James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

December 27, 2009

How A Piece of Misinformation is Born

Filed under: Politics — Tags: , , , , — James @ 4:34 am

For an example of how fast information can be distorted as it is transmitted through the web, check out my previous documentation about how a paper on a GM trait not being in danger of escaping into wild populations was twisted into“Another failure of genetic engineering” in only a week.

Refuting every post across the web that makes false claims about agriculture, genetics, or plant biology would be, firstly impossible, and secondly, incredibly tedious. Once a piece of misinformation escapes into the wild it is far harder to call back than the horrible trans-genes of anti-GMO activists nightmares. A false idea will spread far faster among those who want to believe than it can be refuted (at length and in detail) by those who know better.

But this morning (or afternoon, or evening, or dead of night), I came across a wonderful example of what I believe has the potential to be an entirely new false fact that could float around the web, and obscure corners of the public consciousness for years to come (or be forgotten in a week, it’s hard to pick which facts will escape and thrive in the wild until they actually have.)

Consider this article posted on Greenpeace’s website, provokatively titled “US court ruling on GMO rice affirms danger of Bayer crops”.

As a person (for the purposes of this example) already convinced of the dangers of GMOs, I see this headline and think: “A-ha! I always knew those evil genetically modified crops were a disaster waiting to happen!” And I click through to read about the details.

The article I find covers a number of subjects:

  • Bayer recently lost a court case in the US, two Missouri farmers were awarded two million dollars (total, not each), because the discovery of a variety of genetically modified rice developed by Bayer in the food supply has reduced foreign demand for US rice, driving down the price of rice for US farmers*. Lower prices  = smaller profits (or bigger losses), and so the farmers sued Bayer and a jury found that Bayer was at fault.
  • In the Philippines (and presumably a bunch of other countries) Bayer has filed to get their variety of rice approved for human consumption. Once it’s approved, imports of rice from the US can resume, without any special testing. Increased exports of rice bring up prices back up for US rice farmers.
  • Greenpeace opposes the approval of Bayer’s rice in the Philippines.
  • Feel free to point out in the comments section any other points from the article that I skipped over

Notice anything missing from the story … like any mention of a US court ruling that the rice was dangerous as stated in the headline? I did, but I was reading the article looking for it, because I don’t think Bayer’s crops ARE dangerous and wanted to see what reasoning a judge (or judges) had used to reach the opposite conclusion. And it wasn’t in there.

If I’d already been convinced GMOs weren’t safe I very much doubt I would have noticed the article didn’t actually address the issue raised in the title. Instead I would have read an article about the evils of GMOs, and the concept, put forward by the title (that even the american judicial system agreed with me) might have stuck in my head. In future conversations with like-minded people I’d repeat it as fact, and they, also excited to hear that the courts were on their sides would repeat it to their friends, with details, if any were included, mutating with every retelling**, evolving and spreading faster than any DNA sequence ever could.

Depending on how many people read the original story, how talkative they are, and if the (false) fact sounds interesting enough to pass on, in a day or two anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of people could hear from someone they trust that courts have ruled that GMOs are dangerous. It could become one of the myths (like the idea that modern corn in sterile as a result of genetic engineering, when terminator technology has NEVER been used commercially) that people like me must spend time and effort refuting over and over and over again.

An article with such a big, yet not immediately obvious, disconnect between what the title claims and what the story says is either the result of incompetence or intentional dishonesty, and either way it’s an great example of why I don’t take Greenpeace seriously anymore. Intelligent people can disagree and learn from discussion why they disagree. On the other hand, productive discussion is NOT possible with people who substitute tricks and misinformation for real data and logic.

*This was a case about whether Bayer should be liable for the harm caused by reduced prices for rice. No one was arguing the rice truly wasn’t safe for human consumption.

**If you have ever played the game of telephone as a child, where a message is whispered from one child to the second who whispers it to a third and so on, you know how quickly ideas can be misunderstood and distorted as they’re repeated from one person to another.


  1. OK, so the Headline writer was wrong on the facts, how often does that happen? Still, it doesn’t come anywhere close to the misleading and dishonest misinformation that comes from Bayer, Monsanto,Syngenta and the rest of the seed cabal which have been deliberately lying to the public, various governments and scientific bodies since introducing transgenic GMOs to the marketplace.

    And the EU has recently banned import of two triple stacked GM maize varieties used as food and feed because of concerns of liver, kidney and reproductive organ damage in mammals in lab tests, the same concerns that were glossed over when single trait GMOs were introduced.
    Face it, the public doesn’t want transgenics in our food. We don’t want the extra poisons in our air and water and we don’t want monolithic multinational profit loyal megacorporations owning the patent to our food supply.
    We don’t need it.
    We didn’t ask for it.
    We don’t want it.
    We can’t afford it.
    The world can’t afford it.

    Comment by nosmokes — December 27, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  2. You may not want it. But your post appears to be another example of mutated misinformation spreading through in internet. If you’d like to cite specific sources I’d be happy to read them, but from your comment “the EU has recently banned import of two triple stacked GM maize varieties used as food and feed” it’s almost impossible for me to track down the data on my own.

    -The EU recently approved four new “stacked” varieties of genetically engineered maize (two from Monsanto, one from Pioneer and one from Syngenta). Source

    -Monsanto did withdraw a form of high lysine (a crucial animo acid that maize is normally low in) maize from approval. Do you consider that an EU ban? (although high lysine content isn’t a stack of three traits) Source

    -There was an article published a few weeks ago by some greenpeace funded european scientists than took different statistical approached some of the safety test data published by Monsanto and claimed to find evidence of toxicity of several single trait varieties of GM maize (that’s a very carefully worded sentence, I’m not a statistician and neither of the two I know well have had a chance to read over the paper themselves), but to the best of my knowledge that paper wasn’t tied to the banning of any GM traits.

    Looking up the sources I cited and writing this response took me ~30 minutes (I’m slow on sundays, I know). If you comment back and can point me at an article describing the bans you mention, all well and good.

    If the bans aren’t what you heard they were through, I will, none the less, still be running into people who (through no fault of their own) were told the same misleading information, perhaps even by the same person, as you were. And what took you or them a sentence to write will take me paragraphs to explain/refute each and every time. And my refutations will never go viral in the same way as the original false information.

    That is what is so frustrating.

    Comment by James — December 27, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  3. http://usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com/2009/12/help-us-understand-new-study-that-shows.html

    Here, I discussed the statistics behind that “toxin” study

    Comment by Matt — December 27, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

  4. Thanks for the link! Sounds like you ran into the same problems I did with the paper. Without a strong grounding in statistics and standard practices in feeding tests, it’s hard to definitively say anything, but the data included in the paper doesn’t seem at all convincing and looks a lot like what I’d expect to see if they were way overestimating the significance of their results (ie it’s all random or semi-random noise).

    Comment by James — December 27, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

  5. Way to go James, keep defending the truth no matter how frustrating it is. It’s worth it! You’re like a science superhero!

    I used to work for a publishing company in DC – we published financial advice and personal finance newsletters – and the biggest part of my job was to fact-check. I was astounded by how often the major money/finance magazines/newspapers repeated incorrect information. Of course, I was young and naive back then.

    That was one of the most difficult jobs I ever had, but it taught me that it’s important to find the truth. Especially when it’s hard.

    I don’t think the job of fact-checker exists anymore. I took pride in it, and I see that in you, too. Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Liza — December 29, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

  6. I can just picture the board room meeting when some guy fresh out of business school suggested: “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to fire all the fact checkers and just print our mistakes?”

    The great thing about the web is that, when people actually bother to link to their sources, I can actually see the process of an idea mutating as it jumps from one site to the next. It must be the geneticist in me, but (when it’s not annoying) I find it fascinating to follow that evolution.

    It makes sense you used to work at a publishing company, the posts you write up for your blog have been so polished from day one.

    Comment by James — December 30, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

  7. Hi James,
    You are very good at putting words into the mouths of others. Divine words from the god Monsanto to your ear is it? Just like Monsanto forcing food we don’t want to eat upon us without labeling.

    You certainly read the article with a biased twist, and spin, the same twist and spin you accuse others of….but, oh yes, we “don’t know better” do we. You are definitely one of those who knows better.

    Brilliant you are, you Fact checkers, polished comments, brilliant research, and mutual admiration society members. Monsanto fudges research. Check that out. Others can research too, and like you, don’t want to spend hours trying to convince the cool-aid drinkers. Truth is out there.

    Comment by M. Davis — December 30, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

  8. The headline said the court reaffirmed the danger of GM crops, yet the article didn’t say anything of the sort and couldn’t honestly do otherwise because that wasn’t what the court case is about. Tell me how that’s a biased reading?

    You can believe all that genetically engineered crops are dangerous if you like. But the fact is that the court case this article reported on had nothing to do with their danger one way or the other. The headline is provably incorrect.

    As former Sen. Moynihan famously said: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”

    Comment by James — December 30, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  9. excerts from the links your article refers to:

    “A United States federal jury ruling on 4 December 2009, that Bayer CropScience LP must pay US$2 million to two Missouri farmers, affirms that the responsibility for the consequences of contamination from genetically modified organisms (GMO) rests with the company that releases GMO crops. The Missouri farmers’ crops were contaminated with an experimental variety of rice that Bayer was testing in 2006.”

    —-obviously the court thought there was some danger that certainly implied there are some “facts” to back that up.

    “Filipinos, whose staple food is rice, to consume food that is safe and free from GMO-contamination,” said Danny Ocampo, Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “Aside from the risks involved in the process of developing this genetically modified rice strain, residues of the powerful herbicide — Liberty Link (glufosinate) — also put at risk those who will be consuming it on a daily basis and at least 2 times a day.”

    —again, the court must have felt there is some danger from Liberty Link. I can’s say what actually went on in the court case, but if you do, please present it. I only know what is in the article you refer to.

    “Bayer has admitted it has been unable to control the spread of its genetically-engineered organisms despite ‘the best practices’ to stop contamination[1]. It shows that all outdoors field trials or commercial growing of GMO crops must be stopped before our crops are irreversibly contaminated.”

    “Bayer Blamed at Trial for Crops ‘Contaminated’ by Modified Rice
    By Andrew M. Harris” (from link)
    ““Bayer was supposed to be careful,” attorney Don Downing told the jury of four men and five women during his opening statement yesterday. “Bayer was not careful and that rice did escape into our commercial rice supplies.”
    The farmers, who grow rice in southeastern Missouri, claim the export market for their crops was curtailed when the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2006 announced that trace amounts of the genetically modified rice, designed by Bayer to be herbicide resistant, were found in U.S. long-grain stocks.
    Bayer and Louisiana State University had been testing the rice, which hadn’t been approved for human consumption, for resistance to the company’s Liberty herbicide.
    Bayer’s genetically modified strains “contaminated” more than 30 percent of U.S. ricelands, Downing told jurors.”

    “…a decline in rice futures cost U.S. growers about $150 million, ”

    “Exports also fell, the growers said, as the European Union, Japan, Russia and other overseas markets slowed for testing or stopped their imports of the U.S.-grown long grain rice. ”

    —obviously the court agreed there was danger to farmer’s livlihood

    ““If you’re first to the market with a new product, it can be very, very profitable,” Downing told the jury. The evidence will show that in its haste, Bayer became sloppy, the “Bayer did not keep track of its genetically modified seed,” Downing said later. ”

    —again, obviously, the court agreed that Bayer was sloppy.

    The court must have “facts” that we do not. I know that even the justice system is flawed, but it’s the best we have. Every line from every article may be taken as a “fact” from what you say. But when the court judges against a company, they presumably have more facts than we do, and until we can actually see the court case, we have no facts either, not you nor I.

    OK. you say “that wasn’t what the court case is about.” So what was it about?

    “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” Still, you think you are the only one with the facts.

    My personal fact is – from my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that I do not want to eat GMOs. Simple fact. Give me a choice. Can you deny that organic agriculture will be totally gone from our landscape because of the invasion of GMO plants? Then I will have no choice at all.

    Further, no proof exists that GMOs are safe as no trials have been conducted on humans. Don’t tell me that millions are eating it. I know that. But millions are also sick and with dramatic increases in allergies, with no known cause. If you are looking at the sky, you will not see a penny on the ground.

    Comment by M. Davis — December 31, 2009 @ 9:58 am

  10. The court case was about whether Bayer was liable for the financial harm done to farmers because of the presence of low levels of transgenic rice in commercial fields. Which has nothing to do with the safety of genetically engineered crops, and everything to do with consumer acceptance.

    People like you don’t want to eat genetically engineered crops. Therefore, when it was found that American rice contained trace amounts of Bayer’s genetically engineered rice, people stopped buying it (more specifically Europe stopping importing it for a while, and resumed only when each shipment was tested to ensure it was completely free of the genetically engineered variety). Less people buying the rice meant the price of rice went down and American rice farmers made less money.

    All of this has nothing to do with the safety of genetically engineered crops, simply with the fact that farmers made less money because 1. Bayer’s rice got into rice shipments 2. People such as yourself wouldn’t buy such rice, and the EU wouldn’t even let it across the border. The court found Bayer should have been able to avoid their rice getting into the food supply, so they are, at least in part, liable for the money rice farmers lost.

    Let me try putting it in another context: If I did something to make a company that sells kosher food unkosher, the people who pay more for kosher food would stop buying from that company (at least until they fixed whatever was wrong) and so the company would lose money. Since I’m the one who caused the company’s food to no longer be kosher I’m liable for the money they lost. This is true whether you or I personally think kosher food is better, worse, or identical to normal food. Does that make sense?

    Comment by James — December 31, 2009 @ 10:34 am

  11. OK since you prefer to condescend, shifting totally away from the original article you used as a reference, I will move away as well, and will put this in another way. Will you listen. Up to you.

    Int J Biol Sci 2009; 5:706-726 ©Ivyspring International Publisher
    Research Paper
    A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health

    This is the bottom line quoted from above mentioned article, and there are many more similar articles from scientists readily available for those willing to care for humanity instead of the almighty buck.

    “Our analysis highlights that the kidneys and liver as particularly important on which to focus such research as there was a clear negative impact on the function of these organs in rats consuming GM maize varieties for just 90 days.”

    Comment by M. Davis — January 2, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

  12. I don’t understand how you consider talking about the court case the article discussed to be “shifting totally away from the original article you used as a reference”. I was talking about what the court case was about which you can verify by reading the greenpeace article itself (rather than just the misleading headline). If you would like further references describing that court case that greenpeace wrote about I’d suggest this story from the St. Louis Post Dispatch (after the trial ended), or this one from Bloomberg, covering what was at stake in the trial a month earlier.

    Greenpeace posted a headline that neither their own story, nor the facts of the case backed up. The question here isn’t “Are GMOs dangerous?”, it’s “did the decision of this jury affirm the danger of Bayers genetically engineered rice?” and it didn’t. The Greenpeace headline was wrong on the facts. The article they wrote clearly reflects their views that GMOs are unsafe, but it doesn’t say anything provably false the way the headline did. The whole point of my post here was that even when put over a story that tells no lies, and misleading headline can still lead people to believe false information.

    Now you very clearly want to turn this discussion on a single misleading headline into a broader debate about the safety/ethics/broader societal impact of genetic engineering. I’m happy to debate these subjects, because I think it’s educational for others to get the chance read the arguments both you and I could present. But I have access to the view stats for this page, and you and I are the only ones reading at this point. I’m not going to convince you that genetic engineering is safe (though I was hoping I would be able to show you that this Missouri lawsuit wasn’t ABOUT safety), and you aren’t making any progress convincing me of their danger (for example I was aware of the study you just linked to, and you’ll notice I was discussing it with Matt and nosmokes farther up this very page).

    In an argument where neither you nor I will be swayed, and no one else is around to be informed in the process, what would be the point? What do you hope to gain? I grew up surrounded by creationists, and have had enough debates that accomplished nothing to last a dozen lifetimes.

    Comment by James — January 2, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

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