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SKEPTOID BLOG:

Oh, The Organic Sweet Corn Irony

by Eric Hall

July 10, 2015

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Donate I must have laughed for a good five minutes the other day when I heard the news story I am reporting on today. I immediately thought about writing about it here, but then I paused for a moment as I challenged myself as to the purpose of my writing and how it fits with my goal of scientific education. In the end, reporting on the irony and using the same logical fallacies as those who are anti-science can serve a purpose in showing how ridiculous those fallacies are.

Minnesota has a strong public radio community. Minnesota Public Radio has its own news department, and its stories often end up being syndicated by National Public Radio. However, because of its size, it doesn't always get a critical eye cast on its science news stories. A story from March 17, 2015, titled "Breeders offering corn that's picky about pollen," was really almost comical in its irony and its lack of real scientific scrutiny.

The story talks about the "plight" of organic corn farmers. Because corn pollen can travel relatively long distances, organic farms can be "contaminated" by corn pollen from non-organically certified crops and they can lose the premium price they would normally get at market. The way they detect this "contamination" is by testing for the presence of genes found in certain brands of seeds that were lab-modified. The testing cannot guarantee there was no genetic manipulation or that it meets any organic standard. It simply means it contains genes from varieties which they consider "non-organic."

The first real irony in the story is these "organic" varieties are in themselves, genetically modified. The varieties are hybrids, which, in lab testing, show a strong preference to their own pollen. (Note: I used DoNotLink in the next link, so it might not always work since the anti-science websites keep finding ways to block the service. The article title is Tests show that "gene blocking" corn prevents GMO contamination.) The non-GMO Project claims they understand the method by which this happens: the preferred pollen moves faster along the silk channel, and thus tends to fertilize the plant's ovule first. However, in the MPR article, Maury Johnson says it is still a mystery as to how it works:
"It's probably one of our top five hybrids," said Maury Johnson, the owner of Blue River Hybrids in Kelley, Iowa. "And I think as time goes on there will be more demand for something like this."

Johnson said the pollen-blocking gene works, but how it works is still something of a mystery.

"This is one of those aspects of Puramaize that we don't completely understand," he said. "But there is something in the Puramaize plant that recognizes pollen from a non-Puramaize plant."
Johnson also states they are working on more hybrids which they will release in the next couple of years. I am not sure how forcing this cross-breeding is any better than manipulating individual genes, but somehow having an unknown cause for a desired effect makes it less icky than having a known cause for a known effect.

Another irony comes in the selective use of the naturalistic fallacy. Anti-science people who are against GM crops often employ the naturalistic fallacy in that because the genes didn't spontaneously show up in nature the crops are somehow dangerous. They fail to acknowledge that corn itself would have never been found in nature in the form used for food if it weren't for human intervention. It is also ironic that in nature, it would be unlikely that corn would be so selective in its breeding partners. It seems to me that because of how corn pollinates, it would want to gather up as much variety as it could for the best chance at survival. At the very least, "natural" corn isn't selective about pollen, so I am not sure why selective breeding is considered "natural," a vague quality coveted by organic proponents.

A representative for the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (which, tellingly, is part of its Agricultural Marketing Service) points out another irony in a company selling this proprietary breed:
"I think there's growing interest, but the question is, how well do they work?" said Jim Riddle, who served on the USDA organic standards board and did organic outreach for the University of Minnesota. "And there's where we need to see more research—especially done by universities, not the companies themselves—to see if they are indeed blocking this foreign pollen."
The anti-science crowd loves to apply the capitalistic fallacy to the "evil" company Monsanto. Because Monsanto makes money off the breeds for which it holds patents, it must be bad. But as Riddle points out above, organic seed sellers are using the same practice: they stand to profit and are likely to emphasize purported benefits and downplay possible drawbacks. While my personal opinion is that patenting genes and breeds is problematic, the size of the company should not be the deciding factor on its scientific credibility. In fact, according to Blue River Seed's own fact sheet (.pdf), there is a patent on this breed. Patents are one of the things organic crusaders abhor about Monsanto, yet here they are promoting a patented seed. Goose meet gander I guess.

I searched around for a few hours and could not find any safety testing information on these particular hybrids. While GM corn has a couple decades of safety testing behind it, the breeds created for organic farming are being grown and sold as food without the same scrutiny. I am really shocked the anti-GMO crowd is OK with this.

One other interesting note about having a breed that responds selectively to pollen is the danger of reducing biodiversity, something organic farmers fear from commercial farming. While I don't think we are in danger any time soon of reaching a tipping point on biodiversity among species of corn being an issue, it is something we should keep in mind as it could become a problem if we don't apply science to prevent problems from reducing the number of varieties grown. However, corn that doesn't readily cross-breed only could serve to exacerbate that issue, not improve it. If monoculture is truly a concern of the anti-GMO crowd, they are actually increasing the risk of this outcome by using corn bred to be selective about the genes it mixes with.

In summary, the anti-GMO crowd seems to break several of their own rules by excusing a product like this. The irony and hypocrisy was as thick as non-organic molasses. While I think studying this trait could be fascinating and could lead to innovations in agriculture as a whole, the selective application of science to justify some agenda is harmful to both agriculture and scientific literacy. I hope this serves as a red flag to those on the fence that the anti-GMO crowd is at best not scientifically knowledgeable and at worst simply anti-science. It would appear to me that the misapplication of their own rules points to the latter.

Pointing out those fallacies has actually become an important focus of my writing as they seem to be more pervasive. The usual pseudoscience peddlers and a constant influx of newly swayed ones constantly pop up everywhere on the Internet. One of the most important things I (and anyone else) can do to encourage scientific literacy is to help people understand when someone is making a non-scientific argument. MPR's news story is a perfect example of this nonsense.

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by Eric Hall

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