Tag Archives: scepticism

A quick round up

It’s been a busy few days, and in the meantime lots of other people (who may be more articulate than I am right now) have done some great coverage of the Take the Flour Back protest, and GM stuff in general. I kinda want to get out of my little Rothamsted loop and talk about something else, so here are some links to articles and blog pieces I enjoyed.

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Someone is WRONG on the internet (More on GM…)

This is me this lunch time:

Faced with a day of experiments that don’t require poking every 15 minutes, an inability to order anything due to some delightful fluke of our ordering system, no teaching commitments because my undergrads had their exam this morning, and no social engagements, you might expect that I would be spending a peaceful half hour sat on a polystyrene box outside my office enjoying the sun. (That’s not actually a joke… photos to follow).

Sadly, not.

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More Q & A from Rothamsted

Sense about Science have published another interesting Q & A session with the Rothamsted scientists about GM in general and their experiment in particular.

You can read it all here.

And in related news a man has been charged with criminal damage (having vandalised the Rothamsted test plots).

When debate and petitions aren’t enough

For the last month or so, I’ve been blogging on and off about the GM wheat research at Rothamsted and the reactions to this by a group called Take the Flour Back. The group have been planning a ‘decontamination’ event for next weekend, at which they and their supporters will uproot the crop, thereby destroying many years of hard work and some really valuable research. I’ve mentioned the researchers’ open letter; and the Sense about Science petition, as well as some of the reasons why I think TtFB are just plain wrong.

The Rothamsted scientists did their darndest to communicate with these activists, in the hope that they could allay some fears and generate some useful dialogue. After several attempts to contact them and arrange a proper public adjudicated debate, TtFB declined to join in with this, and so the only debate that has really happened was via Newsnight.

More on that here.

Sadly yesterday somebody decided that waiting for a proper debate, or the published article in the Guardian just wasn’t an option, and decided to vandalise the trial a week ahead of the planned ‘decontamination’ date. I’m beginning to lose all faith that these activists will listen to any evidence, no matter how calmly and co-operatively it is presented.

The only debate we’re likely to get

Since the Take the Flour Back activists found themselves unable to find two or three speakers for a formal, lengthy debate the only real visible dialogue between anti-GM activists and Rothamsted has been this episode of Newsnight.

There are so many things that make me sad about this debate: not least that every time either Prof. John Pickett or Dr. Tracey Brown speaks they are shouted over by Jyoti Fernandes. Even in the opening comments, nobody jumps on Jyoti when she says that she thinks GM is ‘really dangerous’, but she won’t even allow Prof. Pickett to finish his opening spiel. She immediately challenges him on what he means by sustainable, and even before he’s finished answering her question she interrupts him again!

Since they didn’t get a chance to answer some of the questions, or meet some of the challenges I’m going to put my two pence in here:

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More on Rothamsted and TtFB

I really will write about something other than GMO field trials soon, but I’m having a fail lab day, and this is really irritating me.

Beyond Pesticides Daily have published an article today referencing the whole Rothamsted / TtFB debate. I think the pop science I read, the more I notice examples of bad journalism and sloppy editing, and writing a biased piece. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that whatever I write will be influenced by my own feelings on the subject, but I hope that I can at least keep straight facts and opinions and experts vs lay people.

The piece starts of with at least a semblance of impartiality:

In what is being presented as “a clear risk to British farming,” protesters in the United Kingdom have organized a campaign to protest field sites being used to test a new strain of genetically modified (GM) wheat. The industry developing the GM wheat is asking the campaigners not to ruin their experimental plots, but the group, ‘Take the Flour Back,’ has vowed to “decontaminate” the site unless the research is halted.

And then any hint of ‘allegedly’ or ‘reportedly’ disappears, and it becomes pretty clear which side BPD’s bread is buttered on.

a new strain of GM wheat which has the potential to contaminate surrounding fields

Really? Have they read about the level of precaution taken in planning this experiment? It is really hard to get wheat to do anything other than self fertilise. On the off chance that a wheat plant manages to expose its anthers before self-fertilising, and another individual manages to expose its stigma, Rothamsted have been very clear about the margin between the experimental plot and any other wheat fields, and have planned an exclusion zone, from which all the material will be destroyed, just to be on the safe side.

There is serious doubt that the aphid alarm pheromone as found in this GM crop would even work. Other scientists have raised concerns that if aphids get habituated and insufficient predators are available, this may increase the aphid burden on the wheat and thus potentially increasing the need for pesticides and chemical spraying against aphids.

Interesting that in an article with so many links this isn’t even referenced or attributed. I have a few questions about this. 1. How can aphids become habituated to a chemical that they make themselves? It’s like suggesting that we might become habituated to serotonin or insulin and start ignoring it. 2. Who are these scientists, and where have they been making these claims? 3. Why would there be fewer predators than their current are? Ladybird larvae are attracted by E-beta-farnesene. If anything, there will be more of them, not fewer.

Then we get onto quotations:

One activist, Welch [sic] farmer Gerald Miles, is leading the calls against “irresponsible” and “negligent” GM crop research. Mr. Miles stated, “The wheat is being injected with genes from a cow, antibiotic genes and peppermint genes in order to detract aphids from the crops. This is totally irresponsible on many levels. Firstly, it is totally negligent to conduct an open air trial where there is a significant risk of cross contamination with other wheat crops in the area and the wider country.”

Once again, we have the fallacious claim that there is a significant risk of cross contamination. More frustratingly, from my point of view, Mr Miles is presented as being some kind of expert. He’s an organic farmer, and as far as I can tell from his blog presence, his expertise in the field of science goes about as far as copying and pasting things from organicconsumers.org

GM wheat, like other GM crops, can cause serious environmental damage, including the development of resistant weeds, contamination of non-GM crops and organic farms and the unknown impacts of human health.


You know what makes me so angry about this? I’m not even sure we should be growing or eating GM wheat. But what I am sure about, is that activists shouldn’t have to spread disinformation and lies in order to convince the general public that this research is a bad idea.

You know what I’m eating today? A salad, with lentils. And I’m drinking some ginger beer. And I GUARANTEE you that tomorrow there will be no trace of lentil DNA or ginger DNA in my genome. Because my cells do not MAGICALLY start taking up the DNA of whatever I’ve eaten and incorporating it into my own DNA.

And what is with all the talk about super weeds?!?! Even if there was convincing evidence that gene transfer was responsible for weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate (which there isn’t) then that would still have precisely zero to do wheat that is modified to produce a pheromone.



Traditional Chinese Medicine: What’s really in that bottle?

So this was a piece I was putting together for a student magazine I write the odd piece for, but it was only published just before the copy deadline and I didn’t finish it in time. Interesting (and scary!) stuff…

Traditional Chinese Medicine (or TCM) is a single name referring to a wide range of herbal medicines, diets, and alternative therapies such as acupuncture and massage. The concepts that make up TCM are generally viewed as ‘alternative medicine’ by those in the West, but they make up 40% of all health care provided in China. While rooted in a bank of tradition stretching back some 2000 years, and still containing many notions that are not supported by evidence-based medicine, several Chinese herbal medicines have been demonstrated to have a high level of efficacy and have led to the discovery of active ingredients, and the development of new synthetic drugs. In the 1970s Chinese scientist Tu Youyou successfully identified two new antimalarial drugs (artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin), the most rapidly acting medicines that we currently have, and in 2011 she was awarded the Lasker Award for Clinical Medicine for this work. For many people, TCM occupies a precarious position between ‘vast untapped resource’ and ‘unregulated alternative medicine’.

In the past, concerns about the use of TCM have concentrated on the efficacy of the medicines, and the use of endangered animals in their preparations. However, a new paper this month have concentrated on the question of whether these medicines might be worse than ineffectual: could they actually be dangerous? In the absence of a central regulatory system, it is often impossible to confirm the precise ingredients in herbal or animal-based products. Though determining the precise chemical structure of a medicine is incredibly complicated, identifying at least some of the species that plant and animal material originates from is – in this age of Next Generation Sequencing – comparatively simple.

Next Generation Sequencing is a high throughput method that can produce huge quantities of DNA sequence relatively cheaply. By sorting through the data and fishing out two highly conserved genes (trnL and a 16S ribosomal gene, which are very similar in all eukaryotes) the scientists could begin to identify which species were present in the Chinese preparations. For the purposes of this they looked at 15 different traditional Chinese medicines that had been taken by customs at the Australian border. A similar process has been used in the past (e.g. to identify whether orchids are legally transportable varieties, or rare ones that should be left untouched), but without Next Generation Sequencing it is a laborious and time consuming process.

The published findings begin as concerning but unsurprising: the authors found material from the Asiatic black bear, classified as vulnerable by the IUCN; and saiga, a critically endangered species of antelope. Both of these species, though in theory protected, are considered valuable in Chinese medicine. However, more concerning was the discovery that the preparations contained material from numerous other species not mentioned in the ingredients lists. The preparation listed as being 100% saiga contained considerable quantities of goat and sheep DNA.

Far more concerning were the plant-based preparations: Genes from 68 different families of plants were found. So far, so unsurprising. Included on the list are Ephedra (yes, as in ephedrine); ginseng (which it is illegal to trade on an international basis) and Aristolochia. Aristolochia makes a chemical called aristolochic acid, most commonly mentioned in the context of kidney damage; liver damage and bladder cancer. This is especially interesting because the herb is used a lot medicinally in Taiwan: an area with documented high rates of bladder cancer, and another new paper suggests this is a causal link. The scientists found four medicines that contained Aristolochia and one of these definitely contained aristolochic acid. It’s hard to be more accurate than that, because identifying chemicals in a medicine is far more complicated than identifying DNA.

Pretty concerning stuff, if you ask me. I’m all for being open minded about possible sources of new medicines and drugs. But would you take Paracetamol quite so cheerfully if you couldn’t guarantee there weren’t some known carcinogens and endangered animal parts hanging about in there?