Important transparency 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?

I am very keen to know where authors Thacker and Seife stand regarding mandatory GMO labeling. Why? Because their articles supported USRTK.org, an activist operation funded by organic industry lobby Organic Consumers Association. USRTK is in the business of

  • passing US federal mandatory GMO labeling legislation;
  • fomenting fear of foods derived from modern genertic engineering

Perhaps it is an accident that their articles were so helpful to the organic industry interests. I think we have a right to know whether the authors are neutral?

  1. What evidence can you offer for the hypothesis that you are neutral, disinterested parties?
  2. What evidence demonstrates that you agree with the global scientific consensus on the safety of current GMO crops?
  3. Why did USRTK turn over to you emails obtained under FOIA? The only reason I can imagine is that Gary Ruskin, head of USTRK believed you would generate publicity that was favorable to the organic financial interests.
  4. Can you explain why you did not contact Dr. Kevin Folta for fact-checking and comment on the since-retracted article that you were preparing to publish in PLOS?

As another example of apparent bias in favor of the organic industry — in your LA Times op-ed you wrote:

…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’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? When Gary Ruskin was running an earlier state-level campaign for mandatory GMO labeling (California Proposition 37) the financial backing was public information. Does this look like the financing of a “small nonprofit”? Note that the biggest backer for GMO labeling isn’t Big Organic, it is Big Quacka (Joe Mercola who promotes “natural products” quackery):

My question today: who are all the financial backers of the “small nonprofit” USRTK? Is it much the same special interests who backed California Proposition 37? Your followers have a right to know whether USRTK is a front for big-donor quacks like Joe Mercola (Mercola.com) and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps All-One-God-Faith? I have trouble understanding your representation of USRTK as asmall nonprofit” when it is obvious that Ruskin’s 2012 Prop 37 backers will be happy to spend many multiples of the $9.2 million to win national mandatory labeling.

Conclusion: it’s obvious “Who Benefits” from the Thacker and Seife PLOS/LA Times articles. But 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 this is a perfect 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?”

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”.

Rob Saik: The real question is will agriculture be allowed to feed 9 billion people?

“Do you believe that agriculture can feed 9 billion people?” he asked. “The real question is will agriculture be allowed to feed 9 billion people?”

It’s exciting to discover someone who articulates the case for modern agriculture so effectively. Please invite your circle to enjoy Rob Saik’s TEDx talk. The Genetic Literacy Project has an excellent short summary of Rob’s presentation: How the organic movement became anti-GMO.

Big Organic mounts Asymmetric Warfare attack on public scientist Kevin Folta

There are misrepresentations in this PLOS BIOLOGUE guest post that need to be promptly corrected. Dr. Folta has written a brief analysis of these issues at Science20 Transparency Weaponized Against Scientists.

“Weaponized FOIA” is an appropriate term for the harassment tactic devised by Gary Ruskin and his organic industry backers. Very simply this is “Asymmetric Warfare” against forty public scientists. The attackers have whatever resources they may need – including funding for public relations firms and lawyers. Dr. Folta has only his own personal resources to defend his reputation. He doesn’t have the option to just turn over his defense to a team of professionals.

I am especially outraged at this harassment for alleged lack of transparency. I have been reading Dr. Folta for around a decade. Why? Because when I undertook to understand the risks and benefits of modern agriculture my first task was to identify scientists that I could trust. My doctorate is Computer Science – with no training in molecular biology or horticulture. But I know how to find expertise in other fields. I find some candidate scientists that look to be credible, then put some hours into Google Scholar looking for papers and citations. It’s not rocket science to discover the researchers who have the respect of their colleagues. Then over time it’s a matter of looking at the quality and logical consistency of arguments.

For example, early on I found Penn State molecular biologist Nina Federoff. Looking at her work and CV I noted that she was a recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science. Perhaps she is a pretty good choice for a scientist to trust. By following her citations to the work of other scientists a web of references develops. That’s how I came across prof. Kevin Folta.

Dr. Folta is very unusual in the research community because he invests a quite remarkable amount of unpaid effort into science communications. RSS is your friend for harvesting information generated by scientists like Dr. Folta who publish frequently on a personal blog, give public lectures, record podcasts, etc. All of the writing and presenting that I found – you can find too. If you do that you will quickly confirm my finding that Dr. Folta is objective and transparent to a level that sets a standard for the rest of us to live up to.

From my experience it is very clear why special interests promoting an anti-science agenda will want to discredit Dr. Folta. Hence the Asymmetric Warfare on his reputation. You can verify my claim by reading his blog Illumination and listening to his new podcast Talking Biotech. If you do that you will see that this man is not a shill for any special interest. He is exactly the sort of objective scientist that you are looking for.