Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Golden Rice, Misplaced Activism, and Who Do You Trust?

This blog raises an important question about who you choose to trust, and how easily they sway your opinions. When you read scientific information on the web, do you believe only what confirms your biases, or do you think critically about the information?  Are people manipulating you?

First, I love the idea of Golden Rice.  In many parts of the world food staples contain little Vitamin A, so those consuming rice, potato, wheat, maize, cassava, and banana are not receiving adequate nutrition.  It is essential for vision and optimal health. The result is a scourge of Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) causes blindness and disease throughout the Developing World. 

Golden Rice has been genetically engineered with two genes to produce beta-carotene, the nutrient in carrots and leafy green vegetables that is converted to vitamin A in the body. 

Golden Rice is not without its issues. The levels were low in the first generation products and not necessarily in culturally-acceptable forms of rice.  Not everyone enjoys Uncle Ben's Boil-In-Bag Delight.

Plus, the Golden Rice people were outright dismissive (putting it mildly) when I asked them to be guests on the Talking Biotech Podcast and reach thousands of people with their messaging.  That was a huge turn off, and I blame them too for the lack of implementation of the product. With a strategy of "eff-off" to friendly media, it is no wonder why their product has no traction. 

FDA Evaluation

On May 24, 2018 the FDA approved Golden Rice for consumption in the USA, a curious move, because we will never consume it.  Folks here get plenty of vitamin A. 

However, when providing a product to the Developing World, many people are rightfully suspicious, and the endorsement of safety from the US-FDA is a good thing. It is symbolic. Period.

However, however, the FDA also stated that the levels of beta-carotene were not high enough to make a health claim.

Activists Pounce

Based on that last determination, a website called Independent Science News and others reported that the high beta-carotene rice has "no nutritional benefits".   This claim comes from Jonathan Latham, a guy that has fought science and scientists for years.  His website is a cornucopia of drivel. 

"No Nutritional Benefit" is what the activists claim, but is that what the FDA said?  Why are these groups bending the truth to stop a potentially helpful technology for the poor? 

The FDA's words were based on the USA-based intake of rice. At the levels present, and the frequency consumed, there is no likely benefit from Golden Rice as a dietary supplement.  It still has beta-carotene, it still has nutrition, there just can be no health claim in the USA on the label. 

Even influential food writer Michael Pollan cites the ISN misinterpretation without critical evaluation.

The FDA Responds

After activists and their mouthpieces willfully misinterpret the report, the FDA responded.  Marriana Naum wrote the following statement.  (bold is mine)

It is unfortunate that the statement you reference in our letter responding to BNF 158 has been misconstrued to suggest that there would be no value of the pro-vitamin A in golden rice for its use in the countries where it is intended for distribution.
Our statement applies only to labeling considerations in the United States, in that golden rice contains insufficient pro-vitamin A to warrant differential labeling for nutrient content based on the low levels of rice consumption in the U.S. Requirements for nutrient content claims on labels in the United States take two factors into account, the amount of the nutrient needed as well as it’s concentration in the food and the typical or average level of that food consumed in the U.S. For the rice to be labeled in the United States with a claim containing provitamin A, our regulations stipulate that the food must contain 10-19 percent of the RDI or DRV for the substance per reference amount customarily consumed (essentially a measure of consumption).
Additionally, U.S. consumers eat rice at very low levels compared to consumers in the specific Asian countries with vitamin A deficiency for which golden rice was developed. IRRI reports that consumption of rice by children in Bangladesh is 12.5 g/kg body weight/day, compared to about 0.5 g/kg bw/d for U.S. consumers). Rice is the major staple in those countries and levels of rice consumption are many-fold higher than they are in the U.S. While a U.S Consumer would be unlikely to eat enough of the rice to achieve that value (10-19 % of the NDI or RDA), that does not mean that the level of consumption of golden rice in the targeted countries would be insufficient to accomplish the intended effect of supplementing their very low consumption of vitamin A-containing foods. Consuming rice containing the levels of pro-vitamin A in GR2E rice as a staple of the diet could have a significant public health impact in populations that suffer from vitamin A deficiency.

You've Been Lied To.

Latham and others willfully misinterpreted the FDA report to buoy their sinking ship.  Activists have fought Golden Rice for decades because it represents a positive and almost free way to resolve a world health crisis, but it uses genetic engineering.  They must stop that technology from helping anyone at any cost, even if that means lying to their followers. 

Even trusted academics get it wrong.  Marion Nestle's blog repeats the same errant interpretation.  She also shows that it is ideology over evidence as she usually does. 

So if you are against big companies that make seeds for U.S. farmers, that's great.  But realize that when that contempt bleeds into altruistic applications of technology the blood is on your hands. 

This is just another stellar example of how groups manipulate their followers and confirm biases to drive ideological viewpoints that are inconsistent with the science.

Why Do You Trust Them?

This "debate" is about a product that is given away for free and could have a profound effect on the health and welfare of children all over the world.  The science is sound.  Why does Latham and others want this product to fail?  What's in it for them for children to continue to suffer from preventable blindness and disease? 

Please think about this carefully.  Are you being willingly deceived and defending corrupt opinions at the expense of the most vulnerable? 

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Talking Biotech #139 -- Recognizing Dr. Rosalind Franklin

This is an extremely important story. Dr. Rosalind Franklin was a brilliant x-ray crystalographer that was the first to figure out the structure of DNA. Her data were shared with Watson and Crick without her knowledge. They won a Nobel Prize, she is barely a footnote. Can we please fix that? Listen to this week's podcast and share her story.

Subscribe on iTunes.

Friday, June 22, 2018

FOIAs from Flying Yoga Dude

Were you ever the last to arrive at a friendly get together just to find the quacamole gone and all of those good little toast bits picked out of the Chex Mix? 

That must be how Jeffery Smith and the Broom Closet for Responsible Technology must feel now.  All of the cranks and charlatans had the opportunity to parse my private emails at taxpayer expense, and dammit, he was busy doing something else. Maybe getting the taste of his foot out of his mouth after Food Evolution.  

Long after tens of thousands of emails have gone out to Food Babes, activists, and dozens of others (at probably a half-million dollars in taxpayer expense-- and zero evidence of impropriety or ethical lapses), I FINALLY got the request from Jeffrey Smith's goons over at the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT).  

Ironically, this institute for responsible technology has irresponsibly pushed false information about technology for ages, profiting all the way. When you review Smith's statements and predictions, none of it has been backed by actual experimental evidence. He makes a lot of claims, using the internet, the Dr. Oz Show, and personal appearances to spread misinformation about food and farming. 

For a long time I thought Jeffrey Smith and Dr. Zachary Smith from Lost in Space were the same guy.  Both are annoying and ensure good things can't happen. However, one is a  bumbling fake scientist and the other is a television character.*

What does he hope to find?   Beats me.  Probably evidence of deep collusion between me and the "agrichemical industry" I'll bet.  On the other hand, it is quite personal.  

And since my interest is full transparency without burdening the taxpayer and university attorneys, I extended my usual offer, but there was no reply. 

I actually do have a discussion recorded between Smith and George Noori on Coast-to-Coast AM where Smith gives me a shout out and a hand-in-rectum association with Monsanto. 

I talked to him on the phone once and it was just fine and cordial, but that was in 2013.  I don't think he likes me now. 

What will he find?   

When we turn over the emails he'll find that I'm not a fan. He'll find that I have particular disdain for those that lie to the public for profit, and that his documentaries and books are loaded with false information.  He'll find that I denounce his fear-based techniques and that I'm amazed by the fact that he's clueless about the science, yet is trusted by so many.  

He's a snake and snake oil salesman, all rolled into one.

I hope Jeff has a good time digging through my stuff, and look forward to the sentences plucked from context and reassembled in malicious ways.  

Or maybe not.  Maybe he'll just realize what Vani Hari did-- That I'm a public scientist working hard to teach and do research, as well as provide evidence-based outreach to the public. 

Out of the jillion pages of emails she received she never found anything worth crowing about. 

I suspect he'll be in that same club. 

*It has not gone unnoticed that Lost in Space is just an extraterrestrial Gilligan's Island, and that Dr. Zachary Smith was Space Gilligan. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Your Ancient Past, Weaponized

Back before there was Drunk History, back before The Man Show, there was media circulating that targeted the shaky hand that held the urine-soaked wallet.  

My friend from high school, Herb Rosen, took his experience of bartending in Chicago's dives and opened his own place-- Liars Club over on Fullerton Ave in Chicago.  It was (is) a crusty place in a (then) no-name neighborhood that had a KISS pinball machine and $1.00 drafts of PBR.  It is still there, still a dump, but the best place in Chicago for a cheap beer and Misfits or Decendents on the jukebox. It was where an entrepreneurial effort of catering reading material for late-night misfits would gain some traction...   

Self Publishing Roots

During high school in the 80's my friends and I were basement publishers.  We printed media called "fanzines" -- photocopied reviews of bands, music and other sundries.  It was a place for creative energy and clever writing before the internet gave us an instant, worldwide venue. 

We also played music, recorded video, did a lot with costuming and always had an entrepreneurial slant. 

During that time I took a lot of notes and did lots of artwork.  I had hilarious friends, and documented our delinquency furiously on my HP 286Mhz processor with 40 MB of hard drive space.  I compiled hundreds of stories.  We'd sell our writing and music reviews for fifty cents or a few bucks, mostly at punk rock shows or indy record stores. 

But soon it was time to take fanzines to the next level -- self-publishing small books. 

It was 1994 or so, maybe 1995. Probably both.  I was in grad school, living in Chicago and being paid $12,000 a year to TA courses.  To avoid student loans I shoveled snow overnight to supplement income. Start at midnight, done at 5 AM and exhausted on any night when 1" of snow or more was predicted. Eight bucks an hour and driving around three other losers in my 1981 Mercury Monarch to bank parking lots and residential driveways to hoist heavy, wet snow. It was awful. There had to be a better way.

I went back to those old stories and then compiled and illustrated several works, usually also featuring writing from my friends.  Greybait! An Insiders Guide to UFO PseudoscienceCarp Angler (alternative fishing), Alcoholics Unanimous - United We Stagger, and the EAT THIS! cookbook. All were printed at bargain basement photocopy joints and bound in duct tape and/or big staples. 

Others were constructed but never printed.  It cost about $100 to do the printing and I just didn't have that kind of cash laying around. I still have an AT hard drive with a few good pieces that never saw the light of day. 

Self Publishing, and Pre-Amazon Book Sales

As I'd meander Chicago's nightlife with a messenger bag of self-published texts it became obvious that this was an audience excited to spend a few bucks on a traveling salesman's wares. Whether it was tamales or flowers, stolen jackets or CD's, Chicago's early 90's dive bars were a flea market wrapped in a fog of cheap booze and clove cigarette stink. 

Liars Club, Tuman's Alcohol Abuse Center, Exit, Rainbow Club, and a dozen other places were frequent stops to sell self-published books.  Five bucks each. 

Quimby's Queer Book Store also was happy to sell the titles.  

There were mail orders and stockpiles for sale in indy record stores (yes, that long ago). 

I was happy to make a few bucks. On an average weekend I could sell a few dozen.  Lab work all day, book selling at night. 

AU- A Book for the Inebriated

Throughout high school and college I complied many stories related to excess imbibition. I observed others go overboard, I did myself quite a few times, and there were many stories that went along with that unraveling. 

Many people have similar stories, most didn't bother to write them down, and certainly most didn't own them.  But the experiences I had with friends were priceless, and our successes and mistakes, victories and foibles happened.  They did.  They happened, and I wrote about them. I absolutely stretched the edges a bit too to make stupid college stories remotely interesting. 

The stories resonated with late-night drunks.  When compiled into the self-published book they found favor with many that could relate to the content, or just were too stewed to not notice they paid five bucks for a stupid self-published book. 

Either way, I was happy to make a few bucks, sell a few books, and disseminate a few smiles from silly stories and exaggerated claims. 

The End.  1996 or so. 

Revisited, Today. 

 A copy of Alcoholics Unanimous sat on a shelf in my home for over 20 years.  I never looked at it.  It was just there, the stories growing old with time and becoming more irrelevant as the world became more sensitive to the dangers of alcohol abuse, the hazards of drunk driving and long-term effects of drinking.  

But to someone wishing me harm--- this secret volume was gold.  Pure gold.  

And the smear machine ratchets forward.  He's a corporate shill, drunk driver, blah, blah, blah.

These ancient texts were long dead, lost in a Chicago gutter, used as toilet paper in a bush, or traded for smokes.  Until now. 

A malicious release of this stale document to the anti-GMO movement would be perfect.  Here's something with Folta's name on it making light of a current issue, and we can punish him for it- 23 years later!  

Last week the work was taken from its dusty resting place and released to GM Watch where they promptly posted a page about it-- happy to add it to the years of smear they publish about me. 

But to folks like Paul Thacker, Kavin Senapathy, GMO Watch and my malicious ex spouse (who is featured in the work and used to help me sell it) -- they could now parade this work around as evidence of my questionable character, and use it to soil social media with quotes from the text that were simply exaggerated stories, many fictitious, that were funny to some people at the time. 

When it was written it was the early and mid 90's.  We had very different feelings about social edges of substance abuse.  Look at how we've revised our social tolerances toward pot, opioids and alcohol since that time.  

Personally, we all evolve.  What's funny then isn't funny now. What was acceptable then, is not acceptable now.  I did a beer bong in 1982.  Not since. 


But one thing that hasn't changed is the length that people will go to hurt others. 

Over the years I have accumulated a following of haters, folks that will do whatever it takes to harm me, my reputation, or my ability to serve others, at every turn. 

Senapathy, Thacker, GM Watch, and a cast of a thousand bots have now raised this ancient text as concrete proof that my 31 years in public science is somehow devoid of merit. 

This silly, outdated work, gone except for a copy fed to them purposefully in the name of malice, is their proof positive that my time in classrooms, my time in retirement homes, my 80+ peer-reviewed papers and hundreds of graduated students-- are meaningless.

The goal-- to have me further maligned within my institution, discredited in the science communication community, and removed from public service.  That's a swell idea.  

The good news is that the world has mostly yawned, probably because they did dumb stuff once, then grew up too.


To those of you that see this re-animation in the name of smear for what it is-- I thank you.   

I have a lot of fun doing what I do.  I have a lot of fun now piloting a wonderful research enterprise, mentoring students and participating and teaching science communication. 

Back then, it was fun too. We did mountains of stupid things involving clown suits, explosives, and the early internet. 

I'm guessing that all of these things will now emerge and be misrepresented as much as possible, in an attempt to cause me career harm and stir public distrust.  That's fine. 

Ultimately I think folks are smarter than that.  

So to critics, go ahead, cast that first stone.  But keep in mind that the person you harm with it might be someone that is working hard for the same goals you find important.  By taking out your target do you really help your cause, or do you harm the greater good and come off as petty in the process?  

That is an important question to answer. 

(And I'm sure that hostile interests are working hard to find those other titles....  send me a copy if you do.  Thanks)

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Talking Biotech 136 - Food Labels

This week's podcast--  Are food labels adding clarity or confusion?  Focus groups show that consumer sentiment toward food labels is changing.  Colleen Parr-Dekker is the Director of Communications at Elanco.  They have performed extensive focus group analysis and consumer surveys to understand how consumers feel about labels and food.  The excess of abstract information and claims has left most consumers unsure what labels even mean.  Consumers are clueless about terms like “antibiotic free” or “free range”, while companies use these tactics as marketing angles to differentiate their products.  Surveys show that terms like “natural” or “organic” are losing influence.  The results are surprising!

Glyphosate and School Lunches