Last Sunday, the Times published its version of Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk recipe. It is rare that you read articles about attempts to replicate experiments (or recipes) but this is such a report.
The relatively simple recipe says that you season a whole chicken and brown it in butter and olive oil in a snug-fitting pot. We chose a 3-liter Corningware casserole. Then you drain out the fat, add a cinnamon stick and garlic cloves and brown them briefly and put the chicken back and add whole milk, sage leaves and strips of lemon peel, and bake it for about 90 minutes.
The result is supposed to be “chicken in a thick, curdled sauce.”
Here are the ingredients:
1 whole chicken, 3-4 lbs
Salt and pepper
¼ cup butter
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small cinnamon stick
10 cloves garlic, skins still on
2 ½ cups whole milk
1 handful fresh sage leaves (about 15-20 leaves0
Strips of zest from 2 lemons
Perhaps because the chicken fit snugly, the milk didn’t clot or reduce much. But the flavor was terrible, dominated by way too much sage. We didn’t get any note of cinnamon and very little of the garlic flavor.
If we made it again, we’d probably use about 5-6 sage leaves, maximum, and a little bigger pot. We’d prefer to make Chicken Baked in Cream instead.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Paul Thacker, writing in Sunday’s New York Times, suggested that scientists cannot be trusted to be honest and that “the public” should be able to snoop through private Emails of research scientists, cherry picking and misinterpreting fragments of conversations for their political objectives.
If you think the tone of the sentence is extreme, you should take a look at the history of this “journalist’s” own work. He specifically cites an opinion piece that he and Charles Seife wrote for PLoS Biology Blogs. You will note that that link now shows that the article has been removed as not being consistent with their community guidelines. You can read the actual cached article here.
Thacker (and Seife) wrote about a series of Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests for public university scientists Emails fomented by US Right to Know, which he describes as a “small nonprofit,” completely neglecting to mention that USTRK is an activist group dedicated to GMO labeling and wholly funded by the organic foods industry, and hardly a unbiased organization. In fact, USRTK engaged in serious public misbehavior bordering on slander in criticizing various scientists working in biotechnology, including, most notably University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta. Eventually, the attacks became so intense that Folta withdrew from his public science education role.
Now, Thacker and Seife’s removed article made several false claims, notably that Prof Folta has a financial relationship with Monsanto (he does not, he only accepted one small subsidy for his science outreach program) and that he has been consulting with Monsanto on political strategy to combat the GMO labeling movement, which is completely false. Because of these egregious misstatements, the PLoS opinion piece was removed.
If this is what Thacker believes is the role of journalism and of snooping through Emails, he has become an activist rather than the respected journalist he would like us to believe he is. And the New York Times should not have published his opinion piece unedited.
However, the entire idea that agenda-driven organizations should have access to scientist’s private Emails is preposterous. If a scientist publishes an article where the conclusions are to be questioned, they can demand the original data (which is often available with the paper as supplemental files anyway). Of course, analyzing that data require that they know some science, rather than drawing slanderous conclusions by taking private conversations out of context.
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!
The article as printed starts on page 1, column 3, above the fold and continues on page 20. Before the page jump, it asserts that “The use by both sides of third-party scientists, and their supposedly unbiased research, helps explain why the American public is often confused as it processes the conflicting information.”
However, while it slanders scientists and claims their research is questionable on the front page, the rest of the article provides not a single instance of any scientist’s research being influenced or corrupted.
After the page jump, the first actual quote is from Charles Benbrook, who has had all of his “research” funded by the organic foods industry and is scarcely unbiased, who suggests that academics who have accepted travel funds to lecture or testify about science start to smell like the skunks they are associated with.
Benbrook, has been an unrelenting opponent of GMOs, but in fact is an agricultural economist, not a biologist or scientist. His most recent scientific paper which suggests that herbicide use has increased after GMOs were introduced has been widely criticized for failing to include calculations on the reduced toxicity and environmental impact of more recent herbicides such as Roundup. This is one of Lipton’s “experts.” Benbrook’s position at Washington State University was paid for by the organic industry and was “recently severed.”
Lipton then goes on to suggest that “the biotech industry has published dozens of articles, under the names of prominent academics, that in some cases were drafted by industry consultants,” without citing a single such article or explaining how such articles could have circumvented the rigorous peer-review process scientific journals impose. In other words, this seems to be hogwash.
In fact Lipton even admits that “there is no evidence that academic work was compromised.”
But, he suggests, without proof, that academics have shifted from [being] researchers to actors in lobbying and corporate PR campaigns. Of course, if academics really had abandoned their research to become “industry lobbyists,” they would be out of jobs in short order.
Lipton suggests that there is a “fight between competing academics” about GMOs and about the safety of various herbicides, when there is no such disagreement going on. Science has firmly established the safety of herbicides like Roundup, and the only disagreement is with the organic industry lobbyists like Benbrook.
Much of the remainder of the article seems to be a smear campaign about Professor Kevin Folta, chairman of the department of horticulture at the University of Florida, who donates his time in scientific outreach to explain science and biotechnology to farmers and the public. Lipton is determined to paint Folta as a Monsanto-paid lobbyist, when in fact he accepted one $25,000 grant to pay for his outreach travel, and following excessive threats on Facebook got the University to donate the money to a campus food bank. Folta has called Lipton’s article a “hatchet job” on social media, and has published two rebuttals, one on his public speaking and one on his non-relationship with Monsanto.
The only other academic Lipton mentions is David R Shaw, the vice-president of research and economic development at Mississippi State University. Among his hundreds of research papers and students shown on his extensive vita, he did one piece of Monsanto funded research on Roundup used in a cropping system, for $880,000. Considering the many millions of dollars of grants shown on this vita and his extensive academic career, this is simply insignificant, and if he were asked to testify before a Congressional committee, it would be because of that extensive expertise.
Finally, Lipton suggests that the amount the organic industry spends on lobbying is a tiny fraction of that spent by biosciences companies. This may not be true, as Henry Miller showed in Forbes, that the amount the organic industry spends is upwards of $2.5 billion a year!
In summary, Lipton’s article gets his facts wrong and fails to prove any of his points. It’s clearly not one of the Time’s better articles on biotechnology.