Archive | October 2013

Occam’s Razor and Endocrine Disruptors

David Epstein has quick and interesting look at research into the possible role of endocrine disrupting chemicals might be playing a role in weight gain both in humans and in animals. Cats and dogs, rats and mice, apes and chimps are all gaining weight in captivity (this is also seen in feral rats with access to people food). The research is credible, but it raises to issues for me.

The first is that it seems a little too convenient that ALL the endocrine disruptors in the environment are only causing our metabolisms to partition energy into fat storage rather than vice versa. In fact some of them are chemicals used for weight gain. I’d have liked to have seen that addressed in the article.

More centrally, I tend to approach the obesity crisis keeping Occam’s Razor in mind. As guideline, Occam’s Razor holds “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” The first step is to try to limit the number of possible variable instead of multiplying them. Instead of asking what is causing THIS OBESITY EPIDEMIC and then trying to account for all the variables that make this period of time different than the period that preceded it, you should ask what causes OBESITY EPIDEMICS IN GENERAL and the look at what they have in common. Gary Taubes outlines examples in “Why Do We Get Fat”

1961-63 Trinidad West Indies
A team of nutritionist from the US reports that malnutrition is a serious problem on the island, but so is obesity. Nearly a third of the women older than twenty five are obese. The average caloric intake among these women is estimated a fewer than 2000 calories a day.

1963 Chile
Obesity is described as “the main nutritional problem of Chilean adults.” 22% of military personnel and 32 % of white collar workers are obese. Among factory workers, 35% of males and 39% of females are obese.

1964-65 Johannesburg South Africa
Researchers from the South African Institute for Medical Research study urban Bantu “pensioners” older than 60 – “the most indigent of the elderly Bantu,” which means the poorest members of an exceedingly poor population. The women in this population average 165 pounds. 30% of them are “severely overweight.” The average weight of “poor white'” women is also reported to be 165 pounds.

1969 Ghana
25% of the women and 7% of the men attending medical outpatient clinics in Accra are obese, including half of all women in their 40s. “It may be reasonably concluded that severe obesity is common in women aged 30 to 60,” writes an associate professor at the University of Ghana Medical School, and it is “fairly common knowledge that many market women in the coastal towns of West Africa are fat.”

1970 Lagos Nigeria
5% of men are obese, as are nearly 30% of the women. Of women between 55 and 65, 40% are “grossly obese.”

Cheap refined flours, sugars and oils are sufficient to explain previous obesity epidemics, and I’m don’t see why they are not sufficient to explain this one.

There are some observations in the Epstein article and a longer one by David Berreby in Aeon that can’t be explained the flour, sugar, oil hypothesis. The research around endocrine disruptors is certainly interesting and bears a closer look. I look forward to the EFSA report on BpA later next year. In the meantime, a diet of lots of fruit and vegetables, pulses and whole grains with minimal, minimally processed foods has enough to recommend it without getting overly chemophobic. Obviously, for anyone with an endocrine disorder, a whole different set of criteria are warranted for assessing risk, but for myself, I will continue to believe that the canned tomatoes in my diet are a net plus nutritionally.

Agriculture for 9 Billion, Dutch-style

Remarkable slideshow in The New York Times today.

Despite its small size, the Netherlands punches above its weight in farm exports, second only to the United States. When Henk Wildschut set out to photograph the food industry for “Document Nederland,” an exhibition by the Rijksmuseum and the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, he says he saw it as unhealthy and unethical. But his project, which focused on innovative production efforts and became the basis for his book, “Food,” revealed a gap between the “consumer-driven romanticized ideal and the reality of food production.’’ Increasingly, he says, ‘‘our food is created in a clean world of rules and protocols.”

I can appreciate his feeling of disconnect from the agriculture that he found. But consider the contrast with the filth and cruelty of an industrial egg laying operation or the pollution from our CAFO’s.

The farm’s of a planet with 4 billion people are not going to feed a planet with 9 billion. They need to be the smartest farms they can be. The Dutch are giving us a glance at that.

The productivity is astonishing. Consider. The Netherlands is 41,543 sq km. The US is 9,826,675 sq km. The US is 236 times the size of the Netherlands. Yet at $102 Billion, the Netherlands agricultural exports are 70% of the United States $145 billion in exports.

The Netherlands agriculture economy is 5x’s as productive as the European average. Factor those productivity numbers on top of the fact that the Netherlands minimum wage at $11.77 an hour is high compared to most of Europe. In fact, higher productivity in that sector would imply higher wages relative to less productive sectors in the Dutch economy. Meanwhile in the US farm workers bottom out at $7.25 an hour.

It goes to show that high tech, high productivity agriculture can be sustainable and humane without being exploitative. Check it out if you want to see what agriculture on a planet with 9 Billion middle class inhabitants is going to look like.

hectare photo hectare_zps673fee91.jpg
De Wieringermeer grows red, yellow and green sweet peppers on a 40-hectare site in Wieringermeer. An individual hectare is marked off with colored ribbon to provide staff with a visual clue of the growth process and allow for work to be planned accordingly.

pig photo pig_zpsbcd204e5.jpg
At the Swine Innovation Center at Wageningen University, a small porker used a toilet system called Pigsy. Piglets are trained early to defecate in a special corner of the facility, making it possible to collect feces at a single point, which lowers ammonia emissions.

More of Henk Wildschut’s food photography can be food here.

Missing Context in GMO Reporting.

Someone was asking what to make of this old article from 2007 on Ventria Bioscience’s trials of a rice that has a human transgene to breed a rice that can produce the bacteria fighting compound lysozyme.

The first GM food crop containing human genes is set to be approved for commercial production.

The laboratory-created rice produces some of the human proteins found in breast milk and saliva.

Its U.S. developers say they could be used to treat children with diarrhea, a major killer in the Third World.

The rice is a major step in so-called Frankenstein Foods, the first mingling of human-origin genes and those from plants. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already signalled it plans to allow commercial cultivation.

The article doesn’t give much information or context, just a bunch of scary quotes from the usual suspects, many not particular to the rice in question. But it since it deals with one of the most taboo ideas surrounding genetic engineering it does provide an opportunity to provide some context and information that is all too often missing from reporting on genetic engineering.

With a fear based article like this the first thing is to figure out is “Is this even true?”

Turns out, yes. The rice has been tested. And the trials were approved by the FDA [pdf] in 2005. In fact, the medication is now on the market.

Here’s the context that I think was missing from the reporting.

First, when you want to scare people about genetic engineering you pretend that you are CROSSING a tomato with a flounder. Then you make a graphic depicting a half tomato, half flounder mutant.

Except that isn’t what is happening. You are taking 1 or 2 or 3 genes out of 10’s of thousands of genes from one organism and adding it to 10’s of thousands of genes of another organism.

A geneticist would say, “It doesn’t matter where a gene comes from, it matters what it does.”

Consider that humans share about half our genes with bananas. Suppose you were trying to breed a plantain that had a certain trait. The gene that conferred that trait was found in both humans and bananas. Why does it matter where that gene originated? It’s the same gene, doing the same thing.

In fact genetic engineers deal with this often. They can choose the same gene from different and sometime seemingly divergent sources. They make the decision based on which pairing produces the most successful transfer and it’s not always from the organism with the most similar phenotype.

As far as contamination goes, aside from the safeguards in place, natural selection provides strong protection against that. Traits bred into plants by humans by any technique don’t tend to spread into the wild because they don’t confer advantage in the wild. This is why you don’t find patches of feral Better Boy tomatoes growing in meadows. Those traits are either a deadly disadvantage outside of cultivation or they are quickly bred out for being useless.

It is unlikely that the ability to produce lysozyme would be advantageous for rice outside of the fields where it was being cultivated. And if it was, why do we care?

Which leads us to:

What is lysozyme?

Lysozymes, also known as muramidase or N-acetylmuramide glycanhydrolase, are glycoside hydrolases. These are enzymes (EC that damage bacterial cell walls by catalyzing hydrolysis of 1,4-beta-linkages between N-acetylmuramic acid and N-acetyl-D-glucosamine residues in a peptidoglycan and between N-acetyl-D-glucosamine residues in chitodextrins. Lysozyme is abundant in a number of secretions, such as tears, saliva, human milk, and mucus. It is also present in cytoplasmic granules of the polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMNs). Large amounts of lysozyme can be found in egg white.

That seems like it could be useful in treating diarrhea. Initial studies showed that it was.

The sad thing is the hysteria that makes biotech research so difficult and expensive:

“Farmers have got enough going against us without making the markets nervous unnecessarily,” said Sonny Martin, chairman of the Missouri Rice Research and Merchandising Council in February. “It doesn’t matter how much I want to help dehydrated children in some awful war-zone, it doesn’t matter how much I want pharmaceutical crops to be grown successfully and how many value-added dollars they could put in my pocket. All that matters is our customers don’t want any medicine in their breakfast cereal. In the future, if the markets can be convinced otherwise, fine — I might grow pharm-rice myself. But, right now, are we really willing to damage — or even ruin — our rice markets over this? We could literally be driven out of business by a few acres of this stuff.”

Stranded Without Mammoth Poops, the Avocado Perisists

I love the insights of evolutionary biology:

The avocado is a fruit of a different time. The plant hit its evolutionary prime during the beginning of the Cenozoic era when megafauna, including mammoths, horses, gomphotheres and giant ground sloths (some of them weighing more than a UPS truck) roamed across North America, from Oregon to the panhandle of Florida. The fruit attracted these very large animals (megafauna by definition weigh at least 100 pounds) that would then eat it whole, travel far distances and defecate, leaving the seed to grow in a new place. That’s the goal of all botanical fruits, really. Survival and growth via seed dispersal.

. . . “After 13,000 years, the avocado is clueless that the great mammals are gone,” Barlow explains. “Without larger mammals like the ground sloth to carry the seed far distances, the avocado seeds would rot where they’ve fallen and must compete with the parent tree for light and growth.”


Annals of Bad Health Reporting: Organic Makes You a Jerk Edition

TIME: Does Organic Food Turn You into a Jerk? (Short answer: yes)
The Atlantic: Does Organic Food Make You a Judgmental Jerk? Maybe
Jezebel: Study Suggests that Eating Organic Foods Contributes to Moral Depravity
Pacific Standard: Get Stressed, Stop Organics, Become A Better Person

I somehow missed it in May when it made the rounds, but the TIME piece came up in a Facebook conversation the other day, just after I had written about bad health reporting and chicken nuggets. So I was primed. Just seeing the headline I knew. I knew. I knew it was going to be another article with a linkbait headline and an over interpreted the study. That turned out to be the best case scenario.

My two questions when reading an article like this are:

“Did the study even demonstrate what the journalist says it says?”
“Did the study even test it’s own hypothesis in any meaningful way?” (hint: the answer is almost always in the controls)

You can take a guess what happened.

And a new study shows that organic foodies’ humane regard for the well-being of animals makes some people rather snobbish. The report, published last week in the Journal of Social Psychological & Personality Science, notes that exposure to organic foods can “harshen moral judgments.” Which, to us, sounds like a nice way of saying that organic-food seekers are arrogant.

. . . Eskine and his team showed research subjects photographs of food, ranging from überorganic fruits and vegetables to fattening brownies and baked goods. He then gauged the primed eaters’ moral fiber with stories that warranted judgment, like one about a lawyer who lurks in an ER to try to persuade patients to sue for their injuries.

Reacting to the events on a numbered scale, the organic-food participants were more judgmental than those in the comfort-food category. They were also more reluctant when asked to volunteer time to help strangers, the study found, offering only 13 minutes vs. the brownie eaters’ 24 minutes. It’s like the group had already fulfilled its moral-justice quota by buying organic, so it felt all right slacking off in other ethics-based situations. Eskine labeled it “moral licensing.”

The writer, Nick Carbone has told us that people who seek organic food are arrogant and snobbish. Is that what the study he has described shows? No. It shows that anybody, not just organic shoppers can become more judgmental and stingy when exposed to pictures of organic food. It shows that it is the exposure to images of food that triggers this, not “organic foodies’ humane regard for the well-being of animals.”

This would be an interesting observation, if it had been demonstrated in the literature that organic shoppers were in fact more judgmental and stingier. It would provide a clue as to causality. But the entire underlying premise is never addressed. It’s not like there is no literature on the subject. Or that you can’t find any research to support the premise. No one even tried. Not even the authors of the paper.

The paper references the literature on how different foods can effect people’s moral bearings. But it does not look at the literature on the moral or ethical attitudes of organic consumers in order to establish the premise that organic consumers are be more judgmental and stingy. The hypothesis they are testing is that exposure to images of organic food could influence people’s levels of empathy. Do they even succeed at that? I would say, No.

First let’s look at what the study did.

Sixty-two Loyola University undergraduates (37 females, 25 males) participated in the present experiment for course credit and were randomly assigned to one of three food conditions (organic, comfort, control) in a between-subjects design. Told that they were
participating in two unrelated studies (a consumer research survey about food desirability and a separate moral judgment task), participants were first given a packet containing four counterbalanced pictures of food items from one of the following categories: organic foods with organic food labels (apple, spinach, tomato, carrot), comfort foods (ice cream, cookie, chocolate, brownie), or control foods (oatmeal, rice, mustard, beans). Participants also rated each food item on a 7-point scale (1 = not at all desirable to 7 = very desirable) to help
corroborate the cover story as well as provide information about their personal food preferences.

. . . Participants next received a packet containing six counterbalanced moral transgressions describing second cousins engaging in consensual incest, a man eating his already-dead dog, a congressman accepting bribes, a lawyer prowling hospitals for victims, a person shoplifting, and a student stealing library books. Each moral judgment was indicated on a 7-point scale (1= not at all morally wrong to 7 = very morally wrong). As with previous research (Eskine et al., 2011), all judgments were averaged into a single score.
After next answering demographic questions, participants were told “that another professor from another department is also conducting research and really needs volunteers.” They were informed that they would not receive course credit or compensation for their help and were asked to indicate how many minutes (out of 30) they would be willing to volunteer.”

The results:

“On a scale of 1 to 7, the organic people were like 5.5 while the controls were about a 5 and the comfort food people were like a 4.89.” The organic people also only offered to volunteer for a mere 13 minutes, as compared with the control group’s 19-minute offer and the happy comfort-food group’s 24-minute commitment.

Before we move on to why they fail to test their hypothesis, I want to highlight a missed opportunity in their use of the data. If they really wanted to show something about organic consumers specifically and not just Loyola undergrads in general, they would have calculated the correlation between the strength of subjects’ preference for organic foods and and their response to the moral challenges. That might have told us something about organic consumers’ moral orientations. But they didn’t and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, since there were no controls in this experiment to begin with.

Wait, what about the control group of oatmeal, rice, mustard and beans? Those were meant as a control in a comparison to organic fruits and vegetable vs. non-organic desserts. That would be fine if there was one variable of moral superiority, organic versus non-organic, but there are two, the other being fruits and vegetables versus desserts. As the test was designed, we have no way of knowing whether it is was the moral halo of fruits and vegetable or the moral halo of organic that produced the result. And as anyone who has ever shopped at Trader Joe’s can tell you, produce isn’t the only type of organic food. There are plenty of organic desserts and snacks. In fact, organic junk food is a bigger segment of the organic market than produce.

If it had those proper controls, we could compare the difference in response between an organic carrot and a conventional carrot. We could compare the difference between organic oatmeal and conventional apple. But as designed, we can’t compare anything meaningful.

The correct comparison would have been organic produce vs. conventional produce, organic neutral foods vs. conventional neutral foods and organic desserts vs. conventional desserts. If those had been the categories, if they had calculated the correlation of preference for organic with moral response and the study group had been larger than 62 students it might have told us something interesting but it didn’t.

The study took about five minutes to read and about 8 seconds to see the flaws. The fact that these poorly designed, under powered studies are reported on at all drives me crazy. It’s even more infuriating that they are misrepresented instead of debunked. The fact that they absolutely litter the health sections of reputable publications is all the more maddening because interesting and significant papers are routinely ignored.

But before we let organic consumers off the hook too fast, note that the first commenter on the TIME version of the story went out of her way to make Eskine’s point.

To label people that eat organic food as “Jerks” is completely ridiculous. I am a proud supporter of organic food and will be till the day that i die. Calling someone a jerk because they eat organic food is childish. There is one thing that this article did get right about the organic community. We do congratulate ourselves for our moral and environmental decisions, because we are doing the right thing. Choosing all organic foods shows that you care about your health and the environment.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Lit References:
Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments | Kendall J. Eskine | 2013
Final draft [pdf]
Organic purchasing motivations and attitudes: are they ethical? | M.G. McEachern, P. McClean | 2002
The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease | M Kratz, T Baars, S Guyenet
An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research | A Nicolia, A Manzo, F Veronesi, D Rosellini | 2103

The Need to Save Seeds is a Bad Sign

I was part of a discussion last night about seed saving and intellectual property that was organized in response to this article from the Genetic Resource Action International (GRAIN):

It’s also a hot issue because the seed industry is working hard to secure legal systems that restrict seed saving by farmers, be it through the World Trade Organisation (WTO), bilateral trade agreements or direct lobbying of governments. PVP or plant breeders’ rights legislation is all about taking power away from farmers to produce and reproduce seeds. And these laws are gaining ground.

Governments caving in to the pressure often say, “Don’t worry, we will protect the rights of the farmers at all cost!” They swear that nothing will prevent farmers from continuing their “traditional” and “historic” practice of conserving, exchanging and further developing seeds. And so they write into their law this “farmers’ privilege”. Yet the fact is, the farmers’ privilege is a legal “yes, but” on seed saving – with the “but” getting bigger by the day.

Country after country that has established a plant variety protection law has progressively made the farmers’ exception more and more restricted. To the point that it becomes meaningless. Why? Because the breeders keep asking for stronger and stronger rights. Tightening the loophole that allows farmers to save seeds is the easiest way to give more power to the breeders.

A lot of people who opine about the current intellectual property issues in modern agriculture are unaware that the patenting of seeds didn’t start with biotech in the 80’s. It started in the US with the Plant Patent Act of 1930 with assists from Thomas Edison and Florio LaGuardia. An updated version was passed in 1970 with the Plant Variety Protection Act which allows farmers to save conventional seeds but not to sell them. (you can copy and burn a CD, but you can’t start selling CD’s)

My response to the GRAIN piece was that it raised legitimate concerns, but breeding has become more sophisticated and resource intensive, the seeds add more value, breeders need to be rewarded properly and their rights protected.

The answer in the developing world is for seeds developed by public universities and NGO’s to be released under more permissive licenses, including releasing them into the public domain. I’ve also heard of efforts by NGO’s to buy breeding patents and release them into the public domain. That’s a promising idea. There are a number of grassroots groups doing open source breeding. All to the good.

Anastasia Bodnar also had seed saving on her mind yesterday. She has a two part post discussing why breeder’s rights are important and a look at market power in the seed industry.

Basil breeding would be cool just as a hobby, and if I was in the business of selling basil, it could potentially be a way to create a niche market for myself. But hey, if I did then go and spend years making careful crosses, then sold my lovely purple Thai basil plants to people, then anyone who wanted more of the basil that I spent years developing could just plant the seeds from them. And there’d be nothing to stop them from selling the plants from those seeds. Unless there was a way for me to protect my invention.

If I was just doing this as a hobby or if I wanted to share my purple Thai basil with the world for free, that’d be great. Yay for sharing seeds! But what if I needed to make money from the basil? What if this was my full time job and I made money because my basil was special and if people just started growing it and giving it away or selling it, this would cut into my market and all of my efforts breeding a special variety would in the end have all been just a waste of time because now I can’t make a living off it. Boo for sharing seeds!

Waking up this morning it occurs to me that there is a deeper issue here (and someone else in the discussion seemed to have had the same thought over night).

Trying to protect farmers’ right to save seeds only has an economic importance in low productivity systems where the benefits of specialization haven’t kicked in. Modern farmer’s don’t save seed because it isn’t a good use of their time and it would yield an inferior seed. If the pre-breeder’s rights seeds were so great, they would still be around to save and share.

If saving seeds is an economical use of a farmer’s time, that’s a bad sign. Energy and resources should be invested to help them raise productivity going forward rather than a backward looking approach of trying to preserve traditional farming.

But saving seed exerts a strong pull on the imagination of pastoral sentimentalists. There is a very appealing parsimony and self sufficiency associated with saving seeds. But in reality it’s a parsimony and self sufficiency forced by bad circumstance, not embraced through the farmer’s individual agency.