Month: November 2015

Nicholas Kristof scares us with chemical misinformation

two flasks

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warned us yesterday about Contaminating Our Bodies with Everyday Products, even though his warnings are alarmingly vague and not very well science based. According to Kristof, there are a large array of “toxic chemicals” all around us that endanger our bodies. Which chemicals are they? What research supports this warning? Where was it published? What are we to do?

This is where Kristof gets squishy, because the fact that not all of the “80,000 chemicals” in our environment have been tested does not mean that there are huge dangers lurking in every box or bottle we touch.  And all he really says is that

“Unregulated substances, they say, are sometimes linked to breast and prostate cancer, genital deformities, obesity, diabetes and infertility.”

In other words there is no definitive evidence.

Kristof’s main launching point is an opinion piece in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics on “reproductive health impacts of exposure to toxic environmental chemicals.” This is not a research paper and cites no new research in the area. And, note that this journal ranks 67th among obstetrics journals.  Kristoff tackled this same theme in 2009, and was taken to task by Peter Lipson in the Science Based Medicine blog.

Much of what Kristof concentrates on are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) which are frankly somewhat controversial because there is so little solid research in this area, and because of the idea that they do not obey the usual dose-response behavior of other toxic compounds. In other words, some proponents suggest that any amount of these chemicals is dangerous, no matter how small. This has simply not been established, and considering what tiny amounts we can now measure, rather hard to believe. On this topic Kristof cites a report from the National Cancer Institute and one from the Endocrine Society, both of which essentially call for more research in this area.

So without any specific chemicals mentioned or any dosages, Kristof just seems to be flailing at the concept of scary chemicals without any good recommendations, which is much like many of his other highly criticized columns.

Kristof’s closing recommendations include “avoiding touching cash register receipts” and “eating organic food,” both of which are preposterous. The idea that Bisphenol-A is actually dangerous has been thoroughly debunked, as it is excreted in the urine and does not accumulate in the body. And the idea that organic foods are somehow safer is equally silly, as they are sprayed with much the same pesticides as conventional crops are, no matter what fibs the organic industry wants you to believe.

Kristof also recommends believing advice from the Environmental Working Group, whose “Dirty Dozen” lists are debunked by scientists every year as containing residues far below the safety reference level. They also think cell phones are dangerous.

In summary, trace chemicals represent an active area of research, but very little has been determined so far. Kristof has simply published a chemical scare article that mentions no particular dangerous chemicals to avoid, nor any action we should take.

Vermont Country Store goes homeopathic?

Vermont Country Store goes homeopathic?

We’ve always loved looking through the Vermont Country Store catalog, because they have some of the greatest looking foods and candies. Cherry cordials, almond bark , peppermint bark, pecan topped toffee, chocolates from Guittard and Droste, cherry and brandy candies, Dutch rum balls, marzipan fruits and tons of “nostalgic sweets.” But they are no longer carrying Valomilks!


It’s a pleasure to leaf through their catalog looking the cakes, pies, jams, meats, cheeses, nuts and, of course, Vermont maple syrup. They also have a whole section of women’s clothing and cosmetics, which we don’t look at in much detail, but which seem at least tasteful. OK, there are a few men’s clothing items, too, but they are stuck way in the back long after the cool candies and foods.

But this year, there is a glaring exception to the smooth browsing of previous years. They’ve added a bunch of quack patent medicines like Vermont Cider Vinegar with Premium Herbs for Energy and Vitality (34 oz for $9.95) (humbug!). Or there is an organic version (2 scams in one!): Vim and Vigor apple cider vinegar with Certified Organic ingredients. If it doesn’t work in the conventional version, it surely won’t work in the higher priced version (32 oz for $24.95).

But they really enter the woo palace when you find they are offering homeopathic cataract drops, which are just water. They also offer homeopathic Neuropathy Oil for temporary relief. It has “none of the side effects of prescription or OTC medicines.”  You can bet it doesn’t, because it has no active ingredients!

What is homeopathy?

Let’s remind ourselves of what utter quackery homeopathic remedies really are. Samuel Hahnemann proposed the ideas of “like cures like” when he realized in 1784 that cinchona could be used as a treatment for malaria, but which induced malaria-like symptoms in healthy people. In his work, he began experimenting with dilutions of relatively toxic compounds, and claimed that very dilute preparations could still be effective in treatment of various diseases, assuming that the dilutions were prepared using his procedure which included striking the flask on an elastic body. This is called “dynamisation” or “potentisation” and has no physical or chemical meaning at all.

The dilutions in homeopathic preparations are based on a centesimal scale so that 1C means a dilution of 1:100. Then 2C means taking a portion of that 1C dilution and again diluting by 1:100. Molecular theory was still quite new in Hahnemann’s time and he did not recognize that such popular dilutions as 30C meant that there would not be a single molecule of the active substance remaining. Typically, we can calculate that there may be 1 molecule in a 12C dilution and none in further dilutions. Hahnemann believed that his vigorous shaking between dilutions left behind a “spirit-like essence” which was responsible for the homeopathic medicine’s effect. Nowadays, we would call that a placebo, or just “quack medicine.” You can read more about homeopathy on Quackwatch.

So now we see that the “homeopathic cataract drops” are just plain water and cannot do anything useful.  And that Neuropathy Oil is just sunflower oil with nothing else in it. Vermont Country Store seems to offer a number of homoeopathic products, including ones for prostate symptom relief and TMJ relief. They won’t work! They’re a scam!

So, they’ve added these useless products (did I mention the Natural Detoxifier Lung Flush?) but they did away with Valomilk? What kind of priorities are these?


FDA denies GMO labeling petition from CFS

corn silk
Corn silk

Andrew Kimbrell and his Center for Food Safety  filed a petition with the FDA arguing that all genetically engineered foods should be labeled. The FDA denied his petition last Friday in a 35 page ruling citing both science and existing law.

The petition was co-sponsored by Amy’s Kitchen, Annie’s Homegrown, Beyond Pesticides, the Center for Environmental Health, Consumer Reports (who should be ashamed of themselves), CROPP Cooperative, the Environmental Working Group, Food and Water Watch, Horizon Organic, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, the National Cooperative Grocer’s Association, the National Family Farm Coalition, Northeast Organic Dairy Producer’s Alliance, Northeast Organic Farmers Association, the National Organic Coalition, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, the Organic Trade Association, Organically Grown Company, the Rural Advancement Foundation International, Save New Mexico Seeds, and Stonyfield Farm. The pro-organic biases of the members of the above groups should be pretty plain.  Their 25-page petition is extensive but breaks no new legal or scientific grounds, echoing arguments these groups have been putting forth for years.

The FDA response to the petition notes that the petition “does not provide evidence sufficient to show that foods derived from genetically engineered plants, as a class, differ from foods derived from non-GE plant varieties in any meaningful or uniform way, or that as a class, such foods present any different or greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”

In particular, it notes that the petition does not show that the genetic engineering of foods constitutes a “material fact” under the F&DC Act. The FDA means by “material fact” information about the attributes of the food itself. In other words, labeling would be required if omission of that label would mislead the consumer if the food has nutritional or functional properties different from the food it resembles. In the case of bioengineered foods, this has never been found to be the case.

They also note that any new bioengineered food would undergo substantial testing, and all safety questions would be resolved before approval. Their assessment “takes into account questions about known toxicants, potential of the food to contain food allergens, the concentration and bioavailability of important nutrients, the safety and nutritional value of newly introduced proteins, and the identity, composition and nutritional value of modified carbohydrates, or fats and oils.”

Finally, they note that if a bioengineered product differs in properties such that a common or usual name no longer applies, it would require a label. And while the petition suggests that new DNA from genetic engineering should be considered a food additive, “with respect to transferred genetic material (nucleic acids), the agency explained that generally it did not anticipate that transferred genetic material would itself be subject to food additive regulation because nucleic acids are present in the cells of every living organism…”

Alliance for Bio-integrity v Shalala

The FDA noted that many of the points raised by the petition were similar to those in the settled court case of Alliance for Bio-Integrity v. Shalala. Specifically, FDA explained that “in developing the 1992 Policy, the agency considered intended and unintended or unexpected changes in foods derived from genetically engineered plants”, and explained “that it had sought the input and expertise of scientists from around the world, and analyzed reports in the scientific literature, including an evaluation of plants modified through both new and traditional means.” They concluded that as a class bioengineered plants had not resulted “in any risks that differed from their traditional counterparts.”

Consumer Surveys

In this case and in International Dairy Foods v Amestoy, the courts have agreed with the FDA that “consumer curiosity” about a breeding method does not mean that this would require such foods to be labeled. In fact, the FDA noted in this ruling that all of the surveys the plaintiffs presented claiming that “most consumers” wanted biotech foods labeled were skewed by leading questions (“should GMOs be labeled”) rather than more neutral formulations. In fact, there have been some surveys that simply asked what additional information should be on food labels, and in both a US and a UK survey, only about 2% of consumers suggested biotechnology as important. A more recent survey suggested the number might now be as high as 7%.

Consumer Reports

The petitioners attached an article from Consumer Union’s web site which claims that “Genetic Engineering is not an Extension of Conventional Plant Breeding.” The FDA spent some time criticizing these assertions, noting that while the plants are bred using “different mechanisms,” the article does not provide evidence that the resulting plants differ in safety. However, the FDA notes that the CU article explains that the differences are “normative and philosophically based, not scientific,” and explains that unless the change in the food is material, they lack the authority to label it.

The FDA also refutes the petition’s claim that labeling is required because the breeding methods are “profound” and “radical,” since there are no material changes to the resulting plants. Differing breeding methods do not imply any change in the plant’s safety nor do “individual views on the extent that food production methods differ.”

Summary of Other Claims

  • Biotech crops can lead to antibiotic resistance. Kanamycin is used in genetic engineering but the FDA approved this use because kanamycin resistance genes have been found to be safe and occur frequently in nature.
  • Biotech foods present unknown health consequences. It has been agreed to by scientists worldwide (and the OECD and WHO) that if a novel food is essentially similar to its conventional counterpart, it is “no more or less likely to be toxic than its counterpart.”
  • Aris and Leblanc found Cry1Ab (from Bt) and pesticide metabolites in the sera of pregnant and non-pregnant women. The methods in this study have been questioned and refuted by a number of workers (Blacker, Goldstein and Mueller), and the EPA has concluded that Cry1Ab “do not pose adverse consequences to human health.” It has also been ably dissected by David Tribe.
  • They provide no evidence for their assertions that GM crops cause environmental damage.
  • The F&DC Act does not require disclosure of how a food is produced without regard to its effect on the resulting product.
  • Labeling is misleading when it fails to disclose material facts. However, the FDA has not found that genetically engineered foods as a class warrant additional labeling because they do not present different or greater safety concerns than conventional foods.
  • The First Amendment protects commercial speech, too, and the FDA cannot compel commercial speech without a valid reason.
  • The fact that most GM seeds are patented does not make them distinctly different. Many conventional seeds have been patented since 1931. Patent laws are to protect the inventor for a limited time, and have nothing to do with food safety.
  • Many foreign countries label GM crops, so the US must be “falling behind.” Actually, the position of the Codex Alimentarius (the international organization that sets food standards) has not changed on labeling as long as the labeling is accurate.

Thus, the FDA concludes that the petitioners have not provided sufficient grounds to change their 1992 policy on crops produced using biotechnology, and their petition is denied.

Who is the Center for Food Safety?

The Center for Food Safety has a budget of over $4.5 million which they use to file petitions and suits on issues like this one, some more scientifically valid than others. They pay their leader, attorney Andrew Kimbrell, about $262,000 a year. Their entire budget comes from donations, but they do not disclose their major donors. Judging by the affiliations of their Board of Directors, and of the co-petitioners, it clearly receives substantial support from the organic foods industry, however. It has participated heavily in actions against genetically modified crops.

According to Activist Facts, Kimbrell was mentored by Jeremy Rifkin, “America’s most notable anti-technologist.” Kimbrell debated biologist Nina Federoff last spring in the Wall Street Journal, summarized here, coming out second best. He was also one of principal drafters of California’s failed GMO labeling proposal, Prop 37, according to Henry Miller.  And, according to Activist Facts, “The Center for Food Safety, under its façade of nonprofit watch dogging, has all the marks of a black-marketing campaign, run on behalf of organic and ‘natural’ foods.” William Saletan denounces them in his extensively researched Slate article on GMO safety. So while they may take on some valid causes, their focus seems to be against food technology and especially biotechnology.




Taco Bell’s cage free eggs scam

more eggsTaco Bell announced this week that by the end of next year, they will be serving only cage free eggs in their breakfast menu items.  This sounds like an excuse to raise prices, since cage free eggs command a premium price. Both McDonalds and Burger King have announced longer term plans to achieve this same goal. As we will see, this is basically a marketing decision.

While many people believe that cage free housing results in better animal welfare, actual scientific studies show this isn’t true. As we described earlier, there has been some significant research on this topic, by researchers from UC Davis, Michigan State, Iowa State and the USDA. They set up 3 housing trials: conventional cages (CC), expanded cages (EC) and cage free aviaries (AV), and carried out 3 parallel studies using one flock divided into 3 parts. They then repeated the entire experiment the next year with a new flock. The experiments and data collection took about 3 years, and resulted in eight papers in the journal Poultry Science. You can read the summary of the results here.

The designs of the three systems are shown in the housing system paper. The aviary system is a large new barn. “Hens were distributed in 6 colony rows with each row divided by wire mesh screens into 10 pens along the building length. Hens had access to 10.19 cm (4.01 in) of feeder space, 15.24 cm (6 in) of perch space, and 86.32 cm2 (13.38 in2) of nest space area.”

In general, the conventionally caged birds did the best in the experiment and the cage free aviaries the worst. The aviary birds cost about $1.85 more per pullet, and showed 5% lower productivity. The aviary hens had higher mortality (13.3%) compared to 4.8% in the conventional caged system. Aviary productivity fell to 10% below the conventional cages by the end of the cycle.

On the other hand, the hens in the aviary were found to have stronger bones and thus less broken bones than the CC and EC hens, and showed more hen-like behaviors. AV and EC hens cost a great deal more than CC hens did, AV was worse for worker health and safety, and AV was worse for emissions, and EC the best for ammonia emissions.

So, it depends on what measurements are important to you, but the higher mortality of AV hens and lower worker health and safety are certainly negative indicators. You can find an interactive chart of the results here.

Our conclusion is that for animal welfare, the conventional cage systems are actually better despite popular impressions to the contrary.

We were going to illustrate this article with photos of the Taco Bell breakfast items, but there is no nearby Taco Bell  (within 20 miles) that serves breakfast. However, the reviews of these items have not been very good.

The Great GMO Corn Experiment

Squirrel participating in the experiment.
Squirrel participating in the experiment.

Some people who have less information about biotechnology have asserted that animals won’t touch or eat GMO corn, and only non genetically modified corn. This is pretty unlikely on the face of it, since farm animals have been feed GM corn for nearly 20 years with zero problems. In addition, GM corn is identical in smell, taste and nutrition. However, some people have published such claims here, here and here.

We carried out an early experiment in 2013 to illustrate that this is not the case, finding the squirrels and chipmunks had no such preferences. However, we had no way to know exactly which corn varieties we were buying at the supermarket, and a more controlled experiment seemed desirable.

The non-profit organization Biofortified has undertaken a very large controlled Citizen Science experiment of the same kind, but using corn isolines. The GM corn and the non-modified corn are exactly the same breed, but one of them has had genes added to create Bt insecticide and  Roundup resistance. The corn was grown by Monsanto for Biofortified in two adjacent fields in Hawaii, separated by the usual buffer zone, so the climates were as identical as possible.  You can read more about the experiment here.

startThen volunteers were recruited on line to order the corn kits and see how wild animals like them.  We are one of about 400 such experimenters who donated money to cover shipping and are now part of the experiment. Each kit comes with 4 ears of corn, two marked Experiment 1 and two marked Experiment 2. Each ear of corn comes with a numbered bar code label to distinguish it. However, you do not know which are GM and which are not, other than one of the two ears in each experiment is GM and the other not.

End of first experiment
End of first experiment

We did our first experiment this weekend, and found that the squirrels (and maybe 1 chipmunk) ate all of the corn starting with the ear with looser kernels, but eventually ate all of both of them.

This is a fun experiment for you to try, too. It is suitable for both children and adults and could make an interesting Science Fair project. There are still a couple of hundred kits available, and you or your family can join in the experiment by going to the Biofortified web site.

During the experiment, you are asked to take pictures and log observations on their web site, and report the beginning and end weight of each numbered ear. When the experiment is concluded, you will have a chance to see the results, and a paper on this work will be published.

Do GMOs accumulate formaldehyde?

Soybeans or edamame

We recently came across this paper by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai and P. Deonikar titled “Do GMOs Acuumulate Formadehyde and Disrupt Molecular Systems Equilibria? Systems Biology May Provide Answers.” We decided that checking the credibility of this paper might make an interesting tutorial in scientific skepticism. To start with, we are only dealing with the evidence presented by the paper, and not any public claims the author has since made.

So let’s take a look at this paper’s claims and pedigree and see how we can decide how seriously to take it. It’s worth undertaking this little exercise, because it seems to indicate the genetically modified plants (in this case soybeans) produce significant levels of formaldehyde, which is at some level toxic, and frankly this seems quite unlikely to have just been discovered now.

Let’s start with some simple questions.

  1. Where was the paper published? In Agricultural Sciences, 2015, 6, 630-662.
  2. Is this a real journal? Let’s see if it is indexed in PubMed. Go to PubMed and click on Journals in the NCBI Databases. Search for “Agricultural Sciences.” Oops, it’s not there.
  3. Does the journal exist? Yes, you can go to Agricultural Sciences web site and find that there are papers published in it. You have to pay a publication fee of $1000.
  4. Does the journal have an impact factor? Impact factor is a measure of the number of citations this journal receives in other journals. This scheme was developed by the Institute for Scientific Information. On such tabulator is CiteFactor, who does not list this journal. The journal’s web site gives a “Google Impact Factor” of 0.77, whichwe are unable verify.
  5. Who is the publisher? Is it a predatory publisher? The publisher is Scientific Research, registered in the state of Delaware, but with a business address in East Lake High-Tech Development Zone, Wuhan 430223, Hubei Province, China. Uh-oh.

To find out if this is a predatory publisher who just collects fees and has little intellectual credibility, check Beall’s list, maintained by librarian Jeffrey Beall at the University of Colorado/Denver. And sure enough, he lists Scientific Research among those predatory publishers.

So we’ve found out a lot about the paper’s standing and credibility without even reading it, except to learn from the title that the author is claiming that “GMOs” contain formaldehyde.

Reading the Paper

The paper is over 30 pages, and few non-experts would plow through the entire thing (we did), but there are some things you can look for pretty quickly. The opening sentence of the introduction gives us a clue to the author’s mindset:

“The safety assessment of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a particularly contentious subject.”

First of all, this is simply not true. After thousands of papers and many thousands of studies, the overall scientific consensus is that crops created using biotechnology are as safe as conventional crops. And the real red flag is the term “GMOs.” No biologist uses this misleading term, because it does not distinguish between the many types of plants that have been created using biotechnology: herbicide resistant, those containing genes to create insecticides (Bt) and those resistant to viruses (like the Rainbow Papaya), and those that resist browning. Further any cross between two plant varieties creates a new plant variety that is genetically modified from the originals.

The author also completely and intentionally confuses the doctrine of “substantial equivalence,” which the OECD clearly says means that if a conventional crop and a GM crop are substantially equivalent, it means that that is the starting point for further testing.

The author’s thesis for this paper is also stated in the introduction:

“However, in the GMO case of soybean, or RRS, there is a significant accumulation of formaldehyde and a concomitant depletion of glutathione…”

We should note that your body always contains some formaldehyde (2-3 µg/ml); it is produced as a normal part of our metabolism. A pear contains 38-60 mg/kg, so finding some in plants is not uncommon. Okay, good, let’s thumb through paper for the data. His Figure 10 shows a curve of formaldehyde increasing in “GMO soybeans” over about 9 days. And the figure caption says

Simulation results of GM of soybean stress on formaldehyde concentration in C1 metabolism model.

Uh-oh, again. This is a simulation of what his computer program believes will happen.  Where’s the data? (quickly thumbing through the remaining pages). There is no data. The author has based his somewhat worrisome health claim on simulations using a computer program he devised. He has done no measurements.

So what’s our conclusion? This is not a very important claim, because the author has not carried out the experiments.  And why hasn’t he? He says on the third page (632) that “it is difficult to acquire source material in an objective and independent manner while maintaining compliance with existing legal constraints on the use of such GMO source material.” This is patently untrue. Every major university has a research license with the major seed companies to carry out this research. And even if the author’s small think tank (International Center for Integrative Systems) does not have such a license, there is nothing to keep him from buying some GM soybeans from any farmer, as long as he doesn’t replant them. And incidentally, there are many, many types of GM soybeans. Which ones is he referring to? He skips over that.

So with this simple evaluation, you can see how to check the credibility of a paper whenever you hear some unlikely claim.

About Shiva Ayyadurai

Well, we got through the paper analysis without discussing the author, who has managed to become the Donald Trump (or maybe Ben Carson) of wild claims. Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai also claims to be the inventor of E-mail, although from his photos he must have aged awfully well to have done that. What he actually did was develop an electronic mail system for the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey when he was a 14-year old student volunteer. This was a really clever piece of work for the time and for his age, and he copyrighted the term “EMAIL” after he did it.  These claims were deconstructed by Gizmodo, who pointed out the Ray Tomlinson was generally given credit for sending the first text message (on Arpanet) in 1971. Boston Magazine also published a skeptical article about this claim.

In order to get even more attention Ayyadurai has challenged Monsanto to “prove GMOs are safe,” offering them a $10 million building in Cambridge as a reward. Actual scientists know that you cannot prove anything safe. You can only look at the accumulating evidence and conclude that there is precious little evidence (actually none) that “GMOs” are harmful. This is just a stunt. And where did he get this building? Perhaps his recent marriage to actress and crackpot  Fran Drescher made this property available? He hasn’t said. However, Amanda Zaluckyj (the Farmer’s Daughter) deconstructed this nonsense pretty well, as did the Genetic Literacy Project.

This last gossip may be entertaining, but the criticism of the paper stands without it. It makes no sense whatever, and you can do this same sort of analysis on any crazy paper you come across.


Relentless attacks silence public scientist

Professor Kevin Folta
Professor Kevin Folta

It all started with a new organization called US Right to Know (USRTK) filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests against more than a dozen scientists at public universities who work in or advocate for biotechnology. USRTK is run by Gary Ruskin, a California anti-GMO activist. It’s a small organization, funded apparently entirely by the Organic Consumers Association. A great deal of background information on this small organization run out of Ruskin’s  house can be found here.

This drama that we describe below ended with the complete silencing of a public scientist.

These FOIA requests were essentially for all E-mails the scientists had sent that mentioned Monsanto and other biotech companies, and seemed to be a fishing expedition to discredit these scientists. Some of those scientists include retired  biochemist and food safety expert Emeritus Professor Bruce Chassy who wrote a rebuttal here. Science Magazine discussed the FOIA in this article. Washington State University nutritionist Michelle McGuire also received an FOIA request for her Emails even though her work is on lactation, not biotechnology, because she had the temerity to run experiments showing that breast milk does not in fact contain Roundup as Moms Across America had insisted.

But the most egregious and extensive attacks were reserved for Professor Kevin Folta, the chairman of the Plant Science department at the University of Florida .  Kevin Folta is a truly nice guy, who will take the time to explain science to anyone that asks, in the clearest imaginable terms. His research is in the effects of various colors of light on strawberries, but he also has created some varieties using biotechnology for these experiments. Because of his involvement in this research and his lack of connection to the biotech industry, he has been a popular speaker and teacher explaining how biotechnology (“GMOs”) works and why all science has shown that is not a safety concern. His debate with Michael Hansen of Consumer’s Union is a model of his clear speaking style.

Because of how clearly he can defuse the fear and emotion of people who are worried about biotechnology, he has been invited to give many talks to farmers on how to discuss what they do and to students at various universities.  He also records a weekly podcast called Talking Biotech in which he interviews various players in the field, and writes a blog called Illumination in which he corrects misconceptions and analyzes biotech papers that have been misconstrued. Here’s a clever one, where he shows that the amount of Roundup spread on an acre of farmland is less than would fit in a 12 oz soda can.

But, this outreach work is not part of his actual job, and in order to give more talks, he needed to find a way to pay for the travel expenses and the sandwiches he often provides to the classes. Monsanto, with whom he has no professional relationship, and who does not pay him in any way, offered his university $25,000 to fund his outreach program, which Folta agreed to. In his talks, he gratefully acknowledged Monsanto’s support, but did not take a penny for himself or his research program.

It was at this point that all hell broke loose when USRTK found the E-mail offering his university that $25,000 in the E-mail dump they had requested on Folta. They immediately began attacking Folta as a “liar” and a paid “Monsanto shill,” even though they had no specific evidence of any such thing. Folta, along with dozens of others contributed to the web site GMO Answers. This site is supported by all the major biotechnology companies (including Monsanto), and anyone can contribute answers to the site.

Things began to come to a head when New York Times writer Eric Lipton wrote a piece about Folta which Folta called a “hatchet job.” Lipton managed to draw a false parallel between Folta who has never been paid by Monsanto and (then) Washington State researcher Charles Benbrook, whose pro-organic and anti-GMO articles and his entire salary were paid for by the Organic Consumer’s Association. By all reports, Chuck Benbrook is also a nice guy, but his research being wholly funded by an organization with a clear agenda makes him somewhat less transparent in his findings.

Seeing all the trouble this small donation caused, Folta told the University of Florida to return the money, and when that couldn’t be done quickly, the University donated it to a campus food pantry.

Then another piece by Brooke Borel appeared on Buzzfeed which summarized the attacks on Folta’s Email and managed to again suggest that his actions were somehow less than ethical. She suggested that Folta’s podcast alter ego “Vern Blazek” was somehow misleading, when he was clearly a satiric character used as a foil.

But now, the personal attacks on Folta had gotten completely  out of hand, all claiming he was a lying Monsanto shill and the like. To see how bad it became, take a look at Mike Adam’s Natural News post calling him “the most discredited scientist in America,” and a “discredited Monsanto puppet.’ Mike Adams is, of course, not a scientist nor even a reporter. His Natural News site is recognized as a collection of completely made up conspiracies and other fantasies.

About this time, an advertisement appeared in the Gainesville Craigslist repeating these accusations and calling him “a lying Monsanto puppet.” It also published his home address, which made Folta fear for his young family.

These relentless attacks on Folta began to take their toll, as you can see as he describes them in a talk he gave at the Trottier Symposium McGill University. It was clear that these attacks could not be allowed to continue.

Yesterday, Folta published this announcement on his blog, podcast page and Facebook page:

Hi Everybody. I’ll keep it short. The attacks are relentless, I’m under a lot of pressure on many fronts. I’m taking the opportunity to disappear from public visibility and focus on my lab and my students. It has been a challenging time. I appreciate the support, I’m grateful for your wishes, but this battle is vicious and one-sided, and I think I’m well served bowing out of the public science conversation for the foreseeable future. Thank you.

In other words these shameful attacks on a highly qualified public scientist were so relentless he dropped all of his public science outreach work and went back to his lab. Of course, cranks like the Food Babe were delighted, but most of us who have spent their lives working in science were deeply saddened. It is much easier to use irrational personal attacks to silence opinions you don’t agree with than we ever could have imagined!

Butter chicken: an authentic Indian dish

Butter chicken: an authentic Indian dish

Butter chicken
Butter chicken

We came across a really simple and delicious recipe for Butter Chicken (murgh makhani) published  on the 12tomatoes web site. It amounts to spices, chicken breast, tomatoes and adding cream at the end. Needless to say we had to try it and make it our own. While the recipe author suggests a mix of spices, they also note that that mixture replaces using Garam Masala which is easily available at Penzeys, or you might have made it yourself: there are many similar recipes here, here and here.


We also made some recipe changes, substituting parsley for cilantro, because of a cilantro allergy. In addition, some Indian chefs have suggested that this recipe is incomplete without fenugreek, which we include in our recipe below.

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite sized pieces
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp minced ginger root
  • ¼ tsp fenugreek
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tb garam masala (or see spice mix below)
  • Juice of one lime
  • 1 onion, diced
  • ¼ cup (4 Tb) butter
  • 1 22-oz can plum tomatoes in sauce
  • 1 pint whipping cream
  • 1 bunch chopped parsley (or cilantro)
  • Brown rice

Spice mix (if you don’t have garam masala)

  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp chipotle pepper or red pepper
  • ¼ tsp ground coriander
  • ¼ tsp cumin
  • ¼ tsp paprika
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves (we used a mortar and pestle)
  • ¼ tsp cardamom
  1. Add the garlic, ginger, spices and lime juice to a Ziplock bag and add the chicken. Toss to make sure the chicken is covered, and marinate, refrigerated for 4 hours or overnight.
  2. Melt the butter in a large skillet and sauté the onion until soft.
  3. Add the marinated chicken and sauté for 10 minutes over medium heat.
  4. Pour all the tomato sauce out of the tomato can and add to the chicken mixture
  5. Chop the plum tomatoes and add them as well.

    Tomatoes added
    Tomatoes added
  6. Stir until uniform and cook covered for 30 minutes at medium-low heat.
  7. Add the whipping cream just before serving, and sprinkle with the parsley or cilantro.
  8. Serve over rice.
Cream and parsley added