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

This took way too long:

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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 since at least 2012. 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.

Organic marketing: Not truthful, often misleading

I am supportive of those who choose to grow organic food and those who choose to buy it. However, I do not accept the organic industry’s attack on new tech agriculture. It is entirely without justification.

If the roles were reversed and conventional agriculture engaged in similar “black marketing” against organics, the regulatory authorities and consumer groups would come down like a ton of bricks.

One wonders why, then, this multibillion-dollar industry gets a free ride to propagate negative and false advertising denigrating the livelihood of the vast majority of America’s farmers.

It’s time for it to stop.

JOHN R. BLOCK was U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1981 to 1986. On the Academic Review report John begins with this 

As someone who has dedicated his career to agriculture, I’ve often wondered what drives the now double-digit growth in the $35 billion U.S. organic products industry. Why are so many people willing to pay premiums up to 100 percent or more for items that carry an organic label, and do they really understand what that label means and — even more important — what it doesn’t mean?

Many of these questions have now been answered in a blockbuster report by the scientific-integrity watchdog Academics Review. The report examines the last 25 years of academic and organic industry market research, public statements and often questionable marketing practices.

What they have found should be raising red flags for all of us.

The organic industry likes to project a friendly image of small farmers and contented cows. But as this report extensively documents, the behavior of this multibillion-dollar industry is considerably less benign.

Among the other findings is the extent to which the large organic food corporations engage in what it describes as deceptive advertising linked to scientifically baseless scares about conventional food.

Worse, this “black marketing” takes place with the implied approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Seal and the silent acquiescence of the regulatory authorities charged with ensuring that all labeling and advertising be “truthful and non-misleading.”

As a leading consultant warned the organic industry in the 1990s, “If the threats posed by cheaper, conventionally produced products are removed, then the potential to develop organic foods will be limited.” Since then we’ve witnessed a remorseless campaign based on junk science or no-science attacking food grown with modern fertilizers, pesticides, GMOs and other technologies.

Advertising and promotional material — including “educational” materials developed for schools — suggest non-organic food is linked to almost every disease under the sun, including “developmental and learning problems such as ADHD,” “high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression and cancer.”

Tens of millions of organic marketing dollars flow annually to activist organizations such as the Environmental Working Group which spread misinformation and fear. Unsupported, provably counter factual claims are so habitual to the industry that they are even included in official statements: “Not only is organic safer, healthier and more nutritious,” claims the Organic Consumer Association in testimony to USDA, but buying organic will “reduce food-borne illness and diet-related diseases.”

The Organic Seal does not and cannot signify any health or safety criteria whatsoever. It merely certifies that products were produced using less modern inputs.


Why Consumers Pay More for Organic Foods? Fear Sells and Marketers Know it.

You have probably noticed how much of the anti-GMO and organic industry advertising is based on fear-mongering. For a deep dive into how this works, I suggest the 2014 Academic Review report:

Why Consumers Pay More for Organic Foods? Fear Sells and Marketers Know it.

An academic review of more than 25 years of market research, marketing tactics and government programs driving sales in the organic and natural product industries

(April 8, 2014 Priest River, ID) An extensive review of more than 200 published academic, industry and government research reports into why consumers adopt organic product purchasing behaviors was conducted by Academics Review – a non-profit led by independent academic experts in agriculture and food sciences. This review was then supplemented with an assessment of more than 1,000 news reports, 500 website and social media account evaluations and reviews of hundreds of other marketing materials, advertisements, analyst presentations, speeches and advocacy reports generated between 1988 and 2014. Our findings were reviewed and endorsed by an international panel of independent agricultural science, food science, economic and legal experts from respected international institutions with extensive experience in academic food and agriculture research and publishing.

Our report finds consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes. The research found extensive evidence that widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities are a primary cause for these misperceptions. This suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy. Further, this deceptive marketing is enabled and conducted with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed and managed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Seal and corresponding National Organic Standards Program (NOSP) in direct conflict with the USDA’s NOSP stated intent and purpose.

“It is our hope that responsible members of the organic food industry and government officials will use these findings to address consumer misperceptions about important issues of food safety and nutrition,” said Professor Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus University of Illinois, Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition. “Accurate food safety, nutrition and health information combined with consumer pocket book protections should be a threshold standard for any U.S. government program that cannot be coopted by special interest marketing groups.”

Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural)

Plants are not just food for animals… The world is not green. It is colored lectin, tannin, cyanide, aflatoxin, and canavanine [Janzen (16)].

A false claim keeps crossing my desk: that organic foods are safer; and especially safer due to the prohibition of synthetic pesticides. This is false. In fact the motivation for development of many of the synthetic pesticides in use today is to reduce toxicity for both consumers and agricultural workers. This effort has been successful, but due to the vested interests in the “organic” marketing designation the prohibition against synthetic pesticides prevails.

John R. Block was U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1981 to 1986, so he is a good source for a concise summary of what “organic” really means:

The Organic Seal does not and cannot signify any health or safety criteria whatsoever. It merely certifies that products were produced using less modern inputs.

“Let me be clear about one thing,” said USDA Secretary Dan Glickman when organic certification was being considered. “The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”

Yet USDA’s own research shows consumers buy higher priced organic products because they mistakenly believe them safer and more nutritious.

The science is clear on this point: As numerous studies, USDA monitoring, and a massive “meta-analysis” recently conducted at Stanford University confirm, organic foods are no more nutritious, nor do they carry any fewer health risks, than conventional foods. In fact, a good case could be made that conventional food may be considerably safer.

 My quick summary is organic labeled products are limited to pre-scientific agriculture.

Are natural pesticides better? Definitely, not – though, because natural pesticides are not regulated,  we know much less about their toxicity. Bruce Ames is one of the heroes of environmentalism, so NY Times science writer John Tierney turned to the Ames et al 1999 paper to document his column Synthetic v. Natural Pesticides: the captioned Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural). This paper is open access, free PDF here, by B N Ames, M Profet, and L S Gold: Division of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of California, Berkeley.

When a toxicologist says “99.99%, by weight, of the pesticides we eat are natural” she is probably referring to this paper. I like the way John Tierney characterizes the Ames work

Dr. Ames was one of the early heroes of environmentalism. He invented the widely used Ames Test, which is a quick way to screen for potential carcinogens by seeing if a chemical causes mutations in bacteria. After he discovered that Tris, a flame-retardant in children’s pajamas, caused mutations in the Ames Test, he helped environmentalists three decades ago in their successful campaign to ban Tris — one of the early victories against synthetic chemicals.

But Dr. Ames began rethinking this war against synthetic chemicals after thousands of chemicals had been subjected to his test. He noticed that plenty of natural chemicals flunked the Ames test. He and Dr. Gold took a systematic look at the chemicals that had been tested on rodents. They found that about half of natural chemicals tested positive for carcinogencity, the same proportion as the synthetic chemicals. Fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices contained their own pesticides that caused cancer in rodents. The toxins were found in apples, bananas, beets, Brussel sprouts, collard greens, grapes, melons, oranges, parsley, peaches — the list went on and on.

Then Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold estimated the prevalence of these natural pesticides in the typical diet. In a paper published in 2000 in Mutation Research, they conclude:

About 99.9 percent of the chemicals humans ingest are natural. The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant food are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves. Of all dietary pesticides that humans eat, 99.99 percent are natural: they are chemicals produced by plants to defend themselves against fungi, insects, and other animal predators.

We have estimated that on average Americans ingest roughly 5,000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides and their breakdown products. Americans eat about 1,500 mg of natural pesticides per person per day, which is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09 mg they consume of synthetic pesticide residues.

Even though these natural chemicals are as likely to be carcinogenic as synthetic ones, it doesn’t follow that they’re killing us. Just because natural pesticides make up 99.99 percent of the pesticides in our diet, it doesn’t follow that they’re causing human cancer — or that the .01 percent of of synthetic pesticides are causing cancer either. Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold believe most of these carcinogenic pesticides, natural or synthetic, don’t present problems because the human exposures are low and because the high doses given to rodents may not be relevant to humans.

“Everything you eat in the supermarket is absolutely chock full of carcinogens,” Dr. Ames told me. “But most cancers are not due to parts per billion of pesticides. They’re due to causes like smoking, bad diets and, obesity.”

He and Dr. Gold note that “many ordinary foods would not pass the regulatory criteria used for synthetic chemicals,” but they’re not advocating banning broccoli or avoiding natural pesticides in foods that cause cancer in rodents. Rather, they suggest that Americans stop worrying so much about synthetic chemicals:

Regulatory efforts to reduce low-level human exposures to synthetic chemicals because they are rodent carcinogens are expensive; they aim to eliminate minuscule concentrations that now can be measured with improved techniques. These efforts are distractions from the major task of improving public health through increasing scientific understanding about how to prevent cancer (e.g., what aspects of diet are important), increasing public understanding of how lifestyle influences health, and improving our ability to help individuals alter their lifestyles.

You can read a detailed account of their work in the Handbook of Pesticide Toxicology.

Plant Science Expert Panel


Sense about science is hosting a valuable Q&A between the public and a panel of plant scientists. You can participate

Send questions via our online form, Twitter to @senseaboutsci using #plantsci, or email us at

The linked science panel page is comprised of expert answers attached to the public questions. As you would expect given the makeup of the UK science panel, the quality of the responses is high. I’ve selected one example demonstrating the nuance offered by Professors Jones and Leyser:

“The environment secretary, Liz Truss, has said that US farmers growing GM crops use less water and less pesticide. Is she right to say this?”

Prof Jonathan Jones:
GM is a method that can be used to confer many different and useful traits. Liz Truss is right to say GM crops can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. In the US, Bt maize and Bt cotton require less insecticide to control insect pests. Glyphosate (Roundup) is a less damaging herbicide than the herbicides it replaced. Unfortunately, like antibiotics, reliance on one compound (glyphosate) has selected herbicide-resistant weeds in the US, reducing glyphosate effectiveness for weed control. Another GM trait in maize has been used to elevate tolerance of drought stress. For the UK, blight resistant potatoes will require less fungicide applications, and there are many other potential nutritional and agronomic benefits that could be conferred using the GM method.

Prof Ottoline Leyser:
Farming practices associated with each GM crop differ, depending on the specific characteristic that has been introduced. It is therefore not meaningful to state that growing GM crops results in less water and pesticide use, because it depends entirely on which GM crop you are talking about and what the normal practices are for the equivalent non-GM variety. For example, there is very good evidence that the use of GM cotton engineered to resist insect attack has reduced the use of insecticides in cotton production compared to previous practice. However, the use of GM technology to increase vitamin A production in rice does not affect how much pesticide is used.

One type of crop where there has been a particularly vigorous debate about the environmental impacts is herbicide-tolerant crops. There is no doubt that the widespread planting of herbicide-tolerant crops has led to an increase in the use of the specific herbicides tolerated by these crop varieties. Some argue that this has reduced the use of alternative, more environmentally-damaging herbicides. Others point to the negative effects on insect biodiversity caused by the reduction in weeds associated with more effective weed management. Others still highlight the emergence of weeds resistant to herbicides. These debates are important, but they have nothing to do with GM. While many herbicide-tolerant crops have been produced using GM methods, others have been produced using conventional methods, and all the arguments are about herbicides and their use, not about GM. Just as it is inaccurate to say that GM crops reduce pesticides, it is equally inaccurate to say that they cause superweeds.

We need to be able to choose the best solutions to each challenge facing the food supply chain. In some cases this will include a particular GM crop, but in many cases it will not.