Veg Expo is coming to Vancouver, but they are misleading the public

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Skepti-Forum

Will the organisers at Veg Expo 2014 accept our offer to have an actual expert speak on GMOs at their event?

Veg Expo 2014 advertises Jeffrey Smith as a world expert on genetically-modified foods, but this is deceptive marketing. Smith’s claims are not supported by well-established science and his assertions are refuted by legitimate experts.

I was initially hesitant to write about Veg Expo. There’s very little buzz about this event so far, and I do not want to give them more attention. At the same time, however, the public should be informed about the claims Veg Expo is making and who is actually speaking at the event. One of the goals of our Skepti-Forum project is to evaluate advertising claims, then educate the public if there seems to be deception. One aspect of skepticism I value is consumer protection. For that reason, I made the decision to raise this discussion and I hope this piece encourages critical thinking more than it promotes the event.


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The main issue I have with Veg Expo is their promotion of Jeffrey Smith as a world expert on genetically-modified organisms. I dispute that claim.

From the Veg Expo Facebook page:

VEG Expo 2014 is Canada’s largest EVERYTHING VEGAN & VEGETARIAN event. Bringing it back to basics of how you look at food. Find out the truth about GMO’s from world renowned expert, enjoy information sessions and cooking demonstrations from celebrated local chefs.

Following are a few of their advertisements promoting Jeffrey Smith as a world expert on GMOs:

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VegExpo6After seeing Jeffrey Smith promoted as an expert, I tried raising the issue on their Facebook page:
VegExpo2For your convenience, here are the hyperlinks shared in the image and a few other sources taking a critical look at Smith:
  • Academics Review: Yogic Flying and GM Foods:The Wild Theories of Jeffrey Smith

He’s particularly adept at getting his message out via the latest online methods, which he uses to spread his misinformation about biotechnology, in particular, to an ever-widening audience. In his most recent self-published book, Genetic Roulette, Smith claims to show 65 different “documented health risks” associated with biotech foods. Not one of them has been found to be scientifically valid by Academics Review.

Smith’s loosely organized “non-profit” and self-publishing house appear to all be sole proprietorship’s with Jeffrey Smith as the only listed board member and employee.  However, Smith uses these organizations to assert his expertise in the area of genetic engineering claiming to be a “best selling” author for his publications.  His books appear on no publishing industry recognized “best seller” lists and his “research” institute’s foundation appears to rest solely on Smith’s self-published books, pamphlets and DVDs.  Smith appears to be the sole beneficiary of these books and pamphlet sales, combined with speaking fees and donations to his “non-profit” organization.

Genetic Roulette is Jeffrey Smith’s second self-published book in which he makes unsubstantiated claims against biotechnology. In it, he details 65 separate claims that the technology causes harm in a variety of ways. On these pages each of those claims – addressed in the same eight “sections” that correspond directly with the book – are stacked up against peer-reviewed science.

Jon Entine, a writer and public relations professional accused Smith of being “an activist with no scientific or medical background” and claimed that Smith’s views amount to “near-hysterical criticism”

Jeffrey Smith is a dance teacher and a long-time woo promoter who made a big career when he decided to join the anti-GMO movement. He used to be big on Yogic flying and Transcendental Meditation, and was a candidate for the Natural Law Party in Iowa. Nowadays he bills himself as a “leading consumer advocate” and is rather secretive about his past. Notably, he does not appear to have any training in biology. He runs a PR outlet called Institute for Responsible Technology. Its main activity is spreading contrived, unscientific FUD about genetically modified crops. The Institute is supported by donations from over a dozen organic food companies and is promoted by the alt-med woo site NaturalNews. Smith sits on the board of John Fagan’s Genetic ID company, and appears to have connections to the Maharishi cult (which Fagan is also a member of).  Smith appears to believe that chemtrails are part of Monsanto’s conspiracy to control the world food supply, and was a guest speaker at the 2012 Consciousness Beyond Chemtrails Conference.

  • BioFortified: Who is Jeffrey Smith?
  • Pamela Ronald: Dr. Oz asks who can we trust when it comes to Genetically Engineered Crops?
  • GMO Answers: Why not consider the input of Doctor Jeffrey Smith?

Despite the numerous claims made by Mr. Smith about all sorts of adverse effects caused by GM crops, none of these has ever actually occurred in real life.  The scientific facts and evidence undermine Smith’s claims.

  • Forbes: Malpractice On Dr. Oz: Pop Health Expert Hosts Anti-GM Food Rant; Scientists Push Back
  • The New Yorker: The Operator
  • Reuters: U.S. activist circles globe to fight biotech crops

“If we can get millions of people choosing non-GMO products then the food companies will see GM as a liability and remove them from their products,” said Smith. “We’re going for an industry-wide clean out of GMOs.”

  • Cato Institute: Biotechnology: Feeding the World, or a Brave New World of Agriculture?
  • Genetic Literacy Project: Anti-GMO leaders withdraw from ‘Great Biotech Debate’ — Forum will go on

Jeffrey Smith […] withdrew from the planned “Great Biotechnology” debate scheduled for June 4 at the CATO Institute in Washington, DC. The event was shaping up to be a genuine first—a civil discussion between pro-science advocates sympathetic to the role of biotechnology in food and farming and dedicated opponents who believe transgenic foods are a violation of nature and harmful to humans and animals.

When the definitive history of the GMO debate is written, Jeffrey Smith is going to figure prominently in the section on pseudoscience. He is the equivalent of an anti-vaccine leader, someone who is quite successful in spreading fear and false information.

The general public still sees vegetarianism and veganism as crackpot fringe ideas with little scientific merit. Instead of inviting a scientist to talk about how technology can enhance veg/vegan options, now they can all get scared silly by silly Smith’s non-science nonsense. It simply turns off the science minded in their cause, leaving on the malleable emotional folks that make any organization a drag.

They could invite an actual scientist that cares about vegan/vegetarian issues.  What if you could safely engineer plants to produce the nutrients missing in a veg/vegan diet?  What about plants that produced more vegan-needed amino acids (e.g. lysine, trypophan), vitamins (like B12) & trace elements (like iron)?  All of this can be done with metabolic engineering, it has been done!  What if plants could be developed from GM that were more amenable to processing in veg/vegan foods like garden/boca burgers, etc?  That’s the tip of the iceberg!  Science can make your cause stronger, but instead you invite a non-scientific fear monger to address this conference.

Jeffrey Smith –  We’ll someday soon look at his movies the same way we now look at “Reefer Madness”.  It is baseless, alarmist propaganda, scientifically bankrupt and created to scare.  With the internet and science moving so rapidly we should be able to hold him accountable in the next decade. I feel bad for the guy, he’s on the wrong side of science and will land squarely on the wrong side of history.

 Since I didn’t get a response on Facebook, I took the issue to Twitter and finally got the dialogue going:

VegExpo8

VegExpo

Veg Expo 9VegExpo3I appreciated their intrigue and offered our page which includes International and Independent research going into the scientific consensus; however, I have yet to hear back from the Veg Expo spokespeople. From those discussions, Karl Haro von Mogel of BioFortified offered to help the Veg Expo organisers get actual experts for the event:

VegExpo4VegExpo5

I also made an attempt a few days later:VegExpo9I do hope the Veg Expo organisers take us up on our offer.

I’ve also sent an email to make sure they are aware of our proposition and I will update this post if they accept. Overall, this issue might not seem too important; however, if we value science, we should do what we can against those who pollute the science communication environment. We are already burdened with so much misinformation in the media, and if someone is portrayed as an expert several times, if no one challenges those false claims, the public may soon come to accept that non-expert as a voice of legitimate authority.

Our Skepti-Forum project encourages the public to become more involved in science, no matter their expertise. We frequently argue that we must evaluate the claims with reason and evidence rather than dismissing those claims based on who says them. In Jeffrey Smith’s case, he is not an expert in the field and his claims are demonstrably false. His claims are alarmist and refuted by the scientific consensus on GMOs. The event promoters now have a chance to host actual experts rather than people who will spread misinformation. They can host people with scientific backgrounds instead of those who simply mimic science.

What about the other people Veg Expo is promoting? Aren’t they experts?

Rachel Parent is a 14 year old, and while I wouldn’t dismiss someone simply because of their age, she doesn’t have the education or experience to refute the scientific consensus. Her lack of experience shows in her misunderstanding of the science and facts. Thierry Vrain seems to be the most reputable at first glance based on his credentials; however, upon closer scrutiny, his claims tend to be factually incorrect. The Centre for Inquiry in Canada released this pamphlet during Vrain’s previous speaking tour and here, Kevin Folta, discusses Vrain and the problem of False Equivalence.

Robert Wager has also challenged Vrain’s claims:

Furthermore, our Skepti-Forum community has a growing list of criticisms to many of the widely-circulated studies people such as Vrain draw from. You can also look through our discussions on our GMO Skepti-Forum Facebook group which cover a wide range of issues. If you need some help finding and evaluating the scientific literature, we also have a guide which may help you explore the facts yourself. We don’t want any of our readers to simply take our word on anything, the whole purpose of our project is to encourage the public to actively and critically engage in scientific issues.

I’m fully aware that the organisers at Veg Expo are in a challenging position because the anti-GMO movement is a trend right now, especially in vegetarian communities. If the organisers do have actual scientists speak, they may alienate their audience and customers. However, if they refuse to have legitimate experts speak at their event, they cannot honestly claim that “the goal of #vegexpo2014 is to educate the masses about dangers of #gmo and support the movement for our future.” Judging from the number of advertisements on the Veg Expo pages and groups, it is unlikely that education is their main focus. I hope they prove me wrong.

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca Mischa Popoff

    The organic food companies involved in this event should read Canada’s and America’s standards on organic production. Because there is nothing in either standards indicating that an organic crop should be de-certified due to making contact with GMOs in any way.

    It pays to know your own standards.

  • Kevin Folta

    As a guy that was a vegetarian for 16 years (and wishes he still was) I hate seeing them shoot themselves in the foot (head?). Veg/vegan comes off as flaky all the time and not science based, like organic, and when they purposefully put nonsense in their programs it discredits the good things they can do.

    • Knigel

      Hi Kevin, thanks for the comment. I read your new post on Veg Expo and really appreciated the ideas. You’re absolutely right in that hosting Smith undermines all of their other more positive efforts. Veganism and vegetarian movements would be so much more powerful if they cut out the nonsense, woo, and pseudoscience, focusing instead on science and reason.

      http://kfolta.blogspot.ca/2014/04/vegexpo-smith-and-crediblliity.html

    • http://twitter.com/geneticmaize Anastasia Bodnar (@geneticmaize)

      As a longtime vegetarian myself (although I have been eating a little whitefish during my pregnancy) I agree that this strategy is not useful. If the goal is to promote the benefits of vegetarian or mostly vegetarian diets, we need to use the best possible science. All of these flaky non-science or even anti-science views just cement the claim that all vegetarians are crazy people and why bother listening to crazy people? Really a shame because adopting more of a flexitarian diet certainly has benefits for human health and the environment, not to mention the animals – but we’re not going to convince anyone with misinformation.

    • Joanne

      I think it’s unfair to say this based on this Veg Expo. A lot of people I know in the vegan and vegetarian community have no idea who the Veg Expo organizers are or why they would choose to focus on GMO. Yes, GMO is an important issue, but not really a central vegetarian/vegan issue. Veg Expo claims to be the first and the biggest of such an event in Canada. Neither are true. The Toronto Vegetarian Food Festival has been going on for 30 years, and it is the biggest in North America. Even as far as Vancouver goes, we have Veg Fest Vancouver that happens downtown every summer since 2011. The prominent vegan speakers you’ll find at true vegan/vegetarian events are usually nutritionists, athletes, chefs or animal rights activists. Dr. Michael Gregor, Dr. Brenda Davis, Dr. T Colin Campbell, Dr. Neil Barnard, Brendan Brazier, Rich Roll, Gene Baur, Chef Isa Moskowitz, Chef Chloe Coscarelli are just a few of the people that you would typically see at a true veg event. Jeff Smith is definitely not a name you can just drop in the veg community and expect anyone to recognize it.
      People in the veg movement strive very hard to be science based and not discredit ourselves due to a lack of convincing science. Please do not judge based on an event that is claiming to be what it’s not.

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  • https://www.facebook.com/sheryl.mccumsey Sheryl McCumsey

    All I read here is a bunch of hyperbole. Why are you so threatened if it is all pseudo-science and fear-mongering? I believe this is a term invented by tobacco companies. Same kind of tactics. Let people find the science for themselves and they will see the inconsistencies. Most GMO’s are designed to be sprayed with round-up. Are we really supposed to believe that you use less herbicide on these plants? REALLY? If one isn’t sure you can check it out and find yes, we now use A LOT more herbicide. Hundreds of studies on glyphosate say this herbicide is much more toxic than this industry would like us to know about. Then we have the antibiotic resistant gene in the plant cell. Not good. Then we have the inability to control where the desired DNA goes into the plant cell. Not good. People have published a lot of information on this issue that is science based. It becomes instantly labeled as “pseudo-science” the moment it does not support the agenda of industry. Most people who have posted here I recognize as having direct links to it. I would say all but I like to keep to what I “know”. I know some of the speakers who will be attending this expo. Some of who would be Mr. Wager’s superior in the science he continually manipulates the facts on. When you can’t be consistent with your information it really does wave a red flag. The public is on to you.

    • Knigel

      Hi Sheryl, thanks for your comment. Which statements specifically do you think are hyperbole? The problem with pseudoscience and hyperbole is that people often believe it and that can be dangerous. If I want to be a responsible Canadian citizen, I should be concerned when people are being taken advantage of. If someone was selling someone’s grandma broken electronics as if they were new, wouldn’t you step in? If someone was selling your grandma fake medicine, wouldn’t you hope someone else would try to warn them? Living in a community means watching each other’s backs. I have experience in this area, so I can help those who do not.

      ” I believe this is a term invented by tobacco companies.”

      Your believe seems to be mistaken: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoscience#Etymology

      ” Let people find the science for themselves and they will see the inconsistencies.”

      That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’ve researched the evidence and prevented it for people to inspect and consider. Surly you aren’t against libraries and books. Your statement is pretty confusing because it makes it seem as if you are against people sharing knowledge. You seem to be defending Smith who will be sharing information, but then saying that I should not share information. Are you saying that Smith should be able to speak to the public, but I should not?

      ” Most GMO’s are designed to be sprayed with round-up.”

      That doesn’t seem true. Do you have a source for that statistic? How many GM products do you think there are, and how many of those are resistant to glyphosate?

      ” Are we really supposed to believe that you use less herbicide on these plants?”

      I don’t use any glyphosate. One of the benefits of glyphosate resistant plants is that even if more herbicide is needed (which might not even be the case), fewer other, more toxic, pesticides will be used. For example, using GM means using less Atrazine. You can use CTRL+F and ‘glyphosate’ to find many threads on the subject on our Wiki: http://wiki.skeptiforum.org/wiki/GMO_Skepti-Forum_Threads

      ” Hundreds of studies on glyphosate say this herbicide is much more toxic than this industry would like us to know about. ”

      Those studies haven’t held up too well upon scrutiny. We’ve covered a few of them on the Wiki link above as well as this one: http://wiki.skeptiforum.org/wiki/Scientific_Literature_on_GMOs

      “Then we have the inability to control where the desired DNA goes into the plant cell. Not good.”

      Actually, that is very good. Being able to better control and predict means fewer errors and more efficiency.

      ” People have published a lot of information on this issue that is science based. It becomes instantly labeled as “pseudo-science” the moment it does not support the agenda of industry. ”

      Science is a critical process, but usually bad science is called bad science. The scientific community isn’t perfect, and individuals have their biases, but this is why we have a scientific consensus as well as International and independent experts who weigh in. You can find research of that consensus here: http://www.skeptiforum.org/gm-research-on-safety/

      “Most people who have posted here I recognize as having direct links to it.”

      Our forum philosophy is to present evidence to back up claims. If you think any people I’ve linked to have conflicts of interest, please feel free to provide evidence, and we can discuss it.

      “Some of who would be Mr. Wager’s superior in the science he continually manipulates the facts on.”

      Again, if you make assertions without providing evidence, why should anyone believe you? What you’re doing is a fallacy called “poisoning the well” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poisoning_the_well

      Thanks again for your comment, but if you’re wanting to be critical of the article I’ve presented, you’re going to need to do better than this. Our forums are evidence-based, meaning that people have to support their assertions with apt justifications. The only thing the audience can gain from your comment is that you don’t like what I’ve written. You have not presented a solid case for why anyone else should not like what I have written. You have avoided all of the facts I shared in the piece and instead retorted with vague accusations, speculations, misinformation, fallacies, and unsupported assertions. I invite you to come to our forums where we can help you become better at presenting evidence-based criticisms.

    • https://plus.google.com/118140213161630496452 Benjamin Edge

      “Why are you so threatened if it is all pseudo-science and fear-mongering?”

      Sheryl, there are a lot of farmers in Europe and other parts of the world that would like to have the ability to grow GM crops, but can’t grow them because of pseudo-science and fear-mongering. The EU has not banned GM crops. Individual countries in the EU have banned growing GM crops because of political pressure, not science. You think the same would not happen in the US and Canada if those voices were the only ones being heard?

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