Saturday, August 31, 2019

Talking Biotech 202 - Supporting Farmer Choice in South Australia

Listen to the Podcast Here

Australia has welcomed the use of genetically engineered crops, and farmers have found particular benefit from broad acre canola and cotton cultivation. However, the benefits were not realized by some states because of local moratoriums imposed by state governments. Farmers in South Australia grow wheat, canola and pulses, along with wine grapes, olives and other horticultural crops.  They would like the option to grow GE canola, as it may offer some benefits. More importantly, new technologies in gene editing may permit rapid response to new threats as well as tackle current issues in drought, frost, and pathogens. Fortunately, a science-minded change in government has led to discussion of removing the ban.  I speak with four agricultural leaders from the Grain Producers SA, a non-profit organization coordinating grower advocacy and communications. With Tanya Morgan, Adrian McCabe (@AdrianMcCabe6), Wade Dabinette and Dion Woolford (@rudigermaxpower).

Thursday, August 29, 2019

When Community Leaders (and News Media) Get it Wrong

It always bothers me when prominent community figures or celebs push rhetoric designed to deny farmers access to technology.  I'm visiting Adelaide, Australia and was amazed to see a local paper run a story about a local wine maker that "slams" a likely change in farmer seed choice. 

GE crops are perfectly allowable in Australia, but the state governments of South Australia and Tasmania have imposed restrictions that block their use.  Recent changes in policy suggest that these rules are likely to change. 

But news reports show that at least one local business leader is ramping up the rhetoric to skew public perception.  That's fine on the surface. We should have honest, science-based discussions.  The problem is that he gets the science wrong, the debate is asymmetrical, and it scares the public and disparages farmers that simply want the right to choose the technology whey wish to use. 

This article ran in South Australia:  (click panels to enbiggen)


It is disturbing when leaders in commerce make ill-informed statements that harm others' freedom to operate. 

Let's look at this article line by line-







The take-home message of this analysis is:

While the inflammatory headline indicates potential issues with health, there is no evidence of that presented and it is barely mentioned in the article.  However, to the casual headline-only reader it suggests that the article contains evidence of substantiate the claim. 

Dru Reschke should be very careful about the glass house he operates in.  Criticizing farmers for their safe choices that do not negatively impact human health, as someone who manufactures a product with known roles in negatively impacting human health is a dangerous and hypocritical position to take.  I would defend his right to follow his passions and pursue legal business choices just as I do farmers, but he needs to understand the optics of his bravado.  He manufactures a Class 1 carcinogen that if used as directed causes health problems and accidents. 

Mr. Reschke and the reporter communicating the story know little about glyphosate-based chemicals, and clearly there is evidence that little is understood about how any grape crop is treated or protected from the many threats that impede production. Grapes require chemistry to survive, conventional or organic. 

Headlines and articles like this are deceptive, incorrect, and misinform.  To maintain relevance the news media needs to consult experts in these subject areas before publishing false and misleading information that harms trust in farming. 


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Scientific American Destroys Public Trust in Science


This is a sad epitaph, parting words to an old friend that is now gone, leaving in a puff of bitter betrayal. 

When I was a kid it was common for my mom to buy me a magazine if I was sick and home from school.  I didn't want MAD Magazine or comic books.  I preferred Scientific American

The once stalwart publication held a unique spot at the science-public interface, bringing us interesting and diverse stories of scientific interest, long before the internet made such content instantly accessible.  It was our trusted pipeline to the new edges of scientific discovery, from the mantle of the earth to the reaches of space, and every critter in between.

But like so much of our trusted traditional science media, Scientific American has traded its credibility for the glitz of post-truth non-scientific beliefs and the profits of clickbait.  The problem is that when a trusted source publishes false information (or worse, when it hijacked by activists) it destroys trust in science, trust in scientists, and in the case presented here, destroys trust in American agriculture.    

The following article was published on August 20, 2019. The authors are Louise Elizabeth Maher-Johnson and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. The work has drawn strong criticism from others.  A semi-complete line-by-line refutation of claims presented is presented here. While the entire article is filled with egregious errors, I have highlighted several doozies below. 



1.    First, the clickbait title. Fail.  Broccoli production is just fine, with new varieties grown in expanding acreage. Corn is not toxic.  The microbiome, a collection of microbes in a given environment, has become the darling of credulous movements, as their known complexity can be manipulated to fit non-scientific conclusions. That is what we are seeing here.

2.    The first paragraph cites a food author, not peer-reviewed research, stating that food is “literally… poison.”  This is a profound slap in the face of the farmers that produce the safest food in human history.

3.    They cite Planetary Health, a website that presents the hypothesis that  "Ebola originated in modern agriculture and food practices..." and while they say there's no evidence for it yet, they certainly are looking for evidence to support that concept.  The website promotes remedies for Ebola based on a smoothie made from fermented plums, soy sauce and kudzu. 

4.    The next paragraph claims that food has lost between “10 and 100 percent” of nutrients, a common claim. It is based on the fact that modern breeding of crops has made them larger, yield better and face less disease. That means higher fresh weight that dilutes nutrients.  Others have corrected for water differences and show slight decreases, but note it is a trade off for size and yield (Davis et al., 2004).  Others have analyzed cost and show that calories and nutrients per unit cost have improved (Darmon et al., 2005).  In short, there are many comparisons in this area, and all are limited by the veracity of old data. Today we have unprecedented access to more diverse food, through more of the year, that costs less, that is safer, than at any time in history.

5.    “Not only are plants getting less nutritious, they are getting more toxic.” The authors present this argument without reference.  In reality there is clear evidence that the use of genetic engineering decreases crop damage and less toxicity due to lower levels of mycotoxins (eg. Bakan et al., 2002), fungal compounds with strong associations with cancers.

6.    2,4-D is not “similar to dioxins and Agent Orange”, it is an herbicide, a synthetic version of the plant hormone auxin that causes rapid growth and distorted gene expression in plants. Agent Orange was used as a military defoliant in Operation Ranch Hand in Southeast Asia. It was contaminated with dioxins from the synthesis of 2,4,5-T, another synthetic auxin that is no longer used.

7.    The claim that glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup and a chemical used in weeding genetically engineered fields) is in “air [and] rainwater” comes from a study by and Battaglin et al., (2014).  Battaglin detects glyphosate and its breakdown products in surface water and rain, but in vanishingly small amounts. The work by Majewski et al, (2014) detects glyphosate in air samples at 26 ng per square meter, and immediately adjacent to a cotton field where it is used.  The authors of the Scientific American article imply that this compound is present everywhere and in dangerous levels. It frames the deceptive nature of this article.

Here is a line-by-line dissection of most of the article. Click to enlarge.








This is yet another example of how our scientific literature is being distorted by predatory publishers and the predatory nature of motivated authors looking to promote non-scientific information as legitimate science. Maybe they’ll publish that vaccines cause autism next.

This kind of journalism destroys trust in agriculture, food, and science in general.  The type of false information presented has a well-established home in Netflix documentaries and on the pages of anti-farming, anti-scientist websites, not the child of the Springer-Nature Publishing Group, and the flagship periodical for science connections to the general public.

In these times where new discoveries happen every day we need to demand the highest standards of our legitimate scientific brands.  Scientific American was just used by misguided activists that seek to destroy the food system and revert to a non-existent model that is not sustainable.  Scientists, farmers, and anyone that likes to eat needs to stand firmly against efforts to commandeer our trusted brands for promoting non-scientific ideas.

Stop here. Swallow your coffee or you'll spit it at the computer screen when you see the cover of the September 2019 edition.





B. Bakan,*D. Melcion,D. Richard-Molard, and, and B. Cahagnier  Fungal Growth and Fusarium Mycotoxin Content in Isogenic Traditional Maize and Genetically Modified Maize Grown in France and Spain  Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2002 50 (4), 728-731

Battaglin, W.A.Meyer, M.T.Kuivila, K.M., and Dietze, J.E.2014Glyphosate and Its Degradation Product AMPA Occur Frequently and Widely in U.S. Soils, Surface Water, Groundwater, and PrecipitationJournal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA) 502): 275‐ 290. DOI: 10.1111/jawr.12159
Darmon N, Darmon M, Maillot M, Drewnowski A.J Am Diet Assoc. 2005 Dec; 105(12):1881-7.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Talking Biotech Podcast #201 - A Bioengineered Hangover Helper?



Genetically engineered microbes commonly manufacture our vitamins and amino acid supplements, but can they be supplements themselves?  Zbiotics has developed genetically engineered bacteria that may help to metabolize the residues of alcohol consumption, altering the accumulation of the compounds that lead to next-day malaise. These microbes are consumed as a pro-biotic, fortifying the digestive system with a means to break down deleterious metabolites.  Today’s podcast covers the technology with Dr. Zack Abbott from Zbiotics, including a discussion of how a “proudly GMO” product resonates with consumers.

Zbiotics LInks:

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Plagiarism, Misconduct Running Rampant

Last week I saw an awesome Twitter post.  Dr. Elisabeth Bik posted a figure from a recently published paper in a cancer journal.  The caption simply read, "What's wrong with this image?"

I looked at it carefully for two solid minutes.  It was images of baby mice, "pinkies" in the reptile feeding trade, all lined up on their sides with military precision. Some had tumors, some didn't and the figure looked legit. 

Until I saw her annotated photo.  She circled examples of how the same little mice babies were cut-n-pasted multiple times, appearing over and over again in different rows.  It was manufactured data.

Dr. Bik does a remarkable service to science.  A trained molecular biologist with a substantial CV, she now voluntarily spends her eagle eye scouring the literature for things that don't look quite right.  Like duplicate mice in a manufactured figure. 


I had the pleasure of interviewing her for the Talking Biotech Podcast, and she'll be featured on September 1 (Episode 203). 

Her Twitter feed is a gem (@microbiomdigest) so give her a follow. 

In the interview she said that plagiarism runs rampant.  I've read a really well-turned phrase once and realized it was my own, borrowed without permission or citation.  Dr. Bik says that it is remarkably common, and that the huge numbers of new journals with flimsy editorial and review processes only fuel the problem. 

This morning I read a post on The Garden Professor's Blog, a site on Facebook with content from Washington State University Extension Urban Horticulturalist Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott.  She noted that her work had been lifted, word for word, by an author team from India. She contacted the journal, but they were unresponsive or out of business.  How to correct this?

The first appeared in HortTechnology in 2013.  The second, in the International Journal of Multidisciplinary Advanced Research Trends.  Talk about a word salad.  


Read carefully. Sreelatha and Sandhya didn't even try to rewrite, except for some typos. 






 I looked into this a bit more and found that "K. Sreelatha" has published in areas of physics.  Here is another published article in the journal Pranama Research


Here is an excerpt from Volume 8, Issue 12, 2018: 





Here is an article I found online when I searched with a random block of text (you can see the page here)



There are more as well, and it took me about 15 minutes to find a handful of examples. 

The worst part is the authors didn't even try to revise the work.  It is a direct clone of the website or published work. I've written about this in 2015 in the area of genetic engineering as well, but I feel this effort was more lazy than deceptive. 

These are not papers in Science, Nature or any journal of impact.  However, they remain published evidence of someone's fraudulent scholarship and scientific misconduct. And it appears to be at a religious women's college, so that's funly ironic. 

It also serves to erode the public's trust in published science.  If anyone can publish anything, even articles that are stolen or hodgepodged together from multiple websites, can we trust the claims that are made? 

When the public is asking questions about the veracity of the scholarly literature, these trends are indeed dangerous, and an indicator that we need new measures of scientific rigor in publication. 


A Response to Carey Gillam