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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Useful Idiots

A term generally used in politics, a useful idiot is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as

(Originally) a citizen of a non-communist country sympathetic to communism who is regarded (by communists) as naive and susceptible to manipulation for propaganda or other purposes; (more widely) any person similarly manipulable for political purposes.

The latter part of the definition makes it a suitable term for the throngs of people commonly referred to as 'trolls' by many, also referred to as 'shills' and probably some other colorful terms I've missed. I think that the term troll is often accurate, though not everyone disagreeing with you is necessarily an internet troll

The word shill gets thrown around far too often and far too carelessly. It's a term I avoid using, personally. Making accusations without proof is never advisable, and it's also committing an ad hominem logical fallacy which is always guaranteed to make you look foolish. There are much better ways to get your point across in a debate. 

There is also a common misconception that there are hordes of people on social media paid by various industries simply to troll and argue with people. I think this widespread idea is a very human response by people who simply cannot fathom why someone would spend time defending companies with such horrific documented harm to people and the environment. That they must be compensated for it seems the likeliest explanation - but I've seen no evidence to back this claim. I do think that we have plenty of evidence for another explanation however...

The Useful Idiot.

March Against Myths About Modification, not funded by industry, yet very useful to them.

From the evidence that I have seen there is definitely a concerted effort on the part of industry to control the flow of information. Activists have done such a good job of getting their message out, that industry has needed to hire PR firms to help them influence public perception, particularly on social media. 

A perfect example of this being how the agriculture industry has hired infamous PR firm Ketchum (who run the website GMO Answers) to disseminate a positive message about their products, genetically engineered crops. Sites like this along with other astroturf groups and academics with industry ties and conflicts of interest are at the top of the pyramid, spoon feeding propaganda dressed up as 'science' and 'evidence' to our good friends, the celebrity Social Skeptics. They in turn happily disseminate this information to their followers. The way that these fake skeptics operate has been thoroughly detailed, so I won't get too into that here. The SSkeptics of course have innumerable blogs, websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts with which to share the information they are getting from 'experts' and recycling among themselves. This is social engineering at it's finest. 

Monsanto's Director of Millennial Engagement (PR guy), Vance Crowe shows the plan to 'outcompete fear of modern ag' by 'connecting tribes'.

Industry is aware of this, and isn't secretive about fully exploiting these social and political networks to their advantage as is illustrated in the above photo. This is one of the tactics used by the father of public relations, Edward L. Bernays. From his obituary in the New York Times, "He helped shape public relations by favoring the use of endorsements from opinion leaders, celebrities, doctors and other "experts" to strengthen the arguments his clients wanted to make. In addition, he favored surveys, releasing the results of experiments and polls to make a better case for his clients' positions and products."

L-R clockwise: a former chemist, not a scientist, a #ScienceMom, and a celebrity astrophysicist.  

It doesn't just stop there, though.The 'Bad Guys' or 'Evil People' as some have called them, are endlessly pointed out and pilloried. The formula is simple enough, find someone with notoriety who runs afoul of your message, and hold them up as an example of why the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Kevin points out the 'Evil People' It's all their fault!

And now that the message has been disseminated from the top, it continues to filter down to the general populace from Useful Idiots who have wholeheartedly bought into the propaganda.

Val Bayes, Monsanto's STEM Education Lead, 'A Science Enthusiast' sticker, and Vance Crowe's hand.

And boy, do they love it when that happens. The more oversimplified the 'meme' or message, the better.


Because, honestly, what's better than a gaggle of indoctrinated, mindless automatons who spout one-liners at the bad guys on social media for you? Ones who do it for FREE. 

This is clearly social engineering. A bit more complicated than the 'paid trolls' notion that many espouse, though with considerably more evidence behind it. This is not to say that there are not people paid by industry to deliver their message, or that people are always up front about money they may be receiving directly or indirectly from corporate entities. But the idea that Monsanto or any other Ag company is paying people to disagree with you and troll your posts on social media or that they get paid by the comment, or post or whatever, is basically unfounded. As I have just demonstrated (and there's lots more where this came from), they don't have to!


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Risk Monger's Deceitful Dozen

Another popular meme being distributed by Social Skeptics crossed my path yet again today, called the 'Risk-Monger's Dirty Dozen' and I thought it was time to address the claims being made therein. The Risk-Monger is David Zaruk. He's a prominent voice on social media, a former employee of Solvay, a global corporation with divisions in pharmaceuticals, chemicals and plastics and a part of the team that set up GreenFacts Foundation, initially funded by Solvay.

This is a stunning example of disinformation and propaganda, and I'd like to just dissect each numbered claim for a broader understanding of why that is so.

Let's begin!

1. Boron 

First of all, boron is an essential nutrient for plants and naturally occurs in soil. Like anything, it may be harmful in high doses or if misapplied, but organic farmers aren't just flinging this stuff around willy nilly. See here for an example of how it's used.

2. Acetic Acid

It's fucking vinegar. Do I really need to expound upon this one? Don't spray it in your eyes or on bees, for fucks sake.

3. Copper Sulfate

One of a few synthetic substances approved for use in organic farming, copper sulfate is definitely not being used indiscriminately due to copper's ability to build up in soil as well as being toxic in high amounts. No farmer is using this or any other input unless clearly needed, and there are steps that must be taken to minimize risk. Soil testing is required when using copper, for example. As far as being 'toxic to everything' - that is highly misleading, since while copper can be toxic in the wrong amount it is also an essential nutrient for plants, animals and humans. This is definitely not a first resort tool in crop production due to the important balance that must be kept. It is also permitted in conventional agriculture right along with all other organic approved substances, lest we forget.

4. Pyrethrins

Pyrethrins are a naturally occurring insecticidal compound found in chrysanthemum flowers. This is not to be confused with pyrethroids, a synthetic analog of pyrethrins. According to NPIC, "Pyrethrins are practically non-toxic to birds but highly toxic to honey bees. However, some of the risk to pollinators is limited by their slight repellent activity and rapid breakdown." Clearly, pyrethrins need to be used with care and applied correctly so that they do not harm bees. Neurotoxicity can be a concern with occupational exposure, safety instructions need to be followed precisely. Any residues on food would be minimal, and easily washed off. Pyrethrins do not spread readily through a plant in the way neonicotinioids were designed to do.

5. Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is another substance approved for organic farming. It is allowed to be used as a disinfectant and for plant disease control. H2O2 breaks down readily into water and oxygen. Direct contact is highly toxic to bees, however as long as care is taken not to spray during active foraging times, and prevent drift, once residues have dried they are considered non-toxic. Proper care needs to be taken when handling concentrate, but again, once dry the application is considered harmless to human health.

6. Lime Sulfur

Lime sulfur is a modified form of elemental sulfur. Elemental sulfur is considered to be non-toxic to birds, aquatic organisms and honeybees. Sulfur is an essential macronutrient in crop production, it is allowed for use as a soil amendment, and for diseases, mites and insects in both the elemental and lime sulfur forms. High applications can reduce soil ph and thereby negatively effect earthworms, however the claim that it is 'extremely toxic to earthworms' is without merit. Clearly it is in the best interest of the farmer to protect soil from shifts in ph thereby protecting soil biology, including earthworms. Elemental sulfur is relatively harmless to humans, while lime sulfur is extremely caustic and must be handled properly when used in agriculture. Again, no one is flinging this shit around.

7. Rotenone


Not fucking used.  Really.

Not even on fucking imported produce either.

8. Nicotine Sulphate

It's also fucking prohibited!

9. Azadirachtin

Another name for neem oil or neem oil soap, azadirachtin (misspelled on the meme as azidirachtin) is approved for use in organic farming. It is derived from Azadiracta indica, the neem tree. It has been used for hundreds of years for medicinal purposes, as a cosmetic and as a pesticide. Azadirachtin breaks down quickly, approximately 4-5 days. Thus it is not expected that it will accumulate, and is considered relatively safe to wildlife and adult beneficial insects. Like any insecticide, it should not be applied while bees are foraging. Some negative effects have been noted for larval stages of some insects, however I've found no evidence for the claim that it is 'responsible for mass bee deaths'. Positive effects have been found for earthworms exposed to neem. Overall, azadirachtin is considered to be an appropriate tool for pest management and is classified as relatively non toxic.

10. Methyl Bromide

Methyl bromide, a fumigant, is not approved for use in organic agriculture. It is allowed under very specific circumstances called 'critical use exemptions', one being strawberry starts. If organic growers cannot find organic strawberry starts they are allowed to purchase conventional, which have had methyl bromide soil treatment. Fortunately the United States largest organic strawberry producer, Driscoll's is making an effort to expand the availability of organic starts. In fact, the organic industry is leading the way in finding alternatives to methyl bromide which is indeed very damaging to the ozone layer. Other countries have managed to phase it out completely with no exemptions, hopefully the US will follow suit.


11. Wide range of homemade chemical concoctions

Not an organic farmer.
 Yet another thing, that's


12. Citronella oil, eucalyptus oil, garlic extract 

The Risk-Monger's claim here is simply 'bees'. So, I'm going to assume he means these are toxic to bees. I don't think it's fair to lump three separate substances together, two are horticultural oils and one is a food extract. But suffice it to say, many substances can have a harmful effect on bees. Garlic is an effective insecticide, so clearly you don't want to spray it or any pesticide at all, on beneficial insects. The non-profit Xerces Society has compiled information on minimizing risks to pollinators from organic approved pesticides. They classify garlic as non-toxic. Horticultural oils are classified as highly toxic, and are recommended to be used when bees are not active as they are only harmful on contact.

Any pesticides being used on organic farms are only after other control measures have failed. Pesticides are a last choice in an organic farming program. 'Preventive, cultural, mechanical, and physical methods must be first choice for pest control, and conditions for use of a biological material
must be documented in the organic system plan' according to the National Organic Program. Like I stated before, farmers are simply not flinging this shit around. Many organic farmers don't even use pesticides at all.

There are distinct benefits to organic farming, lower pesticide residues being one, and overall, organic is competitive with conventional farming practices, as well as surpassing in many areas.

No system of agriculture is perfect, and organic certainly has areas in which it can improve as does conventional.

However, the Risk-Monger's meme simply fear mongers instead of educate on this topic. The claims range from misleading to outright false. The bits of truth have been veneered over a pile of lies and bullshit to make this information appear legitimate, but in reality it is just another example of garbage propaganda from Social Skeptics.

The accompanying article to this meme is much the same, making claims that are not true, backing claims with cherry picked quotations:

From sources that actually refute most of the claims they are making.

My advice? Seek another source other than David Zaruk for credible information on agriculture.