Mary Magnan on the NEJM Fail — the Benbrook & Landrigan Non-Disclosures


Dear Reader, if you are a subscriber to The New England Journal of Medicine then I hope you will take the time to carefully read the preceding guest post by Dr. Mary Magnan. I anticipate that you will come to the same conclusion I did – that NEJM must, at the very least, publish a correction to the Benbrook & Landrigan article. And on the NEJM website the article should be prepended with a full disclosure of the blatant conflicts of interest that were not disclosed by the authors. I also hope that subscribers to NEJM will take the trouble to explain their strong feelings to the editors.

In the media there is clearly a “double standard” applied to discussions on genetic engineering – particularly in agriculture. The tacit assumption of the reporting journalist or editor is that the person taking the anti-GMO position is the innocent “good guy environmentalist”, who is just trying to inform the public of the dangers of this technology. Conversely, the person who discusses GMO risk v. benefits is presumed to be beholden to corporate interests. The code word “Monsanto” is usually considered sufficient to terminate rational discussion.

This specific case of the NEJM publication is an example of an article carefully crafted to appear to be a scientific reference for contrary-to-fact claims that herbicide-resistant crops are increasing the negative impact of pesticides. The trick the authors use is to tabulate only the time series total mass of the herbicide glyphosate. Not discussed are the important benefits of glyphosate – that in recommended application regimes glyphosate is one of the least toxic herbicides, that glyphosate is replacing significantly more toxic chemicals, resulting in much-increased conversion of acreage to environmentally beneficial “no-till farming”.

So the conclusions of the Benbrook & Landrigan article are exactly backwards from the perspective of a scientist objectively evaluating the before-after the introduction of the glyphosate-resistance trait.

What would motivate Benbrook & Landrigan to publish such nonsense? Well, particularly in the case of Benbrook – that is his job – to provide the “scientific references” to counter the conclusions of all the worlds major scientific institutions that GMO crops are as safe as non-GMO alternatives, and good for the environment and good for the farmers.

I appreciate Dr. Magnan’s significant effort invested to carefully document what Benbrook & Landrigan should have disclosed to NEJM. My reading of the evidence is that NEJM would have declined to publish this piece.

For an overview of the evidence on pesticides before/after GMO introduction, please Dr. Steve Savage: When Increased Pesticide Use Is A Good Thing which concludes with this:

To reiterate, pesticide use or its increase are not automatically undesirable things.  It depends on what is the alternative and what is the nature of the particular pesticide in question.  Plant biotechnology is just one important tool in the bigger tool box of agriculture.  Sometimes it allows farmers to use a more attractive pesticide option (Bt Sweet Corn would the be best example of this).  Sometimes it helps them with the adoption of sustainable practices that depend on relatively low risk herbicides.  For farmers, biotechnology and pesticides are not an either/or.  They are often partners.

Dr. Savage has published many articles on the complex subject of agricultural pests, IPM (Integrated Pest Management) and pesticides. Another useful perspective is The Muddled Debate About Pesticide Use And GM Crops:

Bottom line, a biotechnology trait may decrease or increases the need for a pesticide.  There will also be many cases where the biotech trait has nothing to do with pesticide use.  There is no necessary good or bad linkage between these two categories of agricultural technology – both can serve to make crop production better.  Both are options that should be available to those who farm.

New England Journal of Medicine ignored Chuck Benbrook’s failure to disclose organic conflicts of interests

NEJM conflict of interestThis is a guest post by Mary Mangan

(This post first appeared on Genetric Literacy Project | October 20, 2015)

The New England Journal of Medicine, frequently referenced as NEJM, has a long history and important place in the sphere of American medical practice.

During the recent 200th anniversary celebration, a special issue highlighted the changes in the challenges that patients and medical practitioners have faced over the centuries. Some threats, like smallpox, had completely been vanquished during this time thanks to vaccines. Other issues have changed in proportion, as so many of us live longer and our world has changed in remarkable ways. This piece, The Burden of Disease and the Changing Task of Medicine, offers a fascinating interactive graphic of the causes of death today versus those in the past.

Access to new technology has certainly played a part in reducing the threats that used to plague us. Nobody calls for us to return to a time when diabetes killed children. Production of insulin by genetically modified bacteria has changed the course of this disease completely. And there is also hope that new technology and strategies can continue to prevent and reduce the impact of this condition going forward.

A journal with such prestige and position also has great responsibility to influence the practice of and the policies of the medical community and government regulators. As noted in the anniversary collection, the roles of medical journals remains crucial:

Journals don’t simply disseminate new knowledge about medical theory and practice. They also define the scope of medical concerns and articulate norms for physicians’ professional and social roles. Simultaneously, they work to preserve their reputation, financial stability, and editorial independence in a constantly changing publishing environment, amid an avalanche of medical information.

In an age of changing media, especially, a medical journal must maintain basic principles of adherence to quality scientific information and navigate the minefields of potential conflicts of interest that practitioners of science or influencers of policy might have in order to remain a trustworthy source of information and policy guidance. For example, if a new treatment for Ebola was developed, it would be important to disclose if funding for the studies was provided by the treatment developer. The science should still be evaluated on its merits, but journal editors require this information to accompany the published work in their journals. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) provides guidance and forms for this purpose for all authors in this sphere. Responsibly, NEJM discussed and formulated policies for dealing with conflicts of interest many years ago. Presciently, It stated in 1984:

We will therefore suggest to our authors that they routinely acknowledge in a footnote all funding sources supporting their submitted work. Likewise, any relevant direct business associations should also be acknowledged, such as employment by a corporation that has a financial interest in the work being reported.

Despite having clear policy guidelines in place, a recent opinion piece published in the NEJM by a physician and an economist focusing on the controversial issue of GMOs and pesticides escaped the proper scrutiny. The perspective piece, published on August 20, 2015 attempted to guide public policy but it failed to disclose the possible influencers or conflicts of interests of the authors. Attempts to address this with the journal’s editor, and inquiries to the ICMJE, were unsuccessful. The refusal to examine the evidence and to rectify this undermines the credibility of the journal and would be a perplexing precedent.

No conflicts acknowledged

GMOs, Herbicides, and Public Health” by Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., and Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., asked for the FDA to alter its policy on genetically modified food labeling because of what they say are two significant new developments.

First, there have been sharp increases in the amounts and numbers of chemical herbicides applied to GM crops, and still further increases—the largest in a generation—are scheduled to occur in the next few years. Second, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified glyphosate, the herbicide most widely used on GM crops, as a “probable human carcinogen” and classified a second herbicide, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), as a “possible human carcinogen.

Numerous researchers with experience in this arena have challenged the factual contentions in the article. That’s not the focus on this article; everyone has a right to express their opinion, and the authors are well known in their fields. My concern is disclosing potential conflicts of interest so the reader is fully informed about potential biases and can therefore better evaluate both the substance and context of the arguments.

Original disclosure documents filed by the authors on July 1 2015 were provided. Benbrook responded to a series of questions:

Did you or your institution at any time receive payment or services from a third party (government, commercial, private foundation, etc.) for any aspect of the submitted work (including but not limited to grants, data monitoring board, study design, manuscript preparation, statistical analysis, etc.)? 

Answer NO                

Place a check in the appropriate boxes in the table to indicate whether you have financial relationships (regardless of amount of compensation) with entities as described in the instructions. Use one line for each entity; add as many lines as you need by clicking the “Add +” box. You should report relationships that were present during the 36 months prior to publication. 

Answer NO

Just to make sure there was no confusion about the COI request, ICMJE has a summary question:

Are there other relationships or activities that readers could perceive to have influenced, or that give the appearance of potentially influencing, what you wrote in the submitted work? 

Benbrook’s original filing is reproduced below:

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 2.10.15 PM

But his answers did not appear to be candid. From 2012-May 2014 — well before the publication date of this opinion piece — Benbrook had been an adjunct “research” professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) at Washington State University (WSU). He served as the leader of the CSANR program called Measure to Manage (M2M): Farm and Food Diagnostics for Sustainability and Health (M2M). The stated goal of M2M was to “develop, refine, validate, and apply analytical systems quantifying the impacts of farming systems, technology, and policy on food nutritional quality, food safety, agricultural productivity, economic performance along food value chains, and on natural resources and the environment.”

According to this document from the CSANR website — since removed by the university [but available here] — Benbrook’s entire salary and his M2M research program was funded by the organic industry with no funding support from any independent or university sources. Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 2.21.40 PM

Benbrook apparently had concluded that these relationships did not merit a mention to the question about his “relationships or activities that readers could perceive to have influenced, or that give the appearance of potentially influencing, what you wrote in the submitted work.”

But that was not the entirety of Benbrook’s conflicts of interest. Soon after the New York Times published additional evidence of undisclosed relationships of both authors. Reporter Eric Lipton used the Washington state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain emails from Benbrook, which further demonstrate the close ties to the organic industry for both writers. Other emails obtained by a separate FOIA request reveal an even more elaborate web of influence and conflicts.

FOIA’d documents show that Benbrook received more than $128,000 in 2013 from Washington University, with all the funding coming from industry sources.2015-08-29_17-27-40 salary Benbrook 2013

There are a number of other curious features of Benbrook’s claims that had “nothing to disclose”. First, emails suggest that as of no later than May 28, 2015, Benbrook had separated from his position at Washington State University (NYTimes emails, page 49) (Further revelations indicate Benbrook had been severed from his position on May 15.)JessicaShade_moveWSU

So it is not clear if Benbrook was still affiliated with WSU, as the NEJM article represents, when the opinion piece was initially submitted; but he was well aware that he was no longer at WSU during the evaluation process and before publication. There is no indication he took any action to correct what ended up being an erroneous claim of employment.

There were also more details disclosed about the funding sources for his M2M program. All the funders who provided Benbrook’s salary are key players in the organic industry. The “Now Task” email sent on Sept 4, 2014 includes an attachment with funding details of this program (Funder_2012-2013_Update.docx). Funding sources include a number of organic industry sources, including Stonyfield, Whole Foods, Organic Valley, Clif Bar, The Organic Center (TOC), Organic Trade Association (OTA), and Chipotle, among others. Much of this would fall within the time period specified in the disclosure forms: “You should report relationships that were present during the 36 months prior to publication”. [emphasis ICMJE]M2M_funding

Further, this document describes some other relationships relevant to this arena but not disclosed. Benbrook had run Benbrook Consulting Services for more than 20 years, serving on a board certifying “ecolabels” and another for non-GMO products, and acting as an advisor to Whole Foods Market — an outspoken critic of the use of glyphosate (Whole Foods includes glyphosate on its Prohibited and Restricted pesticide list). Benbrook also did not disclose his involvement with an eco-label certification organization and another business relationship that he maintained with Pesticide Data Central, selling data, advice, and services associated with this topic.Benbrook_other_activities

If these boards and consultancies were pharmaceutical relationships linked to a researcher, certainly NEJM would find them valid conflicts.

There are other relationships that are not disclosed for both Benbrook and Landrigan. Here we see that Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield farms, a producer of organic foods and active funder of mandatory GMO labeling campaigns, coordinated with both Landrigan and Benbrook on May 26, 2015 for travel and content to a July 8 Washington meeting with Wal-Mart coinciding with debate over a House vote on labeling. The agenda: a discussion titled, “Conclusions, Proposals, and Next Steps —Why a Mandatory GMO Labeling Policy can contribute to positive change and increased consumer confidence.” [NYT collection, pages 7-9]

Shown here is a sample of the email documents:landrigan_benbrook_stonyfield

The DC event appeared to be an attempt, in part orchestrated by Benbrook, to influence WalMart’s future purchasing policies in favor of organic producers. In addition to the Walmart event, Agri-Pulse reported on a Washington DC breakfast the same day [NYTimes collection, page 14]:DC_lobbying

This evidence of direct and coincident involvement with this industry and lobbying was not disclosed by either Benbrook or Landrigan, as evidence by the forms they submitted. And yet it would seem to violate the policy guidelines of the ICMJE, which includes:

When authors submit a manuscript of any type or format they are responsible for disclosing all financial and personal relationships that might bias or be seen to bias their work.

After the Times emails were posted, and after NEJM had been approached by numerous people, Benbrook did submit a revised answer to one question–whether he had any relationships or activities that readers could perceive as a conflict.Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 2.56.38 PM

The only additional disclosures: he was a member of a USDA crop biotech advisory committee and was a Principal in Benbrook consulting. He did not disclose the two clients most relevant to his opinion: Whole Foods, which has an anti-glyphosate policy and the Pesticide Data Center. In fact there is no acknowledgement of any of his extensive connections to the organic industry. As Benbrook’s CV on display at the Pesticide Data Center, Benbrook is also a consultant to the Organic Center, a research and lobbying arm of the Organic Trade Association — a direct and unmentioned conflict.

When the NEJM editorial team was approached with this evidence, Steven Morrissey PhD, managing editor of NEJM, declined to evaluate this public evidence. ICMJE responded that they “do not, however, have any ability to investigate or authority over its use by or the practices of other journals”, so paths for how to address this with normal channels remain unclear.

What if researchers and physicians associated with a statin drug were taking trips to Washington with a lobbying group, and attempting to influence major pharmacy chains’ purchasing policies and FDA treatment recommendation? Would we expect this to be disclosed by authors in the NEJM? Of course. The science should still be evaluated on its merits, but disclosure of the relationship would be required. This situation is no different. Here Landrigan and Benbrook failed to disclose their relationships. And NEJM should insist on corrections to their disclosure forms, so that physicians, journalists, and general public readers understand this influence.

If the editors of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine intends to be a credible voice among the noise of nonsense on many medical and public policy issues, they need to adhere to the principles of scientific evidence and disclosure on all fronts. It’s difficult enough to find credible information in these days of dubious scientific publishers and free-range social media. Undermining the confidence in reputable scientific publications could only make things worse.

Mary Mangan, Ph.D., received her education in microbiology, immunology, plant cell biology, and mammalian cell, developmental, and molecular biology. She co-founded OpenHelix, a company providing training on open source software associated with the burgeoning genomics arena, over a decade ago. All comments here are her own, and do not represent her company or any other company. You can contact Mary via twitter: @mem_somerville

Blackmail by Quacks


Trevor Butterworth examines how Vani Hari (aka Food Babe) blackmails companies like the maker of Budweiser in an excellent essay: Quackmail: Why You Shouldn’t Fall For The Internet’s Newest Fool, The Food Babe.

Fortunately, there are real experts on the Internet, and they are not pulling any punches. The Food Babe “is the Jenny McCarthy of the food industry,” writes “beer snob” and cancer surgeon David Gorski on Science-Based Medicine. “Of course,” he adds, “I don’t mean that as a compliment.”

As Gorski notes, Hari’s strategy is to “name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names.” Anti-freeze in beer? Propylene glycol has many uses, but the reason it’s used in de-icing solutions is that it lowers the freezing temperature of water. That’s it.

Here’s the thing: you may chuckle about how stupid the Food Babe attack on Budweiser is. But what about the global citrus industry? There are real people growing your orange juice in Florida or Queensland. These are real people who are rapidly loosing their battle with citrus greening. This is a perfect example of the value of having genetic engineering in the plant science toolbox – whether it’s papaya, cassava or citrus – it’s plain stupid to rule out using the safest, and fastest method for developing a resistant strain of the crop. GE saved the Hawaiian papaya. Today the #FoodFear activists would probably succeed to kill the papaya crop.

The problem is that the Big Organic interests have figured out that they can cripple producers by making consumers afraid of any plant whose DNA was precisely designed by modern biotech. That makes the orange growers afraid to use the best tool to protect their orchards (it’s hard to sell orange juice that moms think will poison their children – moms know that because the Googled “GMO”).

From The Fight to Save Our Oranges: Additional solutions are being sought on many levels, says Folta, from straight up nutrient management to changing the way citrus is grown entirely. For example, new genetics are helping breed trees that don’t get the disease or show symptoms at all. In “transgenic citrus,” trees have a gene added to confer resistance or tolerance to the disease. In fact, there is a gene from spinach that seems to help the tree grow fine with infection. 

“The genes from spinach should not have any effect on the normal growth of the citrus plants. The genes are just providing resistance/tolerance against citrus greening, so the trees can survive and be healthy. The field trials we have in place will confirm this,” says Dr. Erik Mirkov, a Professor with Texas A&M AgriLife Research, and a faculty member in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology in Weslaco, Texas at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center. Mirkov discovered and developed the spinach gene therapy in his lab.

There are other genes that have been installed to help the trees grow or fight infection as well. But opponents of GMOs may not like these options…

“The use of genetics and biotechnology in modern breeding methods is becoming more prevalent in the food supply. It will be our job to keep looking for ways to provide consumers with education and assurances that the technology results in foods that are no different from those produced by other breeding methods,” says Mirkov.
Folta adds, “These genetic solutions are all very promising, but there are some big hurdles to overcome in terms of consumer acceptance and massive deregulation. There is a big effort already to question the safety and efficacy of these products even though no fruit have ever been consumed, and they simply contain a gene product that is eaten in any spinach salad,” says Folta.

Blackmail by #FoodFear: Imagine that you are an orange grower. You’ve abandoned your first-infected orchards; you’ve burned the more recently affected trees. New trees are very costly to replace the sick trees “and take four to five years to become productive, but those trees are not fully productive for a few more years after that.” The Food Babe has already been on TV frightening people away from Franken-Oranges. What do you do? Quit farming and go on food stamps?

If you are a Ugandan cassava farmer you can’t fall back on food stamps. But your cassava crop is being decimated by the Cassava Mosaic virus and Cassava Brown Streak virus. There is a resistant transgenic cassava available. Sadly Greenpeace and the other anti-GMO activists have been very effectively promoting food-fear – even spreading false video interviews with farmers who are growing the first GM cassava.

#FoodFear blackmail works only because you dear consumer allow it to work. Think about that, please.

When Greenpeace hires journalists, it’s a double-edged sword

Image courtesy of Robert Wilson

“…research, which focuses on humanitarian and human rights groups, suggests that this development of NGO journalism is a double-edged sword.”

Over at The Conversation Prof. Matthew Powers has a stimulating short piece on the growing volume of 'journalism' content produced by NGOs. Dr. Powers 2014 paper offers a deeper examination of this issue: The Structural Organization of NGO Publicity Work: Explaining Divergent Publicity Strategies at Humanitarian and Human Rights Organizations [Open Access PDF].

My reaction to “Greenpeace hires journalists” was alarm because Greenpeace is the leading example of the damage that powerful NGOs can do to public policy. On both Climate Change and Development I've learned that Greenpeace advocates for policies that cannot work and are distracting the dialogue from considering effective policies.


Mitigation of Climate Change: The central policy decision is how to eliminate fossil fuel burning. Optimal solutions depend very much on the local particulars (is it sunny?) but it's obvious to all serious scholars that the policy menu should be technology neutral. The objective is to eliminate fossil fuels, not to promote “renewables”. In many locales nuclear power will be a big component of the optimal mix of low carbon energy. Greenpeace is a powerful anti-science activist – they are extremely effective at engendering fear.

Development: Greenpeace is a poster-boy of the Big Green NGOs that are trying to prevent development. If in 2050 African women are still trapped in subsistence farming they can thank Greenpeace for preventing the agrarian to industrial transformation that has been enjoyed by every rich country. The most visible example of destructive Greenpeace activism is their fear-mongering about genetic engineering (GMO).

If you've read The Honest Broker by Roger Pielke Jr. you will appreciate that politicians need more options, not less. That's what an Honest Broker offers. Greenpeace is a science-free advocate who wants to prevent consideration of any option other than the ONE that's Greenpeace-approved. Greenpeace is the Dishonest Broker – it's difficult to think of any NGO more expert at fear-mongering.

Dozens of Greenpeace 'journalists' is a truly frightenting prospect. What the planet needs is more investigative journalism that exposes and defunds Greenpeace. We need more Will Saletan: The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. We need more George Monbiot: The unpalatable truth is that the anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all

“A great wrong has been done by this movement. We must put it right.”

Image courtesy of Robert Wilson The Green Movement is not Pro-Science


An Ecomodernist Elevator Speech

This is a guest post by Amy Levy, proprietor of Ecomodernist Mom. (This post first appeared on Ecomodernist Mom September 14, 2015)

I’ve had some interesting reactions from friends when I’ve brought up the term Ecomodernism and I’ve had some very funny responses when I say the words, “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” to people. Everyone seems to glaze over or become slightly alarmed that I’ve become another Unabomber.

I can’t seem to get anyone to take the time to read the manifesto and I’m not surrounded by anti-intellectuals by any stretch. I am, however, surrounded by very busy, working parents whose brains are occupied with the logistics of getting multiple kids to multiple activities while juggling hours of homework, dinner, and hopefully sleeping at some point. I think that even hearing the word, “manifesto”, makes people tired. This is not a criticism of the work. Obviously, I find the piece beautifully written and inspiring but I think the message needs to be accessible to everyone.

I’m still working on my “elevator speech” about Ecomodernism but I try to describe it to people as a new way of looking at environmentalism that takes a more actionable, humanitarian approach. The current environmentalist movement seems to treat humans as an invasive species that needs to be beaten back in order to save the planet. Ecomodernism celebrates humankind’s achievements and what we’ve brought to our planet and wants to harness those achievements to make us less dependent on nature so that we can restore the balance and health of our planet.

In addition to treating humans as invasive, traditional environmentalism seems to romanticize a return to nature that may be appealing to those of us in the West who have never depended on nature for survival, but probably isn’t so romantic to a subsistence farmer who has just lost his crop to floods. We can’t expect people in the developing world who fight with nature every single day to be on board with a world vision that doesn’t let them escape that fight. Ecomodernism acknowledges that humans are drawn to the beauty and spirituality of nature and therefore aims to preserve and protect nature by lessening human impact and dependency on it.

Even though humans have caused the problems on our planet, treating humankind as the enemy accomplishes nothing other than causing those on the right to dig in further and and the rest of us to throw up our hands and think, “Well, I voted for a Democrat and separated the recycling, what else do you want from me?” Or maybe, “Yes, I admit the planet is completely hosed but I’m too busy paying bills and caring for these little humans right in front of me to worry about people who won’t be born for another century.” In other words, being treated as the enemy inspires apathy at best and at worst, doesn’t even attempt to bridge the divide with those who are emotionally or economically invested in the idea of climate-change as fiction.

Today’s environmentalism is well-meaning but unworkable if the majority isn’t on board with it. I’m not sure we can mobilize billions of people on the message of sacrifice and a return to a romantic natural world that never really existed. With Ecomodernism, I see immediately actionable solutions in science and technology and I think human nature is more motivated by action with results rather than by conservation and sacrifice.

As I read this, I realize that this is just more of what I said in the opening post and I’m not sure I’ve completely answered the question of what Ecomodernism means and why it should matter to a busy parent.

I guess I would say to parents to stop and look at what’s already happening in the world. A massive refugee crisis, weather extremes, wildfires – whether we like it or not, or whether we believe humans are to blame or not- these things are happening now and there’s a good chance they will get worse. Is this what you want for your child? Or any child? We are not powerless but we are at a critical point where we have to start moving forward and support a new, pragmatic vision because the current, polarizing efforts have us running in place.

You can follow Amy on Twitter @AmysTruth and please do follow her wonderful new Ecomodernist Mom.


New York Times: Your reporting fed McCarthyite attacks on Kevin Folta


Jean Goodwin is an expert in rhetoric at Iowa State. Dr. Goodwin specializes in achieving useful communication among parties who deeply disagree.

My primary research/teaching focus is in argumentation studies; I study how citizens who deeply disagree can nevertheless manage to coordinate a worthwhile exchange of reasons. In the past few years, I’ve begun looking at the special problems experts face when they attempt to contribute the public sphere–a project with several threads under the general heading, Between Scientists and Citizens. While my social science colleagues can provide valuable perspectives on how scientists can communicate more effectively, as a humanities scholar I am focused on the values issues–why scientists should communicate, what they should hope to accomplish by doing so, what roles they can appropriately play in civic deliberations. Case studies of such issues of science communication ethics are available on the website of our NSF-funded project, Cases for Teaching Responsible Communication of Science.

If that sounds like good preparation to analyze what the New York Times did to Kevin Folta, then you would be right. If you explore Jean’s blog Between Scientists and Citizens you will get some comfort that you are around serious people. I look to see who else the writer links, finding another world-class science communicator, Roger Pielke Jr. And Andy Revkin. So I was frankly excited after I began reading her short essay on the Folta case:

So, follow below the fold to find my defense of these three claims:

  1. Folta is an outstanding science communicator.
  2. He is being targeted by McCarthy-style attacks.
  3. The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education failed to resist the McCarthyism.

1. Folta = Science Communication

Many have been calling for bench scientists to invest more time engaging the public. Having seen Folta present and having looked over some of his outreach efforts, it’s my view that he is a model science communicator and that any scientist wanting to jump into public communication should learn from him.* I may write another blog post about it, but to put it briefly, Folta shares his passion for his research and makes clear his respect for each and every member of his audience.§¶

*One thing they should learn right off is to be ultra-scrupulous in declaring all sources of funding–Folta has admitted sloppiness in this, and he is paying the penalty.

§ Folta loves his listeners; that sounds sappy, but it isn’t. Listen to the talk he gave at my university, paying attention his interactions with those skeptical of GMOs. Be aware, it’s over two hours long–because he was willing to stay there and respond, respectfully, to every single question and challenge. Or take a look at one story of what talking with Folta feels like from the audience point of view.

¶ Folta loves his listeners, with one exception: he clearly loathes those who he perceives to be a core group of science-distorting anti-GMO fanatics. This also is a mistake that he is paying for: he should love them, too; or at least, speak as if they did not exist.

My score on Jean’s defense of point #1 is “about perfect”. We could add a link to Talking Biotech podcast where it is so easy to access current talks and interviews that help the listener appreciate who Kevin Folta really is (try to match up the real Kevin Folta with the NY Times portrayal). If you are new to this topic you should definitely browse through Dr. Folta’s writings at Illumination blog. Especially read the comments, paying attention to the hostile questions and Dr. Folta’s remarkable patience in answering. If you find any evidence that you are reading a “shill for Big Seed” please let me know in the Comments.

Next comes the discussion of 2. McCarthyism and 3. Failures in the reporting, closing with this:

So in sum: The New York Times and the Chronicle did a poor job on this story, helping perpetuate McCarthyite attacks on a scientist who–unlike most–has bothered to reach out to the public. For shame!

Get on over there to Between Scientists and Citizens – where you can ask your questions or agree/disagree passionately in the comments.


“I’ve been FOIA ed”: Alison Van Eenennaam on being in crosshairs of anti-GMO activists

Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D. is an animal geneticist and Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis.

Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam has been targeted by USRTK and their Big Organic backers. Please read her post in full. Her “offense” which put her in the crosshairs of the organic interests is that she has “engaged in public discussion about GMOs”. That must be stopped. Only the Whole Foods message is to be heard.

Following are some of her observations drawn from experience engaging with Dr. Kevin Folta.

FOIA attacks get personal

In the meantime, I have watched with increasing distress at the way that Dr. Kevin Folta, of the University of Florida, also a FOIA request target, has been portrayed subsequent to the public release of his FOIAed emails. Why distress? Because I know Kevin and I know how deeply he cares about science. I have had dinner at his house, and we recently did an early morning fitness “bootcamp” when he was in Davis. I consider him a friend, and his job is not that different than mine—we are both science communicators who talk about breeding; he talks about plants, I talk about animals.

(…snip…) I have observed Kevin giving biotechnology presentations on several occasions. He provides evidence-based, factual content. He reports on his own published research results (not sponsored by industry), and also reports on the scientific consensus that the genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat – a conclusion reached by every major scientific organization in the world. I have seen how he speaks with passion about science. Perhaps to his detriment, he does not censor his opinions in person or in email correspondence. He says what he thinks. He spends an inordinate amount of his free time on nights and weekends doing science communication. None of that could be considered wrongdoing. In fact it’s just the opposite: he’s responsibly communicating the up-to-date science, as he is mandated to do as a scientist at a public university.

(…snip…) Today, the scope of the requests has moved well beyond GMO Answers and Proposition 37. The real target seems to be prominent scientists affiliated with land-grant universities across the United States engaged in public discussion about GMOs. That description fits me; I have been involved in public communication around this topic, and many other related controversial topics. You do not need to look too far to find controversial topics in animal agriculture. I have spoken about cloning, genomic selection, the AquAdvantage salmon, animal biotechnologies, GMOS, coexistence of different agricultural production and marketing systems and food labeling.

These attacks are a form of “Asymmetric Warfare” against public scientists who openly discuss genetic engineering technology. I say Asymmetric because the attackers have whatever resources they may need – including funding for lawyers, public relations firms and researchers. Dr. Van Eenennaam may get some help from the UC system legal staff to ensure that the surrendered documents do not encroach on the rights of third parties. Beyond that her defense falls on her shoulders (and family). Political operative Gary Ruskin has his whole team attacking – he can just go home and forget it. Dr. Van Eenennaam doesn’t have the option to turn over her defense to a team of professionals.

If you shop at Whole Foods Markets (for example) you should think carefully whether you wish to be supporting this attack on public scientists. If you continue to shop at Whole Foods Markets, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, Joe Mercola etc. these attacks will never stop because those financial interests benefit from muzzling scientists who speak the forbidden. The shareholders of Whole Foods et al benefit every time the New York Times runs front page articles ridiculing scientists who explain the forbidden knowledge.

The organic/natural interests want moms to be afraid of food sold by anyone else. They have no ethics, but do have barrels of money and buildings full of lawyers.

Open letter from 21 top European plant scientists to decision makers in Europe


The de facto moratorium on transgenic plant approvals has been detrimental for applied plant science and has effectively eliminated possibilities for publicly funded scientists and small companies to address the big challenges for society. The resulting reduced competition has enhanced the dominance of the major seed and agrochemical corporations. We believe that a fundamental revision of GM regulation is needed that strictly follows principles of a science-based evaluations and approvals, based on evaluation of the trait, rather than the method by which it is achieved.

Image left is signatory Professor Stefan Jansson Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Plant Physiology, Umeå University, Sweden 

October 30, 2014 a group of Europe’s leading plant scientists sent a straight-talking nastygram to the EU authorities (original PDF here). I’ve reproduced the letter in the following paragraphs (signatories at the end).

We all depend on plants for providing us with food, building material, textiles, medicine and fuel. Among the greatest challenges facing mankind are the provision of healthy and nutritious food, feed and fuel to a burgeoning population using agricultural and forestry practices that are environmentally and economically sustainable. Thanks to basic research on plants, we now understand well how plants grow, how they protect themselves against disease and environmental stress, and what factors limit production in agriculture and forestry.

Europe has a strong history of plant science. Robert Hooke introduced the concept of the “cell” in the 17th century after looking at cork slivers in his microscope. Carl Linnaeus developed systematics after his studies of plants and Gregor Mendel deciphered the laws of genetics after meticulous counting of plants in his monastery garden in Brno. Plant scientists discovered chromosomes, enzymes and viruses, and Charles Darwin spent a large part of his scientific career as a plant biologist; “The origin of species” starts “When we look to the individuals of the same variety or sub- variety of our older cultivated plants and animals”. Curiosity-driven plant research has been important both to deepen our understanding of nature and take benefit of it, still we lack basic understanding of many complex phenomena in plants.

27 of the “30 most cited authors in plant science” in Europe ( hold at present a position at a publicly funded research organization in Europe, and 21 out of the 27 have signed this letter. We work on various aspects of plant science, for example systematics, physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, ecophysiology, ecology, pathology, biodiversity and effects of climate change. It is possible to perform good curiosity-driven plant science in Europe and we acknowledge our support from various funding bodies, in many respects plant science in Europe is doing well.

However, well is not good enough. Plant science has arguably contributed more to the reduction of human suffering than biomedical research, yet compared with the latter it is hugely underfunded worldwide. Norman Borlaug’s dwarf and rust-resistant varieties of wheat saved many millions from hunger. Basic science performed in Europe is also an efficient way of supporting applied research in poorer countries. We are concerned that Europe will have serious problems in reaching its ambitions of Horizon 2020: to “tackle societal challenges” and “to ensure Europe produces world- class science, removes barriers to innovation and makes it easier for the public and private sectors to work together in delivering innovation” and see three outstanding issues for decision makers to address.

First, to provide solutions to the societal challenges outlined in Horizon 2020 funding for fundamental and applied plant science should be maintained or, if possible, be increased. Most importantly, serious challenges are not adequately addressed, such as developing plants resilient to climate change, preventing loss of crop biodiversity, and creating an agriculture that avoids unsustainable demands for water, energy, fertilizers and pesticides. These tasks must be addressed in forthcoming Horizon 2020 calls.


Secondly, plant scientists must be able to perform field experiments. Many of us work with genetically modified plants as research tools, for example to understand how native plants and crops protect themselves against pests and will react to climate change. However, in most European countries permits to perform field experiments with transgenic plants are blocked, not on scientific but on political grounds. In countries that do permit field experiments, these are often systematically vandalized, causing huge scientific and financial losses. Some of us have even been threatened and had private property vandalized. This is a serious threat to science, to publicly funded research, and to European society itself. European authorities must ensure that approved and safe field experiments with transgenic plants are made possible. Vandals must be prosecuted and held accountable for scientific and financial damage.

Thirdly, Europe must allow prompt authorization of genetically modified plant varieties that have been found safe by the competent authority following a thorough science-based risk evaluation. This is essential to meet the Horizon 2020 goal of removing barriers to innovation and making it easier for the public and private sectors to work together in delivering innovation. The de facto moratorium on transgenic plant approvals has been detrimental for applied plant science and has effectively eliminated possibilities for publicly funded scientists and small companies to address the big challenges for society. The resulting reduced competition has enhanced the dominance of the major seed and agrochemical corporations. We believe that a fundamental revision of GM regulation is needed that strictly follows principles of a science-based evaluations and approvals, based on evaluation of the trait, rather than the method by which it is achieved.

Our scientific credibility comes from our work on basic plant science. Some of us also apply our knowledge to improving plants for the human society, but the reason that we make this statement is not commercial interests or hope of attracting more funding for our own research. Instead, we are seriously concerned that lack of adequate funding and safe infrastructures will relegate European basic and applied plant science to a second tier status. If plant scientists cannot apply their knowledge for the benefit of society, Europe will be unable to lead in global efforts to build a sustainable agricultural system and plant-based bio-economy. The most pressing global problems – how do deal with environmental change and secure food supply for all – arguably will only be solved with a massively increased worldwide investment in plant research.

Ian T. Baldwin, Director, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena, Germany
Member of the US National Academy of Sciences
Member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina Member of the Berlin Brandenburgische Academy of Sciences

David C. Baulcombe, Regius Professor of Botany and Royal Society Research Professor, Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Member of Academia Europaea
Foreign Associate Member of the US National Academy of Sciences

Foreign Associate Member of the National Academy of Sciences India Fellow of the Royal Society
Member of EMBO
Recipient of Wolf Prize for Agriculture

Recipient of Balzan Prize (Epigenetics)
Recipient of Lasker Prize for Basic Biomedical Science Recipient of Gruber Prize for Genetics

Nina Buchmann, Professor of Grassland Sciences, Institute of Agricultural Sciences, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich, Switzerland
Founding member of the Young Academy of Sciences
Former member of the German Advisory Council for the Government on Global Change (WBGU)

Member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina Member of the Board of Trustees of the Öko-Institut e.V
Chair of the World Food System Center (WFSC) at ETH

Mark W. Chase, Keeper of the Jodrell Lab, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom
Fellow of the Royal Society
Recipient of Veitch Memorial Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society (UK

Alisdair R. Fernie, Research group leader, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, Potsdam, Germany.
Recipient of the Society of Experimental Biology medal (Plants)
Recipient of the Phytochemical Society of Europe Prize

Christine H. Foyer, Professor of Plant Sciences and Director of Africa College, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
Winthrop Professor, The University of Western Australia, Australia
Pao Yu-Kong Chair Professor, Zhejiang University, China;

Recipient of Redox Pioneer award
Recipient if the Founders Award (American Society of Plant Physiologists).

Jiri Friml, Professor, Institute of Science and Technology (IST), Austria, Klosterneuburg, Austria
Member of EMBO
Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Recipient of Otto Hahn Medal

Recipient of VolkswagenStiftung Award

Recipient of Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize Recipient of Odysseus Award
Recipient of Olchemim Scientific Award Recipient of Körber European Science Award Recipient of EMBO Gold Medal

Jonathan Gershenzon, Director, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena, Germany
Member, American Association for the Advancement of Sciences

Wilhelm Gruissem, Professor, Department if Plant Biology, Plant Biotechnology, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Sciences
Fellow and Corresponding Member, American Society of Plant Biologists Recipient of the Anniversary Prize of the Fiat Panis Foundation

Recipient of the Shang Fa Yang Award of Academia Sinica Former President of the European Plant Science Organization Chair of the Global Plant Council

Dirk Inzé, Director, Plant Systems Biology, Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB), Ghent University, Belgium
Member of Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts Member of EMBO

Recipient of the Körber Stiftung Prize
Recipient of the Francqui Prize
Recipient of the Five-yearly FWO-Excellence Prize:
Recipient of the Dr A. De Leeuw-Damry-Bourlart in Exact Sciences Prize Chairperson of the Life Sciences, Environmental Sciences and Geosciences (LEGS) Committee of Science Europe

Stefan Jansson, Professor in Plant Cell and Molecular Biology, Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC), Plant Physiology, Umeå University, Sweden.
Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Recipient of Roséns Linneus Prize

Jonathan D. G. Jones, Professor, The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, United Kingdom
Fellow of the Royal Society
Member of EMBO

Joachim Kopka, Research group leader. Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, Potsdam, Germany

Thomas Moritz, Professor, Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden
Director Swedish Metabolomics Centre

Corné M. J. Pieterse, Director, Institute of Environmental Biology, Utrecht University Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences

Stephane Rombauts, Principal scientific staff, Plant Systems Biology, Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB), Ghent University, Belgium

Ben Scheres, Professor in Plant Developmental Biology, Wagenignen University, Netherlands
Member of the Dutch Royal Acadamy of Arts and Sciences
Recipient of Siron Pelton Award USA

Recipient of SPINOZA award

Bernhard Schmid, Professor of Environmental Sciences, Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zürich, Switzerland
Dean of the Faculty of Science

Mark Stitt, Prof Dr. Dr, h.c. Director, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, Potsdam, Germany
Member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
Honarary Doctor of Umeå University

Recipient of the Presidents medal, Society of Experimental Biology

Yves Van de Peer, Professor in bioinformatics and genome biology, Ghent University, Belgium
Group leader, Plant Systems Biology, Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB), Belgium

Professor, Genomics redsearch institute, University of Pretoria, South Africa Member of Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts

Detlef Weigel, Director, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany
Foreign Member of the Royal Society
Member of the US National Academy of Sciences

Member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Corresponding Member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities Recipient of State Research Prize of Baden-Württemberg
Recipient of Otto Bayer Award
Recipient of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Award 

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, 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 ( 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”


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.