Saturday, November 19, 2016

Thanks Snopes- A Big Win for Science and Reason

I'm up on a Saturday enjoying a big cup of coffee and working on the podcast. I'm also standing by for the next round of requests for my emails from Vani Hari. What happened?

Yesterday's blog was in response to an article on Snopes.  The article on Snopes was in response to a flashy brochure that claimed to find herbicide residues, in parts per billion (seconds in decades) in familiar foods.  The well-circulated activist rhetoric was intended to scare, and it worked.  My inbox was flooded with inquiries from friends, relatives and dozens of strangers. 

When Snopes talks, people listen, and their analysis was a bit confusing, sort of lending credence to the claim, as well as stating that glyphosate herbicides were carcinogenic. 

This is on the cover of the report. It should be an immediate tip-off to the reader that this is highly suspect and intended to tell a manufactured story, not communicate scientific results. 

 I reached out to the author and participated in the online discussion.  Within 24 hours the author, Alex Kasprak, made good corrections that reflected the simple fact that the data were not peer-reviewed, they originated in activist literature, and were purely intended to scare consumers. 

Huzzah for science and reason! 

But more importantly, huzzah for Snopes and Alex Kasprak.

But news of this change did not resonate well with food activists and anti-GMO interests.  The Food Babe, Vani Hari is not happy. She's convinced that the claims are legitimate.  On her blog she refers to the alleged detections as "poison in your food" and when the Snopes article changed, it must have been the work of....

(wait for it)


Yes, an author on a fact-finding site refines a message to be scientifically precise after a nudge from a scientist that understands the technology.  So it must have been Monsanto.  Of course. 

Oh Vani, A scientist speaking to a journalist about science is not "proof" of Monsanto influencing Snopes. I'll start gathering my emails for you so you can make sure at public expense... 

That's perhaps the saddest part of this chapter.  A debunking website and a scientist work together to correct an important record.  A food activist with a motivated following screams conspiracy.  Sadly, her followers remain misinformed, but also suspicious and maybe angry.  

In the end, I'd be very happy if she'd have a talk with Kasprak, understand what he saw in the communication that motivated the change. That's science, and that's how we operate. 

I won't hold my breath.  Unfortunately she does not realize how her credibility and lost celebrity would skyrocket if she humbly admitted she's off base, and committed to working with the scientific community to improve healthy food and healthy diets. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Snopes Claims About Glyphosate in Food

I like Snopes. 

So many times I've been rescued from a critical debunking excursion because someone had provided excellent analysis that I could use as a starting point. 

It is really disappointing to see them go soft and conflate unrelated issues that just confuse the reader.

The article about the Food Babe's claims about Monsanto covering up glyphosate in food items seemed like it would follow the science and once again foist her on her own critically underpowered petard. 

But instead the article by Alex Kasprak just creates confusion.  Even the subhead says, "Monsanto suppressing evidence of cancerous herbicide in food?"

(and to be fair, Alex did reach out and we're discussing this. I do think he wants to get it right)

What "cancerous herbicide?"

Instead of simply letting the air out of a conspiratorial claim, he conflates three issues at once, an in the process lends credence to the crazy claim, while not critically evaluating the others.  Here's the problem:

This is the headline of the article.  A highly-suspect, statistically bankrupt activist brochure is referred to as an "independent study" -- a term usually reserved for actual research.

Next, the author presents the synthesis of the claim as "Mixture" meaning that the claims present some legitimate points. 

STOP RIGHT THERE.  First, there is no "mixture". That claim is false, false, false.  The analysis did not show the chemical conclusively, and of course, there is no conspiracy.

This should read FALSE.  Done.  Enjoy your Ritz crackers.

But the author expands upon the claim and folds in a non-seqitur conclusion about glyphosate that is not accurate either. I see his intent and understand how he got to those conclusions, but they are not relevant to the claim.  Here's the whole thing:

What's true?  Well he says that "studies performed on laboratory animals suggest that glyphosate may be carcinogenic" and that is not the case.  Glyphosate has been evaluated by hundreds of independent peer-reviewed efforts and certainly by many federal regulators in many countries. They all have concluded that it is not a carcinogen. 

The only departure is a hazard-based assessment by the IARC last year that used a thin set of reports to make the conclusion that glyphosate was a "probable carcinogen".  This was a hazard-based report, not considering actual exposures.  They also didn't derive their conclusion much from animal studies. 

I also reject the premise that this is "an active debate in the scientific community."  Scientists are scratching their heads over this, and why the media is complicit in giving fuel to activists claims built on thin science. 

What's false? -- of course, that section is consistent with the scholarly literature.

What's undetermined? -- The author says basically that the results might not be trusted because they are not peer-reviewed and come from activists.   Under that premise alone, the results are not evidence of anything!  They are a claim on a website as valid as the picture of Bigfoot fur is a "mixture" proof of the existence of Bigfoot on Snopes. 

For Snopes to get this right the claim needs to be broken down into three independent claims.

1.  Are the data in the report believable and do they represent a rigorous test using proper methods and statistical representation?

2.   If the results are real, do the levels claimed to be detected pose a carcinogenic threat to humans? 

3.  Do the prevailing data on glyphosate substantiate its hazard-based description as a "probable carcinogen?"

The answer to all three is no, no, and no.  The only one that is even open for discussion is #3, and evaluators worldwide are constantly scrutinizing the compound.  The best evaluations from Germany, the USA, and many others have shown repeatedly that there is no legitimate evidence of a cancer risk at the levels used or in exposure to its residues. 

The problem is that what I think is an honest effort from Alex Kasprak conflates three separate unrelated questions and in the process accodentally misinforms the casual reader that is simply looking at their cheerios, their kid, a cheesy activist brochure, and then turning to Snopes for a trusted synthesis.

I hope he corrects it.  Unfortunately the Food Babe and others will use FOIA to gather our email exchanges and then say that he was just paid off by Monsanto, adding to the conspiracy.  Same old, same old. 

Glyphosate Detection- Making Claims from Noise

There is a central rule in the anti-GMO world--  scare them at any cost.  

It is amazing how ethics are disregarded in the interest of peddling a fearful message.  It has long been part of the anti-GMO industry and a weapon of its foot soldiers.  If something sounds scary and supports your beliefs, then promote it, run with it.  No matter how weak the evidence is, claim it is real. 

Such was the case with the "Stunning Corn Comparison" where fake data in a soil test table were claimed to represent biological samples-- that were not remotely biological.  Still the authors and pundits stood by it as a legitimate test. 

They also claimed to find glyphosate in breast milk.  However, an actual study by a real scientist with properly reported methods did not show any evidence of detection. Of course, anti-GM folks shouted down this legitimate report as unreliable.  

Fake data, finding positive signals in noise, and wrongful interpretation of good data are cornerstones of their strategy.  Over the last couple of years we've endured report after report, claiming to find glyphosate (well, claiming to find "Monsanto's Roundup") in everything they report. 

Everything.  Nothing has ever been reported as zero-- and that's important. 

This is mostly because they misuse a commercial test for detection of glyphosate.  They use it with an untested solution that likely would inhibit the reaction, rendering a false positive.  To them, that's gold.  A false positive is still a positive! 

But the latest round is a series of tests that claim to use LC/MS to detect glyphosate (I mean, "Monstanto's Roundup") in everything from breakfast cereals to organic cookies

The alleged detection was commissioned by Food Democracy Now.  It was not peer-reviewed, but instead presented in a flashy brochure intended to scare.  This is critical, as the methods are incomplete, there is no evidence of replication, there is no statistical treatment presented, and the effective limit of quantitation was not calculated for extraction for specific matricies. It is not peer-reviewed because it would not survive peer review.

However, last year they hammered the actual peer-reviewed report that did not detect glyphosate in human breast milk.  The work was done by Dr. Shelly McGuire of Washington State University, properly developing an extraction protocol for breast milk and then using proper LC/MS detection methods, replication, statistics, and independent replication of the results. 

Of course, FDN didn't exactly appreciate the findings. They promote soft science in their brochure, yet trash a legitimate piece of work done by a real scientist. 

When you don't find glyphosate, it's "Slack Science".  It also was not a "Monsanto" study. 

The company that  performed the FDN work was Anresco. They place information on their website and in their literature that seems legit, claiming to use LC/MS to detect the compound faithfully.  That's all good.  They discussed concepts like how the sample was derivitized and the use of HPLC etc that all seems kosher.  When doing the detection you should see results presented like these where they analyze glyphosate quantitatively in water. 

However, they never discuss extraction.  This is a big deal.  They say water and methanol, with no further explanation. If you dig into the report, they show a method developed for beer and barley tea. Hmm. 

They are dealing with complex matricies like ground oreos and other food.  Perhaps they can detect glyphosate and AMPA, but it can't be described as linear and reliable until they show that the extraction protocols do not affect faithful detection of spiked samples to show that there is a relationship. 

This becomes an important issue when you perform derivitization. Targets to be detected are best visualized when they have certain chemical characteristics.  Derivitization can be thought of as a process that chemically optimizes compounds for detection in this technique. This is important because if there are a mixture of similar compounds, they could take on similar characteristics after derivitization, causing noise in the assay. 

All is well and good until you start to attempt to detect a given compound that was pulled from different starting materials. Cheerios are not Oreos. Do all compounds isolated perform the same after derivitization?  Not necessarily. This is why scientists performing LC/MS prepare specific extraction and validation tests for individual matricies (Cheerios, Oreos, Stacy's Chips, etc). 

The fact they claim to detect the compound in non-GMO verified crackers and pita chips says that there's something wrong here. When you are detecting glyphosate where it should not be found, that means that you need to evaluate the detection method more carefully, or at least show some statistical representation of the range of alleged detections. 

But what did the report say? 

Here is a table from the actual report from the analytical lab:

The results show that the compounds are either not detected, or that "samples exhibit very low recovery (meaning from extraction) or response (meaning detection).  The above amounts found are rough estimates at best and may not represent an accurate representation of the sample."

The analysis seems legit, certainly they are detecting amounts on the edge of nothing with no replication and using methods developed for beer and barley tea.  Is it wrong?  Can't say. Is it actual detection?  Can't say.

And in the thin method section in the FDN brochure, why is "derivitized glyphosate and its metabolite AMPA" being injected?  I thought they were testing food extracts?

Of course, these borderline claims from single samples that could very well be noise are beyond convincing for the anti-glyphosate crowd:

However, this report does exactly what it sets out to do, scare people and create what appears to be a legit report. It provides a slick brochure that a rabid anti-glyphosate movement was quick to snatch up and promote.  The above is from Google News.  If you don't like reality, you can manufacture it!

It is also important to note how it is being reported, as is reeks with agenda.  

Important.  *** Look how it says, "Monsanto's Roundup Herbicide" and that should tell you all you need to know.  The test claims to find glyphosate.  Thousands of companies make glyphosate, an herbicide off patent since 2000.  You cannot tell the origin of the company that made it by such detection.  For them to say that with such authority is dishonest, and shows you that they are not to be trusted. 

All of this shapes up to one conclusion:  A non-peer-reviewed brochure from activists claiming to detect an herbicide at levels approaching the limit of detection, from highly variable matricies (foods in this case) using an extraction and derivitization protocol for beer and tea.  The tests were not done in replicates and so we have no idea about the variation within the detection.  

The reason it is not peer-reviewed is because it would not survive peer review. 

But it certainly passes Food Babe review and her critical muster! 

The Food Babe, Vani Hari, not only sees these results as legit, she places them into the context of a conspiracy! 

So there you have it.  Activist groups are making sweeping claims from single samples that are likely just noise from an assay that is not done 100% correctly.  The company that did the analysis says the numbers are not reliable and they certainly cannot be published, the gold-standard of such claims.  But the claims are made with strong conclusions juxtaposed next to pictures of babies and other heart-wrenching pathos.  It is disgusting, dishonest, and they should not be trusted.  

It would be great if these companies actually decided to take legal action.  However, it is just making cranks look like victims and legitimizes their claims.  The best strategy is to share the legitimate criticisms and let this report disappear into obscurity with the rest of the irreproducible claims of glyphosate in umbilical cords, beer, wine, breast milk and every other place they seek to find it.  

Most of all, if it is not peer reviewed it does not count. 

If it is peer-reviewed and never independently verified or expanded upon, it should be considered carefully. 

What does it say about them to use marginal numbers, that would not be a real risk if they were true, to scare parents?  This is the hyperbole of our time, and it is wrong. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

No "GMO"- Time to Take the Science Back

The term GMO has unclear roots, but it likely stems from technical language used to describe organisms featuring genes installed through recombinant DNA techniques.  Over the last decades the term has been adopted as a term of both derision and endearment. But does the term really mean anything? 

Scientists don't use it.  Well, Seralini et al (2012) (2014) used it in the figures of an attempted scholarly paper.  He had to. The purpose of the paper was to scare people, so the term was necessary. 

Let's just say, it is not used in real scientific papers. We speak with precision. So why do we tolerate its use when it is imprecise and confuses the public? 

Over the last several years I have spoken to hundreds of public, scientific and agricultural audiences and I think it is time for all of us in a science-minded community to adopt some precise language.  We should all speak from a codified vernacular to be more effective as a whole.

Here's what I propose (discuss in comments):

1. Stop using "GMO".  It is imprecise.  Everything non-clonal is genetically modified from previous forms, as is anything changed by mutation.  Instead use Genetic Engineering.  Transgenic, cisgenic, CRISPR, are all forms of genetic engineering, and it is engineering.  As my student Chris Barbey put it, "Would you rather drive across an engineered bridge, or a modified bridge?" 

Kinda nails it. 

Of course, the term "GMO" is something people recognize, so use it once in a presentation or article parenthetically, then switch to genetic engineering

Online Training in Biotech Concepts

In today's Talking Biotech Podcast guest host Dr. Paul Vincelli talks about Journey of a Gene with Dr. Don Lee from University of Nebraska. This website is an online multimedia resource to teach concepts in genetic engineering. 

Listen to the interview here, or subscribe through iTunes.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Uninvited -- Damage from Lipton's Article Continues

I've enjoyed providing good information that challenges the conclusions of  Danny Hakim's New York Times article.  I've posted real data, shown discussion of farmer sentiments, and tried to provide a sobering dose of reality to a seriously biased article. 

NPR's On Point inquired about my participation in the current discussion on Hakim's article.  They were enthusiastic, until the libelous misrepresentation of my career in science eliminated me from the discussion.   

I got an email from the producer for NPR's On Point.  He asked me if I could be a last-minute guest on the show on November 2, so I moved a standing meeting so I could accommodate his request.  We spoke for 30 minutes about the topic and the producer seemed quite happy with my answers and my command of the subject. 

Twenty minutes later he called and asked, "What is your relationship with Monsanto."

I answered correctly, "I have friends that work in the company, they never sponsored my research, and once donated to a communication program but that money was never used."

I answered every question correctly and honestly. 

He then went into asking questions about Eric Lipton's New York Times piece from last year, the piece that described me as a "lobbyist" that "trades grants for lobbying clout" on the "inner circle of industry consultants". 

He left with, "We'll follow up."

Later that afternoon I got an email that said the "Current trajectory (of your participation) is no."

Sure, maybe they just had better people agree to the interview. Could very well be. 

But at the same time I could not help but feel the enthusiasm flip 180 degrees, and it sure seemed like Lipton's libelous New York Times article was a dominant factor in that decision. 

Uninvited.  Another score for the anti-GMO movement. Their hit-job cost me another professional opportunity. 

Worse, I do think that I could have contributed to the discussion and advanced public understanding.  My experience, knowledge and ability to distill the information were removed from that conversation. 


In the spring of 1987 I walked into a laboratory with a mission to learn how to be a better scientist.  I wanted to learn how to use the tools of science to solve problems for people and the planet. 

Almost 30 years later I understand the science and how to communicate it.  However, activists have fabricated a false narrative that continues to eliminate my participation from an important conversation. That is exactly what USRTK wanted to do with their FOIA-based attack, and what Lipton wanted to achieve with his smear piece.  Mission accomplished. 

Anyone that thinks these attacks on scientists don't matter needs to simply look at this situation. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Some Actual Yield Data

After commenting on the New York Times piece that claimed that genetically-engineered crops have failed due to no effect on yield, I decided to revisit a slideshow I prepared back in 2014.  I was on a panel in Denver, CO to discuss risk, benefit, gain, loss of genetically engineered crops with a diverse group of farmers, scientists, physicians, activists, NGO leadership and corporate representatives. 

I was tasked to be on a point-counterpoint discussion with Doug Gurian-Sherman, then with the Union of Concerned Scientists.  He wrote the notoriously cherry-picked and underpowered (yet highly influential) brochure "Failure to Yield", and indictment of the failure of genetically-engineered crops. 

My point was simple.  GE crops were not made to directly increase yields.  They control other aspects of growth so that yields are maximized.  

Yields are determined by how genetics interact with environment, and how pest pressure, weather, and dozens of other factors impact the plant. 

So what do the data say?  Here are a few examples from the talk. 

EXHIBIT A is a table by Fernandez-Cornejo et al., 2014. 

The results of this meta analysis show how the net effects of adopting GM crops over conventional, comparing yield and pesticide use.  Hakim claims yields are flat and pesticide use increases. What do the data actually say?

Interpretation:  Yield and pesticide use depends on the crop, pest pressure and other factors. However, the net benefit is generally positive. 


This image shows the reasons farmers adopt GE crops. Light blue is increased yields and yellow is decreased pesticide input cost.  USDA ERS/ARMS data from 2006-2010 surveys, depending on crop.

Interpretation:  Farmers seem to think their yields are good and pesticide costs lower.

EXHIBIT C.  Economic benefits of adopting conventional or Bt corn in three Spanish provinces over three growing seasons. 

What?  In the EU?  How can that be?

INTERPRETATION:  I think I did the highlights. Yields are the same across all three seasons. However, the farmer's profits are higher, even with the higher costs of the product, which are offset by decreased corn borer control costs. 


These two tables show cotton (top) and sugar beet (bottom) data from various states, before and after adoption of transgenic traits.

INTERPRETATION:  Traits help yields in these locations over these years.  USDA data.


The dotted line is a Roundup Ready corn variety.  The solid line is the same line with a Bt insect control trait.  Yield is shown over two seasons as a function of nitrogen input. 

INTERPRETATION:  Yield depends on many variables. In 2009, the Bt trait is invisible.  No effect on yield.  But in 2008 the Bt trait had normal yield, the non-Bt had significantly lower yield.  This is an important figure in the discussion.  While the Bt trait did not increase the yield, it made sure that the inherent genetics were allowed to produce to their full potential.  I'm not sure where I got this graph from.  Poor scholarship. I'll figure it out later. 


YES, these are selected and biased examples and there are plenty out there that show no difference.  I just thought it was important to reinforce the idea that yields are not always the objective, and certainly there are documented cases where GE traits matter.  

I hope these resources prove helpful in your continued discussion of the New York Times article.