Some questions for Thacker and Seife

This is a small inquiry about “Who Benefits?”. Regarding the now-retracted PLOS blog piece “The Fight Over Transparency: Round Two”, I have been puzzling over the authors’ motivations. Who benefits from the authors’ PLOS and LA Times articles? Could it be Whole Foods Markets? Could it be little companies like Nestle, Coca Cola, PepsiCo?

Given the emotion-charged dispute about the safety of GMO food I am very keen to know where authors Thacker and Seife stand regarding mandatory GMO labeling. I.e., food products that include substances derived from designed DNA. For example:

  1. What evidence can you offer for the hypothesis that you are both neutral, disinterested parties? Or better, evidence that supports the claim that you agree with the global scientific consensus on the safety of current GMO crops?

  2. Why did Gary Ruskin turn over to you emails surrendered under FOIA? Ruskin heads up US-RTK, which represents organic industry interests. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that Ruskin believed you would generate publicity that was favorable to the organic financial interests. Is there some innocent reason Ruskin would give you these emails?

  3. Can you explain why you did not contact Dr. Kevin Folta for fact-checking and comment on what you were preparing to publish in PLOS?

  4. In your LA Times op-ed you wrote:

…sometimes the bullies have a point. A few months back, the Union of Concerned Scientists called out a small nonprofit funded by organic food growers for sending FOIA requests to several dozen pro-GMO scientists; it claimed that the requests were inappropriate and implied that they constituted harassment.

It’s just plain dishonest to call US-RTK a “small nonprofit”. Could you please justify why you put your reputations on the line to make such a claim? Bear in mind that we know some of Gary Ruskin’s backers when campaigning for mandatory labeling in just a single state (California Proposition 37). Does this look like the financing of a “small nonprofit”? And are these funders you want to be close to?

Revised p37 funders

UPDATE 8/27/15 11:29 PM I’ve revised the tabulation of Prop 37 backers to the most final version I could find.

My question today: who are all the financial backers of the “small nonprofit” US-RTK? Is it much the same special interests who backed California Proposition 37? Did you know you were associating with big donor quacks like Joe Mercola (Mercola.com) and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps All-One-God-Faith? Do you think the organic interests might want to spend a Whole Lot More to win a US-wide mandatory labeling statue than they spent on a single state?

Conclusion: we know “Who Benefits” from the Thacker and Seife PLOS/LA Times articles. We don’t know why you wrote these pieces. We don’t know why you were given FOIA emails. We don’t know whether you are pro- or anti-GE food crops. But, we do know that it looks like a great opportunity for the authors to practice Transparency in their own house!

 

Anti-pipeline activists: “give us what we want or these two won’t like it”

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Canadian Chemist Blair King recently reposted “The Machiavellian battle against climate change using Energy East”. Excerpt:

…When I have pointed out that shutting down the pipeline will only force more oil to be transported by rail I was met with the point that rail cars are visible while oil moving in a pipeline is not. When I pointed out that the oil trains pose a greater risk to human health and the environment I got the distressing response that

“these tactics effectively apply pressure to reassess the fossil fuelled system as a whole, i.e. we’ll see what happens to any remaining social license when oil trains start blowing up left, right and centre”.

Yes I am as shocked about that statement as you are. In two sentences it is acknowledged that they know that by fighting the pipelines they guarantee that there will be more spills and that they are essentially counting on those spills, and their ensuing ecological devastation and potential for loss of human lives, to degrade the social license of the oil industry. Metaphorically it is like they are holding up a grandma and a newborn kitten and saying “give us what we want or these two won’t like it”. I honestly had no clue how to respond.

It’s obvious to observers of energy policy that the highly visible protests about oil pipelines can’t be about pipelines. Like Blair King I’ve assumed the pipelines were a calculated proxy war. The pipeline is an easy target, a symbol that TV cameras like. Surely the activists know that stopping a pipeline just makes the human and environmental damages worse.

The possibility I had not considered is the activists know perfectly well how damaging their stated objective is.

 

Wilhelm Gruissem reviews “A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops”

Abstract: What has long been suspected is true: genetically modified (GM) crops do have real benefits for the environment and for the economic well-being of farmers. A meta-analysis of peer-reviewed journal articles and other literature not published in journals reveals that the adoption of GM crops reduces pesticide input and increases crop yields and farmers’ income. The results confirm earlier and smaller studies and therefore are not unexpected. But they are particularly welcome for significantly informing the public debate on GM crops.

How reliable is the Klümper, Qaim Meta-Analysis? I may have missed the essential critique – but in the open-access literature this commentary gets it about right. Here we have a Swiss reviewer at ETH Zurich on the work of German researchers:

Why can this study be trusted? The authors focused on herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops (maize, soybean, cotton) for which a large number of original peer-reviewed impact study reports were already available and that have also been discussed widely in the non-peer reviewed literature. They searched not only in the ISI Web of Knowledge and Google Scholar for their analysis but also used the EconLit and AgEcon Search databases because their contents are tailored to economic studies. The keyword search was unbiased and designed to retrieve peer-reviewed and gray literature reporting both positive and negative impacts. This approach was different from previous reviews of GM crop impact that were limited to peer-reviewed literature only and therefore may be been skewed toward positive results. It is often studies without such peer review, for example, [11], however, that influence the public debate and therefore detract from fact-based decision-making processes.

When dealing with a large dataset on GM crop literature, effect sizes and influencing factors are important considerations because they allow a quantification of the extent of GM crop impact rather than estimating only whether or not an impact was observed. Supported, as they are, by rigorous statistics, the results of the meta- analysis reported by Klümper and Qaim [10] convincingly show that average agronomic and economic benefits of GM crop production are significant and sizeable. Although the review was limited to insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant maize, soybean, and cotton, the impacts are likely to be similar for canola and sugar beet, which are now grown on large acreages as well. There was no evidence that studies funded by industry had any influence on impact estimates. Studies reported in the peer-reviewed journals trended toward a higher yield impact of GM crops than the average resulting from the meta- analysis [10]. This is perhaps not unexpected because non-reviewed (gray) literature published by nongovern- mental organizations that was included in the meta- analysis typically has a negative bias.

Jonas Kathage reviews “A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops”

The work was funded exclusively with public money, in part from the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2011). The authors are Wilhelm Klümper, a PhD student at the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at the University of Göttingen, Germany, and Matin Qaim*, a professor at the same institution and well-published researcher on the economics of GMOs.

A new meta-analysis on the farm-level impacts of GMOs – Biology Fortified, Inc. This is the breed of meta-analysis that we need – in that the authors have no conflict of interest issues of any kind [full disclosure: reviewer Jonas Kathage is a former graduate student of coauthor Matin Qaim].

As far as I can tell the authors made every reasonable effort to extract well-supported conclusions from the 147 studies. This is a big challenge — in choosing your population of studies you want to avoid cherry-picking while excluding studies that are either unreliable or do not report in ways that are consistent with the design of the meta-analysis. In the subject PLOS paper A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops the authors screened 24,079 studies down to 147 that met all their criteria.

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Assuming it holds up, a key result was the greater benefits experienced by developing country farmers:

Furthermore, yield gains of GM crops are 14 percentage points higher in developing countries than in developed countries. Especially smallholder farmers in the tropics and subtropics suffer from considerable pest damage that can be reduced through GM crop adoption.

Dr. Kathage agreed with the authors’ finding that industry funding did not bias the base study results towards higher yields.

Apart from the type of GM trait (IR/HT) and the type of country (developing/developed) the paper also sheds light on several other reasons why some yield results are different from others. For example, it looks at whether funding from industry is associated with higher yield estimates. It is not.

This graphic summarizes the differences between GM and non-GM crops:

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Is there a superior meta-analysis that we can cite for the big picture on the results of applying GM crops?

Post Removed by PLOS – The Fight Over Transparency: Round Two

This took way too long:

Statement from PLOS:

PLOS Blogs is, and will continue to be, a forum that allows scientists to debate controversial topics. However, given additional information for further inquiry and analysis, PLOS has determined that the Biologue post that had occupied this page, “The Fight over Transparency: Round Two,” was not consistent with at least the spirit and intent of our community guidelines. PLOS has therefore decided to remove the post, while leaving the comments on it intact. We believe that this topic is important and that it should continue to be discussed and debated, including on PLOS blogs and in PLOS research articles.

We sincerely apologize for any distress that the content of this post caused any individual. Comments and questions can be sent to blogs@plos.org

The must-not-be-named individual that has paid such a terrible price for this is Dr. Kevin Folta.

And this ugly mess is not over. USRTK has just gotten started with their witch-hunt. Meanwhile some of the sharpest insights I’ve seen in the last week came from UC Berkeley’s Michael Eisen. Such as 

…if receiving email from Monsanto destroys scientists’ credibility, same goes for journalists receiving emails from anti-#GMO orgs

…seems to me arguments @cgseife makes in favor of transparency apply to journalists as much, if not more so, than scientists

…also think @tomphilpott, who is as much advocate as journalist, should disclose all emails he’s received from anti-#GMO organizations

It is so obvious that media has a double standard. The light bulb went off in my head when I read Michael’s tweets: “Why isn’t this symmetric?”

Ken Caldeira: From an email to a friend, skeptical about the reality of human-induced climate change

Ken Caldeira explains what we know about climate change to a skeptical friend.  Originally published at the Ken Caldeira blog.

Without carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Earth would be a frozen orb.

It is known with a very high degree of certainty that carbon dioxide keeps the Earth warm and more of it will make the Earth warmer.

It is also known with a very high degree of confidence that humans activities have increased atmospheric CO2 content by about 40% since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

There is close to universal consensus among well-informed climate scientists that most of the global warming over the past 50 years was associated with our greenhouse gas emissions.

There is substantial uncertainty regarding how sensitive our climate system is to added CO2, where something like 3 C per CO2 doubling (about 5 F) might be somewhere near the central expectations but with semi-reasonable people arguing for half this or double this.

There is very little consensus regarding how adaptable humans will be to these changes. Humans already live from the equator to the Arctic circle. Houston used to be a malarial hell-hole and now it is a modern air-conditioned city.

At the one end of the spectrum there are people thinking climate change will be an existential threat to human existence. At the other end, there are people who think most people will barely notice the effects of climate change. Neither end of this spectrum represents a tenable position.

My own view is that climate change will impose a substantial cost on society but that climate change is unlikely to be the biggest problem that most people will face in their lives. This is less true for sensitive ecosystems such as coral reef systems.

Humans are like weeds. We are the invasive generalists par excellence. We spread rapidly, grow quickly, and successfully inhabit almost any environment.

Climate change will impact the delicate flowers tuned to a narrow range of environmental conditions; climate change will benefit many weeds, which can take advantage of disruption.

Carbon dioxide also acts as a fertilizer for plants, so there is potential for crop yields to increase under a high-CO2 atmosphere.

When the dinosaurs were around, the atmosphere was rich with CO2 and life flourished. We are not followers of Leibniz and do not think we are living in the best of all possible worlds. There is nothing particularly special about the climate of the pre-industrial era, although it does seem to have been a particularly stable climatic period.

The problem is not that greenhouse gases are pushing us from a better climate to a worse climate so much as the problem is one of rates of change. Will climate change occur so rapidly that the transition imposes costs that were not anticipated, costs that are larger than we would like to deal with?

[Just in case it is not clear, my answer to the final question is ‘yes’. Not only that, even anticipated changes are sufficient to motivate eliminating fossil-fuel CO2 emissions as soon as is practicable.]

Posted on 21 August 2015 by Ken Caldeira, Carnegie Institution for Science, Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University

Asymmetric Warfare has moved into Kevin Folta’s neighborhood

When I wrote “Big Organic mounts Asymmetric Warfare attack on public scientist Kevin Folta” I intended Asymmetric Warfare to be a metaphor for rich-organic attacking an individual scientist. I’m very sad to report that it’s no longer a metaphor. Kevin posted this today:

Now there are messages showing up on Craigslist.  They are false and defamatory and foment local fervor that could translate to physical harm to my family, home or laboratory. 

Whore

Is it not obvious that the right thing is for Thacker and Seife to issue a public apology and for PLoS Blogs to require Thacker and Seife to correct their article? If not promptly corrected it should be withdrawn. The “correction” they posted at the end of the article is ridiculous. Thacker and Seife did not remove the false allegation in the body of the article, and did not even link to the update posted at the end, which was written to imply that their allegations were fundamentally true – they had just made a clerical error or two.

This is exactly what the PR strategists at Gary Ruskin’s Just Label It designed. This is what a witch hunt looks like in the age of the Internet.

Asymmetric Warfare is too gentle a term for what these people are doing.

Anti-GMO Charles Benbrook has lost his Washington State University affiliation

Some very good news today — Genetic Literacy Project has just published an in-depth profile of Benbrook – who is widely quoted as an “independent scientist” warning of the dangers of genetic engineering and GMO foods. Benbrook is widely quoted by Big Organic promoters.

Charles “Chuck” Benbrook (born 1949) is an organic proponent, researcher, industry consultant, and paid “expert witness”[1] on pesticide and GMO-related lawsuits,[2] Benbrook was formerly the research director of The Organic Center, which is funded by the organic industry and is now officially part of the Organic Trade Association. His three year affiliation with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) at Washington State University (WSU) officially ended as of May 15, 2015. He is now no longer with CSNAR.

Benbrook was also an adjunct “research professor” at WSU until spring when he was separated from his position. However, Benbrook still represents himself in articles and interviews as being a professor at WSU and linked to CSANR–neither of which is true–and is frequently misrepresented as such by interviewers and websites, including by Wikipedia. (see below, Research, for Benbrook’s apparent misrepresentations about his employment situation and in Conflict of Interest representations of the New England Journal of Medicine). 

This is a very lengthy profile of Benbrook. If you are confronted with Benbrook as a definitive biotech expert I think you can safely refer people to this page. This is what a real-world shill looks like. It would be very illuminating to have complete access to all Charles Benbrook’s financials and emails. Has he ever corresponded with any employee of Whole Foods Markets?

Kevin Folta’s Florida colleague reflects on conflicts in biotech communication outreach

I was very pleased to read Dr. Curtis Hannah's comments this morning at Genetic Literacy Project. Curtis Hannah is especially well-qualified to comment because he is a faculty member at the same university. He knows how things work in Folta's real world. First, Dr. Hannah explained several reasons why this hypothesis makes no sense: “Dr. Kevin Folta works on his biotech outreach project because he's so well compensated for the outreach by Monsanto and the University”. Dr. Curtis:

The “talk-for-travel-money” scenario outlined above makes a testable hypothesis. If the funding is what motivates Dr. Folta to give public lectures, then without Monsanto funding, Dr. Folta would not give these presentations. It is that simple and it is easy to test. Was Dr. Folta talking publically about the science of transgenic plants before funding from Monsanto? The answer is yes. Hence, this does not fit the scenario outlined above. There is no cause and effect here — despite the demonization campaign underway on the web.

Second, regarding the claim that Dr. Folta's outreach efforts result in higher standing, better compensation at University of Florida — anyone who knows how such a university works will tell you this is a ridiculous hypothesis.

While outreach efforts are receiving more and more attention, as they should, it does not formally fit into any of the functions outlined above. It is akin to serving on a committee. You might get a pat on the back, but I can say categorically, outreach and committee service will not get you tenure or promotion at the University of Florida. In a very real sense, time spent on outreach and public education takes away from time that could be spent on activities that lead to tangible, material rewards.

The second point is one of the reasons I was personally so furious about this “Asymmetric Warfare” attack. For years I've been a beneficiary of Dr. Folta's public eductation efforts. Every week I see @KevinFolta gently explaining on Twitter, the Illumination blog and other fora. I know what time it is in Florida. It's very obvious to me that Dr. Folta is taking time away from his family to help the world understand biotech. I'm repeatedly amazed at how effective he is handling the often-hostile challenges.

Please read Dr. Hannah — there's much more.

 

Jimmy Botella: Waiter, there is a gene in my soup!

Our second nomination today for Best Biotech Talks is Jimmy Botella, Professor of Plant Biotechnology, School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland. Jimmy has no pretensions, he just arrows right into the kernels of mum-fear that are exploited so profitably by the Natural Organic Foods industry:

Have you ever seen the real banana? Do you know how strawberries come about? It might come as a shock to you, but what you regard as ‘natural food’ might not be natural at all, and perhaps genetically modified (GM) food is not as bad as you think. At TEDxUQ, Jimmy Botella busted some of the fallacies we have regarding the food we eat every day, and gave us a sneak peak of what GM food actually is, and where it sits in our current society.

We think you’ll agree “This is a keeper”.