Wednesday, July 25, 2018

EU Scientists Weep ... and the Activists Cheer

Today in the most recent reminder that governments are not to be trusted with scientific decisions, the Court of Justice of the European Union has decided handed down a ruling that they don't understand science.  

They have affirmed that gene edited crops are to be treated the same as transgenic crops.  This means that they will never be approved for use in the EU.

Friends of the Earth = Enemies of Progress
Why does an organization that has a good record of standing up for many important environmental and social issues, make the tremendous mistake of fighting technology? 

However, crops featuring genetic innovations due to mutagenesis are just fine.  In other words, treat plant materials with radiation or chemicals to break chromosomes, rearrange chunks of DNA or change thousands of sequences in unknown ways -- that's good! 

No testing, no environmental assessment, no labels. 

But if you make a single base change out of billions of bases, and you know what the gene does, and it helps farmers, the environment or the poor-- fugettaboutit. 

My heart goes out to the European scientists that have dedicated their lives to crop improvement or research.  Again you have had your hands tied by regressive rules. 

My fist goes out to the activist organizations that applaud the ruling, again showing that technology is something to fear and restrict, even if it can help ease environmental impact or world hunger. 

From Dana Perls, Friends of the Earth U.S.- 

These genetic engineering techniques could radically change our food system, threatening non-GMO and organic agriculture and the livelihoods that depend on it. We applaud the European Court of Justice for this forward-thinking decision and encourage the USDA to follow its lead. All products made with genetic engineering, including ones made with gene-editing tools like CRISPR, should be regulated, assessed for health and environmental impacts, and labeled.

If there's any silver lining on Brexit it might be that the UK will be able to define its own rules, science the heck out of crops, and then become a leader in supplying farmers with superior seeds and products. 

But for now, it is just another reminder that we should stop letting politicians dictate the boundaries of research and its beneficial applications.  Such blanket pronouncements stifle innovation, and keep good technologies from reaching their targets. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

Write for Plant Cell Extracts

The articles in The Plant Cell represent the most novel and significant findings in plant genomics and cellular and molecular biology.  But the articles are so damn dense! 

Can we help synthesize key findings in a way that helps better communicate the important work, and train new authors to write for public audiences?  That's the job of Plant Cell Extracts! 

 If you are interested in distilling a paper we will help with the process.  

1.  Pick a paper to write about. 
2.  Contact me at kfolta at 
3.  We brainstorm ways to tell the story in a relatable way
4.  You write
5   A crack team of editors gives it a hard edit
6.  You fix
7.  We publish! 

You are the author, all efforts are made to ensure we retain your voice and you maintain all discretion to accept/decline suggestions. 


  • It is easy-- 500-1500 words is a breeze
  • It is important -- we need to be more effective at sharing the science and the significance
  • It shows you care about public understanding of science
  • It helps you develop your voice and style outside of scientific journals
  • It helps build a brand around your scientific program! 

Students - Postdocs - Early Career - Seasoned Curmudgeons 

Articles will appear in the Plant Cell Extracts section of and possibly in other venues. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

My Letter to the USDA on "BE" Labels

The public comment period on the USDA's proposed "bioengineered" labels is history, at least your ability to respond to it.  But as far as public comments go, the slate does not disappoint.  As usual, the well informed decided not to share their knowledge, but every person with an opinion and no grasp of science was happy to chime in.  

The Federal Register collected 2,446  comments. 

The dominant take-home is that people have no clue about the science.  When they do have a clue, they agree that the USDA AMS made a huge mistake by floating happy symbols with the term "B.E." for "bioengineered" a term nobody understands or ever used. 

I did find my letter, and can say with certainty that I agree with myself from April 2018.  I think its a neat letter. 

My letter to the USDA AMS about "Bioengineered" labels.  In 20 years we'll have to get together and agree that I was correct. 

 For those of you that don't want to read the whole thing, here are some of the sentences that made me smile three months later:

"I certainly do not understand why the USDA is making a scientific mandate out of a cultural misunderstanding."

"It is indeed curious why equivalent ingredients would need to be differentiated by some sort of package decoration."

"All of this simply means that the supply chains will have to be monitored, and all of this adds cost that will be handed down to the consumer, with the intent of providing information they don’t understand and protects us from nothing. " 

" (Voluntary labeling) eliminates government from the process of devising new rules that raise prices and produce new policy that has zero effect on human health or welfare."

Wowzers!   Three months after I wrote the letter it still makes me laugh.  When you compare my thoughts to the 2440 other statements, it shows something important-- when we are scientifically illiterate we are prone to live in fear of non-issues, and are subject to being taken advantage of by bad people with horrible motivations. 

And it is a reminder that the processes that dictate policy should rely on evidence, and not ask the public for their two cents.  You can't buy anything good with that. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Talking Biotech Podcast 142 - Barley Domestication and Breeding

If you like beer and bread, you better like barley.  It's history is dotted with fascinating stories.  It has even been used as a pregnancy test.  This week's guest is Dr. Sheila Adimargono (@seminisa) discusses barley, from early domestication to modern genomics.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Need for Scientists to Engage the Public

I'm speaking at IAPB 2018 in Dublin Ireland and they asked me for a synopsis of my presentation for the media.  I liked it so much that I posted it here! 

Moving innovation to application means that scientists need to take advantage of every opportunity to engage the public, and then do it correctly. 

Consumers crave new technology.   They will queue up for a week to buy the newest mobile phone, even though the last version works well.  Transportation, communication, medicine—just several areas that are greatly improved because technology has enhanced the human experience.

But when we talk about food, the same consumers are skeptical or even afraid of technology.  There is a conspicuous drive to return to The Good Ol’ Days, a quest for the simple, and rejection of any technology that could alter plant genetics.  This, despite the fact that human efforts in crop improvement are the basis for civilization and ultimately the technology that gives them new mobile phones.

Plant biotechnology does not have an innovation problem.  

Plant biotechnology has an application problem. 

The scientific journals report grand stories of great innovations that address critical facets of the human condition.  Malnutrition, economically viable farming, enhanced consumer products, food security, environmental sustainability—scientists have created solutions that could satisfy these critical needs.

But the most transformative innovations sit on the shelf.  Brilliant technologies stand arrested,  and many scientists have thrown their hands in the air upon realizing that their best efforts may never be deployed.   In a world with a growing population, fewer farmers raising our food, and a changing climate, all solutions need to be considered.

The solution is better communication about what we do.  Scientists are not trained in the art of persuasion and nuanced communication at the public interface.  They make mistakes.  They build walls rather than bridges.

The presentation will describe what scientists do wrong, how they can get it right, where they need to meet the public, and ultimately how to change hearts and minds about food-related technologies.   The goal is to move that innovation to application, and serve our common interests with new technology.   It is an eye-opening discussion that changes the approach, as scientists learn that their best breakthroughs enjoy greater impact when communicated effectively.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Social Scientists Find Russian Anti-GMO Link

It sounds like crazy conspiracy, but it actually is true. Upon analysis of messaging in social media and news outlets a team of researchers from Iowa State has identified that a massive amount of information critical of biotechnology comes from sources in the Russian Federation. 

This week's podcast.