Saturday, April 20, 2019

Talking Biotech 182 – Insect Resistant Cowpea in Africa

The link to this week's podcast is here. 

Cowpea is a critical crop in Western Africa.  It is consumed by millions daily, but also feeds livestock, all the while providing important nitrogen fixation for the farm.  Cowpea cultivation is threatened by Maruca vitrata, a butterfly who’s caterpillar stage feasts on the beans within the cowpea pod. Scientists in Nigeria have implemented a strategy using the Bt protein to fight against this pest.  Today’s podcast interviews Francis Onyekachi, Program Manager for the West African Maruca Resistant Cowpea Project.  He talks about the crop, the technology, and the strategy to ensure its continued efficacy.  Co-hosted by Nigerian native and University of Florida graduate student Modesta Abugu. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Does High Fructose Corn Syrup Cause Colon Cancer?

Results of a recent study in mice need a little clarification.
The article caught my eye because it said that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) “enhances tumor growth in mice” and it was published in the top-notch journal Science. The article mentions soft drinks and sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) right in the abstract. It is no wonder that the general media got quite a rush from the story.
But is that what the data really showed?
The study by Goncalves et al is a nice piece of work. The researchers used mice missing a key tumor suppressor as a model. Colorectal cancers develop from a well-described progression of genetic changes before cells become malignant. Researchers have developed mice that are missing some of the biochemical hardware that keep cells from becoming cancerous. They possess errors in a gene that represses one major step toward cancer, so they are prone to develop tumors. The researchers used these mice to perform the experiments, as the tumor-prone mice would be potentially more responsive to the treatment if there was a biological effect.
Researchers allowed the mice to chow down as much HFCS as they wanted, so the mice loaded up and got fat. They developed metabolic syndrome and tumors.
But were the tumors a function of obesity and metabolic syndrome? To test this the researcher raised the same mice on a more restricted diet, and delivered HFCS via oral gavage (force fed). Those mice maintained normal weight but developed more, larger tumors than controls.
The author do a nice job tracing glucose and fructose and looking at how they influence metabolic processes in intestinal cells. That’s all good stuff.
The problem is that throughout the report they hammer on SSBs and HFCS. I understand that because the Big Gulp is a potent HFCS delivery device. But free fructose is more prevalent in organic apple (>60 g/L) or grape (>80g/L) juice, the fanfared agave nectar (85% fructose) , or a good serving of health-haloed Manuka Honey. Soda (~50–60 g/L) may be a contributor, but it is not the sole culprit — the problem is that we consume a lot of sugar in everything from BBQ sauce to salad dressing, and we also consume a lot of fructose. The study shows that fructose is the problem, and it likely does not matter if it comes from HFCS, table sugar, or some sacred bee extract.
The take home lesson is that we should enjoy sweetness from whole fruits, not necessarily juices. The fiber of fruits slows their progression through digestion and the sugars are absorbed in the small intestine, long before they get into colon-cancerville. If we do drink juices (they are rich in vitamins and minerals) consider using the classical juice glass (1 serving of fruit, 4–6 fluid ounces) rather than the 2-liter commuter mug. This nice report should not be vilification of soda, it should be a reminder that fructose is ubiquitous, it can have health impacts independent of obesity and metabolic syndrome, and should best be limited in the diet.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Book Review: Feeding You Lies by "The Food Babe" Vani Hari


Many people say that I should ignore Vani Hari and her new book, Feeding You Lies - How to Unravel the Food Industry's Playbook and Reclaim Your Health. Don’t give her the attention.

However, I’m mentioned prominently throughout the text, portrayed as an industry insider, paid to harass her and derail her efforts to rid the world of molecules with names we can’t pronounce.  On her press junkets she spins wild tales of being a victim, targeted by a concerted effort between me and evil corporations to destroy her credibility. There really was no such thing.

Hari used the Freedom of Information Act to gather tens of thousands of my emails at taxpayer expense—and found nothing.  Zero. But instead of saying that in her book, she manufactured false stories and associations, picking out sentences just to paint me in a negative light. We’ll get back to that.


She certainly goes after me as a paid corporate dupe that is financed to attack her.  I'm actually a public scientist concerned about feeding people and allowing technology to help the food insecure. I despise those that profit from misinformation around food and farming.  We also grow food, lots of it. 


What I Like. I could rightfully be cranky and write a scathing one-star review just to be a vengeful dick, and it would be probably considered appropriate.

But instead I’m going to use this opportunity to be honest in my assessment of her work, and hope that it inspires her to consider higher angels in her endeavors going forward.

First, I didn’t hate the book.  It was an easy read and I was able to pound through it in a four hour flight and a couple of breaks from yard work.  It falls into four clunky non-flowing parts, one which I sorta like. Let’s start there.

In her heart Hari has the same goals and interests that I do, to help guide people to more healthy diets and better health.  When she speaks about the quality of calories, about being aware of processed sugar, about cooking at home—we are on the same page.  We both love a farmers market and believe in eating fresh, local produce. We both note the odd vilification of gluten, and both seem to despise dietary fads, and products that lead with bogus claims and unhealthy weight-loss strategies.

That was one chunk of the book. That part, and the rest of it were generally well written, sort of referenced (selectively omitting anything that didn’t support her position even if it reflected scientific consensus).

Spinning Out.  The book’s agreeable center is flanked by tired conspiratorial nonsense, as Hari gets out yarn, stick pins and a corkboard and constructs tenuous connections between her critics, through circuitous avenues, over hill and dale, across family trees and geological time, to (wait for it) MONSANTO.

Yes, she believes that Monsanto and other companies see her as a threat to their bottom line, so they commissioned a squadron of paid non-company scientists, independent folks like me, to harass her.  
There’s a degree of strange narcissism there.  

What academics and industry scientists actually object to are the strong-armed tactics she used to bully and intimidate to drive irrational, emotional, and unnecessary change.  If the goal is healthier food we should do that through education and objective assessment of risk, not threats and social media smear campaigns against critics and companies. I’ve always been critical of her because I despise abandoning science and evidence and forcing change via fear and misinformation.  That’s exactly what she did, she’s proud of her accomplishments, and she should be criticized for it.  That’s not Monsanto.  That’s objective, scientific criticism.

The sad part is the pettiness of it all.  Her book harvests information from my private emails, such as how I tried to connect with a popular podcast to talk about food and farming. This is not a scandal, it is normal, yet she uses access to my private email to parade my personal business in full light. That’s not what public records requests are for, and she should be admonished for it.

Warped.  I’ll focus on the section about me, since I know that the best. She lists a page of presentations I provided, various events around the country.  She then lists the sponsors of the event, typically companies that help foot the bill and keep registration costs low.  You can read the list (it comes from my website) and see my talks and the companies that sponsored the meeting. She implies that the companies must control what I say, and that I am paid by the companies (she said that on a podcast interview).  However, at most of these I spoke about revising our communication, and if I was paid an honorarium it went to my outreach program to pay for assembling and mailing science fair kits. It is a great example of how she does not ask questions, but is happy to vilify someone innocent to build her crazy perception of conspiracy.


#1 Best Seller in Crop Science.  We're doomed. 

Bad Information. If she was a threat to anything it was a threat to public perception about food safety.  She also threatens the poor in a way she does not realize.  Throughout her book she gives accolades to the Environmental Working Group and praises their “dirty dozen” list. This is the list where pesticide residue amounts are distorted, and risk is manufactured from nothing. 

When you tell people that their fruits and vegetables are poison so only eat organic produce, something horrible happens.  The affluent buy organic fruits and vegetables, which is fine, as I’m glad to see organic farmers cash in on consumer credulity. But many people in of our inner cities and rural areas often have no (or extremely limited) access to fresh fruits and vegetables. When they do have access it is conventional produce, maybe at a Dollar General, convenience mart or small independent grocer.  Selection may be extremely limited, and there certainly is no boutique organic produce.

Someone following Hari’s guidance has a choice between “poison” and nothing.  A true believer acting in the best interests of her family will make precautionary decisions, as the rhetoric of charismatic food activists like Hari scares them away from safe, fresh fruits and vegetables, the foods we should be consuming more frequently.

Pride in "Accomplishments".  She proudly discusses the changes that she inspired in companies, removing ingredients from their products.  She goes down the litany of her coerced successes, yoga matt bread, beaver butts and artificial colors and additives. These stories are nothing new.

The basic theme of the book is that she takes a position, and if anyone criticizes that position they must be a paid stooge of corporate ag. It is an endless romp of six-degrees-of-monsanto, and is tired if not boring.

There are factual errors throughout the book, and lots of disparaging statements about conventional farming and ranching. You can read these at #FoltaReadsHari on Twitter.

Filler. The last 100 pages (of about 300) are a 48-hour detox (which I will not read), an appendix of terms (most people can’t pronounce) and an index.

Synthesis.  Fans of Hari will find little new here.  It is a lot of revisiting her past “successes” and then blaming a corporate cabal for her shortcomings and her decreasing impact.  It is in essence waving a white flag to make gross false associations about others, waste public money for personal gain, and fall on a sword again and again to rehabilitate a well-earned poor scientific reputation and stoke favor with a slim cadre of ravenous supporters.  It is the irony of Feeding You Lies, as time will show that Hari is the one saying, “Open up wide.”


-- and despite what she'll tell you, nobody paid me to do this review. 

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Poisoning Agriculture

Sloppy Journalism Continues to Tarnish the Perception of Food Safety and the Processes that Produce It
The daily reports about how agriculture is killing us are certainly alarming. However, when I carefully examine each report the sensational headlines never seem to match reality. The claims originate usually from either unpublished reports, or re-interpretations of legitimately-published work where the conclusions have little to no relationship to the scandalous headline.
Today’s example came to me via Twitter when I read the post to the left. Pesticides associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS; Lou Gehrig's Disease) progression? Okay, I’ll take a look at the data and see what they authors found. The referenced study is here.
The authors analyzed 167 cases of ALS, measured blood levels of select compounds, and then monitored disease progression. The authors found associations between levels of specific organic compounds and the progression of disease.
But they were not pesticides. At least anything used in a long, long time.

The big offenders were polycholorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl esters (PBCEs), known toxic compounds from paper/plastics/electronics manufacturing and a class of flame retardants. No pesticides.
In fact, the study did not even test modern day pesticides. They examined the levels of components of chlordane (cis- and trans-nonachlor, and chlordane itself) a compound that has been banned since the 1980’s. It is a a reasonable idea to test for it, as it is environmentally persistent and its components are health hazards.
They also examined levels of hexachlorocyclohexene (HCH) and Dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (p.p’ DDE; the breakdown product of DDT). This makes sense too, as these long-banned compounds are persistent chemistries that still can be detected in those exposed, years after exposure.

Monday, February 4, 2019

What Am I Missing?

I humbly ask this question.  What am I missing? 

Tonight I read the press release for the AAAS about the 2019 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, going to two Sri Lankan physicians / researchers that apparently confirmed a deadly causal connection between a kidney disease (Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Origin; CKDu) and the herbicide glyphosate. Congrats, congrats!

Wow, I must have missed this.  Certainly a concrete link would be big news, and if AAAS is awarding someone for this research it must have been a prominent publication.  But I scan the literature almost daily and never saw this. 

The names of the awardees seemed strangely familiar.  Then it hit me... this was the 2014 paper where they looked at hard water consumption in Sri Lanka and then suggested a tie between CKDu, heavy metals and glyphosate. The paper presented a hypothesis.  There were no data.  There were no experiments.  It was a decent hypothesis that could be tested. 

At the time the anti-ag-chemistry world lit up in celebration. Finally they had the smoking gun.  I remember this vividly-- only there was no smoke, there was no gun.  It was a hypothesis to test. These folks don't actually read the papers. 

This paper, presenting a hypothesis only, was sufficient to spark a ban of glyphosate in 2015, a move that drew criticism because the ban occurred in the absence of data. Later, reputable scientists would add that the ban threatened food security as farmers were stripped of a helpful agricultural tool, based on a hunch.

The Sri Lankan National Academy of Science made clear statements on the associations, stating that the "research is not conclusive" and "We are not aware of any scientific evidence form studies in Sri Lanka or abroad showing that CKDu is caused by glyphosate." 

The same organization also notes no association between CKDu and cancer, which we'd expect if the herbicide was causing both diseases as some claim. 



Lethal herbicides?  I'm not aware of evidence that supports this conclusion. What's up AAAS?


The researchers are obviously passionate about identifying the source of the problem in this region.  An examination of their later work shows a dedicated inquiry into heavy metals and pesticides that occur in drinking water in agricultural areas, and their association with CKDu.  They also look at the flip side and how access to clean water improves health outcomes. That alone is deserving of some recognition. I also think they would agree with me that the AAAS website was not accurately representing their conclusions.  

Many researchers, including these authors, have examined the connections to heavy metals, particularly arsenic and cadmium (including this work that shows cadmium dose-response), which are present in high levels in CKDu endemic areas, and arise from application of fertilizers and pesticides.   

Their follow up paper added a correlation to the hypothesis by actually examining heavy metals and glyphosate in the urine of a relatively small number of subjects (10 ill, 10 asymptomatic, 10 from another area).  Their conclusion was, "Although we could not localize a single nephrotoxin as the culprit for SAN (Sri Lankan Agricultural Nephropathy), multiple heavy metals and glyphosate may play a role in pathogenesis." 

A case-control study (self-reported health factors) by the same authors in a CKDu-endemic hospital also found statistical associations with application of several different herbicides and insecticides.  There also was association with exposure to a variety of heavy metals in drinking water, especially from abandoned wells.  The authors note that the majority of those answering questions were farmers who don't use personal protective equipment when spraying pesticides. I'm not surprised that they'd have higher levels in their urine. Again, the authors were correct in noting the limitations of the study.

Across all work, these authors rely on statistical associations between agricultural inputs, heavy metals, and CKDu, and a hypothetical "Compound X" that could bind heavy metals and transport them to the kidneys.  They suggested that glyphosate would fit the bill and build survey data that support that association. Cool. Again, a great hypothesis to test, but we have to be careful with interpretations.


The caption says "deadly herbicide called glyphosate" -- again, what am I missing here?


This where AAAS oversteps the data, referring to the herbicide as lethal and deadly.  C'mon AAAS.  If this was Natural News, Green Med Info, The Food Babe, or any other kooky khemistree website then I might understand.  They've been searching to vilify ag chemistries for decades. 

But this is AAAS.  I'm a member.  I'm always in awe at the awardees for their much deserved recognition. 

These authors see a problem in these agricultural regions and are searching for a cause.  Certainly publishing such a hypothesis could bring lots of criticism to the researchers, as well as derision from farmers that rely on agricultural chemistry.  However, I'm not sure how this situation jumps from a statistical association to hard conclusions that rewrite agricultural policy and toxicology-- especially when so many heavy metals levels are also high and associate with the disease (in the same authors' findings).

How does the Sri Lanka situation fit into the wider picture? We  have to remember that Sri Lanka is not the only place that uses glyphosate and there is no reputable mention of CKDu in other populations studied.  There also is the incongruence between this report and other reports on the herbicide's potential as a physiologically relevant heavy metal shuttle at levels found in drinking water. Other analyses of CKDu do not support their hypothesis. 

CKDu sufferers are not reported to also be stricken with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, which a jury of my peers says should be the case. 

Despite all of the questions and shortcomings, we really need to object to the AAAS conclusions of "lethal" and "deadly".  

Or they must have some information I don't have.  

Or does the emperor wear no clothes?  

The bottom line is that the associations are not clear, the experiments to demonstrate strong links are difficult to do, and the multi-factorial nature and genetic/environmental overlays will make such conclusions difficult to discern.  That has been the conclusion of others as well

This will be a very interesting discussion.  I'm glad to stand corrected here.  But I'm afraid that our most esteemed scientific organization just elevated a testable hypothesis to "fact" and I'll spend a lot of time over the next year explaining that the data are just not there (at least at this point) to support that conclusion. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Power of a Conversation

I grew up in Chicago in the 1970's, and even in a massive city we had our choice of just a few major media stations.   WGN was a staple on television and radio.  

I used to get up long before the sun and there was nothing on television except for the Farm Report.  Orion Samuelson and Max Armstrong were familiar figures on radio and TV.  I'd listen to or watch them daily, even though I had no connection to farming.  I was a kid, and it was something live and local. 

Years later I run into Max at national conferences and I always appreciate his stories.  Today at the Independent Professional Seed Association in Indian Wells, CA, he told a great story I have to share.


Max Armstrong shares an amazing story about the power of personal connections in telling the story of agriculture. 


He was uber-ing from the airport to the hotel.  He and the driver carried on a conversation, and the driver mentioned that he had already driven someone to the same hotel earlier in the day.  He told Max that there was a farming conference happening at the hotel. 

"You don't say," Max said, pretending not to know anything about it.  

The driver then went on to talk about farming technology, the importance of farming to the economy, and the challenges faced by farmers to continue providing the safest food supply in human history. 

The punchline?  Someone else at the conference took the time to share the story of agriculture's relevance with an Uber driver.  That story made an impression and then was shared further.  

Max's story shows the power of sharing the stories of agriculture, and informing others about the benefits and challenges.  While ag producers and industry professionals perhaps don't think that their stories are compelling because they see it every day, the public-- from the foodie to the Uber driver-- want to know more, and are willing to propagate our stories.

Share your stories.  Share the excitement of new technology, and how genetics, computers and hard work ensure sustainable access to safe and affordable food, thanks to farmers. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Another Dose of Chemophobia -- This Time Orange Juice!

Is your orange juice full of weed killer? No. Who is making that claim, and should you be concerned?
Five years ago we all were treated to data claiming that corn was not corn. More precisely, genetically engineered corn was actually a concoction of chemistry that it could not be remotely biological. According to the source, it was lacking carbon, but was packed full of glyphosate and formaldehyde (which are carbon based). It also had a substantially lower “cation exchange capacity” than its non-GMO equivalent, which is odd, because that’s a soil test, and not one done on corn. But it sure had it. Whatever it was.
The data seemed weird because they were. They were fake. Manufactured. Pure bullshit.


From the people that make up data or don’t publish in real journals, more chemophobia.

The table was a soil test template festooned with made-up values by Moms Across America, a twisted group of food fearmongers that used the falsified data to stoke alarm among consumers. I debunked it here.
The bogus data come from the quaint era of manufactured fear when formaldehyde was the key chemical culprit, and about two years before glyphosate would hang as food activists’ favorite pinata.
Glyphosate “Detected” in Everything
Since 2013 the science communication community and wacky food activists learned something important — you can fill a table with creepy numbers, ignite a great media scare, and the facts simply don’t matter.
Over the next few years we’d be treated to reports of glyphosate showing up everywhere from beer, to pretzels to organic wine, to breakfast cereal. According to these results, the stuff is everywhere, including in places it could not possibly be. The reports receive wide media visibility, tainting public perception and convincing the average consumer that their food is killing them.
It is brilliantly devious. Most of these claims have been made by Moms Across America, an organization that knows that people will pay attention to numbers in a chart, and don’t really care where they came from. Charts look quite official and sciencey.
Orange Juice?
Now the Moms Across America claims that orange juice is full of high levels of glyphosate, which is odd, because oranges are not genetically engineered to withstand it. Glyphosate is used in some citrus operations to control weeds, but it is not applied to trees. If it was, it would kill them. The glyphosate applied to row middles degrades in the soil and is not taken up well by roots.
So where did the probably not a probable carcinogen come from?
The lab that did the detection is not an independent operation. It is run by John Fagan, a guy connected with the Maharishi cult and a staunch opponent of biotechnology. He apparently runs a lab in Fairfield, IA, the buckle in the corn belt, surrounded by fields sprayed with glyphosate. If there’s a guy that would want to find it, it would be Fagan. And guess what? He reports to find it.
Shortcomings in Analysis
First, let’s start with the positives. The measurement was performed using LC-MS/MS, a technique that very well could detect glyposate and accurately quantify it. The tested for glyphosate and its breakdown product AMPA .
What’s not to like?
No negative control. The compound is detected in everything, so there’s no way to discriminate between a signal caused from glyphosate and a signal caused by some other compound that behaves in the same way during the chemical separation.
No specific extraction method for orange juiceDetecting these compounds using these techniques first means developing a “method” to extract the compound. Every starting material behaves differently and chemistries break down depending on the solvents used and timing. The data provided were obtained from treating orange juice with a protocol developed for breast milk (where legitimate expert scientists failed to detect the compound when Moms Across America claimed to find it). This is important because the detection method looks for a signal with certain chemical properties, those of glyphosate. It is possible that orange juice contains something else that could mimic that signal. There is no way to know that without a negative control.
Single replicates. While the numbers are well within the range of quantitation for LC-MS/MS, there is no way to tell if these were double blinded and randomized, or if there were multiple tests for each sample. There’s no way to know what kind of variation there is within the test or between samples.
Work not published. All of these factors explain why the work appeared on a website and not in a peer-reviewed journal. It is not reliable, rigorous work.
Claimed Levels are Low — Really Low! Even if the detection was real, which it likely isn’t, the alleged amounts are remarkably irrelevant to human physiology. The claim is parts per billion. That’s seconds in 32 years. These levels would have zero effect on human physiology.
Conclusion
Enjoy OJ. Orange juice, not the ex-NFL great. The fact that glyphosate is not used on the trees, coupled to no evidence of reliable detection, coupled to the fact that the organization that commissioned it is known for promoting false information, makes this report destined for the dumpster like the rest of them.
It is curious that they did the same report last year at this time. It didn’t get much traction.
But 2018 is a great time to generate chemophobia around glyphosate. You don’t need sound methods, you don’t need good science, you just need a chart from a cronie’s lab that can be pumped through willing media networks.
It all is part of the elaborate plan where ideology trumps science, and a scary chart is more influential than the entire scientific consensus.