Life Sciences musings
A March 3, 2014 story from Reuters by Carey Gillam presents claims by organic farmers that the federal government needs to step in to prevent “contamination” of their fields. So what is the problem that has organic growers hunting for help?
According to the press release uncritically recycled by Reuters, “Growing crops free from contamination by genetically modified crops and the pesticides used on those biotech versions is getting more difficult and more costly for U.S. farmers, and new government rules to control contamination are needed, according to [sic] report… by an environmental organization and an organic food group.”
The first problem with the story is the use of the term “contamination.” What does it mean to “contaminate” something? According to Merriam-Webster, to “contaminate” means “to make something dangerous, dirty, or impure by adding something harmful or undesirable to it.” So is it the right word to use in this context?
Farming is not a sterile endeavor. Farmers literally work in the dirt, and try as they might, it can be a very messy business. Harvests invariably reflect this truth, and nobody who’s ever spent any time on … Read the rest
In 2012, ITIF’s report Leadership in Decline: Assessing U.S. International Competitiveness in Biomedical Research—which National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told the New York Times last July was the one publication he’d most recommend President Barack Obama read—warned that the United States has not been sustaining the historically strong investments in biomedical research that previously propelled it to global life sciences leadership. The report noted that an increasing number of countries are investing more in biomedical research as a share of their economy than the United States. For example, in terms of government funding for pharmaceutical industry-performed research, Korea’s government provides seven times more funding as a share of GDP than does the U.S., while Singapore and Taiwan provide five and three times as much, respectively.
Now comes a new report, Asia’s Ascent—Global Trends in Biomedical R&D Expenditures, from The New England Journal of Medicine confirming these findings. As summarized by a recent Economist article, Biomedical research budgets: The party’s over, the report finds that, from 2007 to 2012, average annual investment in biomedical R&D increased by 33 percent in China, 12 percent in South Korea, … Read the rest
Anytime the media covers an issue that might affect consumers, they ask so-called consumer groups for a quote as if these groups by definition represent consumer interests. Check that box. Case in point, a story in Saturday’s New York Times on Monsanto and Dupont Pioneer’s successful efforts to develop genetically modified soybeans that eliminate harmful trans-fats in soybean oil. The reporter argues that these new beans could help the image of the biotech industry because they are among first generation of GMOs that help consumers, rather than farmers.
What? So let me get this right. Past GMO efforts to reduce the costs of growing food (e.g. drought resistant seeds, seeds needing less pesticide application, etc.) don’t help consumers? It seems that the article is making the argument that anything that helps producers, by definition either doesn’t help consumers, or in fact harms them. In this framing, the implicit assumption is agriculture is a monopoly where all improvements in productivity are kept by the farmers, and not passed along to the consumers in the form of lower prices. Wow, did these people never study economics? Apparently not.
Ag Biotech Opponents Want the US to Emulate European Regulation of Biotechnology – They Should Think Again…
Anyone interested in food—that should capture most of us—who pays any attention at all to the news is likely to be at least vaguely aware of the controversies about so-called “GMOs” or “GM food” ginned up by professional propagandists and those who profit from fear-based marketing. There is, in fact, among competent scientists, no real controversy. These crops and the feed and foods they provide are every bit as safe, and sometimes safer than foods produced by other methods (e.g., organic) and this is acknowledged by a staggering preponderance of scientific opinion around the world (here’s a lovely graphic summarizing global scientific consensus, and another one). Indeed, the scientific support lined up behind the safety of GM crops and foods makes the support for anthropogenic global warming look weak by comparison.
But the professional opposition to agricultural biotechnology and the vested interests bankrolling it have succeeded in scaring enough scientifically illiterate politicians to lead to indefensible and prejudicial regulations (i.e. impediments to innovation and improvements in agricultural sustainability). There are many examples around the world, but the poster child for this unholy success is the European Union … Read the rest
“This is a peer-reviewed study!”
In the increasingly heated battles waged lately by crusaders against innovation in agriculture, such assertions are increasingly thrown down like a gauntlet. The intent is to negate findings by regulators and scientists around the world that crops and foods improved through biotechnology are safe. These advocates argue passionately that “paper X”, published in a scientific journal after being reviewed by anonymous scientists and an editor, is sufficient to overturn the findings of hundreds of previously published reports (see http://www.biofortified.org/genera/guide/) to say nothing of the vast experience accumulated through the consumption of trillions of meals derived from biotech improved crops since they first entered the marketplace in the mid 1990s. When these papers are criticized by scientists post-publication, cries of censorship and persecution inevitably arise, and are routinely coupled with claims that the critics are bought and paid for by vested corporate interests (see http://www.infiniteunknown.net/2012/12/17/smelling-a-corporate-rat-%E2%80%93-the-move-to-suppress-seralini-gmo-study/ and http://www.globalresearch.ca/gmo-researchers-attacked-evidence-denied-and-a-population-at-risk/5305324). But the noisemakers overlook something fundamental about the culture of science: where they thought peer review ended -is really where it gets going.
Peer Review – What is it?
Like so much of Western thought, the idea … Read the rest
Budget proposals – Presidential or Congressional – too often are more political Kabuki than serious policy, and the risk of smoke and mirrors is directly proportional to budget pressure. It is therefore a pleasant surprise to find in the President’s most recent budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Agriculture less theater than past experience would predict, as well as some genuinely sound policy.
ITIF has pointed out the sizeable discrepancy between present levels of support for agricultural research and development and those that would be commensurate to addressing the challenges facing agriculture over the next 40 years. We estimate that to meet the dual stresses of population growth and climate change on food production, existing agricultural research budgets should be tripled and focused on basic research and innovation that can drastically improve crop productivity and resiliency. This is the only way we will be able to meet food demand, which is expected to double by 2050.
The President’s budget proposal takes a significant step in the right direction by increasing funds for competitive grants in agricultural research by 45% over 2012 levels. In a time when the overall budget … Read the rest
On December 21, 2012, the Food and Drug Administration published a draft environmental assessment for a new variety of salmon that promises to benefit the health and wallets of consumers, reduce dramatically the environmental impacts some have linked to conventionally farmed salmon, and reduce over-fishing pressure on wild salmon stocks. The publication of this EA is noteworthy because it marks at least a temporary elevation of facts, reason, and innovation-friendly policy over ignorance, mendacity, and what appears to have been ill-considered political interference with science-based and pro-innovation policies with a long history of strong, bipartisan support.
The document should have been published more than a year ago. But as is often the case with pathbreaking innovations, its road has been marked by unexpected bumps and potholes. It finally looked as if the path to publication was clear last April, when movement suddenly stopped without explanation. The story is well told in SLATE , by Jon Entine, who has ferreted out indications that it was put on hold out of fears its publication might anger a portion of President Obama’s most fervent base, a calculation of elevated political significance in an … Read the rest
Recently, I wrote a piece outlining the big-benefits from big-pharma, and this last week another working paper hit the NBER stands highlighting even more starkly the real effect drug vintage is having on human life-expectancy. No, we aren’t talking about immortality, but wouldn’t you like to have another 4 months to live with your friends and family? That is exactly what Frank Lichtenberg of Columbia University found was the increase in life-expectancy that can be directly attributed to the increases in drug vintage experienced between 1996 and 2003.
Lichtenberg, using exceptional data from individual patient records, “investigate[s] whether patients using newer drugs in a given year remain alive longer than patients using older drugs, controlling for many important patient characteristics.”
He finds that “between 1996 and 2003, the mean vintage of prescription drugs increased by 6.6 years. This is estimated to have increased life expectancy of elderly Americans by 0.41-0.47 years. This suggests that not less than two-thirds of the 0.6-year increase in the life expectancy of elderly Americans during 1996-2003 was due to the increase in drug vintage. The 1996-2003 increase in drug vintage is also … Read the rest
This November, California voters will be asked to decide whether food that has been “genetically modified (GM)” should come with a special GM label. Proponents of proposition 37, or the “Right to Know” initiative, argue that “in a democratic, free-market society, consumers get to make informed choices about what we eat and feed our families,” i.e., a GM label will help consumers make informed choices. Sounds simple enough. What could possibly be the downside to a small label that presumably enables greater consumer decision making?
First, labels such as this are never about education and open consumer choice, but about limiting people’s interest in harmful substance. Labels are one of many public policies that aim to “nudge” consumer behavior away from a product. As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outline in their well-known book Nudge, consumers are fickle, uncertain, and look for cues to make decisions. Thaler and Sunstein use the example of putting fruit first in cafeteria lines. Because people irrationally fill up their trays with things at the beginning of cafeteria lines, one way to “nudge” people to eat healthy is to put healthy food first. Mandatory … Read the rest
The pharmaceutical industry certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of detractors. Many claim that “Big-Pharma” is simply in it for the money, and that they’ll push new drugs simply to boost profits, even if the drugs aren’t appropriate for the consumer. Others argue that we should eliminate intellectual property protections to get lower price drugs, since there isn’t really that much innovation that has a real impact happening anyway.
However, before throwing the pharmaceutical industry under the bus, it is critical to understand the relationship between pharmaceutical R&D, new drugs and human health impacts. And in fact, a recent study finds that the related drugs brought to market are having a bigger positive effect than you might think. Frank Lichtentberg, a professor at Columbia University and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, finds that an increase in drug proliferation year-over-year (drug vintage) leads to increased life expectancy. From 2000 to 2009, the study finds that life expectancy increased by 1.74 years on average, and 73% of that increase was due to new drugs brought to market after 1990. In other words, pharmaceutical innovation added 1.23 … Read the rest