TED talks and GMOs

A friend sent me a link to this TEDx talk about GMOs by Robyn O'Brian in 2011.  The speaker strikes me as incredibly earnest, very persuasive (the video has been downloaded 760,000 times!), and ultimately very wrong.  The speaker, after finding one of her children had food allergies, came to the conclusion that the answer must be GMOs or hormones used in milk or some combination of those things.  But, this is sheer illusory correlation and she cites no credible scientific study to make such a link.  She also uses a number of persuasive and scary but misleading story lines.  Some examples.

She says that the US has the highest rates of cancer compared to anywhere else on the planet.  I'm not sure whether that's true or not (presumably people in many countries don't live long enough to develop cancer).  But, what I do know is that CDC data shows that age adjusted cancer deaths and incidence rates have been falling over time in the US.  Falling at the same time we have adopted GMOs and other technologies that worry O'Brian.  So much for that link. 

She doesn't mention that rBST use in milk fell dramatically after the initial adoption phase and that almost any grocery store sells milk without rBST (in fact milk without rBST is all many stores offer).

She says that the concept of "substantial equivalence" used in the US regulatory process was invented by the tobacco industry.  I don't know whether that's true or not but that is simply an ad hominem argument trying to falsely equate GMOs and tobacco.  She also claims that other countries took a more precautionary approach than the US to GMOs.  That's true.  But, what she doesn't say is that in Europe, despite their different regulatory process, many GMO varieties are approved

I could go on but I believe the point has been made.  

Taking a step back, I found it interesting to see what the TED organizers put up on their web site as advice to organizers of TEDx events (independently run events that license the TED brand name) to avoid pseudo-scientific presentations:

2. Red flag topics

These are not “banned” topics by any means — but they are topics that tend to attract pseudo-scientists. If your speaker proposes a topic like this, use extra scrutiny. An expanding, depressing list follows:

Food science, including:

  • GMO food and anti-GMO foodists (EDIT 10/3/13: “Foodist” was the wrong word here and we recognize it was offensive to many.)
  • Food as medicine, especially to treat a specific condition: Autism and ADHD, especially causes of and cures for autism

Because of the sad history of hoaxes with deadly consequences in the field of autism research, really look into the background of any autism-related talk. If you hear anything that sounds remotely like, “Vaccines are related to autism,” — RUN AWAY. Another non-legitimate argument: “We don’t know what works, so we have to try everything.” Pretty much all the time, this argument is designed to cause guilt in suffering parents so they’ll spend money on unproven treatments.

Curiously, it seems there were conspiracy theories upon conspiracy theories because the TED site added the following last month:

If you’re coming to this post because of an allegation that TED has “banned discussion of GMOs” or has a relationship with Monsanto, please know that these rumors are not true. We have not banned these topics, and we have no relationship with Monsanto. 

In fact, we have many great talks on food and health that challenge entrenched ideas in smart and creative ways. 

Now is the time that I should add that I talked about GMOs in my own TEDx talk (and judging by the mere 1800 downloads, I must not be nearly as convincing as O'Brian) and have also let it be known that I don't work for Monsanto.