Monday, November 14, 2016

The Future of FrankenFoodFacts

To my spouse and all my readers,

The past couple of days have been interesting, to say the least. I'm writing this blog a few days after the US elections, where in an incredible upset, a candidate that believes vaccine cause autism and does not believe in climate change was elected into office. There's a lot of other things about the president elect that concern me, but for the sake of this blog post, I'm going to keep it science focused. 

I write this article, genuinely struggling to figure out how to move forward as a science communicator. That people are in echo chambers, that experts are ignored, and that narratives have a strong appeal are things that I have long known, but now more than ever I struggle to figure out how to break through all that. And I'm fairly certain that it's not in the writing of this blog. Because if anyone wants to find out about GMO safety, all the information is already available to them. There is little that I can say that hasn't already been said.

In my draft blogs, I currently have a post entitled "Brexit and Organic Consumers Association". In the post, I was outlining the elements that these two movements have in common: appealing to people's fears and shunning expertise. I had written: "So it surprises me to no end that the public feels that expertise in certain topics is no longer relevant. And I don't know what to do about it, because in the opinion pieces I've written outlining the importance of experts and consultants, and the irony of having taxpayers fund their work and ultimately reject the suggestions that these experts make, I get comments from individuals accusing scientists of being "know-it-alls" or of being arrogant. Here's an example:
To some extent, I understand. An individual has an opinion and wants that opinion to be heard and respected. But we aren't all well versed in everything. I don't believe to know the solution to economic problems any more than I know how to build a deck for my back yard. I feel comfortable deferring to experts on both topics, not just the latter.

The problem is that when we turn to the wrong people for advice, they often provide incorrect information. Team Brexit said that the opinion of experts were not relevant. Bernie Sanders recently spoke about the dangers of GMOs and featured Jeffrey Smith from the so-called "Institute of Responsible Technology", whose lack of scientific knowledge has been highlighted in the past. Donald Trump has said that vaccines cause autism even though they don't." 

Rather than listening to experts, be they farmers speaking about agriculture, economic experts warning us about tax policies, scientists yelling at us about climate change, or military experts writing about a candidate's rhetoric, what ends up happening is that we believe in opinions that validate the biases we already hold.

The individuals who read this blog are already inclined to believe its content. I started this blog to document my journey as I learned about transgenic crops. With time, as I felt more certain about the safety of these crops, the tone and focus of the blog changed and I considered myself more of an advocate for GMOs. I will continue using this space to document my learning, but I don't think I'll continue promoting it. The people who don't believe in GMO safety aren't going to read it and I don't have the resources or the time to promote this blog so that it enters their sphere.

I'm not quitting science communication. Far from it (although a HUGE part of me does want to quit, to focus on my career so that I can further increase my income and my kid's success, and I'm working very hard on quieting that voice). Here's what I think I'll be doing going forward:

  • Focus on educating kids before their minds need to be changed. 
    • To this end, I'll be working more closely with Biology Fortified to create resources and tools for educators
  • Work with Moms4GMOs to try to get our message into new outlets and publications, so that we can decrease our reliance on social media as the primary method to broaden reach.
    • Social media bubbles don't pop very easily. The more we rely on social media, the more we're just preaching to the choir. 
    • The stark reality that social media has contributed extensively to the decline in factual information, and that speaking to kids and educators wouldn't necessarily rely on social media makes this option even more appealing.
I'm more than happy to answer questions and review papers, so if you have any, please send them my way. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

I Expose My Family to Carcinogens Everyday And So Do You

Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate, a common herbicide, as a probable carcinogen. I've been asked how it is that I can ingest "a known carcinogen",
"The Globally Harmonized System sign for carcinogens,
 mutagens, teratogens, respiratory sensitizers
and substances which have target organ toxicity." Wikipedia
so I'm going to take the time to outline what the IARC does, the difference between the IARC's ranking and risk, and why I expose myself and my child to known carcinogens everyday (a shout out to @mommyphd for editing this post).

First, it's important to note that the IARC's categorization of glyphosate contradicts statements from many other organizations including the European Food and Safety Authority. Second, the IARC's ranking has been controversial due to potential conflicts of interest. Third, to explore the data behind the IARC’s categorization, I highly recommend this blog post by Dr. Andrew Kniss. For the sake of simplicity, I'm writing this piece assuming that the IARC's ranking is correct and ethical.

What is the IARC?

The IARC is an agency of the World Health Organization and it reviews data regarding a substance's carcinogenicity to identify hazards. Their job is to answer these questions: Is there any evidence that substance X causes cancer? How much evidence is there? Based on the strength of data, not the likelihood of harm (the actual risk), it categorizes substances as "probably not a carcinogen", "not classifiable", "possibly a carcinogen", "probably a carcinogen", and "a known carcinogen". The IARC has only ever classified one substance as "probably not a carcinogen". If you’re not sure about the difference between hazard and risk, here’s an extreme example: is a meteor striking me a hazard? Yes… It is. I’d probably die or get injured if it struck me. Is it a risk? No. Apparently, there’s only a 1 in 1,600,000 chance that I’d get hit by a meteor in my lifetime and die.

That is the extent of the IARC's role: to determine the level of evidence for whether a substance has the potential to cause cancer. It doesn't tell you the level of risk or what you can do about it. That's why the IARC's classification is so confusing: it lumps processed meat in the same category as smoking. But does that mean that your risk of getting cancer from smoking two packs a day is the same as your risk of getting cancer by eating a pastrami sandwich? No, it doesn't. Does it tell you if your risk is the same if you smoke a cigarette once in your lifetime or if you eat 3 pastrami sandwiches a day? No, it doesn't. For that, we need to assess the risk of the substance and that is often done by public health organizations.

The Carcinogens We Encounter Every Day
Whether you're aware of it or not, every day you're choosing to expose yourself to at least one known carcinogen. That's because UV rays from sunlight are carcinogens. One of my son's favorite lunches is a sliced ham sandwich. And that's a carcinogen. There are many other possible and probable carcinogens that we knowingly expose ourselves to: my husband and I have cell phones, we eat red meat and french fries (the latter have acrylamide), and some of our lotions have aloe vera extract. Even hot beverages that we drink were recently classified as “probably a carcinogen”.

But thanks to public health officials that have assessed the risk and provided guidelines on mitigating risks in my life, my kid uses sunscreen when he's out in the sun and we try to stay in the shade. We don't eat red meat every day, and there are no public health guidelines on avoiding aloe vera extract because the evidence for actual risk of carcinogenicity is weak.

What About Glyphosate? What Should I do?

In the case of glyphosate, the World Health Organization has stated that the amount of glyphosate residues found in our food is unlikely to be carcinogenic. In other words, the risk to my family is negligible. The risk to pesticide appliers may be higher and worker safety organizations may provide recommendations specific to pesticide application for such individuals to mitigate their risks.

So many things around us are potential hazards and could possibly kill us some way or another. However, it’s more important to understand the level of risk that something poses in making decisions about how to keep ourselves and our families safe. It’s also important to note that we cannot avoid hazards: even something as simple as eating a salad, be it organic or conventional, has the risk of a foodborne illness. What’s important is that we make informed decisions based on genuine risk, otherwise we live our lives unnecessarily fearing our environment and our food. We could live cooped up inside our houses, in a "chemical-free" bubble with UV-reducing windows or shut-out curtains, but that's not what our public health officials recommend. Following their recommendations ensures that we reduce the risk for the things that can harm us by using sunscreen, eating plenty of properly washed fruits and veggies, getting our vaccinations on schedule, using seat belts and having car seats installed properly, etc. We should focus our efforts on following guidelines put forth by our public health officials and medical institutions, rather than creating boogie-men out of low-risk items in our environment.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Farmers and Scientists Are People, Too

Last month was the spouse's 20th high school reunion in his home town of Plainview, Texas. I'd been to Plainview a few times to visit his family and friends, but never over the summer. He had always said that I wouldn't enjoy the heat, so we had always visited in December.

So it was my first time visiting the state in temperatures above 100ºF (for all you awesome metric people, that's about 40ºC). It was also my first time at a reunion. Before flying out, the spouse encouraged me a few times to try to organize interviews for my "Better Know a Farmer" series, however, it was not possible given the duration of my trip.

Needless to say, Plainview, Texas is very different from any place I've lived. There used to be a very large meat processing plant for Cargill, which shut down in recent years due to the difficulty of maintaining cattle in the increasingly dry climate. Currently, one of the largest employers is a Walmart distribution center. But agriculture is at the heart of the area: the ads in the airport were for field irrigation systems and for agricultural technologies. The dust bowl is more than just a chapter in history books.

View from our plane when landing in Lubbock, TX
I got to chat with people between the various events for the reunion. Many them held jobs associated with ag, ranging from farmers working the land to individuals repairing equipment on ranches. They shared their challenges and aspirations. They spoke about biotech crops and how these have helped them. They told me about the drought, how it has impacted them and what they've lost. It made me think a lot about how stress resistant crops could help such regions in the not-too-distant future, and how such crops will become increasingly more important.

To most of us, farming is a concept in a text book. It's the lyrics to Jason Aldean's "Amarillo Sky". But to the people I met, it's their livelihood and it's their day-to-day. It's a source of pride and a legacy that has been handed down to them and they hope to pass on to their children.

I was recently reminded of Mommy, PhD's "#ScientistsArePeople" campaign, which launched to highlight that we scientists are diverse, everyday people: we aren't drones intent on taking over the world, motivated exclusively by money. Sweeping statements that paint scientists as a uniform group of evil individuals couldn't be farther from the truth. Similarly, painting farmers as a group of individuals who are intent on poisoning the earth and dousing crops in pesticides couldn't be more inaccurate.

I'm not naive enough to believe that everyone follows the rules or that everything is rainbows and unicorns. I've worked with people that have been genuine douchebags and whose car tires I dreamed of slashing. But such individuals are far from being the majority. Most people I have worked with want a job where they can make a contribution to society and earn fair pay. I believe scientists and farmers are generally no different.

I want you to think carefully about your home: how you want to keep it safe, how you want to pay off your mortgage or your lease, and how you want to have a healthy environment for you and your kids/pets/friends. Would it make any sense for you to use chemicals that are not designated for household-use in this space or use more than instructed? Would it make any sense for you to introduce compounds that would knowingly damage the building you're handing down to your kids? Then why on earth would you believe that a farmer would do this to the lands where they work and live? As kids ran around at the roller-skating rink at the family event for the reunion, I wondered why anyone would believe that a farmer is any different than themselves.

There are different fora where you can engage with farmers and ask questions. I recommend Food and Farm Discussion Lab and Ask The Farmers (both are on Twitter). I encourage you to ask questions, rather than making assumptions about their practices and work.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sources of Information about GMOs

Oftentimes when I start a discussion about GMOs with someone online, it turns into a discussion about sources. The person that I'm having the discussion with doesn't trust my sources. I, in turn, don't trust theirs. Last week, I finally sat down to outline why I don't trust some of the most popular anti-GMO sites.

The basis of my argument is this: if a site regularly provides incorrect information on other topics, why would you believe that the information they provide on GMOs is correct? If the site does not accept the scientific consensus on vaccines, why would you believe its editors/authors when they say that there's no consensus on GMOs? Of course, if you believe that vaccines are not safe and are full of toxins, then that's a whole other story. If you believe that the CDC is set out to reduce our population, then there's a lot more that we'd have to discuss.

So here are some of the sites that I covered. I made the graphics for my Facebook page and you can find them there, too.

1) Natural News

Natural News' coverage of the Zika virus highlights the "click-bait" nature and fear-driven basis of their content. The headlines below are from January 29th through February 11th, yet in that short period of time, the theories provided are all over the place and even contradict one another, as if the editors were trying to figure out which generated traction: vaccines, GMOs, government conspiracy, and finally, Monsanto. This last story trended for several days on Facebook. To make matters even worse, Natural News sells organic insect repellent that can protect you from the GMO-mosquitoes-that-have-been-vaccinated-with-Monsanto-pesticides-in-a-government-funded-study for the mere cost of $14.95

2) The Organic Consumers Association

The OCA frequently writes about the alleged dangers of GMOs. However, they also have many articles about the "dangers" of vaccines, including the thoroughly debunked myth that vaccines are linked to autism. The OCA also touts the benefits of homeopathy, although its efficacy has also been debunked.

The OCA's support of such ideas highlights the fact that they are not a reliable source of information on scientific arguments.

3) March Against Monsanto

The March Against Monsanto organization has some noble goals: decreasing the influence that companies have in our political system, fighting to do what's best for our planet, and others. In the past, I've outlined how I share many of these perspectives. However, when it comes to the actual science, March Against Monsanto is truly lacking. Not only does the organization fight against vaccinations, but it shares content about "chemtrails" and the dangerous notion that HIV is a man-made virus. These ideas, which can be classified as nothing but conspiracy theories, highlight that the organization's articles about science are not evidence-based.

4) Dr Mercola

Dr Mercola is an osteopath whose website is one of the more popular sources of information about alternative medicine. He also sells a lot of supplements. In fact, most of his articles tie in to a product that he sells on his website. However, many of the claims in his articles are untested, and the FDA has issued several warnings. Most recently, he settled with the FTC for up to 5.3 million dollars for claiming that his tanning beds reduced the risk of cancer. PLEASE read this news article, which highlights the dangerous nature of some of his claims. It also points out the vast resources that Dr Mercola has accumulated with his untested, unproven, online empire.

In summary, if a website:

  • shares conspiracy theories
  • posts articles with conflicting information about popular topics with no explanation on why the information conflicts
  • claims that the only item that will help you is the item that it sells
  • shares information contrary to what the major health and scientific organizations believe to be true
then why would you believe such a website?

Monday, July 4, 2016

NaturallySavvy's "Top Ten Reasons to Avoid GMOs"

A few days ago, I found myself reading a list entitled "What's So Bad About GMOs? Top Ten Reasons to Avoid Them" (archived here). I first stumbled upon when they were demonstrating the "toxic" properties in tampons by performing an experiment worthy of a 3rd grade science fair project, in efforts to scare the bejezuz out of you and convince you that their organic femcare products were much better.

I'm going to look over this Top Ten List and figure out if there's any truth to it. I've always tried to have a positive tone in what I write, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to fail miserably today.

(NOTE: I started writing this post back in November, soon after half of the people where I worked had gotten laid off, including myself. Yes... #ScientistsArePeople who get laid off, in this case due to corporate restructuring. Needless to say, I had a lot of pent up rage, so this was probably a healthy way to funnel all that energy. In retrospect, the post seems a bit rage-y, but I'm still going to go ahead and publish it, in the hopes that someone will look for an article debunking the NaturallySavvy piece. If you're not in the mood to read snark, stop reading after bullet #1. Consider yourself warned.)

Where's the syringe in the corn??
Or the creepy scientist that always hovers over GMO corn?
1. Are they safe? The article from NaturalSavvy says that although seed developers claim that GMOs have met safety requirements, "long term studies haven't been done on their impact to the human body." Seed developers are not the bodies that claim that GMOs have met safety requirements. The FDA, USDA, and other regulatory bodies are. Just because the writers at NaturallySavvy feel that long term studies are needed doesn't make it so. In the past, I've reviewed why long term human studies are difficult to conduct. Briefly, since GMOs are substantially equivalent to their non-GMO counterparts, there is generally no mechanism by which there could be an impact on the human body. Tests for allergenicity are conducted to ensure that the protein that is introduced is not an allergen. Most people expect GMOs to be tested like drugs, but drugs are designed to cause a change in the human body. Since drugs are altering something in humans, it's important to know the side-effects that they may cause and whether or not they're causing the anticipated effect (i.e. is it better than placebo). In contrast, GMOs are designed to be equivalent to their non-GE counterparts. GE crops which ARE designed to impact human health, such as vitamin-A enriched rice (i.e. Golden Rice), should be tested in humans.

2. Known health risks: The article from Natural Savvy states: "What we do know is that when genetic modification happens, genes are forced to express certain traits (including pesticides). To do this, the scientists "turn on" all the gene's components, which can mean releasing allergens that would normally not be expressed in a non-GMO variety. Experts like Jeffrey Smith suggest this is directly related to the rise in health issues." For the first time in this blog's history, I will ask: "WTF??" What does that string of random, science-y sounding words even mean? To express certain traits, scientists turn on all the gene's components? And somehow turning on "gene components" means that this would release allergens? And then the article has the major cojones to say that Jeffrey Smith, a person with no scientific training, is an "expert"?? In case you aren't familiar with my blog's history, I spent over half a year reading the section on Health Risks from Jeffrey Smith's website and failed to find a single one that was true. Anyway, I can't debunk this because that word salad is actually verbal diarrhea of the Chipotle variety. 

3. Heavy use of toxic pesticides and herbicides: The article claims "By design, genetically modified seeds require pesticides and herbicides." That is inaccurate in the sense that some genetically modified crops designed to withstand herbicides. At the same time, no GMO requires herbicides: farmers can technically choose not to apply any. Most importantly, there are GMOs that have nothing to do with pesticides/herbicides, such as the Rainbow papaya, which was designed to be resistant to the ring-spot virus, and saved Hawaii's papaya industry. And what about the Innate potato, which resists bruising and browning and will consequently cut back on food waste? Transgenesis is a method used to generate crops and lumping all the crops generated with the technique into a single category is disingenuous. It is important to note that there are non-GE crops made to resist pesticides as well, such as Clearfield seeds (made through mutagenesis) or SU canola (made by gene editing).

4. Pesticides and digestive health: The article claims that pesticides "negatively impact the gut bacteria of humans" and points to Jeffrey Smith's movie as a evidence. A movie does not evidence make. Show me the data. Unfortunately, documentaries are a narrative and are not peer reviewed. The film makers can choose to portray only one story/perspective in that narrative, and as such, they are often highly biased.

In the past I've written on the topic of GMOs and the gut microbiome, and have reviewed several papers on the topic. None of the papers point to negative health impact. But don't let that get in the way of the outstanding evidence in the movie!

I'm losing all hope for this Top Ten list from Naturally Savvy...

5. Cancer: The top ten list from Natural Savvy states: "Both pesticides and GMOs have been connected with an increased risk of certain types of cancer. There are additional health concerns too including reproductive issues, autism and even heart disease." The reference in that statement is to a news article from 2012 that covers the publication of a scientific article which has since been retracted due to its inherent crumminess and republished elsewhere. Many scientists and organizations have written about the notorious Seralini study, which was a 2-year feeding study on rats claiming that the GM feed and low levels of glyphosate cause tumors and other health impacts. Despite claims from activists that the findings from the paper were ignored or that institutions were paid off to refute the paper, Seralini's paper led to several in-depth reviews and studies (see information here from the EFSA and information here about the GRACE project).

As for the sentence about alleged reproductive issues, autism, and even heart disease: no, no, and what???

6. Environmental impact: Naturally Savvy claims: "GMO crops and their companion pesticides and herbicides wreak havoc on the environment including polluting air, water and soil. Glyphosate—marketed by Monsanto as the herbicide Roundup—is in effect, an antibiotic, which can destroy soil quality and thus impair the plant's nutritional value as well." You know, all the farmers that I've spoken to say that they keep buying GM seed year after year because it destroys their soil quality and consequently, the crops. They don't care if the crops have lower yield due to the soil that's been destroyed. They just want to leave their mark in the world by contributing to the environment's demise.

Seriously, how is it possible that this article has 15K facebook likes??

7. Superbugs and superweeds: Naturally Savvy claims: "Despite the claims that pesticides and GMO crops can relieve farmers of crop-destroying insects and plants, the opposite is showing to be true. Farmers in the Midwest are now battling superbugs and superweeds resistant to pesticides. They're damaging crops and farm equipment and costing the farmers more money in having to apply heavier doses of toxic pesticides." Pesticide and herbicide resistance is not unique to GMOs. It's evolution in action. There's even a paper describing how pulling weeds by hand can give rise to superweeds. Thinking that GMOs are to blame for pesticide/herbicide tolerance narrows the scope of the issue and deters efforts of finding genuine solutions to the problem. But hey, let's not let facts get in the way of NaturallySavvy's top ten list!

8. Patent issues: "At the core of the GMO industry is the corporate ownership of seed and seed patents. Companies like Monsanto are notorious for suing small farmers for saving seeds or if GMO crop drift pollinates on their land." Farmers moved away from saving seeds quite some time ago, primarily due to hybrid vigor, meaning that the seeds that farmers buy perform much better than the seeds they replant, and it's not just for GMOs. Additionally, farmers have plenty of options on the market. If they do not like the contracts that biotech companies such as Monsanto make them sign, then they can find different seeds. Monsanto has taken farmers to court for having broken this contract. Additionally, such contracts are not unique to GMOs, and farmers have been sued by companies other than Monsanto for replanting non-GMO seeds. As for lawsuits due to "GMO crop drift" pollination, I rebut your pure and utter BS with this lawsuit: OSGATA vs Monsanto, where Organic Food and Seed distributors together with anti-GMO activists tried to invalidate several of Monsanto's patents due to the possibility of a lawsuit due to inadvertent contamination. You read that correctly. Organic Food and Seed Distributors took Monsanto to court. When the judge asked them for evidence that Monsanto might sue them for inadvertent contamination "The appellants concede that Monsanto has never specifically alleged that they infringe its patents, nor threatened suit against them. Nevertheless, the appellants contend that in light of Monsanto’s evident history of aggressive assertion of its transgenic seed patents against other growers and sellers (144 suits and 700 settlements), they must assume that if they infringe those patents, they will also be sued—even if they only infringe inadvertently." Just to make that absolutely clear, Organic Food and Seed Distributors could find no evidence that Monsanto has threatened to sue them due to inadvertent contamination, and based their entire case (which was thrown out) on the possibility that Monsanto might sue them.

See what I did there, NaturallySavvy? I provided an original source that is relevant to the argument.

9. Corporate protection: "Earlier this year, the U.S. government passed a bill nicknamed the "Monsanto Protection Act." In essence, it grants biotech companies immunity from the courts, even if a judge determines it's unlawful to plant GMO crops, the companies can do it anyway." It's a scientific fact that if you add "Monsanto" to anything, it becomes 1048 times scarier. How do I know this? Well, truthiness is on my side and my gut tells me so.

You know what? I'm not even going to bother with this one, since the act already expired. If you're curious about it, read this article that goes over the legislation.

10. Prolific presence: "Whether or not GMOs are safe has yet to be determined, yet every day, millions of Americans eat them unknowingly due to the lack of labeling requirements. Are you a lab rat? Don't you at least have the right to know what you're eating?" You know what, NaturallySavvy? I think that your readers have the right to know when they're being deceived. Because when the leading scientific organizations in the world state that GMOs are no more risky than traditionally bred crops and when the scientific literature overwhelming supports the relative safety of GMOs, then a scientific consensus is formed. You're trying to scare your readers into buying whatever organic, non-GMO nonsense is for sale on your site. And no. I'm not a lab rat, any more than you're a lab rat for eating organically grown pluots. How long were those tested? Pluots have genes from plums AND APRICOTS!!! That's NOT natural! It took scientists decades to make pluots because these frankenfruits don't happen naturally. Don't you have the right to know what variety of pluots are in your organic Kashi? Oh, the horror!!! WON'T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!!!

And NaturallySavvy? Despite having infinite combinations of scary words at your disposal and the ability to interject science-y words to give your list the aura of truthiness, your outline of arguments #1 and #10 on your list are the same. You should consider having a serious chat with the author of the piece. Wait... The author is also the Founder and "Chief Passionista" of your company??

No comment...

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Institute for Responsible Technology's "10 Reasons to Avoid GMOs" List

Hello kind readers. Today I'm reviewing a post from the "Institute for Responsible Technology" entitled "10 Reasons to Avoid GMOs". For those of you who are not familiar with the IRT, it's a "charitable organization" run by some guy: it's not a government institute, it's not affiliated with a university, research facility, or hospital. And when I say that it's run by some guy, that's not an exaggeration: its founder is not a scientist and doesn't have a background in science, to the best of my knowledge, yet he's a leader in the anti-GMO movement, and information from his "Institute" is often used as authoritative, scientific evidence of GMO harm.
How can you protect your family from the dangers
of GMOs unless you buy the IRT's book???

Before even starting, I noted that there are no hyperlinks to references or even a list of references at the bottom of the IRT's post. But, since I've seen this list pop up with greater frequency, I'll still read the list and try to figure out what it's all about.

1) GMOs are unhealthy. The website claims: "The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) urges doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for all patients. They cite animal studies showing organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, accelerated aging, and infertility. Human studies show how genetically modified (GM) food can leave material behind inside us, possibly causing long-term problems. Genes inserted into GM soy, for example, can transfer into the DNA of bacteria living inside us, and that the toxic insecticide produced by GM corn was found in the blood of pregnant women and their unborn fetuses."
  • The AAEM is an organization that believes that WiFi, "toxins" in vaccines, and water fluoridation are harmful. So not exactly the place I'd turn to for medical advice. In contrast, literally hundreds of scientific organizations have stated that crops generated through transgenesis (i.e GMOs) pose no greater risk than traditionally bred crops.
  • I have never seen a study stating that genes from GM soy have transferred into the DNA of bacteria living inside us. Note that the website says "can transfer". Here are a couple of similar statements of my own: "you could die in a sharknado". "Genetic material from a boa constrictor could transfer to a rat that it ingests, creating a hybrid ratstrictor". You get the idea... All my hypothetical scenarios have as much evidence to support them as the statement about GMOs from the IRT,
  • Regarding the study finding Bt in the blood of pregnant women, that study has been found to be deeply flawed, because the method the authors used to detect Bt was made for plant cells, not mammalian ones.
The IRT continues to highlight the dangers of GMOs by pointing out correlations: since GMOs have been introduced, the number of chronic health problems has increased. But there's no evidence that one causes the other. Could it possibly be that our population is just living longer? Or that we're getting better at diagnoses of many disorders/diseases?

Summary: No credible evidence is provided demonstrating that GMOs are unhealthy.

2) GMOs contaminate - forever. Just when I thought the IRT couldn't get more dramatic, it goes on to say: "Self-propagating GMO pollution will outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste." The IRT claims that this genetic pollution is affecting all of us, particularly organic farmers. I've never heard of a farmer losing organic certification in the US/Canada due to "GMO contamination", maybe because there was such a thing as "cross-pollination" before GMOs existed and farmers who are concerned about this take proper measures to prevent it from happening by establishing appropriate buffer zones with surrounding farms. So unless the IRT can establish that GM pollen is some sort of super-pollen that spreads further or pollinates more easily or that the pollen will survive for all eternity, then I can't really buy this argument. To support my statement, here's the USDA's latest report on coexistence of GM crops and non-GM crops. I know!! Isn't it crazy that the organization that certifies organic farms actually has guidelines on how organic farmers can coexist with GM crops?? The report also contains information on surveys conducted by the USDA to determine if farmers have experienced economic losses due to GMO contamination. However, the report doesn't distinguish or examine how these losses occurred: was it due to cross-pollination in the field, contamination during harvest, during transportation, or storage, for example? Despite the flaws in their numbers, it's still incredibly low: only 87 farmers experienced losses due to GMO contamination between 2011 and 2014 in 20 states surveyed. 

3) GMOs increase herbicide use. The website claims "Between 1996 and 2008, US farmers sprayed an extra 383 million pounds of herbicide on GMOs." The amount of herbicide used isn't a very useful statistic. Is it because we have more fields dedicated to herbicide tolerant crops? Was there a decrease in other herbicides? Were the other herbicides harsher on the environment and have a more toxic profile? The article goes on to say: "Roundup, for example, is linked with sterility, hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer." There's no evidence for any of this. The EPA examined whether glyphosate is linked to hormone disruption and found "no convincing evidence" to support it. Regarding Round-Up and cancer, "a Joint Meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Panel of Experts on Pesticide Residues in Food and the Environment and the World Health Organization (WHO) Core Assessment Group on Pesticide Residues (JMPR)" recently stated that "glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet".

4) Genetic engineering creates dangerous side effects. The article claims that by "mixing genes from totally unrelated species, genetic engineering unleashes a host of unpredictable side effects". There are several papers that have done comparisons on unanticipated consequences/changes of GMOs and traditionally bred crops (see here, here, and here). In each case, the transgenic crop had fewer unanticipated changes in DNA and/or RNA than the traditionally bred crop. To read more about these studies, see this post. So perhaps the IRT is concerned about the ratstrictor or something, otherwise I'm not sure what they're referring to. 

5) Government oversight is dangerously lax.
 The paragraph explains that GMO safety studies are not required. Technically, this is true. All GMO safety studies and submissions are voluntary. However, to date, I don't know of any GMOs that haven't gone through FDA approval. As such, the voluntary testing of GMOs is only on paper, not in practice: in practice it is mandatory. Surprisingly, the FDA's process for approving GMOs is one that was meant to be applied to all novel crops. This op-ed from Nature explains: "[The FDA] recommended through a guidance document — not a regulation — that developers of foods derived from 'new plant varieties' undergo a voluntary consultation process with the agency. This guidance did not exclude non-GE new plant varieties. In practice, however, developers of conventionally bred foods seem not to have undergone such consultations, whereas the FDA has been notified of more than 100 foods derived from GE plants (see" This "voluntary but not really voluntary" aspect of the regulatory process of GMOs is one that, I believe, should change because it can be exploited by organizations such as IRT to imply that safety studies are not conducted. Not only is the FDA involved, but EPA and USDA-APHIS are also involved in the regulatory process, depending on the trait. However, Biotech Regulation in US is being restructured to make it simpler, and to adapt it to newer crop modification techniques.

6) The biotech industry uses “tobacco science” to claim product safety. IRT's point here is to suggest that the only scientists claiming that GMOs are safe are those that are paid off by large companies, whereas independent scientists know that GMOs are dangerous. They draw a parallel between scientists who claim that GMOs are safe and scientists who claimed that tobacco is safe. I was curious as to how the scientific consensus on tobacco safety was obtained, and I found this paper (H/T Skepticalraptor's post on the topic). To generate a scientific consensus on a topic, there needs to be enough research to support a conclusion. The paper I've linked to highlights that it took decades to generate a consensus on whether tobacco is safe or not: first, it took a few years to observe that there was an increasing incidence of lung cancer, and it wasn't until the 50's that case-control studies were conducted associating cigarette smoking with cancer. After several such studies were conducted, the medical organizations of the time issued statements highlighting the association. The tobacco industry defended the safety of their products and funded research to demonstrate this, but this stands in stark contrast with the safety of GMOs: the scientific consensus on GMOs is supported, not only by the industry, but also by dozens of reputable scientific organizations around the globe. The scientific consensus on cigarettes was not upheld by the tobacco industry. Basically, if the tobacco industry can't pay off the WHO to say that smoking cigarettes is safe, then neither can Monsanto. You can read more about the consensus on tobacco, how it was opposed, and how researchers within the tobacco industry spoke out here.

7) Independent research and reporting is attacked and suppressed.
 IRT quotes an article from Nature from 2009 about how scientists who show the harm of GMOs are attacked or are censured. Here's the full article from Nature and I'd like you to read it to see just how much cherry-picking was done by IRT. The article highlights how research on GMOs that generate results suggestive of harm elicit two responses: from the anti-GMO camp, the information is used to campaign against the crops and to drive policy; from the pro-GMO camp, there is swift criticism of these papers to highlight any flaws there may be. The article interviews scientists who have been criticized and those who conducted the criticism and provides perspectives from both sides. The pro-GMO camp basically states that papers on controversial topics need to be reviewed more carefully, since they can and are used by activists to further their agendas, even if the papers are heavily flawed (which is ironic, because I'm reviewing a piece from the IRT which does exactly that). As for IRT's claim that research is being "suppressed", I'll need a citation for this.

8) GMOs harm the environment. The IRT claims: "GM crops and their associated herbicides can harm birds, insects, amphibians, marine ecosystems, and soil organisms. They reduce bio-diversity, pollute water resources, and are unsustainable." However, there's no evidence to support this. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently released their report reviewing GMOs and stated: "Overall, the committee found no conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems." The NAS' answer is more nuanced, provides many examples of why there's no conclusive evidence, and I encourage you to review the document.

9) GMOs do not increase yields, and work against feeding a hungry world.
The NAS report states that GMOs have not really increased yields, although the IRT doesn't use this document to make this statement. It's important to note that none of the GMOs that are currently on the market were directly designed to increase yields. The NAS' summary states that, although there is disagreement on whether the current traits on the market have improved yields, there's no data to suggest that the increase in yields that farmers have observed due to GMOs are different from the increase in yields that farmers have observed in conventional farming. However, from my perspective, not having seen an increase in yields isn't a reason to shun GMOs: transgenesis gives agronomists the ability to create crops designed to withstand stresses or be more efficient, and using such traits we may see increases in yields. The IRT makes similar statements regarding current GMOs and their ability to feed the world. Again, none of the GMOs on the market are currently fortified, but transgenic crops have the potential to help reduce malnutrition and there are a few projects that have made lots of headway.

10) By avoiding GMOs, you contribute to the coming tipping point of consumer rejection, forcing them out of our food supply. Ah... We finally get to the heart of the matter. The IRT doesn't want to just label GMOs, but to get rid of them entirely from the food supply. The IRT makes this really convenient, by making a handy dandy shopping guide for people who want to avoid GMOs. And guess who sponsors the guide?!? ZOMG! Food companies that want you to buy their food!!!!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Things I Have in Common with GMO-Opponents.

Dear Angry Person Commenting on my Post,

I hear you. I genuinely do. You're telling me that corporations are destroying the environment. That nature is being harmed. That greedy CEOs don't care about anything other than lining their pockets. That politicians are turning a blind eye to the suffering and destruction around them because those same CEOs are keeping them in office.  You're angered by your inability to exert change: that our democracy is being hijacked by the highest bidder. I understand where you're coming from. You're frustrated with the undue role of industry in our political and social systems, with the blatant corruption that exists in society, particularly when corporations can get away with so much.

You think that I'm ignoring you. But I'm not, and I agree with you. I, too, am concerned about the future, about my children and grandchildren: will they have clean air? Will they have enough water? And why doesn't anyone seem to care about this?? I, too, am aghast by the ruling on Citizens United vs FEC. I, too, feel powerless when our elected representatives stand idly by while nature's clock is ticking.

You're frustrated by the fact that the laws we need in society to protect our environment are being ignored because some politicians are ideologically driven to believe that climate change isn't real. These ideologies are fueled by corporate lobbyists, so it's natural that you don't want corporations to be "tinkering" with our food.

You think that I'm a cold, mechanical scientist who is letting this happen. That I'm ignoring the evidence that we're being slowly poisoned because I, too, am part of the system that is letting this destruction happen. You think that GMOs, which I am defending here and are made by the same companies that you distrust so strongly, are the newest evil that they have unleashed on our planet.

I hear you. But here's where I believe we disagree.

We have societal challenges that we'll be facing in the next few decades: global warming and population growth. Both of these bring with them additional challenges that will impact agriculture even further: more plant borne illnesses, more land dedicated to homes/roads/industry, deepening droughts, etc. As we confront these problems in agriculture, we need every tool at our disposal.

You're trying to single out a crop modification technique when the lines between these modifications are incredibly blurry since the end result can be the same. For example, there are herbicide tolerant crops generated by transgenesis (i.e. GMOs) but there are also herbicide tolerant crops generated by mutagenesis. In trying to draw these lines, you may eliminate a powerful, precise, and efficient tool that we may need down the road to help us face these challenges.

You claim that we should have access to an economical, healthy, and safe food supply. But what if in the process of trying to achieve that goal you eliminate a tool that could have actually helped you achieve it? Take for example citrus greening: if we don't find a solution for it in the next few years, our citrus industry may get decimated. There's quite possibly a genetic modification that could address citrus greening. Should we remove the solution from the table just because of the way the modification was introduced?

In the course of writing this blog, I've been put in the uncomfortable position of defending companies
whose actions I may not always agree with, but have developed the transgenic crops that I support. And I do this because I have read no credible evidence to suggest that there's a risk that is uniquely associated with GMOs. I do this because the scientific consensus is strong on the side of GMOs. This is the same scientific consensus that you defend when you speak of global warming. Why do you trust one and not the other? Why do you trust the scientific institutions on one and not the other? If the gas and oil industry is orders of magnitude larger and could not buy the consensus on climate change, then what leads you to believe that the agricultural industry has somehow bought a consensus on GMO safety?

You and I are not so different. We care about many of the same things. The elimination of GMOs is not a silver bullet that will somehow solve the issues in our society. We should focus our efforts on the real issues and not a convenient scapegoat that has been placed in front of us.


A Mother of a Four-Year-Old Who Believes that She Has a Moral Responsibility to Protect the Planet for Future Generations

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Review of "GMO Dangers: The Facts You Need to Know"

Hi everyone!!! I was on vacation for the past month, which is why you haven't heard from me here. We went to Prague and to Haifa in Israel, both of which were awesome. I was able to keep up with my Facebook page and share lots of GMO news from the past month, which included a report from the National Academy of Sciences declaring GMOs to be as safe as conventionally bred crops and a statement from the Royal Academy calling for a review of the cultivation ban in Europe. It's been a busy month!!

I also got an email asking me to review this article entitled "GMO Dangers: The Facts You Need to Know", which is the topic of today's blog.

Why is there a person in a hazmat suit holding up an ear of corn
as if it were a stick of dynamite? Is the corn radioactive?
Is hazmat dude allergic to corn and has to wear a filter?
I know!!! The kernels are somehow in a Fibonacci Sequence,
and the hazmat dude knows it's worth a fortune and doesn't want to
damage it.
The article, written by Dr Jonathan Latham, starts by outlining his credentials and how his concerns about GMOs grew over the course of his career as he realized the complexity of biological systems. I think that a scientist would have to be very arrogant not to share this perspective. Nature is beautiful in its diversity and, as a scientist, I'm awed daily at the complexity and elegance of the smallest of proteins. The fact that a bunch of different molecules make something as amazing as my kid is astounding. But that doesn't mean that we should halt progress merely because nature is complex.

Dr Latham goes on to highlight that the risk assessment process in the regulatory process is flawed and that the data is often messy. I happen to agree with this, as do many others, as evidenced by the fact that US Biotech regulations and agencies are being restructured. I hope that Dr Latham provided his input on how these should be improved during the open comments period. But the fact that the risk assessment process is flawed doesn't mean that GMOs are dangerous, particularly when compared to other crop breeding processes.

Dr Latham then starts outlining the science-based "Dangers of GMOs". I've categorized each "danger" according to the trait. Italicized phrases are from the article.
  1. Regarding the Bt trait, which is an insecticidal protein produced by some GMOs. The gene is from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium. It's very important for the next few bullet points to keep in mind that the insecticidal protein that is produced by the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium is a common pesticide used in organic farming. So any concerns about the safety of the protein should also be a concern for produce grown using organic standards. 
    1. "Bacillus thuringiensis is all but indistinguishable from the well known anthrax bacterium". The only possible reason this sentence could have been written is to create fear. A protein that is encoded for in a GM crop is not equivalent to the organism it came from. It's like saying that a wire is the same thing as a car, and then trying to scare you into not using wires by telling you numbers for car accidents.
    2. "Another reason is that Bt insecticides share structural similarities with ricin." This is altogether a stupid argument. It's like saying that eating mushrooms from the grocery store are dangerous because there are poisonous mushrooms out there.
    3. "A third reason for concern is that the mode of action of Bt proteins is not understood." In such a case, why is it used in organic farming? Much is understood about the proteins. Of course, we could always learn more, but that doesn't mean that it's dangerous.
  2. Regarding herbicide tolerance traits
    1. "This resistance is an invitation to farmers to spray large quantities of herbicides, and many do." Why on earth would a farmer spray any more than is needed and decrease their profit margin? But I can imagine that some farmers may not follow proper guidelines, but then how is this an issue unique to GMOs when there are non-GMO herbicide tolerant crops?
    2. "Glyphosate has been in the news recently because the World Health Organisation no longer considers it a relatively harmless chemical." Actually, the most recent statement from the World Health Organization says that: " ... glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet."
    3. A lot about the dangers of glufosinate. I haven't written about glufosinate crops because there doesn't seem to be much hoopla over them. My guess is that it's because a) it's not made by Monsanto (it's made by Bayer) and b) they aren't used as much. Looking at the EPA's data, only ~3 million pounds of glufosinate were used in 2013, whereas over 250 million pounds of glyphosate were used the same year. The section about the dangers of glufosinate resistant crops sound eerily similar to criticisms of Round-Up Ready crops: that we're eating small amounts of these pesticides that are absorbed by these plants over time and that these trace amounts will negatively impact our health. There's no evidence to this. The World Health Organization has also examined evidence to determine the likelihood of a health impact from long-term exposure to trace amounts of glufosinate, and has stated that it is "unlikely to present a public health concern".
  3. A terrifying paragraph about how a viral gene is possibly being made in GMOs.
    1. Except it's not. The paragraph is based on this paper. Basically, when a transgene is added to a crop's DNA, a segment of DNA known as the promoter region is also added. A promoter dictates when and where a gene should be turned on. Its DNA sequence isn't part of the protein that's made. If you think of the protein coding part as a factory, then the promoter would be the loading dock that dictates when things can go into the factory and is also the place where things that go into the factory get assembled.  The paper highlights that one of the promoters that are commonly used in transgenic crops could possibly encode for a small portion of a known viral gene, because the DNA sequence of the two have some similarities. The paper does computational analyses to determine how similar the promoter is to the viral gene, and what would happen if the viral gene actually got made. They computationally examine questions such as: is the protein structure similar to known allergens? Is the protein structure similar to known toxic proteins? Their conclusion is that, if the viral gene is ever made, it is unlikely to be an allergen and unlikely to be toxic. Most importantly, the paper states that the likelihood of the viral gene ever being made is low.
  4. The "real" reason for GMOs
    1. Folks... Farmers around the world have been fooled. GMOs pose no benefit to them!! Dr Latham highlights that the real reason that GMOs exist is because companies want intellectual property rights!! In fact, farmers must have been hypnotized into purchasing GM seeds season after season. Why else would they buy them, right?
Dr Latham ends with the following: "I left science in large part because it seemed impossible to do research while also providing the unvarnished public skepticism that I believed the public, as ultimate funder and risk-taker of that science, was entitled to." I find that hard to believe. If you genuinely believe that the public is being put at risk due to GMOs, why wouldn't you stay in science and demonstrate the risk/harm? It's like saying "As a water safety researcher, I left Flint because I was skeptical about the government's claims of water safety and I believed that the taxpaying citizens of Michigan deserved better."

Anyway, those are all my thoughts on this post. When reading posts such as "GMO Dangers", I think that it's really important to distinguish between the potential or possible dangers, and real evidence of harm. If you look through websites like the Institute for Responsible Technology, you'll note that every other sentence about GMOs is about how they "may" or "could" cause harm. Such articles/website use alarming language to instill fear. 

Feel free to comment below!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Better Know a Scientist: Weed Scientist Dr Lynn Sosnoskie

People: we’re in for a special treat today. One of my favorite tweeple, Dr Lynn Sosnoskie, has graciously accepted a Q&A for “Better Know a Scientist”. Dr Sosnoskie is a scientist at UC Davis’ Plant Science Department where she does research on weed control. She has a PhD in weed science from Ohio State and has done research at University of Wisconsin, as well as the University of Georgia.

I did a bit of crowd-sourcing and asked on my private Facebook profile what questions my friends and family would like to ask, and there were some excellent recommendations. My comments throughout reflect the fact that we installed fake grass in a good chunk of our yard after two trucks full of mulch created a weed-free, yet visually unappealing and fire-hazardous yard.  So here we go!

Q: Weed research seems to be a fairly random field to study. I don’t think I’ve ever met a kid or high-school student who dreams of becoming a weed researcher when they grow up. What led you to this field?

Dr Lynn Sosnoskie
A: It’s a long and random story, but I’ll try to sum it up nicely. As a biology major (during my undergraduate degree) we took a Botany class field trip to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. I fell in love with the place and, more importantly, fell in love with plant science. Following my graduation, I was lucky enough to intern at Longwood and a few other gardens/arboretums in the greater Philadelphia area. While attending a pest control lecture on dandelions, I just knew that I wanted to go further into the plant protection arena. After a brief detour (my MSc. in Plant Pathology), I was fortunate to get a research assistantship in a weed ecology lab at Ohio State, where I earned my PhD. I enjoyed my pathology years, but I was just always more interested in plant-plant interactions as opposed to plant-pathogen interactions.

[Biochica’s note: if only everyone was inspired by dandelions instead of being filled with rage...]

Q: What are you currently researching?

A: I have quite a few projects underway. Firstly, I am finishing up some studies looking at seed production in hairy fleabane (Conyza bonariensis) following failed herbicide applications. Hairy fleabane is a common weed in our orchard and vineyard systems in California  and many plant populations have developed resistance to glyphosate (which has been the most frequently applied herbicide in perennial systems). Hairy fleabane is a real bane to growers because it produces LOTS of wind-dispersed seed, which are responsible for both new and continuing infestations [Biochica’s note to Lynn: I see what you did there… “The Hairy fleabane is a real bane”... Awesomeness!!]. To return to my earlier statement about seed production following herbicide failures, I am interested in understanding how the plants that escape weed control efforts might affect the development of weed populations.

I am also looking at the growth and development of junglerice (Echinochloa colona), which is also a pest of California orchard systems (almonds, walnuts, pistachios etc..., under differing environmental and disturbance conditions to look at its potential to invade other cropping systems. A chunk of my time is also spent researching the biology, ecology and management of field bindweed (Convovulus arvensis), which is a significant problem in processing tomatoes.

Q: Why do some herbicides develop weed-resistant pests more quickly than others?

A: The development of resistance is a function of many different factors...the phenomenon really should be looked as an interaction between the weed, the cropping system, AND the herbicide. The simple answer to your question is ‘overuse of certain products in time and space’ and the simple solution, in turn, is that we should avoid using a single herbicide mechanism of action, exclusively, to control weeds. Yes, we have to ensure that we use our herbicides responsibly (see this post by Dr. Andrew Kniss (University of Wyoming)), but we also need to understand the current constraints on our cropping systems that might limit our abilities to diversify (see this post, also by Andrew Kniss). And let’s not forget the weeds, themselves. Certain biological characteristics appear to be more commonly associated with the development of herbicide resistance. Dr. Jodie Holt (University of California, Riverside) and some colleagues published an interesting paper in PLOS ONE looking at the ‘Taxonomic and Life History Bias in Herbicide Resistant Weeds’. They found that evolved resistance is more common in certain plant families (i.e. the Amaranthaceae, Brassicaceae, and Poaceae) than in others. They also reported that annual weed species were found more often in the list of weeds with evolved herbicide resistance, suggesting that the length of a species’ life cycle is a contributing factor. Although they didn’t have enough data to link other traits (i.e. seed production or outcrossing rate) to the development of herbicide resistance, many other sources have suggested that these characteristics can facilitate the evolutionary process.

[Biochica’s note to Lynn: does this mean that I can ask the spouse to go kill the weeds as soon as possible, because if he doesn’t they’ll evolve to become herbicide tolerant? Don’t answer that! That’s what I’m going to tell him...]

Q: What beneficial weeds do we often overlook when thinking about weeds?

A: I think the biggest beneficial weed on (almost) everyone’s mind is milkweed, which is a host for monarch butterflies. Many people might ask themselves: “Should I be actively planting milkweed on my property?” Only you can answer that question. Talk to your local extension agents or master gardeners if this species is an appropriate addition for your yard. At the very least they can direct you to the appropriate resources.

Q: How often have you had to say “No, I’m not *that* kind of weed scientist”? Do you have a poster of Cheech in your office?

A: A lot. Whenever one of my professional societies (California Weed Science Society, Western Weed Science Society, Weed Science Society of America) has a meeting somewhere, and people see our name badges, there is the inevitable “Wow. You must have some great parties, you know what I mean.” I do know what they mean and, sorry to say, they are likely to be sorely disappointed if they ever found out the truth about our parties (we just talk about weeds, the ‘boring’ ones). I do have a cheeky magnet from the city of Weed, California, on my filing cabinet, though.

[Biochica’s note: yeah… I’m going to need video footage of the next “Weed Science Society of America” conference. But I’ve got a nagging suspicion that it’s a “what happens at the conference, stays at the conference” kind of event *Wink, wink* ]

Q: Currently, there’s a lot of buzz surrounding “chemicals” in and on our food. Do you think that a world without herbicides is possible?

A: Is it possible? Sure. Don’t forget we farmed without synthetic, exogenous herbicides for millennia. And, despite what many might think, numerous weed scientists are looking at non-chemical strategies for weed control. For instance, in Georgia, we had a serious problem with glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri). I worked with Dr. Stanley Culpepper (University of Georgia) to investigate the use of a fall tillage (soil inversion to a depth of 12 inches) coupled with a rye cover crop that we killed in the spring and used as a mulch to suppress Palmer seed germination/seedling emergence. Using  this strategy, we were able to reduce our in-crop Palmer amaranth densities by 90% or more. Now, we weren’t completely free of herbicides, but we did reduce the selective pressure that we put on them. As another example, Drs. Steve Fennimore and David Slaughter (University of California, Davis) are doing some really great work to develop automated weeding machines to use in high-value specialty crops (which have a limited number of herbicides available to them). However, with respect to your original question (Do you think that a world without herbicides is possible?), I’m going to have to say no… at least not at this time. We (weed scientists) are working with growers to diversify their weed production practices, but many do not have the money, the labor pool, the infrastructure, etc that will allow them to abandon herbicide use completely. Herbicides are a tool and our goal is to help growers use as many tools as are appropriate in their systems both safely and effectively.

[Biochica’s note: The Food Babe disagrees with you: no amount of chemicals is acceptable. Ever. Your nuanced explanation with references carries little weight when the Food Babe has spoken on the topic.]

Q: What are some of the more effective ways to get rid of weeds?

Lynn's picture of Bindweed
A: The answer to that question will depend on more than a few criteria, such as: what is the weed you are trying to get rid of, where is the weed located, and how hard do you want to work at getting rid of it, to name just a few. The most effective weed management strategies that might be employed in one’s backyard may be very different from those used by a commercial grower. For example, in a small patio space, hand-weeding is a viable strategy...the same is not true for thousands of acres of soybean. But all weed control strategies can be grouped into a few general categories: 1) exclusion or preventative measures (i.e. preventing weeds from entering your system), 2) physical disturbance (i.e. hand-weeding and cultivation), 3) obstruction (i.e. the use of a mulch or other time of barrier), 4) cultural practices (i.e. using crop rotation to manage weed populations), 5) biological control (i.e. allowing sheep to graze on edible weeds), and 6) chemical control (i.e. using a synthetic or organic herbicide to disturb plant growth and development). Ideally, we would encourage anyone/everyone to make use of as many strategies as are appropriate for their system. And, remember, you don’t have to figure this all out by yourself; your state extension personnel are there to help you with these kinds of decisions.

[Biochica’s note to the spouse: there are weed control strategies other than mulching!!]

Q:  Are there any new, more selective (and perhaps safer) herbicides in the pipeline?

A: I always tell my growers that they shouldn’t rely on the introduction of a new herbicide for weed control. We saw an abundance of products being released in the 1970’s and 1980’s, however the number of new discoveries has certainly plateaued. I don’t work for a chemical company, so I don’t know what the research pipelines look like, currently. If I had to speculate, I would suggest that the corporations are putting more money into crop trait development and big data. Assuming that we aren’t going to be getting a new herbicide product anytime soon, I think that we need to become smarter about how we use the ones that are available to us. For example, improved knowledge about weed biology and ecology will helps target weeds at the more vulnerable parts of their life cycles; in doing so, we will maximize the use of our herbicide tools and, hopefully, use them less frequently.

[Biochica’s note to Lynn: chemical companies should get into the astroturf business. Best weed-control system in California!!]

Q: Dr Andrew Kniss wrote an awesome post looking into that meme that I keep seeing on Facebook, about how vinegar+soap is “better” than Round-Up. He concludes that Vinegar+soap has a more toxic profile and is also more expensive. What often heard myth about weed science would you like to dispel if you could?

A: That we are only interested in applying herbicides. Yes, herbicides are useful tools, but weed scientists study/evaluate a wide range of management strategies. For example, I have worked, and still work with herbicides, but I have also been involved in other research projects looking at the effects of tillage, crop rotation, and cover crops on weed suppression and changes in weed community composition and structure. My colleagues at UC Davis and other institutions are engaged in many fascinating projects designed to further our understanding of weed biology and ecology, resistance evolution, and precision agriculture with respect to weed control.

[Biochica’s note to Lynn: my backyard is open to UC Davis plant community to study the impact of concrete and astroturf on weed development. I've actually had a few weeds make their way through!! I have created superweeds!!]

Q: You are stuck on an island and about to go insane from boredom. A genie suddenly appears and gives you the following choices (you have to pick one): a) an iPad with infinite battery life where your only App is Twitter and it's locked so you can only follow Nassim Taleb or b) A copy of "Seeds of Deception" by Jeffrey Smith. Which do you pick?

A: Taleb’s twitter feed. Although I disagree with his stance on GMOs, and often find him to be rude, there is interesting dialogue to be had.