Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Girl Scouts- Standing Up for Science

Two years ago I wrote a blog about an eight-year-old California girl that started an online petition to remove transgenic-crop-based ingredients from Girl Scout cookies. Again, I admired her drive and interest, but was appropriately critical of her surfacy scientific understanding. She claimed that "GMOs studies (sic) (in animals) have linked them to infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system."

It could be an honest third-grade interpretation of the scholarly literature.  Probably not. 

More likely she was simply a pawn of flimsy parents that paid good money for an anti-GMO book at Whole Foods, only to have their food fears reinforced by a popular TV doctor, leading to the de-education of their daughter.  

That's something I'm firmly against, as I want young women to be excited about science, not taught to fear it because parents are twits. 

I wrote a blog about Girl Scout anti-science activism and ticked off a few parents.  You'd think they'd be thanking me. 

That day I received a prickly email from her furious mother, angry that I’d criticize her daughter and her anti-GMO mission.  Kindly, I offered to travel to her daughter’s school, at my personal expense, to talk to her class about crop biotechnology.  I never heard back from that irate mom. Seems that facts incompatible with her narrow worldview is not welcome.

Every year activists pressure the Girl Scouts to use non-transgenic-plant-based ingredients in their cookies.  You can find dozens of websites and Facebook pages with demanding such ingredients be removed-- or feel the wrath of the Brownies.  

Their Facebook page pushes the anti-scientific agenda that harms young women.  I've been preemptively blocked from commenting

But so far the Girl Scouts have stood firm with science, and this year made a strong statement that they would side with science before folding to a handful of activist mothers, whose arguments are as thin as their mints. 

Excerpted from the Girl Scout's statement.  This is how you build strong women-- Teach them to think critically and to embrace science. 

We need to build the next generation of strong women by teaching how to use all tools, including biotechnology, as mechanisms to help solve at least some of the world’s grandest challenges. Girls need to be excited to participate in science, and visualize how to use it to help the environment, serve the hungry, and drive sustainable agriculture. They are the next generation of leaders that will actually get to deploy the molecular toolbox that four decades of scientists (molecular biology is about 50% women) created.

To teach girls to fear science, or to fight against science, is incredibly damaging. I'll go so far as to say it is even child abuse. It instantly eliminates options from their futures, and sets them up to be easily manipulated by others. 

Furthermore, to inform young women that science is the zone of liars, conspiracy, and company-owned sellouts is a tremendous harm that only pushes them away from the future’s most promising careers.  Women are central to driving the new technology that will frame the future of food. Biotechnology, with its benefits and limitations, will be at least part of that future.

Instead of enlisting girls into internet campaigns designed to coerce removal of safe ingredients from luxury foods, let’s have an honest conversation about what biotechnology can do to help farmers, the environment, the consumer, and the developing world.  Let’s talk about how girls can grow up to lead positions in agricultural science, biotechnology, bioinformatics, Big Data, and the highest paying jobs of the future that have deliciously wonderful human benefits and sweet environmental impacts. 

Somewhere out there there’s a girl by a card table full of cookies that just might grow up to solve some of our world’s most pressing problems. She’s sharp, inspired, and poised to make a difference. That is, if we support her development in critical thinking and STEM-- and steer her away from the misgivings of parents that place a broken political motivation above teaching their daughters to integrate with reality. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Vani Hari's Kooky Response to Critical Students

The other day a group of food science students penned a letter to Vani Hari, criticizing her pseudo-scientific approach to food and health issues.  It was a thoughtful, reasoned and appropriate letter. They were speaking from a basis of evidence and science.

And instead of simply leaving it out in the internet, Hari actually responded.  In typical Food Babe fashion, she approaches criticisms from actual emerging scholars with a the usual barrage of nonsense and holier-than-thou attitude.  She actually tells these students that they are wrong on all counts.

University students are pretty sharp, especially grad students like these folks appear to be.  Their points are consistent with the scientific literature and the scientific consensus.  Well done. 

Hari's reply is the usual indictment of stuff she doesn't understand, and adherence to her beloved suite of fallacies. I've parsed her arguments line-by-line, and as usual, she clearly just does not understand how science works, what 'safety' means, and what the state of the literature is on crop production methods.

I cannot think of someone so clueless that thinks she's so clue-full.  The bravado to manufacture completely wacky statements is beyond arrogance, and to criticize students who approach her from a scholarly evidence-based point shows she's fully subscribed to her own deception.

Her reply also illustrates her disdain for scientists.  The fact that she thinks she can somehow fool those that are actually studying food science, steamrollering their flimsy facts with her righteous beliefs, is just so representative of her methods. She knows everything-- read her book, not that trash they give you at Monsanto University. 

Well huge kudos to the students for writing a solid letter, and congrats on conjuring up a response.  Again, the science-blind leader of a broken movement tears into those that embrace science-- because it does not match her errant beliefs.  Well done, "future science students in training".  You provided an honest criticism, and her goofy response shows that it was warranted.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Citrus Crisis and False Balance

I'm so grateful to any author that takes the time to write about citrus greening disease and its potential solutions.  When I saw the posting in Fast Company by Satta Sarmah, I was happy that someone might be providing a additional resources on the disease and its solutions.

When you read the article Does orange juice have to genetically modify or die? it does a good job describing some of the proposed solutions, some of which will involve the addition of transgenes. They mention Dr. Eric Mirkov's (Texas A&M) installation of a spinach gene and Dr. Jude Grosser's (Univ Florida) efforts with other transgenes.  While many solutions have been attempted, a subset of them show strong potential to help solve the problem. To this point it is a factual summary of what science has done.

Then Sarmah makes the classic journalist mistake-- striving for balance.  If scientists propose solutions, there must be some other opinion of equal importance, right?

The article then goes on to talk about deregulation.  Do you spot why the following statements are inconsistent with allowable content in a scientific article?

The first line is correct in that it would likely require regulatory approval by those federal agencies. But why does what "opponents say" matter?  Rubber stamp?  The process takes forever and costs millions of dollars for the required testing and evaluation. Watch for this later!

Then to introduce what Bill Freese thinks further just obfuscates the issue.  Freese works for the Center for Food Safety, an activist organization that continually fights applications of biotechnology. Freese can accurately state that consumers are concerned about regulation-- because he has dedicated his life to misinforming consumers about the regulation and generating fear about ag biotech.

The next line is the same old risk manufacturing tactic employed by anti-GM activists. Again, how the addition of a gene product, that people consume every day, poses no more risk than conventional breeding. Plus, this is not a product "people haven't been exposed to."  They consume Mirkov's solution in every bite of spinach.

The article continues:

Wow!  "Could take about 30 years"-- that's some rubber stamp.  The fact is that these trees have been developed and have been tested, and it is  simply a question of making 60 million of them after deregulation.  That means we need to get them deregulated fast!

Freese then goes into a false balance of his own, stating alternatives that have been considered, are still being investigated, but cannot be practically deployed. If his solutions worked, they would have been adopted a decade ago and the industry would not be in collapse. Solutions that show some promise (like heat treatments and nutrition) can't be used easily on 60 million trees and still allow farmers to stay in business.

Freese then talks about the $135 million dollar rubber stamp.  How Sarmah can write this and "rubber stamp" in the same article is beyond me.

Freese also talks about how the "majority (of disease resistant traits) have failed".  Funny, because it does not matter what the majority do, if one works. There is evidence in the literature, again and again, that plants can be generated with transgenes to help resist disease.  Freese's Center for Food Safety will stand in the way of the development of any biotech crop.  The fact of the matter is that Mirkov and Grosser's solutions do work-- we know that already, that's why these scientists are dedicating their time to their development.

While I applaud Sarmah for bringing attention to this problem, I'm again disappointed that the efforts of public scientists trying to solve a massive problem affecting many family farms, are upstaged by the empty words of an activist sworn to end any application of biotechnology.  It is classic false balance, teaching the controversy, non-experts with agendas given the same space as those dedicating their lives to scientifically solving critical issues in agriculture.

And Freese knows that if a biotech solution saves the citrus industry, he's out of a job.  He needs to keep building a non-existent boogeyman in order to keep the public skeptical of biotechnology, fighting it every step of the way.

Saving citrus will be a challenge that will require the best tools of nutrition, pest management, genetics and biotechnology.  There is no silver bullet.  We need all tools to be used to continue sustainable production of this nutritious fruit.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Johnson's Fights Chemophobia

While other companies roll over and reformulate ancient recipes when Food Babe Vani Hari comes to town, Johnson's is fighting back.  Clearly influenced by Hari's inane claims that "if you can't pronounce it, it is bad for you", Johnson and Johnson have produced a video for the Carah's Life series.  Here Carah (a mom with a You Tube channel documenting her experiences) addresses the concerns of chemicals in baby products, reminding us that everything is made up of chemicals. 

My new hero.  Carah Amelie speaks of chemicals, and those long science-sounding words that freak out Food Babes.

Carah is exactly what we need.  She's slick but unpolished, articulate but clunky, beautiful and plain. She's any of us.  We believe her.  She conjures credibility and trust.  She knows what she's talking about.

Johnson's, I'm going to go buy some baby shampoo and give it to someone with a dirty baby, just because you hired Carah and made this video.

And huge cred to J&J for not capitulating to the nonsense, to standing up for science, and teaching rather than frightening. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Horizontal Transfer of GMO DNA

To the critical science reader, the claims by the anti-GMO world are a goldmine of intellectual turds.  Over the last few weeks I've been blown away by the junk that is accepted and promoted by folks like (we don't know their actual name, just their fake sock puppet name) GMO USA.  Unfortunately I've been behind on a dozen writing assignments and can't very well put fun discussions like this into the public space without feeling a bit guilty.  However, I could not let this one go! 

To the rocket surgeons over at GMO USA, the work by Oraby et al (2014) is quite compelling. However, to anyone with even a high-school level understanding of the science, these data are just awful, and the conclusions unacceptable. The title says "Horizontal Gene Transfer" when the authors don't even test for it!

The manuscript was published in the African Journal of Biotechnology, a journal with an impact factor of 0.5 or so.  The lead author, Hanaa Oraby, has some publications here and there, so there's evidence of actual scientific training, but his work is rarely cited with a total of 109 citations since first publications in 1989.

This is important because the claim is that the authors have publishable evidence that the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus 35S promoter, the molecular switch that drives expression of a transgene at a high level in some transgenic constructs, is detectable in brain, blood and liver.  They claim that this is due to horizontal gene transfer, meaning a stable integration into genomes in these cell types.

They start with 19 experimental and 10 control rats, feed the former a GM diet from weaning and the latter a non-GM diet.  They sacrifice the animals at 30, 60 and 90 days,and prep DNA from the blood, liver and brain.  They then use PCR to detect evidence of DNA from the CaMV35S promoter using primer pairs designed against the DNA sequence.  PCR is the sensitive detection method used to amplify specific DNA fragments.  

The results show that after 40 cycles of PCR on 100 ng starting template that the authors can amplify evidence of the CaMV35S promoter in a fraction of their experimental rat parts, but not controls. 

Strengths of the work
1.  The authors actually sequenced the product to show that it is not just a spurious artifact. 
2.  The authors use non-GM fed rats as a control.

Major Weakness!
The two smaller primer pairs are "nested", meaning the sequences are found within the sequence of the large fragment.  However, the authors detect the large fragment, but in the same samples do not detect the small fragment!  They say that the short fragments are not taken up as well as the large ones.  That might be the case, but the small fragment is part of the large fragment-- so when the large one is detected, you'd have to detect the small one!   This point strongly suggests the authors are measuring false positives. 

1. Figure 1 does not show a negative control
2. The authors start with 100 ng of template!  This is a huge amount to start with. It increases the likelihood of contamination and false positives. 
3. The authors rely on 40 cycles of PCR to amplify their targets.  The use of this many cycles cannot be reliable, as a bona fide molecular target would amplify in 30.  Anyone that does quantitative real-time PCR knows that signals occurring after 35-40 cycles are evidence of contamination or artifacts.
4. The authors do not provide positive controls for PCR in their assays, which would be helpful.  A quantitative measurement would be good too.
5.  The "transfer efficiency" says that DNA was detected in 1-4% of samples, yet they authors present some level of detection in 100% of agarose gel samples. 
6. The values in Figure 6 depict "mean of GMtransfer" but shows no units and the values are based on 6, 6, and 7 rats.  Not sure what these numbers mean or how they were derived. 
7. When they report that positives were detected in "33, 37, or 52%" of samples from 30, 60, and 90 days, these are based on six rats, six rats and seven rats respectively.  They must be referring to positive samples, not positive rats (three samples per rat) to get these values, so rats with a "positive" in one sample were negative in others. Again, more evidence that they are measuring noise. 


When you have to rely on 40 cycles of PCR on 100 ng of starting template as your detection method, results are difficult to trust. Even with negative (non-GM consuming) controls, "detecting" a positive in 1-4% of samples after 40 cycles is not strong evidence of "horizontal gene transfer". 

Something concrete would go the extra step.  Prepare DNA from nuclei so that it eliminates fragments that might just be circulating in blood, as the authors cite that DNA can be found in the bloodstream (brains and livers have blood too).  Then amplify at fewer than 30 cycles using a nanogram of template, and show independent replicates and that multiple primer pairs targeted to the same DNA template amplify it as well.  That would be a start. 

The authors show some weak bands on a gel that represent only a fraction of the samples analyzed.   They apparently used 19 experimental animals and made three samples from each.  It was not clear if the samples showing positive for one primer set also showed confirmatory positives for separate set.  In fact, it appears that it is not the case, as there are only three positives for blood and more for others, when using different primer pairs.

The results were also from a single experiment, so any trace contamination would not be flagged by an inability to replicate in subsequent trials.


I get asked to review for the African Journal of Biotechnology all the time and never accept an assignment.  If they are willing to publish single replicates from cherry-picked data sets, then it is not a place that I need to invest my time.  These data are hardly compelling and my feeling is that if a comparable number of controls were used they'd see the same data there as well, even though the "data" are hardly reliable.  Size and sequence indicate they are amplifying and sequencing their target, but where there is zero evidence presented that it comes from horizontal gene transfer. To get that, they'd need to demonstrate that it is actually integrated, which is not impossible using similar techniques.

That would be a real story, and would be in Science or Nature, not the African Journal of Biotechnology

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What Shiva Can Teach Us About Science Communication

We can learn a lot about people from not just what they say, but how they choose to say it.  Communication scholars claim that something like 75% of meaning comes from non-verbal cues. Non-verbal cues are not just gestures, they come from our rate, volume, proximity and our willingness to absorb feedback.  Many suggest that the non-verbals communicate true intention, and that these signals may not always match the words.    

When we critically evaluate the non-verbal performance of Dr.Vandana Shiva on China’s CCTV, (beginning at 23:00 min) we learn a lot about the person. This video is a MUST WATCH.  Portrayed by her supporters as a kind-hearted and gentle defender of the downtrodden and the environment, we see her true colors. It is not just her words, but the way she chooses to say them. We can analyze her communication style and rhetoric and draw some important conclusions.

If you want to learn how NOT to discuss biotech, watch Shiva closely.
Nobody learns anything from an angry steamroller. 

The discussion was about biotechnology, particularly the interface between biotech and China’s policies. China is a massive importer of GM soy and corn.  However, activists have made amazing headway in tarnishing the reputation of a technology that Chinese scientists are poised to dominate. Anecdotally, there are literally thousands of potential products, from disease-resistant rice to improved corn, that Chinese laboratories are set to release.

Back to Shiva.  The host was aware of the limited time for the conversation and she asked specific questions.  Rather than answer the questions directly, Shiva took the opportunity to grandstand, speaking loudly and angrily over the host while other guests sat quietly. She blatantly ignored the host's requests for order and was abrasive and disrespectful.

Aspects to Note

She dominates a conversation.  There is an angry arrogance that comes off from the first moments at 27:20.  From 27:50 to 28:50 she loudly ignores the host and and attempts to control the flow of what is designed to be a discussion.  The host even had to reign her in, stating, "We're not having a shouting competition Ms. Shiva..."

The camera actually pulled off of her to a wide shot of the stage to at least take the focus away from her domineering. 

She does not answer the question.   The host even asks her to specifically answer a question about if we need to carefully consider all forms of genetic improvement.  Shiva goes into a rant on long-laid-to-rest claims about antibiotic resistance and viral promoters, never answering the question.

Emphasis on fear building.   Note the hard emphasis on “toxin” when discussing Bt.  Of course, we know that this protein is not toxic to non-targets, including most insects, but for her agenda she must install fear by manufacturing risk using key buzzwords.  She also claims that there is no testing or regulation, which is patently false. 

She plays to the myth and conspiracy.  Not only does she lay on the monarch butterfly canard, she claims that independent scientists are "being silenced".  She raises Pusztai and Seralini as examples of scientists that were silenced, ignoring of course that nobody else has replicated their work, and the scientific community notes those authors as less than credible.   

What can we learn about Shiva?   She’s a hard-line activist that is not afraid to distort facts, play to old myths and rely on conspiratorial thinking.  She will raise her voice when she can’t elevate her argument.   She avoids the questions, and comes off as an agenda-driven politician more than a knowledgeable scientist.  That’s not surprising, because she actually is a politician and not a knowledgeable scientist.

What can we learn as biotech communicators?    Soft is persuasive.  To win hearts and minds we can’t come off as hard and angry.   We must always respect the forum.  It is important to actually end a sentence, and speak directly to the question. 

Most of all, it is not only the  words that have meaning.  It is also how the words are presented.  As scientists, our ideas flow better if we are a kind conduit.  

Glyphosate and School Lunches