Curt Swift
CURT'S CORNER
CSU Extension Horticultural Specialist
Grand Junction Free Press Gardening Columnist

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June 27, 2012
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CURT SWIFT: Where is the scientific data?!

Any time I read an article or hear someone make a statement given as fact, my background in science kicks in and I ask a simple question "where is the data" to back up that statement. There are some topics where data is not and most likely will never be available and we have to take such beliefs on faith. Everything else, in my mind, needs to be backed up by data.

An example of a statement requiring data is the assumption that removing flower stalks the first year a perennial plant is in the ground results in a more vigorous plant and more yield (in flowers, fruit, etc.) the following years. This makes sense as flowers and seed production take energy from the plant which should be going into root development.

Where is the data to confirm that assumption? In the case of lavender, this is one of the research projects I am conducting. To make this research project meaningful, I have a project in Palisade consisting of 10 varieties of lavender each of which is planted seven times at random throughout the field. Each group consists of 10 plants. The reason for the random planting is to ensure differences in sun/shade, water, nutrients, and soil type are taken out of the equation.

Half of each group of 10 had the flower stalks removed last year and the other five were allowed to develop flowers. We are in the process of harvesting the flowers keeping the yield separated for each group of five plants. When we finish we will have the weight in buds for each set of five plants. The resulting 140 sets of data will be statistically analyzed to determine if removing the flowers resulted in an increase in yield for each of the 10 varieties.

If the results show no significant difference in yield between plants that had their flower stalks removed and those that were allowed to develop flowers, then the assumption "removing the flowers is critical to yield" will be busted. Since it takes time to remove the flowers and growers lose the yield the first year, this information has an economic impact on the grower. Collecting data the following year will help confirm the research.

DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE

When I read the "hype" about GMOs (genetically modified organisms, or food product altered at the gene level) being a "threat to humanity," I have to wonder where the data is to support that assumption comes from.

The Urban Dictionary defines "hype" as "when someone gets excited about something," and "a fad: a clever marketing strategy..." Saying GMOs are harmful to your health without research data to back up that statement falls within the category of "hype." It makes great headlines to report women eating GMO corn "had an alarmingly high rate of infertility." But where is the data to show that something else wasn't the cause of the infertility. Maybe the women who were interviewed were all in their 80s, but since they had just eaten a meal containing a GMO vegetable, that was considered the cause of their infertility. Or even better, this group of octogenarians was wearing clothing made with GMO cotton and that caused their infertility. Don't make a statement without being able to back it up with research data!

Years ago there was a great deal of concern about the cancer-causing effect of the herbicide 2,4-D. A survey was conducted of the wives of farmers who had died of cancer. The interviewers asked the wives if their husbands had ever used 2,4-D. Since they answered yes, the conclusion was 2,4-D was the cause of the cancer. This was bogus research.

When someone reports that Bt cotton had the gene for botulinum toxin inserted into its DNA, it is obvious the individual making the statement is completely off base. Bt corn, Bt cotton, and other Bt crops have the gene for Bacillus thuringiensis inserted into the plant not the botulinum toxin gene. Bt is a bacteria used to kill fall webworms and other caterpillar pests of vegetables, fruits and fiber crops. Each Bt strain is specific to certain insects. There is a Bt specific to mosquito larvae and other flies, one specific to larvae of beetles, and one specific to the larvae of moths and butterflies. To reduce the use of insecticides, a portion of the DNA of the Bt organism has been inserted into some of the crops we use for food and fiber. This is a concern to some because a foreign gene has been inserted into our food. I like to compare this to the DNA a mosquito can insert into you when she sucks out your blood.

I would suggest Colorado State University's website on "Transgenic Crops: An Introduction and Resource Guide" if you want to learn about GMOs. Information at this site explains the process of inserting a foreign gene into a crop and covers the concerns many people have about horizontal transfer, antibiotic resistance, and allergies.

Many of the risks of this technology you might be concerned about are covered to include "there is no evidence so far that genetically engineered foods are more likely to cause allergic reactions than are conventional foods," "there is no evidence that DNA from transgenic crops is more dangerous to us than DNA from the conventional crops, animals, and their attendant micro-organisms that we have been eating all our lives," "experiments with mice indicate that normal body defenses eliminate stray fragments of foreign DNA that sneak into the blood stream from the digestive tract," etc.

When scientists use transgenic technology to put a new gene into a plant, they include an additional piece of DNA that directs the activity of that gene. One of these pieces is the "promoter" that turns the gene on. A common "promoter" used is from the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus. We have been eating plants infected with this virus for hundreds of years and "there have been no documented negative effects on health from eating the virus or its promoter."

I would recommend you check out the qualifications of the authors and where they obtain the information they are spouting as fact before you accept it as the gospel truth. Sometimes the information provided is way off base.

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Dr. Curtis E. Swift is the area horticulture agent with the CSU Extension. Reach him at Curt.Swift@mesacounty.us, visit WesternSlopeGardening.org, or check out his blog at http://SwiftsGardeningBlog.blogspot.com.


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