Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Your Ancient Past, Weaponized

Back before there was Drunk History, back before The Man Show, there was media circulating that targeted the shaky hand that held the urine-soaked wallet.  

My friend from high school, Herb Rosen, took his experience of bartending in Chicago's dives and opened his own place-- Liars Club over on Fullerton Ave in Chicago.  It was (is) a crusty place in a (then) no-name neighborhood that had a KISS pinball machine and $1.00 drafts of PBR.  It is still there, still a dump, but the best place in Chicago for a cheap beer and Misfits or Decendents on the jukebox. It was where an entrepreneurial effort of catering reading material for late-night misfits would gain some traction...   

Self Publishing Roots

During high school in the 80's my friends and I were basement publishers.  We printed media called "fanzines" -- photocopied reviews of bands, music and other sundries.  It was a place for creative energy and clever writing before the internet gave us an instant, worldwide venue. 

We also played music, recorded video, did a lot with costuming and always had an entrepreneurial slant. 

During that time I took a lot of notes and did lots of artwork.  I had hilarious friends, and documented our delinquency furiously on my HP 286Mhz processor with 40 MB of hard drive space.  I compiled hundreds of stories.  We'd sell our writing and music reviews for fifty cents or a few bucks, mostly at punk rock shows or indy record stores. 

But soon it was time to take fanzines to the next level -- self-publishing small books. 

It was 1994 or so, maybe 1995. Probably both.  I was in grad school, living in Chicago and being paid $12,000 a year to TA courses.  To avoid student loans I shoveled snow overnight to supplement income. Start at midnight, done at 5 AM and exhausted on any night when 1" of snow or more was predicted. Eight bucks an hour and driving around three other losers in my 1981 Mercury Monarch to bank parking lots and residential driveways to hoist heavy, wet snow. It was awful. There had to be a better way.

I went back to those old stories and then compiled and illustrated several works, usually also featuring writing from my friends.  Greybait! An Insiders Guide to UFO PseudoscienceCarp Angler (alternative fishing), Alcoholics Unanimous - United We Stagger, and the EAT THIS! cookbook. All were printed at bargain basement photocopy joints and bound in duct tape and/or big staples. 

Others were constructed but never printed.  It cost about $100 to do the printing and I just didn't have that kind of cash laying around. I still have an AT hard drive with a few good pieces that never saw the light of day. 

Self Publishing, and Pre-Amazon Book Sales

As I'd meander Chicago's nightlife with a messenger bag of self-published texts it became obvious that this was an audience excited to spend a few bucks on a traveling salesman's wares. Whether it was tamales or flowers, stolen jackets or CD's, Chicago's early 90's dive bars were a flea market wrapped in a fog of cheap booze and clove cigarette stink. 

Liars Club, Tuman's Alcohol Abuse Center, Exit, Rainbow Club, and a dozen other places were frequent stops to sell self-published books.  Five bucks each. 

Quimby's Queer Book Store also was happy to sell the titles.  

There were mail orders and stockpiles for sale in indy record stores (yes, that long ago). 

I was happy to make a few bucks. On an average weekend I could sell a few dozen.  Lab work all day, book selling at night. 

AU- A Book for the Inebriated

Throughout high school and college I complied many stories related to excess imbibition. I observed others go overboard, I did myself quite a few times, and there were many stories that went along with that unraveling. 

Many people have similar stories, most didn't bother to write them down, and certainly most didn't own them.  But the experiences I had with friends were priceless, and our successes and mistakes, victories and foibles happened.  They did.  They happened, and I wrote about them. I absolutely stretched the edges a bit too to make stupid college stories remotely interesting. 

The stories resonated with late-night drunks.  When compiled into the self-published book they found favor with many that could relate to the content, or just were too stewed to not notice they paid five bucks for a stupid self-published book. 

Either way, I was happy to make a few bucks, sell a few books, and disseminate a few smiles from silly stories and exaggerated claims. 

The End.  1996 or so. 

Revisited, Today. 

 A copy of Alcoholics Unanimous sat on a shelf in my home for over 20 years.  I never looked at it.  It was just there, the stories growing old with time and becoming more irrelevant as the world became more sensitive to the dangers of alcohol abuse, the hazards of drunk driving and long-term effects of drinking.  

But to someone wishing me harm--- this secret volume was gold.  Pure gold.  

And the smear machine ratchets forward.  He's a corporate shill, drunk driver, blah, blah, blah.

These ancient texts were long dead, lost in a Chicago gutter, used as toilet paper in a bush, or traded for smokes.  Until now. 

A malicious release of this stale document to the anti-GMO movement would be perfect.  Here's something with Folta's name on it making light of a current issue, and we can punish him for it- 23 years later!  

Last week the work was taken from its dusty resting place and released to GM Watch where they promptly posted a page about it-- happy to add it to the years of smear they publish about me. 

But to folks like Paul Thacker, Kavin Senapathy, GMO Watch and my malicious ex spouse (who is featured in the work and used to help me sell it) -- they could now parade this work around as evidence of my questionable character, and use it to soil social media with quotes from the text that were simply exaggerated stories, many fictitious, that were funny to some people at the time. 

When it was written it was the early and mid 90's.  We had very different feelings about social edges of substance abuse.  Look at how we've revised our social tolerances toward pot, opioids and alcohol since that time.  

Personally, we all evolve.  What's funny then isn't funny now. What was acceptable then, is not acceptable now.  I did a beer bong in 1982.  Not since. 


But one thing that hasn't changed is the length that people will go to hurt others. 

Over the years I have accumulated a following of haters, folks that will do whatever it takes to harm me, my reputation, or my ability to serve others, at every turn. 

Senapathy, Thacker, GM Watch, and a cast of a thousand bots have now raised this ancient text as concrete proof that my 31 years in public science is somehow devoid of merit. 

This silly, outdated work, gone except for a copy fed to them purposefully in the name of malice, is their proof positive that my time in classrooms, my time in retirement homes, my 80+ peer-reviewed papers and hundreds of graduated students-- are meaningless.

The goal-- to have me further maligned within my institution, discredited in the science communication community, and removed from public service.  That's a swell idea.  

The good news is that the world has mostly yawned, probably because they did dumb stuff once, then grew up too.


To those of you that see this re-animation in the name of smear for what it is-- I thank you.   

I have a lot of fun doing what I do.  I have a lot of fun now piloting a wonderful research enterprise, mentoring students and participating and teaching science communication. 

Back then, it was fun too. We did mountains of stupid things involving clown suits, explosives, and the early internet. 

I'm guessing that all of these things will now emerge and be misrepresented as much as possible, in an attempt to cause me career harm and stir public distrust.  That's fine. 

Ultimately I think folks are smarter than that.  

So to critics, go ahead, cast that first stone.  But keep in mind that the person you harm with it might be someone that is working hard for the same goals you find important.  By taking out your target do you really help your cause, or do you harm the greater good and come off as petty in the process?  

That is an important question to answer. 

(And I'm sure that hostile interests are working hard to find those other titles....  send me a copy if you do.  Thanks)

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Talking Biotech 136 - Food Labels

This week's podcast--  Are food labels adding clarity or confusion?  Focus groups show that consumer sentiment toward food labels is changing.  Colleen Parr-Dekker is the Director of Communications at Elanco.  They have performed extensive focus group analysis and consumer surveys to understand how consumers feel about labels and food.  The excess of abstract information and claims has left most consumers unsure what labels even mean.  Consumers are clueless about terms like “antibiotic free” or “free range”, while companies use these tactics as marketing angles to differentiate their products.  Surveys show that terms like “natural” or “organic” are losing influence.  The results are surprising!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Thoughts for Today - Changes

The website GM Watch has harassed me for years, providing false, derogatory information about me.  I ignore it.  Most people ignore it.  They speak to their echo chamber and that's about it. 

Recently they have found a tremendous ally in someone that used to be very close to me. She has been funneling information to them that is happily crafted into willful misinterpretations that are potentially quite damaging. 

They then used bots to create spam letters to my university calling for investigation.  They only generated 1000.  However, the smear campaign fueled by personal issues to resolve has forced me out of my current position.  It is not fair to my university, students, farmers or colleagues to have leadership working with tremendous personal distraction.

Anti-GE interests have been relentlessly spamming social media and email of journalists and papers to cover the story.  Nobody is interested. The Independent Florida Alligator is going to run a story based on this and my resignation.  I am unsure what it will say. But in preparation: 


1.  Harass or contact my ex-wife. Please respect her privacy. I don't believe her recent actions now are a true reflection of her character and I wish her well professionally and personally. 

2.  Don't feed the trolls.  They will take a victory lap on this. Let them take it. 

3.  Don't harass my university.  My bosses are good people and working hard, they don't need any further distractions.


1.  Consider the source.  This is GM Watch, a hate group that targets science and scientists.

2.  Take careful note of how science "allies" respond.  Many have run from this situation and some have augmented GM Watch's campaign.  Stephan Neidenbach surprisingly re-posted their article without even contacting me.  Others with brand to protect took conservative stances rather than entering the discussion.   I understand that.  However, this is the divide and conquer they wanted.  It also shows a lack of courage, and when Neidenbach or many others went under the bus I was the first one crawling between the wheels to pull them out.  This is not a time to turn on each other or show weakness.  

3. Ask questions, get facts, and understand that this is the handiwork of two parties that want me jobless, homeless and out of the scicomm arena (and ultimately removed from the planet). 

4.  Get Involved!   Not in my stupid story but in the wider debate.  Teach kids, talk to friends, share the beautiful stories of science cataloged over on the Talking Biotech Podcast

Most of all, talk to me if you have questions.  Contact me by email and we'll do a phone call anytime.  kevinfolta at gmail 

Thank you.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

135 - Engineering Plant Virus Resistance

In this week's podcast Dr. Paul Vincelli interviews Dr. Devang Mehta about genetic engineering solutions to plant virus problems.  Dr. Mehta describes the use of RNAi and CRISPR techniques, and some of the surprising things learned from their use.  The work is mostly performed in cassava, a key crop in the Developing World.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Talking Biotech Podcast 133 - An Extension Agonomist's View on Biotech Crops

Extension specialists are the boots-on-the ground connection between the university and the farm. This week's podcast is a conversation with Dr. Chad Lee, Extension Agronomist at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Lee tells it like it is. How important are GE crops? Are they the most important technology on the farm? What about common myths? Soy, corn, no till, glyphosate, dicamba.... A wonderful conversation!

This week's podcast.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Another Lost to "Distracted" Driving

I can't say for sure that I've ever met Shawn Smith.  Chances are that I likely rode with him at some point, but was likely riding behind him as this elite cyclist disappeared over the hill in front of me. Gainesville, FL has a pretty tight-knit cycling community of riders, with excursions pedaling out daily from the edges of town on to beautiful country roads. 

Hardly a time goes by that group rides are buzzed by drivers passing too close. Some do it because they are impatient and won't slow down to safely pass. Some to it on purpose because they feel a sick need to harass athletes or recreational riders. 

Others do it because they are staring at a phone, reaching under a seat, or engaging any one of dozens of activities not conducive to driving.  We see it every day as drivers.  That car drifting  into the bike lane, then rapidly pulling back to where it is supposed to be.

Every. Damn. Day.

Distracted drivers kill almost ten people a day, and injure about 1000 a day.  That's about on-par with non-suicide gun deaths, a place where there is plenty of rage and stiff penalties for criminal infractions. 

This week a "distracted" driver killed Shawn Smith, an accomplished cyclist that trained daily on Alachua County's gorgeous roadways.  He leaves behind a wife and 13-year-old son.  He was hit from behind by a driver in an F150 pickup and died the next day. 

The Gainesville cycling community loses another to distracted driving.
This is Shawn Smith, husband and father.

It is imperative that we add some nuance to the term distracted driving. We need to define what the distraction is and act accordingly.  Is it unavoidable, like a blown tire or weather?  Or is it completely avoidable, like texting a friend, searching for a phone number, or looking for a radio station? 

The latter are conscious choices, decisions one makes fully understanding that there is risk in engaging those behaviors.  It is the same thing as drunk driving, maybe worse, because the decisions are unimpaired by chemistry. They are a product of free will, and conscious disregard for others. 

In this case, if it is determined that the driver was distracted by choice, he/she will get a slap on the wrist and maybe a fine. We've seen that plenty of times before. 

When graduate student McNair Bostick was murdered by a distracted driver, the 18 year old driver received a $1500 fine.  The soon to be Dr. Bostick's wife and newborn son lost a husband and father. 

When a friend's brother was hit and killed in Miami, the driver received no punishment. 

And the same will likely happen here.  

I'm not sure what the solution is.  The best might be to make consequences so disproportionately severe that drivers just don't go there.

But to Shawn's wife and son it does not matter.  They have been robbed of a beloved father and husband. 

We live in a time when riding a bicycle is one of the riskiest activities you can engage in.  Accidents do happen and always will.  But accidents caused by choice are not accidents, they are examples of deliberate contempt for the law and conscious knowledge that their negligence may harm someone else. 

Let's start raising retribution for harms caused by distracted drivers.  While I'm typically against draconian measures to curb behaviors, this is one place where they should exist. Distracted drivers are more dangerous than drunk drivers, and we need to ramp up the social stigmatization and demand the most severe penalties for offenders-- especially if they harm someone else. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Interpreting "Weed Killer Formulations Toxic to Cells"

When I read it I think, "No S-- Sherlock."

But to Carrie Gillam this is rhetorical red meat, another way to sell a book, put dollars in her pocket, and advance a cause --- by exploiting credulous media and readers. 

Her second recent article in the Guardian says that the herbicide formulation Roundup is more toxic to human cells than glyphosate alone.  This revelation has been published many times before in actual journals, so this is not new information, just time to stoke the fear fire a bit more.

Yes, products formulated to penetrate cells are usually toxic to cells-- in a petri dish.  Use of the product on crops means your cells do not get the same exposure, and your body is not a layer of slime in a Petri dish.

Researchers have examined glyphosate for toxicity or endocrine disruption potential against tissue culture cells. These limited systems are great ways to start understanding how a compound might affect cells, which can then inform later studies in whole organisms.  If it doesn't affect slime in a dish, then it probably isn't going to do much to a metabolizing, living organism.

Time and time again it has been shown that glyphosate itself has no effect on cells in a dish until concentrations become massive.  However, the Roundup formulation does kill cells. Whatzzup? 

Herbicides are composed of several key components-- the biology interfering chemical that kills the plant (in this case glyphosate) and other molecules that aid in its delivery.  Getting an plant-lethal compound into a plant cell can be quite a feat. Plants have waxy layers on their leaves to help retain water and serve as a physical barrier to pathogens. It keeps herbicides out pretty well too. 

Because glyphosate works almost exclusively as a foliar herbicide, it must somehow penetrate into leaves. That means that formulations must contain a surfactant, a molecule like a detergent that allows for good surface contact and even facilitates movement across the waxy cuticle, cell walls and membranes. 

Surfactants have detergent-like properties. At even marginal concentrations they will affect cells in a Petri dish. Just like a tiny bit of dish soap, shampoo, or Dr. Bonner's Pure Castile soap.

One of the best papers to illustrate the cytotoxic properties of the surfactants comes from Dr. Fiona Young's group. She shows that glyphosate has no effect on cells as an endocrine disruptor, and complete formulations become cytotoxic because of the surfactants I wrote about it here, and did a podcast with her discussing the work and activist distortions here

This is how Gillam continues her deception, spinning a known finding (detergents kill cells in petri dishes at certain concentrations) to imply some sort of risk to humans when none is observed. 

Remember, human cells in a culture dish are fragile critters. They respond to anything that doesn't belong in culture medium.  Adding a commercial formulation of an herbicide to cells and observing an effect is normal and expected. 

But translating those findings to imply risk in the whole organism is not allowed. First humans are not exposed to the surfactant and herbicide in biologically relevant amounts. Second, surfactant and herbicide are independent molecules when encountered in tiny amounts- meaning they will be metabolized or excreted independently by the body, which is exactly what happens.

Of course, Gillam and the Guardian don't check with scientists. They have their story of deadly toxicity and they are sticking to it.  After all, it is not about science or truth. To them it is about advancing an agenda, selling a book, and promoting a bogus story that can instill fear about food and farming.