Saturday, March 9, 2019

Poisoning Agriculture

Sloppy Journalism Continues to Tarnish the Perception of Food Safety and the Processes that Produce It
The daily reports about how agriculture is killing us are certainly alarming. However, when I carefully examine each report the sensational headlines never seem to match reality. The claims originate usually from either unpublished reports, or re-interpretations of legitimately-published work where the conclusions have little to no relationship to the scandalous headline.
Today’s example came to me via Twitter when I read the post to the left. Pesticides associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS; Lou Gehrig's Disease) progression? Okay, I’ll take a look at the data and see what they authors found. The referenced study is here.
The authors analyzed 167 cases of ALS, measured blood levels of select compounds, and then monitored disease progression. The authors found associations between levels of specific organic compounds and the progression of disease.
But they were not pesticides. At least anything used in a long, long time.

The big offenders were polycholorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl esters (PBCEs), known toxic compounds from paper/plastics/electronics manufacturing and a class of flame retardants. No pesticides.
In fact, the study did not even test modern day pesticides. They examined the levels of components of chlordane (cis- and trans-nonachlor, and chlordane itself) a compound that has been banned since the 1980’s. It is a a reasonable idea to test for it, as it is environmentally persistent and its components are health hazards.
They also examined levels of hexachlorocyclohexene (HCH) and Dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (p.p’ DDE; the breakdown product of DDT). This makes sense too, as these long-banned compounds are persistent chemistries that still can be detected in those exposed, years after exposure.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Blog Post from September 6, 2015

In light of recent events, I decided to visit my blog from September 6, 2015, the day that Eric Lipton's article was published.  Here it is again for you to compare and contrast against claims made by Lipton and others. That is all. 



1. What is your relationship with Monsanto?

I have no formal relationship with the company.  Friends, former students, colleagues from previous jobs work there.  They once made a relatively small donation to my university to cover travel/production costs of my science communication program in August of 2014.  The entire original amount was reallocated to a campus charity. Monsanto does not fund my research and never has. I have spoken at the company twice about science communication and enjoyed collegial hospitality.

As is clear by emails, I'm glad to share thoughts and opinions with them on science communication. I hold no formal capacity in this regard. I do this with any company and show no special favor to Monsanto.

2. What is your relationship with Ketchum?

Ketchum runs the GMO Answers website. As an educator, I’m always excited about new ways to communicate science, and am especially eager to harness the reach of well-designed and promoted electronic media. The GMO Answers website was a great opportunity to answer questions for a concerned public using scientific evidence.  The website remains extremely useful, and is an recognized resource for a curious public to have questions answered. I still answer questions for the public via that medium, and will do so until there are no questions to answer.  I receive no compensation for my answers, and all reflect strict interpretations of the scientific literature. 

3.  Did you receive reimbursement for travel from anyone?

Absolutely.  As an expert in my area of research (fruit genomics, LED light in controlled environments) I am frequently asked to travel to companies (such as LED light companies or greenhouses), fruit companies (Driscoll’s etc), or universities (many).  I provide a seminar about my lab’s research and interact with companies to aid in their research directions and designs.  It is customary for those requesting the presentation to cover the related travel and lodging costs.

I'm a cheap date. I don't want anything special, basic creature comforts.

Similarly, if a company wants me to speak on biotech communication, they pay my associated costs.  If politicians request to hear from an expert, the companies, professional societies, or industry groups may be willing to cover my costs.  That is normal and customary.  The university does not cover travel costs and my laboratory has no travel budget outside of grant-sponsored travel specific to the project.

It is important for these parties to hear from scientific experts, and the scholarly literature should be the central driver of policy decisions.  Therefore, my voice is important in these cases, and I'm grateful for anyone that is willing to cover my minimal costs to participate in such discussions. 

4. Do you receive speaker fees or honoraria?

Occasionally I am offered fees for my time, again, which is customary and appropriate.  Those funds could go to me personally, but I recommend they are directed to fund my outreach program. In essence, funding to me, goes to fund outreach. 

5.  Did Ketchum write your answers on GMO Answers?

Early in the first months of GMO Answers a Ketchum employee provided scientifically precise answers as samples for what I might choose to write.  They were offered as a guide.  I can find two cases where I read and modified their template. I answered the other 65 with zero prompting. 

It is not uncommon for scientists, politicians, journalists and others to have staff prepare draft documents.  I am not compensated for my time, and these are lengthy answers, so the well crafted answers from Ketchum were used as a starting point to produce a hard answer that was scientifically correct.  This is a common and acceptable practice, as busy people work from outlines framed from others. Hence the occupation, "speechwriter".

However, I pride myself on documents generated from a blank page. I just like the way I write. These two examples were uncharacteristic conveniences, and will be replaced with answers that are completely my own words.  They provide an identical message.  It is not an admission of guilt. It is my way to say, that only my words appear online. 

6. What did you mean by "I'm glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like"?  

Simple.  I appreciate opportunities.  Out of context this sounds nefarious, but it is what I say to anyone that extends me an opportunity to speak, write or participate.  I make this statement daily, and it is my job to provide scholarly interpretations of the literature, relate science to schools, and aid our state extension personnel in communicating this science.  I am glad to help anyone that offers me an opportunity to write or speak, if it means better understanding of science.

Cherry picking a quote from industry emails neglects the thousands of interactions I have with school groups, retirement homes, statewide non-GMO fruit industries, nationwide industries and the many other places I help teach science. 

7.  Has a company's financial or other influence ever influenced the science you communicate? 

No.  These are my words and no company has, or ever will, influence what they are.  They are interpretations of the scholarly literature, and in agreement with a vast scientific consensus.

I guess we could say that support allows me to do it more often, thereby influencing the frequency of the communications events.  However, only I provide content. All of my talks, lectures and workshops are available online at Slideshare.net. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

W-9 Forms and Secret Payments

I hate like hell giving screen-time to Paul Thacker.  He has shown a persistent mission to hassle me, dig endlessly through my emails and other records, and then construct kook conspiracy theories and false associations. 

Today is his latest installment is his proof that I am not an independent scientist, and just a paid industry hack like him.  He shared this today on Twitter.  His goal?  To erode trust in a public, independent academic scientist with a strong record of public service-- because I'm changing hearts and minds about science.  That must be stopped. 

From Paul's Twitter feed 2/11/2019



Paul posted this today.  Glad I unblocked him. 
And nice of him to publish a document with my social security number, address and phone number fully visible.


So what is this W-9? 

Sometime in mid 2014 I received a phone call from Lisa Drake, someone I never met before.  She worked in Colorado and had a role in customer contact, etc for Monsanto.  She said that farmers in the area were getting a lot of questions about the crops they were growing and they wanted answers. 

But the farmers didn't want answers from a company, they wanted it from an independent source.  So she called me to see if I could do it, September 16, 2014 at a Harvest Tour and Dinner Event, near Longmont, CO. 

No problem.  Glad to.  Well one problem.  No money.  I don't have a fund that allows me to buy plane tickets, etc. to speak to such audiences, at least I didn't at the time. 

So I asked Lisa if she could cover the exact costs of my travel.  No honorarium,  just hotel (cheap), airfare (coach), parking for my car in Gainesville, meals (cheap ones) and a rental car to get to the event (+gas).

I made the trip, had a great time with the farmers, mostly sugar beet and corn growers using publicly-held land in Boulder County.  It was a wonderful trip I'll never forget, and I made some great contacts that are now good friends. 

****
I requested reimbursement, and was kind of nice about it.  I used the rental car the day before to go see a friend in Ft. Collins, so I didn't think they had to cover that. 


My costs.  I have receipts for all of them. 
Airfare: $427.20
Hotel:  $127.35  (night before event)
Hotel:  $95.14  (had to stay near airport for AM flight)
Car rental:  $70.07
Parking in Gainesville $27
The rest was gas and meals. 

After I submitted my receipts, they needed a W9 to be able to process my reimbursement.  This is standard in corporate accounting apparently and it sucks.  They send me a check as a payment for expenses, yet it counts as income.  Later when I do my taxes I have to again show all the receipts to offset this "income". 

This is all pretty standard tax law.  I signed and submitted the W9, shown in Thacker's Twitter post above.  Here's a bigger copy. 



Here is the W9 submitted after my receipts.  Note the date (10/7/2014) and note the address.  These are important later. NOTE- THE REDACTIONS OF SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER, PHONE NUMBER and ADDRESS ARE MINE. THACKER POSTED THEM IN THEIR ORIGINAL FORM. 

All was complete and they could process my reimbursement. 

Here is the copy of the reimbursement check receipt.  This was in my private records in my old home and my ex-wife shared it with GM Watch in 2018, claiming it was an under-the-table payment. Like Thacker, she doesn't like me either.  Ironically, I had to pull it off of the GM Watch website, as I don't have this anymore. 





Here is the check receipt from my records (I didn't black out the name, not sure why the ex did), the exact costs of travel reimbursed and delivered to my home address.  

Why not to the university?  I could do this work on a university credit card and get reimbursed from the company, through the university.  However, that adds a level of time/expense, and it means I need to turn in receipts within 24 hours of incurring a charge, something I can't always do, especially from the road. I pay the expenses, submit receipts, receive reimbursement. That's it.

So here's the check cut on 10/13/2014, in response to my submitted receipts on 9/29/2014, for an event I spoke at on 9/16/2014. 

Here is why this is important.  
Paul Thacker and University of San Francisco's Industry Documents Library seek to harm the credibility of scientists they don't like by cherry picking and skewed presentation of information. It is part of their attack on on science, much like that done to disparage climate scientists. 

The documents reveal reimbursement for costs incurred when I spoke to farmers about technology.  It was on my time, and I received no compensation. 

It is his purposeful distortion of an event that was public information, fully disclosed, and receipts visible on demand. 

This is transparency weaponized to raise questions about the integrity of a scientist, sharing science. 

Is Paul Thacker someone you trust?  Is this kind of reprehensible conduct acceptable to you?  

It is just another day in the life of scientists that teach science, and the barriers we have to fight to do it in a hostile atmosphere when hate meets social media. 



Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Bittersweet Access Denied

The website from yesterday is gone.  Access denied. 




Despite the fact that this was our central scientific organization making a major blunder, the internet was strangely silent, and it made me uneasy.  

This situation is nothing but bad optics, but the criticism had to be levied, because it was the truth. Damn the torpedoes. 

But it was enough time for at least a subset of the anti-technology movement to grab it and run with it. 




I'm holding my breath and hoping for a clarifying statement that acknowledges the findings of the awardees, but frames them within the limitations of the experiments performed.

I'm also waiting for the claims that this was the secret hand of Monsanto, infiltrating the AAAS corps of lackeys, and having the page pulled. 

We indeed live in strange times. I'm glad that scientists in places like Sri Lanka examine public health issues, formulate hypotheses and test them as they can.

We just need to keep it real. If we are going to build trust, accept innovation and speed solutions to the Developing World, we need to let evidence dictate our decisions, and not base new policy on hunches and hypotheses. 

It will be interesting to see what happen next.   





Monday, February 4, 2019

What Am I Missing?

I humbly ask this question.  What am I missing? 

Tonight I read the press release for the AAAS about the 2019 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, going to two Sri Lankan physicians / researchers that apparently confirmed a deadly causal connection between a kidney disease (Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Origin; CKDu) and the herbicide glyphosate. Congrats, congrats!

Wow, I must have missed this.  Certainly a concrete link would be big news, and if AAAS is awarding someone for this research it must have been a prominent publication.  But I scan the literature almost daily and never saw this. 

The names of the awardees seemed strangely familiar.  Then it hit me... this was the 2014 paper where they looked at hard water consumption in Sri Lanka and then suggested a tie between CKDu, heavy metals and glyphosate. The paper presented a hypothesis.  There were no data.  There were no experiments.  It was a decent hypothesis that could be tested. 

At the time the anti-ag-chemistry world lit up in celebration. Finally they had the smoking gun.  I remember this vividly-- only there was no smoke, there was no gun.  It was a hypothesis to test. These folks don't actually read the papers. 

This paper, presenting a hypothesis only, was sufficient to spark a ban of glyphosate in 2015, a move that drew criticism because the ban occurred in the absence of data. Later, reputable scientists would add that the ban threatened food security as farmers were stripped of a helpful agricultural tool, based on a hunch.

The Sri Lankan National Academy of Science made clear statements on the associations, stating that the "research is not conclusive" and "We are not aware of any scientific evidence form studies in Sri Lanka or abroad showing that CKDu is caused by glyphosate." 

The same organization also notes no association between CKDu and cancer, which we'd expect if the herbicide was causing both diseases as some claim. 



Lethal herbicides?  I'm not aware of evidence that supports this conclusion. What's up AAAS?


The researchers are obviously passionate about identifying the source of the problem in this region.  An examination of their later work shows a dedicated inquiry into heavy metals and pesticides that occur in drinking water in agricultural areas, and their association with CKDu.  They also look at the flip side and how access to clean water improves health outcomes. That alone is deserving of some recognition. I also think they would agree with me that the AAAS website was not accurately representing their conclusions.  

Many researchers, including these authors, have examined the connections to heavy metals, particularly arsenic and cadmium (including this work that shows cadmium dose-response), which are present in high levels in CKDu endemic areas, and arise from application of fertilizers and pesticides.   

Their follow up paper added a correlation to the hypothesis by actually examining heavy metals and glyphosate in the urine of a relatively small number of subjects (10 ill, 10 asymptomatic, 10 from another area).  Their conclusion was, "Although we could not localize a single nephrotoxin as the culprit for SAN (Sri Lankan Agricultural Nephropathy), multiple heavy metals and glyphosate may play a role in pathogenesis." 

A case-control study (self-reported health factors) by the same authors in a CKDu-endemic hospital also found statistical associations with application of several different herbicides and insecticides.  There also was association with exposure to a variety of heavy metals in drinking water, especially from abandoned wells.  The authors note that the majority of those answering questions were farmers who don't use personal protective equipment when spraying pesticides. I'm not surprised that they'd have higher levels in their urine. Again, the authors were correct in noting the limitations of the study.

Across all work, these authors rely on statistical associations between agricultural inputs, heavy metals, and CKDu, and a hypothetical "Compound X" that could bind heavy metals and transport them to the kidneys.  They suggested that glyphosate would fit the bill and build survey data that support that association. Cool. Again, a great hypothesis to test, but we have to be careful with interpretations.


The caption says "deadly herbicide called glyphosate" -- again, what am I missing here?


This where AAAS oversteps the data, referring to the herbicide as lethal and deadly.  C'mon AAAS.  If this was Natural News, Green Med Info, The Food Babe, or any other kooky khemistree website then I might understand.  They've been searching to vilify ag chemistries for decades. 

But this is AAAS.  I'm a member.  I'm always in awe at the awardees for their much deserved recognition. 

These authors see a problem in these agricultural regions and are searching for a cause.  Certainly publishing such a hypothesis could bring lots of criticism to the researchers, as well as derision from farmers that rely on agricultural chemistry.  However, I'm not sure how this situation jumps from a statistical association to hard conclusions that rewrite agricultural policy and toxicology-- especially when so many heavy metals levels are also high and associate with the disease (in the same authors' findings).

How does the Sri Lanka situation fit into the wider picture? We  have to remember that Sri Lanka is not the only place that uses glyphosate and there is no reputable mention of CKDu in other populations studied.  There also is the incongruence between this report and other reports on the herbicide's potential as a physiologically relevant heavy metal shuttle at levels found in drinking water. Other analyses of CKDu do not support their hypothesis. 

CKDu sufferers are not reported to also be stricken with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, which a jury of my peers says should be the case. 

Despite all of the questions and shortcomings, we really need to object to the AAAS conclusions of "lethal" and "deadly".  

Or they must have some information I don't have.  

Or does the emperor wear no clothes?  

The bottom line is that the associations are not clear, the experiments to demonstrate strong links are difficult to do, and the multi-factorial nature and genetic/environmental overlays will make such conclusions difficult to discern.  That has been the conclusion of others as well

This will be a very interesting discussion.  I'm glad to stand corrected here.  But I'm afraid that our most esteemed scientific organization just elevated a testable hypothesis to "fact" and I'll spend a lot of time over the next year explaining that the data are just not there (at least at this point) to support that conclusion. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Power of a Conversation

I grew up in Chicago in the 1970's, and even in a massive city we had our choice of just a few major media stations.   WGN was a staple on television and radio.  

I used to get up long before the sun and there was nothing on television except for the Farm Report.  Orion Samuelson and Max Armstrong were familiar figures on radio and TV.  I'd listen to or watch them daily, even though I had no connection to farming.  I was a kid, and it was something live and local. 

Years later I run into Max at national conferences and I always appreciate his stories.  Today at the Independent Professional Seed Association in Indian Wells, CA, he told a great story I have to share.


Max Armstrong shares an amazing story about the power of personal connections in telling the story of agriculture. 


He was uber-ing from the airport to the hotel.  He and the driver carried on a conversation, and the driver mentioned that he had already driven someone to the same hotel earlier in the day.  He told Max that there was a farming conference happening at the hotel. 

"You don't say," Max said, pretending not to know anything about it.  

The driver then went on to talk about farming technology, the importance of farming to the economy, and the challenges faced by farmers to continue providing the safest food supply in human history. 

The punchline?  Someone else at the conference took the time to share the story of agriculture's relevance with an Uber driver.  That story made an impression and then was shared further.  

Max's story shows the power of sharing the stories of agriculture, and informing others about the benefits and challenges.  While ag producers and industry professionals perhaps don't think that their stories are compelling because they see it every day, the public-- from the foodie to the Uber driver-- want to know more, and are willing to propagate our stories.

Share your stories.  Share the excitement of new technology, and how genetics, computers and hard work ensure sustainable access to safe and affordable food, thanks to farmers. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Mangling Reality and Targeting Scientists

Welcome to 2019, and one thing that remains constant is that scientists engaging the public will continue to be targeted for harassment and attempted reputation harm.  

The good news is that it is not working as well as it used to.  People are disgusted by their tactics, and only a handful of true-believers acknowledge their sites as credible. 

But for those on the fence I thought it might be nice to post how a website like SourceWatch uses a Wikipedia-mimic interface to spread false and/or misleading information about public scientists. 

Don't get me wrong, this is not crying victim.  I'm actually is screaming empowerment.  I spent the time to correct the record, something anyone can check.  Please look into their allegations and mine, and see who has it right. 

This is published by the Center for Media and Democracy.  Sadly, such pages actually threaten democracy by providing a forum for false information that makes evidence-based decisions in policy issues more challenging.  It also is a gross distortion of freedom of speech, using words maliciously with intent to harm. 

Click on the panels below to enlarge them and read my comments. 







This clearly shows how some information is just made up and other information is bent wildly out of reality to fit a sick agenda.  

At first blush I find it bothersome to have this kind of stuff on the web where anyone can find it and develop opinions about me and my work.  But the good news is that I'm just going to have to dial it up, do more good work, and bury this kind of trash under a pile of good science and public outreach.