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. 

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Talking Biotech 217 - Precision Medicine


Can genetic sequence data be used to guide diagnosis and therapy?  Scientists are finding that analysis of genetic information can reveal important information about drug sensitivity, probability of disease development, and other health risks and benefits.  Dr. Julie Johnson describes the use of genomics in the next wave of precision medicine, describing how the future of health care will benefit from understanding patients at the molecular level. 

Listen to this episode here

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Talking Biotech 216 - Nitrogen Fixing Bacteria in Plants


Plants need nitrogen to live, so farmers provide this nutrient through fertilization.  However, nitrogen is a gas that makes up the majority of air, but plants can't use it in this gaseous form. A conversion needs to take place to "fix" nitrogen, binding into a plant-usable form. This has been done using the Haber-Bosch process, an industrial form of nitrogen fixation that greatly expanded agriculture.  This process requires energy in production and transportation, and runoff can pollute water resources. Azotic Technologies has identified a bacterial species that inhabits the plant, and fixes atmospheric nitrogen. This could represent at least a partial way to supplement the need for exogenous nitrogen application.  

Listen to this episode here. 

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Talking Biotech 215 - The GE Crop Ban in South Australia


While Australian farmers have adopted GE crops with great economic and environmental success, the government of the state of South Australia has imposed a moratorium on their use.  The ban has been in place since 2005, and farmers in the region need to rely on more intensive methods of weed control and experience lower yields.  Recent political changes sought to reverse the ban.  Today's podcast features Caroline Rhodes, the CEO of Grain Producers South Australia, and discusses the unfair and burdensome rules that harm the state's producers. 

Listen to this episode here. 

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Talking Biotech 214 - Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning


Massive repositories of biological data have been generated over the last two decades. While humans can target certain goals to derive from the data, computational tools can oftentimes find what humans cannot, and do so without the inherent bias of the human brain. Dr. Gabe Musso from BioSymmetrics expertly describes artificial intelligence and machine learning, its limitations and misconceptions. 

Listen to this episode here. 

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Talking Biotech 213 - Egg Production and GE Ethics


New laying chickens are constantly produced to satisfy the demand for eggs. Unfortunately, males and females hatch, only the females are needed for egg production.  The males are destroyed shortly after birth, which leads to ethical and practical questions. Dr. Nigel Urwin describes efforts to use biotechnology to allow separation of eggs containing male or female embryos. The technology may change perceptions of genetic engineering and egg production.

This episode may be heard here.  

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Talking Biotech 212 - Michele Payn, Food Bullying


Michele Payn is  a much sought after keynote speaker and writer, and a strong advocate for agriculture.  She has completed the third book, this one dedicated to the pervasive problem of shaming and criticism around our personal food choices.  Listen to the whole story here. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Talking Biotech 211 - CAR-T Cells: Engineered to Attack Cancer

This week's podcast is pure gold, a great interview with Dr. Joe Fraietta from University of Pennsylvania.  Dr. Fraietta discusses CAR-T cells, human immune cells genetically engineered to attack specific cancers.  It is a great primer on a new therapy that is changing cancer treatment. 


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Talking Biotech 210 - Impossible Burgers and Biotechnology

This week's podcast covers plant-based meats and biotechnology used to create them, with Fueled by Science founder Dr. Chana Davis. 



Thursday, October 10, 2019

Faculty- You Are the Captain of Your Ship

My heart goes out to UC Berkeley researchers that literally had the plug pulled on their research.  Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has initiated a series of power shut-downs to curtail  potential wildfires sparked by their power lines in the Bay Area.  A few years ago their equipment led to a massive wildfire where they were found liable, so this move attempts to limit their exposure-- by cutting off power to 2.5 million people for up to 6 days

This causes unbelievably hard problems for folks in need of power to run medical electrical equipment etc, so it there are significant issues here that reach beyond inconvenience.  That said, this is an important note to faculty (and postdocs and students) about the limits of a university to help with a major crisis-- no matter how good the facilities people are, you can't count on the system to save you. 

That reality as researchers proactively took charge to save their critical resources. I have a funny feeling that it is only a few of them too, and that most are waiting for the Power Fairy to help out.

Twitter showed a case where one UC Berkeley researcher was moving the lab's -80°C freezers to UCSF to keep them cold.  Frankly I would have gone for the super-long extension cord, but that's me and my obsession with comically large versions of stuff. 




Moving trucks haul precious cargo of fragile frozen cells and other materials to another campus thanks to PG&E power outages.  Hopefully they won't hit traffic. Good luck with that.


This hit many researchers especially hard, and Associate Professor Noah Whiteman took to Twitter to ping folks in the university-system hierarchy from the Governor to the Vice Chancellor.  That's a good move, and certainly illuminates the state of infrastructure in public universities, but it doesn't keep the cells cold. 


He's right, but universities are strapped for cash under the current federal science funding situation and backup power is probably pretty far down the list. 


My advice to faculty, when your name is on the lab door it must become your responsibility to ensure that the necessary resources for your lab are in place.  You can't count on a university when a massive catastrophe hits, and when you build universities on fault lines, tornado alleys and hurricane haunts you need to have a plan beyond the university's.  Yes, universities hire outstanding people (like we certainly do) to address these issues, but there are only a few of them, while there are hundreds of faculty watching the sand run through the hourglass as a career's worth of valuable cells slowly thaws to death. 



I live in hurricane land, and power can be interrupted for days.  While some rooms in my building have backup power from a local diesel generator, my lab has no backup outlets.  Knowing this, I own a giant generator and a 200 ft power cord with a 220 V plug -- just to run to my -80°C freezer if needed.  I keep about 20 gallons of gas on hand during hurricane season and a full tank in the car and truck when hurricanes are approaching. I also can run other cords to 110V freezers to protect tens of thousands of dollars worth of enzymes and other labile materials. 

In 18 years at the University of Florida I only had to get it on the truck and over to the lab one time, and as I was going to fire up, the power went back on.  

The point is this-- part of your lab's long-term success depends on 
your personal crisis plan to insulate your research program from disaster.  This is on us as faculty.  Yes we pay >50% of every grant dollar to the university for overhead, but that can't adequately fund a safety net for when catastrophe hits. 

The other reality is that our universities should be on the cutting edges of alternative power, and every building should be off grid and on solar, wind, and the on-campus nuclear plant. A man can dream. 

The take-home message is that if it is critical to your operation do not count on someone else to take care of it.  This is especially true in the crumbling infrastructure of our nation's public science enterprise. As the captain of the ship, develop a backup plan and a strategy to save the resources necessary for your program to succeed.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Talking Biotech 207 - Engineering Microbes to Fix Nitrogen


What if we could create microbes that would fix atmospheric nitrogen and deliver it directly to the roots of plants?  That's the idea of Joyn Bio's Dr. Michael Mille.  The company has set out to use genetic engineering to reprogram microbial "chassis" that can do the work in the field, limiting dependence on external nitrogen fertilizer.  The process would transform agriculture and decrease carbon and nitrogen pollution associated with agriculture. 

Saturday, September 28, 2019

TB206 - The Ugly Politics of Glyphosate Litigation


 A relatively safe agricultural chemical is demonized as a carcinogen, lobbyists pose as journalists and stoke fear, NGOs defy science to advance agenda, lawyers make a fortune, science suffers and farmers lose options.  A population lives in fear of its food.  This is the fallout of the IARC decision. 

In today's podcast I speak with Dr. David Zaruk, a professor that understands risk and has examined the IARC decisions and the internal politics and gyrations of vilifying an agricultural compound, straight from the tort law playbook.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

TB205 - The Oxitec GE Mosquito Situation

Sterile insect technique is the process of treating insects with radiation to damage their DNA to render them unable to reproduce, and then releasing them into populations of the same species. Within a generation the numbers plummet.  This is a great approach for A. egyptii mosquitoes, as a genetic solution can slow spread of Yellow Fever, Dengue, Malaria, Zika, West Nile and a host of other diseases. It is better to control insects with genetics rather than insecticides.

Oxitech takes this one further and produces sterile insects using a larval-lethal gene that they can turn off in the lab.  Lab grown mosquitoes grow just fine, adults are sorted into males and females, and males are released to mate and pass on the lethal gene to populations that spread disease. The next generation, well, isn't. 

But control is not complete and by definition, the engineered mosquitoes must mate with local populations. It is important to note that the local populations of A. egyptii are invasive and not native. 

A recent report monitored populations and described that the introduced GE mosquitoes were mating with local ones, and that the Oxitech genetic background decreased with time. As it should. 

But that didn't stop a few speculative statements from the paper to be blown out of proportion. 




GM Watch, always looking for a way to trash technology, notes that the GE mosquitoes are "out of control" and that "GM mosquitoes are spreading in Brazil."  Neither statement is true. 

The transgene was not detected, just some of the native genetics from the introduced population. The transgene is lethal.  Not all mosquitoes pass on the transgene, but do mate, so an invasive non-native strain was mating with another invasive non-native strain. As predicted. 

The numbers also crashed, as predicted.  And in several generations the introduced genetics decreased in abundance and as of today are not detected.  Things are not running amok.  They are not even walking amok. 


This week's Talking Biotech Podcast covers the story in detail.  Please listen and understand this important topic, as this technique may save millions of lives if fully implemented. 




Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Talking Biotech 204 - Image Manipulation, Plagiarism, and Misconduct

Dr. Elisabeth Bik is amazing, with an eagle eye on publication misconduct. She voluntarily scans the scientific literature, looking carefully at images of cells and gels. Sometimes she finds that data have been fabricated. She reports this to journal editors, and hopes that the journals take appropriate action. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't.  Sometimes there is fallout.  She is taking a huge risk to ensure the integrity of the literature, as careers can hang in the balance, and she sets herself up for professional and personal peril.  We owe her a great debt and need to know her story and stand behind her. Please listen to her story. 

This week's podcast. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Guest on CanSurvivor

I had a most wonderful conversation with Kelsey Smith at CanSurvivor.  We discussed issues in health and nutrition, genetics and technology, along with some hints on the next-generation of new cancer therapies that are on the scientific horizon.  She was so much fun to talk to, and we share a forward-thinking and optimistic look at technology and the promises it holds for food and medicine. 



Saturday, September 7, 2019

Talking Biotech 203 - An HIV Preventative from Rice





Could a prophylactic powder from GMO rice stop HIV transmission in the Developing World? Dr. Evangelia Vamaka and her team have developed the technology, and it works well so far... This week's podcast with Lethbridge Alberta Canada high school student Michelle Wu.

Listen to the podcast here. 

Friday, September 6, 2019

Blocked from the USRTK Facebook Page

I liked visiting the US-RTK Facebook page a lot like I liked visiting the dentist.  Yes, it is uncomfortable at times, but I leave feeling like something was accomplished.  The difference is that in the dentist office I just leave behind spit water. On the US-RTK Facebook page I leave behind compelling information that helps link their followers to legitimate science. 

At least I used to. 

I was a "Top Fan" of the site, a designation given to those with frequent comments. 

This week I returned from Australia and spent nights up late, taking advantage of jet lag.  I was working on a couple of work projects, but would check over at US-RTK now and then. I frequently commented.  Kindly.  Lovingly.  With great respect and patience.  And it drove them crazy. 

I took a few screenshots.  I'd comment on something that they posted that was not quite true (imagine that), using science as a basis for the discussion. 

They'd return comments, calling the science "Bayer Propaganda" and then go after me for being a Monsanto lackey and the same stuff they've said for ages.  The ad hominem is alive and well at US-RTK. 


This was my appropriate comment to the posted article. The title was quite imprecise.  (Click to Embiggen)


That scientific lead-in spawned a whole lot of commentary.  The point here is, the internet is a spectator sport.  When you comment with tact and class, especially reaching out to a new community, you can change hearts and minds. 


Some of their usual suspects chime in, and I responded kindly and with respect as always. 



Bad logic and tired tropes spew from US-RTK supporters. This is a site that hates science and scientists, but look at the number of supportive "likes" my comments get in this hostile forum. 


It is amazing how they just make claims about "corporate benefactors" and "corrupted science". These folks have a religion, it is deep beliefs that insulate from outside thought. 


Even folks that are a little more reasonable like Lisa M. still fail to try to understand, and instead dig in harder with their talking points. 


Then we just be extra more nicerly.


Today I chimed in on a conversation with a guy named Steven.  He was commenting on Terminator Seeds and other familiar fiction.  I gave him good information, backed it with evidence, and he kindly agreed to look into it.  I also posted my podcast link.  Here someone opened their mind to change.  Maybe it won't happen, and that's fine.  The point is, he took a step toward understanding someone else's view.  That's all we can ask for.  If we can achieve that, good science and good evidence are evetually persuasive. 

Clearly I was creating change at the US-RTK site.  The large number of 'likes', the respectful discourse... it was changing minds in a reinforced echo chamber. 

So I was banned. 


Can't have crazy talk like this here.
That kind of respectful discourse might hurt the cause.



... and gone! 


I block people too, but only after they are abusive or cause me problems.  In this case the problems I was causing at US-RTK's site were purely based on dissemination of credible information they didn't want their followers to see.  A right to know? 

The other main point is that discussing science via the ultimate high road can change minds.  While others assert we need to be brawlers and mudslingers, love-slinging works sometimes too.  Maybe it takes all kinds, but this blog shows evidence that a light touch can be persuasive. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Lesser Abomination

The Scientific American article about "dying broccoli" and "toxic corn" drew wide criticism for its unreferenced and outright false indictment of modern agriculture, and flimsy treatment of concepts in microbiomes.  My dissection can be seen here. 

I contacted the editors, and apparently others did too. I was shocked to find out that there was no peer review or expert consultation.  The editors kindly returned a conscientious and conciliatory email that suggested they made a mistake and the authors would revise. 

Personally, nothing short of a full retraction was a remedy.  That first article was absolutely horrible, D.O.A. horrible. Not only did it vilify farmers, it scared people about food, and misinformed them about basic biology, and it was done under the banner of Scientific American, a trusted popular scientific brand.  

Out of the frying pan...

The editors published a "corrected" version.  I learned of the revision via Twitter from Dr. Elisabeth Bik (@microbiomdigest) someone that knows a thing or two about microbiomes. 




This is the editor's note, noting that the original work failed to meet editorial standards. 


And into a fajita skillet.

"Substantial revision" might be a slight step forward, but still is an absolute mess.  Here again is a painstaking dissection with referenced rebuttals. The revised text was longer, referenced (but with select references that supported the authors' assertions, ignoring all other contradictory literature) and equally fear-based and misleading.  Here goes... (click to make bigly)








There you have it.  The editors at Scientific American clearly don't realize how scholarly writing should be done, even if it is in a popular science venue.  As it stands, the work uses misrepresentation and cherry picking to disparage agricultural producers, conjure fear of safe and reliable chemistries/genetics, and promote a vision of agriculture that is ultimately unsustainable without removing a lot of people from the planet.

Articles like this get a day in the sun on Twitter. Anti-ag interests will bask in its words and share in their online communities.  The real atrocity is how Scientific American destroys its own credibility, abrades trust in farming, and scares people away from fresh fruits and vegetables, the most important food on the plate for long term health. 

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Talking Biotech 202 - Supporting Farmer Choice in South Australia

Listen to the Podcast Here

Australia has welcomed the use of genetically engineered crops, and farmers have found particular benefit from broad acre canola and cotton cultivation. However, the benefits were not realized by some states because of local moratoriums imposed by state governments. Farmers in South Australia grow wheat, canola and pulses, along with wine grapes, olives and other horticultural crops.  They would like the option to grow GE canola, as it may offer some benefits. More importantly, new technologies in gene editing may permit rapid response to new threats as well as tackle current issues in drought, frost, and pathogens. Fortunately, a science-minded change in government has led to discussion of removing the ban.  I speak with four agricultural leaders from the Grain Producers SA, a non-profit organization coordinating grower advocacy and communications. With Tanya Morgan, Adrian McCabe (@AdrianMcCabe6), Wade Dabinette and Dion Woolford (@rudigermaxpower).

Thursday, August 29, 2019

When Community Leaders (and News Media) Get it Wrong

It always bothers me when prominent community figures or celebs push rhetoric designed to deny farmers access to technology.  I'm visiting Adelaide, Australia and was amazed to see a local paper run a story about a local wine maker that "slams" a likely change in farmer seed choice. 

GE crops are perfectly allowable in Australia, but the state governments of South Australia and Tasmania have imposed restrictions that block their use.  Recent changes in policy suggest that these rules are likely to change. 

But news reports show that at least one local business leader is ramping up the rhetoric to skew public perception.  That's fine on the surface. We should have honest, science-based discussions.  The problem is that he gets the science wrong, the debate is asymmetrical, and it scares the public and disparages farmers that simply want the right to choose the technology whey wish to use. 

This article ran in South Australia:  (click panels to enbiggen)


It is disturbing when leaders in commerce make ill-informed statements that harm others' freedom to operate. 

Let's look at this article line by line-







The take-home message of this analysis is:

While the inflammatory headline indicates potential issues with health, there is no evidence of that presented and it is barely mentioned in the article.  However, to the casual headline-only reader it suggests that the article contains evidence of substantiate the claim. 

Dru Reschke should be very careful about the glass house he operates in.  Criticizing farmers for their safe choices that do not negatively impact human health, as someone who manufactures a product with known roles in negatively impacting human health is a dangerous and hypocritical position to take.  I would defend his right to follow his passions and pursue legal business choices just as I do farmers, but he needs to understand the optics of his bravado.  He manufactures a Class 1 carcinogen that if used as directed causes health problems and accidents. 

Mr. Reschke and the reporter communicating the story know little about glyphosate-based chemicals, and clearly there is evidence that little is understood about how any grape crop is treated or protected from the many threats that impede production. Grapes require chemistry to survive, conventional or organic. 

Headlines and articles like this are deceptive, incorrect, and misinform.  To maintain relevance the news media needs to consult experts in these subject areas before publishing false and misleading information that harms trust in farming. 


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Scientific American Destroys Public Trust in Science


This is a sad epitaph, parting words to an old friend that is now gone, leaving in a puff of bitter betrayal. 

When I was a kid it was common for my mom to buy me a magazine if I was sick and home from school.  I didn't want MAD Magazine or comic books.  I preferred Scientific American

The once stalwart publication held a unique spot at the science-public interface, bringing us interesting and diverse stories of scientific interest, long before the internet made such content instantly accessible.  It was our trusted pipeline to the new edges of scientific discovery, from the mantle of the earth to the reaches of space, and every critter in between.

But like so much of our trusted traditional science media, Scientific American has traded its credibility for the glitz of post-truth non-scientific beliefs and the profits of clickbait.  The problem is that when a trusted source publishes false information (or worse, when it hijacked by activists) it destroys trust in science, trust in scientists, and in the case presented here, destroys trust in American agriculture.    

The following article was published on August 20, 2019. The authors are Louise Elizabeth Maher-Johnson and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. The work has drawn strong criticism from others.  A semi-complete line-by-line refutation of claims presented is presented here. While the entire article is filled with egregious errors, I have highlighted several doozies below. 



1.    First, the clickbait title. Fail.  Broccoli production is just fine, with new varieties grown in expanding acreage. Corn is not toxic.  The microbiome, a collection of microbes in a given environment, has become the darling of credulous movements, as their known complexity can be manipulated to fit non-scientific conclusions. That is what we are seeing here.

2.    The first paragraph cites a food author, not peer-reviewed research, stating that food is “literally… poison.”  This is a profound slap in the face of the farmers that produce the safest food in human history.

3.    They cite Planetary Health, a website that presents the hypothesis that  "Ebola originated in modern agriculture and food practices..." and while they say there's no evidence for it yet, they certainly are looking for evidence to support that concept.  The website promotes remedies for Ebola based on a smoothie made from fermented plums, soy sauce and kudzu. 

4.    The next paragraph claims that food has lost between “10 and 100 percent” of nutrients, a common claim. It is based on the fact that modern breeding of crops has made them larger, yield better and face less disease. That means higher fresh weight that dilutes nutrients.  Others have corrected for water differences and show slight decreases, but note it is a trade off for size and yield (Davis et al., 2004).  Others have analyzed cost and show that calories and nutrients per unit cost have improved (Darmon et al., 2005).  In short, there are many comparisons in this area, and all are limited by the veracity of old data. Today we have unprecedented access to more diverse food, through more of the year, that costs less, that is safer, than at any time in history.

5.    “Not only are plants getting less nutritious, they are getting more toxic.” The authors present this argument without reference.  In reality there is clear evidence that the use of genetic engineering decreases crop damage and less toxicity due to lower levels of mycotoxins (eg. Bakan et al., 2002), fungal compounds with strong associations with cancers.

6.    2,4-D is not “similar to dioxins and Agent Orange”, it is an herbicide, a synthetic version of the plant hormone auxin that causes rapid growth and distorted gene expression in plants. Agent Orange was used as a military defoliant in Operation Ranch Hand in Southeast Asia. It was contaminated with dioxins from the synthesis of 2,4,5-T, another synthetic auxin that is no longer used.

7.    The claim that glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup and a chemical used in weeding genetically engineered fields) is in “air [and] rainwater” comes from a study by and Battaglin et al., (2014).  Battaglin detects glyphosate and its breakdown products in surface water and rain, but in vanishingly small amounts. The work by Majewski et al, (2014) detects glyphosate in air samples at 26 ng per square meter, and immediately adjacent to a cotton field where it is used.  The authors of the Scientific American article imply that this compound is present everywhere and in dangerous levels. It frames the deceptive nature of this article.

Here is a line-by-line dissection of most of the article. Click to enlarge.








This is yet another example of how our scientific literature is being distorted by predatory publishers and the predatory nature of motivated authors looking to promote non-scientific information as legitimate science. Maybe they’ll publish that vaccines cause autism next.

This kind of journalism destroys trust in agriculture, food, and science in general.  The type of false information presented has a well-established home in Netflix documentaries and on the pages of anti-farming, anti-scientist websites, not the child of the Springer-Nature Publishing Group, and the flagship periodical for science connections to the general public.

In these times where new discoveries happen every day we need to demand the highest standards of our legitimate scientific brands.  Scientific American was just used by misguided activists that seek to destroy the food system and revert to a non-existent model that is not sustainable.  Scientists, farmers, and anyone that likes to eat needs to stand firmly against efforts to commandeer our trusted brands for promoting non-scientific ideas.

Stop here. Swallow your coffee or you'll spit it at the computer screen when you see the cover of the September 2019 edition.





B. Bakan,*D. Melcion,D. Richard-Molard, and, and B. Cahagnier  Fungal Growth and Fusarium Mycotoxin Content in Isogenic Traditional Maize and Genetically Modified Maize Grown in France and Spain  Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2002 50 (4), 728-731

Battaglin, W.A.Meyer, M.T.Kuivila, K.M., and Dietze, J.E.2014Glyphosate and Its Degradation Product AMPA Occur Frequently and Widely in U.S. Soils, Surface Water, Groundwater, and PrecipitationJournal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA) 502): 275‐ 290. DOI: 10.1111/jawr.12159
Darmon N, Darmon M, Maillot M, Drewnowski A.J Am Diet Assoc. 2005 Dec; 105(12):1881-7.