Thoughts of public sector animal geneticist - all views are my own


Summer caught up with me and I have not blogged in a while, but recently I spent 9 consecutive days watching a docuseries called “GMOs revealed”. I finished watching the series feeling dismayed and confused. Dismayed as a scientist at the fearmongering and fallacies that were being promoted with disciplined repetition based on anecdotes and gut feelings mixed with a little woo and magic – and in apparently cheerful contradiction to the published opinions of the entire worlds’ scientific societies and risk assessment agencies – which were summarily dismissed by a host of conspiracy theories.

I would also imagine most viewers left confused as consumers too, because the mixed messages seemed to be that basically everything from food to water to the air we breathe was contaminated, poisoned, and terrifying. The sobering take home message seemed to be one of despair and the fact-devoid prediction that we are all going to get sick and die soon due to various toxins and GMOs and maladies and just  “AAAAGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHH”.

As a parent I don’t know what to do with that message. There are enough actual risks to protect kids from, and hazards to steer clear from in this world – without worrying about ones that don’t exist.

Some of the times the message was to eat organic, sometimes it was to eat low on the food chain, other times it was that you can’t trust the organic label because of big companies and that instead you should eat non-GMO verified products, then there was concern that they too are sprayed with glyphosate (a herbicide which an inordinately high proportion of the interviewees could not correctly pronounce for some inexplicable reason – maybe like Voldemort, it is the herbicide that cannot be named), and several guests were peddling detox products to fix what ails you – some that even reportedly and magically cured your body from the many evils of glyphosate.

And according to the show the evils of glyphosate were surprisingly numerous. The first claim was actually true, and that is that glyphosate blocks the Shikimate pathway (shikimic acid pathway) which is a seven step metabolic route used by bacteria, fungi, algae, some protozoan parasites and plants for the biosynthesis of folates and aromatic amino acids (phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan). Blocking this pathway is why Roundup kills weeds. But then it was suggested that the RoundUp ready crops that end up as our food therefore lacked these essential amino acids.

Except RoundUp ready crops have a glyphosate-insensitive transgene, CP4 EPSP synthase, that confers crop resistance to glyphosate. This allows the Shikimate pathway to proceed unfettered, that is the whole point! RoundUp crops continue to produce aromatic amino acids even after treatment with glyphosate and so the levels of aromatic amino acids in GMO crops are unchanged from their conventional counterparts i.e. they are substantially equivalent in amino acid content and nutritional value.

Then the claims about glyphosate started getting more wide-ranging and bizarre including decreasing dopamine and serotonin leading to tiredness and anger, shutting down cytochrome P450 detox pathway leading to the accumulation of “toxins , and glyphosate crossing the blood:brain barrier for some reason? – especially in conjunction with lead and mercury, that glyphosate is an endocrine disrupting chemical which is more dangerous at lower doses than at higher doses, that it kills beneficial bacteria but not the bad nasty bacteria and this leads to a long list of disorders including poor sex drive, and infertility, and that it stops mitochondria from making energy and this creates brain fog and is linked to birth defects and destruction of endocrine systems, and also non-alcoholic fatty acid disease.  And that the extracellular matrix which communicates information body wide gets “crushed” by glyphosate, and finally perhaps my favorite – and that is that glyphosate is a highly toxic and long lasting organophosphate.

That last one caught my attention, because organophosphate pesticides, specifically organophosphate insecticides that act as cholinesterase inhibitors are a highly toxic and long lasting class of neurotoxic pesticides. But glyphosate in not in the category. While it can be described as an organophosphorus compound because of its carbon and phosphorus atoms, glyphosate is not an organophosphate ester but a phosphanoglycine, and it does not inhibit cholinesterase activity. Glyphosate is an herbicide and has a very low chronic toxicity, with the acute oral LD50 (dose at which 50% of rats die following oral ingestion) of 5,600 mg/kg.

Why is this relevant? Organophosphates (OPs) are a class of insecticides, several of which are highly toxic. Until the 21st century, they were among the most widely used insecticides available. Organophosphates poison insects and other animals, including birds, amphibians and mammals, primarily by phosphorylation of the acetylcholinesterase enzyme (AChE) at nerve endings. However, in the past decade, several notable OPs have been discontinued for use, including parathion the oral LD50 of which in rats is between 3-8 mg/kg, which means it is quite toxic, in fact around 700 times (5,600/8) more toxic than glyphosate.

Ironically it is the banning of these actual toxic organophosphate insecticides, along with the adoption of Bt crops that decreased insecticide spraying and RoundUp ready crops that allowed herbicide substitution to glyphosate that has led to the documented decrease in the toxicity of the pesticides applied to the four major US crops. The pesticides being used back in “the good old days” of agriculture in the 1970s were considerably more toxic and persitant than those in use today – a GOOD NEWS story that gets remarkable little airtime.

Although the docuseries repeatedly tried to imply glyphosate was absorbed by the body, in fact it is poorly absorbed from the digestive tract and is largely excreted unchanged by mammals. Cows, chickens, and pigs fed small amounts had undetectable levels (less than 0.05 ppm) in muscle tissue and fat. Levels in milk and eggs were also undetectable (less than 0.025 ppm). Glyphosate has no significant potential to accumulate in animal tissue.

So who cares if shows like GMO OMG and GMOs Revealed and the like demonize GMOs and glyphosate in the absence of any objective evidence? I do!, as both a mother and an agricultural scientist. Because fearmongering around other safe technologies – think vaccines, food irradiation and even pink slime – has real world consequences. And every time a safe technology gets taken off the shelf for no good reason and without a serious and honest discussion of the resulting tradeoffs or opportunity costs – agriculture becomes a little less sustainable, and that deleteriously impacts the future of all our kids.

Recent case studies conducted by researchers in Germany and the UK predict that losing glyphosate would have a considerable effect on crop production costs and would also have an impact on the international trade in several European winter crops and sugar.  “However, the biggest changes in the event of a glyphosate ban are likely to relate to running costs, since many farmers will probably revert to ploughing for weed control. It is estimated that more ploughing and higher costs for machinery and labor would increase production costs for several crops by EUR 8 to EUR 30 per hectare in Germany. This means that even if yields remained stable, the farmers’ profit margin would drop by 7%.”

A recent paper by Oxford Economics examined the likely impact of a ban on glyphosate would have on UK farming – it suggested a decrease in yields of 12-14% in wheat and oilseed rape due to more weeds, and a decrease of 15-37% in the acreage of cereals, wheat and oilseed rape.  And that is in a relatively small country that currently grows no Round-up ready GMO crops (although it does import a lot of GMO animal feed ironically in part due to the essential aromatic amino acids that are prevalent  in soy-based feed).

Impact of a Glyphosate Ban on Farming in the UK

What these scary documentaries seem to be advocating for is a ban on both glyphosate and GMO crops. What might that look like? Well probably the opposite of the documented impacts of GMO crops on pesticide use and carbon emissions  1996-2015– facts and potential tradeoffs that are truly scary and are unfortunately never discussed in these documentaries.

“The adoption of GE insect resistant and herbicide tolerant technology has reduced GLOBAL pesticide spraying by 618.7 million kg (~8.1%) and, as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with (less toxic) herbicide and insecticide use on these crops by 18.6%. The technology has also facilitated important cuts in fuel use and tillage changes, resulting in a significant reduction in the release of greenhouse gas emissions from the GM cropping area. In 2015, this was equivalent to removing 11.9 million cars from the roads.”

Even critics of glyphosate warn that banning it will lead to the use of chemical alternatives that are orders of magnitude more harmful, both in terms of environmental and human health risks.

So while the “worried wealthy” seem to be increasingly obsessed with avoiding undocumented risks in their food, ensuring the clean composition of their well-fed dog’s bowl, and acting to ultimately preclude farmer’s access to safe technology, what worries me is the impact that these fearmongering “documentaries” are ultimately going to have on what it appears are our shared values: decreasing the global environmental footprint of food production while cutting down on the use of harmful pesticides and carbon emissions for the future well-being of agriculture and the planet.

Who does fund university research?

This is follow up to my BLOG last week about “Who should fund university research”? I thought it might be illustrative to examine actual data from my university. Not surprisingly for a large enterprise, UC Davis  tracks sources of all monies coming into the university, and oversees the expenditure of such funds.

There are two basic ways research funding can come into the university – as a formal contract or grant, or as a donation. In the former case, there is some type of a grant application or description of work to be carried out (but not what the results of the research will be!!!) for which the funding is provided, in the second case it is what is called an “unrestricted” donation. This is money that is directed towards an individual professor, program or department with no further specification as to what the money is to be used for. Of course such funding is still managed by the university, and can’t be used for a vacation to Hawaii.  Often it is used as seed funding to undertake a professor’s favorite research idea, perhaps one that is a bit too “out there” and risky to secure traditional grant funding in the absence of supporting preliminary data.  In that sense it is like a donation to your favorite charity, you donate the money because you like the type of work that charity does.  However you cannot directly specify exactly what the charity is to do with the money you donated.

Grants and contracts

These are the monies that really run research programs. The total awards by calendar year at UC Davis is in the ballpark of $750 million (i.e. three quarters of a billion). That is a lot of money, but UC Davis is a big university with a medical school which includes a hospital, a veterinary school, and all of the colleges that make up the campus. If we pessimistically (realistically) assume a 10% funding rate of public research funding that  means the UC Davis faculty are on average writing $7.5 billion worth of  grants each year, and are successfully bringing in one tenth of that. And to reiterate these funds are used to support graduate students, buy research supplies, perform experiments and advance knowledge. UC Davis is a powerful economic engine for California, generating $8.1 billion in statewide economic activity and supporting 72,000 jobs.

The approximate breakdown for the $786 million received in fiscal year 2014-15 was $427 million (54%) awards from the federal government, and likely a big chunk of research funding is also from the state government. $66.1 million (8.4%) was awards from foundations, and $59.4 million (6.7%) awards from industry sponsors. I think that is an interesting point, that UC Davis receives more sponsored research funding from foundations than it does from industry sponsors. The School of Medicine received the largest share of research grants at UC Davis with $264 million (34%), followed by the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at $155 million (20%), and the School of Veterinary Medicine at $114 million (14.5%).


This pool of monies is more modest than that brought in by grants and contracts. I could only get this data for fiscal year, rather than calendar year, but it is in the vicinity of $200 million. Now the question that perhaps has been asked most frequently is how much funding is coming from specific companies – specifically those associated with the so-called “Agrochemical academic complex”? That all depends upon how you define such industries, but let’s go with the so-called “Big 6”; that is Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, DuPont/DuPont pioneer, and Dow.

The following table has the breakdown of total grants and contracts, donations and those two figures totaled, and then the breakout of how much of that funding and the (percentage of total) associated with the cumulative funding coming from the “Big 6” in recent years. (The numbers differ slightly from those above due to fiscal versus calendar year accounting.)

Year 2012 2013 2014 2015
Grants/Contracts 699,728,437 718,934,464 751,864,525 793,797,558
       From “Big 6” 1,407,821 (0.20%) 477,178 (0.07%) 881,856 (0.12%) 746,160 (0.09%)
Donations 132,451,535 149,134,036 165,704,178 184,180,960
       From “Big 6” 768,172 (0.58%) 1,386,079 (0.93%) 858,912 (0.52%) n/a
TOTAL 832,179,972 868, 068,500 917,568,703 977,978,518
       From “Big 6” 2,175,993 (0.26%) 1,863,257 (0.21%) 1,741,768 (0.19%) n/a

So in summary, at what is arguably the number one ranked agricultural research university in the world, the proportion of funding coming from the “Big 6 Agrochemical academic complex” funders is approximately $2 million per year, well under one half of one percent of total research funding received by the campus.  To put that in perspective, the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences alone has 330 faculty members and 1,000 graduate students . Two million dollars is approximately what it takes to fully fund ~ 35 graduate students for a year.

So what is the money being used for?

Not surprisingly most of the funding from the “Big 6” was associated with research working in plant sciences and entomology. Some went to the medical school because the search for “Bayer” also captured research funding sponsored by “Bayer Healthcare”.   A number of the donations were to Cooperative Extension county-based advisors performing field research with various crops. And just for transparency, none of it was directed to my research program (which is not surprising as I work on animals not plants!). Some was earmarked for work in specific crops like figs, pistachios, strawberries, rice, onions, woody crops and viticulture.  And that is not surprising because California grows hundreds of specialty crops. Noticeably none of these crops have commercialized genetically engineered varieties, and their breeding programs are mostly run by public sector scientists.The one thing California does not grow much of is large acreage corn and soybeans. We do not have the right climate and conditions for these crops, and there are high-value alternative crops that CA farmers chose to grow.  As a result, UC Davis does not do much research in these field crops, and the university therefore does not get much industry research funding for work in these crops.

I would wager that the University of Kentucky, home of the Kentucky Derby,  probably has industry funding supporting is equine science program, ’cause they have a huge equine industry in that state. In  general when a university has an important industry in its state, that industry helps to support research at that state-located public university. And in the case of California there is an amazing number of agricultural commodities grown – the fruit and vegetable industry raises a cornucopia of varieties in the state, and UC Davis has renowned brewing and wine making programs. As an example, the brewing science program at UC Davis has received several sizable donations from industry, including the recent $2 million donation from the owners of the local Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Cheers to science-based beer brewing and wine making!

How does this breakdown compare to other land grant universities?

My colleague Kevin Folta at the University of Florida posted this useful graphic for the gators  (University of Florida).

Funding to University of Florida FY 2015-2016 broken down by funding source

In the case of the University of Florida, the faculty brought in $140 million in sponsored funding in FY 2015-16, and of that 70% was from federal agencies,  15.5% was from foundations, and 3.5% was from corporations and industry.  Kevin makes the observation in his blog regarding agricultural industry funders:

“They are frequently the beneficiaries of increased knowledge in agriculture, as well as the training and education we provide to the next generation of scientists”. I look forward to his next BLOG piece where he promises to write about whether industry support of science matters.

So there you have it – or at least a snapshot from two large agricultural universities as to which entities fund universities. By far the biggest source of funding is federal research grants – as might be expected at a public university.

Now I must go and focus my efforts on writing my next federal grant application – which unfortunately has a ~90% probability of not being funded and will likely only ever be read by 2 grant reviewers. As compared to this BLOG which has 100% chance of not securing funding for my research program, but hopefully will be of interest to more than 2 readers.

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