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Podcast: Rebel Cell: Cancer, evolution and the science of life

Geneticist Dr. Kat Arney brings you exclusive excerpts from her new book, Rebel Cell: Cancer, evolution and the science of life, exploring where cancer came from, where it’s going, and how we might beat it.

Many of us think of cancer as a contemporary killer, a disease of our own making caused by our modern lifestyles. But that perception just isn’t true. Although it might be rare in many species, cancer is the enemy lurking within every complex organism. Why? Because cancer is a bug in the system of life. We get cancer because we can’t not get it.

Cancer has always been with us. It killed our hominid ancestors, the mammals they evolved from and the dinosaurs that trampled the ground before that. Tumors grow in pets, livestock and wild animals. Even tiny jelly-like Hydra—creatures that are little more than a tube full of water—can get cancer.

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Cancer starts when cells rebel against the social norms of the body, throwing off their molecular shackles and growing out of control in a shambolic mockery of normal life. This is why we can’t avoid cancer: because the very genes that drive it are essential for life itself.

The revolution has raged, on and off, for millions of years. But it was only in the twentieth century that doctors and scientists made any significant progress in understanding and treating cancer, and it is only in the past few decades that we’ve finally begun to make meaningful improvements in survival.

Now the game is changing. Scientists have infiltrated cancer’s cellular rebellion and are finally learning its secrets. Seeing cancer in a new way—as rebel cells adapting and evolving within the landscape of the body—is pointing towards new ways of preventing and controlling cancer in the long term or even driving it to extinction altogether.

Full transcript, links and references available online at GeneticsUnzipped.com

Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator and biologist Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Kat on Twitter @Kat_Arney, Genetics Unzipped @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

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‘Vaccine nationalism’: Will the spoils go to the victors in the vaccine race?

Hundreds of COVID-19 vaccine candidates are currently being developed. The way emerging vaccines will be distributed to those who need them is not yet clear. The United States has now twice indicated that it would like to secure priority access to doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Other countries, including India and Russia, have taken similar stances. This prioritization of domestic markets has become known as vaccine nationalism.

As a researcher at Saint Louis University’s Center for Health Law Studies, I have been following the COVID-19 vaccine race. Vaccine nationalism is harmful for equitable access to vaccines – and, paradoxically, I’ve concluded it is detrimental even for the U.S. itself.

Vaccine nationalism during COVID-19

Vaccine nationalism occurs when a country manages to secure doses of vaccine for its own citizens or residents before they are made available in other countries. This is done through pre-purchase agreements between a government and a vaccine manufacturer.

In March, the White House met with representatives from CureVac, a German biotech company developing a COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. government is reported to have inquired about the possibility of securing exclusive rights over the vaccine. This prompted the German government to comment that “Germany is not for sale.” Angela Merkel’s chief of staff promptly stated that a vaccine developed in Germany had to be made available in “Germany and the world.”

On June 15, the German government announced it would be investing 300 million euros (nearly US$340 million) in CureVac for a 23% stake in the company.

In April, the CEO of Sanofi, a French company whose COVID-19 vaccine work has received partial funding from the U.S Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, announced that the U.S. had the “right to the largest pre-order” of vaccine.

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Credit: Sanofi

Following public outcry and pressure from the French government, Sanofi altered its stance and said that it would not negotiate priority rights with any country.

In India, the privately held Serum Institute is developing one of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates. The Serum Institute signaled that, if development of the vaccine succeeds, most of the initial batches of vaccine will be distributed within India.

At the same time, India, alongside the U.S. and Russia, chose not to join the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, which was launched by the World Health Organization to promote collaboration among countries in the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Vaccine nationalism is not new

Vaccine nationalism is not new. During the early stages of the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, some of the wealthiest countries entered into pre-purchase agreements  with several pharmaceutical companies working on H1N1 vaccines. At that time, it was estimated that, in the best-case scenario, the maximum number of vaccine doses that could be produced globally was 2 billion. The U.S. alone negotiated and obtained the right to buy 600,000 doses. All the countries that negotiated pre-purchase orders were developed economies.

Only when the 2009 pandemic began to unwind and demand for a vaccine dropped did developed countries offer to donate vaccine doses to poorer economies.

The problems posed by nationalism

The most immediate effect of vaccine nationalism is that it further disadvantages countries with fewer resources and bargaining power. It deprives populations in the Global South from timely access to vital public health goods. Taken to its extreme, it allocates vaccines to moderately at-risk populations in wealthy countries over populations at higher risk in developing economies.

Vaccine nationalism also runs against the fundamental principles of vaccine development and global public health. Most vaccine development projects involve several parties from multiple countries.

With modern vaccines, there are very few instances in which a single country can claim to be the sole developer of a vaccine. And even if that were possible, global public health is borderless. As COVID-19 is illustrating, pathogens can travel the globe. Public health responses to outbreaks, which include the deployment of vaccines, have to acknowledge that reality.

How nationalism can backfire in the US

The U.S. in notorious for its high drug prices. Does the U.S. government deserve to obtain exclusive rights for a vaccine that may be priced too high? Such a price may mean that fewer U.S. citizens and residents – especially those who are uninsured or underinsured – would have access to the vaccine. This phenomenon is a form of what economists call deadweight loss, as populations in need of a welfare-enhancing product are priced out. In public health, deadweight loss costs lives.

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At 2.1 million dollars, gene therapy Zolgensma is the most expensive drug in the US. Credit: Novartis

This is not a hypothetical scenario. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar has told Congress that the government will not intervene to guarantee affordability of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S.

Secretary Azar has said the U.S. government wants the private sector to invest in vaccine development and manufacturing; if the U.S. sets prices, companies may not make that investment because the vaccines won’t be profitable. This view has been widely criticized. A commentator has called it “bad public health policy,” further pointing out that American taxpayers already fund a substantial amount of vaccine research and development in the U.S. Moreover, as legal scholars have pointed out, there are many regulatory perks and other incentives available exclusively to pharmaceutical companies.

If COVID-19 vaccines are not made available affordably to those who need them, the consequences will likely be disproportionately severe for poorer or otherwise vulnerable and marginalized populations. COVID-19 has already taken a higher toll on black and Latino populations. Without broad access to a vaccine, these populations will likely continue to suffer more than others, leading to unnecessary disease burden, continued economic problems and potential loss of life.

What needs to be done

Nationalism is at odds with global public health principles. Yet, there are no provisions in international laws that prevent pre-purchase agreements like the ones described above. There is nothing inherently wrong with pre-purchase agreements of pharmaceutical products. Vaccines typically do not generate as much in sales as other medical products. If used correctly, pre-purchase agreements can even be an incentive for companies to manufacture vaccines that otherwise would not commercialized. Institutions like Gavi, an international nonprofit based in Geneva, use similar mechanisms to guarantee vaccines for developing countries.

But I see vaccine nationalism as a misuse of these agreements.

Contracts should not trump equitable access to global public health goods. I believe that developed countries should pledge to refrain from reserving vaccines for their populations during public health crises. The WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator is a starting point for countries to test collaborative approaches during the current pandemic.

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But more needs to be done. International institutions – including the WHO – should coordinate negotiations ahead of the next pandemic to produce a framework for equitable access to vaccines during public health crises. Equity entails both affordability of vaccines and access opportunities for populations across the world, irrespective of geography and geopolitics.

Insofar as the U.S. can be considered a leader in the global health arena, I believe it should stop engaging in overly nationalistic behaviors. Failure to do so harms patient populations across the globe. Ultimately, it may harm its own citizens and residents, and perpetuate structural inequalities in our health care system.

Ana Santos Rutschman is an assistant professor of law at Saint Louis University School of Law, where she teaches courses in health law, intellectual property, and regulation in the life sciences. In 2017, she was named a Bio IP Scholar by the American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics, and in 2018 she was named a Health Law Scholar by the same institution. Ana can be found on Twitter @a_rutschman

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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‘No change in insect population sizes’: Massive North American study challenges ‘insect apocalypse’ claims

In recent years, the notion of an insect apocalypse has become a hot topic in the conservation science community and has captured the public’s attention. Scientists who warn that this catastrophe is unfolding assert that arthropods – a large category of invertebrates that includes insects – are rapidly declining, perhaps signaling a general collapse of ecosystems across the world.

Starting around the year 2000, and more frequently since 2017, researchers have documented large population declines among mothsbeetlesbeesbutterflies and many other insect types. If verified, this trend would be of serious concern, especially considering that insects are important animals in almost all terrestrial environments.

But in a newly published study that I co-authored with 11 colleagues, we reviewed over 5,000 sets of data on arthropods across North America, covering thousands of species and dozens of habitats over decades of time. We found, in essence, no change in population sizes.

These results don’t mean that insects are fine. Indeed, I believe there is good evidence that some species of insects are in decline and in danger of extinction. But our findings indicate that overall, the idea of large-scale insect declines remains an open question.

The debate

For most scientists, the idea of disappearing insects is a foreboding prospect that would have harmful repercussions for all aspects of life on Earth, including human well-being.

But some scholars were skeptical of the reported insect apocalypse. A number of studies that showed broad declines were limited geographically, focusing mainly on Europe. Typically these studies analyzed only a few species or groups of species.

Some particularly long-running assessments showed that declines in the past 30 years occurred after periods when the relevant insect populations increased. Many insect populations are known to naturally fluctuate, sometimes dramatically.

Many scientists concluded that while the prospect of mass insect losses was concerning, the jury was still out on what was actually happening.

Spotlighting North America

Ecologist Bill Snyder and I thought that the studies suggesting widespread insect die-offs produced an intriguing pattern with important ramifications, but that the evidence wasn’t strong enough yet to draw conclusions. We wanted to examine what was happening in North America, which has an immensely diverse landscape and, surprisingly to us, had not been broadly analyzed for insect declines.

For our study, we decided to use data from sites in the Long Term Ecological Research network, which is supported by the National Science Foundation. The network includes 28 sites across the U.S. that have been studied in depth since the 1980s, and covers deserts, mountains, prairies and forests. With almost 40 years of data collected, we hoped trends at these sites would be a good complement to European insect studies.

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Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) larva preparing to pupate, or transform physically into a butterfly. Credit: Matthew Moran

We put together a 12-person team that included six undergraduate students, post-doctoral scholars Michael Scott Crossley and Amanda Meier, and colleagues from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When we finished compiling our data sets, at least some of us expected to see broad insect declines.

Instead, the results left us perplexed. Some species we considered declined, while others increased. But by far the most common result for a species at a particular site was no significant change. The vast majority of our species had stable numbers.

At first we thought we were missing something. We tried comparing different taxonomic groups, such as beetles and butterflies, and different types of feeding, such as herbivores and carnivores. We tried comparing urban, agricultural and relatively undisturbed areas. We tried comparing different habitats and different periods of time.

But the answer remained the same: no change. We had to conclude that at the sites we examined, there were no signs of an insect apocalypse and, in reality, no broad declines at all.

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Students from Matthew Moran’s laboratory at Hendrix College sampling insects in a natural prairie in Arkansas using a suction machine. Studies like these help scientist gather long-term data on insect populations. Credit: Matthew Moran

Explaining continental differences

We are confident in our analysis and our conclusion, but a more important question is why our results are so different from those of other recent studies. I see two potential explanations: location and publication bias.

As I have noted, most insect decline papers have come from European data. Indeed, Europe has better and more extensive long-term data than other parts of the world. It is also one of the most densely populated parts of the world – three times higher than North America.

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Moreover, almost all of Europe’s land has been modified for human use. Agriculture is widespread and intense, and cities and suburban areas cover large swaths of the landscape. So perhaps it is unsurprising that Europe has also lost a larger proportion of its wild creatures compared to North America.

Publication bias is not about dishonesty or false results. It refers to the idea that more dramatic results are more publishable. Reviewers and journals are more likely to be interested in species that are disappearing than in species that show no change over time.

The result is that over time, declining species can become overrepresented in the literature. Then, when scholars go looking for papers on animal populations, declines are predominantly what they find.

We selected Long-Term Ecological Research sites for our analysis in part because they had “raw” data available that had not been peer reviewed for publication and were not collected in anticipation of finding declines. Rather, scientists amassed these data to monitor ecosystems and observe trends over time. In other words, it was unbiased data. And because the data sets were so varied, they covered a broad range of species and habitats.

The future of insects

Our study will not be the final answer. As the human population continues to grow and appropriates an ever larger share of the world’s land, water, space and biomass, other species can only retreat and survive with fewer resources. I have no doubt that every time a forest is cut, a prairie is plowed or a field is paved, the world loses some of its animal and plant life.

Quantifying this process will require more monitoring, more conservation biologists working in the field and more awareness of how human actions affect Earth’s biodiversity. But it may be possible that insects, who have survived for millions of years through a great many biological catastrophes, are finding a way to survive our presence too.

Matthew D. Moran is a Professor of Biology at Hendrix College. He has published work on grassland ecology, predator-prey interactions, plant-animal interactions, and insect ecology.

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

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Real life Jurassic Park? Recovered prehistoric DNA raises prospect of resurrecting species

Even before Jurassic Park became a staple of pop culture in the early 1990s, geneticists have been on the hunt to find preserved dinosaur DNA. With a quick search online, you’ll find a handful of studies published in peer-reviewed journals claiming to have recovered DNA from dinosaur fossils or other preserved prehistoric specimens. The latest such paper was published in the journal National Science Review back in January.

Though far from conclusive, the research reignited a debate over how long prehistoric DNA can survive, and added to a growing body of evidence showing that it may be possible to bring extinct species back to life.

Making a dinosaur in 3 easy steps?

According to the Jurassic Park novels and movies, the recipe for making a dinosaur is simple enough. All it takes is a Jurassic mosquito that fed on a dinosaur before it got trapped in a substance like amber. The bloody lunch can then carefully be removed from the mosquito, the DNA extracted, sequenced, and any essential blanks filled in with equivalent genes from modern day relatives. With the dino genome completed, and after a few more steps to condense the DNA, it can be implanted into an unfertilized donor egg cell to grow into a ferocious monster or gentle giant.

While the simplicity of the process is essential for the plot of Jurassic Park, finding well-preserved prehistoric DNA is a complicated and hotly debated topic. In the 1990s, several papers reported DNA extraction from a 120-135 million-year-old weevil and out of leaf tissue from a 40 million- year- old extinct tree trapped in amber. Unfortunately, the validity of the findings was called into question when other researchers failed to replicate the results in similar experiments.

Later in 2013, this topic was revisited using more powerful modern instruments and more recent subjects trapped in copal – an intermediate stage in resin hardening into amber. But they too were unable to find convincing evidence of preserved DNA. Instead early findings were likely contaminants or artifacts of the extraction or amplification process.

The problem with DNA

At the time Jurassic Park was released, ideas of prehistoric DNA preservation seemed limited to materials like amber. Back then, fossils weren’t really considered potential reservoirs of DNA since the process of fossilization involves soft tissue decaying, leaving only harder components like bones and teeth. Even those harder materials eventually lose their original composition as old minerals dissolve and are replaced by new ones.

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Soft tissue preservation wasn’t widely accepted until Mary Schweitzer and Jack Horner, the the inspiration for Dr. Alan Grant in the Jurassic Park films, identified what looked to be the remnants of blood cells in a T-rex bone. Since then, additional soft tissues like osteocytes, blood vessels, and collagen have been recovered from fossils.

But even if some soft tissue can survive, would DNA also be able to last? In 2012, this question was tested by researchers who took 158 bones between 600 and 8,000 years old to identify the rate of DNA decay. While specific environmental conditions affect the rate of decay, the researchers concluded from their samples that DNA has a half-life of 521 years. In other words, half of the bonds holding DNA together will be broken after 521 years, three quarters after 1042 years, and so on. For dinosaur bones, this means that there should be nothing left besides potential remnants of individual nucleic acids.

Challenging the rules

And yet despite the purported half-life of DNA, Dr. Alida Bailleul and her colleagues published a study in January 2020 indicating the team had found some preserved DNA. The group was studying calcified cartilage in 75 to 67 million-year-old fossils of Hypacrosaurus stebingeri when they identified structures within the cells which were indicative of nuclei based on shape and location. When the cells were isolated and stained with either propidium iodide (PI) or 4′,6′-diamidino-2-phenylindole dihydrochloride (DAPI), both of which bind to double stranded DNA, they found faint yet specific staining indicating the presence of DNA.

Based on the specific localization of the signal and the lack of cell clusters indicating microbial infiltration, the team concluded that contamination was unlikely to be the source of DNA. They hypothesized that cartilage may be better suited to preserve DNA due to its non-porous nature and hypoxic internal environment.

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Whether or not the DNA is actually from Hypacrosaurus stebingeri will be very challenging to confirm. To identify if the reported DNA is genuine, it would have to be sequenced. But if the DNA is too highly fragmented, the pieces may be too short: DAPI and PI staining only indicate the fragments are a minimum length of six base pairs. These findings show that the debate surrounding DNA preservation is not over and more work is needed before we fully understand the characteristics of the molecules that make life possible.

Resurrecting lost species

We may never find sufficiently preserved DNA to bring back dinosaurs as written about in Jurassic Park, though that doesn’t mean extinction is the end. The last Pyrenean Ibex died in 2000, but the species was brought back from extinction temporarily in 2009 when a clone of the species was born. Unfortunately, the clone died minutes after birth due to a lung infection. Still, the experiment showed that it may be possible to reintroduce lost biodiversity through de-extinction efforts.

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As of 2018, there were a total of seven documented de-extinction initiatives. Unlike trying to clone dinosaurs, the candidates for de-extinction all have either preserved cell samples, complete DNA sequences, or closely related living relatives that can be bred back or gene edited to an ancestral target species. Jurassic Park might remain entertaining fiction, but a Pleistocene Park or Zoo of Yesteryear could be a reality in the coming years.

Tautvydas Shuipys is a PhD candidate in the Genetics and Genomics Graduate Program at the University of Florida. Follow him on Twitter @tshuipys

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COVID-19 conspiracy theories give people the feeling of being in control

A few weeks ago, I took an uncomfortable trip down the rabbit hole of Covid-19 conspiracy theory videos. As a newly minted M.D. who will soon be taking care of patients at a safety-net hospital on the frontlines of an ongoing pandemic, I was especially pained by what I saw. There was the infamous “Plandemic” video, which asserts that a cabal of elite individuals and organizations is using Covid-19 to cement power. There were also false claims that the new coronavirus was created with the backing of Bill Gates, for the purposes of diminishing our freedoms.

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Dr. Judy Mikovits from the Plandemic video.

Watching the videos pushed me to think about why so many viewers gravitate toward them — and how best to counter their misinformation. On both of those fronts, my experiences working with patients have taught me valuable lessons.

I’ve learned that conspiracy theorists are often neither malevolent nor unintelligent. Rather, many are afraid of their own powerlessness, and these theories offer them a semblance of control. Believing that Covid-19 was perpetuated by organizations with evil intentions allows conspiracy theorists to affix their anxiety onto a big, bad villain, rather than acknowledge our collective powerlessness against the whims of nature. It helps allay existential fears regarding the indifferent, arbitrary universe we live in. I recognize these emotions because I have seen them time and time again in my patients who are hesitant to heed medical advice, either due to misinformation or due to a reluctance to change their habits.

A second allure of conspiracy theories may be that they allow the believer to lay claim to a secret truth that is not limited by one’s level of wealth or education. Previous studies have demonstrated that lower education levels correspond with increased reliance on conspiratorial explanations, with one concluding that “education may undermine the reasoning processes and assumptions that are reflected in conspiracy belief.” The average Covid-19 conspiracy theorist has probably never received the training needed to interpret complex academic papers. I couldn’t send them one of the dozens of research articles I’ve read over the past months and expect them to grasp its nuances. Yet, if I were to challenge them on their beliefs, it wouldn’t be surprising if they accused me of being the one who hadn’t done my due diligence in researching Covid-19. Conspiracy theories abound because they are easy to understand and fit neatly within their own twisted internal logic. The truth is often hopelessly complicated, but the best lies are simple and easy to believe.

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Fortunately, physicians have a powerful tool to persuade patients on a wide range of issues, from smoking to vaccinesmotivational interviewing, a form of conversation therapy used to assess and guide patients in the process of making positive changes. As a part of motivational interviewing, I ask my patients about their biggest barriers to changing their minds or habits; this way, I know which worries or misinformation to try to address. I never resort to guilt-tripping, fearmongering, or ridicule, because those who feel their beliefs are being threatened become even more entrenched in their views.

At the end of every discussion, I reassess my patients’ willingness to change. Most of my patients aren’t willing to give up their deep-rooted beliefs or habits after a single office visit, so I remain open to an ongoing conversation. Over the course of many visits, my patients get to know me and understand that I want the best for them. By fostering a sense of mutual respect, I can often nudge them toward healthy behaviors, like taking their medications or taking actionable steps to quit smoking.

So, now, when I encounter a Covid-19 conspiracy theorist, I approach the conversation like this: I empathize with them, acknowledging that Covid-19 is horrifying and that we all want our loved ones to be safe. I tell them that I don’t trust the conclusions of some of the conspiracy videos on the internet, and I offer to refer them to more trustworthy sources of information. Even if they don’t change their mind, they know that I take their concerns seriously. The conversation about Covid-19 will be an ongoing one, but in time, I hope that evidence-based views will win the conspiracy theorists over.

Viral misinformation has proliferated during the pandemic, and many of our friends and families have been afflicted. Fortunately, there is a potential cure: healthy doses of active listening, empathy, patience, and respect.

Yoo Jung Kim is a graduate of the Stanford University School of Medicine and Dartmouth College and a co-author of “What Every Science Student Should Know,” a guidebook for students interested in science, technology and engineering published by the University of Chicago Press. Yoo can be found on Twitter @YooJKim

A version of this article was originally published on Undark’s website and has been republished here with permission. Undark can be found on Twitter @UndarkMag

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‘Immunological dark matter’: Is this why some people have a pre-existing immunity to COVID-19?

More than half a million people have died from COVID-19 globally. It is a major tragedy, but perhaps not on the scale some initially feared. And there are finally signs that the pandemic is shuddering in places, as if its engine is running out of fuel. This has encouraged many governments to relinquish lockdowns and allow everyday life to restart, albeit gingerly.

The spread of SARS-CoV-2 has been difficult to predict and understand. On the Diamond Princess cruise ship, for example, where the virus is likely to have spread relatively freely through the air-conditioning system linking cabins, only 20% of passengers and crew were infected. Data from military ships and cities such as StockholmNew York and London also suggest that infections have been around 20% – much lower than earlier mathematical models suggested.

This has led to speculation about whether a population can achieve some sort of immunity to the virus with as little as 20% infected – a proportion well below the widely accepted herd immunity threshold (60-70%).

The Swedish public health authority announced in late April that the capital city, Stockholm, was “showing signs of herd immunity” – estimating that about half its population had been infected. The authority had to backtrack two weeks later, however, when the results of their own antibody study revealed just 7.3% had been infected. But the number of deaths and infections in Stockholm is falling rather than increasing – despite the fact that Sweden hasn’t enforced a lockdown.merlin fb b f b be d e f dca bb videosixteenbyninejumbo

Hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic may end sooner than initially feared have been fuelled by speculation about “immunological dark matter”, a type of pre-existing immunity that can’t be detected with SARS-CoV-2 antibody tests.

Antibodies are produced by the body’s B-cells in response to a specific virus. Dark matter, however, involves a feature of the innate immune system termed “T-cell mediated immunity”. T-cells are produced by the thymus and when they encounter the molecules that combat viruses, known as antigens, they become programmed to fight the same or similar viruses in the future.

Studies show that people infected with SARS-CoV-2 indeed have T-cells that are programmed to fight this virus. Surprisingly, people never infected also harbour protective T-cells, probably because they have been exposed to other coronaviruses. This may lead to some level of protection against the virus – potentially explaining why some outbreaks seem to burn out well below the anticipated herd immunity threshold.

Young people and those with mild infections are more likely to have a T-cell response than old people – we know that the reservoir of programmable T-cells declines with age.

In many countries and regions that have had very few COVID-19 cases, hotspots are now cropping up. Take Germany, which quickly and efficiently battled the virus and has had one of the lowest death rates among the large northern European countries.

Here, the R number – reflecting the average transmission rate – has risen again, below 1 until June 18, but rocketing to 2.88 just days later, only to drop again a few days later. It may be tempting to argue that this could be because the hotspots never got close to the 20% infection that was seen in other regions.

But there are counter examples, albeit particularly in older and immunocompromised populations. In the Italian COVID-19 epicenter in Bergamo, a town where one in four residents are pensioners, 60% of the population had antibodies by early June.

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60% of people in Bergamo have antibodies. Credit: Angellodeco/Shutterstock

The same is true in some prisons: at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville, US, 54% of inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 by early May. And more than half of the residents in some long-term care facilities have also been infected.

Genes and environment

So how do we explain this? Could people in places with higher rates of positive antibodies have a different genetic make-up?

Early in the pandemic, there was much speculation about whether specific genetic receptors affected susceptibility to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Geneticists thought that DNA variation in the ACE2 and TMPRSS2 genes might affect susceptibility to, and severity of, infection. But studies so far have shown no compelling evidence supporting this hypothesis.

Early reports from China also suggested that blood types may play a role, with blood type A raising risk. This was recently confirmed in studies of Spanish and Italian patients, which also discovered a new genetic risk marker termed “3p21.31”.

While genetics may be important, the environment also matters. It is well known that airborne transmission of droplets is enhanced in colder climates. Super-spreading events in several meat production facilities where the indoor climate is cold suggest this has enhanced contagion. People also tend to spend more time indoors and in close proximity during inclement weather.

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Warm weather, however, brings people together, albeit outdoors. Indeed, June has been uncharacteristically hot and sunny in many northern European countries, causing parks and beaches to be overrun and social distancing rules flouted. This will likely drive contagion and cause new COVID-19 outbreaks in the weeks to come.

Yet another factor is how interpersonal interactions affect contagion. Some previous models have assumed that people interact in the same way regardless of age, well-being, social status and so forth. But this isn’t likely to be the case – young people, for example, are likely to have more acquaintances than the elderly. Accounting for this reduces the herd immunity threshold to around 40%.

Will COVID-19 disappear?

The lockdowns enforced far and wide, combined with the responsible actions of many citizens, have undoubtedly mitigated the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and saved lives. Indeed, in cases such as Sweden – where lockdown was eschewed and social distancing rules were relatively relaxed – the virus has claimed an order of magnitude more lives than in its pro-lockdown neighbours, Norway and Finland.

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Stockholm on June 24, 2020. Credit: Stina Stjernkvist/TT/EPA

But it is unlikely that lockdowns alone can explain the fact that infections have fallen in many regions after 20% of a population has been infected – something that, after all, happened in Stockholm and on cruise ships.

That said, the fact that more than 20% of people have been infected in other places means that the T-cell hypothesis is unlikely to be the sole explanation either. Indeed, if a 20% threshold does exist, it applies to only some communities, depending on interactions between many genetic, immunological, behavioural and environmental factors, as well as the prevalence of pre-existing diseases.

Understanding these complex interactions is going to be necessary if one is to meaningfully estimate when SARS-CoV-2 will burn itself out. Ascribing any apparent public health successes or failures to a single factor is appealing – but it is unlikely to provide sufficient insight into how COVID-19, or whatever comes next, can be defeated.

Paul W. Franks is a Professor in Genetic Epidemiology and Deputy Director at Lund University Diabetes Center in Sweden, where I also head the Genetic & Molecular Epidemiology Unit. His research focuses on precision diabetes medicine, with special emphasis on lifestyle interventions. Paul can be found on Twitter @paulwfranks

Joacim Rocklöv is a Professor of Epidemiology at Umeå University. He is engaged in research in the nexus of global health, environmental epidemiology and infectious disease ecology. His lab is focusing on understanding disease etiology, developing predictive models for the purpose of early warning and response systems, and estimating future health impacts in relation to climate and environmental change guiding climate action. Joacim can be found on Twitter @JoacimRocklov

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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In effort to block Philippines’ GMO Golden Rice, activists falsely link nutrition-enhanced staple to COVID

Anti-biotech groups in the Philippines are trying to link the COVID-19 pandemic to Golden Rice as part of a week-long effort to derail commercialization of the nutritionally enhanced staple food. Critics, led by Stop Golden Rice Network (SGRN), say the approval is part of an onslaught to advance “corporate control in food and agriculture.”

According to Cris Panerio, national coordinator of farmer-scientist group MASIPAG:

The pandemic exposed what we feared a long time ago – that our food system has become so flawed and weak, it will inevitably fail to sustain our needs. … There are enough reasons to safely conclude that multinational corporations are exploiting the dire situation of our food system during COVID-19 as a pretext for further greedy gains.

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The new campaign is an attempt to derail the roll-out of Golden Rice, which is expected later this year. Food safety regulators in the Philippines finally approved the crop for human consumption on December 18 of last year after two decades of deliberations, protests and missteps by scientists. According to the International Rice Research Institute:

After rigorous biosafety assessment, Golden Rice ‘has been found to be as safe as conventional rice’ by the Philippine Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry. The biosafety permit, addressed to the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), details the approval of GR2E Golden Rice for direct use as food and feed, or for processing (FFP).

After the approval, Greenpeace claimed that Golden Rice violated the ‘precautionary principle,’ which stresses the hypothetical risks and minimizes the demonstrated benefits of consuming the crop. Moreover, there is no evidence to support the allegation that Golden Rice—approved well before the international spread of COVID-19—is being advanced as a way to exploit the current crisis.

Rice that saves lives

Golden Rice contains high levels of beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, and was developed to combat severe nutrient deficiencies that can lead to blindness, anemia and weakened immune function that boosts the severity of infectious diseases—jeopardizing the health of unnamedmillions of impoverished people. As the GLP reported last November:

[R]oughly 250 million people, mostly preschool children in southeast Asia, are vitamin A deficient. Between 2
50,000 and 500,000 of them go blind every year—and half die within 12 months of losing their sight. Genetically engineered Golden Rice …. could alleviate much of this suffering without otherwise harming human health or the environment, according to a mountain of studies.

SGRN and its allies nonetheless oppose the introduction of Golden Rice, labeling it a “Trojan horse” that will allow biotech giants like Bayer to expand their footprint in the developing world. The three scientists who developed and steered Golden Rice into production—, , and argued in a recent GLP article that such opposition is a last, desperate attempt to salvage the anti-GMO movement, which has receded as one country after another has embraced transgenics to reduce agricultural chemical use, increase yield and, in the case of Golden Rice and a few other crops, enhance nutrition:

Golden Rice is created to deliver a consumer benefit, it is not for profit—for multinational agribusiness or anyone else; the technology originated in the public sector and is being delivered through the public sector. It is entirely altruistic in its motivations; which activists find impossible to accept. So, the activists believe suspicion against Golden Rice has to be amplified, Golden Rice has to be stopped: “If we lose the Golden Rice battle, we lose the GMO war.”

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Although Bayer and Syngenta helped develop the enhanced rice variety, they don’t stand to profit once the crop is approved, as science writer Matt Ridley pointed out in January,  Potrykus and Beyer insisted that the technology be donated free to benefit children suffering from vitamin A deficiency.

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A crowd breaking through a fence to destroy an experimental field of genetically modified golden rice in the Philippines. Credit: Philippine Department of Agriculture Regional Field Unit 5

Claims of corporate subterfuge are further undermined by the fact that the Philippines has grown insect-resistant GMO Bt corn for 17 years—which means biotech companies are clearly not using Golden Rice to sneak GMOs into the country. Moreover, high-profile legislators not only supported the release of Golden Rice, they have endorsed simplified regulations that will enable the use of new breeding techniques including CRISPR gene editing. For these reasons the USDA has called the Philippines a “regional biotechnology leader.”

In an email to GLP, Ed Regis, author of Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood, summed up the situation this way:

This latest campaign against Golden Rice is yet one more installment in the long-running soap opera that pits corporate villains against helpless farmers, and now also illogically throws the Covid-19 crisis into the mix.

But neither this lurid stagecraft nor the apocalyptic rhetoric of the protesters has anything to do with Golden Rice, which is governed by the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, not a corporation, and which will be given away free to small landowner farmers who may plant it or not as a matter of their own individual choice. Nobody is holding a gun to their heads and nobody’s rights are being infringed by the planting or use of Golden Rice.

Editor’s note: Adrian Dubock, a member of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, offered these comments in an email in reaction to the latest maneuver by activist groups to derail commercialization of nutritionally enhanced rice in the Philippines.

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The people organizing the campaign against Golden Rice are knowingly misleading the Philippine people. They are also damaging the interests of Philippine mothers and Philippine children. Golden Rice has nothing to do with agribusiness companies, as claimed – it is a public sector project for public health!
maxresdefaultIndeed, as science reporter Matt Ridley noted in a report in Genetic Literacy Project: “Given the scale of human suffering Golden Rice could address, there may be no better example of a purely philanthropic project in the whole of human history. Yet some misguided environmental activists still oppose Golden Rice to this day.”

Thirty percent of young children in the Philippines lack sufficient vitamin A. The deficiency reduces natural immunity against common childhood diseases, including pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea, so that they kill.  A source of vitamin A  reduces child mortality by 23-34%, and 50-76% in the case of measles. Vitamin A deficiency is also the leading cause of blindness in children. White rice is carbohydrate, excellent as an energy source, but contains nothing else.   Consumption of a small amount of Golden Rice is a proven source of vitamin A. Golden Rice will cost no more than white rice, and it is safe.

Since the 1940s, a healthy population has been a top objective of Philippine governments. The Philippine Rice Research Institute is planning to introduce Golden Rice to improve the public health of Pinoys. Philippine farmers have benefited for decades from the work of the Philippines highly skilled regulators, and Philippine families will soon too when Golden Rice is available for them to grown and consume.

Opposing the use of Golden Rice is hugely inappropriate, especially during a pandemic. Covid-19 will very seriously impact young children and mothers, already marginalized before the virus began to spread. Especially for those families who eat a lot of rice and little else, their vulnerability to all the Covid-19 circumstances, including indirect ones, is extreme. Vitamin A deficiency already kills more than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, Ebola and, incidentally, Covid-19.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is devoted to aiding national efforts to improve the health, nutrition, education, and general welfare of children. On April 3, UNICEF called for swift global action to prevent this health crisis becoming a child-rights crisis, noting:

….overburdened  health systems threaten more than those who fall ill with COVID-19.

In the poorest parts of the world, children in need of basic yet essential services – including those to protect against diseases like pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea – are at risk of not receiving them.  As health systems stretch, infants and children will lose their lives to preventable causes.

UNICEF calls on governments and partners [MASIPAG supporters please take note] to sustain life-saving maternal, newborn and child health services.  This means continuing to meet the urgent needs posed by COVID-19, while carrying forward critical health interventions, like funding for vaccinations, that ensure children survive and thrive.  Our response to COVID-19 must be one that strengthens health systems in the long run.

Getting Golden Rice registered and in use quickly could start to address vitamin A deficiency, which is even more important now in the time of Covid-19.

Golden Rice exists, and with very little regulatory decision, can be made available NOW to help those with limited dietary diversity, and where rice is the staple crop, fight infection for free, with very little cultural change.

Adrian Dubock, 6 August 2020

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

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Podcast: Global population crash; Pesticide bans backfire; beef producing CRISPR male cows

CRISPR could enable farmers to produce more beef from fewer cattle, boosting farm sustainability. Lawsuits designed to get pesticides and GMO crops off the market are paradoxically fueling the development of new biotech crops and pesticides. A troubling study says the world is headed for a population crash. What can be done to reverse this trend before it’s too late?

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:

Editing a single gene in beef cattle with the new breeding technique CRISPR enables cows to convert feed into weight 15 percent more efficiently, say animal scientists from the University of California, Davis. The simple genetic change could help farmers produce more beef from fewer cattle in the coming years, leading to cheaper food and a smaller environmental footprint for animal agriculture. Several key questions remain to be answered before these gene-edited cows enter the food supply. Chief among them: will the FDA prevent farmers from breeding them?

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An onslaught of lawsuits brought by high-profile anti-GMO groups has forced the EPA to ban several pesticides widely used in concert with biotech crops. The legal effort is part of a long-term strategy to ban genetically engineered seeds. But there’s a crucial problem: Biotech companies are developing more sustainable pest-control tools in response to the lawsuits. In the short term, then, product bans could spell trouble for farmers. But over the long haul, activist groups may be pushing themselves into irrelevancy by encouraging the development of new products that are eco-friendly and nearly impossible ban.

With more women than ever in the workforce, fewer people are getting married and having children. Those married couples who are still having kids are having far fewer than their parents and grandparents did. 70 years ago, women were having approximately 4.7 children, say researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. But the global fertility rate dropped to 2.4 in 2017, and is projected to fall below 1.7 by 2100, the BBC reported.

The study authors project that the global population will peak at 9.7 billion near 2064, then fall to 8.8 billion by the end of the century, conclusively debunking fears that the world will run out of food and other natural resources. The real danger lies in the fact that a population crash could eventually—perhaps in the next two or three centuries—lead to a world with no people. “If you can’t [find a solution] then eventually the species disappears,” warns University of Washington researcher Christopher Murray.

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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Viewpoint: How to constructively engage on social media with those who post anti-GMO and anti-vax conspiracies

The other day, a tantalizing question appeared in my Twitter feed: “If you were writing a book about 2020, what would your first sentence be?” asked Mitch Weiss, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist with the Associated Press. I laughed out loud at the response from Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington, who has been on the front lines of the Covid-19 epidemiology dramas online and in the media.

The world is awash with bullshit, and we’re drowning in it.

This is the actual first line of Bergstrom’s 2020 book co-authored with Jevin West, Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World. There probably couldn’t be a more apt assessment of 2020 (I think I feel another book review coming on). It appears to be a field guide to help the public spot the misuse of data and prevent it in the future. This comes after Bergstrom and colleagues developed a popular course on this topic, which tackles the crucial problem of educating people and arming them with the critical thinking skills that seem to be in such short supply right now.

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Of course, education is the foundation for better public policy and personal decisions, and we know that teachers around the world are crucial players in the science communication arena. But we can’t wait for the future education pipeline to deal with the existing misinformation tsunami that washes over us.

The current pandemic has exposed the fact that many of our neighbors are long out of school, and unlikely to become skilled critical thinkers in time to address our present problems. Everyone’s Facebook and Twitter feeds are bombarded by waves of anti-GMO or anti-vaccine nonsense, and sometimes a combination of both. So what can be done about this in real time? Research in science communication has good news and bad news on this. The good news is that there are some strategies that might work. The bad news is that pro-science organizations might not be utilizing them to their full potential.

As a biologist who spends countless hours in the science communication trenches, I want to examine what several recent studies on this topic show, and provide some guidance to anyone who wants to help push back against the onslaught of Covid-fueled nonsense the world is experiencing.

First, the bad news 

Despite years of science communication research, it appears that major pro-science groups aren’t succeeding on Facebook. In May, a team of researchers published an analysis of the network interactions among pro-vaccination, neutral, and anti-vaccination groups. In a paper titled The online competition between pro- and anti-vaccination views, they explored the connections among discussants during a measles outbreak. Based on their results, it seems that people with anti-vaccine views are able to integrate themselves into more of the undecided and neutral communities, even though pro-vaccine pages tend to have more members. Ryan Butner, a data scientist with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, summarized the work this way:

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Because I’m not on Facebook, and the researchers are not allowed to reveal exactly who the pro-vaccine pages represent, it’s difficult to understand what their unsuccessful strategies look like. It’s possible that the science communication teams are not permitted to go beyond their narrow remit and venture into groups like the “school parent association” that anti-vaxxers in the study joined, according to the researchers.

It’s likely that some of these pro-science organizations are constrained by factors that are not issues to the conspiracy theorists—such as reliance on facts and evidence. These are not as compelling as some of the fictions produced by anti-science influencers. As neurologist and popular science writer Steven Novella once wrote about  institutional systems in The Misinformation Wars, “They are like the British fighting in neat rows with their visible red uniforms, while the rebels fire at them concealed behind trees and stone walls.”

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Credit: Scott Monty

It may also be that pro-science groups are mischaracterizing the opposition. While some individuals are merely misinformed, a powerful and well-funded marketing frigate sits in the harbor launching cannonballs of nonsense into the popular consciousness to monetize donations, memberships, books, and videos. Butner and several colleagues made this point in a recent study: Monetizing disinformation in the attention economy: The case of genetically modified organisms (GMOs):

This means those influencers don’t operate like opponents in debate club, they operate like businesses vying for market share. They have more willingness to experiment and take the risky plays with higher potential payoffs than institutional voices typically will.

Unfortunately, as on other fronts, it seems we shouldn’t expect institutional science voices to save us. And this prompts an important question: what can a pro-science individual do to stem the tide of disinformation, at least in their own sphere?

The good news: “observational correction” as science communication

Just before everything went belly-up due to SARS-CoV-2, I attended possibly the last in-person conference for a while, MisinfoCon at the National Academy of Sciences. It brought together many of the experts who are exploring ways to stem the spread of disinformation and misinformation in academia, the mainstream press and social media arenas.

Of particular interest to us is the research examining what works on the interpersonal scale. Briefly summarized, the evidence suggests that people will sometimes reject misinformation when they see others corrected for trying to spread that same misinformation. Social scientists Leticia Bode and Emily Vraga call this phenomenon “observational correction.”

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Bode gave one especially hopeful talk, presenting her work with Vraga and other colleagues titled, Wrong Again: Correction of Health Misinformation in Social Media. The researchers tested corrections on multiple platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube for misinformation on topics such as GMOs, raw milk, vaccines, origins of a virus, and more. Some of the studies involved college students and may not reflect the broader population, some were done with more diverse survey respondents. But now several threads of evidence suggest that correction can work on “lurkers,” or people who witness the correction, even if the original poster is unmoved.

In another study, See Something, Say Something: Correction of Global Health Misinformation on Social Media, Bode and Vraga examined the impact of observational correction in relation to the Zika virus crisis. The researchers created simulated posts of misinformation about the origin of the virus and various kinds of replies with corrected content. They again found that observers who saw corrected information from quality sources demonstrated a reduced belief in misinformation compared to the control group.

There has been a great deal of concern about the so-called “backfire effect” in science communication—that is, someone will cling more tightly to misbeliefs when challenged with facts they perceive as a threat to their worldview. Although this effect seems to be less common than originally suggested, observational correction end-runs the problem. People, it seems, feel less threatened when they see someone else corrected, even if they both share the same viewpoint. That might lower barriers to the absorption of new information.

Other benefits of observational correction include immediacy and scalability. Seeing correct and credible information inhibits the misinformation from taking root. Further, more people can see the corrected information beyond just the original poster. Social corrections can work on multiple issues, and you can use your personal style to bring that information to your local connections in ways that institutional science communicators cannot.

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The new information could be provided either by a Facebook algorithm or an individual responding to the topic. This also creates a useful role for institutional communications folks—who can provide quality resources that algorithms or individuals can use for these corrections, even if they can’t dive into the anti-science discussions themselves.

Bonus feature: if one correction is made, a second correction with related facts can also provide support and affect the reader’s perceptions. For this data see the work entitled, In Related News, That Was Wrong: The Correction of Misinformation Through Related Stories Functionality in Social Media. So when you see a friend or ally correct an item, team up and bring a related point into the discussion to reduce misperceptions on the topic.

Not all social media sites can facilitate algorithmic corrections as Facebook can, and this strategy may face other hurdles and constraints. The same tools may not work at all on Twitter or Reddit, for example. But the fact that algorithms can work when implemented properly may offer some hope for addressing misinformation on a massive scale, and therefore might be worth exploring on other platforms.

Can’t we be (un)civil?

Bode and her colleagues have also found that individuals can combat misinformation even if their preferred style may be deemed “uncivil” by some. With their most recent study, Do the right thing: tone may not affect correction of misinformation on social media, the team found that empathetic, neutral, or uncivil replies about erroneous claims all worked. As Bode summarized on Twitter, “Our biggest takeaway—as long as you provide credible information to rebut misinformation, other people viewing that correction will be convinced, whether you’re extra sympathetic, rude, or somewhere in between. So correct in whatever way feels most comfortable to you.”

In short, spending time on social media corrections is worthwhile. Friends and allies can team up for additional impact. This gives me hope that joining organized efforts of allies, like the new Stronger.Org campaign to challenge vaccine disinfo, could yield dividends at this crucial time. Also: you do you, your way. You can reach into community spaces that larger pro-science groups can’t. This won’t stop the tone police from coming after you, but now you’ll have evidence that tone police can put a cork in it.

The life ring we need to keep science literacy afloat right now may be in our hands. Or at least at our fingertips.

Mary Mangan holds a PhD in cell, molecular, and developmental biology from the University of Rochester. She co-founded OpenHelix, a company that provides awareness and training on open source genomics software tools. Follow her on Twitter @mem_somerville

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Podcast: How 1970s fat-free fad launched organic, non-GMO and other ‘absurd’ labeling schemes

Go walk the aisles of your local grocery store and see how many products are being marketed for what they are ­not. Fat Free, Sugar Free, Gluten Free, Non-GMO, Cage Free, Antibiotic-free, Hormone-free, and on and on. This massive assortment of food labels demonstrates one thing: wealthy, Western consumers have been duped into buying pricier food with no additional nutritional benefits.

For millennia, people have often struggled to have sufficient food and sadly, based on a 2018 report from the World Health Organization, there are still around 821 million people in our world that are hungry. These fellow humans just need food for what it is—a source of nutrition.

Even the privileged need our food to be what it is, to provide us energy, vitamins, minerals, fiber and all sorts of health-promoting compounds. I recently went to pick up a few things at a Ralphs supermarket and I could not find a cart without a placard on it that said, “Simple truth, proud of what’s not in our food.” Of course, they mean pesticide residues, GMOs, anything that might help farmers to feed consumers. I will never shop at that store again, as with my previous decision never to shop at Whole Foods.

So, how did this whole food labeling gimmick start? Why are we constantly advertising food for what it is not?  Epidemiologists in the 1960s looking at data about lifestyles and heart disease concluded that the typical American diet was high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which was why heart attack rates were so high in our country. In the 1970s, the U.S. Dietary Goals advised Americans to cut back on fat and eat more carbs to lower the risk of heart disease.It later turned out that if they had included more of the available dietary data by nationality, they might not have reached that conclusion.

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Image: IDM Program

Americans got used to paying attention to implied health claims on the front label, and those began to proliferate. The soybean processing industry started promoting the label, “contains no tropical oils” because their international competitors who supplied coconut and palm oil fell into the “saturated fat” category.

This sort of barely regulated kind of marketing expanded to other “health demons” which eventually included sugar, antibiotics, hormones, gluten and GMOs. Let’s explore the absurdity of marketing foods based on what they do not contain.

Steve Savage is a plant pathologist and senior contributor to the GLP. Follow him on Twitter @grapedoc

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Viewpoint: Crop biotech innovation isn’t enough to shut down the anti-GMO propaganda machine

The American poet Walt Whitman once said: “I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them…. It always keeps the way beyond open…always gives…a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”

I found that scientific spirit vividly present in the recollections that I garnered in recent years during interviews I did of more than two dozen scientists from a dozen different countries who were part of a group that had worked together from the 1960s to the 1990s in labs run jointly by two young Flemings, the late Jeff Schell, a geneticist, and his scientific partner, biochemist Marc Van Montagu in Ghent, Brussels, and eventually also Cologne.

The microbiologists, biochemists, molecular geneticists, and lab technicians who worked under Schell and Van Montagu were also young when they started. Most were of the first generation of their families to go to university, but they had seemingly quickly acquired the scientific spirit that Van Montagu and Schell had imbibed from their secondary school teachers, in this first generation after World War II when there were more good teachers in Belgium than could find university places.

In the interests of full disclosure, I note that I am a non-scientist nonfiction writer, who only became interested in researching and writing a book about these scientists’ story when I was sitting at dinner under the dome of Iowa’s state capitol while my good friend Marc Van Montagu was being presented in October 2013 with the World Food Prize for his and Schell’s labs’ having uncovered the initial facts that led to the creation of man-made genetically modified plants. (Two other scientists won the prize that day for GMO work, including a man from Monsanto.)

The Belgian scientist sitting next to me said, “You know, somebody should write up our discovery: how it happened, who did it, who helped, the mistakes, the bits of good luck. It is a thrilling story, but we scientists haven’t a clue how to write it so that ordinary non-scientists could understand it….”

And then he looked at me directly and said, “Why don’t YOU write it?” Unspoken was the glaring fact that six months earlier a new mass movement had spawned hundreds of “March Against Monsanto” rallies worldwide involving some two million people to draw attention to the dangers posed by genetically modified food and the “food giants” who produced it.

I accepted the challenge and what I wrote, after four years of research, was a non-academic book, without any jargon, for non-scientists like me. I called it Using Nature’s Shuttle: The making of the first genetically modified plants; it was published by Wageningen Academic Publishers NL, in November 2018.

Despite being written by me alone without any formal support or sponsorship, it was launched a month later in Belgium’s Palace of the Academies, in Brussels, hosted by the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology. The reason for the book’s prestigious launch is that it describes what Nobel laureate microbiologist Sir Richard Roberts calls “probably the greatest advance in agricultural biotechnology since the invention of agriculture.”

Their labs had started out trying to answer a fifty-year old question Jeff Schell had raised as worth pursuing: How do some members of a strain of soil bacterium known as Agrobacterium tumefaciens (tumor making soil bacterium) somehow induce heritable tumors in a variety of plants — and do it even when they are not  present in the plants? No other bacterium seemed to be able to do it.

Schell and Van Montagu and the other scientists were pursuing this question, not to rid the world of plant tumors, but in order to better understand how things work in the world of microbes, the ultra-small units of DNA that were then for the first time fully visible, thanks to electron microscopes, with the scientists aided by the knowledge of the structure of DNA that Crick and Watson had discovered in the 1950s.

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Image: ThinkStock

Schell had asked a new industrial engineer in the Ghent lab to look for what Schell suspected would be a particular kind of virus, a lysogenic phage, living inside the bacterium, that somehow could induce tumors in plants. He said that it might be supercoiled and that would affect where it would show up in the test tube after a tricky set of maneuvers, including many hours of the bacterium being spun in a centrifuge at very high speeds.

The engineer took his job seriously and worked well into the night most days for more than a year. Finally, late one night in March 1972, he found what seemed to be a small supercoiled band low down in the test tube, as Schell had predicted. He gave the tiny bit of DNA to the lab’s microscopy specialist and waited for Schell’s phage. But what he had found was not a phage but a plasmid — a kind of circular or supercoiled molecule that had only been discovered 20 years earlier — and this was a much bigger plasmid than ever recorded before.

A lot had been riding on it being a phage. Schell’s best doctoral student was working on phages in the expectation that this would be the one that would help unravel the secret of the plant tumors caused by something in the bacterium. A rival lab in another country seemed near to finding that a phage caused those tumors. There were also some phages able to combine so that they could resemble a plasmid. To confuse things more, the engineer soon found bigger plasmids that didn’t have any connection with plant tumors.

But while keeping all options open, a multistep process over the next several years, involving days and nights of meticulous work by various members of the lab, determined that this plasmid was always and only present in the strain of soil bacterium that induced plant tumors. The job of proving that took infinite care, not only by the postdocs and the doctoral students and technicians but even by the dishwashers, to assure that no contamination occurred to ruin the experiments. It involved all-out long-term teamwork by a bunch of young people who were not paid for their extra hours at work.

The discovery of the crucial role of the plasmid inside the soil bacterium turned out to be the key to figuring out not only how the soil bacterium induced plant tumors, but how scientists could use parts of the plasmid to, instead of inducing tumors, insert DNA in plants to make more desirable plants. Thus was conceived the genetically modified plant, a product of basic research.

Drawing on my scientist informants, and going back to them repeatedly, I did my best to record over many pages exactly what these scientists had done, why, and how. And that is how I came upon those precious moments when the scientific spirit showed itself. I learned that fundamental research, the quest for knowledge, can lead to unexpectedly useful developments; and that people harnessed together by a shared set of goals can accomplish much more than people working alone and afraid that someone will steal their data.

But when these scientists’ planned gift to the world, and especially to the poorest on the planet, became patent-protected products, commercialized by Monsanto and other big agrichemical companies with powerful marketing networks, things changed.

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Monsanto’s GM soybeans were on their way in 1996 to European markets and had just received EU permission to be sold there, when they ran into a buzz saw of opposition from public interest groups, such as Greenpeace, and EU member governments — starting with France, whose traditional agriculture depends on the original Common Market treaty’s guarantee of subsidies, to which were later added new beneficiaries from the East bloc when they became EU members, bringing their similar farming traditions.

By then, organic farming, begun after World War II, had become an emerging player in Europe and wanted no competition from cheaper farm products from the US. If that were not enough to make GMOs unwelcome in many places, a mere five days after the EU agreed to the entry of Monsanto’s GM soybeans, an unrelated food scandal emerged when the British Prime Minister had to announce that, despite UK governmental assurances to the contrary, British beef from animals with Mad Cow disease had been implicated in a new, human version of Mad Cow that had killed a number of Britons and went on to kill more of them.

Public outrage at this British incident of food poisoning in conventionally raised cattle spread to many other countries and came quickly to include a distrust of all government assurances on food safety, including the new GM foods. Lobbies and spokespeople for these various anti-GMO interests separately and together spread fear and distrust about GM foods and related products world-wide, a phenomenon that continues up to today.

Since 1996, 5.8 billion acres of GM crops have been planted, and more than 2,000 publications have addressed and confirmed their food and environmental safety. Also, hundreds of regulatory and food safety assessments, notably by the WHO, the National Institutes of Science, Medicine, and Engineering, all the most prestigious European scientific bodies, and by GM exporting and importing countries have, on the basis of their research, regulatory assessment, and/or history of use, found no evidence of harm from GMOs.

Meanwhile, in 2000, various anti-GMO well-funded efforts led to the adding of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the UN Convention on Biodiversity. The protocol cites a “precautionary principle” to permit any signatory country to ban GM products about which the signatory has doubts of their safety, without requiring the signatory to produce any evidence of their causing present or future harm. In 2018, the European Court of Justice added to the list of GMOs already banned entry into Europe by forbidding the entry into EU countries of any gene-edited food or products. A knock-on effect of these EU bans has been to discourage less developed countries, such as India, that the GM inventors had had in mind as most needing GM foods, with their less wasteful use of soil and other advantages, from growing GM crops; such countries, to gain foreign currency, also need to be able to export their foods to the EU.

The book therefore ends on a somber note, providing a warning to scientists that they need to take responsibility for promoting and defending the relevance of their science, even after it has left their lab. The scientists have literally all the facts on their side, but facts are not enough to combat the huge propaganda machine on the opposite side. What happened to GM crops and the people who made them seems likely now to start happening to gene-edited crops and the people who are making them.

Judith M. Heimann, a retired American diplomat, is the author of three books of history and biography, two of which became television documentaries. As a diplomat, she spent many years in Belgium and came to know well the leading scientists involved in making the first GM plants. She speaks French, Dutch/Flemish and Indonesian/Malay. Follow her on her website.

This article was originally published on May 7, 2019.

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Video: Debating Europe’s pro-organic Farm to Fork Green Deal—Sustainable agriculture or recipe for disaster?

One of the unpleasant lessons of the COVID pandemic is how little prepared we’ve been for an event that was, after all, not only predictable in the broad sense but frequently predicted.

[On July 29], I participated in a webinar to discuss the EU’s new Farm to Fork strategy and how we can do a better job going forward in addressing one of the basic security issues we face. Titled “Food security in a post-COVID world,” the panel included EU Agricultural Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, along with two members of the European Parliament, Anna Fotyga and Hermann Tertsch.

While Farm to Fork has gotten a lot of attention inside the EU, this is the first time since COVID that F2F and the significant challenges facing the global food system have been addressed by leaders at this high level in an international forum. What they said told us a lot about how well our global society will respond to the next crisis.

screen shot at amMuch of the conversation was focused on trade, something critically important to get right if we hope to be truly food secure. But to fully understand the trade challenges, we need to grasp the farming challenges. As a science journalist and founder of a science education and outreach nonprofit, I’ve spent decades investigating food production and sustainability. Yesterday, on the webinar, I focused on the not inconsiderable challenges to growing enough food—our most fundamental human resource—and how we meet that challenge while also reducing our environmental footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.

Linking farming and sustainability

Reading the F2F document, it struck me that most people in Europe and the wealthier parts of the world believe that we’ve basically solved what has for most of human history been life’s primary challenge: getting enough to food to eat.

Here’s a wake-up call. Food security is emerging as the number one issue of our time. And F2F’s proposed solution—dramatically scaling up organic farming—is a prescription for disaster. It will not only increase hunger, it will undermine every its environmental goals as well.

It’s time we got a reality check on food insecurity. The UN estimates that 821 million people were suffering from hunger in 2018. The number was rising even before COVID, but the pandemic could make it worse. Estimates are an additional 10,000 children every month will die from malnutrition as farms are cut off from markets and food aid no longer reaches hungry populations.

COVID-19 may seem an exceptional circumstance, but plenty of disasters roil the world. Most frightening, East Africa, the Middle East and much of India are presently being ravaged by a locust plague that is stripping farms bare. Some 22 million people in Africa alone are facing starvation.

But locusts are just one threat among thousands of pests and diseases threatening food production worldwide. Myriad other plant pests, viral, bacterial and fungal crop diseases, droughts and other weather events threaten agricultural production. Don’t assume this is just happening in Africa and Asia, either. The varroa parasite that sickens and kills honeybees is an invasive species that only arrived in Europe in the 1960s. The massively destructive Fall Army Worm which jumped across the Atlantic to Africa a few years ago could reach Europe any moment. So could the locusts.

Add to this the fact that climate change could drastically alter growing conditions, increasing drought and other destructive weather patterns, and Black Swan events, like COVID, are inevitable.

Consider these threats in light of the fact that we will need to increase food production between 70 and 100 percent by 2050. This is not a prediction; this is a fact.

Reckoning on farming and food

One often hears claims that we grow enough food today—in terms of calories—to feed every person on the planet. That’s would be true if people could eat statistics. In the real world, it would be true if crops were never lost to pests in the field or spoiled in storage before they got to market, if the massive global challenges of transportation and distribution just magically disappeared, and then we assigned a food monitor to every restaurant and home in the world to make sure that not one scrap of food was wasted, or rotted before you ate your assigned calorie allotment for the day.

In the real world, too, the billions of people who now subsist on 1,000 calories a day aren’t going to be satisfied with meagre bowls of rice but will insist on improved diets to match their gradually improved living standards.

Certainly, we can and should cut waste and encourage people to eat more balanced diets. But those aren’t game-changers when it comes to making food and farming more sustainable.

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EU Commissioner for Environment and Oceans Virginijus Sinkevicius during a joint press conference on The European Green Deal Biodiversity and Farm to Fork Strategies at EU headquarters in Brussels. Credit: EPA-EFE//JOHN THYS

The world today is facing a reckoning on agriculture. We need to decide whether we are going to address the issue seriously, or if we’re just going to pretend that this perfectly predictable crisis, like the next pandemic, isn’t going to happen.

Which brings us back to Farm to Fork. It’s an impressive manifesto. But as you drill down into the details, examining it with the eyes of someone who has struggled with sustainability challenges for upwards of 30 years, it is deeply disappointing. The entire strategy, in the end, is predicated on the idea that we can address food security with agricultural systems that have already come up short.

Organic myths

Most eyebrow-raising: the primary tool to transform European farming is by embracing the magical fairy dust of organic farming and rejecting the use of cutting-edge technologies, such as gene editing and transgenics, that offer the only suite of tools proven to increase food production and lower the impact of unnecessary chemicals.

As part of this new sustainability equation, there are calls to cut conventional pesticides by 50 percent, regardless of their effectiveness or toxicity. Why? That’s never addressed. It can’t be over concerns about health or environmental impacts. Europe appears set on banning the herbicide glyphosate, which is less toxic than salt and has been found safe by 18 major global organizations, including four in Europe.

Yet, the EU gives a pass to organic pesticides like copper sulfate—which is a human carcinogen and kills beneficial insects—after lobbying by organic advocates—and this after a scathing assessment by the European Food Safety Authority on its potential hazards. FTF seems to adopt, without evidence or analysis, that organic food production, is safer, and equally productive.

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Which brings us to the most egregious problems with the Farm to Fork fantasyland. As the organic industry itself acknowledges, organic farming is as much as 40 percent less productive than conventional farming. As a state-of-the-art study in the prestigious journal Nature Communications comparing conventional and organic agriculture and its impact on carbon emissions in England concluded, just last year, transitioning from conventional farming to organic would require a massive expansion of farmland and pump 20 and 70 percent more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

As there is almost no arable land left in the world, the move to organic would lead to the clear-cutting of forests to create more farmland. It would likely lead to the devastation of wildlife habitat and biodiversity. In essence, Europe would be exporting to the poorest regions of the world its environmental “externalities”, as economists call it, all because of its organic fixation.

Beyond Farm to Fork: Embracing innovative agricultural technology

Boutique ideas like urban farming and local production or reverting world agriculture to more “natural” low-yield, land-intensive and disease-vulnerable farming methods are the luxuries of an affluent society. Organic farming is like an impulse buy, and such thinly supported decision-making has no place in a document that purports to seriously address the enormous challenges facing the world.

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Chefs work at the Cenador de Amos restaurant in Villaverde de Pontones, Spain. Credit: EPA-EFE//Pedro Puente Hoyos

Do we want to feel virtuous or actually solve real-life problems? Modern technology offers solutions, first and foremost: gene-editing that can make plants more resistant to disease, drought, and pests; more nitrogen efficiency (crops would need less or no chemical fertilizer); safer (peanuts without harmful proteins; wheat without the gluten deadly to people with celiac disease); healthier (crops with heart-healthy omega 3. The advantages are endless—if we don’t regulate this promising technology to death.

It may not be fashionable to say this, particularly in Europe, but we will continue to need targeted chemical pesticides. Should we be judicious and careful? Yes. But let’s be guided by science, not chemophobic scaremongering.

We need a food system that is efficient, productive, and environmentally sustainable. Most important, it must be based in reality, not wishful thinking.

Jon Entine is Executive Director of the Genetic Literacy Project and a life-long journalist with 20 major journalism awards. Follow him on Twitter @JonEntine

A version of this article originally ran at NewEurope and has been republished here with permission.

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Viewpoint: Red meat increases cancer risk? Maybe, but staying healthy isn’t as simple as avoiding steak

Summer is a great time to grill steaks and hamburgers…they were definitely featured in our Fourth of July BBQ! We enjoyed them with a variety of tomatoes and lettuces from our garden. But hearing about the perils of consuming red meat on various podcasts, websites, and interviews quickly detracted from its home-cooked deliciousness. What is the truth when it comes to red meat and cancer? And how do we wade through all this information?

Spurring many of the articles we read today on this topic is from a 2015 study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which stated that if you ate a lot of meat, your chances of getting cancer increased by 18%. The IARC deemed red meat ‘probably carcinogenic to humans based on limited evidence’ and that processed meat is ‘carcinogenic to humans based on sufficient evidence’. Colorectal cancer was the most noted type, but they indicated that processed meat also triggers pancreatic and prostate cancers.

The Global Burden of Disease Project, funded by the World Health Organization (WHO), is cited in the IARC report stating that 34,000 deaths per year are attributable to diets high in processed meat and 50,000 to red meat. Compared with 1,000,000 deaths due to tobacco; 600,000 to alcohol; and 200,000 to air pollution, it’s hard to determine the urgency of the situation.

Meat is Meat is Meat…Right?

First, let’s put this in perspective. The average person whose diet includes red meat, fish, chicken and other protein sources has a 1% chance of getting pancreatic cancer, 4% chance of colorectal cancer, and 9% of prostate cancer. If you eat a diet high in red and processed meats, the IARC reports that your chances of getting these cancers would increase by 18%. While it is still not great, it brings the risk to 1.2%, 5%, and 11%, respectively.

How did the IARC come to this conclusion? It is a bit of a mystery. The America Institute for Cancer Research does not know, either:

It’s not yet clear exactly why these meats increase risk for colorectal cancer. It may be the added nitrites and nitrates, the smoking and/or high temperatures used in some processing, or the heme iron in red meat.”

We first need to distinguish processed meat, such as hot dogs and bacon, from non-processed meat like flank steak or tenderloin. Each one digests differently and thus has different effects on the body.

The culprits are nitrates and nitrites – both are found in red meat and both are compounds with nitrogen and oxygen structures. Nitrates are found in the soil and help plants absorb nitrogen, which is essential for plant growth. Interestingly, vegetables are the biggest source of nitrates in the human diet, accounting for at least 85% of our nitrate consumption. Compare this to processed meats that account for only about 6% of nitrate consumption.

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Nitrates vs. Nitrites

Wait…if vegetables are good for us, then how are nitrates harmful in processed meats? The conversion happens when the bacteria in your mouth and enzymes in your body convert nitrates into nitrites, which has one less oxygen atom. Although this seems like a very small difference, it can lead to completely different effects.

That one less oxygen atom turns nitrates into nitric oxide, which is essential for our bodies. But nitrites turn into nitrosamines in our bodies, which can be harmful. There are many kinds of nitrosamines, and some of them can increase cancer risk. For example, nitrosamines are some of the main carcinogens in tobacco. But can these cancerous types be formed in our food, and if so, how?

The reason we eat red meat, besides its taste, is that it’s full of amino acids – in other words, protein. But when there is exposure to high heat through cooking, the amino acids combine with the nitrites and create the perfect condition for nitrosamines to form.

“It’s not so much nitrates/nitrites per se [that are carcinogenic], but the way they are cooked and their local environment that is an important factor”, says Kate Allen, Executive Director of Science and Public Affairs at the World Cancer Research Fund. She says that we need to consider how we are cooking these meats because that could manipulate their carcinogenic properties. “Nitrites in processed meats are in close proximity with proteins, specifically amino acids. When cooked at high temperatures, this allows them to form nitrosamines more easily, the cancer-causing compound.”

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Nitrosamines = Bad?

This could be why we don’t see these same carcinogens in vegetables, even though they also contain both nitrates and nitrites. Vegetables are undeniably good for us, and are typically not cooked at the same high temperatures or for as long as meat is, making nitrosamines less likely to form. Plus, vegetables do not contain the same amount of amino acids, making the formation of nitrosamines less likely to occur.

However, nitrosamines are not inherently carcinogenic. There needs to be enough of a chemical reaction to induce a mutation in DNA. Cancer ultimately forms from DNA mutations, including those caused by nitrosamines, which is why red meat is considered potentially harmful by some. But how your DNA reacts to meat also has to do with your epigenetics, which is affected by your sleep, your overall diet, and your exercise.

In addition to nitrosamines, other compounds are up for debate regarding their cancer-causing effects. Substances called heterocyclic amines form when meats are cooked at high temperatures and become blackened or charred. In animal studies, heterocyclic amines are carcinogenic. But what about human studies?

In Pursuit of a Valid Study

To complicate matters further, there is considerable disagreement about the various meta-analyses reporting on the relationship between meat consumption and cancer. Last fall, the Annals of Internal Medicine stated that “the dietary guidelines recommending limited red and processed meat was based on unclear evidence”Harvard School of Public Health countered with a disagreement on how the Annals of Internal Medicine conducted the meta-analyses. They mentioned that the studies can be cherry-picked to obtain the desired result:

There is a large body of evidence indicating higher consumption of red meat – especially processed red meat is associated with higher risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and premature death.

At D2D, we did not conduct our own meta-analysis…we just want to apply some common sense here. So, perhaps between these two studies, we can find a solution that works for most of us.

The variables associated with each human are tremendous. We know that smoking increases your chance of getting cancer and damages almost all the organs in your body. All a study must do is compare smokers with non-smokers to see the effects on one’s body.

But separating out one specific food and studying its effects on the human body is almost impossible. The only way would be to put two separate groups in the exact same living conditions. They would have to follow the exact protocol with exercise, stress levels, living conditions, family life, and diet and then give one red and processed meat and none to the other group. Since cancer takes years to develop, the isolation would have to be for at least 20 years. Honestly, this does not sound very feasible.

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The IARC deemed the link between red meat and cancer as having limited evidence so they understood that “other explanations for the observations (chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out.”

So, what is the answer?

The two leading causes of death are heart disease and cancer. It is well understood that the leading cause of these diseases is diet. We have written extensively about the importance of dietexercisesleep, and stress management to maintain a healthy life. At this point, we are aware that eating a diet low in saturated fat, trans fats, sodium, and sugar improves our overall health. Furthermore, including 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and nuts every day will make a considerable difference in your life.

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Red meat includes important nutrients. A lean piece of red meat has protein, niacin, vitamin B6, B12, phosphorus, zinc, iron, and vitamin D and must be consumed as part of a balanced diet to reap its benefits.

Like everything we discuss at D2D, eat in moderation. Will bacon on a Sunday morning and a hot dog at a baseball game give you cancer? No. Would you really want to eat bacon and hot dogs every single day? Probably not. Would you eat a steak every day? Not if you are eating a diet with lots of variety.

The Bottom Line

While the conclusion of various studies differ in whether meat causes cancer, the fact is that we have a small degree of risk for everything. To avoid increasing that risk, be sure your diet includes lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and various sources of protein. Like everything in life, if you overdo any one thing – you’ll get into trouble.

Lucy M. Stitzer is a regular contributor to Dirt to Dinner, covering sustainable farming and biotechnology. She served on the board of directors at Cargill inc. for many years.

This article was originally published at Dirt to Dinner and has been republished here with permission. Follow Dirt To Dinner on Twitter @Dirt_To_Dinner.

Facing taboos: Conversation with GLP’s Jon Entine on sustainable agriculture, race and sports, ‘Jewish genetics’ and social investing

Jon Entine is an American science writer. He is the founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, a nonprofit that educates the public about the revolution in biomedicine and agricultural biotechnology. He was formerly a fellow at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy at the University of California, Davis, the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University, and at the American Enterprise Institute. After working as a network news writer, producer and head of documentaries for NBC News and ABC News from 1974-1994, Entine moved into scholarly research and print journalism.

Entine has written seven books, four on genetics and chemical risk, and has addressed a range of controversial issues, including the genetics of sports; the shared ancestry of Jews, Christians and Muslims; socially responsible investing; and why organic farming will not scale to produce sustainable food. He is a contributing columnist and writer for dozens of newspapers and magazines. He has was won 19 major journalism awards including two Emmys, three CINE, Ohio State Award, Chris Award, Best Feature Film Interntional Sport Film Festival,  and a National Press Club Award for Consumer Journalism. Much of this interview appeared originally in European Scientist and was conducted by science journalist Grégoire Canlorbe.

Grégoire Canlorbe: You carefully investigated the genetic underpinnings of the over-representation of blacks in many high profile sports. Could you remind us of the fruits of your inquiry? Why do whites dominate strength related positions and events in so many sports—and why are blacks so poorly represented in some major sports, such as swimming?

Jon Entine: I think it’s phenomenal, really startling that if you look at the major sports around the world: track and field, football in Europe, American football, baseball, and basketball, which is an international sport, you see a very odd distribution of which athletes do the best in various sports. In many of the sports, the ones that require speed, quick reaction time, things like global and American football or basketball or sprinting, it’s utter dominance by athletes of West African ancestry.b aa acf cd e b f f

In long distance running, which requires endurance, you see the dominance of East Africans and a few North Africans, whose ancestors evolved in higher altitudes, shaping their physique and physiology. You look at strength events, and you see dominance of East Europeans and Euro-Asians with very minimal representation of those of African ancestry. These aren’t just recent aberrations.

These patterns have persisted for decades and have actually become more pronounced as the playing field got more level, so ‘natural talent’ could emerge and environmental factors were at a minimum. Once the influence of performance enhancement drugs during the 1960s, 70s, and ‘89s driven by Russia and the Eastern bloc dissipated, which distorted who were the best athletes, we saw these patterns become even more pronounced around the world. And I think the more you research this, the more you understand that at the elite level of athletic competition, we are very much a product of our genetics and the patterns reflect evolution in different geographical areas.

This is not a black/white issue or an issue of ‘race’ as we have traditionally used the term. It’s about regions of evolutionary origin. Phenotypes and genotypes are shaped by thousands of years of evolution. Although some characteristics seem to loosely correlated with traditional, folkloric notions of race, many do not. Just look at the difference in body types and athletic skill sets of distance running East Africans and elite athletes who trace their primary descent to West Africa. The differences in physiology and physique may be small in the case of some characteristics, and there is a great deal of overlap, but those differences are magnified at the elite level of sports competition where a fraction of a second can make the difference between winning a gold medal or being an also ran.

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Athletics – London Marathon – London, Britain – April 22, 2018 Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot wins the Women’s elite race REUTERS/Paul Child
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West African descended blacks dominate springs

Social factors alone or even significantly cannot explain why the top two thousand all time 100 meter times are held by a person of West African ancestry yet West Africans are almost nonexistent at the elite level of medium and long distance running. I addressed many of these issues, along with the toxic history of ‘race science,’ in my book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It. Although the book is now 20 years old, and some data are dated, the arguments in the book are now mainstream science and genetics. It was actually based on a documentary that I wrote and produced back in 1989 with Tom Brokaw, Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction.md divppl sx bo

The idea that anybody can grow up and become an elite athlete with the proper training and opportunities is just not supported by what we know of genetics. Genetics is not destiny, but I would say that genetics is like designing a house. You can tidy up the rooms a little bit, you can move things around, but generally speaking, who you are is like the house itself. Once it’s built, it’s set, and these predeterminations are the result tens of thousands of years of evolution.

That said, there are always cultural and genetic factors in play. There is a biocultural feedback loop in sports in which culture helps magnify small but meaningful biologically-based differences. People say, “Oh, there are few blacks in ice hockey,” for instance. Well, ice hockey is played in northern climates, and there have been relatively few blacks in Canada or in Europe, historically. So, the number of blacks is almost representative of the number of blacks in those regions. And some sports, like gymnastics, for instance, or swimming, require a lot of training. They require facilities, pools that are very expensive. Social opportunity has largely excluded minorities. The more factors that cost a lot of money, like the availability of expensive facilities, then, cultural and social factors come into play.

The sports that I cited: running, football, soccer, and basketball which are usually state sponsored or sponsored by schools—sports like those represent a level playing field. It doesn’t require special financial advantages to be a great long-distance runner or sprinter. It’s really natural talent that comes to the fore. So, it’s best to think of sports as a biocultural phenomenon—sports success. And the lower the cultural barriers to entry, the more genetic factors come into play. And those genetic based differences are not distributed equally among populations. In running, blacks of West African ancestry dominate the sprints, totally. In long distance running, blacks of East African ancestry dominate. And that’s purely a result of our genetic history.

Grégoire Canlorbe: It has been hypothesized that race differences in intelligence and in psychopathy should be connected to the severity of encountered winters over tens of thousands of years of evolutionary time—with Caucasians and a fortiori Northeast Asians having faced the coldest winters and consequently evolved the higher IQs and the lower psychopathy levels necessary to navigate difficult environmental circumstances. Do you endorse this alleged connection?

Jon Entine: Well, there has been some speculation on that controversial issue by evolutionary psychologists and others, as well as some geneticists, that some people embrace and some people do not. One of the suppositions is that evolution does shape who we are physically, and there are group differences–overlapping but real. We know that. And so, some people have asked, if genetics shape us physically, and we see the examples in sports, it must shape us psychologically and intellectually, as well. And there’s belief among many scientists that there are patterns of differences based at IQ tests—although many people like to dismiss them as unimportant or pseudo-science or racist. I think there’s profound evidence and belief within the psychometric community that IQ tests are very real measurements of a kind of intelligence. But how much of the differences are the result of evolutionary factors versus environmental and cultural factors, including those that impact biology, such as natal and childhood development. Obviously environmental factors predominant in explaining patterns of differences.

But there is speculation that evolutionary factors are in play as well. As one theory goes, people who evolved in climates that were more rigorous, cold climates, northern climates, let’s say East Asians, Northern Asians, whites from northern Europe, forged unique survival techniques. So that may be a form of intelligence, it’s claimed by some: how do you survive in that harsh environment? You have to build infrastructures that allow you to survive in harsh winters. But if you’re living and evolving in an area where the temperature is more temperate, then you don’t have the same survival challenges, and it’s not as challenging on your brain. That’s a theory anyway. So one of the theories in evolutionary psychology is that that there is some link between certain expressions of intelligence and whether you evolved in a cold climate versus a milder or warmer climate.

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As for the alleged population-based differences in psychopathy—I think it’s a very speculative claim. I think it’s something that science could explore over time, as all issues of what drives behavior is worth understanding. But we’re not in an area hard evidence. We’re in the area of theories that make sense based on what we observe anecdotally

Stephen Gould, a famous, now deceased evolutionary biologist, believed that these kinds of stories were what he called “just so” stories, meaning that they sound good, but you really can’t prove them. And I think this issue falls into that category. But on the other hand, it offers some reasonable explanation, like Occam’s razor, of why certain factors are reasonably like to be true. And so, I think it’s definitely something that, if you were someone trying to make sense of the unfolding of history, you would explore this is as a possibility. I don’t think we have enough understanding of genetics, though, to say for sure that this his is a really persuasive argument in this case.

Grégoire Canlorbe: It is not uncommon to invoke the Beckerian claim that free competition between economic firms tends to evacuate racial discrimination in that those of firms which are basing recruitment on race rather than on work efficiency are allegedly disadvantaged with respect to their competitors. Does this line of thought capture the actual functioning of market economies—in America and elsewhere?

Jon Entine: I think it depends on what you want in a competition. If it’s purely an IQ competition, then, you’d want the highest IQ people to win. If it’s a competition, like an athletic one, for the fastest runner, the person could be a total jerk and not be particularly smart, but if they’re the fastest runner, they’re going to win. Now, in a complex society, the leaders who emerge are going to have a whole suite of qualities, not just intelligence, not just drive, personality characteristics like sociability. And so, you’re going be wanting many factors, many qualities, in leaders, besides just naked intelligence, if that even exists. And anytime you introduce a qualifying factor like race, it distorts the analysis. Now, you could argue that you want race as a factor because lack of racial diversity leads to a misperception of how the world really is.

So you can make an argument for it. But there’s no question that if you only have the tallest people, or you only have the smartest people, or you only have some special factor that you tease out, you’re going to leave out other, potentially hugely important, leadership and achievement qualities. I think it’s potentially dangerous that race be used as a factor if it’s over-exaggerated and it ends up discriminating against people who otherwise would be better able to perform in that situation.

Grégoire Canlorbe: Please tell us about the DNA of Abraham’s Children. Do the genetic and historic data support Arthur Koestler’s thesis that Ashkenazi Jews, instead of descending from the Ancient Hebrews, are the descendants of the pagan Khazars who purportedly converted en masse between the 8th and 10th centuries? Or the claim that Jesus was ethnically Galilean and, also, partially Greek—and virtually indistinguishable from Romans in appearance?

Jon Entine: I addressed this issue and the genetic history of Jews in my book, Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People.

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In the wake of World War II, during which many Jews were killed in the Holocaust, a well-known journalist of the 1950s, Arthur Koestler, tried to take the sting out of the idea that Jews were a race, which he believed was a driving factor behind the Nazi mass killings of Jews. The belief that Jews were a race was widely embraced by most everyone until the Holocaust, including who had long considered themselves a ‘race’, for many, many centuries. The word was viewed very loosely, however. It combined cultural factors with alleged physical and sociological factors, some clearly anti-Jewish. But obviously, this racialization of Jews led to a historic conflagration in World War ll.maxresdefault

The concept of Jews-as-race hinged somewhat on the ideas that most Jews of that time shared a common ancestry in ancient Israel. In his book “The Thirteenth Tribe,” Koestler propagated the idea that overwhelmingly majority of Jews, which were by then scattered around the world, actually were not descendants of the Israelites bur rather were mostly converts from Christianity, or more likely from paganism. He maintained that the large Jewish population in Eastern Europe and in parts of what is now Russia in an area once known as Khazaria were descendants of pagans who had converted to Judaism between the eighth and tenth centuries. That was the thirteenth Jewish tribe, he claimed, riffing on the Bible. Those converted Jews, primarily of Turkic origin, became the core of modern Judaism, gradually growing in number in Eastern Europe and, expanding westward, he maintained.

In essence, in an attempt to destroy the belief that Jews were a coherent ‘race’ with links to the Middle East, which he believed propped up anti-Jewish racism and gave an excuse for Jews to live in a homeland in the Middle East (like many liberal Jews of the 1950s, he was opposed to the establishment of  ‘Jewish State” in mostly Arab territories), he pushed the notion that Jews were converts with no ancient links. Koestler’s view was widely embraced by many ‘progressive’ Jews, traumatized by World War II, who wanted Judaism to shed the long-held belief that they were a ‘race’ separate and apart. And, of course, many Middle Eastern Arabs embraced that theory as well, and went on to claim that it shut the door on the Jewish Biblical claim of a ‘right of return’ that was a fundamental tenet for the creation of Israel. So you can guess the controversy it stirred then, and it reverberates even today. Far left Israeli radical, Shlomo Sand, wrote a best selling book, The Invention of the Jewish People, in an attempt to resurrect Koestler’s speculative thesis. It became a best seller in some circles and has been cited in recent by anti-Israel groups inside and outside of Israel.

Koestler had comprehensible motivations, but they weren’t based on science. Genetic research has largely eviscerated his thesis. We’ve been able to do a lot of genetic research on both Jewish men and Jewish women over the past two decades. And it appears that what Koestler claimed is wrong. What we now know is that about 80 percent of males who claim Jewish ancestry, by looking at the Y chromosome and other parts of the genome of many thousand of people who claim Jewish ancestry, you can actually trace their ancestry back to the Near East, Middle East. So it indicates that they do have a history along the male lineage that traces back to what was biblical Israel.

On the female side, it looks like many females, about 50 percent, appear by their DNA to be converts, although the genetic evidence here is not as definitive. Its believed that a lot of the men left what was biblical Israel, Palestine, moved through Asia and what is now Italy to Europe and took local wives, either pagan wives or Christian converts. And so, there is a mix in Judaism. It appears there is, on the male line, mostly ancient Jewish ancestry, and on the female line, a mix.

We also do know that there were some converts into mainstream Judaism from Khazaria, but it probably happened only among the elite few and numbered in the hundreds or thousands. Pagans were the majority, 99 percent of the population. By and large, it’s believed they were not affected by the religious practices of the elite. But the elite did convert to Judaism, based on sketchy historical evidence.

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It has long been speculated that many of them aspired to be part of the Jewish priesthood, the Aaronite line, those known as Cohanim. But because they were not born into that line, which is Biblically required, they were not accepted as priests. And so, they became essentially junior priests, a Jewish lineage known as Levites. Geneticists speculated for years based on anecdotal reports that the Levite lineage might have Khazarian roots. Now, we know that’s not accurate. As Khazarian scholar Kevin Alan Brook has reported, and confirmed to me in a note:

It has become clear that this lineage is not of Khazar origin and does not match medieval or modern Turkic populations, not even the medieval Khazar R1a carriers. The 2013 study by Rootsi, Behar, et al. “Phylogenetic Applications of Whole Y-Chromosome Sequences and the Near Eastern Origin of Ashkenazi Levites” in Nature Communications 4 plus further subclade precision provided by Łukasz Łapiński, Jeffrey D. Wexler, and ISOGG showed that this Levite branch, called R1a-M582 (R1a1a1b2a2b1a), descended from R1a-Z93 and had Middle Eastern connections and likely a geographically Persian ancestor. It doesn’t link up with Central Asian or East European varieties of R1a until before the Israelites existed.

So, there is some tiny fragment of truth in Koestler’s claims, which is one reason it got such currency. Yes, there were some conversions in Eastern Europe, but it isn’t even minor seed of the Jewish population today.

As for the question about Jesus, I don’t think we really have any understanding of what Jesus looked like. There are depictions of Jesus that go from light black to very Aryan looking. So, I think this is pure speculation about what Jesus’ actual genetic background was. But I think most of the biblical accounts, and they’re very sketchy, as I discuss in Abraham’s Children, suggest that he was of Israelite ancestry, and that population was a mixture of locals and invading populations. The belief that Jews are a ‘race’ is clearly flawed by there is powerful evidence that a significant portion of the modern day Jewish population traces their primary ancestry to what is now Israel. That’s science, however, not an endorsement of the Biblical claim.

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Grégoire Canlorbe: While it has encountered periods of obscurantist and literalist remnants such as the burning of Maimonides’s work in the 13th century, Judaism—since, at least, the times of the Jewish community of Alexandria—has been carrying within it Hellenizing principles such as the rationalization of the Torah, and such as the pursuit of knowledge through personal doubt and the confrontation of opinions. Has Islam gone down a similar route (towards interpretation and free inquiry) since the intellectual bubbling of Andalusia under Muslim rule?

Jon Entine: I think that many historical populations go through times of sophistication and then, fall into a retrograde period. It happened to the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. You can actually see that trend in Judaism during the Middle Ages, into the 1600s, when Jews actually became very obscurantist and adopted many mystical beliefs, and were thought of as very irrational by the Christian majority. Now, they were very literate, but they were literate in a mystical kind of way; they read Jewish religious works but little else. The Christian enlightenment actually preceded the Jewish enlightenment by about a hundred years because Jews were caught into this mystical trap. But historically, Jews have always been a very literate culture.

uy ssIslam has had a much different history. It arose in the first millennial period. Muslims were by and large quite well educated in the early years of Islam. But over the centuries, they’ve been back and forth between kind of a nomadic anti-intellectual history and one of intellectual inspiration. There was a period between the 8th and 14th centuries when Islam was very dominant in Northern Africa and the Iberian peninsula, and at one point reaching to the area around Barcelona. The Muslims called their Caliphate and homeland Al Andalus. Their cities were great centers of Islamic learning, and the great libraries of the world were Islamic. Medicine advanced dramatically during this period. The period is sometimes referred to as the “Ornament of History” or “The Ornament of the World,” as for the most part, Jews and Christians lived mostly safely and in harmony with their Islamic neighbors.

The dominant intellectual group, the doctors, the legal positions of that time and the great intellectual thinkers were mostly Muslim. It is one of the only periods of tolerance among the three Abrahamic religions in history. But the rise of the Christian kingdoms ultimately crushed Muslim strongholds, and Islam never really recovered from there. There’s never been a Muslim society that performed at the level of Asian societies or European societies since the collapse of that era. So, there are definitely different traditions among different groups based on their cultural experiences.

Grégoire Canlorbe: As a fine connoisseur of chemophobia you cannot ignore the climate of mistrust surrounding the glyphosate. Why do you judge glyphosate and GMO farming to be far more sustainable, actually, than organic farming? What do you reply to the claim that the proponents of glyphosate should be ready to drink a glass wine of the latter if, truly, they think and intend to show that this product is half toxic as salt?

Jon Entine: Glyphosate was a product discovered literally by mistake in the 1970s, and it’s been used mostly as an herbicide. Scientists found that it has an ability to kill weeds inexpensively at modest toxic levels. It’s toxicity is about equivalent to salt; it’s quite mild, not carcinogenic based on thousands of studies, and has little to no environmental footprint. It’s quite a remarkable chemical concoction. Scientists in the 1980s figured out how to make commodity crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton, that tolerant to glyphosate. In other words, if you sprayed those crops, herbicide-tolerant glyphosate, originally developed and marketed as Roundup by Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer, was one of two products that were the first out of the gate when GMO crops were introduced in the 1990s.

The other major commodity products were engineered to include a natural bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, actually used since the 1920s by organic farmers, that made certain crops resistant to many harmful insects. Those were the first two GMO products out of the gate—herbicide tolerant and insect resistant—and they were enormously successful, sparking the GMO boom that began in 1996. They also became the target of anti-GMO activists for many years, even though both of those products have been found extremely effective and safe.

A problem began to develop with glyphosate, though: many weeds developed a tolerance to it. Just because that’s what happens. Evolution is evolution. And if you keep spraying weeds with a certain kind of weed killer, mutations eventually happen that allow the weed to survive. And after a few years, you have a whole bunch of weeds that aren’t being killed by glyphosate. So, we had this explosion of weed problems by 2010 or so. It was a real issue, although weed resistance is a fact of nature with non GMO-based weed killers as well. But the issue put conventional agriculture and genetic engineering on the defensive, absolutely.

And then, a controversial study came out in 2015 by a sub-agency of the United Nations called IARC—International Agency for Research on Cancer—and it concluded that glyphosate might cause problems for applicators, people who apply glyphosate, and that they could be subject to one specific kind of cancers, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. IARC was a relatively obscure agency before that finding. And its conclusions were contradicted by every other major regulatory and research organization in the world, 18 other international agencies from WHO itself, two other WHO sub-agencies, the European Food Safety Authority, the German Food Safety Authority, the Royal Academy in London, the United States EPA, and academies in Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.  All concluded that there was no convincing evidence that glyphosate causes cancer, and none recommended a ban.screen shot at pm

Click here to review 19 reviews of glyphosate by independent global regulatory bodies

So, you had one agency, IARC, that said glyphosate might cause cancer under limited circumstances. They didn’t say it affected humans when traces were in our food. And all the other major agencies, 18 of them, concluded that IARC was promoting flawed science, and that they selectively misrepresented the data. And many scientists also accused IARC of being politically motivated. Reuters documented that IARC appears to manipulated data. In fact, the main IARC scientist who guided and drafted the report secretly joined the litigation team that sued Monsanto, creating an undisclosed conflict of interest. But because IARC was linked to WHO, even though it was a sub-agency not WHO itself, its conclusions were widely publicized, especially by anti-GMO activists. It’s monograph scared a lot of people and has led to a lot of lawsuits. And there have now been legal cases in the US in which juries rejected the overwhelming science evidence that shows that glyphosate is not harmful. But juries can do whatever they want. Plenty of people are convicted or found innocent, independent of what the evidence really shows. And, basically, Monsanto, now Bayer, was found guilty in multiple court cases of claims that it caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in a number of workers who handled it.

So, basically, many people are now scared of glyphosate and politicians respond to public opinion, not science. There are moves afoot to ban it, even though it’s the most successful and one of the least toxic herbicides one can use. It’s still in wide use. But over time, I think it will be phased out. And farmers are very upset about that. I think most farmers believe it’s extremely safe. Scientists overwhelmingly believe it’s safe. The myth that glyphosate is dangerous has been kept alive, and it’s really part of the ongoing war that exist about what kind of food system we want to have. Yet, there is no herbicide alternative in the organic world that is as safe as glyphosate. They’re all as or more harmful. Many natural applications suffocate beneficial insects. So, we have a choice.

At some point, we can force farmers to abandon it, have less yield and kill more beneficial insects, or we can keep it, use it appropriately, follow guidelines that are endorsed by every major science organization in the world, from Health Canada to the European Food Safety Authority, and maintain a robust agricultural system. I think that all those people who are so ideological on agriculture and who despise biotechnology, in essence, are modern Luddites. They so reject modern technology that they will sacrifice our food supply for their ideological purism.

Grégoire Canlorbe: The fight against greenhouse gas emissions is most often put on an equal footing with that against nuclear power—as well as with the fight against GMOs and advanced agricultural technologies. Do you think that biotechnology and nuclear industry, on the contrary, should be jointly put at the service of depollution? That GMOs and nuclear technology are actually good for the climate?

Jon Entine: Well, I think organic farming is based on principles that are 100-150 years old, and I can’t think of any technology that we embrace today that’s 100 or 150 years old and believe that somehow it’s the cutting-edge way to do things. If you want agriculture to be sustainable; you need to have the most advanced and wisest science-based practices. Organic farming promotes soil health, and that’s an emulatable goal. But there are so many other aspects to organic farming that are just outdated. There’s the belief that anything that’s natural is better—that if we put natural chemicals on plants, they’re going to be healthier. But organic farming uses copper sulfate, for instance, which is carcinogenic to humans and very dangerous: it kills beneficial insects. That’s clearly something that we wouldn’t want to use if we had alternatives. Biotechnology, GMO farming, can be used inappropriately too, but it also offers many potential advantages because you can use weed killers that are focused specifically on weeds and preserve the crops and don’t require tilling, which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.sugarbeetinjury

So, from a purely carbon preserving point of view, conventional farming using biotech seeds is much better than organic farming. Organic farming is also about 40 percent less yield efficient. You’re going to have to clear cut forests to get the same kind of yield globally that you can get in farming, using conventional means with GMOs. We can’t afford, environmentally, to give up any more of our land to farming or urbanization. The newer gene-edited crops are designed to use fewer and fewer chemicals, and in some cases no chemicals. We are on the verge of developing crops that naturally create nitrogen to fertilize the soil without chemicals. We need fertilized soil to get the kind of yields that are appropriate for an industrial society. But nitrogen can cause all kinds of environmental problems. But gene editing is in the position to address those kinds of things. So, I guess the real question should be: “Why don’t we have a farming system that is based on sustainable principles rather than choosing organic and pitting it against conventional or GMO farming?” We should pick the best elements from each system, and that should be the goal rather than ideologically proposing that either GMOs or organic is the best way to go.

I think nuclear energy and biotechnology are two of the most important tools to fight climate change. Nuclear energy is the only advanced technology we have right now in the energy sector that directly reduces carbon emissions to zero, with limited consequences. If you look at a lot of the renewable energies, they all have other consequences.

Wind towers chop up birds, and hydropower plants dam up rivers and cause mass death among fish. Nuclear energy, if it’s handled properly, especially the latest generation, is an essential tool in fighting climate change. And we’re naive to think that we could, through alternative energy alone, meet the challenge of reducing our carbon footprint. And GMOs and gene-edited crops do the same thing. If we have no till agriculture where carbon is not released, we can dramatically reduce the carbon footprint.

If we don’t have to clear cut forests to grow organic food, we dramatically cut carbon. If we don’t have cows, which burp methane gas, which is 20 times more carbon toxic than carbon itself, then—and we need those cows to generate fertilizer for agriculture or organics, and if we don’t have those, we are very much in a better position to fight climate change. So, if we move in the direction of regenerative agriculture, organic agriculture, it will be a disaster in the long run. We need a mix of technologies in agriculture that are respectful of the cultural traditions of various communities, but also are sustainable. Otherwise, we’re courting long-term climate change disaster.

Grégoire Canlorbe: You openly distrust idiosyncratic ideological screens in investment decisions—and believe that such way of proceeding is more likely to harm people and the environment. Which sociopolitical system in the broad sense is the most immune to the siren voices of “socially responsible” investing?

Jon Entine: I’m all for a system that encourages investments in socially or environmentally progressive activities, but if you become totally focused on systems that don’t have an economic return, they ultimately can’t survive over time. The socially responsible investing movement, the problem with that is twofold: one, the values that it promoted were very ideological. So, for instance, it determined among most social investment professionals that defense spending was something that should be avoided. I imagine that if people hadn’t invested in defensive weapons, we could have lost World War II. So, I don’t see avoiding defensive weaponry or protective weaponry necessarily as something that’s not socially responsible; it’s too blunt an idea.

So, it’s really concerning that we’re going to develop an investing system based on people’s whims and their ideology. You could have a Muslim investing system, which is competing with a Jewish investing system, which is competing with a Christian one, each one thinking that their particular values are superior. And there are in fact Muslim and Christiana and Jewish social investing funds. It’s pandering as it does not influence behavior; it’s evolved into a money-making gimmick by those who sell the funds. So, I think it’s best in investing to try to get the best return that we can and empower individuals and organizations to use their money in socially responsible ways. But I think rigging the system so that certain kinds of activities are rewarded, and there’s not the economic incentives to provide checks and balances within the system, is a prescription for economic inefficiency.

Grégoire Canlorbe: Many expect neuro-augmentation and genetic manipulation to allow Homo sapiens—through the taking over of their own biological evolution and the abandonment of the random processes of natural selection—to achieve the Cartesian project to render humans “the masters and possessors of nature.” Is transhumanism a reasonable dream?

Jon Entine: I think it’s reasonable to think that we’re going to change our human genome. We’re already able to do that in small ways. We’re already able to make micro-changes in the genome, and I think, over time, there’s no doubt that we’ll be able to rid ourselves of certain genetic disorders. Huntington’s disease would be one good example, as we know it’s linked to one gene. But the human genome is very complex. Human behavior and our chemical and genetic makeup are extremely complex. So, the fact that we can manipulate genes doesn’t mean we can manipulate them precisely.

There always are consequences. Removing one gene or a suite of genes could have unintended consequences. I think, ultimately, over time, we are going to harness the genome and use it to develop many therapies that don’t exist now. Whether we can develop the superhuman Sapiens Sapiens, I think that that’s probably not necessarily in the cards. But I do think that we will make a lot of progress in coming decades in fighting many diseases that now seem out of the reach of the medical community.

Grégoire Canlorbe: Thank you for your time. Would you like to add anything else?

Jon Entine: I have nothing else, no. Thank you for the interview.

Grégoire Canlorbe is a journalist specializing in the scientific field. Find Grégoire on his website and on Facebook

A version of this interview was originally published at the European Scientist @EuropeScientist

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COVID-19 is causing silent epidemics — societal and medical crises

As the nation emerges in fits and starts from the lockdowns spurred by the first wave of COVID-19 illnesses, we’re beginning to appreciate the full impact of the pandemic, how tenacious it is, and that the sickness and death directly caused by the virus are only part of the picture.

The three-month-plus suspension of routine, non-emergency medical care has created secondary, silent epidemics of societal and medical problems that require the urgent focus of both our public health officials and the public themselves. In a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 48% of adults responded that they or someone in their household either rescheduled or decided to entirely forego medical appointments during the previous three months because of COVID-19. Notably, 11% of adults overall said their own or a family member’s condition actually worsened as a result of postponing or skipping medical care due to the pandemic.

The effects were sometimes lethal. According to an analysis of federal data by the Washington Post, in New York City and five states hit hard by coronavirus infections, there were 8,300 more deaths from heart disease than would have been typical in March, April and May — an increase of roughly 27 percent over historical averages. Deaths from diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease also were up.

There’s more misery to come. Writing in the journal Science, National Cancer Institute Director Ned Sharpless expressed concern about marked declines in U.S. cancer diagnoses since the onset of the pandemic, attributing them to an estimated 75 to 90 percent decrease in mammograms and colonoscopies over the past few months.  Clarifying that “there is no reason to believe the actual incidence of cancer has dropped,” he offered what he termed a “conservative” estimate of more than an additional 10,000 deaths from breast and colorectal cancers over the next 10 years due to coronavirus-caused postponements in diagnosis and care.

Another significant threat to individuals’ health is the delay in routine, but essential, prophylactic dental care. On March 16, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised dentists to suspend all routine examinations and limit treatment only to emergencies. While the measure was necessary to limit exposure and conserve personal protective equipment, myriad oral health conditions have now gone undiagnosed or untreated for more than two months. The resulting dental procedures will be more extensive, the outcomes worse and more expensive, and the backlog will not disappear immediately.

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Dental care has been neglected during the pandemic. Credit: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Patients’ overall health will likely suffer as well. Many chronic medical conditions are reflected by findings in the mouth and first discovered in routine visits to the dentist. Some of these are discussed below.

Periodontitis

Like the skin, stomach, and intestines, the mouth harbors large numbers and kinds of bacteria, which normally exist in a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the body. These bacteria are found in the pockets between the teeth and gums. If not cleaned by specialized tools, they feast on carbohydrate-rich food and multiply, causing inflammation in the gums and bleeding when the gum tissue is ruptured — a condition known as periodontitis. This in turn provides a gateway for the bacteria to contaminate the bloodstream, potentially leading to abscesses, heart valve infections, and in the worst case, sepsis—a life-threatening immune response to infection that can damage multiple organ systems.

Diabetes

Periodontitis and diabetes are also closely associated, each magnifying the severity of the other. Controlling gum disease can help improve blood glucose levels in diabetic patients, while high blood sugar levels worsen outcomes for periodontal disease. In well-controlled diabetics, the risk for periodontitis is not significantly increased, but it rises exponentially as blood sugar increases. Higher levels of blood sugar results in poor wound healing which, in turn, increases the likelihood of oral infections.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy makes periodontal disease especially worrisome due to the possible migration of bacteria and inflammation-related chemicals though the mother’s bloodstream to the uterus.

Similarly, a condition called “pregnancy gingivitis” afflicts 50-70 percent of pregnant women. Increased pregnancy-related hormone levels cause blood vessels in the gums to become more permeable, allowing bacteria in the mouth move to other parts of the body. Studies have shown an association between periodontitis and premature births, preeclampsia, and gestational diabetes. This is why, until the lockdowns, dental examinations were a routine part of medical care for mothers of the roughly 10,000 babies born in the United States every day.

Cardiovascular disease

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease account for nearly a quarter of all deaths in the United States, due to a build-up of inflammatory plaques that obstruct blood vessels. This disrupts the supply of oxygen to the body and can cause life-threatening events such as heart attacks and strokes.

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Although no direct connection between gum disease and cardiovascular disease has been identified, people with gum diseases appear to have two to three times higher likelihood of having a heart attack or other cardiovascular event. Ongoing research is investigating the relationship and assessing whether gum disease is an independent risk factor for heart disease. The hypothesis is that bacteria from periodontitis can gain access to the body’s circulatory system and penetrate the endothelial cells that line the inside of the blood vessels. One study found that around 40% of atherosclerotic lesions contained remnants of periodontal pathogens that normally are found only in the mouth.

Other Conditions

In addition to those discussed above, other findings during oral examinations may suggest a variety of medical problems:

  • Oral cancers are often detected during routine dental exams
  • Immunocompromised patients often have oral infections which are apparent to the dentist before the patient is aware of any abnormality
  • HIV/AIDS may present with non-healing ulcers or a black coating on the tongue
  • Bulimia — the frequent vomiting exposes the teeth to stomach acid that erodes the enamel of the backs of the teeth

Because dentists are often the first to detect a medical problem that requires diagnostic testing and treatment, in the absence of routine dental exams and cleaning during the pandemic, many oral conditions will be missed and treatment delayed.

This pandemic has real teeth; chalk up another way it threatens our health.

Dr. Shiv Sharma, a California dentist, owns Palo Alto Oral Health in California.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow in Healthcare at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA. Please follow him on Twitter at @henryimiller

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Viewpoint: Pesticides on produce aren’t dangerous. Ignore the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and eat more fruits and veggies

Full disclosure: I buy organic fruits & veggies. I also buy conventional fruits & veggies. For me, it depends on the time of year, the way the produce looks, which grocer or market I’m visiting, and price (those two-for-one berry deals are no joke!). At D2D, we also believe that feeding a growing population requires all kinds of safe, sustainable growing methods. We should have a choice and not be unnecessarily fearful of the food at the grocery store.

What’s at Stake?

If I told you that I only buy organic produce, you’d probably assume that I had the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) list of contaminated produce memorized for when I go shopping, right? And probably expound on the “horrors” of conventional farming, too. Some of you may not know what EWG is, but you’re probably familiar with their annual “Dirty Dozen” list showing which conventionally-farmed fruits & veggies have the most pesticide residue based on data from the USDA Pesticide Data Program. But should you really be afraid of these “Dirty Dozen” items?

EWG would give a big ‘yes’ to that one. But wouldn’t you do this, too, if your corporate donations came from Organic Valley, Earthbound Farms, Applegate Farms, and Stonyfield Farms? Hey, I kinda get it – they’d infuriate their stakeholders if they published information discouraging their products. But their report hurts our health and frankly, our sanity. And at a time when we need it most with COVID-19.

Sad State of Health

Did you know that only 10% of us eat the recommended amounts of fruits & veggies each day? I’m literally sneaking riced cauliflower and diced sweet potatoes into my oatmeal each morning and am barely scraping by in that department. There is no doubt about it: washing, chopping, and preparing five to nine servings of veggies for each family member every day takes a lot of time.

But what about those who can’t even shop for fresh produce? The USDA’s food desert map examines lower-income and lower-access locations where people live far from a supermarket. EWG’s message particularly preys on these shoppers. In a peer-reviewed study in the journal, Nutrition Today, researchers found that low-income participants preferred not to buy produce at all – neither organic nor conventional – when informed of specific fruits & veggies with pesticides, putting this group at greater risk of obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Kinda counter-productive to EWG’s mission, right?

“Messages naming specific fruits and vegetables with pesticides shifted [low-income shopper] participants toward ‘less likely’ to purchase any type of FV, regardless whether organically or conventionally grown.”
– Burton-Freeman et al., Nutrition Today

You’re Only as Good as Your Data

Though we’ve previously posted on how the USDA and EPA monitor and manage pesticide residues on produce, here are a few points about the margin of safety the EPA applies to our produce, the data gathered by the USDA that shows where produce falls within that spectrum, and how the EWG misrepresents the data to scare the daylights out of us.

Let’s first take a look at data collection and what it shows:

Organic and conventional crops: It’s not a level playing field

“The EPA requires synthetic pesticide manufacturers to conduct a whole battery of tests for initial and ongoing registration. The extensive and costly testing is conducted to determine toxicity on human health from dermal exposure, inhalation, and ingestion, and assesses human health outcomes related to reproduction, cancer, and organ systems.

On the other hand, “natural” organic pesticides are not required to be tested for toxicity and have never received this level of assessment.” 

– Susan Leaman, Toxicology Consultant, Vice President at IDS Decision Sciences

Have you heard of copper sulfate? It’s considered an organic pesticide and is frequently used on crops prone to fungus. It’s also one of the most toxic pesticides. Yes, even among synthetic ones.

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Fungicide copper sulfate is popular with organic farmers.

Toxicity Levels of Various Substances

Yes, there is pesticide residue on most produce – both conventional and organic. It’s also in our air. And water. And, our bodies can handle it. Time to move on.

  • Despite what you may hear on the interwebs, the USDA conducts very rigorous testing on thousands of produce samples for its Pesticide Data Program (EWG’s data source). The USDA then works with the EPA to develop tolerances for acceptable pesticide residue on produce.
  • This is how the EPA determines pesticide tolerance: they identify an allowable level of residue for no health risks based on exhaustive toxicological evaluations. If a residue is at or below the tolerated amount, it is safe by a factor of 100, which means the residue present is 100 times smaller than the smallest amount that would have a negative health effect. That’s a pretty plentiful safety cushion there.

“In reality, exposure to toxins like pesticides is not as simple as ‘this is good, that is bad’. Whether or not something is toxic depends on numerous factors, such as the substance’s form, the amount you are exposed to, how you are exposed, and your genetic make-up.”

– Susan Leaman, Toxicology Consultant, Vice President at IDS Decision Sciences

  • Still scared? Check out this page from Alliance for Food and Farming, which represents organic and conventional produce farmers, to see how much produce you’d need to eat to incur some ill effect from the residue, based on our gender and age range. As much as I love strawberries, I don’t think I can eat 453 berries in one day 😉

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EWG’s Dirty Data Habits

Look, we don’t need to go too far down this rabbit hole of EWG’s dubious research practices. Thankfully, plenty of researchers with lots of peer-reviewed studies to factually substantiate their claims have made a more compelling argument than I can to discredit EWG’s improper research methods and false claims.

But let’s take a quick look at how EWG takes advantage of omissions and manipulates data in favor of their stakeholders:

EWG’s desperate search for data to substantiate their position

EWG recycles practically all the same data as previous years and slaps the “2020” on Food Shoppers Guide to make it look meaningful

  • The USDA analyzes pesticide residues with dozens of rotating crops, so each year only select crops are re-analyzed. For instance, this year it was just three crops analyzed that fall under EWG’s coverage: asparagus, cabbages, and sweet peas. Yet they make a big stink about releasing a whole new report, instead of just giving an update on the 6% of data that may or may not have changed since last year!
  • To that end, we don’t know the current pesticide levels of pineapples and eggplants, which were last analyzed in 2002 and 2006, respectively. But both show up on EWG’s “Clean Fifteen” list, without really knowing levels within the last 14+ years.
  • As for raspberries, another delicately-skinned fruit like strawberries (notoriously #1 in the “Dirty Dozen”), they haven’t been analyzed since 2013 – a long time for those overly-concerned with these things.

And EWG only addresses COVID-19…

  • In a recent email touting their “COVID Tips”, EWG states that “organic vegetables…offer a great nutritional bang for your buck”. Ummmm…I’m pretty sure conventional produce is still the cheaper option. Also, nutrient density depends on the health of the soil, not whether it’s organic.
  • Even worse, EWG’s email also states “to reduce the risk of ingesting pesticides, wash all conventional produce by running it under the faucet”. Yeeesh…where were they on this one? We must wash ALL our produce. Pathogens like e. coli and salmonella don’t care if it’s organic or conventional…so always wash up!

…When it’s convenient for them

  • Suddenly they’re reporting on shelf-stable goods? Their report vilifies conventional raisins during a time when some of us don’t have access to fresh fruit. What kind of timing is that?
  • And as unemployment skyrockets, they send an email blast asking for money ☹ Sounds kinda culty, too, right? And, I don’t know, maybe directing at least SOME of those funds to a COVID relief fund would make this email seem a little less crude and more helpful at keeping people alive and healthy, perhaps?

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EWG Actually Knows Better

The most disheartening part about the EWG’s Dirty Dozen report? They know they’re causing unnecessary panic. Perhaps in light of the current pandemic, they stated in their press release that “…consumers should continue eating plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables, whether they are conventional or organic”. Doesn’t this seem contradictory to their entire report? So why cause more panic when we’re all already freaking out???

There’s no question that the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables FAR outweigh any ill effects from pesticides – the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients keep our bodies healthy. How else are we to build up our immune systems to help combat this virus?

Uniting for Health

Despite the mixed messages of the EWG report, there’s one common theme that unifies us all in our plight for overall and immune health: to eat more fruits and veggies, no matter the source. Whether explicitly said by nutritionists and doctors, or hidden between the lines in a press release, we all agree that eating more produce can positively affect our immunity against COVID, and beyond.

And if you are still concerned about pesticide residues and pathogens, just rigorously wash and prepare your produce.

Make sure to wash your produce thoroughly under cool running water BEFORE eating or preparing. It is important to rinse…to avoid transferring dirt or bacteria onto your knife, the flesh of the produce or your work surface. The FDA does not recommend washing your fruits and vegetables with soap…however, you may want to use a clean produce brush to scrub firm crops.”

– Maki Yazawa, RealSimple

My last point is for those who are still skeptical…

If you question the USDA and EPA data, just remember that between two stories may lie the truth. So, if you recall that the EPA’s pesticide residue tolerance scale for produce must be “100” at a bare minimum, and “1” is a serving of produce that has enough pesticide residue to cause an immediate ill health effect (as the EWG would like us to believe), that halfway point brings us to “50”. Even at a factor of 50, I would still encourage my family and friends to eat lots and lots of produce. Even then, 226 strawberries are still too many for me to eat at once 😉

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THE BOTTOM LINE

The EWG report negatively affects our shopping decisions with baseless information that preys on our fears. During these times, it’s even more important to make rational decisions about our health to protect ourselves and others by fortifying our immune systems. So when I see those strawberry packages that are on sale for “buy 2 get 1 free”, you better believe I’m stocking up, no matter how it’s farmed.

Hillary Kaufman covers food trends and technological advances in health for Dirt-to-Dinner, a site dedicated to helping you better understand how your food is grown

This article was originally published at Dirt to Dinner and has been republished here with permission. Follow Dirt To Dinner on Twitter @Dirt_To_Dinner.

anya

Viewpoint: Busting nutrition myths—Why you don’t have to cut potatoes out of your diet

“Stop cutting out white potatoes – they’re as healthy as sweet ones, dietitians say,” a recent headline in Insider urges us.

That gets a big hooray from me.

Forgive my conceit but I cook the best roast potatoes (a British culinary delight) just about anywhere on these shores. Ask my husband.

But the nutrition police don’t approve. According to an article darkly entitled “the problem with potatoes” on the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health website, a cup of potatoes has a similar effect on blood sugar as a can of cola or a handful of jelly beans. Moreover they claim that “this roller-coaster-like effect on blood sugar and insulin can result in people feeling hungry again soon after eating, which may then lead to overeating.”

Wow, that’s quite the set of accusations, especially when sweet potatoes, which have almost identical levels of carbohydrates and calories are often lauded as exemplars of nutritional excellence.

The disdain for standard spuds hinges on the fact that they have a high glycemic index, or GI.

glycemic index potatoes x

GI measures how rapidly a food increases a person’s blood glucose. A global database of GI values is maintained by Sydney University Glycemic Index Research Services in Sydney, Australia. GI is measured relative to glucose (GI 100) under fixed conditions that  don’t relate very much to how we actually eat foods in mealtime combinations.

According to the above mentioned database, sweet potatoes have a GI of anywhere between 44 and 95 depending on the exact variety and method of preparation, whereas a serving of North America’s most popular potato, the Russet Burbank, registers GI values of between 56 and 111. As you can see, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two.

GI and Hunger

There’s modest evidence that eating foods with a higher GI might leave you more vulnerable to snack attacks. For example it’s been shown that after a high glycemic index meal, there’s more activity in the area of the brain associated with craving and reward than after a low glycemic index meal.

When overweight, otherwise healthy, individuals consumed breakfasts with the same energy content but varying carbohydrate to fat ratios, people also felt hungrier after the higher carb meal, which correlated with an earlier and higher peak in blood glucose.

But though high GI is generally a rough proxy for a less nutritionally-dense source of carbohydrate, that’s not the case with potatoes.

To equate them with soda or candy is nonsense because, healthwise, they are very different.

types of potatoes
Different types of potatoes. Credit: Consumer Reports

A medium (285g) baked potato eaten with the skin has 265 calories, 7.1g protein,  60g carbohydrate, and 6.3g of fiber along with 1520mg potassium,  79.8 μg folate and 27.4mg vitamin C. These are really meaningful amounts of nutrients that have roles to play in maintaining a healthy digestive and immune system, as well as normal blood pressure. (For the record, sweet potatoes have more vitamin C, fiber, vitamin A and E, but less potassium and folate.)

Potatoes Are Satiating

The theory that a high GI makes potatoes poor at curbing hunger simply doesn’t stack up any way – far from it. In fact based on the Satiety Index, which rates foods based on how full people still feel two hours after eating them, boiled or baked potatoes are the most hunger-curbing of the lot. With a score of 323 they rate over three times more satiating than white bread, with a reference score of 100.

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In another study published in the Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism potato-based side dishes were more effective at blunting appetite than bread and pasta sides, though there were no differences in subsequent calorie intake at the next meal.

Pile High at Your Peril

On the not so bright side, a study in the journal Diabetes Care found that after adjustment for demographic, lifestyle and dietary factors, long term high intake of potatoes and French fries was linked to a greater risk of diabetes in women. Replacing  potatoes with whole grains, which as a general rule have a lower GI, lowered diabetes risk.

Common sense will tell you portion size, method of preparation and frequency of potato consumption is what matters. Regularly eating oversize quantities of any fried starchy carbohydrate  – which would include sweet potato as well as standard  fries – is almost certainly to have health downside.

But if you don’t eat them every day, and avoid super-sized portions, spuds are far from nutritional duds.

Which is why there will be some irresistibly crispy roast potatoes coming out my oven this Sunday.

Angela Dowden is a British award-winning health journalist and registered nutritionist with over twenty year’s experience. Follow her on Twitter @DietWrite

This article was originally published at the American Council on Science and Health and has been republished here with permission. Follow ACSH on Twitter @ACSHorg

ynews dna genome covid

In your genes? DNA holds clues about how you will fare when exposed to coronavirus

Although the spread of SARS-CoV2, the virus causing COVID-19, has slowed in many places that have successfully “flattened the curve”, cases are on the rise in certain areas, and the virus has only recently arrived in some countries. While enacting public health responses is key to responding to the expanding pandemic, scientists are beginning to analyze why some people might be asymptomatic carriers, as others end up in the ICU on a ventilator or, sadly, ultimately succumb to the disease.

Advanced age and pre-existing conditions are clearly major risk factors for the development of severe COVID-19, however there are also large numbers of younger and generally healthy people who develop serious symptoms, as well as patients of all ages who rapidly recover, or never shows signs of the disease to begin with.

The number of viral particles an individual is exposed to is certainly one variable that may determine disease trajectory, as are environmental considerations, as well as access to treatment. Nevertheless, numerous studies are currently seeking to determine how a person’s unique genome may influence the ultimate impact of the disease. It is important to remember that in contrast to some bacterial and fungal pathogens that produce toxins which directly impact the host, most viruses like SARS-CoV2 do not, and the symptoms and ultimate cause of death are generally produced by the inflammatory responses of our own immune system.

Thus, studying how human genetics impact disease progression could both lead to a predictive understanding of who might require strict isolation, as well as who could be spared the worst of the disease impacts. In addition, if we know specific genetic variants that cause bad outcomes, this could lead to the development of selectively targeted drugs that treat at-risk individuals.

self iso or self quarantine
Woman in isolation. Credit: Riverside Health

Identification of individuals with genetic resistance to infection, or who may be protected from developing symptoms, could help us understand and exploit vulnerabilities at the interface between virus and host, and may have epidemiological implications. Isolating asymptomatic spreaders could significantly reduce the prevalence of the virus in a population, while genetic variants that protect from initial infection could lead to development of preventative therapeutics that block viral entry into host cells, as well as provide peace of mind to the resistant individuals.

Putting COVID in genetic context

Many of the broader medical issues we face have some genetic basis. However, rather than resulting from single catastrophic failures in function, such as running over a nail and getting a flat tire, human disease generally arises from numerous subtle genetic and environmental variables. Mutations with a large negative impact are generally not present at high rates within a population.

Most human diseases with a genetic component are like driving off-road in an aging car with worn out shocks and bald, under-inflated tires that are out of alignment; something will eventually go wrong due to the multiple potential sources of failure placed in the context of particular environmental stresses. While debilitating genetic diseases caused by individual catastrophic mutations certainly exist, and can tell us a great deal about how body systems work, in the vast majority of human diseases, a combination of subtle genetic and environmental factors is to blame, not a single mutation in one gene.

Much of human disease, and thus most genetics research, is based upon the two alternative arms of this apparent dichotomy: rare mutations with major direct impact, or common variants with subtle relevance placed in particular environmental context. In the search for understanding how human genetics plays a role in COVID-19 disease progression, each of these paradigms is being investigated.

One potential limitation to the search for individual genes that cause significant impact on COVID-19 when mutated, is previous experience with a so-called “candidate gene” approach. This involves taking the knowledge of a disease and the genes that might be involved, and then searching for variants in those genes within individuals who display the symptoms of the disease. This is akin to rounding up the “usual suspects”, and often equally as unproductive.

The problem that can often arise with a candidate gene approach is one of causality. As our genomes are full of differences that have no detectable functional impact, if you look at enough people you are likely to find some variations that exist in one population when compared to another. This correlation may be a statistical “red herring” that doesn’t provide any real insight into the disease.

An extreme example illustrating the potential limitations of a candidate gene approach would be to compare two very genetically distinct populations that are subject to very different environmental variables. In such a case a variant identified in a candidate gene could simply have arisen randomly and may correlate with a difference in a disease incidence or severity, but in actuality has no direct functional significance. Science is self-corrective and subsequent studies attempting to prove causation can certainly be performed, however these can be costly and time consuming, and especially during an ongoing pandemic, this type of candidate gene approach might not make sense.

While investigating the variants of an individual candidate gene might not be the best use of resources, new advances in DNA sequencing technologies allow the low-cost and high-speed analysis of entire genomes in large groups of people. Whole genome sequencing was once cost prohibitive and took years of painstaking work to complete, but can now be performed in hours, for about the price of a nice laptop.

Furthermore, studies focusing only on the expressed portion of the genome, the so-called exome, can be undertaken even more efficiently, and can increase the odds that any mutations identified might actually directly alter function. Thus, genetic variants potentially relevant to disease progression can be identified across large diverse populations with greater statistical certainty.

COVID whole genome mapping ‘moon shot’

The COVID Human Genetic Effort includes a worldwide group of research centers coordinated by Dr. Helen Su from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and Dr. Jean-Laurent Casanova of The Rockefeller University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The overall goal of this project is to perform whole genome and exome sequencing from COVID patients who are not elderly and don’t have clear pre-existing conditions to look for mutations that might be responsible for good or bad outcomes. In particular, the researchers are searching for monogenic variants that either increase immunity and are protective, or lead to particularly severe disease in individuals that might otherwise be spared the worst impacts of COVID-19.

Importantly, a key aspect of this work will be to biochemically characterize the candidate variants to look for potential mechanism of action, and weed out genetic variants that might be randomly associated with particular disease endpoints. This project will employ cutting-edge sequencing and analytical techniques to look at large populations with a high degree of sensitivity across the genome, and include follow-up functional studies to directly identify causative mutations and avoid potentially faulty conclusions based solely on statistical correlations.

While identifying genetic mutations with specific functional significance can drastically impact our understanding of a disease and the potential search for beneficial therapeutic interventions, correlative studies of subtle genetic variations can also be extremely important. The term single nucleotide polymorphism (SNPs) refers to individual variations in genomic DNA that can be found within particular populations. The locations of thousands of SNPs in the human genome that can exist in one form or another are known, and rapid, powerful analytical techniques can easily provide a fingerprint of any individual’s personal complement of SNPs. Although individual SNPs don’t confer any obvious functional significance, there is tremendous power in being able to assess which SNPs a person carries across the genome.

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Credit: Medium

SNPs are used to identify ancestry and personal genetic testing companies use panels which assess huge numbers of SNPs to determine one’s genetic background; for example, the part of the world from which a person’s family originated. Huge numbers of SNPs are looked at in concert across the whole genome and different patterns emerge which can then be correlated with the risk of developing particular diseases or pretty much any other characteristic with a genetic component. These analyses are broadly referred to as Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS).

The direct causative impact of any individual SNP is generally essentially zero, but the power is in the sheer magnitude of the numbers analyzed, both numbers of SNPs in one individual data set, and the combination across sometimes thousands of individuals. GWAS and similar types of analytical procedures can provide clues to the genetic basis of a particular disease process, and follow-up sequencing of genes harboring certain SNPs associated with a specific disease can provide further insight. Additionally, by treating a SNP signature associated with a particular condition as a “bio-marker”, predictive or diagnostic approaches can follow. In the context of COVID-19 this could mean identification of specific SNP patterns that might be associated with severity of disease or potential to respond to a particular therapeutic option.

Companies looking for genetic links to COVID susceptibility and recovery

The personal genetic testing company 23andMe, through the 23andMe COVID-19 Study, is currently conducting GWAS to look for associations between certain SNP patterns and COVID-19 infection, severity and recovery. PrecisionLife, a genetic analytics company based in Oxford, has announced the identification of 68 genes with SNP variants associated with severe COVID, including some that had been previously identified as playing a role in viral pathogenesis. PrecisionLife recently posted a pre-print on the website medRxiv which analyzed data obtained from the UK Biobank using an artificial intelligence genomic data analysis tool. The researchers stated that these results could have been obtained following traditional GWAS methods.

Whether through analysis of specific candidate genes, wholes genomes or exomes or GWAS with thousands of SNPs, a single study can only be so powerful, even if many individuals are included. Integrating numerous independent data sets into larger meta analyses can provide deeper and more meaningful understanding. This is where the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative hopes to make a significant impact.

Behind the scenes at the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative

Originally started by the Finnish Institute for Molecular Medicine, this multinational effort has been set up to share resources and data and organize multidisciplinary research activities. It includes clinicians, academic researchers and industry partners, such as DNA sequencing companies. One main aim is to create a series of agreed-upon phenotypic definitions and analytical procedures to harmonize data for meta analyses within an open science format in which results can be shared freely between partners. Although the potential for sharing data obtained with similar criteria and protocols holds tremendous potential power, international sharing of clinical data is very complicated and it will be interesting to see the results of this unprecedented effort—and extremely important in these unprecedented times.

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The first results from these studies are starting to trickle in, and already there are examples of differential COVID-19 outcomes dependent on human genetics. People with blood group A seem more likely to develop severe COVID-19 with respiratory failure, while blood group O appears to confer a protective effect. A paper reporting these observations was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine by the Severe Covid-19 GWAS Group. The study identified the ABO blood group locus and a cluster of genes on chromosome 3, including a region known to contain genes involved in immune cell function, associated with worse outcomes after analyzing ~1,600 patients in Spain and Italy with respiratory failure caused by COVID-19. However, another recent study in the journal Annals of Hematology found no association between ABO blood type and the severity of COVID-19 disease.

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Determining blood type in the ABO group system. Credit: Getty Images

Hopefully, more results such as these will soon be published, and insights into how human genetics might impact COVID-19 severity will become evident. That could well lead to epidemiological actions and drive the development and deployment of therapeutic interventions. Until then, the more patients studied, and the deeper the analyses, the closer we will hopefully come to reigning in this terrible pandemic.

Joshua Z. Rappoport, Ph.D., is the executive director, Research Infrastructure at Boston College, and the author of the newly published Mapping Humanity: How Modern Genetics Is Changing Criminal Justice, Personalized Medicine, and Our Identities. Follow him on LinkedIn

vaccines editorial

Re-energized anti-vaccine activism is growing on the right and winning the social media battle to discredit coming coronavirus treatments

What does an antivaxxer and a far-right activist have in common? If the thought of someone who opposes vaccines brings to mind tie-dye shirts and tree hugging, your answer may be “nothing.” But clearly, some do have a commonality: protesting the COVID-19 lockdowns. Coverage from these protests often show people holding signs slapped with antivaccine rhetoric next to pro-militia activists and white supremacists. This phenomenon can also be seen among homeschoolers according to Anne Borden, a pro-vaccine homeschooler who fights against phony autism cures.

“The first antivaxxers I ever met were left-leaning unschoolers when I was an unschooled teenager. They were very much a part of the early efforts to ‘stop the Food and Drug Administration’ from regulating alternative medicine. What has happened in recent years is that this demographic of homeschooling is being now recruited by the radical right on social media, and some are turning right. And this is very concerning.”

This may leave you wondering just what is happening to the anti-vaccine movement in 2020.

Distrust of establishment medicine

The central dogma of the anti-vaccine ideology is that vaccines cause autism and other bad health effects, and that governments and the pharmaceutical industry knowingly suppress this information. This tenet, we easily imagine, is tightly wedded to the political left. It’s a hippy-dippy attitude, we often think, borne out of an irrational fear of chemicals, and there are indeed prominent spokespeople for the movement who fit this sketch. Joe Mercola made his fortune selling natural health products and has contributed more than $2.9 million to the National Vaccine Information Center in the U.S., an anti-vaccine advocacy group. There is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a Democrat and environmentalist, who is a major public figure on the anti-vaccination scene as the chairman of the Children’s Health Defense.

unknown

This branch of the movement shows a distrust of pharmaceutical companies and a pursuit of purity. Their wrongful idea that nature is inherently good ends up framing their thinking, which is why in the age of COVID we read about their “natural immunity theory”: that barriers to germs, like physical distancing and masks, weaken our immune system. Vaccines are just one more synthetic loaded gun aimed at our immune system, they say. The embedding of antivaxx sentiment within this nature worship is familiar to many of us. But there is a segment of the anti-vaccination movement on the far right, drawn to its libertarian streak of distrusting the government, and there exists at least one prominent bridge between leftist antivaxxers and the political right in the United States: Donald Trump.

Before associating with the Republicans and as far back as 2007, Trump had publicly expressed the erroneous belief that vaccines cause autism. He has helped raise money over the years for his friend Bob Wright, who founded the charity Autism Speaks whose stance on vaccines has been deemed “controversial.” And Trump himself invited Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to chair a commission on vaccine safety (which ended up dying on the vine). Trump, it should be pointed out, is the first American president to be on the record as having anti-vaccine views, an influence that cannot be ignored.

A survey involving Americans who voted in the 2016 presidential election revealed that Trump voters expressed more vaccine concern (specifically about the MMR vaccine, wrongly linked to autism) than non-Trump voters,screen shot at pm
a result which the authors conclude was explained by their conspiracist ideation. This association between the current right-wing of American politics and questioning the value and safety of vaccines can also be seen in Gallup polls. For the years 2001, 2015 and 2019, the percentage of Democrats who say it is either extremely or very important for parents to vaccinate their children has moved from 97% to 88% to 92%. For the same time points, Republicans went from 93% to 82% to 79%.

Beyond political affiliation, researchers can shed some additional light on who an antivaxxer tends to be and how they think. Interviews with Australian parents who reject vaccines revealed they see themselves as virtuous but oppressed, and vaccinators are perceived as an “Unhealthy Other”. Those who reject vaccines may have a skewed perception of the risks posed by them and the diseases they prevent, with some evidence showing that Internet searches may increase the perception that childhood vaccines are risky. And a large investigation into the anti-vaccination phenomenon, conducted in 24 countries by a team at the University of Queensland, revealed a strong pattern: people who reported more conspiratorial beliefs tended to be more anti-vaccine. This association was particularly strong in Western imagesnations, like Canada and the U.S. Next in line was the link between anti-vaccination attitudes and the resistance to having their freedom taken away from them. The authors report that “more conservative participants also had stronger antivaccination attitudes.” What was not linked to antivaxx beliefs was education.

The prototypical antivaxxer described above, though, does not exist in a vacuum. The people who espouse these views can find each other quite easily because of the existence of an important conduit that allows their claims, anxieties and incitements to spread: social media. Even though social media giants have said they would crack down on vaccine misinformation, anti-vaccine communities quickly adapt to the new rules, like a guided virus mutating with a purpose. For example, the word “vaccine” disappears in the name of their group, replaced by “medical freedom.” And according to a recent massive analysis of 100 million Facebook users worldwide, online supporters of anti-vaccine views have been more successful by some measures than those of us publicly supporting vaccines. They are smaller numerically but occupy a more central position in the network; they are heavily involved with clusters of Facebook users who haven’t made up their mind about vaccines; and they
offer a wide variety of “potentially attractive” stories (about safety concerns, about government conspiracies, about natural immunity) that can attract a greater diversity of people compared to pro-vaccine messaging which tends to be one-note.

This diversity is also encouraged by social media companies. Platforms like Facebook and YouTube want to hold onto your eyeballs so they recommend other content. Renee DiResta, a security researcher, told BuzzFeed News that as she joined more anti-vaccine parenting groups on Facebook for the purpose of investigating them, the platform recommended more and more conspiracist groups: about chemtrails, about the flat Earth, about the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. She called this phenomenon “radicalization via the recommendation engine.” And as Anne Borden was telling me, there is active cross-pollination happening on social media with the far right. “Right-wing movements have deeply infiltrated the social media spaces of the antivaxx and vaccine-hesitant homeschoolers and alt-schoolers. They recruit in antivaxx and Facebook groups related to complementary and alternative medicine.”

What these concerns and conspiracy theories may mean for the future

When we pull at this big ball of conspiracy theories and pro-freedom sentiment, we can find some genuine concerns buried inside. Jon Perry, the founder of the Stated Clearly science communication project, pointed me in the direction of a Facebook meme declaring that its poster would not be “vaccinated (chipped) for the coronavirus.” “The meme,” he told me, “is a mixed bag of legitimate concerns about tracking devices, a justifiable mistrust of billionaires and large organizations, common knowledge that most large nations dabble (or have dabbled) in bio-weapons research, a far less warranted (but not totally baseless) fear of new vaccines, and many more, all combined with a horrible confusion about medical patents and virus naming structures.”

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A project like ID2020, aimed at providing everyone with a secure digital identification, can be twisted by a distrustful, pattern-seeking mind into a cover for Bill Gates’ nefarious plan to monitor every human being. The fact that multiple coronavirus vaccines use the virus’ RNA can be misinterpreted into the fear that vaccines will mutate our own DNA. Justified worries are fed by misunderstandings and further amplified by a conspiracist mindset in online communities cross-pollinated by radical political actors, leading to progressive vaccine-hesitant parents holding hands with the anti-lockdown movement. Like a big ball of colourful rubber bands, these disparate-looking actors share an underlying property and end up sticking together.original

While this big wobbly ball looks overwhelming, there are discreet actions pro-vaccine people and organizations can take to minimize the damage caused by anti-vaccine attitudes, and
because these attitudes tend to be tied to the belief in a grand conspiracy, the recent publication of the Conspiracy Theory Handbook can be of help. When addressing members of the public unlikely to endorse conspiracy theories, the Handbook recommends empowering people with facts, uncovering the bad logic in the initial argument, linking to fact-checking websites, and exposing the lack of credibility of the sources of these theories. Trying to reach extremists, on the other hand, is usually a fool’s errand; personally, I’d rather address the people on the fence and we have preliminary evidence that empathy and really listening to the concerns of vaccine-hesitant parents can improve their attitudes toward vaccines.

If safe and effective vaccines against the new coronavirus end up being approved (which is not a guarantee, though over 90 experimental vaccines are at various testing stages), I wonder how much public confidence will have been eroded by this reenergized anti-vaccine movement and their radical allies. In the past decade, the United States has seen a 10% overall decline in the number of parents who feel it’s extremely or very important to vaccinate their children (from 94% in 2001 to 84% in 2019), with 11% saying they think vaccines are more dangerous than the disease they are meant to prevent. Meanwhile, in 2015, almost two in five respondents to a Canadian survey agreed that the science on vaccinations isn’t quite clear. What these numbers capture is not just antivaxxers, however. Their movement is a small and vocal minority, but its fear-based messaging reaches a larger segment of the population: the vaccine hesitant. And people on the fence about vaccines are now being served an incredible buffet of prickly anxieties: from genuine concerns that a coronavirus vaccine may be rushed to the loud cries of “my body, my temple”, all the way to stories of Bill Gates’ evil plan to depopulate the world, with the occasional viral video like Plandemic fuelling this unease with a veneer of respectability. How much damage this ever-growing ball will cause on its way down the slope is anyone’s guess, but we have genuine reason to be worried.

Jonathan Jarry is a biological scientist who once worked for the U.S. Armed Forces, using the power of DNA technology to identify really old American soldiers. His passion for critical science communication has resulted in a nascent blogging and podcasting career, most notably with Dr. Christopher Labos on The Body of Evidence, a website that takes a skeptical eye at health claims. Find Jonathan on Twitter @crackedscience 

A version of this article was originally posted at the McGill Office for Science and Society website and has been republished here with permission. The McGill Office for Science and Society can be found on Twitter @McGillOSS

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