Friday, November 16, 2012

Animal Photos By Tim Flach

Tim Flach Photography

This one is disturbing. I found the photos on the Daily Mail (there are others there), which referred to "specially-bred featherless chickens." So, humans tamper with chickens' genes to, I don't know, make processing easier? Is there another reason?



Dr. Mel said...

The first two photos are so moving and wonderful. The third is, as you say, disturbing. This way the chickens don't have to be plucked. It's really pathetic for the chickens.

Ben P. DaSalt said...

It’s regular old breeding, classic gene manipulation. It’s done with all domesticated animals.

Here’s a 1975 newspaper article referring to featherless chickens.
“Featherless chickens are nervous birds. But they might mean cheaper dinners.

Raising chickens without feathers eliminates one step in processing the birds of market. And since a fourth of the protein in a broiler goes into its feathers a nude bird would yield more meat.

Research into featherless chickens began in 1953 when Ursula Abbott. a professor of bird genetics at the University of California at Davis. found one in, a batch of chicks she had ordered from New Hampshire.”

Were you alluding to genetic engineering through biotechnology? A little early for that according to that article’s timeline; also, there’s no mention of it.

Scientists probably wouldn’t refer to genetic engineering it as mere “tampering.”
“tamper - Interfere with (something) to cause damage or make unauthorized alterations.”

I’m playing Mr. Dictionary here, but tamper does have a negative connotation that perhaps isn’t warranted. Biotechnology is a little more purposeful than seeking to cause damage or mucking about, even if one disagrees with the practice, one can at least be charitable towards appreciating intent.

As for whether it’s authorized, I suppose that’s a more philosophical question that can be approached in many ways.

Personally, I don’t feel that genetic manipulation (either domestication or biotech) is fair to animals who then have to inhabit bodies that may not benefit their wellbeing, either individually or as a species.

Sure, mutations happen in the natural process of evolution, but there’s a difference when humans intentionally breed animals who cannot copulate or whose bodies get so large their legs cannot support their own weight, etc (the list is long, see the linked article for specifics on featherless chickens).

This isn’t just an issue with factory farming, these sorts of tradeoffs – what human’s desire versus what’s better for the wellbeing of conscious, feeling animals left to their own mating cultures – is inherent with all forms of breeding.

It’s less of an “authorization” concern since, let’s face it, we can do whatever we want. It’s more of a “we should reconsider as it’s not so nice and we don’t really need to use animals to the degree that we do anyway” issue.

Dr. Mel said...

In Israel, it was done with genetic engineering, resulting in "naked chickens." No plucking, and it saves the farmers money on ventilation as the chickens don't get overheated so easily in their overcrowded conditions. BAH! That's simply awful.

Bix said...

I was not referring to genetic engineering. I was referring to regular old breeding.

Tamper works for me. Pathetic works for me. "We should reconsider as it’s not so nice and we don’t really need to use animals to the degree that we do anyway" works for me.

Bix said...

They are genetically engineered? How about that. I wonder if they are for sale, if the FDA approved them.

I know of salmon that has been GE'ed but I don't know what's going on with it, if it's in stores yet. And I think there's a new low allergy milk.

The FDA says that GE food does not need to be labeled because it is not different from conventional:

"We are not aware of any information that foods developed through genetic engineering differ as a class in quality, safety, or any other attribute from foods developed through conventional means."

So, GE salmon that contains more growth hormone is not different from non-GE salmon which contains less growth hormone. And milk from GE cows that has been engineered to lack a protein that triggers allergies is not different from milk which contains this protein.

This is getting confusing.

Ben P. DaSalt said...

Dr. Mel said:
“In Israel, it was done with genetic engineering, resulting in "naked chickens."”

Bix said:
“They are genetically engineered? How about that.”

No, well… Yes, well… it really depends on what exactly you mean.

”Genetically engineered” can be an ambiguous term. It can just as easily mean selective breeding.

Following up on the story from 2002, the BBC writes:
“Professor Avigdor Cahaner, who led the project, told the BBC: "This is not a genetically modified chicken - it comes from a natural breed whose characteristics have been known for 50 years.”

Which, according to the first article I linked to, sounds about right.

Bix, it was my mistake reading too far into your comments, but I still perceive a conflation. People see something like a featherless chicken and assume it’s biotech and therefore it’s bad (or at least worse than breeding) where there isn’t such sharp dichotomy compared to classic breeding methods. Take for example:
“We at consider all genetic engineering—plant, animal, or pharmaceutical—unsafe. Humans are not capable of understanding the complexity of life at any meaningful level.” ran with the assumption of “unsafe” genetic engineering, and erroneously associated breeding featherless chickens with biotech. Since there’s no biotech and the chickens were breed naturally, what exactly is the safety objection then? Everything we eat has been the result of genetic engineering in the broad, yet still relevant, sense. This is why I can’t get behind the anti-GMO advocates, and it’s not just this instance where the facts are mangled to try to support an anti-biotech argument.

Bix said...

I think there is a difference between genetic engineering and selective breeding.

Here's a post from 2009:

Genetically Modified Organisms: What's The problem?


Susan Booth: What is the difference between genetic modification versus just regular hybridization or selective breeding?

Jeffrey M. Smith: Genetic engineering is not natural. It carries unique risks and is fraught with unpredicted side effects.

In normal hybridization or selective breeding you take plants from the same species or related species and they essentially have sex and their offspring share genes from both parents. With genetic engineering, you take a single gene or combination of genes from other species, and you manipulate the gene in the laboratory. You add, typically, an "on switch" called a Promoter from a virus and other materials and then you force it into the DNA of the plant. Then you clone the cell into a plant…

The process of insertion, whether through "gene gun" technology or bacterial infection, plus cloning, causes massive collateral damage in the DNA. It leads to hundreds or thousands of mutations up and down the DNA, and hundreds or thousands of genes that can change their levels of expression in the natural plant. These changes can lead to unpredicted side effects, such as new or higher levels of toxins, carcinogens, allergens, or anti-nutrients. And this is not theoretical. They have actually found these types of things in the genetically engineered crops already on the market.

Thousands of mutations up and down the DNA? How can this not have impact? For me, long term clinical trials on humans would put safety doubts to rest. But...

Andrew Pollack at the the New York Times writes:

Crop Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research


"Biotechnology companies are keeping university scientists from fully researching the effectiveness and environmental impact of the industry’s genetically modified crops, according to an unusual complaint issued by a group of those scientists.

The problem, the scientists say, is that farmers and other buyers of genetically engineered seeds have to sign an agreement meant to ensure that growers honor company patent rights and environmental regulations. But the agreements also prohibit growing the crops for research purposes.

“If a company can control the research that appears in the public domain, they can reduce the potential negatives that can come out of any research,” said Ken Ostlie, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, who was one of the scientists who had signed the statement.

The companies “have the potential to launder the data, the information that is submitted to E.P.A.,” said Elson J. Shields, a professor of entomology at Cornell."

The examples in that article are disheartening.

Ben, you purport that genetic engineering is safe. As Judge Judy says, "Show me."

Ronald said...

First picture looks like Clark Gable.

Ben P. DaSalt said...

I apologize for sidetracking from your original post topic into this diversion into GMO. I hope you don’t mind too much or misinterpret my comments as hostile. You know I’m a long fan of your blog and your methodology.

I don’t think I purported that GMO is safe, per se. But I’ll cut to the chase now and say that there are few fundamental reasons why biotech should be less safe than traditional methods. Further, there’s little good evidence that GMO is harmful, the words doing the heavy lifting there is “good evidence.”

My initial complaint was the assumption that featherless chickens would be unnatural or GMO.I was wrong for calling you out on that, but the article and Dr. Mel’s linking to it, I think demonstrates what I was getting at.

If the featherless chicken made it to consumer market, let’s say a GMO and non-GMO naturally breed version, there’s very little reason to suspect one over the other as being more or less safe to eat. Sure, there’s still plenty of other aspects to discuss about these birds and the system that implements them, but I’m confining the comparison to what’s going on genetically and how that would possibly affect the health of consumers. As far as my bias goes, I would prefer if more people just didn’t eat any chickens, but I’m not one to use argument that I find specious as a means to an end.

Now, you kindly offered what you feel is substantive content to support a position that biotech is unsafe. At least you offered something more than “Humans are not capable of understanding the complexity of life at any meaningful level,” the purely ideological mission statement from

Starting with the NYTimes article. A good source, and I don’t doubt the veracity of the reporting. However, seed research and the business of GMO is drifting a bit from health consequences of consuming GMO livestock. Briefly, because it’s tertiary, I don’t think there’s anything really sinister going on. Yes, agribusiness lawyers are behaving like lawyers and are protective of their intellectual property and engineer legal methods of doing so. While I can appreciate why they do this: to prevent reverse-engineering, to prevent poor research done on their product. I agree that the balance of power needs to be addressed. To chance an analogy, while I think US election funding practices needs reform, I don’t think that democratic elections are something to be abolished because of it.

Ben P. DaSalt said...

To your core arguments.

Is it safe for me to assume that it’s your best source of information as to why GMO is dangerous? If it is, it goes along the line with my general critique of anti-GMO information. If we were discussing diabetes, something you are obviously well versed in, and I presented information akin to what you’ve presented here, I don’t think it would pass your own sniff test.

The interview is from a health food store website. Jeffry Smith quickly got my skeptic-sense tingling; it’s his language. That aside, as a layperson, I spotted some errors in his assertions; for example, in hybridization, the species barrier can be crossed in plants and animals. Perhaps that’s nit-picking, but it’s sloppy to assert something so absolutely.

Doing a cursory Internet search it’s relevant to note that Jeffery Smith has no science credentials, has never contributed to any research, and self-published his two anti-GMO books. This doesn’t discredit his arguments, but upon checking up on just one of his claims that concerned you:

“The process of insertion, whether through "gene gun" technology or bacterial infection, plus cloning, causes massive collateral damage in the DNA.”

I was able to find counter arguments that, unlike most of Smith’s work, at least references peer-reviewed literature.

2.1—Any DNA Insertion can cause a mutation

"‘Indeed, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make [GMO] even safer than conventional plants and foods... ( European Commission 2001)”
(See link for specifics)

Then there’s the more grandiose assertions; a “top biologist” who seems to have information linking GMO foods from everything to autism to diabetes? Those are massive claims that need supporting with massive evidence, not a reference to some anonymous biologist. Even in a casual interview, this isn’t acceptable.

Emergency room visits for allergies increased with GMO soy? That sounds like really big news, so let’s track that anecdote down. According to Jeffry Smith’s website ( John Graham, spokesperson and CEO for UK YorkTest labrotory was quoted as the expert who said, “We believe this raises serious new question about the safety of GM foods.” But what authority does private company YorkTest Labs have? Their hokey website markets “clinically validated” food intolerance tests that apparently aren’t (

I don’t want to chip away at Jeffery Smith. It’s all too easy for uncredentialed sources to say and write all sorts of things and it takes way too much time to fact check it all, so that’s why it’s better to rely on our own skeptic filters to reduce the noise and seek good signals.

The common objection is that the peer-reviewed sources, academia, etc, are either all bought or suppressed by GMO agribusiness. It’s a legitimate concern, however, there are enough free agents out their with decent credentials who understand the science and even have legitimate concerns with GMO and agribusiness.

Can I show that GM biotech is safe? Not really, but any frank scientist will concede this. First, it depends what you mean of course, safe compared to what? Second, to what level of risk? Again, health wise, there’s little reason to suspect that GMO would have risks outweighing conventional genetic modification, a claim that has more to do with the fundamentals of how biotech works. Also, contrary to popular assertion, there have been long term animal studies, yes, even before that recent media sensation, sham rat cancer study.

“The aim of this systematic review was to collect data concerning the effects of diets containing GM maize, potato, soybean, rice, or triticale on animal health. We examined 12 long-term studies (of more than 90 days, up to 2 years in duration) and 12 multigenerational studies (from 2 to 5 generations).”

“The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.”

Ben P. DaSalt said...

In light of data like that, understanding why GMO shouldn’t be a problem and reviewing animal studies where there is not problem, there’s little basis to insist on clinical research on humans, especially considering the duration, costs, and difficulty of doing such research, again to attempt to parse out a very minimal potential risk that would be nearly impossible to tease out over margin of error, anyway.

I’ll offer you my best sources as to why I view GMO the way that I do. I hope you trust Frontline and NOVA as I do. This journalistic documentary give a very even handed account of the GMO debate. More importantly, it gives, what I feel, is a pretty good summary (as far as I can judge)of how biotech works. It’s not all roses of course, there’ plenty of issues to consider with GMO and Frontline does a good job in addressing them up without hyperbole. And yes, I’m sure we wouldn’t have to scratch to deep to find that agribusiness provided funding to PBS while this show was produced, but I’m going to trust their science-based and journalistic integrity.

NOVA/Frontline Harvest of Fear (via YouTube)

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My second reference is this recorded lecture with Kevin Folta in front of a mixed audience of a vegan group and a skeptic’s group. It’s a long talk to listen to, the audio isn’t the best, but Folta gets fairly well grilled on a variety of topics and does his best to address them in an understandable manner.

Show page -
Direct link to MP3 -

That’s the best I can do. I’m asking a lot, that’s a fair amount of media to wade through and I’m not saying it’s a guarantee to convince you of anything, nor do I agree with every aspect of claims made, but I think these links are pretty good layperson sources of information, certainly better than the burgeoning misinformation out there on the Internet.

I used to have strong reservations with GM technology as well, but I’ve softened for a couple reasons. One, I trust mainstream science, corporate influence, warts and all, more so than I trust uncredentialed conspiracy theorists and woo obsessed health advocates (no one here, but there’s plenty of such sources out there), and perhaps I’m wrong to trust the establishment, but as the saying goes, it’s the worst system we have except for all the other systems. Second, the arguments of the anti-GMO advocates are typically so poor and hyperbolic that it drove me to really listen to what the science really has to say.

I’m heading out for the holiday in a matter of hours; going someplace sunny without Internet, so I’m unlikely to follow up further on this post should you respond.

Anyway, thanks for reading and Happy Thanksgiving!

Bix said...

I disagree with you, Ben. You say "there’s little reason to suspect that GMO would have risks outweighing conventional genetic modification" and "there’s little basis to insist on clinical research on humans."

I believe that the transfer of genetic material among organisms in a way that would not take place without our intervention causes mutations in the recipient organism, consequences of which are poorly understood. There is basis to conduct research.

The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation

Genetically Modified Foods: Potential Human health Effects

I see public health, environmental health, economic health as interrelated.

I agree with your assertion that there is a lot of anti-GMO propaganda that is not rooted in science. I also believe there is a lot of pro-GMO propaganda not rooted in science.

Bix said...

I think I finally get that Clark Gable reference. It's the ears, isn't it.