Just a quick debunking post: Glyphosate and ‘toxic wheat’

Here we go again. It’s not scary Monsanto Gasmask Man, but it does feature Crop Sprayer Bad Guy. And more of the same misinformation. My explanation is below- this isn’t meant to be a dissertation or groundbreaking, blow-up-the-internet post, just one I can point to when this toxic wheat talk pops up…

On old article from expand-your-consciousness.com just made it to my feed, shared by some friends of mine. I’m a little sad inside when good people get duped by the alt health ‘fake news’ media, so I’ll refute the posts’ claims, one-by-one, to settle their minds a bit.

The first claim: “Standard wheat harvest protocol in the United States is to drench the wheat fields with Roundup several days before the combine harvesters work through the fields as withered, dead wheat plants are less taxing on the farm equipment and allows for an earlier, easier and bigger harvest.”

First, let’s consider “drench” here. That suggests to me to spray to the point of saturation. Actually, when fields are sprayed with glyphosate, you’re usually talking about 2-6 pints per acre. That amounts to about 1/3 of a drop per square foot. Hardly a drenching, and if you do the math on the amount applied versus the biomass produced, not even taking into account degradation, soil binding, and runoff, you’re talking about parts per billion. As for “standard protocol”, it is actually quite rare to use glyphosate as a dry down material for wheat. Like, fraction of a percent rare. Most glyphosate is used pre-planting, well before there is any crop to be contacted.

Next is the use of Dr. Stephanie Seneff as a reliable source of information on the issue. Dr. Seneff is a computer scientist with zero training on plant science, toxicology, or epidemiology. She has recently been making the rounds on a kick against glyphosate ad has published several papers showing how it and GMOs (but never explaining which or their interactions) are to blame for rises in autism, cancers, celiac, nutritional disorder, you name it. The problem is, her papers are published in pay-to-publish, non peer-reviewed bunk journals and have been widely criticized across the scientific community to the point where she has no, none, zero credibility in this field. She may be a good computer modeler, I won’t doubt that. But these papers generally involve her developing a theoretical model to show a certain outcome, then of course her model gives that outcome, and she explains it with a bunch of bad science and poor reasoning. Even others in the alt health realm consider her a quack. Let’s remember that all of the supposed harms in the article are based on this questionable junk source.

As for USDA data showing “99% of durum wheat, 97% of spring wheat, and 61% of winter wheat has been doused with Roundup as part of the harvesting process. This is an increase from 88% for durum wheat, 91% for spring wheat and 47% for winter wheat since 1998”? The source given doesn’t even go to USDA data, but rather to another alt-health site the healthyhomeeconomist, which does indeed show a graph of percent of planted wheat acres treated with herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides, but to does not link back to the data. Nor does it say anything about the wheat being treated with glyphosate preharvest; usually, wheat fields are treated preplant which allows for no-till planting which is substantially better at conserving soil moisture, nutrients, and carbon (Alvarez et al. 1995, Reicosky et al. 1997, West and Marland 2002, McLauchlan 2006). Not to mention that glyphosate has a long track history of being among the safest herbicides available (Giesy et al. 2000, Williams et al. 2000, Roos et al. 2005, Mink et al. 2011, Mink et al. 2012, Székács and Darvas 2012, Williams et al. 2012, Kier and Kirkland 2013).

So you have a quack computer scientist saying that glyphosate causes all sorts of subtle but increasing health problems, an activist/alternative blog promoting data that doesn’t actually say what they say it does, and all demonizing a material with a long track history and better safety profile than its alternatives. I’d say this original article doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

But don’t just trust me, Snopes had the same thing to say:

“The most important point to take away from this article, however, is that it presents a flawed premise and doesn’t actually demonstrate any connection between current methods of wheat production and medical maladies in humans who consume it because:

  • The article does not document any recent increase in or unusually high level of wheat sensitivity in humans.
  • Even if an increase in wheat sensitivity were documented, that wouldn’t necessarily mean the phenomenon was due to a change in the production of wheat; it could simply mean that we are getting better at recognizing and identifying wheat sensitivities that have existed for a long time but previously went undiagnosed.
  • A documented increase in wheat sensitivity could have any number of environmental causes apart from the use of glyphosate in wheat production, and no causal connection between the two has been proved here.”



Alvarez, R., R. A. Díaz, N. Barbero, O. J. Santanatoglia, and L. Blotta. 1995. Soil organic carbon, microbial biomass and CO2-C production from three tillage systems. Soil and Tillage Research 33: 17-28.

Giesy, J. P., S. Dobson, and K. R. Solomon. 2000. Ecotoxicological Risk Assessment for Roundup® Herbicide, pp. 35-120. In G. W. Ware (ed.), Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology: Continuation of Residue Reviews. Springer New York, New York, NY.

Kier, L. D., and D. J. Kirkland. 2013. Review of genotoxicity studies of glyphosate and glyphosate-based formulations. Critical reviews in toxicology 43: 283-315.

McLauchlan, K. 2006. The nature and longevity of agricultural impacts on soil carbon and nutrients: a review. Ecosystems 9: 1364-1382.

Mink, P. J., J. S. Mandel, J. I. Lundin, and B. K. Sceurman. 2011. Epidemiologic studies of glyphosate and non-cancer health outcomes: a review. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 61: 172-184.

Mink, P. J., J. S. Mandel, B. K. Sceurman, and J. I. Lundin. 2012. Epidemiologic studies of glyphosate and cancer: A review. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 63: 440-452.

Reicosky, D. C., W. A. Dugas, and H. A. Torbert. 1997. Tillage-induced soil carbon dioxide loss from different cropping systems. Soil and Tillage Research 41: 105-118.

Roos, A. J. D., B. Aaron, J. A. Rusiecki, J. A. Hoppin, M. Svec, M. Dosemeci, D. P. Sandler, and M. C. Alavanja. 2005. Cancer Incidence among Glyphosate-Exposed Pesticide Applicators in the Agricultural Health Study. Environmental Health Perspectives 113: 49-54.

Székács, A., and B. Darvas. 2012. Forty years with glyphosate, pp. 247-284. In M. N. A. E.-G. Hassaneen (ed.), Herbicides–properties, synthesis and control of weeds. . InTech Europe, Rijeka, Croatia.

West, T. O., and G. Marland. 2002. A synthesis of carbon sequestration, carbon emissions, and net carbon flux in agriculture: comparing tillage practices in the United States. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 91: 217-232.

Williams, A. L., R. E. Watson, and J. M. DeSesso. 2012. Developmental and reproductive outcomes in humans and animals after glyphosate exposure: a critical analysis. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B 15: 39-96.

Williams, G. M., R. Kroes, and I. C. Munro. 2000. Safety Evaluation and Risk Assessment of the Herbicide Roundup and Its Active Ingredient, Glyphosate, for Humans. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 31: 117-165.


Agvocates: It’s your turn to stop the mud slinging

I wrote a blog post recently that criticized the use of graphic, inaccurate imagery in opposing GMOs and pesticides, and explained why doing so is offensive to farmers. Of anything I have written professionally on social media, this has been the most shared and well-accepted by the ag community. But watch what you’re saying, agvocates, because I have a few words for you, too.

Lets’ start this by saying I deplore the use of fear-based imagery in marketing and education. That’s represented in the aforementioned post. But I have also recently called out ‘agvocate’ voices for using hyperbole or bad reasoning in their arguments. When we take sides first and ask questions later, we risk falling on sloppy arguments ourselves. Painting any issue as black or white is a dangerous proposition. Agriculture, in particular, is an extremely complex field, with multiple biological, physical, and social parameters that interact and demand a higher level of analysis than some more cut-and-dry topics. In my job, I have feet firmly planted in the organic and non-organic buckets, and I tend to operate in that middle ground between the two where sustainability truly lies. There is a lot to learn from working within the organic system- that’s why we teach our summer undergraduate and Farmer Training Program students within the restrictive confines of a certified organic farm so that they may develop better skills when their farms really rely on it.

And that’s central to my point. All farmers, and often more so organic farmers, are very good at assessing these multiple, interacting forces that drive their management decisions. So when I see the argument made that, “so what, organic uses pesticides too,” I cringe a little:

For example, this meme that is often tossed around as evidence that organic is as evil as non-organic does no one any service except to make agvocates feel better about themselves. But think about it. You’re saying that organic pesticides are untested, and are just as bad or worse than non-organic pesticides. Sorry, that’s bullshit on many levels.

First, any pesticide approved for organic that is sold commercially must undergo the exact same safety testing as non-organic pesticides. That means that they all are subjected to the same toxicity, carcinogenicity, reproductive, and ecological effects. Period. So stop saying that organic pesticides aren’t tested. More important is to highlight that our pesticide safety and registration system is robust, risk management-based, and works. It’s because of that system that we have removed or curtailed uses of some of the indeed more toxic materials like azinphos-methyl and rotenone.

Next, the notion that organics indiscriminately douse their crops in copper sulfate and rotenone is ludicrous. For one thing, organic growers do indeed have a USDA certification standard that they must meet, unlike non-organic growers, which requires a prevention plan that includes biological, physical, and cultural controls. In my IPM world we talk that talk and often practice it, but no one (unless we’re part of a third-party certification program, which is few of us) calls us on whether or not we designed the system to reduce pesticide needs or sought other methods first. In my experience, except for certain instances where aggressive organically-approved inputs are required to manage pests (e.g., apple scab, black rot on grapes in the Northeast), organic farms by and large eschew prophylactic use of pesticides.

Now on to those pesticides that are supposedly drenched on organic farms. In several cases, the meme is just plain wrong about what is used. Take methyl bromide, for example- there is absolutely no allowance for it in organic production. Yes, strawberry nurseries use it when starting plants that are sold to organic farms, but so do apple nurseries use pesticides to get trees established that are sold to organic growers, and dairy farms use non-organic (often GMO) feed to produce the shit used to make organic-certified compost. There is certainly an argument to be made that organic producers require non-organic farms and suppliers to survive, but to suggest that organic growers use methyl bromide is just disingenuous.

As for rotenone and nicotine, yup, they’re nasty. But nicotine is expressly disallowed in the organic regulations, so just stop with that. And rotenone? Isn’t available as anything but a piscicide (meaning no use on crops in the U.S., since 2005), and the NOSB petitioned for its removal from the list years ago. I’ve struggled with growing organic apples in the northeast as a researcher for twelve years and have had massive insect outbreaks and trust me, rotenone, nicotine, and homemade concoctions were never on the table.

In my line of work, I consider myself a professional skeptic- I demand that evidence be used to support new and contrary claims. That said, I am also willing to take in new evidence on a matter. That’s why I was a bit surprised when a fellow horticultural professor exclaimed in her Facebook group that a new paper that reported that phylloshpere bacteria contributed to nitrogen assimilation in the host plant was bunk until “some time and radiolabelled nutrient studies…move this from correlation to causation” when that’s exactly what the paper was about (Doty et al. 2016). I’ll cut her some slack, she admitted to posting before reading first thing in the morning without coffee. But the knee-jerk reaction that an alternative system may be responsible for at least a portion of the nitrogen cycle in plant environments is indicative of a bias against alternative systems that goes beyond skepticism. Look, I am the first person to question permaculture, moon planting, and similar alternative production practices, but if I am presented with solid, peer-reviewed evidence that runs contrary to the traditional mode of thinking, I listen.

At the same time, it is difficult to stomach the hyperbole in a headline like, “Organic Farming is Bad for the Environment,” posted from a leading science skepticism site. I understand fully the organic yield gap (Kravchenko et al. 2017), and the contradictions of the need for nitrogen from non-organic farms and soil carbon loss from tillage (McLauchlan 2006). But this articles takes quite a lot of liberty in its assumptions, ignores life cycle analysis of nitrogen synthesis, and does not address potential advances in organic, and more so, sustainable production systems moving forward with the tools we now have available. Are there issues with crop yield, food affordability, and (possibly) soil quality decline under organic systems? Maybe, but there are also issues with agricultural runoff, soil quality decline, pest resistance development, and food distribution (among other things) in the present non-organic system. There’s no high horse to ride when we take sides.

I prefer to think back to the 1990s vision of a Low Input Sustainable Agriculture model which includes the best tools from the organic and non-organic worlds to develop a farming and food production system that minimizes unintended impacts while feeding a growing population and rewarding farmers. This vision was highlighted in a recent review publication of European literature on organic farming (Tuomisto et al. 2012):

“This meta-analysis has showed that organic farming in Europe has generally lower environmental impacts per unit of area than conventional farming, but due to lower yields and the requirement to build the fertility of land, not always per product unit. The results also showed a wide variation between the impacts within both farming systems. There is not a single organic or conventional farming system, but a range of different systems, and thus, the level of many environmental impacts depend more on farmers’ management choices than on the general farming systems. In our view, there will be no single best farming system for all circumstances. Rather it will be necessary to compose ‘optimal’ systems from a series of particular practices that relate to specific circumstances, constraints and objectives.”

This ideal system will only come when we stop demonizing one another and act together. I can’t speak for the Organic companies and activist groups behind much of the demonizing of non-organic food production (Schroeder 2014), they really are bastards. But as farmers, academics, and informed citizens we owe it to everyone to step up our game and rise above it.


Doty, S. L., A. W. Sher, N. D. Fleck, M. Khorasani, R. E. Bumgarner, Z. Khan, A. W. Ko, S.-H. Kim, and T. H. DeLuca. 2016. Variable nitrogen fixation in wild Populus. PloS one 11: e0155979.

Kravchenko, A. N., S. S. Snapp, and G. P. Robertson. 2017. Field-scale experiments reveal persistent yield gaps in low-input and organic cropping systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

McLauchlan, K. 2006. The nature and longevity of agricultural impacts on soil carbon and nutrients: a review. Ecosystems 9: 1364-1382.

Schroeder, J. 2014. Organic marketing report, pp. 16. In B. Chassy, D. Tribe, G. Brookes and D. Kershen [eds.], Academics Review. Academics Review.

Tuomisto, H. L., I. Hodge, P. Riordan, and D. W. Macdonald. 2012. Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts?–A meta-analysis of European research. Journal of environmental management 112: 309-320.


Monsanto Gas Mask Man: Activist imagery and its meaning to farmers

Edit: a few clarifying edits were made after initial publication. Also, a second, related essay was posted to call out hypocrisy and lazy thinking among the modern-agriculture advocates.

Recently I had a spat with a colleague over what I thought was her use of negative imagery toward non-organic farmers in a lecture. One thing that really got me going was the use of what I call “Monsanto Gas Mask Man” in a slide that discussed some of the dangers of pesticides.

1. http://fitlife.tv/breaking-news-popular-monsanto-pesticide-found-to-cause-cancer_original/
2. http://www.healingtalks.com/sustainability/environment/pesticides-dectected-in-7-out-of-10-fruits-vegetables

We’ve talked since, I aired my concerns and she hers, and we are in a good place. I respect her. But those images are everywhere in the online and other discussions around modern agriculture. I’ve stewed a bit over my reaction to them, and have come up with a few points of discussion.

I’ll frame this first by mentioning my farming background. I was raised on a small, conventional Vermont dairy farm in the 1980s and 90s. We weren’t organic (no one was doing organic dairy then), but we were a largely pasture-based farm that struggled to compete in the modern commodity landscape. Dad did his best to ‘modernize’- we used synthetic fertilizers; employed improved herd genetics to get our production per cow up; grew corn occasionally using herbicides; and even docked tails in the later years to reduce somatic cells counts in our milk. We were a 45-50 head, tie stall dairy that struggled in the greater economy, yet we held on when many of our neighbors went out of business, and my folks sold the cows at the turn of the millennium after Dad had been working a full-time job off the farm for about five years (Mom always did, or we wouldn’t have eaten) so that he could pay himself to farm.  I know the blood, sweat, and literal tears that farmers put into their work, to feed people. And while there are certainly impacts from many agricultural practices on the environment and rural economies, I have never known a farmer, even the few jerks I know in the business, who wants to hurt people.

Since leaving my home farm, I have worked in the industry as a fruit grower and more so as a researcher and instructor. The majority of my current work is with non-organic apple and grape growers, who use agrichemicals as a regular part of their work. The recent discussion over GMO and other farming production methods in the popular media has been largely and carefully directed by activists to paint ‘conventional’ agriculture in an extremely negative light. The rhetoric around non-organic agriculture has been directed using intentionally provocative terms and images, in order to sway public opinion based on fear and emotion rather than science and reason (Clancy and Clancy 2016, Kangmennaang et al. 2016).

The “Monsanto Gas Mask Man” plays into that imagery. Such an image suggests a soldier in a war- the gas masks evoke direct wartime imagery; and the hazmat suits, especially the super-thick nitrile gloves, suggest an outer space-like hostile environment. Faces are obscured, like Storm Troopers. Notice how the company logo is prominent in each well-staged picture. Such imagery places farmers, who are really only trying to make a living, often to sustain a multi-generational family farm in tough times and to produce food for all of us, as disposable pawns at the hands of a corporate general.

I have several problems with the use of such imagery, but I don’t knock my colleague for using it. She has not worked in a pesticide-intensive crop, and therefore does not readily have farm pictures available to use in a lecture. A google image search for ‘pesticide exposure’ brings up a whole host of scary images. However, there are a number of inaccuracies in the photos posted above.

For one, I have seen and worn much personal protective equipment (PPE) used to protect the applicator during spraying, and I have never seen a farmer use the single-canister gas mask-style respirator seen in the photos. I don’t doubt they exist and are labeled for use in applying pesticides, they aren’t commonly used on farms. But where are they commonly seen? In military, survivalist, and other wartime situations. There are some really creepy images out there, and they are often watermarked as stock images, e.g. carefully crafted images for use in developing marketing and other persuasive (activist) campaigns:

3. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/man-gas-mask-smoke-black-background-115621654

Most growers I know, when required to wear a respirator, choose a half-mask type, similar to ones used by painters:

4. http://npic.orst.edu/images/minworkbnr.jpg

Of course, the specific pesticide label legally dictates the amount of PPE to wear when mixing or applying in order to protect the handler from carefully measured and known hazards. I’ll cover the materials shown in the original images in a minute, but for now, lets’ consider glyphosate, highlighted in the imagery by its original brand name Roundup, and almost always identified by its original manufacturer, Monsanto:

5. http://www.wellthychoices.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Roundup-causes-genetic-damage.jpg

Much has been written about the dangers of glyphosate and various papers and studies that claim to support its toxicity- we can discuss that later. However, considerable, long-term evaluation of the research ad safety data indicate that glyphosate is, for a pesticide, relatively safe (Williams et al. 2000, Roos et al. 2005, Mink et al. 2011, Mink et al. 2012, Székács and Darvas 2012, Williams et al. 2012, Kier and Kirkland 2013). Because of that, the PPE required for its application includes “long-sleeved shirt and long pants, shoes plus socks.” That’s it:

6. Worker applying glyphosate-based herbicide and wearing appropriate personal protective equipment. TB photo.

But in popular and activist press, a very different image is used:

7. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/03/15/520250505/emails-reveal-monsantos-tactics-to-defend-glyphosate-against-cancer-fears

And we’re back to the scary imagery…in an NPR article nonetheless!

As for the specific images referenced at the beginning, let’s consider the materials in the photos. I will never say that every pesticide is safe, in fact I teach pesticide safety as part of my job, I am also familiar with the safety and registration process the EPA uses to review and license pesticides. A typical pesticide requires around $10-20 million for registration, and much of that is used in required short- and long-term testing for acute and chronic toxicity, carcinogenicity, mutagenetic, and environmental effects. The results of that testing determine allowed use restrictions, including rates, timing, and other safety considerations; the requirements for those tests would take several hundreds of pages to print. My point is that pesticides are indeed inherently harmful, and there is a good safety program in-place to regulate their use, which includes the use of appropriate PPE, and use restrictions that limit rates, timing, and other application criteria. (Why even use them at all? To reduce the 25-80% of crop losses attributable to pests that would decimate our food supply (Oerke 2006)).

So, consider those original images. The first material highlighted, Lasso, is an herbicide containing the active ingredient alachlor which is indeed pretty nasty, as it is a pretty powerful carcinogen. How much alachlor is used in modern agriculture in the U.S.? Extremely little, because it has been replaced by the dramatically safer glyphosate, aided by herbicide-tolerance traits in genetically engineered field crops. So the demon GMOs have indeed helped to push out a pretty toxic material, which goes against the scary spray guy analogy. (Ironically, the little bit of alachlor still used is primarily in ‘Non-GMO Project’, corn and soybeans. That Non-GMO Project sure is doing good things, huh?).

8. https://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/pnsp/usage/maps/show_map.php?year=2012&map=ALACHLOR&hilo=L&disp=Alachlor


How about that other material in the Greenpeace photo, “E605 Forte”? That’s an insecticide containing parathion, a highly toxic organophosphate (OP) material whose use was cancelled in the U.S. in 1991, and which is severely limited elsewhere in the world (although I imagine used in the developing world, unfortunately). The whole class of OPs has been reviewed since the adoption of the U.S. Food Quality Protection Act in 1995, and not only has their overall use gone down substantially since then, but the new materials that have been developed in their wake have significantly lower toxicity profiles (Jones et al. 2010).

At the risk of dragging things out, my aversion to this imagery is based on the lies behind it- that farmers are trying to hurt anyone, that our food system is unsafe and riddled with dangerous chemicals, and that organic farmers inherently are above such nastiness. Because here I am, spraying an approved pesticide on my organic apple crop, wearing the appropriate PPE for the job.

9. The author applying sulfur-based pesticides to an organic apple crop. TB photo.

Farming isn’t performed by beautiful elves flitting about their fields of green, nor is it done by ogres and trolls at the hands evil corporate overlords. It’s done by real people, who bust their butts to feed us (you). Demonizing them (us) via violent imagery and rhetoric is an insult to us all, as farmers, consumers, and citizens, and that’s why I speak out against it. With no disrespect to my dear friend who started me on this rant, I suggest we all step back and think about how we portray them, especially those of us who know better.



Clancy, K. A., and B. Clancy. 2016. Growing monstrous organisms: the construction of anti-GMO visual rhetoric through digital media. Critical Studies in Media Communication 33: 279-292.

Jones, V. P., S. A. Steffan, L. A. Hull, J. F. Brunner, and D. J. Biddinger. 2010. Effects of the loss of organophosphate pesticides in the US: opportunities and needs to improve IPM programs. Outlooks on Pest Management 21: 161-166.

Kangmennaang, J., L. Osei, F. A. Armah, and I. Luginaah. 2016. Genetically modified organisms and the age of (Un) reason? A critical examination of the rhetoric in the GMO public policy debates in Ghana. Futures 83: 37-49.

Kier, L. D., and D. J. Kirkland. 2013. Review of genotoxicity studies of glyphosate and glyphosate-based formulations. Critical reviews in toxicology 43: 283-315.

Mink, P. J., J. S. Mandel, J. I. Lundin, and B. K. Sceurman. 2011. Epidemiologic studies of glyphosate and non-cancer health outcomes: a review. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 61: 172-184.

Mink, P. J., J. S. Mandel, B. K. Sceurman, and J. I. Lundin. 2012. Epidemiologic studies of glyphosate and cancer: A review. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 63: 440-452.

Oerke, E.-C. 2006. Crop losses to pests. The Journal of Agricultural Science 144: 31-43.

Roos, A. J. D., B. Aaron, J. A. Rusiecki, J. A. Hoppin, M. Svec, M. Dosemeci, D. P. Sandler, and M. C. Alavanja. 2005. Cancer Incidence among Glyphosate-Exposed Pesticide Applicators in the Agricultural Health Study. Environmental Health Perspectives 113: 49-54.

Székács, A., and B. Darvas. 2012. Forty years with glyphosate, pp. 247-284. In M. N. A. E.-G. Hassaneen (ed.), Herbicides–properties, synthesis and control of weeds. . InTech Europe, Rijeka, Croatia.

Williams, A. L., R. E. Watson, and J. M. DeSesso. 2012. Developmental and reproductive outcomes in humans and animals after glyphosate exposure: a critical analysis. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B 15: 39-96.

Williams, G. M., R. Kroes, and I. C. Munro. 2000. Safety Evaluation and Risk Assessment of the Herbicide Roundup and Its Active Ingredient, Glyphosate, for Humans. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 31: 117-165.



March for Science…and a plea for an understanding of the scientific process

I did not March for Science today, I was away on a short kind-of-vacation for two days visiting some dear friends (and working, I gave a talk at a fruit growers’ twilight meeting in Rhode Island). Literally, while all the marches were happening, I was discovering candlepin bowling south of Boston. It’s great, like open wheel or go-kart racing is to NASCAR, by the way.

But I’m glad that the Marches happened, and from everything I can see, they were well-attended and have received good media coverage. It’s great to see scientists and non-scientists alike banding together to remind society that science is important.
Now, here are a few of my takes on the matter:

1. We need to remember that science is a process, not an absolute answer or consensus in itself. Science is the systematic acquisition, cataloguing, and application of knowledge attained through observation and reflection. That’s my definition, anyway. Each of those words means something: in science, we strive to carefully collect unbiased data using established methods to isolate factors and to evaluate the knowledge gained from that observation in the light of previous, related, and conflicting work.
2. Again, science isn’t absolute, except for a handful of laws (gravity, thermodynamics, conservation of energy, etc.) and even they go wonky when subjected to extremes. However, scientific consensus is a real thing, and means that the majority of experts in a particular field have come to a similar conclusion based on substantiated evidence. Scientific consensus isn’t something to dismiss lightly, especially when those dismissing are not experts in that field, have not evaluated the evidence in the same manner, and/or have generated data that comes to an opposite conclusion than consensus without adequately explaining itself. Exceptional claims require exceptional evidence.
3. Unless you’re one of those true experts in a field- that is, among the most-published, cited, and consulted persons on a specific subject matter- there’s almost always someone who knows more than you do about a subject. Trust those people first. They are certainly not infallible, and reading the debates that happen in the letters sections of scientific journals will tell you far more than an activist website that tears down an expert from afar without engaging in a constructive discussion.
4. Social science is as valid as ‘hard’ science. But when people begin to believe ideas that are contrary to those that are backed by scientific consensus, it is in society’s best interests to promote the ideas that are based on measurable fact rather than belief. That said, social science can help to inform the questions that ‘hard’ scientists ask to ensure that all angles are covered.
5. Conspiracy theories very, very rarely have any foundation to stand on. If an idea is promoted through the popular press (or, of course, social media) that is contrary to scientific consensus, it’s probably a quack idea. It’s just too easy for conspiracies to crumble, based on the number of people who would need to keep their mouth shut for them to work. Also, remember Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation to a situation is most likely the correct one, as long as it solves for all of the variables.
6. Scientists add to the body of knowledge and debate ideas in the realm of the literature: peer-reviewed journals that are a living library of the data, conclusions, and debates surrounding them in a particular field. Sound ideas can happen outside of ‘the literature’, but if ideas are to enter the canon of knowledge (factually correct information that is sufficiently compared against and catalogued with other information in a particular field to become useful), then they will eventually become codified in the literature.
7. A single study means almost nothing in the greater realm of a scientific subject- it must be compared to other studies in the same field, the methods and analyses debated, and followed up on in order to be useful in the context of other information within that field.
8. Unfortunately, there is a whole dark field of non-reviewed literature out there that masquerades as valid but does not undergo peer-review and may accept completely garbage work as real science for a payment. Those journals can be hard for the uninitiated scientist to tease out and good scientists sometimes publish in them, even unknowingly. But when a scientist, especially a mid-career or senior scientist, is caught publishing shoddy work in these predatory or junk journals, then their other work deserves extreme scrutiny and is best viewed with skepticism. Some scientists have developed substantial components of their careers using these journals, their literature forming the backbone for some scientifically shaky but pervasive conspiracy theories.
9. Industry scientists are just as valid as academic scientists, and often more so in their particular fields since they have the specialized knowledge, facilities, and funding to perform experiments specific to their needs. As long as private sector science follows the same rules for quality and transparency as university trials, it is valuable and valid. There may certainly be conflicts of interest in any science (industry, activist, or university), but good, reputable labs will transparently follow standards of practice that manage their influence on the scientific process.
10. Art, religion/spiritiuality, love/emotion, and science are not mutually exclusive, but should inform one another.

I could go on, but those are some good basics to consider as we celebrate science today. Why does this matter?

Because we cannot pick and choose among the science beliefs we choose to support based on our preconceived beliefs.

Because we owe it to everyone to become informed beyond the viral post or pop-media article. Not everyone needs to read scientific literature, but more people should develop that skill and practice it. And valid, pop-science literature (e.g. Scientific American; Discover; Smithsonian; etc.) should be read widely, and if you’re going to share a post that’s not from the original literature, it should be shared from those sources.

Because science has overwhelmingly benefited human society, and will continue to help us address critical issues that will affect our sustainability as a species, and the sustainability of the world we live on.

Because we need to respect science and use it to better understand the wonders that make us and the world around us awesome.


Academic freedom, conflicts of interest, and…Monsanto.

My initial impetus for starting this blog came from some interactions on social media I had when I expressed my support for biotechnology in agriculture. I’ll describe that support more clearly at a later time, but a key component of it is that I trust science, the scientific process, and the work conducted by public-sector scientists especially to acquire knowledge and utilize it to make our world better. I find it extremely frustrating when good public scientist’s credibility is called into question over perceived conflicts of interest often stemming from grant funding or collaboration with private industry on projects. Many don’t realize that university scientists are encouraged, and often expected, to involve the private sector in research projects, and there is a very good oversight process though Sponsored Programs Administrations, Institutional Review Boards,  Research Protections Offices and the like to ensure that ethical guidelines are followed in the course of research. Of course, the peer-review process itself serves as another layer to ensure that scientists are doing their jobs professionally and objectively.
A recently popular tactic among the anti-GMO movement has been to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to harass scientists and conduct fishing expeditions through their emails to shake out any detail they can grab onto to further their narrative. In many cases, this behavior has resulted in dragging good people’s reputations through the dirt without cause. This has been written about in several articles that I won’t elaborate on but will present here , here, here, and here. Sometimes these requests turn up real conflicts of interest among the anti-GMO crowd though, so it’s a tricky sword to wield.
I don’t typically do the kind of controversial work that might trigger a FOIA request, but I have found that in my very few instances of coming out in public in favor of biotechnology, almost every time my independence is questioned, and I am soon accused of working for Monsanto. However, unlike activists, bloggers, and private citizens, it is actually customary for people in my profession to post every tidbit of their professional life in an online Curriculum vitae. Mine can easily be found on my faculty profile page, and while it may not always be immediately up-to-date (I update it several times per month to reflect my latest work), it always pretty close and should give folks a picture of the work I do and how I fund it.
So with that said and everyone having had a look at what I do for work, let me throw out my one and only explanation to the “do I work for Monsanto” question, taken directly from the social media post that raised it:

…The closest thing I have to Monsanto funding is matching support for a grant I received to study organic management practices to mitigate apple replant disease. The manufacturer of one of the fungal isolates I am testing has provided matching funds to conduct soil nematode assessments which were too expensive to include in my grant. That company, Novozymes, Inc., entered into a distribution partnership with Monsanto BioAg in January of the year after I submitted the grant (November 2013). Never have I been contacted by Monsanto in regards of this work or any other work I am involved with. That hardly makes me a shill. Rather, as a plant scientist, I’d suggest that I’m fairly well-informed of the issues around crop breeding and production…

Anyone who views my CV will also see that I have never conducted research with any GM crop, that the majority of my scientific career has included research on organic production systems (including my M.S. thesis and Ph.D. dissertation), and that I work on applied projects to solve real problems identified by Vermont farmers. I would never risk my integrity as a researcher for a $9,000 grant (out of over $400,000 attained at that time) that doesn’t go into my pocket, but pays for technicians and research costs. That’s just not the way that anyone who works in an academic research environment conducts business, in fact, the culture is very much against it. Here‘s a great blog piece that illustrates the difference between disclosed conflicts of interest and scientific misconduct that explains why we need to worry less about the former and more about the latter.

So now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk.