Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Dr Folta and Dr Blair and the problem with industry funding

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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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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:

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And this:

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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.


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Is Nature’s Path leading us astray?

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A friend recently sent me a link to this blog post Why I Won’t Be Buying Nature’s Path Mesa Sunrise Flakes AnymoreShe thought it might be something that I would agree with, rather than the usual nutrition misinformation that she alerts me too. However, as I read I found myself disagreeing with the author.

While she’s absolutely entitled to purchase (or boycott) whatever type of cereal she chooses, and entitled to her own opinions about GMOs, I think that her conclusions are misguided. Basically, she’s decided not to purchase the aforementioned cereal anymore because Nature’s Path is staunchly anti-GMO and has tweeted support for a film that is allegedly pseudo-science and fear-mongering. She believes that we need to differentiate between types of genetic modification and can’t lump things like Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready, Bt corn, and arctic apples together. I beg to differ. I think that these GMOs can be lumped together (especially the RR and Bt corn – since they’re both supposedly engineered to be pest-resistant).

I know many intelligent people who firmly believe that GMOs are safe for us to eat. I also know many people who are vehemently opposed to these foods and believe them to be toxic. I tend to lean toward the latter category. It baffles me that a crop can be engineered to contain pesticides and yet it’s supposed to be safe for humans to consume. While I don’t necessarily think that crops that are engineered to have certain qualities (such as the arctic apples and GM salmon) are going to be toxic I think that there’s more than food safety to consider here. Yes, we are essentially the guinea pigs in this long-term study of GMO safety. There hasn’t been enough research for us to know whether or not these foods are safe to eat. But there’s more than that.

We don’t know the impact that introducing these GM crops and animals is going to have on the ecosystem. We’re already doing plenty to destroy our planet by emitting greenhouse gases, polluting the water, killing various species, and clear-cutting forests. Do we really need to add our scientifically engineered organisms to the list? There are always unanticipated unintended consequences; just look at the hypoallergenic cow. What impact will GM crops have on their current counterparts? What impact will GM crops have on essential insects and other animals who pollinate and eat them?

Despite what Monsanto and those who’ve consumed the genetically modified kool-aid would have you believe, we don’t need to genetically modify crops to feed the global population. We need to be smarter about how we grow and distribute our food.

So, I’m not going to buy Nature’s Path’s Mesa Sunrise Cereal because I don’t like it. However, I will buy their Pumpkin Raisin Crunch when it’s on sale because it’s delicious.


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Prop 37

I’ve been seeing lots about the battle over Prop 37 in California for the past month or so. I just wanted to add my two cents as there’s one thing that’s really been bothering me.

On one side there’s Monsanto, the giant GMO seed company, fighting to prevent the labelling proposal. On the other side there are a number of people fighting to make labelling of foods containing GMOs mandatory. I’m fully on the side of the latter. We don’t know if GMOs are safe or not at this point and I think that as consumers we should be provided with the information to enable us to decide for ourselves whether or not we’re going to consume them. However, I keep hearing an argument from people in this group that’s completely invalid. The argument: if GMOs are safe for us to consume then why are food producers fighting the labeling; what are they trying to hide? I think this argument makes the pro-labeling group look foolish. Even if GMOs are safe, many people believe them to be unsafe. Of course  manufacturers are going to be opposed to the labeling proposition because they fear loss of sales, regardless of safety. Come on people, use better arguments! Fear mongering does not lend strength to your cause. I think knowledge is always good and that decisions shouldn’t be made based on making big food big money.