Saturday, August 31, 2019

Talking Biotech 202 - Supporting Farmer Choice in South Australia

Listen to the Podcast Here

Australia has welcomed the use of genetically engineered crops, and farmers have found particular benefit from broad acre canola and cotton cultivation. However, the benefits were not realized by some states because of local moratoriums imposed by state governments. Farmers in South Australia grow wheat, canola and pulses, along with wine grapes, olives and other horticultural crops.  They would like the option to grow GE canola, as it may offer some benefits. More importantly, new technologies in gene editing may permit rapid response to new threats as well as tackle current issues in drought, frost, and pathogens. Fortunately, a science-minded change in government has led to discussion of removing the ban.  I speak with four agricultural leaders from the Grain Producers SA, a non-profit organization coordinating grower advocacy and communications. With Tanya Morgan, Adrian McCabe (@AdrianMcCabe6), Wade Dabinette and Dion Woolford (@rudigermaxpower).

Thursday, August 29, 2019

When Community Leaders (and News Media) Get it Wrong

It always bothers me when prominent community figures or celebs push rhetoric designed to deny farmers access to technology.  I'm visiting Adelaide, Australia and was amazed to see a local paper run a story about a local wine maker that "slams" a likely change in farmer seed choice. 

GE crops are perfectly allowable in Australia, but the state governments of South Australia and Tasmania have imposed restrictions that block their use.  Recent changes in policy suggest that these rules are likely to change. 

But news reports show that at least one local business leader is ramping up the rhetoric to skew public perception.  That's fine on the surface. We should have honest, science-based discussions.  The problem is that he gets the science wrong, the debate is asymmetrical, and it scares the public and disparages farmers that simply want the right to choose the technology whey wish to use. 

This article ran in South Australia:  (click panels to enbiggen)


It is disturbing when leaders in commerce make ill-informed statements that harm others' freedom to operate. 

Let's look at this article line by line-







The take-home message of this analysis is:

While the inflammatory headline indicates potential issues with health, there is no evidence of that presented and it is barely mentioned in the article.  However, to the casual headline-only reader it suggests that the article contains evidence of substantiate the claim. 

Dru Reschke should be very careful about the glass house he operates in.  Criticizing farmers for their safe choices that do not negatively impact human health, as someone who manufactures a product with known roles in negatively impacting human health is a dangerous and hypocritical position to take.  I would defend his right to follow his passions and pursue legal business choices just as I do farmers, but he needs to understand the optics of his bravado.  He manufactures a Class 1 carcinogen that if used as directed causes health problems and accidents. 

Mr. Reschke and the reporter communicating the story know little about glyphosate-based chemicals, and clearly there is evidence that little is understood about how any grape crop is treated or protected from the many threats that impede production. Grapes require chemistry to survive, conventional or organic. 

Headlines and articles like this are deceptive, incorrect, and misinform.  To maintain relevance the news media needs to consult experts in these subject areas before publishing false and misleading information that harms trust in farming. 


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Scientific American Destroys Public Trust in Science


This is a sad epitaph, parting words to an old friend that is now gone, leaving in a puff of bitter betrayal. 

When I was a kid it was common for my mom to buy me a magazine if I was sick and home from school.  I didn't want MAD Magazine or comic books.  I preferred Scientific American

The once stalwart publication held a unique spot at the science-public interface, bringing us interesting and diverse stories of scientific interest, long before the internet made such content instantly accessible.  It was our trusted pipeline to the new edges of scientific discovery, from the mantle of the earth to the reaches of space, and every critter in between.

But like so much of our trusted traditional science media, Scientific American has traded its credibility for the glitz of post-truth non-scientific beliefs and the profits of clickbait.  The problem is that when a trusted source publishes false information (or worse, when it hijacked by activists) it destroys trust in science, trust in scientists, and in the case presented here, destroys trust in American agriculture.    

The following article was published on August 20, 2019. The authors are Louise Elizabeth Maher-Johnson and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. The work has drawn strong criticism from others.  A semi-complete line-by-line refutation of claims presented is presented here. While the entire article is filled with egregious errors, I have highlighted several doozies below. 



1.    First, the clickbait title. Fail.  Broccoli production is just fine, with new varieties grown in expanding acreage. Corn is not toxic.  The microbiome, a collection of microbes in a given environment, has become the darling of credulous movements, as their known complexity can be manipulated to fit non-scientific conclusions. That is what we are seeing here.

2.    The first paragraph cites a food author, not peer-reviewed research, stating that food is “literally… poison.”  This is a profound slap in the face of the farmers that produce the safest food in human history.

3.    They cite Planetary Health, a website that presents the hypothesis that  "Ebola originated in modern agriculture and food practices..." and while they say there's no evidence for it yet, they certainly are looking for evidence to support that concept.  The website promotes remedies for Ebola based on a smoothie made from fermented plums, soy sauce and kudzu. 

4.    The next paragraph claims that food has lost between “10 and 100 percent” of nutrients, a common claim. It is based on the fact that modern breeding of crops has made them larger, yield better and face less disease. That means higher fresh weight that dilutes nutrients.  Others have corrected for water differences and show slight decreases, but note it is a trade off for size and yield (Davis et al., 2004).  Others have analyzed cost and show that calories and nutrients per unit cost have improved (Darmon et al., 2005).  In short, there are many comparisons in this area, and all are limited by the veracity of old data. Today we have unprecedented access to more diverse food, through more of the year, that costs less, that is safer, than at any time in history.

5.    “Not only are plants getting less nutritious, they are getting more toxic.” The authors present this argument without reference.  In reality there is clear evidence that the use of genetic engineering decreases crop damage and less toxicity due to lower levels of mycotoxins (eg. Bakan et al., 2002), fungal compounds with strong associations with cancers.

6.    2,4-D is not “similar to dioxins and Agent Orange”, it is an herbicide, a synthetic version of the plant hormone auxin that causes rapid growth and distorted gene expression in plants. Agent Orange was used as a military defoliant in Operation Ranch Hand in Southeast Asia. It was contaminated with dioxins from the synthesis of 2,4,5-T, another synthetic auxin that is no longer used.

7.    The claim that glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup and a chemical used in weeding genetically engineered fields) is in “air [and] rainwater” comes from a study by and Battaglin et al., (2014).  Battaglin detects glyphosate and its breakdown products in surface water and rain, but in vanishingly small amounts. The work by Majewski et al, (2014) detects glyphosate in air samples at 26 ng per square meter, and immediately adjacent to a cotton field where it is used.  The authors of the Scientific American article imply that this compound is present everywhere and in dangerous levels. It frames the deceptive nature of this article.

Here is a line-by-line dissection of most of the article. Click to enlarge.








This is yet another example of how our scientific literature is being distorted by predatory publishers and the predatory nature of motivated authors looking to promote non-scientific information as legitimate science. Maybe they’ll publish that vaccines cause autism next.

This kind of journalism destroys trust in agriculture, food, and science in general.  The type of false information presented has a well-established home in Netflix documentaries and on the pages of anti-farming, anti-scientist websites, not the child of the Springer-Nature Publishing Group, and the flagship periodical for science connections to the general public.

In these times where new discoveries happen every day we need to demand the highest standards of our legitimate scientific brands.  Scientific American was just used by misguided activists that seek to destroy the food system and revert to a non-existent model that is not sustainable.  Scientists, farmers, and anyone that likes to eat needs to stand firmly against efforts to commandeer our trusted brands for promoting non-scientific ideas.

Stop here. Swallow your coffee or you'll spit it at the computer screen when you see the cover of the September 2019 edition.





B. Bakan,*D. Melcion,D. Richard-Molard, and, and B. Cahagnier  Fungal Growth and Fusarium Mycotoxin Content in Isogenic Traditional Maize and Genetically Modified Maize Grown in France and Spain  Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2002 50 (4), 728-731

Battaglin, W.A.Meyer, M.T.Kuivila, K.M., and Dietze, J.E.2014Glyphosate and Its Degradation Product AMPA Occur Frequently and Widely in U.S. Soils, Surface Water, Groundwater, and PrecipitationJournal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA) 502): 275‐ 290. DOI: 10.1111/jawr.12159
Darmon N, Darmon M, Maillot M, Drewnowski A.J Am Diet Assoc. 2005 Dec; 105(12):1881-7.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Talking Biotech Podcast #201 - A Bioengineered Hangover Helper?



Genetically engineered microbes commonly manufacture our vitamins and amino acid supplements, but can they be supplements themselves?  Zbiotics has developed genetically engineered bacteria that may help to metabolize the residues of alcohol consumption, altering the accumulation of the compounds that lead to next-day malaise. These microbes are consumed as a pro-biotic, fortifying the digestive system with a means to break down deleterious metabolites.  Today’s podcast covers the technology with Dr. Zack Abbott from Zbiotics, including a discussion of how a “proudly GMO” product resonates with consumers.

Zbiotics LInks:

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Plagiarism, Misconduct Running Rampant

Last week I saw an awesome Twitter post.  Dr. Elisabeth Bik posted a figure from a recently published paper in a cancer journal.  The caption simply read, "What's wrong with this image?"

I looked at it carefully for two solid minutes.  It was images of baby mice, "pinkies" in the reptile feeding trade, all lined up on their sides with military precision. Some had tumors, some didn't and the figure looked legit. 

Until I saw her annotated photo.  She circled examples of how the same little mice babies were cut-n-pasted multiple times, appearing over and over again in different rows.  It was manufactured data.

Dr. Bik does a remarkable service to science.  A trained molecular biologist with a substantial CV, she now voluntarily spends her eagle eye scouring the literature for things that don't look quite right.  Like duplicate mice in a manufactured figure. 


I had the pleasure of interviewing her for the Talking Biotech Podcast, and she'll be featured on September 1 (Episode 203). 

Her Twitter feed is a gem (@microbiomdigest) so give her a follow. 

In the interview she said that plagiarism runs rampant.  I've read a really well-turned phrase once and realized it was my own, borrowed without permission or citation.  Dr. Bik says that it is remarkably common, and that the huge numbers of new journals with flimsy editorial and review processes only fuel the problem. 

This morning I read a post on The Garden Professor's Blog, a site on Facebook with content from Washington State University Extension Urban Horticulturalist Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott.  She noted that her work had been lifted, word for word, by an author team from India. She contacted the journal, but they were unresponsive or out of business.  How to correct this?

The first appeared in HortTechnology in 2013.  The second, in the International Journal of Multidisciplinary Advanced Research Trends.  Talk about a word salad.  


Read carefully. Sreelatha and Sandhya didn't even try to rewrite, except for some typos. 






 I looked into this a bit more and found that "K. Sreelatha" has published in areas of physics.  Here is another published article in the journal Pranama Research


Here is an excerpt from Volume 8, Issue 12, 2018: 





Here is an article I found online when I searched with a random block of text (you can see the page here)



There are more as well, and it took me about 15 minutes to find a handful of examples. 

The worst part is the authors didn't even try to revise the work.  It is a direct clone of the website or published work. I've written about this in 2015 in the area of genetic engineering as well, but I feel this effort was more lazy than deceptive. 

These are not papers in Science, Nature or any journal of impact.  However, they remain published evidence of someone's fraudulent scholarship and scientific misconduct. And it appears to be at a religious women's college, so that's funly ironic. 

It also serves to erode the public's trust in published science.  If anyone can publish anything, even articles that are stolen or hodgepodged together from multiple websites, can we trust the claims that are made? 

When the public is asking questions about the veracity of the scholarly literature, these trends are indeed dangerous, and an indicator that we need new measures of scientific rigor in publication. 


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Revised Social Media Strategy

I discontinued use of Twitter on June 19, 2019.  The account was deactivated, which means I had 30 days to re-activate it before it is permanently deleted. 



The clock was winding down, and I had to do a cost/benefit analysis of Twitter.  Certainly permanent deletion would mean no more harassment through the medium (that I'd know about). There are about six people and a few 'bots that no longer would harass me. 

The problem is that I'd break a connection with 22,000 people that volunteered to receive content.  

Today, two days out from permanent deactivation I have a nice article at AgDaily, and a sweet one coming out in The Conversation.  I'd love to share those widely. 

The podcast is reaching 1 million downloads with 3,500 per week and almost 200 episodes.  New episodes are not downloaded as much without the Twitter push. 

Best of Both Worlds?

So it is a necessary evil and I'll have to live with it, but I have to play with different rules. 

1.  Block the haters, one strike and out. 

2.  No back-and-forth, no engagement.  

3.  It is a message in a bottle for me, throwing content into its stupid sea, and seeing where it goes. 

I'll always be available by email and my professional Facebook page, so reach out if I may be of assistance. 

Kevin

Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Dark Side of Harassment



My entire life I always questioned people that would take their own life or hurt others in rage.  It did not compute for me.  It seems no problem is that big, and there are so many ways to find solutions between the law, social services, and other mechanisms. 

But after enduring endless daily harassment from Michael Balter and GM Watch, I deeply empathize with these feelings. It is a dark part of human psychology, and a program in the brain that is triggered from feeling helpless.  It is a reptile brain taking over; backed into a corner with no other choice.  It is the extremes of fight and the extremes of flight, life and death, and I'm feeling that. 

I have so much to be grateful for.  I have a wonderful wife, and we hope to have a child on the way soon.  We both were robbed of that opportunity in previous relationships by combinations of tragedies and apathies, and now we are fixing that.  I have a great job, wonderful students, respect in my field, and a good future in leadership. 

But that is being challenged and in some ways affected.  People long dedicated to my personal and professional demise have concentrated their vicious efforts in a #MeToo onslaught.  They are characterizing me as a drunk spouse abuser, over and over again in social media and on websites.  It is an unfortunate residue of an important sensitivity to abusive behavior, and ironically, manifests as abusive behavior from them.  These individuals have appointed themselves as judge, jury and executioner, and they are working hard to ensure that I am punished hard --- for teaching science. 

Today we need to be sensitive to abuse, and I think we are better because we recognize when politicians, celebrities and Joe Six Pack cross the line. I love that we don't tolerate harassment of others, that we fight for fairness and kind treatment of others. 

But that same sensitivity has weaponized.  Allegations of abuse by the "Me Too" accusers is a wonderful weapon to destroy people they disagree with.  The internet is the festering cesspool used to perpetrate this action. There are numerous examples of people that have been falsely accused, and allegations retracted.  It is unfortunate because it dilutes the power of these efforts.

In my case, 5 months after my ex filed for divorce, she solicited statements from her friends to help destroy me. And they obliged.  Now those notes are making the rounds in a relentless assault on me and my reputation.  They are retweeted and augmented by anti-science organizations and a hateful former journalist named Michael Balter.

CLAIMS.


I could go through each letter and tell you about the people that wrote them.  She convinced others that I was trying to screw her out of a reasonable settlement (she demanded 80% of my take home pay) and she claimed she needed letters for court.  She assured them that they were for court and her attorney only. 

So people provided ugly statements. You can judge their veracity on many levels. They often did contain a seed of truth because we had a difficult and very private relationship for long time. In the hopes that it would heal and change I kept my pains and our marital business private, even from friends.  Yes, I said things that were off base to my ex, and I even apologized for them.  But the letters are  a gross mischaracterization.

The letters were provided, along with other documents, from my ex to GM Watch, an online museum dedicated to smearing me and my reputation.  
In May 2017 my ex gave papers from my private, personal file cabinet to GM Watch.  I could not get my things from the house because she told me that "If you come in this house I will say that you are physically abusing me and call the police."

My attorneys said to stay away from the house, and I did.

She then found a reimbursement stub from the Monsanto Company, from 2014.  The story is well known, but again, Monsanto  reimbursed me for the exact cost of coach airfare, a rental car, and a hotel when farmers in Colorado (that were Monsanto customers) asked to speak to an independent scientist about the technology.

My ex KNEW that the check was a direct reimbursement with nothing in it for me personally, but she gave it to GM Watch and claimed it was one of many under-the-table payments.

Of course this made headlines at GM Watch.  Another torpedo to my name, another thing to show up in a google search, and more false information.  The letters she solicited "only for court" soon were in the hands of those that need to stop science communication and those that do it.

LETTERS


She solicited letters from her friends that were designed to help her in court.  She harvested those letters and gave them to GM Watch. Now Balter uses them as concrete proof that I was a drunk, physically abusing wild man.  He does not use the word allegedly. He never spoke to me.  He claims to be a journalist, by the way.

I had coffee with one of the letter writers yesterday after she saw the fallout in social media.  She told me that she felt "used" by my ex and apologized.  She said that the letter was only to be used in court and she did it because she was told that I was being unfair in the settlement.

FALLOUT. 


Balter continues to make my private information public. He put my bank account number online (it is still on his website).  I had to get a new account, I had no access to funds when I was traveling, and I had payments bounce because setting up my auto pay again didn't work right.   He posted confidential documents between me and a law firm, describing my work on my vacation time as a professional witness as "consulting for Bayer"-- knowing  that it would foment a pitchforks-and-torches response among his evil followers. 

This is harassment. It is bullying, it is intimidation, and  we should not tolerate it.  In a world where we claim to want to stop abuse and harassment, Balter is the master of abuse and harassment.  I have hundreds of screenshots. 

The man is obsessed, he is insane, and he is relentless.  Together with GM Watch they now share the letters that my ex released to them-- purely with the interest of defamation.  They want to hurt me, my career and my family. That is their intent.  That is their intent.  That is their intent. 

INTENT.

What do they want?  They are going after my reputation, a good one forged from 30-some years of public service and kindness to all.   I have provided opportunities to anyone that asked, helped students find jobs, thrive in their careers.  I'm proud of that and would continue that kind of work for the rest of my life. But Balter needs to stop this.  He wants to destroy my career, and together with malevolent fake accounts online, they want to destroy me. They want to hurt my wife and my ability to support a family.  This is what they want. 

REPERCUSSIONS.

I've spoken to law enforcement.  I've spoken to lawyers, detectives, others.  There is nothing  can do about the relentless cyberbullying and harassment.  There is nothing I can do.  One police officer in New York City told me, "What he's doing is wrong but legal, what you need to do is right but illegal."

That was a reflection of the state of things, that someone can slander you without redress, and even the police are powerless to stop the onslaught.

Twitter leaves his account active.  His hate is entirely within community standards.  I've reported it dozens of times with no action.  My account has now been deactivated. 


REACTION.

 This is where reptile brain dark places are triggered.  I have had so many dark thoughts of what I would do to that guy if I saw him in an airport or on the street. It is that bad. Luckily I can control myself and I am stable enough to ignore what the reptile brain wants.  I'm so grateful that I have a wonderful wife and friends that I can rely on for a reality check. The anger and want to lash out is extreme when you are backed into a corner and threatened.

ODD RELIEF. 

I am not religious, but I was raised with religion. Some of the greatest lessons were those where Jesus was being destroyed by others, tortured over his beliefs, and refusal to back down. 

"Forgive them father for they know not what they do."

"But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."

These deeply ingrained messages help me pull back.  I am being  tortured by Twitter, being painfully drawn and quartered by someone's misappropriated revenge, being taken apart by those that hate. 


WHY?

When it all comes down to it, Balter and GM Watch hate me for one reason-- because I'm a teacher that teaches science they disagree with.  A search of my name will forever bear their twisted allegations.  I'm guaranteed to lose opportunities, be looked over for positions of service, and be always tagged as a dangerous offender to some.

I was a very effective leader of the 9th rated plant bio department on the planet for almost 6 years.  I made great hires and did superb mentoring of 59 faculty in 7 locations, all the while running two internationally recognized research programs and effective science communication outreach.   I had a good future in public service. That is gone now.

SO WHAT?


My wife asked me today, "Would it be so bad to just be a good lab scientist and the best husband and father?"

She's got a point.  All of this ends when I drop out of communication, when I stop podcasting, writing and interacting with a public audience.  Maybe not podcasting.  That's a passion I might not be able to compromise.

Right now I'm broken.  I'm sad, disgusted and dying inside. I can't fight back.  I'm being disassembled mentally by the most brutal and evil harassment I can imagine-- taking apart my reputation because I tell the truth about science.

EMPATHY.


All of this is important because it shows how harassment is accepted, encouraged, and fostered.  GM Watch and Michael Balter engage in hate and slander that would not be tolerated in any forum-- so why are they tolerated here?

The feelings cut deep.  I will never question someone that feels harassed and intimidated to where they are so helpless that they hurt themselves or hurt others.  Those feelings are real, very real.

I need to get well and away from the hate. I'm going to plant six trees, work on a grant proposal and have a beer tonight with friends.  I hate what people have become.  I never thought I would quit, but I'm afraid I'm done.  For my mental health and for my family on the way, I need to be away from that hateful vortex.