Saturday, August 23, 2014

University of Florida's Deep Monsanto Ties

Last week I was so happy to answer a thousand thoughtful questions on Science Reddit.  Many questions were moderator blocked (which I discouraged), so angry queries found a home over on the "Kevin Folta Monsanto Cheerleader" reddit thread.

Monsanto cheerleader?  And then they put the word scientist in quotes.  They are convinced I"m a corporate cheerleader and not a scientist.  Shows how well they know me and what I do.  

I'm really proud to say that I'm a Professor at UF.  I work with some of the best science minds out there and am always humbled by the amazing work going on here.  That's no secret.  But Monsanto Cheerleader? When I told them that I had no formal connection to Monsanto (other than visiting there last week to talk about how they could improve their outreach, first time ever there), GM opponents scoured the web, searching for any morsel of evidence to connect me to deep financial collusion with the Big M.

They were certain they had me busted. Clearly, billions of dollars were flowing from Monsanto right into my lab and into my pocket, and in return I'd sacrifice my life's duty, 30 years of training, reputation and legacy to lie about science on an obscure website that calls me a cheerleader.  Makes perfect sense.

Here are their claims:

They EVIDENCE!  SMOKING GUN!  Here they have utilized high-end web sleuthing to undeniably connect me to the Monsanto Corporation!  

Let's look at those brilliant connections. 

But first, let's start with reality.  I work for the University of Florida, we are the State's Land-Grant University. There are 4,000 faculty. Our central job is to educate the public, perform cutting-edge research, and communicate that research to citizens in our state.  That's the Land Grant mission. 

Our area, IFAS, receives about $80 million a year in research support. Most of that is federal and state, with 3% coming from corporate sources. Of that, maybe $200-400k come from Monsanto annually to specific research programs.  In other words, they pay for work to be done here in a lab (not mine) and finance maybe a postdoc to two.  This is small potatoes. Nobody sees any of that money outside of the lab that is being compensated for the work. 

To his claims:

1.  Cargill Inc, Dow Chemical and Monsanto give millions to the University of Florida - SMOKING GUN!!  Not so much. The first page goes to a dead link.  I guess that still convinces some of the Monspiracy.

2. U of F Scientists Collaborate with Monsanto -- SMOKING GUN!!  Not so much.  The article is about two UF researchers that worked in collaboration with Monsanto in 2011 to develop public-domain software to help model corn growth in the southeast.  These simulation models help farmers make choices in a changing climate.  From what I can tell, I can find no evidence that there was any funding to UF associated with this relationship.  It is not on Dr. Boote's CV or in the UF grants database.

3.  Monsanto supports a professorship in his department -- SMOKING GUN.  Not so much. That evil Monsanto had the audacity to provide funding to hire a new professor.  Fifteen years ago. The nerve.  In the days when budgets are cut, faculty hires are few, and students need more science training, it is shameful that they'd actually provide a way for us to expand service to the citizens of out state. 

Yes, Monsanto did put up part of the funding for Mark's appointment.  The funny part is, he has no associations with them and his research is not of direct impact to Monsanto's interests.  

Plus it happened two years before I joined UF.  BUT... that's the best they can find...

4.  Folta claims he's an "independent contractor" for the State of Florida -- SMOKING GUN.  Not so much.  Here the author of the post cherry picks a line from a comment thread and tries to use it to discredit me on the page.  The exact quote is: "I'm an independent contractor that works for the State of Florida.  They give me a paycheck and a lab space. Every test tube, person, bag of soil, etc. comes from grants that I apply for. Period.

This is how we sometimes represent ourselves in university science. There is no magical funding that comes from the institution that pays for our research.  We pay for it, from grants.  We're small business operators. We have employees, tight budgets, and expected deliverables.

Sure, our paychecks for teaching and research come from the state, but they give nothing toward our research work.  In fact, from a 3-year $500,000 NSF grant our institution gets about $250,000 of it for "administration and facilities" to keep the paperwork straight and the lights on. 

Finally, it is sad to see someone dig through the web in an attempt to discredit someone that works for them. Rather than ask for information, explanations, assistance in learning, they want to tear down scientists that don't subscribe to their warped views (which is all of the scientists). 

I guess it should be noted that Monsanto and other companies sponsor websites like where I answer questions.  For free. Maybe that's a connection. 

Sad.  At least he didn't go after the "hot chick with the lip ring" (last line of image above, in reference to Cara Santa Maria on the HuffPo video).   Maybe if I get a lip ring he'll give me a pass too.

They missed the most damning evidence.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Tailoring Fear to Terrorize Your Audience

It has been widely shown that the anti-GMO movement does not have evidence to support their position.  In the absence of science, biotech opponents must resort to misinformation and fear in order to achieve their goals.

Today a report surfaced about

It reminded me of a post I produced last year. In China, GM cotton has been used for over a decade and the technology has brought tremendous advantages.  In 2003, the use of Bt cotton stopped over 300,000 tons of insecticide from being applied (Pam Ronald, Tomrorow's Table).  The technology is doing well, and today there is a great discussion among Chinese scientists about the technology-- and they are for the development of such products.

However, the anti-GM movement has effectively manipulated Chinese citizens.  In the USA, you scare people by telling them they'll be fat and packed with tumors like a 2-year old Sprague Dawley Rat.

In China, you need to tell them that they won't be able to have children. With rules on family size, there is a tremendous feeling of desperation to have that one healthy child.  Something like 12.5% of Chinese couples are unable to conceive, and it carries a social stigma. Unregulated IVF clinics abound.  It is not known why Chinese families are infertile, but experts point to pollution, stress and planning families at later ages.

So what message will Greenpeace and other activist corporations use in China?  Eating GMO will make you infertile.

The sign says, "GMO food will make people unable to reproduce", playing into their greatest fears. A tailored message to maximize negative public sentiment.

Back in 2000 the technology was viewed favorably, and the Chinese government rushed forward with development of corn and soy genetics. China imports most of its corn and soy from Argentina and Brazil.  Today, the fear has worked, turning many against the technology. 

A few years ago, Xiaoyu Wang from the Hilongjiang Soybean Association publicly stated that GM soy would cause sterility and cancer, of course, without evidence.  Oh, and the Hilongjiang Soybean Association only produces non-GM soy.

There also are claims that citizens of the USA do not eat GM products and that these technologies are a "soft bomb" way to harm China.

Clearly it is all tailored rhetoric, carefully crafted for maximum manufacture of perceived risk.  It shows that biotech opponents will stop at nothing to hurt people and limit options, as long as their agendas are met.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

This is What I Get For Offering to Help...

In the last blog I wrote about correspondence from a young woman that apparently was not interested in scientific interaction.  To review, she posted a note on the Stop Neil deGrasse Tyson from Talking about Science petition, requesting he contact her so that she could give his dim self some book learnin'.  She provided an email address in this public forum.

Dr. Tyson is a busy guy.  He's trying to disentangle fundamental questions about our universe, and may not be surfing crackpot websites, especially those trying to censor him.

To be of service, I wrote a short and punchy note to (we'll call her RK) only to earn a semi-psychopathic retort.

I get it.  Asking Neil deGrasse Tyson to contact you and then getting a note from Kevin Folta is a lot like ordering a pizza and having the delivery guy show up with a used tube sock filled with guacamole. I'm sure she was disappointed, but when life hands you a tube sock of guacamole, get the chips!

I took the time to write back a little softer note explaining the situation.

On the surface my note seems soft and helpful-- but the words within conjured a rhetorical shitstorm like I've never seen. The "ego" comment comes from her last note where she tells me, "Drop your ego little man!"  She's giving Valerie some competition in the zany department! 

My message disappeared into cyberspace, hoping to mend a misunderstanding or somehow illuminating that she just might be wrong.  However, my desire to initiate a healthy and useful conversation was dead on arrival.  My offer to assist was met with an interesting reply-- and I have no idea what she is talking about! 

Yikes!  I never visited her facebook page-- Ever. YouTube channel?  I guess I have no publications or even a B.S. degree...  Don't like that I offer to help a woman?  I offer to help everyone...


I do kind of hope she calls my department and asks to talk to the Chair... He'd be happy to hear her complaint. I think he already has, and he knows all sides of this fiasco. 

Today's blog has two major conclusions:

1.  This is why scientists don't engage.  The abuse and threats from wackos are a turn off and make you feel like you are wasting your time.

2.  This is why Mike Adams and Vandana Shiva are actually dangerous.  When they encourage violence against journalists and scientists, there are a number of unstable persons out there like RK that could easily be inspired to carry out their bidding.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Kind Scholarly Note from a Sweet Soul

Last weekend when skimming the petition to silence Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson I stumbled upon one that seemed really odd.  The author, I'm guessing a female, said, "End the Bt (Agent Orange) Toxic Corn", as part of her rant.  She offered her email address an suggested that Dr. Tyson contact her, of course, perhaps in more crunchy tones.

Seeing as though Dr. Tyson was probably busy solving problems of the cosmos and not likely to respond to this request, I kindly took it upon myself to send her a quick note and clarify her Bt/Agent Orange foible.

Shortly thereafter I received her gentle retort.

Reaching out to touch the lives of others with the gift of science.  My she is one feisty space bat.  I'd recommend Occupy a Padded Cell. I'm guessing her trusted and accredited news sources is probably Natural News.

My first note to her was honest and well intended, and I'd be glad to talk to her about transgenics, Bt, 2,4-D, agent orange, whatever.  I don't think she's much interested in what science has to offer, as she seems like an angry nutcase that is probably flipping kittens into a wood chipper and not partaking in critical analysis of the scholarly literature. 

Oh well.  I tried. Next time I'll take a whiz on a killer bee colony instead. 

Tomorrow I'll post our next correspondence... 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Danish Pigs Accumulate Glyphosate!

This is likely one of the worst papers ever to be published.

However, to some, it is stellar evidence.

Here's one website claiming that the link between glyphosate and piglet deformities is now CONFIRMED!   

At least that's what many in the anti-GMO community think, and a recent paper is all the proof they need.  A new steamer from Monika Kruger's group in Germany provides low-power investigation oozing with no science, heavy rhetorical flourish, and missing controls. The whole thing is designed to scare the bejezzus out of the credulous.  And it works! 

I only found this because an anti-GMO soul on a comments section pointed to it as "irrefutable evidence tying glyphosate to birth defects".  The work appears in May's J Environ Anal Toxicol. First, articles in "Omics" journals are usually pretty lame. They are a well known predatory publisher that will publish anything if the price is right.  

Second, Kruger's group always seems to find a problem, yet their reports are devoid of experimental methods and clear statistical treatments. This report has some interesting numbers, one paragraph of results (that make no sense) and a page of pictures of dead piglets!

I don't understand the second paragraph where the authors say that there were no differences in concentrations.  Then they say the highest were in the lungs. Remember, this one paragraph is the parallel to the Results section of a conventional scientific paper.

 In the usual form, this group isn't quite sure what the results of their study are exactly.  Are there differences or are there not differences?  

The data in Table 1 tell tell their story... of course, no positive or negative controls, so you don't know if the assay is just reading noise.  No standard curve, so hard to know how they can quantitate this so accurately!!   They don't say in the paper. 

Like any good paper smearing glyphosate or transgenic crops, the authors choose to conveniently omit the controls. That's my guess.  They have to know to use controls, and probably do, but they look the same as the experimental treatments and that's just not shocking (see Figure 3, Seralini et al., 2012 aka Lumpy Rats). To do this right there should be a positive control (organs spiked with glyphosate) and a negative control (pig organ never exposed to glyphosate).  Classic sloppy science!  Awful!

The clear problem is that these are all pigs from that one Danish farmer that claims the relationship between glyphosate and pork defects. If he really believed his claim and wanted independent analysis, he might send it to an independent lab for objective analysis.  Instead, he sends it to Monika Kruger's group, one of a handful of labs worldwide that somehow can always find a boogeyman tied to GM crops.

Without any controls, how do we know the farmer (with a GMO axe to grind) doesn't soak piglets in glyphosate before sending them for analysis?  That would give Kruger's lab the benefit of the doubt.  The other question is if they really detected anything at all.

There is no standard curve, and no negative control. If the detection method (ELISA; an antibody-linked colorometric assay) cross reacted with anything in the piglet juice, or if there was natural background in the assay, how would we know?

And the second page of this report is just pictures of piglets.  Not sure what it means, other than presentation for shock value.  That's it.

Here's another great example of "shock science".  Pictures of deformed piglets. They don't say that the piglets were exposed to glyphosate, they don't measure glyphosate, they don't show normal piglets.  This figure is purely there to shock and frighten... and it works! 

How does this junk get published without controls!!!

Let's talk about what they claimed to find.  The authors claim finding 80 ug/ml in lungs, maximum, but in the table it is 80 ug/g.  Are they talking about ml of extraction fluid or starting tissue?  Unclear. They also need a lesson in use of significant digits. 

Let's say that's true. 80 ug/g starting tissue.  That's the same as 80 mg/kg.  When glyphosate is sprayed on the crop it is about 20 mg/square meter which provides about 0.29 kg of soy***.  Spraying is done long before the flowers and beans are on the crop (see Inconvenient Glyphosate Math).  You see the problem.  There would have to be some sort of mystery mechanism sequestering glyphosate in the fetus, which is inconsistent with everything we know about its pharmacology.

Plus, the MSDS clearly points out that there is no evidence of teratogenicity in a suite of animals examined.

Once again, a real dud of a paper becomes part of the evidence base for anti-GM.  I would not be proud of accepting this work and claiming it as convincing evidence. I'd be embarrassed.  But the anti-GMs have a thin skill set and ambitious keyboard.  They'll argue that this is appropriate science, and excellent evidence of glyphosate's harmful effects.

And the best part is that it just keeps on coming.  The fact that this is their standard for conclusive science says a lot about their scientific tenacity... it is severely absent.

***  please note that I this value was changed on 8/20 from the original posting of 2 kg.  That number was incorrect, I forgot to add a decimal place!  This was pointed out to me in the comments section and has been corrected. It does not change the point of the paragraph. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

DeGrasse Is Not Always Greener in the Other Science

I was grateful when Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson accidentally stepped in science's ripest dookie- anti-GMO pseudoscience.  He's getting to experience first hand what it is like to be a scientist trying to communicate sound science with the most rabid bunch of clueless know-it-alls ever amassed under a single banner.

When asked last week about transgenic crops, he said that humans have been manipulating genes for thousands of years, so "chill out".  He's exactly right.  Humans have been taking the trash that nature gave us and folding it into useful crops for certainly the last 10,000 years. The process is random and wild, and only since the dawn of biotechnology do we have any handle on what genes we are moving and how we do it.

However, far be it from the anti-GMO movement to accept scientific facts.  To them, Tyson is a sellout to corporate seed greed, a Monsanto Collaborator, and probably someone that Mike Adams wants dead.

I wrapped up my Saturday science day and opened the browser only to find this gem:

20,000 people capable of logging on to the internet are clearly smarter than one goofy Monsanto-owned astrophysicist.  

It is a petition-- that's right, a petition, to tell Dr. Tyson to not tell people to "chill out" about GM foods. 

A petition.  A device usually used to invite a change in policy, here it is being used to coerce a scientist out of speaking, well, scientifically.  

The good news is that some of the petitioners take the time to provide rationale for why they want Dr. Tyson to not tell them to chill out.  It is tragic comic gold.  In no place have I recently read such a public display of mass ignorance, criticizing our generation's greatest voice in science. 

Let's look at some of the gems:

Mrs. Sandy Pidgeon from Montana expresses her concerns about that roundup-ready wheat.  She apparently suffers from MS, so she's sensitive to the food she eats.  Unfortunately, she is ready to voice out against the GMO wheat-- when there is no GMO wheat.  It was never commercialized. 

Ms. Cheryl Berdahl from Nevada notes that "All of Europe can't be wrong".   

I have two words.  Soccer.  Hasselhoff. 

Ms. Jessica Kraskian from New Jersey clearly wants Tyson replaced.  He doesn't verify her biases the way Sagan did, like when he said the earth was a pale blue dot in the vastness of space and that we need science more than ever.  Sagan would agree 100% with Tyson, and would call the anti-GMO movement another facet of the Demon Haunted World.  Maybe a scientist like Jeffery Smith could tell everyone about how to cure cancer by burning a smudge stick and breathing in the vapors through an eagle feather.  

Mr. Kevin Klasman swings and misses with his exposition of scientific illiteracy.  He buys into the bogus "infertile crops" narrative and talks of "more aggressive" pesticides, which is exactly not the case. But hey, Tyson is the bonehead, right? 

Rocket surgeon turned internet police guy Mark Crossland peels himself away from the Bararck Hussein Obama Birth Certificate site long enough to give Tyson a pretty firm spanking.  GMOs "change genetic structures" according to this guy, which I guess is true, but it happens at a much lower rate than what happens in traditional breeding, and we understand the genes that are being affected. I'll remember when I teach molecular biology class next year, "Anytime you modify something DNA you F it up".

Mr. Garry M. Doll of Pennsylvania chimes in with some surprising news-- GM technology is not science. At times I've thought of it more of an art form, but in general it is pretty sciencey.  I'm also guessing that science dudes like me know about epigenetics (actually, they discovered it) and maybe we do know something about genetics.  My guess is that Mr. Doll is plagued with recessive genes that block the distinction of reality versus fiction. 

Lee Beffort in Nevada recounts a common allegation-- Dr. Tyson is now sold out to Corporate Masters, many others site that he's a shill for Fox News. You know, the corporation that tells scientists to talk about how the world is being threatened by antropogenic climate change.  They can't have it both ways, can they?

Dr. George DeForest of Texas, a state known for its high scientific resolution, suggests that Tyson is not qualified to speak on transgenic crops because his scientific training in astrophysics.  I'm guessing Dr. Deforest is a podiatrist. 


This is the very tippy tip of the iceberg and I'm going to use this platform to generate lots of responses and even some video.  

Thanks Dr. Tyson for getting involved in this topic.  You've stirred a pot that needed to be stirred, so let's get all of the public advocates for science on board to stand up for science, and stand up for biotechnology!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Consumer Reports Selling Out to Anti-Scientific Analysis

Grandpa Folta liked Consumer Reports, the magazine that would help him find maximum value in his oil filters and bacon bits. They have been recognized for a long time as an objective source of critical side-by-side analysis of consumer goods, and I've made decisions based on their recommendations. The magazine is still popular, and is well known for its independent evaluation of consumer goods, helping the consumer make better buying decisions.

My friend Chris alerted me to a little Consumer Credulity. The latest version shows that even an source claiming objective and technically sound analysis, is not immune from the bias of bad information.  A recent article on Milk Alternatives: Should You Sip or Skip provides a short evaluation of the various consumer milk substitutes, stuff like coconut milk, soy milk, almond milk and other dairy alternatives.

You can read about the pros and cons of milk substitutes in the latest Consumer Reports.  Unfortunately their reviewers have caved in to non-scientific influence.  That's a mighty blow to a magazine claiming to be able to make objective analyses based on evidence. 

The article lists the pros and cons of each beverage.  They basically throw all of them under the milk truck for one reason or another, mostly for trace amounts of heavy metals that are biologically inconsequential, or for having close to no nutrition. Soy milk is reported to have some unique "cons". 

The recommendation is not just scientifically wrong, it is an ad for the Non-GMO Project! 

Consumer Reports makes two critical mistakes: 

1.  It gets the science wrong by saying that it is "grown from genetically modified seeds" as a "con", when there is absolutely zero scientific evidence to why being GM is a detriment.  

2.  The magazine then endorses organic and non-GMO verified (the Non-GMO Project) brands.  

Isn't Consumer Reports supposed to make decisions based on evidence?  Isn't endorsing a different brand based on no accurate scientific information in stark contrast to how this magazine should we evaluating products?  

This is a major blow to their credibility.  If they can't get this simple science right, how do we trust them with more important products like medicines or tires?