Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Proper Goodbye for Fred Phelps

There's a special place in hell for Fred Phelps, and a few extra slots for the loons that surround him.  At least that's what I always said.  For some reason I've always read about the exploits of Westboro Baptist Church (www.godhatesfags.com), provoking my own visceral reactions about such misplaced emotion and energy that could be used for more churchy activities.

The congregation is best known for its extreme views on homosexuality, other religions, and the picketing of major tragedies.  Whether it was the death of a soldier or a tornado through Joplin, Missouri, Phelps and clan showed up to note how the deaths were the acts of God and a message to those on earth.  They financed their events through funds gathered from lawsuits, and are quick to note when their civil rights were violated, successfully suing municipalities.  

When someone is as bad as Phelps, should we celebrate his demise, or is it time to show love and tolerance-- qualities they don't know? 

Last week I smiled when I heard that Phelps was critically ill. I even tweeted something snarky about it. As I stewed, I realized that I was falling into the same trap-- celebrating someone's ultimate demise because I denounced his fundamental beliefs.  In so many ways good riddance felt appropriate.  But it was too easy. 

As I painted my black block letters on fluorescent pink, yellow and green God Hates Fred sign, I started to think about this differently. The expected response to his death is one of hate and anger, capitalizing my own feelings on his family's loss.  Am I responding in a primitive and unrefined way by being happy about his death?  Was I being just like Fred Phelps himself? 

Sure, it felt damn good.  The guy is/was/will always be scum. He's caused a lot of heartache and hysteria, ruined thousands of lives and hurt many others.

But isn't this exactly why we need to say nothing?  Isn't this why the most eloquent response will be one so deep and meaningful that Fred's flock cannot comprehend it? 

They are expecting a massive, hateful and inflammatory picket of his funeral, one even Fred would be proud of.   That's exactly why we shouldn't give it to them. 

What if we instead said nothing?  What if we let this guy pass into the ether and not even notice?  What if we show he means nothing to us, that his thoughts didn't affect us? 

Even more, what if we showed empathy, compassion, tolerance and kindness at his family's worst hour?   Can we be everything they are not?  Should we show the love and forgiveness that a church leader did not possess? 

We can show them what it is like to be decent humans, and remind each other of how love and kindness always win over hate? 




Saturday, March 8, 2014

At the Master Gardener Spring Festival

For those of you that attended, thanks.  Please see the links below for some more information on points discussed!

It was a beautiful Saturday to drive to Ocala and see the Marion County Master Gardener's garden show.  It was even sweeter because I was on the schedule to talk about GMO Technology:  Coming to a Garden Near You, a provocative title for sure.

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The Spring Festival was great, the audience was fun. Thanks for coming out. 


You may have already read some of the grief the organizers received for having me come give a science talk. Chatter on their Facebook page concerned the organizers that there would be trouble brewing, such as violent protests and angry throngs.  They emailed me and let me know that there would be police present and they'd be checking the room.

Of course, I sent a note back that it was completely unnecessary, that there's no problem and that such things didn't concern me.  They don't.  It does give you a sense of what happens when we even dare to discuss science.  What would Galileo do?

The audience was small and everyone was attentive and interested.  There were a few people that clearly disagreed with the technology and we shared a reasonable dialog.  The major points were right from the GMO Bingo card, with some new ones, including allegations of nefarious use of aluminum tolerance genes so that plants could survive spraying with chemtrails.

The saddest part is that some members of the audience knew every cent that Monsanto and the tree company ArborGen contributed to researchers or programs at the University of Florida.  Of course, none of this gets to me or just about any specific researchers. They go to a scientist to answer a question. We're experts in what we do. Companies want to pay for that expertise.

Overall, it was a good time.  One woman there told me that the last time I spoke there it changed her mind 100%.  That makes it worth it.


Information and links from the talk:

1.  It was suggested that Japan does not accept Hawaiian papayas.  I indicated that the policy had changed that the point was disputed by an audience member. 

-- After a quick check, it turns out that Japan does accept Hawaiian GM papayas as of December 1, 2011.  Link

2.  The Indian suicide issue.  Here are some resources regarding that allegation.

-- Here are great posts on the myth  click here  and here!
-- Here is a link to an entry-level dissection of the issue by Dr. Ronald Herring of Cornell, the political science expert that has studied the dynamics of cotton farming and its impacts. 
-- And GM cotton makes farming profitable. A link from PNAS, one of our most prestigious journals, points to "large and sustainable benefits, which contribute to positive economic and social development in India."

3.  A vague point was made about GM bacteria leading to the "deaths of 37 Americans" and many others made ill... that was all I had to go with, but assumed it was the trypophan issue.  Years ago a Japanese supplement company made tryptophan as a dietary supplement and didn't purify it correctly, many people developed a disease known as EMS.  Anti-GM folks point to this as a fault of GM, when it was a fault of manufacturing.  A full discussion is here. 

4.  As always, I'm accused of having no professional integrity and judgement because of the claim that scientists are all bought and paid for stooges for Monsanto.  The claim came up again today, and I can direct you to my feelings on the subject here and here. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

The "Support Seralini" Challenge!


The 2012 work by Seralini et al has long been retracted, and months later friends and admirers of Prof Seralini still are screaming foul and injustice.  Now the anti-GMO, pro-Seralini interests are screaming "Censorship!", claiming that their hero has been the victim of a company's influence over a scholarly journal.
However, there's only one person controlling censorship at this point-- Prof. Seralini himself!
Here's the easy fix-- if the work is as good as he says it is-- then he should simply publish it elsewhere.  Today. Well, months ago.  It was retracted by one journal. It is now unpublished. If that journal and its editorial board had some ax to grind as his supporters contend, then Prof Seralini can push the work down the road to the next willing publisher! Easier than growing lumps on a Sprague-Dawley rat.
Since retraction, Prof Seralini must be carefully considering which top-shelf journal he'll consider as a Plan B.  Groundbreaking findings will find publication in science's best journals. 


After all, if GMOs or Roundup were causing massive tumors and killing people, and they are used in 70% of the food supply, it would be a HUGE story- we're talking Nobel Prize here.  Certainly one would look pretty sharp on Prof Seralini's mantle. Here he claims that both cause these problems.  That's two Nobel Prizes, if shown conclusively, and that's one for either side of the mantle!
If the data in Seralini et al. 2012 really definitively showed that outcome, then any journal, even the most elite journals, would be crawling over each other to publish the work. My guess is that the delay in publication is that he's combing through the offers and looking up impact factors.
The other night there was a Twitter party to show support for Prof Seralini.  You can find it with hashtag #SupportSeralini.  But rather than licking wounds and screaming foul, why don't his emboldened minions just encourage Prof. Seralini to resubmit the work to a better journal?  They could even check editorial boards to find editors that never worked for Monsanto, if there is such a thing.  Seriously, if the methods and data are that good...
So if you really support Seralini, I hope that you'll become vocal and persistent in the resubmission of the work to one of science's premier journals.  If censorship is real over at Environmental and Chemical Toxicology, then another journal will undoubtedly be thrilled to publish and promote such groundbreaking work.
It is conceivable that the data may find publication in a smaller low-impact title, like Carman's article in the Journal of Organic Systems, an apparently online only journal with no impact factor and limited editorial rigor.  The credulous anti-GMs don't understand science, let alone what the quality of the venue means. 
I do think I know the answer already.  The work can't possibly be resubmitted because Monsanto already owns all of the journals and paid off all of the editors.  And reviewers. Everywhere.  In all countries.  Forever. You get the picture.
Of course, none of this would prevent him from releasing all the data publicly. The only person censoring Seralini is Seralini himself.



Sunday, March 2, 2014

Roundup In Air and Rain? What the Report Really Says

This week websites across the whackosphere exploded with the the news.




Wow, that seems pretty remarkable.  I wanted to get a copy of the actual research paper right away! 


I wanted to learn more, but I could not access the paper at Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.  So how did all of these websites and their scholarly journalists get the manuscript?

I contacted one of the paper's authors, Dr. Paul Capel, and asked for a copy and he kindly sent one.  Apparently I was the first.  Seems like those coming to the conclusions of the websites above were acting true to form-- skimming an abstract and drawing a conclusion that best fits their desires.

So I actually read the paper!   Want to know what it says?  

In short-- the conclusions from the websites above are cherry-picked nonsense.  

First, the paper's authors do this work because ag chemicals volatilize.  I never realized to what extent, but wind, rain and other factors stir up otherwise latent chemicals and it is important to understand what is present.  The authors did such a survey.   They performed a survey in 1995 and 2007, at two separate sites in northwestern Mississippi that support 80% of the state's agricultural harvest, mostly supporting corn and cotton.

The authors note that the region had similar area farmed between the two dates, but the management was quite different, the biggest differences being the introduction of GM crops and the discontinued use of several insecticides. They sampled air and rain in this agricultural region over a growing season to understand environmental flux of ag chemicals. The areas had similar rain patterns.  Samples were analyzed by GC/MS, so we're talking sensitive detection.

Conclusions?   CONCLUSION 1- GC/MS is SENSITIVE! 

The authors are obviously quite skilled at analytical chemistry, as they reliably detect glyphosate, atrazine, and a dozen other chemicals in air samples in 2007.  Glyphosate is detected in 75% of samples, atrazine about the same.  The authors even found Molinate, a compound that had not been used in four years-- this is sensitive technology!   

THIS is what the articles above discovered, that chemicals were detected in these samples. Detected?  That means it is there, but it does not say how much is there. More on this later.

CONCLUSIONS 2.  Herbicides.

Figure 4 shows the difference in herbicides between 1995 and 2007. Peak applications are in May, as expected.  What you see is that glyphosate becomes the main herbicide detected.  What the activist literature does not bother to tell you is that the increase in glyphosate substitutes for "other herbicides". Atrazine levels decreased 36%. Trifluralin was present in almost every sample but its levels were 20 times lower than 1995. Essentially, glyphosate removed the need for other herbicides with higher environmental impact, a fact well documented (e.g. Duke et al., 2012).

CONCENTRATIONS. Oh, and don't forget to look at the y-axis units.  We're dealing with nanograms per cubic meter.  Considering these compounds are biologically relevant at the conservative level of milligrams per kilogram, we're talking about levels millions to billions of times below any biological relevance.


What the data really show is that tiny amounts of ag chemicals can be detected (ng /m3), and that between 1995 and 2007 glyphosate substituted for herbicides with more potential impact. 



CONCLUSION 3 -- Insecticides.

Here's another set of data that the scummy green media seemed to forget to report, but more likely they didn't read it because it was not in the abstract.  The trend from 1995 to 2007 shows a decrease in insecticide use.  In 1995 methyl parathion was heavily used in Mississippi on cotton (160,000 kg!). By 2007 its levels dropped twenty fold.  In 1995 there was high reliance on Chlorphyifos and malathion, and by 2007 the levels were down substantially, the authors citing "no local use". All "other insecticide" levels were lower as well.

Why?  Why the decrease between 1995 and 2007?

The introduction of transgenic (GMO) Bt cotton and Bt corn, the two principle crops of the region.  Of course, the crazy green media forgot to take the blinders off to see that.


Insecticides detected in 2007 compared to 1995.  You clearly see what may be attributable to the effect of Bt corn and cotton, that the GMO products work as claimed to decrease insecticide requirement.  The authors do not explain the 4 Sept peak in methyl parathion. 


Basically, the paper says that when you get into an ag area you can find ag chemicals, if you have sophisticated equipment and plenty of know-how.  The authors discuss that they sample two different sites with different crops growing, so that could affect data and account for some of the weirdness and spikes observed..  It does not change the take-home message that agricultural chemicals volatilize and persist in the environment, so it is best to minimize their use, use chemicals with less environmental impact, and choose seeds that require less chemical.

That is exactly what GM crops do, and exactly what the data show. 



Some additional points to note:

1.  The use of "Monsanto's Roundup" in the titles.  Glyphosate was detected.  While AMPA was also detected and is a breakdown product of glyphosate, the test did not find "Roundup" and the authors do not say "Roundup" once.

2.  The headlines above come from places where nobody actually read the paper.

3.  The same information outlets neglected to mention that glyphosate increases offset the use of other herbicides with more impact, that insecticide use was down, and that the levels were nanograms per cubic meter.

These are all important to note because is reveals how misinformed, ignorant and willing to deceive the anti-GMO media really is.  They are not out for science or truth, it is about an agenda.












 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Independent GMO Research Challenge!

Blocked from Science? 

One of the reasons I've survived as an academic scientist has been a tenacious drive to get things done.  I'm not brilliant like my colleagues, but I work really hard and don't take 'no' for an answer.  If there's a problem to solve, a hypothesis to test-- we figure out a way to do it.

That's why it makes me crazy when people claim that they can't do experiments on GM foods.  They claim independent researchers have been blocked from doing work in this area.  Activists will have you believe that somehow their hands are tied and they are stopped from doing the work.  I just don't understand. 

Want independent research?  Do it.  Don't whine about not being able to do it. If you are afraid to do it, or afraid to publish results, send them to me.  I'll publish them for you and we'll split the Nobel Prize! 

But Isn't It Everywhere?

Anti-GMO folks will tell you two things for sure.  First, that GMOs are in just about everything we eat, and next, that GMO food is killing us. If that is true, why do you need any permission from any company to do the research?  If you are a researcher that finds this compelling, go buy food.  You know, that poison stuff that we put in our pie holes.  Rigorously demonstrate that GM food is more deadly and disease causing than Non-GMO Project equivalents.  Done!  Nobel Prize! 

Can't Get the Seeds! 

What a flaming cop out.  Go buy them.  Farmers do it every day. Do your experiments.  If you are nervous, go file an Academic Research License and do the work with the company's knowledge.  Do your experiments.  If you find that there is a problem, report your results.  Claim your Nobel Prize. Have some guts. 

There's no way anyone will be suing you, and the Blackwater 'copters will be grounded.  Nobody will be hassling you for using the seeds for research, because your high-quality, published, reproducible research will drive the company out of business with lawsuits.

Plus, as I've mentioned elsewhere, you can have any seeds made you want, and you can do experiments until you are blue in the face.  Enjoy! University of Missouri, University of California Davis-- they can make your plants and you can test all day!

I'll Publish Your Results!

If you do a real set of experiments that show harm, make sure they are independently verified and then publish!   That's what scientists do!  If you are afraid because the conspiracy, black helicopters, Blackwater, or Monsanto itself will come get you, send me your data!  I'll write it up and submit it.  

If there is evidence of harm, then you losers are the most unethical, spineless losers to not stand up for what is right.  I'll stand up for you.  I don't fear black helicopters.  


In Conclusion

It is the old, safe retreat-- "nobody knows because the company won't let them test...."   Oh cry me a river.  Just do it.  There's not a scientist alive worth a damn that would see a paradigm-shifting opportunity and an ethical charge and not do it because they are afraid of a company.  Puh-leeeze. 

That's how you know these people have no leg to stand on.  When I think about the scientists I know, the ethics they practice and their concern for farmers, the poor, the average consumer and the environment, if there was something wrong they would not sweep it under a carpet.  It would be on prime-time news.  

The challenge- give me the data you say are suppressed.  I'll publish them, and when the ninjas start coming after me we'll blow the roof off of the story. 




Sunday, February 16, 2014

Proudly Proclaiming Scientific Ignorance

When I saw this advertisement for a t-shirt to wear in May's March Against Monsanto, I could not believe my eyes.  Here was a shirt being sold to those opposed to transgenic (GMO) technologies that basically says that the wearer has no idea about what they are so upset about.  In a way, sad, but in a way pure rhetorical gold.  I can't make this stuff up.  


Proudly proclaim that you know nothing about technology you are rallying against!  A t-shirt that brazenly screams that the wearer is ignorant about biotechnology.


So what's wrong with this picture?  Let's start at the bottom and work our way up!

1.  Tomato.  There are no commercial GMO tomatoes. Oops.
2.  Syringe.  That's not how trangenics are made, and it is simply an iconic scare tactic of the anti-GM movement.  Again, proudly shows complete ignorance of the process. 
3.  Nobody is a science experiment from GM, any more than they are from eating anything else.  Again, a bold statement that anti-GM is in the business of manufacturing non-existent risk.

I only wish that I had designed the shirts and was making a few shekels off of them (oooh... and entrepreneur is born!).

Along that line, I'm not one to claim a conspiracy here, but I'm going to bet, hands down, that Monsanto actually printed these shirts.  Not only are they making money off of the scientifically illiterate, they make the protesters wearing them look like dolts, and they get a little eff-ewe to laugh about in the break room at work.

A little look at the back of the shirt confirms my suspicions.


Nothing like buying a garment to wear that says you have absolutely no clue. 

Anyone participating in Millions Against Monsanto, or for that matter climate change hoaxers and anti-vaxers, might consider consulting a scientist before buying a shirt that actually shows they know nothing about the science they are rallying against.  Even though I disagree with their message, I'm honest enough to not want them look like complete morons while giving it.

Probably. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

GMOs and Leukemia, Debunkulated

Over the last several months there have been many people claiming this link between transgenic crops and Leukemia.  Let's think about this conclusion and the research it is based on.  The conclusion that Bt is related to leukemia, or any human disorder, is just not shown in those data. 


What do you think would happen if a 200lb human being was force fed, with a tube down the throat into the stomach, pure bacterial spores equivalent to half a roll of nickels, and then tested for effects 24h later?   My guess is that you’d see a screaming immune response, massive response from gut flora, and probably some effects on physiology that would be reflected in the blood.  Agreed?

If you agree, then the results of this hypothetical “experiment” are the same as those performed on mice in the Mezzomo study.

In short, the work by Mezzomo et al., (J. Hematology and Thromboembolic Disease) takes Bt spore crystals (dried downBacillis thruengenesis bacteria) containing the different Bt protein (or Cry proteins) and delivers them by oral gavage into the stomachs of mice.  The authors show that mice exhibit minor changes in the blood 24, 72 and 196 hours after the treatment. The authors claim that these findings indicate that “further studies are needed to clarify the mechanism involved in hemotoxicity…to establish risk in non-target organisms.”

Upon analysis I completely disagree with the authors.  The study does not show this at all.

Here are a few of the study’s significant limitations.   

  1. No experimental control was used (well, just water).  There were no bacterial Cry minus strains tested, so it is impossible to know if the effects come from the bacteria or the cry proteins.  The cry protein is what is used in transgenic (GMO) plants.
  2. The bacterial strains used with the Cry gene (an Bt protein) were originally characterized by Santos et al (2009, Bio Controls) to test for larvacidal activity against various cotton pests.  Larvae were fed the spore crystals, just as they would consume when about 50-60% of organic growers apply Bt to plants.  They do not test transgenic plant materials, yet make clear statements implying that these results are relevant to transgenic contexts.  This statement completely oversteps the data. 
  3. The levels of Bt were at least one million times what humans consume when eating transgenic corn.
  4. The study has a problem that is seen in most GMO studies.  There is no real dose-response relationship.  In other words, if something has an effect you see it more when more when a greater amount of the causal agent is applied.  Here Table 1 shows a number of instances were lower doses produce significantly lower effects.  This is always a red flag to critical scientific reviewers and usually means the sample size is too small and the differences reflect natural variation.

Synthesis.

When you force feed massive numbers of bacterial spores to mice, they will have responses that may be detected in the blood.  The responses can be detected, but likely are not even biologically relevant.   Even seven days after being infused with bacteria the changes are small, just a few percent at best.   So when the websites say “GMOs are linked to leukemia and anemia,” the real answer is that mice fed quite a bit of Bt-containing bacterial spores (like the ones used in organic production) the mice have tiny changes in certain blood biomarkers.

Other notes

  1. This was the inaugural issue of JHTD.  I could not access its current list of contents (it gave a jpg of the journal¹s cover) but it does claim to be “one of the best open access journals of scholarly publishing.”  Quite a statement for a journal which launched this year and has no impact rating.  In the SCImago Journal Ranking system (scimagojr.com), among 89 journals in “Hematology” JHTD ranks… well…it did not even make the list, and the 89th place journal has not published a paper in the last three years.
  2. The Omics publishing group is widely criticized as a “predatory publisher.” This means that they get paid every time that something is published and actively seek articles to publish (http://www.academia.edu/1151857/Bealls_List_of_Predatory_Open-Access_Publishers) . They are known in scholarly circles for not publishing high-quality work, and few, if any, of their journals are indexed on PubMed, which means they have not met their quality metrics http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/pub/pubinfo/ . 
  3. Biofortified.com author Dr. Anastasia Bodnar notes that the work was originally published in the respected journal Food Chemistry and Toxicology Nov 9, 2012, but was “withdrawn at the request of the author(s) and/or editor.”   As stated in Elsevier¹s withdrawal guidelines, an article may be withdrawn if it contains errors or if it was submitted twice.  If the paper had errors or was submitted twice, those problems could be remedied for resubmission.  The other reason stated in the policy is when “the articles may represent infringements of professional ethical codes, such as multiple submission, bogus claims of authorship, plagiarism, fraudulent use of data or the like.”

In conclusion.

The article is consistent with the low-quality, low-impact, no control, no dose-response, limited biological relevance, poorly designed studies that are held in sterling regard by the anti-GMO community.   It is again a testament to how bad research and claimed effects will forever be integrated into the fabric of a movement and will be used to scare the credulous and even effect public policy. 

The bottom line is that the Bt protein is just that - a protein.  It is digested by humans just like any other protein.  There is no evidence of bioaccumulation. The compound has been well studied for decades and has been a great benefit to organic growers, as well as in a transgenic context. 

A Response to Carey Gillam