Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Folta, My Old Frenemy, Outed...In NATURE!!

Here, without comment, is an item just published in Nature.  (Nature, fyi, is one of the world's top two science mags.)  Just remember that this is the guy who's always telling us how he doesn't get any kickbacks from Monsanto, and at whose anguished complaint I was kind enough to stop calling Monsanoites Monsantoites on this blog.  Done with THAT,  at least!

Nature | News
GM-crop opponents expand probe into ties between scientists and industry
Activist group compels records from 40 researchers at US public universities.
By Keith Kloor.
The agriculture giant Monsanto's relationship with researchers has made them the target of activists who oppose GM crops.
Michelle McGuire, a nutrition scientist at Washington State University in Pullman, was stunned last month when activists who oppose the use of genetically modified (GM) organisms asked to read her e-mail.
US Right to Know of Oakland, California, filed a request under Washington's freedom-of-information law to see her correspondence with, or about, 36 organizations and companies. McGuire is one of 40 US researchers who have now been targeted by the group, which is probing what it sees as collusion between the agricultural biotechnology industry and academics who study science, economics and communication.
And that investigation, which began in February, has just started to yield documents. These include roughly 4,600 pages of e-mails and other records from Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a well-known advocate of GM organisms. The records, which the university gave to US Right to Know last month, do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Folta. But they do reveal his close ties to the agriculture giant Monsanto, of St Louis, Missouri, and other biotechnology-industry interests.
The documents show that Monsanto paid for Folta's travel to speak to US students, farmers, politicians and the media. Other industry contacts occasionally sent him suggested responses to common questions about GM organisms.
“Nobody ever told me what to say,” says Folta, who considers public outreach to be a key part of his job. “There’s nothing I have ever said or done that is not consistent with the science.”
He adds that he has never accepted honoraria for outreach work, and that the University of Florida does not require him to disclose travel reimbursements. But the e-mails show that Folta did receive an unrestricted US$25,000 grant last year from Monsanto, which noted that the money “may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects”. Folta says that the funds are earmarked for a proposed University of Florida programme on communicating biotechnology.
Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord says that the company was “happy to support Dr. Folta's proposal for an outreach program to increase understanding of biotechnology”, and that the $25,000 grant “predominately covered travel expenses”. Lord adds that Monsanto considers public-private collaborations to be “essential to the advancement of science, innovation and agriculture”.
Seeking answers
Such explanations do not satisfy Gary Ruskin, executive director of US Right to Know.  "I think it's important for professors who take money from industry to disclose it,” he says. “And if they’re not disclosing it, that’s a problem. And if they say they aren’t taking money, and they are, then that’s a problem."
Ruskin's group, which was founded in 2014, calls for mandatory labelling of food that contains GM ingredients — even though numerous scientific bodies, including the US National Academy of Sciences, have found no evidence that such food harms human health.
US Right to Know launched its investigation of academic researchers after it noticed that several had fielded questions about crop biotechnology on a website called GMO Answers, which is funded by members of the biotech industry. The group considers the site, which is aimed at consumers and managed by public-relations firm Ketchum of New York, to be a “straight-up marketing tool to spin GMOs in a positive light”. It is now seeking the records of public-sector researchers — who are subject to state freedom-of-information laws — to confirm its suspicions.
Ruskin says that the group has received responses to about 10% of its freedom-of-information act requests to various universities. At least one institution, the University of Nebraska, has refused to provide documents requested by the group.
US Right to Know argues that the freedom-of-information requests are reasonable, since the researchers who are under scrutiny are public employees who are supported by taxpayers. “Part of democracy is that we get to know what our public employees do,” Ruskin says.
The view from outside
McGuire is not sure why the group is seeking her records, because she has not contributed to the GMO Answers website. Some of her recent research refutes claims that glyphosate, an herbicide often used on GM crops, accumulates in breast milk; it relies on an assay developed with assistance from Monsanto. Still, McGuire says, “I’m a milk-lactation researcher.”
But Folta’s e-mails show him to be frequent contributor to GMO Answers. Ketchum employees repeatedly asked him to respond to common questions posed by biotechnology critics. In some cases, they even drafted answers for him. “We want your responses to be authentically yours,” one Ketchum representative wrote in a message on 5 July 2013. “Please feel free to edit or draft all-new responses.”
“They thought they could save me time by providing canned answers,” Folta says of his “extremely annoying” Ketchum contacts. “And I don’t know if I used them, modified them or what, but they stopped doing it at some point.” He adds that the correspondence obtained by US Right to Know reveals only a fraction of his work as a scientist, and taken alone does not paint an accurate picture of his work.
Bruce Chassy, a toxicologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is the subject of two freedom-of-information requests by US Right to Know, says that his e-mails would reveal a similar portrait of “people trying to defend the science against malicious attacks”.
But Chassy acknowledges the ethical questions raised by close relationships between the biotech industry and the public sector. “Are we working for them, or are they working for us?” he asks. “Probably a little bit of both” — in part because universities and companies often have overlapping research interests. The extent of this overlap is what US Right to Know aims to reveal in full.
Michael Halpern, an expert on scientific integrity at the Union of Concern Scientists in Washington DC, says that Folta's case suggests that universities should do more to educate researchers on what constitutes a conflict of interest and what types of financial relationships should be disclosed.
“It behooves scientists to disclose their funding sources so there's no perception of inappropriate influence,” Halpern says. “But that doesn’t mean all private money is tainted or suspect.”
Nature 524, 145–146 (13 August 2015)

Monday, August 10, 2015

“Science? What Science?” GE's Achilles Heel Revealed!

Yes, we know.  We’ve heard it a million times.  Guys who believe in genetic engineering (GE) are the science guys.  Anti-GE guys are the anti-science scare-mongering wingnuts.  To which all that us anti-GE guys can muster in the way of rebuttal is the wimpish whimper, “No, no, we’re not anti-science, it’s just that there’s science that says different things, look at X, Y and Z.”  After which it’s just a he-said, she-said, which they win by sheer force of numbers. 

Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever gone to the root of things and asked “Science?  What science?”  So, for the first time, let’s ask it.

For starters, let’s get our definitions straight.  GE isn’t science.  It’s technology. And if you think that’s wrong, you’re suffering under an inability common among even educated Americans to distinguish between science and technology.  Even NPR can’t do it—their Science Friday should be renamed Technology with Some Science Thrown in Friday.  So here’s the quick Cliff’s-notes-type definition: science is finding out how things work and technology is finding ways to make things work differently (hopefully better).  True, technology often uses science to assist in that.  But two things have to be noted.  One, there’s an inevitable time-lag between the science and the capacity to make use of it, which often means that by the time the technology’s up and running, science has moved on in a different or even contrary direction.  Two, the technology is only as good as the science it uses.

And the science GE draws on is not good.  It’s an eclectic mix of old sciences all past their sell-by date, ranging from mid-twentieth-century genetics all the way back to sixteenth-century toxicology, when there was hardly anything you could call “science” at all.

Before GE advocates have an apoplectic fit, let me elaborate.

Anti-GEers often moan about how government agencies leave pesticide toxicity testing to industry--conflict of interest and all that.  That’s a nonstarter because both Monsanto and the EPA use the same “science” as the basis for their protocols: the dogma from a sixteenth-century astrologer and alchemist that “the dose makes the poison”, meaning that for literally every substance there is a NOEL (no-observable-effects level) above which harm may occur, but below which no harm can possibly occur.  

Astrology is still around in daily newspaper columns, so we skeptics know how much that’s worth, but alchemy is little heard of nowadays.  It was the sixteenth-century equivalent of Nigerian scams, and it had the same basic ingredients: a big pot of gold (in alchemy it really was gold) at the end of the rainbow, but a considerable expense on the part of the sucker to get there.  The only significant difference was that while no Nigerian scammer ever believed in a multi-millionaire Swedish businessman who died in a plane crash intestate and without issue, some alchemists (and I’m sure Paracelsus, an alias for Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, was one of them) genuinely believed that with the right chemical procedures you could turn base metals into gold.  Indeed the belief that this was possible, at least in principle, formed part of the sixteenth-century scientific consensus. 

Alchemy had been thoroughly debunked by the seventeenth century (most notably in Ben Jonson’s comedy The Alchemist (1610), which though seldom performed nowadays is one of the funniest plays ever), but toxicology’s dogma remained without serious challenge until the eve of this century.  By now, of course, it’s been shown to be invalid for many, perhaps most chemical substances (see my post “Unsafe At Any Dose”) but because of this same time-lag between scientific discovery and technological application, we’re stuck with sixteenth-century toxic-substance testing for probably another decade or so. 
But what about GE genetics?  We have to start by remembering the scientific orthodoxy that followed the mid-century unravelling of the DNA code, because this was what dominated the 1970s when GE took off.  This orthodoxy was the genes-conquer-all, one-gene-one trait science of Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, which resulted, among other things, in the commonsense belief that the more complex an organism, the more genes it would have to have.  Now we know how wrong that is.  And evo-devo has taught us that genes “are not the leaders, but the followers” in the development of any organism (West-Eberhard, Developmental Plasticity and Evolution)—in other words, that epigenetic factors, both organism-internal and environmental, play vital roles in determining what genes get expressed when and how, and that in any case very few traits are controlled by a single gene.

What this all boils down to is that GE technology has been blindsided by scientific change.  Nothing in Dawkins-type genetics led you to expect the emergence of superweeds and the consequent “pesticide treadmill” in which more herbicide-resistant weeds would mean spraying more (and/or more toxic) herbicides which in turn would select for more pesticide-resistant weeds.  Nothing in Dawkins-type genetics led you to predict that most attempts at inserting genes would be doomed to failure; for instance, the University of Hawaii hasn’t brought out a single successful transgenic crop since the ringspot-resistant papaya of the 1990s.  Forget for a moment about the overblown issue of possible harms— the sheer complexity of the process turned out to be orders of magnitude harder than anyone could have imagined in the 1970s.  But anyone who had kept up to speed with science would have known to prepare for these things at least a couple of decades ago.

Bottom line: GE advocates' claim to represent science is simply a version of Goebbels’ Big Lie—the one people end up believing if you just repeat it often enough.  It’s sheer stupidity to suppose that “a consensus of scientists” has proven genetic engineering to be harmless, or anything else for that matter.  New science trumps outdated science every time.   Who was right, Wegener who said continents had moved or the consensus of geologists who said they hadn’t?  Hayflick who said there was a strict limit on cell longevity or the consensus of microbiologists who said there wasn’t?  Margolis who said that eukaryotes resulted from symbiosis or the consensus of evolutionary biologists who said that was nonsense?  Never forget Haldane’s Four Stages of Acceptance:
            1. This is worthless nonsense.
            2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view.
            3. This is true, but quite unimportant.
            4. I always said so.

And never forget either, that we were told DDT was safe, stilboestrol was safe,  smoking was safe, thalidomide was safe, Agent Orange was safe.  You’d think we’d have learned some sense by now, wouldn’t you?  But those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.   

So, next time you hear someone saying they’re scientific and you’re not, you know where to tell them to stick it, right?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Time To Stop Talking And Start Acting!

It’s time to face some unpleasant facts.  No matter how much we try to kid ourselves with rah-rah, cheer-up messages, we’re not winning the war against GMOs—we’re losing it.  With the passage of the DARK Act and the imminent passage of the TPP, we are left more powerless than ever.  The belief that GMO advocates are “pro-science” and anti-GMO people are “anti-science” is being ever more strongly reinforced by the mass media.  The truth is obvious.  Traditional channels of protest and trying to spread information just aren’t working any more.

That is why we have launched the first of a series of targeted actions.  A target can be anything—a pesticide, a person or organization that supports GMOs, a demographic at risk from GMOs (pregnant women, nursing mothers, over-65s…), an industry involved with GMOs in any way…There is literally no limit on the form a target can take, consequently there is no limit on the form a targeted action can take.  But all such actions must have specific goals that are realistically achievable within a period of weeks or months, rather than years, decades, or never.

Our first targets are the agriculture departments of American universities. Our goals are to prevent them from discriminating in any way against faculty members who take anti-GMO positions, obtain restitution for those already discriminated against, and wherever possible force changes in the policies of such departments to reduce or preferably remove policies that favor GMOs at the expense of other farming methods.
We have already begun action at the University of Hawaii (see the blogsite smokinggmogun.blogspot.com for information and continuing updates).  We will initiate new actions at universities nationwide and even internationally.  Many agriculture departments have been taken over by GMO advocates. That’s one of the factors, and a big one, that has supported their Big Lie—that they have science on their side—so if we can reduce or eliminate their influence in academia, we will have shifted the whole balance of power.

Through a series of targeted actions we simultaneously do several things.  One, our opponents have crafted very sophisticated means to nullify traditional forms of activism; targeted actions, by using innovative techniques to attack a variety of unexpected targets in unexpected ways, can overcome the elaborate defenses they have built against traditional forms of activism.  Two, we make news, and thus force a reluctant media to take notice of us, opening the way for further education of the public.  Three, such actions provide plentiful opportunities for sympathizers to convert themselves into activists by doing; doing, rather than merely reading and reacting, provides the individual with a sense of accomplishment and reinforces commitment, even if the task done might seem easy and trivial—supplying the organizers of an action with some scrap of needed information, for instance, or joining hundreds or thousands of others in a concerted action on social media.  Four, through a synergy of all these factors, we can gradually build a critical mass of dedicated activists that will be too strong for even governments to resist…

IF, and ONLY if, you are ready to help us.

It’s impossible to foresee all the ways that might arise, but here are some:

1) Let us know the form(s) taken and extent of the influence exercised by Monsanto and other seed-&-pesticide corporations (Syngenta, Dow, BASF, Dupont-Pioneer etc.—henceforth SAPCs) in your university (or any other with which you are familiar).

2) Let us know of any cases of discrimination or victimization (including but not limited to firing, suspension, demotion, denial of tenure or promotion, verbal or physical harassment, hostile work environment, suppression of scientific evidence, curtailment of free speech rights…) affecting faculty in your university (or others) as a consequence of their opposing or criticizing the activities of SAPCs or any practices associated with SAPCs.

3) Volunteer to organize and lead an action against SAPC influence in your university similar (but not necessarily identical to) the action currently in progress at the University of Hawaii, or provide us with the names and email addresses of any persons who you believe might be willing and able to organize and lead such an action.

4) Should such an action begin in your university, support it in any way you can.

We will gladly offer help and advice to anyone who contemplates such an action.  You can contact us at the email address given top right of the screen at
smokinggmogun.blogspot.com or as a comment on the latest post in that blog.  All comments must be moderated before publication, so your letter will never be published but will be removed immediately from the site and stored in absolute privacy. All communications will be answered as quickly as possible.

We look forward to hearing from you.