Category: Biotechnology

‘The Nation” spreads farming misinformation like a manure spreader

DSC_0006The Nation is a venerable  magazine, having been founded in 1865, and for over 150 years has been providing political commentary, mostly on US administrations and events. While it writers skew to the left, this is not entirely the case and major writers have included Henry James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Frederick Law Olmsted, W.E.B. Dubois, E.M. Forster, Emma Goldman, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, Margaret Mead, Mark van Doren, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bertrand Russell, Pearl S. Buck, Albert Einstein, I.F. Stone, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Harold Clurman, Edmund Wilson, W.H. Auden, Anne Sexton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gore Vidal, and Toni Morrison.

With that cast of literary luminaries, you would think they could handle an issue on The Future of Food, focusing primarily on agriculture.  Unfortunately, the left tends to be agriculturally and scientifically illiterate, and much of what the contributors to this issue say is just plain nonsense.

Danny Meyer

Starting with an interview with noted restaurateur, Danny Meyer, written by food extremist Anna Lappe, we learn that in creating Shake Shack,

Our meat is free of antibiotics and artificial growth hormones; the eggs and chickens we use are cage free; the French fries are non-GMO.

How much could go wrong in one sentence?

  • All meat must be free of hormones and antibiotics by the time it is sold. Small amounts of growth hormones may be used in beef, but it must have washed out of the animal’s system before it can be sold. And you would find 1000 times more estrogen in 8 oz of cabbage than in 8 oz of beef. Hormones cannot be used in dairy cattle, veal calves, pigs or poultry.
  • All neat chickens are always cage free. And while chicken used for eggs can be raised free range or in various kinds of cages, a serious study in the Journal of Poultry Science has shown that the birds do best in conventional cages.
  • And what exactly does non-GMO potatoes mean? “GMO” is a breeding process, not an ingredient. The slogan is just fear marketing,  since thousands of peer-reviewed papers have shown that GM foods pose no harm. The JR Simplot company has developed the Innate Potato which is resistant to late potato blight and  produces lower amounts of acrylamide when fried. Why wouldn’t this be the more healthy offering?  Fear-based marketing based on organic industry sloganeering.

Zoe Carpenter

Zoe Carpenter’s lead in column asks (twice) whether consolidation in the agricultural sector will mean that farmers will pay more for inputs like seeds and earn less. The seed business is not a monopoly. There are any number of suppliers farms can choose from and if they choose a more expensive seed, it is because if performs better for them.

Raj Patel on Fair Trade

We have already written extensively on Fair Trade, which, no matter how well intentioned, has not turned out to be more profitable for farmers. This is because farmers are guaranteed a floor price, and they will sell their lowest quality crops into the fair trade market, and sell their best quality crops on the open market. It also has no effect on how temporary workers are treated. And the idea that organic bananas are produced without pesticides is a fantasy spread by the organic industry. Organic farmers just use organic approved pesticides. And, of course, as Bruce Ames showed years ago, plants generate 10,000 times more pesticides themselves than are ever detected from spray residues.

John Boyd on Small Scale Farming

Boyd echoes the canard that farmers who buy genetically modified seeds can no long replant them the next year. But as Amanda Zalukyj points out, farmers really don’t want to save seeds. It’s a huge effort to clean and save seeds, and this practice “went out the window” with the advent of hybrid seeds in the 1930s. These varieties don’t breed true in the next generation anyway.

Dana Perls on GMOs

Perls echoes disproven claims about GMO crops requiring “massive increases in the use of toxic herbicides.” Much of this claim comes from a discredited paper by Benbrook which failed to take account of the relative toxicity of newer herbicides like glyphosate. However, noted weed scientist Andrew Kniss has studied this issue in some detail.

In summary, this analysis suggests that GMOs have had a positive effect (or at the very least neutral or non-negative effect) with respect to herbicide use intensity and mammalian toxicity…

Perls also makes very unscientific claims that vanillin produced using genetically engineered yeast is not “natural,” because “synthetic biology” is involved. She also claims it drives out 200,000 rain forest farmers. Which do you think is better overall for the environment?

Hacking the Grain- Madeline Ostrander

This genuinely fascinating article about attempts to create perennial grains to replace wheat is well worth reading. However, it starts with the mistaken assumption that large fields of s single crop (which they call a “monoculture”) are somehow bad. Andrew Kniss debunks this in some detail, noting that Pollan and his followers never explain why this is so bad. He admits that all of Ireland was growing the exact same potato, reproduced vegetatively so that there was just a single genetically identical potato grown throughout the country. That is why the Phytophor infestans blight wiped potatoes out so completely.

This is not a problem in grain farming, however, because while there may be many thousands of acres of corn or wheat, they are not all genetically identical.

It is important to recognize that you do not need perennial wheat or corn to avoid tilling the fields, which releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, and upsets the delicate layering that good soil should have.  No-till farming is regularly done using low impact herbicides like Roundup (glyphosate) to reduce annual weeds and then plant using a seed drill instead of a plow. You can use glyphosate-resistant seed or not as you wish. I actually use this technique in my home vegetable garden.

The rest of Ostrander’s article is a fascinating description of the development and breeding of a perennial grass, they call “Kernza,” which has the potential to be milled and baked much like wheat flour.  The lead scientist on Kernza domestication, Lee DeHaan is profiles on the Land Institute page, and you can read more about his research here.

“Mass Exposure” by Rene Ebersole

In the worst article in the magazine Rene Ebersole recycles all the discredited canards about Roundup (glyphosate) being dangerous. Ebersole starts with the assertion that an “international scientific committee” ruled that glyphosate is a probably human carcinogen. She is referring to the IARC, a small French group that took refuge under the umbrella of the WHO when their funding ran out.

Unfortunately, the group’s credibility fell, when it was realized that they ruled that compounds were “probably” carcinogenic” without considering any dosage issues. As we noted, they ignored decades of government studies, cherry picking just a few that seemed to fit their agenda. Further, it became known that activist Christopher Portier, who was still working with the Environmental Defense Fund, inserted himself into the deliberations and went about telling European governments of these false findings.

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR)  disputed these findings. There are dozens of studies and reviews showing no finding of genotoxicity or carcinogenicity.  And as James Gurney reported, the papers they cherry-picked were full of scientific weasel words like “induced a positive trend,” and the statistical test “often gives incorrect results.”

And, responding to the IARC report, the European Food Safety Association(EFSA) reviewed studies including those from the BfR and concluded:

“…glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential according to Regulation.”

More to the point, the IARC report has recently been further discredited, when it was discovered that the conclusions were edited or changed, as summarized by Ridley, and that Portier had received $160,000 from law firms involved in suing Monsanto.  And just yesterday, Hank Campbell reported that the US Congress is so disgusted with these irregularities that it may be considering “pulling the  plug” in future IARC funding.

Ebersole goes on to claim that Monsanto is being sued because Roundup “Caused them to develop non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL).” They have no actual evidence, and Derek Lowe, writing in Science explains the difference between hazard and risk,  and concludes that there is little evidence linking glyphosate and NHL.

Finally, Ebersole quotes Carey Gillam who describes herself as “research director for US Right to Know.” Gillam is not a scientist. She was once a journalist working for Reuters, but after producing a steady stream on attacks on Monsanto, she was dismissed and now works for US Right to Know, a propaganda organization supported by the organic food industry. Further, Gillam has just published Whatewash: The Story of a Weedkiller. This book has not been well received among actual scientists, however, who consider it just more of or propaganda.

Ebersole seems to have overlooked the actual science regarding the safety of glyphosate, and also neglected to point out (as Ridley does) that lawsuits against Roundup are becoming a profitable industry for some law firms hoping to extract money from Monsanto. Bad luck, though, that Roundup has been off patent since 2000, and most of it is made offshore.

In conclusion, this is one of the worst issues of The Nation in years, where fact checking has simply gone home for the week, allowing the spread of bad information and bad science.

 

 

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Non-GMO oyster crackers: they are really in the soup

Non-GMO oyster crackers: they are really in the soup

We had some delicious clam chowder at one of our favorite restaurants this weekend. Even the oyster crackers were good: until I noticed the label. There was the stupid Non-GMO Project Verified logo with the even less credible butterfly alongside. Look Westminster Bakers, you make a great product, so why sully it with scare tactic marketing?

The funny thing is that Westminster must have just recently added this scary butterfly logo to their packages, because a search for their crackers brings up a lot of pictures without the anti-GMO label. You only find it on their actual company site.

So what does that mean for oyster crackers that only contain 7 ingredients: unbleached wheat flour, water, canola oil, cane sugar, salt, yeast and baking soda? Let’s stipulate upfront that “GMO” is a breeding process for making plants with particular traits. “GMO” is not an ingredient.

The plants: corn, soy, sugar beets, some squash, papaya, alfalfa, and sorghum have traits that allow farmers to grow them more economically and with fewer pesticides. Non-browning apples and potatoes have also been developed. Every major scientific organization worldwide has concluded that these genetic modifications pose no harm. These organizations include the National Academy of Sciences, the AAAS, the World Health Organization, the European Food Safety Association and hundreds of others, that check for people health in every country, they can improve with the help of diet and supplements as kratom powder.

Let’s take a look at the ingredients in these excellent crackers:

  • Wheat – there is no GMO wheat on the market.
  • Salt – Nope
  • Water – Nope
  • Baking soda – Nope
  • Yeast – Nope (there are some genetically modified brewers yeasts, but none used by bakers)

Sugar comes from either sugar cane or sugar beets. Much of the sugar beet crops grown in the northern US are bred to resist herbicides like glyphosate, to reduce the need for plowing and weeding. Further this also reduced the amount of herbicide actually used to less than a soda can full per acre.

 

GMO sugar  ———–  Non-GMO sugar

But sugar is a simply crystalline compound that is easily purified. Above are drawings of conventional sugar and genetically modified sugar. Can’t tell the difference? That’s because there isn’t any. Sugar doesn’t contain any proteins or any DNA to modify: it is just a simple organic compound that can be extracted from cane or beets. Whether the plant was bred to resist one or more herbicides doesn’t matter: the sugar is exactly the same. The idea that there is such a thing as “GMO sugar” is silly. Either way, it is just sugar. The label “GMO sugar” is what we call an anti-marketing label. It is used to scare you away, when there is just nothing there to be scared of. Fear-based marketing is fundamentally dishonest; this is a prime example of anti-GMO hooey!

Canola oil is another funny story. Rapeseed was grown for many years for its oil, used mostly for lubrication. This was particularly valuable in the UK during World War II. However, rapeseed oil had a bitter taste from a series of mustardy compounds called glucosinolates, which may be tasty in brassicas, but not desirable in cooking oils. In the 1970s, Downey and Steffanson of the Saskatoon Research Laboratory laboriously separated the oil part of rapeseeds from the embryo section, and analyzed the oils by gas chromatography, selecting the seeds with the lowest glucosinolate and erucic acid concentration. They planted and crossed these seeds to produce a new plant that produced Canada Oil, or canola for short.

Soon herbicide resistant versions of canola plants were developed by mutation breeding and natural selection. This was very important, because you didn’t want to include the old rapeseed plants in your oil and if they could be killed while keeping the canola plants unharmed it would make growing canola much more economical.

Later glyphosate and glufosinate resistant plants were developed by the usual biotech means, and were made available. The funny part is that canola plants are absolutely promiscuous, and the pollen can blow for miles. This means that there is a good chance that every canola plant in North America may be resistant to these herbicides and thus, by the lights of the idiotic Non GMO Project, a “GMO plant.” So basically all canola oil in North America is GM. And who cares? There is no protein, no DNA in canola oil so it doesn’t matter.

 It’s just another anti-marketing label. 

Now, there is some canola oil available in the Netherlands that is carefully produced to assure its “non-GMO-ness,” but who cares? Does Westminster buy this? Who knows? Or cares?

Westminster Bakery is almost 200 years old and is justifiably proud of their history and traditions. They claim to be using “the same basic, wholesome ingredients” as their Master Baker devised 200 years ago. Call this marketing hyperbole, though, since canola oil is only about 43 years old.

Organic Consumers Assoc: ‘worst organization in the world’

Organic Consumers Assoc: ‘worst organization in the world’

I received this telemarketing call Friday evening. It came from an 818 number that seemed to be from Pomona, California, and the caller ID said “Organics Fund.” This appears to be the Organic Consumers Fund, a fund-raising arm of the Organic Consumer’s Association. They apparently called to lie to me some more about GMOs.

Alex: “Hello, this is Alex, and I’m calling from the Organic Consumers Fund.  We’d like to thank you for your support [I never gave them a dime].

“We now have a national GMO labeling bill, but it just isn’t enough. Manufacturers only have to put a QR code on the package. We think the information should be spelled out.”

Me: “You mean you want to scare people with some misleading label?”

Alex:  “We think that consumers have a right to know what is in their food.”

Me: “You do know the ‘GMO’ is a breeding process, not an ingredient, don’t you?”

Alex: “Yes, and people deserve to know that this was used on their food.”

Me: “And do you realize that there are thousands of technical papers concluding the GM food poses no harm?”

Alex: “We think people should be able to decide for themselves.”

Me: “So you want to use these labels to scare people into buying overpriced organic foods?”

Alex: “We want people to be able to make up their minds.”

Me: “And decide to spend money on expensive foods? What else have you got?”

Alex: “We also have a campaign to save the declining bee population.”

Me: “You do realize that the bee population has been growing for the last seven years, don’t you?”

Alex: “Well, thanks anyway.”

The Organic Consumer’s Association

This group, led by crackpot food-scare activist Ronnie Cummins has been spreading misinformation about biotechnology for years, and sends wildly inaccurate newsletters almost weekly making unjustified claims about the dangers of GM foods and scary nonsense about Roundup. You would not be surprised to discover that the preponderance of their budget comes from contributions from organic food companies such as Stonyfield Farms, Horizon Organic, and Organic Valley. Their sole purpose is to promote organic food sales by slandering biotechnology and anything else not organic.

While the OCA continues to hammer away about the “dangers of GMOs,” the overall scientific consensus is that they pose no harm. That is the position of every major scientific organization in the world, including the WHO, the AMA, and the EFSA. And for more on who funds GMO denialism, read Michelle Miller’s excellent piece here.

On honeybees

They OCA does have a crazy 2014 position paper claiming that “GMOs are killing birds, bees and butterflies,” but it is complete nonsense. Colony collapse disorder peaked in 2006, but as this Washington Post article explains, bee populations have risen each year since then. The article conflates GM seeds with neonicotinoid seed coatings, and while neonicotinoid insecticides can harm bees, they are not a significant contributor to bee deaths, according to the USDA. The major causes of bee deaths are parasites like varroa mites, pathogens like nosema and European foulbrood, and poor nutrition when bees are moved from one monocrop area to another. Data showed no consistent relations between pesticides and CCD-affected colonies.

The worst organization in the world

In addition, the OCA has taken a consistent and utterly unscientific position toward vaccination, it is an accomplice in persuading immigrants to avoid vaccination.

As reported in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, a cluster of Somali immigrants near Minneapolis became concerned about the apparent incidence of autism in their population. Some asked discredited (and disbarred former doctor) Andrew Wakefield to speak to the Somalis about his entirely debunked idea that vaccines could cause autism. This theory was thoroughly debunked in a 2004 report by the National Academies of Medicine and by the Center for Disease Control.

However, a weekend misinformation session attacking vaccines including speakers from the Organic Consumers Association who have absolutely no qualifications to speak on this topic, but are very good at scare tactics.

Statistically, it turned out that the autism rate among Somali children was no different than anywhere else in the world, but because of these scare tactics, nearly 60% of Somali 2-year olds have not had their MMR vaccine, and so far 68 cases of measles have been reported in Minnesota, (58 of them in Hennepin County). Measles is one of the most contagious childhood diseases, and about 1 in 20 children with measles get pneumonia and this can lead to death.

Any organization that spews this antivaccine nonsense to a vulnerable population with less access to good medical facts, deserves the epithet of “Worst Organization in the World.”

And an organization that consistently lies about food safety is no better.

 

 

Teaching organic farming in the classroom

Teaching organic farming in the classroom

According to the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom grants of up to $1000 are now available for teachers to “creatively enhance the understanding of organic agriculture for kindergarten through eighth grade students.” The purpose is to integrate organic agriculture into regular classroom instruction. The grants are jointly supported by the California Certified Organic Farmer’s Foundation, and the application deadline is May 15, 2017.

From the scientists’ point of view, teaching students about organic agriculture would be intriguing because while historically, hyperbaric oxygen therapy for stroke, experiments led to the procedures, organic farming is essentially pre-scientific and much is based on the naturalistic fallacy.

However, there is a lot to be learned by studying the ideas and best practices of organic agriculture, and herewith we present an outline for an ideal curriculum.

Indore

Much of the earliest work by Sir Albert Howard at the Indore Farms he supervised in India had to do with the development of compost from vegetable and animal waste, and his first book in 1931, The Waste Products of Agriculture may have been his most important work. Howard noted that decomposition of compost only took place at neutral pH and added lime to achieve this. He believed that good soil aeration and quality humus were all that one needed to prevent disease, which was not supported by later scientist’s work, and his book, An Agricultural Testament contained a number of such ideas which caused him to lose support among botanists.

Sir Albert correctly believed that understanding of the mycorrhizae that lived on most plant roots was important and should not be left to mycologists, but his attacks on overspecialization in agricultural science as well as flaws in his later theories caused him to lose much of his initial scientific reputation, but this only increased his stature among non-scientists.

Lady Eve Balfour

Lady Eve Balfour was one of the first women to study agriculture at a British University and upon graduation she used her inheritance (she was part of the prominent Balfour political family) to buy farm land in Haughley Green in Suffolk, where she began experiments comparing her organic methods with conventional farming methods. Many of her experiments were published in her book The Living Soil in 1943.

Lady Eve was also the founder of the Soil Association, which although small in size, is a major proponent of organic farming in Britain, and she eventually donated her Haughley Green farms to the Association. She also attempted to moderate some of Sir Albert Howard’s extreme positions, but because of some of her other extreme spiritualist positions, Howard refused to join the Soil Association.

The Soil Association has also taken some extreme positions that are unsupported by science, suggesting that animals be cared for by homeopathic means (which cannot possibly work) and taken extreme positions on genetically modified crops which have no scientific basis.

J.I. Rodale

In the United States, Jerome Cohen, writing under the pseudonym of J. I. Rodale, took up promotion of organic farming and gardening with his Rodale Press and Rodale Institute, beginning in 1948, with his book The Organic Front, published by his own press. While Rodale promoted organic farming tirelessly, his views were hard to take very seriously because of his huckster style of writing:

Along comes your scientific agronomist, who should know better, but who recklessly throws a monkey wrench into this microbial universe, by dousing it with strong, corrosive chemical fertilizers. He believes that the conveyor belt method must be introduced into every aspect of farming.

Rodale took on all sorts on anti-scientific views, suggesting that the polio vaccine was a bad idea, and that rimless glasses and salt water cause cancer. He was also a racist. While he boasted that he would live to be 100, he died at 72, bizarrely during a taping of The Dick Cavett Show, although that episode never aired.

Rodale’s has also undertaken a study of organic versus conventional farming, which they published in a glossy brochure, but have never published in any peer-reviewed journal. An article by Pimentel and colleagues in Bioscience analyzes their findings: that organic and conventional farming techniques have similar yields and that in drought conditions, organic crops may do better. Pimentel also examined the economics and found that the two systems generated similar income, but only if you include a 10% organic price premium.

In another recent trial, they rotated their organically grown crop out and planted other soil enriching crops in 2 of the 3 years, and compared the yield with conventional crops grown without rotation. This was hardly a comparable trial.

The National Organic Program

Until the year 2002, farmers choosing to use organic techniques followed one of several sets of standards, but encouraged the USDA to set nation-wide standards so that organic crops would be comparable. The Agricultural Marketing Service within the USDA codified these standards as the National Organic Program, carefully noting that

Our regulations do not address food safety or nutrition. 

While the general fiction put about by the organic industry is that organic crops are grown without pesticides, this is demonstrably untrue, as there are quite a number of permitted substances listed as permitted. This is discussed in some detail by Porterfield.

Pesticides

Some consumers think that organic foods are somehow safer because they are not grown using synthetic pesticides, but plants make their own pesticides all the time and most of the synthetic pesticides in use are similar to the ones plants already make: toxic and carcinogenic in large quantities. But as Bruce Ames has shown, the plant-made pesticides occur at 10,000 times the concentration as the traces of pesticides added during farming.

Organic nutrition

You might think that organic crops grown with minimal pesticides and so forth might be more nutritious, but research has shown that there is essentially no difference. Dangour and coworkers systematically reviewed articles on nutrient content and found that “here is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.” Similarly, Brevata and Smith-Spangler “found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods.”

Organic Yield

Since organic rules prevent the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, you might ask if the yields differ between organic and conventional crops. There are a number of research articles indicating that organic yields are 50% to 80% of those from conventional farming. The diagram below is from de Ponti’s article “The crop yield gap between conventional and organic agriculture.”

COmparison yields

A similar gap was reported by Seufert. DePonti reported an average 80% organic yield and Seufert a 68% yield. And, the USDA’s report on yields was only a little better.

nov15_feature_mcbride_fig02

Carbon Footprint

When you plant and grow crops, and harvest them, you are taking away nourishment from the soil. You need inputs to replace those nutrients. In organic farming, this is usually composted manure and other plant debris. But the composting process itself produces greenhouse gases, as Savage notes. Farmers typically apply about 5 tons of composted manure per acre. In fact, the greenhouse gases generated for one acre are equivalent to those generated in manufacturing enough fertilizer for 12.9 acres. This doesn’t seem to be scalable.

Organic Farming causes more pollution

A study at Ben-Gurion University studied the groundwater runoff in a group of new greenhouses, some using manure fertilization and some using drip fertilizer irrigation. They monitored a zone well below the roots and just above the groundwater for nitrogen contamination, and found that nitrogen pollution in the groundwater was 10 times as much in the organic greenhouses as in those using drip irrigation to fertilize the plants.

No-Till Farming

One of the greatest advances in soil maintenance has been no-till farming, where the ground is not plowed up and turned over every season. When you use crops that are resistant to herbicides such as Roundup, you can kill the weeds before planting and plant using a seed drill without disturbing the soil. This preserves the soil structure and prevents soil runoff. Unfortunately, genetically modified crops that are resistant to herbicides are not currently permitted by organic standards. If soil care is important, this standard needs to be changed.

Organic Marketing

Organic foods are marketed throughout the United States by the Organic Trade Association, and the Organic Consumer Association (which regularly spreads misinformation). The definition of “organic” in the US is products “produced without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering or other excluded practices, sewage sludge, or irradiation. “ Since a number of pesticides have been approved for organic use, this is clearly misleading. The Environmental Working Group also is a major promoter of organic products, through its “Dirty Dozen,” which attempts to paint pesticide residues far below danger levels as being unsafe. It also clearly contradicts the findings of Bruce Ames we discussed above.

Thought Questions for Students

  1. What advantages do you see in organic crops?
  2. Are you concerned about pesticide levels on conventional crops?
  3. Why does the organic industry say that no pesticides are used?
  4. If a farmer has 1000 acres of farmland, and hopes to grow 160,000 bushels of corn, how much corn would he be able to grow if he switched to organic methods?
  5. If a farmer wants to make the same profit, how much would he have to raise his prices to grow organic corn on the same amount of land?
  6. Farmland is expensive. Would the farmer be justified in buying more land to grow the same amount of crops? Do you think there is unused farmland he can buy?
  7. In this article, Henry Miller argues that organic farming isn’t sustainable. Do you agree?
  8. In this article, Roger Cohen refers to organic farming as a “fable.” Is that fair?
  9. If you have a limited budget for buying food, as most of us do, would you be willing to pay 10% more for organic foods? How about 50% more? Why?
  10. Organic farmers can reduce their carbon footprint by using an Anaerobic Digester to compost their manure. How much do they cost? How big a farm do you need to pay for one?
  11. Roger Cohen argues that “organic” is actually just an ideology? Is that an exaggeration?
  12. How else could no-till farming work?
  13. By 2050, we project that only 2.5% of US cropland will be certified organic. Is that enough?

US Trend

The best 2016 science and pseudo-science stories

Science

Gravitational Waves. One of the most striking scientific discoveries of 2016 was the observation of gravitational waves. Predicted by Einstein’s theories 100 years ago, ripples in space-time were finally observed last year by physicists at the  Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), using instruments at Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana. They announced that they had indeed observed this waves as two black holes spiraled into each other 1.3 billion light years away. The Advanced LIGO systems were completed only a week or so before this black hole collision took place, but they represent a long term investment by the National Science Foundation, and design work done by nearly 1000 scientists. Funding was also provided by Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council, STFC) and Australia (Australian Research Council).

Ebola outbreak over. The WHO declared that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is at an end and that all known chains of transmissions have been stopped. Flare-ups may still occur and monitoring will continue. In addition, a promising Ebola vaccine has been reported in The Lancet.

Citrus greening. Citrus greening disease attacks orange trees, causing green, inedible fruit, and is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid. It is spreading widely in Florida as well as in Texas  and even California and research into controlling it is in high gear. Essentially, you have to find or create trees immune to the disease, and that is what has been done at the University of Florida. Researchers report having herpes simplex I symptoms a long term and expensive solution, but at least some approach has been “fruitful.”

CRISPR. The gene editing technology CRISPR came into its own in 2016. This technique allows scientists to edit genes without inserting foreign material, using the Cas9 enzyme. Scientists Jennifer Doudna at UC Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umeå University in Sweden found that they could exploit the Cas9 protein by feeding it a pattern of RNA. The Cas9 would then seek out this pattern and snip out that pattern in any genome it was presented with. Related work showing that this could be done in mice was published about the same time by Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute.  You can read a very good explanation of CRISPR/Cas9 by Brad Plumer and Javier Zarracina here. This simple, and relatively cheap technique can be used to create new foods, treat diseases. This follow-on article suggests some of the further advances that CRISPR might be used for, including cancer and Alzheimer’s treatments. If you suffer of any health issues such as anxiety or depression you can find kratom powder for sale online wich is a natural drug that van help you.

Of course, which of the two groups (Berkeley and Broad Institute) have the patent rights to CRISPR is now the subject of an interesting court case, explained here by C&E News.

Homeopathic medicines. Homeopathic “medicines” are usually substances diluted so far that no active components remain. The FTC issued a new Enforcement Policy on Marketing Claims for Homeopathic Drugs.  Essentially, companies must have actual scientific evidence of their efficacy for any health-related claims they make.

Pseudo-Science

How do we do science? Science is the result of a collection of measurable observation under careful control, and usually represents many observations by many research groups. Science is different from politics, where various philosophies can lead to different conclusions. Science is not a set of beliefs, it is a system of careful studies, reviewed by others and published in major technical journals. The results of scientific studies may result in corrections over time: science is inherently self-correcting, but it is not dependent on scientist’s personal political or moral outlooks.

Further, the idea that science can be suspect because of who funds it reveals considerable naivete about how research grants are obtained and how research is actually done. Professor Allison van Eeenenaam of UC Davis Animal Science explains this very well in this excellent article.

Vaccines: Andrew Wakefield was a gastroenterologist who published a fraudulent paper in 1998 claiming that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. This paper has been refuted many times (and retracted) by careful studies and Wakefield was barred from medical practice. Nonetheless the rumors caused by his crackpot paper, has done considerable damage, as too many people believed the rumors that vaccines were somehow dangerous. In fact, it was demonstrated that Wakefield’s paper was an elaborate fraud, designed to make money.  The CDC firmly notes that all research has shown that vaccines do not cause autism, citing the supporting research.

Nonetheless, there are pockets of non-vaccinating families, often living near each other which represent a serious health hazard.  Organizations of non-vaccinating parents have formed, and even have a Facebook group!  Clusters on such parents are sure to spread disease and it is not unreasonable to ask your child’s friend’s parents if their child is vaccinated before allowing them to play with your child.

This is essentially science denial based parenting and it has been difficult to break through, although more and more pediatricians are refusing to treat children whose parents refuse to vaccinate them.

This non-vaccination of children is supported by pseudo-science based practitioners such as naturopaths, who should know better. And this has led to Wakefield making a propaganda film called VAXXED, which purports to give some support to this practice. The film has received scathing reviews, notably by Dr Paul Offit , co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, and by the Washington Post.  Nonetheless, some stars in the entertainment industry still claim to these disproven claims.

But to bring us up to date, we just learned of an article by an actual doctor at the Cleveland Clinic, Daniel Neides, who seems to have jumped onto the pseudo-science bandwagon and attempts to connect vaccines and autism, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Today, the Cleveland Clinic apologized for Neides column and promises discipline. However, the column is still there spreading misinformation. We would suggest termination of Neides at once,

But not to make you think the Neides is along in this crackpottery, the ever-reliable lunatic Mark Hyman (MD?)  has said much the same things, and also claims staff privileges at the Cleveland Clinic.

Organic foods

Organic foods are spreading through supermarkets like tribbles. They are a high-profit class of foods, marked up by both the farmers, and the grocers, so they have every reason to expand their availability. Some stores tart up their organic aisles with special flooring to make you think of “luxury.” But “organic” is a marketing term, as was explained by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman when the National Organic Program was announced. It does not say anything about food safety, nutrition or quality. It is  a series of agricultural practices based primarily on prescientific ideas about farming.  Organic trade groups continue to trumpet the lie that organic crops are “free of pesticides,” when the USDA allows dozens of pesticides to be used on organic crops.

And in a 2009 review by Dangour, et. el., they found no nutritional differences between organic and conventional crops. A similar study in 2012 by Smith-Spangler found much the same thing. And as far as pesticide residues go, Bruce Ames seminal paper shows that the pesticides manufactured by the plants themselves are 10,000 times higher in concentration than any agricultural pesticide residues, and thus these residues are more or less irrelevant.

Organic crops also have significantly lower yields, which is part of the reason they cost more. Typically organic crops yield 60-80% as much per acre as do conventional crops. They also are less environmentally friendly.  Organic is not in any way “better.” In fact, writing in Forbes, Henry Miller calls it a “colossal hoax.”

GMO Crops

Genetically modified crops have been in use in many countries for nearly 20 years now, and there has not been a single verified case of any sort of harm to humans or animals in that time. In particular the study of 1783 papers by Nicolia and the billion animal study of van Eenennaam have laid this canard to rest permaenently.

However, the organic industry has mounted a continuous scare campaign about the dangers of GM crops, leading to mendacious labeling such as “GMO free,” when in fact “GMOs” are not an ingredient but a breeding technique. The idea that there is any difference between animals fed GM crops and those fed conventional crops is simply absurd: there is no detectable difference of any kind.

In fact, just like “organic,” the “GMO free” label is a marketing label, attempting to extract more money from consumers by scaring them. The only result of this campaign is higher prices. But because of this relentless scare campaign, only 37% of the public believe GMO foods are safe to eat according to a Pew Research Center survey, while 88% of scientists do. And, in fact, there is a generation gap here as well with millennials more likely to seek out on GM foods. This has led to the ridiculous claims such as those by Hunt’s that you won’t find any GMO tomatoes in their products. That’s because there are no GMO tomatoes on the market!

Climate change. The year 2015 was the warmest on record. The year 2016 was likewise the warmest year on record. Virtually all climate scientists are convinced that climate change is occurring and caused  by humans, and that if we do not make significant modifications in our use of carbon-based fuels, the Earth will end in disaster, and fairly soon. Already, the ocean regularly invades the sewers of Miami Beach. It won’t be long until coastal flooding begins to make cities less habitable.

The Republican Party in the United States is the only major political party in the world who pretends to deny these obvious scientific facts, both because of lack of interest in science and because of their funding by the energy industry.  As Upton Sinclair has written,

“it is difficult to  to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

 

 

 

Are GMO producers covering up ‘just like’ Big Tobacco?

corntassels2016One of the popular slogans of anti-GMO protesters has been that there is a “cover-up” going on by GMO seed companies about the actual harm of GMO crops, just like the kind of cover-up that Big Tobacco carried out for 40 years on the dangers of smoking. You will hear this sort of talk from Dave Murphy from Food Democracy Now, who can sound pretty extreme in print (see this article in the Huffington Post) but when interviewed on MSNBC sounds somewhat more reasonable, even while talking through his hat. (Recently the Huffington Post was rated the worst anti-science web site by Skeptoid.)

However, in that interview, the best e cigarette companies are engaged in “cigarette science,” and not telling the “real truth.” The trope that a science cover-up on GMO crops is going on just like Big Tobacco carried out is common in anti-GMO protest signs and literature.

Tobacco history

We went back and looked at some of the history of the science on tobacco smoking and lung and heart disease. As more states decide to legalize hitman glass or medical marijuana, cannabis is becoming more accessible to a broader range of people, and gaining mainstream appeal. For new patients or novice users who can’t roll a joint, don’t want the mess of grinding up bud, or would rather not smell like weed, vaping offers a convenient, discreet, and tidy alternative. Most people who have tried vaping they stick to it because its healthier and tastes better, I recommend you to try out best selling e juice. Surprisingly, the research goes back to at least 1950 (1), where the authors found that smokers were substantially more likely to develop lung carcinoma. This was one of only two papers on this subject in PubMed in 1950, but the number grew in subsequent years to hundreds and then thousands of papers per year, all pointing to the same conclusions. Visit Medpot for the most reliable resource of medical plants.

So, in fact, the carcinogenicity of cigarettes was well known over 60 years ago, while it may have been discounted publicly by tobacco companies, there was no cover-up at that time.

However, when people began to ask questions about the dangers of second hand smoke (“passive smoking”), tobacco companies took an aggressive approach to neutralize the impact of this research. While Schmidt (2) indicated that the carcinogens in passive smoke were a serious problem, Grandjean et. al. suggested that there was unlikely to be a problem, but by 1981 researchers were pointing towards benzo(a)pyrene as a prime culprit in tobacco smoke. (4)

In 1998, as part of the resolution of a lawsuit by various attorneys-general against tobacco companies, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement resulted in significant funds being transferred to the states and the tobacco companies ceasing various marketing practices (check another kind of health-related lawsuit at http://sideeffectsofxarelto.org/current-xarelto-lawsuits/). At the time, the entire archives of the Tobacco Institute and related front organizations became available to researchers.

Because of these documents and the many papers that have been published about them, we now know that the tobacco companies conspired to cover up the harm they knew was being caused by second hand smoke. They also used their law firms and advertising agencies to recruit apparently unbiased scientists to tout their points of view expressing skepticism about the dangers of second hand smoke.

In 2000, Ong and Glanz (5) described the tobacco industry’s efforts to discredit second hand smoke studies, and Drope and Chapman(6) described how this was done by reviewing tobacco industry documents. And the tobacco companies’ law firms and agencies constructed the term “junk science” to try to refute some of these studies as Ong and Glanz noted in 2001 (7).

Perhaps most disturbing was the industry’s attempts to recruit (and pay) independent scientists to repeat industry talking points. The scientists’ papers would still indicate that they were being supported by tobacco industry groups, but as Bero, Glanz and Hong revealed, this wasn’t that hard to get around, as they show by detailing payments to one scientist who published such papers. (8)

A complete history of the tobacco industry’s second hand smoke cove-up was published online by PR Watch.

Development of GM Crops

There are two major types of GM crops in wide use in the US and other countries: Bt maize (corn), cotton, potatoes and tobacco and Roundup resistant soy, corn, sorghum, canola, squash, alfalfa and sugar beets. Roundup-resistant wheat has been developed and found to be safe, but is not being marketed.

In addition, there are ringspot-resistant GM papayas, non-browning Arctic apples and the non-browning Simplot potato, as well as Golden Rice with Vitamin A bred into the plant to combat blindness in vulnerable populations.

Bt insecticides

The bacillus we now know as Bacillus thuringiensis was, according to a review by Je et. al. (9) discovered originally in Japan in 1901 by Ishiwati and rediscovered in Germany by Berliner in 1911 (10), when he isolated it from flour moths.

Bt was found to be toxic to various Lepidoptera that were known to be crop pests and it began to be used in France in 1938, (11) and interest in its use as an insecticide more broadly was due primarily to Steinhaus.(12). There are now a large number of varieties of the Bt, specific to a number of different insect pests. It was found by Angus (13) that during sporulation, it forms a crystalline protein that creates the toxicity.

The important breakthrough in Bt research was when Gonzalez (14) reported that the genes that coded for the crystal proteins were located on separate cell sections called plasmids, paving the way for the cloning of these genes and eventually for insertion of these genes into plant material. The first genes isolated coded Bt toxic to the tobacco hornworm (15), and soon several groups began creating transgenic plants with various Cry genes inserted. The first to reach the market was Bt cotton (16).

Koziel (17) and a dozen coworkers from Ciba-Geigy described the field performance of transgenic maize in 1993, and commercial Bt corn followed soon after the cotton.

Once the Cry genes which coded for various strains of Bt were inserted into foodstuffs, concern was expressed regarding their safety. Numerous independent short and long term studies have shown these foods to be completely safe, however (18, 19).

Roundup

Roundup or glyphosate herbicide was discovered and patented by Monsanto chemist John E Franz in 1970 (20). It’s effectively made by combination of glycine and phosphonic acid, hence the name shortened from glycine phosphonate. It is a contact herbicide, used to kill emerging weeds and is not used as a pre-emergent weed killer. Duke and Powles, in a mini-review (21) have called it a “once in a lifetime herbicide.” Franz received the National Medal of Technology (1987) and the Perkin Medal (1990) for this work.

Even before the development of Roundup resistant plants, Roundup was used by farmers to clear the fields before planting, obviating the necessity of tilling. Glyphosate is of extremely low human toxicity, comparable to aspirin or baking soda, and binds to the soil while it decomposes, so water supplies are not at risk. All the commercial patents have now expired, and it is made by a large number of companies.

Steinrucken and Amrhein (22) reported in 1980 that glyphosate killed plants by inhibiting synthesis of the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase, (ESPS) which is critical for the synthesis of the  aromatic amino acids phenylalaninetyrosine and tryptophan. If researchers could interfere with this process, they could create plants that could resist glyphosate.

After several years of experimentation in a number of groups, Klee, Muskopf and Gasser at Monsanto reported the creation of a glyphosate resistant petunia (23). This technique resulted in a general method for creating glyphosate resistant plants by cloning a gene that encodes ESPS and inserting it to various plants. Patents on this were filed in 1990 by Shah, Rogers, Horsch and Fraley (24). Fraley recently received the World Food Prize for leading this work.

Related approaches continued for some years and the first glyphosate tolerant soybeans were introduced to the market in 1996.

Research on Safety of Transgenic Plants

Substantial research on the safety of each of the genetically modified plants has been conducted and published by research groups inside and outside the various seed companies. A complete list of nearly 6oo peer-reviewed papers attesting to the safety of transgenic crops has been compiled and published by the Biofortified web site (25).

All of these papers are published in major peer-reviewed journals and thus as an aggregate represent the best scientific knowledge on these systems. Among these hundreds of papers representing thousands of experiments, there are really only two papers reporting health problems from genetically modified crops.

One of these, the paper by Giles-Eric Seralini (26) is the paper most frequently referenced in this regard. While Seralini and coworkers claimed to find that rats fed transgenic maize developed tumors, the Sprague-Dawley rats they used all develop tumors at the same rate as they observed. The paper has been denounced by dozens of scientists for poor experimental design and statistics. The European Food Safety Authority (27) published a final assessment, calling the study of “insufficient scientific quality for a safety assessment.”

Forbes contributor and molecular biologist Henry Miller and biochemist Bruce Chassey published a critical article of Seralini’s work as well (28).

The other recent paper purporting to find dangers in feeding transgenic crops to animals was published by Judy Carman, et. al, (29). Published in a low level on-line journal supported by the Organic Federation of Australia, and not even indexed in PubMed, it is of little scientific validity, and was immediately criticized by scores of scientists.

Carman’s study fed pigs either transgenic or conventional maize for 23 months and then examined their stomachs after slaughter. They claimed that GM-fed pigs had more inflammation, but their own tables show the opposite. Critics (30) also noted the visual inspection of stomachs is not the same as an actual histology study, and probably was meaningless. If you want to read the full info via this guide, visit Kratom News. But most significant, FSANZ, the Food Standards Agency of Australia and New Zealand concluded (31) that the data “are not convincing of adverse effects due to the GM diet and provide no grounds for revising FSANZ’s conclusions.”

Comparison with Tobacco Cover-ups

In the case of tobacco companies, the cover-up was clear, because independent research had established and continued to establish the dangers of smoking and of second hand smoke, while at the same time, tobacco sponsored research was attempting to suggest alternate explanations for the observed diseases associated with such smoke.

By contrast, there are not really any credible studies from any source showing any damage to animals (or people) from any current transgenic crop. There is no sign of any coverup of evidence or papers adopting alternate hypotheses, because no negative results have been found. Nor are there conflicting conclusions presented by independent studies versus industry funded studies.

Consequently, there is no analogy between the near-criminal behavior of the tobacco companies and the relatively open research environment in which transgenic crops have been developed. There just doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a conspiracy.

The only evidence we find of mendacity and conspiracy is in Seralini’s and Carman’s papers, which have been found to be wanting of solid, believable science. And strangely enough, the web site gmoseralini.org and gmojudycarman.org have an identical design and style. And as Byrne and Miller noted (32), the organic industry is spending upwards of $2 1/2 billion opposing transgenic crops.

 

References

  1. Smoking and Carcinoma of the Lung, R. Doll and A. Bradford Hill, British Medical Journal, 739, Sept 30, 1950
  2. Health Damage by Means of Forced Smoking, F. Schmidt, Med, 1979, 97(42) 1920.
  3. Passive Smoking, E. Grandjean, A Weber, T. Fischer, Schweiz. Akad. Med. Wiss. 1979 Mar;35(1-3):99-109.
  4. Carcinogenicity of airborne fine particulate benzo(a)pyrene: an appraisal of the evidence and the need for control. F Perera, Environ Health Perspect. 1981 Dec;42:163-85.
  5. Tobacco industry efforts subverting International Agency for Research on Cancer’s second-hand smoke study, Elisa K Ong, Stanton A Glantz, The Lancet, 355 , April 8, 2000.
  6. Tobacco industry efforts at discrediting scientific knowledge of environmental tobacco smoke: a review of internal industry documents, J Drope and S Chapman, J Epidemiol Community Health 2001;55:588-594.
  7. Constructing “Sound Science” and “Good Epidemiology”: Tobacco, Lawyers, and Public Relations Firms. E. Ong and S. Glanz, Am J Public Health.2001 November; 91(11): 1749–1757.
  8. The limits of competing interest disclosures, L.A. Bero, S. Glanz and M-K Hong, Tob Control2005;14:118-126
  9. Bacillus Thuringiensis as a Specific, Safe, and Effective Tool for Insect Pest Control. Yeo Ho Je al. J. Microbiol. Biotechnol. (2007), 17(4), 547–559.
  10. Berliner, E. 1911. Uber de schlaffsucht der Mehlmottenraupe. Zeitschrift fur das Gesamstadt 252: 3160-3162
  11. Lambert, B. and M. Peferoen. 1992. Insecticidal promise of Bacillus thuringiensis. Facts and mysteries about a successful biopesticide. BioScience 42: 112-122.
  12. Steinhaus, E. A. 1951. Possible use of B. t. berliner as an aid in the control of alfalfa caterpillar. Hilgardia 20: 359-381.
  13. Angus, T. A. 1956. Association of toxicity with proteincrystalline inclusions of Bacillus sotto Ishiwata. J. Microbiol. 2: 122-131.
  14. Gonzalez, J. M. Jr., B. J. Brown, and B. C. Carlton. 1982. Transfer of Bacillus thuringiensis plasmids coding for δ-endotoxin among strains of B. thuringiensis and B. cereus. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 79: 6951-6955.
  15. Schnepf, H. E. and H. R. Whiteley. 1981. Cloning and expression of the Bacillus thuringiensis crystal protein gene in Escherichia coli. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 78: 2893-2897.
  16. Shelton, A. M., J. Z. Zhao, and R. T. Roush. 2002. Economic, ecological, food safety, and social consequences of the deployment of Bt transgenic plants. Rev. Entomol. 47: 845-881
  17. Koziel, al. Field Performance of Elite Transgenic Maize Plants Expressing an Insecticidal Protein Derived from Bacillus thuringiensis. Nature Biotechnology11, 194 – 200 (1993).
  18. G Flachowsky, K Aulrich, H. Bohme , I. Halle. Studies on feeds from Genetically Modified Plants (GMP), Contributions to nutritional and safety assessment. Animal Feed and Science Technology, 133 (2007) 2-30.
  19. G Flachowsky, K Aulrich, Halle. Long-term feeding of Bt-corn– a ten generation study with quails. Arch Anim Nutr. 2005 Dec;59(6):449-51.
  20. US Patent 3799758.
  21. O. Duke and S.B. Powles, Glyphosate: a once in a lifetime herbicide. Pest Manag Sci 64:319–325 (2008).
  22. Steinrücken, H.C.; Amrhein, N. (1980). “The herbicide glyphosate is a potent inhibitor of 5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase”.Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications94 (4): 1207–12.
  23. J. Klee, Y.M. Mushopf and C.S. Gasser, Cloning of an Arabidopsis thaliana gene encoding 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase: sequence analysis and manipulation to obtainglyphosate-tolerant plants. Mol Gen Genet. 1987 Dec;210(3):437-42.
  24. US Patent 4940835.
  25. See http://biofortified.org/genera/studies-for-genera/
  26. G-E Seralini al., Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize, Food Chem Toxic., 50(11), 2012, 4221-4231.
  27. European Commission, Final Review of Seralini al…, EFSA Journal 2012,10(100, 2985.
  28. Henry Miller and Bruce Chassey, Scientists Smell a Rat in Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study, Forbes 8/25/12.
  29. J Carman, al, A long term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined GM soy and GM maize diet, J Organic Systems, 8(1) 2013, 38-54.
  30. David Gorski, More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism, Science Based Medicine, June 17, 2013.
  31. Response to a feeding study by Carman et. al., FSANZ, July, 2013.
  32. Byrne and Henry Miller, The roots of the anti-genetic engineering movement: Follow the money, Forbes, 1022/2012

 

 

 

New York Times’ wrongheaded GMO article ignites scientists

New York Times’ wrongheaded GMO article ignites scientists

The front page of last Sunday’s New York Times featured a major article by Danny Hakim titled “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of GMO Crops.”  Hakim is an investigative reporter who has primarily been an economics correspondent. He apparently interviewed quite a number of experts before writing the piece, but he got his main point completely wrong. None of the major biotechnology seed vendors are marketing GM seeds to improve yield, so there is no “promised bounty.”

And while the lengthy article cites a lot of data both in the US, Canada and Europe, it manages to lump together statistics from completely different climates and growing regions, so that his final conclusions are pretty confused. But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at what experts have already written.

Molecular geneticist Nina Federoff, who has been a science and technology adviser to Secretaries of State Condaleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton, as well as having had a distinguished research career, writes in Hakim’s Effort to Skewer Biotech Crops in Sunday’s NY Times, that GM crops were never intended to improve yield.

Writing in the Western Producer, Stuart Smyth says New York Times Ignored GMO Crop Benefits, and goes on to list the benefits by crop and region. Farmers would not be spending money on expensive seeds if they didn’t realize some benefits.

Nathaniel Johnson, writing in Grist on What the New York Times Missed in its Big GMO Story, points out that by lumping together farm statistics from North America where we grow GMO crops with data from Western Europe (where they mostly do not) is very misleading. Not only do the climates differ, but the pests do as well. He suggests Hakim ought to look at all the available evidence rather than just cherry picking data that suits his narrative.

And weed scientist Andrew Kniss writes “Straw men and selective statistics: Did the New York Times botch its critique of GMO Crops?” where he calls Hakim’s statistics “borderline disingenuous.” He notes that the figures he cites are convoluted and misleading, because they aren’t even in the same units, and comparison of total pesticide use in France versus the US ia absurd because the US is so much larger. More to the point is the usage per acre. Kniss converted them to the same units and found that the total herbicide use per hectare is and has been less in the US than in France. They may be the same in the final year measured (2012).

kniss-herbicide
From Kniss: herbicide and insecticide use: US and France.

Following Kniss’s argument further, Kevin Folta, Professor and Chair of Plant Science at the University of Florida writes “Rehashing a Tired Argument” in his Illuminations blog, along with another article “Some Actual Yield Data” that clearly shows the yield improvements provided by crop when biotechnology traits are added.  He noted that Hakim lumped together insecticides, fungicides and herbicides as “pesticides” and only reports the total pounds rather than separating them out, which makes a great different, especially when the lower impact herbicides like Roundup are included. Folta was recently awarded the Borlaug CAST Science Communications prize.

And, of course, Monsanto responded to Hakim’s sloppy reporting, noted that they had talked with him several times while he was developing the article, but that he chose to cherry-pick a few data points to fit his preconceived views. Monsanto’s article refers directly to the peer-reviewed literature. For example, Qaim and Kouser showed that insect resistant GMO cotton increased family income and food security. And Brookes and Barfoot (2016) showed that conservation tillage made possible by glyphosate tolerant corn and soybeans removed  22.4 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Further, unlike Hakim’s assertions, GM crops have reduced pesticide spraying by 8.2%.

Finally, even Mother Jones magazine, which normally takes an anti-biotechnology stance comes around wiht two articles. One by Tom Philpott takes a predictably anti-GMO stance as he always has, but in a more nuanced article, Kevin Drum accuses Hakim of “lying with statistics.”

And the ever ascerbic Steven Novella writes The Times gets it wrong on GMOs, noting that the journalist started with a preconceived conclusion and then selected facts to support his erroneous conclusions.

Finally, Professor Jayson Lusk notes that farmers are consistently choosing GM crops because they provide financial benefits despite their higher costs.

In this article, I have summarized most of the blistering opinions on Hakim’s feature article (and one which praises it) but it would seem that scientists and science writers have consistently found the article to be wanting. However, all of the references are linked here and you can read them and decide for yourself.

 

‘The Third Plate’ : Dan Barber’s book entertaining but fallacious

third-plateDan Barber is a highly regarded chef with substantial experience who is known for his two restaurants, Blue Hill in New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester (Pocantico Hills). Both restaurants emphasize creative uses of vegetables and grains and de-emphasize meat, although their menus certainly include it, and represent some of the best examples of “farm to table cooking.”

His book, The Third Plate is an entertaining description of his restaurant and the accompanying farm give you some great insights into how great chefs think.  Unfortunately, his book has some serious fallacies that diminish its credibility as we describe later below.

Barber’s Pocantico Hills restaurant is located on the former Rockefeller estate. The renovation of the buildings as well as the accompanying working farm was funded by David Rockefeller, apparently to the tune of about $30 million. The book tells the story of how Barber’s Stone Barns restaurant developed in association with the farm, where they have the freedom to try out and breed unusual historical vegetables and grains. This “third plate” refers to an evolution in cooking from plates with meat and some small veggies on the side, to meat with better tasting and better cooked veggies, to some imagined future plate where the “steak” is made from vegetables and meat becomes a side dish.

Currently, Stone Barns offers one or two prix fixe menus, which for two with wine pairings, tax and tip can cost you as much as $898. With those prices in mind, you have to recognize that there are a lot of us who will probably never eat there. The reviews for that restaurant are exceptional and apparently so is the food. An evening’s dinner may consist of ten or more courses, starting with small servings of grains or vegetables, with meat in later courses. The menu varies frequently and may vary with each table depending on how the waiters feel you are appreciating what you have just been served

Barber is a good writer and story teller, and the book describes his work with the farmer and with plant breeders to develop and introduce the grains served in the restaurant, starting with the heirloom Eight Row Flint Corn, which was grown by early settlers but had all but vanished at the time he started.

His book is nominally divided into four sections: Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed, but the discussions flow freely around these ideas and you are likely to find some topics revisited in each section.

Foie gras

After his initial soil and farming discussions, Barber spends several chapters on foie gras, with a long bucolic description of a farm in Spain where geese are not force fed, but simply provided with sufficient food all summer and then naturally gorge on acorns in the fall. The farmer, Eduardo Sousa, simply talks to his geese to get them to do what he wants: and some call him a “goose whisperer.”

Then Barber visits the Hudson Valley Foie Gras company with Eduardo, and finds that the goose feeding is not cruel at all, where the “force feeding”  (gavage) takes only about 5 seconds per bird (ducks in this case). The kicker in this otherwise rather fascinating tale is that Eduardo decides that the Hudson valley ducks “didn’t know they were ducks.” And that Barber segues from that bizarre conclusion to his own: “What’s intolerable is the system of agriculture that it reflects.”

It is at this point that I lost touch with Barber’s point of view. Raising geese for slaughter one way or another, as long as they are humanely treated, seems to me completely comparable and I have no idea what he is getting at.

Fish Farming

Barber devotes over 100 pages to the sea and buying and cooking seafood sustainably, since many popular fish like bluefin tuna are threatened by overfishing. He visits the well-regarded chef Angel Leon of Aponiente on the Iberian Peninsula, who has learned how to cook the fishing fleet’s discarded by-catch, seasoning it with a phytoplankton broth. Barber also visits the fish farm Veta La Palma, where they raise fish in existing ponds and canals, where the fish are mostly fed from nutrients that occur naturally, producing some of the most sought after sea bass in Europe (and eventually the US).

He also describes the almadraba in Cadiz, where the villagers have been capturing migrating tuna using mazes of nets for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

He also spends some time praising Gilbert Le Coze, the founding chef of New York’s pre-eminent seafood-only restaurant, Le Bernardin, but for some reason avoids mentioning for many pages that Le Coze died in 1994, and that Eric Ripert, the chef since 1994, is principally responsible for Le Bernardin’s current exalted status in the food world.

Barber also tells us the story of Glenn Roberts and his founding of Anson Mills to produce artisanal grains, including graham flour (a kind of wheat) and revitalizing Carolina Gold rice, where they discover that the crops grown in conjunction with the wheat or rice affect the flavor of the grain.

Fallacies

While Barber’s book is entertaining enough to plow through in a day or two, there are some real problems with some of what he tells us.  Starting early on and repeating throughout is Barber’s insistence on the superiority of organic farming, although he provides no good reason for that, and does not acknowledge that “organic” is a USDA marketing label that allows you to charge higher prices rather than a set of superior techniques. At no point does he explain why the farm is “organic” nor why the farm would be less successful had they chosen careful conventional farming techniques.

Studies (USDA data) have shown that organic farming yield 50-75% as much as conventional farming, and that the produce is no safer or more nutritious or flavorful than conventional produce. This is simply the naturalistic fallacy promoted by the organic marketing associations.

One of the first anecdotes in the book describes farmer Klaas Martens, who had been farming conventionally for some years and suddenly developed a sort of weakness in his arms after spraying 2,4-D. According to the story, no doctors were able to diagnose his ailment, but this caused him to switch to organic farming because as his wife said, “he was being poisoned.”

The trouble with Martens’ story is that it contradicts all known toxicology data on 2,4-D. The National Pesticide Information Center fact sheet on 2,4-D says the “No occupational studies were found reporting signs or symptoms following exposure to 2,4-D under normal usage,” and even on acute oral exposure (drinking it) no symptoms like Martens had are observed. Since Martens condition was never diagnosed, we have to take this as mere rumor.

One particularly offensive statement later in the book comes from a young farmer who comes to Barber saying that “My father just got cancer, so I am switching to organic farming.”

Throughout the book, Barber continually mentions chemicals used in conventional farming as “poisoning the soil.” Since more than 98% of all farms in the US are conventional, this would imply that they must all be failing. Now, since most farmers have at least bachelor’s degrees and well understand how important caring for their soil is, this is pretty ridiculous. We would all be starving if this were true.

Even more ridiculous is Barber’s quote from Rudolf Steiner, who hatched the idea of biodynamic farming out of a series of mystical rituals, such as burying oak bark in a cow’s skull in the middle of your field. Steiner also had a lot of other crazy theories such as the one Barber quotes with a straight face, that the heart is not a pump for our blood, but that the blood that drives the heart. To support this nonsense he quotes “holistic practitioner” Thomas Cowan, who is deep into the same nonsense and Sally Fallon Morell of the discredited Weston A Price Foundation.

Barber is no friend of biotechnology either, making it clear he would never serve any genetically modified food in his restaurant (this is pretty hard to accomplish, actually). His example is the 2009 infestation of Late Blight that devastated everyone’s tomatoes in the Northeast.  There was one small patch of tomatoes on the farm that were not affected, Mountain Magic, an experimental seed from Cornell, bred to be blight resistant. (You can buy these from several seed catalogs today.) But Barber’s restaurant customers resisted them, fearing that they might be “genetically engineered.” He decided he needed to perpetuate the fallacy of tomatoes “bred the old-fashioned way at a land grant like Cornell, [versus] GM tomatoes from a company like Monsanto.”

The only GM tomato ever marketed was the Flavr Savr tomato, bred to be shipped ripe rather than green. Eventually, the tomato failed, but not because it didn’t have better flavor as Barber says, but because Calgene had trouble keeping costs down so it would be competitive.

Finally, Barber is skeptical about the whole idea of the Green Revolution, started by plant breeder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. His criticisms on the use of fertilizers to create higher yield seem to echo those of the mendacious non-scientific activist Vandana Shiva.

In fact, Barber is critical of the whole idea of modern agriculture, where farmers buy new seed each year rather than saving seeds from last year. Farmers have not saved seeds since the 1930s, because of the problems of storage and disease control as well as those of controlling new generations of seed. Barber thinks they should all be saving the best seeds from the fields each year on each farm instead, turning each farm into its own primitive seed development company. Few farmers would agree that this is a good division of labor.

In conclusion, Barber has written an entertaining and informative book on the relationship between high end cuisine and small scale agriculture, but seems oblivious to the fact that he and his restaurant are living a bucolic fantasy which can only work on a small scale, with the subsidies of the Rockefeller family and his high-priced restaurant.

Originally published on Examiner.com in September, 2014

 

Seed Diversity is not a serious concern. Ignore the Seed movie?

Seed Diversity is not a serious concern. Ignore the Seed movie?

In 1983, the Plant Genetic Resources Project of the Rural Advancement Fund, Inc. (RAFI) circulated a paper describing their study of the availability of varieties of vegetable seeds in 1983 compared to a study of 1903 seed catalogs. Their study, summarized in this 2011 National Geographic chart concluded that there had been a substantial loss of seed genetic diversity: only 16 out of 285 cucumbers remained; only 79 out of 408 tomatoes and so forth, suggesting that 93% of vegetable varieties had gone extinct. Mooney and Fowler published the entire RAFI study in their book Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity in 1990.

This report was considered gospel for years and is referred to in popular press articles all the time including the National Geographic chart. Now if you are into gardening and get a blizzard of seed catalogs in the mail, this just doesn’t sound reasonable. You see so many varieties in these catalogs, there must be something wrong somewhere.

Well there is. There have been several studies refuting the RAFI study, showing that vegetable varieties are as diverse as ever.  For example Heald and Chapman published an extensive review article called Veggie Tales: Pernicious Myths About Patents, Innovation and Crop Diversity in the Twentieth Century. They point out that the RAFI reports counted seeds in 1903 seed catalogs and compared them to the seeds in the USDA seed bank in 1983, rather than to current catalogs.

In fact, they found that while there were 7262 varieties of 42 vegetables in 1903, there are now 7100. This is all summarized clearly in David Tribe’s article. Further in a paper by van de Wuow found that

 …no substantial reduction in the regional diversity of crop varieties released by plant breeders has taken place.

Seed, the Movie

Since all available research indicates that there is not a decrease in crop diversity, it is surprising that anyone believes the contrary. And this brings us to the movie “Seed, the Untold Story,” soon to be shown in a few selected theaters. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept 23 and Sept 30, respectively. The directors are Taggart Siegel and John Betz, who were responsible for the misinformation about bees in Queen of the Sun, often summarized as “Naked German hippies dancing with bees.”

In this film’s PR, they admit being misinformed by the 2011 National Geographic article and present a number of non-experts who have no idea what the science actually says. These include serial agriculture fabulist Vandana Shiva whose degrees are in the philosophy of science rather than in actual science.

The film also features commentary from non-scientists such as economist/activist Raj Patel, human rights activist Winona LaDuke, anthropologist (and plagiarist) Jane Goodall, and anti-GMO activist and attorney Andrew Kimbrell. None of these people have any scientific training and their support of the misguided thesis o f this film is laughable

To see what this film is about, let’s look at a claim from the press kit:

Farmers from Minnesota to Madhya Pradesh, India toil in economic thrall to the “Gene Giants,” paying hefty licensing fees to plant their patented crops. If they attempt to save their own seed at the end of a season, following a tradition practiced by humans for over 12,000 years, they face ruthless prosecution. (Suffering under this indentured servitude, over 250,000 farmers in India have committed suicide in the last 20 years.)

  • Farmers are not in “economic thrall.” They can purchases any seeds they want from any company. If they choose to buy patented seeds, which cost more, it is because they find them more profitable.
  • Farmers do not save seeds. Farmers, for the most part, do not save seeds, preferring to delegate seed cleaning and storage to experts. If they buy patented seeds, they agree not to save or replant them without paying the license fee.
  • This is not “indentured servitude.” Farmers are free to select new seeds each year from any of a number of vendors.
  • Indian farmers have not committed suicide because of GMOs. Several studies (by Herring and Guere) have shown that since GMO cotton came to India, farms are more productive and profitable than before, and suicides from economic problems have decreased.

The central thesis of this film is that farmers should be able to save seeds and that 94% of seed varieties have been lost. Of course, farmers can save seeds if they are not patented. They usually do not. And we have just shown there is no lost in diversity. This is a film made to spread misinformation and attack biotechnology companies that have made farming more productive and reduced the use of pesticides.

It is worth noting that independent scientists Klumper and Qaim reviewed published literature and concluded that

On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.

This film cites no science and interviews no scientists. It is a misinformed political tract aimed at the gullible.

Mark Bittman is a blithering nincompoop

amish paste
Amish Paste

Mark Bittman is a well-respected food writer. While he did not, as far as I can tell, ever attend culinary school, he took the time and trouble to inform himself in detail about all aspects of cooking and explain it to his admiring readers.

This does not apply to his views on biotechnology and agriculture, which he seems to have gathered from propaganda releases from the Organic Consumer’s Association, and his current employer, the extremist Union of Concerned Scientists. On these issues he is woefully uninformed, and should not be taken seriously.

In today’s blatherfest in the New York Times, he fantasizes that the S.764- National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard   signed by President Obama in July could spark additional consumer movements to give consumers “more information,” whether or not it is accurate or useful.

He starts by claiming that “Big Food and its allies” spent $100 million to counter the movement to label GMO foods. Of course, he does not mention how much the anti-GMO propagandists spent to fill Congress’s ears with pseudo-scientific nonsense.  In fact, as we have already explained.  The bill says that labeling is required for

“…a food that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques.”

It also says that labeling can be a barcode, a QR code, a URL or a phone number where you can get further information. He bemoans the fact that not everyone has a smartphone. Not everyone has a price code scanner either, and most supermarkets provide price code check scanners throughout the store. This is not a serious issue.

What is a serious issue is Bittman’s continuing insistence that you “have the right to know what’s in your food.” This seductive slogan (sort of like the “death tax”) makes people believe that GMO foods contain different and dangerous ingredients. They do not. “GMOs” are not an ingredient: they are a breeding process that allows farmers to grow better crops. They are nutritionally identical to the non-GMO version or they WOULD have to be labeled.  There is no there there, as he sheepishly admits in paragraph 9. The foods are the same, and after over 20 years on the market, not a single illness has been found that can be attributed to biotechnology.

But he then goes on to claim that our system for declaring products safe “leaves much to be desired.” Really? Years of feeding trials and FDA-mandated testing doesn’t count? Where’s his evidence? I venture to suggest he has none other than the usual ignorant left fearmongering.

He suggests that using GMO crops has encouraged the growth of weeds that are resistant to herbicides.  Overuse of a single herbicide can indeed lead to weed resistance, but this is a farming problem, not a biotechnology problem, than can be solved with crop and herbicide rotation. In fact, pulling weeds by hand can lead to weeds evolved to look mimic the crops. “Superweeds” are just weeds that are hard to kill, as Porterfield explains and result from overuse of a single herbicide.

BIttman further sloganeers about the “fertilizer and pesticide dependent monoculture that is wrecking our land and water.” Citation please? Here’s one:  Klumper and Qaim in PLOS One.

On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.

Doesn’t sound too bad. And clearly the land is not being ruined or this would not continue. And as Katiraee explains, a “monoculture” is just a big field of the same crop: whether corn or spinach. That’s how agriculture works: they grow a lot of food. This is not harmful and it has nothing to do with “GMOs.” And pesticides are part of large scale agriculture: they are not overused, because that would be wasteful, but you can’t grow a lot of food without controlling pests, as Jenny Dewey Rohrich explains.

Bittman says consumers should now be demanding even more information on agriculture, such as whether traces of pesticides remain. They don’t. The level of pesticide applications permitted by the USDA leaves far lower amounts of pesticides than can ever be harmful to humans, even if eaten every day. And again, we need to go back to Bruce Ames’ research on pesticide residues that found that the carcinogenic pesticides that plants themselves make to defend themselves occur in concentrations 10,000 times higher than any farmer-applied pesticide residues. They are so small that they simply don’t matter.

We take the time to talk with you about having a pest control expert remove a possum and establish a plan to keep unwanted pests out of your home and businesses.

He then asks if we should want to know how well the workers were treated and paid. Were they unionized? Some are, and there are in fact already union labels on such foods. Look for them.