Vaccination a partisan issue in the US? (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Some recent statements by Chris Christie and Rand Paul[^1] have raised the prospect that vaccination, or, more precisely, policies that impose costs on parents who don’t vaccinate their kids, may become a partisan issue, with Republicans on the anti-vax (or, if you prefer, pro-freedom) side and Democrats pushing a pro-vaccine, pro-science line. Christie and Paul took a lot of flak from other Republicans and even Fox News, and tried to walk their statements back, so it seems as if it won’t happen just yet.

But there are some obvious reasons to think that such a divide might emerge in the future, and that Christie and Paul just jumped the gun. The outline of the debate can be seen in the ferocious response to Reason magazine’s endorsement of mandatory vaccination. And, while Reason was on the right side this time, they’ve continually cherrypicked the evidence on climate change and other issues to try to bring reality in line with libertarian wishes.

The logic of the issue is pretty much identical to that of climate change, gun control, and other policies disliked by the Republican/schmibertarian base. People want to be free to do as they please, even when there’s an obvious risk to others and don’t want to hear experts pointing out those risks.[^2] So, they find bogus experts who will tell them what they want to hear, or announce that they are “skeptics” who will make up their own minds. An obvious illustration of the parallels is this anti-vax piece in the Huffington Post by Lawrence Solomon, rightwing author of The Deniers, a supportive account of climate denial[^3].

As long as libertarians and Republicans continue to embrace conspiracy theories on issues like climate science, taking a pro-science viewpoint on vaccination just makes them “cafeteria crazy”. The consistent anti-science position of people like Solomon is, at least intellectually, more attractive.

Note Another issue that fits the same frame is speeding. Anti-science ibertarians in Australia and the UK are strongly pro-speeding, but I get the impression that this isn’t such a partisan issue in the US, the reverse of the usual pattern where tribalist patterns are strongest in the US.

[^1]: Christie was just pandering clumsily, but Paul’s statement reflects the dominance of anti-vax views among his base and that of his father (take a look at
[^2]: Of course, the situation is totally different in cases like Ebola and (non-rightwing) terrorism, where it’s the “others” who pose the risk.
[^3]: The Huffington Post used to be full of leftish anti-vaxers. But the criticisms of Seth Mnookin and others produced a big shift – Solomon’s was the only recent example I could find. Similarly, having given equivocal statements back in 2008, Obama and Clinton are now firmly on the pro-vaccine side.

130 thoughts on “Vaccination a partisan issue in the US? (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. OK, so you’re yet another sock for Mel.

    I observe that in your last incarnation you were running two socks at once, both doing enough to get banned.

    That’s it. From now on, anything posted by you will be deleted, disemvowelled or edited to give what I regard as the true meaning. – JQ

  2. This thread is another classic trainwreck. An interesting post with the possibility of discussion about how best to communicate science and improve the public response to important controversies derailed by partisan accusations that all and sundry are anti-science. Links to one of the experts on science communication that discuss how counter-productive and fact-free the “anti-science” accusation is have been ignored in favour of a stoush over who is more anti-science.

    A real contribution to science communication.

  3. No, no.. am fairly sure I know who the purple vole is and also”Tony”.. they are of the Madigan tribe.

    They participate, but although they know better they are bit like culties, tied to a sort of party line that precludes deviation. One of them in particular has good brains, but therefore consequently lives in constant fear of what could happen if you add one and one.

  4. @The White Mouse
    Shame you didn’t keep googling and find things like:

    “On 29 November 2012 the Queensland Parliament, with a Liberal National Party government, reversed the previous Labor government’s mandate requiring certain public potable water supplies to add fluoride to the water.”

  5. @Nathan
    An interesting example, as it reveals—once again—the LNP fixation with people having the freedom to choose something, in this case that being whether to provide their children with fluoride tablets or not. Furthermore, the general observation is that where fluoridised water is available, tooth decay among children (and adults) is much, much lower, and incidences of the really horrible effects of losing multiple teeth and gum disease are much fewer. As we all know, busy people tend to take the easy way out, especially when the damaging consequences are statistical in nature, not absolutely 100% going to happen. With tooth decay, some fortunate few are relatively impervious; with failing to vaccinate and catching measles, most don’t develop life-threatening complications, but 10% is hardly an insignificant minority if it is your child at risk.

    People are woefully poor at picking the genuine easiest way, which in the case of vaccination is to get your kids vaccinated, whether one at a time or multi-vaxx, just do it. In the case of tooth decay and fluoridation of water supply, another possible approach is to provide bottled water which is fluoridised, and the kids could drink that—not perfect, but probably better than relying on parents giving fluoride tablets to their kids regularly. Personally, I think a government info campaign on providing fluoride to kids to avoid dental caries, loss of permanent teeth to gum disease, etc, would be money well spent. Except in Qld: the people have spoken there and don’t want it 😦

  6. A NZ Green MP a few months ago endorsed homoeopathic solutions to Ebola. The party leadership immediately disassociated itself from his statement and claimed their approach is science based.

    The New Zealand Greens nonetheless have no position as a party on vaccines.

    When one of their candidates was expressing reservations about them, I sent a graph in a tweet showing how polio disappeared immediately after the vaccine became available.

    The Green party health spokesman retweeted my tweet immediately and in a middle of the election campaign to show he was not willing to be associated with the anti-vaccination movement in his own party. That is a stand on principle that is to be admired. Never back down ever on science based public health policy.

    The New Zealand Greens supports the right of local government choice over fluoridation.

    The desire of the NZ Green party that natural medicines not be subject to the regulation that regular medicines are subject to is well known. The Greens believe in a free market for quackery and charlatans but heavy regulation and long delays on the availability of life-saving medicines.

  7. @Jim Rose

    ” the right of local government choice over fluoridation.”

    Fair enough if that is what the people who vote for the council, people like me and my neighbours really do want the council to do, when we are aware of all the facts.

    Being aware of all the information is the only way people can make a good choice. This is called ‘informed consent’; it’s a psych term and all reputable practitioners need to ensure that people choosing then for therapy understand all the risks as well as the possible benefits so they can provide informed consent.

    So if the local council took responsibility for providing all of the taxpayers with a ‘scientific’ report and provided a community health person to talk to people this would work for me and I’d trust my neighbours to make a good choices and allow flouride in the water but if they didn’t want it I’d advise all the young mums I know to use tablets like I did when my kids were young and living in an unflouridated area.

    I think then we would find that some people are motived in their by a desire to make a good choice and that some other people – they could be something like you – are motived to see things in accordance with their belief in economic man and that old fashioned economic theory that nobody believes in any more. Not my neighbours anyway.

    The problem with economic man is he only exists in your fevered imagination; it is social women and men who are expected to make these choices without knowing the rules of the game you are forcing us to play.

  8. You know, I mocked the white rodent and tony a bit, but after learnng today that the ALP had colluded with the Tories to suppress FTA details, may be they are not such fools, or I so smart.

  9. I’m happy to pay a substantial premium to get certified organic food. I know of no compelling evidence that says it is better for me personally, but I strongly believe that it is better for the environment, and that alone is a sufficient reason to support those who raise organic crops.

    I also believe it tastes better than non-organic. That may be confirmation bias at work but in practice, that doesn’t matter to me. It might simply be that the chain of handling is better because the produce is harvested when ripe and not stored for a long time.

  10. Before vaccination was an established and effective reality there was of course no selection pressure one way or the other re vaccination and possible attitudes connected thereto. Now that vaccination is an established reality with survival value attached, this picture might have changed a little. Some selection pressure might now apply no matter how small. Connect the dots and you will figure out what I am saying.

  11. As we blog, the New Zealand Greens are hosting a conference of GE deniers at Parliament house led by the Green MP who thinks homoeopathic solutions are useful for treating Ebola.

    As the commentator in the link observed:

    But let’s imagine if this wasn’t the Greens, but ACT. And ACT hosted a conference at Parliament of half a dozen climate change sceptics preaching against the scientific consensus.

    They would be denounced by a dozen lobby groups as being anti-science and abusing their position as a parliamentary party by allowing parliamentary facilities to be used in such a way. The Greens would be the ones most loudly decrying ACT.

    So it is a useful reminder that the Greens devotion to scientific consensus is cherry picked to only apply when it backs their world view.

  12. @Jim Rose

    Did somebody claim that teh Greens were the very model of a perfectly rational human being?

    I think this silly assumption you seem to be making is another product of your fevered – no it’s not fevered is it? it is programmatic and rigid cognitive style.

  13. Most probably anti-vax belief appears across the political spectrum because autism happens to children of parents across the political spectrum. Enough of those parents will fall to the correlation/causation fallacy (because vaccines are delivered at about the same time that autistic tendencies become apparent) to believe that vaccines caused their child to become autistic, whatever their previous political stance. Other issues like climate change and GMOs do not distribute their consequences so evenly and randomly.

  14. With regard to the GMO and AGW issues, it is consistent to apply the precautionary principle to both.

    In the AGW debate, a key group opposing the AGW thesis is a group of rich corporations and their lobbyists and backers. In the GMO debate a key group proposing the GMO thesis is a group of rich corporations and their lobbyists and backers. Thus, sectional monied interests are against the AGW thesis but in favour of the GMO thesis. This ought to alert us to possible concerns about sectional monied interests distorting the debate against CO2e amelioration action and in favour of GMO adoption. As these rich monied interests demonstrably and repeatedly operate dishonestly, in bad faith and against the interests of the majority of people, then a high degree of suspicion about their motives and goals is warranted.

    The precautionary principle indicates for AGW that we should radically slow emissions given the high probability that unrestrained emissions will lead to something like a 5 degrees C hotter world. This latter would do immense damage to humans, human society and current ecology. The precautionary principle for GMO also indicates that we should proceed much more slowly and with much more caution. There are clearly safer ways to assure world food security in the next several decades. Stopping human climate change forcing would be a key step. Improving storage, transport and distribution of food along with improving aid responses would be a second key step. Shifting expenditure from pointless adventurist, even imperialist, wars would be a third key step.

    Calling the application of the precautionary principle to GMO “anti-science” is a most untenable claim. Indeed, a proper understanding of biology and ecology indicates these are extremely complex arenas where the unforeseen effects of powerful techonolgy can be insidious and far-reaching. Indeed, it is pro-science to advocate proceeding with greater caution. Persons with a proper and profound understanding of the complexity of the natural world and the scientific investigations which attempt to understand it will realise this whereas persons with a simplistic, reductionist and deterministic understanding of science will be these who advocate rushing ahead as if everything were simple and cut and dried.

    There is no rush scientifically or existentially (meaning survival issues) to do this research. It could and should be done at a cautious pace. The only rush is the unseemly and indeed reckless and dangerous rush by rich corporations to make more money quickly without taking proper precautions and before doing proper long-term research and studies.

  15. So maybe a little bit of anti-vax feeling is a desire not to “play God”? A feeling of guilt at interfering with the natural order of the universe…

    With the topics of vaccination, GMO, fluoridation etc, last nights Catalyst was instructive. They looked at lead, and its removal from petrol, as a way to explain crime trends in the 20th century in America. I thought the case made was reasonably compelling, and suggest that we may owe a debt of gratitude to those who fought for unleaded petrol. I suspect that such a fight would have started in the 1970’s, a highly “environmental” decade.

    From my own experience, I can offer the following observation. I was at uni in the second half of the 70’s. We were a noisy and ill behaved lot. We used to throw paper planes in class, and consider it a success if we hit an unsuspecting lecturer. The children of my generation are now at uni. They are quiet and well behaved. They do not throw paper planes. They are polite and pleasant. I had previously come up with a couple of different hypotheses to explain this deviant behaviour, but I’ve thrown them out the window now. I reckon that reduced childhood exposure to lead is the likely cause. As a new father in the early 90’s, I remember that parents were made very aware of the dangers of lead, particularly from renovating old properties, at that time.

  16. Jim Rose, in my experience the pro-GM crowd are just as “anti-science,” by our host’s crappy definition, as you claim the anti-GM crowd are. Specifically, they never address the distributional issues in the food system or explain how GMOs will magically solve this problem. For a good example of this irrational underpants-gnome style thinking, see the comments on this post on my blog, where I attempt to calmly explain why Golden Rice is not the panacaea that its backers claim, with data and scientific evidence, only to be ignored and scolded for my ignorance.

    It seems to me that if GMOs were around during the Irish potato famine their supporters would be claiming the were the magic solution to the problem and all talk of corn laws or colonialism was just anti-scientific Chartist rabble-rousing. Things are no different today.

    A little deeper thought about whether these people are anti-scientific, or misguided, or building a weak scientific defense around a fundamentally solid political and economic analysis, might be a good idea. Because the notion that GMOs are going to solve hunger in the developing world is really, really shallow.

  17. Also, again, it’s good to assess the objective data on what we know about this stuff. Dan Kahan reports here that the American public is not polarized on GMOs, and both left-wing and right-wing people have similar views on the risks.

  18. @Ikonoclast
    Hasn’t the precautionary principle actually been applied to GM already? There has been several decades of use of GM products with AFAIK no significant negative impacts, with the exception of pollution of “GM-free” production zones which is arguably a fashion issue rather than a biological problem. From a biological perspective, we would expect and find plant strains that are bred to improve their human nutrient component to perform less well in a natural environment. This is true whether plant strains are developed by GM or conventional breeding. (Production of the components that become food for other species requires physiological resources so is anti-adaptive, except where there is a specific requirement to co-opt other species for seed dispersal or pollination. This is why maintaining crops generally requires effort. They are preferentially eaten and otherwise out-competed.) While testing any food is a good idea, up to a point, the opposition to GM is clearly tribal and religious, not science-based. Opposing GM is pretty much like opposing vaccination: sure, we can think up things that might go wrong, but where is the evidence?

    While you might be upset about corporations making profits from GM products you might equally be upset about the negative effects of avoiding GM for religious reasons. The appalling Golden Rice story is a simple example but there are plenty of other significant benefits that can potentially flow from GM technology. Golden Rice potentially provides an almost ideal – in-situ, profit-free, socially appropriate – means of relieving vitamin A deficiency in some poor populations but it has in effect been outlawed globally by first world Green groups. Imagine how the reaction if there were thousands of blind Pakistani girls produced by the actions of a corporation! However, because the same effect is achieved by the actions of green groups it is mysteriously ok. I support a lot of green objectives but they have completely lost me on this one.

  19. Jim, Golden Rice won’t solve any problems. Not only that, but the problem it’s designed to solve was being rapidly solved anyway, and there are already GMO products on the market (golden mustard) that have failed to make a dent in vitamin a deficiency.

    I have also provided you a link to a well-respected scientist who has shown that opposition to GMs is not tribal.

    I don’t understand how people can consistently ignore the evidence presented about these issues, make claims with no basis in fact, and then accuse the people they disagree with of being anti-science. Please pay attention to the information that is available on the topic before you claim others are anti-science.

  20. Even conventional crops have shown a decline in nutrient content over time. Several scientific examinations have been carried out, using data collected recently through to several decades ago.

    Rotating crops, using manure fertiliser, multi-crop in single field, and other techniques can help to increase the nutrient content of crops, although the labour needs can be higher. The GM crops which attempt to address vitamin deficiencies are always at risk of conventional farming practices being modified and increasing the nutrient content dramatically enough to make the GM crop uncompetitive.

    I have no great issue with GM one way or the other, I see the scientific application of GM as simply another tool we can wield. The way in which corporations currently try to exploit GM proprietary knowledge is the burning issue. Personally, I think GM—in the manner used currently—will have its fifteen minutes of fame, and then sink back to niche applications. Plants are so adaptable that it can pay (as a farmer) to do some simple experiments with the other factors affecting plant nutrient density and composition, yield, and so on, for those factors contribute more (generally speaking, exceptions do apply) than GM is likely to in the foreseeable future. One day, but not today, GM may have real significance.

  21. @Jim Birch

    The precautionary principle is or ought to be a continuous policy. It’s not a use-once-and-throw-away policy. Therfore, each new application of a GMO product needs to be thoroughly tested on a case by case basis by independent, disinterested state/academic research as well as by interested private enterprise research.

    Where is your evidence that golden rice “has in effect been outlawed globally by first world Green groups”. Surely this is a hyperbolic statement. Do these Green groups run governments and rule the globe?

    Look up the 10 foods naturally highest in beta carotene or Hunger Math for foods high in vitamin A. The plants (and animals) these foods come from can be cultivated/raised in most zones of the world or at least some can in each zone. Why go for the high tech solution when in some cases multiple, simple and low tech solutions already exist and will suffice? I will tell you. It’s because these simple, low-tech solutions are not integrated or even not well “integratable” into the centrally owned food production systems of corporate capital. That is really why they are rejected.

  22. Funny, those green groups that effectively “outlawed” golden rice have missed the boat on Golden Mustard, which has been trialed as an intervention for vitamin A deficiency and found to be five times as costly as traditional supplementation. Those who think golden rice is the be-all and end-all of vitamin a deficiency elimination should read paragraph 3 of the linked paper.

    Why is it that advocates of GMO as a solution to the problems of world hunger and blind Pakistani children never actually manage to present any evidence that their magic crops will do what they say? Isn’t this the essence of science?

  23. Just a drive by … I really don’t ‘get’ arguments about food production when the data about food distribution is so clear. All over the world indigenous and localized modes of food production, or local distribution, are being displaced by globally uniform relations of production designed by corporations and reinforced by assassination and corporate terrorism. Starvation usually follows. In the meantime, so far as I can see, scientists are engaging in a scientific squabble which relieves them of the burden of moral and ethical consideration.

  24. Indeed it did chrisl – as the most expensive alternative to standard supplementation. I present this study as evidence against the claim that these GMOs have been shut down by green activists. The real reason they aren’t in use and remain vapourware is that they are too expensive and there are lots of reasons to think they won’t work.

    The introduction of that paper points out that much VAD occurs in areas where rice is not commonly eaten, that VAD has been declining rapidly, and that it occurs mostly in the poorest sectors of society who are suffering from other forms of under-nutrition. I am yet to see any evidence presented by pro-GMO people that their technology will magically undo these problems of maldistribution and inequality. Advocating for an expensive technology over a proven, cheap technology without evidence that it will work is not scientific, correct?

  25. you should read more widely bud. vit a fortified plantains r already in trial and were developed by QUT. Other gm fortified irons r also in the fire. i checked Google Scholar and found plenty of endorsement s apart from your cite which is already a powerful endorsement.

  26. Making my point, chrisl, that activism has not hindered the roll out of these strategies. But are they worth it? VAD has been declining rapidly, cost-effectiveness of interventions is highly dependent on how mortality is handled, and existing supplementation strategies are a well-known cheap and effective strategy.

    Why are people spending a lot of money on developing GMO solutions to a problem that has a known, simple and cheap intervention, when the existing intervention is not always able to be successfully implemented? Do you think this is the best use of health development money?

  27. lol your own says supplements only get to 34% of the target group in India. effective my tooshie. anyway your mind is made up so i”ll leave you be

  28. So, an intervention that has not yet been subject to practical trials is assessed on the basis of its putative effectiveness (100%): that’s okay. An actual intervention is instead assessed on its actual observed coverage (34%): it’s terrible. Good thing you’re not in charge of any development programs.

    When these Vitamin A enriched plantains are rolled out, do you think there is any possibility that they will also fail to reach 100% coverage? Do you think it is possible that when they do, poor people will sell them to wealthier people, and use the money to buy cheaper food plus cooking oil? In a society where people suffer from iron deficiency anaemia and protein energy malnutrition due to lack of sufficient nourishment, how are GMOs going to solve nutritional deficiencies where standard food does not? Are you advocating giving away food? If so, what role does GMO play vs. say, an adequate diet? If not, why do you think GMOs will be successful where existing cheaper alternatives have failed? How will GMOs affect nutritional deficiencies (like vitamin A and iron) that are partly associated with inadequate breastfeeding? In areas where food is plentiful but diarrhoea is a major cause of malnutrition and stunting, how will GMOs help?

    It’s as if there have been 40 years of green revolution, and yet people are still starving. I wonder if there is some reason other than lack of GMOs that might explain this?

  29. Another form of left-wing crankiness that deserves a mention is radiation from cell towers and now from smart meters.

    The former green MP who, while in Parliament spoke against vaccinations and worried about their linked to autism, switched power companies because the new smart meter was going to get her with radiation.

    That particular green MP was a safe food campaigner.

    When the trans-Tasman medical regulation system was been introduced, the green party campaigned against it because it was going to apply to natural medicines.

    Naturally, the precautionary principle does not apply to finding out what is in all those natural medicines to see if they safe.

  30. wessler and Zilberman in environment and dev economics say 1.4 million life years lost in India over 10 yrs thx to obstruction of golden rice rollout. green activists kill brown people

  31. @Jim Rose

    Yes, possibly thanks to nuclear weapons, all sorts of radiation get a bad rap. Do you remember the 80’s when Telecom word processor operators were convinced that their high rate of miscarriage (they were of course all female) was due to radiation from the monitors they used? To me, their case was rather sad. They had a high rate of miscarriage, and rather than looking at what caused it, jumped in and blamed radiation.

    I imagine that sitting still for long periods of time was most likely the cause, rather than any radiation. Better work practices, mainly to avoid RSI probably fixed the problem.

  32. @faustusnotes
    AFAIKS your argument is rhetorical or crazy. If GM will or won’t solve problems then that will demonstrated out there in the world. If it works it will be used. If it doesn’t it won’t. QED. It should be allowed to be tested without a smokescreen of anti-science emotive propaganda and manipulation.

    Normally, things can be improved, but not perfected. GM is not a universal panacea but has and will provide significant real benefits. Issues with corporate control of GM strains are similar. Sure, it is a serious problem (which I would support action on) but this isn’t any kind of reason to generically oppose GM. Baby and bathwater. Golden rice ticked all the boxes: it did not have a rent-seeking corporate owner, it was adequately tested, it was close to the ideal for this kind of intervention, it would have significantly enhanced the lives of some of the world’s poor people, but, it was opposed intensively.

    Nothing that has been said here or I have read here or elsewhere changes my opinion that the opposition to GM is essentially irrational or more accurately quasi-religious. Just as with climate science denial, creationism, etc, once the irrational jump is made and the emotional lock-in occurs, it is followed with a farrago of cherry picking, generalisation and specious arguments. For me, this is a glass house issue. I can’t oppose climate denialism and yet support or acquiesce to that same sort of whacky arguments against GM.

  33. @Jim Birch

    I don’t know enough about the subject of Golden Rice to make an argument in either direction.

    I have heard a lot about it, and searching the net shows a lot of fiercely pro and anti sites.

    Nothing that has been said here or I have read here or elsewhere changes my opinion that the opposition to GM is essentially irrational or more accurately quasi-religious.

    That makes me ask: “If – ‘Golden rice ticked all the boxes: it did not have a rent-seeking corporate owner, it was adequately tested, it was close to the ideal for this kind of intervention, it would have significantly enhanced the lives of some of the world’s poor people’ – then what is holding it up?”

    It can’t possibly be the mighty environment lobby, otherwise we wouldn’t be facing climate change as a problem.

    From looking at the “” website it appears the hold up is regulatory.

    They say, in part:

    It is obvious that no scientist or scientific institution in the public domain has the potential, funding or motivation to perform such lengthy and expensive biosafety experiments. It comes as no surprise then that virtually all transgenic events that have been carried through the deregulatory process so far are – directly or indirectly – in the private sector and are restricted to high-value crops. Humanitarian projects do not fall into this category, even though they would benefit millions of people. There is a lot of goodwill in the public and in the private sectors worldwide to exploit the potential of green biotechnology for the benefit of the poor. However, without a realistic risk assessment approach, funds for public research will not be capable of doing the trick. Scientific progress in the public sector has thus become detached from product development, and the population at large is not benefiting from that progress.

    As I read that, they just want more money to spend on satisfying regulatory requirements. Or, we should relax the regulatory requirements.

    I’d be OK with spending as much as it costs to satisfy safety regulations, but I’d need some convincing that the answer is to lower the regulatory standards.

    Presumably that debate has taken place or is taking place somewhere but it isn’t prominent in search results.

  34. @Jim Birch

    Actually, there are fundamental issues about Climate Change compared to GMO which make the two cases quite different. Let us accept the current AGW thesis is correct.The balance of scientific evidence is that it is true to a good degree of confidence. IIRC that degree of confidence is now over 90%. Let us also accept that GMO foods when properly assessed are safe and this degree of confidence is high too.

    To sum up;

    (1) The current scientific consensus AGW thesis is correct with a confidence somewhere in the range of 90% to 100%.

    (2) LThe current scientific consensus GMO thesis is correct with a confidence somewhere in the range of 90% to 100%.

    To over-simplify (to assist investigating the ensuing logic);

    (1) AGW is real.
    (2) GMO is safe.

    If AGW is real and if we ignore that fact (keep burning massive amounts of fossil fuel) then we wreck the climate (5 degrees C plus warming) with all the terrible damage that will follow.

    If GMO is safe but we ignore it or delay it (empirically it is not stopped entirely) then what happens? Nothing particularly terrible happens to the world as a whole. There are actually many other solutions to most of the problems GMO attempts to address.


    (1) AGW action is critical and mandatory.
    (2) GMO action is sub-critical and optional.

    You cannot turn GMO into a critical issue equal in importance to the AGW issue. It simply is not nearly as important to implement.


    (A) The powers of capital, oligarchy and corporatism are (mostly) opposing AGW action.
    (B) The powers of capital, oligarchy and corporatism are (mostly) promoting GMO action.

    The powers of capital, oligarchy and corporatism are the most powerful and effective in policy implementation today. So the mandatory action on AGW is in serious jeopardy but the pushing through of optional GMO is pretty much assured and does in fact continue.

    As other bloggers have noted, there are other issues about GMO which do not directly relate to the safety and science of GMO. These issues relate to corporate control of food security, wider environmental effects and the costs and benefits of GMO versus other approaches to food security.

    It is critical to be concerned that AGW action is too slow (because of the impending damage to the climate). It is important, but not critical, to be concerned that GMO action is too fast because of the other issues mentioned above.

    Thus, even accepting the science in both cases, one can see, if one has a comprehensive understanding that the two cases present different problems overall for the implementation of precautionary and other principles. The cases are not the same just because they both involve arguments of science versus anti-science.

    I can logically say the precautionary principle indicates the need for urgent action on climate change and the need for slow, cautious, well-studied progress on GMOs. I can say this even while I take a pro-science stance in both cases.

  35. @Ikonoclast
    That’s arguably true if you happen to be a well fed person in a rich country. The impact of lowering food production for aesthetic reasons is a matter of dollars. It’s not actually ‘logical’, the argument relies on values. The precautionary principle might say one thing from a plush middle class sofa but would also say that if your family are actually are going hungry, or blind, then do something right now to fix it even if it entails cost and risk.

    I have a further problem. All these “other issues” don’t stack up, either. Corporate controlled food security is actually better than no food security. That is why poor farmers choose to pay a premium for GM seed.

    The environmental impact of GM is generally positive due to adding desirable qualities like higher yields, reduced chemical use, higher food value, disease resistance, lower water requirements, and so on. Obviously there will be exceptions but the general impact will be an environmental plus. There are risks with GM just like everything else and I’m completely in favour of doing real analysis and also the getting an answer. It’s the nebulous reasoning that I don’t like. Is “slow, cautious, well-studied” just code for “never”? What actual GM plant strains do you think have now passed the test? On several decades of real world evidence you could reasonably conclude that GM products are pretty safe. Which is more-or-less what you would expect from biological considerations.

    As for “other approaches” to security, well, bring ’em on. Of course, this isn’t an anti-GM argument at all, it’s just an argument for finding the best options or mix of options. Good.

    I agree that climate change a more serious problem but I don’t get that this makes fluffy thinking on GM ok.

  36. @Jim Rose

    This is the lamest tu quoque I’ve seen in a while. You cite a scare that was around a decade or so ago, promoted by a (now former) Greens MP. (For another example, you have to go to some loon in NZ).

    Against that, I’ll cite the Australian conservative parties in government pushing (among many other pieces of antiscientific nonsense) bogus health scares about wind farms. Unlike the Green MP, your political allies have actually passed NIMBY legislation on this topic

  37. @Paul Keating

    The statement “Greens have blood on their hands” (in relation to the implementation or non-implementation of golden rice) is the most ridiculous statement I have heard for a long while.

    If one checks the timeline of golden rice development, one can see that most if not all delays have been due to the unreadiness of the product itself. Quotes below from Wikipedia.

    1. “The scientific details of the rice were first published in Science in 2000,[1] the product of an eight-year project by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg.”

    2. “The first field trials of these golden rice cultivars were conducted by Louisiana State University Agricultural Center in 2004.”

    3. “In 2005, a team of researchers at biotechnology company, Syngenta, produced a variety of golden rice called “Golden Rice 2″. They combined the phytoene synthase gene from maize with crt1 from the original golden rice. Golden rice 2 produces 23 times more carotenoids than golden rice (up to 37 µg/g), and preferentially accumulates beta-carotene (up to 31 µg/g of the 37 µg/g of carotenoids).”

    Note: We can assume that Golden Rice 2 was researched and developed for good reasons. A reasonable assumption, especially in light of the next numbered quote, is that the original would not deliver enough carotenoids in the poor diets being targeted.

    4. “Initial analyses of the potential nutritional benefits of golden rice suggested consumption of golden rice would not eliminate the problems of vitamin A deficiency, but should be seen as a complement to other methods of vitamin A supplementation.[22][23] Since then, improved strains of golden rice have been developed containing sufficient provitamin A to provide the entire dietary requirement of this nutrient to people who eat about 75g of golden rice per day.[4]”

    5. “In particular, since carotenes are hydrophobic, there needs to be a sufficient amount of fat present in the diet for golden rice (or most other vitamin A supplements) to be able to alleviate vitamin A deficiency. In that respect, it is significant that vitamin A deficiency is rarely an isolated phenomenon, but usually coupled to a general lack of a balanced diet (see also Vandana Shiva’s arguments below). The RDA levels accepted in developed countries are far in excess of the amounts needed to prevent blindness.[4] Moreover, this claim referred to an early cultivar of golden rice; one bowl of the latest version provides 60% of RDA for healthy children.[24]”

    6. “In 2009, research results of a clinical trial of Golden Rice with adult volunteers from the USA were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It concluded that “beta carotene derived from Golden Rice is effectively converted to vitamin A in humans”.[27] In a summary about the research the American Society for Nutrition suggests the implications of the research are that “Golden Rice could probably supply 50% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin A from a very modest amount — perhaps a cup — of rice, if consumed daily. This amount is well within the consumption habits of most young children and their mothers”.[28]

    In response to the research, a group of 20 scientists suggested in an open letter that there might be deficiencies in clinical trials: “There is now a large body of evidence that shows that GM crop/food production is highly prone to inadvertent and unpredictable pleiotropic effects, which can result in health damaging effects when GM food products are fed to animals. More specifically, our greatest concern is that this rice, which is engineered to overproduce beta carotene, has never been tested in animals, and there is an extensive medical literature showing that retinoids that can be derived from beta carotene are both toxic and cause birth defects.” [29] However, it is well known that beta carotene is found and consumed in many nutritious foods eaten around the world, including fruits and vegetables. Beta carotene in food is a safe source of vitamin A.[30]

    The Food Allergy Resource and Research Program of the University of Nebraska undertook research in 2006 that showed the proteins from the new genes in Golden Rice did not show any allergenic properties.[31]

    In August 2012, Tufts University and others published new research on Golden Rice in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showing that the beta carotene produced by Golden Rice is as good as beta carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children.[32] The study states that “recruitment processes and protocol were approved”,[32] but questions have been raised about the use of Chinese children to test the effects of Golden Rice.[33]”

    7. “In 2008 WHO malnutrition expert Francesco Branca cited the lack of real-world studies and uncertainty about how many people will use golden rice, concluding “giving out supplements, fortifying existing foods with vitamin A, and teaching people to grow carrots or certain leafy vegetables are, for now, more promising ways to fight the problem”.[40]”

    It’s pretty much as I thought. No Green groups have significantly obstructed golden rice. The development process and necessary field trials took up to about a decade from 2000 to 2010. And an expert pointed out that people could, via aid, get supplements and be assisted to grow carrots. One wonders why these interim simple strategems could not or were not put in place.

    I am not against golden rice. I am for it being tested properly before implementation and I am for other strategems, interim or not, to be attempted too. I accept it has very probably been tested properly by now except for possible animal and environmental effects.

    The pro-golden-rice lobby here seem to be implying that golden rice was all systems go (known to be safe and effective) from 2000 or 2005, when 2012 would seem to be a more defensible date for that judgement. The pro-golden-rice lobby seem to be promoting that the solution is golden rice or nothing. This also is false. The pro-golden-rice lobby, like the pro-GMO lobby in general damage their case by exaggeration, all-or-nothing claims, pressure for haste before adequate proper trials are completed and by their extreme naivity about the motives of corporate capital.

    Why does corporate capital always promote big, expensive, heavily technical, heavily centralised, heavily industrialised and patentable solutions over simpler market garden (carrots) solutions? This is a valid question.

    There are some things in favour of golden rice and I will admit this. If safe (and it now finally looks like it probably is proven so), it delivers the required beta carotene more or less automatically in the diet, albeit the diet still needs other adequate nutrients, including fat, to make the beta carotene supplmentation effective.

  38. In addition to my post above, the Golden Rice Project page on IP is illuminating.

    I could write a lot but will limit myself to quoting these points.

    Start Quote

    1. The inventors have assigned their exclusive rights to the Golden Rice technology to Syngenta.

    2. Syngenta added some further technologies, and arranged licences with other companies for some additional technologies to be included in the original Golden Rice.

    3. Syngenta, in turn, has given the inventors a humanitarian licence with the right to sublicense public research institutions and low-income farmers in developing countries, to the full set of necessary technologies.

    4. Syngenta retains commercial rights, although it has no plans to commercialize Golden Rice.

    End Quote.

    Syngenta judged there would not be enough market in developed countries (we got lots of beta carotene in our diet) and they were not interested in undeveloped markets (no profits).

    So, the main drag on getting golden rice into poor countries has been Syngenta’s disinterset (no profits!) and lack of public research dollars and aid dollars assigned by our develped world neoliberal governments. Greens had next to nothing to do with it! Same old culprits! Profiteering corporations and neoliberal governments. LOL! Why am I not surprised?

  39. I think it interesting that Ikonoclast doesn’t mention the next bullet point on that site:

    “Humanitarian Use” means (and includes research leading to):
    1. Use in developing countries (low-income, food-deficit countries as defined by
    2. Resource-poor farmer use (earning less than US$10,000 per year from farming)
    3. The technology must be introduced into public germplasm ( = seed) only (see below).
    4. No surcharge may be charged for the technology (i.e. the seed may cost only as much as a seed without the trait)
    5. National sales are allowed by such farmers (in this way urban needs can also be covered)
    6. Reusing the harvested seed in the following planting season is allowed (the farmer is the owner of his seeds)

    Which pretty much invalidates his entire attempt to besmirch the technology by association with a (gasp) Corporation.

    The idea that environmental NGOs have not been scaring people and governments about the “dangers”/utility of Golden Rice is laughable. This has been going on for 20 years – I remember Greenpeace’s very first press release about Golden Rice and how it was dangerous because people (who were dying from VAD) might overdose on vitamin A. Then, when they realized the vitamin levels were low, they turned things around and started saying it wouldn’t work at all (as if VAD is a binary problem – lack of vitamin A is a distribution of concentration so any increase will help some people). These scare tactics have led to overregulation and people like Ikonoclast saying “we’re not against it, we just want one more study done”…which is getting obscene with the background of dying people. By contrast, we are putting experimental drugs – barely tested in animals – into ebola patients because there is a desperate need to save lives, but with this….no urgency. Plenty of time. It wouldn’t help. They’ll die anyway from not having enough fat. Have them grow carrots. And Vandana Shiva will tell you this at any conference you wish, so long as you pay her a USD$40,000 appearance fee and buy a business class ticket from India (how can I get in on that gig?? I’d only have to work 2-3 days a year).

    Bringing this (somewhat) back to the original topic. I’ve been off reviewing the vaccination information and recent electoral results from Oregon and Washington states. This is interesting because there have been a number of citizens-initiated measures in recent years in these two states – legalization of marijuana (passed), same-sex marriage (passed), labeling of GM food (failed). On a county-by-county basis for the two states there is a strong correlation between the % of people that voted for Obama (2012) and the desire to label GM food (p < 0.001, r2= 0.72) – so to me this suggests there is polarization by political orientation in the GM issue – but there is no substantial correlation between % of people that voted for Obama and % complete vaccination (p = 0.041, r2 = 0.2). In fact, very interestingly, in both states the lowest vaccination rates are occurring in the most polarized counties – strongest Republican and Democrat counties have the worst vaccination rates in both states.

  40. @Ikonoclast
    Are you really expecting me to believe that there has not been a campaign against Golden Rice by green groups or that if there was one it was ineffective so it doesn’t matter? Hello?

    Neither have you presented any serious argument that GM plant breeding presents any increased risk over conventional plant breeding which the is conclusion drawn by all credible scientific bodies that have looked at the issue.

    To my mind, if you want to claim to be pro-science, you keep it up even if it requires revision of your favourite ideas or alliances. That is, even if it hurts a little.

    BTW I’ve worked on several of landcare projects. We have significant problems with invading species but none of them are feral food crops, GM or otherwise. There are good biological reasons for this. OTOH If anyone want to improve the sturdiness of boxthorn by GM or conventional methods, I’ll oppose it.

  41. Paul Keating, 1.4 million life years lost (YLLs) over a decade in India.

    Over that time, total YLLs to all nutritional deficiencies have dropped from 11m to 7m. Since 1990 YLLs due to nutritional deficiencies have declined from 18m to 7m – that is half a million YLLs per year. How is it that YLLs dropped by two-thirds without any help from Golden Rice? And if you divert funds from existing effective programs to Golden Rice, which is estimated to be 5 times more expensive than existing interventions that are known to be effective, will you simply be taking YLLs from one column (protein-energy deficiency) and putting them in another, more expensive one?

    I guess it’s a plaintive cry in the wilderness of anti-science around here but again I ask: how do you know golden rice will work, how will it be effective in areas where rice is not a staple, how will it overcome the inequalities in food distribution that are the primary drivers of YLLs, how will it overcome the diarrhoea issue, and what will its benefits be in children too young to eat rice who are inadequately breastfed? And finally, what evidence do you have that VAD should be the main focus of nutritional interventions in India, why should money be diverted from existing interventions known to be effective, and is it the best use of resources?

    No one on this thread is going to answer those questions, I know, because that would mean diverting from the magic bullet script and engaging with the actual politics and economics of development for health. But please give it a crack if you can.

  42. Faustnotes, we know golden rice works because it contains vitamin A (techically its precursor) and people who are suffering from a lack of vitamin A recover when they eat food containing vitamin A. It probably won’t work in areas where rice is not a staple unless they are in a habit of importing rice because if they don’t grow rice and they don’t import it it becomes exceedingly difficult for them to eat rice. Golden rice is just rice. It doesn’t do anything normal rice doesn’t do except contain beta-carotine, so unless normal rice overcomes inequalities in food distribution one should not expect golden rice to. It does nothing to overcome diarrhoea that normal rice does not. The beta-carotine or resulting vitamin A has to enter a baby’s body either directly or indirectly to alleviate vitamin A deficiency. Merely being in close proximity to it is not enough. Vitamin A from it will not magically jump into their bodies and it is strange that you feel the need to ask a question about this. Developing Golden Rice is a sunk cost. Also, it is a plant. A plant that is capable of reproducing itself. It does not require much in the way of resources to make it available to people.

  43. In answer to Neil and Jim Birch.

    I did mention point 3 as follows;

    3. Syngenta, in turn, has given the inventors a humanitarian licence with the right to sublicense public research institutions and low-income farmers in developing countries, to the full set of necessary technologies.

    The detail Neil adds is fine. I was trying to keep my post to a reasonable length. It is clear the field is now open to humanitarian implementation. You want to assign the primary cause of its non-implementation to Green “propaganda”. I am suggesting one could just as easily cite the lack of public research dollars and aid dollars for Golden Rice humanitarian applications assigned by our develped world governments. They seem more keen to fund billion dollar, nay trillion dollar, wars in the M.E. and elsewhere than to fund food and agricultural aid. I suppose the Greens are to blame for those wars too… oh no, wait the Greens opposed them.

    I do NOT hold a position on GMO identical to the Australian Greens for example. Their precautonary position is stronger than the precautionary position I take. However, I do hold along with the Greens and other thinkers that caution is still required and that GMO has to be considered also in its political economy context. What happens with GMO as applied science is about power, ownership and manipulation as well as about science.

    Your position(s) seem simplistic to me. One, you seem to argue the pro case for GMO is only about science and only about GMOs as the one magic bullet method to help malnourished people. Two, you seem to assume that genetic science and GM is simple, narrowly deterministic, we already know everything important about it and that we could not in principle ever be blind-sided by unforeseen side effects at individual, species, ecological or environmental levels. And further you seem to assume attendant dangers to do with other issues like pesticides (both gene produced and sprayed on) don’t exist either.

    In other words, in dealing with complex inter-related genetic and ecological systems you seem to think everything is simple and straight-forward. Almost no view could be less scientific. Surely, we have or ought to have progressed beyond simplistic, deterministic and hubristic science by now? Surely, we have learned by now that the power of modern science needs to applied very carefully because of its power to change our entire environment?

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