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August 22, 2000


Irrelevance Bias


Compared To What?
By Andrew Apel, editor
AgBiotech Reporter

August 23, 2000 - Perhaps the biggest problem with the
so-called “debate” over biotechnology in food production is
the general lack of good research. The majority of research
involved in the debate, be it conducted in the laboratory or
on the street, is subtly biased against technology and
designed so that the results will be largely irrelevant to
the issues which clamor for resolution.

A perfect example of this is the research on the effects on
monarch butterflies of Bt maize. People are validly
concerned about how toxic the pollen from Bt maize might be
for monarch larvae, but the real question is: Compared to
what? Supposedly, the point of Bt maize is to reduce
reliance on chemical pesticides which are far more
indiscriminate than the toxin expressed by Bt plants—but the
studies merely compare Bt plants to non-Bt plants. The
comparison might satisfy the basic scientific requirement
for a ‘control,’ but the relevant question is whether Bt
technology is safer than pesticides, making the control a
formality, and the results irrelevant.

It’s not very good science, either, since the ‘control’ for
these butterfly larvae experiments amounts to an
unrealistic, little-practiced form of agriculture which
eschews both Bt transgenics and chemical sprays. Some might
even be inclined to view all studies which use irrelevant or
nonexistent controls as inherently biased in favor of
low-tech food production. Every technology that works has an
impact. Since these experiments merely compare a technology
to its absence, rather than to its real-world alternative,
the results will inevitably show the existence of an impact.
If the impact is even slightly adverse, the obvious
alternative, absent a relevant control, is to reject the

The problem of irrelevance bias plagues other Bt studies as
well, studies which investigate the possible emergence of
insect resistance to Bt crops. It’s a big issue, since the
industry has invested so heavily in the technology. The
question is: Big, compared to what? Insects have become
resistant to a variety of insecticides, so what is the
relative impact of their resistance to Bt? The organic foods
movement offers a suggestion. Since their industry relies on
sprayable Bt to control pests, insect resistance will rob
them of an insect control method. Yet there is no effort to
compare plant-expressed Bt with sprayable Bt. A comparison
might even suggest the possibility that the use of sprayable
Bt might lead to insect tolerance to Bt-modified crops, or
show that organic growers who spray Bt should use buffer
zones or insect refuges.

Considerable work has been done to assess pollen-mediated
outcrossing of herbicide-tolerance traits to wild, weedy
relatives of cultivars. If this is a serious matter (the
notion of ‘Frankenweeds’ aside), the question remains:
Serious, compared to what? Over the years, countless weeds
have developed resistance to numerous herbicides. Would
outcrossing to the cousins of modified crops be a worse
calamity than the acquired immunity which hundreds of
unrelated weed species currently enjoy? The issue gets a
passing mention in the research, but receives no serious

Many claim that genetically modified crops are good for the
general environment. Compared to what? The UK may answer
that question with its embattled farm-scale field trials.
Still others claim that food made from genetically modified
crops is safe. Compared to what? Safer, say, than the
‘organic’ alternative, which seems to be the control most
favored by scientists? These environmental and safety issues
are so politically and economically charged that they may
never be properly investigated.

New surveys emerge in a constant stream reminding us that
large quantities of consumers are “concerned” about the use
of biotechnology in food production. In some countries, the
proportion of those concerned verges on unanimity. But
concerned, compared to what? Without a relevant comparison,
such studies will always suffer from irrelevance bias and
suggest that consumers are rejecting the technology. Still,
a few studies have taken trouble to compare consumer
concerns and discovered, even in regions where concern over
biotechnology is “high,” that it ranks far, far below most
others. Indeed, anecdotal evidence is mounting that concern
over biotechnology ranks even lower than the cost of the
food itself, both on the international markets and on the
grocery-store shelves.

Then there are the claims that genetically engineered crops
are efficient and profitable for farmers. The question is:
Compared to what? In this instance, all the answers anyone
could possibly need are available. The comparisons are done,
the results are in, and wherever the technology is
available, farmers are adopting the technology in droves.
Farmers are confident in the new technology.

The industry has done an excellent job studying, and
proving, how biotechnology improves agricultural production.
Compared to what?