Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Tag Archives: pesticides

Five Reasons Why “Placebo Medicine” is Bullshit

The alternative medicine movement constantly moves the goalposts and shifts the narrative to avoid admitting that their products are medical failures. First they claim that their fake treatments are effective. When it is pointed out that their products have not been tested for safety and efficacy, they deny that it is even possible to be run clinical trials on alternative medicine because it is so personalized.

When it is pointed out that many real treatments are also personalized and could be tested just fine, they insist that clinical trials will vindicate their quackery. When their products fail the tests, they try to spin the result in such a way as to portray the clinical trials as a success.

When it is ultimately shown that some alternative medicine practice is virtually indistinguishable from placebo, they switch the narrative once again. This time, they insist that even if their fake products and services are indistinguishable from placebo, the placebo effect is supposedly some mysterious new age woo that the mind somehow determines reality and that we therefore must “harness the power of placebo”. Here is why all of this is deeply misleading. Read more of this post

Mailbag: Ban All Agricultural Pesticides?

Mailbag

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact info on the about page.

There is a culture of fear and hate around agricultural pesticides. This is to some degree understandable, because pesticides have some risks. Large, chronic exposure can cause severe harm, thousands of people die from acute exposure to high doses and pesticides can kill non-target organisms and pollute groundwater.

However, there are also beneficial aspects with pesticides. If we let pests run amok, we would lose 50%-80% of the crop harvest and pesticides play a partial role in preventing such devastating crop loss. They can also reduce labor required to manage weeds and contribute to suppressing insect vectors for diseases (at least for a certain time until resistance develops). Extreme anti-pesticide activists also actively oppose replacing more dangerous pesticides with safer pesticides and using genetic modification to reduce pesticide use. Read more of this post

The Perils of Anti-Pesticide Hysteria

Pests and pesticides

Pesticides have brought humans breathtaking benefits. They help to protect plants from the adverse impact of weeds, parasites and microscopic pathogens that is a constant threat to their existence. Pesticides were vital for the Green Revolution (occurring between the 1930s to 1960s). This was a powerful transformation that doubled to tripled agricultural output and is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people from starvation. If pests were allowed to reign free, an estimated 50% to 80% of all crops (ranging from wheat to cotton) would be lost (Oerke, 2006), although pesticides are not the only form of crop protection available. Pesticides can also suppress insect vectors for important human diseases and reduce the amount of exhausting manual labor used to clear weeds.

Yet, there is a much darker side to pesticides that cannot be ignored. Large, chronic occupational exposure to pesticides can make people sick or even kill them. Pesticides are typically very broad in their specificity, so they do not just harm the target pest, but many non-target organisms that benefit both the crops and the environment. They can also contaminate surface water, ground water and soil and thus have much more far-reaching effects on organisms outside the field. Excessive agricultural use can also make pests resistant to the pesticides, which can substantially reduce their effectiveness in managing insect vectors for human diseases. Many pesticide apologists ignore or downplay many of these problems.

Developing newer and safer pesticides, replacing older and more harmful pesticides, and deploying biotechnology to help plants resist pests should be a global agricultural priority. Yet in a cruel twist, these crucial solutions are often opposed by many anti-pesticide activists and other extreme environmentalists who push fear and misinformation about “chemicals” and genetically modified crops. This apparent paradoxical situation might be called the perils of anti-pesticide hysteria.

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Coop Sued For Misleading “The Organic Effect” Marketing Campaign

The Organic Effect Marketing Campaign

Coop is a large national grocery retail company that runs close to 660 grocery stores of different brands all across Sweden. They are owned by The Swedish Co-operative Union and The Consumer Association Stockholm. In 2015, their grocery stores sold items to a value of almost 17.3 billion Swedish Crowns (about 2.1 billion USD).

In 2015, Coop launched a fear-based and misleading pro-organic attack ad called “The Organic Effect” against conventional agriculture. They selected a single family with two adults and three children and had them eat organic food for two weeks. They measured conventional pesticides in their urine before and after those two weeks. Before they started eating organic food, researchers at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute (represented by Jörgen Magnér) found insecticides, fungicides and straw-shortening agents (~5 nanograms/milliliter). Afterwards, these conventional pesticides had allegedly disappeared.

The family in the video thought it was really disgusting to eat insecticides and felt very happy afterwards. Magnér claims that scientists know very little about the long-term effects of eating foods that have been exposed to pesticides and points out that combinations of chemicals can sometimes be worse than either of them on their own. The video finishes with the mother saying that her first reaction to the results from the urine tests is that she thinks of the children and that she never wants those chemicals that now have left their bodies back.

During 2015, Coop increased organic food sales by almost 20%. It is of course difficult to attribute all of this to the advertisement campaign, but it is reasonable to suppose it was not a complete failure. The Youtube video (see references and further reading section) of the advertisement has been seen almost 5.5 million times on Youtube.

Why is the “The Organic Effect” Marketing Campaign Scientifically Misleading?

This commercial is highly scientifically misleading for a number of reasons:

1. It only tested pesticides used in conventional agriculture and completely ignored pesticides used in organic agriculture (such as copper and iron sulfate, pyrethrines, sulfur, azadirachtin, spinosad etc.). Had they also tested organic pesticides, they probably would have found that those would increase when the conventional pesticides declined. They also never tested e. g. fungal toxins and other toxins that pesticides protect against.

2. The residual amounts detected are extremely low, only about 5 nanogram per milliliter from their charts.

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Are There Any Risks With GM Crops Not Found With Conventional Crops?

Corn

One of the best strategies used by scientific skeptics against anti-GMO activists on the Internet is to ask them to cite one risk that exists with genetically modified crops, but does not occur with any conventional breeding method. This is best done after presenting evidence of the safety and efficacy of GM crops and other GM applications. That way, the anti-GMO activist has to both respond to the published evidence, but also figure out unique risks with GM crops. Because it is very hard to find these supposed unique risks, the anti-GMO activists finds themselves in a very difficult position.

Far from being stumped, anti-GMO activists often try to come up with alleged unique risks, but they are often mistaken: the same risks occur with traditional breeding methods such as cross-breeding, marker-assisted breeding, radiation breeding or breeding that uses mutagenic substances such as EMS. This post repels many of the most common retorts given by anti-GMO activists when asked to cite a unique risk with genetic modification compared with conventional breeding methods.

What about allergens?

GM crops are required to go through stringent toxicological and ecological testing by regulatory authorities. This includes testing for the presence of allergens. If GM crops are found to contain allergens, they are not approved. In contrast, there is nothing that prevents a farmer from developing a new form of food item that we know contain allergens, such as peanuts, or crossing plants that cause the mixing of thousands of genes that could potentially cause an allergen.

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Why Rachel Parent is Wrong About Genetically Modified Foods

Rachel Parent

Rachel Parent is a Canadian 15-year-old anti-GM activist who wants GM foods to be labelled. In an independently organized TEDx event at Toronto, she held a talk regurgitating almost all popular anti-GM claims in under 15 minutes. She claims to have been interested in GM crops since she was 12, yet the “research” she did involved reading anti-GM websites, not scientific papers. It is great that young women are getting increasingly interested in science and scientific research, but deceptive misinformation is a poor substitute for scientific integrity. In reality, all of her claims are either wrong or misleading: BT is safe for humans and have been used in organic farming, all plants contain their own “bug killers”, GM technology has been used to save the papaya and make rice prevent vitamin A deficiency, GM crops does increase total yield, is associated with less usage of dangerous pesticides, GM crops do not harm beneficial insects, farmers are not sued by accidental cross-pollination and GM crops are as safe as conventional crops. Even the paper she cites as evidence for GMOs causing allergies does not even mention GM crops. This post goes into detail in explaining why Parent is mistaken.

BT toxin is safe for humans and has been extensively in organic farming

BT toxin is a substance that is produced by bacteria and is only dangerous to a certain group of insect pests. This is because of its high specificity: it requires an alkaline stomach environment (humans and other mammals have acidic), a specific protease that cleaves the inactive precursor into the active toxin, a specific receptor on the gut surface that triggers the rupturing of the stomach lining.

It has been used extensively in both conventional and organic farming for many decades by spraying bacterial spores on the plants surface. However, with the help of recombinant DNA technology, scientists have been able to insert the gene that produces this toxin into the plant itself. It is a method that we know is safe and that we know work.

Plants cannot run, therefore they contain their own bug killers

Although it might seem odd at first that plants contain their own bug killers. However, this is actually very common. Most plants are stationary with roots into the ground and so they are not able to run away from their predators. Instead, they have evolved means of protecting themselves by using poisonous secondary metabolites. Among these are the solanine in conventional potatoes, spinasterol in spinach and coumarin in carrots. These can have neurotoxic effects, interfere with hormonal signaling and cross-links DNA. So far from being weird, plants making their own bug killers is the norm. These substances, like BT, occur in very small concentrations of course, so they are not dangerous to humans.

GM technology as been used to save papaya and to prevent deadly vitamin A deficiency

Parent focus exclusively on the two most common GM applications in agriculture: herbicide resistance and insect resistance. However, she does not bother to discuss other applications, such as virus-resistant papaya or rice that have more vitamin A.

The papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) almost exterminated papaya farming in Hawaii, which represented the vast majority of papaya production in the world. Researchers were able to genetically modify those papayas to make them resistant, and thus prevent the papaya production from collapsing. In other words, one of the reason that we still have papayas today is because of GM technology.

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