Friday, April 26, 2019

The Class Will Be Taught


When they tell you you're not welcome to the party, throw one next door and invite everyone!

It was a sad time to be uninvited from teaching science to a group of local gardeners.  I had three modules that were really exciting, and organizers of the 3rd Southern Seed School caved to complaints about having me in the classroom teaching students. It is a sad censorship that is the residue of targeted harassment, and how people actually believe the false information that they've been fed. 

To say I was angry is an understatement.  I was livid. I barely slept, I thought about it a lot, and just became more angry.  To be eliminated from a program because people in my community feel I'm somehow toxic to a scientific curriculum is something I took very personally. 

So what to do?  

Teach the content anyway!  I organized the room for their class, and they'll be here in the building.  My class will happen in the same time slot where I was originally installed, so students can opt to come here the content that the organizers didn't want them to hear. 2318 Fifield Hall! 

I will present two 45 minute lectures. 

1.  Plant Breeding and Genetic Improvement  2-2:45
2.  New Crops for Florida  2:45-3:30

Those interested can continue the conversation at Swamphead afterwards, and I'll encourage the folks from the Seed School to join.  

Meet in front of Fifield Hall on the University of Florida campus before 1:50.  The building will be locked so we'll have to all enter together.  Contact me at kfolta@ufl.edu if you have any questions. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

CANCELLED - Science Silenced

I volunteered to teach this Sunday, on my time, pretty much all day.  I was going to be speaking at the 3rd Southern Seed School here in Gainesville FL.  Because of complaints to the organizers, I have been removed from the program. It is McCarthy-style removal of someone deemed "controversial" when there is no controversy.

I was originally slated to speak in three sessions. 

1. The History of the University of Florida Fruit and Vegetable Breeding Programs. I had neat old photos, cool history. 

2.  Plant Breeding and Genetic Improvement -- a topic with a lot of confusion among local seed-saving enthusiasts.  We were going to cover genetics and the need to understand pedigree and if seeds were saved from hybrids. We were going to touch on breeding and genetic improvement techniques from mutation breeding to the future of gene editing. 

3. Future Crops for Florida, a topic I have researched extensively and even designed and taught a course on this topic. We were going to cover pre-breeding, domestication, and adaptation of other plants to Florida cropping systems. 


I have been removed from teaching at the Southern Seed School. Thanks haters, you removed a teacher from a classroom. 

I reserved the rooms, organized other speakers for some of the other sessions, and prepared all of my presentations.  I made a really cool card game to demonstrate hybridization and genetic segregation, an important topic that seed savers should understand. 

Last night I learned that I have been cancelled from the event.  One of the organizers, someone I truly respected, says it is because of my "baggage" and that I need to get beyond my "ego" and just let it go.  My blood is boiling.  

My baggage. My full time job is research, teaching and extension. I volunteer in schools (taught 84 kids on Wednesday, each took home plants that I prepared), volunteer in retirement homes, public groups like Rotary, you name it.  I never turn away an undergraduate looking for lab experience and open my lab to scholars from every corner of the globe.  I volunteer to teach classes when I have no teaching appointment.  That is my baggage.

And it was a few evil reporters, "science friendly" bloggers (you know who they are), GM Watch, US-RTK, several others, and legions of Twitter trolls -- they created a very different narrative that now stops science from being taught.  Baggage Installed.  Mission Accomplished. 

And of course, I blame myself too.  I blame myself for making human errors and having lapses in judgement at times that left me vulnerable to the anti-science interests.  Now I don't make those mistakes.  In a hateful world surrounded by character assassins, I'm not going to pass out the ammunition. 

Also I thank Twitter for giving fake accounts that target scientists a forum for their dirty work.  Even when reported, the new anonymous accounts that target me are within "community standards".  They started a flurry of false information that started the momentum towards my removal. I wish everyday that your support of targeted harassment causes an exodus of users, and that you revise your policies.




A Twitter account dedicated to my harassment was instrumental in shaping the decision to remove me from teaching a class on a Sunday, volunteering my time. 



Over the last few years I have worked hard to extend science education to non-traditional audiences and speaking to a seed school of local gardeners about breeding, genetics and crop improvement would appear to be something consistent with that mission. But in a world where scientists are barred for saying "climate change", where doctors that teach principles of immunology are threatened with violence, and where pseudoscience runs rampant, I suppose this is only to be expected. 


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Talking Biotech 182 – Insect Resistant Cowpea in Africa

The link to this week's podcast is here. 

Cowpea is a critical crop in Western Africa.  It is consumed by millions daily, but also feeds livestock, all the while providing important nitrogen fixation for the farm.  Cowpea cultivation is threatened by Maruca vitrata, a butterfly who’s caterpillar stage feasts on the beans within the cowpea pod. Scientists in Nigeria have implemented a strategy using the Bt protein to fight against this pest.  Today’s podcast interviews Francis Onyekachi, Program Manager for the West African Maruca Resistant Cowpea Project.  He talks about the crop, the technology, and the strategy to ensure its continued efficacy.  Co-hosted by Nigerian native and University of Florida graduate student Modesta Abugu. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Does High Fructose Corn Syrup Cause Colon Cancer?

Results of a recent study in mice need a little clarification.
The article caught my eye because it said that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) “enhances tumor growth in mice” and it was published in the top-notch journal Science. The article mentions soft drinks and sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) right in the abstract. It is no wonder that the general media got quite a rush from the story.
But is that what the data really showed?
The study by Goncalves et al is a nice piece of work. The researchers used mice missing a key tumor suppressor as a model. Colorectal cancers develop from a well-described progression of genetic changes before cells become malignant. Researchers have developed mice that are missing some of the biochemical hardware that keep cells from becoming cancerous. They possess errors in a gene that represses one major step toward cancer, so they are prone to develop tumors. The researchers used these mice to perform the experiments, as the tumor-prone mice would be potentially more responsive to the treatment if there was a biological effect.
Researchers allowed the mice to chow down as much HFCS as they wanted, so the mice loaded up and got fat. They developed metabolic syndrome and tumors.
But were the tumors a function of obesity and metabolic syndrome? To test this the researcher raised the same mice on a more restricted diet, and delivered HFCS via oral gavage (force fed). Those mice maintained normal weight but developed more, larger tumors than controls.
The author do a nice job tracing glucose and fructose and looking at how they influence metabolic processes in intestinal cells. That’s all good stuff.
The problem is that throughout the report they hammer on SSBs and HFCS. I understand that because the Big Gulp is a potent HFCS delivery device. But free fructose is more prevalent in organic apple (>60 g/L) or grape (>80g/L) juice, the fanfared agave nectar (85% fructose) , or a good serving of health-haloed Manuka Honey. Soda (~50–60 g/L) may be a contributor, but it is not the sole culprit — the problem is that we consume a lot of sugar in everything from BBQ sauce to salad dressing, and we also consume a lot of fructose. The study shows that fructose is the problem, and it likely does not matter if it comes from HFCS, table sugar, or some sacred bee extract.
The take home lesson is that we should enjoy sweetness from whole fruits, not necessarily juices. The fiber of fruits slows their progression through digestion and the sugars are absorbed in the small intestine, long before they get into colon-cancerville. If we do drink juices (they are rich in vitamins and minerals) consider using the classical juice glass (1 serving of fruit, 4–6 fluid ounces) rather than the 2-liter commuter mug. This nice report should not be vilification of soda, it should be a reminder that fructose is ubiquitous, it can have health impacts independent of obesity and metabolic syndrome, and should best be limited in the diet.

De-Platforming. A Power Move

I'm interested in debate. I need to get it right. Despite what people may say, I'm not an out of touch, arrogant scientist.  I'm interested to learn more and understand other perspectives.  

That's why I give people the benefit of the doubt. I have learned from others, and I have changed my mind.  I have been wrong, and I'm glad to admit that. 

At the same time I've stood up for science. I've endured endless hassle and anger, hideous allegations and propagation of rumor and hate.  


Thacker is glad to use public records and distribute my social security number. I had to get it changed after he decided to make it public. 

I can take it.  I know the truth, and anyone with half a brain can see what is reality, really is. 

But there comes a time that you have to take the microphone out of the hands of the chronically delinquent.  In my case, Paul Thacker, Michael Balter, and some folks I met on Kauai have decided to make a daily spectacle of smear. 

It is heartwarming in a sense.  As a marginally-relevant scientist and okay science communicator, I guess I appreciate that some folks dedicate so much time to online defamation. Defamation = "the action of damaging the good reputation of someone; slander or libel." 

And that is exactly what they are about.  They don't discuss science-- they just tell you why I am a turd that can't be trusted. 

I'm at the point that our universities and other media are at, we can't continue to allow a forum for hateful speech, and we can't endorse rhetoric that is meant to hurt others, and not part of civil discourse.

It is unfortunately, time to de-platform them. 

It is a decision I make with a heavy heart.  I'd love to enjoy a fruitful conversation with Thacker, Balter, Taleb, Nestle and others. However, that is not in their equation. These are merchants of doubt, dealers of confusion. They don't have that gear. I defeat their agenda. 

I do invite them to the table of kind discussion, and promise to entertain their assertions.  However, I will not tolerate their abuse. Done. 

We have a lot of work to do.  We need to be stronger and faster, more agile and smarter.  There is no room for this in arguing the tired trolls with defunct messages. 

We go forward with light and love, and a promise to always leave a door open to alternative ideas.  But when those ideas are endless hate and misinformation it is time to take away their microphone. 



Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Words Used Out of Context

Over the last two decades I have endured daily hassle from folks dedicated to besmirching the reputations of scientists. What a proud existence that must be. 

One great example resurfaced last night.  I first wrote about it on September 7, 2015.  The image shows me and a quotation, pulled from nearly 50,000 pages of email voluntarily turned over to activist groups.  

There was no evidence of malfeasance, nothing unethical or illegal.  All they could do to make me look bad was pull a quotation from context.  Almost four years later that same graphic is being used by activists to impugn my integrity.  




The best part is, this is all they have, and it is a distortion of what was actually said. 

The email was not between me and Monsanto.  It was between me and a friend that works there.  As we go through our careers as plant scientists it is not unusual to connect with people in industry. We meet their spouses, see pictures of their kids, trade dog stories-- they are people just like us, they just work for a company.

That's just their first distortion. 

Back in 2014 prior to the "GMO Labeling" votes in Oregon and Colorado, both sides were ramping up the rhetoric and spending huge money on misleading advertisement.  There was no discussion of the science, it was all fear-based rhetoric. Yes, both sides, and I disapproved of tactics used by both sides. 

The pro-label side had a particularly egregious ad on television. It featured retired EPA scientist Dr. Ray Seidler, and he looked right into the camera and lied to viewers. You can see the whole video here.   Disgusting. 

Like most scientists, we were appalled by Seidler's misrepresentation, factual inaccuracies, and blatant lies (he knows better).  

In this ad, Dr. Ray Seidler shows corn and "engineered corn", he claims are made to "withstand large doses of pesticides"-- which is exactly not true. He also says that the blue corn has "five toxic chemicals that end up in your family's food" and draws parallels to agent orange.

A friend who happens to work at Monsanto felt the same way.  Farmers in Colorado (where she works) sometimes choose their products and find them useful.  She said that the ASA (American Soil Association) was organizing a petition that wanted independent scientists to voice their disapproval about this kind of false representation of science. 

They also were looking for someone to prepare an Op-Ed, hopefully a team of scientists that could condemn this kind of fear-based coercion. 

Of course, I was happy to sign the petition or participate in writing the Op-Ed.  

Here's my response:
Words have remarkably different meaning when they are used in context.


The good news is that when Twitter trolls are are cherry picking quotations out of context, they are desperate.  They were desperate four years ago when this surfaced and they are only getting worse now. 

It shows that they are not interested in an honest conversation, instead they are interested in harming the people that teach from evidence, share science, and debunk their fear-based messaging.







Sunday, March 10, 2019

Book Review: Feeding You Lies by "The Food Babe" Vani Hari


Many people say that I should ignore Vani Hari and her new book, Feeding You Lies - How to Unravel the Food Industry's Playbook and Reclaim Your Health. Don’t give her the attention.

However, I’m mentioned prominently throughout the text, portrayed as an industry insider, paid to harass her and derail her efforts to rid the world of molecules with names we can’t pronounce.  On her press junkets she spins wild tales of being a victim, targeted by a concerted effort between me and evil corporations to destroy her credibility. There really was no such thing.

Hari used the Freedom of Information Act to gather tens of thousands of my emails at taxpayer expense—and found nothing.  Zero. But instead of saying that in her book, she manufactured false stories and associations, picking out sentences just to paint me in a negative light. We’ll get back to that.


She certainly goes after me as a paid corporate dupe that is financed to attack her.  I'm actually a public scientist concerned about feeding people and allowing technology to help the food insecure. I despise those that profit from misinformation around food and farming.  We also grow food, lots of it. 


What I Like. I could rightfully be cranky and write a scathing one-star review just to be a vengeful dick, and it would be probably considered appropriate.

But instead I’m going to use this opportunity to be honest in my assessment of her work, and hope that it inspires her to consider higher angels in her endeavors going forward.

First, I didn’t hate the book.  It was an easy read and I was able to pound through it in a four hour flight and a couple of breaks from yard work.  It falls into four clunky non-flowing parts, one which I sorta like. Let’s start there.

In her heart Hari has the same goals and interests that I do, to help guide people to more healthy diets and better health.  When she speaks about the quality of calories, about being aware of processed sugar, about cooking at home—we are on the same page.  We both love a farmers market and believe in eating fresh, local produce. We both note the odd vilification of gluten, and both seem to despise dietary fads, and products that lead with bogus claims and unhealthy weight-loss strategies.

That was one chunk of the book. That part, and the rest of it were generally well written, sort of referenced (selectively omitting anything that didn’t support her position even if it reflected scientific consensus).

Spinning Out.  The book’s agreeable center is flanked by tired conspiratorial nonsense, as Hari gets out yarn, stick pins and a corkboard and constructs tenuous connections between her critics, through circuitous avenues, over hill and dale, across family trees and geological time, to (wait for it) MONSANTO.

Yes, she believes that Monsanto and other companies see her as a threat to their bottom line, so they commissioned a squadron of paid non-company scientists, independent folks like me, to harass her.  
There’s a degree of strange narcissism there.  

What academics and industry scientists actually object to are the strong-armed tactics she used to bully and intimidate to drive irrational, emotional, and unnecessary change.  If the goal is healthier food we should do that through education and objective assessment of risk, not threats and social media smear campaigns against critics and companies. I’ve always been critical of her because I despise abandoning science and evidence and forcing change via fear and misinformation.  That’s exactly what she did, she’s proud of her accomplishments, and she should be criticized for it.  That’s not Monsanto.  That’s objective, scientific criticism.

The sad part is the pettiness of it all.  Her book harvests information from my private emails, such as how I tried to connect with a popular podcast to talk about food and farming. This is not a scandal, it is normal, yet she uses access to my private email to parade my personal business in full light. That’s not what public records requests are for, and she should be admonished for it.

Warped.  I’ll focus on the section about me, since I know that the best. She lists a page of presentations I provided, various events around the country.  She then lists the sponsors of the event, typically companies that help foot the bill and keep registration costs low.  You can read the list (it comes from my website) and see my talks and the companies that sponsored the meeting. She implies that the companies must control what I say, and that I am paid by the companies (she said that on a podcast interview).  However, at most of these I spoke about revising our communication, and if I was paid an honorarium it went to my outreach program to pay for assembling and mailing science fair kits. It is a great example of how she does not ask questions, but is happy to vilify someone innocent to build her crazy perception of conspiracy.


#1 Best Seller in Crop Science.  We're doomed. 

Bad Information. If she was a threat to anything it was a threat to public perception about food safety.  She also threatens the poor in a way she does not realize.  Throughout her book she gives accolades to the Environmental Working Group and praises their “dirty dozen” list. This is the list where pesticide residue amounts are distorted, and risk is manufactured from nothing. 

When you tell people that their fruits and vegetables are poison so only eat organic produce, something horrible happens.  The affluent buy organic fruits and vegetables, which is fine, as I’m glad to see organic farmers cash in on consumer credulity. But many people in of our inner cities and rural areas often have no (or extremely limited) access to fresh fruits and vegetables. When they do have access it is conventional produce, maybe at a Dollar General, convenience mart or small independent grocer.  Selection may be extremely limited, and there certainly is no boutique organic produce.

Someone following Hari’s guidance has a choice between “poison” and nothing.  A true believer acting in the best interests of her family will make precautionary decisions, as the rhetoric of charismatic food activists like Hari scares them away from safe, fresh fruits and vegetables, the foods we should be consuming more frequently.

Pride in "Accomplishments".  She proudly discusses the changes that she inspired in companies, removing ingredients from their products.  She goes down the litany of her coerced successes, yoga matt bread, beaver butts and artificial colors and additives. These stories are nothing new.

The basic theme of the book is that she takes a position, and if anyone criticizes that position they must be a paid stooge of corporate ag. It is an endless romp of six-degrees-of-monsanto, and is tired if not boring.

There are factual errors throughout the book, and lots of disparaging statements about conventional farming and ranching. You can read these at #FoltaReadsHari on Twitter.

Filler. The last 100 pages (of about 300) are a 48-hour detox (which I will not read), an appendix of terms (most people can’t pronounce) and an index.

Synthesis.  Fans of Hari will find little new here.  It is a lot of revisiting her past “successes” and then blaming a corporate cabal for her shortcomings and her decreasing impact.  It is in essence waving a white flag to make gross false associations about others, waste public money for personal gain, and fall on a sword again and again to rehabilitate a well-earned poor scientific reputation and stoke favor with a slim cadre of ravenous supporters.  It is the irony of Feeding You Lies, as time will show that Hari is the one saying, “Open up wide.”


-- and despite what she'll tell you, nobody paid me to do this review.