Today, on Twitter, I learned something new and interesting from environmental reporter Paul Voosen. Over the years, I've run into reports (like this one from the Union of Concerned Scientists) showing that genetically modified crops — i.e. Roundup Ready corn and soybeans, which is really the stuff we're talking about most of the time in these situations — don't increase intrinsic yields of those crops. But I've also seen decent-looking data that seemed to suggest exactly the opposite. So what gives?
Turns out, this is largely an issue of terminology.
A worthy and overlooked story in the NYT by Elizabeth Rosenthal about a new economic riptide hitting Central America, a result of America's changing corn policy. The US is now using 40% of our own corn crop to produce biofuel, and tortilla prices have doubled in Guatemala, which now imports about half of its corn.
"Recent laws in the United States and Europe that mandate the increasing use of biofuel in cars have had far-flung ripple effects, economists say, as land once devoted to growing food for humans is now sometimes more profitably used for churning out vehicle fuel."
Authors of study linking GM corn with rat tumors manipulated media to prevent criticism of their work
Earlier today, I posted on the recent paper that claims to have found a link between eating genetically modified corn and the growth of tumors in rats. Short version: The research sucked. It's a terribly done study and it demonstrates why "peer reviewed" does not always mean "accurate".
But now, this story is getting worse. Turns out, the authors of the study (and their financial sponsor, The Sustainable Food Trust) manipulated the media to ensure that the first news stories published about the study would not be critical of its methods or results.
First, some background. When a journal is about to publish a study that they think will be big news, they usually offer the full study to reporters under an embargo system. The reporter gets to read the study, do their reporting, and write a story ... but they can't publish that story until a specific day at a specific time. If you're a daily or an online publication, there's a lot of pressure to have your story ready to go the moment the embargo lifts. Otherwise, you'll look like you weren't on the ball. There's a lot of problems with this system, but it's very common.
What's not common: Forcing journalists to sign non-disclosure agreements promising to not show the study they're reporting on to any independent researchers or outside experts. If you're trying to make sure your publication runs a story on the study right when the embargo lifts, but you can't show the study to any third-party experts before the embargo lifts, then the story you run is going to (inevitably) contain only information the authors of the study want you to talk about. It ceases being journalism and becomes PR.
This is what the authors of the GM corn/rat tumor study did.
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UPDATE: After you read this story, make sure you check out the follow up piece. Editors at Embargo Watch have found evidence that The Sustainable Food Trust manipulated the media to prevent public criticism of this paper.
Yesterday, in an aside to a post criticizing an astroturf political campaign in California, Mark mentioned a new study that supposedly found GM corn causes tumors in rats. As Mark said in an update to that post, this study is severely flawed, but I wanted to follow-up on that with some discussion about why it's flawed.
After all, the study was peer-reviewed, right? Doesn't that mean we can trust it?
Here's the thing. Peer review is not perfect. It's not a panacea. It's simply the basic level of due diligence. By submitting work for peer review, a scientist has allowed people outside her own team to critique her work. And the journal might require some changes to the paper based on the critique — anything from edits for clarity to requesting that the scientist perform another experiment in a different way. If a paper hasn't gone through peer review, you should be more skeptical of it. Avoiding peer review means that the researcher decided to show the public her results before allowing those results to be critiqued by independent experts.
But, at the same time, just because something has gone through peer review doesn't mean it's been certified to be accurate. It just means that roughly three other experts have looked at the paper before publication. There's still a lot of room for things to go wrong. Peer review is like the bouncer at the door. The bouncer doesn't guarantee that every person in the bar would be a good person for you to date. Even if a paper gets through, you still have to think about it critically and evaluate it on its own merits. This recent paper on GM corn and rat tumors is an excellent example of that ...
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This lovely ear of glass gem corn is featured at Seeds Trust. They will begin selling seeds for it in August.
The story of glass gem corn. Seedsman Greg Schoen got the seed from Carl Barnes, a part-Cherokee man, now in his 80's, in Oklahoma. He was Greg's "corn-teacher". Greg was in the process of moving last year and wanted someone else to store and protect some of his seeds. He left samples of several corn varieties, including glass gem. I grew out a small handful this past summer just to see. The rest, as they say is history. I got so excited, I posted a picture on Facebook. We have never seen anything like this. Unfortunately, we did not grow out enough to sell. Look for a small amount for sale starting in August 2011.
We grow a lot of corn in the United States, much of which never sees the inside of a human stomach. In fact, in 2010, something like a quarter of all the corn grown in this country went to ethanol production. That's a massive amount of corn grown for gas tanks. And it's a problem.
The process of growing corn is tremendously energy intensive, and it has some far-reaching drawbacks that threaten the future of vital farmlands in the Midwest. Corn crops provide steady, reliable income for farmers. But the risks likely outweigh those benefits, at least at the quantities in which we now grow corn.
In the spring of 2009, I experienced some of those risks first hand. At Smithsonian.com, you can read a excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out, my book about the future of energy. The excerpt is about Madelia, Minnesota, a small town where local farming advocates are trying to promote a more sustainable cropping system, and a better way to grow biofuels—one that provides incentives for farmers to grow less corn, not more.
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