Month: March 2016

Consumed the Movie: a misinformed anti-GMO thriller

Consumed the Movie: a misinformed anti-GMO thriller

Consumed, a film by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones stars Lister-Jones as a single mom barely holding it together as she tries find out why her son has developed mysterious symptoms. Needless to say, the cause turns out to be “GMOs” even though not a single verifiable instance of any human or animal reaction to transgenic crops has ever been reported. The film contains every single anti-GMO trope you have ever heard, all of them wrong.

The film begins in the dark at Danny Glover’s organic vegetable farm, as he sees people, cars and lights surrounding his fields. The story eventually develops that he is being investigated by Clonestra, the film’s transparent stand-in for Monsanto for planting unlicensed GMO seeds. This is hard to believe because Glover has been an organic farmer for years and has had his “organic certification” for 30 years. This is amusing, because the National Organic Program didn’t start until the year 2000.

The scene shifts to Sophie (Lister-Jones) waiting for her son outside his school, where she meets the hunky and charming Eddie (Taylor Kinney) who has a son about the same age, and who also appears to be a single parent. Sophie’s son Garrett (Nick Bonn) comes out looking and feeling droopy, and Sophie rushes him home to the house she shares with her mother Kristin (Beth Grant). Garrett gets worse and vomits in the night.

The scene shifts to India where Dan Conway (Victor Garber), the silver haired head of Clonestra is giving Indian farmers seeds to a new drought-tolerant variety of corn, along with “discount coupons” to purchase seed in future years. He and his entourage are chased off by some protesting farmers.

Concerned that Garrett may have developed a new virulent strain of the flu, Sophie rushes him to the doctor who reassures her, but strangely makes no mention of the advisability of flu shots, a typical prejudice of anti-GMO activists.

However, Garrett soon develops a red itchy rash all over his arms and torso, and neither her pediatrician nor a dermatologist can diagnose it. This leads to the rest of the story where Sophie desperately tries to find a cause and is involved in one crushing problem after another.

Sophie somehow gets the idea (this plot is really complicated) that her son may be allergic to “GMOs” and spend some time researching this possibility. Her mother works as a secretary to the head of the university’s “science department,” (apparently they only do one science there) and she arranges to talk with him about her fears. He is quite reassuring and tells of transgenic crop successes in preventing starvation.

In the anteroom, which also appears to be a small biotech lab, Sophie also meets Jacob (Anthony Edwards) and Serge Negani (Kunal Nayyar), his Indian colleague. Lurking in the background is Peter (Griffin Dunne) who overhears Sophie’s worries about her son and meets her secretively in the parking lot, saying that he is a scientist and there must be files somewhere showing the bad effects that Sophie thinks her son is experiencing. Sophie leaves her son with Eddie one afternoon and she and Peter sneak into the university science department (where it now seems to be night) using her mom’s keys. The files are missing and they are caught. It turns out that Peter is not a scientist, but the janitor. Sophie finds old news articles showing that Peter once was a scientist there, but had a nervous breakdown while “researching GMOs.” This whole episode seems pretty pointless and could have been excised.

Cut to the university biotech lab, where Connelly is giving what seem to be cash rewards to Jacob and Serge for their research on biotech chickens. It seems that all the biotech research Clonestra uses has been done under contract by the university science department rather than within the company. They said they used to get their funding from the FDA (really?) but now they get it all from Clonestra (not believable).

He later tells them their grant is terminated, their job is done and thank you very much, and that Clonestra owns all the patents. (What university development office would have agreed to this?)  Jacob goes home, asking Negani to see that the chicken cages are clean before he leaves so that they can turn them over to Clonestra in good shape.

Negani finds that all the chickens are dead, and begins searching Jacob’s computer for any information. He finds a great deal of incriminating information about the dangers of this project, duplicates it and carries it out to his car. He calls Sophie, realizing that this may be the answer to her concerns, although how development of unreleased biotech chickens has anything to do with GM corn is not explained. Sophie, fearing retribution, refuses to talk to him.

Determined to get the information to Sophie he sets out to drive it to her house. However, Eddie is shown drinking longnecks outside a bar with a couple of construction workers. Eddie goes inside and the two workers leave and chase Negani, bumping into his car and trying to force him off the road. In an accident, he is killed.

Learning of the accident, Sophie goes to see Negani’s wife, who tells Sophie that Negani’s father was a farmer in India who was growing GM corn, which gradually became less productive and too expensive, and he and a group of farmers committed suicide by drinking insecticide. While there are many things wrong with the thesis of this movie, this one is particularly offensive, because while there were Indian farmer suicides related to debt, they began taking place long before Bt cotton was introduced and decreased as they began to profit from the significant increase in productivity of the Bt cotton. There is no GM corn grown in India yet.

Sophie retrieves the incriminating papers from Nagani’s car just as it is about to be crushed, and crashes a press conference with Eddie’s help (did we mention he secretly works for Clonestra?), confronts Conway with the evidence, which had been kept from him. The biotech chickens are announced, but Conway resigns from Clonestra right after the press conference.

Our review

The movie ends with a somewhat heavy handed insistence that GM crops be labeled. No kidding. All that expense and all of Sophie’s misery and the death of both Danny Glover (heart attack) and Negani (car accident) for that? Oh, and Sophie’s mother spent several days in the hospital in a diabetic coma because she had ice cream with Garrett. Come on! Enough misery!

Wein describes his film as a “political thriller,” but “science fiction” might be a better label. The trouble is that good science fiction starts with actual science and extends it plausibly. This movie starts with bad science fears and continually hits you over the head with them. There has never been any reported evidence of any ill effect on humans or animals by any biotech crop.

The idea that ”GMOs” are an ingredient rather than a breeding technique pervades the movie. And the mantra that there have “never been any human tests” repeats several times. Foods are never tested on humans, (as Katiraee explains) because you cannot control a human diet the way you can control lab animals’ diets. The films also claims that there are only 90 day studies done and no long term studies have been done.  This contradicts the well-known study by Snell and Bernheim, which did review many long term studies and concluded the 90-day studies were indeed sufficient. And, of course, van Eenenaam and Young’s billion animal retrospective feeding study clearly show that there are no long term effects on using GM versus non-GM animals feeds.

Probably the most implausible part of the movie’s thesis is that only one child is affected with whatever this rash is (at the last moment Eddie’s boy gets it too). If this were a real problem we would expect hundreds of thousands of such cases, not just two. The rash is never diagnosed nor cured: that plot point which launches the story is left hanging. Probably because it has nothing to do with GM chickens, which haven’t been released yet anyway.

The idea that a company would knowingly be releasing products that would kill their customers is preposterous, and a bad business model. Now in the original Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson Batman, the Joker did release a product that killed customers, but he was a homicidal maniac, not a biotech company seeking to make a profit by selling better seeds. (Here’s a clip from that great Batman movie.)

In a peculiar analogy, Sophie mentions that tobacco was known to cause cancer in the 1950s but warning labels didn’t appear for 50 years. Drawing analogies to biotech, she supposes it will be 2040 before biotech foods are labeled. We discussed this crazy theory before, but the difference is that biotech crops are not known to have ill effects and in fact are the most heavily tested foodstuffs on the planet, with each new crop undergoing 10-11 years of testing before receiving approval.

While Danny Glover dies of a heart attack after learning that Clonestra will be suing him for growing unlicensed crops because of pollen drift, this has never happened and the real Clonestra, Monsanto has sworn in court that they will never do this. And such drift does not affect organic certification in any case.

While the film is gripping in many ways, it is essentially a fraud because it is based on popular misinformation that the writers have done nothing to fact check. This may be why the film has never found a  distributor: it is shown in various theaters around the US in presold private screenings to already convinced activists, who for the most part probably have not looked into the science either.

As reported by Klumper and Qaim, GM crops have increased crop yields by 21%, decreased pesticide use by 37% and increased profits by 69%. This is the real news the filmmakers should have pointed out. Labeling foods bred by one technique but nutritionally identical makes even less sense than this movie.


Michael Pollan: the “lonely science writer”

stalks in sun
Corn in the sun

Journalist Michael Pollan is known for his books on food and cooking, but rather than calling himself a journalist, he has taken to calling himself a science writer. He’s not.

In an interview with Grubstreet, promoting his Netflix series (trailer here) promoting the movie version of his overblown book, Cooked, Pollan is asked to comment on biotechnology (GMOs). In an earlier interview he had said that “he felt pretty lonely among my science-writing colleagues in being critical of this technology.” That is because he has not done the usual digging you do before writing a story, as he no doubt teaches his journalism students.

Here’s what he said:

 GMOs have been, I think, a tremendous disappointment. They haven’t done what Monsanto promised they would do, which is make American agriculture more sustainable. I think that they have done a brilliant job of getting everybody to focus on the narrow question of “is this stuff going to kill you if you eat it?” And they’ve won that argument…

Usually you cite sources for claims like that, and other than parroting claims of the Organic Consumers Association, he can’t do that. To cite sources, Klumper and Qaim’s PLoS One meta-study concluded that

On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.

This is not a disappointment, and it is exactly what Monsanto (and the 5 other biotech companies) claimed they would do. Here is some more of his nonsense:

  • What does it do to pesticides? It increased them dramatically. No it doesn’t. See the figures above.
  • …there hasn’t been the kind of testing the public assumes there was. The FDA doesn’t demand it. GM crops undergo more than 10 years of testing overseen by the FDA before they can be released. They are the most tested and safest crops in our food system.
  • It is a PR achievement, and that is to make any criticism of their products akin to climate denia Can he cite any science to show any harm? No. That is why Pollan is not really a science writer.
  • Well, the issues aren’t all scientific. There are political issues, economic issues, agronomic issues, and those have gotten ignored and it’s a shame. Such as? Farmers buy GM traited seeds because they are more profitable (economic issue) and they allow no-till farming (agronomic issue). The political issues are the huge anti-GMO campaign orchestrated by the Organic Consumers Association and allied groups.
  • The public has made it known that they would like to have labels so they can decide for whatever reason, good or bad, well-informed or poorly informed, that they don’t or want to eat this. Without a label you don’t know what we’re eating. He does not explain what a label would tell you: which ingredient has biotech traits? Which traits are they? What risks (none) are associated with them? Does he know that DNA is completely digested before it reaches your bloodstream and has no effects on your body? Does he know that GM crops are nutritionally identical?
  • I think we should label food if it contains pesticides, but nobody is talking about that. The only pesticide used in biotech crops is bacillus thuriniensis, which is also used on organic farms. Extensive study has shown that it has no effect on humans or livestock.
  • if you’re not using pesticides, if you’re organic, you have to pay to put a label on declaring you aren’t using pesticides.  Sorry, Mr Pollan, organic farmers do use pesticides, just different ones, as Savage explains.
  • Golden rice is a great example. It’s always about to revolutionize world agriculture and help cure vitamin A deficiency, and for some reason it doesn’t come. Perhaps it is because of Greenpeace’s endless battle to resist golden rice, causing blindness in death sue to Vitamin A deficiency.

Let’s be clear: Michael Pollan is knowingly spreading serious misinformation about biotechnology when just a little research would disabuse him of these canards. He may call himself a journalist, but he cannot call himself a science writer.

Consumer Reports flogs bogus Roundup paper

edamameConsumer Reports a year or so ago reversed itself and began taking anti-science stances against biotechnology, because catering to the prejudices of their readers is more profitable than standing for actual science. Porterfield describes this volte face away from science here.

Its latest salvo into things it barely understands is hyping a poorly argued paper in their article “Scientists Raise Concerns Over Weed Killer Glyphosate in New Study.” They argue is that the “risks of glyphosate (Roundup) have been understated and that further study is needed.” They refer to a paper by 14 scientists, many with organic industry ties just published in Environmental Health, titled “Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposures: a consensus statement.”

This is not a research paper or a study: it is a consensus statement by 14 scientists, many who could be classified as “activists,” including Consumer’s Union’s own Michael Hansen, who has been spreading misinformation about biotechnology for years, all contrary to accepted science. To see Hansen’s incoherent communication style in action, take a look at the 2013 debate at Hofstra University reported here. You can watch the actual debate here, and will quickly conclude that Hansen is in over his head in his debate with University of Florida Horticultural Science Chairman Kevin Folta.

The paper starts out citing the IARC, an autonomous extension of the WHO surprising claim that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic,” despite a vast array of peer-reviewed  papers to the contrary. These are summarized by Giddings. In fact, they went so far off the rails as to quote Seralini papers, and Gurney went so far as to suggest that the IARC “requires adult supervision.” No, there is no evidence that glyphosate is carcinogenic at any dosage.

These authors suggest that glyphosate is used much more frequently than when it was introduced and while the plant toxicity mechanism (disruption of the Shikimate pathway) does not exist in humans, they now find papers from their own and Seralini’s laboratory suggesting that “there might be a wide range of potential adverse effects triggered by disruption in the endocrine system.”

Now let’s pause and remember the Seralini rule: if you have to cite Seralini’s discredited and withdrawn lumpy rat paper, you’ve lost the argument. That withdrawn paper was reprinted here without further refereeing.  In fact this paper cites 7 different papers by Seralini, making its credibility distinctly suspect.

They cite a paper in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association suggesting that glyphosate and its degradation product AMPA are found in up to 17% of water samples, but neglect to mention that the article points out that “Concentrations of glyphosate were below the levels of concern for humans or wildlife.” They also cite Bohn’s paper claiming that glyphosate accumulates in Roundup Ready soybeans. However, Jordan has severely criticized this paper for not meeting minimum scientific standards.

While they correctly note that excessive use of herbicides can lead to weed resistance (this is called evolution) it is in no way unique to glyphosate, and herbicide and crop rotation are generally recommended.

They express concern that levels of glyphosate and AMPA residue are not monitored in the U.S., but fail to mention that this is because toxicology studies have shown glyphosate to be about as toxic as aspirin. Thus their complaint that “environmentally relevant” doses are not considered is ridiculous, if there is no effect at much larger doses.

They note that the incidence of non-Hodgkins lymphoma has doubled since 1975, but all they say is that “a causal link [with glyphosate] may exist.” It has not been established.

To get to their point, they have done no new research, and their literature review simply arrives at a consensus that “a further independent examination of glyphosate toxicity should be undertaken.” Recognizing that NIH funds are unlikely to be available for such a wild goose chase, they propose that manufacturers of glyphosate provide these funds to be transferred to “government research institutes.” This seems unlikely to take place.

The authors

While the authors make claims of no conflicts of interest we find that:

To conclude, the authors found little that is new and referenced a number of questionable and discredited papers in the process. And their final conclusion amounted to “further study is needed.” This is hardly a blockbuster conclusion.