Thursday, February 25, 2016

Talking Biotech #25

Talking Biotech Podcast #25 talks about color-changing flowers and the safety of strawberries, one of the "Dirty Dozen".   It is an episode about the brilliant things we can do, and the safe things we currently do, with technology.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Please Stop Foodbabe-ing!

The new headline circulating in the pro-genetic-engineering social media space is depressing. With joy and gusto, it is being promoted and circulated by those that appreciate the utility of genetic engineering and chemical inputs to safely address specific ag challenges. 

The above article appears on Deadstate.

The claim is that compounds approved for, and used by, organic production are potentially dangerous. Well, not so much potentially dangerous as outright carcinogenic.  

The main shock to most readers is that organic production uses any chemical inputs at all, as the organic halo implies that no chemicals are used.  Of course, we know that to not be true, it is just other chemicals that may be used. 

But just like other chemicals, the dose makes the poison.  For the most part these chemicals have low toxicity, and virtually no risk if applied properly and washed from food. 

Fighting manufactured fear with manufactured fear?  Why adopt Food Babe tactics if you loathe Food Babe tactics?

Clearly the Deadstate article goes on to spell out the worst-case scenario for each compound.  Just like table salt, sugar or water, anything can kill you dead if you ingest too much of it the wrong way. 

This is the wrong way to make a point about food and farming.  You don't misrepresent another production system, just because evil people aggressively misrepresent science about conventional ag or genetic engineering. It does not win hearts and minds, and seems confusing and divisive to the people that want education and information. 

This needs to be a scientific discussion.  What are the safest technologies that can be used to produce more food with fewer inputs?  It does not matter what you call them.  

Remember, this is not an organic versus conventional, or organic vs genetic engineering debate.  But let's not criticize safe inputs that help farmers, organic or conventional. 

And yes, I understand that many facets of the organic industry would love to see me driven from science, and they have financed a campaign against me.  Their ways are unacceptable, and an eye for an eye leaves everyone looking like a pirate.

That helps nobody and is a distraction from the needed conversation.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Answering Students' Questions about Bananas

There was a spirited discussion on Twitter about yesterday's blog.  I pointed out that Iowa State University had a faculty member that is an expert in cartotenoids and their bioavailability.  She was given the task of testing the soluble levels of beta-carotene from the genetically-engineered banana that contained this nutrient. 

In response to her being asked to perform this test, a petition circulated and 57,000 signatures were gathered.  Today there will be a protest/delivery of the petition.

The discussion on Twitter was basically one woman hurling insults at me and telling me that what I posted was not true, that I need to "get on Google and do some research", and that I'm just an industry lackey.  She insisted that I respond to "the questions from students" which I'm happy to do today below.

I'm happy to answer the questions for this Twitter-er.  I suggest you do visit Twitter and enjoy the entire dialog.  My guess is that since she's sure I'm just an industry shill, my answers won't matter much anyway. However, true to my word, I'm glad to take a stab at it. And for the record, I'm 100% publicly funded, and grants can be seen on my research website

The questions were a breeze to answer. The bigger issue revealed is two-fold.
1.  These questions come from people that do not understand how science works.  The experiments at ISU set out to test a hypothesis, that consumption of beat-carotene enriched bananas would increase the serum levels of vitamin A and its precursors, and understand the time course. That's all.

2.  An anti-genetic engineering movement must stop any steps where this technology can show to have potential benefit and minimal risk.  The tests at ISU are just one step in the process of deployment of this technology. Before materials are deployed, it is good to know if the technology makes sufficient amounts of bioavailable compounds.  This test can determine that.  Therefore, some feel that it must be stopped.  

I don't speak for ISU or the researchers performing the experiments. However, at the insistence of the Twitter-er, I'm glad to provide my answers to those questions. 

Question 1
Give a brief explanation of why you are here, your area of expertise, and how you can apply your expertise to this critical dialogue.
KF:  I've been a public scientist for almost 30 years and currently work as a Professor and Chair of a leading fruit and vegetable department in a major US Land Grant University. My background is in molecular biology and genomics, and I work directly/indirectly with many crops in the nation's #2 horticultural crop state. I've read extensively on biofortification and metabolic engineering of crops for increases in folate, beta carotene, and other vitamins. 
Question 2
Do you think this banana will impact the issue of malnutrition, and the connected issue of hunger, in Uganda and East Africa? If so, how? If not, what alternative solutions might help address these issues?
KF:  This has nothing to do with the hypothesis to be tested. The experiments are designed to examine bioavailability of beta-carotene and its derivatives from consumption of biofortified bananas.  However, I can answer.  Bananas are used for cooking in Uganda and areas of East Africa.  They are a daily staple for many and are threatened by diseases. They also are deficient in key nutrients. Genetic improvements for disease resistance and nutrient content could have positive effects on malnutrition.  At least the governments of these countries seem to think so. They all have extensive programs in these areas. Transgenic bananas have been demonstrated to be resistant/tolerant to banana bunchy-top virus, black sigatoka, Fusarium, and Xanthamonas, as well as produce more beta carotene. 
Question 3
There are concerns that the design of this study is inadequate, particularly testing these bananas on female ISU students who are not the intended target of these Vitamin A enriched bananas. Given this critique, how was the research designed and how have safety concerns been addressed? (If you are not involved in the research process for these bananas, what concerns, if any, do you have concerning the safety or validity of the testing procedure or the potential impacts on the intended recipients in Eastern Africa?)
KF:  The experiment is designed to examine bioavailablity of the compounds from bananas consumed.  The toxicity thresholds for beta-carotene is well understood, as is the level of beta carotene in these bananas. There are no unique safety risks. "There are concerns" is not a scientific question. What are the concerns?  What is the plausible hypothesis that suggests unusual risk?
The experiment does not directly have any impact on recipients on Eastern Africa.  The experiment is to test the bioavailabiltiy of beta carotene from bananas carrying beta carotene. 
Question 4
Ideally, how should public universities be involved in GM biofortification and human testing? And to what extent is transparency, particularly regarding control or ownership of these technologies, important, particularly when dealing with staple food crops?
KF:  You are asking my opinion, so my answer is not based on data, it is what I think. I think the universities are the optimal systems to develop and test such products.  Transparency is always important. 
Question 5
Finally,  what critical issue or issues concerning this study have been left unaddressed or inadequately discussed thus far in our conversation? Perhaps consider your closing perspective on the issue.
KF:  The experiments at ISU are designed to test the bioavailabilty of beta carotene from bananas consumed.  For the experts at ISU, this is a relatively simple test that can quickly yield answers.  If the compounds are not bioavailable in physiologically-meaningful levels, then there is no reason to continue, or new plants with higher beta-carotene expression need to be devised.

Closing perspective- Dr. White is an expert in carotenoid bioavability. She understands the enzymes and processes in their synthesis, conversion and measurement. She is the best person to examine the question if beta-carotene is available after bananas are consumed. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Protest Over Bananas in Iowa

Monday, a group of well-fed students and jumpers-on will march with signs. In a world full of actionable atrocities, these folks have centered their time and energies on a scourge that threatens the progress of mankind-- A dozen ISU students will be paid to eat bananas that carry a banana gene that allows the fruit to produce beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A.  The orange stuff in carrots.  

Say it isn't so. 

An apparently vitamin A sufficient and sighted student dons a banana costume to protest bananas being developed to provide nutrition to the developing world.  A passer by checks out the happenings, then rubs his butt in confusion. 

One year ago I was in Ames, IA at Iowa State University.  The banana trials were supposed to begin then, and the story was on the lips of students and faculty.  Twelve lucky students would get $900 to eat bananas and then have their blood monitored for Vitamin A bioavailability. Five-hundred students answered the solicitation. 

Why is this happening at ISU, a place not traditionally thought of as a banana mecca?  It is because of a Food Science professor, Dr. Wendy White. She's a world expert in measuring cartotenoids in the blood, and interpreting their many forms. 

She was assigned these trials because she is the expert in that area.  If you are going to feed Vitamin A bananas to people, it helps to know that the Vitamin A produced is in a usable and bioavailable form. Dr. White had absolutely no interest in genetic engineering or the controversy, but immediately found herself at ground zero. 

It's a year later and I don't remember all the details, but she mentioned protests, threats, and lots of nastygrams.  Dr. White is soft-spoken, sweet and kind.  She has top-notch students that are great to talk to and are excited about science. She does not understand, or deserve, the grief for simply doing the work she is recognized for doing well.  Plus, these experiments could help those suffering from vitamin A deficiency, and provide the up-front testing that critics say does not happen. 

Stephan pretty much nails it. 

The bananas make more beta-carotene because of the installation of a banana gene. Dr. James Dale from Queensland University of Technology developed the new banana, transferring a gene from a wild banana from Fiji to the bananas consumed as daily food in Uganda and other parts of Africa. There they might represent 70% of the dietary calories.

You can hear Dr. Dale talk about it on my podcast, here.   

The news says that protesters have a petition with over 57,000 signatures condemning this test. 

I'd love a copy of that petition.  I'd like to have the names of people recommending denying access to life-saving nutrition and access to agricultural innovation to Africans. 

Someday when health problems are solved with a banana that delivers the nutrition of a carrot, I'd like to send them a note reminding them that their privilege stood in the way of progress that saved lives. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

THEATER & ARTS REVIEW: Seeds -- Opening Night!

I was extremely fortunate to be attending the Crop Connect Conference in Winnipeg the same day that Seeds opened.  I mean, how often are you in canola country, at a canola-heavy conference, and get to see a play about canola? Plus, I've been through these court records and know that story well. A small outing of farmers, canola industry folks and a scientist or two headed downtown and take in the performance at Prairie Theater Exchange.

Seeds is a play written by Annabel Soutar.  It chronicles the Percy Schmeiser affair, the story of a Saskatchewan canola farmer that was sued by the Monsanto Company because he was illegally growing genetically-engineered canola off license. The popular activist internet myth that likely seeded the script says that Schmeiser was the innocent victim in a classical David vs. Goliath episode, that company thugs sued him for a few seeds blown onto his property. Yet actual court records tell a story of a guy that illegally obtained technology and then planted over a thousand acres of it, using plenty of Roundup herbicide to select for engineered plants.  He was found guilty and lost again on appeal.

On its surface the story is a challenging one to develop into a compelling live performance, especially as the author attempted to keep the dialog close to actual court records and documented conversations. However, the work has a groovy halo coming in, as a typical arts community would likely be thrilled with a play trashing the Big MON. The creepy way science is portrayed had the audience pulling for the little guy going in.

The stage was a clever mix that switched between Schmeiser's home, courtrooms and fields. It always had an eerie science glow about it.

Despite the inherent limitations, the director pulled off an interesting performance by juxtaposing fast changes, lines from interspersed characters and quite a few laughs. Video screens behind the stage presented additional information and added context to the scenes.

The cast was sharp and convincing, with some playing multiple gender-bending roles.  One well-bearded actor donned a sari and admonished others as Vandana Shiva.  The forth wall was never a fixture.  The fast costume changes, slick blocking and solid acting throughout were a lot of fun from a performance perspective.

The problem I had was in how Soutar and the director chose to tell this story.  Company people were always sleazy, brash and angry.  Scientists were portrayed as numbskulls, except for the ones that (history tells us) truly were the numbskulls, and they were given great credibility in the script. They echoed the common false claims around genetic engineering. These probably came of as credible and reinforcing to theater goers that only hear the Chipotle/Food Babe warnings about crop technology. If the writer actually interviewed any of the millions of scientists familiar with the technology those lines were not included. Their words would have been consistent with the company’s claims and made Goliath look like a genius. That play would have been over in twenty minutes.  

So rather than spend more time on the scientific evidence that discredited Schmeiser, the writer takes an ad hominem approach and goes after him by attacking his character with personal interviews of people in his hometown. Most seemed to impeach his credibility, and others claimed to have sold him the illegal seeds.  The author wanted to pose the thought that maybe David’s crushing by Goliath just may have been deserved.

But it didn’t need to go after the man’s credibility, because the science knew the facts about the seeds.  The evidence showed that he planted traited seeds over 1000 acres and used glyphosate to select for tolerant plants.  Goliath was right, as courts would determine.

However, that’s not the take-home message from the play.  The conclusion left the question open. It brought into question the patenting of life, the control of seeds, and the role of corporate venom in going after the little guy.

You didn’t walk away feeling like this was a crime solved.  Instead, the author threw a blanket over the chalk outline, the smoking gun and shell casings and in a closing soliloquy asked the audience, “What do you think?”  Most non-scientific theater goers likely walked away feeling like the big bad company harassed some poor schmuck, and that that poor schmucks should get to save seeds on their land.

The whole night was extra fun because the real-life version of one of the characters in the play, Trish Jordan from Monsanto Canada, was present in the audience along with our group.  She was quite pleased that the character was articulate and the "actress was gorgeous" and felt the portrayal was pretty solid.  

To me, the play could have focused on the importance of protecting the rights of others, particularly toward protecting gains made from intellectual property. It could have addressed the importance of protecting innovations and how research costs money.  It missed that mark, and that’s a central point of the whole affair.

That said, I wonder what the author would say if I recorded the play with my phone and then sold copies online.  After all, I did have a paid ticket…

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


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. 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