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.  

Monday, December 30, 2019

Sickle Cell Disease- Therapy Success, Anti-GE Failure

While the internet's 'experts' and celebrity doctors proclaim genetic engineering to be a dangerous and unnecessary foray into 'playing God", a young woman's life has changed forever because of a revolutionary therapy.  The story appeared on the CBS News magazine 20/20 on December 29, 2019. 

At this point, Jeannelle Stephenson appears to be cured of Sickle Cell Disease, a debilitating genetic disorder that caused her immense pain and suffering. 

Ms. Stephenson suffered from "bone crushing pain" and a sedentary lifestyle because of the disease. She considered herself "middle age" in her 20's because the disease kills its victims early. She was not alone, as Sickle Cell Disease affects about 100,000 Americans.  I covered the story and modern therapies on the Talking Biotech Podcast

First her bone marrow was destroyed using chemotherapy.  At that point she could produce no more blood cells.  Then scientists introduced stem cells genetically altered with the corrected genetic information. After a transfusion of these stem cells, they started to produce the correct cell types, eliminating sickle cell disease. 

Today she leads a normal and active life. 

I could not watch it without crying.  It is so powerful to see technology end suffering and change lives. I'm so grateful to the scientists, and the technology that allows it to happen.

But I also was choked up because this should have happened years ago, and while Jennelle is a success story many are suffering today with the disease.  The vocal opponents of genetic engineering and the politically-imposed restrictions on stem cell research delayed these kinds treatments. They should have been reaching patients years ago and in wide deployment, and we should be well past celebrating a single success story.   

In this episode I saw hope for the future and contempt for those that sought, and continue to seek, restrictions on technology than can help others, simply to satisfy an empty belief or political motivation. 

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Jeffery Smith's Confession

I thought he was going to apologize.  Instead he asked for more money to keep the crazy boat afloat, as his non-profit is as bankrupt as his scientific messages. It was only a matter of time. 

Jeffrey Smith is the author of books and producer of documentaries, the origin of hundreds of talks, articles and websites, all extolling the dangers of genetic engineering. He once was one of the prominent figures in that arena, and maybe still is. However that that arena has transformed into a tiny handful of science-free experts continuing to convince the credulous that their food world is about to collapse at any second, and that Monsanto is around every corner with a frosty stein of cancer-causing glyphosate with their name on it.   

Nobody is buying it anymore.  Two decades of fear-based messaging have influenced a culture by condemning failed agriculture, a corrupt regulatory system, and poison food supply.  But people keep eating. Sure there are boxes with butterflies and expensive boutique grocery outlets that exploit the ill-informed, but in general folks understand that food is safe. The most visible breaches of food safety often come as food poisoning from organic produce, the stuff that is supposed to cloak us in a happy silo of security. 

Smith's video is from October 19, 2019, so after two months of the campaign there were zero comments and under 500 views. Nobody really cares anymore.

His request for funding hinges on the tired old tropes of the "dangers of GMOs", and now includes rhetoric about the "threats of gene editing".  The appeals are logical leaps that ignore the science, but that's Smith's calling card.

What he should do-- confess his actual mistakes.  The guy has an audience, maybe a somewhat visible presence in that community.  He should simply state that he was wrong, that there are no health issues, and that his new position will be to build confidence in the safety of the food system, help American agriculture, and ensure that the technologies can move faster to help those in need worldwide.  He could make a point of  promoting universities and small companies, pulling share away from the multinationals, and helping responsible technology reach those they were meant to serve. 

Like the Food Babe, a little confession of ignorance, and a commitment to team with scientists to ensure food abundance and safety would raise his stock through the roof.  We like when people see the errors of their ways.  They are forgiven and welcomed into the scientific community with loving and open arms. 

But alas, he's just digging in deeper.  

At least nobody is paying attention. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

Learning to Live with Losing a Passion

I'm grieving a change in my life, and while some may consider this over-dramatic, I'm wrestling with my new reality and ultimately what this will be.

For 17 years my central roles as a professor have always been research and teaching.  I took on 5.5 years of wonderfully burdensome departmental administration and didn't miss a beat in publication, finding funding or mentoring students. 

In May of 2018 I was asked to step down as Department Chair. It was a tremendous shock to me, and grieving process unfolded as I learned to refocus my concern away from the management of a large group, big budgets, endless need, and the hiring and mentoring of junior faculty. It took me almost a year to find hard joy in intense work again, despite being surrounded by great faculty and wonderful scientists and students in my lab. 

It still was a very productive year that I look back on with a great sense of accomplishment.  

While my expertise is in genomics, molecular biology and biotechnology, most of my talks are in how to change the perception of science and  agriculture by rethinking our communications strategies. 

One of the saviors was my visibility in science communication. I still had a feeling of contributing to the greater good, and found even larger meaning there. If I could not contribute as much to departmental and university function, I could influence those that seek to control the perception of science and agriculture on a national and international stage. It was amazingly fulfilling.

I have an extensive background in communication from a nuts-and-bolts level, as well as good formal training in persuasion and rhetoric. I started to listen to respected experts, like Tamar Haspel, Johnathan Haight, and Daniel Kahneman. They helped me understand my mistakes in connecting with the public. I found ways to take their concepts and weave in others, presenting talks for farm, industry, and university audiences that intertwined psychology, sociology, customer service and understanding communication in social networks. 

The theme was earning trust. How do we develop trust in today's hypercharged atmosphere of polarization and outrage? 

I enjoyed great success, delivering the program in Germany and Australia, traveling the USA and speaking to many commodity groups and universities about modern values-based communication and strategic trust building. 

Winter in the northern states and Canada is a time of partial rest for crop agriculture.  It is the only time for conferences.  I had an ambitious slate of conferences scheduled for talks, including some huge venues and great audiences. 

That ended in November of 2019, as I was directed to cancel all of my talks going forward.  My time in teaching communication was dead in an instant, that passion left behind.  I was even told that the Talking Biotech Podcast was to end, as "it is not good for the university" and I needed to "do your job". 

(My group published 9 peer-reviewed papers, I brought in lots of grant money and helped design and teach a new class in the honors college, I was kind of doing my job pretty well)

Contacting the organizers of standing commitments was horrific. They had websites and schedules, some very elaborate.  Luckily most of them understood that this was beyond my control.  Luckily, luckily, good people I trust (that are not affiliated with my university and therefore not subject to administrative penalty for carrying my message) were willing to step in and fill the gap.  Thanks to Vance Crowe and "Farm Babe" Michelle Miller. 

Since, I have been invited to speak at three other events, all that I had to sadly decline.  I have been assigned new teaching duties in the fall and spring semesters, so that will eliminate any possibility of taking on talks that require travel.  Plus, I was told that my speaking to these groups "has no benefit to the university", so there's that. Strangely, it seems like universities would covet a faculty presence leading an important national discussion. 

 Through this all it became apparent that the folks in my university administration (that I support, respect, defend and appreciate) don't have a clue what I do, what the benefit is to the university, to the broader scientific enterprise, and to agriculture.  I would assume I was just wrong, except I read the reviews and the accolades. We are changing how we talk to those that fail to understand what agriculture really is. It is working.  And while I am out teaching communication skills to others, my most fervent attempts to communicate up within the university have failed miserably. 

There's a lesson in here that I recognize from years of attempting to reach people with recalcitrant positions.  People make decisions not based on reason or evidence. They make decisions based on other influences, and when entrenched, are nearly impossible to shift.  Listening to understand is shut down.  

It pains me that this happens in a university, and that crippling mandates can be handed down, that communication can be stifled, and that effective training ceases. These communications activities are those encouraged by our most elite scientific organizations, and I have won awards and recognition for my efforts in that space.  I'm not getting more invitations because of a dud product.

It also hurts me more because I'm rehabilitating a Google-based perception and reputation.  After the New York Times published a highly biased and factually challenged article about me in 2015,  I was told that I would need to do as many publicly-facing acts of visible good work as possible.  I was doing that, exploiting modern media, using podcasts, writing, and speaking gigs to raise my positive visibility.  Things were going very well. 

That all ends now.  It is time to shrink, disappear from visibility, and retire to the walls of a laboratory and a classroom.  That's not a complaint, it is a statement of my new reality.  And while I will miss public interaction and contributing to the broader issues in food security, profitable agriculture and adoption of new technology, I will certainly raise the bar inside my new little box. It's how I roll. 

I do not think that my new constraints will make me more productive, in fact it will hinder what I do.  As someone that performs best in a scatterbrained world of many activities, I'm already seeking opportunities to expand my wife's business, streamline and (literally) seed some efforts toward long-term retirement, and focus on keeping myself in top physical shape.  That's where I need to be now. 

I also contemplated leaving the university environment altogether. I've performed well in higher education, and have learned that if I don't have value or autonomy within the university, I certainly do outside of it.  I'll spend 2020 examining my options and likely will pursue new interests, business opportunities and return to public speaking in 2021. 

That all will hinge on how well my new reality gives me job satisfaction, a sense of value and a sense that others above me care to listen.  I don't respond well to mandates and restrictions.  I chose a path in the university system because I revel in academic freedom, and the license to pursue that which I consider valuable as a scholar.  This spirit has been violated in the last round of restrictions. 

The university justifies its actions by pointing to two twitter foibles that I committed back when my identity was stolen and paraded around the web. It left me with massive hassle and cost, and I acted abnormally in an abnormal time, which is to be expected. Situational weirdness under extreme duress does not accurately define who we really are, yet in this case has been used to justify the new restrictions. 

Forward.  One of my favorite words.  This weekend I'm finishing "Man's Search for Meaning" by concentration camp survivor Viktor Fankl, again.  I turn to that text in challenging times because it reminds us that even under the most extreme situations we have to find meaning in suffering.  My suffering as a recognized professor with a great paycheck, insurance, a home, food, family and life is pretty marginal. This too shall pass. 

But when you always strive to lead, do the best, and define a new edge, you need to have that passion and meaning.  I'm working on redefining that now, and hope to reinvent myself again after learning to live in this new reality.