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.

Scott Andes: Why California’s GMO Labeling Proposition Should be Defeated

I was planing to write an article on California Proposition 37. Now I don’t need to, because Scott Andes has done the job nicely with his essay at ITIF’s Innovation Files.

To frame the discussion we need prof. Kevin Folta’s tabulation of the available methods for altering the DNA of a plant. I recommend that you read Kevin’s article before continuing. Click the image for the full-size table:

Here are the ways that plants are genetically altered.  Note that all of them are acceptable to most people, despite having no idea what the heck is being changed, and the huge number of genes affected. 

Scott Andes explains that the activists promoting GMO labeling have no scientific basis – this is nothing like Trans-fat labeling. This is about politics. As David Tribe put it, this is about the financial interests of “Big Quacka and Big Organic“. And let us not forget the Trial Lawyers, which I discussed here: California proposition 37: Trial Lawyers, Bootleggers and Baptists

Here’s selected snippets from Scott Andes’ essay: 

This November, California voters will be asked to decide whether food that has been ‘genetically modified (GM)’ should come with a special GM label.  Proponents of proposition 37, or the ‘Right to Know’ initiative, argue that ‘in a democratic, free-market society, consumers get to make informed choices about what we eat and feed our families,’ i.e., a GM label will help consumers make informed choices. Sounds simple enough. What could possibly be the downside to a small label that presumably enables greater consumer decision making?

First, labels such as this are never about education and open consumer choice, but about limiting people’s interest in/exposure to? a harmful substance. Labels are one of many public policies that aim to ‘nudge’ consumer behavior away from a product. As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein outline in their well-known book Nudge, consumers are fickle, uncertain, and look for cues to make decisions. Thaler and Sunstein use the example of putting fruit first in cafeteria lines. Because people irrationally fill up their trays with things at the beginning of cafeteria lines, one way to ‘nudge’ people to eat healthy is to put healthy food first. Mandatory labels do the same thing. Cigarette labels do not exist to inform people that smoking leads to lung cancer—everyone knows that—they exist to nudge a consumer to think twice before purchasing a pack. The same thing goes for other mandatory labels such as Trans fat.

The question becomes, what makes an ingredient or food processing method warrant a label?  Obviously, there are many examples of products that are sold without detailed consumer information. Take generic brands. Beyond knowing a product is ‘canned tuna’ or ‘diced tomatoes’ consumers know little about the producing company or their method of production, yet we readily allow such products because they are cheaper and we are ensured that generics undergo the same health and safety requirements as name brands. Additional identifiers on generic goods add nothing  to informed decision making so we do not require them. Therefore, arguing, ‘consumers have a right to know,’ implies there is something about GMOs that make them more like Trans-fat than generic canned tuna. So what is the distinction?

The regulatory litmus test for mandatory labeling in the United States is the health impact of an ingredient. Nutritional content labeling helps consumers evaluate, for example, the number of calories and vitamins in a product while more explicit labels help consumers avoid unhealthy ingredients. Labels containing such useful, accurate information are required by law. Under the current regulatory framework, in order to justify a GMO label, GMOs would need to have different health or nutrition implications for humans than that of conventionally grown food.

While there are many ethical debates surrounding GMOs, one corner of the debate that science rightfully owns is whether or not GMOs have a unique health portfolio. The evidence clearly shows they do not. According to the Mayo Clinic, ‘A recent study examined the past 50 years’ worth of scientific articles about the nutrient content of organic and conventional foods. The researchers concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are comparable in their nutrient content.’ The WHO states, ‘GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.’ And in a literature review for congress, the GAO writes, ‘To date, GM foods have proven to be no different from their conventional counterparts with respect to nutrients, allergens, or toxicity.’

If GMOs do not differ from conventional foods in terms of nutrition then why the call for a label? In part it’s because of a public misunderstanding that genetic engineering is creating unprecedented and novel organisms. As my colleague Val Giddings has noted, genetic manipulation is commonplace throughout the food system by conventional and organic farmers. What separates traditional transgenic methods  from genetic engineering is the use of recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology—a laboratory method of coordinating genetic material from multiple sources—to  confer beneficial traits to an organism. rDNA technologies are unique in that scientists can target one specific gene and monitor its impact on an organism, unlike traditional hybridization that blends two organisms in a completely unpredictable and largely uncontrollable grab-bag process.

The vastpreponderance of scientists agree that using GE rDNA techniques actually reduces the risk of surprises or undesirable results compared to traditional methods because through rDNA  one can actually see the genetic effects of a foreign gene, while traditional methods are only able to observe the phenotype implications (what a plant looks like). (…)

(…) Marchant, Cardineau, and Redick show in their book on GMO labeling that when the predicted cost of labeling is included in the questions, consumers overwhelmingly reject mandatory labels. More importantly, the reason so many consumers support labeling is because  believe GMOs are harmful. Responsible public policy should not promote this misconception but try to correct it. When cigarette labels were first debated most consumers believed they were unnecessary because people did not understand the health consequences of smoking.  Science was further along than public opinion. Similarly, with GMOs, science is ahead of public opinion.

{snip snip}

Definitely read the whole thing. Also be sure to read Hank Campbell The Mercenary Intent Behind Proposition 37’s GM Food Labeling

Kevin Folta: thoughts from a “Shill For Monsanto”

Since the anti-GMO activists have no science-based arguments they typically resort to ad-hom attacks or anti-corporation rhetoric. University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta is weary of this nonsense

(…) As an academic research scientist active at the public interface, I enjoy communicating about complex science topics. With regard to transgenic (GMO) crops, if you read my blogs, comments left online, or listen to audiences in public discussions, you’ll see that they ultimately reach a common point.

Someone always indicates that Monsanto is my employer. Like clockwork.

I’m still waiting for the check. Actually, I never worked for them, consulted for them, or received a dime from them. As a university scientist my funding is all public record, so this may be verified.

Here is why the throw-away “you work for Monsanto” or “shill for Monsanto” comment harms the anti-GMO movement:

1. It immediately says that you are willing to fabricate information in the absence of evidence.

2. It says that you are finished with the conversation, that nothing I communicate is valid in your opinion.

3. It shows that you are willing to try to influence other like-minded people with disinformation.

4. It shows disdain for the peer-review process and scientific method.

5. (least importantly) It disrespects a scientist’s real position as a public liaison, volunteering time to explain science. We’re used to that from dealing with climate change deniers and Creationists, no big deal.

Do read the whole thing.

Kevin Folta: Atomic Gardening- the Ultimate Frankenfoods

University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta wrote the following sharp, very pointy little essay. By comparing transgenic technology to mutation breeding Kevin illustrates clearly what the anti-GMO minions are truly after – it is “who makes the product”, not what the product is nor the process by which the product was created. These snippets will motivate you to read the whole thing:

 gf-l.gif A powerful radioactive source in the center of this field hammers surrounding plants with gamma rays. This treatments induces random damage DNA that results in new genetic variation.

If you hate transgenic (GMO) technologies, just wait until you hear about mutation breeding!

(…) Actually many cultivars have been produced using this technique. Barley, wheat, corn, bananas, grape, tomato, sunflower… at least 3000 induced-mutant plant lines in the Mutant Variety Database. Some are ornamentals, so not all food crops.

Transgenic techniques come under fire for many reasons. Let’s hold mutation breeding to the same criteria and compare the two techniques.

table1.JPG How do transgenic (GMO) plants compare to plants derived from mutation breeding for commonly raised criticisms?

What about labels, organic cultivation, growth in the EU? No problem if the plant’s DNA has been scrambled by radiation or chemicals!

table2.JPG Angry citizens demand to know what is in their food… unless it is mutation bred, then not so much.

For intellectual consistency, mutation breeding of crops must be considered much more random, unpredictable, un-assessable and imprecise. There is no question that genetic changes have been made, as traits of interest are selected based on visible traits, such as resistance to drought/cold in wheat. There is no easy way to assess what additional genetic baggage comes along with that new trait.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see any problem with mutation breeding. The techniques are proven successful at producing useful genetic variation that results in improved plants. Awesome. As a scientist, it is difficult to reconcile how this method is freely accepted, while transgenic techniques are harshly criticized. Or is it?

Maybe it simply points out that the scientific and intellectual arguments against genetic alterations are not the real concerns– they are just strawmen for the actual political, business or social agendas. The science of transgenics is a convenient place to cultivate misunderstanding and fear. But somehow the same fear mongers miss mutation breeding. It tells us a little about the real agenda. It is not about the process or product, but rather, who makes the product.

Kevin Folta: What is “Genetically Modified”? and the Frankenfood Paradox

University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta is a remarkable resource for science-based information on agriculture and (surprise!) plant science, which includes genetics. The personal-time-generosity of scientists like Kevin really facilitates understanding at least the key issues in these policy debates.

One excellent example of bad policy is the misguided California GMO labeling referendum. For background, in the captioned post Kevin provides a “keeper reference” that outlines the six methods by which plants come to exhibit new traits: What is “Genetically Modified”? and the Frankenfood Paradox. I just want to reference this excerpt: 

Jennifer Mo @noteasy2begreen asked for a concise reference for what Genetic Modification really means. To me, it means, well, modifying genetics.  It is when something is added to the genome, that is DNA added (or deleted or changed) in a cells genetic material.

This is not the definition used in popular discussions.  Genetic Modification in the common vernacular means a gene (or genes, usually a couple) that are added to an organism to confer a valued trait.  This requires a lab and recombinant DNA technology.

But this is what I call the Frankenfood Paradox.  Transgenic modification in the lab is the least invasive genetically, it is the most well understood, yet it is the one most shunned by those that oppose biotech.

Here is a table that might help.  Click to enlarge.


Here are the ways that plants are genetically altered.  Note that all of them are acceptable to most people, despite having no idea what the heck is being changed, and the huge number of genes affected. 

Here is the paradox!  What you will find is that transgenic technologies are much more understood, predictable, traceable and safe.  Fewer genes are moved and we know what the genes do. We can determine where genes land in the genome and where/if/when/how much they are expressed. However, these  are not allowed in organic cultivation and people want to label them. The acceptable methods move or alter tons more genes in random ways that cant be traced or even remotely understood.


Please check out Kevin’s post and associated comments. Kevin has a popular magazine article in preparation — stay tuned. Among Kevin’s science outreach efforts is the offer to make a personal appearance in “Getting Science to the Public“. Excerpt:

To paraphrase the late Carl Sagan, while our society is increasingly dependent on science and technology, we know very little about science and technology. The reasons are many. In today’s society anti-scientific rhetoric swirls around us on such important topics as stem cell research, climate change, GMO-food safety, and many others. Understanding science is difficult. 

But scientists are part of the problem. We are taught to do science and communicate with scientists, not necessarily with the public at large. To combat this I have participated in many lectures and debates on topics of interest.


If you are interested in hearing about bringing a scientific perspective to your group’s discussion please contact me. I’m particularly interested presenting to Sunday Morning Science church groups, anti-GMO interests and those seeking the real evidence on climate change.