Monday, October 25, 2021

Hey Goofballs, Science is Not a Popularity Contest

Starting a few weeks ago the European Commission began a public feedback period on the regulation of gene edited crops.  Gene editing is a relatively non-invasive, rapid way to make precise genetic alternations of crops to improve specific traits. Changes made frequently emulate natural variations. 

The EU has had excessively harsh restrictions on transgenic technology, not approving any new genetically engineered crops in decades. Activists wish for the same hyper-rigorous repression of technology to be applied to new plant genetic improvement techniques. 

EU farmers and scientists almost universally feel that the technology could have some benefit, and should be part of the region's technologies. 

So when the European Commission opened a public comment period, it was spammed by an avalanche of identical and near-identical comments that were distributed by anti-biotech groups.  No thinking, just copying and pasting as they were told to.  


The European Commission asked for scientific, thoughtful comments and instead got slammed with spam. 

The part that anti-biotech groups and their lackeys forget is that science is not a popularity contest.  It doesn't matter how many people cut and paste your misguided rant into the form. It still only represents one opinion, zero data or citation, and in any "anti" movement you'll can always find a willing group of parrots willing to repeat exactly what you tell them. 

Cut/paste = LAZY.  The reviewers are not stupid. 

I watched this develop over the last few weeks, and while anti-biotech groups would not persuade anyone at the EC, they'd take a victory lap. After all, there were thousands of comments against the relaxed restrictions on gene editing. 

And true to form it happened. 



Leave it to the followers of Rudolph Steiner to get the science way wrong. During molecular biology class they were busy putting cow poop in a horn to harness cosmic energy.

It is amazing that the anti-biotech folks would claim victory after encouraging a campaign to spam a sincere effort to gather information about a new technology.  Luckily, the folks at the EC will hopefully be persuaded by this overt manipulation.

Those that have lost the argument raise their voices.  When you don't have the science on your side you have to spam the conversation in an attempt to minimize the actual science communicated.

If I was a regulator in the EC and had to weed through cut-and-paste nonsense to get to the nuggets of actual information, I would not be so happy with the anti-biotech folks.  My guess is that this will backfire. Ultimately decisions are made on actual evidence, and your opinion doesn't matter, even if pasted sixty thousand times. That's why the EC even asked for scientific comments. 

This is why I appreciate science and sports.  They are the last meritocracies, the last places where superior performance still ultimately wins.  That's why the EC opened the public comment period.  Change is happening. 

Don't take a victory lap just yet. 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Seed Sovereignty? Not So Fast Farmers...

 For the last 25 years I've listened to the tired argument that Monsanto controls farmer seed choice.  Over and over again. Even since the hated seed company has ceased to exist, I still hear the same boring trope. 

This is the position of activist groups and their parrots, and others that never actually tried to tell a farmer what they would be allowed to grow on their space. 

Farmers choose what is best for their land, their schedule, their budget, input availability, and dozens of other factors.  Cotton, corn, soybean canola and sugarbeet growers oftentimes choose genetically engineered seeds containing the traits that serve their production system and support their bottom line. 

Farmers control farmer seed choice.

Unless you are a corn farmer in Mexico that wishes to use traited seeds. 


Anti-biotech activists feel that Mexican farmers should have the unrestricted freedom to choose any maize varieties they wish to plant -- from the list of  activist-approved varieties


Activist groups have decided that Mexican farmers should not have access to the elite corn technology, lines that contain engineered traits to aid in limiting weed pressure and cutting insecticide sprays. Despite farmer demand, activists have now pressured the government into not allowing these resources to be utilized. 

They claim that it is to protect native genetics near corn's center of diversification, but that's just not true. 

Farmers will be allowed to use hybrid corn without the GE traits. Those lines are just as likely to outcross with indigenous resources as any GE crop. If you want to preserve indigenous maize genetics, you need to have special programs to do that, and such programs are in place.

This is nothing more than activist groups using pressure to limit the acreage of genetically engineered crops. If that means forcing farmers to choose non-GE hybrids, increasing insecticide use, and returning to aggressive top-soil-sacrificing techniques to manage weeds, that's where they'll be. 

I don't ever want to hear any activists whine about companies limiting seed sovereignty. 

They are the ones restricting farmer choice to use proven, safe, and efficient genetics to suit the needs of their farms.

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.