free debate

October 16, 2011

On "Organic" and "GM" Food

While sitting in the dining hall the other day, several other students at my table were discussing their nutritional preferences. One of the guys, in particular, was adamant about eating organic food, and was disgusted by the poor nutritional value and supposedly cheap quality of the dining hall food. Now, I am not going to claim my dining hall has the most amazing food ever, because it doesn't, but it's far from the worst I've had. And so long as you vary what you eat and try to keep a balanced diet, it's not difficult to stay healthy and well-fed without supplementing the meal plan. But, at least in this context, that was not the point. This student was truly upset by the fact that the food was probably "GM" and definitely not "organic."

According to the USDA, foods labeled "organic" must meet a set of criteria, which basically boil down to not using synthetic products, such as fertilizers or pesticides, as well as attempting to farm sustainably and maintain the biodiversity of the farmland. On the whole, I don't feel this is a bad idea. Sustainable, environmentally friendly farming practices are just smart: they allow the land to continue to be fertile and cause minimal disruption to the native ecosystem. The idea that no man-made products can be used is not a bad idea... I mostly see it as a silly one. All synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and other products used in agriculture are regulated by the EPA and the FDA, for environmental and human safety. Even in industrial farming, it is becoming common practice to use man-made products as a last resort, both to protect the health of the farm and the consumer, but also to help the products to retain their potency. Like antibiotics, if pesticides are overused, the target creatures will become immune over time.

So, overall, organic food is not something I have a problem with as a whole. There are a few things that rub me the wrong way, though, which I've discussed in the past. For instance, the term "organic" is a bit of a misnomer; in the chemical sense, basically everything we eat, with the exception of salt, is organic. Also, the scientific studies suggest that there's really no nutritional or health benefit of "organic" food over "non-organic" food. If you think it tastes significantly better, and don't mind the higher price, then go for it. But the hype about organic food seems misplaced.

The fear of genetically modified food, however, is even more peculiar. Humans have been genetically modifying food ever since we settled down into agricultural societies. That's how we turned wild maize into the corn, wild peafowl into chickens, wild bananas into something easily edible. The only difference is that, at that point, we used artificial selection. Farmers would take two plants or animals that had characteristics they liked- say, larger ears of corn - and cross-breed them. In as few at 10 generations, the whole crop could have this characteristic. And, they could do this well before Darwin or Mendel came along to explain how it worked. However, understanding genetics, heredity, and evolution allowed farmers to more successfully manipulate their crops. Farms also started, at least with plants, using clones. If you take a clipping of a plant and replant it, it will often grow into a new individual, with the same genetics as the parent plant. You can do this over and over again, and don't have to get a new batch of seeds, with variable genetics and thus variable characteristics. A farmer knows every single plant in his field will have the same characteristics, which allow it to sell well.

The only thing different about "GM" crops, then, is that instead of repeating this process by trial and error, we can now go into the genes themselves and make tiny changes that result in even more precise output. Instead of it taking ten generations to made the corn kernels sweeter, for instance, it will take one. And, instead of the added sweetness resulting in fewer ears per plant, you can maintain the same number or even add a few more. It's a blessing in disguise. And, as with non-organic food, there's no scientific evidence that genetically modified foods are more harmful than the alternatives (which are also genetically modified, just in a more "natural" way). And, as before, they're highly regulated to make sure they do not harm humans or the environment.

Going back to the lunchroom conversation, I just can't see any scientific support for my classmate's claim that non-organic, genetically modified food is less good for you. If, for reasons of personal preference or ideology, he prefers to eat the "natural" alternatives, fine. There's no harm in them. But at the same time, it's unreasonable to hold the whole world to that standard. Because of agricultural innovations such as synthetic products and genetic modification, we are able to produce more than enough food to feed the rapidly growing human population (the distribution of that food is still an issue, but that's a topic for another day). The hype and fear-mongering is simply misplaced or untrue.

This post was written for Blog Action Day 2011.

October 13, 2011

Don't Trust Me

When was the last time you read a professional UFO website? What about a creationism or intelligent design website? If you're reading this blog, it probably means you agree with most of what we write about. If that's not true, good for you. There is nothing wrong with reading articles you agree with; in fact, you should do so. This is how we learn about the topics we are interested in. I think there is a problem, though, when that becomes all we read.

A few years ago I was having a friendly debate with a creationist who was a good friend of mine. As we got deeper and deeper into the various topics (dating rocks, mechanisms of selection, etc.) we began to hit walls at the edge of our respective knowledge. This alone is not a problem and I have found to be quite common in verbal debates. Something else I think we both realized though was the we were not really very familiar with each others arguments. That debate ended in what was the best conclusion to a debate I have ever had, we both recommended each other books. I recommended Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth Miller and he pointed me towards The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel. Even now, I have that book on my bookshelf and am proud to own it. So, why am I proud to own a book that I disagree with more often than not?

The skeptical movement prides itself on making decisions based on evidence. We promote evidence, rationality, and I think above all, an interest in understanding reality. The beautiful thing about reality is that it's there. It doesn't matter how many people believe something or hear of an idea, reality will still be doing its thing. When basically everyone on the planet thought the Earth was the center of the Solar System, that did not make it true. If we really want to understand this wonderfully complex and confusing universe we live in, learning about ideas you disagree with will only bring you closer to that goal. Just make sure you take all new ideas with a healthy dose of skepticism. Doubt, question, and ask what ideas are supported by the evidence.

There is another advantage to understanding the "other side" that I think is equally important. If you understand the reason someone else came to their conclusions you are going to be able to have much more productive debates. No one likes debating a straw man or characterization of their position, skeptic or not. If you understand what they are saying first, you are much more likely to change minds. Also, I think a lot of skeptics would be surprised at how much they have in common with people who may hold irrational beliefs. I have found that often the difference between skeptic and believer is a tiny difference in how they understand evidence or statistics. Again understanding this can lead to a much more enjoyable discussion for both parities even if you don't walk away in perfect agreement. So I challenge you all. Go read a book, a blog, or listen to a podcast that challenges you views. Try to come away from it more enlightened than when you went in.

October 3, 2011

Beauty and Science: The Sagan and Feynman Series

There can be something almost magical about the universe as revealed by science. Few human beings in recent time have expressed this as well as Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman. I stumbled upon this video series the other day and was blown away. Enjoy.