Saturday, February 28, 2015

New Heirlooms

Here you can get the seeds that represent the future of fruits and vegetables-- New Heirlooms. 

 These are Garden Gem and Garden Treasure tomatoes, new varieties produced by Dr. Harry Klee's lab at the University of Florida.  You can get seeds as a "thank you gift" in exchange for a small donation to his research program.  

Garden Gem and Garden Treasure are two "new heirloom" varieties that were bred starting with consumer evaluation of huge numbers of heirloom varieties.  The best tasting were combined with a line that provides strong production traits. The result- A great-flavored tomato that performs well!

CLICK HERE, and donate $10 or more to tomato improvement at the University of Florida.  As a thank you gift you'll  receive 20 Garden Gem and 20 Garden Treasure seeds.  Put your shipping info in the space on the bottom. (Don't fill out "appeal code")

Here's the Story:

When you order a sandwich at Subway you can watch the guy lay out pink, anemic tomatoes on your sandwich like a Vegas blackjack dealer flipping produce. They are typically pink discs of disappointment. They are not the red thick tomato slices we remember from home gardens or roadside stands. 

These tomatoes tend be bland, tasteless, and leave plenty of room for improvement, but still are a tremendous success story. Why? They were bred by traditional breeding to produce a consistent size, good shipping quality and resistance to disease.  These production tomatoes are still quite a genetic feat-- here one of the world's most fragile and perishable food has been bred for wide availability as a fresh vegetable product.  That's pretty incredible.  

But these tomatoes have suffered a fate of many traditionally-bred crops. Plant breeders have priorities, and a great tasting soft tomato has no value if it does not make it to market. This is why shipping and disease resistance have to be considered first, with consumer priorities de-emphasized. 

At the same time the opposite is true about the "heirloom".  There is a perception that the "heirloom" varieties have some magical quality that render them superior to commercial varieties.  Actually it is the opposite. An heirloom is simply a tomato that is missing the qualities that make them acceptable for commercial production. In other words, they may taste great but are susceptible to disease, are too small, or would not ship well.  The seeds have great value, but only for specialty markets or home gardens. 

So what if there was a way to merge traditional breeding and heirloom objectives?  This is the concept of Consumer Assisted Selection.  I coined that term back in 2010 or so, as it frames our efforts to produce better quality fruits and vegetables starting with the consumer's desires and working backwards to products.  This is the strategy of the Plant Innovation Center at the University of Florida. 

New, Old Tomatoes

Dr. Harry Klee has a mission- to improve the tomato.  He scoured seed repositories and heirloom catalogs to obtain the constellation of tomato varieties available. Along with his team, they grew acres of heirlooms, then harvested them, cut them into little pieces and gave samples to panelists in an attempt to find the best-tasting tomato. 

Several varieties emerged as clear winners in the taste-test.  However, these came from plants that barely produced any fruit or the fruits were too small for normal production. Typical heirlooms. 

On the other hand, Dr. Jay Scott and the University of Florida Tomato Breeding Program had a tomato that makes a great parent. While it may not have the best flavor, it tends to pass along size and other favorable characteristics to its offspring. If you've ever enjoyed a Tasti-Lee tomato, you're tasting those genetics in action.

Dr. Klee put on his bumble bee outfit and carefully transferred pollen from the heirloom to Dr. Scott's production standard. A few weeks later the flower was gone, and a little green bead grew and expanded into a red, ripe tomato.

And it tasted fantastic.

The Garden Gem and Garden Treasure tomatoes are marriages of high production traits and desired consumer traits. 

These new genetic combinations mixed the best-flavored tomatoes with the best production varieties, bridging these two genetic pools that were separated because of their different breeding priorities.

This is just the beginning.  How do we make better tasting fruits and vegetables?  By listening to consumers first, and then using genetics to hit the target they define.  This is an exciting new track now driving breeding objectives in tomatoes, strawberries and blueberries, among other crops.

We can look forward to new, satisfying varieties that merge the best of production traits with the historical successes that delighted the senses.  These are new heirlooms, and they open an exciting peek of what is coming in plant genetic improvement.  

Here are more details of the story and the individual varieties! I hope you order some seeds and give your feedback to Dr. Klee so he can build your ideas into the future of tomatoes!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

This is What We Are Up Against

This Facebook post frames the problem we face as educators. So much of the public is clueless, paranoid, and knows nothing about basic biology. This is why folks like US-RTK must silence and intimidate scientists.  If anyone learns, they lose their power to influence them. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Manufacturing a Turning Point

When US-RTK filed the public records request on the #science14, they didn't realize they were creating a turning point in public perception.

The public is sick and tired of those that waste limited public funds to abuse important transparency mechanisms, or even hacking, to silence or harass scientists. 

The public sentiment sees this as slimy, expensive, and an undue attack on their public scientists, just like ClimateGate. 

For instance, two days ago there was a post on's facebook page that claimed that I was "afraid" of the public records request and gave the impression that I was somehow refusing to cooperate.  

I posted that I have always been 100% in compliance, and to their credit, they let my post stand.  Within a day, that post had 1000 "likes" and over 1000 supportive comments.  I have obtained screen caps of all of it from Philip Crews and others, and will immortalize that thread on this blog in the coming days. 

My response to their allegations of obfuscation. 944 "likes" when this was captured.  The site was eventually taken down, as their smear campaign was not shaping up the way they wanted it to.

The Facebook Post was Removed- Why?

1. Fear of litigation. I asked them to kindly cease and desist.  Their comments were defamatory and certainly libelous, as they suggest that I am hiding something and refused to comply.  That is patently false, suggests I am not following the law, and absolutely damaging, as it was shared on hundreds of other sites.  Their lawyers probably blew in their ear that they crossed a line.

(MORE LIKELY) 2.  Overwhelming Fail.  Just about every comment on that thread was supportive of me and of science.  It was amazing.  There was nobody able to defend their position that I was not in compliance, and if anything, it came across as repulsive and slimy.  This smear campaign is one that did not go their way.

YOUR Scientists need YOUR help!

Look how your involvement changed an entrenched activist website!  YOU created a turning point in this discussion. 

Remember, I am YOUR scientist.  Whereas they want to paint me as a some back-pocket Monsanto lackey, I'm proud to work in public science.  I'll ALWAYS maintain relationships with these corporations and maybe someday I'll be fortunate enough to talk Monsanto into sponsoring YOUR research. 

The difference between this being an isolated victory and the turning point in public perception is how public YOU help make it.  Let's face it, this attack on YOUR public scientists is wrong, and it is backfiring.  

What you need to do now. 

1.  Use email or Facebook to contact any magazine, paper, whatever, (especially science ones) and bring this to their attention-- a case of public scientists being interrogated and libeled for teaching science. 

2.  Post a note on media websites, facebook pages, include them in tweets.

3.  Go to science-friendly websites and podcast websites, like Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Talk Nerdy, Radio Lab and Science Friday.  Show them how YOUR scientists, the #science14, are being harassed by an expensive nuisance public records request-- because they taught science on a science website!

I've said from the beginning, we must not let US-RTK and activists control this situation. We should not play defense.  Some researchers involved have been told to remain silent. I won't do that. 

This is time for us to go on offense, as people demanding the truth,  as a scientific community, as a concerned citizenry, and as people standing up for science, reason, and THEIR scientists.  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Rethinking Through Our Temptations

Since the public records request was filed against fourteen public scientists, its intent has become increasingly clearer.  It is nothing more than a hunt for words to smear a few visible public teachers and researchers that engage public dialog in animal and plant biotechnology. The effects are larger, scientists feel a violation of privacy, intimidation, and are less likely to reach out to lay audiences, which is what we should be doing most. 

This is a malicious waste of public resources, and a hunt to harm those that said nothing outside the scientific consensus. 

Baseless personal attacks still hurt, but the truth is out there. Let's resist the urge to put others through this legal invasion of privacy.  (Millions?)

Over the last week I have heard calls to return the favor.  They came from those impacted by the US-RTK action and our supporters.  

Yes, there are a few individuals with university ties that decry transgenic plant technology.  Some have suggested that they should also receive a public records request.  There has been discussion of filing retaliatory requests for their information, their emails, and their written correspondences. 

I disagree, and appeal to not filing any counter-actions. The filing of nuisance FOIA requests to fish for information to harm others that have done nothing ethically wrong is unacceptable.  We should not tolerate it against our friends, and we should not tolerate it against those we disagree with.  

Ironically, they are the ones that speak in opposition to the 99% of scientists, and their motivations are the ones most suspect. These are the folks most likely with interests to protect. 

Let's let the science do the talking.  Let the research continue to accumulate.  Let trained scientists interpret that for an interested public. 

My personal position is to not subject "the other side" to such inappropriate, expensive and uncalled for probes.  They are doing a fine job sinking themselves as they continue to fight science. 

Instead, let's take the high road that they don't know.  Let's continue to stand up for science and reason, let data do the talking, and continue to teach, especially to those we disagree with. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Watershed

This is a blatant attack on science and reason.

It is an attempt to muffle those who teach.

Let's stand up together. 

This could be the turning point.

But YOU have to participate. 

Fight back against the War on Science.  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

True Intentions

All of my private emails are being turned over as per Gary Ruskin's request for public records via US-RTK as planned.  There was never any push back, no question of our compliance. 

But this appeared across the internet today:

Here GMO Inside characterizes me as a "Monsanto Activist" and makes the false statement that there is some sort of non-compliance.  This shows their true intent. 

If we can't even trust these people when we are in full cooperation and compliance with the law and the request, how can we expect them to behave when over two years of private correspondence is turned over to them? 

Frankly, I don't care.  Nothing was done wrong.  There was no crime committed, and my handful of interactions with anyone in the Big Ag world aren't too exciting.

What this shows is that this is NOT about a Right to Know.

This is about a Campaign to Destroy. 

This is an activist desire to harm the reputation of a public scientist. We are in full compliance, never gave any hints otherwise. 

This is a malicious witch hunt, and if this does not prove that, I don't know what does.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Arctic Apple Deregulated - Predictions?

The "rubber stamp" of regulatory approval, that takes millions of dollars and more than a decade to get, has been finally bestowed upon the Arctic Apple, and the company that invented it, Okanagan Specialty Fruits. This apple varieties have their browning mechanisms deactivated using RNAi, a process that essentially eliminates the enzyme required for the browning process.  After years of testing and regulatory hoops, we can now enjoy them. 

'Bout time! I've been hearing about the damn thing since the 90's. The Arctic Apple joins the ranks of one of the most tested foods of all time. 

These apples don't brown when you cut them, making them an improvement for many applications.  I know I'll buy them because I like apple slices, and can have fresh ones, right from the apple rather than expensive pre-cut ones in bags with chemical treatments and modified atmospheres. 

There is plenty of discussion online about how it works and why it is of benefit to consumers, so if you want to know that stuff, you can find it.  

However, science isn't as much fun as crazy conjecture.  

So let's make predictions! 

1. It will be labeled.  On purpose! -  The superior performance will add value for consumers, so the company will undoubtedly label them with special packaging noting that they are Arctic Apples. 

2. Hundreds of new anti-Arctic Apple images will appear online. --  I'm guessing that there are plenty of folks sitting with a few apples, some food coloring and and handful of grandma's insulin syringes manufacturing the next generation of apple scare art! You'll see lots of images of kids eating apples with skulls and crossbones on them. Wait for it!

3. You'll read about how they are untested and unsafe. To scare the bejeebers out of apple eaters there will have to be plenty of derived accounts of allergies, diseases and maybe even claims of spikes in autism. Watch for them!

4.  You'll read about Monsanto's new apple.  You can't tarnish the image of a new product if it is something made by a small Canadian company with four full-time employees.  You need to tie the product to Monsatan! 

5.  You'll see pressure on apple growers in general. Apple growers will be coerced into not growing Arctic Apples and you'll see common boycotts of all apples due to fear. 

6.  Claims of contamination.  You'll read about how organic apple growers can't sell their trees anymore because they are all contaminated with Arctic Apple pollen.  Of course, they forget that apples are propagated by cuttings and grafting. 

7.  We'll hear of the "revolving door of collusion" between Okanagan Specialty Fruit and the U.S.Government.  Even though you can fit all of the company's full-time employees into one revolving door. 

8.  I'll get a FOIA request for all communication with Okanagan Specialty Fruits.  Because I understand the science and discuss it on my website, conspiridorks at US-Right to Know and other NGO's will be certain that I have been paid by Okanagan Specialty Fruits to cover up the deadly poison apples. They'll ask for all of my email correspondence with OSF and its agents, which we'll happily provide, as the harassment of scientists continues. 

There you have it, my predictions for the Arctic Apple.  Congrats to Dr. Neal Carter and his group.  We're looking forward to your next innovations. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Take the Ugly Food Challenge

In the industrialized world approximately 40% of harvested food never is eaten.  Think about that. The limited resources of water and fertilizer, along with the expensive chemicals that protect plants from pests and pathogens, plus labor, fuel and other inputs... all of that wasted because food is not eaten.

My entire life I've been grateful for food.  I've been thankful to have access to so much, and glad to have options that the vast majority of people do not.  

A mound of wasted produce, enough to make me soup for life. Wasted nutrition for those who would love access to produce, even if it is slightly imperfect. 

It is heartbreaking what we throw away, especially what is discarded at the retail level. A 1995 USDA report say that 5.4 billion pounds of consumable food are added to landfills. 

There are many solutions on many levels.  However, change is most likely to occur if solutions are simple and implementable. 

Over the years I've made a point to buy the piece of produce that nobody else will buy.  We've all seen it.  It has a blemish, a funny color spot, maybe a dent or it is too small or large.  While perfectly edible, it typically remains unpurchased.  

Buy that one. Take a picture, post it on Twitter with the hashtag #UglyFruitandVeg .  That's not my idea, but it is alive and well in the tweetysphere, often in association with the @endfoodwaste username. 

This simple step does not solve the problem.  In fact, its impact is pretty small.  However, that piece of slightly imperfect fruit is better than what 90% of people on the planet have access to.  Think about that, and enjoy it, knowing that you are helping to decrease this first-world problem.

More importantly, spread the word.  Let's use this simple and implementable step to raise awareness of food waste. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

An Open Letter to US-RTK

To the right-wing talk show host, a scientist claiming evidence of human-induced climate change is simply running the talking points of George Soros and the anti-oil, liberal media.

To the Young Earth Creationist, scientists speaking of evolution are simply reiterating the talking points of the atheist, Darwinist movement.

To a Jenny McCarthy anti-vaccination disciple, discussion of immunology and communicable disease simply is the talking points of Big Pharma.

And it follows, that if you honestly answer questions  on agricultural biotechnology that is consistent with the peer-reviewed science, they are simply the talking points of the evil Big Ag. 

I've been accused by US-RTK of using  corporate ag "talking points" and it appears to be the principle reason why my integrity is being impeached by US-RTK. I had to go to the dictionary to see how “talking points” is defined.  I figured that was a good place to start since I have been accused of using them.  The term is defined as, “in debate or discourse is a succinct statement designed to support persuasively one side taken on an issue.

I think that definition is rather insufficient.  It should be defined as "prepared and repeatedly used arguments that substitute for actual interpretations or analysis".  That's why I don't write dictionaries. 

In other words, US-RTK believes that my words are corporate words, implanted by them, in me, to do their bidding. 

They don't know me very well. 

The Open Letter states the rationale for US-RTK’s inquiry is that “when these (publicly funded) professors are closely coordinating with agrichemical corporations and their slick PR firms to shape the public dialogue in ways that foster private gain for corporations, or when they act as the public face for industry PR, we have the right to know what they did and how they did it."

This is where they make a massive blunder.  They assume a conspiracy, just because a scientist teachers about science.  The companies they loathe use the same science.  It does not make the science incorrect, or the scientist wrong for speaking about it.  It also does not connect the scientist to the company, other than they share a similar respect for scientific evidence. 

And by the way, nobody tells me what to say, or what to think. Nobody is "coordinating" or shaping anything I say. Eff that Ess.

When you base your discussions on the peer-reviewed literature, and companies base their science on the peer-reviewed literature, there may be some overlap in the message. That does not mean there is a conspiracy.

The science, is the science, and they don't like that the science is inconsistent with an anti-corporate worldview they hold.  Since their science heroes have been dismissed as frauds and quacks, that legit data in line with their beliefs has to be statistically tortured or broadly interpreted to fit their models, and real science continues to reinforce the basic concepts in transgenic crop science, their tactic is to silence the most effective voices that take the high-quality science to lay audiences. 

I've never reported anything on that is not consistent with the peer-reviewed literature. In fact, I simply talk about principles of recombinant DNA technology (the stuff I earned my Ph.D. in) and spend time debunking junk science.  That isn't "corporate talking points".  That's science and technology that I understand. 

Now if I were to work for a public institution and spout information counter to established science, then I should be subject to a little more inquiry.  

In US-RTK's letter to me, Gary wraps up with a quotation from James Madison. I'm not going to go dig for James Madison quotes, but I do know that he certainly noted how power, in human hands, could be easily abused.  This witch hunt is an absolute abuse of liberty, the liberty of scientists to freely discuss science. 

It is fine for US-RTK, Gary Ruskin, or anyone to hate a PR company, Big Ag, heck, even hate me.  That's cool.  There have been no words spoken on their website or anywhere else that suggest that I am doing anything outside my job as a teacher and educator.  It is science.  It is not "PR". 

So thanks for the open letter, steeped in conspiracy and innuendo, manufactured suspicion of a guy that works constantly, seven days a week to do good public work.  Yes, that's what I do.  

I spend a few hours a week answering questions for the public on transgenic technology. Those are questions concerned people want answered honestly by someone that knows the science. Regrettably, US-RTK does not like that. 

The other 100  I'm working it is for my research program, my students & postdocs, our producers, faculty, and my department.  It is all the truth, all hard science, and I'm sorry they don't accept it. 

Rather than learn it, they must stop me, and anyone like me, from communicating the science they don't find acceptable.  

Climate, evolution, vaccination... transgenic crop technology.  Solid science that activist groups want stopped, and it begins by attacking those that communicate it to a curious public. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ketchum and Me

The expressed motivation of the US-RTK blanket of requests for public information is to examine "the PR arm of the agrichemical business".   They targeted public, independent scientists that answered questions for a curious public on the website GMO Answers. is a website sponsored by industry.  I've never hid that, never downplayed that.  When I talk about the website in a public talk, I say, "This is a site sponsored by industry where you can find information from experts."   That's what it is.

What's my relationship with GMO Answers?  How much am I paid?  What's in it for me?  Who's really pulling the strings?  This is what US-RTK wants to know.  Here are the answers.

I like because I can help people understand science, and all of my answers are in one place.

How I got connected with

For 12 years I've answered questions on transgenic technology for concerned public audiences. People are worried about food and biotech, in part because it is science they don't understand, in part because many have painted it so negatively.

I understand the stuff, I've been studying it forever, and I know how to talk about it in ways that people can understand.  However, one of the biggest frustrations was that my efforts were scattered all over internet.  Even I didn't know where my answers (some with substantial time investment) sat in time and space.

When I heard about I was excited. Here would be a place where we could answer questions for the public about transgenic crop biology.  One stop shopping, one place where information could gather from experts.  We would not have to have endless redundancy, we'd be able to read each others' work, and most of all, we'd build a resource for people concerned about food and associated technologies.

It was a tent where teachers could teach, where experts could connect with those that had questions.  Perfect.


What do I get for my time?  

I've answered a few dozen questions on the site. What did I get in return?

-- I have never received any financial compensation for my time
--  They invited me to a dinner back when they first kicked off, which I attended.  It was a time to meet with their leadership.  They also invited people from organic farms, food banks, and others not traditionally excited about transgenic technology.  
--  They bought me lunch when I was in Washington DC once.
--  Somewhere along the line I got a "GMO Answers" plastic cup.


Who influences my answers?

I have never been influenced by any company or individual to change an answer except for two instances.

1.  I was told that shorter answers are more effective (I was being too detailed)
2. I was contacted by a zucchini breeder from Monsanto when I incorrectly stated that there were no transgenic zucchini. Turns out these were bred from virus-resistant squash.

My answers are 100% consistent with the peer-reviewed literature.  They are not opinions.  They are a synthesis of available data for the good of teaching.


What about associations with Ketchum employees?

One of their employees is a UF graduate and lives in Gainesville.  She usually assigns me the questions to answer.  A few professors that answer questions for GMOanswers (David Oppenheimer and Curt Hannah) were going out to get a beer and bring out laptops after work on a Friday, just to answer a bunch of questions (yes, exciting lives).  She met us there. 

We all helped each other answer the questions well and she assisted as a non-scientist that could help hone our answers.

And Ketchum didn't buy us onion rings or a beer.  We paid it ourselves, out of our pockets, like always.



There's my relationship with  Those are the deep insidious ties that made me the target of an information request. 

I appreciate, very deeply, that there is a place where I can hone a perfect answer to someone's concerns, and forever have a place where I can point others.  That's a big deal for me.  It is about being an effective teacher, sharing science, and helping others learn about technology.

That's the 'crime' that triggered the invasive request into my records, and likely will be used with the intent to find any way to harm my reputation in science. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Silencing Public Scientists

Last week I received a FOIA request that all of my emails bearing certain terms were going to be obtained and turned over to an activist group.  US-RTK, a San Francisco-based activist group, namely Gary Ruskin, wanted to know my ties to Big Ag and their PR arm.  

The first thing I did was pick up a phone, call Gary Ruskin, and say, "What can I tell you?"

We spoke for 10 minutes, he seems like a decent guy, but what's the deal with assuming that I'm guilty of something before even talking?  I'm not one to do things the hard way, the expensive way.  I'm glad to talk openly about anything. 

Those closer to the situation tell me I'm naive, and that US-RTK wants nothing more than to see me removed from the discussion on ag biotech.  In their estimation, US-RTK does not just want truth, they want words.  They want emails.  It is not about a scientists and what he or she does-- it is how they can make public records into something they are not. 

This is an expensive fishing trip to harm public science. 

The bottom line is that my university operates under the Sunshine Law.  Emails are public information, just like my funding, my salary, my cholesterol levels, and everything else about me. 

Still, there are privacy concerns, not by me, but by the university. Turning over student information, proprietary information or medical info could get them in a lot of hot water. 

So, for to meet this request, my university has to pull all of my emails after 2012 and have legal types go through them, one-by-one, to make sure nothing they turn over has sensitive information. It is going to cost a fortune. 

Why do we have such Sunshine Laws?  They actually serve a good purpose, allowing mechanisms of transparency to find information quickly in the event of some malfeasance by public employees.  That's helpful.  

But when an activist with a mission sees a public scientist effectively talking about science, and they need to shut up that scientist, the FOIA is an easy way to do it.  It works for several reasons.
  • First, many faculty will not want to endure this level of personal invasion.  We know our emails are open property, so why piss anyone off?  If they are like me they are too busy to have secret email addresses and careful re-reading of correspondence for potential alternative interpretations.  If you don't push the envelope and simply do the job, middle of the road, nobody's too upset. 
  • Second, it is enormously expensive.  Universities have funds set aside for such things, but in the days of lean budgets, it is unfortunate that tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars have to go to malicious nuisance requests.  These are not investigating specific impropriety, they are looking for something to cause harm to reputations of public scientists.  It is a taxpayer-funded fishing trip for a "gotcha", nothing more. 
  • Third, it discourages faculty from engaging, especially young faculty that are trying to navigate the Tenure and Promotion process.  
  • Fourth, they can use words out of context to harm the reputations of scientists. Just look at Climate-Gate. 
The threat of being under the microscope scares people to death, not because of what they have done, but because of what those running the microscope want to find, and what they will do with any information once obtained.  Words out of context, a sentence misinterpreted, Climate Gate 101. They can't be trusted.  These are malicious intents aimed squarely at scientists that dare to teach and communicate peer-reviewed science. 

Here's an email I sent to someone today at Ketchum today about the Atlantic article on the Food Babe. Ketchum is one of the companies where US-RTK seized my correspondences. They'll get this one too, so I gave Gary Ruskin something to read.

So what next?  I'm fortunate to not be afraid of this.  I stand by everything I have written.  I've never received a penny for an answer on GMO Answers, or even coaching on what to say. Those are my words.  I own them and I always will. 

Somehow I'll be portrayed negatively and they'll use my words against me.  Yes, I speak my mind, no, I don't think of other interpretations.  No, I don't care either.  I have a job to do that needs to be done, and the minute I'm wasting time re-thinking about how some goof with an axe to grind against Monsanto is going to use my language to harm me... I'm done.  That's not what I was hired to do. 

I'm also fortunate to have a university administration that will back me, that sees this as an assault on academic freedom and an abuse of an important transparency system. 

I'm just a damn teacher that wanted to stay in the public sector. I still go to kid's classrooms, still mentor students, still answer one hour of emails a day from folks that just want to know about food technology.  That's what they will find. 

I've offered US-RTK to discuss things openly and freely, but they don't want that.  No problem. This will backfire on them.  Schools are broke, he's costing them money.  Scientists are hanging on by threads and he's costing them time and trying to harm reputations.  Anyone that needs to sift through my private emails to achieve their political ends might just check to see what happened to the Climate Gate folks. 

Those that stole the emails came off looking horrible.

Michael Mann and the others only gained credibility and got stronger. 

The earth still got warmer. 

The science didn't change, just because activists didn't like it. 

Total backfire.  And the meaner this one gets, the harder it will backfire too. 

I have to run, I have to work on a talk for a huge audience tomorrow, on biotech and science communication.  Damn right the FOIA request will be in the first slides.  That letter is how you know you are being effective. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Everyone's a Critic

Over at The GMO Smoking Gun, linguistics Professor Emeritus Derek Bickerton has prepared a response to my criticism of Vani Hari's letter to grad students.  The original letter was a note Hari wrote telling the students studying food and science, that they know nothing about food and science.  I sprang to their defense, deconstructing Hari's scientifically-vacant response. 

It was a quick job, a thrown-together effort over a sandwich.  However, the internet spread it quickly, ending up syndicated on Genetic Literacy Project as a "scathing" response to Hari. 

Cool.  It got a zillion hits and was picked up in many places, which is nice. 

It also raised the interest of Dr. Bickerton, who prepared his response to me, responding to Hari.  To his credit, he did notify me that he prepared a response, which is quite nice of him. He also seems like someone I'd love to have a coffee with and discuss his work.  He studied language on several interesting levels, like how children acquire language and how humans likely developed language. These areas are always interesting to me. 

But being a decorated academic does not make him immune from the misgivings of others that have tricked him with shoddy science. He noted that he was disappointed in my response, and I can understand why.  I would be disappointed too if I believed the nonsense, and then some smarty-pants egghead in Florida poked at my ideological bubble. 

Since his tactic was to associate me with Monsanto, discredit me with flimsy evidence and selective goobers from legit reports, I thought I should respond, just so folks understand how to properly think about this. 

So here's a response to Dr. Bickerton and his criticism of me, criticizing Hari, criticizing students. 

Exhibit A. 

The Old Standby:  Discredit the Scientist by Making Fake Link to Monsanto

He refers to me as a "Monsantoite".  Of course the first resort of those that don't have science-- try to discredit a scientist by immediately linking them to a company that has a negative image to many, even though he has no association with them.  It is the old trick.  A scientist speaking science must  be a dupe of a company, as anyone discussing facts is probably crooked. 

HARI:  Standard Font
FOLTA: Italic font
BICKERTON: Bold font

Exhibit B.

TACTICS: Special pleading, Argument ad populum, Confusion of correlation and causality, citing articles no real scientist takes seriously. 

He starts out with agreeing with me, then says that my argument is irrelevant because she's talking about synthetic chemicals.  He's wrong in that "the current system in the United States" ... "considers most chemicals innocent until proven guilty."  That is the biggest lie I've heard all day.  

Anyone that knows anything about clinical trails can think of many instances where trials ended because of evidence of toxicity.  This is why they are tested for tolerance and side effects.  We understand how molecules work, can make predictions, and then carefully test them.  Chemical compounds that are acceptable for use on food must be re-tested and re-registered if they are used for other applications in agriculture!  There is incredibly stringent oversight. 

The special pleading is that the safety argument only applies to synthetics.  Of course, lead, mercury and thousands of plant poisons are perfectly natural and are not examined in any crop.

The "evidence"?  A popular list of 1800 "studies, surveys and analyses" that claim harm from transgenic crops and associated pesticides.  Of course, these include toxicity tests on pesticides that we know are toxic to some organisms. That's why they are chosen.  We know pesticides kill cells in a petri dish. That entire list can be completely dismissed as meaningful data against transgenic crops, as if it is critically read, you find good research that has limited relevance to human health, and other data that are not peer-reviewed studies, and other stuff is junk that made it into low-rent, pay-to-publish journals with no reputation. 

Then the paper by Nancy Swanson!  

The ultimate fishing trip of matching correlations and developing strong, non-existent interpretations.  Any journal worth it's salt would reject this paper in a heartbeat.  But it found a home in the Journal of Organic Systems, a journal with no impact factor, showing that the editors are weak and the reviewers incompetent.  This paper would never be published in a journal I review for or edit.  It is an activist (two authors are known activists) attempt to commandeer the scholarly literature-- and that is disgusting. 

If that is what he considers reliable evidence, do I need to really waste my time on this?    

Exhibit C.

TACTICS:  Not exactly representing what the authors say. 

Vani is exactly right?   The authors of this work note in the Abstract and Introduction that all food additives must be tested and shown to be safe by the FDA and/or manufacturer.  It says it right in the first sentence: 

So no, Vani is not exactly right.  What this paper shows is that while everything is tested, not everything is tested in every possible way.  The paper discusses the current thresholds for needed tests, including plausible harm as determined by competent scientists.  It suggests some remedies and draws some conclusions.  

Just because scientists who know a lot about food chemistry suggest something does not need tests on reproduction (perhaps the compound is known to be metabolized by a mouth enzyme into fundamental biological molecules like sugars or amino acids) then they don't necessarily need testing. 

The authors conclude that there are ways to identify and fill gaps in testing and that many older compounds may be good candidates for evaluation.
Onward to Exhibit D.


As an undergraduate student I knew the word "teratogenic".  It was on a bottle of formaldehyde in Room 317 of Montgomery Hall at Northern Illinois University I was adding to a nucleic acid hybridization.  It was a chemical I was using, so I wanted to know the risks. 

That was in 1987.  I'm reasonably confident that many others, including these students, understand.  I interpreted Hari's comment as an explanation from on-high, which is probably correct, as she refers to Ph.D. graduate students as "Future Science Students in Training".  It is a reminder of her arrogance. 

Onward we go to Exhibit E. 

There is no evidence that the EPSPS enzyme, the gene that encodes it, or the Bt protein have consequences outside their targets at levels encountered.  Zero.  I'm guessing she's referring to "synthetic chemicals" and the thresholds for toxicity are well understood, especially for pesticides.  Plants are tested for residues and we know a lot about what is there and what is dangerous.  Nobody wants to harm people. The margin for impact is pretty huge. There has not been one single case linking transgenic crops to any human illness, death or allergy. Not one in eighteen years. 

Next. This is really boring.  Exhibit F. 

No, this statement is exactly correct.  The Bt protein comes from Bacillus thuringensis, a natural soil bacterium. The EPSPS enzyme is in plants and bacteria, and existed millions of years, maybe a billion years, before humans.  Man did not make "novel proteins that never before existed".  The two central proteins introduced to GM crops are well understood and come from nature. Period. 

Okay, I have to do something else tonight. Here's a two-fer.

No, Dr. Bickerton.  We did not evolve with the array of plants we eat- not even close.  Centers of domestication for all major crops are distributed throughout the globe (except almost none in present day USA) and there is no human evolution that has the exposure to different plant proteins and secondary metabolites that we have today.  Processed foods are a phenomenon of the last tick of human evolution and I'm not sure what "pre-chemical" agriculture is.  Plants are made of chemicals. 

The second point is a simple one that requires only minor illumination. There is no way to prove something is safe.  However you can perform safety testing to identify instances of harm.  Furthermore, there is a difference in the way a scientists uses "safe".  Science cannot prove anything safe, but we can say that something is safe, meaning to a lay audience that there is indeed no evidence of harm.  Sometimes we haves to speaks to the peeples. 

Next.... Exhibit... ah forget it. 

Yes, Vani did jump the gun, because she's clueless.  She travels the country telling that there are animal genes in plants.  

Now let's go back to the beginning (THIS IS IMPORTANT).  She claims that GMO foods are dangerous-- but she does not even know what they are!  She says proteins are unnatural-- she does not even know what is in a transgenic plant!!

Dr. B, how can you defend her!  Yes, there are many animal genes that have been studied in plants.  It really is no big deal.  We do much more radical things, like produce human proteins in bacteria.  Insulin.  How about fungus making chymosin, an animal enzyme used in cheese making?  Now we're crossing kingdoms with recombinant DNA, and nobody really seems to care. 


Hari, as usual, steps to the "biotech PR line" to discredit legit science.  Bickerton is correct to delineate the difference between science and technology.  Science is a process used to test how the physical world works.  That has been done.  The science has been conducted and the conclusions to date support the falsifiable hypothesis that transgenic crops are no more risky that conventionally bred crops. The technology has strengths and limitations, like any technology.

Again, my blog is for the layman, it is fun and edgy, and now that I'm getting wider coverage I need to be a little more careful in my word selection. Thanks for pointing that out. 


It is good that at least Dr. Bickerton takes a stab at this and gets the numbers right.  The reason Hari and Bickerton combine insecticides and herbicides as "pesticides" is so they don't have to admit that insecticide use is decreasing. That's kinda deceptive, but common. Of course, there is a little selective omission of three important points: 

First, insecticide use has decreased massively, and that's a good thing  

Second. Between 1992 (where  there were no GM crops) and 2011 (where 90% of soy, corn, cotton, sugar beets and canola are resistant to herbicide) there OF COURSE will be an increase in glyphosate use!  

Duh!  That's like saying between 1899 and 1930 there was a massive increase in gasoline consumption. 

The third thing neglected is that while glyphosate use increased, the use of other herbicides decreased, as did tilling and topsoil loss.  Glyphosate has low impact in the environment.  This again is a good thing, made out to be a bad thing. 

This is nuanced language.  It is the convenient conflation of statistics to get the desired result.  That's just deception, and you see it again and again in the anti-GM denial of science (and technology). 

And then this old trick... 

How about something completely unrelated.  Chemicals are leaching into food?  The question, I ask for a citation, and Bickerton provides links to two citations that have nothing to do with herbicide or pesticide on food. These are two in-vitro studies where researchers used cells in a dish to show that chemicals can cause changes in the cells at specific levels.  That's great, sometimes a good start, but no relation to what happens in the human body. One reference is Seralini ('nuff said).  The final reference does specifically discuss pesticides where evidence of endochrine-disruption potential as been documented in the literature. Again, a good starting point, but hardly a condemnation of transgenic technology. 

and forward.

Hari does not know that Roundup is not a "chemical" it is a brand name mixture of a rather innocuous herbicide, surfactants and water.  There is limited evidence of endochrine disruption from in vitro studies, no evidence of links to toxicity at levels present on food (which are usually zero-20 ppm), and only effects seen at doses thousands of times higher than are ever discovered.

Those afraid of good technology can choose alternatives. "GMO corporations" fight non-scientific labeling because we should not make policy on emotion without evidence, especially when policy is only wanted to destroy American farmers.  If you ban GMO today the companies will be just fine. They'll sell hybrid seed without transgenes.  The farmers, and then consumers, will be hardest hit.  

I can't believe I've wasted 2 hours writing this blog. 

The "precautionary principle" assumes that the rest of the world share your fears.  "Precaution" is an emotional term.  It is not based on science, it is not based on data.  It is a personal threshold.  Hari, as a wealthy westerner, wants to impose her choices on others.  

I think there are many people on this planet that would love to eat vitamin-enriched food from transgenic technology.  Too bad Hari and Bickerton are glad to invoke their precaution, as their precaution should be everyone's precaution.

And nobody wants to ingest toxic substances*. What a stupid, stupid, comment.  It shows where his whole argument is based. 

And to conclude... 

Ugh. The literature in these searches can be easily discredited, or there are good papers that provide limited interpretations from the good data gathered, but have been twisted into some sort of danger conclusion the authors' never intended. I know, because I talk to them. Many are not happy about their work being distorted by activists and airheads to achieve a political motivation. 

And yes, if you give animals high doses of glyphosate they will have symptoms.  Why not be honest Dr. Bickerton?  What are the levels from that same EPA Fact Sheet that cause the problems?  

You'd have to consume hundreds of kilograms of soybeans etc in order to achieve a physiologically-relevant amount of glyphosate from residues on food.  The fact sheet he gives is for water, which says at 20 ppm, a 22 lb kid can drink a liter a day.  These are guidelines and 100x over actual thresholds.  Plus, where do you find 20 ppm water?  Maybe drinking it out of a pond on a field? 

And he concludes:

Head hits desk.

Again, I had a little fun writing a blog and didn't intend to provide a scholarly review of Hari, so no citations. She's frankly not worth it. It was a pointy reminder that she's clueless and untrained in this area, and that her opinions should be considered with a grain of salt and do not represent science.

As for Dr. Bickerton, he seems like a nice guy with a great history of contributions, but just is guided by a construct he finds attractive, rather than actual science and data.

The  Smoking GMO Gun blog seems more like a broken water pistol.  To the unknowing it looks threatening, it actually is a cheap facsimile of the real thing, and when you pull the trigger as best you can, nothing happens anyway. The retort to my criticism is list of old arguments, overstepped data, logical fallacy and neglecting to notice important, actual data.  Quite typical these days.  They are going after those of us that speak the science they do not want to hear. 

And more to come.  There is quite a storm brewing on the horizon...

*NOTE ADDED AT 5pm after posted... I do willingly pour a glass of wine, beer or whiskey on purpose, because it is toxic, so I grant the intoxicating substances waiver here to the desire to consumer toxic substances. 

Glyphosate and School Lunches