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. 

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.












 

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. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Common Disease Spectrum of Crazy


In order to wage an effective war against science and reason, it is important to convince as many people as possible that science and reason are killing them.  This task is difficult because most people realize that science and reason have greatly enhanced life quality and expectancy.  The trick is to misdirect the credulous from the daily examples where science works, and then manufacture risk, connecting an activist target to a familiar disease du jour

Whether you are trying to sell a book on GMOs, get more invites for your anti-glyphosate rants, sell a t-shirt on your chemtrails site, be the president of your hackey-sack club, or convince local moms to stop protecting their children with immunization, there has to be a looming threat of a physical illness connected to your deadly agent of interest. 

Below are cut-n-pastes from various websites or documentaries.  They note the rise in diseases associated with ____________ .  Note that they all are relatively similar lists in terms of specific disease issues. 

The disorders share a few commonalities. First, they are all difficult medical nuts to crack.  These are modern diseases with multiple etiologies and unfound cures.  These are the visible diseases in our society, increasing in frequency since we are not dropping dead from polio, tuberculosis and the flu.  Next, they include highly-visible issues like autism, obesity and cancer, along with long-term dramatic degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. They also include lots of recently visible issues (gluten intolerance) and amorphous disorders (fibromyalgia). 

As time rolls on and we sort out cancers and long-term degenerative disease, the number one cause of death will be accidents.  I suppose they'll have to blame those on GM/vaccination/etc too.

What is the common theme?  To compel the reader to freak out about the issue at hand by claiming physical manifestations-- of course, without ever presenting supporting evidence. 

From Genetic Roulette, by Jeffrey Smith.  This list is fun because it includes cirrhosis and pneumonia. GMO pneumonia?  Huffing corn starch? 



 Don Huber's glyphosate and GMO list is a little more comprehensive. Of course, we'd expect that from an emeritus professor, digging in a little deeper to find more diseases tied to his plant-animal-livestock pathogen.  His list is a lot like Smith's, but it also includes Morgellan's and miscarriage.  Of course, he never has produced any evidence of the pathogen, but he knows exactly what diseases it causes.  Stephanie Seneff also claims a similar suite of disorders from glyphosate. 



Chemtrails!  Chemtrails are blamed for a similar spectrum of diseases to Huber and Smith's list, with the added fun of tinnitis (ear ringing) and high cholesterol.  The "aluminium build up in the pineal gland" might be residues soaking in from the foil hat. 



Oh Joy.  This baby has more syringes sticking in it than a Monsanto tomato. "Up to 60% of the immune system destroyed."  The list here is similar to GMO and chemtrails, but also includes "death", which is quite a symptom. 



Fluoride causes many of the same problems, but I'll give them credit for forging out and finding some new disorders to give them an air of credibility over simply just naming the disease du jour.  I particularly like "Brain Damage in the Unborn Fetus", which must rectify in the born fetus, because just about anyone reading this in the USA was a fetus in the presence of fluoride.  I also like how fluoride "Makes you docile and obeisant", which I think means fat and willing to carry out orders. 

If you go on the internets and root around you can find similar lists for aspartame, radio waves, cell phone towers, and if you live in Kauai-- "smart meters", the internet-reporting electrical meters. 

Why attach a gnarly disease to your controversy?  Because it can be used to frighten people, especially when concerning their unborn fetus, and their born fetus.  When you look at the lists they never actually cite evidence of linkage to the disease, not evidence of true cause and effect.  It is a common tactic of someone trying to scare you with a bowl of Cheerios or an electric meter- manufacture the perception of risk.  

Don't fall for it.  Those chemtrails just may be condensation and not the reason you can't get out of bed in the morning. 




Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Massive Data Do Not Support Huber's Claims

Dr. Don Huber is traveling North America warning audiences of a mysterious organism that causes diseases in plants, humans and livestock.  He talks to famers and concerned food-oriented audiences.  He does NOT present to scientific conferences, as scientists and their professional organizations do not recognize his claims, and confront him with questions that cannot be answered without invoking hand-waving explanations and elaborate conspiracies.

I have a problem with anyone manipulating the gullible for personal or political gain, especially when they use fear to motivate action.  After seeing Huber scare the pants off an audience in Gainesville, FL, I have taken up the mantle of holding him accountable for his bad science and manipulating people for his twisted motivations.

Today it occurred to me how we know, conclusively, that there is no mystery organism.  No doubt. Evidence of absence in this case is tantamount to absence of evidence.  It is just that massive. 


Today's technologies have uncovered massive DNA/RNA sequence data from humans, plants and livestock, the organisms Huber claims are infected.  In all of the petabytes of public information, there has been no identification of any mystery microfungus.  If anyone were to discover a new organism by accident-- it would be a huge story.

Huber's mystery pathogen is fiction.  Here's why.

Since the mid-2000s we've seen the price of DNA sequencing drop incredibly.  The technology allows scientists to obtain massive genetic information from any organism.  Animal, plant, whatever.

When we sequence a plant or animal we routinely find sequence that does not fit into the genetic blueprint of the organism.  These sequences can be assembled separately and compared to databases.  They are the bacteria, viruses, fungi and other critters that represent the ecology of the sequenced organism.  In other words, when we take apart the airplane we find all the hijackers.

My lab did this on accident.  In our 2010 paper in Plant Genome we surprisingly identified a list of organisms resident to a greenhouse strawberry plant.  We found evidence of snails, probably from eggs on the plant!  We’re talking sensitive technology.  Most of all, we found evidence of bacteria and fungi that are not even problems, or thought event to be present, in Florida. They are all here, just not an issue for whatever reason.  That’s a great find.

Back to Huber.  Soybean, especially production soybean, has been massively studied and intensely sequenced.  Commercial corn, cotton, etc have been analyzed ad nauseum and there is more data in public databases than can be imagined.  In all of the data, in all of the reports, in all of the understanding of gene function and gene detection—

There has not been one report of a mystery organism.

There is no sequence that has been found that is assembled into a creature representing a new kingdom of virus-fungus or whatever the hell he’s talking about.

This absence of evidence cannot be ignored.  While typically absence of evidence is not compelling, in this case it can be clearly stated that in the massive accountings of DNA and transcriptome (RNA) data, there has been no reported evidence of a mystery organism.  If it was there, it would have been detected, the research would have been published and the scientists would be fighting about who would get to sniff the cork.

Huber has provided no organism (despite requests), no culture protocols, and no evidence that it exists.  There are no scientists confirming his allegations and after nine years the only suspect is a fuzzy electromicrograph of a cellular Bigfoot that is likely an artifact or familiar structure.

On the other hand, the massive sequencing of agronomic genomes shows no evidence that it exists, which by default says it does not. 


This simple fact provides question number eleven to the HuberWatch list. 

"If this mystery pathogen is such a prevalent problem leading to crop failures and human disease, why has it never been detected in the massive public collections of sequence data?"

If you get a chance to ask him about that one, please do.  Of course, there probably will be a computer conspiracy that cleansed all evidence from public servers.  You know the drill. 



Tuesday, January 7, 2014

These Ideas are the Thoughts of Folta and May Not Represent...


Illumination is here to help you separate the science from the junk.


The blog Illumination was originally prepared to present my personal thoughts of science and its interface with society.  Carl Sagan said it best; we live in a world filled with science and technology, where nobody knows anything about science and technology.  We live in a world filled with charlatans and scam artists, malevolent activists and dangerous pseudoscientists.  There is a place for scientists to help buffer the public, especially those most vulnerable, from these harmful forces.

I’m a scientist and I love to read, learn and then share science.  It is what I do. Full time. I don’t have a family, I don’t have hobbies and have yet to hit a mid-life crisis.  The world is filled with fascination and I’m so fortunate to contribute to it.

I like to use the current topics of public scientific discussion to teach about logical fallacy, critical thinking, evaluation of science, and skepticism in general.

The problem is that many people do not agree with science.  When public figures speak of the science of climate change, GMOs, vaccination or other topics, some take offense, as scientific ideas collide with their worldviews.  There is retaliation against science and scientists that dare to present an evidence-based perspective.

Over the last several years I have found myself discussing transgenic crops and biotechnology, familiarly referred to as GMOs.  I’m glad to use this blog as a platform for information dissemination and discussion. I also occasionally write for Biofortified and Science 2.0. 

In 2013 I made a lot of people angry.  From activists to Hawaii to fans of Dr. Don M. Huber, many are not happy with my role in science communication, and more appropriately, scientific illumination of suspect concepts held dear by those with limited scientific acumen.  I have been effective in changing minds and sharing science.

Over the last few months, those who scream accusations of being unfairly attacked and silenced, are now attacking and trying to silence those of us that attempt to distill and communicate science.  Oh sweet irony.

In a world of aggressive science denial and internet-fueled self-empowerment, effective communicators can’t be tolerated.  The flying monkeys are out.  I've been hassled in many ways, some personally, some professionally.  There is a new push to hush me by contacting my university’s administration and complaining.   
So I’ll state it clearly here, again.  The thoughts presented here are my own, these are my personal statements and I stand by them.  They are not necessarily the viewpoints of the University of Florida or the Horticultural Sciences Department, so please don’t make that assumption.

If you have a problem with something I’ve said, let me know.  I’ve been wrong before and would love to discuss the issue or make a correction.  I learn something new every day.

The wrong way to handle this is to bother my boss and my boss’ boss, the governor or anyone else in an attempt to silence my level-headed, evidence-based discussion of biotechnology.

Sure, it might just work, as someone someday might ask me not to participate in hot-button discussions with lay audiences.  Universities are just like any other place and they don’t want hassles, unfounded bad press or anything to taint perception.  It takes a lot of time and resources to unravel a false accusation.

However, my university has stood by me solidly.  It is part of our mission as a Land Grant University to share science with the public. 

Let’s consider the irony.  The people that claim disdain for strong arm tactics by companies against farmers, silencing of critics and stifling of scientific information, are now using strong-arm tactics in an attempt to silence a public, independent scientist.

We live in challenging times where we need science to solve our most pressing problems. In order to maximize and hasten scientific impact we need the public to understand science, especially in hot-button areas.  We need everyone to learn the difference between real science and internet rants. 

2014 will be a great year for science and a great year for Illumination. I'm glad to have this little forum to provide a creative analysis of the current situation in biotech.  It is also wonderful to read the feedback, get the emails, both supportive and antagonistic. I learn a lot from the process.