Sep 30 2014

Dr. Oz, Autism, and GMOs

It is no longer news that Dr. Oz has long ago abandoned any pretense to scientific rigor and is simply another scaremongering hawker of snake oil and nonsense. Still, it’s hard not to marvel when he sinks to a new low.

On a recent show Oz’s target was genetically modified organisms (GMO). This is not new for Oz, he has hosted anti-GMO activists in the past, warning his audience about non-existent health risks.

This time around Oz and his guest are claiming that pesticides used with certain GMO varieties may cause autism. Why is it always autism? It’s likely at least partly due to the fact that awareness of autism has been increasing in the last 2 decades, creating the false impression that autism itself is increasing. This leads to numerous false correlations (most famously with vaccines) and the assumption of cause and effect (often to support a preexisting bias). As you can see from the graph, however, the rise in autism diagnoses tightly correlates with increased organic food sales – but I guess you have to cherry pick the correlation you want.

The narrative that Oz spun for his audience was this: GMO is tied to pesticide use. Those pesticides are hazardous to your health, and specifically might cause autism. Organic food is pesticide free, and going organic can actually cure autism.

Every link in that chain of argument is misleading or patently wrong.

To help him spin this tale he had on as a guest anti-GMO activist Zen Honeycutt from Moms Across America. In a march against GMO she gave a speech, saying:

I am here today because of love. We are all here because we love our families, our communities, our freedoms, our environment, our dogs and cats, our bees and butterflies. We love our farmers and we have FAITH in our farmers. We have faith that they can and will farm as has been done for thousands of years, without GMOs containing foreign proteins and the use of toxic chemicals.

and

Today, young couples have a 30% “failure to conceive” rate. That is the lowest in recorded US history. Everyone needs to know about GMOs!

She is a clever propagandist. She doesn’t actually say here that GMOs cause fertility problems, but the implication is unavoidable. She links GMO explicitly to “foreign proteins” and to pesticide use. What are “foreign proteins?” Proteins are just proteins. Most are broken down in the stomach and intestine and become amino acids – food.

Some proteins can resist this breakdown, and they have a greater tendency to cause an allergic reaction. This is why proteins introduced into food through GMO are tested specifically for sequences known to confer resistance to digestion, to cause allergy, or to cause toxicity. There have been no reported cases of allergic reactions to GMO food. 

Let’s unpack further Oz’s anti-GMO narrative. First, GMO is not specifically about conferring resistance to herbicides. Glyphosate resistant crops are among the most common already approved and on the market, but that has nothing to do with GMO itself. Genetic modification can be used for a variety of purposes, such as disease resistance, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, and pest resistance. There is research underway to use GM technology to reduce reliance of nitrogen fertilizer, enhance photosynthesis and therefore yield, and to enhance the flavor of commercial cultivars.

Oz, however, wants his audience to link GMO to pesticides. Even here the story is more complex. Current GMOs, specifically Bt varieties, have reduced the use of insecticides. This has been a boon to farmers, reducing costs and exposure to insecticides, and also has been beneficial to the environment. Overreliance on single methods of insect control can lead to resistance, but this is an issue of overall farming practice, and not specific to GMOs.

GMOs, specifically Roundup Ready or glyphosate-resistant varieties, have increased the use of glyphosate (that is the point of these varieties). Again, overreliance on single methods of weed control is probably not sustainable, but we have to consider the big picture. Glyphosate is actually less toxic than many other herbicides it is displacing. Also, tilling the soil to reduce weeds is bad for the soil and releases carbon into the atmosphere. Hand weeding is labor intensive. So – there is no great option, and it’s simplistic to say that using glyphosate is worse than any other option.

I acknowledge that Roundup Ready crops do encourage over use of this single method of weed control, which is already resulting in resistant weeds. A more integrated approach is better – similar to the intelligent use of antibiotics to avoid resistance. Farming practice is the real issue here, and glyphosate-resistant crops should be looked at as one tool among many. Don’t blame the technology, however, if it is not being used optimally.

What apparently triggered this Oz episode is the fact that a new herbicide resistant crop is coming on the market. Dow AgroSciences (not Monsanto this time) is coming out with Enlist Duo. These are crops that are resistant to two herbicides, glyphosate and 2,4-D choline.

2, 4-D was approved in the 1940s and is already one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world. The EPA has determined that it is safe for its intended use.

Oz and his guest imply a link between pesticide exposure and autism. No such causal link has been established, however.

Amazingly, Honeycutt specifically claims that when she switched her family to all organic diet, within 8 weeks he son’s symptoms of autism resolved. Even if autism were the result of pesticide toxicity, this is a highly implausible claim. Autism is the result of developmental changes in the architecture of the brain. This is not something that can change within weeks. The claim is patently absurd, but is likely to scare a lot of parents, and that was the point.

It is also not necessarily true that organic produce has less pesticide. Organic farmers can use “natural” pesticides, and often have to use more because they are less effective than some synthetic pesticides. There is also no particular reason to assume that “natural” pesticides are more safe than synthetic pesticides – this is just a naked naturalistic fallacy.

Conclusion

In my opinion, Dr. Oz systematically misinformed his audience for propaganda purposes, to fearmonger about GMOs. Fearmongering is also good for ratings, so I guess it was a win-win.

There is a meaningful discussion to be had about the regulation, patenting, and use of GMOs. It is unfortunate, however, that public discourse is dominated by pseudoscientific and often outright false claims, largely perpetrated by GMO opponents.

29 responses so far

29 thoughts on “Dr. Oz, Autism, and GMOs”

  1. It’s my understanding that GMOs actually do increase pesticide use beyond glyphosate (up front, not that it matters: I think GMOs are likely to be at least an important part of long-term sustainable agriculture, and are an _urgent_ part of short-term responses to certain crop diseases or climate issues, with no evident biological harms from consumption of at least existing varieties). The issue is just ridiculously complex — “pesticides” are poisons to kill vermin like rats, or insecticides, or herbicides like glyphosate that kill competing plants, or fungicides. My understanding has been the the widespread adoption of GMO soy has led to an increase in pesticide use, because the soy needs fungicides and GMO has made soy a more lucrative crop. Certainly I don’t think fungicides are necessarily horrid — I like locally grown apples in fall when they’re easy to pick, and I’ve pointed out to folks in the Middle Atlantic East that there are no organic local apples — they all need fungicides to grow profitably here at commercial scales. I don’t know whether the overall shift in type of pesticide use is good or bad or what, environmentally — that sounds like a really hard problem that you’re going to have to mostly determine _ex post_ with a lot of careful data collection, and I’m open to the possibility of its going either way. But it _is_ a question worth posing (unlike, say, autism links) and an awfully complicated one.

  2. Lumen2222 says:

    The trouble is these issues are indeed very complex, but the public only responds to clear fear mongering and black and white “purity” statements about butterflies and bees.

    I find Honeycutt’s propaganda deeply disturbing because it encourages a strange paternalistic thought process with regards to farmers. Never mind the complex and highly technical knowledge of agriculture that many growers have. We have “faith” that they can return to the simple methods of farming from the past. And she makes it clear that “we” LOVE our farmers. So telling them to go out and hand weed from dawn to dusk is merely tough love. Much as you would give to children who don’t want to clean up their rooms.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the environmental movement is simply not going to get very far with agriculture if it continues to take this appallingly insulting attitude towards farmers. They talk all the time about the “disconnect” between the consumer and the farm. Personally I think the biggest disconnect is the average consumer’s romanticized image of farming in past generations and an ignorance of just how difficult and risky this lifestyle was. You are not showing love for anyone by insisting that large numbers of people (presumably not including you) go back to the back breaking work and economic uncertainty of earlier modes of agriculture.

  3. RickK says:

    Typo?: “Every link in that change of argument is misleading or patently wrong.”

  4. jsterritt says:

    Modern advertising practices and the hype behind organic (i.e., the naturalistic fallacy) have made it easy for consumers to think their food comes from an idyllic system of small, green farms — where milkmaids milk cows and farmers tend lovingly to picture-perfect fruits and vegetables while cattle graze contentedly in meadows and chickens scratch away in the farmyard. The very subject of agriculture technology threatens this fantasy; and people — just like the large commercial farms that actually feed us — have invested a lot in maintaining said fantasy. It’s no wonder people respond so violently to mention of GM, herbicides, and farming practices: most people are cranky when roused from their pleasant dreams.

    I’m sure Honeycutt’s perfect world would include a cause to blame and a cure to remedy her child’s autism. I’m sure she never dreamed that she would have a less-than-idyllic life, with less-than-perfectly-healthy children, but that’s no excuse to go back to sleep and deny reality.

  5. rezistnzisfutl says:

    Lumen,

    You bring up a good point that I often reiterate when it comes to romanticized notions of agriculture of the past, even of what it is today, that I think often resembles a mindset of anti-vaxxers, in that they really have no idea what it was like back then, not just for farmers but for people in general before the Green Revolution. Anti-vaxxers don’t know what it was like back in a time when various diseases were ever-present in society and everyone knew someone who was afflicted in one way or another, sometimes for the lifespan, or outright died. They take for granted what vaccines have done for us.

    The same goes with agriculture post Green Revolution. Before then, farming truly was back breaking, dangerous work (not that it’s necessarily easy these days) that required generations of entire families to be involved in, and for society to be fed far more people had to go into agriculture. Since the Green Revolution, fewer people had to be involved with agriculture yet we have dramatically increased yields, freeing people up to pursue other careers and disciplines.

    Before the GR, food was less available and malnourishment more pervasive and widespread. Food availability was more beholden on seasons, and a few years of bad growing conditions could be devastating. They also didn’t have the sheer diversity of foods we see in markets today, and many foods that were prohibitively expensive in the past can be afforded by most people today.

    An unintended, and perhaps negative consequence is that we’ve had a population explosion, which is typical of a population that has excessive resources, increasing longevity, and virtually no predation.

    Like with many “debates” regarding GMOs and agriculture in general, the ideologues try to create overly simple solutions out of highly complex problems. The notion of just banning things is naive especially considering that banning usually has some consequence that really shouldn’t be ignored.

    As Dr. Novella said, it’s unfortunate that all this meaningless noise based on pseudoscience, naturalistic fallacy, and fear is being generated that drowns out real conversations that should be had regarding problems and challenges with agriculture. A hearkening to the past does little to solve today’s problems.

  6. Daws says:

    To Kieselguhr Kid, that sounds somewhat like speculation, if you have some hard data cited that would be very welcome. Most I’ve seen point to the opposite and even a generational reduction in roundup use itself. (An analogy to antibiotic use may be apt, less being needed as the disease goes away). However it can also be a moot point in that many of the new GMO tech inroads have been in aim to reduce fungal attacks, increasing resistance and otherwise circumventing need for fungicides. (A new development against powdery mildew comes to mind, which is great as it’s one of the most prevalent diseases out there). I wish I could find the source for that off the top of my head, give it a Google though). But needless to say should such crop changes come about they will most likely come about through biotechnology rather than traditional breeding methods, and would do so far more quickly. We’ve been using traditional crossbreeding for centuries and fungus is still a huge problem.

  7. grabula says:

    “We love our farmers and we have FAITH in our farmers. We have faith that they can and will farm as has been done for thousands of years, without GMOs containing foreign proteins and the use of toxic chemicals.”

    Easy to say as you drive your car down the road to a WholeFoods to pick up what your family needs at your leisure, I wonder how that view would change if they lived in other parts of the world…

  8. rezistnzisfutl says:

    Isn’t it interesting, grabula, how a statement like that can be simultaneously patronizing, arrogant, and dismissive of farmers? As if they’re a bunch of hick hayseed hillbillies who can’t make a decision for themselves, so of course the organic folks come in armed with ignorance to tell them how they should be conducting their business. Good example of concern trolling. Of course, these Whole Food junkies likely have no clue what it means to be a farmer, especially a non-boutique farmer tasked with feeding the billions of people in the world. Personally, I’d be pretty insulted if I were a farmer.

  9. Orac says:

    Actually, I thought Oz’s new low was having “Long Island Medium” Theresa Caputo on again saying that speaking to the dead is good for your health. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch that one yet…

  10. Bronze Dog says:

    Lumen,
    You bring up a good point that I often reiterate when it comes to romanticized notions of agriculture of the past, even of what it is today, that I think often resembles a mindset of anti-vaxxers, in that they really have no idea what it was like back then, not just for farmers but for people in general before the Green Revolution. Anti-vaxxers don’t know what it was like back in a time when various diseases were ever-present in society and everyone knew someone who was afflicted in one way or another, sometimes for the lifespan, or outright died. They take for granted what vaccines have done for us.

    Agreed. It seems to be a common belief among various woos that the past was just like the present, except with better decor and fewer smartphones.

    Sometimes the past is populated with innately healthier people because disease is strictly a modern invention by mustache-twirling eggheads. Sometimes they go so far to imply disease happens to us today because said eggheads developed medical technology and social programs that allowed the inferior degenerates to live comparatively normal, productive, happy lives instead of letting them die from natural causes like childhood illnesses, congenital conditions, genetic diseases, destitution, institutional neglect, infanticide, or lynch mobs. And some spectacularly nasty trolls don’t merely imply this, they explicitly say so.

    Regarding “organic” pesticides, I’ve gotten the impression that some of them are harsh, overly broad chemicals that got grandfathered in, and fell into disfavor outside of organic farming because of those features.

  11. RC says:

    “Regarding “organic” pesticides, I’ve gotten the impression that some of them are harsh, overly broad chemicals that got grandfathered in, and fell into disfavor outside of organic farming because of those features.”

    Yeah, some of the things the “organic” industry uses are pretty horrific – like Rotenone – where there are very safe alternatives, but they’re synthetic.

    It’s nothing but the Naturalistic fallacy and ignorance.

  12. I think period movies reinforce the romantic view of the past. I would like to see an attempt at a truly accurate period movie, in terms of hygiene and health. I think it would be an eye-opener.

  13. Bill Openthalt says:

    Steven —

    You’d really need Smell-O-Vision here, with plenty of close-ups of mouths and teeth. 🙂

    There was literally nothing to smile about, in the days of yonder.

  14. MikeB says:

    Smoke and fire shoot from my ears as I write…

    I was an employee at an organic farm for four years. It was during that period that evidence and logic began to wear away at my illusions about organic farming.

    Here’s why I’m through with organic farming.

    One example: I once had to attend a training session in how to read pesticides labels and how to properly apply them! Isn’t that ironic? It was one of those memorable, watershed moments: There I was, in a room full of “organic” farmers, most of whom make their livings off people who are convinced that pesticides are wrong and evil, learning about personal protective equipment, tank mixes, drifting, exposure, etc.–because, yes, we sprayed pesticides–Pyganic, copper sulfate, neem oil, spinosad, etc. (Rotenone has been discontinued, by the way.)

    It was the last straw.

    And now I have a little heirloom orchard, and as an apple grower in New England I’m pretty much stuck for life using fungicides to control scab, and insecticides to control borer, and plum curculio, and codling moth, and herbicides to knock back the creeping vines that threaten to crawl out of nearby stone walls and climb my trees.

    I’ve read a lot about pesticide toxicity, pesticide regulation, pesticide exposure, and I’m telling you the whole pesticide scare–which that quack “Dr” Oz is part of–is a huge hoax and a travesty.

    Every year the US Government issues a report called the Pesticide Date Program, and it is one of the best uses of taxpayer dollars that one can imagine. Pesticide exposure is monitored across the country, as statistically significant samples of grocery store produce are collected and tested for a myriad of pesticides, and the results are compiled and published in charts that any citizen can access.

    The long and short: Pesticide residue tolerances set by the FDA are almost never exceeded. (These tolerances are already pretty conservative: they allow for a few orders of magnitude of leeway for safety.) And not only that, the actual “residues” are measured in parts per billion, whereas the tolerances themselves are measured in parts per million.

    In other words: farmers are doing a fantastic job keeping safe, abundant foods on the shelves.

    And yet Oz and his ilk continue to win, and the organic delusion marches on.

    Hence, the smoke and fire.

  15. Giovanelo says:

    Although I am generally critical of the FDA, EPA and other regulatory agencies in the USA, it must be said that they are way more scientifically sound and less prone to the crackpot, quasi-religious arguments in science than their European counterparts, which, for example, ban or severely limit the use of GMOs. It looks almost as if the likes of mr OZ control those agencies and governmental bodies in Europe.

  16. Enzo says:

    Honestly, I think the most important piece that needs to fall into place to combat all this anit-GMO / pro-organic hysteria is realization about just how many chemicals we encounter on a day to day basis (even from natural or organic sources). People need to understand just how much “crap” is floating around in their bodies as a matter of living.

    The most common objection to GMOs from reasonably informed people will be something along the lines of “Yes, I know there is probably a study somewhere that says levels of these pesticides or proteins are safe, but can’t I just have something that has none of these chemicals?”

    Anti-GMO people seem to think that if they just eat organic than there bodies are “clean”. No. Just existing as a human in the 21st century — whether in a city or the most rural place on earth — you will have certain exposure to toxic chemicals. And you will have “weird sounding stuff” in your body. The only thing that matters is dosage.

    We will never make progress unless we can shatter the myth that the ingredients of an organically grown apple are: apple.

  17. Bronze Dog says:

    @MikeB: So many acids. So many woos who’d throw a fit about that if they didn’t see that it’s natural.

  18. BBBlue says:

    “Every year the US Government issues a report called the Pesticide Data Program…”

    …and every year, the Environmental Working Group publishes their Dirty Dozen List, which uses PDP data to misrepresent the risks associated with pesticide residues on produce.

    http://bit.ly/1rNeTVn

  19. grabula says:

    @rezistnzisfutl

    yep, that’s the problem though, these people have a hard time looking beyond themselves. I mean the fundamental issue is they’re too lazy to attempt to understand the actual issue they’re against, so they fall back on what they pick up from the few people who do enough work to snowball all the lazy ones.

    That’s really what I feel like ti comes down to most of the time, lazyness. They’re brain latches on to a concept – genetically modified foods must be horrible for us because they’re not natural – and instead of looking into it and really understanding the story, they click like on facebook to anti-gmo stuff, listen to their lazy friends who agree that not natural is bad and so on.

  20. JB says:

    People do not need GMOs read about Permaculture and you will understand the real solution to feeding the world. They are completely unnecessary.

  21. RC says:

    There’s nothing contradictory about GMOs and Permaculture.

  22. rezistnzisfutl says:

    That we don’t “need” GMOs is a bold statement. As the population of the Earth becomes ever higher and stewardship of the environment more important, GMOs will play a big role in future agriculture. It seems you have an overly simplistic and idealized view of the demands on agriculture. The thing is, GMOs isn’t an agricultural method, a la “certified organic”, it’s one tool in the toolbox of agriculture that can be utilized in different ways and in varying amounts.

    The real question is, why NOT use GMOs, when they confer such obvious benefits?

  23. grabula says:

    JB, feel free to start again with something like “I believe permaculture is the worlds answer to those horrible GMO’s and here is the science to support my claim…”

    The wikipedia for permaculture starts off on a bad footing by propogating a sort of naturlistic fallacy in this quote:

    “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.
    —Bill Mollison, [4]”

    The implication here is that 1) nature always has our best interests at heart, and 2) we’re somehow in a battle with nature.

    I suspect that while it may be a great idea for families or small communities, like many other ‘natural’ farming methods, this one will fall well short of supporting those places with large populations and horrible climates for farming varied food products.

  24. jsterritt says:

    JB…

    Offering permaculture as an alternative to GMOs is profoundly silly. It’s like saying we shouldn’t make safer cars, because we should all be riding bicycles instead. While it might be a perfectly nice idea for a lifestyle or community farm, where experiment and failure can be an option, permaculture simply doesn’t scale up to the big business of feeding whole populations. And it looks too risky (i.e., unproven) to scale down for smallholders and subsistence farmers. Saying it should be scaled up (or down) anyway is irresponsible, because there is scant evidence that permaculture is viable. Speaking of evidence, I urge you to research, find, and provide it in support of your claims. Skeptics love evidence. We need it like we need oxygen and Cherry Coke Zero.

    I find it odd that you don’t present permaculture as one possible tool in humanity’s toolbox, but as an ultimate solution that obviates all others. This kind of naturalistic fallacy-driven philosophy of agriculture is divorced from reality when you suggest it can feed the world. Not only are you letting the perfect interfere with the good, but you’re being bossy and presumptuous, with totalitarian overtones too obvious to ignore. Permaculture rejects specialization (the basis of modern economies and a cornerstone of civilization), which implies a forced return to “self reliance” (a nice turn of phrase meaning everyone becomes a farmer). When you say permaculture is “the real solution to feeding the world,” you are leaving unsaid the words “if I was in charge.” But we hear them anyway and it smacks of agrarian socialism or its lazy cousin, utopianism.

  25. rezistnzisfutl says:

    jsterrit,

    You hit the nail on the head very nicely! The only way their proposals would work, “they” being the naturalistic folks who harken back to the “good ol’ days” of agriculture, is that most people don’t want to be farmers, and far more people would have to be farmers in order to meet demand. An effect of the Green Revolution is that it freed up people to move into more urban areas to pursue other paths in life – that simply wasn’t possible for many back in the day.

    Another aspect of the apparent desire to forcibly change many peoples’ occupations back to farming circa 1900, is what seems to be a call to cull the population. If only the population were smaller and demands weren’t so high, we could then implement organic, permaculture, and other “natural” techniques and feed the population. Not only is that heinous, but the problem still remains that a large percentage of the population must be farmers in order to meet demand, and most people these days won’t be farmers if they had the choice. Personally, I prefer living in a free society where I get to determine my own destiny, as much as humanly possible.

  26. MikeB says:

    “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

    This is silly and wrong on just about every level possible.

    All farmers work “with” nature. All farmers work “against” nature. When you farm, you enter the Darwinian fray. You select what you want (“with nature”) and you suppress what you don’t want (“against nature”).

    For example, I want my apple trees to live and the insects that prey on them to die.

    ” protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor.” Yes, only permacultists are thoughtful. All those other farmers are thoughtless. What an ass.

    ” looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.” I don’t even know what that means. But I bet Mollison thinks he’s being very thoughtful.

  27. grabula says:

    “I find it odd that you don’t present permaculture as one possible tool in humanity’s toolbox, but as an ultimate solution that obviates all others.”

    This. Again, extreme science deniers believe they have the single answer to the worlds problems and want to foist on us as the only reasonable option. Meanwhile as a skeptic I understand that GMO is just a tool in the toolbox as jsterritt says. I’m not suggesting everything needs to become a GMO (though it probably wouldn’t hurt) but that GMO crops can and have done some good. Meanwhile those living in first world countries who have the luxury to experiment with less efficient ways of farming would have us believe their way is the only way.

  28. SteveA says:

    “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation.”

    I wonder how long this philosophy of protracted and thoughtful observation would last in the face of a screw-worm fly infestation.

    It’s easy to be idealistic when you’re looking at neat green fields through double-glazing with a cup of Java in your hand, listening to the gurgle of your central heating.

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