Thursday, March 19, 2015

Response to the Food Babe. This is Boring.

Responding to the Food Babe is like telling a funny joke to my dog at a party.  Everyone there gets it-- except for the dog.  She just tilts her head to one side and looks at me like I'm stupid. 

Last week the New York Times published an appropriately critical piece of Vani Hari, The Food Babe.  Writer Courtney Rubin included some of my sentiments, as I have been critical of Ms. Hari’s use of social media to force change through mobilizing group protests, that incite change through coercion and intimidation rather than through measured scientific reasoning. Festoon that attack on science with some kale leaves and a squash recipe and nobody seems to notice. 

Ms. Hari fired back via her website, taking me head-on.  She didn’t approach my points, but instead took the opportunity to exercise a wonderfully textbook ad hominem criticism of me.

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Aside from the name and title, and the fact that I answer questions for GMO Answers, she doesn't get much correct.

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I didn’t want to respond.  It’s boring.  She doesn’t get it, I do, she makes money selling ideas and products, I don’t.  Her empire is built upon non-scientific ideas and tumbles down if scientists are involved, my empire is built on science and will be just fine no matter what happens to Hari.

So let’s move through her points and get to a punch line.

1. “He (Folta) does not specialize in health or nutrition”- Yes, my terminal degree was only in molecular biology, but I do have lots of training in human and animal physiology.  As a still competitive athlete, I do understand and read credible work about health and nutrition.  So remind me about her formal training again?

2.   “… rather he’s a crop scientist specializing in GMOs…” – That’s the first time anyone has accused me of that, I guess I’ll take it.  I’m a rather basic scientist, meaning, I work in the area of discovery without a lot of direct application. I would not call myself a “crop scientist”.  Lord knows I’m working on that and maybe someday will ascend to that level of expertise.   My main crop is Arabidopsis thaliana, a small lab model mustard, along with Fragaria vesca, a laboratory model for diploid strawberry.  Neither are “crops”.  We do some genetic  work in octoploid (commercial) strawberry, so maybe that’s what she means, but those are not transgenic (GMO).

I guess I do know a lot about transgenic crop technology, so I do specialize in that area.

3. “…. Who seeks industry funding to support his research…”—97% of my lab’s funds have come from federal sources since I first applied for funds back in 2001.  What industry funding we do have comes from the strawberry industry grower cooperative here in Florida (Florida Strawberry Growers Association), and a some funding from companies that are looking at strawberry as a future crop. No, it is not Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, BASF, Dupont/Pioneer, etc.

When we speak of “seeking industry funding” we clearly refer to the deregulation and commercialization of transgenic crops.  That was the point in the  paragraphs she provided in her cherry-picking of a local Gainesville paper article. I suggested that we don't have GM strawberries and tomatoes because the industry does not want to support it. That's true.

I absolutely do think that the industry should finance the  R&D on plants they’d want for their profits.  I do not think this should be a public liability.  Apparently Hari believes that the taxpayer should be on the hook for the cost of developing and deregulating GM crops for commercial production.

I believe that it is the industry’s responsibility, not yours and mine.  So my point stands- there is no industry support for this technology.

4.  “Dr. Folta writes for GMO Answers… a website that’s funded by the biotechnology industry”—That’s right, I do.  I am grateful for a place to answer questions from people wanting to know what a scientist thinks about this topic and how scientists interpret tihe peer-reviewed literature.  The website is funded by the industry—but my answers are not.  The answers would be the same if they were written on any scientific website. 

Ms. Hari should not disqualify the scientist because of where they share the science—she should criticize my answers on the website. Unfortunately, that is not in her training, and my answers are consistent with a scientific consensus.

5.  There’s an obvious conflict of interest there – he is a pro-GMO activist” – Hmmm.  So a scientist, answering questions about science, on a science website, is a conflict?  I’d never say I’m ‘pro-GMO’ but I am ‘pro-science’.  I’ll change my position on GM if data dictate that change.
On the other hand, Ms. Hari is a food activist that seeks change through coercion and intimidation, then she sells products on her website, and sales benefit from her actions.  If there’s a conflict of interest!

6.  “I have doubts about the technology and its role in the proliferation of chemicals that are impacting human health” – I’m not sure what she’s referring to here, as Bt corn/cotton cut insecticide use and  there is no demonstrated mechanistic relationship between glyphosate and human health, when used properly.



7. “I , along with the majority of Americans believe that we should have the right to know whether we are consuming GMOs – he does not” --  I’m glad to help people understand the technology and what they are eating. That’s great!  I am not in favor of labeling and the poorly written laws. Plus, 80% of people want food products containing DNA to be labeled.  That shows how little people understand about this technology, and is an argument ad populum


So I just spent 10 minutes responding to a mindless rant, which is the last time I'll do it.  I hate the tone of the conversation.  I only wish that her wide reach could learn some of the real science and we could get this technology working in the right direction, doing good things for those that can use it.