Kniss: Seek correct information on hot topics
Laramie – “It is frustrating to hear some of the misconceptions about what farmers do,” said Andrew Kniss, UW professor and researcher. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there about farmers and food, and one of the more common ones is almost always related to GMOs.”
Kniss spoke during an Oct. 14 webinar to answer the question, “What have they done to our food?”
There are a number of misconceptions about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including why farmers use them and their impacts.
“Misconceptions are plentiful, and we like to blame others that they exist,” Kniss said. “I would like to blame my colleagues in the university system. We haven’t done a good enough job of getting good information out there.”
When searching for GMO or pesticides, on the internet, the top two pages of results come primarily from organizations ideologically opposed to the technologies, Kniss commented.
“That is problematic,” he said. “We need to do better.”
Kniss continued that, according to Alberto Brandolini, the amount of energy needed to refute incorrect statements is an order of magnitude greater than the information needed to produce it.
“When we hear someone say something, if it seems plausible, we aren’t going to spend a whole lot of time investigating the claims,” he said. “As the claim gets father away from what we believe, the amount of energy to figure out whether it is true increases.”
However, at a certain point, Kniss noted that people disregard remarks that fall far enough outside of their way of thinking, writing them off as not possible.
“It is really important we get information right,” he said.
Kniss continued, “The most problematic statements are the ones that seem like they might be right. How likely are we to check information that fits within our current biases? Not very likely. It is equally important we check that information, as well.”
GMOs fall victim to misinformation because people don’t follow up on negative claims.
The rest of the story
As producers are searching for data to support or refute claims, Kniss noted that information can easily be skewed to support any claim.
“We can find information that says GMOs cause cancer, gluten intolerance, obesity – and anything we want to find,” he said. “We can find data online that shows GMOs relate to any particular problem.”
Kniss uses a study showing tumors in rats as a result of the study. The study depicts a series of rats that had been fed GMO food.
“This study was conducted by a researcher with an anti-GMO bias,” Kniss explained. “There is no control in the photos, so what is the rest of the story?”
A separate study from 1973 showed that the particular breed of rats is prone to tumors, with 45 percent developing tumors if they live longer than 18 months of age.
“The study with GMO foods used rats until they were two years of age,” Kniss explained. “There was lots of data collected, but the ‘smoking gun’ from the study selected only a tiny portion of it.”
The dataset presented ignored much of the information in the study.
“This was a classic example of cherry-picking data to support a pre-conceived notion,” he continued. “There has been a lot of research that does the same thing.”
Looking at GMOs
At the same time, the impacts of GMOs have been the subject of a number of studies.
“There is a scientific review of 1,700 studies that looked at GMO safety,” Kniss explained. “They concluded the scientific research conducted thus far has not documented any hazard from GMO crops. 312 evaluated food consumption studies found no scientific effects of toxic allergenic effects.”
Kniss also looked at data from the Journal of Animal Science that represented over 100 billion animals, with no unfavorable trends in livestock health and productivity.
Research can be viewed online at genera.biofortified.org, where a wide variety of safety studies related to GMOs are available.
Kniss noted that genetically modified crops are important, though opponents claim the crops don’t increase yields and make farmers dependent on only one herbicide.
“Most of the GMOs on the market are related to pest management,” Kniss said. “Pest management is the limiting factor is a lot of crop production.”
Actual crop production loss data shows that anywhere between 25 and 40 percent of crop loss is due to weeds.
“Weed management is important,” he said. “Of total crop pests, about 10 percent of losses are still due to weed pressure and weed competition.”
In discussing GMOs, Kniss is often confronted with the concerns about super-weeds.
“In 2000, Roundup Ready soybeans constituted 50 percent of our soybean acres,” he said. “That is when we would expect to see things start changing dramatically.”
Before 2000, he added that glyphosate-resistant weeds were exceptionally rare. However, resistance to other herbicides was prevalent.
“We saw a huge increase in glyphosate resistant weeds after we adopted glyphosate-resistant crops, but that is only part of the story,” Kniss explained. “At the same time we were increasing glyphosate-resistance, we were decreasing resistance to five other herbicides.”
Though we still see a steadily increasing incident of herbicide resistance in weeds, Kniss stated, “This is a problematic trend, but it doesn’t have anything to do with GMO or non-GMO crops. It is a herbicide trend not a GMO trend.”
Sugarbeet growers across the West have noted that, prior to herbicide resistance genes in sugarbeets, spraying the crops was difficult, ineffective and limited by weather and available herbicides.
“It wasn’t uncommon to have sugarbeets completely overwhelmed by weeds,” Kniss said. “The Roundup Ready sugarbeet allows us more flexibility and more control.”
He continued, “Is it a perfect system? No. We are relying on the same pesticide, but we have also built in integrated weed management by rotating crops.”
The ability to use Roundup Ready sugarbeets has growers to harvest an estimated $200 per acre, and UW research shows that profits can be gleaned with just a 0.5-ton increase in yield.
UW’s Andrew Kniss utilizes a four-step process to evaluate information.
“The first step is to identify the claim and if it seems plausible, given what we know about the world,” he says. “In a lot of cases, I’m not likely to proceed to step two, but I’ll argue that is just as dangerous as spreading incorrect information.”
As an example, Kniss posed the question, is glyphosate better or worse than the herbicides it replaces.
“I would be willing to bet that even people who don’t know much about glyphosate have an opinion,” he said. “The answer to the question is yes. Glyphosate is better and worse.”
Depending on the herbicides it replaces, glyphosate can be more detrimental or better for mammalian species, honeybees, birds, groundwater, fish and aquatic invertebrates.
“If we compare glyphosate to the herbicides used in Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, glyphosate is probably better, with the exception for mammalian species,” Kniss explained. “We can’t boil it down to good or bad because it all depends.”
After identifying the plausibility of the claim, Kniss said the next step is to look at data supporting the claim and the assumptions involved.
However, he also cautioned people to make sure the data is good data.
“A lot of times, people like myself support information in peer-reviewed studies, but that also has some flaws,” Kniss comments. “Then, we need to try to put the information within the context of the broader body of knowledge.”
The emotional component of evaluating data also must be accounted for, he said.
“As long as we know we are making our decisions based on emotions, that is ok,” he said. “The problem is when we make decisions and rationalize our emotions saying the data supports a claim when it doesn’t.”
Finally, Kniss said that it is reasonable to form an opinion after considering all the available information.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.