Beyond GMO OMG

I won’t go into the film too much, it’s on Netflix if you want to watch it. My brief review is, at least they provide some balance by talking to real farmers about why they choose GMO, patented seed and use pesticides. And the film could be a lot shorter if he stopped filming his kids playing about. Actually it’s notable that the only real noise the audience made throughout the film were the awws and chuckles at what the kids said.

Then the Q&A with Better Food’s founding MD Phil Haughton, who said nothing, Lawrence Woodward from Beyond GM, who was the mouthy firebrand, and Lee Holdstock of the Soil Association who blanked me when I tried to give him a flyer.

Alarming, but not for the reason the film suggests.

Alarming, but not for the reason the film suggests.

Jon got in first with a question about the ethics of the anti-gm movement in humanitarian work, with protest groups, such as Greenpeace, encouraging Haitian farmers to burn gifted, Monsanto branded seed that was portrayed in the film to be GM but was in fact a non GM hybrid maize[1]. Lawrence Woodward claimed that Greenpeace were not involved but Jon insisted they were. [2]

Jon then moved on to mention Golden Rice and Lee Holdstock provided an anecdote about a Monsanto rep at a conference who gave a talk about Golden Rice.  Asked about why people are not being growing leafy greens, which are a good source of Vitamin A, the rep couldn’t answer. Someone in the conference audience said that because corporations had arranged a monoculture of rice, that’s why they didn’t grow leafy greens. I think. I’m a bit hazy on what that conspiracy theory actually was. “So they’re providing a solution, to the problem they made in the first place!”  This is as direct a quote as I can remember, knew I should have recorded it…

Nope. The Big M aren’t involved in GR except for some unrestricted patent licensing, Syngenta are the main industry body working with GR.[3] Rice is a staple crop in places like the Philippines[4], farmers know how to grow it, it’s part of their religious beliefs[5]. In transferring the Beta Carotene gene to a rice plant, you work with the local culture, not tell them to change and just grow what we grow.

There was another question that I forget because I was to busy practicing mine in my head :)

Then the poor old chap who had owned a plant nursery until, sadly, his wife died of, if I recall correctly, cardiac arrhythmia. Then his dog died of pancreatic cancer (?) and he was researching stuff and he found Glyphosate caused these things, oh and crohn’s disease which his son (?) had. It’s always sad when people suffer loss, and you can understand how this gentleman would hook onto this seeming causation, especially with the misinformation available on the internet.

This turned into the gentleman complaining about how his ground will never be glyphosate free, with Woodward stating that you could never be glyphosate free cause it hides in clay and organic matter and a soil test can miss that, and Holdstock saying that so long as you do it there way from now on, you’re OK. Sadly the gentleman kept talking over them, even when they took his Mic away.

My turn. Right. I’m focused now.

“Given that multiple scientific bodies, such as the World Health Organisation, the European Commission and the Royal Society have reviewed the evidence and declared the GE breeding techniques have no more risk than conventional breeding techniques, why single GE out for risk and harm? Wouldn’t plants bred by mutagenesis, where you zap the plant material with radiation to encourage mutation, be just as risky? To quote the film, where’s the outrage?”

I was proud of that for a second, then I felt a bit of a dick. Didn’t want to be a dick but Jon riled me up. That’s my excuse.

Woodward kicked in, explaining mutagenesis for the crowd. Then he turned agreeable, talking about the need for transparency in regulation and long term safety studies in mutagenesis. I qualified that this should also include standard hybridisation and he got a bit wobbly.

Woodward then moved onto debunking the consensus statements, first claiming that they hadn’t looked at the evidence, before describing that the european study did look at some papers, mostly yield based studies and some 3 month safety studies. He then moved onto the old canard of no long term safety studies.

But there are long term studies of up to 2 years, and multigenerational studies, and they support a “no extra risk” position.[6]

Woodward moved back to bullet points that I found agreeable. Regulation, transparency, mutagenesis, wobbly moment on the hybridisation and then back to how GMOs have no long term safety studies and safe familiar ground.

I can’t really remember the rest of the questions, I was too pumped up with my ego. I’m being a dick again.

A particularly transparent scene, where Seifert dresses his kids in bio-hazard suits and runs through corn for no reason.

A particularly transparent scene, where Seifert dresses his kids in bio-hazard suits and runs through corn for no reason.

There was a question after mine, where someone asked if more studies should be funded. Woodward came back in starting with how studies can say anything and you never really prove anything with a study anyway, before listing several studies that supported his position as proof of harm.

There was a vote for who would want labelling, the majority had their hands up. Then a question from a youth (I’m getting old) about activism. Holdstock said we should all tweet the scottish environment secretary Richard Lochhead to give him praise for being so bloody brave. Woodward gave his firebrand speech, dropping in a “wake up” as all good activists should do. Holdstock said that people should buy more organic food, because they’re only 1.4% of the retail market.  Woodward came back with some more rabble rousing. I can’t remember if the words “Get angry” occurred.[7] I really need to start recording these things.

Anyway, a vote from the crowd for getting angry raised about 4 hands. I was tempted to put mine up… Dick.

There were other votes but my booze addled brain is getting fuzzy now, I think most people decided to shop organic. Maybe the others can fill in :)

Anyway, I ran outside to flyer, and Frances had beat me to it. I stuck a flyer out to everyone, smiled and said “more information about genetic engineering!” Ravi couldn’t get a look in, I was too fast for him. Frances guarded the sneaky other door until most of the audience had left, I suspect the glyphosate man may have pinned down Woodward.

After retreating to the pub for a post match pint, Frances asked me “Well, first activist event. What’s next?”

I think I might start a chapter of March against Myths actually.  You in?

Ralph Taylor




[1] –
[2] – I can’t find an article for this, Jon, can you find one?
[3] –
[4] –
[5] –
[6] –
[7] – Anyone?


Skepticism on YouTube Playlist

Last week we held our Skepticism on YouTube evening where we watched a range of informative and funny videos submitted by the audience. Below is a YouTube playlist of the videos we watched for people who couldn’t make the evening, or came along and want to see the videos again.

Wine Glasses and the Taste Map of the Tongue

Have you seen the array of wine glasses that are sold in different shapes and sizes from the same company? Each glass claims to bring out the best in one specific wine. It’s a great opportunity for companies such as Riedel to sell you five or more sets of wine glasses rather than just one.


I remember attending a special wine/glass tasting evening last century at the old Michelin starred Harvey’s Restaurant on Denmark Street, just up the road from where the Bristol Skeptics in the Pub now meet. Upon arrival, representatives from Riedel presented us all with four fantastic glasses and a map of the different taste regions of the tongue. Deafening alarm bells should have be sounding in my head at this point, but alas this was before I really knew what it meant to be a skeptic.

It was explained to us how the glasses were shaped to direct the wine to the correct part of the tongue to bring out the best taste for that wine. For instance, according to the taste map of the tongue the tip of the tongue detects sweetness, so a sweet wine would be drunk from a glass which tends to drive the wine quickly over the tip of the tongue to avoid it tasting too sweet so that the more subtle flavours would then be enhanced because the wine goes straight to the bitter, sour and salt detecting regions.


Somehow it all seemed to make sense to me at the time, even before the multiple glasses of wine had had any effect. All of the glasses were indeed shaped so that the wine they were intended for was directed according to the taste map of the tongue exactly as the Riedel representatives suggested.

It is common knowledge now what researchers have known for 40 years: that the taste map of the tongue is complete rubbish, and that all tastes can be detected on all parts of the tongue. Riedel’s glasses have remained the same shape since this revelation though. Riedel’s literature now places its emphasis on the effect that their glasses have on bouquet, texture, flavour and finish. They don’t dwell on the fact that the glasses were carefully designed around this fallacy, although they haven’t abandoned their roots completely. On their web site I still found this quote: ‘This delivers and positions the beverage to different “taste zones“ of the palate.’

I had a really great evening eating and drinking quite a lot of wine from my four glasses that night, and I still cherish the glasses I got on that evening and wheel them out on special occasions.

-Anthony Wood


Pseudo-medicine and the “C” Word

Last weekend some members of Bristol Skeptics Society attended Question, Explore, Discover (QED), a skeptical conference in Manchester. The range of topics was mind-blowing and it was fun as well as informative, so maybe you should consider joining us for the next one, in October 2016.

One of the panel discussions I attended was entitled “Pseudo-medicine and the ‘C’ Word”. I was particularly interested in this as a couple of years ago two of us attended a free talk about alternative cancer treatments. Throughout that talk, the word cancer was systemically replaced by “recnac” in a futile attempt, I imagine, to bypass the Cancer Act. I remember well these two very bleak and frustrating hours, and how unable I felt to help and give information to the people who attended.

This prompted me to share with you a number of interesting points made by the panel, composed of Harriet Hall, Laura Thomason and a representative of Sense About Science.

What’s the harm?

When described by the words ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ it’s sometimes tricky for people to see any harm in alternative treatments. The panel mentioned as harmful :

  • Not taking the main medicine.
  • Treatments which can be harmful (apricot kernels in high doses, black salves – an internet search on these ones revealed horrific images).
  • Financial harm to individuals and families.
  • Loss of valuable time.
  • Patient blaming: the idea that if you want it enough you will get better, or that the illness is somehow your fault. (This is really perverse. I remember one of my acquaintances thinking she was “still” short sighted because she ‘wasn’t trying hard enough’ – if like me you have spent a lot of time trying to keep at bay the guilt women in the Catholic religion are born with, this is taking it to a whole new level).

And if you are left at a loss on how to help, here are some ideas given by the panel:

  • Myth busting blogs – you might think you’re one of many but it seems that those can really make a difference when patients do internet searches.
  • To this I’d add the anecdotal stories of people who have changed their minds, such as this family on vaccination.
  • Medical charities responding to alternative treatments such as Cancer UK. From what I understood, this was particularly efficient if targeted to one specific alternative treatment, and debunking it.
  • Transparency in the medical field.
  • Connecting directly with experts ( here is an example with Mumsnet).
  • Developing critical thinking in young children.
  • Freedom of choice BUT well-informed patients.
  • Complain to the ASA or trading standards when you see unfounded claims or a breach of the Cancer Act . It’s quick and easy. If you’re not sure how to do this, come and talk to us at the end of one of our meetings and we’ll help you.

I’ll leave you with the advice shared by the panel about dealing with a loved one who has cancer and might have gone with an alternative treatment you strongly object to and campaign against. Remember that most patients are very vulnerable and that they turn to these alternative treatments out of fear, and an attempt to reclaim control of their life in an easier, more ‘natural’ way. So stress that you think the idea they are pursuing is wrong, but that they are not a bad person; show them the evidence; and reassure them that you will still support them whatever their choice. If alternative treatments can waste valuable time, so can fruitless arguing.


Religion and Law

A friend invited me for dinner, and proudly announced they had used our ‘local’ butcher. Usually a great thing. Support your local shops. She then went on to explain that it was a ‘Halal’ butcher, so today’s steak was going to hear a prayer as it was being slaughtered.

It made me stop and think about how I feel about that and to read about what it is that makes meat ‘Halal’.

Most things I have read are summed up by the entry in Wikipedia:

Halāl (Arabic: حلال‎ ḥalāl, ‘permissible’) or hallal is any object or an action which is permissible to use or engage in, according to Islamic law.

Specifically, the slaughter must be performed by a Muslim, who must precede the slaughter by invoking the name of Allah, most commonly by saying “Bismillah” (“In the name of God”) and then three times “Allahu akbar” (God is the greatest). Then, the animal must be slaughtered with a sharp knife by cutting the throat, windpipe and the blood vessels in the neck, causing the animal’s death without cutting the spinal cord. Lastly, the blood from the veins must be drained.

I should firstly state my position on eating meat – obviously the question would not have occurred had I not been eating steak, so definitely not a vegetarian. However I do believe in eating good meat far less often. If everyone ate less meat products then the world would be a much better place, both for the environment and the animals.

But if I am going to have steak occasionally, is it OK that the religious beliefs of others should allow that cow to be killed without being stunned? I don’t think so. Although it is not essential that Halal meat is not stunned, so long as it’s still alive for the rest of the procedure, it can be the case.

The RSPCA say that not stunning an animal before slaughter causes unnecessary suffering. Stunning of livestock has been mandatory in the EU since 1979, but member states can grant exemptions for religious slaughter. If stunning is mandatory, then it should mandatory.  A dictionary definition of mandatory is “Something that is mandatory must be done, or is demanded by law” It seems this is true until someone has a religious belief that implies they shouldn’t follow that law. And that’s fine it seems.

If this means that my steak was butchered without stunning, against the mandatory law that I believed was being enforced, then my rights are being outweighed by someone’s belief – not science, not fact, not because it’s better for the animal (it’s not).

This is just another small example of why I believe that religion has no place in law….. Don’t even get me started on bishops in the House of Lords!

-Lizzy Jones

The Spark Has Gone Out of Bristol

When guest speaker Mike Marshall asked for a guide to pseudoscience in Bristol, my obvious recommendation was to “pick up a copy of ‘The Spark’: it’s all there”. So I had mixed feelings when The Spark announced it had ceased publication.

The Spark was a quarterly paper, distributed freely to around 100,000 readers in the West Country. It billed itself as a guide to “the Alternative West”.

I might be called an “alternative” person(?), and I’m a fan of alternative lifestyles. Skepticism is about reason and evidence, not enforcing normality. No skeptic could object to people exploring relaxation, dance, voluntary work, food, ethical living, or education – all of them core topics in The Spark.

However, in my experience the “alternative” to consumerism too often turns out to involve buying lots of things; things which are marketed to you as essential but which don’t do any good. In other words, it’s more consumerism.

The Spark had this problem in spades. It was free of charge because its overwhelming bulk was adverts. Many of these were for businesses and events you’d see in any local publication. Many more promoted a full complement of dubious or outright crazy courses, therapies or “healing” methods. You could rely on finding Reiki, Homeopathy, Reflexology, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Kinesiology, Astrology, and much more in the same vein.

The Spark had some very nice staff. I’m genuinely sad to see them losing their jobs. I think the crazy ads were there out of financial necessity, rather than being central to The Spark’s purpose. That doesn’t excuse advertising of junk cancer cures, but I realise they may have been the unintended consequence of a more sensible goal. I hear that there were disagreements among the staff about the ethics of some adverts.

Not only did they run a full-page interview with “Martin Poulter, critical thinker”, but they were happy to quote me saying that I had a big problem with some of their adverts. The interview was printed opposite ads for classes in “Planetary Awareness” (You’re on Earth. That’s 50 quid.) and for “Slim Soul coaching (with Bach flowers)”. (Does this immortal, immaterial spirit make me look fat?)

That issue (Autumn 2011) coincidentally announced the end of the Pierian Centre, which had been based in Portland Square for nearly a decade. The Pierian portfolio of courses had the same mix of content as The Spark, from sensible and useful to positively dangerous pseudo-science or pseudo-medicine. Fiona Shakeela Burns, with her “alternative” theories about cancer, was a speaker.

There are still free papers carrying crazy and irresponsible adverts, but they are smaller, more local affairs rather than the region-wide Spark. Maybe the end of this advertising platform is a sign that there is less money in junk therapy nowadays. Let’s see.


Defining Skepticism

What is Skepticism? That’s a big question with a complicated answer – as anyone who has tried to explain the concept to someone unfamiliar with the term can attest – and arguably beyond the scope of a short blog post.

Ask ten different people and you’ll likely get ten different answers. One reason for this is that while Skepticism seems like it should have a hard definition, it actually has several depending on the context. When I refer to Skepticism I’m thinking of Scientific Skepticism or Skeptical Inquiry, however that may not be the case for everyone.

I liken the word ‘skeptical’ to the word ‘theory’, in that while ‘theory’ has a defined scientific meaning, it is used by the proverbial man-on-the-street to mean something else; something less concrete. Evolution is “just a theory!” Creationists often cry. “So is Gravity” we reply, our tongues in our cheeks and our feet on the ground. Likewise ‘being skeptical’, in my mind, means using critical thinking and evidence to evaluate claims, whereas to that same man, it is often equated with cynicism and nay-saying. Or worse, with Climate “Sceptics” and conspiracy nuts.

The Skeptic here is at a disadvantage as there is no agreed ‘scientific’ meaning for the term. In fact if you go hunting for one, you’ll often find it can mean the opposite to what you were expecting. Philosophical Skepticism for example, in a nutshell, is the belief that certainty of knowledge is impossible. This is at odds with the idea that you can obtain empirical knowledge through observation and experiment; the scientific method.

For better or for worse, we shan’t see a change anytime soon. It is up to each self-identifying Skeptic to determine which definition suits them, and the word ‘Skeptic’ will continue to have as many meanings as there are Skeptics; if only because ‘Empiricists in the Pub’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.