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 Kevin Folta for fact-checking and comment on the since-retracted article that you were preparing to publish in PLOS?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!

 

 

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.

 

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.

The Cognitive Roots of Genophobia

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Will Saletan linked this just-published analysis by Razib Khan. Razib has been researching and thinking carefully about the sources of anti-GMO sentiments.

…GMO has not become culturally polarizing. Yet. Most peoples’ opinions are inchoate and instinctive. I believe they derive from folk biological intuitions about essences. Ultimately it’s about the fact that people don’t understand genes in any prosaic sense, but they think that they’re somehow magically involved in the nexus of who we are in a deep and fundamental sense. That’s why the translocation of fish genes into tomato is so uncomfortable for people; they imagine that the essence of the fish is somehow being mixed with the essence of the tomato, and that just feels wrong. Genophobia of this sort is comprehensible in a cognitive anthropological framework. Just as we are likely wired for Creationism, I think we’re wired for being very skeptical of the concept of GMO, because of the implicit connotations of muddling categories which we view was fundamental. And, just like Creationism, we can overcome these deep intuitions. Much of natural science in the modern world consists of overcoming and updating of deep intuitions.

(…snip…)

I am mildly optimistic that this will not happen with GMO, and that is because scientists are anti-anti-GMO, and, politically liberal. It seems very likely that a GMO food labeling measure will pass in the near future. And I believe that this will galvanize a backlash among scientists on the whole. Something similar happens on the Right with Creationism. Whenever the movement actually scores a victory, elite Republicans, who invariably accept the science of evolutionary biology, become alarmed and roll back gains made by Creationists. Unlike evolution, GMO are not just abstractions in a laboratory. When GMO becomes pervasive enough, or at least the knowledge of how pervasive they are becomes more common, then the public will likely make peace with their reservations, just as they have with in vitro fertilization.

Source The Cognitive Roots of Genophobia

The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud

Saletan

Socialcounts

I nominate Will Saletan’s Slate article Unhealthy Fixation for Food Essay of the Year. Happily there are many other readers with an appreciation – as we can see in the left-pictured social feedback indicators (captured June 20th). Myself, I was alerted to Saletan’s Slate Plus publication by a Nuzzle notification that more than six of my curators had collectively voted Will’s essay best of the week.

On my iPad the Nuzzle curator icons stretched all the way across my screen. At the moment it looks like this, but this is only of four Nuzzle picks of the same article (I don’t know why Nuzzle shows separate entries for the same article).

Nuzzle curators

In fact I’ve never actually seen so much enthusiasm for a just-published article. Since then my available reading minutes have been absorbed reading the various discussions that have erupted from the original.

So why is Saletan’s essay so unusual? Why don’t journalists routinely deconstruct the daily volume of pseudoscience attack on the genetic engineering process?

  • Editors don’t like long, complicated articles.
  • Especially articles that question the received wisdom of the NGO elites such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union, Union of Concerned Scientists.
  • Writers have to pay the rent – Will says “I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence.” Gathering, analyzing and verifying this much evidence would have been a job of many, many hundreds of hours. At some point Will persuaded Slate to assign interns Natania Levy and Greer Prettyman to assist with the research.
  • Reputation return to the writer? I asked Nathanael Johnson, author of the very valuable Grist series Panic-free GMOs, about the value proposition for a writer “If I rebut every activist claim there’s no time for…insert priority.” Nathanael replied “Also, more risk less reward in cultural capital in doing that kind of rear guard policing”.

I thought I would write a tweet or two quoting from Will’s article. Hmm… this is so tightly written that every other sentence is quotable. But the value of every sentence is built from the fabric of the analysis and argument. Clearly the best time value for you, dear Reader, is to focus your attention on the original essay which is subtitled “The Misleading War on GMOs: The Food is Safe. The Rhetoric is Dangerous”. And if you have time to listen before you read, I recommend listening to Will read his essay – you’ll enjoy the 65 minute podcast.

The bottom line, I think, is that it’s very risky to do what Will Saletan has undertaken. Let’s try to improve the odds that Will’s rewards justify the risks he took. Buy the Book! And for sure follow Will Saletan on Twitter. Enjoy Will’s engagement with the critics:-)

Antibiotic resistance: a return to the pre-antibiotic world is coming faster than you think

Photo credit: Julian Stratenschulte/EPA/Corbis

We are seeing an alarming increase in new reports on the growth rate of antibiotic resistance. We cannot forecast the future date when we will return to the pre-antibiotic world. But we can be confident that if coordinated global action is undertaken straight away then the costs and social impact will be much lower than coping with the frightening future ahead.

This is a hard problem, possibly a “wicked problem“, thought not quite like the scale of climate change solutions. The costs of effective action to save antibiotics are a small fraction of what is required to decarbonize developing economies. And the required cooperation is not nearly so diffuse.

I will cite a couple of recent links that offer a survey of what is happening and what should be done to prolong our “golden age” of effective antibiotics. First Megan McArdle’s Bloomberg piece  Life Without Antibiotics Would Be Nasty, Brutish and Short(er); second CDC Threat Report: ‘We Will Soon Be in a Post-Antibiotic Era’ by Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug; and third, the key source for the McKenna article Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sept. 16, 2013.

From the press release for the CDC Threat Report 2013:

This report, Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013 gives a first-ever snapshot of the burden and threats posed by the antibiotic-resistant germs having the most impact on human health.

Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Antibiotic-resistant infections can happen anywhere. Data show that most happen in the general community; however, most deaths related to antibiotic resistance happen in healthcare settings such as hospitals and nursing homes.

For thoughts on some policy solutions I recommend Megan McArdle’s October 2011 analysis. And lastly, become a member of the International Society for Infectious Diseases (we are). Members of the ISID can subscribe to the International Journal of Infectious Diseases at a discount – but note the journal goes open access in 2014.