Tuesday, January 30, 2018

How to Use Critical Thinking Skills without a Science Background

Guest Blog By: Wanda Patsche

Click here to access the original blog post.


There isn’t a day that I don’t see headlines such as these in my social media newsfeed. One particular article, “Why I Changed My Stance on Eating Organic Food,” came across my newsfeed and I noticed the author was a dietician. When I think of dietitians, I think of integrity so I was interested to hear what the author had to say about why she changed her stance on eating organic food. When I finished reading the article, there were a number of “red flags” and knew I needed to do some “critical thinking” research on some of her statements. But how do I use critical thinking skills about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) without a science background?

Even though I am a farmer, I will admit my science background is not very strong. How does one know what is true and what is merely propaganda? I will show you, step-by-step, how I used critical thinking skills to examine how valid her claims were. 

Statement #1:

“I became a spokesperson for CLIF Bar in Canada, and as their products are at least 70 percent organic, I became better educated about organic farming, seeds, and crops, and their impact on the environment, and on us as the consumer.” 

RED FLAG moment. Okay, the first thing that comes to mind is if she is a spokesperson, do you think she is getting paid? Probably . . . You think there might be a little bias? I will let you answer that on your own.

Statement #2:
“Corn is used as a pesticide.”

I am still a little confused by this phrase. Corn is not used as a pesticide, but rather, is a grain used for livestock feed, ethanol, and human food. It seems to me she is misconstruing the facts and is probably referring to BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn. I will try to keep this explanation about BT corn as simple as possible–BT is a natural bacteria commonly found in soils and is NOT toxic to humans. In fact, I probably have breathed in BT numerous times just by standing outside of my house because we have soil nearby. BT produces a protein that when ingested by certain larva-type insects (such as corn borer, which is very destructive to corn plants) causes death in those insects. BT targets specific insects, not all insects. In fact, organic famers can use BT as a pesticide for their organic crops. Injected BT is also used in some organic plants. BT corn is genetically engineered by isolating a specific gene that produces the protein (the protein that causes death in insects), and that one gene is placed into the corn plant. This results in a GMO–one gene out of tens of thousands of genes. When the insects start to eat the corn plant, they will ingest the BT protein and die. Only at the time the protein is in the gut of a larva is it considered a pesticide. It has absolutely no effect on humans. In addition, Bt has helped drop organophosphates (which are very bad) by 50%. This is a fact that was conveniently not talked about. 

Statement #3:
“Systemic pesticides have been in the news lately because they’re being implicated in the deaths of millions of bees, and when bees die, 75% of the crops we eat don’t get pollinated, which is deadly to the plants and to the ecosystem.”

Yes, we need to find out what is happening to our bee population. Many think neonics (an insecticide applied to seeds) are suspect in bee death and yet there is research to refute those claims. Neonics have nothing to do with genetically engineered plants, although it seems she insinuates it in her article. For a balanced view on the neonics/bees issue, read Save The Bees, But Not With An All-Out Pesticide Ban. The bottom line is we need to keep researching the cause of colony disorder and do what is necessary to protect the bees.

Statement #4:
“It has been found that at least 90% of these pesticides don’t even go into the crops; they go into the environment: the soil, the water, and the animals who eat the coated seeds, crawl in the contaminated ground, and swim in the contaminated water.”

There are many questions that arise from this statement. There is no reference to the source of the 90% statement. What specific pesticides is she talking about? Remember the EPA monitors and would not allow soil or waters to be contaminated to a level that is harmful to humans or animals. On a positive note, this is where GE technology shines because it allows farmers to use less pesticides. Good for humans, animals, and the environment.

Statement #5:
“If GMO plants are safe, why are they banned in Europe?”

This is a common question in regards to Europe’s position on GMO plants. The author has claimed that Europe has banned them and what do they know that we don’t? The fact is many European countries have not banned them, but rather have not approved them. Big difference. GMO corn is imported and used in livestock all over Europe. Recently, reports are circulating that Europe is having second thoughts about GE (genetic engineering) technology and may be allowing farmers to grow them soon.

This is not a statement in the article, but rather an observation from me. The author is clearly not using her critical analysis of research and it reads more as an advertisement.  And it makes me feel very uncomfortable.The dietetics regulatory body forbids promoting anything that is not science-based. In fact, recently there has been some controversy in the field of dietetics because of large corporations wanting to sponsor dietetic conferences. Some claim the sponsorships may affect their integrity. 

Yes, it is a shame that it takes this much effort to read through and decipher with a critical eye an article that should be an honest and educational read. But, unfortunately, this is a downfall of the Internet. Let’s just say, just because you read it on the Internet does not make it true! Do your own research!


Understand and challenge your biases and assumptions--it’s healthy. 

Biases: When I look at an issue, the first thing I note is where the source originated. Personally, I tend to trust sources from academia and science. And even if it looks like the source is authoritative, I will still investigate to make sure they are a legitimate and credible source. I also ask myself--Is there anything this source has to gain by publishing this information? What is their bias? What is my bias? Do multiple sources say the same thing? Multiple sources add credibility. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, no matter how stupid they may sound. These are just a few of the simple steps I went through as I analyzed this article.

Assumptions: All of us make a lot of assumptions about almost everything. It’s how our brain processes certain pieces of information, and how we get along in everyday life. You could say they are the foundation of our critical framework. But what if those assumptions turned out to be wrong, or at least not entirely truthful? Then the whole foundation needs to be rebuilt, from the bottom up.


Ask, ask and ask some more. Listen. No, really listen. And then think about it. 
At that point, make a decision. But always remember that you can change your mind as more information is made available. It’s a continuous process. 

Challenge yourself. Sharpen your critical thinking skills by practicing them often.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Brave New World of Grocery Shopping

"No son, I don't know what 'smartphone app' or 'digital billing' mean."
The changes keep on coming. Stores offer self-checkout machines; online ordering and home delivery systems are popular; and Alexa can check your fridge and send in your order.

Now a newly opened Amazon market does away with checkout procedures. Using hundreds of ceiling-mounted cameras and electronic sensors, the store tracks customers and the items they select. Purchases are billed to customer credit cards when they leave the store. Alcohol purchases will mean ID checks and--at this stage anyway--human interaction, but the system is built mainly on a grab-and-go concept.

This "Just Walk Out" system uses "computer vision, deep learning algorithms, and sensor fusion."  It also assumes the premise that many people want to shop quickly with minimal human contact. For you visual learners, this article includes lots of photos of the new store, and this writer gives personal insights as he tries out the system.

Pointed comments have come out from some: "Is this really necessary?" "Doesn't this just add to our social isolation?" "Doesn't  'just walk out' sound a bit too much like a shoplifter's mission statement?" The satirical Onion site said, "This is going to put a lot of self-checkout robots out of work."

"Just Walk Out" Ain't So New
But maybe this tech isn't so new after all. During the 1960s, the local grocers in our tiny Midwest farm town had a "Chat and Just Walk Out" system. Farmers and townies would fill carts, stop at the Mom-and-Pop checkout till, gossip while the items were registered, and then walk out without paying--it was all put "on the tab" until the end of the month. 

My ten-year-old brother tried his own "just walk out" once. He placed a candy bar and bottle of Coke on the counter, grabbed the universal check pad that folks used back then, and wrote out a personal check for the amount. He walked out not realizing that you actually had to have a bank account to write a check. The grocery store "Mom" just added it to the family tab, knowing the incident would lead to some interesting conversations and a financial learning experience. 

Grocery stores used to be community gathering spots, but nowadays most folks want convenience and speed. A few might miss the human interaction a store once provided, but technology can fill that need too. Maybe shoppers will access "GroceryGossip" or "DigitalSmileInEveryAisle" apps to hold a meaningful conversation with a screen. That will keep them happy until they get home where Alexa will ask, "Do you want to hear a joke about shopping?"

by dan gogerty (bottom photo from magnoliabox.com)

Monday, January 22, 2018

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Farmer Style

"Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!"

Farmers take many steps to protect the land, water, and air around them for the well-being of their communities, their animals, and their families. Everyone knows the value of recycling, but farmers specifically often find unique and creative ways to recycle in order to save both money and materials. Many farmers go above and beyond with their recycling efforts, not only because it often helps them meet their equipment needs in a sustainable way, but because they want to pass on the best possible farm to the next generation of agriculturalists.

Most farmers are hoarders, but maybe that is because they always have a use for everything. I remember as a child, my father and I would often find ourselves sorting through the scrap metal pile on our farm in search of the perfect piece for our latest project. In my eyes, a farmer's version of recycling is much different than the average person. Most people see it as a process of separating their trash and taking it to a local resource collection center, while farmers see it as an opportunity to find new ways to use old things. Here is just a glimpse into the many ways farmers reduce, reuse, and recycle:

Bailing Twine: At times it may feel like the barn is being overrun by twine. Every time a bale is opened, two more lengths of twine are added to the collection. Bailing twine is the duct tape of the agricultural world. It fixes just about anything. On our farm, it has been used as a belt, shoestrings, hair tie, sled handle, and temporary fence repair, to name only a few. I have even heard of people using it to make dog toys and lead ropes. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is NEVER throw away a piece of twine!

Coffee Cans and Plastic Containers: For many years, a Folgers coffee can has made the perfect feed scoop. Likewise, used plastic containers like yogurt cups make a great pot to start your garden plants prior to spring planting.

Conveyor Belts: After old conveyor belts have been removed from machinery, farmers find a use for them as floor mats in concrete barns. They work well when covering up pit areas and also provide additional traction for animals in areas where they are loaded and unloaded during transportation.

Feed Bags: Once their initial role as a source for storing feed is complete, these bags serve as a fire starter, trash bags, and weed barriers in gardens. Farmer's wives even put their sewing skills to the test to make reusable bags that are perfect for grocery shopping and carrying other miscellaneous items.

Food Scraps: In our household, we were taught at a young age to clean our plates. We weren't allowed to leave the kitchen table unless all of our food was eaten. On the rare occasion that there were leftovers, the scraps were given to the farm animals. One fun fact about eggshells specifically is that some farmers save them to feed to their chickens as a great source of calcium.

Garden Hose: I'm sure we have all been annoyed at the discovery of an unpatchable hole in a garden hose that we swear "was bought only a few years ago." Don't throw it away, though! A friend of mine recently pointed out that they make great five-gallon bucket handle covers.

Manure: Maybe one of the most widely recycled items of the farm, manure contains nutrients and organic matter that benefit plants and enrich the soil. Farmers use this product to increase soil productivity because it serves as a fertilizer and energy source for future cash crops. Dairy farmers have even begun using recycled manure solids as a source for stall bedding when other sources have become harder for farms to secure. Finally, the use of methane digesters on farms has become increasingly popular in converting waste into energy for on-farm and off-farm uses.

Silage Bags: Storing feedstuff in silage bags is a great way to preserve high-quality forages. Unfortunately, once farmers start feeding the product farmers find themselves with an abundance of plastic wrapping. Not only is burning plastic illegal, but it is also hazardous to the environment. Taking these agricultural plastics to a recycling center for use in future products is a farmer's best option.

Snagged Nylons: If you are anything like me, you wear nylons once a year (if that) and when you do you rip a hole in at least one pair before even walking out the door. Some active gardeners have found a use for those darn nylons. They work perfectly for holding harvested onions in a basement or cellar.

Tires: Haylage and corn silage is a harvested product often used to feed beef and dairy cattle. Though the method of harvest is slightly different, the way they are stored is the same. In years past, farmers used upright silos (vertical storage), but they have now transitioned into drive-over feed piles, bunker silos, or plastic bags (horizontal storage). The learning curve of experience has taught farmers that the use of tires and their weight helps to maintain feed quality during storage.

Used Oil: Used motor oil never wears out. If cleaned, it can be reused repeatedly. Although some farmers have reportedly cleaned used oil and reused it in old machinery, this practice is not recommended by machinery manufacturers. Farmers use a number of options such as facilitating on-farm collections, bringing the oil to a certified collection center, or burning it in a boiler.

Water: Rainwater specifically is often collected in rain barrels and used to water animals and gardens on the farm. Dairy farmers use water to clean the manure from their free stall barns periodically throughout the day while cows are being milked. The dirty water is then collected and irrigated on fields to help nurture and grow crops.

Wooden Pallets: They just might be the most highly sought after item for Pinterest do-it-yourself projects, but farmers find themselves using them for compost bins, fire starters, and even fencing for low-impact livestock.

As you can see from the list above, there is no shortage of ways that farmers contribute to a more sustainable environment. With the help of science and technology, they continue to make our production practices more efficient. They work to meet society's food and textile needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The farmer's life cycle is one giant recycling center as they work to ensure that we can farm for generations to come.

By: Kylie Peterson

(feed bag image from creativecountrylife.com, onions in nylons pic from wonderfulengineering.com, pallet corral pic from Laura Jans, contributions from Women in Agriculture Facebook Group)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Whales, Dogs, Humans--Rescue Stories

Folks speculate endlessly about animal intelligence and the relationship certain species have with humans. Some claim creatures purposely intervene and save people, and the latest entry involves a respected marine biologist who thinks a whale protected her from a nearby shark as she was doing underwater research. Nan Hauser knew her tale might invoke skepticism, but she does have video to support her claims.  This clip also gives some insights.

Many others say that dolphins have saved them, and we're not just talking about the old Flipper TV show here. Ancient Greek stories include dolphins helping drowning sailors, and some in modern times say the finned mammals saved them from sharks. Hmmm. Not many stories in the media about sharks saving people.

Tales abound of other incredible animals--legend says that the founders of ancient Rome, Romulus and Remus, were saved by a wolf when they were abandoned as infants. Of course, dogs rank highest on the rescue scale. This is just one of the 1,200,000 entries Google provides: "Twenty-five Heroic Dogs and How They Saved People."

Just so we stay rooted in the general flow of dog-human relationships, we will finish with a couple of farm dog blogs. In this list, Mark Parker gives us the top ten differences between a good and bad farm dog. And this blog looks at why "Many 'Best in Show' Dogs Live Down on the Farm."

by dan gogerty (top pic from pressherald.com and bottom from dogbreedinfo.jpg.)

Friday, January 12, 2018

CAST Challenges You in 2018

Contact Kylie Peterson (kpeterson@cast-science.org) for
questions, comments, and input about CAST social media.
You may have noticed an increased focus on social media and effective science communication at CAST in 2017. It's been said many times and in many ways that more than two-thirds of Americans use social media as a source for their daily news. Since CAST's mission is to serve as a source for unbiased scientific information, it is crucial for us to be a part of the discussion on science, technology, and all things agriculture. 

Did you know that you can play a huge role in making CAST's voice heard? As a board member, volunteer, donor, or friend of CAST, you can help us achieve our vision--a world where decision making related to agriculture and natural resources is based on credible information developed through reason, science, and consensus building instead of fake news and fear.

It's as simple as following CAST on social media--engage with our posts through likes, re-tweets, shares, comments, or even simply leaving a review. Let's make bringing awareness to CAST and actively advocating for science a part of your New Year's resolution!

To access CAST's social media accounts, click on the links below.

Like us on Facebook HERE!

Follow us on Twitter HERE!

Follow us on LinkedIn HERE!

Follow us on Blogger HERE!

Follow us on Pinterest HERE!

Follow us on YouTube HERE!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Updates--Water and Milk in the Raw

I grew up on a farm long ago in an age when everything seemed raw. We’d play in creeks, drink from bubbling springs, and squirt milk from our Guernsey’s udder straight at an unsuspecting brother’s face. But times have changed. Water quality is a major issue and the types sold in plastic bottles range from Aqua Fina to Zephyrhills. And while milk might come in long-recognized cartons such as Anderson Erickson, other names like Organic Valley have moved in--and apparently someone found a way to squeeze “milk” from almonds and coconuts.

Debates about nutrition, labeling, and cost have heated up also, and if you're like many of us, it is sometimes hard to figure it all out. These links might give you some insight, but many more opinions and news releases are available. As always, we recommend that you look to science and the most credible sources possible.

Raw Water, Raw Deal?

A new drinking water trend is sparking debate--some people are dropping bottled water for natural, untreated spring water known as "raw water." Proponents tout it as healthy and "spiritual." Opponents warn of health dangers and high costs. As this report points out, some drink the water to avoid chlorine and other chemicals. This overview quotes those who are "weary of tap water," but this editorial dismisses the trend as "wacko" and says the term "raw diarrhea" might be more appropriate.

Does Raw Milk Leave a Cool Mustache?

The latest skirmish on the raw milk scene came in New Jersey recently when the "raw milk moms" were ordered to stop using the product. Some states outlaw the sale of raw milk, and as you might imagine, opinions vary about safety, nutrition, and free choice. This site touts the benefits of the unprocessed product, and this site cites the dangers of drinking it.

Note: A forthcoming CAST issue paper will look objectively and factually at this issue: Scientific Evidence for the Risks and Benefits of Raw Milk.

Related blogs: This past entry looks at water issues and the pasture creeks that kids used for swimming, fishing, and dam building. This past entry considers the modern cow--with Fitbits and robotic stalls--and the hand-milked cows that knew how to kick and swing their mud-tinged tails.

by dan gogerty (top pic from rxflyfishing.jpg, cartoon from ifunny.mobi, and cat pic from pbs.twing.com)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Gene Editing--Ag, Medicine, and DIYers

Biotech innovations have been affecting agriculture and medicine for decades, and gene editing has become one of the most influential aspects. Many have heard about CRISPR gene editing, but most do not really know how the procedure works. Now that a "do-it-yourself" kit can be ordered online, maybe it's time more policymakers and members of the general public pay attention. The following links might help:

Gene Editing 2.0--Crispr, Crispier, Crispiest?

According to this article, flashier gene editing tools are being developed. "Researchers at the Salk Institute used one such system to treat several diseases in mice, including diabetes, acute kidney disease, and muscular dystrophy. It will take many more years of work for this generation of gene editors to find their way out of the lab into human patients, rows of vegetables, and disease-carrying pests. That is, if gene editing 3.0 doesn't make them all obsolete first."

Genetics and Agriculture

Biotech has been influencing agriculture in many ways, and this article looks at how gene editing will boost crop yields.

Gene Therapy and Medicine

With two cancer therapies approved and now a third one for vision, the FDA is allowing gene therapies for use in the treatment of diseases. More approvals are expected soon. And in another article, we see how the approach might lead to a treatment that helps stave off hearing loss in people with certain forms of inherited deafness.

Insights and Research

Two recipients of the Borlaug CAST Communication Award are at the forefront when it comes to researching and explaining biotech and ag/science applications. (1) Alison Van Eenennaam--UC-Davis--says her mission is to "provide research and education on the use of animal genomics and biotechnology in livestock production systems." Her blog site is here. (2) Kevin Folta--Univ. of Florida--is very active and outspoken about the proper applications of science methods to help feed the world. His blog site is here.

by dan gogerty (top pic from steemit.com and bottom from csv.com)