An Open Letter To Penn & Teller

For those of you who don't know Penn & Teller, they are a pair of hilarious magicians who have a program on Showtime called... well... Bullshit. It's similar to Mythbusters, in that Penn & Teller inject a healthy amount of skepticism into commonly held social myths: bottled water, feng shui, profanity, etc. Just like The Amazing Randi, they show that sometimes it takes an illusionist to expose how people who want money or power frequently deceive us. However, sometimes they themselves are guilty of bullshit.

Dear Penn & Teller,

I do enjoy your show, Bullshit. I like how you aren't afraid to tackle some pretty controversial topics, and you have made me rethink a few of my own beliefs.

However, on the episode Eat This, where you bashed organic foods and praised genetically modified organisms (GMOs), I believe you have made some serious factual errors. I feel you were blinded by your notorious hatred of hippies, and admiration for Norman Borlaug, and have forgotten some basic concepts of economics and biology.

[ more beneath the fold ]

Firstly, most of your praise for GMOs is based on the idea that without GMOs, millions of people will starve. This is a belief held mostly be people in the GMO industry, and not supported by any evidence. There's lots of hand waving and hyperbole, but no actual data. In fact, most hard evidence says that genetically modified crops actually DECREASE food production! Therefore, there is good reason to think that proliferation of GMOs will make people poorer, widen social inequality, and promote starvation.

Lets assume for a minute that the hippies are completely wrong that GMOs may damage the genetic makeup of the biosphere. Lets ignore the fact that Monsanto's Roundup-Ready soybeans has already cross bred with wild plants to make Roundup-resistant strains of superweeds. Lets ignore the fact that this cross-pollination has similarly infected the crops of organic farmers, ruining their profits because they can no longer sell the crops as organic. Lets also ignore the fact that Dr Terry Lomax lied when she said that GMO vegetables do not contain genes from animals.

In fact, lets ignore the hippies and all the science, and just focus on the economics.

In the modern world, people do not starve for lack of technology. They are not dying because of a global lack of food, they are dying because of socioeconomic policies. Producing more food may solve the problem, but in other situations it may make the problem worse.

Take the famous Ethiopia famine of the early 80s. Yes, there was a severe drought... but did these people die because of a lack of rainfall, or because the country was embroiled in a civil war? In such a world, food equals power. The government was not about to give its poor, starving citizens food, when it would more effectively be used to feed its soldiers, bribe the right people, and stay in power. Frankly, it was not in the government's best interests for it to keep its own citizens alive. That is the single biggest reason why so many people suffered.

This is similar to the famine in Somalia in the 90s. Somali warlords attacked American soldiers and Red Cross workers because they dared to distribute food to the hungry. We were yet again unable to comprehend how food equaled power in that situation, which was a major factor in the escalating tension with the warlords, which led to the horrors portrayed in Black Hawk Down.

Lets also not forget that the WHO recently came out with a report that says that within a few years, more 3rd world people will be dying from obesity than from starvation.

But just for argument's sake, lets assume that I'm completely wrong about everything mentioned above, and all the sources I linked to are total bullshit. Even so, GMOs still cause more problems than they solve.

In your program, you bashed Greenpeace for convincing the government of Zambia to not accept a donation of GMO corn during the 2002 famine. In this case, the hippies got it right. But not for environmental reasons; for economic reasons.

Lets analyze the situation for a moment... suppose you are the leader of a country, concerned about hunger in your citizenry. Should you accept a large supply of food from a foreign government? Even if it was GMO-free, absolutely not!

Think about it... what effect would that have on your economy? The flood of free grain into the country would devastate the farmers in the country! How on earth could they sell their crops, when somebody else is giving it away for free? No... any charity worth its salt knows it needs to purchase foods locally to stop a famine. Even if the farmers jack up the price, you're still injecting much needed capital into their economy.

And for the record, in the 2002 Zambia famine, the UN was able to replace every grain of the GMO crops it rejected with non-GMO crops... most of which was purchased in Zambia with donations from Europe. This is a classic case of where the right solution to starvation was not food; but rather engaging the economic system that didn't want to distribute food to the hungry. By injecting cash into that system, you did not disrupt local power structures (much), which made the food distribution run more smoothly.

Now, lets assume again for argument's sake that I'm completely wrong about that as well. Let's assume the laws of supply and demand are also bullshit, and everybody always prospers. That still leaves the huge problem that most GMO seeds are terminator seeds.

What are terminator seeds? Well, Monsanto spent a lot of money to make those GMO soybean seeds resistant to Round-up... they deserve to make a profit, but their business model was not about reasonable profit, but about maximizing revenue. So they invented something very very dangerous: a terminator seed.

Simply put, terminator seeds are designed to grow plants that do not have the ability to reproduce! All the seeds on the crops are sterile. Therefore, you have to pay Monsanto every year for the privilege of growing their crops.

UPDATE: Monsanto has recently abandoned the biological terminator seed technology. Instead, they are using legal contracts to mandate terminator seeds. In effect, you don't "buy" seeds from Monsanto anymore, you "rent" them. It is illegal for you to harvest seeds that you grew yourself, and re-plant them the following year. According to Food Inc., Monsanto has bankrupted many a small farmer just from suspicion that they are re-using seeds!

Take a moment to think about that... all of civilization is built on the concept of agriculture. You grow plants with seeds, those plants produce more seeds. We eat some of the seeds, we save others for future growing seasons. If there is a bad crop next year, we don't have to worry: we can plant the seeds from 2 years ago and still survive.

Terminator seeds fundamentally change all of that. Now these extremely poor and uneducated farmers not only have to worry about growing enough food, but also about global shifts in grain production and market costs. If they do not sell their crops for a large enough profit, they will die next year.

Think about it harder: they will starve not if its a bad growing season, but if they cannot make a good enough profit. It is very possible that farmers growing GMO foods will starve the year after a bumper crop! Too much supply, price goes down, and they cannot make enough money to buy more Monsanto seeds next year.

I'm sorry... but any system that punishes a farmer for growing too much food in a hungry country is 100% bullshit.

And god forbid some goody goody decides to dump a million bushels of corn on their market to help prevent starvation... that flood of produce will drive prices even further south. Who benefits? Large land owners who kick the poor farmers off their land when they cannot pay their Monsanto debts.

By every possible measure, GMOs are a very very very bad idea...

I believe the most diplomatic way to say this is that GMOs are very new technology, and have an inherent risk that is difficult to determine. So unless the benefits significantly outweigh the risks, we should skip GMOs entirely. As you can see, the benefits do not outweigh the risks, even if 90% of my criticisms are bullshit.

I believe that the future is not in GMOs, but in normal crops that use GMO research techniques to speed up the age-old art of plant husbandry. This system has been dubbed super organics, and shows much more promise than GMOs.

Super organics use genetic engineering to analyze what two plants need to cross-breed in order to produce the plant that you desire. For example, you analyze the genes of a tiny carrot that can grow in near desert conditions, and a big fat carrot that gives high yields. After some intensive genetic testing, you know how you need to cross-breed them to make a high-yield desert carrot. Then you use standard breeding techniques to produce the desirable offspring.

Same result, lower risk, no terminator seeds, and far fewer side effects. GMO researchers should take their genetic expertise to the super organics camp... then everybody wins.

Next time you want to take on a scientific issue, you really should avoid framing it as a grudge match between corporate shills and wacky hippies. The shills in nice suits will win every time, no matter who is right. You should at least try to get scientists on both sides of the debate... unless, of course, you have an agenda or something.

And if you do have an agenda... well... that's bullshit.

P.S.

Just for the record, if you intend to worship Normal Borlaug as if he were Mother Teresa, then you should prepare yourself for some disappointment... just like the disappointment you caused others to feel when you exposed Mother Teresa as less than saintly.

Norman's work could very well have severe unintended side effects. His focus on intensive monoculture could lead to a situation vastly worse than the Irish potato famine.

Remember, the potato famine occurred because the Irish planted mostly one variety of potato. The potato blight, unfortunately, also attacked that exact same strain of potato. Because of the lack of biodiversity in the Irish food crops, an entire nation was soon starving.

Instead of planting barley, oats, turnips, potatoes, and keeping their population in check, the Irish instead presciently took Norman's advice and used nothing but the best food technology available. The British landowners encouraged maximum potato production, as opposed to mixing it with subsistence farming, because more potatoes meant more profit. When the famine happened and the Irish couldn't pay their bills, the English forced them off the land. What did they care about the death of a few Irishmen?

Now... imagine a world where half of the world's food is based on one or two genetically engineered species. What would happen if a bacteria, or insect, or herb, evolved into an incredibly destructive GMO crop killer? Every plant has its nemesis, and we have no idea what the GMO nemesis would be, how bad it would strike, or when.

Its not like we could switch back to standard wheat, corn, and soybeans... no. The farmland is so polluted with Roundup that only a GMO could survive being planted. And Monsanto will need a few more years to come up with a blight-resistant strain. Hopefully the poor can go without food until then.

By focusing on a narrow number of very specific high-yield species, Norman could be setting us up for another such famine... however, the Borlaug famine would be worldwide, and cause hundreds of millions of deaths. Remember all those lives he saved? Well, he might one day be responsible for twice that number of deaths.

Norman is focused too hard on one minor tactical problem with world hunger -- namely boosting crop yields -- and ignoring the more strategic problems of politics, society, economics, infrastructure, and overpopulation.

Norman has done some great work, and deserves his Nobel Prize, but on this issue he is just dead wrong. And if he doesn't change his methods, a lot of poor people may wind up just dead.

And that's bullshit.

comments

good read. Something makes

good read. Something makes me feel the video of those hippies has been dramatically edited I would love to see pen and teller themselves debate some of the vegans who have probably read/studies a lot more than those two regarding these issues.

The problem with patenting biology is also mirrored in the pharmaceutical industry, which causes matter of fact prevention of access to medicines for many who can not afford them.

When it comes to industries directly consequential to our health corporations need to have our safety as a first priority and profits as a second unfortunately that is not the way agribuisness is set up and this type of disregard for the environment and public safety is so similar to many other economies in today's global economy.

This is a very interesting

This is a very interesting blog about the episode.

Penn & Teller

I was surprised to see Penn & Teller on the wrong side of the GMO issue, but I was patient and watched the video till the end. The last paragraph where Penn gets in the face of Greenpeace et al I agree with EVERYTHING he said. He never mentions GMO. He talks about giving farmers the technology for tilling and fertilizing and growing high yield hybrids. Not GMO. High yield hybrids are what conventional and organic agriculture use today to feed us.

GMO fanatics everywhere are using this video to support the Biotech agenda to control everything we grow or raise, but the true message is, I believe, against GMO and improving yield with "normal" technological improvements, farm equipment, fertilizing techniques, hybrid (not GMO) crops, sustainable agriculture.

Re: Penn & Teller

You are correct... in fact a 3-year study by the University of Kansas recently showed that GMO crops actually decrease food production:

http://bexhuff.com/2008/04/genetically-modified-crops-decrease-food-production

The essential problem is that GMO crops take a long time to create. By the time they are finished, they have a crop that has higher yield than the ones from 5 years ago... but by then normal breeding techniques would have surpassed the GMOs... and with less risk to either the farmer's pocketbook, or to the environment.

This study shows a decrease

This study shows a decrease in yield for ONE TYPE of plant, so you're making an enormous leap of faith extrapolating that all GMO crops are less productive from some low-yield GM soya plants in Kansas.

Plus, if they're less productive, they're less economical, so why would farmers bother with them and not go back to the real thing?

I must disagree on several points

You claim that technology has nothing to do with feeding the population, but if we went back to the farming technologies of the 1920s or 1930s, there would not be enough farmland on this planet to keep even close to the current population. That means a lot of people starving to death. Sure, civil unrest does affect access to food in small locations, but lack of technology would affect access to food on a global level, with the poorest suffering the greatest.

Also, your arguments against Norman Borlaug has a lot of ifs, not to say there isn't any evidence against monoculture, which is what you seem to attribute to Mr. Borlaug. The problem with that is that Norman supports crop rotation, not monoculture. When talking about the high level of aluminum in the soil farmers in the Brazilian Cerrado have to deal with he praises the following:

"Improved crop-management systems built in recent years around liming, fertilizing to restore nutrients, crop rotation and minimum tillage have made these lands productive. Newly developed varieties of aluminum-tolerant soybeans, maize, rice and wheat sorghum are now also being cultivated in these areas."
http://www.digitalnpq.org/global_services/nobel%20laureates/10-06-99.HTML

Doesn't sound like he supports one or two crops to me. The fact is that there are no ifs about the number of people that he has saved. Borlaug is very worried about the future population and only wants to make sure there is enough food for people which catastrophic crop failure would put a series hamper to. He doesn't do this for an agenda like so many in the "organic" food industry.

I know you were referring to the Irish example, but just in case I have to point out that subsistence farming has no place in the modern world, since by its very definition requires everybody (or at least most everybody) to be a farmer or die. Of course, maybe you mean sustainable farming which of course is a different idea completely, although activists have taken the term and twisted it to their political agendas. Your example in Ireland occurred because the English didn't care about the Irish and wouldn't let them practice the 3 year rotation that Europeans have been using since the middle ages in order to maximize profits, not to feed the Irish. The Irish had no say in what they grew because no other crop could be grown at a high enough yield on the amount of land each farm had to pay the high rent to the English.

The overwhelming majority of peer reviewed studies show no different (positive or negative) in regards to gmos and non-gmos. There is a statistically insignificant number that have found an adverse correlation with many showing a positive correlation. At the worst it honestly doesn't seem like gmos are any worse for us than most of the other stuff we put into our bodies, and certainly better than a lot of it.

Re: I must disagree on several points

You claim that technology has nothing to do with feeding the population

Ummm... no... I state EXACTLY the opposite. Please re-read what I wrote, particularly about "superorganics." I never said one thing against technology, nor fertilizers. However, I am firmly against GMOs that contain terminator seeds. Not from a technical or environmental standpoint... but rather from an opinion based on pure economic reality.

GMOs are not a viable way for the world to feed itself in an economically sustainable way... no mater what. Its as simple as that.

Regarding Borlaug, perhaps calling it "monoculture" is a tad harsh. Nevertheless, if you have a heavy focus on 3 or 4 crops, as well as a dependency on crop rotation, that's almost as bad as depending on one crop. In the critical third crop in the rotation were to suffer from a blight, and you had no alternative, the the entire crop rotation is shor.

The overwhelming majority of peer reviewed studies show no different (positive or negative) in regards to gmos and non-gmos.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, holy FUCK are you an idiot!!! GMOs have zero benefit over non-GMO crops, and have multiple, multiple, so many proven negatives, not to mention the plethora of possible negatives! But don't trust me... take a peek at the single largest study on how GMO crops have significantly lower yields than traditional crops.

Let's set aside any problems with health problems for consumers... lets set aside the demonstrable economic flaws in terminator seeds... and lets just focus on this: GMO crops are less productive than traditional crops.

If farmers grew them, they would grow less, the would feed fewer, and they would be more poor.

End. Of. Fucking. Story.

On freaking out and badgering people

Jesus, dude, you are an asshole. The guy was pretty polite considering you insulted somebody who's dedicated his whole life to saving poor people from starving to death. And here you are, going all Bill O'Riley on him. Gee, why don't you turn off his mike? Man, we're so lucky to have guys like you around, you are so much smarter than idiots like Norman Borlog. You gotta be an agricultural scientist or something, right? You should go down to his mansion and tell him why he's wrong. Oh, wait, he doesn't have one? He isn't rich and is still working to help poor people eat? Damn. I hate it when you want to make a monster or an idiot out of somebody and they end up being all noble and shit. Lame.

Re: On freaking out and badgering people

"Jesus, dude, you are an asshole."

Well, that's pretty negative. Got any fact-based evidence that my post is in error? And since it seems like you didn't read my entire post, here's actually what I said:

"Norman has done some great work, and deserves his Nobel Prize, but on this issue he is just dead wrong. And if he doesn't change his methods, a lot of poor people may wind up just dead."

It doesn't matter how smart, dedicated, or selfless the dude it. On this matter, he is just plain dead wrong. GMOs are a bad idea for multiple reasons, monoculture being just one.

When you resorted to name

When you resorted to name calling in response to a polite post you lost all credibility.

Re: When you resorted to name

When you resorted to name calling in response to a polite post you lost all credibility.

You appear to be confusing "being nice" with "being right."

Credibility comes from facts and evidence. I laid out quite a bit to directly refute the broad claims made on the show. Any anger I may have unleashed in a comment would not effect the credibility of the evidence, provided you have a logical basis for "credibility."

If you found a factual error in my post, please share. Others have, and I corrected the article accordingly.

Oops

Oops... You didn't manage to contradict anything he said, and you did stoop to name calling.

Nobody is "for" terminator seeds, and Monsanto have has never used the technology commercially, or even tested it in field trials (link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/1999/oct/06/gm.food2).

Your comments about crop-rotation make no sense, as the poster's original point that Borlaug is FOR crop-rotation still stands.

And finally you link back to your study that supposedly conclusively proves that ALL GMO crops yield less, despite it being (as the poster pointed out), only about a single crop.

You ask where there's a factual mistake in your reply. Simple: You claim the poster is an idiot.

Re: oops

Nobody is "for" terminator seeds

False. If Monsanto was never "for" terminator seeds, why did they ever try to create them? Clearly at one point they thought terminator seeds were an amazing way to squeeze farmers for more money, so they spent a lot of money researching how to make them. For some reason, they decided to abandon the project. Whether it was impossible technology, not cost effective, or bad PR, I cannot say. Nevertheless, I updated my post about a year ago to reflect that they are -- at present, and as far as they are willing to admit -- not actively pursuing this technology. That is all we can say for a fact.

Your comments about crop-rotation make no sense, as the poster's original point that Borlaug is FOR crop-rotation still stands.

False. Borlaug and I agree on many things... but if you check my post, the area where he and I vehemently disagree is on the concept of monoculture. If you base a significant portion of the world's food supply on the same few strains of GMO crops, then you're setting yourself up for a massive famine. It doesn't matter how many times you rotate your crops: we need as many strains of food staples as possible, because eventually one (or several) will be affected with a blight that we cannot stop... which could mean half a billion dead people.

And finally you link back to your study that supposedly conclusively proves that ALL GMO crops yield less, despite it being (as the poster pointed out), only about a single crop.

False. I never claimed it was about ALL crops, if you read the link you'll see that it demonstrates very clearly that GMOs have lower yields for corn. The other two big GMO crops -- wheat and soybeans -- may or may not have higher GMO yields at present. However, the researchers presented very compelling evidence that any benefit a GMO crop has over a traditional crop would soon be irrelevant. Making GMOs takes a long time and is very expensive... whereas traditional crops are cheap and easy to cross-breed. It's basic math. I feel confident that 90% of researchers can reproduce these findings... which is about as close to "conclusive proof" that you get in real-world science.

You ask where there's a factual mistake in your reply. Simple: You claim the poster is an idiot.

Even if you have a 140 IQ, that doesn't mean your immune from doing very, very stupid things... so there's probably no way to prove or disprove that the original poster was an "idiot"... so it's a big stretch for you to say that it was a factual error on my part.

Anything else?

Errors in Your Post

Some basic errors in your post:

- So-called "superweeds" are not Roundup-resistant because of any cross-breeding between weeds and GMO crops. Weeds become resistant to Roundup because of low doses of herbicide applications that don't completely eradicate the weed. It's similar to the idea of people becoming resistant to an antibiotic if they skimp on the dosage and don't use the whole prescription. Farmers will sometimes cut rates to save money or not spray at the right time, therefore leaving weeds in the field that overtime become resistant because they're treated with low doses but not enough to eradicate them. So you're right about resistance, but not for the reasons you describe.

- Second, companies are using your definition of genetic engineering, in fact, they are using it more often than GMOs. All of the big seed companies do both advanced breeding through molecular markers (the genetic engineering you described) as well as GMO - Syngenta, Monsanto, DuPont, BASF and Bayer.

- Finally, it has been stated clearly that there are no "terminator" seeds. Monsanto has a statement on their Web site stating they have not commercialized that technology and don't intend to do so. GMO does not mean the seeds are sterile. I realize you wrote this post originally in 2006 so it may be that they didn't have that position posted at that time. http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto_today/for_the_record/monsanto_terminator_seeds.asp

Re: Errors in Your Post

Thanks for the corrections!

Regarding terminator seeds, you are correct. Now, Monsanto claims that it owns the patents on the seeds your grow, and you are not allowed to plant the seeds that you grew yourself. The movie Food Inc has some good data on this... Monsanto has essentially destroyed the lives and livelyhood of hundreds of farmers just on the suspicion that they are re-planting seeds they grew themselves!

So no, they are not so evil to use terminator seeds. Instead, they send out paramilitary forces to threaten farmers who dare to plant seeds improperly.

Organic Food

Let me just copy paste what i wrote in another forum:
Whole Episode was PURE LOBBY BS >>>
"The Hudson Institute is supported by donations from companies and individuals. Corporate contributors include Eli Lilly and Company, Monsanto Company, DuPont, Dow-Elanco, Sandoz, Ciba-Geigy, ConAgra, Cargill, and Procter & Gamble." About Dennis Avery (the father of the ****** in the episode who pulled the 20% wholefood from China figure out his anus), Director of the Hudson's Center for Global Food Issues:
"Specifically, in a 1998 article for the Wall Street Journal, he claimed the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) had conducted studies showing that eating an organic diet carried an 8-times the risk of E. coli infection than eating a conventional diet. Despite the fact that the CDC had never conducted any such testing, the Avery article was widely quoted.

The New York Times wrote about him: "Dennis T. Avery wants organic food to go away. And he doesn't care what it takes."

"From 1988 to 1990 Chapman was a fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. In 1990 , he left Hudson and founded the Discovery Institute. The Discovery Institute is a conservative non-profit public policy U.S. think tank based in Seattle, Washington, best known for its advocacy of INTELLIGENT DESIGN. The institute was founded in 1990 as a non-profit educational foundation and think tank based upon the Christian apologetics of C. S. Lewis."

About Ronald Bailey : "Bailey has described himself as a "libertarian transhumanist." To this end, he has written a book entitled Liberation Biology: The Scientific And Moral Case For The Biotech Revolution"

"Libertarian transhumanism: The free market is the best guarantor of this right since it produces greater prosperity and personal freedom than other economic systems." Now that worked out pretty well didnt it? Oh wait, it didnt, we have a global economical crisis. AGAIN. Any questions? Btw. Alex Avery compared the supporters of organic food with the hezbollah. Go figure...

My question would be how these guys could be shown as more or less independant scientist in contrast to the "eco-nuts" on penn and teller.
Penn should discuss this "organic" episode with Bill Maher on Real time. Bill will tear up his big buttocks. Bill would definetally make Penn cry, when it comes to milk. The hormones in milk are good and we need them? You can'T be serious OMG.

Cows are manipulated to being pregnant all the time to produce more milk. This milk is full of estrogenes and all sorts of highly dosed hormones that a pregnant cow produces. It's nothing like the milk was a 100 years ago. The point is this is not even a organic vs. non-organic thing, this is about industrailized agriculture no matter if wholefood or not.

Omg, these 2 clowns in suits these mad scientists from the Hudson institute and the other guy, they were both so shameless. I hope they rot in hell. And Bill will actually make Penn cry without breakin a sweat cos Bill knows his facts and doesnt need some guys in suits to give out some BS statistics.

Another LOBBY FINANCED episode of PENN & TELLER. Surprise. not.

The nobel prize winner Boraug is against organic food? No surprise either, he has been a major player in the genetic manipulation sector for
more than 50 years. Allegedly he saved a lot of lives in india with his highly effective gene crops. I wonder how that flies with the fact that 25% of indians are to poor to nourish themselves. ANd why 2 million children under the age of 5 die every year in India. It would not be a surprise that someone won a Nobelprize for bullshit.

3 Nobelprize winners are responsible for the discovery of what great things we can do with nuclear power. Great hings like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Cernobyl, and let's not forget the cold war, and the situation we have today in Pakistan and maybe in the future with Iran.
Great happenigs are on the way my friends. Anyway, maybe this Boraug is gonna change his mind when Monsato stop delivering the monthly
paycheque. Who give a f**k about wankers like him anyway.

About the methane: Maybe fat yankees should just eat less beef, we'd have way less methane and a lot more land to produce wholefood.
It's plain ridiculous to say organic food would increase the methane of cows. These cows fart and burp no matter what their BS is used for. Which in addition to a lot of other arguments would totally destroy that BS argument of "organic food can only nurture 4 billion people". Right now every 5 seconds a child under age 10 dies of hunger. That's more than 7 million children a year. And that are only the Kids who die of hunger. Another 1,5 million kids die of dirty water every year, and another 750.000 die of malaria, another 2 million die of preventable diseases and infections. So more than 11 million children die every year of a cause that wouldn't be fatal if they weren't poor.

What are we doing to help them?

Almost 900 million people are already heavily and permanently undernourished. Seems Boraug's green revolution didnt help these guys too much. Who wants to blame organic food? Anyone? Is it reasonable to prevent organic agriculture with the alleged death of people in 3rd world countries? Today's global agriculture could nourish more than 12 billion people. Anyone notice something? Why are people dying of hunger if we have had the resources to nourish them forever?

Ivette Perfecto, Ph.D. and her team at Cambridge evaluated more than 293 studies and they came to the conclusion that organic agriculture CAN in fact nourish everybody on the planet. She is making the sticking point: “We are producing enough food – it’s a question of distribution of that food". Period. UN says, if we paid 90 billion US dollars, every year for 5 years, we could end world hunger. Are we doing it? OF course not...

We rather pay for AIG, and Bear Stearns and oh yes, the Iraq war to bring freedom to that muslims barbarians (*irony, the freedom and the barbarians). But he, the iraq war will only have cost about 3 trillion dollars, once it's over. That's like 3 000 billions right? If it will be over, any time in the near future. Btw. source for that number is a nobelprize winner too, Joseph Stiglitz.

Penn and Teller already did some more than questionable episodes, like the one where they praises Nuclear Power and bashed the Prius (both based on dis-information). Sad to say those guys working for the industry.

P.S: your captcha is almost impossible to read and noone uses upper case sensitivity these day for a reason, no offence.

Thanks!

I have watched the episode and was wondering others' ideas about what P&T were saying; thank you for your blog post. The organics debate is so muddled and confused that trying to separate, on both sides, fact from fiction is difficult.
Regards, CaraWest.com

Re: This study shows a decrease

Good question... have you seen the movie Food Inc.?

In it Troy Roush -- who is the Vice President of the American Corn Growers Association -- told many a tale about how Monsanto would sue the bejeus out of any farmer who did not do exactly what Monsanto wanted. Troy was having great yield with non-GMO corn. Monsanto suggested using GMO corn, but based on his yields versus his neighboors, he wanted to stick with traditional crops. You know... the ones that aren't patented, and thus the ones you can clean and re-plant every year.

Now... since Monsanto owns the "patent" on GMO crops, they declared it illegal to clean and replant their crops... but Troy was cleaning and replanting his own non-GMO seed. Undeterred, Monsanto claimed that he was conspiring to assist other farmers in violating Monsanto patents for cleaning his own corn seed on his own property! This is certainly possible, but according to Troy they illegally trespassed on his property, and supplied no evidence... but that never stopped a frivolous lawsuit!

Roush eventually settled in 2002, stating that no small farmer could survive if they had to battle Monsanto's legal team. Monsanto wants you to grow their GMO crops, and they have the legal team to force you. Monsanto is being tight-lipped about the case... they were invited to defend their position in the movie, but chose not to. Here's the only rebuttal I could find from them:

http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto_today/for_the_record/troy_roush.asp

I ran across this article

I ran across this article googling the Penn and Teller episode mentioned - and I must say, I love this article and it's very well written. Your article has plenty of good arguments that personally were new to me.
I have my own blog (that I haven't publicized too much yet), and I previously wrote a very similar article that argued against some other website I stumbled upon defending genetically modified crops (that I basically used as a reference point for most arguments against organic food, although I could've just as easily used the same Penn and Teller episode mentioned in your article).
I'm unsure if it's asking too much, but it would be nice if you could give me some constructive criticism, offer me good reputable sources online or suggest any particular books that you'd personally recommend on the subject (since my pool of knowledge is only based on maybe a handful of books - only two of which directly cited in my article, food inc. and maybe one or two other documentaries, 2 college courses about social/environmental issues that touched upon organic food, personal experience, and undocumented talks with those both qualified and unqualified).

http://delmonte-west.blogspot.com/2010/01/entry-organic-food.html

Thank you for writing this column

Since I don't have cable, a lot of interesting programming escapes my full attention. I hear about certain shows - since they are heavily promoted - and sometimes I will catch a free episode now and then. Penn & Teller's Bullshit is one such show. What I had previously seen had been a lot of fun to watch. I rather liked Penn & Teller's magic act schtick, and thought their Bullshit show was a good idea.

However, recently, I managed to see a few recent episodes someone had posted on the web, and then sought out earlier episodes as a result. I was having some fun watching, and I understood that the heavy editing always favored their predisposed position on the topic. Then I saw the episode on "second hand smoke" and thought "Uh - what?" Then came other episodes on the environment (nasty hippies stereotype reinforcement) and on food production (organic hippie stereotype reinforcement).

WTF? I actually stopped watching "Eat This" about half way through since I thought it was overwhelming bullshit and frankly, I didn't have time to waste watching it. I get enough bullshit from the news, Internet or otherwise, I don't have to select it as an entertainment.

Penn & Teller's Bullshit show went from entertainment to promulgation of its own bullshit...in nearly no time flat. How they have maintained this series for several more years is beyond me.

I wondered if anyone had publicly called them on their own hypocrisy and b.s., so I was pleased to see that, yes, others had been calling them out for several seasons.

I had no idea Penn & Teller were connected in any way with the CATO Institute - do they ever get around to telling their audience of that conflict of interest? Or is that part of their magic act where they hope that the audience will look "over here" while they perform their magically ignorant episodes on serious issues?

What's bad about their bias is there are vulnerable viewers who will believe that what the magicians present as fact is indeed, "fact." Some viewers might not realize that the CATO shills are pulling rabbits out of hats to support their own biases under the guise of "hip and helpful entertainment." Tah-dah! That's some magic trick, eh?

So now we read that Penn Jillette says that in their last episode they will reveal the bullshit involved in making Bullshit. Ah, Penn...I thought magicians never revealed their secrets to their bullshit act, but I will look forward to any explanations you might offer.

Really?

"Firstly, most of your praise for GMOs is based on the idea that without GMOs, millions of people will starve. This is a belief held mostly be people in the GMO industry, and not supported by any evidence. There's lots of hand waving and hyperbole, but no actual data." Where is your data? Your only reference appears to be to an article you wrote yourself.

"In the modern world, people do not starve for lack of technology." Because tractors and pesticides never helped anyone.

"Norman's work could very well have severe unintended side effects." Well, when it happens you'll have an argument, but until then what-ifs are not facts.

Let's not pretend that this article is anything more than an opinion piece. In science, a fact is verifiable information. Perhaps next time you should bother to site some sources and statistics.

Re: Really

Where is your data?

What data would you like? I linked to at least 4 resources that contradicted their claims, not to mention information about the Ethiopian, Somalian, and Zambian famines.

Because tractors and pesticides never helped anyone.

Straw man fallacy. Technology allows us to grow more food, but famine is caused by a lack of ability to transport food to where it is needed... which has almost always been a social problem. For more information, please refer to What Don't Make Sense For trade, Don't Make Sense For Aid.

"Norman's work could very well have severe unintended side effects." Well, when it happens you'll have an argument

News flash: it's called the potato famine, which occurred explicitly because of monoculture.

Sorry, no.

Norman Borlaug's work hasn't caused a famine. He didn't cause the potato famine. That happened long before GM crops. So to say there is something wrong with Borlaug's work because something might happen that hasn't is not a reasonable argument. Didn't Norman Borlaug introduce dwarf wheat 40 years ago?

sorry, yes...

Borlaug's work focuses heavily on monoculture, for which he has been criticized multiple times, mainly because monoculture was the primary factor driving the potato famine.

You are correct that he has not caused a famine yet. But saying that now is like chanting "drill baby drill" last year... must we wait for a catastrophe before we add reasonable safety measures?

You should of paid attention in history class

actually if you listened in your history class the main reason for the famine in Ireland when they had potato blight was the Corn laws in Britain at the time and also the law in Ireland at the time that prohibited catholic's from owning land or leasing land at that time. Yes you are right Monoculture played a role in it but it was one of many many factors. Also GM crops do not promote Monoculture as people are encouraged to grow different vegetable not told to grow just Potatoes or just corn but many different crops. also the people in Ireland at that time were growing organically if they had today's agricultural technology they would of been able to treat the blight.

Right on

I just saw the episode in question and I found this page on my searches. I love your response. Most people attack organics from a standpoint of environmental hypocrisy instead of the economic one. Whenever I hear an argument against electric cars I tend to make the same counter arguments as well. They always talk about how you're just exporting the pollution to a coal plant instead of it coming from your car. I say that even if all our electric sources came from gasoline that it would still be better because a generator doesn't have to run at any particular power so it runs at the most efficient level whereas a combustion engine has to run at whatever power output you need. Usually at a rate that isn't very efficient. On top of that your car at least has a choice of energy. If petroleum suddenly becomes scarce the next day then we could change to coal and it wouldn't be as hard a hit. If we still had combustion engines though we would have a huge transportation problem.

Thank you

A friend sent me the Bullshit! episode, and I knew right off the bat P & T were using smoke and mirrors to "prove" their point. Thank you for your very well thought out letter. And I agree...right (as in correct) doesn't need to be polite.

The Hudson INstitute and more Penn and Teller Bullshit

I learned long ago to not take Penn and Teller's myth busting seriously.

They are not scientists, they are entertainers.

I've seen them get their "facts" completely twisted- their show has virtually nothing to do with
unbiased research-- they simply look for a way to sell their own line of bullshit and their TV show.

Take their show blasting organic foods-

who did they interview to prove their science?

The Hudson Institute-- a neoconservative think tank representing Proctor and Gamble and others who make
their living selling absolute junk

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson_Institute

The Hudson Institute is supported by donations from companies and individuals. Corporate contributors listed in a publication from 2001 included Eli Lilly and Company, Monsanto Company, DuPont, Dow-Elanco, Sandoz, Ciba-Geigy, ConAgra, Cargill, and Procter & Gamble.[8]

Enough said of Penn and Teller Science.

It's bullshit.

yeah...

The show does just seem to be hippie-punching at times...

I bet you dont have a degree in Bio-Technology or in any science

"By every possible measure, GMOs are a very very very bad idea"

Ever take a vitamin pill, drink a cup of decaffeinated coffee? Well than welcome to the world of GMO. After reading this wall of text that is nothing but prejudice and misguided BS I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess you don't have a degree in Bio-Technology or in any science for that matter.

"Lets analyze the situation for a moment... suppose you are the leader of a country, concerned about hunger in your citizenry. Should you accept a large supply of food from a foreign government? Even if it was GMO-free, absolutely not! Think about it... what effect would that have on your economy? "

Yes it just better to let your people starve than to feed them I mean it's not like economy, I mean if 25% of your population dies off from starvation that couldn't possibly be bad for your economy could it?

"What would happen if a bacteria, or insect, or herb, evolved into an incredibly destructive GMO crop killer?"

If there ever was a statement in your whole uninformed misguided rant that proved has incredibly stupid you are this is it. A bacteria, or insect, or fungus "Noticed I switched herb for fungus" cannot evolve to attack a certain GMO implanted gene, it can evolve to be resistant and not be effected by it, but than the regular non GMO crop would die as well probably faster.

"But just for argument's sake, lets assume that I'm completely wrong about everything mentioned above, and all the sources I linked to are total bullshit."

Congratulations you got something right, in fact no study as of yet has proved that GMO foods are harmful to human health in fact just the opposite. They make GMO foods not that are more nutritious and even have vaccines in them (such as GMO bananas) which could help disease control.

Re: I bet you dont have a degree in Bio-Technology or in any sci

You'd lose that bet. I have degrees in Physics, Math, and Civil Engineering.

1) "Ever take a vitamin pill, drink a cup of decaffeinated coffee? Well than welcome to the world of GMO."

That's a broad definition of GMO. I'm not opposed to ALL kinds of GMOs: in fact there are some pretty cool strains of algae that could be useful as biofuel. However, I'm very much against using them for corn, soy, and wheat staples... especially since they are less productive than normal hybrid strains, have several known side effects, and are economically infeasible in the long term.

2) "Yes it just better to let your people starve than to feed them "

As I said in my post above:

"for the record, in the 2002 Zambia famine, the UN was able to replace every grain of the GMO crops it rejected with non-GMO crops... most of which was purchased in Zambia with donations from Europe."

The correct approach is NOT to dump free food on a starving population -- GMO or otherwise. Rather, it's to buy up all the local food and redistribute it. That saves lives without ruining the economy.

3) "A bacteria, or insect, or fungus cannot evolve to attack a certain GMO implanted gene"

Nature would disagree with you. Genes that promote health against one enemy can make you vulnerable to others. A commonly cited example is the connection between Sickle Cell Anemia and Malaria. People native to the tropical areas of Africa carry a gene that makes them highly resistant to Malaria, but simultaneously more vulnerable to Sickle Cell. The same is certainly possible with GMOs that make them resistant to RoundUp, but vulnerable to some yet-to-evolve superbug.

4) "no study as of yet has proved that GMO foods are harmful"

Here's two showing liver and kidney problems, as well as fertility problems:

http://www.enveurope.com/content/23/1/10
http://www.responsibletechnology.org/article-gmo-soy-linked-to-sterility

I'm sure you could find others...

Re:Re:I bet you dont...

"The corrrect approach is not to dump free food on a starving population --GMO or otherwise. Rather, it's to buy up all the local food and redistribute it. That saves lives without ruining the economy."

I would like to ask if you have thought about the negative consequences of this? For starters, I would like to point out that this would create a monopoly in the country that you try this in, and an imbalance of power because there was a statement earlier concerning that whoever has the food has the power, and if a major company bought out all the food, they wouldn't give it back to them free because that means they are at a loss. The only reason a company would do this would be to gain control of the workforce in that said country, and bring about more problems (sweat shops, slave trade etc.) because they would be able to force cheap labor and cause a huge problem again in the United States and jobs would be lost. Even if you saved lives with this you would be greating worse off lives for the people being under power by a major company with almost no rights. Secondly, addressing the part of the upper class that would have the ability to actually do what you're suggesting, It isn't a big enough issue on the World Stage, as much as Education at home and the issue of clean drinking water for third world countries, You would have to grab enough attention from the rich to accomplish this task. Concerning the Middle class, the Middle class in America is struggling with the economy slowly making a recovery and making frantic trys at getting a job to put food on the table. It is the domino theory of sorts.

Bullshit on Bullshit on Bullshit!

Although most of your open letter has no redeeming qualities, you are right about one thing: Penn and Teller (as well as myself) do have an agenda. Their mission is to pull the weeds of ignorance from the beautiful garden that is science and truth. In this episode, they did so perfectly. Accurate, entertaining, and downright awesome.

Thanks for the lesson on confirmation bias jackass

Science is possibly the most devastating tool when it is forgotten that humans often fall to corruption. The best example of this is in the pharmaceutical industry where negative studies are routinely thrown out to pad results.

If research was constructed and performed by ambivalent robots maybe we could use science to help wade through bullshit, unfortunately I think System of a Down got it right when they said Science has failed our Mother Earth. People claiming to use science are instead contributing to bullshit.

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