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.

…a renewable energy-powered Internet: Leaping into the future, and over a cliff

Steve Alpin considers what it would be like to switch from our familiar 24/7 Internet to 100% renewable Internet. It’s not a happy experience. Steve closes with this:

Take e-commerce. Let’s say you’re a best-selling Canadian author and, moving with the times, you sell your books through iTunes, among other e-commerce vehicles. (I mean, iTunes is so convenient, and cheap—they’ve cut out all that nuisance human labour that is involved in bookstores and other dinosaur-economy relics.) Never mind that you specialize in anti-corporate screeds and that you fulminate in print against Big American Multinationals. Never mind that these Big American Multinationals ought to include Apple (the company through which you sell your books on iTunes) and Amazon (the company whose massive server farms host services like iCloud, another Apple product).
Forget about these irrelevant details and just think: what would be the impact on sales of your book through iTunes if Amazon’s gigantic server farms, currently located in the U.S. state of Virginia, which makes most of its electricity in coal and nuclear plants, suddenly switched to only renewables?
Think about that as you wait on hold, fingers impatiently drumming the desk, while some twenty-something in the premier’s office tries to find the number to somebody in Virginia who’d be better able to answer your question of why Amazon’s server farm is experiencing so many power blackouts and brownouts, affecting your e-sales.

Does Steve’s hypothetical Canadian author remind you of anyone? Any particular author? Naomi somebody? Please read Steve Alpin front to back and do check out the comments to this essay.


Jacob DeWitte and Leslie Dewan interviewed at TechCrunch Disrupt 2015


Jacob DeWitte and Leslie Dewan made a joint appearance at the September TechCrunch Disrupt – video here. This purpose of this post is to rummage for some scraps on what Jake DeWitte’s UPower is up to. UPower has been in stealth mode since their launch, so it isn’t easy to figure out what their technical/business approach is. My understanding is UPower is designing a 2 MWe sodium fast reactor that can use both U-238 and SNF as fuel. If you watch the Harvard Alumni presentation by Joe Lassiter and Ray Rothrock you’ll notice that Joe uses PRISM and UPower to illustrate the category of factory-built SFRs (Sodium Fast Reactors).

“The reactor is also fuel agnostic, meaning it can run on uranium, thorium, even nuclear waste. In fact UPower’s technology can turn existing stockpiles of nuclear waste around the world into almost a millennium of clean power.”

When Sam Altman’s Y Combinator funded UPower that signaled to me there was something quite unusual going on. On nothing but guesswork I infer they have a design/build concept intended to achieve unusually rapid time to market. Could the first customer be the US Military? If that’s true does it improve the outlook for speed through regulatory hurdles? I don’t want to say more in case I’ve guessed some part of the strategy that’s actually true:) If their plan has them delivering product fast then a competitor might be able to exploit early knowledge of what UPower is doing.

For me, that Sam Altman invested, then went on their board – that says “very special, and special relative to the other advanced nuclear startups.”

I’ve collected the following UPower insider comments from a long Hacker News thread [I’ve not identified who donttrustatoms is, but she clearly is an insider]:

★donttrustatoms 87 days ago

You’re exactly right, and that’s what we designed for with UPower. I would have written the exact same thing when we began talking about doing something in nuclear 5 years ago.

Too many reactors are designed without the market or financing in mind. We decided on the simplest possible reactor optimized to a size useful to a market in dire need- just MW scale.

It has no pumps, no water in the reactor, and builds upon a legacy of data so that there will be minimal fuel and materials qualification, which adds up very quickly in both time and money.
Why hasn’t it been done before? The key, as you bring up, is in manufacturing, simplicity, a relatively new and hugely growing microgrid market that didn’t exist much before, and a business model that doesn’t require the customer to buy the unit as opposed to power purchase.

★beat 87 days ago

It’s exciting work, to be sure. Before now, the only small-scale nuclear work I’d seen were plutonium batteries (like for powering satellites), which are horrendously expensive and not something you ever want in the hands of Bad Actors.

It looks like UPower is currently targeting environments where traditional power is impractical and lots of power is needed, and plenty of budget is available – remote mines, military installations and such. Do you see a market for urban/residential power grid in the future, too? Or would that be too difficult a squeeze between distributed solar and traditional power plants?

★donttrustatoms 87 days ago

The short answer is yes. We see this as our Tesla roadster (well designed niche product for a market willing to pay, in this case however, desperately in need for a solution that doesn’t involve constant shipments of expensive and polluting diesel for loud generators) from which we will streamline and optimize to make our “model 3” so we can produce something to meet and even beat grid prices. It actually isn’t a big jump between the two, we have good indication now that it will be possible without much iteration to beat grid prices in all but the cheapest markets. And as you pointed out, the financing at that stage will play a significant part. :)

★donttrustatoms 87 days ago

Solar is much cheaper and wind was already cheap, however the question, for both carbon and cost, is what is the price of the renewable intermittents with storage and backup. Batteries and storage in general have not had the step changes in cost and performance that solar has. Backup tends to be fossil plants. Ultimately energy density is a zero sum game for the environment and cost. In more detail:

On storage: Rough calculations show, if there were just enough Powerwalls to backup US peak demand for one hour it would require 10x the global annual mining production of lithium. And that’s just one hour. And that doesn’t include the electricity production.

On panel material required for production: It’s generally estimated that US power, with good transmission, would require enough solar panels to cover the entire state of Massachusetts. Most non solar advocates think it’s this square footage that’s important. But of course this can largely be put on built land or in deserts so that is a relatively moot point. In fact, I want to get solar panels on my roof. However the real concern is what does this look like in terms of material mining? In immense panel production factories? (which isn’t the greenest mfg process ever, likely one of the reasons it is largely done in China)

On mining and transporting material required: Mining is almost entirely powered by fossils, it has to be. And so is most transport. And so is recycling of metals. So the energy density of an energy source really is a zero sum game. If it takes a millionth the material for one source versus the other, that adds up.

On maintenance Then in maintenance, solar farms are truly “farms”- they require a lot of water to wash away dust to operate optimally. A states’ worth of water is significant.

On lifetime/end of life First of all the lifetime of a panel is very optimistically 30 years/for a nuclear plant 60-80 years, and for the UPower fuel in particular can be used and recycled repeatedly for about 70+ years.

On afterlife/recycling Then in recycling at end of life, and this is why I got so excited about nuclear as a somewhat hippie child growing up around oil companies in Oklahoma, solar is going to require a lot of energy (and fossil fuels or nuclear) to recycle, while nuclear can produce energy in recycling its fuel.

The main import, to me, is: what is the energy density of this energy, and if emitting, how much pollution? Coal is far more energy dense than wind, which is why humans evolved from windmills and wood to coal. But it’s so polluting which is why we are all working towards better sources, and the greater energy density (nuclear on order of 2M x any other source) that’s roughly 2M less trucks transporting, 2M less mining to do, 2M less recycling, etc. Thats more on the environment than pure cost like you are saying but the costs add up if the full life cycle is taken into account on both sides

★donttrustatoms 88 days ago

I am one of the UPower founders. There are two big stories here that most people don’t know yet: 1) that a fast reactor can be waste-negative, I.e. transform existing waste to energy. 2) a fast reactor destroys the long lived waste- instead of trying to store waste for a hundred thousand years it’s on the order of a hundred.

Both of these are critically important for existing waste but also having an emission free energy source with a closed fuel cycle. No other energy source is better than a hundred thousandth as energy dense and no other energy source could produce clean energy for its own recycling.
It’s obviously just a cool technology but more than that it’s amazing what that could mean for the environment and remote communities. Even for solar and wind materials mining, these remote mines generally have to burn tons and tons of diesel. That’s what we are trying to fight.

★donttrustatoms 88 days ago

So true. That’s exactly why this is so exciting. With a UPower generator, small communities or neighborhoods could have always on, emission free power for a decade.
and then, as you indicated, with enough clean power, individuals can create desalinated water or even extract water from air. They could cleanly power greenhouses even in the arctic. We could remove carbon from the air.

There is a separate very interesting. TechCrunch interview with Jacob DeWitte at the Disrupt 2015 conference

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.

James Hansen on antinuclear environmental groups

James Hansen

More disconcerting is the pressure from environmental organizations and the liberal media.

A year ago James Hansen published a “draft opinion” on the Columbia University website: Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power and Galileo: Do Scientists Have a Duty to Expose Popular Misconceptions? The PDF received surprisingly little attention considering the importance of the issues covered. I found the piece when I was researching thinking on how we could dramatically increase China US Nuclear Cooperation.

Here I’ll just highlight some of Dr. Hansen’s remarks on how he sees the workings of the anti-nuclear lobby. In his closing paragraphs What Can the Public and Scientists Do? he writes

(…snip…) I also recommend that the public stop providing funds to anti nuke environmental groups. Send a letter saying why you are withdrawing your support.

Their position is based partly on fear of losing support from anti-nuke donors, and they are not likely to listen to anything other than financial pressure

. If they are allowed to continue to spread misinformation about nuclear power, it is unlikely that we can stop expanded hydro-fracking, continued destructive coal mining, and irreversible climate change.

(…snip…) The public is unaware of pressure put on scientists to be silent about nuclear power. After I mention nuclear power I receive numerous messages, often heart-breaking in their sincerity as they repeat Caldicott-like unfounded assertions and beg me not to mention nuclear power. More disconcerting is the pressure from environmental organizations and the liberal media. Each large environmental organization has a nuclear “expert” (often a lawyer, not a physicist) with a well- developed script to respond to any positive statement about nuclear power. Liberal media follow precisely the “merchants of doubt” approach that the right-wing media use to block action on climate change; raising fears about nuclear power is enough to stymie support. The liberal media employ not only environmental organization “experts”, but former heads of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) appointed during Democratic Administrations.

These NRC talking heads are well-spoken professionals with a spiel that has been honed over years. And they have a track record. The NRC, despite its many dedicated capable employees, has been converted from the top into a lawyer-laden organization that can take many months or years to approve even simple adjustments to plans. It is almost impossible to build a nuclear power plant in the United States in less than 10 years, and this is not because an American worker cannot lay one brick on top of another as fast as a Chinese worker. Anti-nukes know that the best way to kill nuclear power is to make it more expensive.

Given this situation, my suggestion to other scientists, when they are queried, is to point the public toward valid scientific information, such as the “radiation 101” page written by Bob Hargraves. “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” by David MacKay lets the public understand calculations as in the footnote above, thus helping the public to choose between renewables and nuclear power in any given situation – there is a role for both.

Yes, a few scientists assert that renewables alone are sufficient, a position that gets applause. As for me, I would prefer to stick to science and tend my orchard. Unfortunately, the situation is different than it was in the 1600s, when religion pressured science. The urgency of now steals the luxury of silence. Galileo knew that the truth would come out eventually and no one would be harmed. So he could just mutter under his breath “and yet it moves!” That, I cannot do.

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 

Hans Rosling: Don’t use news media to understand the world

Ratchel Pritzker introduced me to this Danish TV clip. There is an English description and rough transcript at which publishes “Sweden’s news in English”. 

…When challenged for the source of his facts, Rosling replied:

“Statistics from The International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, nothing controversial.”

“These facts are not up for discussion. I am right, and you are wrong,” he concluded.

That quote has already made it to a line of clothing.I am right and you are wrong  Hans Rosling