Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ketchum and Me

The expressed motivation of the US-RTK blanket of requests for public information is to examine "the PR arm of the agrichemical business".   They targeted public, independent scientists that answered questions for a curious public on the website GMO Answers.

GMOanswers.com is a website sponsored by industry.  I've never hid that, never downplayed that.  When I talk about the website in a public talk, I say, "This is a site sponsored by industry where you can find information from experts."   That's what it is.

What's my relationship with GMO Answers?  How much am I paid?  What's in it for me?  Who's really pulling the strings?  This is what US-RTK wants to know.  Here are the answers.

*****
I like GMOanswers.com because I can help people understand science, and all of my answers are in one place.



How I got connected with GMOanswers.com

For 12 years I've answered questions on transgenic technology for concerned public audiences. People are worried about food and biotech, in part because it is science they don't understand, in part because many have painted it so negatively.

I understand the stuff, I've been studying it forever, and I know how to talk about it in ways that people can understand.  However, one of the biggest frustrations was that my efforts were scattered all over internet.  Even I didn't know where my answers (some with substantial time investment) sat in time and space.

When I heard about GMOanswers.com I was excited. Here would be a place where we could answer questions for the public about transgenic crop biology.  One stop shopping, one place where information could gather from experts.  We would not have to have endless redundancy, we'd be able to read each others' work, and most of all, we'd build a resource for people concerned about food and associated technologies.

It was a tent where teachers could teach, where experts could connect with those that had questions.  Perfect.

*****

What do I get for my time?  

I've answered a few dozen questions on the site. What did I get in return?

-- I have never received any financial compensation for my time
--  They invited me to a dinner back when they first kicked off, which I attended.  It was a time to meet with their leadership.  They also invited people from organic farms, food banks, and others not traditionally excited about transgenic technology.  
--  They bought me lunch when I was in Washington DC once.
--  Somewhere along the line I got a "GMO Answers" plastic cup.


****

Who influences my answers?

I have never been influenced by any company or individual to change an answer except for two instances.

1.  I was told that shorter answers are more effective (I was being too detailed)
2. I was contacted by a zucchini breeder from Monsanto when I incorrectly stated that there were no transgenic zucchini. Turns out these were bred from virus-resistant squash.

My answers are 100% consistent with the peer-reviewed literature.  They are not opinions.  They are a synthesis of available data for the good of teaching.

****

What about associations with Ketchum employees?

One of their employees is a UF graduate and lives in Gainesville.  She usually assigns me the questions to answer.  A few professors that answer questions for GMOanswers (David Oppenheimer and Curt Hannah) were going out to get a beer and bring out laptops after work on a Friday, just to answer a bunch of questions (yes, exciting lives).  She met us there. 

We all helped each other answer the questions well and she assisted as a non-scientist that could help hone our answers.

And Ketchum didn't buy us onion rings or a beer.  We paid it ourselves, out of our pockets, like always.

****

Conclusion.

There's my relationship with GMOanswers.com.  Those are the deep insidious ties that made me the target of an information request. 

I appreciate, very deeply, that there is a place where I can hone a perfect answer to someone's concerns, and forever have a place where I can point others.  That's a big deal for me.  It is about being an effective teacher, sharing science, and helping others learn about technology.

That's the 'crime' that triggered the invasive request into my records, and likely will be used with the intent to find any way to harm my reputation in science. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Silencing Public Scientists

Last week I received a FOIA request that all of my emails bearing certain terms were going to be obtained and turned over to an activist group.  US-RTK, a San Francisco-based activist group, namely Gary Ruskin, wanted to know my ties to Big Ag and their PR arm.  

The first thing I did was pick up a phone, call Gary Ruskin, and say, "What can I tell you?"

We spoke for 10 minutes, he seems like a decent guy, but what's the deal with assuming that I'm guilty of something before even talking?  I'm not one to do things the hard way, the expensive way.  I'm glad to talk openly about anything. 

Those closer to the situation tell me I'm naive, and that US-RTK wants nothing more than to see me removed from the discussion on ag biotech.  In their estimation, US-RTK does not just want truth, they want words.  They want emails.  It is not about a scientists and what he or she does-- it is how they can make public records into something they are not. 

This is an expensive fishing trip to harm public science. 

The bottom line is that my university operates under the Sunshine Law.  Emails are public information, just like my funding, my salary, my cholesterol levels, and everything else about me. 

Still, there are privacy concerns, not by me, but by the university. Turning over student information, proprietary information or medical info could get them in a lot of hot water. 

So, for to meet this request, my university has to pull all of my emails after 2012 and have legal types go through them, one-by-one, to make sure nothing they turn over has sensitive information. It is going to cost a fortune. 

Why do we have such Sunshine Laws?  They actually serve a good purpose, allowing mechanisms of transparency to find information quickly in the event of some malfeasance by public employees.  That's helpful.  

But when an activist with a mission sees a public scientist effectively talking about science, and they need to shut up that scientist, the FOIA is an easy way to do it.  It works for several reasons.
  • First, many faculty will not want to endure this level of personal invasion.  We know our emails are open property, so why piss anyone off?  If they are like me they are too busy to have secret email addresses and careful re-reading of correspondence for potential alternative interpretations.  If you don't push the envelope and simply do the job, middle of the road, nobody's too upset. 
  • Second, it is enormously expensive.  Universities have funds set aside for such things, but in the days of lean budgets, it is unfortunate that tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars have to go to malicious nuisance requests.  These are not investigating specific impropriety, they are looking for something to cause harm to reputations of public scientists.  It is a taxpayer-funded fishing trip for a "gotcha", nothing more. 
  • Third, it discourages faculty from engaging, especially young faculty that are trying to navigate the Tenure and Promotion process.  
  • Fourth, they can use words out of context to harm the reputations of scientists. Just look at Climate-Gate. 
The threat of being under the microscope scares people to death, not because of what they have done, but because of what those running the microscope want to find, and what they will do with any information once obtained.  Words out of context, a sentence misinterpreted, Climate Gate 101. They can't be trusted.  These are malicious intents aimed squarely at scientists that dare to teach and communicate peer-reviewed science. 

Here's an email I sent to someone today at Ketchum today about the Atlantic article on the Food Babe. Ketchum is one of the companies where US-RTK seized my correspondences. They'll get this one too, so I gave Gary Ruskin something to read.


So what next?  I'm fortunate to not be afraid of this.  I stand by everything I have written.  I've never received a penny for an answer on GMO Answers, or even coaching on what to say. Those are my words.  I own them and I always will. 

Somehow I'll be portrayed negatively and they'll use my words against me.  Yes, I speak my mind, no, I don't think of other interpretations.  No, I don't care either.  I have a job to do that needs to be done, and the minute I'm wasting time re-thinking about how some goof with an axe to grind against Monsanto is going to use my language to harm me... I'm done.  That's not what I was hired to do. 

I'm also fortunate to have a university administration that will back me, that sees this as an assault on academic freedom and an abuse of an important transparency system. 

I'm just a damn teacher that wanted to stay in the public sector. I still go to kid's classrooms, still mentor students, still answer one hour of emails a day from folks that just want to know about food technology.  That's what they will find. 

I've offered US-RTK to discuss things openly and freely, but they don't want that.  No problem. This will backfire on them.  Schools are broke, he's costing them money.  Scientists are hanging on by threads and he's costing them time and trying to harm reputations.  Anyone that needs to sift through my private emails to achieve their political ends might just check to see what happened to the Climate Gate folks. 

Those that stole the emails came off looking horrible.

Michael Mann and the others only gained credibility and got stronger. 

The earth still got warmer. 

The science didn't change, just because activists didn't like it. 

Total backfire.  And the meaner this one gets, the harder it will backfire too. 

I have to run, I have to work on a talk for a huge audience tomorrow, on biotech and science communication.  Damn right the FOIA request will be in the first slides.  That letter is how you know you are being effective. 





Sunday, February 8, 2015

Everyone's a Critic

Over at The GMO Smoking Gun, linguistics Professor Emeritus Derek Bickerton has prepared a response to my criticism of Vani Hari's letter to grad students.  The original letter was a note Hari wrote telling the students studying food and science, that they know nothing about food and science.  I sprang to their defense, deconstructing Hari's scientifically-vacant response. 

It was a quick job, a thrown-together effort over a sandwich.  However, the internet spread it quickly, ending up syndicated on Genetic Literacy Project as a "scathing" response to Hari. 

Cool.  It got a zillion hits and was picked up in many places, which is nice. 

It also raised the interest of Dr. Bickerton, who prepared his response to me, responding to Hari.  To his credit, he did notify me that he prepared a response, which is quite nice of him. He also seems like someone I'd love to have a coffee with and discuss his work.  He studied language on several interesting levels, like how children acquire language and how humans likely developed language. These areas are always interesting to me. 

But being a decorated academic does not make him immune from the misgivings of others that have tricked him with shoddy science. He noted that he was disappointed in my response, and I can understand why.  I would be disappointed too if I believed the nonsense, and then some smarty-pants egghead in Florida poked at my ideological bubble. 

Since his tactic was to associate me with Monsanto, discredit me with flimsy evidence and selective goobers from legit reports, I thought I should respond, just so folks understand how to properly think about this. 

So here's a response to Dr. Bickerton and his criticism of me, criticizing Hari, criticizing students. 


Exhibit A. 


The Old Standby:  Discredit the Scientist by Making Fake Link to Monsanto

He refers to me as a "Monsantoite".  Of course the first resort of those that don't have science-- try to discredit a scientist by immediately linking them to a company that has a negative image to many, even though he has no association with them.  It is the old trick.  A scientist speaking science must  be a dupe of a company, as anyone discussing facts is probably crooked. 

HARI:  Standard Font
FOLTA: Italic font
BICKERTON: Bold font



Exhibit B.


TACTICS: Special pleading, Argument ad populum, Confusion of correlation and causality, citing articles no real scientist takes seriously. 

He starts out with agreeing with me, then says that my argument is irrelevant because she's talking about synthetic chemicals.  He's wrong in that "the current system in the United States" ... "considers most chemicals innocent until proven guilty."  That is the biggest lie I've heard all day.  

Anyone that knows anything about clinical trails can think of many instances where trials ended because of evidence of toxicity.  This is why they are tested for tolerance and side effects.  We understand how molecules work, can make predictions, and then carefully test them.  Chemical compounds that are acceptable for use on food must be re-tested and re-registered if they are used for other applications in agriculture!  There is incredibly stringent oversight. 

The special pleading is that the safety argument only applies to synthetics.  Of course, lead, mercury and thousands of plant poisons are perfectly natural and are not examined in any crop.

The "evidence"?  A popular list of 1800 "studies, surveys and analyses" that claim harm from transgenic crops and associated pesticides.  Of course, these include toxicity tests on pesticides that we know are toxic to some organisms. That's why they are chosen.  We know pesticides kill cells in a petri dish. That entire list can be completely dismissed as meaningful data against transgenic crops, as if it is critically read, you find good research that has limited relevance to human health, and other data that are not peer-reviewed studies, and other stuff is junk that made it into low-rent, pay-to-publish journals with no reputation. 

Then the paper by Nancy Swanson!  

The ultimate fishing trip of matching correlations and developing strong, non-existent interpretations.  Any journal worth it's salt would reject this paper in a heartbeat.  But it found a home in the Journal of Organic Systems, a journal with no impact factor, showing that the editors are weak and the reviewers incompetent.  This paper would never be published in a journal I review for or edit.  It is an activist (two authors are known activists) attempt to commandeer the scholarly literature-- and that is disgusting. 

If that is what he considers reliable evidence, do I need to really waste my time on this?    


Exhibit C.


TACTICS:  Not exactly representing what the authors say. 

Vani is exactly right?   The authors of this work note in the Abstract and Introduction that all food additives must be tested and shown to be safe by the FDA and/or manufacturer.  It says it right in the first sentence: 



So no, Vani is not exactly right.  What this paper shows is that while everything is tested, not everything is tested in every possible way.  The paper discusses the current thresholds for needed tests, including plausible harm as determined by competent scientists.  It suggests some remedies and draws some conclusions.  

Just because scientists who know a lot about food chemistry suggest something does not need tests on reproduction (perhaps the compound is known to be metabolized by a mouth enzyme into fundamental biological molecules like sugars or amino acids) then they don't necessarily need testing. 

The authors conclude that there are ways to identify and fill gaps in testing and that many older compounds may be good candidates for evaluation.
Onward to Exhibit D.


WHAT? 

As an undergraduate student I knew the word "teratogenic".  It was on a bottle of formaldehyde in Room 317 of Montgomery Hall at Northern Illinois University I was adding to a nucleic acid hybridization.  It was a chemical I was using, so I wanted to know the risks. 

That was in 1987.  I'm reasonably confident that many others, including these students, understand.  I interpreted Hari's comment as an explanation from on-high, which is probably correct, as she refers to Ph.D. graduate students as "Future Science Students in Training".  It is a reminder of her arrogance. 



Onward we go to Exhibit E. 

There is no evidence that the EPSPS enzyme, the gene that encodes it, or the Bt protein have consequences outside their targets at levels encountered.  Zero.  I'm guessing she's referring to "synthetic chemicals" and the thresholds for toxicity are well understood, especially for pesticides.  Plants are tested for residues and we know a lot about what is there and what is dangerous.  Nobody wants to harm people. The margin for impact is pretty huge. There has not been one single case linking transgenic crops to any human illness, death or allergy. Not one in eighteen years. 



Next. This is really boring.  Exhibit F. 


No, this statement is exactly correct.  The Bt protein comes from Bacillus thuringensis, a natural soil bacterium. The EPSPS enzyme is in plants and bacteria, and existed millions of years, maybe a billion years, before humans.  Man did not make "novel proteins that never before existed".  The two central proteins introduced to GM crops are well understood and come from nature. Period. 



Okay, I have to do something else tonight. Here's a two-fer.

No, Dr. Bickerton.  We did not evolve with the array of plants we eat- not even close.  Centers of domestication for all major crops are distributed throughout the globe (except almost none in present day USA) and there is no human evolution that has the exposure to different plant proteins and secondary metabolites that we have today.  Processed foods are a phenomenon of the last tick of human evolution and I'm not sure what "pre-chemical" agriculture is.  Plants are made of chemicals. 

The second point is a simple one that requires only minor illumination. There is no way to prove something is safe.  However you can perform safety testing to identify instances of harm.  Furthermore, there is a difference in the way a scientists uses "safe".  Science cannot prove anything safe, but we can say that something is safe, meaning to a lay audience that there is indeed no evidence of harm.  Sometimes we haves to speaks to the peeples. 


Next.... Exhibit... ah forget it. 


Yes, Vani did jump the gun, because she's clueless.  She travels the country telling that there are animal genes in plants.  

Now let's go back to the beginning (THIS IS IMPORTANT).  She claims that GMO foods are dangerous-- but she does not even know what they are!  She says proteins are unnatural-- she does not even know what is in a transgenic plant!!

Dr. B, how can you defend her!  Yes, there are many animal genes that have been studied in plants.  It really is no big deal.  We do much more radical things, like produce human proteins in bacteria.  Insulin.  How about fungus making chymosin, an animal enzyme used in cheese making?  Now we're crossing kingdoms with recombinant DNA, and nobody really seems to care. 

NEXT.

Hari, as usual, steps to the "biotech PR line" to discredit legit science.  Bickerton is correct to delineate the difference between science and technology.  Science is a process used to test how the physical world works.  That has been done.  The science has been conducted and the conclusions to date support the falsifiable hypothesis that transgenic crops are no more risky that conventionally bred crops. The technology has strengths and limitations, like any technology.

Again, my blog is for the layman, it is fun and edgy, and now that I'm getting wider coverage I need to be a little more careful in my word selection. Thanks for pointing that out. 


4
Next. 

It is good that at least Dr. Bickerton takes a stab at this and gets the numbers right.  The reason Hari and Bickerton combine insecticides and herbicides as "pesticides" is so they don't have to admit that insecticide use is decreasing. That's kinda deceptive, but common. Of course, there is a little selective omission of three important points: 

First, insecticide use has decreased massively, and that's a good thing  

Second. Between 1992 (where  there were no GM crops) and 2011 (where 90% of soy, corn, cotton, sugar beets and canola are resistant to herbicide) there OF COURSE will be an increase in glyphosate use!  

Duh!  That's like saying between 1899 and 1930 there was a massive increase in gasoline consumption. 

The third thing neglected is that while glyphosate use increased, the use of other herbicides decreased, as did tilling and topsoil loss.  Glyphosate has low impact in the environment.  This again is a good thing, made out to be a bad thing. 

This is nuanced language.  It is the convenient conflation of statistics to get the desired result.  That's just deception, and you see it again and again in the anti-GM denial of science (and technology). 




And then this old trick... 

How about something completely unrelated.  Chemicals are leaching into food?  The question, I ask for a citation, and Bickerton provides links to two citations that have nothing to do with herbicide or pesticide on food. These are two in-vitro studies where researchers used cells in a dish to show that chemicals can cause changes in the cells at specific levels.  That's great, sometimes a good start, but no relation to what happens in the human body. One reference is Seralini ('nuff said).  The final reference does specifically discuss pesticides where evidence of endochrine-disruption potential as been documented in the literature. Again, a good starting point, but hardly a condemnation of transgenic technology. 



and forward.

Hari does not know that Roundup is not a "chemical" it is a brand name mixture of a rather innocuous herbicide, surfactants and water.  There is limited evidence of endochrine disruption from in vitro studies, no evidence of links to toxicity at levels present on food (which are usually zero-20 ppm), and only effects seen at doses thousands of times higher than are ever discovered.

Those afraid of good technology can choose alternatives. "GMO corporations" fight non-scientific labeling because we should not make policy on emotion without evidence, especially when policy is only wanted to destroy American farmers.  If you ban GMO today the companies will be just fine. They'll sell hybrid seed without transgenes.  The farmers, and then consumers, will be hardest hit.  



I can't believe I've wasted 2 hours writing this blog. 

The "precautionary principle" assumes that the rest of the world share your fears.  "Precaution" is an emotional term.  It is not based on science, it is not based on data.  It is a personal threshold.  Hari, as a wealthy westerner, wants to impose her choices on others.  

I think there are many people on this planet that would love to eat vitamin-enriched food from transgenic technology.  Too bad Hari and Bickerton are glad to invoke their precaution, as their precaution should be everyone's precaution.

And nobody wants to ingest toxic substances*. What a stupid, stupid, comment.  It shows where his whole argument is based. 



And to conclude... 

Ugh. The literature in these searches can be easily discredited, or there are good papers that provide limited interpretations from the good data gathered, but have been twisted into some sort of danger conclusion the authors' never intended. I know, because I talk to them. Many are not happy about their work being distorted by activists and airheads to achieve a political motivation. 

And yes, if you give animals high doses of glyphosate they will have symptoms.  Why not be honest Dr. Bickerton?  What are the levels from that same EPA Fact Sheet that cause the problems?  

You'd have to consume hundreds of kilograms of soybeans etc in order to achieve a physiologically-relevant amount of glyphosate from residues on food.  The fact sheet he gives is for water, which says at 20 ppm, a 22 lb kid can drink a liter a day.  These are guidelines and 100x over actual thresholds.  Plus, where do you find 20 ppm water?  Maybe drinking it out of a pond on a field? 

And he concludes:

Head hits desk.

Again, I had a little fun writing a blog and didn't intend to provide a scholarly review of Hari, so no citations. She's frankly not worth it. It was a pointy reminder that she's clueless and untrained in this area, and that her opinions should be considered with a grain of salt and do not represent science.

As for Dr. Bickerton, he seems like a nice guy with a great history of contributions, but just is guided by a construct he finds attractive, rather than actual science and data.

The  Smoking GMO Gun blog seems more like a broken water pistol.  To the unknowing it looks threatening, it actually is a cheap facsimile of the real thing, and when you pull the trigger as best you can, nothing happens anyway. The retort to my criticism is list of old arguments, overstepped data, logical fallacy and neglecting to notice important, actual data.  Quite typical these days.  They are going after those of us that speak the science they do not want to hear. 

And more to come.  There is quite a storm brewing on the horizon...



*NOTE ADDED AT 5pm after posted... I do willingly pour a glass of wine, beer or whiskey on purpose, because it is toxic, so I grant the intoxicating substances waiver here to the desire to consumer toxic substances. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Peer-Reviewed Opinion Does Not Equal Data

The year is 2067. I'm living near a dried-up lake bed in the Northern Wisconsin Desert, popping the cork on a bottle of GMO champagne, and pouring a cool glass in the heat of another January day. It is the eve of my 100th birthday and I'm looking back at the cool stuff that science has done.  The most exciting changes were the way that technology was used to change medicine and food. Medicine integrated comprehensive genomic and gene expression data in treatment, and in farming, all tools were now integrated into producing food for a growing world population. 

We had come a long way, especially from the days when starvation and deficiency once claimed many lives, way back in the decade known as the "Denial Teens". It was the time when the Communicable Disease Plagues began, when political leaders ignored warnings of carbon emission, and a time when the most modern and precise genetic improvement techniques were demonized as poison by a small group of well-fed, vocal activists.  

Today in 2067 everyone is eating food changed by moving around a gene or two, nobody is lumpy like a bag of volleyballs and 1 of 2 kids does not have autism. The folks that made those claims have been room temperature for a long time, but everyone points at them as criminals against humanity, as their efforts delayed the development of useful technologies to feed others. 

In thinking about my little teeny-tiny sliver of contributions to science, the there were two key contributions.  My lab's work was good, we published a lot, but never had the big breakthroughs that changed things much.  

One of the biggest achievements was training fifty Ph.D. scientists, fifty postdocs and close to a thousand undergrads.  

The other satisfying achievment was my time spent pushing back against science denial, helping communicate the reality of science to the public.  That time was important because it probably helped bring forward the acceptance of the best methods of genetic improvement of crop plants, maybe just a little.  

But there were many hurdles. One of them dated probably back to early 2015.  It was a day when a number of academics and activists sworn against biotech crops published an opinion that was accepted as fact.  A now-long-defunct journal, Environmental Sciences Europe, published an opinion piece.  No data presented, no surveys, statistics. It claimed boldly, "No Consensus of GMO Safety". 

The soft yellow journalism of the (completely free, the good ol' days) internet paraded this report as scientific fact, as a reflection of a "no consensus".  Consensus is the agreement within a field of inquiry, and certainly there was scientific consensus on the safety of transgenic crops back in the mid-Denial Teens.  Every major professional scientific organization stated it, and there was no controversy in scientific conferences or in the literature. 

The only controversy was spawned by those that profited from it-- a handful of well-paid national speakers, folks profiting from books and movies, others with anti-corporate agendas, and those raking in a fortune from selling this really expensive stuff we called "organic" food.  

There was one event in particular that I remember as a scientist.  It was somewhere back around Ground Hog's Day in 2015 or so.  A peer-reviewed journal actually allowed a group of activists and academics to publish their opinion, that there was no consensus. Some of the activist authors, whose livelihoods were tied to standing against transgenic technology, did not even report their conflicts of interest in the work. 

Of course, mainstream science rolled its eyes and pushed on with reality. There were problems to solve. 

But the manufactured science was picked up by sources that fed the credulous, peddlers of misinformation and propaganda common in that day.  Here's an example of some of the things we read: 



A team of food terrorists hijacks the peer-review system, giving the activist media the validation of its errant worldview that it can't get from actual science.


The article did a lot to remind us about the frailty of the scholarly literature and how it was being manipulated for political gains.  

The article helped heighten awareness of how scientists need to be involved in allowing academic freedom, but having a tight grip on the rigor that is required for scientific publication.  Opinions are not data  yet they have the potential to shape public opinion by brandishing the patina of legitimate research. 

The scholarly literature is being used as a propaganda tool.  We now have tabloid science. 

The article was later cited by hundreds of other similarly-biased papers and authors, as it was bestowed with a title, journal name, volume and page number, just like any other legitimate science work.   Few realized that this was opinion, without data.  It was treated as primary research.

It was one of many examples of efforts from that era that kept the public in the dark.  It was selfish, anti-corporate activism that put personal gain and ideology ahead of science that could help the needy, the farmer, the environment, and the consumer. 

It also was clear that the 99% of farmers and scientists, those that actually knew the science, sat on their hands way too long and didn't push back soon enough.  They allowed vast minority opinions to steal space in the scholarly literature, which was then parlayed into lying to a public that wanted to hear the message.

Looking back from 2067, the planet was a different place in 2000-2020.  Those with plenty of calories and comfort fought to keep pulling carbon out of the earth and others fought to squelch effective types of genetic crop improvement.  Time would tell that they were wrong, and millions of the most vulnerable died due to non-action, when we could have acted. 

If only a few more scientists, farmers and consumers would have gotten upset, and then active in promoting real science back in the mid-teens, perhaps more people would have realized its benefits sooner. 

That's it for tonight. I'll celebrate 100 years by going to the lab in the morning.  Students to train, papers to write, and a visit to a 3rd grade class to talk about what the world was like in 2015, back when people rejected science. 








Monday, February 2, 2015

My Letter to Springer

Today I sent a letter to Springer, the publisher that allowed publication of an opinion piece where prominent anti-biotech authors fail to disclose their clear financial conflicts of interest.


Let's see what happens.



Sunday, February 1, 2015

We Declare No Consensus!

The world's esteemed scientific organizations have made bold statements regarding the scientific consensus on transgenic crops.  The National Academies of Science, the American Medical Association, and dozens of others worldwide have all indicated that these products have an outstanding safety record and pose no more risk than conventional breeding.

But what do they know?

A paper was published last week in Environmental Sciences Europe, a Springer journal that has published some real gems, including the un-refereed republication of the 2012 lumpy rat torture study.

It boldly proclaims in the title "No scientific consensus on GMO safety". The authors represent a series of academics, activists, and NGO associates, all that hold public views against transgenic, synthetic or nano biology. 

To me, consensus is something that just happens.  We don't usually measure it with tools, because we don't have to.  It is a general agreement on the state of a scientific issue.  There is consensus among scientists on climate change, gravity, evolution, and jillions of other topics, transgenic crops being one of them.

The evidence for consensus also comes from how science is discussed.  As scientists, we loves us some controversy!  Scientific meetings and the literature show many cases of ongoing discussions of one view or another about a scientific topic.   We do not see GMO safety discussions at national conferences or in the real, reproducible, high-impact scientific literature.  The papers published are one-off dead ends that nobody really cares about other than a handful of activists.

But to this list of authors, including prominent activists that make a living opposing ag biotech, they say that there is no consensus!

The Hilbeck et al. paper offers no original data, no measurement of scientist sentiment, and represents strictly an opinion shared by 15 authors.  The support for their position is built on the usual conspiratorial thinking, cherry picking, arguments ad populum and special pleading that underlies any contemporary argument against transgenic technology.

But the most fundamental flaw is that they keep repeating "no safety".  They criticize scientific reports as not demonstrating safety, when there is no scientific way to demonstrate safety.  You cannot prove that anything is safe.  You can only demonstrate, under your conditions, in one test, that there is evidence of harm.  That's it.


Analysis. 

They start out with a few interesting statements, one is truly ironic.


****

****

Here they say two things.  First, that the statement of GMO consensus "does not exist outside of the above-depicted internal circle of stakeholders" which is composed of "fierce responses" and are "a concerted effort by genetically modified (GM) seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists."

First, this is a clear consensus across scientists-- not just "genetically modified seed developers". Look at this week's Pew/AAAS survey where 88% of scientists answered that "GMO crops were safe to eat".


88% of AAAS scientists might be considered reflecting a consensus. 



Next, it is amazing how few commentators and journalists follow this topic and with a generally positive message.  They tend to be science and food journalists.  I'd guess that 90% of journalists are negative on GM crops! 

Quite to the opposite, those denying consensus, including authors on this paper like Hansen, Shiva and others, are absolutely stakeholders in science denial.  Their jobs depend on manufacturing risk and undue skepticism. 


Then in the statement above, they say that health and environmental effects must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, which is true.   Which is what is done.  Which is why we don't need GMO labeling as a "blanket" solution.

Next fun part

The next paragraphs talk about how there is no consensus, that Carman's pig paper is good stuff showing harm (when it is trash to anyone objectively understanding science) and then they state that reports have shown danger when animals were fed transgenic feed and a non-transgenic counterpart.


****



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I was curious about this, so I checked their cited sources. Here they are:


ONLY ONE OF THEM IS A PRIMARY RESEARCH STUDY!  Only one of them actually has data, and that's the one from Carman et al that makes only a few claims that can be easily disregarded based on study design. 

The rest are reviews and don't show any original data from GM and non-GM equivalent diets. The authors scream "no consensus" and then convince the non-critical reader that there is support for such a position by listing papers that have no data supporting their claim.  It is a clear attempt to manipulate the reader.

The authors then claim that there are no epidemiological studies, which is entirely true.  There is no epidemiology to study.  Oops. 

The authors then misrepresent statements by major world science and health organizations to support their points.  Cherry picking at its best.  The statements by different health organizations are appropriately conservative, and reflect statements where just about any scientist would agree.

They cite a Royal Society of Canada report that says, " that it is ‘scientifically unjustifiable’ to presume that GM foods are safe without rigorous scientific testing and that the ‘default prediction’ for every GM food should be that the introduction of a new gene will cause ‘unanticipated changes’ in the expression of other genes, the pattern of proteins produced, and/or metabolic activities."

That is a good conservative statement that most scientists would say errs to the side of precaution, especially considering that GM crops are the least invasive of any genetic improvement approach.  The report is also 14 years old, and none of the "unanticipated changes" have actually presented themselves in reality.

The next cited report is a 2004 output from the British Medical Association.  They make some statements that again, I agree with as conservative statements about the science, including that safety cannot be completely dismissed.  I agree. That is why rigorous safety assessments are done.

They then go on to criticize the 2010 report by the EU "A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research", which really shows that across studies of transgenic work funded there was no evidence of adverse effects.  That's what it shows.  Unfortunately the authors criticize the report for what it does not contain, complaining again about long-term feeding studies, etc.

That is a fundamental frustration of any scientific reviewer or editor. Any critic can think of the next experiments, the ones you DIDN'T DO.  It is the cheapest criticism in the book.. when the desire is to trash someone's work,  and they can't address what is done, levy the complaint that there are other things that were left out.  Of course, there are times that it is appropriate to suggest additional experiments and controls, but the scope of this compilation was to show that over 250 M euro of funded work, there was no evidence of harm, based on the experiments funded.

The authors again, rather than providing information about hard evidence of harm, go after the scientific claims that there is not anything published worth worrying about.  They primarily criticize the Biology Fortified synthesis of the GENERA database, a collection of hundreds of scholarly articles that indicates no reports showing a compelling case for transgenic-crop danger.  That's exactly true.

But the authors again criticize what's not there, stating that the information is incomplete.  Again, it is classic moving a goalpost.

They then go on to talk about Bt and herbicide resistance traits. They cite some reviews.  The original research they cite is Lang and Vojtech (2006) who fed Bt plants to swallowtail caterpillars and showed that they didn't do so well. I'd guess that would be true, but how often swallowtails visit corn is something I'd wonder about.  They also cite the Marvier meta-analysis that shows Bt corn and cotton fields have more diverse taxa than those that use conventional insecticides. That's not a bad thing.

They then make the assertion that scientists claiming safety are connected to funding from those with interests in safety.  Which is not true. If you ask any independent scientists the vast consensus accept the stance that these crops offer no more risk than those generated through conventional breeding.

The last evidence that there is no consensus is reference to the Codex Alimentarius and the Cartenenga Protocols.  They report that so many countries have signed on and that this is a reflection of a lack of consensus.  Again, an argument ad populum that does not address the fact that there are no actual reports of harm, and no plausible mechanisms to anticipate harm that cannot be easily tested.

The conclusion has several important points, mostly an argument from ignorance that "we just don't know and that science stuff is soooo confusing."  They also boldly state:


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The authors are the ultimate circle of likeminded stakeholders that are as internal as you can get, a group where at least some, if not all, depend on opposing agricultural applications of biotechnology in order to keep a job and speaking tour events.  Compared to the texture of scientists across disciplines worldwide that accept the science of ag biotech- it is the ultimate example of the pot calling the kettle a dupe of Big Ag.

They then say that 300 others support the statement.  Stay hot. Again, an argument ad populum. Just because you can find 300 other knuckleheads does not make your non-existent data compelling.


The ABSOLUTE BEST part of this is the "Competing Interests" part of the paper, a place where publishers ask authors to disclose any financial or other interests that would potentially influence an author's scholarly integrity.  They state:



(hold on for a minute while I compose myself from laughing)

(ok, go)

I don't even know how they could say this with a straight face.  Hansen works for an NGO that receives massive support from anti-GMO interests.  Vandana Shiva receives compensation for paid lectures and appearances, because she takes a stand against GM crops!

I'm following up with the publisher on this one.


To conclude, scientific consensus is something that happens, and if you have to measure it, it probably isn't there.  Scientific consensus on the safety record and utility of transgenic organisms is sound, and support an overwhelming majority of scientists that accept the position that transgenic crops pose no more risk than those derived from conventional breeding.

You can't just get a few fellow ideologs together that share a disdain for transgenic, synthetic or nanotechnology and publish a paper in a hack journal and expect the world to change its mind.

In fact, you are more likely to further awaken scientists and journalists that see invasion and exploitation of the scholarly literature for political activism as completely unacceptable. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Girl Scouts- Standing Up for Science

Two years ago I wrote a blog about an eight-year-old California girl that started an online petition to remove transgenic-crop-based ingredients from Girl Scout cookies. Again, I admired her drive and interest, but was appropriately critical of her surfacy scientific understanding. She claimed that "GMOs studies (sic) (in animals) have linked them to infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system."

It could be an honest third-grade interpretation of the scholarly literature.  Probably not. 

More likely she was simply a pawn of flimsy parents that paid good money for an anti-GMO book at Whole Foods, only to have their food fears reinforced by a popular TV doctor, leading to the de-education of their daughter.  


That's something I'm firmly against, as I want young women to be excited about science, not taught to fear it because parents are twits. 

I wrote a blog about Girl Scout anti-science activism and ticked off a few parents.  You'd think they'd be thanking me. 

That day I received a prickly email from her furious mother, angry that I’d criticize her daughter and her anti-GMO mission.  Kindly, I offered to travel to her daughter’s school, at my personal expense, to talk to her class about crop biotechnology.  I never heard back from that irate mom. Seems that facts incompatible with her narrow worldview is not welcome.


Every year activists pressure the Girl Scouts to use non-transgenic-plant-based ingredients in their cookies.  You can find dozens of websites and Facebook pages with demanding such ingredients be removed-- or feel the wrath of the Brownies.  

Their Facebook page pushes the anti-scientific agenda that harms young women.  I've been preemptively blocked from commenting

But so far the Girl Scouts have stood firm with science, and this year made a strong statement that they would side with science before folding to a handful of activist mothers, whose arguments are as thin as their mints. 

Excerpted from the Girl Scout's statement.  This is how you build strong women-- Teach them to think critically and to embrace science. 

We need to build the next generation of strong women by teaching how to use all tools, including biotechnology, as mechanisms to help solve at least some of the world’s grandest challenges. Girls need to be excited to participate in science, and visualize how to use it to help the environment, serve the hungry, and drive sustainable agriculture. They are the next generation of leaders that will actually get to deploy the molecular toolbox that four decades of scientists (molecular biology is about 50% women) created.

To teach girls to fear science, or to fight against science, is incredibly damaging. I'll go so far as to say it is even child abuse. It instantly eliminates options from their futures, and sets them up to be easily manipulated by others. 

Furthermore, to inform young women that science is the zone of liars, conspiracy, and company-owned sellouts is a tremendous harm that only pushes them away from the future’s most promising careers.  Women are central to driving the new technology that will frame the future of food. Biotechnology, with its benefits and limitations, will be at least part of that future.

Instead of enlisting girls into internet campaigns designed to coerce removal of safe ingredients from luxury foods, let’s have an honest conversation about what biotechnology can do to help farmers, the environment, the consumer, and the developing world.  Let’s talk about how girls can grow up to lead positions in agricultural science, biotechnology, bioinformatics, Big Data, and the highest paying jobs of the future that have deliciously wonderful human benefits and sweet environmental impacts. 

Somewhere out there there’s a girl by a card table full of cookies that just might grow up to solve some of our world’s most pressing problems. She’s sharp, inspired, and poised to make a difference. That is, if we support her development in critical thinking and STEM-- and steer her away from the misgivings of parents that place a broken political motivation above teaching their daughters to integrate with reality.