If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



A Dose Of Caution

July 14, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 28

Regarding Rudy Baum’s editorial “Oblivious to Science,” there seem to be two competing worldviews about how to feed a burgeoning population in the face of climate change and ecosystem collapse: man versus nature and man with nature (C&EN, May 12, page 3).

The first plan, put forth by agribusiness, is to spray the planet with herbicides so that nothing grows except their proprietary genetically modified (GM) seeds, monocultures that also require large amounts of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. The second involves working with the soil and genetic diversity specific to a region. Both views have their advocates.

In science we evaluate competing theories by testing. The use of GM crops initially leads to improvements in yields and reduces use of pesticides. However, nature soon adapts, requiring even more chemicals than before. Plus, reliance on monoculture and ignoring soil health gave us disasters like the 1845 Irish Potato Famine and, in the U.S., the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. On the other hand, building soil fertility makes crops more drought- and pest-resistant than the best GM crops. The Inca developed thousands of varieties of potatoes as well as corn—at least three for every elevation and microclimate in South America. Genetic diversity and supporting natural systems are approaches that have proven effective for thousands of years.

Many scientists today characterize the opposition to GM organisms as shortsighted superstitious nonsense that needs to be corrected with public relations. Might I suggest that there is wisdom in being cautious, especially since the survival of human civilization is at stake?

Mark W. Schauer
Dublin, N.H.

In “Oblivious to Science” Baum advances the argument that although we are entitled to have food labeling that tells us what is in our food, we should not expect labeling to tell us how it was produced. If one follows this logic, I would not be able to avoid chicken and eggs produced by factory farming methods, or veal from veal crated calves, or to consider as preferable meat from organizations committed to high standards of animal welfare.

In the U.K. there is currently debate as to whether meat produced by halal or kosher slaughter should be labeled as such. In both the U.S. and the U.K. a significant fraction of meat produced in this way ends up unlabeled on the open market.

In no way are factory-farmed eggs or halal meat harmful to the consumer, and I make no contention here that genetically engineered or modified crops are harmful either. I prefer to eat meat and dairy products from animals that have lived and died well. Why should those who prefer to avoid GM crops, for whatever reason, be denied the information to do so?

Penny Chaloner
Fulwood, Lancashire, U.K.

Baum uses the phrase “right-leaning deniers of global climate change” in his editorial “Oblivious to Science.” I object to the use of the word denier. It is a not-so-subtle way to compare those who question climate science with Holocaust deniers.

This dotted-line connection is offensive in the extreme. I am a left-leaning Jewish scientist with more than 35 years of experience and loads of peer-reviewed papers and issued patents. My background has taught me that questioning is the essence of science.

Where I sit now in upstate New York was once covered with ice 1 mile thick and was at other times tropical and had a nearby seashore. Climate changes. Get over yourselves. The climate “data” I have seen are noisy enough for a reasonable scientist to raise an eyebrow. As for climate models, call me in 10 years when they are validated.

Discussion on climate is not a left-right debate but should be a reasoned discussion of testable hypotheses and risk-benefit analyses with respect to policy.

Larry Lewis
Scotia, N.Y.

“Oblivious to Science” hit the nail on the head. However, when I turned the page and read “Bacteria’s Genomic Code Expanded,” I became concerned (C&EN, May 12, page 5).

The choice of words can influence perception. In this particular case it can either lead to a fear or to an appreciation of science. Many people do not sufficiently understand the process of experimentation to evaluate some science-fiction-type words. Several phrases in the article, totally benign and accurate to a practicing researcher, may strike fear into the heart of a layperson: “An entire new life-form,” “alien DNA,” “spawn,” and “it will drag scientists across uncharted territory.”

I would suggest that C&EN editors consider the impact of such words. Hyperbole detracts from an impressive accomplishment in the field of synthetic biology.

Naomi Mendelsohn
New York City

Although I generally find Baum’s editorials interesting and thoughtful, “Oblivious to Science” was insulting to many reasonable scientists. Comparing opposition to genetically engineered foods with climate-change denial is disingenuous at best, particularly because GE food production contributes to climate change.

Some of us who have produced and used genetically engineered organisms do not necessarily believe that this technology should be used without limits as a solution to perceived problems such as future population growth.

There are a number of logical reasons for opposing GE food plants that justify labeling of foods: antibiotic resistance enzymes, used in older GE technology, may cause immunogenic reactions in some people; GE plants may pass herbicide or pesticide resistance to weeds; farmers require increasing use of petroleum-derived herbicides and pesticides that are harmful to the environment; decimation of the biodiversity of food crops puts all food production at risk; and many people oppose enriching the coffers of predatory crop science companies.

Agribusinesses and crop science companies use the argument that GE foods are necessary to feed the planet’s ever-increasing population. Most scientists realize that unrestricted population growth is impossible, although it’s difficult to estimate the future capacity of Earth.

Labeling GE foods is reasonable because people have the right to know what they are consuming and to consider for themselves the potential benefit or harm. Consider that food companies have no problem with labels such as kosher or gluten-free when such labeling is profitable.

Patrick Tishmack
Lafayette, Ind.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.