Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Food Babe Visits My University

It was 6:30 pm in the lab and I was just thinking about the last things I'd need to get done before I could go home.  Typical night.  Usually I'm riding home about 7 pm, but an email popped up asking me if I was going to go watch the Food Babe.  A click on a link would take me to the note on a UF Dean for Students Good Food Revolution Events website.  Vani Hari would be spreading her corrupt message of bogus science and abject food terrorism here at the University of Florida. Oh joy.



There's something that dies inside when you are a faculty member that works hard to teach about food, farming and science, and your own university brings in a crackpot to unravel all of the information you have brought to students.


She might have started from honest roots.  Her story says she was duped by an organic yogurt stand (join the club) into buying taro toppings that were filled with artificial, non-organic colors.  She realized that she could use social media to coalesce affluent consumers in a formation to cyber-slander change from businesses. Shove this dookie through a conduit of the science illiterate and...

An entrepreneur was born!

She found that a popular social media site was more powerful than science itself, more powerful than reason, more powerful than actually knowing what you're talking about.  Her discussion was a narcissistic, self-appointed attack on food science and human nutrition. There is a vein in my head that pulses when I hear someone deliberately misrepresent science for personal celebrity, and it was pounding. 

She went on about her exploits against Chik-fil-A, forcing them to change their formulation. She spoke about how she and her army of online vandals slammed Subway into removing a safe and useful food chemical from their bread.  She spoke of her "5 million person army" with a sly and knowing smile.  Vani likes Vani.


Who do you trust for real scientific information? 
This is why scientists go nutso.


Fallacy and deception. 

She went on about labeling GMO, making the argument ad populum that '64 countries label them so why don't we get the same rights?"  

She explained transgenic crops (of course not using that language) as dangerous, and untested.  There were claims about how the crops were linked to cancer and autism.  She also claimed that "GMO crops cause an increase in pesticides" which is completely false-- and she knows it.  Her words were cleverly chosen, carefully stated, so if someone holds her accountable she can weasel out.  

Food Terrorism. 

Hari then went on to talk about her successes in strong-arming Chick-fil-A, Budweiser and Subway into reformulating their foods and beverages.  She's proud that she was invited to corporate headquarters to force change, proud that a know-nothing with a following can affect change simply by propagating false information via the internet.  

That's not healthy activism or change based on science.  That's coercion, fear mongering and (yes) terrorism to achieve short-sighted political non-victories in the name of profit and self-promotion, ironically the same thing she accuses the companies of.  

Luckily, Starbucks didn't fold.  They refused her assault on Pumpkin Spiced Lattes and the demand for organic milk.  Unfortunately it was not corporate cojones it was likely simple economics. There's no way that they could source that much organic milk. Otherwise, Hari would have blackmailed them too. 


The UF Audience Reaction

There was a silver lining on that cloud.  I was really proud to see that the student audience was not buying it.  Throughout her presentation that was about Hari in the spotlight and "me-me-me", students got up and left.  She left gaping pregnant pauses where previous performances got applause-- only to hear nothing. Not even crickets.  This audience was not buying it, at least as a whole it was not excited by it.  Maybe they just wanted a Chick-fil-A and Starbucks.


No Question and Answer Session

While microphones stood ready in the audience to answer questions, there was no public Q&A period where a scientist that knows the research could publicly challenge her false assertions.  The audience filed out of the building, and apparently she may have stuck around to meet with individuals. However, I wanted her answers in a way students could hear, helping them to critically assess the arguments of scholars vs. self-appointed celebrities.  Questions like:
  • Why am I blocked for posting hard science facts to your websites?
  • How do you feel about transgenic solutions to citrus greening?
  • What is your evidence for higher pesticide rates?
... and a dozen others.


Overall. 

It was disappointing.  If this is a charismatic leader of a new food movement it is quite a disaster.  She's uninformed, uneducated, trite and illogical.  She's afraid of science and intellectual engagement. She's Oz candy at best.

I guess I'm just angry because I didn't get to lock science horns with The Food Babe. I would have liked to have asked a few questions that she could never answer. Moreover, the funds my university spent to bring her here would have bought a lot of seeds for school gardens county wide, field trips to real farms, and the opportunity to visit functioning labs and ask questions of actual scientists.

But who needs actual scientists in lab coats with lifetime dedication to science, when you can have a fly-by-night activist profiting from ignorance?  After all, she is a (self described) babe... 

I have to put a lid on this post.  I have an undergrad spending her first morning in the lab tomorrow and I need to meet her at 7 AM.  If I teach her well, maybe she'll get to stand up and hold the Food Babe accountable for her junk science someday.  That would make me remarkably happy. 


   





Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Other Side of Robyn O'Brien's Glowing Huber Review

Dr. Don M. Huber was hit by a car on October 8, which prompted Robyn O'Brien to write a glowing assessment of his mission and claims in her Healthy Bites page at Prevention.  The title is Dr. Huber's Brave Crusade Against Biotech.  I thought it would be appropriate to share a scientist's perspective, and show his angry crusade against science, reason and a certain public scientist that made him accountable for his claims.

Of course, I do wish Dr. Huber well and hope for a speedy and complete recovery. The burdens of injury in the elderly can be a challenge to the injured as well as to the family, so I hope he is well soon and without long-term consequences.  This is a difference of ideas.  Relative to science, it is critical that we find the truth about his mysterious pathogen.  If it is true, the first Edible Arrangement on his porch will be from me, and I will happily assist in further study in any way possible, as I have offered already.  If it is not true, and he has been using this ruse to frighten concerned audiences for a decade-- then I want him to admit that.  Whatever the outcome, science inevitably will shine its light on the truth, and I'm thrilled with either outcome.

O'Brien's report is consistent with my understanding of Dr. Huber through 1990 or so.  He is a father and grandfather many times over.  He maintained the title "Colonel" for 40-some years.  He was a recognized plant pathologist and an expert in his area with international reputation.  I know many people that were his students, co-authors and colleagues. They think he's lost his marbles now, and are sad to see it happen.

The Prevention article only exists because Huber makes claims, without data or evidence, that confirm O'Brien's non-scientific synthesis. Plant pathologists, like any plant biologists, are unknowns to the public, and only those (well, the one) that throw their support behind the anti-GMO movement are welcomed into their big goofy tent of misinformation.

Her article on Prevention's website is a technical train wreck. She/Huber don't have a clue how glyphosate works (that it inhibits the activity of the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS) and is well understood).  It is not functioning by chelating divalent cations like manganese, magnesium, etc as she/he claim, at least in no major way.  The math just does not work, I could easily explain it all here, but that's science, and silly to use to counter non-scientific claims. Basically, the scientific rigor of her piece leaves lots to be desired.

Nonetheless, a picture of Huber is painted as a tireless retired academic treading against a current of angry paid-off critics and paid dupes of the agrochemical industry, and she does so with her usual effective writing and careful words that manufacture perception of risk where little, if any, exists.


Where it Starts: November 12, 2013

Dr. Huber was invited to give a talk in Gainesville, FL where I live, and I could not wait to go.  I went with another professor who specializes in organic and sustainable crop production. We're friends and lots of her local clientele would be there.  Huber gave his talk.  I recorded it on a pocket digital recorder and it was video recorded by the organization hosting him.  I took 22 pages of notes, feverishly.  Science was deceptively shown and carefully contexted to scare the bejeebus out of those in attendance.

And it worked.  The audience emitted audible gasps when he showed grotesque images of aborted calves.  The audience winched when he showed Seralini's lumpy rats.  He gave a compelling and credible presentation from a platform of a Ph.D. scientist-- and it made me furious because science was being used to satisfy an agenda, not to teach or inform.  My blood boiled.


Huber Exposed

The whole story is here.  Briefly, when the presentation ended the organizer from Florida Organic Growers and Consumers recognized me in the audience and made a comment about how I'd disagree with everything Huber said, but could ask a question.

I didn't ask a question.  I offered my assistance.  Huber claims to have cultured this mystery thingy (he used to call it a micro-fungus, then it was a new pathogen, now it is a prion or "biomatrix") so I asked politely if he'd be willing to share it with the broad scientific community.  My lab sequences DNA all the time, and we could sequence and assemble the fundamental genetic code from his mystery pathogen in a few weeks.  I offered to pay for it personally, make all data public, and do everything in an open access format- where he would receive all the credit (as revealed on the recordings- below he'll insinuate that I demanded his organism so I could in essence steal credit from out from under him).

For the next 9 minutes and 7 seconds rambled about how the self-replicating organism has no DNA (contrary to what he says in Genetic Roulette's updated version where he says, "The DNA is being sequenced" @~32  min), that his Chinese collaborators are doing it, and then telling me "why don't you just culture it yourself?"  I also asked him about specialized containment for safety and he said that there was none.

Bottom line-- Busted.   After this point, in all of his subsequent presentations, his organism would have no DNA.



About 31 minutes into the updated version of "Genetic Roulette" Huber and Jeffrey Smith discuss the "New Organism" that exhibits "filamentous growth in pure culture".  Shortly after this time he even says that DNA has been isolated and is being analyzed, yet when asked to help sequence it-- it has no DNA!




Huber Tries to Inspire Administrative Action Against Me

Being publicly called out in front of his credulous supporters didn't sit well with Dr. Huber.  A five-page letter showed up in the office of those that I report to, and ends up with our Senior Vice President.  I was called to his office.


Page 1 of 5.  Pages of false information that can be verified as false against the recordings.  Unfortunately nobody knows where the video disappeared to.  Still, audio was sufficient to verify my position and demonstrate Huber's malicious intent to harm a public scientist. 



The first line reads:

This is his opening salvo.  The only ethics being breached here are a letter fully of legally-actionable lies that were intended to harm my career.  If questioning extreme scientific claims and offering assistance is an "ethics concern and unprofessional conduct" then Huber knows less about science than I give him credit for. 



In the letter Huber meshes some factual statements and flat out lies.  He starts out correctly pointing out that I contacted Florida A&M University where he was giving a talk the previous day.  I provided my input on his controversial claims.  This is a copy of the email that I sent to FAMU Small Farms coordinator Yolanda Thomas, who apparently forwarded it to Huber.  Fine with me, glad to see what side of the science she's on too.




This is my email to the FAMU person hosting his visit, appearing here as it appeared 
in Huber's letter as 'Exhibit 1'



Threats and Malice? No, That's What We Call "Science"

My note to FAMU, followed by my offer to help him sequence his new self-replicating cultured organism that has no genetic information and is killing plants, cattle and humans didn't sit well with Huber.  Personally, I think I was always rather soft, and that is verified by the recordings.  However, he communicates to my superiors that my words were intimidation and threats.




I can read that email a thousand times along with my blog. Not sure how it could be considered threatening. But the victim must continue to paint himself as the victim, or Robyn maybe doesn't want to write, the speaking invites end, and he looks like some kind of nutty old dude making up stories of GMO unicorns.


Of course, after his  talk I was the one that sought him out and shook his limp little paw as he was hustled out of the room telling me, "Go isolate it yourself" over and over again.  No malice intended, never-- but I am calling for honesty and proper use of science, which a promulgator of scary science fiction might find a threat to their claims.

His letter then reports to my bosses a note from this blog. My lab had a submitted article that was declined for the fourth time, and I noted that in my blog on a rather rejection-heavy Sunday.  He informed my superiors that I was "journal shopping" and impugned my scholarly credibility.  Of course, he failed to mention that the paper was an edgy concept incorporating diverse areas of analytical chemistry, genomics and plant breeding that did not fit well in any one journal.  Rejection was not the experiments or conclusions-- it was not a good fit for the best journals of our discipline.  We sent it to Current Biology, PLoS Biology, and other solid journals before it found a home in a very good journal, BMC Genomics.  The paper has been widely noted as fresh and innovative (E. Triplett, pers.comm.).


The Fun Just Keeps On Coming



Discussed in the next paragraph. 
 I don't know what his misunderstanding of photo or blog time stamps is.
In computers, Dr. Huber, we can ask them to post things at later dates. 


If my kind offer was construed as a demand, then he really is off his rocker.  He goes from talk to talk, claiming this dangerous and deadly pathogen and the critical need to stop use of GM crops and glyphosate.  I simply asked him if I could help solve the problem.  When you tell the emperor that he has no lab coat, the emperor's memory gets a little foggy. Luckily we have audio and plenty of witnesses (who were moved by his performance, but later were blown away when I showed them the Huber letter-- they saw what a malicious smear he intended).

I never "demanded" anything.  I never said "prove it as a fraud" or anything of the sort, never would. That's not scientific.  If his mystery organism is real, then I hope to contribute to a solution and illuminating the critical problem so that we can stop the use of products that harm plants, livestock and humans.  However, until that point, we have only the words of a single retired professor that spews ancient claims with no evidence-- and conjures libelous hellfire to his critics. 

No published competence?  I asked if he'd share a sample of a culture for an open-source, public sequencing project, a place where I maybe have a little competence. I was one of the pilots of what turned out to be one of the first open access, public sequencing efforts. 


Wow.  Arrogance and ignorance. Glass houses.


Again, it is now him as a victim.  He was caught in his own apparent deception. Usually his audiences are pie-eyed minions that buy into his unpublished garbage, dotted with concerned people genuinely seeking information about biotechnology.  He's not used to someone qualified offering to lend assistance to help him with his science (in genome sequencing and assembly where HE lacks competence), he looked bad in front of his audience, and so he must lash out.  I have never  engaged in name-calling, abusive language, or a harsh disposition. I have maintained a critical skepticism of his evidence-less claims, and only got prickly once he started gunning for me


It Continues


The guy scaring audiences about a mystery organism wants me to get counseling. Remember, this went to my superiors. Who is demeaning and abusive here?


The next paragraph goes on about how I demand the pathogen be turned over to me so that I can publish it and get my name on a paper.  I said, with no question, "Dr. Huber, you get all of the credit" and it is on the audio.  Someday I will make that public too (it was fun listening to the audience turn on him and plead with him to share the pathogen cultures with the wider scientific community). 



I think he get's it a little wrong again. I never made a demand, and the "blog slogan" (emphasis Huber's) actually is a quote from Norman Borlaug, a guy not really known for expectations of servitude and others for his glory.



And to put a lid on it... The only counseling I received was 
rolled eyeballs and assurances of support. 


In Summary

 I have always been clear about my feelings toward Dr. Huber. I recognize his accomplishments.  To me his decorated past makes his current claims even more curious.  I've never been out to damage him personally, as he is doing a fine job of that himself.

As a participant in the self-correcting discipline of science, I am obligated to both skeptically criticize claims, especially those made without evidence.  I should intervene in public education, especially where the public is led astray by twisted science and again, claims without evidence.  I should offer to use my capacities to help build evidence on his behalf if his claims do have merit and simply need additional expertise that I possess.

However, his note to my superiors crosses a line.  What you see here are excepts from a letter he sent that are filled with (using his words toward him) false accusations in a malicious attempt to damage my person and discredit my science.  Huber's no victim, he's on the attack. He's trying to damage my credibility and career.

I never wanted to write this note or reveal the letter's content. O'Brien's characterization paints a false picture of a kind scientist trying to fight the machine.  Ironically, Huber is a major cog in a broken machine that spits out bad science and misleading information, paralyzing adoring audiences with fear, and confusing public discourse in biotechnology.  And if any scientist of credibility gets in the way-- he won't address them directly.  Instead, he sends a lie-laded communication to higher-ups, seeking someone to hush the scientist, find formal reprimand or even get them fired. That says a lot right there. If you can't address the science, take down the scientist.

It was almost a year ago that I offered to sequence Huber's mysterious self-replicating culturable pathogen that lacks genetic material.  One year later, this breakthrough science, that could be wrapped up in weeks, remains a reality only to Huber and his legions of credulous true believers.

My hope is that he is well after his accident, that he recovers fully, and with his recovery finds an awakening to either provide proof of his claim via publication, or come clean and say he was just making the whole thing up.  Let's put this issue to bed.  

His followers will still love and cherish him, they'll make up claims of Monsanto's Blackwater special-ops hitting him with the car and then waterboarding him into recanting.  He'll get a free pass from his followers, take back some reputation, and get some respect from his critics- including me. 

Until then, we're still waiting.  It was important to show he is not a kind-hearted grandfatherly victim fighting for the little guy-- not in the anti-biotech arena.  Quite to the opposite, he is a credentialed scientist twisting science and creating myth to frighten people. He also showed here that he is willing to fabricate information to harm the careers of public scientists that simply request that he provide evidence for his claims.

























Wednesday, October 1, 2014

100 Billion Animals Over 15 Years

As someone that has followed recombinant DNA technology for almost four decades, I can remember the awakening of the technology.  As it moved toward implementation, I remember what activists said.  I remember dire predictions of doom and gloom, of horrors and suffering.  Most predicted that every animal consuming GM feed would be dead within days, maybe a year if they were lucky... including humans.

Here we are 18 years later, and none of those predictions came true. None.

Of course, papers like the famous Seralini Lumpy Rat Extravaganza argued that consumption of transgenic crops, or the herbicide used on them, caused massive and grotesque tumors (that the controls got too- but the authors conveniently forgot to show).

For over twelve years retired plant pathologist Don Huber has traveled the globe, warning of a GMO-based pathogen that is killing humans and animals that consume the feed.

Based on their dire predictions, it is a wonder any of us are still alive.  Especially the animals.  Cattle, pigs, chickens-- all they get is GM foods, >95%.



Based on predictions from activist community in the 1990's, Serlini's rat study, and Huber's mystery pathogen, these animals consuming 100% GMO diets surely would be sick or dead! 
Turns out, nothing is different. 

A new paper from Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam and colleagues includes a survey of USDA information since the 1980's.  Over this time, over 100 billion animals received careful assessment for important characteristics.  In 1996 the animals switched from non-GM feed to almost 100% GMO feed.  What horrors unfolded?

None.

Zip.

Zilch.

The animals did just fine, the same before and after GM crop introduction.  Not better, not worse, the same.  As predicted.

Of course, critics are scurrying to move goalposts and downplay the findings.  They can't approach the data with reason and evidence.  Instead, they are feverishly scouring university records to identify any distantly feasible hint of corporate collusion, fabricated relationships that they could spoon feed to hungry believers shocked by scientific data that don't support their flawed cherished pseudo-scientific conclusions.

Sure, there are limitations to the data, just like any data set.  However, they do show that 1990's predictions, Seralini and Huber are wrong.   These animals grow rapidly, change quickly, and any issues in health reflect dramatically in animal health metrics. Even small differences would be conspicuous in such a massive sample size. Yet no changes were seen, suggesting that the products were benign, as predicted.  Food. Simply food and nutrition for growing animals.

100 billion animals, 100% GM diets, no sign of any disaster.  Watch GM opponents dance in an attempt to discredit these data, while fervently standing by none of their own.