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Could genetically engineered, nitrogen-fixing crops replace polluting synthetic fertilizers?

Everyone has heard of the nutrient, nitrogen, but why is it important to plants?

It’s a key ingredient in proteins, both in the grains (seeds) we eat and in leaves.  Nitrogen-starved leaves may turn yellow and have lower rates of  photosynthesis, which turns carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into new plant growth.

To keep food affordable and protect the environment, crop plants need just the right amount of nitrogen, but this is a challenge for both farmers and scientists. Too much nitrogen fertilizer on crops pollutes rivers and well water and its cost makes food more expensive. With too little nitrogen, yields decrease and the imbalance between supply and demand makes food more expensive.  Higher grain prices can also make it more profitable to clear tropical forests for agriculture.

Biological nitrogen fixation is a potential solution to these problems.  Legume crops like beans, peanuts, soybeans, and alfalfa get much of their nitrogen from symbiotic bacteria, known as rhizobia, which take nitrogen gas from the air and convert it into forms plants can use, like ammonia.  The carbon compounds the rhizobia need come from their plant hosts.  These resources could otherwise have been used to make more seeds, so legumes have evolved sophisticated mechanisms to support no more nitrogen fixation than they need.  When less-expensive nitrogen sources like ammonia or nitrate are available in the soil, legumes make fewer of the root nodules that house the bacteria and may even shut down existing nodules.

Biological nitrogen fixation: Environmental benefits and lower cost?

Could non-legumes also use nitrogen fixation somehow, with similar environmental benefits?  If so, would farmers save enough money on fertilizer costs to balance the yield decrease from diverting resources from seed production to nitrogen fixation?  Or might a more-reliable nitrogen supply actually increase yields, despite the energy cost?

Corn, wheat, and rice do not make root nodules, but some bacteria that live on or near their roots can fix small amounts of nitrogen.  In Nature Microbiology, Ryu et al. discuss genetic improvement of these bacteria.  They normally fix little or no nitrogen if exposed to oxygen, which destroys the key enzyme, nitrogenase, or if ammonia is available.  Ryu et al. were able to change these traits, but practical applications of their work are far from certain, even in the long term.

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Credit: Ryu et al.

Knocking out repression of nitrogen fixation by ammonia may seem like a step backwards, from an environmental point of view.  After all, the ability of legume crops to fix no more nitrogen than they need is key to limiting nitrate pollution of our water supplies.  But we want nitrogen fixation rate to depend on overall plant needs, not just on ammonia levels around the bacteria.  So Ryu et al. engineered bacteria to adjust nitrogen-fixation rates in response to signals from plants.  Energy would still have to come from the plants, however.  Would the benefits of nitrogen fixation justify this cost?  Let’s be optimistic and assume they would, initially.

But bacteria evolve.  Even if they provided nitrogen at a reasonable cost at first, benefits could decrease in only a few days.  The paper mentions the “fitness burden” of nitrogen fixation, causing rhizobia that fix more to die out.  A “cheating” mutant that fixed only as much nitrogen as it needed itself, with nothing extra for the plant, would free up resources for its own reproduction and take over.

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Yet, nitrogen fixation by rhizobia in legume root nodules has persisted for millions of years.  What has limited the spread of rhizobial “cheaters”?  Legumes shut off the oxygen supply to nodules that fail to fix enough nitrogen, saving resources for the plant and limiting reproduction by rhizobial “cheaters.”  If we want corn, wheat, or rice to get much of their nitrogen from bacteria, they will need some such mechanism to shut down nodules that cost more than they are worth.

It may be more feasible to add nitrogen-fixation genes to new crops themselves, rather than relying on bacteria.  The crops would still have to pay nitrogen-fixation’s high energy cost, but it might be worth it in at least some cases.

Oxygen would still be a problem.  Even moderate concentrations of oxygen can destroy nitrogenase, yet oxygen-based respiration is needed to meet nitrogen-fixation’s energy needs.  In legumes, regulation of oxygen supply to the nodule interior helps solve this problem.  But some of the bacteria described in the Nature Microbiology paper fixed nitrogen in oxygen concentrations above 1%.

If this work points the way to oxygen-tolerant nitrogen fixation by plants, we might someday be able to grow corn, wheat, and rice without nitrogen fertilizer.

[1]It is in chlorophyll, but much more of it is in rubisco. When plants don’t have enough N to make all the rubisco they need, there’s no point to make the full amount of chlorophyll, so they don’t.  Hence, yellow leaves.

R. Ford Denison is the author of Darwinian Agriculture and an adjunct professor in the department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. He taught crop ecology at the University of California, Davis and got his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1983.

This article was originally published at Science 2.0 and has been republished here with permission. Follow Science 2.0 on Twitter @science2_0 

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Podcast: CRISPR-edited weed; opioid addiction vaccine; Africa’s neglected diseases

An opioid-blocking vaccine could spare many people a lifetime of drug addiction, if and when it’s developed. COVID-19 exposed Africa’s inability to mitigate a pandemic; the silver lining is that it focused a spotlight on neglected tropical diseases that plague countries on the continent. Researchers in Israel are using CRISPR gene editing to improve cannabis production, helping ensure a stable supply of medical marijuana for patients all over the world.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

A vaccine for opioid addiction could spare many people a lifetime of drug decadency, and all the tragic side effects that come with it. Three candidate vaccines are currently undergoing clinical trials, but a new study suggests that such a drug may not be effective when it’s most needed, because the body’s immune system may counteract the vaccine’s effect.

Drug policy reform advocates have also challenged the ethics of developing an opioid vaccine. Why, they ask, should the federal government invest money in a speculative vaccine when it could fund proven harm-reduction strategies that ultimately reduce drug use? Moreover, could people convicted of drug offenses be required to get an opioid immunization, and who would pay for it?

Plagued by conflict, corrupt governments, poverty and lacking health care infrastructure, Africa was woefully unprepared to combat the coronavirus that rapidly made its way across the globe early in 2020. COVID-19 didn’t strike Africa as hard as it did other parts of the world, fortunately enough, but it has highlighted a critical and often overlooked problem in Africa: neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

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As the name implies, these conditions get little attention from the international medical community, because they primarily afflict people in poor countries. A small contingency of infectious disease experts and philanthropies is committed to helping governments tackle the problem, however Africa ultimately has to reform its political institutions and invest in the health care infrastructure that can prevent and treat NTDs.

Researchers are improving all sorts of crops with CRISPR gene editing: everything from wheat, tomatoes and apples—to cannabis. A biotech startup in Israel is utilizing the powerful new breeding technique to develop disease-resistant marijuana that can be easily grown from seed (instead of cloned) under greenhouse conditions, the goal being to produce a more stable supply of medical-grade cannabis for patients all over the world.

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

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Roundup glyphosate weedkiller responsible for the decline in Monarch butterflies? Media and advocacy groups badly misreport study

News reporting at its best should be nuanced. There are rarely ‘black hats’ and ‘white hats’ when it comes to understanding the issues of the day, unless you are 60 Minutes which revels in journalism casting. Life is usually shades of gray—complex. When reporters address controversial topics, it’s not enough to just get the various elements ‘right’; the headline and the editorial thrust should responsibly reflect the multi-dimensionality of a topic; otherwise a story can muddy the understanding of a complex issue and ultimately undermine both science and the public’s trust in journalism.

Such is the case for a recent article reporting on a study of Monarch butterfly population declines by an advocacy group, written by Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, a solid, reputable source of unbiased scientific information.

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Why are Monarchs in decline? It’s a hotly-debate issue, with many studies with competing conclusions. Anti-biotechnology activist groups have singled out the herbicide glyphosate as a major driver of the decline, so the issue is embedded in a wider, inflamed debate over the controversial weedkiller. Which makes it all the more important that any new science on this issue should be contextualized and reported with nuance.

The GLP has addressed this controversy extensively, including providing a dispassionate, science-based analysis in our GMO FAQ resource. We interviewed  and sourced a range of scientists on all sides of the issue. Here are two competing quotes, the first from a distinguished, independent scientist discussing the evidence in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; the second from an activist scientist affiliated  with an organization known for its endorsements of  homeopathy, Chinese medicine and other pseudo-sciences addressing the controversy in a propaganda piece:screen shot at am

Here is what the GLP presented to the public in its GMO FAQ as the science consensus on this issue—which is accurate today:

There is intense scrutiny over the role that GMO crops (and, by extension, herbicides glyphosate and dicamba) often paired with them play in the health of the Monarch butterfly.

Butterfly population declines are often primarily blamed by activists and some scientists on farmers using herbicides to destroy milkweed — a poisonous weed that severely damages crops but is a critical food source for butterfly caterpillars — growing near their GMO crops. The issue is complex with researchers differing on the causes of the decline.

The insect is facing problems that appear to be more complex than a single culprit. Research suggests the Monarch faces numerous threats, most of them unrelated to the use of herbicides, including climate change and degradation of their overwintering habitat in Mexico. A review of 116 years of data published in 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that agricultural practices, including the use of herbicides, are responsible for less than 20 percent of the monarch decline, blaming most of the declines on deaths during annual migrations to and from Mexico. A 2020 study using data compiled by the conservation group Monarch Watch challenges that conclusion, blaming the loss of milkweed on a variety of complex factors, including loss of breeding grounds for weeds due to urbanization and suburbanization, and weed control efforts by organic and conventional farmers.

That’s the science consensus. Which makes it all the more baffling and disappointing when the Cornell Alliance for Science recently posted an article on its well-regarded site with its exaggerated and inflammatory headline and editorial thrust. The article’s author, Denmark-based journalist Justin Cremer, opens the article—already  tainted by its headline—with an exaggerated sentence that contradicts the central conclusion of the study it is reporting.

A new study suggests that extensive agricultural use of glyphosate herbicide is to blame for the decades-long decline in North America’s monarch butterfly population.

Cremer subsequently writes that the study results “bolster the ‘milkweed limitation hypothesis.’ This theory points to the widespread use of glyphosate as the main cause of the population decline.”

Here’s the problem: These headline and these statements contradict the actual study … as even Cremer himself acknowledges in an otherwise solidly-reported piece. Also, Cremer does not alert the reader to the source of the data for the study: a Monarch butterfly advocacy group, Monarch Watch. Its standard to alert the reader to potential conflicts of interest.

What does the study actually conclude and how are activists reporting on this complex issue?

Milkweed is used exclusively by Monarchs for egg laying on their multi-generational migration from Mexico to Canada and back. As Cremer later points out, the actual study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, and headed by University of Kansas emeritus professor (and Monarch expert) Orley Taylor and Iowa State University butterfly authority John Pleasants, is not focused on the glyphosate issue in the main. Its intent, the authors clearly state, is to analyze a popular hypothesis that the severe (more than 90 percent) Monarch population decline over the past few decades is due to losses during the butterfly’s southern migration.

The study supports an alternative hypothesis—that milkweed supply declines are a driving force, among many other issues, for the decline of these beautiful creatures. And what’s behind the milkweed decline? It’s not glyphosate directly as the headline asserts. Rather, it’s land use changes fueled by politics (more on that below).

The world’s most-used weedkiller has long been a popular target of genetic engineering opponents because it’s used with herbicide-tolerant “Roundup Ready” (glyphosate) corn and soybean, which now comprise more than 90 percent of all such crops grown in the United States. Previously, these groups blamed the GMO plants themselves for milkweed and Monarch declines. Conservation group Environmental Action summed up the activist case in a recent petition urging individual states to ban glyphosate:

WE NEED TO BAN ROUNDUP TO SAVE MONARCHS.
If we want to save the monarch migration, one of nature’s greatest phenomena, we need to stop the habitat destruction that’s been causing their numbers to plummet.
A great step that your state can take? Ban Roundup, the weed killer whose active ingredient, glyphosate, decimates the milkweed plant monarchs rely on to survive.

More recently, activist groups have called for home-improvement retailers Lowes and Home Depot to stop selling Roundup (and its generic equivalents) because of its alleged impact on butterflies. Not long after the paper and Alliance for Science story were published, groups like Friends of the Earth and CommonDreams called for a sales ban:

In their pleas, the groups also cited the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) 2015 monograph, which linked glyphosate to certain cancers (a conclusion refuted by every regulatory agency in the world, including the WHO itself), and promoted organic farming methods (which do not exclude pesticides).

There were a few media groups that covered the paper got the story right, making the Alliance for Science report stand out even more. ScienceDaily handled it well, focusing on what the story was actually about: a refutation of the ‘migratory hypothesis’.


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Science News concluded: These findings support the conclusion reached by a team of experts that sustaining the monarch migration will require the restoration of over a billion milkweed stems in the Upper Midwest in the coming years.”

Even the progressive online magazine DownToEarth handled the headline and the story with appropriate nuance,

writing, “The findings led researchers to conclude that a billion milkweed stems needed to be restored in the Upper Midwest in the coming years to sustain Monarch migration.”

So, what’s really behind the milkweed decline?

This is where things get complicated, and where the author of the Cornell Alliance repot did not do his homework. Taylor told the Genetic Literacy Project that once glyphosate became popular, years before the introduction of GM corn and soy in the mid-1990s, it did almost eliminate milkweed from farmland. But, he added, that effect ended around 2006. Taylor, his co-author Pleasants and others were more concerned in 2000 about the use of GM crops bred to express Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) Cry toxin, which kills caterpillars, although recent research indicates these insect-resistant plants probably don’t pose a risk to butterflies.

In fact, research has shown recent resurgences of Monarch butterflies, though their populations still remain significantly lower than their peak, as the Genetic Literacy Project explains in its FAQ on Monarchs and pesticides:

According to the independent Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, the population in 2018 reached the highest levels of the past 25 years, and the fourth highest level since 1993. The number of butterflies heading south to Mexico may reach as many as 250 million over the 2018-19 winter. At its peak in the 1990s, the population reached an estimated 900 million.

Since 2006, corn and soy production have surged, partly due to overall demand but largely because of the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), signed by President George W. Bush, that encouraged the use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline. The RFS subsequently boosted corn production and, according to Taylor, led to 24 million acres of marginal land being converted to corn crop—more than three quarters of this land was grassland that probably once had milkweed.

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In other words, the decline is complex. Even a prominent researcher at Monarch Watch, the source of the data, challenged the simplistic ‘glyphosate theory; according to Cremer, Anurag Agrawal, who was not one of the study’s researchers, “cautioned that the situation is more complex than the staged suggests and said Monarchs are experiencing stress from multiple sources.” But that caution is contradicted by the headline and opening line of  Cremer’s piece.

The real issue, as weird as it may sound, is ‘how do we restore weeds’, for that’s where Monarchs flourish. Weedy areas are targeted by all farmers, organic and conventional. Monarchs do no better in organic farms, where they are removed through carbon-belching machinery rather than by using glyphosate. The main driver in the reduction of weedy areas, as this study and others conclude, is not the use of glyphosate but suburbanization, the gradual co-option of wild areas for housing and industrial uses, which have no connection to using chemical weedkillers.

Commenting on the Alliance for Science article Taylor noted:

The text shows there is a failure to understand that long-term trends in populations are based on long-term trends. The trend here is loss of habitat and not mortality during migration or at other times in the annual cycle.

Andrew Kniss, weed scientist at the University of Wyoming, tweeted shortly after the Alliance for Science article ran. Echoing Taylor, he observed that this was an issue of milkweed habitat losses because of land use, not herbicides.

kniss monarch tweets

“Glyphosate is better than most herbicides,” he wrote…and that includes weed control chemicals used by organic farmers. If farmers did not use glyphosate, they would just substitute something else—almost certainly more toxic and ecologically compromising—and the problem would persist.

Kniss’s perspective that this issue is far more complex than the simplistic ‘glyphosate is harmful’ chants dovetails with the conclusions of a 2016 Cornell University study:

In the face of scientific dogma that faults the population decline of monarch butterflies on a lack of milkweed, herbicides and genetically modified crops, a new Cornell University study casts wider blame: sparse autumnal nectar sources, weather and habitat fragmentation.

In other words, this problem is rooted in the removal of weedy plots and not a glyphosate or even a herbicide issue per se, as the Cornell Alliance for Science headline and first line of its story misleadingly suggest. Both organic farmers and conventional farmers need to remove milkweeds; the method of removal should not be the issue.

The CAS article served mostly to legitimize out-of-context attacks on a safe and effective herbicide. Intended or not, it implied that farming systems that rely primarily on synthetic weedkillers are more likely to endanger the Monarch than farming systems using ‘natural’ chemicals or machines to control weeds. Does anyone really believe that if glyphosate or dicamba or a mechanical tiller was not available, farmers would allow weeds, including milkweed, to inundate their farms?

Going forward

So, what kind of “everyday kindness” could improve the fate of the Monarch butterfly?

Monarch Watch and other groups have spent years advocating for accelerated planting of milkweed, especially along the migratory corridors through the US and the Canadian Midwest. If farmers can’t do it (or won’t, because milkweed is a weed and farming is a precarious business) on their farms, addressing areas could work: public areas, highway medians, federal lands, parks, homes and schools. Taylor’s paper called specifically for replanting 1.4 million stems of milkweed to return to levels seen 40-50 years ago; where they are replanted is a separate issue.

At Monarch Watch, “we now have over 30,000 registered sites with at least twice that number that have been created but not registered,” Taylor said. “There are plenty of opportunities to provide habitats for monarchs and pollinators in lots of marginal areas around farms and even in suburban and urban environments.”

Andrew Porterfield is a Contributing Correspondent to the Genetic Literacy Project. He is a writer and editor, and has worked with numerous academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @AMPorterfield

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Viewpoint: Rethinking ‘critical race theory’ — What happens when broad racialist viewpoints ‘invade’ science?

“Schœlcher n’est pas notre sauveur,” declared protestors who toppled statues on the French territory of Martinique earlier this year—“Schœlcher is not our savior.” The reference is to Victor Schœlcher, the 19th-century politician who’s long been lauded for his role in abolishing slavery in France and its colonial holdings. French President Emmanuel Macron rightly condemned the act, as did cabinet minister Annick Giradin, who denounced the destruction of monuments that embody the nation’s “collective memory.” And the mayor of Martinique’s capital warned against la tentation de réécrire l’histoire—the temptation to rewrite history.

Unfortunately, the force of that temptation has been growing stronger recently, and not just within the progressive subcultures of English-speaking countries. On June 22nd, Parisian vandals threw red paint on a statue of no less a French intellectual icon than Voltaire, whose 1763 Treatise on Tolerance, ironically, traced the history and importance of ideological and religious pluralism.

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Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, we have witnessed numerous symbolic gestures intended to address the legacy of racism. But the effects of these campaigns have had unsettling consequences. We are two tenured scientists in France who have become concerned about the injection of racial themes into all areas of policy, politics, and even science. One of us (Bikfalvi) directs a department focused on cancer biology at a university, and at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM). The other (Kuntz) is a research director at the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS), focusing on plant biology.

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Andreas Bikfalvi (left); Marcel Kuntz (right)

We both have spent much of our careers defending science, and the scientific method more generally, from the demands of activists who have attempted to trump established methodologies with dogma. Now, as then, it is our strong conviction that science should be kept separate from politics.

We are hardly the first scientists to announce such warnings, of course. In 1987, two Imperial College physicists wrote an article entitled “Where Science has Gone Wrong,” warning Nature readers about the growing threats, from popular culture, academics, and policy-makers alike, to “objectivity, truth and science.” The authors discussed “erroneous and harmful” ideas that presented relativistic epistemological antitheses to “the traditional and successful theses of natural philosophy.” Thirty-three years later, the problem has only gotten worse.

In his Treaty on Tolerance, Voltaire wrote of “those calamities that will open the eyes of the uninformed and touch the hearts of the humane.” We adhere to Enlightenment ideals of universalism that encompass all identities (and which contributed greatly to the abolitionist movement that Schœlcher championed). And, like millions of others around the world, we were shocked by Floyd’s murder, and by the racist reality that this “calamity” symbolized. But outrage should not undermine our capacity for reason. Dividing humanity into races is by nature a political project, whether performed in the service either of odious bigotry or of anti-racism.

The racialization of discourses, a phenomenon that has spread rapidly to other Western countries from the United States, is increasingly metastasizing into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The process is on display at numerous scientific institutions and journals, including the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine.

In Science, chemist Holden Thorp declared that “the evidence of systemic racism in science permeates this nation [i.e., the United States].” In an unsigned editorialNature editors pledged to end (unspecified) “anti-Black practices in research.” They also declared that they lead “one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship,” and that “the enterprise of science has been—and remains—complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices.”

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This is the language of religious confession, not scientific analysis. As scientists ourselves, we feel insulted by such blanket self-denunciations—since we are not racists, have never been racists, and have never met colleagues who, to our knowledge, acted in a racist manner.

This obviously does not mean that there are no racists working in scientific fields. But our experience suggests they are not common or prominent in modern professional communities. We also reject the use of the term “systemic racism,” a term injected by critical race theorists into the discourse, which presupposes the idea that racism is built into the structures of our working environments.

Being objective and testable, science is one of the best tools we have to shed light on the failures of our society. And so it is not only wrong, but counterproductive, to write off the entire edifice of science as rotten with prejudice. If the situation is different in the United States, and there truly are scientific sectors in which racists openly exert control (though no evidence has yet been presented to indicate this), then American scientists should correct such situations accordingly. But please do not include the rest of the scientific community through broad, unproven, ideologically motivated accusations.

The mission of science is to describe the world as accurately as possible, including in regard to racial discrimination and social issues more generally. But the racialization of discourses is detracting from our ability to perform accurate investigations, as it threatens to turn science into a subset of activism. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) publishes a collection entitled Research in Racial and Social Justice. Few would argue against “justice” of any kind, including social justice. But defining what is and isn’t socially “just” is an inherently political project. How exactly does this accord with the National Academy of Sciences’ stated mission to provide “independent, objective” information “on matters related to science and technology”?

Some historical lessons should be kept in mind when political goals and ideological principles are injected into science. A century ago, social Darwinists and eugenicists mistakenly imagined that their doctrines would help improve society. Geneticist Hermann Müller (1890–1967) even combined his belief in eugenics with strong socialist leanings. Fortunately, geneticists such as Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866–1945), Raymond Pearl (1879–1940), and Herbert Spencer Jennings (1868–1947) staunchly criticized their theories. Science has a self-corrective mechanism embedded within it, and so social Darwinists ultimately were rejected.

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Trofim Lysenko

Or consider the case of Trofim Lysenko (1898–1976), the Soviet agronomist and biologist who rejected Mendelian genetics because of its supposed incompatibility with communism. As a consequence of such ideologically motivated pseudoscience, many Soviet geneticists were arrested and executed, or died in prison, including the internationally respected geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. As Jan Witkowski wrote in a 2008 review of Peter Pringle’s book about Vavilov:

Lysenko promised Stalin that new strains of wheat and other crops with desirable traits could be produced within three years, much quicker than the twelve years that Vavilov required. Perhaps as importantly, Lysenko’s views of genetics were in sympathy with prevailing Marxist dogma. Experts, by virtue of their education and role, were members of the bourgeoisie and regarded with suspicion in Russia. There was a strong political movement to replace the intelligentsia with elevated peasants and other members of the proletariat, even if they were untrained and ill-fitted to their new posts. Lysenko was one such example. Vavilov, by contrast, was an educated, well-travelled businessman’s son who was thought to be susceptible to foreign influences.

These are extreme examples, of course. But they serve to demonstrate what can happen when science is guided by politics or ideology.

In closing, we wish to come back to the situation in our own country. The French Republic is, in principle, “one and indivisible,” guided by a universalistic philosophy that is incompatible with identity politics. Unfortunately, humanities departments at some universities and public research organizations have come under the sway of recent ideological trends in English-speaking countries, especially in the areas of race, gender, and anti-colonialism.

Last year, a founder of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, was invited to Sorbonne University in Paris, along with additional theorists such as Nira Yuval-Davis of the University of East London, and Kalpana Wilson, a Geography professor at Birkbeck College, University of London (and a self-described Marxist), to promote the “intersectional” idea that mainstream society is waging permanent war on anyone who isn’t male or white (though this is an interpretation that Crenshaw has recently tried to dispute). In fact, scholars have been trying to import critical race theory into the French academy for many years.

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Sylviane Agacinski, photographed in 2002

In line with this new emphasis on ideological orthodoxy, activist groups recently managed to shut some speakers down, such as the philosopher Sylviane Agacinski (wife of former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin), who was scheduled to speak to a 2019 conference about the risks of medically-assisted reproduction techniques. In this case, fortunately, the university and its academics criticized the cancelation, and thereby reaffirmed their support of Enlightenment values and free speech. And there remain a number of influential voices in France that oppose the encroachment of identity politics, including the philosopher Élisabeth Badinter, writer Caroline Fourest, former socialist prime minister Manuel Valls, and philosopher Régis Debray. But it is open to question how long these voices will remain heard, as the whole fabric of identity politics is bound up with the idea that there is only one “correct” way of thinking and speaking.

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We are sorry if our heterodox views serve to disappoint friends and colleagues in the United States and elsewhere. But we retain the belief that, in supposedly pluralistic societies, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. We urge other scientists not to follow the American example, and to resist the campaign to racialize science. While we admire many aspects of American culture, we reject its cultural imperialism—including the new form of ostensibly progressive cultural imperialism that serves to impose America’s own obsessive race tribalism on the rest of the world.

Our European experience provides no shortage of cautionary tales—including Renaissance Florence under the influence of Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who imposed a regime of religious purity in the 1490s. Such was his sway that no less an artist than Sandro Botticelli was induced to burn his creations and give up painting. In all eras, the demands of ideological purity serve to suppress the pursuit of art and reason. Standing up to puritans is necessary if we are to protect the telos and soul of science.

Andreas Bikfalvi is a scientist conducting biomedical research in cancer and vascular biology. He heads a research laboratory at the University of Bordeaux and the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. Find Andreas on Twitter @AndreasBikfalvi

Marcel Kuntz is a research director at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Grenoble, France. The views expressed in this article represent the authors’ personal opinions, not those of any institution with which they are affiliated. This article is adapted from declined editorial submissions to Science and Nature. Find Marcel on Twitter @marcel_kuntz

A version of this article was originally published at Quillette and has been republished here with permission. Quillette can be found on Twitter @Quillette

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Viewpoint: How the ‘Food Justice’ movement reinforces inequality while doing little to improve health outcomes

In the Fall of 2017, I was invited to give the keynote address at a conference titled “Food Justice: Exploring Our Cultures’ Complexity.” In return, my generous hosts at the University of Rochester gave me an embarrassing number of gift cards to the family of restaurants that includes Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, and Bahama Breeze. By now, those cards have become a running joke in my house, and not just because chain restaurants are so antithetical to most people’s image of “food justice.” It’s because we can’t bring ourselves to use them.

We’ll have booked a babysitter but failed to make any further plans, and as we’re pulling out of the driveway at peak restaurant wait time on a weekend evening, one of us will say, “Is this the night we finally go to Olive Garden?” Then we laugh and go somewhere else to eat, usually a familiar brewpub or diner, but sometimes the kind of aspirational chef-driven restaurant that serves from-scratch cooking highlighting fresh, locally sourced ingredients. In other words, they serve the food most people do associate with food justice because they believe it is better for the planet, for the people raising and cooking the food, and for their health.

The thing is, we actually like Olive Garden. I’m a fan of the minestrone soup and garden salad, and who doesn’t like their garlic bread sticks? Together, these compose a vegetarian meal that even many omnivores will find satisfying, and provided you don’t go too crazy with the breadsticks, most people would probably consider it reasonably healthy as well. My spouse swears that their calamari appetizer is the best he’s ever had. Nonetheless, I can’t get him, or most of my friends, to eat there with me.

We might sound like snobs, but a better read is that we’re idiots. We’ve now passed up dozens of opportunities to eat food we know we like. Instead, we’ve paid handsomely for food we sometimes don’t — five-spice duck that tasted like burnt cinnamon, unpleasantly acidic salads, sodden fried fish and empanadas, and woefully undersalted dishes at restaurants arrogant enough to leave their diners without salt on the table. We persist in eating this unpalatable and expensive food because we, like almost everyone of our social class, have largely succumbed to the cultural forces that have anointed some foods—fresh, local, organic, and slow—and demonized others—processed, mass-produced, conventional, and fast. By these standards, Olive Garden’s food is bad even if it tastes good and is good for you, and even if it is effectively free.

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Michael Pollan

It’s embarrassing to admit how much that dichotomy still influences how I eat, because I wrote an entire book on the problems with foodie culture called Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution. My book seeks to explain why middle- and upper-class people began to fixate on gourmet food, weight-loss dieting, natural foods, and ethnic cuisines back in the 1980s, just at the moment that income inequality began to spiral. Much of this shift in attitudes toward food was undertaken in the name of health and the environment. But its primary function, in my analysis, has been to enable people of a certain social class to distinguish themselves from the unwashed masses during a period of elite hoarding of wealth and opportunity that started with the Reagan years and continues today.

“Food justice” developed as a direct response to both the industrial food system and the “alternative food movement,” which, whatever else one might say about it, has always been overwhelmingly comprised of the white and rich. But in practice, there’s never been much difference between what “food justice” and “alternative food” efforts look like on the ground, which is almost always uncritical boosterism about community gardens, farmers markets, and subscription vegetable boxes. The main difference is that when branded as “food justice,” such markets might give people double the dollar value for their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits if they shop at this inconvenient, once-a-week produce vending system where you can’t buy paper towels or toothpaste.

These well-intentioned efforts ostensibly give working people of color access to the same sorts of amenities that many upper-middle-class white people take for granted — fresh, locally grown produce, meat and eggs from pastured pigs and chickens, and the opportunity to ask whether organic-approved pesticides are actually worse for beneficial insects than synthetics. Or whatever else they like to make small talk with farmers about. However, it’s not clear what concept of justice any of it actually serves.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was recently taken to task for the tone-deaf elitism of his answer to poor nutrition in impoverished communities: more farm-to-table restaurants. However, if you add “urban” before “farm” and substitute “food pantry” for “restaurant,” that’s literally what most food justice organizations propose as the solution to our present health and environmental inequities. The critique that Beto’s idea is unacceptably elitist and totally inadequate to the nature and scale of the problem it seeks to address isn’t wrong; it’s simply equally true of most food justice organizations.

That, ultimately, is the problem with food justice as it’s presently defined. It mostly seeks to expand access to and inclusion in a food culture whose basic claims and premises it has failed to question. As a result, demands for food justice are too often based on assumptions about health, sustainability, and equity that actually reinforce inequality while doing little to meaningfully improve health outcomes for low-income communities of color or reduce damage to the environment. A food justice movement that takes seriously the problems of equity, health, and sustainability will need to start asking harder questions about what counts as good food, and who should get to define what counts as goodness and justice when it comes to food for low-income communities of color.

1.

One reason we should be careful about how we define what it means to be good or just when it comes to our food system is that food is one of the languages we use to inhabit and interpret social identities such as class. For as long as there have been social classes, the poor have been a repository for whatever the richer classes are most anxious about and wish to distance themselves from. In the Victorian era, when the rich proved their status largely by not having to work, they despised labor and the traits associated with it, like a muscular body and tanned skin. Instead, the Victorian elite idealized thinness, especially in women. Teenage girls on both sides of the Atlantic wanted to be slender and pale because those traits were associated with infirmity, delicacy, and an artistic or intellectual temperament. This stood in contrast to the rude health, strength, and lack of sophistication associated with the robust laboring bodies of the peasant and working classes and their voracious appetites.

The modern restaurant was born when some clever entrepreneurs in early nineteenth-century Paris started opening shops to sell foods thought to be appropriate for sick people. In contrast to existing eating establishments like inns or caterers, where you essentially purchased the right to a plate of whatever was being served that day, restaurants offered a consistent menu of options that were medical treatment as much as food. The word restaurant derives from the same root as restore and referred to these establishments’ most standard offering: the therapeutic or restorative broths that invalids were supposed to sip in place of solid food. Part of the popularity of this new institution was that it gave the rich a public arena in which to perform their susceptibility to illness.

Today, thinness is still associated with wealth, but now it’s predominantly seen as a sign of good health. The poor, meanwhile, are strongly associated with fatness and the other stigmatized characteristics popularly linked to it, including ignorance, laziness, apathy, and a lack of willpower. The stigma though, is just that. The strength of the popular association between poor people and fatness is not well supported by the available data.

According to the 2005–2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which measured the actual height and weight of participants (as opposed to self-reporting data), the relationship between body mass index (BMI) and income isn’t strong, consistent, or linear. Obesity rates are 13 percent lower for women in the richest group than the poorest. But when you break that out by race, the trend is only statistically significant for white women. There’s no relationship between income and BMI for men overall, and for black and Mexican American men, the relationship is the opposite of the popular assumption. Obesity rates among the wealthiest group of black and Mexican American men are 9–16 percent higher than they are for the poorer groups.

Nor is it the case that poor people eat more fast food than richer people. In a 2017 study, economists Jay Zagorsky and Patricia Smith found little difference in fast-food consumption across income and wealth categories. To the extent that there was a pattern, it looked like an inverted U — highest in the middle, and lowest among the rich and poor. This finding is pretty typical. Depending on how researchers code the data (mainly how they treat the income variable), other studies have found modestly positive or negative correlations. But whatever the true association, it’s not a strong one. People up and down the income distribution eat fast food, some of them perhaps too much of it. But poor people don’t eat much more than rich people, if they eat any more at all.

Neither are poor people less likely to cook meals at home. In fact, they generally do more of it. According to 2012 survey research commissioned by the anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, people with household incomes lower than 185 percent of the poverty line eat dinner cooked at home 5.5 times per week, compared with 5.2 times per week for those above that threshold. Additionally, poorer families were slightly more likely to cook “from scratch,” which they defined as not relying on prepared or convenience foods.

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It shouldn’t surprise anyone that poor people don’t eat more fast food than the middle class or that they cook meals at home a bit more often. Dining out is expensive. Full-service restaurants cost more, about $15 for the average meal versus $8 at a fast-food restaurant. But $8 per meal is still a lot of money for low-income people, more than many can afford (at least very often). For comparison, the cost of an average meal at home for a single male adult, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) food plans used to determine SNAP allowances for 2019, ranged from approximately $2 on the thrifty plan to $4 on the liberal plan. It’s even less for women, children, the elderly, and larger families. The poorest 15 percent of Americans can’t even afford $2 per person per meal without government assistance, let alone $8.

So perhaps the first question that the food justice movement ought to be asking the alternative food movement is, How have so many people become convinced that poor people are fatter and eat more fast food than anyone else, when they aren’t and don’t? Or why do we think that eating an average of just over one fast-food meal per week (which is about what everybody, rich and poor, healthy and unhealthy, does) is too much? Also, why do the solutions imagined by both the alternative food movement and the food justice movement seem to depend on the myth that the biggest barrier to an equitable food system for low-income communities of color is how much fast food they consume?

2.

The tendency to displace undesirable behaviors and characteristics onto the poor and non-white other is matched by the valorization of behaviors favored by the elite: hence, the fetishization of fresh, local produce. There is ample evidence that locally grown food isn’t always (or even typically) better for the environment. The evidence isn’t much better for the supposed health benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables, the one dietary suggestion that virtually all contemporary nutritional ideologies endorse.

For instance, the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals’ Follow-Up Study has periodically assessed the diets of almost 110,000 medical caregivers since 1976 and tracked their cardiovascular events, cancer diagnoses, and deaths. There is a wide range in how many servings of fruits and vegetables people in the study population say they consume, with people in the highest quintile eating eight or more servings a day and those in the lowest quintile eating 1.5 servings or fewer. Nonetheless, the study has so far found no statistically significant relationship between consumption of fruits and vegetables and cancer, chronic illness, or overall mortality.

The only condition that appears to be correlated in a statistically significant way with fruit and vegetable consumption is cardiovascular disease, but the association so far is small: a 28 percent reduction in heart disease risk for people eating nearly twice the USDA recommended intake for fruits and vegetables compared with those eating less than 1.5 per day, that is, virtually none.

While the Harvard School of Public Health website lists this finding as an example of the “compelling evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke,” a 28 percent relative risk reduction is actually minuscule for a large epidemiological data set. This becomes clear if you look at the actual risk reduction instead. The rate of heart disease for the entire study population is low, around 3.5 percent. A 30 percent reduction from such a low base rate gives us 2.5 percent. So someone who habitually eats fewer than two servings of fruits and vegetables — what you’d get from the sauce and toppings on a couple of slices of pizza and half a cup of guacamole — could start eating an additional six-and-a-half servings of massaged kale salad every day and, based on this data set, reduce their risk of having heart disease from roughly 35 in 1000 to 25 in 1000. Emphasizing relative risks to inflate tiny actual risks is the kind of tactic I expect from journalists, but it’s dismaying to see it used so often by researchers and institutions widely perceived to be credible and honest.

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A 2017 meta-analysis of 95 studies of fruit and vegetable intake, which included up to 2.1 million participants, reached a similar conclusion. After controlling for weight, smoking habits, and physical activity levels, eating more fruits and vegetables was associated with a small reduction in the risk of chronic disease. Compared with people who ate between 0 g and 40 g per day (less than one serving), eating 800 g of fruits and vegetables per day (about 10 servings) was associated with a reduction in absolute risk of chronic disease of around 1 percent. That is a real difference, and if it is caused by the difference in fruit and vegetable consumption, then getting people who eat very little of those things to make a radical dietary change might modestly reduce, or at least delay, the onset of some chronic disease. But even the most optimistic estimation of the potential public health benefits, at least based on these studies, should still be small.

Studies that assess biomarkers instead of disease outcomes, which might give an earlier indication of future problems, typically haven’t found significant differences in health risks across different levels of fruit and vegetable consumption either. One study using NHANES data collected between 1999 and 2006 compared fruit and vegetable intake with disease risk biomarkers like C-reactive protein and fasting plasma glucose but found no associations. The authors concluded, “We reject our hypothesis that individuals who consume more fruits and vegetables will have reduced chronic disease risk because of the healthful benefits of these foods.” Nonetheless, they still recommended the consumption of fruits and vegetables to displace “energy-dense foods” in the name of weight maintenance. In other words, their advice amounted to: We don’t know whether eating fruits and vegetables will make you healthier, but we think it should make you thinner,11 which we think is healthier, so do it anyway.

However, studies attempting to assess whether eating more fruits and vegetables really reduces the risk of obesity, even in populations like children (who are sometimes seen as more susceptible to the benefits of dietary change), rarely find much of an effect. One study of nearly 15,000 children and adolescents found no relationship between their intake of fruits, fruit juices, or vegetables and changes in their BMI over a three-year period. “Consumption of fruits and vegetables may be well founded,” the study concluded, “but should not be based on a beneficial effect on weight regulation”— exactly the opposite advice of the biomarker study cited above. Looking at these studies, I sometimes wonder what, if anything, would convince people that eating fruits and vegetables isn’t a nutritional panacea.

As with things like fast-food consumption and home cooking, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that fruit and vegetable consumption isn’t very well correlated with health outcomes. Most people — rich and poor, healthy and unhealthy — get most of their nutrition (in terms of calories or grams of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins) from foods such as grains, animal proteins, legumes, and nuts, not from fruits and vegetables.12 The idea that foods that are costly and labor-intensive in relation to the nutrition they provide and don’t account for much of anyone’s overall food intake are driving major differences in health outcomes defies logic as well as the data from large epidemiological studies.

I suspect that the idea that fruits and vegetables are nutritious and that fast food and junk food are not has less to do with evidence than with the notion that pleasure is morally hazardous, so things that aren’t quite as easy to love, like bland or bitter vegetables, must therefore be virtuous. Advertising your affinity for kale on a T-shirt or reusable shopping bag marks you as a denizen of the alternative food movement in part because kale takes so much work to love. There’s nothing special about liking French fries.

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This particular construction of vice and virtue has typically held a greater appeal for elites, for whom the elective asceticism of saying “No” to the unhealthy indulgences they associate with the poor may in part serve to alleviate guilty or conflicted feelings about their own forms of overconsumption and excess. It wouldn’t be a problem if the only result were elites fetishizing bitter greens, but this ego-gratifying, status-jockeying ideology has been allowed to blinker the movement that claims to seek food justice.

3.

If the evidence that eating more fruits and vegetables is healthier is weak, support for the notion that freshness equates with better health or environmental outcomes is nonexistent, in large part because freshness is less a biological fact than a shifting and contradictory cultural construct. As anthropologist Suzanne Freidberg points out in Fresh: A Perishable History, freshness means different things in different foods. Pasteurized juice cannot be legally labeled “fresh,” though pasteurized milk can. Pasteurization is the same process in both products and used for the same reason — to kill off dangerous pathogens. However, people expect fresh milk to be pasteurized (perhaps because it’s illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption), but they do not expect fresh juice to be.

Not only do beliefs vary from item to item, but they have also varied over time and space. Today, packages instruct people to refrigerate foods to “maintain freshness,” but in the late nineteenth century, as the cold supply-chain developed in the US, consumers initially saw refrigeration as antithetical to freshness or a kind of unnatural way of prolonging it. There were demands for labels to distinguish between genuinely fresh foods and refrigerated ones, which would make no sense at all to consumers today.

Not long before that, as the historian Rachel Laudan reminds us, freshness itself was typically considered nasty and dangerous. “Fresh meat was rank and tough; fresh milk warm and unmistakably a bodily excretion; fresh fruits (dates and grapes being rare exceptions outside the tropics) were inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter…. Natural was unreliable. Fresh fish began to stink. Fresh milk soured, eggs went rotten.” People survived by learning to transform foods from their perishable, natural forms into life-sustaining and pleasurable cuisine.

While it’s true that some of the ways we process food reduce the content or availability of some nutrients or add carcinogens or other toxins, much food processing reduces the risk of contamination, enables people to extract more nutrients, or concentrates and preserves nutrients that would otherwise degrade. Foods like frozen peas and berries, canned tomatoes and pumpkin, yogurt, sauerkraut, and oil-packed sardines and oysters sometimes contain more beneficial nutrients than their fresh equivalents. Meanwhile, fresh foods are often associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions owing to the energy required to keep them cold and transport them quickly enough to get to consumers before they spoil. Our failure to do so consistently is responsible for the lion’s share of food waste.

So why did freshness become such a desirable characteristic? Freidberg argues that it largely has to do with status. Historically, only elites had access to land and could hire or conscript labor to grow and process food. “The conspicuous consumption of freshness didn’t just reflect social hierarchies, it could also help keep them intact,” Friedberg writes. “The ubiquity of more-or-less fresh foods has simply driven the standards higher. The most status goes to whoever can afford the absolute freshest product, however fresh is currently defined.” In other words, the idealization and pursuit of fresh foods helps reinforce social hierarchies, and the obsession with it is a better measure of people’s need for the status it confers than any real health benefits.

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If people in low-income communities want fresh food, however they define it and whatever benefits might or might not be associated with it, they should have access to it if at all possible. But it’s worth at least asking why food justice organizations that aspire to more equitable health and environmental outcomes would prioritize this particular goal. Keeping food fresh and then making it edible and palatable frequently requires more energy, time, money, and labor — in many cases, by people who really don’t have those things to spare — and reinforces myths about superior taste and nutrition that mostly serve to help the middle classes distance themselves from the poor.

Food justice organizations are far from alone in holding ideas about nutrition and sustainability that don’t have much of a relationship to the evidence about how food affects actual health outcomes and environmental impacts. But organizations that claim to represent the interests of low-income communities ought to be more careful and self-reflective about interrogating their own assumptions, especially when they bear such an uncanny resemblance to the preferences and behaviors of rich white consumers.

4.

What the epidemiological evidence really suggests is that people who generally eat more fruits and vegetables (and perhaps a tiny bit less fast food) tend to be healthier because they also tend to be wealthier. These behaviors, in other words, are not likely a meaningful cause of their healthfulness but rather markers of wealth and status, which are the real drivers of disparate health outcomes.

Consider that where the associations between income, BMI, fast-food consumption, and health outcomes are weak or nonexistent, the associations between income and chronic disease risk are robust. In the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities sample, which followed almost 16,000 subjects between the ages of 45–64 for 11 years, the lowest-income category was associated with an approximate 300 percent greater risk of coronary heart disease than the highest income category. In the New Haven cohort of the Established Populations for the Epidemiological Studies of the Elderly, the lowest socioeconomic status was associated with a 200 percent greater risk of stroke.

Although when it comes to cancer the picture is more complicated, one analysis found that people with family incomes lower than $12,500 have a 170 percent higher risk of lung cancer than those with family incomes greater than $50,000, a 59–88 percent higher risk of melanoma, and a 430 percent greater risk of cervical cancer. The Americans’ Changing Lives survey, based on a nationally representative sample of about 3,600 adults, found the risk of mortality was 322 percent higher for the lowest-income group. Even after controlling for smoking, alcohol consumption, sedentary lifestyle, and BMI, the risk was still 277 percent higher.

These studies all show mere associations that cannot on their own prove a causal relationship between poverty and poor health outcomes. Some very small part of the difference might even be due to how many servings of fruits and vegetables rich and poor people eat on average. But whatever is going with social class and health, it appears to have much larger effects than any dietary behavior we can measure.

Before the rise of “food justice,” concerns about food in low-income communities of color were organized primarily around the issue of hunger. In the 1980s, the growing obsession with obesity and people eating “too much” eclipsed the focus on those with too little eat. By the 1990s, when people first started using “food justice” to refer to grassroots food reform or to improving health in low-income communities of color, the dominant assumption was that poor people in low-income neighborhoods can get enough food, just not the right kind.

However, maybe the problem for low-income communities is not that there are too many fast-food joints and not enough supermarkets, but that the poor don’t have enough time or money to eat or shop at either, or anywhere else for that matter. In other words, maybe instead of focusing so intently on what poor people choose to eat, the food justice movement would do better to focus on ensuring that poor people can eat as they choose.

Perhaps for some communities, what would help the most to bring their meals closer to their collective ideals would be to increase the chance that people with meaningful relationships can eat together on a regular basis. The most significant barriers to that vision might include mass incarceration, the unpredictable work schedules of service-sector jobs, and the lack of affordable housing where the densest concentrations of those jobs are located. What would better serve the goal of food justice for these communities are criminal justice reforms: ending cash bail, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, or working toward prison abolition. It is possible that supporting unionization efforts in the service industry and the fight for minimum wage increases and laws to protect workers’ rights (e.g., mandating that work schedules be posted a minimum number of days in advance) would serve that community’s needs better than community gardens or more produce in corner stores.

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For communities that would benefit from having more safe, green spaces where people can gather and eat, it might not be enough to plant a garden if the barriers include gun violence and high rates of substance abuse disorder. Funding gun violence prevention and conflict resolution programs and improving access to clean needles, safer injection sites, medication-assisted treatment for addiction, and mental health support would all do a lot more than selecting the best compact, high-yielding cultivars for urban container gardens. And were we able to establish those safe, green urban spaces, my concept of justice requires that people would be made to feel welcome to share food there whether it came from the garden itself, a local farmers market, or a KFC.

What would probably do the most to address disparities in health outcomes between rich and poor, white and non-white, would be decent universal health care. After all, the diets of rich and poor aren’t appreciably different nutritionally, nor are their rates of obesity. And yet health outcomes associated with obesity are much worse for poor, non-white populations. Whether those health problems are the result of dietary deficiencies or not, they’re far more likely to be manageable if you have money and health care. They are deadlier, or at least will kill you faster, if you don’t.

The pursuit of justice throughout the food system might also focus more on the food that middle- and upper-class people eat. Terrible injustice abounds in the food system. Most of the labor of agricultural production, slaughtering and processing our food, cooking and serving it, and dealing with the many messes created throughout that process is performed by immigrants, both documented and not. Food system workers are paid sub-poverty wages, made to work in unsafe conditions, given inadequate treatment when sickened or injured on the job, and in the case of undocumented and mixed-status families, deprived of rights such as driving legally and voting in the country where they live, work, and pay taxes.

Every day, thousands of women working in the food system will go back to the farm fields, slaughterhouses, and restaurants, where they are routinely threatened with or subjected to sexual violence because that’s how they pay the rent. Millions of Americans who work full time, including at food companies like Smithfield Foods, Walmart, McDonald’s, and Applebee’s that post quarterly and annual profits in the millions, earn so little money that the federal government believes they need assistance to afford $2 per person per meal.

If you are concerned about justice, there is no shortage of work to be done. Growing food inefficiently in soils you have to either laboriously amend or truck in from somewhere else is a fine hobby, especially if it beautifies a neighborhood and provides some delicious tomatoes in August. But it’s simply not an adequate response to the scale of the problems people are facing connected with food. No matter how well-intentioned, a movement based on such an impoverished moral imagination about what is worth wanting when it comes to food will never deliver anything worthy of the name justice.

Margot Finn is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and author of “Discriminating Taste.” Follow her on Twitter @smargot_finn

This article originally ran at the Breakthrough Institute and has been republished here with permission. Find the Breakthrough Institute on Twitter @TheBTI

For a respectful but critical review of this piece, also posted on the Breakthrough Institute site, please click here.

This article originally appeared at GLP on September 19, 2019.

 

male covid

Why COVID-19 hits men harder than women

When it comes to surviving critical cases of COVID-19, it appears that men draw the short straw.

Initial reports from China revealed the early evidence of increased male mortality associated with COVID. According to the Global Health 50/50 research initiative, nearly every country is now reporting significantly higher COVID-19-related mortality rates in males than in females as of June 4. Yet, current data suggest similar infection rates for men and women. In other words, while men and women are being infected with COVID-19 at similar rates, a significantly higher proportion of men succumb to the disease than women, across groups of similar age. Why is it then that more men are dying from COVID-19? Or rather, should we be asking why are more women surviving?

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I am an immunologist, and I explore how stress and biological sex can impact a person’s vulnerability to immune-mediated disease. I study a specific immune cell called the mast cell. Mast cells play a pivotal role in our immune systems as they act as first responders to pathogens and orchestrate immune responses that help clear the invading pathogens.

Our research shows that mast cells from females are able to initiate a more active immune response, which may help females fight off infectious diseases better than men. But the trade-off may be that women are at higher risk for allergic and inflammatory diseases. Recent evidence indicates that mast cells are activated by SARS-CoV-2 which causes COVID-19.

Some clues to why females have higher survival rates may be found in our current understanding of differences in the immune systems of men versus women.

Could sex differences in immune system play a role?

In general, females have a more robust immune response than men which may help females fight off infections better than males. This could be a result of genetic factors or sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone.

Biological females have two copies of the X chromosome, which contains more immune genes. While the genes on one X chromosome are mostly inactive, some immune genes can escape this inactivation, leading to double the number of immune-related genes and thus double the quantity of certain immune proteins compared with biological men who have only one X chromosome.

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Sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone can also impact the immune response. In one study, researchers showed that activating the estrogen receptor in female mice provided them protection against SARS-CoV. And there is an approved clinical trial that will examine the effects of estrogen patches on the severity of COVID-19 symptoms.

It is, however, interesting that the current data showing that women have better survival rates than men applies to even men and women in the 80-plus age group, when hormone levels in both sexes equalize. This suggests that factors other than adult sex hormone levels are contributing to sex differences in COVID-19 mortality.

Androgens, a group of hormones – including testosterone – that are best known to stimulate the development of male characteristics and can cause hair loss, have also received recent attention as a risk factor for COVID-19 in males. In a study conducted in Italy, prostate cancer diagnosis increased the risk for COVID-19. However, prostate cancer patients who were receiving androgen-deprivation therapy (ADT), a treatment that suppresses the production of androgens which fuels prostate cancer cell growth, had a significantly lower risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection. This suggests that blocking androgens in men was protective against SARS-CoV-2 infection.

It is unknown how ADT works to reduce infection rates in men and whether this has been shown in other countries has yet to be determined. Testosterone, which is an androgen hormone has immune-suppressive effects so one explanation could be that ADT might boost the immune system to combat SARS-CoV-2 infection.

There is also evidence that males and females have different quantities of certain receptors that recognize pathogens or that serve as an invasion point for viruses like SARS-CoV-2. One example is the quantity of angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors, which SARS-CoV-2 binds to in order to infect cells. While there is currently no conclusive evidence for a role of ACE2 receptors impacting sex differences and the severity of COVID-19 disease, it remains a potential contributing factor.

Gender, sex and COVID-19 risk

A number of factors can interact with biological sex to increase or decrease one’s susceptibility to COVID-19. Another major factor is gender, which refers to social behaviors or cultural norms that society deems appropriate. Males may be at increased risk for severe disease, because in general, they tend to smoke and drink more, wash their hands less frequently and often delay seeking medical attention. All of these gender specific behaviors may put men at higher risk. While there is no current data yet on how gender plays a role in COVID-19, it will be a critically important factor to account for in order to understand sex differences in mortality.

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Age, psychological stress level, coexisting conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease can also interact with biological sex to increase disease.

While COVID-19 highlights the importance of biological sex in disease risk, sex biases in disease in general is not a new concept. COVID-19 is just another example of a disease that will be added to the growing list of diseases for which males or females are at increased risk.

A history of male-biased research

You might be wondering that if biological sex is so important, then why don’t we know what is causing disparities in disease prevalence between the sexes and why are there no sex-specific therapies?

One major reason is when it comes to being included in scientific research, it is mostly males who have been studied.

This disparity between biological sex differences in research has only recently been remedied. It has only been in the last five years that the National Institutes of Health has required sex difference data to be collected for all newly funded preclinical research grants.

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While there may be several reasons for choosing one sex over the other in research, the huge disparity that now exists is likely a major reason why we still know relatively little about sex differences in immunity, including the current COVID-19 pandemic.

This has clearly hindered advancement of women’s health, but also has negative consequences for men’s health. For example, given the biological differences between the sexes, it is very possible that drugs and therapies will have different effects in females than males.

Biological sex is clearly a major factor determining disease outcomes in COVID-19. Precisely how your biological sex makes you more or less resilient to diseases such as COVID-19 remains to be elucidated. Future basic research with animals and clinical trials in people need to consider biological sex as well as interactions with gender as an important variable.

Adam Moeser is an associate professor, the Matilda R. Wilson Endowed Research Chair of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, and the director of the Gastrointestinal Stress Biology Laboratory at Michigan State University. Follow Adam on Twitter @GIStressBioLab

This article was originally published at the Conversation and has been republished here with permission. Follow The Conversation on Twitter @ConversationUS

locusts

Viewpoint: UN’s ‘hand-in-glove’ alliance with anti-pesticide groups cripples response to Africa’s ravenous locust swarms

In a year devastated by locust plagues, the COVID-19 pandemic, and massive flooding that displaced over a hundred thousand people and left nearly 200 dead, Kenyans have to take their good news where they can find it — even if it promises to be short-lived.

After an unconscionably slow start battling the locust infestations ravaging Kenyan farms, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization ( FAO) recently announced that it had scored important, but unfortunately limited, gains against the destructive insects. At the end of July, the second wave of locusts had been beaten back in all but two of the twenty-nine Kenyan counties infested in February.

Unfortunately, the pests are highly mobile. Locusts are still swarming out of control in neighboring Somalia and Ethiopia, which is being reinfested by swarms migrating from Kenya, and FAO says it expects summer breeding in Eritrea and Sudan. The locusts, which originally migrated from Yemen have now spread across not just Africa, but much of the middle East and India as well.

Worse, the third generation of locusts is predicted to be even larger and more difficult to control. Experts fear that the locusts now breeding in the Sudan desert will migrate west across the nations of Africa’s Sahel region — countries such as Chad, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso — which are not only some of the poorest on earth but also some of the most politically unstable.

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Aerial pesticide spraying

FAO’s limited success in Kenya relied on a combination of luck — fortunate weather affecting locust breeding grounds — and its reluctant and too long-in-coming decision to embrace aerial spraying of the very pesticides they had spent the previous seven years demonizing while working hand-in-glove with activists to convince African countries to ban them. As the US Ambassador to the FAO, Kip Tom, recently noted, the organization had known of the developing plague at least half a year before it began serious efforts at eradication, and it was the organization’s inaction in those critical early months that allowed the plague to escalate out of control. As Ambassador Tom and this column has pointed out:

One reason Africa wasn’t prepared for the locusts is that the FAO spent the seven years of Graziano’s reign actively campaigning alongside agroecology activists to convince government leaders to ban pesticides and use “natural,” organic methods instead. Even as swarms landed in Kenya last June, government ministers at a conference in Nairobi were being told at the launching of a FAO “Scaling up Agroecology” initiative that GMOs cause cancer, pesticides make men infertile, and other debunked claims widely propagated by fringe groups promoting themselves as environmentalists.

The FAO has, for the moment at least, pulled back from this overt anti-pesticides stance, but its activist allies – supported by EU-sponsored NGOs – have hardly let an unprecedented plague and the threat of mass starvation interfere with their ideological crusade. The German Green Party supported Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) and its allies is once again ramping up its demand that Kenya’s parliament ban as many as 262 pesticides and other substances used to protect crops – including pesticides the FAO recommends to control locusts, save lives and food supplies.

This current attack on Kenyan agriculture by RTFI and allies like the Kenyan Organic Agricultural Network, and others, is part of an on-going hit and run fear campaign. Anti-technology activists know well how to add flash and mass appeal to their disingenuous campaigns. Recently, for instance, they enlisted international soccer star, Allan Wanga, and media personalities Willis Raburu and John Allan-Namu in their current efforts. No doubt these celebrities mean well, but if they help RTFI and its allies achieve its goals, the results could spell disaster for the very people they want to help.

That’s because their goal is nothing less than preventing Kenyan and other African countries from using modern agricultural technologies now used safely around the world to increase yields and food supplies and, through that, control farming, food production and trade.

To do this, RTFI and its allies foist on the public an ever-growing list of scientifically false claims about crop protection pesticides and other farm technologies. For them, it’s a game of ever moving accusations perfected to high art. Anti-technology activists are particularly skilled at sowing fear and confusion about perfectly thoroughly tested and safe agricultural technologies like pesticides or genetically engineered crops (GMOs).

Currently, for instance, they’re calling for a ban on hundreds of Kenyan-approved safe pesticides used the world-over, arguing that these pesticides are not registered in the EU. It’s a line of attack that mirrors efforts by EU activists to halt the European manufacture and export of pesticides critical to global farming.

Sadly, they’ve achieved some success. Last January, in France, the Constitutional Council ratified bans on the production, storage, circulation and export of pesticides not approved in the EU. At the same time, NGOs, including Miseror, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the Inkata Network in Germany, are arguing that if a pesticide isn’t registered in the EU, it shouldn’t be used, manufactured or exported.    

The dangerous European conceit that they would impose on Africa is that the EU’s hazard-based regulatory system is somehow a model for the rest of the world. But it’s a model rejected by most of its major agricultural trading partners. It’s the reason why some 36 nations — including the largest agricultural producers in the world — have in recent years formally complained to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that EU regulations flout international standards because they are not based on science. Those nations include Canada, Australia, United States, the Mercosur nations of South America, India, and numerous agricultural producers in Asia and Africa, including Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and South Africa.

As trade negotiator Shanker Singham has said, “the world increasingly sees the EU as a major malefactor when it comes to trade — not as bad as China, perhaps, but getting there. In recent meetings of the WTO, nations from North and South America, Asia and Africa united to condemn the EU’s draconian and anti-scientific regulations on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) products.”

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In Kenya and, however, RTFI and its allies are now using Europe’s precautionary, unscientific regulatory model to bolster a larger, comprehensive attack on nearly all modern farming  technologies. Parroting arguments manufactured by EU NGOs, Kenya’s Organic Consumers Alliance (OCA), for example, wants to ban use of  all GMOs and hopes to scare farmers, consumer and Kenyan regulators into compliance. These fear campaigns include new, baseless and bizarre allegations that GMOs make people more susceptible to Coronavirus.

So, why are European activists and their allies trying to leverage such gross misinformation to frighten farmers, consumers and governments? Ultimately, it’s about control. The EU needs cheap African food — like the Kenyan grown vegetables, fruits, tea and coffee that are staples in Europe —  to supplement low yield, high cost European food production likely made all the more inefficient, for instance, by the recently adopted EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork policies. In order to replace lost production, the EU hopes both to entice, and even force farmers, in Kenya and elsewhere to follow its lead with promises of increased prices for their agricultural products.

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They’re empty promises. The reality is that premiums are rarely paid nor cover the full cost of lost yields and lower food production resulting from restrictions on pesticides, fertilizers, advanced seeds and other farm technologies. A recent report showed that Kenya’s agricultural exports to Europe — valued at more than 500 million Euros annually — could be reduced by as much as 75 percent if Kenya adopted EU pesticide and GMO restrictions. This kind of threat to production and trade may help explain why Brazil, Australia, India and other have filed World Trade Organization complaints.

The bottom line is that if Kenya — and other African countries – give-in to the demands of EU anti-technology campaigners, it will lose control of its agriculture and economic future.  Just consider how complying with EU pesticide standards would’ve crippled efforts to control ravenous, crop-destroying locust swarms. Low yield European agriculture is no path for Kenya or Africa to build real food sustainability, security or wealth. Without access to modern farming technologies – pesticides, GMOs, gene-edited crops and more — Africa’s famers will continue struggling to feed themselves. Allowing the EU to control the destiny of Africa’s agriculture could, in the end, be the most destructive plague of all.

James Njoroge was born in Kenya and is currently a communications consultant based in Seattle, Washington, USA. He has a Master of Arts in Communication from Wichita State University and a Masters of Science in Human Centered Design & Engineering from the University of Washington. He also writes for Science 2.0.

This article originally ran at European Scientist and has been republished here with permission. The European Scientist can be found on Twitter @EuropeScientist

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The ‘Church of Nature’ and the sudden collapse of the cult of Extinction Rebellion

When a cult loses its grip on a person, a form of reawakening takes place. It involves having to return to a society not managed by guru slogans, children chanting or all information managed via a dogmatic funnel into a simplified worldview. Many young people in the West are reawakening from an experience with the Extinction Rebellion cult which had gripped them for an intense period for most of 2019.

There are many emotions to manage in a post-cult reawakening: bitterness at the deception, embarrassment over the personal vulnerability, apologetic to those close who may have been hurt, concern for those still held in the grips of the gurus, fragility about re-entering society. Should the experience be blocked out, explained away or assessed? A catharsis may be necessary to come to terms with the power the cult had held in dominating the individual’s freedom.extinction rebellion september

For around a year Extinction Rebellion managed to grip many young, vulnerable idealists in many ways that religious cults operate. What were some of the manipulative tools they used? In the heady days of 2019, Extinction Rebellion:

  • postulated an end-of-days apocalypse within ten years
  • provided a simplified salvation pathway and virtue reinforcement
  • identified a dogmatic “us vs them” war on evil
  • created a fun, carnival atmosphere with communal chants at their events
  • developed a series of pagan-like spiritual rituals and iconic priestesses

But this cult was a shallow, abusive front. The objective of the organisers (the Rogers and the Ruperts on the activist extreme) was to overthrow the capitalist state, and an army of brainwashed young people simultaneously dancing, chanting and weeping in the streets proved, on paper, to be the perfect distraction. Add a few ageing celebrities, some clever street pranks and a cocktail of virtue signalling opportunities … the strategy was brilliant (even if their organisation and execution was pure Pythonesque).

The Broad Church of Nature

Cults grow on the far, narrow edges of religious belief systems.

Within every religion there are extremes – the zealots, the dogmatists, the fundamentalists, the manipulative cult gurus… I have written often how environmentalism is our new religion with a wide range of believers practising a variety of rituals (like recycling, culinary sacrifices, carbon emission cuts…), preaching of Armageddon (climate change), offering redemption from original sin (consumption) with a collection of angels, saints and demons every church needs to “iconicise”. This Church of Nature grew out of the ashes of the decline of traditional religious faith in a more affluent West. We did not grow too sophisticated for religion; it just donned different cloaks and occupied different temples.

Religion provides meaning in life, virtues, inspiration; it also protects the believers in a communal context from their deepest fears and concerns. Most in the congregation of the Church of Nature want to live decent lives and feel good about themselves. They listen to the sermons against consumption but do enjoy some of life’s finer pleasures. They donate when the collection basket comes around, but are not active in the campaigns.

On the extreme of the Church of Nature lie the cult organisations that dictate to the true believers, crusaders and missionaries: the zealots who provide the religious oxygen for the clergy to breathe and the fires to burn. But the problem with fire and brimstone is that when outrage and condemnation burn out of control, they can bring temples down. Extinction Rebellion’s death-cult tactics discredited climate science, pushed environmentalism to the hard (anti-capitalist) left and offered little common ground for political compromise. When these groups used children to shame adults (How dare you!), political discourse was abandoned in favour of media spectacle.

In 2019 the Extinction Rebellion cult became the story and the Church of Nature lost its moderate members. This has seriously hurt the entire activist movement as cynicism and disenchantment does not translate into donations or further engagement within the wider Church.

The Fall from Grace

Extinction Rebellion had reached its cult zenith well before the COVID-19 pandemic took their issue off the front pages, silencing their media marketing machinery. Perhaps the turning point was Canning Town Tube Station where morning commuters turned into an angry mob beating up two XR hippies who had tried to stop their train. That same day the two-week October blockade of London was quietly called off well-short of their campaign objectives.

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Rupert Read used to attract millions, not 42 minions

Once the coronavirus lockdowns began to bite and people got to appreciate the consequences of Extinction Rebellion’s demands (no jobs, no travel, no shops…) and the absence of any social interaction that the rebels could disrupt, the organisation went into hibernation. I attended an XR Zoom conference in May, 2020 where their main gurus unveiled their strategy for the next wave of post-COVID-19 campaigns. By the time their philosopher-in-chief, Rupert Read, took to the microphone, there were only 42 listeners on the view-counter (41 if you exclude the Risk-Monger). Today Extinction Rebellion’s various twitter pages have little interaction or post engagement.

A cult with no following is merely a club. The revolution has faded to what was just a flash in the pan – an embarrassing footnote in the history of the climate campaign. Extinction Rebellion has, well, gone extinct.

But that leaves the challenge of managing the reawakening. The rapid downfall of a powerful cult has left a generation of young people even more cynical and technophobic. Disenchanted, uninspired, the victims of the climate death cult campaigns who have been told everything that is wrong with humanity now have nothing positive to dream for. Who will provide these vulnerable young people with the solutions they crave? How can these post-cult victims reintegrate into a world with bigger (viral) fears on their plate?

Who is there to inspire young people crying out for something, someone, to believe in? Telling them how terrible everything is just creates cynicism and distrust (and an open door for the next opportunistic guru). This cult may be dead, but the problems and threats persist.

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Weeping teens outside of Heathrow

What did the rapid rise and fall of Extinction Rebellion teach other activist campaign organisations?

When Extinction Rebellion co-founder, Roger Hallam, claimed that the environmental NGOs have failed to make progress over the last 30 years, he was not wrong. I had written about the shift in the activist model almost four years ago. The activism world is changing from an NGO-driven organisational structure to a loose body of gurus and networks driven bottom up by their members. So what have the dinosaurs learnt from this extinction threat?

  • Today’s movements have a very short period to focus attention, instil change and leave a legacy. In our hashtag culture, the 15 minutes of fame has become 15 seconds on TikTok. So actions have to be fast, on message and mediatic (“Let’s park a pink boat in Oxford Circus!“).
  • The revolution has to be driven by a simple, vague message devoid of detail (a citizen’s assembly can sort all of that out once we get rid of the bad people). Most NGOs have become too “policy-wonkish” when the cult-vulnerable just want a slogan to chant and a dream to hang onto.
  • There is no grey on environmental issues; it is “us” versus “them”. They lie; we tell the truth. They want profits; we want to save the world. They pollute; we care. When frightened, the vulnerable are easily channelled into this binary world of good vs evil seeking trust and reassurance. There is no compromise or moderate alternative to be tolerated.
  • People need to have easy (non-sacrificial) pledges and commitments worn as badges of honour. Only an idiot (or one of them who doesn’t care) would not join us.
  • Campaign actions should not be overtly activist-led or appear organised but more of an open, spontaneous, feel-good event to change the world with virtue-signalable gestures everyone can get in on. XR created an induction process for small independent cells of rebels (with little centralised accountability).
  • Armies of children need to be marched in front of the cameras. Their purity and innocence are unquestionable (and they believe and do what you tell them). Try to also empower the older children. It’s not hard to recruit teenagers craving attention by giving them an opportunity to rage at their parents’ generation. And if anyone criticises this tactic, focus on the first white, middle-aged male to speak out, and, well, the rest of that script just writes itself.
  • Targets of outrage need to be multiple, external and non-specific (international trade, capitalism, finance…). Contradictions can easily be absorbed into a general nondescript outrage (so I can protest against cars by chaining myself to a public transport vehicle and people will feel for my anxiety).

What did the Risk-Monger learn from the Extinction Rebellion flash in the pan?

  • That people made sufficiently afraid can believe the most stupid things and act on them when placed in a crafty Armageddon-complex communications campaign. The Goebbelian nightmare that if you just incessantly repeat the same claim, load it with slogans (the “last generation”) and fear (the “end of humanity”) proved to be very easy to pull off.
  • That a newspaper like the Guardian can fabricate a global NGO movement and provide the oxygen to manufacture front page news (for almost a year). Not only could they reinvigorate their columnists’ careers (and speaking fees), the Guardian was aiming for a new generation of dedicated contributors. As with the cult of chemophobes driven by LeMonde in France, the mainstream media is morphing into activist campaign groups and as their readership is breaking down into social media tribes, there is no longer a means to question the objectivity of their “news”. What I find astonishing is how no one is really noticing.
  • That global leaders (at the UN, Davos…) and activist groups have no ethical qualms (at all) about using the emotional voices of children to advance their short-term interests. The degree of this exploitation in broad daylight was bone-chilling. If there were ever to be a course on activist ethics, there should be a chapter on how Greta was exploited by the Parkland strategy recruiters.
  • That leaders in European governments and corporations are quick to be mollified and bullied into agreeing to ridiculous campaign demands and ignoring basic facts rather than having the courage to stand up and defend the valuable societal goods they have just committed to surrender. With cameras shining on them, our leaders chose not to confront the cultists with facts but commend them for their commitment.
  • That standing up to these cults is dangerous for one’s reputation. I cannot count how many times I was painted (particularly by a small group of science communications SJWs) as being a white, middle-aged male climate denier with a Greta complex because I was drawing attention to the manipulative and ridiculous death cult organisers. When people stop listening and become enraged, they get stupid very quickly (even those with diplomas in the sciences).

Reawakening of Hope …

As the XR climate death cult hold on the young and the vulnerable quickly collapses into insignificance, I leave room for hope. Could other irrational environmentalist cults face the same evaporation of power? As we enter into the economic and financial reality of the post-COVID-19 nightmare, will more activist followers wake up to their naive commitments to manipulative gurus? Will donations dry up as the world moves from the problems created by elitist privilege and concentrates on paying the rent? For example:

Could the anti-ag-tech organic cult wither in the face of famine? As the second wave of locusts decimate crops in the Horn of Africa and Southern Asia and as bad weather lowered yields in western bread baskets, famines and food security issues could be the next big headline (if our logistics and global trade structure cannot withstand the present political pressure). The naturopath organic food cults rose on the success of ag-tech food abundance. The consequences of removing these technologies may just be the seeds of this cult’s demise.

Could the chemophobic cult vanish with the demand for hygiene and public safety? Funny, I have not seen any public demand for non-toxic hand sanitisers recently. I have not seen people campaigning against single-use plastic PPE. Organic cotton gloves are not in demand. Perhaps the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has shown the shallow vacuity of the chemophobic cult campaigning to remove chemical products the wider public is loudly demanding. What we did see is the loss of our capacity to quickly scale up production of PPE and hygiene products. I wonder how these anti-chemical cults feel about this public demand for more … chemicals.

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Could the anti-vaxx naturopaths become marginalised in a Post-COVID-19 dystopia? Anti-vaxx, anti-mask, anti-5G, anti-GMO – these paranoid cults have aligned to bizarrely battle the true source of evil: Bill Gates. The louder these naturopaths get, the more ridiculous they become and the less influence they will have on vulnerable populations. When people start realising the risks these groups are trying to impose on others, the consequences to society and the possibility of lost social goods, this cult will burn up faster than a 5G tower. It is hard to fall under the power of forces that are ridiculed and credited with catastrophe and lost societal benefits. Give Vandana and RFK Jr more microphones – the satirical value is to die for.

While many of these cult opportunists are too smart to fall into the trap of populist extremism that befell Extinction Rebellion, the best lesson from this cult downfall is that hubris and ambition has its own built-in circuit breakers. Cults cannot survive the mainstream scrutiny while maintaining zealot dogma. Radicalism amplified turns quickly into ridicule and leaves any mass movement open to internal collapse.

… and the Threat of Despair

But this hope carries with it a caution. Young people have been broken by the cynicism and campaign bipolarity of these cults. While the force of the fundamentalist dogma has weakened, there is nothing that now inspires them. I often speak with students on their outlook for the future and it is often very bleak. Rather than inspiration and mentors, they have slogans and “menteurs”. As they reawaken from their cult experience, there has to be more than just substance abuse and mental health issues awaiting them. In my professional world, the coronavirus lockdowns highlighted this vulnerability.

Young people need leaders who inspire. Ask anyone why they got into their profession and it was likely some mentor or inspirational character that lit them up at an iconic moment. But we seem to be stuck in a leaderless world of sub-tribes where any inspirational figure gets torn down faster than they can rise up. Social media identifies troll-models, promotes cynicism and deflates positivity creating an infectious breeding ground for such environmentalist cults.

Cults (via their gurus) offer young people hope, promise and inspiration. If we cannot address this hole in their lives, providing positive ideals for humanity via technology and science, restore trust and provide role models, we should prepare for more environmental-health death cults feeding off the despair of young people, making more outrageous claims, obstructing technological developments and spreading even more cynicism and fear.

David Zaruk has been an EU risk and science communications specialist since 2000, active in EU policy events from REACH and SCALE to the Pesticides Directive, from Science in Society questions to the use of the Precautionary Principle. He was part of the team that set up GreenFacts to encourage a wider use of evidence-based decision-making in the EU on environmental health matters. David is a professor at Odisee University College where he lectures on Communications, Marketing, EU Lobbying and PR. Find David on Twitter @zaruk

A version of this article was originally published at Risk Monger and has been republished here with permission. 

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Pesticide hypocrisy? EU edges toward banning glyphosate after finding it safe but clears organic copper sulfate after finding it a ‘public health and environment concern’

The politics of the European Union have often left observers baffled. But the decisions—and lack thereof—over how to regulate two popular pesticides have culminated in a series of contortions as member countries, courts and the European Parliament try to combine a strict precautionary principle, support of organic agriculture, and science.

The last category usually has received the shortest shrift.

For both the herbicide glyphosate and the fungicide copper sulfate, the EU granted a five-year license. But there the similarity of how Europe handled them ends.

Glyphosate wars

In August 2018, the EU took up the reauthorization for farmers and homeowners to use glyphosate, an herbicide that was better known in its patented days as part of Roundup. The pesticide has served as an effective eradicator of weeds (or any other plant it touches), but has been equally effective as a target for anti-GMO, “Green” political activists who point to its popularity in removing weeds around crops like corn and soy that were genetically engineered to resist it.

The EU came to its decision after years of wrangling going back to 2002, with member countries, green members of the European Parliament, and activist groups. Glyphosate is authorized for use in the EU until December 2022, but anti-pesticide groups continue to push for an outright ban of the herbicide.

So far, only the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of WHO that has come under criticism for bias on certain chemicals, has connected glyphosate to cancer in humans. In 2015, IARC declared glyphosate a Class 2a hazard, putting it in the “probably carcinogenic to humans” category. However, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the European Commission and other health and environmental agencies have declared it safe as used, and it’s licensed in 130 countries.

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Copper sulfate tack

Later, the authorization for copper sulfate, a fungicide considered the only realistic antifungal tool that organic farmers are permitted to use, appeared at first to have a far easier pathway from the EU and member countries.

The European Union executive proposed renewing the license for copper sulfate and other copper compounds for five years. This proposal came after a one-year extension approved in December 2017 that allowed food regulators to analyze the latest science. The proposal was delayed again with no clear deadline, but the EU made a decision by year-end 2018.

In January 2018, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in a report co-commissioned by the French Institute for Organic Farming (ITAB), concluded: “Excessive concentrations of copper have adverse effects on the growth and development of most plants, microbial communities and soil fauna,” recommending in a scientific report that the government should intervene to “reduce use of copper for the protection of biological uses”.

A few months later, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) declared copper compounds to be “of particular concern to public health and the environment.” The EFSA has concluded glyphosate poses no serious ecological or public health danger. Definitive research has shown copper sulfate can be toxic to humans, far more so than glyphosate. It is not as targeted as many biological pesticides are, so whatever it does to fungus cells, it can do to you and to beneficial insects. It has been associated with skin and eye irritation, and swallowing large volumes of it can cause nausea, vomiting and tissue damage.

It is toxic to honeybees and a study showed extreme toxicity to bees in tropical environments (it was carried out in Brazil), where copper sulfate is used as a sprayed fertilizer (to provide heavy metal nutrients). In addition, and unlike glyphosate, the European Chemicals Agency has declared it a carcinogen—research has associated it with kidney cancer, in particular. As a carcinogen, copper sulfate would be subject to EU regulations restricting its use among workers, if not banned altogether.

Also unlike glyphosate, copper compounds are slated to be phased out over time (even with EU approval), and possibly replaced with less toxic fungicides.

And that’s where another similarity between glyphosate and copper arises: alternatives (although at higher cost and less effectiveness) exist for both glyphosate and copper in conventional farming, but glyphosate isn’t allowed in organic farming, and copper sulfate is the only fungicide approved for organic farming. And no other reliable replacement for copper exists for organic agriculture. In fact, IFOAM, the Germany-based international organic lobbying organization, has been encouraging the EU to continue authorization for copper sulfate, while allowing for some flexibility on how many kilograms per year farmers can use, even though it’s potential harms to agricultural workers is readily acknowledged.

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Copper matching less with wine

Because of the severe toxicity of copper sulfate and a growing movement to focus on sustainability rather than on growing techniques, several companies in the wine industry, a heavy user of copper sulfate for at least a century, have backed out of organic farming.

This past fall, the vice president of the professional association of Bordeaux wines predicted that his region and others in France would started converting from organic growing to conventional. The organization cited a number of economic, weather, as well as chemical factors, including hail storms, blight, and a freeze in 2017. Wineries, VP Bernard Farges said, decided that the added risks of continuing with organic farming and copper was too much.

EFSA’s damning report on copper sulfate puts green advocates in Europe in a bind. Eric Andrieu, an MEP from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D group) is the chief of the PEST committee created to monitor the transparency of pesticide authorization in the EU. Andrieu previously has insisted that public health should be prioritized against economic interests when it comes to pesticides’ authorization. But in the case of copper, he lobbied for policy-makers to show flexibility.

“Alternatives to copper remain very limited and currently do not meet the demand of 500 million consumers. In the short term, the survival of a large part of European winery, in particular, the organic winery is at stake ,” he told EURACTIV in June 2018.

The organic community has begun to divide over the issue, pitting sustainability advocates against organic purists who are committing to maintaining aging regulations even if they are harmful to the environment. Previously, Domaine de Fondrèche in Mazan, under the French appellation of Côtes de Ventoux, announced that it was withdrawing its organic certification, which it had been growing wines under since 2009. The winery cited copper buildup in its fields, the result of using copper sulfate.

For some wine growers and researchers, genetics may provide a solution to the pest problems. CRISPR/Cas9, has shown promise (at least in the lab) against copper sulfate, but the results are very preliminary.

Other winemakers have argued that the problem may not lie as much in regulations as in overly simplistic definitions that separate organic from conventional farming. “Natural is good, synthetic is bad? It’s too basic to reason that way,” Charles Philipponnat, CEO of Philipponnat Champagne, told Wine Spectator magazine. “The objective is to make fine wine in a way that doesn’t leave a negative impact for our children.”

A version of this article originally appeared on GLP on December 19, 2018.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer and editor, and has worked with numerous academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @AMPorterfield

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Dissecting male-female brain and behavior differences

People have searched for sex differences in human brains since at least the 19th century, when scientist Samuel George Morton poured seeds and lead shot into human skulls to measure their volumes. Gustave Le Bon found men’s brains are usually larger than women’s, which prompted Alexander Bains and George Romanes to argue this size difference makes men smarter. But John Stuart Mill pointed out, by this criterion, elephants and whales should be smarter than people.

So focus shifted to the relative sizes of brain regions. Phrenologists suggested the part of the cerebrum above the eyes, called the frontal lobe, is most important for intelligence and is proportionally larger in men, while the parietal lobe, just behind the frontal lobe, is proportionally larger in women. Later, neuroanatomists argued instead the parietal lobe is more important for intelligence and men’s are actually larger.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, researchers looked for distinctively female or male characteristics in smaller brain subdivisions. As a behavioral neurobiologist and author, I think this search is misguided because human brains are so varied.

Anatomical brain differences

The largest and most consistent brain sex difference has been found in the hypothalamus, a small structure that regulates reproductive physiology and behavior. At least one hypothalamic subdivision is larger in male rodents and humans.

But the goal for many researchers was to identify brain causes of supposed sex differences in thinking – not just reproductive physiology – and so attention turned to the large human cerebrum, which is responsible for intelligence.

Within the cerebrum, no region has received more attention in both race and sex difference research than the corpus callosum, a thick band of nerve fibers that carries signals between the two cerebral hemispheres.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, some researchers found the whole corpus callosum is proportionally larger in women on average while others found only certain parts are bigger. This difference drew popular attention and was suggested to cause cognitive sex differences.

But smaller brains have a proportionally larger corpus callosum regardless of the owner’s sex, and studies of this structure’s size differences have been inconsistent. The story is similar for other cerebral measures, which is why trying to explain supposed cognitive sex differences through brain anatomy has not been very fruitful.

Female and male traits typically overlap

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A chart showing how measurements that often differ between sexes, like height, substantially overlap. Credit: Ari Berkowitz

Even when a brain region shows a sex difference on average, there is typically considerable overlap between the male and female distributions. If a trait’s measurement is in the overlapping region, one cannot predict the person’s sex with confidence. For example, think about height. I am 5’7″. Does that tell you my sex? And brain regions typically show much smaller average sex differences than height does.

Neuroscientist Daphna Joel and her colleagues examined MRIs of over 1,400 brains, measuring the 10 human brain regions with the largest average sex differences. They assessed whether each measurement in each person was toward the female end of the spectrum, toward the male end or intermediate. They found that only 3% to 6% of people were consistently “female” or “male” for all structures. Everyone else was a mosaic.

Prenatal hormones

When brain sex differences do occur, what causes them?

1959 study first demonstrated that an injection of testosterone into a pregnant rodent causes her female offspring to display male sexual behaviors as adults. The authors inferred that prenatal testosterone (normally secreted by the fetal testes) permanently “organizes” the brain. Many later studies showed this to be essentially correctthough oversimplified for nonhumans.

Researchers cannot ethically alter human prenatal hormone levels, so they rely on “accidental experiments” in which prenatal hormone levels or responses to them were unusual, such as with intersex people. But hormonal and environmental effects are entangled in these studies, and findings of brain sex differences have been inconsistent, leaving scientists without clear conclusions for humans.

Genes cause some brain sex differences

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A half male, half female zebra finch, 2003. Credit: National Academy of Sciences

This was dramatically shown by a zebra finch with a strange anomaly – it was male on its right side and female on its left. A singing-related brain structure was enlarged (as in typical males) only on the right, though the two sides experienced the same hormonal environment. Thus, its brain asymmetry was not caused by hormones, but by genes directly. Since then, direct effects of genes on brain sex differences have also been found in mice.While prenatal hormones probably cause most brain sex differences in nonhumans, there are some cases where the cause is directly genetic.

Learning changes the brain

Many people assume human brain sex differences are innate, but this assumption is misguided.

Humans learn quickly in childhood and continue learning – alas, more slowly – as adults. From remembering facts or conversations to improving musical or athletic skills, learning alters connections between nerve cells called synapses. These changes are numerous and frequent but typically microscopic – less than one hundredth of the width of a human hair.

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Some London taxi drivers do not use GPS – they know the city by heart, a learning process that takes three to four years on average. Credit: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

Studies of an unusual profession, however, show learning can change adult brains dramatically. London taxi drivers are required to memorize “the Knowledge” – the complex routes, roads and landmarks of their city. Researchers discovered this learning physically altered a driver’s hippocampus, a brain region critical for navigation. London taxi drivers’ posterior hippocampi were found to be larger than nondrivers by millimeters – more than 1,000 times the size of synapses.

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So it’s not realistic to assume any human brain sex differences are innate. They may also result from learning. People live in a fundamentally gendered culture, in which parenting, education, expectations and opportunities differ based on sex, from birth through adulthood, which inevitably changes the brain.

Ultimately, any sex differences in brain structures are most likely due to a complex and interacting combination of genes, hormones and learning.

Ari Berkowitz, Ph.D., is a Presidential Professor of Biology and Director of the Cellular & Behavioral Neurobiology Graduate Program at the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on how the spinal cord selects among and generates leg movements. He is author of Governing Behavior: How Nerve Cell Dictatorships and Democracies Control Everything We Do. Find Ari at his website

A version of this article was originally published at the Conversation and has been republished here with permission. The Conversation can be found on Twitter @ConversationUS

do organic wines age

Podcast: ‘Clean’ wine isn’t so clean; FDA blocks hemophilia gene therapy; Universal flu vaccine?

Actress Cameron Diaz and fashion entrepreneur Katherine Power are marketing a new brand of “clean” wine using long-debunked claims about the benefits of organic farming. The FDA has temporarily halted the approval of a gene therapy for hemophilia A, claiming it needs more data to confirm the drug’s efficacy. Seasonal flu vaccines offer short-lived immunity, and a new study may help explain why—bringing us a little closer to a “universal” immunization that works year after year.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

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Cameron Diaz, Katherine Power

Food manufacturers love buzzwords. “Non-GMO,” “Certified Organic” and “All Natural” labels adorn thousands of items in US grocery stores, even though such marketing claims don’t mean these foods are any safer or more nutritious. Wine hasn’t been spared this labeling bonanza, and the latest fad is so-called “clean wine.” What is clean wine, exactly? According to organic wine importer Natural Merchants, there is no such thing, legally speaking:

Certification of Clean Wine

Nope, not a thing. Clean wine has no legal definition, nor does is carry any sort of certification declaring that the wine is indeed “clean.”

But that doesn’t stop winemakers, including celebrities like Cameron Diaz and Katherine Power, from marketing their “clean” label when in fact they use all sorts of chemical additives found in normal wines. The pair also claim to use organic (and thus pesticide-free grapes), but even this is no guarantee since many organic vineyards have to use fungicides. Because these chemicals can be rather toxic, some vineyards in recent years have even given up their “organic” certification in order to pursue more sustainable growing methods.

Patients suffering from a rare blood clotting-disorder called hemophilia A eagerly expected the FDA to green light a one-time gene therapy for the condition, known as Roctavian, in late August. Clinical trials of Roctavian yielded promising results, but FDA regulators feared the gene therapy wouldn’t be the one-and-done treatment everyone anticipated and asked the manufacture for more data before approving the drug. What motivated the FDA’s decision, and what does the delay mean for hemophilia A patients?

flu shot vaccine

We need a new flu vaccine every year, in part because the virus mutates regularly and can’t be defeated with the same immunization. But vaccine manufacturers are also bedeviled by the fact that flu vaccines provide rather short-lived immunity, offering far less protection than many childhood shots.

According to a study just published in the journal Science, this is because antibodies spurred into production by the vaccine generally don’t last longer than a year. “We could see that these new antibodies expanded in the bone marrow one month after vaccination and then contracted after one year,” study co-author and Emory Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed said. “What this shows is that just getting to the bone marrow is not enough. A plasma cell has to find a niche within the bone marrow and establish itself and undergo gene expression and metabolism changes that promote longevity.”

There are still more questions to be answered about how our immune system reacts to flu vaccines, but the findings could aid researchers who are working to develop a “universal” immunization that provides long-lasting protection against the flu.

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

lassa fever what is it deadly the disease can cause dangerous epidemics

COVID pandemic exposes Africa’s need for long-term solutions to Lassa fever and other neglected tropical diseases

Spread by food contaminated by the feces or urine of disease-carrying rodents and endemic to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria in West Africa, Lassa fever infects an estimated 100,000-300,000 people annually and kills 5,000 of them. Symptoms can range from a mild, undiagnosed fever to hemorrhaging, hearing loss, encephalitis and multi-organ failure.

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Despite its crippling and sometimes deadly effects, odds are you hadn’t heard of this viral illness until now. That’s because Lassa fever is one of many neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) that are largely overlooked by the medical establishment — but which impact more than one billion poor people who lack the financial resources and infrastructure to protect themselves.web

As COVID-19 rapidly spread across the world, many public health experts feared sub-Saharan Africa was woefully unprepared. The vast majority of the world’s poorest people reside in the region, which is bedeviled by unhygienic environments, conflict, unstructured healthcare systems, illiteracy, dysfunctional leadership and the deleterious effects of climate change — all factors that facilitate the spread of infectious disease. The situation was especially concerning given how severely coronavirus struck developed countries, presumably better equipped to mitigate the pandemic. But while devastating, COVID has not been as deadly as feared.  One million COVID-19 cases and just over 21,000 deaths have been recorded in Africa, far less than in many other regions in the world.

The elevated concern for Africa and the redeployment of health dollars to address the coronavirus were well meaning, but those efforts have overshadowed a far more pressing health concern: the perennial challenge of tropical diseases, which have bedeviled the continent for hundreds of years. In the short term, this diversion was an unavoidable trade off in the ongoing battle to quell a novel, deadly virus. The question remains: how will the COVID diversion impact longer-term health challenges?

Crippling effects of NTDs

The structural deficits that left the region ill-equipped to confront COVID have focused a spotlight on Africa, which could redound to the region’s advantage as it confronts infectious diseases. NTDs perpetuate poverty by impairing the cognitive growth and physical health of young children, disrupting their development into productive members of society and ultimately costing African nations $52 billion in economic productivity every decade. The diseases mainly occur in remote regions where wild animals and livestock can easily transmit infections to humans. Natural water sources are also rife with disease-causing microbes and sanitation services are largely underdeveloped or non-existent. A few urban areas have stable water supplies, though there is still no guarantee that these are pure enough for drinking.

lagos airport coronavirus x

For now, the battle against NTDs is little more than a vicious cycle in which people can only beat the diseases by escaping poverty, but they can’t escape poverty because they are plagued by malnutrition and disease. In the words of Dr. Dirk Engels, World Health Organization (WHO) director of control of NTDs, “There is no group of diseases that is so intimately linked to poverty.”

Africa’s underdeveloped research base and pharmaceutical industry

The pandemic currently ravaging the globe has illustrated in deadly terms why nations need established pharmaceutical industries that can rapidly research, development and commercialize treatments and vaccines for novel diseases. Unfortunately, Africa has no such infrastructure, as most drugs and pharmaceutical supplies Africans consume are imported from Asian countries with nearly 20 percent coming from India alone. A lack of skilled personnel, high energy costs, inconsistent government policies, and currency fluctuations that distort the prices of imported raw materials all stifle the growth of a pharmaceutical industry that could cut Africa’s dependence on imported medicine.

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The lack of a support base for skilled scientists is perhaps the biggest obstacle preventing African countries from solving the problem. And it’s exacerbated by a massive exodus of highly skilled people from Nigeria to Canada, which leaves a dearth of professionals to carry out research, development, production and commercialization of needed medicines.

This devastating brain drain is occurring as Africa’s population is exploding. Africa is projected to have more young people than any other continent by 2100. With birth rates skyrocketing as high as 7.1 children per woman (in Niger Republic), it is imperative that sub-Saharan African countries develop the industries that can meet their needs, especially as the rest of the world grows increasingly nationalistic  as the race for a COVID 19 vaccine accelerates.

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Costs are another challenge. Developing a drug is a long, complex process that can carry a $2.6 billion price tag from start to finish. This economic reality incentivizes pharmaceutical firms to invest in diseases that afflict wealthier nations, where staggering R&D costs can be recouped with expensive, blockbuster drugs. These drugs, just like every other medication, go through a painstaking review process that can take a decade, meaning that each new medication ties up significant resources that can’t be invested in other projects.

Given these circumstances, the blockbuster-drug formula is a rational strategy to pursue for companies that must answer to shareholders, pay employees, and reinvest in new drug discovery to remain profitable, but that model fails Africa. The continent has been deprived of life-saving medicines—not because pharmaceutical firms do not want to sell to Africans, but because the companies cannot make back their investments. As a result, diseases that mainly affect Africans are neglected.

Confronting the challenge

Notwithstanding the financial difficulties limiting drug development for Africa, philanthropies, international organizations, and even drug companies have made efforts over the years to stem the tide of NTDs. OneWorld Health, an NGO partly funded by the Gates Foundation, conducts research for drugs against hookworm and visceral leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that attacks the spleen, liver and bone marrow. Other organizations with similar missions include PATH and the Sabin Vaccine Institute. These are admirable efforts to be sure, but charity isn’t a sustainable solution as Africa’s population continues its rapid growth.

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Since wealth incentivizes drug development, countries on the continent can chart their own course by investing in scientific research and technology, attracting back skilled workers who left Africa for greener pastures. This development process is underway with more countries embracing market-based reforms that have cut the poverty rate since 1990, the World Bank reports.

Still, there is a long way to go. Africa produces a meager three percent of global GDP and the majority of poor countries in the world are located on the continent. Limited financial resources have often been spent on temporary solutions to problems that can only be overcome by sustained economic growth. Until political and economic shifts occur, Africa will continue to be plagued by the scourges of tropical diseases and ineffective leadership.

Uchechi Moses is an aspiring plant scientist based in Akwa Ibom State in Nigeria. He holds a BSc in genetics and biotechnology and writes about how capitalism and science can provide food security and prosperity for the next generation of Africans. Follow him on Twitter: @Uchechi59

covid asymptomic npr apr

5 things you should know if you have COVID and are asymptomatic

Blood tests that check for exposure to the coronavirus are starting to come online, and preliminary findings suggest that many people have been infected without knowing it. Even people who do eventually experience the common symptoms of COVID-19 don’t start coughing and spiking fevers the moment they’re infected.

William Petri is a professor of medicine and microbiology at the University of Virginia who specializes in infectious diseases. Here, he runs through what’s known and what isn’t about asymptomatic cases of COVID-19.

How common is it for people to contract and fight off viruses without knowing it?

In general, having an infection without any symptoms is common. Perhaps the most infamous example was Typhoid Mary, who spread typhoid fever to other people without having any symptoms herself in the early 1900s.

My colleagues and I have found that many infections are fought off by the body without the person even knowing it. For example, when we carefully followed children for infection by the parasite Cryptosporidia, one of the major causes of diarrhea, almost half of those with infections showed no symptoms at all.

In the case of the flu, estimates are that anywhere from 5% to 25% of infections occur with no symptoms.

For the most part, symptoms are actually a side effect of fighting off an infection. It takes a little time for the immune system to rally that defense, so some cases are more aptly considered presymptomatic rather than asymptomatic.

How can someone spread coronavirus if they aren’t coughing and sneezing?

Everyone is on guard against the droplets that spray out from a coronavirus patient’s cough or sneeze. They’re a big reason public health officials have suggested everyone should wear masks.

But the virus also spreads through normal exhalations that can carry tiny droplets containing the virus. A regular breath may spread the virus several feet or more.

Spread could also come from fomites – surfaces, such as a doorknob or a grocery cart handle, that are contaminated with the coronavirus by an infected person’s touch.

What’s known about how contagious an asymptomatic person might be?

No matter what, if you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, you should self-quarantine for the entire 14-day incubation period. Even if you feel fine, you’re still at risk of spreading the coronavirus to others.

Most recently it has been shown that high levels of the virus are present in respiratory secretions during the “presymptomatic” period that can last days to more than a week prior to the fever and cough characteristic of COVID-19. This ability of the virus to be transmitted by people without symptoms is a major reason for the pandemic.

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To find out what percentage of people have anti-coronavirus antibodies in their blood, health departments are starting to sample the public, as at this grocery store in New York. Credit: Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

After an asymptomatic infection, would someone still have antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in their blood?

Most people are developing antibodies after recovery from COVID-19, likely even those without symptoms. It is a reasonable assumption, from what scientists know about other coronaviruses, that those antibodies will offer some measure of protection from reinfection. But nothing is known for sure yet.

Recent serosurveys in New York City that check people’s blood for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 indicate that as many as one in five residents may have been previously infected with COVID-19. Their immune systems had fought off the coronavirus, whether they’d known they were infected or not – and many apparently didn’t.

How widespread is asymptomatic COVID-19 infection?

No one knows for sure, and for the moment lots of the evidence is anecdotal.

For a small example, consider the nursing home in Washington where many residents became infected. Twenty-three tested positive. Ten of them were already sick. Ten more eventually developed symptoms. But three people who tested positive never came down with the illness.

When doctors tested 397 people staying at a homeless shelter in Boston, 36% came up positive for COVID-19 – and none of them had complained of any symptoms.

In the case of Japanese citizens evacuated from Wuhan, China and tested for COVID-19, fully 30% of those infected were aymptomatic.

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An Italian pre-print study that has not yet been peer-reviewed found that 43% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 showed no symptoms. Of concern: The researchers found no difference in how potentially contagious those with and without symptoms were, based on how much of the virus the test found in individuals’ samples.

The antibody serosurveys getting underway in different parts of the country add further evidence that a good number – possibly anywhere from around 10% to 40% – of those infected might not experience symptoms.

Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection appears to be common – and will continue to complicate efforts to get the pandemic under control.

William A. Petri, Jr., M.D., Ph.D. studies immunology and molecular pathogenesis of enteric infections and their consequences at the University of Virginia. 

A version of this article was originally published at the Conversation and has been republished here with permission. The Conversation can be found on Twitter @ConversationUS

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Podcast: Activism’s dark side—Earth Liberation Front bombs ‘GMO’ tree lab, destroys endangered plants instead

Law enforcement agencies keep a watchful eye on environmental groups that have engaged in eco-terrorism, notably Greenpeace and PETA, and anti-biotech activists continue to destroy farmers’ fields in pursuit of their ideological goal to eliminate GMOs. But arguably none of this activity has been as terrifying as one university attack 19 years ago.

In May 2001, radical activists with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) firebombed the office of Toby Bradshaw, a biologist at the University of Washington. Bradshaw was investigating the genetics of poplar trees in an effort to increase their growth rate for the timber industry in America’s pacific northwest.

The activist outfit, just a collective of autonomous individuals engaged in “guerrilla warfare to stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment,” happily took credit for the terrorist attack. In a message sent to the university after the fire, ELF said they targeted Bradshaw’s lab to stop him from releasing GMO “mutant genes” into Washington’s forests. They also complained that one of his colleagues had taken research funding from Monsanto—in reality just a $2,000 grant to send five students to a scientific conference.

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The attack caused roughly $7 million worth of damage, but ELF missed its primary target, instead destroying ecology labs and a horticulture center that grew fruits and vegetables for Seattle’s low-income neighborhoods. Bradshaw’s poplar research was minimally impacted by the fire. Among the actual casualties were endangered plants and a massive library of ecology books (some more than 400 years old), whose loss set back an environmental restoration project a decade.

The kicker: Bradshaw’s work did not involve genetically engineered trees, nor was it funded by the biotech industry.

 

Toby Bradshaw is a professor of evolutionary genetics and ecology at the University of Washington. Visit his website

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

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Podcast: Deadly chemicals everywhere? Stem cell tourism kills; Natural pet food is a scam

A pair of high-profile studies alleges that the health impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals has doubled in five years. Should you be worried? Independent clinics around the world are offering untested stem-cell therapies for everything from wrinkles to neurological disorders. These treatments don’t treat anything—but they can cause strokes and cancer. Don’t buy “natural” pet food, experts say. It does your dogs and cats no good, and it takes a devastating toll on the environment.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

Beginning in the early 1990s, research investigating the health effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) began to proliferate. These studies posited that substances such as BPA—used in a wide variety of consumer products—were mimicking or blocking the function of the human body’s hormones, contributing to reproductive health issues, neurological diseases and even cancer.

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While it’s prudent to monitor the potential risks linked to low-level chemical exposures, two decades of research (including studies conducted by the Food and Drug Administration) indicates that EDCs are unlikely to harm human health in the quantities we’re exposed to. Yet the initial concern over EDCs unleashed a “research juggernaut,” says epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat, that continues to produce questionable science and attract widespread media attention.

As decades of intense political opposition begins to wane, stem cell therapies for deadly diseases are starting to surface. HIV, sickle cell, Parkinson’s and COVID-19 are among the conditions researchers may be able to successfully cure or treat with stem cells, but these groundbreaking therapies have to be developed over many years so their safety and efficacy can be evaluated in properly designed clinical trials.

But not everyone adheres to such rigorous protocols. Clinics both in the US and around the world are now offering unapproved stem cell treatments for all sorts of conditions, though most commonly debilitating neurological disorders.  Desperate patients who engage in “stem cell tourism” visit these clinics to improve their quality of life, but they generally leave with lighter wallets and sometimes deadly complications like stroke or cancer.

If you buy natural pet food for your dog or cat, you should stop, says Breakthrough Institute food and agriculture analyst Caroline Grunewald. Although pet food companies market their natural products as healthier alternatives to the kibble consumers have fed their animals for decades, the reality is that $40-per-bag, non-GMO, organic pet food offers little in the way of improved nutrition and takes a devastating toll on the environment.

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

drmercola

Joseph Mercola: Alternative health merchant promotes quack cures, funds organic, anti-GMO groups

Joseph M. Mercola claims to run “the world’s No. 1 health Website” Mercola.com. According to a press release on his website, Mercola believes physicians are the third leading cause of death in America. He states traditional medicine is “responsible for killing and injuring millions of Americans every year…”

Mercola uses his site, newsletter and blog to market his books and alternative health products. He is the author of Dr. Mercola’s Total Health Program, which includes recipes and lifestyle advice for preventing heart disease, losing weight and feeling younger by utilizing an alternative health plan and diet. His alternative cures include prescribing “organic, non-commercially harvested” seaweed supplements to treat thyroid problems. He urges his followers to avoid “dangerous electro-magnetic fields,” specifically noting electric razors, all watches with batteries, automatic car door openers, alarm clocks and microwaved foods, because “natural medicine states that the introduction into the human body of molecules and energies, to which it is not accustomed, is more likely to cause harm than good ….”

While Mercola’s website Mercola.com is one of the largest “alternative health” news sources on the internet, it is also an online store that has been fined or warned several times by the FDA and FTC for the promotion of dubious cures. In February 2017, as part of a settlement with the FTC, Mercola was forced to refund “$2.59 million to more than 1,300 people who bought Mercola indoor tanning systems,” which he had claimed on his website did not increase the risk of melanoma skin cancer but did reduce the effects of aging.

Mercola was banned from Pinterest in November 2018 for “promoting misinformation that has immediate and detrimental effects on a pinner’s health or on public safety — like promotion of false cures for terminal or chronic illnesses and anti-vaccination advice or associating vaccinations with autism.” Google downgraded his site in search in June 2019, causing what Mercola claimed was a 99% drop in traffic. He was banned from Facebook and Twitter in January 2020 for offering medical guidance that both social media sites viewed as potentially dangerous. Both accounts were subsequently restored.

Career

Joseph Mercola, D.O., is an osteopathic physician, health activist and entrepreneur practicing near Chicago. He is the author of two New York Times best-sellers, The No-Grain Diet (with Alison Rose Levy) and The Great Bird Flu Hoax, as well as several other alternative health, diet and lifestyle books. He is best known as founder and editor of the popular Web site, Mercola.com, which advocates organic dietary and homeopathic lifestyle approaches to health. He criticizes many  mainstream medical practices, particularly vaccination and the use of prescription drugs and surgery, and is a vocal opponent of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Mercola promotes and sells a variety of “alternative” products, for which he has received multiple warning letters from the FDA “for marketing nutritional products in a manner which violated the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.” He is a member of the politically conservative Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, as well as several alternative medicine-related organizations.

Education:[1]

  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 1972 -1976
  • Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine (now Midwestern University) 1978 -1982
  • Chicago Osteopathic Hospital 1982-1985 Family Practice Residency. Chief resident 1984  – 1985
  • Board Certified American College Osteopathic General Practitioners July 1985
  • State of Illinois Licensed Physician and Surgeon

Illinois Secretary of State REPORTS for Mercola-business interests:

  • Entity Name MERCOLA.COM HEALTH RESOURCES, LLC, File Number 02420953, Status ACTIVE On 12/10/2012, Entity Type LLC, Type of LLC Foreign, File Date 12/20/2007, Jurisdiction DE, Agent Name CHRISTOPHER M PORTERA, Principal Office 3200 W. HIGGINS RD. HOFFMAN ESTATES, IL 60169, Duration PERPETUAL, Annual Report Filing Datem 00/00/0000 For Year 2013
  • Entity Name MERCOLA.COM, LLC, File Number 01771914, Status ACTIVE On 01/15/2013, Entity Type LLC, Type of LLC Foreign, File Date 02/27/2006, Jurisdiction NV, Agent Name CHRISTOPHER M PROTERA, Principal Office, 3200 W. HIGGINS RD HOFFMAN ESTATES, IL 60169, Duration PERPETUAL, Annual Report Filing Date 01/15/2013 For Year 2013
  • Entity Name MERCOLA CONSULTING SERVICES, LLC, File Number 03090094, Status ACTIVE On 03/08/2013, Entity Type LLC, Type of LLC Domestic, File Date 03/05/2009, Jurisdiction IL, Agent Name DANIEL PATRICK HOGAN, Principal Office 3200 W. HIGGINS RD. HOFFMAN ESTATES, IL 601690000, Duration PERPETUAL, Annual Report Filing Date 03/08/2013 For Year 2013
  • Entity Name MERCOLA HEALTHY SKIN, LLC, File Number 02516659, Status VOLUNTARY DISSOLUTION On 04/30/2009, Entity Type LLC, Type of LLC Domestic, File Date 05/01/2008, Jurisdiction, IL Agent Name ANDREW G LOGAN, Principal Office 1443 W SCHAUMBURG RD STE 250, SCHAUMBURG, IL 60194, Duration PERPETUAL, Annual Report Filing Date 00/00/0000 For Year 2009
  • Entity Name MERCOLA MANAGED CAPITAL, LLC, File Number 01082116, Status WITHDRAWN On 11/26/2008, Entity Type LLC, Type of LLC Foreign, File Date 12/29/2003, Jurisdiction DE, Agent Name ANDREW G. LOGAN, Principal Office 1443 W. SCHAUMBURG RD., 250, SCHAUMBURG, IL 60194, Duration PERPETUAL, Annual Report Filing Date 00/00/0000 For Year 2008
  • Entity Name JOSEPH M. MERCOLA, D.O., S.C., File Number 56062475, Status DISSOLVED, Entity Type CORPORATION, Type of Corp DOMESTIC BCA, Incorporation Date (Domestic) 08/07/1990 State ILLINOIS, Agent Name CHRISTOPHER M PORTERA, President Name & Address JOSEPH M MERCOLA 3200 W HIGGINS ROAD HOFFMAN ESTATES 60169, Secretary Name & Address (none), VOLUNTARY DISSOLUTION 07/31/2013, Duration Date PERPETUAL, Annual Report Filing Date 00/00/0000 For Year 2013, Assumed Name INACTIVE – OPTIMAL WELLNESS CENTER, INACTIVE – NATURAL HEALTH CENTER
  • Entity Name NATURAL HEALTH RESEARCH FOUNDATION, INC., File Number 64982079, Status ACTIVE, Entity Type CORPORATION, Type of Corp NOT-FOR-PROFIT, Incorporation Date (Domestic) 06/22/2009 State ILLINOIS, Agent Name CHRISTOPHER M PORTERA, President Name & Address (none) Secretary Name & Address (none), Duration Date PERPETUAL,Annual Report Filing Date 05/14/2013 For Year 2013
  • Entity Name OPTIMAL WELLNESS, INC., File Number 65132257, Status DISSOLVED, INVOLUNTARY DISSOLUTION 02/11/2010 (may be unrelated)

Optimal Wellness Center

Joseph M Mercola, DO/TTEE

3200 West Higgins Road, Hoffman Estates, IL 60169
Phone: (847)252-4355 or (877) 985-2695
email: [email protected]

Mercola’s “natural wellness” center claims: “Between 1985 and 2013, Dr. Mercola has treated more than 20,000 patients at his clinic.”[2]

Mercola.com

Mercola.com is the flagship for Joe Mercola’s online broad-based alternative health product marketing efforts for which Hoovers Dunn & Bradstreet estimates has $4.5 million in annual sales.[3] Mercola publishes daily risk-based attacks through heavily syndicated “news” blogs which are frequently tied to his “safe” product alternatives. Hundreds of products are offered for sale under the Mercola brand, ranging from nutraceutical supplements promoted as cures for various diseases to vitality tanning beds and air and water filters. He sells pet products, organic foods, personal care, fitness, household goods and more.[4] Mercola operates various subsidiary groups and LLCs affiliated with Mercola.com including Mercola Health Exports, LLC and the Center for Natural Health, LTD.

His websites[5] include:

  • MercolaHealthyPet.com
  • MercolaHealthyPets.com
  • MercolaHealthySkin.com
  • MercolaBioThin.com
  • Natural-health-center.com
  • RightToKnowGMOs.org
  • SaveOurSupplements.us
  • ToxicTeeth.org

A June 2009 Mercola video entitled “Why I sell Products on My Web Site” reflects on 12 years of online marketing in which he states:

  • Invested $500,000 of his own money into Mercola.com during its first three years
  • Spends “six figures” in legal fees to defend himself against numerous continual “frivolous” lawsuits by major corporations
  • Runs clinics outside of Chicago
  • Employs more than 100 staff including researchers, editors, IT personnel and customer service reps.
  • He or “his family” uses all the products he sells.
  • Claims he has no outside investors.

Advocacy

Mercola appears to mix his for-profit endeavors with his non-profit 501c3 Foundation(s). His 501c3’s only named reported income is from Mercola.com, LLC – the for profit arm of Dr. Mercola’s Natural Health Clinic. Joe Mercola is the only named officer/trustee for his foundation(s) and his for-profit natural health clinic. Since its official founding in 2006 as an IRS 501c3 non-profit organization, The Mercola Foundation received donations from – and only from – Mercola.com, LLC ($271,003 – 2005 = 100% of all contributions; $525,293 – 2006 = 100% of contributions; and, $8,375 – 2007 = 78% of all contributions, remainder from MHR Management, also a Mercola holding). Subsequently Mercola formed the Natural Health Research Foundation through which he has similarly funneled millions in Mercola.com profits to advocacy causes which benefit his business.

Affiliated organizations:

  • MHR Management Co
  • Mercola Foundation – 501c3 non-profit run solely by Mercola. The Mercola Foundation was liquidated in 2009, transferring all remaining assets to Mercola’s Natural Health Research Foundation.
  • Natural Health Research Foundation (NHRF) – 501c3 is also run solely by Mercola and Mercola.com is the sole contributor (EIN: 22-3936343, ruling year 2007). In 2008 Mercola transferred nearly $700,000 from the Mercola Foundation to NHRF as an unrestricted grant.[6] IN 2012 Mercola.com “contributed” nearly $1 million to NHRF. NHRF then distributed that money to various causes supported by Mercola including:
  • Organic Consumers Association $505,000 (25 percent of budget)
  • National Vaccine Information Center $300,000 (34 percent of budget)
  • Consumer for Dental Choice $103,000 (34 percent of budget)
  • Institute for Responsible Technology (Jeffrey M. Smith) $10,000 (Mercola is an annual contributor to Smith’s IFRT campaigns.)
  • American Environmental Health Studies PR (Canton, NY) $10,000
  • Citizens for Health (James Turner) $2,500
  • Mercola’s Natural Health Clinic, Mercola.com LLC – for profit private corporation run solely by Mercola
  • Bright Hope International (Hoffman Estates, IL) – evangelical NGO to which Mercola foundation directs unrestricted grants
  • Foundation for Health Choice (Washington, DC) – an alternative health advocacy group to which Mercola directs unrestricted grants. Mercola content is cross-linked with FHC and vice-a-versa.

Right to Know GMOs

Mercola runs the “Right to Know GMO” website registered through a privacy domain registration service but hosted on Mercola.com’s dedicated servers and programmed using the Mercola.com website HTML templates. The campaign demands transparency and the inclusion of warning labels on foods containing GMOs; however, nowhere on the the GMO Right to Know site is Mercola’s involvement or his benefiting business selling non-GMO foods and products noted. Mercola contributed more than $1.1 million to the California GMO labeling campaign in 2012 and was one of their largest individual financial supporters.[7]

Consumers for Dental Choice

Like GMO Right to Know, Mercola hosts ToxicTeeth.org, the website for the “Consumers for Dental Choice” a “non-profit” organization housed within the Turner & Swankin Law Firm in Washington, DC[8] that lobbies against the use of mercury amalgam fillings. The Consumers for Dental Choice uses numerous references to Mercola articles attacking conventional dentistry and the use of mercury fillings, but makes no reference to Mercola’s hosting of the group’s website. The organization is affiliated with the law firm of Turner & Swankin and supplements and alternative health industry lawyer and lobbyist James Turner; however, like GMO Right to Know, none of the organization’s formal 501c3 tax filings nor the website disclose either the Mercola or Turner relationship.

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Founded in 1996 Consumers for Dental Choice is a formally registered 501c3 (EIN:52-2257385; ruling year 2005) with an annual listed budget of approximately $400,000 (2011) one-quarter to one-third of which is contributed directly by Joe Mercola annually. The group is led by Charles “Charlie” Brown (Washington, DC) and claims to be an initiative of the “World Alliance for Mercury-free Dentistry” led by Silvia Dove (Washington, DC), Dominque Bally (Abidjan, Cote d’Ivore), Shahriar Hossain (Dhaka, Qatar) and Maria Carcamo (Montevideo). Their listed campaign NGO allies include the Pesticide Action Network, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Consumers Association of Penang (Third World Network), Friends of the Earth, and Citizens for Health (led by Jim Turner).[9] Other directors listed with CDC include: Al Blackman, Mark A. Breiner, Patrick Sullivan, Jr., Ward Eccles, Johann Wehrle, Sue Ann Taylore, and Charles Brown.

Drugs and supplements

Mercola opposes the use of most prescription drugs and immunizations, favoring better food choices, especially unprocessed, organic produce and elimination of most sugar and grains from our diet; lifestyle modifications, especially regular exercise, better sleep, and removing household toxins from cleaning supplies and cosmetics, and energy psychology tools to address emotional challenges. He promotes and sells numerous dietary supplements, including krill oil, vitamin K, probiotics, and anti-oxidant supplements. Mercola is especially critical of new drugs, as well as of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.[10]

Save our Supplements

Mercola hosted and was openly affiliated with the Save our Supplements federal lobbying campaign, which sought to block a proposal by U.S. Senator Richard Durbin requiring more transparent ingredient labeling and health disclosures and enhanced regulatory oversight for dietary and herbal supplements. The campaign was “supported by Mercola.com, Natural Products Association (NPA), the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), and the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), as well as the dietary supplement industry – including suppliers and retailers – and other natural health associations, such as the consumer advocacy organization Alliance for Natural Health-USA.”[11]

Vaccinations

Mercola has been highly critical of vaccines and vaccination policy, claiming that too many vaccines are used too soon during infancy.[12] Mercola has stated that public health officials responsible for local vaccination programs “should be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit murder.”[13]

He hosts vaccine critics on his website, advocates preventive measures rather than vaccination in many cases, and strongly criticizes influenza vaccines. Mercola is a member with the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) which lobbies to oppose mandatory vaccination of children[14] and assists those “who have been vaccine injured.”[15] NVIC is partnered with another anti-vaccine organization led by vaccine malpractice and personal injury attorney James Turner called the Foundation for Health Choice, whose board members are noted contributing writers to Mercola.com. Through his 501c3 Natural Health Research Foundation, 100 percent funded by Mercola.com, Mercola contributes more than 1/3 NVIC’s annual budget covering 100 percent of their annual political lobbying and public education budget costs.

Mercola argues that thimerosal, previously widely used as a vaccine preservative, is harmful.[16][17] Thimerosal is no longer present in most vaccines given to young children in the USA, though it is still present in some vaccines approved for adults. Extensive evidence has accumulated since 1999 showing that this preservative is safe,[18] with the World Health Organization stating in 2006 that “there is no evidence of toxicity in infants, children or adults exposed to thiomersal in vaccines”.[18]

In his book The Great Bird Flu Hoax,[20] Mercola appears to take a stronger anti-pharmaceutical industry stance by accusing them of a fear-mongering marketing campaign against the public. In supporting this stance, Mercola often has wholly critical views of those working in governmental health care, as well as towards international health organizations. He argues at length that concern over swine flu and the resulting immunizations were actually false alarms put forth to terrify the public. The World Health Organization reported that by August 1, 2010, about 18,500 deaths were caused by the Influenza A virus H1N1 pandemic influenza.[21]

Food consumption

Mercola advocates an organic diet consisting mostly of unprocessed foods. He sees value in paleolithic diets and advocates metabolic typing, and is a proponent of vegetable juicing. Mercola argues fervently against over-consumption of sugar, especially high-fructose corn syrup, which is the predominant sweetener of many commercial sodas and soft drinks, and processed flour and grains, which the body rapidly converts into sugar. He has also been an advocate of increasing the consumption of Omega-3 fats and of strategies to greatly increase blood levels of Cholecalciferol|Vitamin D3.

Mercola’s dietary recommendations often put him at odds with mainstream dietary advice. Mercola encourages the ingestion of unprocessed saturated fats, including unrefined coconut oil in place of polyunsaturated fats such as vegetable, corn, soy, safflower, sunflower and canola oils.[22]

Food preparation

Mercola’s website has called microwave ovens dangerous, claiming both that they emit dangerous radiation and that microwaving food alters its chemistry.[23][24] In contrast, academic reviews have concluded that “no significant nutritional differences exist between foods prepared by conventional and microwave methods.” Other studies have suggested that food cooked in microwave ovens can be more nutritious than conventionally cooked food. The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide states that “as a general proposition, cooking with a microwave probably does a better job of preserving the nutrient content of foods because the cooking times are shorter.”

Mercola is also against homogenization,[25] claiming that it leads to xanthine oxidase absorption and oxidative stress.[26] This idea has been described as “tenuous and implausible” in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that “Experimental evidence has failed to substantiate, and in many cases has refuted, the xanthine oxidase/plasmalogen depletion hypothesis”.

HIV and AIDS

Mercola has questioned whether HIV is the cause of AIDS. He has argued instead that the manifestations of AIDS (including opportunistic infections and death) may be the result of “psychological stress” brought on by the belief that HIV is harmful.[27] Mercola.com has featured positive presentations of the claims of AIDS denialism, a fringe group which denies the existence of AIDS and/or the role of HIV in causing it.[28] [29]

The scientific community considers the evidence that HIV causes AIDS to be conclusive[30][31] and rejects AIDS-denialist claims as pseudoscience based on conspiracy theories, faulty reasoning, cherry picking (fallacy), and misrepresentation of mainly outdated scientific data.[32]

Sunscreen

Mercola has also claimed that the use of many commercial brands of sunscreen actually increases, not decreases, the likelihood of contracting skin cancer with high UV exposure. He advocates the use of “natural” sunscreens, some of which he markets on his website.[33] This view is not held by mainstream medical science; in 2011, the National Toxicology Program stated that “Protection against photodamage by use of broad-spectrum sunscreens is well-documented as an effective means of reducing total lifetime UV dose and, thereby, preventing or ameliorating the effects of UV radiation on both the appearance and biomechanical properties of the skin”.[34]

COVID-19

As the novel coronavirus began to spread around the world, Mercola took the opportunity to promote his supplement business. Mercola.com lists 22 vitamins, supplements and other products for sale, and claims they prevent, treat or cure COVID-19 infections. However, according to complaints filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in July 2020, there is no evidence any of these products are effective against COVID-19.

During testimony given to a Senate subcommittee, CSPI policy director Laura MacCleery told lawmakers:

On a recent episode of Mercola’s podcast, he actually advises consumers to take the immunity-boosting supplements he sells and then attempt to contract the COVID-19 virus deliberately because his supplements will allegedly reduce their symptoms. Even with all my experience investigating supplement scams, this reckless self-promotion and endangerment of the public took my breath away.

Steve Rye, CEO of Mercola Health Resources, claimed the recommendations are based on studies published in peer-reviewed journals, though he didn’t address MacCleery’s testimony that these studies are either deficient or non-existent. Rye added:

Even [Dr. Anthony] Fauci has said this virus will not be eradicated, which leaves you with two options, optimize your metabolic function and immune system or trust a fast tracked coronavirus vaccine. It is inevitable, you will be exposed to coronavirus and now is the time to protect yourself.

There is no evidence that supplements “optimize your metabolic function and immune system,” but plenty of research showing they range from useless to harmful.

“Can you boost your immune system?” asks infectious disease expert Mark Crislip. “Sure, with a vaccine. That’s about it.”

In a separate analysis, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) challenged Mercola’s Top Tips to Help Combat Coronavirus. ACSH found that seven of the 11 recommendations are either dubious or outright false. The remaining four—wash your hands, get adequate exercise and sleep and stay hydrated—are general health tips with no particular relevance to COVID-19.

Criticisms

Mercola has been the subject of criticism from some business, regulatory, medical and scientific communities. A 2006 BusinessWeek editorial criticized Mercola’s marketing practices as “relying on slick promotion, clever use of information, and scare tactics.”[35] In 2005, 2006, and 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned Mercola and his company to stop making illegal claims regarding his products’ ability to detect, prevent and treat disease.[36] The medical watchdog site Quackwatch has criticized Mercola for making “unsubstantiated claims and clash with those of leading medical and public health organizations making many unsubstantiated recommendations for dietary supplements.”[36]

Government Warning Letters & Complaints

Mercola has also received multiple Warning letters from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for violations of U.S. marketing laws, and the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation filed complaints against Mercola, calling for the revocation of his medical and business licenses for publishing false and harmful medical advice online and sales and delivery of potentially dangerous “health” services and “medical” tests by unaccredited staff.[39]

The first FDA letters, dated 2005 and 2006,[40][41] charged Mercola with making false and misleading claims regarding the marketing of several natural supplemental products, which violated the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act.[42] In a more recent letter, sent in March 2011,[43] Mercola was accused of violating federal law, by making claims about the efficacy of certain uses of a telethermographic camera exceeding those approved by the FDA concerning the diagnostic and therapeutic potential of the device (regulation of such claims being within the purview of the FDA). Dr. Mercola has challenged the FDA’s order stating that “We believe that the FDA’s warning letter is without merit and is an attempt to regulate the practice of medicine, which the agency does not have the regulatory authority to do. Our use of the thermography device is consistent with its 510(k) clearance for use by health care professionals in their diagnosis and treatment of patients.”

Mercola Warning Letters related to his health advocacy activities:

  • 02/16/2005 – Living Fuel RX(TM) and Coconut Oil Products – For marketing products for a medical use which classifies those products as drugs in violation of 201(g)(1) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.[44]
  • 09/21/2006 – Optimal Wellness Center – For both labeling / marketing health supplements for purposes which would render them to be classified as regulated drugs as well failing to provide adequate directions for use upon the label in the event that they were legally sold as drugs.[45]
  • 03/11/2011 – Re: Meditherm Med2000 Infrared cameras – For marketing a telethermographic camera for medical purposes which have not been FDA approved.[46]
  • 12/16/2011 – Milk Specialties Global – Wautoma – Failure to have tested for purity, strength, identity, and composition “Dr. Mercola Vitamin K2” and others.[47]

Litigation

  • Mercola claims he spends millions on legal fees and he is named in several federal suits:
  • Case: 6:11-cv-00662-LED DBG Group Investments, LLC et al v. Johnston et al (Joseph Mercola & Mercola Health Resources, LLC defendants) for patent infringement
  • Case: 2:09-cv-02632-WJM-CCC QUEST DIAGNOSTICS INCORPORATED v. MERCOLA for unfair business competition, defamation, libel and commercial disparagement
  • Case: 1:05-cv-04400 Mercola v. Department of Financial and Professional Regulation et al (Civil Rights Case seeking relief from the State of Illinois’ DFPR disciplinary actions against Mercola.com in IDFPR v. Mercola No. 2001-04904-1 for “publishing false and potentially harmful advice on the website entitled Mercola.com”)
  • Case: 1:06-cv-04851 Stevens v. Mercola et al (discrimination, sexual harassment and assault claims suit)
  • Case: 1:08-cv-06614-LAP Corbis Corporation v. Mercola.Com, LLC (copyright infringement)
  • Case: 1:05-cv-07036 Mercola.Com, LLC v. Hull (copyright infringement)
  • Case: 1:13-cv-00341-GMS Neptune Technologies & Bioressources Inc. v. Enzymotec Ltd. et al (Mercola.com Health Resources, LLC defendant, patent infringement)

Personal

According to personal statements on his website, the trauma of divorce (due to a lack of his own maturity) motivated him to “pursue a healing path focusing on the integration of bioenergy emotional resolutions with nutrition.” Mercola adds, that “as a Christian since 1990… God did use the personal tragedy (of his divorce) as a major blessing to develop many of my strategies for helping patients recover from chronic illness.”

Mercola purchased a $2 million lakefront home in South Barrington, Illinois in 2006.[48] He is described as a private person.

Bibliography

References

d printed model brain epilepsy joseph madsen x

Rewiring your central nervous system with 3D printing

Last month, Philadelphia Eagles speedy receiver DeSean Jackson almost got himself released when he shared on Twitter quotes attributed to Adolf Hitler. It was a bizarre public display of misjudgement, but not totally out of character for Jackson. He has open ties with Los Angeles gang members, owes his past agent $1 million, lied to police about a recent robbery at his home and created enough trouble that he was traded by the Eagles years ago before being resigned last year.

So why the odd behavior? Immaturity? That could be the explanation, though he’s a wizened veteran in the NFL at33. Many football players have shown evidence of similarly erratic behavior, some while still playing and many after retirement, and many attribute it to concussions.

In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered a possible link between NFL players who’d  received routine head injuries and a condition called CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. During his 12 seasons, Jackson has had 19 season-impacting injuries including numerous concussions, according to Bleacher Report.

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Desean Jackson helped off the field after sustaining a concussion, 2010

In the most notorious case, emerging star New England tight end Aaron Hernandez, victim of numerous concussions, was arrested during the 2013 season and eventually convicted of murder. He then committed suicide in jail. He was 27. In 2017, Hernandez’s brain was found to have the most severe case of CTE ever found in a person of his age.

CTE is a disease that attacks the very core of our being, the central nervous system. It’s been linked to suicides, dementia, declines in memory and violent rash behaviour, particularly among professional athletes in other physical sports. It’s been implicated in the infamous murder—suicide committed by WWE superstar Chris Benoit in 2007.

Each year increasing numbers of retired professional athletes are diagnosed with CTE. It is thought to be incurable. Diseases of the central nervous system (CNS) also impact the lives of tens of millions of people worldwide. In the US, an estimated, 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur each year; 13.5 million individuals live with a disability due to traumatic brain injury. Another 16 million live with brain disorders, with 1.2 million diagnosed with adult onset brain disorders each year caused by disease, tumors, strokes and infections.

Most people with brain disorders have viewed their cases as untreatable. That may soon change. With the advent of bioprinting, there is hope for the first time that a cure or treatment is possible.

Central nervous system cures and therapeutics

The effort to find appropriate medical solutions to these problems is a battle of attrition, with scientists working tirelessly to push knowledge one step closer to a cure. Now, with dramatic advancements in 3D bioprinting provide promise in the fight against damage to the CNS.  Bioprinting is a manufacturing process where biomaterials such as cells and growth factors are combined to create tissue-like structures that imitate natural tissues.

Bioprinting has intrigued scientists since Thomas Boland created the first 3D bioprinter in 2003. Currently, bioprinting can be used to print tissues and organs to help research drugs and pills. Emerging innovations include bioprinting of cells or extracellular matrix deposited into a 3D gel layer by layer known as ‘bioinks’ to produce animal or human tissues or organs.These layered human-cell loaded bioinks are printed in the same way commercial 3D printers operate. The only difference is the structure that is generated has ‘biological’ characteristics, resembling some form of human tissue.

bioink
Bioink. Credit: All3DP

In recent years the technology has advanced considerably with bioprinters becoming much more sophisticated and capable of creating structures of increasing complexity. Researchers seeking to develop new solutions to damage within the CNS have  turned to bioprinting  to develop methods for regenerating the complex networks of cells that control virtually every aspect of your daily life.

One such development recently emerged at the University of California, San Diego, where researchers  targeted the application of 3D bioprinting to generate implants capable of promoting regeneration of the spinal cord. The team, led by Professor Mark Tuszynski, demonstrated that the bioprinted implant was capable of triggering nerve regrowth in the spinal cord of rats. The scaffolds, which can be generated in 1.6 seconds, were shown to provide significant benefits to the treated rodents .

“[W]e’ve progressively moved closer to the goal of abundant, long-distance regeneration of injured axons in spinal cord injury, which is fundamental to any true restoration of physical function,” said Prof Tuszynski.

Mini-brains

Researchers at Tsinghua University in China have utilized bioprinting to generate ‘mini brains’ capable of responding to electrical stimuli in the same way our brains do. In the study, brain cells were extracted from the cortex of rats, combined with specially designed bioinks and 3D printed into precise structures.

Not only did brain cells survive the printing process, but they also developed active networks similar to those found within the human brain. The 3D-printed structures  responded to drugs like Tetrodotoxin, leading the researchers to conclude that such a model could be used for more than just tissue regeneration. It could also be applied to the search for new drugs to treat many of the diseases that attack the CNS such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other dementia-causing diseases, which affect millions of patients globally.

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Some groups are investigating how the actual process of bioprinting can be improved to produce better therapeutics. At TU Wien in Vienna) researchers are applying precisely controlled acoustic waves during the bioprinting process to greatly increase the precision of the final print. This cutting-edge technology allowed the research team to generate cage-like spherical structures that were densely packed with nerve cells. The nerve cells were found to thrive within the structures and form connections with neighboring cages.

More simply, the technology allows scientists to rapidly create brain-like structures with dense networks of human neural cells. It is an extremely powerful tool. The head of the research group, Dr. Aleksandr Ovsianikov, added further context to the significance of this development:

We see enormous potential here for using 3D printing to create and study neural networks in a targeted manner. In this way, important biological questions (about the mechanisms behind dementia) can be investigated to which one would otherwise have no direct experimental access.

Space food

Bioprinting’s vast promise has also been demonstrated in space. A bioprinter carried into orbit by Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko as part of an international collaboration involving US, Russian and Israeli companies used a specially customized bioprinter designed to take advantage of a combination of magnetism and lack of gravitational pull to generate highly specialized structures for tissue regeneration. It produced beef, rabbit and fish tissue using magnetic fields in microgravity.

“It’s one small nibble for man, one giant bite for mankind,” said Yusef Khesuani of 3D Bioprinting Solutions, the Russian laboratory that created the bioprinter.

Why the space experiment? Gravity is often against us when we try to reproduce complex environments with bioprinting. It applies pressures to bioinks that cause them to flow, sometimes  erratically, making it difficult to  control what you generate. Whether sending scientists to space in large numbers is the solution is debatable, but it is nonetheless a truly remarkable moment for the field.

These are only a few examples of the great advancements that have been made in the utilization of bioprinting for repairing the CNS. As with anything, the research effort must continue to strive for new breakthroughs. But we have come a long way since bioprinting first emerged in the late 1980s.

Sam Moxon has a PhD in regenerative medicine and is currently involved in dementia research. He is a freelance writer with an interest in the development of new technologies to diagnose and treat degenerative diseases. Follow him on Twitter @DrSamMoxon

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Is artificial intelligence (AI) medicine racially biased?

The power of artificial intelligence has transformed health care by using massive datasets to improve diagnostics, treatment, records management, and patient outcomes. Complex decisions that once took hours — such as making a breast or lung cancer diagnosis based on imaging studies, or deciding when patients should be discharged — are now resolved within seconds by machine learning and deep learning applications.

Any technology, of course, will have its limitations and flaws. And over the past few years, a steady stream of evidence has demonstrated that some of these AI-powered medical technologies are replicating racial bias and exacerbating historic health care inequities. Now, amid the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, some researchers are asking whether these new technologies might be contributing to the disproportionately high rates of virus-related illness and death among African Americans. African Americans aged 35 to 44 experience Covid-19 mortality rates that are nine times higher than their White counterparts. Many African Americans also say they have limited access to Covid-19 testing.

During the early weeks of the pandemic, there were few — if any — Covid-19 testing locations in African American communities. Public health officials in states such as CaliforniaIllinoisTennessee, and Texas have said that decisions about whom and where to test were data-driven and reflected the demographics of early cases. Yet the initial focus on affluent White communities allowed thousands of infections to quickly spread across cities and towns whose residents experience disproportionately high rates of underlying health conditions.

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Dr. Ala Stanford and her team of healthcare heroes, the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, are setting up mobile sites to provide free testing for some of Philadelphia’s black population. Credit: ABC News

African American communities should have been prioritized for testing locations, says Alondra Nelson, a sociologist and president of the Social Science Research Council, an almost 100-year-old independent research organization that advances better understanding of social science. When algorithms overlooked health disparities as a risk factor, Nelson says, public health officials issued an implicit statement to African American communities: “We’re not going to triage and treat you.”

Those who study the problem say that the extent of racial bias in AI medical technologies is unknown. This is, in part, due to a lack of transparency: The software is often proprietary, which means the intellectual property — the process, inputs, and source coding — is protected and copyrighted. Independent researchers have very little, if any, access to the data. “We’re in a new space,” says Nelson. In many instances, big data is now a business product. This is why she and others say that fixing racial bias in AI may involve addressing not just science, but also policy and law.

The stakes are high. Algorithms affect the lives of virtually all Americans, making rapid, automated decisions in credit, finance, employment, compensation, housingcourts and sentencing, health, medicine, and other areas. These decisions are critical to our daily lives, and they are largely automated.

Last fall, a research team published a paper in the journal Science that for the first time attempted to quantify the extent of racial bias in patient care and outcomes. The researchers studied an algorithm developed by Optum, a subsidiary of the world’s largest health care company, UnitedHealth Group. Other companies, such as 3M Health Information Systems and Verisk Health, produce similar algorithms, as do some universities and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The algorithm under study was used to identify patients with complex medical needs and assign each what is known as a “risk score.” Patients with the highest scores are eligible for additional resources, such as home visits by a nurse, expedited primary care visits, and automatic prescription refills. The research team looked at how the algorithm performed at an unnamed medical center, which provided the health care records for nearly 50,000 patients. Almost 44,000 were White and about 6,000 were Black. Researchers compared the patients’ risk scores with their actual health data, including illness history and test results.

The way the medical center used the algorithm, the researchers concluded, was not neutral and unbiased. African Americans, for example, comprised just 18 percent of the medical center’s high-risk group when assessed using the algorithm. But when looking at actual patient health data, the Science researchers concluded the high-risk group should have been 47 percent African American. The discrepancy meant that White patients were granted access to resources ahead of African American patients who were less healthy.

The reason: The algorithm was trained to identify patients with higher anticipated future health care costs. It may seem reasonable to equate higher anticipated costs with deteriorating health, says the study’s lead author, Ziad Obermeyer, an emergency medicine physician and an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. But the formula privileges patients with higher incomes and top tier health insurance plans that cover preventive care, more doctor visits, higher cost prescriptions and such. It also ignores the reality that many low-income patients — who are disproportionately African American — are more likely to seek medical care only when their symptoms are severe.

The result: Poorer Black patients appear healthier than they actually are.

What’s “so striking” and “sadly very familiar” are that these algorithms are mimicking the structural racism evident across American society and in health care, says Obermeyer. These types of screening algorithms should “identify people who have the same health needs irrespective of the color of their skin,” Obermeyer adds. “That turns out not to be the case.”

In an email to Undark, Optum spokesperson Tyler Mason took issue with the Science analysis. “The study in question grossly mischaracterized a cost-prediction algorithm . . . based on one health system’s incorrect use of it, which was completely inconsistent with any recommended use of the tool.” That recommended use, according to Optum, is to model potential future health care costs for individual patients based on past health care experiences. It is not intended to assist doctors in making care decisions. The algorithm “does not result in racial bias when used for that purpose,” Mason added.

Obermeyer agreed that the algorithm is not racially biased when used as a predictor of cost. “It predicts cost equally well for Black and White patients,” he wrote in an email. But he disagreed with the implication that just one hospital was misusing the algorithm. “On the one hand, everyone knew it was a cost predictor; on the other hand, everyone was very obviously using it to predict risk,” he wrote. As Obermeyer sees it, the problem was systemic: Software developers, hospitals, insurers, researchers — “we were all just thinking about this . . . in a way that was subtly but importantly wrong.”

Because risk-prediction algorithms are widely used, some researchers are now asking if their use contributed to the significant racial disparities seen in Covid-19 treatment and access to testing.

The narrative around Covid-19 and African Americans has largely been about comorbidities, says Nelson. As a group, African Americans experience higher rates of many serious health problems, including hypertension and diabetes. These conditions make people more vulnerable to Covid-19. “If we know that African Americans are more likely to have poor health outcomes because they have these comorbidities,” says Nelson, then they, as well as Latinos and Indigenous people, should have been prioritized for testing.

diabetes

But that doesn’t appear to have happened. Nelson points to “lots of stories of people who have gone to the hospitals and emergency rooms two, three, four times,” and still testing was denied because “it was not believed that they were sick enough. These were African Americans who had Covid-19” and some later died, she adds.

Obermeyer recently spent time working at a hospital in Navajo Nation, a Native American reservation with some of the highest per capita Covid-19 infection rates in the United States. Navajo Nation’s health care infrastructure is “under-resourced,” says Obermeyer, and that can create a vicious cycle, similar to the one his team uncovered in their study of the AI-powered algorithm: If an underserved population lacks access to Covid-19 testing, then that population might look like it’s doing relatively well, even when it isn’t. This, in turn, may lead to fewer resources being allocated — and a delayed understanding of the full scope of the problem.

Racial bias has also been demonstrated in AI-powered medical diagnostic applications with a very particular nuance: The algorithms are less accurate diagnosing conditions on darker skin.

The phenomenon is not new. Facial recognition systems used by law enforcement, for example, are notoriously less accurate at identifying African American faces. Some of the relatively few studies documenting the problem have suggested up to 10 percent less accuracy compared to White faces. Self-driving auto technologies are also less accurate at recognizing pedestrians with darker skin — a situation that could have fatal consequences.

In medicine, machine learning has been used to create programs capable of distinguishing between images of benign and malignant moles. But a 2018 paper in JAMA Dermatology warned that “no matter how advanced the [machine learning] algorithm, it may underperform on images of lesions in skin of color.” This is because the training sets for the algorithms are not diverse, says Adewole Adamson, a dermatologist and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School.

For the JAMA Dermatology paper, Adamson and his co-author studied sample data from the International Skin Imaging Collaboration: Melanoma Project, an open source dataset of more than 20,000 images of skin lesions. Collected from Australia, Europe, and the United States, the overwhelming majority of these images are from people with lighter complexions, according to Adamson.

Melanomas are relatively rare among African Americans. But they are often diagnosed at later stages — as is the case with most cancers — and their melanoma mortality rates are relatively high compared to Whites. The five-year survival rate among Whites for melanoma is 94 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. The rate is only 66 percent among Blacks.

Clinically-validated AI-powered apps that diagnose melanoma are not yet available to the average physician, but that may change soon. Numerous programmers are trying to develop and market the technology. “If you’re going to create such a program, you’re going to have to make sure that the skin images represented are representative of the different skin types that exist in the world,” said Adamson, who has conducted extensive research on racial disparities in dermatology.

Absent that, “you’re going to have to have some type of black box warning,” he continues: “Training sets are very important and it is critical in having a training set that represents what reality is.”

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Some researchers are developing new mobile health applications with these realities in mind. For example, a team based at the University of California, San Francisco is developing a smartphone app that screens for diabetes. Users turn on the phone’s flashlight, place their fingertip over the phone’s camera lens, and then an optical technique known as photoplethysmography (PPG) allows the algorithm to extract features such as blood pressure and heart rate. The team is developing the application with Azumio, a mobile health technology company.

The algorithm was originally developed with data from about 54,000 participants enrolled in an online heart study. The participants were familiar with using smartphones to monitor their health, but they were less racially diverse than the broader U.S. population, says Robert Avram, a cardiologist and adjunct instructor at the University of California, San Francisco, and the lead author of a developing paper on this application. To ensure the algorithm is just as effective on darker complexions, the researchers are conducting extra rounds of clinical trials on African Americans and Asian Americans. Both groups have higher rates of diabetes than the general population.

Researchers across disciplines agree that broadening training sets is crucial to developing medical algorithms that perform equally well for all patients. “If Blacks, or Hispanics or other underrepresented groups are not included as a part of that training set, there may be unique features that are not going to be recognized by those algorithms,” says Renã A.S. Robinson, associate professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt University who is researching, among other things, a possible molecular basis for some racial disparities in Alzheimer’s disease. If those unique features go unnoticed, she adds, that could hinder physicians’ ability to detect disease early and provide the best treatment.

Researchers believe almost one-third of the world’s stored data is health care related. New “training data” is created each second, in the form of updated prescriptions, imaging reports, insurance bills, and more. All of this gets sorted and added to the archive created by various software developers. Developers generally block third parties — such as researchers — from accessing their programming code.

“There are a lot of frictions that prevent researchers from the outside from studying these things in a hospital or a health system where the data inevitably lives,” says Obermeyer. In his case, he was fortunate to be at a health system that purchased Optum’s algorithm. The health system allowed Obermeyer to use the software and access the data without cost for research purposes. The institutional review board approved the research.

For businesses, sharing a proprietary algorithm with an outside researcher also raises “the real issue of privacy and civil liberties,” says Nelson. It’s important for the company not to release personally identifiable data.

After the publication of the paper in Science, two agencies in the New York state government — the Departments of Financial Services and Health — announced investigations into UnitedHealth Group. Currently, there is no regulation or public oversight of algorithms, but a number of policy proposals have emerged in recent months.

Some politicians want federal agencies and health care companies to provide information on how they are responding to racial bias in algorithms. Sens. Cory Booker and Ron Wyden, along with U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke, have co-sponsored the Algorithmic Accountability Act. The bill would compel certain companies to investigate many of their AI applications for bias. The bill would generally target larger companies, such as those with revenue in excess of $50 million per year, or those that collect personal data on 1 million or more consumers. The bill would also apply to data brokers such as Experian.

There have also been policy recommendations in recent months toward reducing algorithmic bias in health and medical applications. One of the more innovative suggestions: modernizing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and making the case that it already applies to decisions made by artificial intelligence. The proposal was made in congressional testimony by Nicol Turner Lee, a sociologist and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution who conducts research at the intersections of race, social justice, and technology.

“The tech companies were operating in the ‘wild, wild west’ without any guard rails,” Turner Lee tells Undark. “So without risking the types of innovations that we’re seeing, it was important to [find] settled laws that define what you can and cannot do to a protected group or class.” She also adds: “I’ve been saying to legislators … that it’s very important to make a statement that the civil rights laws that have already been previously litigated apply to AI.  Don’t let there be a gap.”

All of the sources interviewed for this article believe that the private sector has a critical role in innovation and developing technologies. But they all agreed that changes have to be made to reduce racial bias.

Obermeyer and his team take a slightly different approach from Turner Lee. Obermeyer believes that, at least for now, many health and medical stakeholders can develop best practices to reduce racial bias. Obermeyer says his team has been approached by health care systems, insurers, software developers, as well as state and federal regulators.

The researchers have offered to audit their algorithms on a pro-bono basis, and deliver recommendations on how to mitigate any biases that are discovered. This likely is the first time that stakeholders’ AI have been audited for fairness. Hopefully, says Obermeyer, this can “begin a conversation” to “share methods and best practices.”

Rod McCullom is a science journalist in Chicago. His work has been published by Undark, Scientific American, Nature, The Atlantic, and The Nation, among other publications. Find Rod on Twitter @rodmccullom

A version of this article was originally published at Undark and has been republished here with permission. Undark can be found on Twitter @undarkmag

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Viewpoint: GMO vs non-GMO foods? There’s no difference to your body or health

According to a survey done by GMO Answers, only 32 percent of consumers are comfortable having GMOs in their food. Google “GMOs” and you will find a plethora of scary statements:

‘GMOs damage our microbiome and can cause a leaky gut.’

‘GMO wheat created gluten allergies.’

‘GMOs may make my genes mutate and cause cancer.’

‘Eating a GM diet causes liver damage.’

‘Stomach lesions are linked to FLAVR SAVR tomatoes.’

‘Pets fed GMOs have organ damage, cancer, allergies and more.’

No wonder consumers are concerned! At D2D, we’ve heard comments like these all too often. So we dug into exactly what happens in our bodies when we eat food that has been grown with a GMO.

First off, let’s understand a little more about GMO crops. As you may know from reading our previous post, GMOs are Confusing: A Recipe for Understanding, genetically changing a crop simply means adding in one or two targeted genes from another organism to achieve a desired outcome.

Another thing to know is that there are only 10 commercially available GMO crops: corn, soy, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, squash, apples and potatoes. If you read something scary about “GMO wheat”, or even see “Non-GMO water”, consider yourself armed with knowledge because now you know there’s no such thing.

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What exactly happens when you eat a GMO?

As I write this, my husband and I are watching the pink and orange sunset from our garden patio. While dipping my corn chips in the salsa, my husband wryly asks if it contains any GMOs. I chew the corn chip and salsa. Whether the corn chip has GMOs or not, it is still loaded with genes. Every living organism has genes and corn has as many as 32,000 genes.

I am pretty confident that my body knows how to digest proteins as it has been doing so my entire life. I have eaten tons of GMO food over the past 20 years and I am still healthy. How does my body do this?

Using enzymes in my saliva and intestine, I, like all humans, am able to digest hundreds of thousands of proteins every single day. Trypsin and Chymotrypsin are digestive enzymes found in our saliva, gut, and small intestine, that break proteins down into peptides and amino acids. Our bodies use these as building blocks which, in turn, produce new proteins that control hormones, create muscle, and other very necessary functions. In fact, every cell in our bodies have proteins that were directed by specific genes.

Digesting GMO and Non-GMO Foods: It’s All the Same!

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Simply put, GMOs provide a few added proteins into the crop. By inserting these genes into the DNA, researchers are ultimately adding in a non-corn protein to the corn plant. These proteins may provide either additional nutrition to a crop, give a crop insect resistance, tolerate herbicides, or even create a greater yield.

Different types of proteins are affected in a variety of ways when cooked. For instance, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacterium that produces a protein that kills corn-attacking insects and is a common gene inserted into corn crops. These Bt proteins in my processed corn chips become inactive after cooking. If, by chance, there are any small protein pieces left, they are attacked by the enzymes in the mouth and stomach. They are then converted into amino acids, where the body can either use them to build its own proteins, use them for energy, or break down and exit the body.

But what if it isn’t cooked? You may have read about the citrus greening disease, which has killed millions of citrus plants in the Southeastern U.S. via an infected insect. To combat this, a GMO orange was created to resist the citrus greening. An anti-citrus greening gene from the spinach plant was isolated and inserted to protect the trees.

So, if you are allergic to spinach, will you now be allergic to genetically modified oranges? No, because the specific gene from the spinach plant was tested for human allergens before it was used in oranges.

What studies have been done to ensure human safety?

First of all, to be sold commercially in the United States, the EPA, FDA and USDA must agree that the genetically-modified crops are safe for human consumption and for the environment. Before a GMO comes on the market it is tested for human allergies and toxicity. Clinical testing has been conducted to determine changes to a genetic profile, effects on fertility, effects on internal organs, and nutritional composition.

Foods from GE plants must meet the same food safety requirements as foods derived from traditionally bred plants”

– FDA website

In addition, health groups such as the American Medical Association, WHO, Mayo Clinic, Royal Society of Medicine, European Commission, American Council on Health Science, OECD, FAO, American Society of Microbiology, just to list a few, have all concluded – from independent research – that GMOs are safe in our food system.

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Researchers in the US and countries around the world have completed hundreds of individual peer-reviewed studies that report on tests on GMOs in the environment and on human and animal health. The Center for Environmental Risk Assessment has compiled a database open to the public where you can see most of these studies. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has also compiled a most comprehensive research on genetically engineered crops and food.

Given the extreme testing that GMO crops are subjected to, some scientists even argue that they are safer than traditional crops!

Some conventional crops carry genes that have the potential to cause harm when eaten. When a non-GMO potato is deep fried, a new chemical is created during the cooking process: a carcinogen called acrylamide. A variety of GM potatoes have been altered to produce less acrylamide when deep fried than a regular potato. To reduce the levels of acrylamide created from the cooking process, a natural protein is added to potatoes to reduce the production of this carcinogen.

Food fear is so prevalent online. For instance, GMO FLAVR SAVR tomatoes are not even on the market anymore, but critics continue to talk about them. The gene used to keep it fresh was the ‘reverse’ of the tomato fruit enzyme, which softens fruit but the public demanded it gone from grocery stores due to pervasive misunderstanding about GMOs.

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Understandably, with all the information we read on the internet, it is hard to know what to believe. As I eat my chips and salsa, short of conducting the research myself, I choose to believe the 30 years’ work of independent scientists, researchers, and government organizations that have been published as peer-reviewed studies. The science says my corn chips are safe, so I confidently eat another chip and pass the bowl to my husband.

Bottom Line:

Our bodies cannot tell the difference between GMO and non-GMO foods. The enzymes in our saliva and digestive tract break down the proteins in our food the same way, whether the food you eat is genetically engineered or not.

Lucy M. Stitzer is a food writer and regular contributor at Dirt to Dinner. She served on the Board at the food company Cargill for many years.

This article originally appeared on GLP on July 24, 2019 and was published as part of a partnership with Dirt to Dinner. Follow D2D on Twitter @Dirt_To_Dinner