Friday, February 6, 2015

The Kevin Folta Takedown: Vani Hari Vindicated!

Not what I'd planned for this post, but once again something came up that I just couldn't resist.

A while back, some students wrote to Vani Hari, aka "the Food Babe", and a prominent opponent of GMOs.  The students were critical of her writings and her position.  In response she wrote them a letter defending her work that was picked up by Kevin Folta, Professor and Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Gainesville.  Prof. Horta then (January 28) wrote for the Genetic Literacy Project " a piece that, GLC claims, "deconstructs Food Babe's response to students in  scathing fashion".  This "scathing" piece  was immediately spread through Monsantoite areas of the blogosphere with considerable enthusiasm.

If this is the Monsantoites' best shot, I thought, I'd better check it out.  And frankly I  deconstruction.  For the convenience of readers I have distinguished the three persons involved, Vani, Kevin and I, by printing Vani’s letter in normal script, Kevin’s comments in italic, and my comments in bold:

Dear Future Science Students in Training,

Thank you for your letter which I greatly appreciated receiving.
Here are a few guidelines for my work that I hope you will consider
First, synthetic ingredients in our food should be proven safe…

How can you prove something safe? Has anything from organic food production been “proven safe”?

Of course you can’t prove ANYTHING is safe.  But this is a two-edged sword, as we’ll see.  As for the second sentence, Vani Hari was talking about “synthetic” ingredients, so it’s not relevant.
…before they are put into our bodies.  The current system in the United States, unlike Europe, considers most chemicals innocent until proven guilty.  Absolute proof of harm is not a moral standard for protecting public health—that is for the realm of theoretical science only.  When there is significant evidence…
Where is the evidence? lists “over 1800 studies, surveys, and analyses that suggest various adverse impacts and potential adverse impacts of genetically engineered (GE/GMO) crops, foods and related pesticides.” has a shorter list of “pertinent papers”.  One of the most recent (and perhaps the most threatening) paper iGenetically engineered crops, glyphosate and the deterioration of health
in the United States of America”, by Nancy L. Swanson, Andre Leu, Jon Abrahamson and Bradley Wallet, Journal of Organic Systems, 9(2), 2014 ( 9_Number-2_Nov_2014-Swanson-et-al.pdf)

…we should protect the public from unnecessary risk.  As you know, most of the chemicals in our food supply have never been independently tested.

That’s a rather bold statement, seeing as food additives require FDA approval, and that requires testing.

Really?  “In practice, almost 80% of chemical additives directly—intentionally—added to food lack the relevant information needed to estimate the amount that consumers can safely eat in FDA's own database and 93% lack reproductive or developmental toxicity data, although FDA requires feeding toxicology data for these chemicals.” Source: “Data gaps in toxicity testing of chemicals allowed in food in the United States”, Thomas G. Neltnera, Heather M. Algera, Jack E. Leonard, & Maricel V. Maffinia, Reproductive Toxicology, Vol. 42, December 2013, Pages 85–94.  So Vani is absolutely right.  Btw, the impact factor of this journal is 3.024.
…for safety by a 3rd party or the FDA.  Can we join forces to insist they should be?
Meanwhile, I do take issue with your statement that there is no evidence that organic products are better for health.   Avoiding neurotoxic, endocrine disrupting, carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect) chemicals…
Good that a science expert might clear up those big words for the food science students.
As a professional linguist I can assure you that “teratogenic” is by far the rarest word in the sentence and is unlikely to be known to most students of food science or anything else but gynecology.  Explaining it is a courtesy to readers, not an excuse for an irrelevant putdown.
…is of course more protective of people’s health, not to mention the health of other species including the microorganisms both human and soil health depend on.  And studies have shown higher vitamin and mineral…
Notsomuch (sic).
So what?  Higher is higher.  Where’s the mistake?
…levels in organic products, due most likely to healthier soil with more beneficial bacteria and fungi.
Likewise I respectfully disagree with your statement that “GMO crops are proven to be substantially equivalent to native crops.  What GMO crops are proven to do is produce novel proteins that have never before existed…

Except in nature where they came from.

Specious reasoning.  Of course EVERYTHING, regardless of whether it is “natural” or “artifactual”, ORIGINATED in nature.  But some things have been additionally processed by humans, those are what Vani was talking about, and they include proteins.  Read Chapter 2, “GMO and Protein Engineering”, by Xiaoli Liu in Whitehurst, R. J., & Van Oort, M. (Eds.). (2010). Enzymes in food technology (Vol. 388). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.  Liu, btw, could not by any stretch of the imagination be dismissed as an opponent of GMOs, though he is far from unaware of the risks they involve.
…with which we did not evolve…
We didn’t evolve with 99.9% of the stuff we eat today!
Sure, if you live on processed foods.  Not all of us do.  And we evolved, almost until living memory, on foods produced by pre-chemical agriculture alone.
…and which are not required to be tested for safety…
Which would be true if there was no extensive safety testing done.
You can't have it both ways.  You asked in your first comment “How can you prove anything safe?” If the answer to your rhetorical question is the expected “No”, then it’s a waste of time to do safety testing and stupid to believe anyone who says “X has been tested for safety”.
…before being put into the food supply.  And how could the crossing of plant and animal genes into new species…
There are no animal genes in commercial crops.
Well, maybe Vani jumped the gun on that one.  Maybe that’s still in the pipeline, but they’re coming soon-- cabbages with scorpion genes (Kuo, G., & Jennings, L. (2014). What If? Genetically Modified Organisms and Synthetic Life Future Ethical Questions. World Future Review, 6(2), 130-142) for example.
…be “equivalent to native crops” or the same as plant breeding techniques?  This is a biotech PR line, truly.
It’s this thing called “science”.  Truly.
No it’s not.  It’s technology.  Science is about understanding how nature works, technology is about putting that knowledge to practical use.  True, technology is largely dependent on science, but the relationship is such that technology inevitably lags behind and, since science (like John Brown’s soul) goes marching on, technology sometimes gets stuck in an outdated scientific paradigm.  Which is what has happened over the GMO issue.  That’s far too vast and complex a topic to go into here, but I hope to blog about it many times in days to come.
An even bigger problem with GMO crops is they are being used primarily to increase the pesticide…
Actually decreased pesticide use, Vani.
Unwittingly Vani played right into this by failing to distinguish three things that are confused by almost everyone on both sides—a confusion that the smarter GMO supporters are quick to exploit.  The three are:
1.  Herbicides, which kill weeds.
2.  Insecticides, which kill insects.
3.  Pesticides, a general term including both herbicides and pesticides for anything that kills anything deemed a pest.
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.  But because commercial plants don’t get directly attacked, you can’t put herbicidal genes into plants, you can only make them resistant to herbicides.  You must go on spraying, and because continued spraying inevitably produces resistant strains of weeds, you have to increase it.  Thus since the introduction of GMO corn and soybeans, in the mere 20 years between 1992 and 2011, glyphosate usage in the U.S. increased from less than 20 million pounds a year to 250 million pounds a year (source: USGS National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program, Pesticide National Synthesis Project).  “Actually decreased pesticide use?”  No, for the most common herbicide, a more than tenfold increase due to GMOs.
…and herbicide load in the environment.  And these chemicals are leaching into food.
Like which ones?  Citation?
Here’s a couple:
Thongprakaisang, S., Thiantanawat, A., Rangkadilok, N., Suriyo, T., & Satayavivad, J. (2013). Glyphosate induces human breast cancer cells growth via estrogen receptors. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 59, 129-136.
Chłopecka, M., Mendel, M., Dziekan, N., & Karlik, W. (2014). Glyphosate affects the spontaneous motoric activity of intestine at very low doses–In vitro study. Pesticide biochemistry and physiology, 113, 25-30.
There is significant evidence…
Significant?  Citation?
How about
Gasnier, C., Dumont, C., Benachour, N., Clair, E., Chagnon, M. C., & Séralini, G. E. (2009). Glyphosate-based herbicides are toxic and endocrine disruptors in human cell lines. Toxicology, 262(3), 184-191.
Note: Toxicology impact factor is 3.884
For a broader view of pesticide effects on endocrine functions, see: Mnif, W., Hassine, A. I. H., Bouaziz, A., Bartegi, A., Thomas, O., & Roig, B. (2011). Effect of endocrine disruptor pesticides: a review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 8(6), 2265-2303 and over 100 references therein.
that one of them, Round-Up, is an endocrine-mimicking chemical.  In the theoretical scientific world one can wait for proof of causation—that is not a moral standard when it comes to protecting the public.  At the very least, the public has a right to know…
The non-scientific public can choose non-GMO product or organic.
Yes, once there is mandatory labeling, which GMO corporations have spent countless millions on trying to prevent.  I wonder why?
…when foods are engineered, which the food companies oppose.
In Europe they use the precautionary principle.
Not everyone can afford to, or wants to, live by your privileged threshold.
What is meant by a “privileged threshold”, and why is it supposed to be privileged?  Why are there people who”can’t afford to” live by it?   Sounds like there are also people who want to ingest toxic substances!
If there is significant evidence of harm, absolute proof is not required to act.  Sadly in our country, the burden is on the public to prove safety…
There is no evidence of harm.
Right, if you exclude all the sources I have cited plus hundreds more.  I might add this, from the EPA’s Technical Factsheet on Glyphosate (read it at:
“Health Effects Summary:
Acute: EPA has found glyphosate to potentially cause the following health effects from acute exposures at levels above the MCL: congestion of the lungs; increased breathing rate.
Chronic: Glyphosate has the potential to cause the following health effects from long-term exposures at levels above the MCL: kidney damage, reproductive effects.
Cancer: There is inadequate evidence to state whether or not glyphosate has the potential to cause cancer from a lifetime exposure in drinking water.”
(EPA definition: “Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG ) = The level of a contaminant in drinking water below which there is no known or expected risk to health. MCLGs allow for a margin of safety and are non-enforceable public health goals” [my italics, DB].  And even this only involves drinking water.  To the best of my knowledge there are not even ways to satisfactorily measure contaminant levels from other vectors--atmospheric, epigenetic, nutritional, etc.--let alone legal enforcement of MCLs).  Their "cancer" note has it right: damage is cumulative over the lifespan of individuals, and if there are multiple vectors the only way you can assess it is through epidemiology.  And that's where Swanson et al. comes in.
…instead of the food companies.  My readers and I are out to change that, and I hope you will join us to make a healthier and truly sustainable food system to truly feed the world.
Yours sincerely.

Vani Hari

Need I say more? Both parties were equally short on citations, but I think any unbiased observer will agree that Vani was closer to the truth.


  1. You are destroying Dr Folta

  2. Wonderful dissection. Dr. Folta constantly needs to be taken down several pegs and you have done a fine job of it. Thank you.

  3. Nice job,getting tired of listening to Kevin's diatribes and bio tech talking points!

  4. You are my new hero.

  5. Thanks for exposing him for the fraud that he is. Here is why: He cheers for the use of more pesticides, in every sense of the word. And that, I cannot abide.

  6. Excellent deconstruction an analysis! Thank you so much for clarifying the many glaring inconsistencies in Folta's responses, and expanding on those areas where he clearly obfuscates and deflects from the real concerns. I greatly appreciate your thoughtful analysis.

  7. Unfortunately Folta doesn't deal well with reasoned analysis. Thank you for this post