Monday, February 9, 2015

Response to Professor Folta.

Here is my response to Professor Folta's response (at
Dr. Horta’s words are in standard script, mine in italic.

Over at The GMO Smoking Gun, Professor Emeritus Derek Bickerton has prepared a response to my criticism of Vani Hari's letter to grad students.

My blog is, not GMO smoking gun. Failure to get this right has misled at least one of Dr. Folta’s readers already.

I would be disappointed too if I believed the nonsense.

My piece was not intended as an endorsement of everything Vani Hari has written, and indeed I have never read anything by her except her letter. I am as aware as Professor Folta that a lot of anti-GMO propaganda is as short on facts as it is long on indignation.  But then so is a lot of pro-GMO propaganda.  My disappointment stemmed solely from the fact that, in a piece with “a zillion hits”, I had expected something better than Professor Folta's critique.  Now he has graciously admitted its shortcomings, we can put this issue to bed.


Of course the first resort of those that don't have science-- try to discredit a scientist by immediately linking them to a company that has a negative image to many.

I use terms like Monsantoite indiscriminately with things like “pro-GMOer” or “GMO supporter” simply as a descriptor for anyone who supports the policies of Monsanto and similar firms.  In common usage, the suffix “-ite” refers to someone who supports particular actions or policies—like “Reaganite” means someone who supports the policies of Ronald Reagan.  Do you deny that you support Monsanto’s policies?  If I’m wrong about that, I’d be delighted to admit it. 

He's wrong in that "the current system in the United States" ... "considers most chemicals innocent until proven guilty."  That is the biggest lie I've heard all day.
Whether the statement is true or false is irrelevant, since I neither wrote nor endorsed it.


Anyone that knows anything about clinical trials can think of many instances where trials ended because of evidence of toxicity.  This is why they are tested for tolerance and side effects.  We understand how molecules work, can make predictions, and then carefully test them.  Chemical compounds that are acceptable for use on food must be re-tested and re-registered if they are used for other applications in agriculture!  There is incredibly stringent oversight. 

This is where virtually all pro-GMO writing misses the point.  Clinical trials may be as stringent as you wish--I don’t for one moment suggest the contrary.  But of their very nature they are and can only be concerned with immediate harm—rashes, digestive upsets or whatever symptoms occur within a short time-period of direct exposure.  There’s no way any test of this nature can say anything about any long-term cumulative effects acting over a period of years or even decades (like those of tobacco for instance—I was diagnosed with emphysema forty years after I gave up smoking).  The only way to reveal such effects is through epidemiology (just like the tobacco-lung cancer connection was first revealed), and even then epidemiology, alone, can’t prove those effects. 

As for your blanket dismissal of 1800 papers, I wonder how many of these you have actually read.

I will say nothing here about the Swanson et al. paper because it would take days.  If you’re prepared to answer my counterarguments, just keep reading smokinggmogun.  Explaining the significance of that paper was, after all, one of the main purposes for which the blog was created.


The authors of this work note in the Abstract and Introduction that all food additives must be tested and shown to be safe by the FDA and/or manufacturer.  It says it right in the first sentence:

“In the United States, chemical additives cannot be used in food without an affirmative determination that their use is safe by FDA or additive manufacturer.”

I will ignore for now the obvious conflict of interest when that determination is made by the additive manufactures.  As I pointed out above, the main point is that ALL such tests can do no more than detect IMMEDIATE harm, and as the harm that anti-GMOers are complaining about is not immediate but long-term, this sentence is irrelevant.  Before citing the abstract, Dr. Folta would have been wise to take notice of the take-home message in its last sentence: “A program is needed to fill these significant knowledge gaps by using in vitro and in silico methods complemented with targeted in vivo studies to ensure public health is protected.” (My emphasis)
In other words, the FDA itself admits that its database lacks “significant knowledge”. What stops Dr. Folta from admitting as much?


I interpreted Hari's comment as an explanation from on-high, which is probably correct, as she refers to Ph.D. graduate students as "Future Science Students in Training".  It is a reminder of her arrogance. 

As the students’ original letter shows, Ms Hari’s form of address was NOT “a reminder of her arrogance”.  Here’s how they opened it.
“Greetings Ms. Hari,
We are writing to you as a group of students, scientists-in-training if you will.”
Okay, so all she really did was to clumsily or carelessly mangle their self-description.  Big deal.  


There is no evidence that the EPSPS enzyme, the gene that encodes it, or the Bt protein have consequences outside their targets at levels encountered.  Zero.
I never stated anything about these two examples.
Next. This is really boring.
For the first time I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Folta.  So I’ll skip ahead to his two most egregious errors and then close.
Between 1992 (where there were no GM crops) and 2011 (where 90% of soy, corn, cotton, sugar beets and canola are resistant to herbicide) there OF COURSE will be an increase in glyphosate use!  

“Ms.Hari: An even bigger problem with GMO crops is they are being used primarily to increase the pesticide…
 Dr.Folta: Actually decreased pesticide use, Vani.”
In other words, pesticide use decreases when that suits his argument but increases when it doesn’t.
The reason Hari and Bickerton combine insecticides and herbicides as "pesticides" is so they don't have to admit that insecticide use is decreasing. That's kinda deceptive, but common.
Either Dr. Folta didn’t read what I wrote or he deliberately misrepresented it.  I didn’t admit insecticide use is decreasing?!  I wrote
 So it is logically possible for insecticide use to decrease while herbicide use is increasing (or vice versa of course).  And that is exactly what is happening, and what inevitably must happen with GMOs.  The logic is simple.  Insects attack plants directly, weeds indirectly (by simply competing for water and nutrients).  Therefore, you can put insecticidal genes into plants (those of Bacillus thuringiensi, for example) and thus decrease the need for spraying.”
In other words, I not only admitted that insecticide spraying can be decreased with GMO crops, I even explained WHY it can decrease, as well as (subsequently) why it MUST increase with herbicides.  And far from “combining insecticides and herbicides as pesticides”, I carefully and explicitly distinguished the three terms.  It’s the Monsantoites in general (not just Dr. Folta) who confuse the terms so that they can wriggle out of admitting that HERBICIDE use is increasing.
Can misinterpretation go further than this?
I had hoped for a serious debate on GMOs and their possible shortcomings.  I could still be convinced if anyone came up with arguments that were both cogent and civil.   
Alas, Dr. Folta’s response is neither.  One cannot conduct a civil debate with someone who uses expressions like “That is the biggest lie I've heard all day”, “do I need to really waste my time on this?”, “Okay, I have to do something else tonight”, “Duh!”, “What a stupid, stupid, comment”, or “a cheap facsimile of the real thing”.  One cannot conduct a cogent debate with someone who carefully avoids dealing with points made, while doubling down on previous blanket assertions and dismissing without serious discussion any work that disagrees with his position.

GMO defenders in general (not just Dr. Folta, it would be unfair to single him out) should take note that if they preach only to the choir, they will soon find that their congregation, those as yet uncommitted or uncertain what to believe, have all left.  In other words, they are seriously damaging their own cause.   You cannot influence people by treating them like idiots—you just alienate them and ratchet up the polarization another notch.

I therefore see little point in continuing this particular debate.  However, in subsequent posts on my website, which I re-emphasize is not the GMO anything but, I will defend Swanson et al. in a lot more detail, and will welcome any pertinent comments Dr. Folta cares to make.


  1. Who is Dr. Horta? It is hard to take your critical commentary/rebut seriously when your response is careless from the outset.

  2. Yeah, well, it was about 1.30 a.m. when I posted. Good for you--it saved you from having to seriously look at what I said

  3. I'm sorry, Dr. Bickerton, but I don't quite get what you're saying with "Error 1." I'm afraid I can't see the self-contradiction. In the first part he was talking about glyphosate, a single pesticide, increasing. In the second, overall pesticide use decreasing. It would be like saying that apple consumption is increasing and overall fruit consumption is decreasing is contradictory. (I hope that made sense.)

    1. It did. What happened was, I was allowing for Food Babe's sloppy use of language. Obviously she was talking about herbicides--no-one in their right minds would accuse crops with Bt and the like of increasing spraying. But precisely because of the sleight-of-hand with the three terms pesticide, herbicide and insecticide that I complained about, Kevin was able to pretend that she was referring to pesticides in general. So that was what I should have complained about, not self-contradition. Thanks for pointing this out.