Dr. Travis Stork via his twitter account
Earlier this week I was putzing around my house in the afternoon with the TV blaring to keep me company and ABC’s show The Doctors came on. I’ve always put this show, perhaps mistakenly, in the same category as Dr. Oz, mainly because these types of shows come off, to me anyway, as generally somewhat annoying, dumbed down and clearly targeted to a demographic of which I am not a part (so I’d like to hope, anyway). I didn’t pay much attention to it until a segment begin to air about glyphosate, the most commonly used herbicide used worldwide (see videos below).
My first thought was, oh, here we go, more Roundup slamming, more Monsanto bashing. More hysteria. More fear. The latest I have heard concerning the ongoing glyphosate saga is that it will cause half our children to have autism by 2025, or something close to that, and other such hyperbole.
Let me be clear, I’m not trying to defend Roundup in this post. To me, it is a tool farmers and home gardeners use and its benefits outweigh its risks. That’s it. I’m not in love with the stuff. I myself use Roundup, or more often than not, off-brand generic copies of Roundup to spot treat certain pesky weeds in my yard that are difficult to remove any other way, such as when they grow amongst thick, desirable ground covers or are otherwise hard to dig up. But suffice it to say, I am judicious with my use of Roundup or any other herbicide.
So my sudden focus on the show’s segment about glyphosate was more about the mechanism of how hysteria spreads than the actual topic – if that makes sense (I hope it does.) My interest was piqued – so I watched.
First they mentioned how The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency under the umbrella of the World Health Organization (WHO), recently reported that glyphosate could cause cancer in humans. It is important to note that never did the report state that it does cause cancer in humans. See this recent Round Up Risk and Assessment article in the New Yorker for more explanation of the IARC report and its implications.
Unfortunately, to just say something could cause cancer really scares a lot of people who don’t have the science background to understand the mechanism involved, where the data came from, how the conclusion was reached and so forth.
Toxicologist tells it like it is
The first guest was Dr. Donna Farmer, a toxicologist from the Product safety Center at Monsanto. Her job is to study the safety of Monsanto products. Specifically, she has studied glyphosate throughout her tenure at the much maligned company. She calmly informed everyone that she was a mom too and stated that: “I’ve been a scientist at Monsanto for twenty years and this (glyphosate) has been the molecule that I’ve studied all of those years and I’m absolutely confident of the data behind it”.
She went on to mention a recent German study* (see below for excerpt and commentary) that found NO link between glyphosate and cancer and later adds, “I understand why everyone is concerned. There is a lot of confusion. There is a lot of misinformation on the internet but I will tell you, and I mean this very honestly – I am extremely, highly confident in this product, as a mom, and then I can back it up as a scientist.”
Seriously – this woman could be my neighbor. She isn’t some coy Monsanto lab rat cooking up poison. I have said many times in this blog that I tend to believe scientists because they are experts in their field, just as I believe my hair stylist, my plumber, my auto mechanic because they too are experts in their field. To be at the doctoral level in any discipline requires years and years upon more years of concentrated study, effort and dogged determination. It defies logic that after all those years of painstaking work to earn and keep current the highest academic credential, that a scientist would then make stuff up, or hide stuff, or tell bold-faced lies.
Yes, even if this scientist works for Monsanto. What does one suppose she has done for the past 20 years in her lab? Research lies and conduct fake experiments?
The whole everyone-who-doesn’t-hate-Monsanto-is-a-shill mentality belongs, in my opinion in the conspiracy theory hall of fame. I understand that, yes, there have been a handful of crazy, malevolent scientists out there throughout history and bad things have resulted. But for the most part I don’t equate science with crazy. Knowledge tends to set one free from the crazy – unless maybe one is mentally ill or something unfortunate like that, but I saw nothing in Farmer that would make me think she were anything other than a highly intelligent, skilled and productive citizen. Bottom line: Scientists who work for companies are hired because of the knowledge, skill and expertise they can bring to their job.
So Who is the real expert?
Well, then of course the segment had to feature the opposing side, the side that is telling you your sons and daughters are going to all get autism and any and all disease by such and such a date due to glyphosate. None other than Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible technology came on the show. He popped up on screen and gave his spiel about the evils of glyphosate.
It kills me that he is always introduced as some kind of “expert” when, in fact, he has NO science credential whatsoever. (In fact, a serious case could be made that he has quite unfairly targeted the biotech industry due to his spiritual beliefs, but that’s another post…)
Anyway, vast amounts of unsuspecting folks, including yours truly back before I knew better, have listened to and been highly influenced by this guy and to be sure, most of the audience and even the other cohosts were buying it….
Until Dr. Travis Stork changed direction in the segment by saying he came from a family of farmers and that they all use herbicides and the subtext appeared to me to be that he was absolutely fine with that. He talked about balancing the benefit versus the harm, adding that there need to be more definitive studies done.
In short, what I gleaned form his comments was that he wasn’t having any of the hype, even as perhaps his cohosts were. Because of Dr. Stork’s comments, it was the most even-handed treatment of a controversial topic I have yet to see on daytime television. Good for you Travis! He was the one voice of reason on the show. He admonished everyone to go read the studies for themselves. Be informed.
The problem with laypeople looking for ‘studies’ on the internet
The only thing he forgot to mention was where to find a legitimate, respected, repeatable, peer reviewed study. Unfortunately there is a lot of really bad science out there posing as the real deal. Studies like the infamous Seralini’s tumorous rats fed GMO corn or so-called MIT senior scientist Stephania Seneff’s study linking glyphosate to increases in incidences of autism and other disease, etc., don’t fool the scientists, only the scientifically ignorant! (See my post Spotting Bad Science For Dummies – Like Me.)
In the broader scientific community, junk science studies are dismissed as trash instantly because of lack of data, lack of repeatability, major problems with methodology, the fact that these types of studies are often published in journals that accept any ol’ study as long as the fee gets paid – and other glaring reasons. Only the scientifically gullible, the irrational, the conspiracy theorists, the fear-mongers buy that Seralini, Seneff, or countless other junk study authors are legitimate – and then off they go on the internet or other media – making a big fuss and attracting more folks like themselves.
But during this episode of The Doctors, there was rationality in the form of Donna Farmer and Travis Stork.
Common sense still works
I know we all care about health. I just wish common sense could prevail. We don’t have to spend half our income on organic food, or maintain a constant vigilance about every last bite that goes in our mouth for fear we are being harmed in some way.
A basic, albeit old-fashioned understanding of nutrition goes a long way: Choose a variety of foods from all the groups. Don’t drink too much soda or eat too many sugary desserts. Don’t smoke. Temper your drinking. Pre-packaged snacks, meals, dishes and desserts are quick and easy but likely full of a lot of undesirable ingredients that could be avoided if you made the food from scratch using fresh ingredients as much as possible. Common sense stuff – all of it.
Here are links to the segment on The Doctors that aired on Monday, 5/19.
Does Popular Herbicide Cause Cancer?
Debating the Safety of Popular Herbicide*
Final Thoughts on the Safety of Popular Herbicide
*Excerpt comparing German study with recent IARC study on glyphosate (emphasis mine):
In the opinion of BfR, the classification of glyphosate as “carcinogenic in Group 2A” (probably
carcinogenic to humans) as published in the 20 March 2015 issue of the “Lancet” journal
comes as a surprise, since other evaluations performed by supranational bodies such as the
WHO-Panel of the Joint Meeting of Pesticide residues (JMPR, 2004), and also by national
regulatory agencies such as the U.S.EPA had concluded the contrary, i.e., that glyphosate
was not carcinogenic. Unfortunately, the database on which the IARC evaluation is based is
not known, since a background monograph that is usually produced by IARC following the
evaluation meetings has not yet been released. Therefore, a comprehensive and scientifi-
cally sound consideration of the data and arguments that led to the IARC- conclusion is sim-
ply not possible at the moment.
Medical Doctors Weigh In On Glyphosate Claims
Oh No! GMOs Are Going To Make Everyone Autistic!