Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Science as a "Marketing Arm" of Big Ag

The most hilarious part about US-RTK is that they are so clueless on science that they'll actually print the stuff like you find here.  Go ahead and read it.  After you compose yourself from laughing, come back and continue reading. 

Their claim is that the GMO Answers website is a PR tool.  I suppose at some level it is, as the technology, traits, seeds and users of agricultural biotech have been defamed and smeared by activists for two decades without a whole lot of push back.  Here the science is related to the public, which I guess defines public relations. 

However, Truth does not need "PR"-- it just needs to be communicated effectively. 

That is what does.

For almost twenty years the non-scientific arguments, blatant untruths, and half-cocked evidence were allowed to tarnish the reputation of technology that has performed safely and effectively.  These efforts have led to calls for horribly-conceived, non-scientific and expensive changes in public policy (like labeling). The worst part is that new technologies that can help the farmer, the consumer, the needy and the environment are slow to develop. 

The organizations that fund GMOAnswers are tied to the ag biotech companies, so the unsophisticated thinker will automatically assume that the companies dictate what information is presented. 

But this is the difference between science and non-science. In the world of anti-biotech activism you can make up stats, skew numbers, conflate false parameters and generate false associations in the interest of fooling a reader.  That's common practice. 

Science must play by rules.  No matter what the ag biotech companies want, no matter what the communications firms desire, the facts are the facts, and the evidence rules.  Period.

If I read anything on GMO that was not true, I would tell them, not ask them, to correct it.  Period.  If they failed to do it, they would be the subject of a very pointy blog here at Illumination, and widespread criticism from the broader scientific community. 

So let's analyze the conspiratorial and paranoid USRTK rant.  Once again, they go after public scientists and promote nonsense, the old formula to keep the supporters happy and the cash flowing. 

Ironically, they get funding based on their support for non-scientific ideas, whereas the independent experts they criticize get nothing (except hassles). 

Click to enlargenate.  The thesis- activists like USRTK are not exactly happy that scientists have a place to speak the truth, and to share science with a curious public. It is sad to see them go after a resource that connects independent scientists with people that want answers. 

Click to embiggen.  This part shows a lot of the careful deceptive wording and reliance on low-quality "science", as well as their desire to discredit truly independent public scientists (like me!)

Perhaps my favorite comment by Stacy Malkan is that GMO does not address the "peer-reviewed statement" that 300 scientists claim "no consensus".   I hope they do eventually, heck, I might even ask the question on GMO Answers.   

First, they are still about 2,000 behind the Creationists that state there is no consensus on evolution, and waaaaay behind the climate change folks that say there's no evidence of global warming.  

Just because two reviewers for a journal known to publish soft work print an opinion (the article cited presents no new data), does not make it scientifically valid. 

To the casual reader or person concerned about ag biotech, there is one way to correctly interpret the USRTK claims:

GMOAnswers is an effective portal to obtain hard scientific information about the topic, a lot of it coming from independent experts.  This kind of information drops their stock.  As more people learn the science, and develop disgust for heavy-handed activist tactics, their credibility and influence continues to drop toward irrelevance. 

The avalanche of irony is that here is an organization getting paid to distort science, which is exactly what they accuse others of doing.  How can you sort it out?  Start with the hard science and compare it to what is presented at USRTK and GMO Answers. One of them isn't being exactly truthful. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Let's Drink Weed Killer

This week controversy ignited when Patrick Moore, a prominent advocate for Golden Rice, was interviewed on the French TV channel Canal+.  He correctly claimed that glyphosate was safe enough to drink and not likely causing alleged cancer outbreaks in Argentina.  When the host offered him a glass of Roundup herbicide he did not drink it and walked off the set.

From the interwebs.

Of course, twitter and other opinion outlets of the world's pseudoexperts exploded with the fact that Moore was forced to eat his words rather than drink weed killer.  

And then the Big M felt compelled to remind everyone that weed killer is not a beverage and that Moore is not representing the company. 

Over the years I've done the demo, not hammering a glass of the stuff, but mixing a tablespoon of the working solution into diet Mountain Dew.  No big deal.

Of course when you do a stunt like this everyone goes completely unhinged, screaming that a scientist endorses drinking weed killer. As usual, it is not about thinking-- it is about harming a scientist's credibility. My demo is not about drinking weed killer-- it is about demonstrating empirically-derived biological thresholds, physiological fates of well-characterized chemicals, and understanding a herbicide's mechanisms of action.

But that's nuance and science, so don't expect them to understand that. 

So for the record, don't drink weed killer.  There is absolutely no evidence that glyphosate is going to kill you or even make you sick in working concentrations.  However, the formulation used on plants contains surfactants, detergent-like compounds that help the chemical penetrate a leaf.  

Anyone who has ever consumed soap (long story) knows that it gives you a royal case of crazy colon, and that would likely be the effect of drinking a full glass of the commercial herbicide preparation. 

Moore might have been planning a long flight or a marathon run, places where a case of the urgent flaming schmootzies would be most unwelcome. 

My official words- don't drink weed killers or any ag chemicals. Instead, take the time to learn how to use them safely, and always do so within the labeling guidance. 


Friday, March 27, 2015

Link to Site Where Vandana Shiva Endorses Murder

This week I spoke at Iowa State University, a place where Dr. Vandana Shvia spoke earlier this month.  The audience included some of her supporters, and they were not terribly happy when I uploaded a photo of her along with Oz, Smith, Adams and Babe. 

I also included a screen shot of her website Seed Freedom where she posted the article about the justification of murder for biotech supporters because they are "Monsanto Collaborators", including "scientists, journalists, politicians, (and) food companies". 

The words on her site read, "(someone should) document all the Monsanto collaborators and make sure they are held accountable for their actions... to hunt down and arrest Monsanto collaborators: the scientists, journalists, politicians, food companies and other enablers... teams of “Monsanto collaborator hunters” will likely be offered financial rewards for bringing these individuals to justice."

A screenshot of Dr. Shiva's website on 7/25/14 at 12:37:39 EST. 

The audience had a number of people that reacted, stating that it was not true.  

It is true, this is authentic, I screen-capped it myself.  The entire website was also saved as HTML and re-assembled for your viewing pleasure here. 

The website only lasted a few days before being removed from her website.  My guess is that an endorsement of the murder of journalists and scientists was not supporting her image in a manner that keeps those big-bucks speaking engagements on the calendar. 

I promised to post the link, there it is.  You can crawl into the code and find that it matches that from her website, it is all forensically solid. 

You can judge a book by its cover.  The author knows that too.  That's why a cover might just be torn off if it reveals too much about the actual content and you are no longer interested in purchasing it. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Deception is Clear- Stop Listening

This blog is a critical demonstration between what good science says, and how the anti-GM activists twist meanings beyond what the data say, even contradicting the authors' interpretations. 

GMO-Free USA is an activist organization that does a great job blanketing the internet with false associations.  Their tactics are crystal-clear to scientists and to anyone that takes the time to look past their facade.

Their recent attempt is the kind that upsets me most.  They use actual published science that looks decent, not a bad paper, and published in a peer-reviewed source.  However, they take the real data and sensationalize it with imagery that does not match the research findings.

The work was performed by Dr. Fiona Young at Flinders University.  From her website, it is clear that she has expertise in reproductive toxicology, and studies the effect of potential environmental compounds on reproduction-relevant cell lines.  These efforts are important because they are the first step in assessing thresholds for potential cellular interactions.

It is sort of like the work Seralini did where the methods and data are sound- that you can add compounds to cells and watch them respond.  It provides researchers a first glimpse of potential interactions between a compound and a biological system. These are important tests to start to assess environmental and health risk.

This is how I might have reviewed the work and interpreted the results if I was asked to review it:

The paper itself makes no secret about setting out to identify the effects of glyphosate, mostly as the Roundup formulation.  The lengthy Introduction provides some rationale for the test and the use of a placental cell-line system.  The placental cells are immortalized tumor cells that behave like placental cells in culture, releasing progesterone. The researchers use two assays to assess cell function in response to glyphosate or Roundup treatment-- cell viability by an MTT-based staining and then ELISA assays to detect progesterone.  This all seems quite straight forward.

The first test was to add either glyphosate or Round up to the cell cultures and test how they grew over 24 and 72 hours.  The results are here in Figure 1:

Figure 1 shows that glyphosate does nothing to cells, that they grow just fine, even at super high concentrations. The little "+" means they added cyclic AMP (cAMP) to stimulate cell proliferation.  These results may be interpreted that while glyphosate has no effect, the addition of the surfactants (detergents) are harmful to cell lines. 

Such results are not surprising. We know mammalian cells don't care about glyphosate too much. Seralni has shown this well too in his tests on Leydig and placental cells.  Clearly it is when you add the surfactant, that membranes are being disrupted and cells are dying.  Anyone that ever grew cells in culture knows that these are pretty sensitive systems. Increasing the surfactant (POEA) would be expected to cause issues. Cell do not survive well when grown in detergents for 72 hours.  Got it. 

Figure 2 expands the results from Figure 1, reminding us that dead cells do not produce progesterone.

Figure 3 shows the results of cell growth in response to being grown in the presence of serial (10x) dilutions of Roundup (Glyphosate + surfactant).  The results mirror what is seen in Fig 1, only shows a higher-resolution time course and growth in the presence of human chrorionic gonadotropin, a placental hormone that stimulates growth, cannot save a cell being killed by the surfactant. 

The paper gets a little confusing in the last two paragraphs of on page 19 where they refer to Figure 3 and I think they mean Figure 4.  Here they use the concentrated herbicide (320 g/L) dilutions and measure cell viability and progesterone levels at the 24 h time point.  I'm not sure how this is different from the data presented in panel A from Figure 1 and 2. 

Again, Figure 4 reminds us that as you grow cells in herbicides they don't survive well, and dying/dead cells don't make as much hormone. 

The authors provide a good Discussion that starts out in line with the limitations of the assay. 

 Transformed cell lines are less sensitive than primary-derived cells in vitro [20,21], and therefore provide conservative estimates for potential cytotoxicity in vivo

And then
These in vitro cell culture systems did not model in vivo absorption, distribution, metabolic or excretory parameters, northe (sic) regulation of serum carrier and binding proteins. 

Which is exactly correct.  This is an artificial system in many ways and have limits about what they really mean relevant to whole-organism physiology based on cells dying in a dish.

 The authors also recognize that it is the surfactant that is causing observed issues:

The EC50 values for Roundup spanned two orders of magnitude, whereas the differences in cell lines and culture conditions had less effect on the Glyphosate EC50 values; observations partially explained by the membrane-disrupting mechanism of action of Roundup.

The authors then go on to say the same thing I did... dead cells don't make hormones. They say flat out that there is no evidence of endocrine disruption:

In our study, the inhibition of progesterone secretion did not precede cytotoxicity, and endocrine disruption effects were a consequence of cell death. ....Given this lack of data, the proposal that Roundup has endocrine disrupting activity independent of its cytotoxic activity, needs further study.

The rest of the language is that of a good toxicologist that is interested in the risks associated with the herbicide.  It is all guarded, conservative, and puts the concentrations into context.

BOTTOM LINE:  You can kill cells with Roundup, and it looks like it is the surfactant that is the problem in tissue culture.  The decrease in hormones does not precede cell death, so there is no evidence of endocrine disruption. 

Now contrast this with what GMO Free USA says:

This says it all. GMO Free USA are simply manipulating public sentiment by distorting science.  This is shameful misrepresentation of good work done by a solid scientist. 

To show a fetus in the womb, claim evidence of endocrine disruption, and then make bold pronouncements of "human cells not Roundup Ready"... it is beyond unethical.

Why does anyone believe them?  

Did they fool you too? 

And this was on Henry Rolands' GMO Evidence website:
Quoting exactly what Dr. Young didn't say!

And for what it's worth-- I'm blocked from responding to their facebook page, so I can't provide real analysis of this paper and show how they use it to bring fear to their followers. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Response to the Food Babe. This is Boring.

Responding to the Food Babe is like telling a funny joke to my dog at a party.  Everyone there gets it-- except for the dog.  She just tilts her head to one side and looks at me like I'm stupid. 

Last week the New York Times published an appropriately critical piece of Vani Hari, The Food Babe.  Writer Courtney Rubin included some of my sentiments, as I have been critical of Ms. Hari’s use of social media to force change through mobilizing group protests, that incite change through coercion and intimidation rather than through measured scientific reasoning. Festoon that attack on science with some kale leaves and a squash recipe and nobody seems to notice. 

Ms. Hari fired back via her website, taking me head-on.  She didn’t approach my points, but instead took the opportunity to exercise a wonderfully textbook ad hominem criticism of me.


Aside from the name and title, and the fact that I answer questions for GMO Answers, she doesn't get much correct.


I didn’t want to respond.  It’s boring.  She doesn’t get it, I do, she makes money selling ideas and products, I don’t.  Her empire is built upon non-scientific ideas and tumbles down if scientists are involved, my empire is built on science and will be just fine no matter what happens to Hari.

So let’s move through her points and get to a punch line.

1. “He (Folta) does not specialize in health or nutrition”- Yes, my terminal degree was only in molecular biology, but I do have lots of training in human and animal physiology.  As a still competitive athlete, I do understand and read credible work about health and nutrition.  So remind me about her formal training again?

2.   “… rather he’s a crop scientist specializing in GMOs…” – That’s the first time anyone has accused me of that, I guess I’ll take it.  I’m a rather basic scientist, meaning, I work in the area of discovery without a lot of direct application. I would not call myself a “crop scientist”.  Lord knows I’m working on that and maybe someday will ascend to that level of expertise.   My main crop is Arabidopsis thaliana, a small lab model mustard, along with Fragaria vesca, a laboratory model for diploid strawberry.  Neither are “crops”.  We do some genetic  work in octoploid (commercial) strawberry, so maybe that’s what she means, but those are not transgenic (GMO).

I guess I do know a lot about transgenic crop technology, so I do specialize in that area.

3. “…. Who seeks industry funding to support his research…”—97% of my lab’s funds have come from federal sources since I first applied for funds back in 2001.  What industry funding we do have comes from the strawberry industry grower cooperative here in Florida (Florida Strawberry Growers Association), and a some funding from companies that are looking at strawberry as a future crop. No, it is not Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, BASF, Dupont/Pioneer, etc.

When we speak of “seeking industry funding” we clearly refer to the deregulation and commercialization of transgenic crops.  That was the point in the  paragraphs she provided in her cherry-picking of a local Gainesville paper article. I suggested that we don't have GM strawberries and tomatoes because the industry does not want to support it. That's true.

I absolutely do think that the industry should finance the  R&D on plants they’d want for their profits.  I do not think this should be a public liability.  Apparently Hari believes that the taxpayer should be on the hook for the cost of developing and deregulating GM crops for commercial production.

I believe that it is the industry’s responsibility, not yours and mine.  So my point stands- there is no industry support for this technology.

4.  “Dr. Folta writes for GMO Answers… a website that’s funded by the biotechnology industry”—That’s right, I do.  I am grateful for a place to answer questions from people wanting to know what a scientist thinks about this topic and how scientists interpret tihe peer-reviewed literature.  The website is funded by the industry—but my answers are not.  The answers would be the same if they were written on any scientific website. 

Ms. Hari should not disqualify the scientist because of where they share the science—she should criticize my answers on the website. Unfortunately, that is not in her training, and my answers are consistent with a scientific consensus.

5.  There’s an obvious conflict of interest there – he is a pro-GMO activist” – Hmmm.  So a scientist, answering questions about science, on a science website, is a conflict?  I’d never say I’m ‘pro-GMO’ but I am ‘pro-science’.  I’ll change my position on GM if data dictate that change.
On the other hand, Ms. Hari is a food activist that seeks change through coercion and intimidation, then she sells products on her website, and sales benefit from her actions.  If there’s a conflict of interest!

6.  “I have doubts about the technology and its role in the proliferation of chemicals that are impacting human health” – I’m not sure what she’s referring to here, as Bt corn/cotton cut insecticide use and  there is no demonstrated mechanistic relationship between glyphosate and human health, when used properly.

7. “I , along with the majority of Americans believe that we should have the right to know whether we are consuming GMOs – he does not” --  I’m glad to help people understand the technology and what they are eating. That’s great!  I am not in favor of labeling and the poorly written laws. Plus, 80% of people want food products containing DNA to be labeled.  That shows how little people understand about this technology, and is an argument ad populum

So I just spent 10 minutes responding to a mindless rant, which is the last time I'll do it.  I hate the tone of the conversation.  I only wish that her wide reach could learn some of the real science and we could get this technology working in the right direction, doing good things for those that can use it. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Complaint Department.

Don't take a number, don't write a nasty-gram, pick up a phone.

Over the last year something happened that I didn't really expect.  Somehow the professional me, and the personal me, became the same dude, 24/7.   I suppose that is to be expected when you are someone that is excited about public interaction as part of your job.

Part of the reason is that I don't think anyone actually reads this or follows anything I do on Twitter, Facebook, etc.  I participate in a conversation, have fun interacting with nice people, and not-so-nice people.  It is just a pleasure to have an efficient electronic medium to communicate with others, oftentimes sharing a joke or explanation of science.

Don't waste your time penning lengthy nastygrams to my superiors--
Reach out the inferior!  Give me a call, we can work it out the easy way! 

However, it becomes part of a publicly visible record, that now can be sifted to find gems of discontent, the times when I have crossed a line, said something unbecoming or wrong.  Which I do!  I like a edgy joke and an pithy comment.  I unleash a bit at times, especially when defensive.  I know that.  It is not always right, not always good. 

Now that private-idiot Kevin Folta and science-guy, professor-administrator have become one, it is freakishly necessary to watch every step, every word.  Not only does US-RTK want my emails back to 2012, there are others sifting through the past, looking for something to take out of context or misinterpret.

When they find it, they put it up on the web where it moves through the anti-GM meme space.

Yesterday I posted the "Dude, I'm not really a welder" joke in a private conversation in Facebook and had to erase it, because it was going to get upset about it.

Or, they send it to the higher-ups at my institution and complain.  That's fine.  If I really cross a line, go there.

But first, pick up a phone and give me a call.  Let's talk about the problem.  In most cases if I've said something that bothers you, I can explain what it really means and maybe you'll feel better.

If I'm wrong, and I am all the time, I'm glad to apologize, and do what I can to make things right.

Angry emails, cranky blogs, and threats of lawsuits are not a great use of your time, at least at first.  Try the easy remedy.

Even the folks that disagree with me and my views on science, teaching, etc know that I'm reasonable to approach and always glad to take responsibility for something I did wrong.

Don't write to the Governor of Florida, the President of my university or anyone else in the chain of command, at least not first.  Let's work it out together, you and me.  Especially if I did something you find inappropriate, or off base... let me know.  I'll fix it.

That's a promise.  This whole venture is about going forward, sharing science and growing together.  Let's do that.  I'll do my best to do it the right way.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Petty Stance Against Student Progress

Last fall a student walked into my office. She wanted to survey public opinion about genetic crop improvement.  What are the triggers that excite or scare the public about how crops are changed by breeding, mutagenesis or other genetic techniques? 

I thought it was rather brilliant and solicited the assistance of Dr. Thomas Colquhoun, a friend that has mastered the use of Ideamap-based survey algorithms to gauge sentiment on a given topic.  This is the approach used by many agencies, from food manufacturers to governments, to learn about how the public really feels about a topic. 

We structured the study and hired a firm to obtain survey information from  over 450 random people across all demographic groups.

The data are astounding. 

Lots of time to carry a sign, but can't muster a few minutes to help an aspiring young woman scientist.

I thought we could add an interesting highly biased layer by applying the same survey instrument to traditionally "pro-GMO" audiences and those not as comfortable with ag biotechnology.  

We have used social media to do the recruiting. It has been easy to recruit "pro" participation.  

But anti-GMO sentiment is silent. Total crickets. 

What's the deal?  When I put any scientific anything online there are swarms of the anti-biotech that are happy to hammer on me. There is always someone wanting their two cents to shape a conversation.

Where are they now?  Why won't they help a student's efforts?  The survey is anonymous. 

 I posted on Facebook pages of anti-GMO organizations like GMO Inside, Occupy Monsanto, and Moms Across America.  I've included their handles in Twitter feeds and reached out personally to individuals like Nomi from Babes Against Biotech.

I even wrote to Gary Ruskin, the guy that wants my emails through the public records request.  He refused to help too, saying,"You're the one with the contacts in the big companies, why don't you get them to help you."

No kidding.  The guy accusing me of too much corporate integration denies my request on behalf of a student for anti-corporate participation, and tells me to go to the companies!

I've been a little blue about this because I really want those data. I think they could help us communicate better to an activist audience. 

I'm also sad for Victoria, the student.  She's invested heavily in this, it will be her senior thesis, and I wanted it to be complete.  

However, in a way this has been the best education for the student. She's really bright and will go a long way.  She sees the petty nature of the anti-GM movement first hand-- how they don't want to have a place in scholarship-- they want to obstruct science.  We've asked kindly for their input, and they have declined to participate. 

I thought they were bigger than this. 

Once we finish the study and the manuscript is published, we'll provide a list of places solicited.  I'm glad to also make it part of the report. 

At least we did the right thing and burned a lot of calories to get their feedback.  They can't say they were not asked.