and then played dumb to the media ("awww shucks, must be the wind"), and then the discussion becomes about that case, rather than the fact that monoculture agriculture and associated practices are problematic in the first place but have also been feeding us all, and is a system that requires very well-thought-out but drastic regulatory changes if you want to fix the problems but also keep good food affordable and available.

posted by Dr.Enormous at 3:00 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]




Well, it beats patronizing comments about conspiracy thinking followed by vague unattributed anecdotes pulled from a ventral orifice followed by we're Scientists, look upon our might, ye crackpots, and tremble, after all, We're Feeding The World blah blah woof woof.
posted by y2karl at 7:54 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wow. You got a lot from nothing. I wouldn't take a paycheck from Monsanto for anything, and they're scummy as hell, but they don't "spend so much time, energy, personnel and money suing the shit out of every small farmer in the nation gleaning seeds", and several anti-Monsanto sites and one ostensibly neutral (but who knows exactly where the money ultimately comes from) would confirm that.

This is exactly what I mean by faith-based thinking. If something is empirically wrong, attribute ill motives to the messenger and move on to a different topic (e.g. neonicotinoids) and pretend it's exactly the same as the easily-falsifiable statement.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 1:55 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Attributing ill motives to the messenger is of course not what Mr. Empirically Right does.
posted by y2karl at 2:13 PM on June 15, 2016


'They only sue ten farmers a year.' Now there is an easily verifiable statement ? So, verify it.
posted by y2karl at 2:15 PM on June 15, 2016


As for neonicotinoids, well, there was
...farming more food on less land with less water and less soil erosion and pest management strategies that are both more effective and less harmful, allowing developing countries to grow their own food wealth with all of the agency and employment that that brings, as well as crafting ever more cute cat videos for global dissemination because of chemistry. Chemistry, ultimately, is bringing us both bread and roses.
I would say that the application of chemistry can and does bring us unforseen consequences.

Neonicotinoids are not exactly an example of pest management strategies that are both more effective and less harmful, now, are they ?

Mentioning them as another example to the contrary to all the rah rah about both bread and roses is germane to the topic.
posted by y2karl at 3:33 PM on June 15, 2016


Here, let me google that for you.
Since the mid‑1990s, Monsanto indicates that it has filed suit against 145 individual U.S. farmers for patent infringement and/or breach of contract in connection with its genetically engineered seed but has proceeded through trial against only eleven farmers, all of which it won
Works out to about 10 a year (maybe closer to 9 depending on how you count the years) by my math.
posted by VTX at 4:49 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


So, on or off the legal record, in conversation or writing, only 145 farmers in total were ever threatened with legal action by Monsanto ? I stand corrected.

And, certainly, I wildly misspoke.

However, a statement like pest management strategies that are both more effective and less harmful is bullshit. The jury is way way out on the consequences of the industrial application of pesticides on a global scale, neonicotinoids being only the most current example.

It's not the science but the application of the science and by what entities that belies the rosy scenario above presented. And there Monsanto is the eight hundred thousand pound poster child gorilla in the convention center.
posted by y2karl at 6:46 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


Also, from the Wikipedia page for Environmental impact of pesticides, there is this:
Over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species, because they are sprayed or spread across entire agricultural fields. Runoff can carry pesticides into aquatic environments while wind can carry them to other fields, grazing areas, human settlements and undeveloped areas, potentially affecting other species. Other problems emerge from poor production, transport and storage practices. Over time, repeated application increases pest resistance, while its effects on other species can facilitate the pest's resurgence.

Each pesticide or pesticide class comes with a specific set of environmental concerns. Such undesirable effects have led many pesticides to be banned, while regulations have limited and/or reduced the use of others.
Some pest management strategy both less harmful and more effective that.
posted by y2karl at 6:59 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's also worth noting that at least one of the most high-profile cases where Monsanto sued a farmer was a case where a guy noticed there might be roundup ready canola growing on his property, so he sprayed with roundup, saved seed from the stuff that survived, and replanted it, on purpose. This was not some accidental contamination, or even saving seed from something he'd already bought.

Intellectual property protections on biotech are a tricky area, and I tend to think the law goes too far in protecting the originators in many cases, but it doesn't seem like Monsanto is doing anything particularly bad here, compared to most large companies. Also, note that they donate all proceeds from such lawsuits to charity.

Also, in the discussion about pesticides, one of the things that GMO crops do is actually reduce the application of pesticides, and particularly the application of very harmful pesticides. For instance, roundup is far less toxic than neonicotinoids (which Monsanto does not make), and since the crop is resistant, smaller amounts can be sprayed directly onto the crops. Some other examples, like Bt corn, makes the actual crop toxic to some insects, so that there's no pesticide sprayed at all (for those insects).

Organic agriculture, on the other hand, is allowed to spray highly toxic copper sulfate, not because it's less harmful, but because it's "not synthetic", since "the Romans pioneered its use in orchards". Rotenone is also allowed in organic farming, also because it's "naturally-occurring". It causes Parkinson's disease in farm workers.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:19 AM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]



From the Wikipedia page for Glyphosate:
Farmers quickly adopted glyphosate, especially after Monsanto introduced glyphosate-resistant Roundup Ready crops, enabling farmers to kill weeds without killing their crops. In 2007, glyphosate was the most used herbicide in the United States' agricultural sector and the second-most used in home and garden, government and industry, and commerce.By 2016 there was a 100-fold increase in the frequency of applications and volumes of glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) applied, partly in response to the unprecedented global emergence and spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds.
Quite a list of Roundup resistant weeds there, not to mention
Monarch butterfly

Use of glyphosate to clear milkweed along roads and fields has led to a decline in monarch butterfly populations in the Midwest. The herbicide usage caused an estimated 58% decline in milkweeds, which resulted in 81% decline in monarchs.] The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a suit in 2015 against the EPA, in which it is argued that the agency ignored warnings about the dangers of glyphosate usage for monarchs.[m
Ah, the blessings of benign world feeding chemistry.
posted by y2karl at 10:54 AM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


And regarding allowing developing countries to grow their own food wealth with all of the agency and employment that that brings, there is this:
Suicide by pesticide: It's an epidemic in India, where farmers try to keep up with the latest pest-resistant seeds only to find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of pesticides that don't work, drought and debt. Since 1997, more than 25,000 farmers have committed suicide, many drinking the chemical that was supposed to make their crops more, not less, productive.
Seeds of Suicide - India's desperate farmers

See also
n the late 1980s, however, the Green Revolution began to fall apart as the chemical fertilizers rendered soil infertile. Farmers who had once diversified risk by growing as many as 30 different crops in their fields were dependent upon just one. As the quality of the soil deteriorated, they faced zero yields and an inability to pay their debts. Three years of drought beginning in 2001 further fueled the crisis.

Twenty-five thousand farmers have committed suicide under these circumstances since 1997. In the state of Andhra Pradesh alone, 4,500 farmers have committed suicide in the past seven years. This does not include the number of family members of farmers who have also killed them selves.
Seeds of Suicide - Links
posted by y2karl at 12:09 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also, note that they donate all proceeds from such lawsuits to charity.

Back when I lived in Philadelphia, a local mobster would give out a turkey dinner to the homeless over the holidays. Didn't make the money any cleaner, but I do get the sentiment.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 1:25 PM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


That the suicide of farmers in India is GMO seed or herbicide related is a myth, spread in large part by kooks like Vandana Shiva. See for instance this Guardian article, or this Gizmodo article which links to this paper (PDF), and this article from Discover magazine. In addition, the Wikipedia article on farmer suicides in India has an interesting graph.

In short, farmer suicides are not correlated to growing GMO cotton, suicide rates are highest in states that have smaller cotton production, and less GMO cotton, and farmer suicides actually peaked before the introduction of GMO cotton in India and has dropped as GMO cotton has become more common.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:29 PM on June 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


... the situation is way too complicated to be aptly described by sound bites in a rhetorical war.

For their analysis, the team looked closely at yields, pesticide use, farmer incomes, and suicide rates in India's cotton regions, both before and after the debut of Bt seeds in 2002.

They found that on large farms with access to irrigation water, genetically modified cotton makes economic sense—paying up for the more expensive seeds helps control a voracious pest called the pink bollworm in a cost-effective way.

But 65 percent of India's cotton crop comes from farmers who rely on rain, not irrigation pumps. For them, the situation is the opposite—reliance on pesticides and the higher cost of the seeds increase the risk of bankruptcy and thus suicide, the study finds. The smaller and more Bt-reliant the farm in these rain-fed cotton areas, the authors found, the higher the suicide rate. (An analysis that largely jibes with Shiva's, apart from her heated rhetoric.)

Even so, the paper does not present Bt cotton as the trigger for India's farmer-suicide crisis. Rather, it provides crucial background for understanding how India's shift to industrial farming techniques starting in the 1960s left the majority of the nation's cotton farmers increasingly reliant on loans to purchase pricey fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds, and eventually GM seeds, making them vulnerable to bankruptcy when the vagaries of rain and global cotton markets turned against them.

...when Monsanto's bollworm-targeting Bt seeds hit the market in the early 2000s, they were essentially an industrial-ag solution to a problem that had been caused by industrial agriculture.

As an alternative to Bt seeds, the paper shows, small-scale farmers can successfully plant varieties of cotton that ripen quickly, before bollworm populations emerge. As for the irrigated cotton farms that are now successfully using the Bt trait, the authors note that India's large farms, like many of California's, are tapping underground water that's "unregulated and unpriced," at rates much higher than natural recharge. They're courting a problem that may make the feared bollworm look tame by comparison: "the impending collapse of ground water levels for irrigated cotton."
No, GMOs Didn't Create India's Farmer Suicide Problem, But…
posted by y2karl at 10:24 PM on June 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


Also, re: ...one of the things that GMO crops do is actually reduce the application of pesticides, and particularly the application of very harmful pesticides,
Since 1974 in the U.S., over 1.6 billion kilograms of glyphosate active ingredient have been applied, or 19 % of estimated global use of glyphosate (8.6 billion kilograms). Globally, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready,” genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996. Two-thirds of the total volume of glyphosate applied in the U.S. from 1974 to 2014 has been sprayed in just the last 10 years. The corresponding share globally is 72 %. In 2014, farmers sprayed enough glyphosate to apply ~1.0 kg/ha (0.8 pound/acre) on every hectare of U.S.-cultivated cropland and nearly 0.53 kg/ha (0.47 pounds/acre) on all cropland worldwide.
Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally
posted by y2karl at 6:07 PM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yes, and what do the trends in other herbicides look like? Glyphosate is one of the least toxic, safest herbicides there is. That use of it increases while the use of other, far more toxic pesticides decreases, is a good thing. Copper sulfate, for instance, which is used in large amounts in organic agriculture, is far more toxic. And Bt crops, which have pest resistance built in, require no insecticides.

That the use of glyphosate increases is normal, and in no way an indication that GMO crops leads to more pesticide use in general, or, more importantly, that GMO crops leads to the use of more harmful pesticides. If glyphosate use increases dramatically because glyphosate replaces more toxic pesticides, that's extremely good for the environment.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 3:18 PM on June 20, 2016


Glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, is the most widely used herbicide in the United States. About 100 million pounds are applied to U.S. farms and lawns every year, according to the EPA.

Until now, most health studies have focused on the safety of glyphosate, rather than the mixture of ingredients found in Roundup. But in the new study, scientists found that Roundup’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells—even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns.

One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself – a finding the researchers call “astonishing.”

“This clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup formulations are not inert,” wrote the study authors from France’s University of Caen. “Moreover, the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels” found on Roundup-treated crops, such as soybeans, alfalfa and corn, or lawns and gardens.

The research team suspects that Roundup might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.
Weed-Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells

A witches brew of chemical interactions: another example of unforseen consequences.
posted by y2karl at 5:03 PM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


An ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed-killer – glyphosate – is “probably carcinogenic,” according to a new decision by the World Health Organization yesterday. The decision was laid out in a new analysis in The Lancet Oncology, and published on the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) website. The analysis is based on the existing research on the chemical exposure in people and lab animals. Though it’s sure to raise consumer concerns, some – like Monsanto – say it’s unwarranted since no new data are included in the research, and previous studies have all deemed glyphosate relatively safe in the doses humans take it in. Consumers’ ears are certainly pricked at this new decision – but how convincing is it?

The report determines that there is “limited evidence” that the chemical can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and lung cancer in humans. It says there is, however, “convincing evidence” that it can cause cancer in laboratory animals. Among people who work with the herbicide, who generally have traces of the compound in their blood and urine, there appears to be a slightly increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, according to the report: “Case-control studies of occupational exposure in the USA, Canada, and Sweden reported increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma that persisted after adjustment for other pesticides.”

...If nothing else, at least the new decision will raise awareness on the part of the customer – and hopefully the concerns and fears it may also spark will turn into energies in the right direction: A demand for greater food safety and more scientific studies on the effects of these chemicals have on us and the environment in the long-run.
WHO Says Monsanto Roundup Ingredient Is 'Probably Carcinogenic.' Are They Right?
posted by y2karl at 5:33 PM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]


That use of it increases while the use of other, far more toxic pesticides decreases

That's not really true. Glyphosate resistance has increased, which has lead to increased use of both glyphosate and other herbicides/pesticides. Anyway, who are we kidding at this point, given that no matter what facts come out, any criticism of bad science gets called "chemophobia" or some other neologism that is the functional invention of the PR departments of the Monsantos of the world.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 12:03 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


The EPA's long-awaited assessment focused on how one of the most prominent neonics—Bayer's imidacloprid—affects bees. The report card was so dire that the EPA "could potentially take action" to "restrict or limit the use" of the chemical by the end of this year, an agency spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement...

The biggest imidacloprid-treated crop of all is soybeans, and soy remains an information black hole. The EPA assessment notes that soybeans are "attractive to bees via pollen and nectar," meaning they could expose bees to dangerous levels of imidacloprid, but data on how much of the pesticide shows up in soybeans' pollen and nectar are "unavailable," both from Bayer and from independent researchers. Oops. Mind you, imidacloprid has been registered for use by the EPA since the 1990s.

The agency still has to consider public comments on the bee assessment it just released, and it also has to complete a risk assessment of imidacloprid's effect on other species. In addition to their impact on bees, neonic pesticides may also harm birds, butterflies, and water-borne invertebrates, recent studies suggest. Then there are the assessments of the other four neonic products that need to be done. Meanwhile, a coalition of beekeepers and environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday pointing out that the agency has never properly assessed neonics in their most widely used form: as seed coatings, which are then taken up by crops.
The EPA Finally Admitted That the World’s Most Popular Pesticide Kills Bees—20 Years Too Late
posted by y2karl at 8:14 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yes, Glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans (category 2A)", which is one of the lowest risk categories of the IARC, the same one as, for instance, red meat, nitrates in sausages and bacon, beverages hotter than 65 degrees centigrade, and emissions from deep frying. It's good that it got categorized this way, because for agricultural workers, there might be some risk. To you as a consumer, and anyone not spending a lot of time spraying it, there's zero risk. Ethanol, good old alcohol, is "Carcinogenic to humans (category 1)", as is solar radiation. To link this small occupational hazard for farm workers to "food safety" is really, really intellectually dishonest.

And now you're bringing up neonics, which are not made by Monsanto, are not in any way related to GMOs, and which are, despite what Mother Jones says, unlikely to be the sole or even main reason for Colony Collapse Disorder in bees. There seems to be some evidence that there's a combination of factors, probably including mite infections, viruses, and yes, some pesticides, that are leading to CCD.

This frantic moving of the goalposts that you're doing is probably what happens when you're determined to show that "all GMOs" and "all pesticides" are equally horrible, without considering them on a case by case basis. There have certainly been pesticides with unforeseen negative consequences in the past, we've gotten better at testing them, but there's likely to be more such cases. GMOs, on the other hand, have not had a single negative consequence demonstrated (in the sense of toxicity or health effects), despite the whole "seeds of death" thing and Vandana Shiva's incessant offensive rape analogies.

Rationalwiki's GMO food article is a good starting point for balanced, reasoned analysis of the issue.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:12 PM on June 21, 2016


Here, by the way, is a case where resistance to GMO most definitely killed a bunch of people: Zambia's government refused GMO corn in the middle of a famine because they didn't want to feed their people "poison".
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:15 PM on June 21, 2016


To you as a consumer, and anyone not spending a lot of time spraying it, there's zero risk... To link this small occupational hazard for farm workers to "food safety" is really, really intellectually dishonest.

You are projecting, sir. I have said nothing of the sort. I posted a number of articles in reaction to the bullshit and spin of the glowing rhetoric of the post.

You assert that GMOs, on the other hand, have not had a single negative consequence demonstrated (in the sense of toxicity or health effects)... and then talk about moving the goal posts. Or say things like the use of glyphosate increases is normal, and in no way an indication that GMO crops leads to more pesticide use in general, or, more importantly, that GMO crops leads to the use of more harmful pesticides, and then complain about intellectual dishonesty.

And a statement like There have certainly been pesticides with unforeseen negative consequences in the past, we've gotten better at testing them, but there's likely to be more such cases is bland spin, a statement of belief, not fact.

Glyphosate is safe and nontoxic, you say, but can you say the same regarding it to n combination with ''inert'' ingredients like polyethoxylated tallowamine ? RoundUp is more than Glyphosate and we simply do not have evidence that the hundredfold increased use of it does not have consequences.

A demand for greater food safety and more scientific studies on the effects of these chemicals have on us and the environment in the long-run... -- this is what I am in favor of. Labeling of food as to whether or not GMO ingredients are included, this I favor as well -- a corporation like Monsanto having control of the food supply, I do not.

RoundUp Ready crops have serious environmental consequences as do pesticides like Neonicotinoids. Industrial agriculture has consequences.

The post was about so-called chemophobia and made simplistic glowing rhetorical assertions about the blessings of chemistry and genetically modified organisms and.feeding the world.

Well, the first thing that came to my mind were RoundUp Ready crops.

The name Rachel Carson comes to mind...

I am sure that people pooh-poohed her concerns in much the same manner as has been done here with mine and other members commenting herein.

But you see, people come by a fear of pesticides honestly, having seen what happened in the past.

We've gotten better at testing pesticides ?
Please forgive me for being unable to take your word on that.
posted by y2karl at 11:08 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


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