Friday, February 24, 2017

Food Babe Vani Hari Attacking Public Scientists Again

When I hear that Vani Hari is bashing me again my eyes roll back in my head.  We have a significant citrus crisis in my state, I have lots of great science happening in the lab, and I sadly regret not being able to take many potential speaking engagements because I simply don't have the time. 

It pains me to have to respond here. My rule is -- she's irrelevant, let her write what she wants, nobody really listens to her anyway. 

But let's use this opportunity to talk about something important-- Trust.  I've worked very hard in public science for 30 years. My paycheck, and for the most part my research, has been funded by State or Federal sources.  I work for you. 

I have worked hard to earn your trust.  Her recent libelous post is an exercise in eroding the trust I have earned.

I address her most recent allegations because I want scientists, and the general public, to start standing up for science and taking away her trust.  She is an internet sell-ebrity, and when we speak science, she loses market share.  That's why she has targeted me for years. 

Keep in mind that Vani Hari used the Freedom of Information Act to harass me and my university.  She asked for, and received without resistance, over 20,000 pages of my private email, at a cost to the taxpayer of probably $50,000.  Every page must be read by an attorney. Student names, proprietary information is redacted. 

She boasted about it online, about how it will show how company influence is the basis for my criticism of her. 

No Vani. It is that you present ideas that are inconsistent with science.  You are not an expert, I am an expert, so I corrected you when you tried to deceive people.  That's my job. 

Nothing has come from those emails.  

Nothing illegal, nothing unethical, nothing.  Nothing. 

So now she's going after me again after a long hiatus. 

It comes from when she published a report that Food Democracy Now! provided saying that there was glyphosate identified in lots of different food products.  They provided numbers, no methods, no statistics.  It was not how we discuss science. There were no details. 

Snopes first presented that the information might be credible, and I notified them that it was not from a scientific report.  It was from an anti-GMO group that has a history of not exactly getting the facts right.  That's where the story begins.... 


1.  "Monsanto's operative"-- really Vani? 
2.  "Bullying a reporter" -- you mean, politely pointing out that the work cited was not a scientific study, but an activist flyer? 
3.   This is a polite and cordial conversation between a scientist and a journalist.  

SYNTHESIS:  That Hari would think of this as bullying and coercion speaks a lot to her view about how people enjoy polite conversations. 

Now she posts, to re-hash this nonsense: 


1.  I was never "discredited".  Nothing I ever did or said was found to be illegal, unethical, and there were no questions about scholarly integrity or scientific malfeasance. 

2. "Secret dealings"-- so secret that they were spoken about at my workshops and you can get the emails.  Some secret. 

3.  I always have been an independent researcher, I work on strawberry flavor and indoor agriculture. My funding record is here.  My research publications are here.  You can see that I do no work in industry-related areas. 

4.  I have never been a lobbyist and never will be.

IMPORTANT. 5. The email presented above.  This is important. Look at how she twists this. In 2014 there was a video campaign by anti-science types where they showed a TV commercial of a man (Ray Seidler) holding two handfuls of corn. One had seed treatments, so they were blue.  He made comments about how this was GMO seed that you were feeding your family and that it was covered in "agent orange".  

This enraged scientists and farmers because it was deceptive and false. Lisa Drake was someone I knew in Monsanto. As plant biologists, we all know people in the companies.  Lisa knew that I was active in cataloging anti-GMO lies and helpful in responding to them.  

She told me that a group was organizing a Letter to the Editor in the town where the commercial aired.  She also said that someone was organizing a petition to take that deceptive, lying commercial off the air.  She asked me if I could help.


She just showed you the one where I kindly replied, "I'm glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like."

That's exactly what I said, and I meant it. 

IN CONTEXT-- THIS IS IMPORTANT-- this is not what Vani Hari claims.  She is cherry picking through my personal emails to bring me personal and professional harm, and to erode the trust that I have as a 30 year public scientist.

SYNTHESIS:  Vani Hari takes an email out of context and highlights a key phrase that out of context can present the perception that I am happy to do the bidding of a company.  That is not the case at all.  I share the disgust of a misrepresentation of science and was prepared to provide my energy to correcting mistruth.  

Here she uses my words out of context to put me in a libelous false light.  Why would you trust her? 


ANALYSIS:  After many years of speaking to public audiences and paying for workshops on my own dime and small donations, Monsanto offered to help provide funding for outreach. 

I provide seeds to school gardens.  I speak to retirement homes.  I help with science fairs.  This year my outreach program is Veg-A-Sketch (please check it out) and My Science Garden is coming soon.  I pay for this out of my pocket or with donations. Just the shipping is thousands of dollars. 

Monsanto made a sizable donation of $25,000.  It was welcome. It would allow me to do a lot of great work. 

It was written here in the email as an "unrestricted grant".  Again, cherry picking. 

When donations come to the university (not to me, to the university) they must come as "unrestricted gifts".  That means that they are no-strings-attached funds.  Monsanto has no control of what they go for, how I use them. They must be used within university rules, because the university rules the account. 

Ultimately, not a cent of this money was used.  Vani Hari neglects to note that the funding was taken, by the university, and was donated to a campus food bank.  They tried to return the money.  It was to protect me, as I received numerous reputable death threats and the university had to act.

The FBI was involved and the Domestic Terrorism Task Force had to work with the university to protect me, my lab, my office and students.  

Because a company made a donation so I could buy donuts for workshops and seeds for kids. 

Thanks Vani for rekindling this sad, hateful story. 


ANALYSIS:  This letter was also the "secret" everyone knew about and could access by asking me. 

When I first received this it had to be returned to Monsanto because they didn't word it right.  The university foundation requires the exact words, "unrestricted gift" when the university receives such funds.  If it is not an "unrestricted gift" it is a "Sponsored Research Agreement" and at least 28% goes to the university for overhead.

I never had a Sponsored Research Agreement with Monsanto.  

But that doesn't stop Vani Hari from posting the letter in an attempt to further try to harm my reputation, making it look like I'm working with Monsanto in some insidious secret context. 

Why would anyone believe her? 


ANALYSIS:  This letter actually precedes the other ones, but Vani strategically uses them out of order to suit her story.  Again, cherry picked. In a previous email I discussed with the administrative assistant at Monsanto that I need the letter to state "unrestricted gift" or else it is a research agreement and subject to overhead.  It is not a research agreement, it is a gift.

Yes, I'm grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment.  Think about this.  To Vani Hari this sentence of gratitude is a tacit agreement to do the bidding of Big Ag.  What it was, was me being thankful that someone was going to help me pay for my passion-- sharing science with the community, teaching children, providing outreach, teaching communication. 

To this day, even though I didn't use a cent, I am grateful for their faith in me, and the fact that they recognized my service to schools and service to the commnity as worthy for funding.  


ANALYSIS:  Well, she found this on my transparency page, where everything is open and on the table, a standard she could never meet.  

"He receives funding from..." -- ALL of this money, 100%, goes to fund outreach in community service and school activities.  Zero goes to me.  Zero goes to research.  100% goes to funding projects for schools, mailing seeds and science kits to kids, and teaching workshops for scientists and farmers. 100%.

It is really sad that Vani Hari is so hateful of education and science that she must act like this.  She also does not note the over 300 other talks, articles and appearances I've done over the last three years (yes that is one every three days in addition to my normal job) that help people understand science, and are done for FREE, or paid for out of this fund. 

By the way.... She got $6,000 to speak at my university and lie to students for an hour.  I occasionally am offered a speaker fee and it goes to my outreach projects, not to me.

Yes. I am remarkably independent. Always have been.  Now even more, because major companies will not fund anything I do.  After this fiasco they have no interest in contributing to anything I do. 



ANALYSIS:  This is great.  

First she lists Eric Lipton's libelous New York Times article that has since been shown to carry no weight.  He said I "trade grants for lobbying" yet never showed I got a grant or lobbied.  

I am pursing legal options here.

The next articles were from Brooke Borel, one of the most evil and cold people I have ever met.  She deliberately wrote the pieces she wrote out of some weird personal vendetta, and used hateful, inflammatory language in a deliberate attempt to harm my career.  A comedy podcast is a "scandal"?  Stay hot.  

GM Watch?  They have no cred with anyone in science. 

US Right to Know? -- Ironically, they are funded by industry to harm scientists. They actually receive money from corporate overlords to make claims about scientists that don't receive money or have corporate overlords. 

So Vani puts GM Watch, Right To Know, Lipton and Borel in the same pile.  I can live with that. 


ANALYSIS:  A journalist relies on science to correct a mistake.  That's how it works.  That's science, something Vani Hari does not understand. 

I'm at the end of this and seriously at the end of even considering Vani Hari.  She is an irrelevant figure with no gravity in the scientific community, and no audience outside of late-night conspiracy radio.  

I almost regret writing this. 

I've reached out to her on many occasions and suggested that I help her understand the science, and welcome her into being a science advocate at a time when we desperately need voices standing up for science.  Like it or not, she's an internet sell-ebrity, and could use her recognition for good things, like sharing science. 

I'll post this, but this is the last time I write about her.  

I have bigger problems.  A state of dying trees, faculty to help, students to mentor, student writing to edit and communication to teach.  I have outreach efforts to push. 

My research is 100% funded by state, federal and strawberry money.  My paycheck is 100% state funded.  My outreach is funded by organizations that ask me to speak, and I accept a donation to the outreach program in lieu of a speaker fee that could go to me directly. 

I'm done.  Vani Hari needs to be the victim because her declining relevance must be blamed on someone other than herself.  A hated company, an appreciated public scientist-- these are a perfect foil for her narrative. 

Please share this story.  This is how scientists are attacked for standing up for science.  Cherry picking, half-truths, and alternative facts are Vani Hari's weapons. 

Her failures are due to science's successes and how we are better than ever at speaking to the public.  

No wonder she wants to stop funding for science communication programs. 

Reach out if you ever have questions about my interactions with companies, my funding, etc.  I'm glad to answer your questions. 

Thank you everybody.  I appreciate your love and support. 


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Imagine - Standing Up for Science

I'm going to catch a lot of grief for today's post. There was a very nice pro-science rally in Boston today.  Lots of people! That's good. 

If there is something that scientists should be excited and fighting for it is gene editing. The USA will potentially regulate it to death.  We have a choice to influence its regulation with the FDA. The FDA public comment period on the use of gene editing has been up for a month.  There are a total of 162 comments now.  The vast majority look like this:

Help me understand the disconnect. How is it that we can get 1000 people to march with a sign for an afternoon, but we can't get 10 to write a thoughtful, evidence-based note about enabling technology?

Pseudoscience is running rampant in the space.  Why doesn't anyone want to stand up for science?  

What am I missing here?   

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Massive Consumption of Soy Milk and Herbicides for Five Weeks Might Make Your Sperm Weird

In the ongoing war on glyphosate, Carey Gillam posted a link on Twitter highlighting a newly-published article.  The article comes from a team of Brazilian scientists that fed developing male rats massive amounts of soymilk, and then massive amounts of soy milk spiked with gigantic doses of herbicide (not just glyphosate).  They then analyzed factors potentially related to reproductive toxicity.

Did they really see it?  What did it take for it to be seen?  When people draw conclusions without actually reading the papers, the interpretations can be deceptive.

The referenced work is Nardi et al. 2017. The paper seems a little odd out of the box.  As a scientist, I don't know the rationale of pounding animals with massive doses of chemistry just to see what happens. It almost seems a little like it was done to secure the headline that Gillam and others seek.  

To make this relevant, I'm ~100 kg. To achieve the amounts used in this this experiment I'd have to drink a liter of soy milk and just under a half-cup of herbicide a day, for 35 days.

There is minimal mention of the copious literature on soy products as endocrine disruptors, which is well established. Here's a good review. Here animals are basically fed a potent dose of plant-based estrogens and then hit with lots of herbicide. I'd be surprised if they didn't observe something!

The Introduction talks about soy milk a bit, and the whole second paragraph is about glyphosate and how awful it is.  They cite papers from Seralini (insert grain of salt here) and some from authors on the current author team.  This is interesting, because in the intro they write: 

First, "innumerous"?  The dictionary says that this means "incapable of being counted" and that must mean that the authors are not capable of counting them. However, they can be counted. There are many papers that show interaction with hormone-based processes, but typically at high levels or within cells in a dish.  These are important studies because they lay the groundwork for toxicity assessments, and in general show that the cells don't like to be bathed in herbicides, including the soapy chemicals in the formulation. 

They imply that effects have been observed at relevant levels, yet the paper they cite does not reinforce this interpretation. Dallegrage et al 2007 say:
Dams were treated orally with water or 50, 150 or 450 mg/kg glyphosate during pregnancy (21-23 days) and lactation (21 days). These doses do not correspond to human exposure levels
So they are putting in a half a gram per kg body weight in some cases.  That's 50 grams (about ten nickles) of pure glyphosate every day for 35 days.  Hmmm. They do not cite any of the many reports that show no effect on endocrine processes, such as this one

The animals were fed 10 ml/kg a day of soy milk, or soy milk containing 50 or 100 mg/kg (ppm) glyphosate as Roundup.  Not glyphosate.  The complete herbicide.  You can buy reagent-grade glyphosate, my lab does all the time. Not sure why they didn't do that.

To make this relevant, I'm ~100 kg. In this experiment I'd have to drink a liter of soy milk a day, and just under a half-cup of herbicide, for 23 days.  I would guess that my dude parts might not be working great after that treatment. The other thing to note is that animals were fed ad librium meaning they ate what they wanted.  Frankly, you give me a liter of soy milk and a gutful of Roundup delivered by a tube down my throat into my stomach, I might not be eating much.  Controls got saline solution.  There was no glyphosate only treatment. The authors note that there was no difference in body weight after the close of the experiment. 

As a reviewer, I don't have a problem with the experimental design or data in general. I would have used glyphosate, not Roundup because you can't rule out the likely effects of the herbcide's co-formulants.  It is a small number of animals, but they discuss the results based on those numbers and this all seems reliable. 

The problem is how they present the data and their interpretations.  Here is one of the figures:  

The authors do in fact deliver 50 and 100 mg/kg glyphosate, but they do this as the Roundup herbicide.  How do they know the effects are from glyphosate and not from feeding rats large amounts of surfactants for 35 days?  Glyphosate is available as a reagent, and when used has no effect in tissue-culture cells.  When applied to cells as Roundup, it does. The surfactants are soapy chemicals that allow the herbicide to penetrate cells. This stuff could certainly affect animal physiology. 

This is where I got bored.  The Results are what you would expect by feeding animals tons of phytoestrogens and herbcide. The Discussion attempts to tie the results to previous work, mostly by citing in vitro experiments, and a lot of self-citation and Seralini citation.  The authors draw the conclusions:

Despite the sample limitations in this study, the results presented here show enough evidence that glyphosate impairs male reproductive system by affecting innumerous components in a prepubertal exposure.

To the best of our knowledge, this study demonstrate f(ic) or the first time a relevant endocrine disruption of a soy milk rich diet during prepubertal period. Sexual development is more affected in groups receiving soy milk supplemented with glyphosate.

My conclusion:  Innumerous?  Really? When you poison pubescent, developing male rats with isoflavones (a type of phytoestrogen) you screw up their development. Then when you add massive doses of herbicide every day for 35 days you can find differences in testosterone and sperm morphology. It shows that sick animals fed herbicides show physiological differences. Duh. 

But the authors don't prefer the conservative interpretation that I would draw.  This sensational conclusion omits the fact that these were rats hammered with herbcides and soymilk, yet makes it seem like relevant doses from normal exposure.  

That conclusion would not be acceptable if I was a reviewer or editor. 

But it is a great conclusion for Gillam, paid by the anti-GMO industry, who can now cherry pick the scare out of the article to make it seem like food-based exposures of glyphosate are dangerous. 

Same old, same old.  Actually, one huge outcome is how surprisingly small the differences are after such chemically-invasive treatments for 35 days. 

Are these people that should be trusted with information about food and farming technologies?  The tweet above is deceptive, especially when you understand the paper and what was actually tested. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Science Marching? Stand Up for Science Today!

A few weeks ago when the internets exploded with news of a March for Science in DC, I wrote that I would not be joining. My feeling is that such things are important, but not for me. I’m using other channels on a daily basis to help broaden the understanding of science issues and improve trust in scientists. I’ve been doing that for years.
This sentiment brought me angry emails and hostile tweets. Not many, but a enough to realize that my inflammatory statements like, “Not the most effective use of my time in supporting science” are not always well received with a group poised to descend on the nation’s capital.
My point is a simple one. Protests and marches are fine, but are rather empty if we don’t follow up with sustained commitment to standing up for science.
So as you start to put ink to poster board for that April 22 march, know that science needs your help now. Right now. Actually yesterday. Your comments are needed in support of sensible Gene Editing regulations in crops. Or against it. The FDA is in the middle of a public comment periodYour voice needs to be there.

Support Gene Editing
Gene editing (or genome editing) techniques allow scientists to install precise changes in genetic sequence, conferring a new trait. The techniques are not classical genetic engineering (familiarly “GMO”), which installs new genetic material and associated regulatory regions— frequently with other non-native goodies as well. Gene editing uses precisely guided enzymes that digest DNA to install precise changes to genetic sequence, typically by removing a few little bits of information that disrupt the function of the gene. It is like cellular surgery, precise, effective and testable.
These technologies have been used with astounding success in medicine and animal agriculture. Gene edited cells have brought infants into remission from leukemia and produced cattle that don’t grow horns, or don’t catch tuberculosis. The applications in these areas are endless.
Gene editing can also be used to tweak genes in crops, particularly those that lead to unwanted characteristics. Genes affecting post-harvest decay, undesirable flavors, susceptibility to disease—these all are intuitive targets for gene editing. It is happening everywhere from the developing world to multinational seed companies, universities to small businesses. Most importantly, the plant products produced by this technology are identical to those obtained by traditional breeding.
Request Realistic Regulation
Traditionally bred (plant sex) and gene edited crops cannot be discerned from one another using any available technology. Therefore, there is no reason to regulate them differently. Based on these findings, Sweden has indicated it will not regulate gene edited products, and the USDA/FDA appears to be leaning in that same direction.
However, the anti-biotech interests have started a campaign to malign this technology. They want to defeat it, keep it our of our crop-improvement toolbox. Their fear is that companies might use it and make money, even if it could help the environment or the poor. They don’t want this technology just regulated, they want it stopped.
The FDA has opened a Public Comment Period. As of 12:45 pm EST on 2/9/2017 there are 36 comments, all firmly opposed to this revolutionary technology and none of them espousing a sound scientific rationale for their objections. Some of them are sadly hilarious.
Public comment ends on April 19, but do it now. Try to stay within the framework of the questions they would like answered, as described here.
Where are the protesters and science marchers? It’s stand up for science time! This technology will inevitably revolutionize agricultural genetics. Can you please stand up, be counted, and comment?
It does not matter if you want to mention the need for testing, the need for some regulation. I agree and that’s great. The point is that this technology should not be hampered by the same strangling regulatory system that burdens new crop variety development with standard genetic engineering approaches.
The ball is in your court. Stand up for science, study this issue and make your voice heard!
And if you add the hashtag #standupforscience in your post, we’ll know that you are responding as part of a commitment to driving policy with evidence and reason. That is the spirit of the proposed march in Washington DC!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Harvard Public Health- Sadly Vilifying Conventional Ag?

A month or so ago Cleveland Clinic physician Daniel Niedes posted an inflammatory column in the local news about the dangers of vaccines, including their links to autism, etc.  The article was widely disseminated in social media under the mantle of the Cleveland Clinic, using its reputation and name to promote blatantly false claims that imperil public health. 

Turns out that a rogue physician that somehow drank the pseudo-science Kool-Aid decided to spew scientifically false and dangerous opinion has vetted fact from the prestigious institution.  He was apparently reprimanded and the school took a strong, scientific stance regarding the use of vaccines as an important tool in public health.

Not to be outdone, Harvard Public Health has a similar problem. Apparently an Adjunct Professor in Denmark associated with Harvard Public Health is exploiting the reputation and name of this prestigious institution to promote an agenda, and using a EU Parliament document as the vehicle.  

This is the familiar vilification of conventional agriculture. 

The faith and credit of Harvard Public Health being exploited to promote a personal agenda against conventional agriculture. 

As always, I'm fine with organic production methods and am very happy that farmers can make a buck using them. I'm excited to see people thinking about minimizing inputs and producing using alternative methods.  That's awesome.  But don't tell me that the food is more nutritious or safer.  The data do not support  that conclusion.  Minor differences are seen for different nutrients in either direction, under different conditions, and with different plant lines. 

The main claim is that "Three long-term birth cohort studies in the U.S. suggest that pesticides are harming children’s brains." 

The associated report is from the EU Parliament.  I breezed through it, mostly focusing on major syntheses.  The conclusions are rather telling. 


So apparently this was evidence enough to satisfy Harvard Public Health of the glaring dangers of conventional agriculture.  I'm crossing them off of my liver transplant list. 

Other conclusions note associations between eating organic produce and conventional, but those are really hard to interpret.  Folks that choose organic have higher incomes, tend not to smoke, have healthier relationships with alcohol, get exercise, and stay away from consistent consumption of processed foods.  Those factors can cloud interpretations, and certainly do not mean that conventionally-farmed produce is bad.

The only thing I could find in the document that was consistent with the author's claims was a citation that organophosphates (and some other old-school insecticides) have an occupational association with some cancers, like non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.  I don't think anyone questions those associations. 

They also cite a study of California farm workers and show that women with higher levels of the pesticides in their urine associate with children exhibiting different neurological issues, scattered across deficiencies in reflexes to ADHD. The authors note that there the wide range of study designs and endpoints clouds clear interpretation and conclusions. The conclusions would not be surprising-- but again these are occupational exposures (and we should do everything possible to limit them!).

Later they delve into pesticides specifically, but again it is a set of loose connections that are not surprising. It is important to note that there is minimal residue on crops, and these levels are monitored. 

In defiance of that reality, the online document with Harvard Public Health posts a link to the Environmental Working Group for information about pesticide levels on food.  Ugh. 

EWG provides a non-scientific, zero-tolerance, and artificially alarming synthesis of numbers gathered by the USDA explicitly to ensure that pesticide residues are below unacceptable levels, and far-far below levels of biological significance. 

The Harvard Public Health website also says, "Organic foods are produced virtually without pesticides."  Not true. Plants make their own protection, and certain non-synthetic pesticides are allowed.  Few have been tested for effects on human health (not that anything is anticipated), and some do have environmental impacts. 

The numbers that they produce annually remind us that we live in a time of abundance, with the safest food supply in human history. That's what I get out of it.

There is a lot more in the EU Parliament report, but mostly a recapitulation of what we know already.  Insecticides kill insects and can have human physiological effects if used improperly.  But like everything, the dose makes the poison. 

Harvard Public Health would be well guided to vet the claims made in such articles on their behalf.  These soft-science claims end up affecting a reputation.  Ask Cleveland Clinic.  They had to remove home homeopathy kits from their gift shop after the Niedes vaccine debacle. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Talking Biotech #68 - Brassica oleraceae, the Dog of the Plant World

Today's podcast is about Brassica oleracea a species with many forms.  Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and kohlrabi are all members of the species.  That's right, these very different forms have almost exactly the same genetics, with minor differences.  The differences were all installed by domestication.  Humans found a trait that they liked, and over the course of years they had a distinct form of the plant. 

Brassica oleracea is the species of plants that have many derived forms, all a product of human selection. In this case, can we say that any of these crop plants are "natural"? 

This week's discussion is led by Dr. J. Chris Pires and his students from the University of Missouri. 

It is a lot like the story of dogs, where they all descend from a common grey-wolf ancestor. 

Today's podcast is with Dr. J. Chris Pires and his graduate students Makenzie Mabry and R. Shawn Abrahams. 

Glyphosate and School Lunches