The “other countries banned it” argument

Posts like these.. drive me just slightly crazy these days.

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I don’t blame anyone for getting affected by them.. but let me tell you a little story about banning “bad” stuff by other more enlightened countries who are apparently less evil and profit-driven than US (insert eyeroll).

This summer I interviewed participants in Ukraine as part of my project on food and health perceptions. Several of my respondents happened to be lawyers.. One of the topics under discussion was GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The non-GMO stickers have been put on foods in the country since at least 2013 Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 1.34.56 PMwhen I visited last. Anything from foods to chewing gum to water bottles boasted the round green NO GMO sticker. Most people I discussed it with actually acknowledged it was simple marketing and didn’t place much trust in the stickers anyway..

So when this July my interviewees mentioned that “well, you HAVE to have the non-GMO label in Ukraine”, I thought they meant that brands just needs to keep up with the competition in hopes of selling more of their product under the illusion of naturalness and purity (big deal for Ukrainians, who still live with the Chernobyl accident of 86, and still worry about environmental pollution in foods).

Well, No- i was told. Ukraine in fact passed an actual law somewhat recently forbidding the import, export, production, or sale of foods with any GMOs. So if you want to place a product on the shelves of Ukrainian stores, they simply have to be certified non-GMO.Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 12.38.56 PM

Oh! OK… what about reality? In actuality, if you’re placing that product on Ukrainian shelves.. you just pay to get the label put on. Ta-da, it’s non-GMO!

It is all so political, that discussions of population health are mostly for decoration..

Posts like that mentioned above are designed to get you thinking with indignation “I can’t believe my country is so interested in profits!.. they sacrifice our health while other countries actually care about their people’s well being..”. But why do you think Ukraine banned GMOs? It’s to make $ off the new certification and labeling procedures, it’s to look cool in front of Europe (we really want to be accepted to EU, mkay), it’s to keep our image as a serious exporter of quality agricultural products (hey, Ukraine wants to stay the famous breadbasket of Europe! And demand for “clean” or eco agriculture is big. You can’t afford to lose your place in that market)…

It is all so political, that discussions of population health are mostly for decoration (not like absolutely nobody cares, but that’s not the main reason for any of these policies). And of course this is not just Ukraine- I’m just telling you a short specific story. Either way, poor regulatory practices in the country mean that anyone can buy that non-GMO label: nobody’s testing anything and nobody is checking compliance, guys.

The SciFiles #3: 20 Years Later, Genetically Modified Salmon Approved

I had to write a short, informative, and “unbiased” piece for my work the other month. Posting it here, since it took me a good chunk of the day! 🙂

On November 19th, 2015 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first genetically modified (GM) animal intended for human consumption- AquAdvantage Salmon. The agency reached its decision after 20 years of evaluating research and opinions from a range of sources, including research submitted by the developers themselves (AquaBounty Technologies, a small company in Massachusetts), available peer-reviewed scientific literature, and comments from public hearings and the Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee. Ultimately, the FDA concluded that the product is safe for humans and animals to eat.

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Both GM and regular Atlantis salmon will end up being the same size, but the GM one will grow FASTER (thus, on the pic, it is larger at the SAME age).

What makes AquAdvantage Salmon unique is that it grows 40% quicker than non-modified farm-raised Atlantic salmon. This effect is achieved by inserting fertilized Atlantic salmon eggs with 1) a growth hormone gene from the Pacific Chinook (or “king”) salmon, and 2) a genetic promoter from an ocean pout fish. This promoter keeps the added gene active all year round, while salmon’s own growth hormone gene is only active in the warmer months. These modifications will not lead to any measurable differences in the GM salmon’s look, taste, or it’s ultimate size and nutrition value, but they will make it grow to adult size quicker.

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Image borrowed from http://www.businessinsider.com/ article by Leslie Baehr

Product Benefits

Clearly, growing almost twice as fast is a considerable economic advantage to fish farmers. In addition, the current practice of catching Wild Atlantic salmon for human consumption is not sustainable as the world’s oceans are already seeing declining fishing yields. Another environmental advantage is a reduced carbon footprint of the fishing industry, as the modified salmon can be grown in captivity close to human populations and reduce transportation costs (in the U.S., 95% of salmon is imported). To the consumer, these factors would potentially result in lower prices and an opportunity to make salmon (a healthy protein choice, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) a more affordable part of their diet.

Public Concerns

While the FDA has concluded the GM salmon safe to eat, consumers and public interest groups raise important concerns. One potential issue is the fish escaping into the wild and affecting the environment (e.g. competing with wild salmon for food or mating with it and introducing new hybrid species). The escape scenario, however, is highly unlikely when considering the “multiple and redundant” safety measures in place. First, GM salmon can be raised only in land-based contained tanks in Canada and Panama. Second, there are multiple physical barriers placed in both the tanks and plumbing to prevent the escape of fish and eggs. Lastly, the AquAdvantage salmon is female and sterile, making interbreeding highly unlikely.

In terms of human health implications, Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs) already raise concerns among consumers as people consider possible long-term effects from such a novel technology: 57% of Americans surveyed in 2015 said GMOs were unsafe and 67% stated that scientists do not clearly understand their health effects (Pew Research Center). In contrast, the international non-profit organization AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Sciences) is more confident about our current state of knowledge, stating that:

the science is quite clear: […] consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques”.

(Full statement: AAAS.org) While GM salmon is now approved for sale (though it will take about two years to reach the market), some retailers have already pledged to avoid the product (e.g. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s) reflecting such consumer worries.

The Labeling Question
One aspect of the FDA ruling saw particular opposition from public groups: GM salmon will not require labeling. While the FDA issued two recommendations for manufacturers to voluntarily label the product, the agency can only require additional labeling if a material difference is present between a GM and non-GM salmon (e.g. differences in nutritional profile). As no such material distinction has been found, a mandatory labeling might incorrectly imply an essential difference between the two.Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 8.03.09 PM.png

Another issue with requiring labeling is that a “genetically modified” food is not necessary a meaningful category, and the choice of foods to include in it would be quite arbitrary. After all, humans have been modifying the food supply in various ways for quite some time. This includes “wide cross” hybridization resulting in plants not found in nature (including “heirloom” plant varieties often perceived as more “natural”). Another example is radiation and chemical mutagens that are used on seeds to generate new strains (e.g. a Ruby Red grapefruit, which can carry the “organic” label, was created via mutation due to radiation exposure). In comparison to these methods, genetic engineering is arguably the most precise and predictable technique at the moment.

As a consumer, you have a chance to read and comment on the FDA’s proposed guidelines for the industry’s voluntary labeling of GM salmon until January 25, 2016: FDA Regulations

Online Health Wars: Science vs. Public

Since my research includes asking questions about why people think what they do about health, I spent a lot of time reading various discussion boards and comment sections on different health topics. In the last several days I’ve had such an overload of insane online discussions about vaccines, GMOs, and diets that I almost want to quit… 10559827_1659644964260681_5735123775899498101_nAnd yet the often entertaining arguments keep me coming back! The science folks vs. lay folks debates are also interesting since I am myself an ex anti-science alternative health believer who has now “switched sides” on many issues (or as I prefer/hope to think: turned much more moderate in my views based on understanding scientific evidence better).

Have you ever seen a conversation between a “concerned mom/dad who follow their gut” and a “science proponent with experience in the lab” discussing vaccinations? It is sad and funny as you see things like these:

– science person providing links to peer-reviewed literature (really just abstracts, folks can’t access the full text most of the time), questioning parent’s credentials, attempting to explain herd immunity, claiming they lack understanding of science and suggesting to take an into to epidemiology course, blaming them for increasing rates of preventable disease…and as last resorting to calling them stupid, biased, etc.

concerned parent shares links to blogs and anti-vaccine websites, calls the science person’s degree “useless”, emphasizes their credentials as a parent who “just knows” and does their research (via blogs and specific sites), and very often attacks the science guy/girl as being paid by Monsanto or FDA, being dogmatic and inflexible as their degree was provided by corrupt institutions, being stupid, etc.

10420359_1508161656068484_512410907058098671_nNobody ever appears to switch sides, understand where the other person is coming from, or take their evidence seriously. The process of reading such conversations is often sadly hilarious yet less often informative. But most importantly it shows people’s biases.

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Evolution made you a misanthrope :)

Well that’s a strange title.. but let me explain 😉

Evolution of Immunity

Evolutionary approach to studying human behavior is focused on the adaptive value of the behavior… so we are asking questions like “why has X behavior evolved and what costs and benefits it brings?” When our sensory system (vision, smell…) is faced with a disease-connoting cues (e.g. a sick person), two defensive systems get activated:

The immune system
The behavioral immune system

Mounting an immune response in the body is quite costly in terms of energy spent and it is required only after the body has contacted pathogens.. but the behavioral immune system activates our basic emotions (fear, disgust) and behaviors that prevent contact with potentially dangerous objects (in terms of transmitting disease), so saving our body precious energy needed for the actual physiological immune response 😉

This behavioral immune system is trying to be over-careful, though, and will react not only to actual disease-reminding stimuli, but also to stimuli that resembles signs of disease (but may not logically be dangerous- like a sterilized glass that used to have a roach in it… there glass is perfectly clean but people are still disgusted when drinking from it… or a person with a disability- they’re not actually contagious).

So, first of all, what does this have to do with being a misanthrope?

Well, this emotional response to things that are dangerous to health (whether truly or only perceived..) is stronger in people who think themselves vulnerable to disease. Such people show a HIGHER level of an averse response to:

  • physically disabled people (Park et al. 2003)*
  • older adults (Duncan&Schaller, 2009)
  • Immigrants (Faulkner etal. 2004)
  • obese people (Park, Schaller & Crandall, 2007)
  • some animals (Prokop et al. 2010)
I know these are not roaches..just chocolate (which i adore), yet i can’t imagine even touching these without disgust

Being open to new experiences and being an extrovert is associated with larger social networks (having more friends&acquaintances), but ALSO with higher risk of being infected by pathogens (the more folks you get in contact to, the more changes to catch something). Again, a stronger negative response is seen in those that perceive themselves to be more vulnerable or come from areas with high pathogenic load (=lots of diseases). So if you’re not a people person, there’s nothing particularly “abnormal” about you.. Indeed, you are quite a well-adapted fellow 😀

And second- what does this have to do with food??

Usually everything I post has something to do with health and diet.. so I need to make a connection here. Researchers hypothesized that, similarly to the behavioral avoidance of disfigured people triggered by this over-protective emotional immunity, new technologies might activate behavioral avoidance. New technology like genetic modification or highly processed foods in general.

Researchers decided to see if they can predict attitudes toward GMOs by people with different levels of pathogen sensitivity. And they did find that people who felt themselves more vulnerable to infectious diseases had significantly more negative attitudes toward GM products (Prokop et al., 2013). Of course, there are many many reasons people do not like GMOs- rational and emotional, but this is a pretty cool finding nevertheless.

So, many things about us and our personality might be an important adaptive response.. does not mean we can not override these “instincts” with some logic (e.g. knowing obese individuals are not in any way going to make you sick thus not stigmatizing them).

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