Thursday, February 6, 2020

Folta Returns as Talking Biotech Host



In November of 2019 I was told to end the long-running podcast series Talking Biotech.  I was devastated, and requested that the recorded episodes be allowed to run, which would take the podcast through 2019. 

I then decided to continue the podcast using guest hosts. Modesta Abugu stepped into that role, and hosted four weeks of outstanding content. 

I will return as podcast host on February 8, 2020.  The appropriate paperwork has been filed with my university for me to continue this outreach and education, but only to do it as "outside activity" -- a non-work-related effort executed outside of work time.  That's easy. It always was. 

Having a clear delineation from the university allows new flexibility in funding. I have elected to not pursue advertising (although it was lucrative for a podcast with this much traffic).  Instead I'm requesting small support form this loyal audience, as even a few dollars per month can translate into better products and penetration.  

Funds will be used to cover the traditional costs of websites, hosting, and bandwidth.  I also will expand the operation with improved equipment, a presence on YouTube, hire a producer, advertise to expand audience, etc. 

Being told to end a long-running podcast series was devastating.  This is my passion and where I'm best. It was the support and kind encouragement from a loyal listener base that made these changes happen and I'm always grateful for that. 

Kevin

Friday, January 31, 2020

Straight Info on the 2019-nCoV Coronavirus


 

The outbreak of a new contagious virus in Wuhan has many people asking questions that the internet's experts are happy to answer.  As with any public health incident, the misinformation is difficult to separate from authentic guidance.

Today I was able to attend a discussion by animal virologist Dr. Illaria Capua.  She covered the topic with off-the-presses information and provided several action items. 

Dr. Capua made some clear points that I'll list as bullets for clarity.


  • Similar historical outbreaks.  SARS and MERS were also highly infectious coronaviruses, but were rapidly contained early because of their physical routes of transmission. 
  • Started in wildlife. These kinds of coronaviruses are transmitted to people from animals. Previous examples track transmission from chickens, pigs, camels and bats.  The 2019-nCoV virus likely originated from a bat. 
  • Numbers.  As of today, just under 9826 people are infected globally, and there has been 213 deaths (all fatalities in China).
  • Worldwide presence. The virus has spread to over 20 countries.  In the 14 cases of infection in Japan, one is a person that did not travel to China, indicating someone else in Japan vectored the disease unknowingly. 
  • Models predict wide spread. The virus emerged during Chinese New Year and Spring Festival, a time of heightened domestic travel for Chinese citizens. Some models predict that disease incidence will hit 100,000 people rapidly.

  • Slow initial response?  The first cases occurred in late November 2019, but the disease was reported to the WHO on December 31, 2019.  Animal trade was discontinued on January 7th, 2020. 
  • The outbreak will strain poor nations.  Industrialized nations like the US, EU and Australia are in a good position to manage cases.  However, there is substantial air traffic between China and Africa.  The Developing World does not have the infrastructure or resources to handle a significant outbreak, so fear is that it may spread rapidly in places least able to meet the challenge. 
  • The cost of the outbreak will be immense.  SARS was well contained and cost over $54 Billion USD.  Currently areas of the Chinese economy are virtually shut down, as many workers are on self-isolation and not reporting to work. This has the potential to influence world markets. 
  • There is a potential to greatly stress health care systems and associated resources.  There are no more masks available, drugs may come in short supply.  There is a possibility of this situation leading to social unrest. 
  • Get a flu shot.  Many unvaccinated (and some vaccinated) patients will develop flu-like symptoms and react inappropriately believing it is 2019-nCoV.  This will further tax limited health care resources. Also, influenza infections could augment the effects of 2019-nCoV if concurrent. 
  • Get good information.  The WHO has daily press briefings and an excellent website with daily situation updates. These are trusted sources.  
  • Do not lose trust in institutions that protect us.  The event can become much worse if we lose trust in guidance provided, especially if we adopt behaviors that are counter to good medical practice.  


These were Dr. Capua's major points. During the question and answer period it became clear how far the hysteria has spread.  In a room filled with university professionals the questions included:

"Why didn't they shut down all air travel immediately to and from China?"

"Can my dog get it?"

"I heard that they have a virus research center in Wuhan and that this is a virus that escaped." 

This is the kind of conjecture you might expect at Starbucks, but not in a room loaded with professors, administrators and science-oriented university employees. 

That's what is so important. If a university audience is affected by the hysteria and media to the point of such conjecture, imagine what other nonsense is out there?  

It is critical that we use the good resources to educate ourselves and others about this situation, and direct them to good resources to limit disease spread. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

Myth Busted - You Can Get GMO Seeds

One of the oldest and boring tropes of the anti-biotech movement is that it is impossible to acquire seeds for your own research.  That has been shown to be false over and over again, but the claim just does not die. 

The other day I was able to buy Roundup Ready seed online, a small batch of 2500 seeds for $44. It's a very high price of over two cents a seed.  

So there you have it.  You can buy the seeds online, they are not locked in a company vault, and they were easy to obtain. 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Talking Biotech Podcast Going Forward



  • On November 14, 2019, I was told my my university to get out of visibility.  That meant no more use of social media or podcast, and I was to cancel future presentations, at least as I understood it in the room. 
  • To follow up, On November 18  I submitted a letter asking for clarity. It was clear that I was supposed to end the podcast and social media use.
This was from a letter to university administration from me to summarize the expectations. It was clear that I was supposed to end the series. You may notice that a few more were added and the series extended through 2019. 

  • I received a response that did not address the podcast, but told me to use social media with discretion and cancel talks.  I cancelled six substantial talks. It was horrifying to back out of long-standing commitments.  
  • I then submitted paperwork on December 11, 2019 asking for permission to identifind another host for the podcast, and I'd just do the production.  That way the series could continue and I'd be out of the perceived line of fire, which never actually existed.  I don't know that anyone gets too upset with the podcast. 
  • That paperwork was approved by the university administration hierarchy, and I would be allowed to produce the podcast outside of work, without hosting it. Done. 
  • I received many inquiries from others hoping to fill in as guest host.  I sent the scripts, passwords, etc to access the site to bank interviews so that I could just do the production and continue the series. 
  • I did not receive interviews to produce except for one interview by Modesta Abugu (thanks Modesta) and that ran January 4, 2020. 
  • Without guest hosts, without interviews, I put the series on hiatus on January 11, 2020 (my birthday, yay.)
  • Today I spoke with university administration and learned that it was never the intention to end the podcast. That was not what I understood and not consistent with the paperwork I submitted, and they approved, asking for permission to be the producer only. 
  • I was told that if I want to host the podcast going forward  I may submit paperwork to continue it as "outside work"-- a non-university endeavor outside of work hours, which is slightly insane because such outreach should be part of our assignment.
  • Thanks to those at Ben-Gurion University, NC State, EPFL (Luasanne, Switzerland) and Colorado State that reached out offering to host the podcast under their university's outreach portfolio.  You still might get a chance here.


Right now the situation is fluid. I'm going to take a few weeks to see how this settles.  The show will go on, it just is unclear if it is with me, with someone else, and out of which university.  I'm also contemplating my role in science, particularly with respect to remaining in academic science.

Thank you for your support.   Kevin

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Goop-ing Up Medical Media

The Goop brand is synonymous with horrible health advice, packing bogus treatments and misinformation as credible medical intervention.  Now the originator of the brand, Gwenyth Paltrow (self-described as knowing nothing about science) has a new streaming video series coming on Netflix, permitting a pipeline of misinformation to penetrate even more deeply. 



Netflix gives its grand stage to Paltrow, providing a larger audience to mislead and even harm. 


Paltrow and her brand have loosely targeted women's health issues offering a series of claims, advice and products that have been highly criticized by legitimate physicians like Jen Gunter.  Like Gwenyth's hinterparts the Goop brand has only picked up steam.  

What's the harm?  Paltrow's celebrity status affords her immediate cache as an expert in everything.  The scientific evidence clearly shows that celebrity advice influences vaccination rates, cancer screening and cancer treatment.  On the other end of the spectrum they just take money and reinforce non-scientific practices (like drinking urine or engaging 'detoxes'). 

 Dr. Timothy Caufield has written about this extensively, and that sound you hear is his head hitting his desk.  His scientific debunking show, "A User's Guide to Cheating Death", was discontinued by Netflix. 

Science out, goop in. 

But the greatest threat is that celebrities like Paltrow erode trust in legitimate medical therapies, oftentimes citing the alternatives they sell and promote as the "cures Big _____ does not want you to know about."  This popular practice can kill. 

But Paltrow and her ilk have the resources to afford to be stupid and make mistakes. Sadly, others damaged by their misinformation are forced to live with the consequences. 











Saturday, January 4, 2020

Talking Biotech 220 - Biotech Cotton Comes to Kenya

This outstanding educational series continues in my absence with the first of many guest hosts. Your continued interest and support are more important than ever. 



Kenya is an emerging economy and has significant investment in advanced technologies.  However, a 2013 ban on biotech crops has limited farmer access to the most needed technologies for the field.  That moratorium is finally being lifted, as biotech cotton has been approved and will be available to farmers in 2020.  Farmers recognize the potential for Bt cotton to reduce or eliminate dependence on the insecticides currently required for production.  Today's guest is Daniel Magondu, Chairman of the Society of Biotech Farmers of Kenya.  The episode is hosted by Modesta Abugu, a graduate student studying tomato improvement.

Follow Modesta Abugu on Twitter: @modestannedi

About the Socienty of Biotech Farmers in Kenya (SOBIFAK)

Listen to the Episode Here. 



Thursday, January 2, 2020

Chipotle's Ag-vertising to Fix their Anti-Ag Image

After years of anti-farmer rhetoric, disgusting anti-agriculture videos, and trashing farmer seed choice, Chipotle now seems to have found a love for the American farmer that is as warm and inviting as the gooey core of a steak burrito.  Their new "Cultivate the Future of Farming" campaign raises awareness of the hardship being experienced in agriculture, and then offers their thoughts and some seed grants in order to reverse it. 

But are they solving a problem that they were instrumental in creating? 

The crisis in agriculture is real, with farmers suffering from low prices, astronomical costs, and strangling regulation.  Farmer suicides are a barometer of the crisis.  Farms, from commodity crops to dairies, are going out of business daily. It is good to see a company raising awareness. 


From Chipotle's website- The "challenge is real" and "It's a hard living"-- and companies like Chipotle were central in creating those problems. 


However, Chipotle's new ag-vertisment It is akin to pouring gas all over a dry forest, throwing in a match, and then a few years later wanting to be perceived as tree friendly by planting a few saplings. 

The threats to farmers and the negative perception of agriculture are precisely the problems that Chipotle helped to create.  Their 2014 video Farmed and Dangerous was a slam on large-scale animal agriculture, the industry that produces the very stuff that goes into the tortilla. 


The short Hulu series "Farmed and Dangerous" was Chipotle's denouncement of animal agriculture. 


Farmed and Dangerous was not their first effort.  The video short The Scarecrow depicted a sad, dystopian world of food production.  They depict dairy production as forlorn cows locked in stacked metal boxes with milk being extracted by an extensive network of plumbing. 

Chipotle can't seem to figure out why the perception of dairy farms is so negative, but now they are offering seed grants to help dairy farmers. 

And of course, their penetrating campaign against genetic engineering played into the momentum of failed labeling efforts of the day, seeking to affect farmer seed choice by scaring customers away from perfectly safe ingredients.  These campaigns also harmed farm perception by suggesting that American farm products were unsafe because of genetic engineering, a position known to be false. 

Ingredients made from crops with genetics most farmers find helpful "don't make the cut"-- their message is that American farmers produce inferior or perhaps dangerous products that they refuse to use (except the high-fructose corn syrup in sodas, they do still sell those high-margin menu items). 

All of these efforts targeting modern farming practices were designed to influence public perception, put pressure on agricultural producers, and force adoption of alternative practices. And they wonder why there is a crisis on the farm and in rural communities. 

Let's get real. Chipotle's decisions to fight agriculture or embrace it are not borne from altruism.  Public-facing corporate positions are spawned from focus groups and surveys, as a multinational, billion dollar food empire certainly has its greasy finger on the consumer's pulse. Ad campaigns play into reinforcing the consumer's perceptions and identity, showing that Big Burrito aligns with their values. 

That is what you are seeing here. The public is becoming increasingly aware of the fragile state of agricultural production, and the crisis that has hit rural North America hard. 

So is "Cultivate the Future of Farming" just an ag-washing ornament to exploit farmer hardship, or is this a genuine change of heart? 

If it is indeed the latter it needs to start with an apology, and an honest one. Chipotle needs to boldly proclaim the error of their ways, atone for their anti-science positions, and their profound misrepresentation of agriculture. They need to own that at least a subset of those suicides might have been sadly seeded by sentiment reinforced by Farmed and Dangerous

In the six years since Chipotle's anti-farmer efforts hit a feverish pace, public perception has changed. The fear-based misinformation failed, and time has not treated such efforts well. Those videos are a shameful reminder of rhetoric of the time. 

Imagine where we'd be today if in 2014 Chipotle and other brands  invested heavily in research, rural mental health, or resources to bring precision agriculture to farmers. I think the perception of Chipotle and the perception of crop and animal production would be very different.  And while it is good to see them flip positions, a bolder statement of the error of their ways would certainly tug at the logical circuits of consumers once bent on fearing food.  

Maybe the best message is-- don't bite the hand that feeds in the first place, as targeting those that produce the products you sell makes your business not sustainable, and lays a foundation that can have profound, negative effects on a critical industry.