Thursday, September 30, 2021

REPOST: A civil conversation about the future of food

 The following article was printed April 7, 2015.  It was written by Iowa State student Kelsey Faivre after she attended talks by Vandana Shiva and me, Kevin Folta.  

Shiva was invited to Iowa State University by a student group. Fearing the usual barrage of bad information, another group on campus invited me to provide the scientific counterpoint.  My whole presentation from 3/25/15 can be seen here. 

Ms. Faivre captured the contrast between the two events well.  Reprinted here without permission from Feedstuffs where it was originally printed and no longer available.



A civil conversation about the future of food

By Kelsey Faivre

DR. Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, recently came to lecture at Iowa State University.

The subject of his lecture was transgenic crops (also known as genetically modified organisms GMOs) — what they are, what they can do and how to communicate about them. Folta, who uses transgenic crops for research in his lab, has firsthand knowledge.

The main points of Folta's lecture were that transgenic crops have been determined to present no more risk than conventionally bred crops, there is an important place for them in the future of agriculture and that the debate surrounding them is not a scientific one.

With a clear majority of scientists supporting the safety of transgenic crops, the debate surrounding these crops "is a social one fueled by fear and misinformation," he said. Folta used a fungus-resistant strawberry and a citrus tree resistant to citrus greening as examples of future applications of transgenic breeding.   

Folta's lecture followed one by activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, which happened two weeks prior (Feedstuffs, March 23). Though the topic of Shiva's lecture was similar — she and Folta both discussed the impacts of transgenic crops — the two lectures could not have been more different. Not only did their content differ, but their communication methods and motives clearly were dissimilar.

Folta presented the scientific consensus regarding the safety of transgenic crops, explaining that plant breeding is inherently risky, but transgenic breeding methods present no more risk than conventional breeding.

Shiva rejected this consensus, claiming that there are health risks associated with GMOs despite the fact that no cases of GMO-related illnesses ever have been reported. In fact, Shiva supported her anti-GMO agenda with research that Folta noted was either discredited — like the work of Gilles Seralini — or distorted by the media — as in a study regarding placental cells and glyphosate.

Folta said he wanted to connect with people who are concerned about the safety of their food and are at risk of being swayed by activists who benefit from others' fear and mistrust. It was refreshing to hear from someone who is a primary source of information and is clearly passionate about delivering the facts.

After being in both audiences, I felt that there was a more obvious discontent with Folta's message. One gentleman in the crowd interrupted Folta twice — the second time proclaiming, "I think about 90% of what you've said could be proven false."

Despite this angry, cynical challenge, Folta remained calm and responded with grace and kindness. Folta then used the challenge to illustrate his point that anti-GMO activists sometimes make more noise than scientists and farmers and use fear to cover up facts.

After his lecture, Folta stayed for more than an hour to answer questions on topics ranging from the ethical issues surrounding transgenic crops to the research he is doing in his lab. When difficult questions came up, he agreed to look into things further and follow up with individuals, and in one case, he invited someone to participate in a study with him.

Folta set a great example of how we, in agriculture, can engage non-science audiences in conversation. One of his ideas on scientific communication is that we have to, as he said, "stop beating people over the head with science"; the public wants to hear the facts without needing a Ph.D. to understand them.

He also appealed to the values of every person in the room, acknowledging that "at the end of the day, we are all on the same page and want the same things; we just bring different toolboxes to the table."

Having listened to both Shiva and Folta, the biggest difference I could detect in their messages was the tone behind the messages. I fear that my fellow students left Shiva's lecture feeling scared, mistrustful and conflicted. I hope those who listened to Folta left knowing more about the science behind the technology and feeling more reassured about the future of food.

No matter how you feel about transgenic crops, one thing is certain: Using fear, blame and mistrust is not the way to start or end this conversation.

Folta and an audience member discussed her genuine concerns about transgenic crops for almost a half-hour, and it remained a conversation rather than devolving into a verbal battle. At the end of her questions, Folta asked if there were any type of transgenic crop she would accept. After several minutes of deliberation, she admitted that using a transgenic orange tree to stop citrus greening would be a good application. That is what I call a success.

In my opinion, Folta did an excellent job of delivering facts over fear while maintaining a civil, open and conversational atmosphere. That is something to be commended.

I left Folta's lecture feeling something I haven't felt in a while: hope. We can open up a civil conversation about the future of food. By sharing our agricultural and scientific stories, we have the opportunity to cast light on the facts of modern food production.

*Kelsey Faivre is a sophomore in agricultural communications at Iowa State University. She was raised on a row crop operation in DeKalb, Ill., and raises cattle.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Letter to the EU


 

The European Commission is taking public feedback on gene editing.  I urge you to send your letter here:

USE THIS LINK

If you need an idea of some aspects to emphasize, here are my comments:


Sustainable farming in the EU is critical; economic sustainability for EU farmers, and environmental sustainability for the limited agricultural land in the region. Keeping costs manageable for EU citizens and potentially bolstering agricultural exports or fostering less reliance on imports is important too. To meet these challenges, EU scientists should have full access to all technologies to produce safe and sustainable crops. As a scientist in the USA I have hosted dozens of EU scientists that are frustrated by policy that restricts their research and their ability to produce solutions for their home countries. The current restrictions are arbitrary, not science based, and reflect the whimsy of political/ideological views over a scientific consensus. My terminal degree is in molecular biology and I have followed genetic engineering since human insulin was created in microbes in the early 1980's. Gene editing, the process using sequence-directed nucleases, is a revolutionary technology that has already had tremendous positive impacts in agriculture and medicine. Briefly, in shaping a future EU policy the most important points to consider are: 1. Speed. Gene editing can often install the same genetic changes as plant breeding (making crosses), only it can be done on a scale of months rather than years/decades. 2. Precision. Gene editing can install genetic changes that underlie important traits (e.g. resistance to disease) that are known in plants broadly, but perhaps not present in that species. They would be impossible to incorporate with traditional breeding techniques. 3. Accountable effects. While gene editing is highly precise, it is prone to errors and off-target effects. However, our ability to sequence genomes provides a means to inventory the associated changes and assess them for risk, if they occur. 4. Sovereignty. The technology is simple and can stimulate new industry around regional crops, giving power to smaller EU companies and expanding seed invention/production away from a small, consolidated handful of multinational corporations. 5. Adaptability. Gene-trait associations are known to help plants mitigate the effects of temperature stress, salinity, flooding, etc. Being able to install these traits into established regional crop varieties will likely provide a rapid means to approach issues caused by climate change. 6. Rapid response. The emergence of new pests and pathogens requires a rapid means to adapt to new threats that cannot be achieved by traditional plant breeding. 7. Minimal risk. Gene editing techniques are much more precise than the well-accepted mutagenesis techniques currently allowed by the EU, and it can be done without introduction of foreign DNA, such as in the production of transgenic plants. The EU has unique challenges that demand that all tools be considered in meeting future food security needs. To hamper the hands of the EU's best scientists with arbitrary, emotional, non-evidence-based policy is a travesty, and will affect EU sustainability and seed choice in the near future. It is critical to allow European scientists access to the same tools to genetically improve crops that other countries have available. I'm very happy to answer your questions. Kevin M. Folta Ph.D. Professor University of Florida

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Talking Biotech 308 - The Origins of GMO Disinformation

 Where does bad information begin and how does it propagate?  I speak with University of Connecticut law professor Robert Bird in this week's podcast. 



Sunday, August 29, 2021

Talking Biotech 307 - Glyphosate Residues and Dietary Exposures

While glyphosate is claimed by may to be ubiquitous in food, how much is really there and is it a legitimate risk?  I had the opportunity to ask a panel of the world's experts about a recent review they prepared that summarized the peer-reviewed literature on detection, residues, exposures and risk. 





 

Friday, August 27, 2021

Report on the Problem You Create- The Rise of Cyclical Sensationalism


 A reporter places a banana peel at the top of the staircase in a local mall. A customer walks toward the stairs only to be shoved by the reporter onto the banana peel and down the stairs. The customer dies from traumatic injuries. 

The next day the reporter's headline reads, "Customer Dies on Mall Stairs."

The same reporter repeats the assassination ritual a few more times and shares the story of a negligent staircase widely on social media. he also cites his own article from the previous week, giving the impression of an epidemic of dangerous stairs. From there it spreads among local mall patrons. 

The next week the reporter's headline reads, "Customers Concerned about Staircase Safety at Mall."

*****

A visible trend is emerging in crank journalism and slimy activism-- reporting on the significance of a problem that they themselves created.

For unethical "journalists" it is a way to create "evidence" that their errant or malicious position actually has support. First they produce media or messaging that makes a bogus claim. Next, they cite their own media source to create the perception that their bad claim has wide support. In other words, they strategically place the banana peel and shockingly report when someone slips on it. 

I call this cyclical sensationalism.   It is a case where maliciously motivated can create faux news to fool the reader into believing a false claim is legitimate. This tactic is used for several reasons:

1.  To harm the credibility and trust in legitimate scientists. 

One especially egregious violator of ethical standards uses cyclical sensationalism as a mainstay. Paul Thacker foists the patina of a legitimate journalist, but in my estimate he's a stooge working for the anti-GMO, anti-5G, anti-scientist interests like US-RTK. 

He started writing fallacious stories about me in 2014, and trolls my social media accounts with regularity. Some of his work has been retracted by ethical journals.  Other stories he has written appear in Grist and The Progressive, and all target me unfairly and inaccurately.  Both Grist and The Progressive failed to take action when I notified them.  

The Progressive did offer me a 250 word rebuttal to the 10,000 word hit piece. I declined. 

The point is, he is one of very few writers that seem to scam publication outlets into publishing his filth.  So he writes new hate pieces and then links to his own old work citing the name of the source (e.g. The Progressive) rather than the author (him).  The goal is to trick the reader into believing that there are independent, legitimate voices that agree with his claims, and that he's not a lone goof libeling scientists. 

I complained to Grist about the piece they hosted.  In the article Thacker states without question that my research can't be trusted because it is compromised by corporate influence, which is absolutely not true.  As I stated in my letter: 

"... he (Thacker) does the execution, leaves the shotgun in your closet, and then uses social media to say, “Hey, look who Grist just killed.” 

I'm not the only one. He's done this to other scientists like Dr. David Gorski, and good journalists like Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. The list is reasonably long, but he has a special eerie tumescence for me.  


2. Amplification with cyclical self-sharing. 

Retweets and shares come from linked accounts held by the same person, or within a tight network of cronies, provides a false sense of legitimacy or consensus to poor scientific ideas.

A really good example is US-RTK, the science hate group that seeks to harm reputations of scientists on behalf of the industries that pay their bills.  Gary Ruskin and Carrie Gillam retweet Stacy Malkin's posts (both US-RTK employees), then US-RTK retweets their retweets. Usually it does not go much farther than that. 


3. To give the perception of mass interest in a non-problem that they describe as a risk. 

A recent tweet by the Non-GMO Report claims that 49% of US adults...  you can read it! 

Duh!  When an organization endlessly maligns a technology and makes false claims about it, certain elements of the public are influenced. They then report about the phenomenon they helped create! 

This example is a great case of cyclical sensationalism, creating the problem, and then pretending to independently report that there is a problem. The BIOHAZARD sticker is 100% intended for shock value. When the world is trying to figure out who to trust about food and farming, consumers are influenced by this malicious messaging.

Of course, Twitter sets them straight:



These are just three ways that self-citation and near-network amplification spreads misinformation.  It is cyclical sensationalism, and is becoming more common as crank claims and pseudoscience become more prominent through the limited filters of social media. 


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Dissecting the Dr. Dan Stock Video

One of the saddest parts of the pandemic is the number of trained physicians that have divorced themselves from their training and exploit their credibility to motivate action on an agenda. In my study of the social dynamics of the pandemic I'm finding more and more physicians that promote politically acceptable views of their community over published science. 

As I continue to gently persuade and address concerns in social media I frequently get a video or podcast thrown at me.

"Well what do you say about THIS, plant scientist!" they say. 

The assertion is that just because someone completed medical school (or maybe didn't lots of folks call themselves "doctor" and do not fulfill accredited training) they have some special forcefield of infallibility. 

But they are fallible, and dangerous. The credibility of the title matters, and is being wielded at local events and school board meetings to influence critical public health decisions. 


Indiana sort of health guy Dr. Dan Stock misinforms a school board about COVID19 and it takes a plant molecular biologist to sort it out. 

One video I was sent by FOUR separate people is at the Mt. Vernon, Indiana school board meeting.  A guy dressed like John Boy Walton introduces himself as Dr. Dan Stock, expert in "functional medicine". 

Red flag #1.  "Functional medicine" is a red flag tagging dubious alternative medical practices like reiki and energy field manipulation. Most of the disciplines used are bogus, unlike I guess non-functional medicine, the stuff that works. 

The evidence presented was a Gish Gallop of false claims, starting with the Indiana Board of Health and the CDC fail to "read the science". Then he says, "everything recommended by the CDC is contrary to science."  

The CDC is operating contrary to science. Riiiiiiiight. 

The first time I watched it to 45 seconds when he claimed masks don't work. After the second person to send it to me wanted an analysis, I went through the whole thing, painfully. 

Here we go: 

Claim 1.  "all respiratory viruses are spread by aerosol particles which are small enough to go through every mask"

Fact- viral particles are highest in the fine particles that come from deep in the lungs.  They are smaller than 5 um and most projected from taking, singing, yelling (Coleman et al., 2021). These are significantly attenuated by an N95 mask and even a basic surgical facial covering (Leung et al., 2020). 

Claim 2.  Respiratory viruses time infection for the "immune system to get sick through the winter"

Fact- This makes zero sense. His contention is that the virus is always there, human immunity drops and then it takes over. There is substantial evidence against that, namely the huge spike we're seeing the USA now. And the huge spike during our winter, but in Brazil, where it is their summer. There are seasonal variations in some respiratory viruses, but they are due to other factors, mostly people concentrating indoors. 

Claim 3.  Vaccines make your immune system "deranged...  cause symptomatic disease"

Fact-- the vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective.  There are rare cases of myocarditis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, and cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (a specific clotting in the brain), along with anaphylaxis reported.  However, the fact that these are identified as a handful of doses in 160,000,000 vaccines shows that the vaccine is safe and that the side effects are being carefully monitored.  


Claim 4.  Vaccines can't work because the virus is in "animal reservoirs" and goes on to name a number of other viruses, like influenza. 

Fact- Flu and SARS-CoV2 are very different viruses. Influenza viruses undergo genomic shuffling to vary their genetics and presentation to the immune system. While SARS-CoV2 variants exist, they are slow to emerge and evade vaccines, which work quite well and were very effective against the original variants. He talks about respiratory scintitial virus (RSV) as being zoonotic, when there is no evidence for that. 

Claim 5.  Vaccines "go wrong" because of antibody dependent enhancement, "worse than it (infection) would be if fully vaccinated".  He mentions the incidence of COVID19 among the highly vaccinated Provincetown outbreak. (Draws applause)

Fact-  The folks in Provincetown were 99% vaccinated, so almost all cases (we know the vaccine isn't 100% effective) will be in vaccinated people.  If everyone is wearing red shoes, the odds are that everyone with COVID19 will be wearing red shoes. 

There is also ZERO evidence of antibody dependent enhancement (ADE) with respect to SARS-CoV2, the phenomenon where vaccination leads to worse symptoms upon actual infection. It is a real problem with some vaccinations, like the early versions of Respiratory Scintitial Virus (RSV) vaccine.  It has never been an issue with others, like measles. Clearly the least vaccinated counties have the highest incidence of symptoms/disease, the exact opposite of if there was ADE. 

Claim 6 - "No vaccine prevents you from getting infection"

Fact - not true. HPV works great. Well established. 

Claim 7 - "vitamin D, ivermectin and zinc, not a single person that has come near the hospital" 

Fact-  he treated 15 people. Odds are that out of 15 infections most are unlikely to need hospitalization. I wonder how many of his untreated control group were hospitalized?  Oh, he didn't have one. What dose did he use?  How did he determine it was safe and effective at that dose? He just took a wild-ass guess.  There are no clinical good clinical data on ivermectin and zinc for COVID19, so he's doing his own experiment on his patients based on beliefs, taking a guess at levels needed to treat a novel virus.  Ethical?  

Claim 8 - "patients that recover from COVID19 have no benefit from vaccination." 

Fact-  the CDC has looked at this (Cavanaugh et al, 2021) and there is significant reductions in reinfection after vaccination following natural infection. 

Claim 9 - "suffer 2-4 x  side effects if vaccinated" 

Fact - There is no evidence to support this. 

He then says that the board is wrong because they aren't scientists and listen to the NIH, CDC and Indiana Board of Health... but then says that he should "listen to the people in the audience" as the average person in rural Indiana is certainly a better source of infectious disease information than our nation's infectious disease brain trust. 

He then offers to be an expert for free if they are sued.  (Applause)

The bottom line is that Dr. Dan Stock is making unfounded assertions that placate the political rejection of science resident in his community.  While a school board has a responsibility to protect the health of children, the community will follow guidance that fits their beliefs, even if it is wrong. 

Dr. Dan Stock just used his authority to affirm their beliefs, beliefs that vaccines don't work, masks don't work, and that the virus is treatable with bogus nostrums. 

First, do no harm Dr. Stock.  First do no harm

This is dangerous, and explains why his community will soon be a twisted little red pixel on the Indiana map, suffering from the spread of a completely preventable pathogen.  When licensed physicians deceive the community they serve, shouldn't there be some repercussion?  

I guess if they want to be deceived he's in the right place. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Massive COVID19 Gain-of-Function Experiment -  Are You Part of It?

Critics of SARS-CoV2 research decry the use of the gain-of-function experiments used to study viruses. Such experiments are designed to test how changes in DNA sequence relate to enhanced activity of a gene product on biology, or in this case, the function of a virus. Mutation of viral DNA may lead to enhanced transmissibility, infectivity, pathogenesis, or lethality, among other effects. 

That is exactly why researchers perform gain-of-function experiments in the safety of a laboratory setting.  By understanding the biology in controlled circumstances scientists can better prepare to address the virus if it naturally becomes problematic in a population. 

Yet critics of gain-of-function research say it is dangerous and unnecessary.

And the same critics are also the least likely to be vaccinated. 

The unvaccinated say they don’t want to be part of an experiment. 

By failing to be vaccinated, they have become an experiment.

This is the profound irony. Those that refuse vaccination are the most likely to sequester in small towns, churches and political rallies. They participate in work and social functions as though the virus is not a threat. Few masks, little distance, limited isolation, life as usual. They are a gain-of- function experiment, a spawning ground to test effects of new mutations.


When ignorance goes viral, the virus goes to the ignorant. 


In the lab, prescribed changes may be made in DNA precisely, and the effects can be followed in laboratory animals. 

Outside the lab, the virus replicates furiously in the body.  The body produces hundreds of billions of viral particles. Each round of replication is slightly imprecise, potentially introducing random errors into the newly-produced virus. Most mutations have no effect. Others negatively affect the virus, its transmissibility, infectivity, or pathogenesis.  We don't ever see these viruses in populations because they are a biological dead end.

But occasionally a mutation arises that bestows gain-of-function. When that newly-enabled virus escapes containment in that first breath, it may gain a foothold in a population, and become a new "variant of concern".

We are learning about enhanced viral function by studying the new variants now circulating in populations. 

There is no question that vaccine denial follows political and regional trends. These areas are the breeding grounds for new variants. It is the most extensive viral gain-of-function experiment ever performed.  

And remarkably people are willing to participate. 

Please get vaccinated.