Jimmy Botella: Waiter, there is a gene in my soup!

Our second nomination today for Best Biotech Talks is Jimmy Botella, Professor of Plant Biotechnology, School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland. Jimmy has no pretensions, he just arrows right into the kernels of mum-fear that are exploited so profitably by the Natural Organic Foods industry:

Have you ever seen the real banana? Do you know how strawberries come about? It might come as a shock to you, but what you regard as ‘natural food’ might not be natural at all, and perhaps genetically modified (GM) food is not as bad as you think. At TEDxUQ, Jimmy Botella busted some of the fallacies we have regarding the food we eat every day, and gave us a sneak peak of what GM food actually is, and where it sits in our current society.

We think you’ll agree “This is a keeper”.

Big Organic mounts Asymmetric Warfare attack on public scientist Kevin Folta

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

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

I am especially outraged at this harassment for alleged lack of transparency. I have been reading Dr. Folta since at least 2012. Why? Because when I undertook to understand the risks and benefits of modern agriculture my first task was to identify scientists that I could trust. My doctorate is Computer Science – with no training in molecular biology or horticulture. But I know how to find expertise in other fields. I find some candidate scientists that look to be credible, then put some hours into Google Scholar looking for papers and citations. It’s not rocket science to discover the researchers who have the respect of their colleagues. Then over time it’s a matter of looking at the quality and logical consistency of arguments.

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

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

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

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:-)

Organic marketing: Not truthful, often misleading

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

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

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

It’s time for it to stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plant Science Expert Panel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, is a thoroughly reliable source on development economics and development policy options.

In a recent review of Roger Thurow’s new book, The Last Hunger Season, Paul Collier asks: “Why is Africa so dependent on imported food, despite being the least urbanized and most land-abundant continent?” Though the answer is simple, African agriculture is not sufficiently productive, the solutions are more complicated and controversial.

Though new seed technologies and commercialized agricultural practices are likely the best ways to produce more food and overcome hunger, Collier notes that these approaches don’t currently attract much support from African governments, NGOs, and development agencies. Among the concerns is that a switch from smallholder to commercial agriculture would lead to an influx of migrants to cities that are not prepared to accommodate them. But as Collier suggests, this transition looks inevitable.

This, to my mind, is the more fundamental long-term failing of African development: The children of smallholders should, and will, pour into cities. So it is vital that cities become engines of opportunity: That is what cities are for — high density is the handmaiden of economic activity. Millions of young people could be productively employed in Africa’s cities, so the key policy issue that governments and development agencies need to address is what has been impeding urban success — and it isn’t the low productivity of smallholders.

Collier does not get into detail about what is impeding urban success but governance is no doubt near the top of the list. Policy approaches to accommodating the influx of urban residents in cities in the developing world will have to account for the limited capacity of many governments to enforce the rules. This is a theme in Solly Angel’s new book, Planet of Cities. Angel’s approach to planning for urban expansion recognizes that urban growth is fastest in the parts of the world where governance is relatively weak. He envisions a public strong role in planning for urban expansion, but one that is narrow enough to have a reasonable chance of being executed by capacity constrained governments.

Source: Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization; NYU Stern Urbanization Project Brown Bag Discussion Series.

A Marriage of Two Agricultures & Vermont, the Stupid State

Jason Sibert interviews Raoul Adamchak co-author with geneticist Pamela Ronald of one of our favorite books Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Jason introduced the interview with the story of the Stupid State Vermont, the first US state silly enough to:
  • Shut down Vermont Yankee, the nuclear plant providing >70% of Vermont electrical generation.
  • Attempt to ban GMOs by mandating labeling.

Jason wrote:

Just three weeks ago, Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. To understand just how feverish the debate over GMOs has become, consider that when the bill was passed into law, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin compared the issue to other state laws banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. “Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, ‘Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: We want to know what’s in our food,’” Shumlin declared.

The framing of a consumer’s “right to know” has proved to be a powerful political instrument. Around the country, state legislatures are considering labeling GMOs, with the goal of many to ban them. At the same time, the environmental benefits of organic farming are touted as the better alternative, as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited. But is the whole argument misguided? And do genetic engineering and organic farming both have something to teach us?

Please read Jason’s short interview which leads with this smart question: Can organic and biotech be considered converging technologies?

Yes. They both aim for an ecologically sound form of agriculture and both aim to reduce toxic inputs. For example, both organic farmers and farmers of pest resistant GE crops use a nontoxic insecticide called BT.

Organic farmers spray BT, whereas farmers that grow BT cotton don’t need to spray because the bacterial gene encoding is built into the crops genetic code. BT is a favorite tool of farmers because it does not harm mammals and is specific to pests and that is why organic farmers have used it for over 50 years.