Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Food matters

Some twitterers were pretty pissed off at the speaker list for the Food Matters Aoteoroa conference last weekend in Wellington, perhaps fired up by Alison Campbell's warning on SciBlogs (a week ahead of the conference) that it'd be crap. 

Serious offence was duly taken over the topics and speakers. The next day Eric Crampton made it clear how he saw the intellectual merit of the conference, likening it to anti-vaccination campaigns and Lord Monckton's lunatic denial of anthropomorphic climate change. 

Please do read Eric's piece and think about it. His real concern seems to be that Food Matters might get attention from the media and thereby attract more gullible loonies.  He aimed to weaken these ideas in advance, for fear they might take root and spread, because they're all wrong according to experts that Eric can find for you.

I really dislike this. It is deliberately trying to suppress diversity and demonise a view for the reason that it is a minority view. But it does neatly underscore the fact that Food Matters. That's why we care about it so much. 

Lynne and I booked early because we love natural farming. I wasn't thrilled by the headliners being all visitors to be honest. The program had a cargo-cult feel, despite the presence of lots of very cool kiwis down below the headlines.

As it turned out though, the conference was really great. Lots of very interesting presentations, many references to literature for further reading and plenty of interaction. I can't do justice to the material in one post, but here's a bit of a summary.

One theme was that modern industrial food systems use a lot of poisons in producing our food. We're constantly ingesting residues of these poisons, three times a day, year in, year out. Coincidentally we are also seeing the growth of modern diseases. To take just one example, the following chart from this paper matches the growth of glyphosate applications to wheat with incidence of Celiac disease.

This is correlation rather than causation. However we also know that farmers now routinely spray wheat with glyphosate just before harvest/sale/consumption. We also know that glyphosate is a broad-spectrum chelator (locker-upper) of minerals and that it will disturb the microbial balance in our gut. So there is a coherent theory that might explain the above pattern and is therefore worth testing.

In response, it is often argued that farmers can't do without these poisons. And that is true for many farmers, because if you tell yourself something is impossible then you definitely can't do it. But funnily enough some farmers can. We haven't applied a single poison to our farm in 5 years and there is nothing wrong with our production.

I got a lot from the international speakers and will write more about it/them over the coming weeks. However, for me, two kiwis are worth a mention right now.

Meet Mark Cristensen, an accountant from Whanganui. Mark noticed Cornell research showing that red delicious apples have high levels of antioxidants that suppress the growth of cancer cells. He started researching and testing heritage varieties of apples and discovered Monty's Surprise which is many times better than red delicious in this regard (NZHerald story). He then went on to tomatoes, sourcing and testing heritage varieties from around the world and identifying an orange variety called Moonglow as the standout winner. Rather than seeking to privatise these findings, he is distributing the plants and seeds as widely as possible.

Meet Jack Heinemann, research Professor at Canterbury working on genetic engineering, molecular biology, microbial genetics, and genotoxicity. Jack didn't do any of that on the weekend but he did MC most of the conference, and presented a paper showing that non-GM Europe has matched/bettered North American GM production yields and growth rates on corn and other crops.

He also came up with two points in response to a final "what should we do?" question. Paraphrasing, Jack reckoned we should....
  • Remove the bias towards private profit in New Zealand's public research funding. 
    • By requiring industry co-funding we biases our innovation system towards saleable intellectual property rights and against public goods. 
  • Consider using (Pigouvian) taxes to reflect the cost of negative health and environmental impacts from the use of agricultural poisons. [update: this is my interpretation. Jack actually raised the idea of not allowing tax deductions for poisons, which is a different instrument aimed at the same target]
These are both very reasonable requests. The first is simply asking for equal funding opportunities for research projects aimed at creating public goods, like the knowledge Mark Christensen has produced and shared. It'd also be hard to object to the second request, though there would of course be a debate about what the effects are.


  1. Hi John,

    Fringe is fine so long as it's presented as fringe. You're ignoring the 88% consensus of scientists on GMO-safety. The keynote assembly was drawn heavily from the 12%, with no indication anywhere on the website either that 88% disagree, or that the conference was organised by a pile of folks affiliated with the main anti-GMO lobby group.

    If a conference of faith-healers got together to talk about faith-healing, I wouldn't much care. If a conference of faith-healers instead put on a conference called "Health Matters Aotearoa", with no indication of that faith-healing isn't exactly the general consensus, and got endorsement from Wellington Council and the Greens, well, that's different.

  2. I'm really sorry you didn't come along Eric, but I understand you're fine with a poison-based agriculture. I also very much hope that your kids don't end up with any of these modern diseases.

    1. I'm not sorry I didn't come along, but perhaps not for the reason you think.

      Unless things like this are set up to have good proponents from both sides represented, they're pointless for anybody who isn't a true-believer in the claims being made, or who isn't already an expert in the area.

      The true believers aren't there to evaluate truth claims anyway, so they're fine.

      The non-experts have a hard time getting into there to assess truth claims because the majority's counter-evidence isn't given fair hearing, so we can't tell what's strawman, what's false, and what's right. Instead, we have to look to what seems the expert consensus.

      Again, imagine the non-climate-scientist Bayesian who generally accepts the expert consensus showing up at a Monckton meeting. How should that Bayesian update?

    2. Counter example: I am neither a true-believer nor an expert, but it was far from pointless for me.

      Incidentally, does this mean that NZ Initiative makes sure its charter school events give equal airtime to teacher unions?

    3. I don't think we've ever had a charter school event. Rose released a report on how school clusters are great, which are communities of schools that learn from each others' practices; I think those were all state schools. But I also think that mainstream consensus in the US data is now that charters often do very well for poor students, but that school choice for richer folks makes little difference.

    4. This mainstream mantle is cool isn't it? You're bucking the consensus in NZ but can still claim mainstream status from "US data". I think I'm getting the hang of it now.

  3. Eric
    I think that it is misleading how you are using the PEW survey and in implying that the conference was only about GM food safety.
    The PEW survey wasn't a survey of all scientists - at best a mix of US-based members of AAAS. It wasn't a survey enriched for scientists that do risk assessment or are involved in human health. Thus, many respondents may be influenced by the authority type argument that comes from surveys such as PEW's to say that some of your colleagues think this so you should too.
    I also think that it would be more informative to have asked the 'scientists' whether they believed that all genetically modified organisms were safe for food, and always would be, or whether they thought that the small number of already approved GM crop plants were safe including considerations of how they are grown. This nuance might be obvious to informed scientists, but could not be retold in a way that could mislead the 'public' into thinking that scientists have endorsed a particular product.
    Finally, the attention on GM as a food safety issue distracts from the bulk of what was discussed at the conference, including the impact and use of pesticides and fertilisers, different pest management systems and approaches to farming, issues of special interest to indigenous peoples, science and socioeconomic research opportunities, regulatory systems, and how successful regulators have been achieving the trust of the regulated, among other things. It was after all a public conference that included academics and scientists.
    I also recall the editors of some journals attacking the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development before the report was discussed by the representatives the world's governments. They had egg on their face when it was overwhelming adopted.
    No one would agree with everything said there, or even said by any single person. That would be true of any conference. Those who stumped up to the Conference were available to face their critics, answer questions and debate. Those who condemned it from afar and in advance...

    1. Hi Jack,

      1. As I read the survey question, scientists were endorsing those GMO foods that had been approved for consumption - that it was a generalised statement that those foods that have made it through the processes were a-ok, not that all that might ever be developed would always be a-ok. I took this as endorsement of those already-approved products and of the background process: those foods that make it through will be safe.

      2. The international keynotes are most famous for their anti-GMO work, or as I read it. Much of the RoundUp work also links in heavily to the anti-GMO work where RoundUp-ready crops encourage the use of RoundUp (over often more dangerous chemicals).

      3. On consensus: I'd not take that as reason that those on the fringe shouldn't be doing research in those areas, but rather as the prior that those not expert in a field should adopt. And when the fringe then moves the mainstream consensus, the rest of us non-experts should update.

  4. (Not sure why google as me as "unknown" - sorry about that, not my doing.)

    re "perhaps fired up by Alison Campbell's warning on SciBlogs (a week ahead of the conference)" - nice to see someone give Alison’s blog a shout-out but just so you know there’s more on sciblogs; my own effort there was before her’s ;-) Probably a bit too long ago, so you missed it - fair enough.


    I’ve since followed that with an op-ed and a few brief remarks on Steffan Browning’s press release:


    I’d suggest the latter to the former, as it’s shorter and more to the point.

    1. Excuse my confusing openng remark about Google presenting me as "unknown" in my previous comment. On accepting my login, but before submitting the comment, it said it would present me as "unknown". It does the right thing the second time around - it’s just a tad behind the eight-ball…!

    2. no worries Grant.

      By the way, I'd be interested to know what you've got against Don Huber.

    3. “what you've got against Don Huber”

      Not against the person themselves, I don’t think like that and it’d be besides the point.

      I do have thoughts about their *claims*. Claims are—or should—always be open to criticism.

    4. good to hear! what about his "shaky scientific foundations" then? Huber spent decades doing science for monsanto at purdue, which sounds like a pretty strong foundation for discussing these things.

  5. Interested to see that "On the face of it, this conference and the associated publicity could offer the opportunity to have some valuable discussion on issues such as the future of agriculture in a time of climbing global population and widespread environmental change, and the safety of GMOs and the various techniques used to produce them. However, since the conference appears to have a strong anti-GMO slant, I doubt this will happen – although I'm prepared to be pleasantly surprised." was transmogrified to 'is crap'...

    Regarding a 'poison-based agriculture', a dose of realism is needed. Organic farming also uses pesticides. Roundup is one of the least toxic pesticides used in conventional agriculture. Plants produce pesticides as an evolutionary response to millions of years of animal attack. All may be poisonous to humans - at the right (wrong?) dose.

    1. You may have been "prepared to be pleasantly surprised" Alison but I note that you didn't attend so there was no risk of that actually occurring.

      As for your "realism" perhaps you'd like to visit our farm sometime and identify the pesticides you claim we use. I've never bought them or used them, so you should prepare for a long search. We aren't certified organic either - we just don't seem to need poisons.

      Roundup is probably the most widely used herbicide in the world - its everywhere and farmers keep being sold new uses for it, like spraying it on wheat before we eat it. So we're all ingesting more of it each year. Yet we're not even allowed to see the studies used to sell it to regulators, though we do know they rely on very small samples of rats (eg 10).

    2. One thing you can do is look to reviews of the literature, e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3479986/

      (It’s an approach I’ve suggested for non-specialists in an older piece on my blog: http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2010/11/02/if-presenting-claims-on-popular-issues-vaccines-alternative-remedies-etc-%E2%80%A6/)

    3. It's kind of hard to attend an event in Wellington when you find out about it at short notice and don't live in Wellington, John.

      Please note that I wasn't referring to your farm but to organic farming in general (are you moving the goalposts?); there is plenty of information available on pesticide use on organic farms eg https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~lhom/organictext.html

    4. It is also clear from the literature that the toxicity of glyphosate has been tested more widely than on (small numbers of) rats alone eg http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0273230099913715

  6. Loose question John (& please take no offense, straight question) -

    You’re an economist. On what basis do you think you have the expertise to critically judge the science presented?

    Repeating what others say has the effect of presenting their suggestions uncritically.

    There’s a saying I like: trust science, not scientists:


    Perhaps worth reading.

    (Excuse all the references to my blog, it’s just I’ve been writing on these issues for a number of years.)

    1. I struggle along Grant, probably a bit like you on economics.

      I also have regard to the writer's source of income. There's a saying I like: it's pretty hard to convince people of things that directly challenge their income.

      Thanks for your links. You might want to have a read around this site too if your have an interest in how agriculture can be done differently.

      Oh, and I'm still hoping for something about the "shaky scientific foundations" you said attached to one (some?) of Huber's "claims"?

    2. OK. How about his claim (made in an interview with Mercola) that glysophate-resistant crops are behind the rise of mysterious diseases in cattle in the US? He doesn't appear to have published anything on this and I can't find any data to support it. Similarly, his claim in the same interview that GE crops have lost around 80% of their nutrients; again, there don't appear to be independent data to substantiate this.
      (I hate giving Mercola clicks, but anyway... http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/12/10/dr-don-huber-interview-part-1.aspx)

    3. “I struggle along”

      Should I read from this that you say you have little expertise to critically judge the science presented?

      Why then present them definitively? Why not simply say you have no idea if they are right or not?

      “probably a bit like you on economics” - this phrasing presumes I offer criticism of things outside my field: it’s a straw man.

      It’s sensible to try recognise your limitations. I rarely offer criticism of things well outside my field like (say) cosmology, particle physics - or economics.

      I would encourage you to test your hypotheses (and make a stronger effort to consider if you are able to call on them).

      re “Oh, and I'm still hoping…”

      I don’t mind helping people—when I have time—but if they treat it like a game with taunts and whatnot I’ve got better things I could be doing. (I don‘t take notifications from other other blogs by the way as I get too much email as it is and I prefer not to be distracted — I have no idea if/when someone writes here.)

    4. I'm not "judging the science presented" Grant. I'm listening, reading around and engaging with others including through this blog.

      Why "present them definitively"? I find that clearly replaying my understanding of stuff is often helpful - it clarifies my thinking and allows others to spot errors.

      I would welcome you pointing out my errors, but would note that you've already made a few comments here without doing so.

  7. It's interesting, this organic ‘fringe’ sector is looking at a CAGR internationally of between 12-16%. There appears to be money in it.

    People can frame an 88% GMO consensus because most scientists working on GMOs work in industry. Or you can look at what public domain scientists are saying – no consensus. It just depends how big your PR budget is to influence opinion - above the line and below the line is - I guess.

    A lot of the growth in organic demand has at its foundation a response to regulatory authorities not doing their job. Families want safe food, and their kids are less sick when they eat clean food. That translates to demand. You can marginalise these consumers and their families but this market segment will keep growing.

    The facts remain. Our agencies (US EPA WHO EC) are not considering long term feeding studies for GMO products (due to its substantial equivalence status - except when it comes to collecting royalties) – and industry works well to marginalise scientists that have done the work to demonstrate allergenic etc potential, so we have a ‘gap’ in knowledge. This primarily concerns the big four crops - who knows safety with GM 2.0? But what is on our food now, is what concerns families. Not the idea that some IP in 5 years may do some good. Perhaps shortfalls in the current regulatory process harms PR for further good research in the field of genetics.

    The adjuvants combined with glyphosate combine to make a much more lethal formulation a thousand times weaker active formula the agencies choose to assess. Once you get a stacked GMO product that can add 2.4-D and/or glufosinate on it, it's a cocktail effect that has never been tested. For adults, let alone children. So it's not safe. I know from my work the regulatory agencies massively under assess pesticides. Individuals who believe Roundup/glyphosate is harmless have probably only looked at industry funded science - the backbone of the WHO, US EPA & EC assessments which underpin our own governments approvals. Happy to direct individuals to studies in the public domain. It’s the 21st century – but we still don’t research pesticides in their full formula, nor do we transparently research systemic effects. It’s medieval. New Zealand hasn’t looked at any public domain studies in the last 6 years alone for Roundup – their 2009 glyphosate decision document is loaded with corporate studies. Don’t know if Kiwi’s appreciate conflicts of interest nor this cynical pseudo-science 'head in sand' approach to food safety.

    Consumers are responding with resultant market demand. It's not perceived - it's the result of a empty deep sea trench in regulatory assessment. The policy, agroecology and ecosystem sustainability sectors of the conference addressed much of this. Successful on-farm examples provided a practical perspective.

    I echo: Remove the bias towards private profit in New Zealand's public research funding.

    I’ve never met a faith healer before. Wish you were all at the conference.