Saturday, January 23, 2016

A True Story of Food and Family

The story is real.  The names have been changed to protect the innocent from frivolous public records requests.

I have a colleague that is one of the world’s experts in food safety.  He is an encyclopedia on foodborne disease.  He knows how to safely handle food.  He understands foodborne toxins. This guy knows about genetic engineering.  In short, if you want to understand food and food risk, you talk to this guy. We’ll call him “Steve”.

It was Thanksgiving, 2015, and Steve and his wife joined the family at her mother’s house for a traditional dinner.  Among the family members in attendance was his brother-in-law, an accomplished concert pianist who is widely recognized for his expertise. We’ll call him “Richard”.

As the family took their places at the table and began to pass the dishes, Richard took the opportunity to comment on the items on the table.

“That turkey is oozing with antibiotics and hormones, you’re crazy if you eat it,” Richard said.

Steve jumped in, “That’s not true, these birds are bred to grow rapidly so they don’t need such things.”

But Richard knew better.  “That’s not what I read online.”

His gazed moved to the sweet potatoes. “Those genetically-engineered sweet potatoes make deadly insecticides that are destroying our insides, just look at the rise in leaky gut!” he said.

Steve replied, “Richard, there are no genetically-engineered sweet potatoes, even though they contain natural transgenes, and there's no such thing as leaky gut.”

“That’s what Monsanto wants you to think,” Richard replied.

He then zeroed in on the corn.  “That stuff is soaked with roundup, and studies have shown it will give you cancer, Alzheimers, diabetes and Parkinson’s.”

Steve said, “You are reading too many websites, that’s just not based on any real evidence.”

Steve’s mother-in-law had enough.  She chimed in, “Look, can we stop talking about it and just enjoy our meal together?” 

Everyone nodded in agreement. 

"How 'bout them Bears?" someone yelled. 

***

After dinner Steve’s mother-in-law suggested that her son make his way to the piano and treat the family to a few songs. 

Richard stepped with authority to the family piano he learned on as a child decades before, and sat down like he had been doing it his entire life.  In fact, he had.

His fingers met the keyboard with a flurry, producing beautifully synchronized notes from a challenging classical piece.  The notes filled the room in beautiful harmony.

Steve yelled above the music, “STOP!”  

Richard looked surprised.

“You really hit that transition too soon, and the whole thing is too fast, not as the composer intended,” Steve said.

Richard stared a hole through Steve and didn’t say a word.  After a few seconds he started back to the keyboard, exploding back into the same number, maybe with a little more authority.

After about thirty seconds Steve yelled, “STOP!”

Richard banged the keyboard in disbelief.

Steve said, “There’s way too much sustain on your bass notes and you’ve completely misrepresented the feel of the piece.”

Richard took a deep breath.  “You have a lot of nerve to criticize my playing, you know nothing about this instrument, the songs I play or how I play them.  I have been educated in the finest schools and performed with the finest musicians.  What gives you the right to even criticize?”

Steve let a pause build.


“Let’s just say your expertise in piano is like my expertise in food. Aren't critics that know absolutely nothing annoying?"

Monday, January 18, 2016

Forward.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. 
-- Dr. Martin Luther King


Dr. King would not be proud of me.  I'm not proud of me. My decision to disappear from an important discussion was made from misery and expediency, pragmatism and convenience. I experienced many pressures to seek silence, from evil people and friends alike. Much of it was being sick of fighting. Some of it was the threats and hate. Much of it was being tired of reading about myself on posts with thousands of likes and shares-- knowing that what I was reading was not true.

The time off was valuable in that it taught me to refocus. Teaching the science of agricultural innovations is not going to happen in discussions with Vani Hari, Mike Adams, Nassim Taleb or Jeffery Smith.  These folks have empires built on misinformation, and accepting science harms their brands. 

The changes will not come from rehashing tired fables spread by lazy or corrupt journalists that want to cash a check before accepting reality, even if their spin hurts real people.  I will not talk about Monsanto, donations to my communications program, Vern Blazek or any other failed experiment. 

It also is nice to be able to say that I now have absolutely no relationship with Monsanto, at least outside of a few friends that work for the company.  Big Ag is running from science communicators, thanks to the abuse of important transparency laws, and deliberate misinterpretations of emails. 

Someone told me that they were at a dinner with Big Ag company people and someone said, "The irony is that science communicators like Folta are worth more to us if we make sure they are 100% independent."  Essentially they are saying that communication efforts should be done on the public dime, despite the potential benefit of an informed public to their industries.

Back to King's quotation above.  Forced silence destroyed me more than participation in a vicious dialog. It broke my heart to know the answer and not be able to respond.  It was horrible to get my wrist slapped when I thanked someone publicly for a kind comment.  

Most of all, it was painful to not be able to interpret new, cool science.  I wrote a dozen blogs over the silence period, all about breakthroughs I wanted to share.  I don't know that they'll ever be published here.  I had to write about science, because that's what I do, even if I was the only audience. 

The silence did teach me to use the "mute" and "block" buttons, as well the joy of not feeding a troll.  I learned that some folks can't be changed and that there is sweet peace in remaining above a mindless fray.

What you can expect from me going forward:

Improved podcasts with great guests on the Talking Biotech Podcast.  Not a day has passed where I didn't hear its theme song or think of a cool topic.  The new ones are wonderful, starting February 20. 

Big, visible outreach around plants and food.  I'm planning to send test tubes and seeds to kids, along with experiments they can do.  They'll watch seeds develop into plants and then foster their care into the garden, then hopefully will care for the plant and enjoy the products. MyScienceGarden.com starts soon, and will be done with some donated materials and other costs I'm personally covering.

Continuing unprecedented transparency.  It was not enough to be compliant, I have to be obvious. All of my speaking activities, reimbursements, etc will continue to be posted online and updated quarterly. 

Sustained leadership.  Working as Chair of a leading department in crop sciences, I work with the world's best scientists doing top-flight research. 

More articles about food and farming in popular press, helping the public understand their food, its genetics, and challenges to production. 

Big research, and a surprise!  My students and postdocs will keep working on improving flavors of fruits and vegetables and finding ways to improve product quality and nutrition with light. BUT we have a new technology that will make waves.  It is somewhere between trash can and Nobel Prize, probably closer to the former. However, there is enormous potential that hopefully will be published in 2016. 

***
I just returned from a conference where dozens of scientists asked me how I survived the abuse, and why I want to continue in science communication.  It is clear the community is not interested, maybe avoiding it.  However, we need to remember that we're telling the truth and that time will be kind. 

It also is good that 2015 had a few solid mistakes that I learned from, and won't repeat going forward.  I'll leave that open for new mistakes!  

The last year has been a challenge, posed mostly from evil people with a despicable agenda.  But for every mean email I receive, every hate-filled tweet, there are a dozen kind messages of support. The words of complete strangers have been comforting and revitalizing.  That has been amazing.

After all of this, I am not a victim.  This attack was a strange gift, giving me a bigger stage and refined message. We will create the changes we want to see together.  While silence was painful, it was helpful, and going forward I think I will be more effective as a scientist, communicator, and person. 

Kevin Folta




Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Done



With a most heavy heart I have to report that the recent events have bled into this forum, and I have to suspend communication through this blog. 

I'm very touched by all of your interest and support.  Thank you.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Talking Biotech 023 Future Farm 2050


Professor Graeme Martin joins Talking Biotech Podcast to talk about the Future Farm 2050 Project. It is a series of innovative ideas to farm more sustainably, and a very interesting interview.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Vern Blazek Science Power Hour

I've always been interested in science and communication, and as time went along always wondered how to meld the two in an interesting and entertaining way.  In fact, in my senior year in college I finished third in the nation in a forensics event-- something called After Dinner Speaking. Here you would convey a serious topic using humor as a vehicle.  I was pretty good at that. 

During grad school I was paid to write for stand-up comedians and even wrote greeting cards.  I self-published funny books on pranks and pseudoscience, and wrote a lot of clever work for "fanzines", the pre-internet alternative media. My stuff flew off the racks at a local place called Quimby's Queer Book Store.  Yes, there once were stores that sold books.  

As I moved through academic ranks from grad student to professor, my students' reviews always recognized how my use of humor was appropriate and helpful, and creative analogy and colorful tangents reinforced key scientific points.  

In the last decade with the availability of electronic media, I was always intrigued with delivering science through clever video and other methods. The podcast medium seemed like a good one. 

But I didn't want to be the "talent".  Yuck.  I like my office, my lab bench, and the occasional research talk.  To interview people seemed a little uncomfortable, maybe even arrogant. I didn't want that spotlight, but wanted to participate in a wider discussion on science. 

So I created a character, modeled after the 1990's Art Bell show. When I was a grad student and postdoc I'd work every night well into the late AM, and recall the shows about UFOs, bigfoot, psychics... it was garbage, yet interesting. 

Here I created the Vern Blazek Science Power Hour


Obviously, from the cover art you can tell this is serious. 


The character, radio host Vern Blazek, was modeled after Art Bell, and the thought was simple for the podcast-- instead of a real host entertaining clearly bogus science, what if a clearly bogus host spoke of legitimate science? 

Art Bell's show was from the "high desert outside of Parhump, Nevada, Near Area 51."

Vern Blazek was born, from the "high desert outside of Tillamook, Oregon, near Area 52."

The Science Power Hour is about 30 minutes long, and there is no desert near Tillamook, probably one of the most waterlogged locales on the planet. 

And most of all, it was done from my home, on my time, and paid for with my dollars.  It was what I did on Sunday once a month rather than cutting the grass. 

But one journalist didn't get the joke, in fact, she saw Vern not as a character spawned to explore a new medium to share science and have a laugh-- she saw it as a devious plan. You can read about it over on Buzzfeed. I'm not linking it.

I actually asked her to be a guest on the Science Power Hour.  She had a book on bedbugs and that seemed right up the alley of a kooky and clearly fictitious host, and probably a fun topic to bat around.  I should say, that I always enjoyed her work very much, and followed her for a long time before meeting in person. 

But instead of rolling with the joke, she was weirded out, confused, perhaps even outraged.  Heck, it spawned the Buzzfeed piece.  

When she suggested the work was questionable I honestly evaluated it through her lens. I agreed that it could be considered problematic, and I took down the whole thing. Done. 

In the ensuing months we spoke often.  I was glad to talk to her and try to help her understand why we do experiments, in science and in communication. Why did I push the envelope with communications?  Why did I try something weird, or different?  It didn't make sense to her.  

I told her that I understood her concerns and made the correction. No problem.  But she wanted to do the piece, not just correcting the problem, but now doling out the penalty phase of public shaming. 

So when it became evident that she was going to publish the story I put some of the episodes up, plus some others I had ready to go.  That's what's there today, of course with some obvious transparency. 

Long story short, it still ends up a substantial piece on Buzzfeed, intertwined with the tired story of my emails and a donation from Monsanto to an outreach program that was never used.  


Now I've been branded as a "Monsanto Apologist", even though I've always stood up for science, and don't care one way or the other about Monsanto.  More code for clickbait hit piece on a public scientist.  (They did change the title later. Wow, maybe it is okay to change one's mind later about the appropriateness of what we do, maybe not unlike the re-adjustment of the VB podcast... Hmmm.  Irony everywhere.)


Sadly, when we interviewed together for her piece I was able to clearly answer every one of her allegations, but it didn't matter. Even in the article she makes the claim that my interactions with Monsanto began in April of 2013, which I explained over and over to her was not true. She cites an email from a guy at Monsanto. She's right, he works there. Real discussions of communication and funding outreach didn't happen for a year and three months later. Still, it was important to establish the longest timeline possible. 

It was not a case of a decent scientist, who has made a career doing edgy science and outreach, pushing the edge-- to her, it was a scandal, a nitwit scientist that doesn't get it. 

That's exactly what comes out in the Buzzfeed piece. 

 I do get some positive feedback. Some people enjoy it and think it is a good piece of work with nice guests. It has been said, like "Art Bell and Steven Colbert had a baby, only not as funny or entertaining."

As for the author, I hope that she finds a sense of humor and an appreciation that we're not all schooled journalists that play from a narrow playbook.  I can't help but think some of this is personal, something I said or something she doesn't like about me. I never got a good vibe from her, which is why I invited her to the podcast. I'm uncomfortable with not connecting to others, especially those in science journalism. 

Some of us are obsessed with sharing ideas, teaching, and inspiring. And if a golden-throated parody of a UFO radio show shares a story or captivates a few minds... that's a good thing.  

It will be very interesting to see how this story plays out.  I think the story in Buzzfeed will long be viewed as a personal takedown, an attempt to harm a scientist that does not share views on modern ag or some other issue.  Who knows?  I don't understand why this was necessary.

And someone on Twitter saw this flap and hit the nail on the head about innovative science communication. She said, "Everyone keeps saying that we aren't reaching beyond the choir. Somebody tries, and it's nothing but pearl clutching."


Science will tell its story, and will do it with many means, including innovative, perhaps weird, use of many types of media. That's how we'll reach more hearts and minds that didn't find the original dry science particularly compelling. 











Sunday, October 11, 2015

Will Wild Animals Avoid GMO Corn?

7/12/2019 EDIT --  This was a good idea and was executed well.  Unfortunately the other organizers took umbrage to my repeated demands to complete the work and dismissed me from the project.  I did initiate drafts of the manuscript back in 2016.

It is part of a much bigger falling out.  These folks also decided to use FOIA to obtain internal university documents about confidential professional witness work I was doing for a law firm on my vacation time. They broke my confidentiality, revealing information that was not supposed to be public. It jeopardized my involvement in a private dispute between two parties, as well as the progression of the arbitration. They have certainly taken every opportunity to impugn my integrity and harm my career, in this and other ways. 

Please understand that if I had any pull in this situation I would do everything I could to complete the work as promised. It pains me to not deliver, but I have been dismissed from this project and have zero influence in its progression.  

ORIGINAL POST: 

We want YOU to help us answer the question! 

The internet is filled with claims that wild animals will not consume genetically engineered crops.  Even alleged experts like Dr. Don M. Huber claim with absolute certainty that animals "will not eat it at all" .  

These kinds of claims are reinforced by rather dubious one-off demonstrations on the internet.  Like this one: 



Demonstrations like this one are common on the internet, and suggest we need to do the real experiment. 


Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel and I have been planning the actual test for years.  We have finally obtained 2000 lbs of corn and it will be distributed as kits at $25 each.  The fee covers the shipping costs, kit components, and cost to hire people to do the assembly. 


Hypothesis:  When given a choice, wild animals will not consume genetically engineered corn. 

You can hear the whole story on the Talking Biotech Podcast

We'll test this hypothesis with the help of 250 volunteers who will perform the test using our blinded, coded corn.  The GM corn plants were glyphosate treated and have many "stacked" traits. 

Get your kit today, and any extra funding obtained will go to fund extra kits that will be distributed to schools for free.  

  • 100% of funds obtained will be used in this experiment. 
  • All data will be available to the public
  • We'll publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal

Here's your chance to take part in a science experiment that will provide the independent replicates that will provide a definitive answer on this question. 





Saturday, October 10, 2015

Talking Biotech #20 -- Citizen Science and Sugar Beet Breeding


This week's Talking Biotech features interviews with Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel and our interest in finding 1250 participants to test the hypothesis that wild animals will not eat genetically engineered corn. You can contribute to the effort and/or participate here!

The second part interviews Dr. Lee Panella about sugar beet breeding.  We don't think much about sugar beets, but they are important to sugar production and bring good value to farmers.