Saturday, August 30, 2014

GMO Corn, Insecticide, and Your Vote

Yes, GMO corn contains a compound recognized by the EPA as an insecticide.  Why?  Because it kills a certain insect.  Genetic information has been installed into every cell of corn to produce a protein  that targets Lepidopteran pests, the larvae of a specific family of insects. It is a protein that does not affect non-insects, and there is limited evidence that it affects even non-target insects.

The use of this technology has dramatically cut insecticide use.  Depending on the crop, location and other crop stressors, the decreased use ranges between 30-70%.  This is a very good thing for farmers and the environment.

But look how this almost miraculous approach is warped in the anti-GM or pro-labeling rhetoric:

The intent is not to inform, it is to deceive.

Bt corn is regulated by the EPA as an insecticide because it kills a kind of insect.  That has potential to alter ecology and populations of specific insects.  That's why it is regulated as an insecticide. 

Ironically, the same people making the claim that it is regulated as an insecticide are the same people that will tell you that there is no regulation and that government agencies provide no oversight and lots of rubber stamps. 

Here's the part that should bother you.  Here Oregon Right to Know is actually misinforming the public. The implicit claim is that the added anti-larval protein in corn is somehow dangerous to humans, and without a label, how do you know if you are eating it?  

This clear intent to deceive instead of educate should be a red flag to anyone taking interest in this campaign. 

Truth be told, plants make a variety of insecticidal compounds, naturally.  They are what plants use to defend themselves from insect pests. Bt is an interesting natural compound that targets a specific insect species.

As usual, biotech opponents say that we have a right to know, but then fail to teach.  Worse, they generate misinformation. It is manufacturing implied risk, not speaking accurately about science and technology.  That should tell you exactly how to vote-- always vote against any initiative that uses deception and fear to motivate your decision.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Not Happy with Kauai GMO Ordinance Decision

I was at the Lihue Farmers' Market on a beautifully warm morning in July.  The sun was bright and chickens meandered among shoppers' feet, all with the lush green backdrop of lovely Kauai.  I was visiting on the request of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, there to help answer public concerns about transgenic (GMO) technology. I was there with Dr. Steve Savage, along with Renee and Kirby Kester (from HCIA) and a local television guy. It was the first day with new people that would become life-long friends (not so much the camera guy).

I had wonderful interactions with farmers as well as those opposed to GM technology.  Those unhappy with biotech on the island were clearly identified by their red shirts that urged support for County Ordinance 2491, a local initiative that would impose tough (almost impossible) restrictions on the seed companies that shared the island.  Kauai is an off-season nursery for mainland seed production.

After sampling the sweetest pineapple I ever ate, I was introduced to Joanne Yukimura, a woman serving on the Kauai County Council, and one of the seven people that would be voting on the ordinance. She was tiny in stature with a great smile and sharp gray hair that went down just below her ears-- and it took only seconds to see that she was kind, bright and articulate.   I was glad to meet her and schedule a lunch meeting to discuss the science.

She attended a public forum where Steve, Kriby and I spoke on transgenic crops. We had lunch the next day we all had lunch together.  She asked great questions and seemed pleased with our answers. We shared email back and forth a few times.  She seemed to hold an intense desire to understand the science and I was confident that she'd base her decisions and cast her vote in a manner consistent with evidence and reason.

At the public hearings she was tuned in intently to every single story, every comment, and stayed focused through that 14 hour run of three minute testimonials better than the rest.  She asked questions, listened and responded.

It's 1:45 in the morning.  The crowds are gone and a few hold outs hear the last shreds of public testimony. Councilwoman Yukimura is the seated all the way to the right. 

When I completed my science-based testimony she asked me, "One word answer-- Did the Seralini control rats also get tumors?"

"Yes", I said.


When it came time to vote for Ordinance 2491 she voted in favor of it.  She voted for more restrictions against the island's biotech corporations.


Disappointed.  Here was someone that clearly took the time to understand the science, but let politics, emotion, and bad science (more on this later) sway her decision.  The vote passed with her assistance.

Dr. Savage and I share a mystery beverage late in the night, after about 13 hours of continuous public testimony. They had a loudspeaker outside, so we could hear everything from a nearby area. 

Now that day is more than one year in our rear-view mirror, and we sit more than a week after the ordinance was supposed to start. Yesterday a federal circuit court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional.

I hate that decision too.

The ruling was that the ordinance unfairly singled out a specific industry, and that state laws were already in place that had more power and application than the new county ordinance, superseding the need for new laws at a county level.

Why this bothers me.  This is not a scientific victory.  It is not cool heads discussing and debating the data and evidence.  It is not about ensuring public safety, educating the public, and building trust.

When I was over there I enjoyed conversations with workers that had great jobs in the companies.  I also spoke to people everywhere that opposed the companies and wanted them off the islands.  They all shared the common thread of concern for the environment, concern for their families, and an interest in sustainable farming.

They were separated by a dearth of information and shirt color. This morning, the sun will rise on an island  divided even more than ever before.

Councilwoman Yukimura's decision to vote against science and reason, and the Council's massive expenditures to pass and defend this flawed governance are unconscionable.  The fact that a circuit court had to spend a year overturning it is a disgusting waste of time, money and resources.

What is the solution?

If we could just get together and talk, let science guide decisions, and build trust--  that's the way to develop sound guidance that will serve the citizens and environment of Kauai, and promote coexistence with the biotech companies that employ 10% of the island's population.

This court decision will just build new heights of suspicion and allegations of the companies' deep tentacles into judiciary influence. It will breed more anger and turmoil, more raised fists and division.

It breaks my heart because I met warm and concerned people wearing the red shirts in favor of the law, and blue shirts opposing the law. I understood all of them, and all of their concerns.  This is a place for reasoned education and outreach, not a time for bigger divisions and court orders.

As I stated in that testimony, science is not a democracy. Trust is not built on legal wrangling, fear-based lawsuits and corporate restrictions. It comes from education and information.

Yesterday's ruling was an unfortunate necessity, a legal decision that reversed a bad social decision. It was not a victory for science and reason.  It was not a trust building moment.  It leaves a wonderful place with kind people more divided than ever, and the calming sobriety of science even further out of reach, and nobody seems to be reaching for it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

GMO Leukemia Outbreak in China

The anti-GMO believers have learned that the constant release of tenuous, unconfirmed, even fake, information is critical to their misinformation campaign, as it resonates favorably with the biotech-knowledge-less. Such nuggets of fraud are stitched together by social media, gaining momentum from wide acceptance among the willing, and are incorporated into the permanent body of their factless reality.

Last week at Sustainable Pulse I found this:

Leukemia Boom?  Sounds serious.  At least it is actually a picture of HAU.

The story claims that students are fed Bt rice in the cafeterias of Huazhong Agricultural University (HAU; the region's leading ag university), and now ten students are sick with leukemia.  Even if that was true, those numbers are hardly statistical reinforcement of anything, especially at a university where most days you can't see 50 m down the street. HAU is in Wuhan, China, and the air quality is pretty rotten.

I think, as usual, the whole story is trash.  Where did the story come from?

It was written by this guy in his blog:

Chinese blogger Chen I-wan is not a scientist, but he knows GMO crops are killing everyone. 
And when he's not writing a blog he'd doing yoga, flying, ballroom dancing, or selling books about the dangers of transgenic crops. 

The guy's blog is a hoot, and a translation shows that the evidence supporting his claim is that awful paper by Mezzomo et al. that has been thoroughly debunked HERE and on Biofortified by Anastasia Bodnar, among other places.  The paper lacks controls, reasonable design, and the interpretations far overstep results. But he's sure convinced! 

Here is the interpretation of the blog. Reads like a way to start hysteria.  If you don't have data, make up a story and hope nobody questions it.

The intellectual heavyweights over at Sustainable Pulse will believe anything and not poke it too critically.  Same here.  My favorite part was that the original blog has a comments section:

The comments section.  I'm getting an interpretation asap from one of the scientists in my lab. Stay tuned!   And that's about $15 USD for a groovy pair of loafers! 

I was able to get one comment interpreted using online software: 

From the "comments" section.  "It is a pity u make feces eating and r disgraced autism child killer. You r provided splendid payment from Monsanto 4 false news manufacturing!"

Unfortunately for them they picked a bad place to write about.  How many Americans even know HAU?  Maybe not too many.  However, I know HAU.  I have friends at HAU.  I've been there three times and am going again next summer.  The President of HAU is a friend of mine! 

I wrote a note to one of my other friends here:

I sent a note to a friend there.  His name has been blacked out to save him hassle. 

Seems like there is no such story after all.

However, if you Google "Leukemia" and "Huazhong Agricultural University" the top hits are all about the dying students, interspersed with actual research published from HAU on leukemia.

Once again, news travels fast, but bogus reports that satisfy the anti-GMO bias travel faster, install better, and add new bedazzling to the contorted fabric of misinformation that blankets the movement.

... and of course, I've been blocked from commenting on the Sustainable Pulse website.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

University of Florida's Deep Monsanto Ties

Last week I was so happy to answer a thousand thoughtful questions on Science Reddit.  Many questions were moderator blocked (which I discouraged), so angry queries found a home over on the "Kevin Folta Monsanto Cheerleader" reddit thread.

Monsanto cheerleader?  And then they put the word scientist in quotes.  They are convinced I"m a corporate cheerleader and not a scientist.  Shows how well they know me and what I do.  

I'm really proud to say that I'm a Professor at UF.  I work with some of the best science minds out there and am always humbled by the amazing work going on here.  That's no secret.  But Monsanto Cheerleader? When I told them that I had no formal connection to Monsanto (other than visiting there last week to talk about how they could improve their outreach, first time ever there), GM opponents scoured the web, searching for any morsel of evidence to connect me to deep financial collusion with the Big M.

They were certain they had me busted. Clearly, billions of dollars were flowing from Monsanto right into my lab and into my pocket, and in return I'd sacrifice my life's duty, 30 years of training, reputation and legacy to lie about science on an obscure website that calls me a cheerleader.  Makes perfect sense.

Here are their claims:

They EVIDENCE!  SMOKING GUN!  Here they have utilized high-end web sleuthing to undeniably connect me to the Monsanto Corporation!  

Let's look at those brilliant connections. 

But first, let's start with reality.  I work for the University of Florida, we are the State's Land-Grant University. There are 4,000 faculty. Our central job is to educate the public, perform cutting-edge research, and communicate that research to citizens in our state.  That's the Land Grant mission. 

Our area, IFAS, receives about $80 million a year in research support. Most of that is federal and state, with 3% coming from corporate sources. Of that, maybe $200-400k come from Monsanto annually to specific research programs.  In other words, they pay for work to be done here in a lab (not mine) and finance maybe a postdoc to two.  This is small potatoes. Nobody sees any of that money outside of the lab that is being compensated for the work. 

To his claims:

1.  Cargill Inc, Dow Chemical and Monsanto give millions to the University of Florida - SMOKING GUN!!  Not so much. The first page goes to a dead link.  I guess that still convinces some of the Monspiracy.

2. U of F Scientists Collaborate with Monsanto -- SMOKING GUN!!  Not so much.  The article is about two UF researchers that worked in collaboration with Monsanto in 2011 to develop public-domain software to help model corn growth in the southeast.  These simulation models help farmers make choices in a changing climate.  From what I can tell, I can find no evidence that there was any funding to UF associated with this relationship.  It is not on Dr. Boote's CV or in the UF grants database.

3.  Monsanto supports a professorship in his department -- SMOKING GUN.  Not so much. That evil Monsanto had the audacity to provide funding to hire a new professor.  Fifteen years ago. The nerve.  In the days when budgets are cut, faculty hires are few, and students need more science training, it is shameful that they'd actually provide a way for us to expand service to the citizens of out state. 

Yes, Monsanto did put up part of the funding for Mark's appointment.  The funny part is, he has no associations with them and his research is not of direct impact to Monsanto's interests.  

Plus it happened two years before I joined UF.  BUT... that's the best they can find...

4.  Folta claims he's an "independent contractor" for the State of Florida -- SMOKING GUN.  Not so much.  Here the author of the post cherry picks a line from a comment thread and tries to use it to discredit me on the page.  The exact quote is: "I'm an independent contractor that works for the State of Florida.  They give me a paycheck and a lab space. Every test tube, person, bag of soil, etc. comes from grants that I apply for. Period.

This is how we sometimes represent ourselves in university science. There is no magical funding that comes from the institution that pays for our research.  We pay for it, from grants.  We're small business operators. We have employees, tight budgets, and expected deliverables.

Sure, our paychecks for teaching and research come from the state, but they give nothing toward our research work.  In fact, from a 3-year $500,000 NSF grant our institution gets about $250,000 of it for "administration and facilities" to keep the paperwork straight and the lights on. 

Finally, it is sad to see someone dig through the web in an attempt to discredit someone that works for them. Rather than ask for information, explanations, assistance in learning, they want to tear down scientists that don't subscribe to their warped views (which is all of the scientists). 

I guess it should be noted that Monsanto and other companies sponsor websites like where I answer questions.  For free. Maybe that's a connection. 

Sad.  At least he didn't go after the "hot chick with the lip ring" (last line of image above, in reference to Cara Santa Maria on the HuffPo video).   Maybe if I get a lip ring he'll give me a pass too.

They missed the most damning evidence.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Tailoring Fear to Terrorize Your Audience

It has been widely shown that the anti-GMO movement does not have evidence to support their position.  In the absence of science, biotech opponents must resort to misinformation and fear in order to achieve their goals.

Today a report surfaced about

It reminded me of a post I produced last year. In China, GM cotton has been used for over a decade and the technology has brought tremendous advantages.  In 2003, the use of Bt cotton stopped over 300,000 tons of insecticide from being applied (Pam Ronald, Tomrorow's Table).  The technology is doing well, and today there is a great discussion among Chinese scientists about the technology-- and they are for the development of such products.

However, the anti-GM movement has effectively manipulated Chinese citizens.  In the USA, you scare people by telling them they'll be fat and packed with tumors like a 2-year old Sprague Dawley Rat.

In China, you need to tell them that they won't be able to have children. With rules on family size, there is a tremendous feeling of desperation to have that one healthy child.  Something like 12.5% of Chinese couples are unable to conceive, and it carries a social stigma. Unregulated IVF clinics abound.  It is not known why Chinese families are infertile, but experts point to pollution, stress and planning families at later ages.

So what message will Greenpeace and other activist corporations use in China?  Eating GMO will make you infertile.

The sign says, "GMO food will make people unable to reproduce", playing into their greatest fears. A tailored message to maximize negative public sentiment.

Back in 2000 the technology was viewed favorably, and the Chinese government rushed forward with development of corn and soy genetics. China imports most of its corn and soy from Argentina and Brazil.  Today, the fear has worked, turning many against the technology. 

A few years ago, Xiaoyu Wang from the Hilongjiang Soybean Association publicly stated that GM soy would cause sterility and cancer, of course, without evidence.  Oh, and the Hilongjiang Soybean Association only produces non-GM soy.

There also are claims that citizens of the USA do not eat GM products and that these technologies are a "soft bomb" way to harm China.

Clearly it is all tailored rhetoric, carefully crafted for maximum manufacture of perceived risk.  It shows that biotech opponents will stop at nothing to hurt people and limit options, as long as their agendas are met.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

This is What I Get For Offering to Help...

In the last blog I wrote about correspondence from a young woman that apparently was not interested in scientific interaction.  To review, she posted a note on the Stop Neil deGrasse Tyson from Talking about Science petition, requesting he contact her so that she could give his dim self some book learnin'.  She provided an email address in this public forum.

Dr. Tyson is a busy guy.  He's trying to disentangle fundamental questions about our universe, and may not be surfing crackpot websites, especially those trying to censor him.

To be of service, I wrote a short and punchy note to (we'll call her RK) only to earn a semi-psychopathic retort.

I get it.  Asking Neil deGrasse Tyson to contact you and then getting a note from Kevin Folta is a lot like ordering a pizza and having the delivery guy show up with a used tube sock filled with guacamole. I'm sure she was disappointed, but when life hands you a tube sock of guacamole, get the chips!

I took the time to write back a little softer note explaining the situation.

On the surface my note seems soft and helpful-- but the words within conjured a rhetorical shitstorm like I've never seen. The "ego" comment comes from her last note where she tells me, "Drop your ego little man!"  She's giving Valerie some competition in the zany department! 

My message disappeared into cyberspace, hoping to mend a misunderstanding or somehow illuminating that she just might be wrong.  However, my desire to initiate a healthy and useful conversation was dead on arrival.  My offer to assist was met with an interesting reply-- and I have no idea what she is talking about! 

Yikes!  I never visited her facebook page-- Ever. YouTube channel?  I guess I have no publications or even a B.S. degree...  Don't like that I offer to help a woman?  I offer to help everyone...


I do kind of hope she calls my department and asks to talk to the Chair... He'd be happy to hear her complaint. I think he already has, and he knows all sides of this fiasco. 

Today's blog has two major conclusions:

1.  This is why scientists don't engage.  The abuse and threats from wackos are a turn off and make you feel like you are wasting your time.

2.  This is why Mike Adams and Vandana Shiva are actually dangerous.  When they encourage violence against journalists and scientists, there are a number of unstable persons out there like RK that could easily be inspired to carry out their bidding.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Kind Scholarly Note from a Sweet Soul

Last weekend when skimming the petition to silence Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson I stumbled upon one that seemed really odd.  The author, I'm guessing a female, said, "End the Bt (Agent Orange) Toxic Corn", as part of her rant.  She offered her email address an suggested that Dr. Tyson contact her, of course, perhaps in more crunchy tones.

Seeing as though Dr. Tyson was probably busy solving problems of the cosmos and not likely to respond to this request, I kindly took it upon myself to send her a quick note and clarify her Bt/Agent Orange foible.

Shortly thereafter I received her gentle retort.

Reaching out to touch the lives of others with the gift of science.  My she is one feisty space bat.  I'd recommend Occupy a Padded Cell. I'm guessing her trusted and accredited news sources is probably Natural News.

My first note to her was honest and well intended, and I'd be glad to talk to her about transgenics, Bt, 2,4-D, agent orange, whatever.  I don't think she's much interested in what science has to offer, as she seems like an angry nutcase that is probably flipping kittens into a wood chipper and not partaking in critical analysis of the scholarly literature. 

Oh well.  I tried. Next time I'll take a whiz on a killer bee colony instead. 

Tomorrow I'll post our next correspondence...