ScienceSkepticism

Biotech Opponents: Enough with “If It’s Safe Then Drink It” Rhetoric

“If glyphosate is so safe, go ahead and drink it.” This is a favorite “gotcha” phrase of opponents of genetically engineered (GE) foods. I’m a science writer, biotechnology advocate, and mom of two young children. If I only had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked to drink glyphosate or Roundup (the commercial formulation of glyphosate) I’d be swimming in nickels. The idea that Big Behemoth Agrochemical creates GE varieties to resist pesticides without regard to safety is pervasive, but false.

This is why I recently started tweeting with tongue-in-cheek hashtag #IfItsSafeThenDrinkIt, and I implore you to join in! A recent YouTube clip in which alleged “Monsanto lobbyist” Dr. Patrick Moore refused to drink a glass of glyphosate has provided fuel for the anti-biotech fire. French filmmaker Paul Moreira cornered the biotechnology advocate, who does hundreds of live interviews per year. When he expressed his belief that glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer, and that drinking a “whole quart” of it won’t hurt a human being, Moreira produced a glass which he claimed contained glyphosate, and proceeded to pester Dr. Moore to drink the liquid. After a few heated exchanges, Moore snapped, “No, I’m not an idiot” and stormed out of the interview.

On March 29th, Moore released a statement confirming that he’s not a Monsanto lobbyist, and admitting that he made a mistake in the interview. His blunder wasn’t in his refusal to drink the liquid, but in allowing the interviewer to corner him, and in losing his composure on camera. He should have explained more clearly that while glyphosate isn’t harmful to humans, only a pushover and fool would drink it on what amounts to a sophomoric schoolyard dare.

Things that are safe, but I wouldn't drink them

Bottoms up!

We must turn to logic in the wake of poor Dr. Moore’s blunder. Americans’ rampant failure to grasp the integral tenet of toxicology, “the dose makes the poison,” demonstrates our nation’s lack of critical-thinking skills. Indeed, there are plenty of substances that like glyphosate, are safe when used as directed. Nevertheless, nobody in his right mind would drink a glassful. Some amusing yet apt examples have made their way through social media with hashtag #IfItsSafeThenDrinkIt. How about some Bioneem Organic Fertilizer? Bottoms up! Or a tall, refreshing glass of salt water, vinegar, dish soap, or laxative? While the hashtag is tongue-in-cheek, it demonstrates the sheer absurdity of taking Moore’s refusal to drink glyphosate as affirmation of its danger.

While I’m not a scientist, as a science writer I have a high level understanding of genetics, genomics, and biotechnology. I know that while glyphosate kills weeds, its mechanism won’t hurt humans when used as directed. Humans, weeds, and other organisms carry out functions of life with proteins, the basic functional components of living things. They serve all purposes from structure, immunity, metabolic, nutritive, and enzymatic functions. Proteins are comprised of amino acid chains. Yet the precise manner in which different organisms obtain the necessary amino acids to build proteins varies.

The shikimate metabolic pathway, which is not found in animals, produces specific amino acids in weeds. Mammals, on the other hand, do not synthesize these particular amino acids. Considered essential amino acids, humans must consume them in our diets because our bodies cannot synthesize them. (There are other amino acids that the human body does have to synthesize, but glyphosate doesn’t affect those pathways.) Glyphosate interferes with the shikimate pathway, preventing the synthesis of certain amino acids without which weeds cannot produce vital proteins, and they die.

I’m not scared of glyphosate harming me or my loved ones. Yet even without high level science savvy, anyone with a bit of common sense would know not to drink something simply because it’s safe.

Despite WHO sub-agency IARC’s recent classification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic,” scientists aren’t biting. Echoing other experts, Melbourne analytical chemistry lecturer Dr. Oliver Jones explained, “People might be interested to know that there are over 70 other things IARC also classifies as ‘probably carcinogenic’, including night shifts. In the highest category of known carcinogens are ‘alcoholic beverages’ and ‘solar radiation’ (sunlight) – along with plutonium.”

Dr. Jones went on to reiterate the “dose makes the poison” adage. “[Y]es, pesticides can be dangerous, but are many other common things which are also dangerous in sufficient amounts or over long periods of time – the dose makes the poison.” As a mother of two young children, I’m not afraid of glyphosate. I’ll continue to purchase foods made with genetically engineered ingredients. Indeed, I fear the intrusion of unscientific fear-mongering into the minds and hearts of my loved ones far more than I fear a bit of pesticide residue. If I ever agree to an interview by anyone with an anti-biotech agenda, be warned: If you ask me to drink glyphosate, I’ll go tit for tat, armed with a bottle of naturally-derived organic pesticide.

 

What is something safe that you would never drink? Tweet with hashtag #IfItsSafeThenDrinkIt!

 

***Note – Kavin did not actually swallow mouthwash, nor does she condone drinking liquids that aren’t intended for drinking.

Featured image © 2015 Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy is a mom of two, co-Executive Director of March Against Myths, public speaker, Forbes contributor and author in Madison, WI. She is also co-author of "The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari's Glass House". Follow her on Facebook and twitter @ksenapathy

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25 Comments

  1. April 7, 2015 at 9:56 am —

    “Biotechnology Advocate” is about the most innocuous description you could use for Patrick Moore. “Shill”, “Quack” or even “Complete Loon” could also be used, albeit if you’re a stickler for accuracy them refer to him as what he is – a lobbyist.

    Yes, it is true that the overall thrust of this article is correct in that for almost all substances regardless of origin (‘synthetic’ vs ‘natural’), dosage is paramount in judging efficacy/safety, and that the “Well would you drink a glass of this?!” is indeed a rhetorical trick used by the ignorant, but the fact of the matter is Moore walked right into it by claiming – *twice* – that it would be “fine” for humans to do so – not just “won’t cause cancer”, but gave the distinct impression it would have absolutely no effect. He had plenty of opportunity to further explain his position calmly but threw a childish tantrum.

    Just putting this out there to dissuade any possible notion that Moore is a noble truth-teller on the side of science who was merely taken advantage of by a ‘gotcha’ interview technique. It was sensible for Monsanto to clarify he was not employed as a spokesperson for them, not only because that was the truth, but also because any biotech company worth their salt doesn’t want the taint of this idiot’s stink on them. Here’s some choice Moore quotes:

    On clear-cut logging:

    “He has described clear-cut logging as “making clearings where new trees can grow in the sun”.”

    On global warming:

    “In 2014, Moore testified to the U.S. congress on the subject of Global Warming. “There is no scientific proof that human emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) are the dominant cause of the minor warming of the Earth’s atmosphere over the past 100 years,” according to Moore’s testimony. “Today, we live in an unusually cold period in the history of life on earth and there is no reason to believe that a warmer climate would be anything but beneficial for humans and the majority of other species.””

    While again, I think your overall point of the article stands, I just want to caution any skeptics using this example as their flag-bearer, especially when the principle advocate has demonstrated skeptical inquiry is not exactly high on his list of priorities.

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2010/dec/02/sumatra-rainforest-destruction-patrick-moore

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

    • April 7, 2015 at 10:09 am —

      I see nowhere in this article the suggestion that Patrick Moore is any kind of flag-bearer, only that he isn’t a Monsanto lobbyist.

      He appears to be a terrible person but I find it funny that the anti-science crowd’s response to a “childish tantrum” is the double-dog-dare, that’ll teach ’em maturity.

      • April 7, 2015 at 4:10 pm —

        It’s the ‘weak man’ fallacy. Like attacking feminism by attacking Valerie Solanas.

        Patrick Moore, similarly, is a shill for industry, even if he’s right this one time. But he’s still a shill for industry, so he’s the one an anti-biotechnology advocate will attack.

        I’ve recently been in an argument on Facebook about how there are several orders of magnitude less aluminum in a vaccine than in an antacid or an aspirin or, hell, what you ingest in a given day.

  2. April 7, 2015 at 12:37 pm —

    Indeed, nowhere in the article did it suggest Patrick Moore is any kind of flag-bearer, – which is why I never stated it did. I said “I want to caution _any skeptics_” to point to this particular episode as the vehicle to educate any staunch anti-GMO proponents on the #ifitssafethendrinkit fallacy, as you inadvertently be giving their argument ammunition.

    Remember that a frequent angle used by anti-GMO reactionaries is that any advocacy of GMO is being largely pushed by corporate shills with a profit agenda – the problem with involving Moore in this is that his past history indicates he is doing exactly that.

    Does filmmaker Paul Moreira have a history of sensationalism over accurate reporting of the sciences btw? I honestly don’t know, but based on this clip alone I really can’t fault him at all for how it went (the article implies that they sprung a glass of it on him, not quite- the interviewer mentions they can get a glass of after Moore says it would have no effect on someone to drink a quart of it). It was an obvious rebuttal to a very, very stupid statement and Moore was right to be mocked for it.

    I’m all for anti-science positions to be ridiculed, which is why I have no problem with Moore being made to look like a fool here – and it’s being generous to say he was ‘made’ to look like anything he wasn’t from the outset.

    • April 7, 2015 at 2:42 pm —

      Patrick Moore also appears to be a climate-change denialist as well, so no friend of science.

      That still does not excuse Paul Moreira’s tactics, they put me in mind of a wholly different Moore, and while I tend to agree with Michael Moore’s conclusions his film making is sloppy at best and harmful to he own cause at worst.

      • April 8, 2015 at 10:11 am —

        True. I’m not defending Patrick Moore over all, but I’m on his side in this situation, and his ongoing defense of Golden Rice. It was a mistake, yes. But not only were Paul Moreira’s tactics childish, the ongoing backlash and using of this clip out of context to imply admission that glyphosate is dangerous is ridiculous.

  3. April 7, 2015 at 5:09 pm —

    In others news, Chinese cab drivers drank pesticides as a form of protest and apparently survived. I am not sure these are “organic” pesticides:
    http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1756065/suicide-bid-more-30-chinese-taxi-drivers-beijing-protest-over-vehicle.

  4. April 7, 2015 at 6:01 pm —

    I appreciate that you’re knowledgeable about this, so when you say that glyphosate “interferes with the shikimate metabolic pathway, which is not found in animals” and therefore has no effect on humans, I’m curious. That sounds like an extreme form of the “antibiotics are harmless/all microbes are bad” fallacy, where people assume they can strip all the microbes out of a person and not affect their health? I say fallacy because I thought that was long disproved.

    So my question is what happens to the non-human parts of the human when they’re exposed to glyphosate? Do we know? How can you be so certain there can be no harmful effects if that research hasn’t been done?

    • May 22, 2015 at 7:07 pm —

      Please consider the phrase ‘it’s the dose that makes the poison’. Consider the fact that common foods such as broccoli sprouts, onions, and garlic have small amounts of antibiotic compounds in them, yet our normal flora are not affected by us ingesting these foods. This same concept goes for glyphosate on our normal flora. Even still, continuous monitoring of safety goes on to ensure there are no unexpected long term effects, but just 2 years ago the EU re-reviewed safety profiles and determines it is even less harmful than previously thought.

      Hope this helps.
      http://www.bfr.bund.de/en/the_bfr_has_finalised_its_draft_report_for_the_re_evaluation_of_glyphosate-188632.html

  5. April 7, 2015 at 6:07 pm —

    Several commenters have responded by blaming Moore for beginning the “drink glyphosate” episode, but in my experience it’s usually brought up spontaneously by the other side. I’ve often used comment threads to point out that glyphosate is many times less toxic than some of the other herbicides and that therefore there was an environmental gain when farmers were able to switch from using a very toxic herbicide to using a barely toxic herbicide.

    The two most frequent responses I get are (a) If it’s so safe why don’t you drink it? and (b) You must be a paid Monsanto spokesman.

  6. April 7, 2015 at 6:52 pm —

    I thought it was a hilarious exchange. How is someone going to make a claim like that and expect to not be ridiculed? Why is it fair to ridicule people who take anti-science or anti-GMO positions for the stupid shit they say, but not okay to do the same for someone who speaks for the side you agree with?

    I don’t think it’s too much to ask that people be specific and clear with the claims they’re making about such products. “It’s not harmful” is patently false, because it can harm you. “It’s not harmful” is not the same thing as “it hasn’t been shown to cause cancer” or “drinking a quart of it won’t kill you.”

    • April 7, 2015 at 8:25 pm —

      Razor blades are not harmful when used as intended, so yeah context matters. :)

    • April 8, 2015 at 10:16 am —

      Ridicule is one thing. Yeah, he messed up, and people can/will make fun of him. But the anti-biotech camp using this clip as “see, he wouldn’t drink it because he’s a liar, and he knows it’s dangerous.” Taking that clip as tacit admission that the stuff is dangerous to humans is a big problem. Asking people to drink something because it’s not harmful is plain silly. It happens to so many of us, and the response of “see? You won’t drink it” should induce eye-rolls all around. Instead, memes showing Moore with an out-of-context quote get spread by the GMO-Free USAs, Only Organics, etc., and people fall for the fear-mongering. It’s sad.

      • April 8, 2015 at 11:38 am —

        I won’t drink Visine either (I don’t recommend anyone do it) that doesn’t mean it’s poison and can be safe when used as directed.

        Anti-GMO peoples is silly.

      • April 8, 2015 at 5:33 pm —

        Well, wasn’t he lying though? Or at the very least being disingenuous? Again, the stuff is dangerous to drink. Why is admitting that it’s dangerous to drink it a bad thing?

        I don’t think it is silly to ask someone to demonstrate their claim that drinking a quart of something won’t cause harm. It’s not like he said, “hey, glyphosate has not been shown to cause cancer in humans” and the interviewer whipped out a glass of roundup and demanded he drink it as proof that it’s not harmful. He responded to the guy’s (obviously stupid) claim that drinking it would not harm someone.

        Let’s say someone has a bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills and the skeptic says, “those don’t do anything, they have no active ingredients” and the homeopath says, “okay then, why don’t you swallow the whole bottle?” Is the skeptic’s response eyeroll and refuse to do it because it’s silly? I’m pretty sure lots of skeptics have been downing entire bottles of the stuff to demonstrate that homeopathic pills don’t do what they claim to do. I see this incident as analogous. Moore made a claim, in response the interviewer asked him to demonstrate it. I don’t see a problem there, because I don’t think it’s a problem to ask people to demonstrate such claims.

        The response to fear mongering is not to make trumped up claims that overstate the safety of a product (not saying you’re doing that, but Moore did). That doesn’t do anyone any good. If we are interested in the truth of the matter, we should be willing to counter overhyped safety claims just as much as overhyped danger claims.

        • April 8, 2015 at 7:09 pm —

          Will, it isn’t dangerous to drink, but it’s also not pleasant or advisable to drink. Kevin Folta, for example, has pulled the stunt of stirring Roundup into Mountain Dew, and drinking it, to show that it’s not harmful. Then again, that doesn’t mean there are no side effects (as another commenter said, surfactants aren’t pleasant.) Nobody in his right mind however, should drink something a hostile interviewer offers to him.

          This piece never said that Patrick Moore was right in saying that he would drink it because one could safely drink a quart of the stuff.

          • April 9, 2015 at 12:15 am

            Is this a semantic issue? What constitutes “dangerous” to you? Would you let your kids drink a glass of mountain dew mixed with roundup? What about a quart of roundup by itself? Why is it listed as something you should call poison control if ingested if it is not dangerous? What of ER physicians who have reported harm resulting from ingesting roundup (e.g., http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1742-6723.2004.00593.x/abstract)? And, again, saying “it isn’t dangerous to drink” lacks any nuance and specificity and is misleading. All bodies aren’t the same and it is more dangerous for some people than others (e.g., http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15862083).

          • April 9, 2015 at 7:40 am

            Will,
            I wouldn’t let my kid drink a vodka and tonic either but it doesn’t mean that is poison. Besides, “If it’s safe why won’t you let your kids drink it?” is a slightly more specific version of the shitty tactic that Kavin is talking about.

            Patrick Moore is a industry lobbyist who happens to be right on this issue, he used hyperbole and the anti-GMO crowd is spiking the ball because they played a childish prank. It doesn’t mean he is a good person (I think he looks like a scumbag and personally I wouldn’t be a generous as Kavin is being) but that doesn’t make the facts magically wrong.

            Kind of like how the anti-AGW crowd likes to crow about Al Gore’s “mansion”, it’s a big gotcha point for them but it doesn’t change the facts about climate change one iota.

          • April 9, 2015 at 1:26 pm

            Okay, so this has to be a semantic issue then, because alcohol could certainly be described as “dangerous.” It is true that the dose is important, and that’s why I’m so perplexed by people trying to dismiss what he says as simple hyperbole and not worthy of scorn or just “a mess up.” He literally said you can drink a quart of roundup and it will cause no harm. He is making the argument that it is not dangerous to drink a quart of weed killer. He did not make the claim that using roundup according to its directions will generally not be harmful to humans. If he had made the latter argument and the dude produced a glass and demanded he drink it, that would have been absurd. But that’s not what happened.

            I’m not arguing that what people are doing with what he said is fair or right or wrong. That’s not the thing I’m taking issue with. What I’m taking issue with is the overly broad claim that drinking roundup is not dangerous and will not cause harm. I’m asking for some specificity and nuance around such claims.

            I asked Kavin if she’d let her kids drink it because I assume the answer will be no and that if I asked her why the reason is because it could be dangerous and harm their health or make them sick. I did not produce a glass of roundup and demand she make her children drink it. It’s only a “tactic” insofar as making the point that you cannot claim it is safe (or, “not dangerous”) to drink it while simultaneously claiming that you wouldn’t let your kids drink it.

            As far as I can tell, claiming it is safe to drink roundup is a political claim and not a scientific claim. It is an overly broad claim being made to counter anti-GMO rhetoric. But it is a claim that is problematic at best and false at worst.

          • April 9, 2015 at 1:46 pm

            He is a lobbyist, of course it was a political claim.

            Anti-GMO people using this ridiculous tactic and the resulting footage is also political.

            The fact that what he said was stupid does not justify that tactic, you seem to be saying it is okay because he was so wrong. Correct me if I’m wrong here.

            Let me put this in a different context.

            If someone who lobbies for drug companies were to say something like “There are no side effects to getting a flu vaccine, in fact you could get ten times the dose without harm.”, which is technically wrong and should be called out, would that justify an anti-vax filmmaker to show up to an interview with a needle that they claim is a 10x flu vaccine and when the lobbyist refuses to let them inject it use that as proof that vaccines are unsafe?

            It seems to be the same situation to me, but I seriously doubt that many skeptics would let that pass without serious comment.

          • April 9, 2015 at 1:53 pm

            Will, I think we agree then, for the most part. No I wouldn’t give my kids Roundup in Mountain Dew, nor would I drink it. I think you’re missing the larger picture of the piece. I’m not arguing over semantics here, (the difference between “safe” and “not dangerous.”) I’m also not arguing that it was right for Moore to say it’s safe to drink a quart of glyphosate. What I’m saying is that his refusal to drink something offered to him isn’t the admission of danger that people are making it out to be. Out of context clips/quotes have been circulated in an attempt to scare a public that doesn’t understand these issues, and that’s wrong. I have been asked so many times to drink glyphosate/Roundup, and other things with the “If it’s so safe then drink it!” adage. Anyone spouting that phrase isn’t fit to be a relevant participant in this argument.

          • April 9, 2015 at 6:11 pm

            @mrmisconception

            He is a lobbyist, of course it was a political claim.

            Anti-GMO people using this ridiculous tactic and the resulting footage is also political.

            Yes, and Kavin arguing that it’s not dangerous is also a political claim, which I am asking to stop being made and to be more scientific and specific about what we’re talking about with the claim that drinking roundup is not dangerous and/or is safe.

            The fact that what he said was stupid does not justify that tactic, you seem to be saying it is okay because he was so wrong. Correct me if I’m wrong here.

            I explicitly said in my previous comment that I am not talking about the anti-GMO tactics. I am specifically concerned about perpetuating the “stupid” thing that he said, i.e., that drinking roundup is not dangerous. I also don’t have a problem with the “tactic” of asking someone who makes an absurd claim like that to demonstrate it themselves. I also find the clip hilarious because of schadenfreude. =P

            Let me put this in a different context.

            If someone who lobbies for drug companies were to say something like “There are no side effects to getting a flu vaccine, in fact you could get ten times the dose without harm.”, which is technically wrong and should be called out, would that justify an anti-vax filmmaker to show up to an interview with a needle that they claim is a 10x flu vaccine and when the lobbyist refuses to let them inject it use that as proof that vaccines are unsafe?

            But, again, that’s not what I’m taking issue with. What I’m taking issue with, in your hypothetical scenario, would be if you then wrote a blog post in which you argued that what he said was not actually wrong and tried to downplay his blunder by getting people to send out tweets about how they would not inject all kinds of “safe” stuff into their bodies. Kavin, in both the original post and comments, literally says it is safe to drink roundup. You don’t find that the least bit problematic?

            @Kavin

            I think you’re missing the larger picture of the piece. I’m not arguing over semantics here, (the difference between “safe” and “not dangerous.”) I’m also not arguing that it was right for Moore to say it’s safe to drink a quart of glyphosate.

            No, I’m actually asking you to take into consideration the larger picture than just how anti-GMO people are (ab)using what Moore said. The semantics are important if you are interested in being accurate with the claims you’re making, which I know you are. But still you keep saying it’s safe to drink, and the effect of your twitter hashtag is that it obscures that he made a factually bogus claim in an effort to support pro-GMO politics. You keep calling it a “mistake” and a “blunder,” and I am saying that it’s actually more than that. It was a political claim, made to look like a scientific claim, that attempted to overstate the safety of roundup in an effort to counter anti-GMO rhetoric. I am arguing that overstating the safety of this product is no better than overstating its danger. Starting a twitter hashtag to make light of all the products you could drink that are “safe” obfuscates the bigger problems that his false statement creates for GMO advocates, namely that if you want to claim that your GMO lobbying or advocacy is based in sound science, you shouldn’t make absurd claims like that or try to explain them away.

            Out of context clips/quotes have been circulated in an attempt to scare a public that doesn’t understand these issues, and that’s wrong.

            I also think it’s wrong to mislead the public into thinking that it is safe to drink roundup. That doesn’t mean I think what anti-GMO people are doing with his statement is right. I just think that doing the opposite of what they’re doing isn’t any good either. In essence, I’m asking for more facts and less political posturing.

  7. April 7, 2015 at 11:47 pm —

    I agree with most of this article, but, RoundUp is not actually safe to drink. The way glyphosate is formulated for sale often includes surfactants. The combination of glyphosate plus surfactants do bad things in the bodies of mammals. You can see this throughout PubMed. The LD50 dosage for Gly+surfactants is 1/3 as high as glyphosate alone. A glass full of RoundUp would give a decent chance for a successful suicide.

    Of course, consumers aren’t exposed to glasses full of RoundUp. We consume it in the parts per billion level. And farmers don’t drink RoundUp. And they aren’t drenching crops in it, it’s more like an eye dropper per plant.

  8. April 14, 2015 at 9:21 pm —

    Didn’t WHO report glyphosate was a probable carcinogen though?

  9. December 28, 2015 at 2:19 pm —

    Yup, non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) :
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24762670

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