Sunday, October 30, 2016

Rehashing a Tired Argument

The New York Times failed again, publishing a less-than-scientific ball of bias that states genetically engineered crops fail to produce as expected.  Investigative reporter Danny Hakim's opinions contrast sharply with the scholarly literature, as well as the direct experiences of the people that understand the benefits and limitations of the technologies-- farmers that use it. 


As it has been said, it is easy to trash a farming technology when your plow is a pencil.

The author here returns to two well-refuted, ancient criticisms. First, that genetically engineered crops fail to yield, and next, that they don't cut "pesticides".  These are old and familiar discussions for those of us that have studied this subject for twenty years. 

We could spend a lot of time reviewing the data Hakim used to reach his conclusions.  But rather than point out the flaws in his highly selective, cherry-picking analysis (which Dr. Andrew Kniss did skillfully here), it makes more sense to provide the points you need to intelligently refute his shallow claims. 

1.  No genes for yield were ever installed.  The current suite of biotech traits were not meant to improve yields, they were made to ensure yields.  In other words, they help ag producers farm with lower costs, fewer insecticides, improved weed control and virus resistance in some cases.  Same yield at lower cost means better for farmers. 

2.  What are "pesticides"?  Hakim, like many that want to tell an anti-biotech story, use the term "pesticides" to make claims that farm inputs have increased.  They look at total amount applied in weight. 

But "pesticides" is a catch-all term for herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.  If you separate that into its components, you see the advantages of the technologies. 

GE crops cut insecticide use.  This is shown elegantly with great reference in the National Academies of Sciences extensive review of genetically engineered crops (see NAS review, figs 4-4 to 4-7). The technologies irrefutably cut insecticide use and help limit fungicide applications due to insect damage.  That's really important. 

However, the amount of herbicide used has increased in total.  That's because there are more acres of crops being grown, and in some cases there is more herbicide needed per acre (more than the 750 ml per acre normally used) needed to treat resistant weeds.   Yes, when you add up the total used it is increased relative to 1996. But in 1996, Roundup was used on farms sparingly, as well as in residential and municipal situations. 

When biotech crops showed their advantages in 1996 and were adopted on many farms because of their increased productivity, of course the amount of herbicide would increase.  

Using his words and logic, it is like saying cell phone case sales have "skyrocketed" since 1996.  

Like Benbrook (an economist paid by the anti-GM industries for salary and research, who wrote highly-criticized, low-impact articles that included estimated data), Hakim lumps all forms of chemistry together to create the outcome he wants-- more pounds of pesticides being used. 

He also ignores the simple fact that not all farm chemicals are the same. You can't just compare amounts. You need to consider relative toxicity. And the stuff farmers have switched to has a much lower impact on the environment compared to what it replaced.

3.  You can't make valid general statements about yield.   When you analyze the GE-traited crop against its non-GE counterpart in side-by-side comparisons, you see trends.  Equivalent yields can be affected by location, crop, pest pressure, weather, etc.  Mainly, the trait has no effect on yield.  Sometimes it is higher.  Occasionally it is lower.  Mostly, it is exactly the same. 

I was on a panel years ago with Dough Gurian-Sherman, the guy who wrote the piece "Failure to Yield".   I spoke of specifics of yields as reported from the peer-reviewed literature. He agreed with me on just about every case.

You have to consider the specifics.  For instance. The GE trait in papaya has demonstrated incredible effects on yield for papaya farmers.  Massive increases in yield saved an industry. 

4. Farmers are shrewd business men and women.  There is a certain arrogance in proclaiming a technology is a failure, when millions of people choose it because it works.  Farmers choose these technologies, and they cost more money, as Hakim correctly points out. 

Therein lies the implication that our ag producers somehow can't do the math.  To say that they are willing to pay more for less performance undermines the tight business acumen of our farmers. The one percent that feed the rest of us know about a bottom line. If any product fails to perform, producers change gears to find alternatives. 
Great to see the ag community adding their informed viewpoints. 


To conclude:  For decades people have tried to suggest that genetic engineering technologies are dangerous or environmentally deleterious.  We certainly know the realistic risks, but none of the dire predictions have ever emerged. 

Critics then retreat to "failed" rhetoric.   It is amazingly sad that a venue like the New York Times would publish such a report.  Time will show that it was another poor-quality report that cherry-picked data and presented biased analysis that supported the hypothesis the author wanted to support, not the conclusion proven my millions of farmers that choose the technology. 














Rehashing a Tired Argument

The New York Times failed again, publishing a less-than-scientific ball of bias that states genetically engineered crops fail to produce as expected.  Investigative reporter Danny Hakim's opinions contrast sharply with the scholarly literature, as well as the direct experiences of the people that understand the benefits and limitations of the technologies-- the farmers that use it. 


As it has been said, it is easy to trash a farming technology when your plow is a pencil.

The author here returns to two well-refuted, ancient criticisms. First, that genetically engineered crops fail to yield, and next, that they don't cut "pesticides".  These are old and familiar discussions for those of us that have studied this subject for their whole careers. 

We could spend a lot of time reviewing the data Hakim used to reach his conclusions.  But rather than point out the flaws in his highly selective, cherry-picked analysis (which Dr. Andrew Kniss did skillfully here), it makes more sense to provide the points you need to intelligently refute his shallow claims. 

1.  No genes for yield were ever installed.  The current suite of biotech traits were not meant to improve yields, they were made to ensure yields.  In other words, they help ag producers farm with lower costs, fewer insecticides, improved weed control and virus resistance in some cases.  The same yield at a lower cost is better for farmers. 

2.  What are "pesticides"?  Hakim, like many that want to tell an anti-biotech story, use the term "pesticides" to make claims that farm inputs have increased.  They look at total amount applied in weight. 

But "pesticides" is a catch-all term for the combination of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.  If you separate that into its components, you see the advantages of the technologies. 

GE crops cut insecticide use.  This is shown elegantly with great reference in the National Academies of Sciences extensive review of genetically engineered crops (see NAS review, figs 4-4 to 4-7). The technologies irrefutably cut insecticide use and help limit fungicide applications due to insect damage.  That's really important. 

However, the amount of herbicide used has increased in total.  That's because there are more acres of crops being grown, and in some cases there is more herbicide needed per acre (more than the 750 ml per acre normally used) needed to treat resistant weeds.   Yes, when you add up the total used it has increased since 1996. But in 1996, Roundup was only sparingly used on farms, as well as in residential and municipal situations. 

When herbicide-resistant crops showed their advantages in 1996 and were adopted on many farms because of their increased productivity, of course the amount of herbicide would increase.  

Using his words and logic, it is like saying the number of cell phone cases have "skyrocketed" since 1996.  

It also is important to note that the number of pounds of glyphosate also reflects its increased use in farms for non-GMO uses. It is used to kill the vegetation on land left fallow and along fence lines.  It is used in tree-crop production to remove weeds from rows and under trees.   

Like Benbrook (the economist whose salary and research were 100% paid by the anti-GM industries as he wrote highly-criticized, low-impact articles that included estimated data), Hakim lumps all forms of chemistry together to create the outcome he wants-- more pounds of pesticides being used. 

He also ignores the simple fact that not all farm chemicals are the same. You can't just compare amounts. You need to consider relative toxicity. And the products farmers have switched to have much lower environmental impact relative to what they replaced.

3.  You can't make valid general statements about yield.   When you analyze the GE-traited crop against its non-GE counterpart in side-by-side comparisons, you see trends.  Equivalent yields can be affected by location, crop, pest pressure, weather, etc.  Mainly, the trait has no effect on yield.  Sometimes it is higher.  Occasionally it is lower.  Mostly, it is exactly the same. 

I was on a panel years ago with Dough Gurian-Sherman, the guy who wrote the piece "Failure to Yield".   I spoke of specifics of yields as reported from the peer-reviewed literature. He agreed with me on just about every case.

You have to consider the specifics.  For instance. The GE trait in papaya has demonstrated incredible effects on yield for papaya farmers.  Massive increases in yield saved an industry. 

4. Farmers are shrewd business men and women.  There is a certain arrogance in proclaiming a technology is a failure, when millions of professionals choose it because it works.  Farmers choose these technologies even though they cost more money, as Hakim correctly points out. 

Therein lies the implication that our ag producers somehow can't do the math.  To say that they are willing to pay more for less performance undermines the tight business acumen of our farmers. The one percent that feed the rest of us know about a bottom line. If any product fails to perform, producers change gears to find alternatives. 
Great to see the ag community adding their informed viewpoints. 


To conclude:  For decades people have tried to suggest that genetic engineering technologies are dangerous or environmentally deleterious.  We certainly know the realistic risks, but none of the dire predictions have ever emerged. 

Critics then retreat to "failed" rhetoric.   It is amazingly sad that a venue like the New York Times would publish such a report.  Time will show that it was another poor-quality report that cherry-picked data and presented biased analysis that supported the hypothesis the author wanted to support, not the conclusion proven my millions of farmers that choose the technology-- because it works.  














Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Tragic Loss of Dr. Sharon Gray

When you ask people what a postdoctoral researcher does, few people have a realistic answer.  These are professional scientists with Ph.D. degrees that seek additional training to hone their skills and build a scientific portfolio. They are overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid. They frequently have little to no voice in departmental or university decisions, ironic, because they drive the front edge of the discovery. They are frequently the engines of our laboratories.

They do it because jobs are few and can only be realistically approached with the training, exposure and career development that a good postdoctoral research experience can provide. 

This long introduction sets the stage for a tragic tale of Sharon Gray.  I never met Sharon.  But as an advisor of postdocs and a supporter of developing scientists in our field, I'm shocked by the story of her horrifying and untimely demise.

She was a young professional developing her art, and in the course of expanding her collaborations, horizons and potential, her life was tragically ended. 


Tragedy.  Sharon Gray killed by protesters in Ethiopia while she was attending a project meeting. 


Dr. Gray worked as a postdoc in Plant Biology at UC-Davis. Days ago she was killed by protesters that stoned the vehicle she was riding in during a time of civil unrest outside the city of Addis Ababa. She was heading to a project meeting that involved collaborators from The Netherlands.  Details are sketchy and really don't matter. It is simply a paralyzing tragedy for her, her family, her lab, and those she touched with her time and her science. 

She was likely still riding high from the publication of her last work, an eight-year study that showed the relationship between increasing carbon dioxide, drought, and soybean growth. The work was just published in Nature Plants.  Those are true milestones that define a postdoctoral career. 

My heart goes out to those at UC Davis, especially her husband (also a postdoc) and Dr. Siobhan Brady, her advisor, as well as the lab mates that daily shared time and space with Sharon. 

As researchers, we form tight-knit families when we constantly bump elbows, share techniques, and spend late nights and weekends unraveling important questions in biology. The years focused on common scientific quests build great bonds between researchers. These bonds are appreciated, understood, and honored by those of us that have been there. 

Across the plant science community we understand, and share in the grief of this tragic loss. 





The university posted a memorial page along with photos. A memorial fund has been established that will go to enhance opportunities for women in science.   


Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article106319327.html#storylink=cpy

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Fake Debates, Bogus Tribunals-- Hallmarks of a Lost Argument

In poking through my Twitter feed I find a curious post. It is being circulated that I agreed to do a debate, but then backed out. 

What?  

As a guy that studied rhetoric, loves a debate, and coached debaters for a long time, I relish the opportunity to debate, especially scientific topics.  I've debated evolution, climate and genetic engineering issues over the last decade. 

So to read online that I was invited to a debate and then backed out was quite surprising. 

Turns out that it starts from that guy in Ithaca that is obsessed with legitimizing his anti-GMO crusade.  He has been harassing people on Facebook for some time. 

Apparently he and Jonathan Latham* (another anti-GMO, anti-science zealot) organized a debate, only didn't bother to actually extend real invitations to me, Jon Entine or Karl Haro von Mogel, of course, saying that they did, and that we won't show. 

In social media they are taking a victory lap, claiming that we are afraid to debate them and of course, the message is being amplified by the throngs of blind followers that put platitudes and lies ahead of actual information. 


Funny that they are declaring such victory in a debate they never formally invited anyone to. "Biosciences Resource" is Latham's broken effort. Why would anyone trust anyone that engages such dishonest tactics?

Karl, Jon and I all asked for any evidence that we accepted an invitation.  Crickets.  Still they celebrate their victory!

First, if you want me to come to any event that requires travel, good luck.  I'm booked solid for 6 months and you simply can't organize something next week and then say I backed out.

Second, if there's no way to compensate me for travel, I can't do it unless I pay personally. I don't have funds for such things.

Third, if you want me to attend a debate, you need to let me know first.  USRTK and others have made sure that my email address, phone number and address are plastered all over the web, so don't say you can't find me! 

Pick up a phone, send an email, even send a letter through snail mail.  Our fax machine works too, maybe.  You have to let me know that I have been invited to a debate, before you can say I accepted and backed out of a debate. 

Turns out, today Jonathan Latham (who stood outside a Cornell event I was speaking at last year and handed out libelous flyers about me) put an "invitation", stashed deeply in the comments section of a September 2, 2016 blog post on September 26, 2016.  

The invitation is placed in the comments section of an old blog, nine days before the event.  Tremendously weak move.

Between answering 200 emails a day, writing grants, running a leading department, running a huge lab and getting sixty minutes a day for food and gym, I don't usually parse the comments sections of old blogs.  Weak move guys. 

In pre-internet days Latham was probably one of these guys that wanted to go to a party with the cool kids, but they spray painted an invitation under an overpass 100 miles from where he lived.  When he complained about not being invited, they said, "We invited you... you didn't see it?"

Latham and the other guy's full-time job is to trash technology and erode trust in public scientists.  This is their mission, to harm those that teach science. This is just another desperate stunt of a dying movement, and a weak attempt to discredit the people that actually have the credit. 

To claim that I was ever actually invited is a lie, and to say that I backed out is an even bigger one. I think it is wonderful, as this is the kind of stuff that turns off the people we need to influence most. 

This is the trend.  The anti-GMO movement can't discuss evidence.  They have attacked the scientists and look horrible in the public eye for what they have done, while we look better for enduring the slander.  

All they have left is to create fake events, like this "debate" or the upcoming Monsanto Tribunal.  They can control the information, so they make the event seem legitimate to a handful of internet worshipers, and take another poke at public scientists that actually contribute to teaching and research. 

If you are opposed to biotechnology, you need to think about this very hard. This is the best your movement has.  These are the people representing your cause.  These are the underhanded tactics that you stand behind? 

It is really sad because this topic needs honest debate and discussion. Karl, Jon and I (or a handful of others) would always be willing to take part in such events, provided there was an actual invitation and there was reasonable advanced notice. 

Unfortunately an honest conversation is not what Latham and that other guy actually want. Their goal is to try to pump oxygen into the corpse of a failed ideological movement that harms the poor, the farmer, and the environment.  Such efforts must involve further deception, as they could never win the discussion through legitimate scientific discourse. 



* Latham was handing out defamatory flyers at an event in Ithaca, and when I approached him he changed the subject and scurried like a ship rat.  He didn't have the guts to back up the fifth he as presenting about me, and continues to propagate defamation to this day.  This is his modus operandi and this cheesy Twitter campaign is just a sad extension of his pitiful existence. 







Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Letter to Cornell: Please Stop Sciencing.

A letter arrived on Cornell University Dean Kathryn Boor's desk this week. The same letter was sent to the Board of Trustees. Sixty-seven people from New York State's organic farming community requested that the dean give the Cornell Alliance for Science the boot from the campus.  They feel that such efforts have "no place at a Land Grant institution."

Alliance for Silence? 

I'm familiar with the Alliance for Science and have even participated in their training sessions and discussions.  I'm know what it is, what it isn't.  It is stunning to me that people would complain to university administration that the exchange of scholarly ideas regarding agricultural technology would be objectionable.  Well, maybe not so stunning. 



The headlines at Sustainable Pulse present the argument against Alliance for Science. It is, "We don't like that the evidence fails to support our beliefs, so we want you to stop talking about it."

In short, the Alliance for Science recruits international fellows, students, scientists and others to teach them the science behind new agricultural technologies.  The efforts are supported by a $5.6 million grant to Cornell University from the Gates Foundation. Their stated mission:  

The Cornell Alliance for Science seeks to promote access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability and raising the quality of life globally. 

Now let's keep that kind of stuff off of our campuses. 

The participants represent many countries, and see technology as a way to improve lives of the needy in their homeland.  They have witnessed poverty and experienced food insecurity from the inadequacies of traditional agricultural methods.  Like others, they do not want to be the recipients of aid, the handouts of the affluent West. 

Instead, they want to feed their own nations. Technology, and perhaps genetic engineering, has a role in those agricultural innovations. 

The letter to Cornell University Administration. Instead of stating precisely what content is objectionable, they want to censor topics they consider "controversial". 

When I participated in Alliance for Science we saw talks from plant breeders, animal breeders, experts in biotech and experts in traditional genetics. I never got the feeling that it was "advocacy".  Not at all.  It was scientists teaching others about science. That's what we do. 

The problem is that here's a letter that says to a university program run by university faculty, we don't like what you are teaching, so the university should stop it. 

Can you imagine if this is how decisions were made in universities?  We could not teach about climate, vaccines, evolution, stem cell research.... the list goes on and on. 

Universities should be a marketplace of ideas, but ideas that are defendable and borne of evidence.  If Cornell's Alliance for Science is a biased, dangerous, propaganda, public relations move as critics claim, then bring out the specifics.  Here is the presentation I gave.  What is false, biased, or not in keeping with what we know about science?

The letter writers bypass the scientific process.  That is, they don't like the evidence, don't like people learning evidence, so they complain to university administration to stop that information from flowing. Cornell, you are sciencing too much and it must be stopped.

Science is not a democracy, it is a meritocracy.  Good ideas prevail and they don't worry much about your beliefs.  If something is objectionable to this sect of New York State farmers, they should present that evidence.  Let's have an honest conversation. 


Writing a letter, complaining to university administration, calling for a science program to be removed from campus is just a weak move.  It comes off as petty and childish.  What we learn from organic farmers is important to many production scenarios. This letter again makes those adhering to organic production techniques come off as a wacky fringe, rather than a scientific discipline, and that just sets the field backwards. 

 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

New York State PTA Resolutions Earn an “F” in Science

The New York State Parent-Teachers Association (NYS PTA) has presented itsproposed resolutions for the 2016 school year. Leafing through them I find comfort in Retention #4 on page 2 that clearly states that textbooks and instructional materials will be up-to-date, factual and unbiased. Such strong affirmations guaranteeing adherence to teaching based on our best methods and evidence is a credit to the NYS-PTA.
But on page 13, New Resolution #1 breaks the pledge of up-to-date, factual and unbiased. The resolution being considered makes several claims about “Genetically modified organisms (GMOS) and genetically engineered (GE) foods”. They cite a “link” between such products and “negative health consequences”, that their standards ban “unhealthy products”, and claim that there is insufficient evidence that such food products are safe for human consumption.
This new resolution asks for state legislation to ban products from genetically engineered plants (actually they say “GMOS and GE foods”, but I’ll be more precise in my wording) in school meal programs and vending services. To its credit, the resolution does recommend that parents and community members receive education on “GMOs and GE food products.” No argument there, as long as the education is based on legitimate reproducible scientific evidence, although I suspect the authors have different intentions.
New Resolution #1 concludes with a statement. The second line reads, “Some research suggests an association between GMO and GE food consumption with grave health hazards, such as tumor development, kidney and liver toxicity and even death in laboratory and food production animals.” That is not factual and unbiased, as guaranteed in Retention #4 on page 2.
The statement continues, “Other research suggests environmental hazards, such as killing off of beneficial microorganisms and pollinators, and contamination of water supplies.” The statement concludes, “Until GMO and GE food safety is conclusively supported by good science, NYS PTA proposes acting with caution and keeping these products out of school provided food and drinks.” Again, allegations and a conclusion based on no credible scientific evidence.
It is clear that we need to be teaching our students to think critically, that they need deeper immersion in science, technology, engineering and math, the STEMdisciplines. We need to be training the next generation of scientists and engineers with the up-to-date, factual and unbiased information requested by the NYS PTA in their opening Retention #4.
So how can the NYS PTA ever claim to support STEM disciplines and adherence to evidence-based information, when they are suggesting food bans based on bad science? How can they seek to teach students how to critically weigh evidence when they fail to do that in their own proposed resolutions?
The statements the crafters of the resolution made are not based on evidence. They are extensions of bias and belief, of perhaps an activist agenda that periodically visits school boards and PTAs. For example, in recent years school districts wanted to label science textbooks referencing evolution as “only a theory”. Other school districts have sought to use textbooks that challenge evidence of antropogenic climate change. The anti-genetic-engineering sentiment is just another example of forcing bad policy to match the beliefs of a few on a fringe that pick and choose the scientific information they wish to consume.
How can we teach students to respect the scientific method and to trust peer-reviewed and reproducible science, when the rules and restrictions they are educated under reflect distortions, myths and falsehoods?
The National Academies of Science, the USA’s most esteemed brain trust, performed a massive review of the scholarly literature and probably one-hundred interviews with scientists on the topic of genetically engineered crops. Their conclusions—there is no evidence that these crops are unsafe for consumption, and there is no evidence of any health risk greater than crops derived from conventional breeding. Certainly they recognize some environmental impacts such as the generation of resistant weeds, but that is an herbicide and management question more than an indictment of genetic engineering as a variety improvement discipline. There is no evidence that these crops have negative effects on pollinators by virtue of genetic engineering.
The health risks the crafters of this resolution cite are aging relics from one-off publications that were typically not based on proper scientific design or performed with proper statistical rigor. In all cases, such reports have not been independently reproduced or expanded, and fade into the forgotten gutter of bad science, or perhaps in retrospect have a stink of scientific misconduct. Good science grows. These reports were dead on arrival, and now slowly disappear into irrelevance.
The 2016 NYS PTA resolutions have clearly been hijacked by stemless activism, minor opinions wishing to impose their beliefs on the food choices and perhaps the scientific education of New York Public School children. How can we expect our children to be excited about science, technology, engineering, and math, if the rules they live under shun STEM, and are built on an agenda of politics, ignorance, fear mongering and myth?

Originally posted 9/17/2016 in Huffington Post Blogs. Original article may be accessed here. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Joy of Teaching

One of the sad ironies of modern education is that the more expert you become in your field, the harder you have to work to be able to get in front of a classroom. It comes as no surprise.  Our primary role (mine is 80%) is research, leaving only 20% for teaching, and that is mostly satisfied by direct supervision of graduate students. 

I'm also a full-time administrator, so that takes the rest of my time.  I get to do a lot of guest lectures and teach about 25% of a graduate course in the area of sensory biology and biochemical signal transduction. 

This semester I had a problem.  A scientist on the faculty here was serving in Washington with NSF.  He taught undergraduate molecular biology, a key course for many students.  

There is no possible way that I should have taken on teaching an undergraduate course.
But wow, I'm so glad I did. 

While I should never have done it, I jumped at the chance to teach his course, and ended up teaching the first third of it.  

It was a pleasure to talk about the fundamentals of DNA and RNA, about basic biochemistry and the techniques and methods that shape our foundation of modern biotechnology. 

They were a quiet class.  It was at 8:30 in the morning and that might have something to do with it. 

Yesterday I gave them the exam.  It was my last time with them.

As they turned in their exams something very unusual happened. 

I'd say about half of them held out their hand for a handshake and said thank you. 

I have to always remember that day.  Opportunities to share science are frequent, and they take tremendous time, preparation and effort. 

This time I got the feeling that it was truly appreciated, and maybe those efforts made a difference.