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.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What is a Farmer?

When we hear the word “farmer”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?  I don’t know about the young but for us older folk it’s probably one of the classic images like Grant Wood’s iconic painting of a stern-faced guy with a pitchfork, or some jolly rubicund character astride a tractor.  Whatever, it’s a man who personally tills the soil, with his sons and maybe a hired hand, on land that he himself owns and probably his father and grandfather did too.

There was a time when this image was accurate.  A farmer was a man who was his own boss, responsible to no-one but himself, who would thrive, or not, as a consequence of his own skill and effort.  Such farmers made America.  Fourteen years after Independence, when our total population was less than four million, farmers made up 90% of the work force.  Half a century on, when Martin van Buren was president, the population had more than quadrupled, but farm families still accounted for more than half of it, and farmers still formed 69% of the work force.  When C20 dawned, the number of farms had swelled to nearly six million, and their average acreage was only 147.  In 1920, the total farm population stood at just over thirty million, an average of only five people per farm--in other words, less than a century ago, the vast majority of farms were still small family affairs.  And it was not until as late as 1935, within my own lifetime, that the number of farms in the United States peaked at nearly 7 million.

I’m not pretending it was utopia.  I’m not discounting what the Communist Manifesto called “the idiocy of rural life” or the narrow-mindedness and disdain for intellectual pursuits that all too often accompanied it (though there are some striking exceptions, like the farmer-poets of Iceland).  But what it meant was that the ship of state was kept steady by the independence and voting power of people who genuinely were free citizens in a free commonwealth.

But after that, the small family farm started a relentless downhill slide.  Today, while nearly 90% of farms are still family-owned, less than a quarter of them produce gross income of more than $50,000 (imagine how much is left when they’ve paid expenses).  Of the total acreage devoted to agriculture in 2012, a mere 10% was divided between 55% of farms, while more than 50% of the acreage was owned by only 10% of farms.  Only about 1% of the U.S. population is now engaged in agriculture.

The economic forces that operate in a capitalist society were, as usual, the cause.  Making big money in farming depends, as in other industries, on specialization and economies of scale.  Back in C19, farmers didn’t specialize.  They couldn’t afford to.  The infrastructure was such that they could sell their produce only within a radius of a few miles, so they had to grow, and/or breed, a little of everything.  You could go to a farm pretty well anywhere in the continental U.S. and it would be growing a range of things, mostly the same things.  Crops were small and diversified.

You can’t blame the GMO/pesticide kind of farming for the present very different state of affairs.  But the GMO/pesticide kind of farming is the inevitable consequence of that state of affairs.  To maximize profits and for economies of scale to kick in, you need monocultures—thousands of acres growing a single crop.  When you utilize acreage in this way, you may be increasing your profitability, but at the same time you’re expanding opportunities for pests, the weeds and insects that thrive best in whatever conditions suit that particular crop.  You inevitably come to depend on pesticides, because if you let the pests get on top of you, they’ll rip through thousands of acres and before you know it you’ll be in bankruptcy court.  The old type farmer might say, “Well my corn took a beating this year, but the cabbages did just fine.”  He didn’t have all his eggs in the same basket.

Trouble is, the more weeds and insects of the same species that you have, the greater the chance that some members of that species will get favorable mutations that give them resistance to whatever pesticide you’re using.  So by using pesticides you’re actually selecting in favor of the resistant weeds—you’re killing off their competition, the majority of the pest species who don’t have resistance.  But what else can you do?  You could go organic, but once you’re committed to a monocultural style, that’s economic suicide.  Seriously, have you ever tried using organic pesticides?  I have, and they just don’t work as well.  

So you up the ante, spray more and more often—all you’re doing is increasing the selective pressure.  You start looking for new and more deadly pesticides.  You’re on a treadmill and it’s very, very hard to get off.   Unless, that is, you’re prepared to change your whole way of life.

It’s easy for a small farmer to turn organic.  Because he’s diversified, he can always make up on the swings what he loses on the roundabouts.   The big monocultural farmer can’t afford to do that.

In our developed world, then, economic forces are the horse and GMOs/pesticides the cart.  But in the rest of the world, it is and will be the reverse, and GMO firms lose any claim they might have thought they had to the high moral ground.

We’ll take a look at how that works in my next post.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Monsanto, Lysenko--two birds of a feather?

Last night I stumbled on the following:

     “Imagine a biologist listed Lysonky as an acknowledgement on an evolutionary biology paper. His version of evolutionary biology was a causative factor in the Soviet famines.”

It’s in a blog called “Random Rationality” and the page has the elevating title, “Pigs, GMOs and Bullshit” (  I blinked.  What was this?  I’d never heard of Lysonky.  Quick, John, the Google!

Which seemed unpromising.  The first two hits referred to a town in Kentucky called Lyson (Lyson KY, get it?).  The next few were incomprehensible.  It wasn’t till more than halfway down the page that I found…Random Rationality!  That, and another Monsantoite blog that quoted RR verbatim were the only hits that listed Lysonky.  No-one called Lysonky seems ever to have existed.

Something’s wrong somewhere, I thought, for this is on Random Rationality, and no less an authority than Mary Mangan PhD has declared that “It’s hard to find this level of quality discussion on this topic around the internet, where murky misinforming fear-mongers overwhelm the discussions.”  And then I got it.   Of course!  The author meant Lysenko—the man who singlehandedly set back Soviet biology by thirty years. It was too convoluted a misspelling to be a typo—just Random Rationality maintaining its high level of quality discussion. Context: the author that Random Rationality was trying to skewer had acknowledged two prominent anti-GMO figures, Jeffrey Smith and Arpad Putzai, in her paper.  In other words, RR was trying to say that Smith and Putzai are modern versions of Lysenko: unscientific anti-GMO propeller-heads whose policies if followed would result in disastrous famines. 
But RR committed a second and far more damaging blooper in those two sentences.  The Russian famine was in 1932-33.  According to Wikipedia, “in 1928, Trofim Lysenko, a previously unknown agronomist, claimed to have developed an agricultural technique, termed vernalization, which tripled or quadrupled crop yield by exposing wheat seed to high humidity and low temperature.”  He’d have had to work pretty fast to cause a nationwide famine within four years of making his first claim.  It was only after the famine that he achieved the degree of power necessary before he could influence Soviet agricultural policy.  Indeed, far from “his version of evolutionary biology” being “a causative factor in the Soviet famines”, it was the famine of 1932-3 that caused his version of evolutionary biology to rise to the top.  The Soviets were desperate to resolve their agricultural crisis—Lysenkoism was a straw but they clutched it anyway.

It was very short-sighted of Monsantoites to bring up Lysenko.  But now that they have, let’s look at why the comparison is so bad for them.  There are far too many disturbing parallels between what Monsanto and Big Ag in general are doing and what Lysenko and his followers were doing, so many that you start asking yourself where the differences are.

Or even if there are any differences.

Lysenkoites acted to address a crisis.  Monsantoites are acting to address a crisis.
The crisis Lysenkoites acted to address was a shortage of food in the USSR.  The crisis Monsantoites claim to be trying to address is a shortage of food in many regions of the world.

The crisis in the USSR resulted not from inability to grow enough food but from purely political factors (in this case, attempts by Communists to collectivize agriculture).  The crisis in today’s world results not from inability to grow enough food but from purely political factors (in this case, a world politico-economic system that keeps a large part of the world in poverty and without a viable infrastructure).

Communist politicians could not tackle the real causes of the food shortage for ideological reasons (to do so would have put an end to their policy of ending private ownership).  Modern democratic politicians cannot tackle the real causes of the food crisis for ideological reasons (to do so might mean interfering with the free market economy to which they subscribe, something that the corporate interests--without whose money they couldn’t get elected—wouldn’t like at all).

Lysenkoism did result in what Wikipedia calls “marginally greater food production on the farms”.  Monsantoism may well lead to “marginally greater food production on the farms”—the jury’s still out on that one.

In the USSR, the party-controlled media “applauded Lysenko's ‘practical’ efforts and questioned the motives of his critics.”   In the USA, the corporate-controlled media applaud the Monsantoites’ “practical” efforts and question the motives of their critics.

Lysenkoism claimed to be scientific, but wasn’t.  Monsantoism claims to be scientific, but isn’t (much more on that in subsequent posts).

In the USSR, Lysenkoism produced many negative consequences, including an immense setback for the biological sciences and the persecution and even execution of its critics.  In the world today, Monsantoism has produced many negative consequences and will surely produce many more.  It persecutes its critics to the extent to which it is able.  Even if we leave aside (until Swanson et al. is tested) the lasting damage it has caused to health and to the environment, there is the damage it will do not only to agriculture but to the whole of culture if it isn’t stopped (see my next post).

A government in bed with Lysenkoites completed the collectivization of the USSR’s farms.  Governments in bed with Monsantoites will complete the industrialization of the world’s farms, and in so doing will irrevocably change for the worse the nature of life for billions of people.  You’ll see what I mean in the next post when we confront the seemingly simple question, what is a farmer?