Thursday, 21 January 2016

Urban Glyphosate Rhetoric

A couple of days ago the Greens started a petition addressed to the head of the EPA which reads:
We request the urgent reassessment of glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides in the interests of New Zealanders’ health, and the health of our environment. 
Significant scientific evidence has shown that:
  1. Glyphosate affects bacteria’s  response to antibiotics
  2. Glyphosate damages hormones and is a probable carcinogen
  3. Glyphosate is often combined in weed killers with other active ingredients that are more toxic to animals and people than glyphosate by itself
  4. When it enters waterways, glyphosate harms fish and other aquatic animals
  5. Glyphosate negatively affects the natural behaviour of bees, causing them to forget where their hives are
  6. Glyphosate leaches into groundwater
  7. We don’t know what a safe level of glyphosate is, as it has never been assessed by regulators at sub-lethal levels.
We request that glyphosate be phased out from all uses. 
This afternoon, prominent skeptic Grant Jacobs used his SciBlog slot to hit back. Coming from a scientist it's a fascinating post because the science part of it is limited to contesting the second half of point 2 above. It is silent on all of the other points.

There's a lot of non-science padding out those almost 2000 words though and it's mostly ad-hominem, attacking the researcher and the person commissioning the research for being insufficiently saintly (scientific) and also attacking the idea as not "evidence based". This is not what I'd expect from a science journalist, but Grant isn't one of them: he's a science communicator. There is an important difference.

I'll keep my eyes open for scientific rebuttal of the above points but I have updated my prior in the light of Grant's post. If scientists have serious counterarguments to the other 6 and a half points I'd have expected Grant to cite them.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Bt brinjal

GM developers rely heavily on aiding the developing world when promoting their wares to policy makers, the general public and investors. I'm pretty skeptical, partly because of the scientisticism that pervades this view.

I am nevertheless keen to understand the opposing views. This is the only reason I keep interacting with the skeptics despite their visceral antipathy to my skepticism on this topic: the best test of one's hypotheses are to expose them to those who most loathe them.

Which brings us to the controversy over Bt brinjal (eggplant) in India.

The first serious paper I read on this topic was this economic assessment (pdf, 2011).  It is very positive about Bt brinjal but isn't actually a complete cost benefit analysis (CBA) because it only compares Bt brinjal with pesticide-heavy methods. File it alongside this investigation (pdf, 2008) of different organic treatments for brinjal in India. Both tell you something about how to optimise within a paradigm but neither attempt a head-to-head comparison between organic/biodynamic/biological and GM systems.

Digging into the controversy a bit further led me to Ronald Heering who cites India's GM regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) to state that
No hazards from the insecticidal protein were found through standard safety protocols; GEAC findings conformed to the European Union's general conclusions quoted above
Ronald's paper also informs us that the Minister wasn't convinced by the regulator's report and the whole project got stopped for political reasons, which really got me interested. Here's the regulator's report - it relies on data/analysis supplied by the developer and raises no real concerns.

Given the name of the regulator ("approval committee"), the concept of regulatory capture and Ronald's view that India seeks to actively promote GMOs, there are reasonable grounds for wondering about the robustness of the GEAC's assessment.

The next layer down is this report by Jack Heinemann which digs into the scientific evidence that the Bt brinjal developer presented to the GEAC in India. Jack explains that the accepted international scientific conventions for evaluating products of genetic engineering are produced by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) and then cites (Table 1) six ways in which the GEAC's assessment fell short of these standards. He goes on to cite specific weaknesses in the developer's evidence.

So where does all this leave an objective but interested observer?

  • Hurdles for intervention in another country's policy should be pretty high, though there are different levels of intervention of course, and different levels of interest. Apartheid in South Africa was enough to make me break a few rules in 1981, but some people can't even remember which side they were on.
  • India is the worlds largest & most diverse democracy. It is consequently bogged down in bureaucracy. A few million westerners suddenly getting behind a campaign to admit a GM product is very unlikely to be effective.   
  • You need big money to change government policy. The Gates/Monsanto team is pushing on in Kenya but this is for cotton & maize. I haven't seen them caning the Indian government on Bt brinjal but I could easily have missed that.
  • There is a natural experiment underway because Bangladesh has embraced Bt brinjal while India has not. We will hopefully learn about the farming economics of the product from this experiment, at least relative to conventional pesticide-intensive methods. Noting of course that production economics is only one part of the story.
  • The science around Bt brinjal appears contested. I'd have thought that if it really is a no-brainer then the promoters would just go the whole hog on the science, not leave out bits that seem quite important.

For these reasons I don't advocate pressuring India to approve Bt brinjal

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Simplistic Silos

Silos can be really useful for storing product and developing academic concepts but there can also be huge value in "breaking down the silos", which is business jargon for "bringing disciplines together for a common purpose". In the context of public policy making, the excessive simplification of silo thinking is particularly dangerous.

We expect simplistic views from simpletons but not from educated professionals. Sadly though, some people do emerge from higher education without a rounded picture of the way other disciplines add value, so they simplistically over-state the role of their own discipline and pay only lip service to others.

New words are needed to describe and counter the influence of such people and their non-specialist followers. Here are a couple to get started with.

Economists are prone to economisticism, the excessive focus on a narrow concept of economics. For me as an economist the most glaring involve tribal demarcations within the discipline, where there is plenty of contrary evidence and reason but it is ignored. Two examples will suffice.
These count as economisticism because in neither view can be supported without narrowly restricting the set of things that can and should influence public policy.  

Scientisticism is also a thing. I'm no scientist, just an interested observer and user of science outputs in our farming efforts. However I know enough to recognise scientistic thinkers: people who place excessive reliance on science. Mainstream agronomy offers lots of examples but I've flogged that enough lately, so let's return to the skeptics.
  • Alternative health remedies are scorned by skeptics to the point where they reckon one's own personal experiences should not be quoted to friends. To be fair, the NZ group is mostly into fighting the really fringe stuff which is fine by me. But they also have a broader antagonism toward traditional/natural/folk medicines and when they start down this track they sound like doctors that are thoroughly versed in pharmacology but not much else. 
  • They're really keen on GMOs, I think because they're seen as scientific outputs. That would be fine if they didn't also ignore, downplay and/or ridicule contrary views that derive from other disciplines. But they do. Consumer views, which are relevant to the economics of GMOs, are written off as ignorance, contrary science is attacked, and statistical risk assessments are criticised for lacking empirics.
When I chaired a university economics department I resisted the business school concept of breaking down silos because I was defending a really strong economics research group. I still see some merit in such silos, but when it comes to public policy making they're like lawyers: needing adult supervision.