bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

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Dr Folta and Dr Blair and the problem with industry funding


Photo: Coke de Plume by BFLV on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of things happened in the scientific world in fairly short succession recently. I spent a lot of time waffling about whether or not I should write about them. Primarily because I don’t want to draw the ire of the pro-GMO community. I see a lot of rabid support for “science” on twitter and I fear being dismissed as anti-science. But this post isn’t about whether or not GMOs are great, or even whether or not they’re safe. It’s not about my opinions on genetic modification nor organic farming. “What is it about?” you ask. It’s about credibility and honesty in scientific research and dissemination of said research.

A few weeks ago the Internets got their collective panties in a twist because some scientists were revealed to have received money from Monsanto. In particular, one scientist received money to pay for his travel expenses in order to enable him to speak at events. Naturally, he was speaking in support of genetic modification, which aligns with Monsanto’s values. I’ve since seen his supporters claim that this information was freely available to anyone who was interested and that he had never failed to disclose his funding sources. I’ve also seen his detractors attribute quotes to him clearly stating that he did not receive money from Monsanto. I don’t know who to believe. It doesn’t really matter who I (or anyone) believes anyway. The important fact of the matter is that he received money from Monsanto to speak at conferences and events.

The following week the news broke that a number of scientists have been receiving funding from Coke (via a nonprofit organization) to support their research and other logistics. That research focusing on the import of exercise in weight management. Once again, the Internet was collectively outraged. Okay, I exaggerate. Nearly everyone I follow on twitter, and much of the mainstream media, were outraged. The researchers shrugged and said: what’s the problem, we’ve never hidden the fact that we received money from Coca Cola and that money had no influence on our research findings. Everyone rolled their eyes and said: um, bias, helllooo. 

Here we have two instances of scientific funding by organizations which have vested interests in the results. Here we have two groups of scientists saying that the funding doesn’t matter and that their findings would be the same no matter where the money was coming from. So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that by accepting financial support from organizations that have a vested interest in the results and the messages from theses scientists creates the perception of bias. Even if these scientists are completely impartial, and that’s being incredibly generous given the fact that the majority of industry funded research findings support the interests of the funders, it raises doubts about that impartiality. At worst, the scientists receiving the funding have a conflict of interest. At best, they have a perceived conflict of interest, and perception matters. It also makes for an uneven scientific playing field. If all of the players on one team are having their expenses covered by a benefactor then how can the other team hope to succeed. Even if they are better players, they can’t afford to go to out-of-town matches or find the time for extra practice.

If only the scientists with the pro-GMO message or the scientists with the pro-exercise message are given the platforms to share those messages how can we ever hope to find out the truth?

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The Arctic apple should go rot (with extra rants)


I have a few things I want to say about GMOs as there seems to be a lot of confusion regarding them and I’ve had a couple of people suggest related topics for blog posts.

1. The Arctic apple was approved for production by the FDA and the CFIA a few weeks ago. Some food manufacturers people are pretty excited about this because it means that you will now be able to slice or bite an apple without having to worry about unsightly enzymatic browning. I mean, god forbid that your apple innards not be a pristine white. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that this was approved at the same time as everyone’s expressing such enthusiasm for “ugly” vegetables and fruits?

It’s this sort of use of genetic modification that makes me particularly angry. The primary argument in support of GMOs is that they will help to feed the world through hardier higher yielding crops. An apple that doesn’t brown is going to be of no benefit to people living in drought stricken regions. It’s not going to help alleviate the hunger of anyone except the food manufacturers who think that apples need to be pre-sliced and packaged in plastic pouches at exorbitant prices. Did you know that an apple comes with a lovely natural protective skin on it and that it can be sold intact? Did you know that you can eat an apple without slicing it first? And that there are kitchen tools called knives that enable you to slice an apple yourself if that’s your preferred method of consumption. Come on. Creating an apple that doesn’t brown when exposed to the air should not have been a priority for engineers. Do something worthwhile.

2. Non-GMO is not the same thing as organic. Based on the current definitions, all organic foods must be non-GMO but not all non-GMO foods are organic. Organic foods must also be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides. Which leads to number three…


3. Mamavation’s top 10 reasons to feed your family organic which are basically a list of lies. One and two being true (although not necessarily good reasons to feed your family organic) and the rest, aside from number six, being misleading at best and completely false at worst. 3. Organic foods have been found to contain residual pesticides. Organic farmers are permitted to use pesticides, they just can’t use inorganic (i.e. synthetic pesticides). In addition to those pesticides, organic crops also become contaminated with inorganic pesticides through air, rain, and soil contamination. 4. Have you ever looked at any of the packaged organic foods in your local supermarket? Products containing preservatives are plentiful. While they may not contain artificial flavours or colours this doesn’t make them nutritionally superior. Natural fallacy anyone? Beaver anal glands (can’t miss an opportunity to mention them!). 5. No antibiotics or hormones. You won’t find these in any Canadian milk regardless of whether or not it’s organic. In fact, you’ll only find hormones in beef and antibiotics in some animals (1). 7. There is no evidence, despite numerous studies, that organic foods contain more nutrients than non-organic foods. 8. Better taste. How to argue with subjectivity? I have had some delicious organic foods and some that taste terrible. I think that freshness and variety are more important factors in flavour profile than organic is. 9. Support the farmer and the farm. Organic is irrelevant here. I think that she’s confusing conventional agriculture with factory farms. Many smaller farming operations may be organic without being certified organic, they may also not use organic practices. You can also buy organic foods that come from large-scale farming operations. A better suggestion: buy local, know your farmer. 10. Reduces pollution and saves energy. Again, this is confusing farm-scale with organic and conventional farming practices.

While I’m not a supporter of genetic modification, I’m even more opposed to ignorant fear mongering.


Monsanto, GMOs, and a dose of condescention

I bit my tongue the other day when I was reading a deluge of tweets insulting people who were participating in the March Against Monsanto. I found the tweets offensive because they presumed that only farmers have the right to decide if genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are worthy of entry into the food supply. They also presumed that people who were marching against Monsanto were only concerned about GMOs and were ignorant of science. Someone actually said that, as long as you have enough to eat, you have no right to complain about or question the food system. Seriously? I think that we should question everything. As long as I’m putting food into my body I would like to feel confident that it’s safe, nutrient rich, and delicious. Of course, GMO is not the only concern when it comes to safety, the centralization of our food supply and the diminished capacity of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) are probably more concerning to me. As is the declining number of farms and farmers across the country.

To be honest, I take exception to both extremes. My concern with Monsanto is that they force farmers to become reliant on them for seeds. Patenting seeds is terrifying to me. We should not be allowing one company to have so much control over our food supply. My concern with GMOs is that we don’t know what the long-term impact of their introduction to the ecosystem will be. We don’t know what effect these new plants and animals (so far just salmon has been applied for approval in Canada but we’ve seen other experimental animals around the world) will have on the other plants and animals. There could be serious implications for biodiversity. We also don’t know what the long-term implications of consuming these GMOs will be. Sorry if short-term mouse studies don’t convince me of the safety of these new foods for human consumption throughout our lives.

Okay, now for the other extreme. We have research conducted on tumour-prone mice intended to demonstrate that GMOs will give us cancer. Lots of photos like this:


And this:


No, that one’s no GMO, but the extreme anti-GMO camp tends toward chemophobia and seems to lack an understanding of the fact that everything is comprised of chemicals. So what that ants aren’t into the artificially sweetened candy. That must mean that it’s toxic. Except, there are many foods, including lots of vegetables, that ants would not recognize as food.

While I am clearly wary of GMOs, I don’t see attacking each other and dismissing arguments out of hand as beneficial to either side. It’s making me want to tune out both camps and start my own subsistence farm in a very isolated location.