Monday, November 5, 2012

Never Agree to Disagree in Science

Every now and then I'll be in a discussion with someone on a scientific topic.  There are three conversation enders that I abhor. 

1.  "You are just a shill for (insert company, political party, etc here), how much are they paying you?"  Read about that one here. 

2.   "What-ever."  Which is code for "I got nuthin'" 

3.  "We'll just have to agree to disagree." 

I just hate that last one, and it is the typical refuge of someone intelligent that has walled off their desire, but not ability, to learn about a given topic. 

For me, I can't "Agree to Disagree" about a scientific topic. If I'm wrong, please show me the evidence-- convince me. If you're wrong, it is important that I show you my evidence and convince you. 

Open hearts and minds can agree to find Truth, 
and discussion of evidence is the first step.  Scientists and
teachers are, by nature, compelled to do this  

Hair combing poster child Albert Einstein once said, "I'm not interested in being right, I am only concerned with whether I am or not.".  

This sentiment encapsulates the approach of most scientists.  Being right is not our job.  Testing a hypothesis and finding support for it, or evidence against it, is our job.  Our goal is to be right or wrong, just not somewhere in between.

As teachers we synthesize the information we have, distill patterns and form interpretations and conclusions.  This is what we teach, it is "right" until someone shows us otherwise. As a teacher, I care too much to let you be wrong, so on subjects where I am an authority I feel a sense of duty to add my thoughts.  In subjects where I am not an authority I feel a need to learn. 

When discussing a topic with a scientist bring real evidence, not bluster, accusations or finger pointing.  Leave anecdotes, hearsay and flimsy evidence at home.  Disagree on leaving the topic open ended.  Agree to civil discussion and learning.  Agree on seeking the truth, as the truth has no agenda. 

We never have to agree to disagree if we both agree on the Truth.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Leaving the Limbaughs of the Left: Parting Thoughts on Prop37

Over the last month I've had a lot to think about.  I visited several 3rd grade classes to teach kids about plant biology.  They all learned what makes plants unique from animals and how plants grow and develop.  In each class we did a simple experiment with two test tubes, two seeds, and two pieces of foil. Each tube contained a milliliter of water/agar. The kids would add one seed to each tube. They would wrap one in foil, leave the other uncovered, then scrunch up the other piece of foil as a base.

Thirty minutes, a few cents of science surplus, and a huge retreat from book science for the kids. The elegant simplicity of plant development. The happiness that comes when someone that is not their teacher brings them stuff!

They went nuts, as always. They loved the test tubes, the seeds, and any science stuff you could give them. They were all excited to participate in science. In third grade science is still cool.

Special guest talks at local schools remind me about how there still
are minds out there that are willing to think critically, consider evidence, and learn. Many adults need to learn from them.

Every single time, I leave the school feeling like I have relevance and impact, like I've contributed to changing minds.  I feel that I taught science to willing participants that longed to learn something new.

It is a great feeling to be welcomed for what I know and how I teach it.  It is great to be appreciated for what I voluntarily give and how it can shape future decisions in children, where STEM disciplines will be in high demand.

Too bad the world is not full of third graders.  Instead we have self-entitled whiners that have coalesced into a body of experts with expertise that no true expert can approach.

I'm out of the GMO/prop37 discussion.

Reaching Out to the Unreachable

After thousands of discussions on blogs and comments, emails and in-person talks, I'm hanging up my efforts.  After patience, kindness and reaching out, I'm now just reaching in. Why?  After all, I've studied the field for 25 years, I understand it and can communicate it.

It is because I am deflated by those I engage. I cannot teach the unteachable, and I've wondered why I even bother to try.  These are not wide-eyed and eager to learn third graders. These are angry ideologs, steeped in misinformation that reject expert testimony and informed discussion. They have made up their minds, and no amount of evidence will change that. Limbaughs, all.

Now maybe the insulting comments, nasty emails and even veiled death threats might stop.  I'll have more time to serve my real clients-- my students and postdocs in the lab, the students I serve as Graduate Coordinator, the students at UF, my colleagues, my field and growers in my state.  And of course, third graders.

Anti-Intellectualism Runs Wild

I don't really have any hard vested interest in GMO policy. I have no corporate licensing, no commercialized materials. Despite the unending accusations, I have no funding to lose.

My interest was to use the whole GMO discussion as a vehicle to teach science and the scientific method.  Pure and simple.  What is good evidence, what does the evidence tell us, and how should we react to it?  Over the years I've used climate change and vaccination as similar platforms to teach about science too, so it is not just GMO.

But in a world obsessed with "I have a right to __________.  I don't care what you say or what you know, I demand to have it my way", can education get any traction?  How can I change hearts and minds when hearts are hard and minds are locked? 

Everyone feels like their opinion needs to be honored, that they "have it right", that they know the facts.  It is wholesale anti-intellectualism at its finest.

Disappointed in the Lefties

In the last seven days I've been called everything from nazi, to a scumbag, to a criminal to a corporate shill.  I rode a bike with a guy and when he learned I was a professor he called me "another overpaid liberal".  I can't win!

I swing from left to right on issue to issue, so my political philosophies don't fit conveniently in a box.  However, I absolutely relate to a more left-leaning mindset, especially on social issues. It is a shame to witness the people I agree with on so many levels go completely off the deep end on the science of transgenic crops.  I expect this from the evolution hating, stem cell bashing, earth cooling goofballs on the right, but from those that allegedly embrace learning and education?

I've found many that oppose biotechnology to be some of the meanest, nastiest, narrow-minded people  I have ever encountered.  Those that say they honor nature, reason, and peace are such hypocrites. They too can be pointy, ignorant, arrogant and unchangable, anchored in the mud of lies and misinformation that they refuse to be pulled out of. They blatantly shun the lifeline of logic.

In many ways they are more bitter people than other science deniers. Back in May of 2009 when vaccination issues were hot I got a lot of angry emails for criticizing Oprah and Jenny McCarthy, but they were nowhere near as aggressive as the anti-GMO correspondences.

Not Quitting, Shifting

Rather than waste my time trying to influence those that have already made up their minds in the religion of GMO=bad, I'm going to invest my time where it can make a difference.  I cannot change the present-- that train has left the station.  I can influence the future. I'm going to put my two test tubes, seeds and foil in as many little fumbling hands as I can.  I'm going to start a YouTube video series on science fair projects. I'm going to teach science and reason to the willing, rather than beating my head against the wall against the inertia of belief in an anti-science fantasy.

Changing My Position-- Yes on 37!
I'm flipping on this issue and now fully support labeling.  I hope the initiative succeeds and that the labels are affixed, that the kind supporters of Prop37 put Seralini's rat tumor pics on every box, jar and can.  I hope they run a campaign of fear, steering consumer sentiment, collapsing current farming options for corn, soy and canola.  Let's switch to dangerous old herbicides, send those spray planes out in droves to dump their poisons and burn that fuel.  Make farmers pay more for fuel, labor, pesticides.  Hand those costs down to consumers and make the poorest of the poor even poorer with higher food prices.

Let's further empower the Big Ag corporations they hate by forcing them back into production of hybrid seeds, costing more, performing less, and still not able to be replanted in subsequent seasons.

I feel bad saying that, but let's use this opportunity to show the angry mobs that alter law by mass ignorance that there are consequences for their actions. Just like we are turning a blind eye on any real energy policy, let's just let the anti-GMO folks have their way and push their agenda to flip modern agriculture on its big dumb ass.  Yes on 37!

If you think it sucks to pay for foreign oil, wait until you get to pay for foreign food.

Stick a Fork In It. 

I'm about to say a selfish comment I never thought I'd say.  I just don't care anymore. Screw giving talks in public forums only to be shouted down as a "witch" or "corporate stooge".  Forget about providing facts and evidence to those that call me a liar. No more wasting my time with those that care only about a naturalistic fallacy, a narrow worldview that parallels the beliefs of creationists, climate deniers and birthers.

They cannot be changed.

Sadly I hope for the wheels to come off and for the worst possible outcomes from our ignorant anti-science decisions.  Let's heat up the planet until crops can't grow, people starve and there's no biotech solutions. Let's pay $21 for a tomato and $8 for an ear of corn.  I'm a freakin' cockroach, I'm remarkably low-maintenance, clever and resourceful.  I'll be just fine.

I just proofread that paragraph and I'm ashamed at what I've become.  I have to gracefully bow out of this conversation.

You Didn't Win
My retreat from this topic does not mean that the anti-GMO interests have won. In fact, they lost.  They lost a potentially powerful advocate when their interests are on the line, someone that can effectively oppose corporate science when appropriate.  Winners are those that respect my time and scientific ability, as now I can apply it to issues that matter most.

In Conclusion

Maybe it all needs to collapse before it will get better and we start to trust science and scientists again.  In the anti-GMO, pro-prop37 circles Seralini is a god and I'm a fool.  They can have him and his pseudoscience  to speed our slide into idiocracy.

I see why scientists don't engage the public.  The public is maybe not deserving of our time.  Public perception has kept science funding stagnant, as if we're viewed as flimsy frauds that will trade truth and integrity for a few shekels and Monsanto cap, nobody is going to demand we get more resources to do public science.  So we sit sequestered in our offices, pounding keyboards 80 hours a week, fighting for a few hyper-competitive grants and getting turned down 90% of the time if we are really good. If you think that's not the case, then why am I one of a sliver of scientists out pushing for public outreach and interaction?

There are people that do appreciate the effort, the folks in retirement communities, the interested students and of course the third graders. Maybe by teaching science earlier in a climate where science matters, where food is precious and increasingly rare, we'll start to welcome the informed thoughts of those that have them.

Thanks, I'll still be around. I'll answer questions at  Always glad to help, but I'm not going to be Seralini-worshiping activist punching bag.  Done. It has been said that the only thing you get from arguing with an idiot is two idiots.  Time to excuse myself from this discussion.

Please click on this link and read the lyrics carefully.  It was written in 2002 in response to our nation's leadership at the time, but the lyrics apply to any situation where the least prepared to make decisions are making them. Read and think about scientists vs. prop37... 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Comments Blocked by the "Right to Know"

Awesome.  For the second time in as many days I have been blocked from providing scientific content to rants on YouTube regarding California Proposition 37.  After all, it is about the Right to Know, as long as it is something they want to hear!

The situation happened on a YouTube video "That Monsanto does not want you to see, Brought to you by Nutiva and Elevate".  It presents Danny DeVito, Bill (don't vaccinate your kids) Maher, and other Hollywood luminaries that I don't recognize.  They tell us that it is a 'right to know' what's in our food, a point I don't organically disagree with, yet maintain that prop37 is an inappropriate, highly flawed, vehicle.

So I begin to comment in the 'comments' section under the name "Swampwaffle".  You can see, my comments are scientific, concise, polite and engaging.  I invite opportunities to share evidence and partake in a scholarly discussion.  With one particularly energetic person who repeatedly called me a "shill", "Nazi" and told me "fuck off and die", I suggested that he come visit me and share the same bravado.  I'd let a little air out of his stupid balloon real quick. Actually, my heart goes out to the little bastard and if he showed up I'd buy him a beer and some deodorant, then talk about how wonderful science really is. That's how I roll.

The best part is, they removed my comments about Bill Maher believing that vaccination was evil.  Later, after several back-n-forths with various posters, the owner of the video has blocked me from posting!  So much for Right to Know!  More like right to know, as long as it is something we agree with.

The poster of a celebrity-studded Prop37 "Right to Know" video has blocked me
from commenting on the video.  Oh cruel irony! 

To me, I'll take this as a badge of honor.  A voice of scientific reason is polluting the retarded sea of contorted belief and fantasy.  This is the absolute perfect example of how this movement reeks of anti-science, anti-intellectualism and flawed logic.  They are little robots, filled with malice and no scientific training, hiding behind anonymous monikers, wielding empty threats and unsubstantiated claims. 

Welcome to the bankrupt logic and reasoning of the anti-GMO movement. 

Maybe you'll be compelled to waste some of your time informing the great throng of the unteachable. The video is here.  Hit mute first before loading.  On second thought, leave it on.  It is all about the Right to Know. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Lost Rebuttal from Dr. Ena

Dr. Ena Valikov is a Veterinarian from Huntington Beach, CA.  She frequently comments on posts, usually those regarding transgenic technologies, and presents coherent arguments that elevate the discussion.  She has a background in biochemistry so she speaks science well and can discuss the literature.

Yesterday morning my gmail account posted several responses to my September 21 post. There were two there from Dr. Ena.  I was excited to read them and prepare my responses. Yet when I looked at the comment section of the article one of her comments was not there.  Instead, there was an appropriately cynical comment from Dr. Ena about censoring the comments.

I have no idea what happened or where her comment disappeared to.  However, I was disappointed and upset for several reasons.  First, I appreciate an informed rebuttal because I am the first to admit, I might be wrong.  I'm glad to consider all evidence in my synthesis.  Second, I would never, and have never censored a comment. On one of my YouTube posts someone made rude and offensive comments about one of my student's foreign accents.  I left it, and pointed out its ignorance. This is a marketplace of ideas and to be a censoring or dismissive gatekeeper is the stuff of activism, not science.

I'm posting here Dr. Ena's lost comment.  I can't seem to find her as I don't have her actual email address, so I hope this is acceptable (I'll take this down if you don't want it posted, Ena).  I just feel awful, I don't like how it taints the perception of communication in this forum.

So here I post Dr. Ena's points in response to my Sept 21 post, and her arguments supporting Seralini's recent work.  My comments will appear below in the Comments section.

Ena Valikov has left a new comment on your post "Rats, Tumors and Critical Assessment of Science": 

(KF) Ena, a replicated study would be great, unfortunately Seralini's stuff never is replicated.
Meaning that you don't have a single LONG TERM STUDY examining laboratory animals for Long Term Chronic effects.

No, I don't think this study is trash, because I know mammary tumors to be estrogen sensitive. The study demonstrated elevated estradiol levels in both males and females and even proposed a mechanism of action by which EPSPS can alter estradiol levels. 

As to the control groups and experimental group : why is there a study on biofortified composed of 15 rats, which none of you objected to?
Prima facie evidence that a phytocystatin for transgenic plant resistance to nematodes is not a toxic risk in the human diet.

It is a study on 15 rats fed purified extract rather then the genetically modified rice… and the only biochemical/ hematological patient data actually published is

Summary of results from the toxicological study of male Sprague-Dawley rats administered the cystatin OcIΔD861

OcIΔD86 [mg/(kg · d)]
0 0.1 1 10
Food intake, g
    d 3–7 25.04 ± 0.94 25.80 ± 0.90 26.82 ± 1.48a 25.36 ± 1.42
    d 7–10 26.06 ± 0.40 25.68 ± 1.32 27.74 ± 1.43a 25.82 ± 0.98
Organ weight
    Cecum (empty), g 0.305 ± 0.033 0.334 ± 0.057 0.32 ± 0.013 0.35 ± 0.041a
    Liver, g 3.12 ± 0.16 3.00 ± 0.072a 3.02 ± 0.090a 3.04 ± 0.12
Serum analysis
    Potassium, mmol/L 4.51 ± 0.27 4.78 ± 0.318 4.66 ± 0.251 4.95 ± 0.82a
    Urea, mmol/L 6.58 ± 0.82 5.61 ± 0.67b 6.09 ± 0.616 6.24 ± 0.887
    Creatinine, μmol/L 39.0 ± 2.83 39.7 ± 3.02 41.0 ± 1.66 41.5 ± 3.21a
    γ-Glutamyl transferase, U/L 0.07 ± 0.067 0.42 ± 0.67a 0.13 ± 0.11 0.18 ± 0.13

Here is what a blood panel should actually look like:
Test Result Reference Range
ALT (SGPT) 57 5 – 107 U/L
AST (SGOT) 25 5 – 55 U/L
CK 171 10 – 200 U/L
GGT 4 0 – 14 U/L
AMYLASE 344 450 – 1240 U/L LOW
LIPASE 397 100 – 750 U/L
ALBUMIN 3.9 2.5 – 4.0 g/dL
TOTAL PROTEIN 8.4 5.1 – 7.8 g/dL HIGH
GLOBULIN 4.5 2.1 – 4.5 g/dL
TOTAL BILIRUBIN 0.2 0.0 – 0.4 mg/dL
DIRECT BILIRUBIN 0.1 0.0 – 0.2 mg/dL
BUN 34 7 – 27 mg/dL HIGH
CREATININE 1.2 0.4 – 1.8 mg/dL
CHOLESTEROL 336 112 – 328 mg/dL HIGH
GLUCOSE 131 60 – 125 mg/dL HIGH
CALCIUM 11.0 8.2 – 12.4 mg/dL
PHOSPHORUS 8.3 2.1 – 6.3 mg/dL HIGH
TCO2 (BICARBONATE) 25 17 – 24 mEq/L HIGH
CHLORIDE 87 105 – 115 mEq/L LOW
POTASSIUM 4.3 4.0 – 5.6 mEq/L
SODIUM 144 141 – 156 mEq/L
A/G RATIO 0.9 0.6 – 1.6
B/C RATIO 28.3
INDIRECT BILIRUBIN 0.1 0 – 0.3 mg/dL
TRIGLYCERIDE 98 20 – 150 mg/dL
NA/K RATIO 33 27 – 40
ANION GAP 36 12 – 24 mEq/L HIGH

WBC 26.7 5.7 – 16.3 K/uL HIGH
RBC 8.03 5.5 – 8.5 M/uL
HGB 19.1 12 – 18 g/dL HIGH
HCT 52.0 37 – 55 %
MCV 65 60 – 77 fL
MCH 23.8 19.5 – 26.0 pg
MCHC 36.7 32 – 36 g/dL HIGH
MONOCYTES 11 3 – 10 % HIGH
BASOPHIL 0 0 – 1 %
AUTO PLATELET 725 164 – 510 K/uL HIGH

ABSOLUTE NEUTROPHIL SEG 21360 3000 – 11500 /uL
ABSOLUTE LYMPHOCYTE 1068 1000 – 4800 /uL
ABSOLUTE MONOCYTE 2937 150 – 1350 /uL

Test Result Reference Range
T4 (1) 2.5 1.0 – 4.0 ug/dL

The study’s limitations are quite obvious: its duration is 21 days and N=15, not to mention that the rats weren’t fed the genetically engineered rice, but rather the isolated protein (which is not equivalent to the whole food).

Can you please explain how findings in 15 rats fed this GMO for 21 days imply safety in millions of people, eating the stuff for decades?

Because from my vantage point, the only time you really care about control group size, or statistics--is when a study comes out suggestive of long term harm. You know ... the kind you would never catch, if you only study the GMO for the required 90 days. 

Posted by Ena Valikov to Illumination at September 21, 2012 10:47 PM

Friday, September 21, 2012

Rats, Tumors and Critical Assessment of Science

My email box exploded with new messages.  A flurry of notes contained a link to a new peer-reviewed paper, a work showing that rats fed “GMO” corn developed massive tumors and died early, compared to controls.  Immediately I smelled a Seralini paper.

A click on the link did not disappoint-- it's Seralini again.  I was electronically whisked to a PDF of the whole text and began to read.  Within minutes I was blown away by the lack of rigor, poor experimental design, attention to controls and loose statistics.  Most of all, I was blown away by the conclusions drawn by a study with tiny numbers of subjects in a rat line known to grow endochrine tumors.

The anti-GMO interests were quick to anoint this new work as a rigorous pillar of exceptional science, a hard-science detailing of the danger of transgenic food.  They want this to influence public policy.

I was really impressed by how the scientific media and the science blogosphere pounced.  The best names in the business, Terwavas, Leyser, Goldberg and many others were interviewed and provided detailed analysis of the work, pointing out its many flaws.  Those reviews can be foundthroughout the internet, and they are awesome. Like this one! I don’t need to reiterate them here.

What I will do, which is highly uncharacteristic and but consistent with the post hoc analysis done all the time, is provide a level of analysis that was not explored.  There are features of this paper that hint at a motive, an intent.  I do not believe this was a hypothesis tested.  I believe that this was an experiment designed to frighten.  I believe that this is blatant mis-use of science to forward an agenda.

Those are strong words and I never thought I’d cast such allegations at someone else’s peer-reviewed research.  That’s usually pretty low.  However, there are facets of this work that are clearly indicate the intent of the authors is to provide shock, not a good test of a hypothesis.  In fact, the word “hypothesis” does not appear once.  

This is why the report is in Food and Chemical Toxicology and not in Nature, where it would be if it was a properly conducted study.

Here are some red flags the others have not mentioned.  I’m reading between the lines here. I will describe what a good scientific report should not do and then give you some strong inferences from what the paper does not show, as well as how data are presented.

1. The first line of the paper claims an “international debate”, yet he cites himself and nobody else.  Easy to claim a debate when nobody else is participating in it.

2.  Figure 3.  This one really makes me see red.  Look at tumors.  Look at massively deformed rats.  Shocking, isn’t it?   The authors tell us in Table 2 that control rats also develop tumors.  Why not show them?  Why are the controls not shown in that figure?  It is because if they are identical to the experimental treatment rats then the fear factor is gone.   This is inexcusable and the authors, reviewers and editors should be ashamed.

Sometimes the way data are presented can expose the relative objectivity and hidden intent of a study. Left-rat that ate GMO corn.  Center- rat eating GMO corn and roundup. Right- rat fed roundup. Their associated tumors shown on the right. Wait!  What about the control rats, the ones that also got tumors?  How convenient to leave them out!   

3.  The labeling on the figure is “GMO” or “GMO+R” (R stands for Roundup).  GMO is not a product. It is not a genetic line of corn.  It is a technique.  There are many kinds of GMOs, plant lines bearing different transgenes.  Even if these results linked rat tumors to the food (which they don’t in my assessment) they would  link it to one kind of transgenic crop, not any transgenic crop.  This again shows the authors’ intent to overstep the data in a manner that will inflame the reader and further vilify a technology. To be fair, they do state it properly in the conclusion, but few are reading past the sensational photos.

4.  They show comparable effects of Roundup treatment and the transgene.  This should be a tip-off as well.  What is the likelihood of both inducing identical problems?

5.  Low numbers of subjects are a sign of poor design.  When tumor incidence is 30%, vs 50% or 70% that means three rats vs. five or seven.  The incidence of endocrine tumors in Sprague-Dawley rats is 70-80%.  Imagine you roll a die and numbers 1-4 mean develop tumors, 5 and 6 mean tumor free.  Now roll it ten times and log the result.  You’ll find that there will be times when you consistently roll 5 or 6, maybe 5 times out of ten.  Other times you’ll roll 5 or 6 only 2 times out of ten.  That’s natural random variation, and if you roll it 100 times, 1000 times, then the real probabilities will even out. 

6.  Low numbers + a line known to get tumors = some frequency of data that will prove the authors’ beliefs.

7.  A prediction-- the larger study will never be done and these results will not replicated by other labs.

8.  The Discussion.  Lots of guesses on how to link the food or Roundup to the symptoms. Quite a bit of speculation and hand waving, with no likely mechanisms discussed.

I could go on all day. For fun reading review the press conference. It was a bigger joke.  

The bottom line is that if we look at the report and what it says, and compare it to what the data really say, there is limited concordance.  To the trained eye the data say that these rats get endocrine tumors at high incidence and that what is being observed is the natural variation of the tumors in small numbers of rats, where the authors'  “significance” is found in statistically meaningless samples.

Alas, it is now part of the true-believers' war chest of crap information that now will be used to steer the unsophisticated and influence public policy. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Thoughts from a "Shill for Monsanto"

As an academic research scientist active at the public interface, I enjoy communicating about complex science topics. With regard to trasngenic (GMO) crops, if you read my blogs, comments left online, or listen to audiences in public discussions, you'll see that they ultimately reach a common point.

Someone always indicates that Monsanto is my employer. Like clockwork.

I'm still waiting for the check. Actually, I never worked for them, consulted for them, or received a dime from them. As a university scientist my funding is all public record, so this may be verified.

 Here is why the throw-away "you work for Monsanto" or "shill for Monsanto" comment harms the anti-GMO movement: 

1. It immediately says that you are willing to make up information in the absence of evidence.

2. It says that you are finished with the conversation, that nothing I communicate is valid in your opinion.

3. It shows that you are willing to try to influence other like-minded people with disinformation.

4. It shows disdain for the peer-review process and scientific method.  
5. (least importantly) It disrespects a scientist's real position as a public liaison, volunteering time to explain science. We're used to that from dealing with climate change deniers and Creationists, no big deal.

If I wanted to work for Big Ag I could easily find a position there. I'd triple my salary, work about the same hours, and never write a grant proposal again. In the days of state and federal budget issues with science, it is an increasingly attractive alternative.

But my passion is exploration in science, working with students, postdocs, visiting scientists, farmers and the industry. I want to make tools and techniques that come from the public sector, not that are locked in a proprietary corporate structure. Such endeavors would be severely limited with a position in a big ag company.

In the late 1980's I interned with Cargill Hybrid Seeds and really disliked the pace of corporate science. Even with a job offer and big bucks for the time, I elected to stay in academic science (and nine years of graduate education!).

So don't tell me who I work for. I'm really proud to work for YOU, and such assertions just destroy the communication and learning process, both ways.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The “Arctic Grape” Sneaks Through Public Approval

We are currently witnessing the USDA public commentary period on the Arctic Apple, a transgenic apple that does not exhibit browning upon injury or cutting.  The anti-browning trait was installed by scientists at Okanagan Specialty Fruits. A copy of the apple gene for polyphenol oxidase (PPO) was overexpressed, which triggers a plant response to silence the over-expressed gene.  The same process also suppresses the apple’s endogenous PPO genes.

Trees have been growing for ten years and are poised for widespread adoption.  But as expected, the critics have now emerged against this non-browning apple.  They say that the apples are untested in humans, that the pollen will contaminate other plants.  They say that it is unnatural and will need more pesticide. 

But the same criticisms were strangely silent against what was essentially the Arctic Grape.  A major genetic alteration affected the PPO gene of the ‘Sultana’ grape, a genetic change that was unknown, uncharacterized and uninvestigated. All the scientists knew is that they didn't brown. The resulting grape exhibited the same anti-browning properties as the current Arctic Apple, and gained rapid favor for the production of light-colored raisins and low-oxidation wines.  Unlabeled and untested, this genetic aberration spread quickly throughout the dried-grape industry, as consumers and farmers realized great gains from the sweet, white and golden raisins.  

Worse, it turns out that scientists later deciphered the molecular basis for the disorder. The normal PPO protein was unprocessed, a new protein created!  Just like the anti-GMO folks warn us about all the time, the new protein, untested for allergenicity and long-term feeding consequences, accumulated in the modified Franken-fruit background.  This new freakish protein was the unnatural reason that the grapes did not brown, and the raisins remained white or golden.

The Punchline.  You’ve likely eaten them.  You might have even bought them at an organic market.  You never cared.

In fact, the PPO mutant occurred spontaneously in 1962 in a grape line called “Sultana”.  A mutation in the grapevine changed a gene so that the PPO oxidase protein (the one suppressed in Arctic Apple) could not be processed and made functional.  The fruits were largely white and did not show PPO activity. 

Why?  The active enzyme is about 40 kilodaltons in size, but in ‘Bruce’s Sport’, the ppo mutant, the protein was not processed.  The modified protein was not a functional PPO.  A new protein was formed and caused the lack of browning. How did this mutant atrocity ever escape regulation?  Surely Monsanto ram-rodded this through the FDA and USDA!

Not so much.

In fact, not at all. 

The PPO mutant was found in 1962.  Nobody cared about why the grapes didn’t brown, they just knew was a great trait.  In 1992 scientists finally figured out that the non-browning trait was caused by the fact that a new protein was formed in the plant, an unprocessed form of PPO that could not complete the browning process.

The year 1962.  The year 1992.  Changes in genes, new proteins formed.  All untested, unlabeled, and accepted as perfectly fine; happy golden raisins to go with your granola.  De-lish.

Turn ahead to 2012.  The same gene is suppressed in apples with great precision.  A group of people object to the process. They worry about allergies, cross-pollination and GMO Franken-dangers.


Why is this process completely acceptable when unknown, unpredictable and untested back in the 1960's? 

Why is the process decried when it is understood, documented and tested now?

These two questions frame an intellectual inconsistency of the anti-GMO movement that I cannot understand, and show that it is not the product, but the process that activists find objectionable.


Rathjen and Robinson (1992)  Aberrant Processing of Polyphenol Oxidase in a Variegated Grapevine Mutant Plant Physiol. 99(4): 1619–1625.

Dry and Robinson (1994) Molecular cloning and characterisation of grape berry polyphenol oxidase Plant Molec. Biol. 26: 495-502


Antcliff (1962)  Bruce’s Sport:  A Mutant of the Sultana.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Opposition to the Newest Apple Product

Sorry tech geeks.  This is about fruits, not phones. 

The Arctic Apple is a new product currently undergoing regulatory approval in the United States and Canada. It was developed by a small biotech company in Summerland BC, Canada, so save the Monsanto comments.

It is a non-browning apple, created using transgenic technology (probably cisgenic).  Browning is a reaction to damage. This can be cutting or bruising.  An enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (or PPO) mediates this process.  Without PPO, no browning occurs. 

A silenced gene inhibits browning.  A great development for growers and consumers.

Apples have four PPO genes.  In the Arctic Apple these genes are silenced, likely using RNAi technology.  In a very basic explanation, the native apple PPO gene is expressed in a way that causes the other PPO genes to be shut down. 

The potential benefits?  The details are here.  Huge amounts of apple fruits are culled from the tree, damaged from post-harvest handling, or are discarded by grocers or consumers because of browning.  The Arctic Apple promises to limit these problems. Not the solution to world hunger, but certainly a way to deliver a better product to more people with less waste. This is good for growers, the consumer, and the supply chain in between.  This is sustainable agriculture. 

But of course, the technology is being met with opposition. And it is opposition based on ignorance and not science.
JIND Fruit's Jessie Sandhu was reported to show concern for the product.  Of course, he gives the usual mantra of "we just don't know what will happen".  But he also offers other irrational fears as well.  He mentions cross pollination and perception in markets like the EU. 

Sandhu displays ignorance of the industry when he raises the question of cross pollination.  Apple trees are not propagated from seeds.  They are vegetatively grafted on to rootsocks.  There is no chance of cross pollination leading to spread of the transgene. 

According to an industry report, Canada is the 8th largest apple importer in the world.   Their major export destinations are the USA (83%), with 7% going to the UK.  The EU is not a major export target, and it also is unclear if they are opposed to cisgenics.  Researchers in the Netherlands seem to think there is good public acceptance.

Of course, opponents forget that this could be a great opportunity for growers as fruit with superior postharvest performance will have reasonable demand.

Don't tell that to Allan Patton.  Allan sits on the board Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen. He made a plea to his colleagues to reject the Arctic Apple from the region, and even made overtures that the Canadian Federal Government should reject the application.

The article continues: 

"The director for rural Oliver said the risk of cross-pollination of traditional varieties with genetically-modified strains puts the entire Okanagan fruit industry in jeopardy."

Again, apples are not grown from seeds, so here politicians are making decisions on a technology when they don't even understand it. 

Neal Carter, President of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, was in attendance and commented, "“Right now, the decisions are being carried by fear, not science or real data.”

The product will continue to spur discussion.  Look for it to receive regulatory approval in 2014. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Agent Orange, Monsanto, and a Little Clarificiation

On Tuesday I gave a talk at Florida State College at Jacksonville entitled "The Future of Food: Feeding More People with Less".  The talk described the challenges to modern agriculture, the need for conservation, improved production practices (including low-input/organic ag) and new genetics from breeding.  One of the key facets was transgenic technology to complement other improvements.

There was one person in attendance that was not a student, but a guy from the community that thought the topic was interesting.  As soon as I got into the GMO part of the lecture he began being disruptive.  I usually invite interaction, but his objections were relatively constant.  As usual, they were dogmatic and uninformed, tying nicely to the propaganda lines of the anti-GMO interests.

For my lecture I held up glyphosate resistance as a successful implementation of transgenics in agriculture.  Here a relatively innocuous chemical displaces others that are more dangerous.  Most of all, glyphosate resistant crops have paved an inarguable track record of success. There are some downsides, and I discussed them, including generation of resistant weed and some minor developmental effects on some animals.

He would have none of it.  "You know what glyphosate is, right?"

I was puzzled.  Sure I knew what it was, how it works, how it breaks down, etc.

"It is Agent Orange made by Monsanto", he continued.

I told him that it was not true, but of course, he knew better.  He knew it was the dreaded glyphosate, "Monsatan's Roundup".  I directed everyone to their smartphones and told them that the components of Agent Orange were synthetic auxins and not glyphosate.  But then I started to wonder, was I right?  So what is the relationship between Monsanto and Agent Orange?  What is Agent Orange?  

Agent Orange was a defoliant weaponized by the US military during the Vietnam War.  It was composed of a 50-50 mix of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4,5 trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, respectfully. These compounds are auxins.  Auxins are a class of plant growth regulator associated with cell division, elongation growth, and a large suite of other plant processes.  These two auxins are synthetic mimics of the natural compounds.  They work well at low concentrations because plants do not have a means to break them down easily.  Essentially, a plant grows itself to death.

The two principle plant growth regulators in Agent Orange

Who made 2,4-D?  It was manufactured by  several agrochemical companies, including good ol' Monsanto. Others were Uniroyal, Diamond Shamrock, Hercules and Dow Chemical.

So when the military wanted to defoliate large swatches of dense jungle for military operations, Agent Orange was the ticket.  Over 20 million gallons of the stuff was dumped over Vietnam during Operation Ranch Hand.  Nobody could ever know the exact numbers for sure, but there are huge numbers of affected US military and Vietnamese civilians that suffered from the effects of Agent Orange.

Of course, the anti-GMO types don't care too much about facts, just shock value.  If you look at the sign on the right they do make an attempt to be somewhat honest with the mice type above the bottom words... can you see it? 

The problem was (well, the toxicity issue was) that 2,4,5-T was contaminated with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, a potent dioxin that causes alterations of gene expression that can be carcinogenic.  Documented cancers from Agent Orange exposure include prostate cancer, respiratory cancers (lung, trachea/bronchus, larynx), soft-tissue sarcomas, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Hodgkins disease, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and multiple myeloma. 

Oh, by the way, no glyphosate.  Not a drop.  Kevin one, disruptive guy zero for those keeping score at home.

Beyond that my response to this guy was completely on target.  I asked him, "How can you blame the chemical or the company that makes it, when someone (in this case the US government) chooses to use it in an unethical manner?"

It is like if someone beat another person to death with an organic zucchini... in his eyes it would not make organic zucchini evil.  Unless of course Monsanto made organic zucchini.

This is the point of the matter.  This guy had the information wrong.  There was no glyphosate in Agent Orange.  The use of a plant growth regulator and its contaminants as a weapon is now manipulated to connect a major US health issue to Monsanto.  And the anti-Monsanto, anti-GMO, anti-scientists just love that. 

It is unfortunate to have the Agent Orange / 2,4-D tie because these synthetic auxins are the cornerstone of the next generation of herbicide-resistant plants.  The companies working with this technology will have to endure the mis-representation of their products by people that really know nothing about them.

And by the way, the instructor that organized the session said that everyone in the class verified my information, was impressed with how I handled the criticism, and "thought the disruptive guy was a dick."

Monday, April 2, 2012

More TEDx Credulity, A Sad, Sad Talk

Birke Baehr is undoubtedly a brilliant kid.  At eleven years old he has interests in food and the environment, making him a clear outlier from his peers.  Birke was a speaker at TEDx Asheville. In my parsing of TEDx talks to identify anti-scientific claims, his was clearly a standout for good and sad reasons. 

Again, as pointed out in previous posts, the outstanding reputation of TED talks was being hijacked by fringe interests to promote a non-scientific agenda, tarnishing the reputation of TED's credible brand.  

This YouTube video named "Monsanto Corporation Gets Owned by 11 Year Old Boy" exploits the credulity of youth and the approval of a credulous audience.  Plus, he never says anything about Monsanto, just the usual anti-biotech rhetoric-- all stated as fact, without evidence.

What is wrong with his talk?  Like a few TEDx talks I am currently discussing, they are weak on evidence and their agendas are showing.  As you listen to Birke, please read along the timeline below.  Pay attention to his claims, and measure them against scientific response.

First minute-- good setup using points we all can agree on. Yes, children are vulnerable to advertising and corporations do exploit that.  By starting on ground of clear consensus he can develop an intrapersonal relationship with the listener, even one skeptical at the onset.  Smart. 

At 1:05 he reveals the problem with his presentation.  He reveals the sources for his information.  He looked into modern agriculture on "the internet, in books and documentary films, and in travels with my family."  These are sources notorious for spoon-feeding a persuasive activist agenda that is not supported by the scientific consensus or peer-reviewed literature.  An 11 year old most likely does not have the critical thinking skills to synthesize this material in the context of legitimate science.

1:20  "A seed is manipulated in a laboratory to do something not intended by nature".  Okay.  Did nature intend any of the crops we eat to be grown in North America?  Did nature intend for crops to be cross bred, selected and mutated by chemical agents, acceptable by organic farming?  No on all accounts.  His determination of "natural" is arbitrary to fit the rhetoric.

1:27  "DNA of a fish, into DNA of a tomato, this is just creepy"  Maybe to him it is creepy, but a gene is a gene and such manipulations were thought to help grow tomatoes in cold, as well as give them long shelf life.  No such products are on the market, yet Birke and his supporter will tell you they are, despite no evidence.

1:40  "The food they (transgenic seeds) produce have been proven to cause cancer and other problems in laboratories".  He says this, it is not true.  He is now a puppet, lying for an agenda.  There are no peer-reviewed, published reports showing a causal link to cancer of any kind.

1:55  He talks about rats fed GMO products and liver and kidney problems.  These data come from one lab, one report (Seralini et al., 2007), where a small number of rats were fed the direct gene product doped into food. In this report, differences were observed in a subset of the animals, yet only data from the affected animals were shown. Such problems in meaningfully large studies have not been found, and experiments were not repeated. An expert panel revisited these data and published their conclusion that "analysis conducted by Séralini et al. (2007) provided no evidence to indicate that MON 863 was associated with adverse effects in the 90-day rat study."  Still, Birke makes that claim. 

2:00 "Let me tell you, just about all the corn we eat is genetically modified in some way"... yes, and it has been for over 20,000 years. Only instead of one gene at a time, it was 40,000. 

2:35  "Pesticides and herbicides are sprayed onto plants to kill weeds and bugs".  Yes. That is not just transgenic technology, and organic farmers use Bt too.

2:39  "Poisoning our water too".  I agree.  This is why we need more research into how to farm with less environmental impact.  Transgenics will be part of that conversation.

2:46  "Then they irradiate our food to try to make it last longer".  I could not find any information on this with regard to specific fruits or vegetables. However, it is safe and actually kills dangerous microorganisms.

3:06  The crowd goes wild when he says he wants to be an organic farmer.  That's a ballsy career choice for an eleven year old, and I hope he does it.  The crowd reaction gives you a hint of their likelihood to subscribe to a naturalist fallacy. 

3:54-4:00  "We can pay the farmer or we can pay the hospital"  He makes the claim that organic food is not more expensive when compared to the medical bills you'll incur from eating the products of conventional farming.  That is a real stretch and somewhat dishonest, unless there is evidence of such costs. 

More accurately, conventional diets are part of the lifestyle that allows us to live longer, requiring more health care.  We're not dropping dead from heart attacks at 40 so much these days.

Certainly I agree that food is important and diet and disease are inextricably linked. However, healthy conventional food is just as good as healthy organic food, and that's quite clear. Nothing wrong with organic food.  Nothing wrong with conventional food either. 

4:28  "I believe that kids will make better choices when they know about their food and where it comes from".  Absolutely.  I agree 100% and hope that we can teach that with a fair and even scientific hand.

4:54  The Frosted Flakes box again shows the agenda.  Make good food look like poison with no evidence of it being harmful.  Frosted Flakes are not my first choice for a healthy food, but the hyperbole shown is designed to generate fear, not to educate.

5:00  A swell of applause.  The crowd bought it. 

Once again, the TED name is exploited to provide an evidence-less presentation that appears to have content. Brike is a sharp kid, likable, and the perfect shill to sell an anti-scientific agenda at the expense of TED's reputation.  It is a rant against biotech and a commercial for organic farming.

My recommendation?  I'd love to see Birke keep learning about food and doing his best to be an organic farmer.  He should continue to learn and implement everything he can about low-input agriculture and how to make food more environmentally sustainable. That may include transgenic technologies and he should be open to that. 

He is homeschooled. I'd like him to read "Tomorrow's Table" by Drs. Pamela Ronald and Raul Adamchak. I'm curious what he would think.

Most of all, I hope his home school emphasizes hypothesis-driven science and critical thinking. From the sound of things he's being exposed to a feelgood agenda, promoted by those that subscribe to the naturalist fallacy and/or disdain Big Ag.

It also scares me that an audience is so blinded by Birke, that they stop thinking critically, and actually reinforce what he is telling them- claims against sound science without any good evidence.

Best wishes Birke.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Answering the Critics- Are Academic Scientists Owned by Big Corporations?

The scientific consensus among academic scientists tells us that:

1. The earth's climate is warming, with at least a component of human cause
2. Evolution explains the diversity of life on earth and continues
3. Transgenic trangenic (GMO) food crops are safe and effective
4. Vaccines are a tremendous, safe cornerstone in public health.
5. Stem cell based therapies show great promise and some application now

Every one of these statements is a well supported hypothesis.  Each is based on substantial data from different experiments and models, from many independent labs, worldwide.

Critics suggest that such data and conclusions only are present because academic scientists are "bought and paid for" by big corporations.  The allegation is that corporations dictate what is to be studied, what will be funded and what results will be obtained, and what may be published.

According to critics, who's bought off, who does the buying? 
1.  Climate change scientists- George Soros, liberal media
2.  Evolution scientist- liberal media, secular humanist and atheist groups, the ACLU, National Academies of Science, Family Guy. 
3.  GMO scientists:  Monsanto
4.  Vaccine science:  "big pharma"
5.  Stem cells: Liberal government operatives that want to kill babies.

I've even endured this personally.  Lay people that disagree with my evidence-based-food stance tell me that none of my work matters because it is all paid for by Pepsico and Monsanto, simply because those companies have product licensing agreements with my university.

This argument comes up frequently in discussion of these topics, so I thought I'd take a look.  How much of our research is corporate sponsored?  How "bought and paid for" are we?

First, I went to an easy source at my university, the University of Florida.  The Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) publishes their financials every year.  You can find this online here.

How much Big Corporation money did we spend?  Not that much.  It is buried somewhere in that "other sponsored funds" piece of the money pie.
If corporations are fueling scientific discovery at universities,
they sure aren't contributing too much.  Somewhere in "Other Sponsored Funds"

Now wait, I can hear critics already screaming that "other sponsored funds" is almost 10% of the research dollars spent, and that's a significant amount at a place like the University of Florida.  So let's use the record to break that down: 

Yikes.  Corporate sponsorship is a pretty small sliver of that pie.

So about two percent of our funds come from corporate interests.  For the anti-scientific critics out there, that's about two dollars out of every hundred. 

If we are bought and paid for, we're bought really cheap and not paid well. 

In reality, you can check any individual's research funding, as all of these records are publicly available.  Me, I can state that I've never received corporate financing.  Not a penny.  I do get some support from farm-industry groups, but these are associations of farmers, not corporate interests. 

And I am the rule, not the exception.  Very few of my colleagues have corporate sponsors.  

The other piece of tangential evidence backing my claim of low-corporate involvement in academic science is that public universities are suffering from massive cutbacks.  Whole departments are shrinking or are cut, state and federal resources are harder to obtain, and funding research is harder than it has been in a long time. 

Meanwhile Wall Street rolls along, recovered and soaring as the stock markets reach new highs and corporate profits exceed old records. The corporate world is driving forward, and if they are really sponsoring research in public universities they can't be paying too much.

Maybe these activist causes should consider who academic researchers really work for.  Them.  

Instead of wasting time pointing fingers and implying corporate malfeasance, they might want to examine their own stance, and realize that maybe the experts are really experts and worth listening to.

** Since first posting of this blog I have received some minimal corporate support for a small project in testing gene regulatory sequences.  It is not from MON, DOW, Bayer, etc.