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

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

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

Big Organic mounts Asymmetric Warfare attack on public scientist Kevin Folta

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan’s post-Fukushima fears, is there a way forward?

There is good news from Japan this week. After four long years the first Sendai reactor has been allowed to restart. But many high profile Japanese don’t agree that this is good news. E.g., former prime minister Naoto Kan:

“By moving ahead with restarts, the Abe administration is leading a doomed country”

The survivors of Japan’s Tohoku Earthquake have suffered so much. And the former residents of the Fukushima exclusion zone are bearing the additional stress of nuclear fear. For example, polling of former residents is discouraging – fewer than one-half may be willing to return. We can credit some of their reticence to the physical state of their home neighborhood, but there is so much fear.

Radiophobia seems to be common in Japan, probably explaining why governments enacted radiation standards much lower than scientifically justified; and why politicians nourished expectations of nuclear power perfection. Combining this history with the mismanagement of the Fukushima accident has put Japan in a very unfortunate position:  Japan’s economy is damaged by importing fossil fuels to replace the almost 30% of their electricity generation that has been closed. And the widespread radio phobia may prevent restarting the majority of Japan’s 43 operable reactors. In addition to Japan’s economic stress, the fear of nuclear catastrophe is causing Japan to share their fear globally – in the form of unnecessary carbon emissions.

What could be done to help the Japanese people shift to a realistic view of the benefits vs. risks of choosing nuclear from the menu of feasible low-carbon options? I’ll offer a few thoughts:

Consider the segment of the American population with similar fears of apocalyptic nuclear accidents. If you wanted to form a Presidential Commission to evaluate and report on the entire range of energy options – who would you nominate that could influence the potential switchers? That’s a big staffing challenge – to attract the people who combine the necessary credibility with the capability of managing such an honest inquiry.

Who would I nominate? George P. Shultz is an easy choice. If he accepted, the rest of the recruiting would go well. My next call would be to Burton Richter. Besides his deep competence and gravitas he has long experience with just this sort of public policy responsibility, and practical experience with getting things done in government. As an example Burt has been a key contributor to the California Council On Science And Technology project “Policies for California’s Energy Future”. My third pick would be Jane Long – who coincidentally was the very effective leader of the enlightened CCST project.  

Surely Japan has public figures of similar skills and stature. Who are they? How much impact could such an “Japan Energy Commission” have on public fears? Could such a commission get the ear of Japan’s heavily anti-nuclear media?

A complementary approach could be to adapt Robert Stone’s concept of building a high-credibility story around “switchers”. If Robert himself could be enlisted to this project he would be a powerful agent of change. I’m sure he could train a Japanese counterpart. As a director Robert knows how to organize the effort to tell a compelling story. There must be Japanese anti-nuclear campaigners who have switched?

Regarding funding of such a project, moving Japan towards a pragmatic energy policy isn’t just for Japan’s benefit. Earth’s atmosphere will obviously say “Thank you” for reduced Japanese emissions. Emissions aside, Japan  is having a significant negative energy policy impact across the globe. 



James Hansen on Big Green – it’s all about the money

The truth is that present energy and climate policies of the United States and the United Nations are dishonest and tragic.

In October 2014 Dr. Hansen wrote an essay covering some of his personal history. I would like to highlight a just few words that support my explanation:

Why do the big name “environmental” NGOs seem to support every policy except the ones that will actually work.

My thesis is they prefer to raise money over promoting sound policy. Their big contributors do not like nuclear power. But oh my, they do so love Amory Lovins’ soft power. So the NGO leaders have a stark choice – support policies that will impact emissions. Or raise more and more money. Dr. Hansen:

It is not always easy to speak truth to power, but all citizens have the opportunity if they choose. I have one minor, easy suggestion for you to consider, and another requiring more effort.

The first concerns “Big Green,” the large environmental organizations, which have become one of the biggest obstacles to solving the climate problem. After I joined other scientists in requesting the leaders of Big Green to reconsider their adamant opposition to nuclear power, and was rebuffed, I learned from discussions with them the major reason: They feared losing donor support. Money, it seems, is the language they understand. Thus my suggestion: The next time you receive a donation request, doubtless accompanied with a photo of a cuddly bear or the like, toss it in the waste bin and return a note saying that you will consider a donation in the future, if they objectively evaluate the best interests of young people and nature.

The other suggestion is to donate time to Citizens Climate Lobby. They need people to write letters to the editor and op-eds, and to visit members of Congress. The aim is to make the price of energy honest, in a way that spurs our economy, creates good jobs, and enhances the future of young people and nature. To be sure, our democracy has developed flaws, especially the inordinate role of money in Washington, but we still have the opportunity to make it work.

My view is the Big Greens have blood on their hands. Greenpeace in particular because they not only block nuclear around the world but they continue to block live saving advances like Golden Rice. Shame!

And kudos to James Hansen: Who speaks truth to power.

Schalk Cloete: “My thesis on the deployment of CCS…”

Schalk Cloete is brilliant. His five-part series on CCS is essential reading for anyone concerned about climate change. It’s essential because Cloete is “All Pragmatic All the Time”. He doesn’t do agenda activism. He just focuses upon assessing policy options – completely: scalability, life cycle cost, EROEI. Answering questions on his Part 1 of 5 post he explained why CCS:

My thesis on the deployment of CCS is a pretty simple one:

1) Fossil fuelled economic growth will be prioritized over climate change as long as climate change has a limited real-world impact, thus leading to an overshoot of climate targets.

2) When real-world climate impacts eventually start to have a large and clearly attributable effect, public opinion will shift rapidly.

3) This shift in public opinion will lead to a rapidly rising CO2 price.

4) A rapidly rising CO2 price will lead to a rapidly rising production (and storage/utilzation) of CO2 through CCS.

5) CCS is very well suited to such a reactive CO2 mitigation scenario due to the ability to access locked-in emissions, abate emissions from industry and because it will be less capital intensive than most alternatives. </

I’m unclear about the timeframes over which this will play out (mostly determined by real-world climate change impacts), but am fairly confident that the lack of proactive action will eventually necessitate such reactive emissions cuts through CCS in spite of the non-technical problems you mention.

My take on the political reality is quite parallel to Schalk’s. There will be no big public policy push for decarbonization – until people starting feeling real pain. By that time a lot of dangerous change will be “baked in” and people will be very motivated to look beyond Amory Lovins “soft power” for real solutions. To find out what the following graphic is all about, you’ll want to read Part 1.Dahowski cumulative annual co2 storage cost curve us china

Forget NIMBYs. We have moved into the era of the BANANA

Rendering of Transatomic nuclear plant

Robert Wilson ridicules the UK voters and status quo interest groups who collectively manage to prevent nearly every kind of substitute for fossil generation. Robert wrote:

And this is where we are going. Forget NIMBYs. We have moved into the era of the BANANA. Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. Eventually, we will act like China and erect an island in the North Sea – near Dogger Bank perhaps – where everything will be done out of sight, out of mind. No one must now see how things are made in the country of the Industrial Revolution.

Robert got me wondering if there is a “third way”? We know that India, Africa, and Indonesia will be building coal plants about as fast as they can organize the financing. How could the UK convert natural NIMBY incentives into high impact investments – in the places where the most serious new emissions threats will be originating? 

Is it possible that rich-country voters would prefer to enable the low-carbon generation where it’s “Not In Their Back Yards”? At least until new tomato farms are sprouting in Scotland? Would a UK taxpayer spend 1 £ to prevent 5 £ of new Nigerian coal plants that will emit for 50 years?

One pathway is to create a UK fund or agency authorized to write loan guarantees for qualifying projects. My hypothesis is that local (or foreign) equity investments could be encouraged by access to low interest rate loans. 

Imagine the political advertisements promoting the new fund:

Support New Conservative Labour’s “Clean Power Africa Initiative”. Turbines for every ridge top! Nuclear plants for every Megacity! All paid for by OPM (Other People’s Money)!

Thanks to Transatomic Power for the very cool rendering. I wish I had an eye-catching image of coal CCS – because that would also surely be a priority for the fund. Not glamorous, just effective.

Rethinking Nuclear: Can We Change the World’s Cumulative Carbon Emissions Soon Enough?

Joe Lassiter and Ray Rothrock jointly presented a twenty minute talk to Harvard B-school alums on the critical need for large scale nuclear deployment to mitigate climate change. This is a high signal-to-noise update on the challenge and possible solutions. Joe Lassiter summed up the reality of Kyoto-style targeting: 

The political process to getting international agreement on emissions is painfully slow, with pretty much unsolvable problems.

When you look at EIA and IEA projections to 2040 and extrapolate IPCC scenarios past 2100 you see we are on a trajectory to “extremely high ranges of temperature” at levels where “economic and biological models are likely to be invalid”. Poor countries like India and China do what they have to – coal plants. Because as Bill Gates said recently in a Financial Times interview “Renewable energy can’t do the job.” And nuclear still hasn’t crossed the “Cheaper than coal” cost curve. Meanwhile “the rich countries can do what they want” which is mainly the soft path of variable renewables – the path Bill Gates expects to lead to “a beyond astronomical cost”.

I recommend this talk for a bit of insider perspective on nuclear innovation. In the “conflict of interest” declaration, Prof. Lassiter revealed that he is an investor in Terrapower. Later in the NRC-barrier discussion he says “they are rumored to be building a test reactor in China…but they have never issued a press release about that.” Why China? “Because they saw no way to move through licensing in the United States…because of their belief about the un-licensability of anything but a light water reactor in America”.

As you likely know, Ray Rothrock, Venrock partner emeritus, lead the seed investment in Transatomic Power. Ray (via Venrock) is also an investor in stealthy fusion startup Tri Alpha Energy.

Joe used the following tabulation to make a very broad taxonomy of nuclear generation technologies, and the associated build process (on-site v. factory manufacture). Probably none of the example companies are happy with their “box”. Neither Westinghouse nor TerraPower will like being labeled “Classic On-Site Construction”. And characterizing the three technology columns as analogous to Mainframe, Mini Computer, Micro Processor? OK, I’m sympathetic to the challenge of explaining today’s spectrum of nuclear generation to a group of Harvard MBA alumni. In 20 minutes? I score this a good job overall.

BTW, I think it’s cool that Joe picked GE-PRISM and UPower for his category “Gen IV Passive SFRs/Factory Manufacture”. Yay UPower! But the MiniComputer metaphor? No!

Nuclear entrants

The presentation slides are available here if you have Harvard alum login credentials. Fortunately the event video is available at YouTube without HBS login.

IOT: what if they swarm?

IOT Jeep in ditch

I was just reading in Wired “Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway-With Me in It”. I’m getting the impression that a lot of the Sand Hill Road crowd think the Internet of Things (IOT) is about to explode upon us. Naturally bringing with it heaps of security issues. Some of these issues will be much more serious than a Zero Day Windows attack.

I’m imagining keeping a short alloy baseball bat hanging at the kitchen door – in case of refrigerator attack. Or a Taser? Long-handled chain cutters? How to defend against a possessed appliance?

What if they Swarm?

Toaster firewall

The Cognitive Roots of Genophobia


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.


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



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:-)