Distrust of Science and Experts Measured Around World

money in bottleOn September 30, the Pew Research Center released survey results that represent a picture of how the publics of 20 different countries view science and the technologies it enables. The results are mixed and interesting to examine in some detail to understand how much and on what issues “science” – or what passes for it in the early twenty-first century – is trusted by the general public.

For background, the Pew Center is a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which in turn are the foundations set up by the generally conservative Pew family, scions of the Sun Oil Company, who date back to the late nineteenth century struggle for control of the Pennsylvania oil fields.

Normally, study reports spend some time discussing the details of how survey data was gathered. But with 20 countries, each with its own independent surveys, we›ll just note that at least 1,000 people were surveyed in the following countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Note that the surveys were done before the shutdowns associated with Covid-19.

The top-line question respondents were asked was how much trust people have in scientists doing “the right thing”. Respondents were given the following options: “a lot,” “some,” “not too much,” and “none at all.” India was the country where people had the most trust in scientists, with about 60 percent saying they had a lot. That was followed by a large collection of European countries, with the United States falling in the middle of the pack. Asian countries—specifically, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—had the lowest scores. “A lot” scored less than 25 percent. Only three countries saw the combined “not much”/”none” categories come in above 30 percent: Brazil, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

So, while positive views are a bit erratic, strong negative views of scientists are pretty rare. The only caveat is that many respondents feel it’s more important to rely on people with practical experience rather than expertise, with support for experts ranging from a low of 20 percent to a high of only 40 percent. What›s not clear, however, is whether people would consider scientists strictly experts or experts with real-world experience.

When it comes to climate change, the public generally stands with the conclusions of the scientific community. The view that the climate was a serious problem was most prevalent in Taiwan, where 80 percent felt so; seven countries saw over two-thirds of their populace say so. And, of the nine countries where Pew has a decade of data, every single one saw this sentiment rise.

People were less accepting of the Distrust conclusion that humans are driving climate change, however. Six countries saw less than half of the public agreeing with that conclusion (including the United States, at 49 percent). Spain and Taiwan saw the highest levels of acceptance, at just over three-quarters of the public.

The Pew also asked about whether people saw signs of climate change at their location and whether they felt their government was doing enough about the climate. But those answers involve a complicated mix of personal beliefs, local weather trends, and national policy decisions. Drawing any conclusions from them will be difficult.

Just about all the respondents felt that protecting the environment should be a major priority, with a median of 70 percent feeling it should be prioritized over creating jobs. This ranged from a high in the UK and the Czech Republic (77 percent) down to a low of 56 percent in Russia. The support for renewable energy was even higher, clearing 90 percent in six European countries; all but two countries (India and Malaysia) saw the support clear 70 percent. Wind and hydro saw similar levels of public enthusiasm.

Only three countries saw over half the public support more coal use: India, Malaysia, and Russia. Those were also the only nations where support for oil development cleared 50 percent, although overall there was more enthusiasm for oil than coal. By contrast, only two countries (Sweden and the Netherlands) didn’t support the use of more natural gas.

Support for nuclear energy was similar to that for coal, with a median of 37 percent of the public favoring its expanded use. Sweden and the Czech Republic were the only countries where support cleared 50 percent.

GMOs and additives and food safetyOne of the inevitable outcomes of scientific activity is new technology, and the Pew asked about a number of those, including the expanded use of AI and automation. Most of the Asian countries saw high levels (> 60 percent) of support for this, with the exception of Malaysia and Australia. India was mixed, on the other hand, supporting AI but not automation. Support in Europe and North America was mixed, with most countries seeing it reach somewhere between 35 and 55 percent, with the notable exception of very high support for automation in Sweden.

On the public health front, trust in the health benefits of vaccines was at over 60 percent in only a dozen countries. The lower trust largely occurred outside of Europe, with the exception of France (52 percent) and Russia. Russia was the only country where under half of the public trusted in the health benefits of vaccines, and that was before the somewhat bizarre messaging about the COVID-19 vaccine occurred.

But the biggest gap came when food technology was considered. Almost nobody considered genetically modified foods safe, with a median percentage of only 13 and the absolute peak of support coming in Australia at 31 percent. By contrast, there were eight countries in which more than half the public said GMOs were unsafe. But it›s not just GMOs; the numbers were remarkably similar when the use of pesticides or artificial preservatives were asked about, although there was some country-to-country variation (Germans, for example, are far more trusting of preservatives than GMOs).

The Pew uncovered a gender difference in feelings toward developing AI, automation, and other technology, with men typically supporting those technologies more than women. But the gap was fairly small, generally in the area of 10 to 15 points for AI. Only a slightly larger gap exists for automation and food technology. Education also made a difference that was similar in magnitude, with more education correlating with increased support for these technologies, as well as vaccination. There weren’t any obvious geographical patterns regarding the size of the gap.

To see more substantial gaps, we can turn to the Pew’s analysis of the political polarization of mistrust in scientists. Here, people on the liberal side of the spectrum were generally more trusting. A number of countries—Brazil, France, Poland, South Korea, and the Czech Republic—saw little political difference in whether they’d trust scientists to do the right thing. But the Netherlands saw a 10 point difference between liberals and conservatives, with liberals being more trusting.

Other European countries saw somewhat larger differences, and the gap was more pronounced when support for far-right populist parties was analyzed. But the English-speaking world is what really stood out. In the UK, the difference between liberals and conservatives was 27 points; Australia was 29 points; Canada was 39; and the US saw the largest difference, with a gap of 42 points between liberals and conservatives. In the States, only 20 percent of conservatives felt that scientists would do the right thing, and only 30 percent felt that scientists made judgements based on facts.

In something that will surprise nobody, these results largely match up with what’s going on with climate change. The largest gaps between conservatives and liberals on the seriousness of climate change were mostly in English-speaking countries, with the addition of Sweden, which sneaked in ahead of the UK. The United States again saw far and away the largest difference; in this case, 64 points separated liberals and conservatives.

One of the biggest things missing from the data is a sense of what’s going on in Africa. We know that Africa has embraced some technologies (notably cell phones), and the rest of the world has to hope it will also embrace renewable energy. But a clearer picture of how they feel about current and future technologies would seem to be valuable knowledge.

Why “Who Owns Science?”

Evolution i s a mythThe focus of this issue — ‘Who Owns Science?’ — may puzzle some readers. “How can anyone own science?” you might ask. “It is a process of establishing truth and a way of looking at the world.”

Yes, it is those things for sure, but it is also a very valuable brand for those who can control it. Science has largely replaced religion as a source of reliable knowledge for most people, and if you can represent your idea, your product, your investment scheme as based in science, you have an automatic advantage over your competitors. To the extent that you can discredit those competitors as ‘unscientific’ then you can dismiss their ideas and products without even directly addressing them.

Readers of this journal are familiar with watching that happen regarding the process of genetic engineering. Monsanto and its corporate agents not only said their glyphosate-resistance technology epitomized science and progress, they went further and actively discredited legitimate scientists who questioned their assertions and wondered about some of the health impacts and other potential negatives concerning GMOs.

But the same process of trying to monopolize science and deny doubters any credibility is rife within other industries, not just agricultural biotech. Lobbyists for the pharmaceuticals have the same tendency to dismiss critics, especially when it comes to anyone questioning the efficacy or safety of vaccines. Certainly the science behind their candidate’s support for various methods of controlling the COVID outbreak was fundamental to the two presidential campaigns just ended.

In this issue we explore efforts to claim “ownership” of science in this way, and show how such claims (and efforts to censor alternative points of view) can have destructive effects on legitimate efforts to establish truth. We also include an example of a campaign based in open-source science, showing how that can be done. It is our hope to leave readers with a reluctance to accept any claim that a view represents “settled science”, understanding that science itself is forever growing and incorporating more knowledge.

George Orwell on Censorship

George Orwell

from “Publication of Animal Farm: The Freedom of the Press, London, 1945

“In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.”

This book [Animal Farm] was first thought of, so far as the central idea goes, in 1937, but was not written down until about the end of 1943. By the time when it came to be written it was obvious that there would be great difficulty in getting it published (in spite of the present book shortage which ensures anything describable as a book will ‘sell’), and in the event it was refused by four publishers. Only one of those had any ideological motive. Two had been publishing anti-Russian books for years, and the other had no noticeable political colour. One publisher actually started by accepting the book, but after making the preliminary arrangements he decided to consult the Ministry of Information, who appear to have warned him, or at any rate strongly advised him, against publishing it. Here is an extract from his letter:

“I mentioned the reaction I had from an important official in the Ministry of Information with regard to Animal Farm. I must confess that this expression of opinion has given me seriously to think…I can see now that it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can appy only to Russia to the exclusion of the other dictatorships. Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.

This kind of thing is not a good symptom. Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship (except security censorship, which no one objects to in war time) over books which are not officially sponsored. But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.

Any fair-minded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government had behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban . Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines –being kept right out of the British press not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every reason to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and pamphlets, as well as in plays, films, and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of the Soviet regime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to ‘unprintable’. And this nation-wide conspiracy to flatter our ally take place, curiously enough, against a background of genuinely intellectual tolerance. For though you are not allowed to criticize the Soviet government, at least you are reasonably free to criticize our own. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill, at any rate in books and periodicals. And throughout 5 years of war, during 2 or 3 of which we were fighting for national survival, countless books, pamphlets, and articles advocating a compromise peace have been published without interference. More, they have been published without extracting much disapproval. So long as the prestige of the U.S.S.R. is not involved, the principle of free speech has reasonably well been maintained. There are other forbidden topics, and I shall mention some of them presently, but the prevailing attitude towards the U.S.S.R. is much the most serious symptom. It is, as it were, spontaneous and it not due to the action of any pressure group.

Spinning the Science

eralini and one of hi experimental rats

Professor Giles-Eric Séralini, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen, Normandy, conducted a 2019 study on rats fed GE corn and Roundup. Many of the rats developed tumors, as seen here.

excerpted by Jack Kittredge from her book:
Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science

For every scientist who raise a concern about a product, there seems to be a corporation to contradict him (or her). We’ve seen this happen again and again. Tobacco industry executives famously hid research done by their own scientists that showed the hazards of cigarettes, and they misled lawmakers and regulators about the addictive properties of nicotine. Many other corporate powers, including those in the agrochemical industry, have long histories of defending themselves against claims that they covered up the dangers of injury from asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), Agent Orange or other chemicals.

DuPont has spent the past several years in an ongoing battle against more than 3,000 lawsuits alleging the company knew that a chemicals called perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly known as PFOA, could cause disease but hid this knowledge for decades even as its PFOA contaminated West Virginia water supplies. And Dow AgroSciences spent years fighting to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection agency (EPA) from banning an insecticide tied to brain damage in children.

Like any corporation, Monsanto does not shy away from zealously using its money, power, and political sway to promote its products and defend them against criticism. That is to be expected. But with Monsanto and its allies in the agrochemical industry, the propaganda playbook has many different chapters — and some are intentionally hard to read.

A common tactic is to funnel industry messaging through individuals who appear to be independent of industry and who carry a gloss of expertise and acclaim that gives them credibility with consumers, lawmakers, and regulators. These “experts” appear unaffiliated with industry and thus unbiased. What the public doesn’t know is that behind the scenes, corporations are often funding and collaborating closely with these very same professors and other professionals who tout propaganda that serves industry interests. It’s all part of a strategy of spin that had been used by the tobacco industry, the soft drink industry, pharmaceuticals, and, or course, agriculture.

Consumers have resisted eating GMOs in Europe and America in large numbers.

These closeted collaborations make it difficult for consumers to know whom to trust and what to believe. And the rule appears to be “The less transparent, the better.” Several examples have come to light only because of records obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and investigations by journalists and consumer and environmental groups. What the records clearly show is a roster of U.S. academics – people employed by taxpayer-funded institutions – quietly working with Monsanto, other agrochemical companies, and public relations experts to tout the benefits of company products, to counter anything that points to problems with glyphosate or glyphosate-tolerant crops, and to cripple unfavorable legislation or regulation. The ties to the industry are typically not disclosed as these people sell the story the corporations want told.

One example of the hidden corporate hand at work datres back to 2013, when Monsanto wanted to procure “policy briefs” supportive of the company’s interests that appeared to be unaffiliated with the company. The plan was laid out by Monsanto’s chief of global scientific affairs, Eric Sachs, in an e-mail to nine prominent academics, including a professor at the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School, Sachs told the professors he hoped each would help with an initiative to promote the “safety and benefits” of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and he assigned each a topic and background materials. Harvard professor Calestous Jurna was asked to write an article laying out the “consequences of rejecting GM crops.” Each brief “should be about 4–6 pages in length and include key themes and messages related to the specific topic, recommendations, and a call to action“ aimed at a broad audience that included policy makers and regulators, Sachs told the professors.

“The key to success is participation by all of you – recognized experts and leaders with the knowledge, reputation and communication experience needed to communicate authoritatively to the target groups. You represent an elite group whose credibility will be strengthened by working together…You are the best possible messengers,” Sachs wrote.

Sachs told the group that an organization called the American Council on Science and Health would run the project in partnership with a public relations consulting group. The plan was for the two organizations to coordinate the publishing and promotion of the articles, setting up speaking engagements, webinars, and other events. Sachs said he was aware that the professors’ reputations “must be protected” and that “Monsanto wants the authors to communicate freely without ivolvement by Monsanto.” By December 2014, the articles Monsanto had asked for were circulating, though without any mention that they came at Monsanto’s behest. Juma’s article hewed closely to Monsanto’s suggestions. The connections came to light only when the e-mail communications were obtained bhrough FOIA requests from the consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know and reported by several news outlets. For his part, Junta told the Boston Globe that he may have used “bad judgment” but didn’t intend to hide Monsanto’s ties. He received no money for the work and was true to his own views, he said.

Another prime example of hidden alliances has come to be known as the “Séralini affair.” Giles-Eric Séralini was a professor of molecular biology as the University of Caen Normandy when he published a study in September 2012 in a scientific journal called Food and Chemical toxicology (FCT) about the effects of Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready corn on 200 rats. Publication in a journal such as FCT requires a lengthy process in which experts unrelated to the study review it and can ask questions and seek revisions before it is published This peer review process is meant to curb publication of flawed research.

Séralini had spent two years and more than $3 million working with seven other scientists to study how the genetically modified corn and the herbicide impacted the animals’ health. At the time, Séralini was the president of a scientific advisory board that worked with a group opposed to GMOs. He believed there were potential problems with GMOs and Roundup that had not yet been uncovered by the scientific research that was largely funded by the chemical industry. Séralini and his team had seen troubling results in previous studies, including evidence that Roundup herbicides cotaining POEA along with glyphosate were much more harmful than glyphosate alone, causing cell damage at levels expected to be found in food.

Groups of rats were evaluated by the Séralini team in the 2012 study. The rats were divided into males and females. Some were fed genetically engineered corn; others consumed corn sprayed in the field with Roundup; and others were given Roundup in drinking water in differing doses, with the lowest corresponding to levels found in some tap water. The intermediate dose was set at the maximum level permitted in the United State in animal feed, and the highest dose was correlated to half the strength of Roundup as used in agriculture. Control group rates were fed a diet containing non-genetically engineered corn and plain drinking water.

Monsanto tomatoThe Séralini study results were alarming. Treated rats had much higher death rates than the control group animals, and the exposed rats demonstrated an “unexpected increase in tumor incidence,” especially mammary tumors in female rats, along with damage to the animals’ livers and kidneys. The scientists said both the GMO corn and the Roundup contributed to the health problems that developed in the experimental animals, and they said they found “unexpected low dose toxicity from Roundup” at levels 10,000 times lower than those permitted in drinking water in the United States. The study results “clearly indicate that lower levels of complete agricultural G (glyphosate) herbicide formulations, at concentrations well below official set safety limits, can induce severe hormone-dependent mammary, hepatic, and kidney disturbances,” the study authors concluded. Séralini said his research gave credence to fears that Roundup contains ingredients more toxic than glyphosate and that Roundup formulations should be considered endocrine disruptors. News outlets around the world published stories about the study findings and regulators in many countries were understandable rattled. France’s prime minister at the time, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said that the country would consider a ban on GMO corn sprayed with glyphosate, and the European Commission said it would seek a review by the European Food Safety Authority. Russia temporarily suspended importing glyphosate-tolerant corn, and Kenya actually moved to ban all GMO crops, most of which were sprayed directly with glyphosate.

The announcement of the study results came at a particularly bad time for Monsanto, just two months before California residents were slated to vote on whether or not to require labeling of foods made with GMOs, an issue Monsanto adamantly opposed. Glyphosate residue on foods was one of the concerns that drove the labeling efforts not just in California but in several other states as well, so any bad news about glyphosate’s impacts on health was a big problem. Just as they had done with other negative research report and not unlike the attack they would later launch against the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Monsanto and associated industry players railed against the Séralini study, telling journalists it was fatally flawed in many ways. The European Federation of Biotechnology industry association, which counts Monsanto and other agribusiness firms among its members, called for the paper to be retracted, saying it reflected a “dangerous failure of the peer-review system.” Other organizations and ultimately regulatory bodies weighed in, mimicking Monsanto’s claims that the research was flawed and not to be believed. California voters narrowly rejected the mandatory GMO labeling bill as the attacks on Sérlini continued for well over a year and scientists around the world debated the perceived merits and shortcomings of the Séralini work.

About 130 scientists, scholars, and activists took Séralini’s side, weighing in with support in an open letter published in Independent Science News. The group noted the industry pressure on scientists whose findings were unfavorable and said the backlash against Séralini’s study raised “the profile of fundamental challenges faced by science in a world “increasingly dominated by corporate influence.”

And then Richard Goodman stepped in. Goodman, a trim, bookish-looking man who favored a neatly kept moustache and held a doctorate in dairy science, worked for Monsanto from 1997 to 2004. But by the fall of 2012, when the Séralini study was published, Goodman was working at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Records would reveal that despite his work at the public university, Goodman was still tightly entwined with Monsanto, relying on funding from the company and other agrochemical interests to run a food allergy research program at the University of Nebraska. In that role, he was happily touting the safety of agricultural biotechnology, training scientists from other countries in how to evaluate the safety of GMO crops that are sprayed with glyphosate, and issuing reports about how GMO crops, engineered to be sprayed with glyphosate or to repel pests, were not likely to trigger allergic reactions in people. And though Goodman’s job description listed him as a faculty member of the university’s Department of Food Science and Technology, it was the funding from Monsanto and other agrochemical and seed companies, such as Bayer, DuPont, and Syngenta, that kept Goodman afloat. A look at the sponsorship agreement for the allergen database for 2013 showed that each of six sponsoring companies was to pay roughly $51,000 for a total budget of $308,154 for that year. Goodman was also collaborating with Monsanto on efforts to turn back mandatory GMO labeling efforts and mitigate GMO safety concerns and was offered “media training” by the agrobusinesses. Records would reveal that roughly half of Goodman’s income came through industry funding.

When the Séralini study broke, Goodman was quickly in contact with Monsanto officials and eager to help in the response. Documents, again obtained by U.S. Right to Know, show that on the day Séralini’s study was published – September 19, 2012 – Goodman was e-mailing Monsanto toxicologist Bruce Hammond shortly before 10 a.m., asking for “talking points, or bullet analysis” that Goodman could use in discussing the study.

By November, Goodman was doing much more: he was acting as associate editor of the FCT scientific journal — the very one that had just published the Séralini study and from which Monsanto was seeking a retraction. Goodman was placed in a role overseeing GMO-related research reports. It’s not clear if Monsanto had a hand in getting Goodman appointed, but e-mails do show a direct connection between Monsanto’s Hammond, Goodman, and FCT’s editor-in-chief, A. Wallace Hayes. Shorty after Goodman was named associate editor, Hayes told Hammond that he and Goodman were aware of the criticism of the Séralini paper and wanted Hammond and other critics to act as reviewers for the journal. Around the same time Goodman was signing on to FCT, he was also worrying about whether the industry money would keep flowing. In e-mails, he expressed cncern about protecting his income stream as a “soft-money professor.”

In late 2013, after Goodman had been on the journal’s editorial team for roughly a year, FCT abruptly retracted the Séralini study, saying it had decided the data were inconclusive and the conclusions unreliable. Critics were quick to link the retraction to Goodman, but he denied any involvement. Séralini saw a clear connection, however. In a statement defending his work, he declared the retraction the result of “pressure from the GMO and agrochemical industry to force acceptance of GMOs and Roundup.” Goodman’s appointment to the editorial team was a “most flagrant illustration” of agrobusiness’s influence and underscored how industry’s tight hold on what was considred acceptable science “puts public health at risk,” he said.

“This episode illustrated the vulnerable position of dependent ‘science’ and the economic and political forces that move to defend Roundup and Roundup-contaminated crops, “ Séralini said. The Séralini study was republished in another journal, Environmental Sciences Europe in June, 2014. Still, the heavy industry criticism left Séralini’s credibility deeply scarred.

The Center for Food Safety found out just how powerful the [industry’s] social media strategy could be when the organization scheduled a presentation in Honolulu, Hawaii, by author, activist, and Monsanto critic Vani Hari, who markets herself as Food Babe. Event organizers slated the presentation for September 2016 and offered free tickets to the public but asked that people who wanted to attend RSVP so they could be guaranteed a seat. In an effort to sabotage the event, a pro-Monsanto group that refers to itself as March Against Myths About Modification put out a social media call for help. The group asked Facebook followers to make large numbers of fake reservations so the event would appear sold out but would actually leave Hari speaking to a nearly empty hall. Leaders encouraged people to use fame names and created “disposable” e-mail addresses, even providing instructions on how to do so, to reserve the seats. More than 1,500 tickets were reserved this way under names like Harriett Tubman, Fraud Babe, and Susi Creamcheese. Facebook postings showed scores of people from around the world making fake reservations and joking about the deceit. Organizers uncovered the scheme the day before the event and were able to cancel many of the fake reservations, opening up seats for valid reservations.

Hari said the events were jarring. “I choose to put my focus and energy on the wiling – the people who want to hear about what’s really in their food and how they can make healthy change to their lifestyle. On the other hand, there are some serious detractors that do not want the truth about our food to be heard. They are working as agents for the biotech and chemical industry to prevent information about the risks of using chemicals like glyphosate that are coupled with GMOs to come to light.”

The March Against Myths group is just one of various organizations created, funded, or otherwise backed by agribusiness to tout its messages. In some cases, the links to industry are clear, while in other cases they are harder to see. These front groups act essentially as echo-chambers, citing each other as sources that reinforce industry positions with the veneer of expertise and impartiality. Their names often sound impressive and authoritative. Take, for instance, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), the group Monsanto positioned to help it promote the policy briefs by Folta, Juma, and the other academics. The ACSH was founded in 1978 and bills itself as a national non-profit education organization that supports “evidence-based science and medicine.” It does not publically disclose the range of corporate funding it relies on but records obtained by journalists in 2013 reveal a money trail that leads to a number of chemical companies as well as prominent food and tobacco companies. The group has been a vocal supporter of glyphosate, calling questions about its safety “ridiculous fear-mongering.” The ACSH, not coincidentally, uses its website to promote the March Against Myths group, which tried to sabotage Hari’s speech, and to attack people who raise questions about glyphosate’s safety. The group wrote and featured a piece on its website accusing a New York Times reporter of “lying” when he authored an article about glyphosate concerns.

Folta and other industry supporters similarly interfered with a speech planned for early 2016 in Houston by Thierry Vrain, a Canadian molecular biologist who has raised concerns about glyphosate and GMOs. Vrain was to deliver a lecture at the Houston Museum of Natural Science titled “The Poison in Our Food Supply.” A few days beforehand, a storm of e-mails, phone calls, and social media messages, along with a blog piece written by Folta, assailed the museum for hosting the event, claiming Vrain lacked credibility. Many accused Vrain of practicing “junk science” and threatened to cancel their museum membership if it didn’t ax the lecture. The museum president succumbed to the pressure and canceled the event. Organizers were able to find an alternative venue nearby and the evening lecture was held anyway, but the power of the industry cheerleaders was clear.

Whitewash was published in 2017 by Island Press

Documents Exposing Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists

DeWayne Johnson, a 46-year-old father dying of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was the first person to face Monsanto in trial in June, 2018, over allegations the company hid evidence about the cancer-causing dangers of its Roundup weedkiller. Juries have since returned with several unanimous verdicts finding that glyphosate-based Roundup herbicides were a substantial cause of cancer, and leveling large punitive damages against Bayer (which now owns Monsanto).  Thousands more people are suing in state and federal courts, and corporate documents coming out of the trials are shining light on the heavy-handed tactics Monsanto used to deny cancer risk and protect the chemical that was the lynchpin of its profits.

“Monsanto was its own ghostwriter for some safety reviews,” Bloomberg reported, and an EPA official reportedly helped Monsanto “kill” another agency’s cancer study (that study, now out, did confirm a cancer link to glyphosate). An award-winning investigation in Le Monde details how Monsanto has tried “to destroy the United Nations cancer agency by any means possible” to save glyphosate. Journal articles based on reviews of the Roundup trial discovery documents report on corporate interference in a scientific publication and a federal regulatory agency, and other examples of “poisoning the scientific well.”

“Monsanto’s ghostwriting and strong-arming threaten sound science and society,” wrote Tufts University Professor Sheldon Krimsky in June 2018. The discovery documents, he said, “uncover the corporate capture of science, which puts public health and the very foundation of democracy at risk.”

Since then, with the trials underway, more documents have come to light about the extent of Monsanto’s manipulations of the scientific process, regulatory agencies, and public debate. In May 2019, journalists in France obtained a secret “Monsanto File” created by the public relations firm FleishmanHillard listing a “multitude of information” about 200 journalists, politicians, scientists and others deemed likely to influence the debate on glyphosate in France. Prosecutors in France have opened a criminal probe and Bayer said it is investigating its PR firm.

This corporate war on science has major implications for all of us, considering that half of all men in the U.S. and a third of women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The documents the food industry doesn’t want you to see

For years, the food and chemical industries have set their sights on one particular target in the science world: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the independent research group that for 50 years has worked to identify cancer hazards to inform policies that can prevent cancer.

GMO apple for snow white“I’ve been fighting IARC forever!!!” one former Kraft Foods scientist wrote to a former Syngenta scientist in an email obtained through a state open records request. “Foods and ag are under siege since Glyphosate in March 2015. We all need to gather somehow and expose IARC, as you guys did in the paper. Next priorities are all food ingredients: aspartame, sucralose, dietary iron, B-carotene, BPA, etc. IARC is killing us!”

The IARC expert panel decision to classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” created a rallying point for the panel’s foes to gather forces. A key Monsanto document released via litigation reveals the plan of attack: discredit the cancer scientists with the help of allies across the food industry.
Monsanto’s public relations plan assigned 20 corporate staffers to prepare for the IARC carcinogenicity report on glyphosate, with objectives including “neutralize impact,” “establish public perspective on IARC,” “regulator outreach,” “ensure MON POV” and “engage industry associations” in “outrage.”

The document identified four tiers of “industry partners” to help advance the three objectives named in the PR plan: protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies” to keep allowing the use of glyphosate.

Uncovering Monsanto’s network of “industry partners”

The industry partner groups Monsanto tapped to discredit the IARC scientists included the largest pesticide and food industry lobby organizations; industry-funded spin groups that portray themselves as independent sources such as GMO Answers and the International Food Information Council; and “science-y” sounding front groups like Sense about Science, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review – all using similar messaging and often referring back to each other as sources.

Documents obtained by the U.S. Right to Know investigation illuminate on how these partner groups work together to promote the “MON POV” about the safety and necessity of pesticides and GMOs.

World doesn't want your GMOsOne set of documents revealed how Monsanto’s PR operatives organized “Academics Review” as a neutral-sounding platform from which they could launch attacks against a target list of foes, including the Sierra Club, author Michael Pollan, the movie Food, Inc. and the organic industry.

The architects of Academics Review – co-founders Bruce Chassy and David Tribe, Monsanto executive Eric Sachs, former Monsanto communications director Jay Byrne, and former VP of the biotech industry trade group Val Giddings – talked openly in the emails about setting up Academics Review as a front group to promote industry interests and attract industry cash, while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden.

Even now with their playbook exposed – and their primary funding identified as coming from a trade group funded by Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and DowDuPont – Academics Review still claims on its website to accept donations only from “non-corporate sources.” Academics Review also claims that the “IARC glyphosate cancer review fails on multiple fronts,” in a post sourced by the industry-funded PR website GMO Answers, the industry-funded front group American Council on Science and Health, and a Forbes article by Henry Miller that was ghostwritten by Monsanto.

Miller and the Academics Review organizers Chassy, Tribe, Byrne, Sachs and Giddings are members of AgBioChatter, a private email forum that appeared in Monsanto’s PR plan as a tier 2 industry partner. Emails from the AgBioChatter list suggest it was used to coordinate industry allies on lobbying and promotional activities to defend GMOs and pesticides. Members included senior agrichemical industry staff, PR consultants and pro-industry academics, many of whom write for industry media platforms such as GMO Answers and Genetic Literacy Project, or play leadership roles in other Monsanto partner groups.

Genetic Literacy Project, led by longtime chemical industry PR operative Jon Entine, also partnered with Academics Review to run a series of conferences funded by the agrichemical industry to train journalists and scientists how to better promote GMOs and pesticides and argue for their deregulation. The organizers were dishonest about the sources of their funding.

These groups cast themselves as honest arbiters of science even as they spread false information and level near hysterical attacks against scientists who raised concerns about the cancer risk of glyphosate.

A key example can be found on the Genetic Literacy Project website, which was listed as a “tier 2 industry partner” in Monsanto’s PR plan to protect Roundup against cancer concerns raised by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. A search for “IARC” on the Genetic Literacy Project website brings up more than 200 articles, many of them attacking the scientists who raised cancer concerns as “anti-chemical enviros” who “lied” and “conspired to misrepresent” the health risks of glyphosate, and arguing that the global cancer agency should be defunded and abolished.

Many of the anti-IARC articles posted on Genetic Literacy Project, or pushed by other industry surrogates, ignore the many news reports based on the Monsanto Papers documenting corporate interference in the scientific research, and instead promote the claims of chemical industry PR operatives or the false narratives of a journalist with cozy ties to Monsanto. The political battle against reached all the way to Capitol Hill, with Congressional Republicans led by Rep. Lamar Smith calling for investigations and trying to withhold U.S. funding from the world’s leading cancer research agency.
Who is on the side of science?

Monsanto’s lobbying and messaging to discredit the IARC cancer panel is based on the argument that other agencies using risk-based assessments have exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk. But as investigative reports and journal articles based on the Monsanto Papers have detailed, evidence is piling up that the regulatory risk assessments on glyphosate, which rely heavily on industry-provided research, have been compromised by undisclosed conflicts of interest, reliance on dubious science, ghostwritten materials and other methods of corporate strong-arming that puts public health at risk, according to Tufts Professor Sheldon Krimsky.

“To protect the scientific enterprise, one of the core pillars of a modern democratic society, against the forces that would turn it into the handmaiden of industry or politics, our society must support firewalls between academic science and the corporate sectors and educate young scientists and journal editors on the moral principles behind their respective professional roles,” Krimsky wrote.

Policy makers must not allow corporate-spun science to guide decisions about cancer prevention. Media must do a better job reporting and probing into conflicts of interest behind the corporate science spin. It’s time to end the corporate war on cancer science.

Stacy Malkan is co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know and author of the book “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

Nutrient Density

This is a topic about which I have been speaking, and in these pages writing, first 10 years ago.

As a child in elementary school I remember telling my science teacher that I was an Organic Farmer. The distain with which she responded in front of my peers by saying “organic means contains carbon, so all farmers are organic farmers” sticks with me to this day. It was not actually that long ago that a group of back to the land homesteaders took a word that meant something in science and redefined it to create a cultural touch point which now has a significant meaning globally.

In much the same way, nutrient density has for quite some time meant something in the lexicon of food scientists. Specifically the nutrient density index of a crop is determined by its average level of nutrients per unit calorie. For example kale has on average a relatively high level of nutrients but a low level of calories. By this metric then kale has a high nutrient density score. Rice for instance has many more calories in it per unit nutrient and so would have a low nutrient density score. Soda, would be a “food” with very many calories and almost no nutrients and so has a very low score according to this definition of nutrient density.

This is an entirely different meaning than has begun to be understood by the broader food movement, focused upon food quality, which is well along the process of appropriating the term. What we mean when we talk about Nutrient Density is how nutritious one bunch of kale is in relation to another. Or one bag of rice to another. In the food scientists’ definition there is an implicit assumption that all kale is relatively nutritionally uniform, as is rice. This assumption is foundationally flawed and much of my work over the past 10 years has been to shed light on this topic.

This graphic shows how crops identified with a particular farming method compare, across all nutrients measured, to the same crops drawn from the samples the RFC received without identification as to the way the crop was raised. Thus the Biodynamic crops in the first box have 15% fewer antioxidants and 6% fewer polyphenols than the unidentified crops, as well as 18% less chlorine and 6% less iron. On the other 8 nutrients they exceed the levels in the unidentified ones.
The intensity of the color in each bar represents the confidence RFC has is the reported value — 25%, 50% or 75% certainty.

As the theme for this issue is Who Owns Science?, and what are the mistakes in thinking that are caused in the broader population by incomplete definitions of reality propagated by that community, I hope to share an inspiring story here about how we can use the process of science to more deeply understand and engage with the world around us.

As a farmer, my experience has been that some crops have greater sheen, vigor, vibrancy, pest and disease resistance, flavor and shelf life than others — carrots to carrots or squash to squash. Also, it seems that crops with these attributes cause the soil they grow in to increase in its health. My understanding is that there are some profound nutrient variations in these crops that are directly connected to these other physiological attributes, and that that is really what I should be striving to accomplish rather than a label like Organic or Regenerative or local or Non-GMO etc. None of those correlate to the inherent nutritional quality of the crop and are effectively process standards, not quality standards. They are black and white binaries. A crop is either organic or not, local or not. There is no subtlety or nuance in them. That would be like saying someone is healthy or not. Or strong or not. We all know that our health or strength exists on a continuum and is not actually able to be understood with such a simplistic summary.

Perhaps this binary way of thinking is part of the colonized mindset that is foundational to many of the existential crises that we appear to be facing at the moment, but again, this is a digression that can wait to be elaborated upon.

For a decade, the Bionutrient Food Association, which I helped to found and serve as Executive Director of has been working to expand upon our deeper understanding of this new definition of Nutrient Density, and for the past 4 years has been actively engaged in using the scientific process to do so.

Before commencing we tried to work out a process to use the scientific method to describe a profoundly multifaceted concept — nutrition. Also, we thought, this could become a new standard to potentially displace the foundationally binary nature of most of our current assessments of food.

To that end we devised a strategy to move this agenda forward:

  • Identify the nutritional variation that exists in crops so that an empirical definition of the Nutritional Density of any individual crop could be accomplished. Specifically then we would be able to say that this carrot would be at the 20th quality percentile for instance while we could say that that carrot is at the 80th quality percentile.
  • Identify the environmental conditions and causal factors that relate to those varied nutrient density readings so that we may provide guidance to growers hoping to increase that quality in their crops.
  • Build and calibrate a hand-held nutrient density meter that anyone from grower to consumer could use to get a real time assessment of whatever food they wanted so that there would be no need or role for a bureaucratic certification system that took direct perception away from anyone who wanted to have it.

As a relatively small educational non-profit organization we understood that the capacity to accomplish all of these objectives within our skill sets did not exist, and so the final piece of this strategy was to engage as many aligned partners as possible in this endeavor — our thinking being that we could not claim to have answers without engaging those with the critical subject matter expertise, and that to succeed it would require those perspectives to build the reputation and trust behind our process regardless. We call this partnership the Real Food Campaign.

Foundational in this process were a couple of key allies, Greg Austic now of Our-Sci, and Dorn Cox, now of openTEAM.

To this end we began in 2017 with the creation of our first generation “Bionutrient Meter” and presented it at the Soil and Nutrition conference that fall to great fanfare.

In 2018 we established our first lab to begin identifying the nutritional variation in food, and chose two crops to begin with: Carrots and Spinach. We reached out to our community for volunteers and asked for samples of these two crops to be shipped in to the lab. We received samples from gardens, farms, farm stands, grocery stores and farmers markets. We got local and organic and not organic, and the geographic range ran from Maine to Iowa. We looked at 16 different elements in the crops like calcium and potassium and copper and zinc, as well as polyphenols and antioxidants, two well defined plant secondary metabolites associated with flavor and nutritional value. The results we found in this first year of assessment were nothing short of astounding.

The ratio of variations for mineral levels, depending on the crop, were from 3:1 to 18:1. As in, this carrot has as much copper as those three carrots, and that leaf of spinach has as much iron as those 18 leaves of spinach. When it came to those higher order nutritional compounds’ antioxidants and polyphenols it was 75:1 to 200:1. As in this leaf of spinach has as many antioxidants as those 75 leaves of spinach and that carrot has as many polyphenols as those 200 carrots.

This variation was found across the board and not correlating to local or organic or any other labeling or marketing type. As in, some non-organic carrots in a grocery store had much more nutrition in them than some organic carrots from the local farmers market. This is a preliminary validation of our hypothesis that nutritional variation in food cannot be correlated with specific isms like organic or local.

In 2019 we deepened the work by adding lettuce and cherry tomatoes and kale and grapes to our lab assessment process along with soil from 35 farms across the country where those crops were grown, plus management and environmental conditions data like cover cropping, crop variety, soil minerals, tillage practice, soil carbon, fertility amendments and fertilizers, irrigation type, soil biological activity, mulching etc. With the processing of the 2019 data we now have the ability to begin to overlay all of these different dynamics in relation to each other. After reviewing this information, although from a relatively small data set of 35 farms, it became clear that another one of our hypotheses seemed to be verified. It is that no one factor like type of seed, or no till, or a certain fertility product, correlates with nutrient density variation. It seems that it is a combination of these factors.

Also in 2019 we were able to verify that the dramatic nutritional variation in crops, both in the mineral levels as well as the higher order compounds is present in the broader spectrum of crops assessed. The most significant variation we found was the antioxidant levels in spinach. 364.5:1. That means if you ate one leaf of the highest antioxidant level spinach on January 1 of a year, you would have to eat one leaf of the lowest antioxidant level spinach every day for the entire year to get the same level as you received on January 1st of the most nutritious one!

Most impressively perhaps we were able to build a calibration on those 6 crops for our first generation Bionutrient Meter. That means that anyone who has one can use it in the grocery store or farmers market to get a red / yellow / green answer in real time after flashing a light at any one of those crops. The calibration is not perfect, and stands in for quality. What we are using is level of antioxidants and polyphenols, but most importantly we have proved that we can build a hand held spectrometer at a consumer price point that can be used in real time to non-invasively give readings about nutrient density in food. Building a meter is one thing. Calibrating it so that it gives meaningful readings in real time is a whole other accomplishment. For context I must say that we consider this a proof of concept accomplishment. For those who get the metaphor, lets say that we have built an Apple II, and we are hoping to build an iPhone.

Now in 2020 we have increased the number of crops to 20, from 6 in 2019 and 2 in 2018, and broadened our base of labs from the primary lab in Ann Arbor to the first satellite lab at Chico State in California and our first European lab in partnership with Valorex in the Normandy region of France. We have also gone beyond fruits and vegetables to include oats and wheat.

In addition we increased the number of farms we are getting management data from to 125+ and so should have much more meaningful environmental conditions data to begin to be able to build correlations from management to quality in a way giving significant insight to growers about what limiting factors they can change most efficiently to increase overall function in the biological system of the operation.

As well on the engineering front much work has been accomplished to begin the hardware improvements so that we may begin building the “iPhone” now that we have our “Apple II”.

This work has been accomplished through charitable donations solely and so all information, raw data, hardware engineering, software code, comments, etc. remains open source and will into perpetuity. We are committed to this process of discernment being managed so that free access to the best information is available to all globally regardless of resources. As we continue to succeed in our stepwise process, more and more interest is following this work, and more significant donations are flowing to continue to develop it. Much more is needed, however to bring it to fruition, and in many ways it is access to capital which is the time limiting factor. Will we have a comprehensive definition of nutrient density with cutting edge spectrometers and a deep understanding of how to do better in 2 years or 5? It will likely be in that time window. The level of support is really the primary variable.


2019 Real Food Campaign Final Report


The Real Food Campaign (RFC) emerged from a collaboration between the Bionutrient Food Association and its membership, Next7 and Our Sci LLC in 2018 with three primary goals:

  1. Determine the amount of variation in nutrition in the food supply.
  2. Relate soil health and nutrient density outcomes to crop and soil management practices.
  3. Predict nutritional parameters in produce using spectral data and metadata.

In its first year of operation, the RFC showed that there was significant variation (up to 200:1) in antioxidants, polyphenols and minerals in carrots and spinach. The RFC also found that spectral reflectance data could be used to correctly identify high (>50% percentile) antioxidant and polyphenol content 73 – 86% of the time. However, the RFC did not collect sufficient crop and soil management data to identify relationships between management and nutrient density outcomes.

In 2019, the RFC sought to both improve the efficiency and quality of data collection and to expand the number of samples analyzed by the RFC lab. Significant changes to the program in 2019 included:

  1. Expanding the total number of samples from 800 (in 2018) to 3000-4000 samples.
  2. Expanding the number of crops from 2 (carrots and spinach) to 6 (carrots, spinach, kale, lettuce, cherry tomatos and grapes.)
  3.  Increasing the reflectance wavelength range measured from 365 nm – 940 nm in 2018 to 365 – 2100 nm by adding an additional spectrometer to the lab process.
  4. Collecting more detailed farm management data by creating a “Farm Partner Program” to work directly with 30-45 farmers to collect both samples and granular management data.
  5. Revising lab processes based on lessons learned in 2018 to reduce major sources of noise and eliminate unnecessary tests.


The RFC relies on a very active and passionate community to provide samples to the RFC lab to drive the campaign. In order to effectively engage with this community at a scale large enough to meet our sample goals and increase the amount of granular data collected we needed:

Easy-to-use data collection tools that promoted consistent data entry.
Automated data management systems to better track community activity and sample flow from the field to the RFC lab.
Traceability so that lab results could be traced back to specific management practices in the field.

In 2018, data collection was done using paper based surveys, which was both inefficient and prone to errors. In 2019, we released the RFC Collect mobile app, which allowed RFC staff to create standardized data collection surveys to capture key sample data and eliminated the need for paper-based surveys.

In order to capture more granular farm management data while still analyzing a diverse set of samples from stores, farmers markets and farms across the country the RFC set up two distinct community partner programs in 2019:
1. Farm Partners Program: The RFC would work directly with farmers who were willing to share management and variety data and to send samples into the RFC lab. The data collected by these partners would be much more detailed than what was collected in 2018 or what was collected by Data Partners.
2. Data Partners Program: Similar to the 2018 Data Partners Program, data partners could be anyone who was interested in submitting samples to the RFC lab. Data partners would submit samples from stores, farmers markets and farms in their area.

Farm Partners Program

The RFC’s goal was to recruit 30 – 40 Farm Partners. Recruitment was done through a combination of an informational booth at the BFA Soil and Nutrition Conference in November, 2018 and through the BFA newsletter. After receiving interest from 103 farmers, we enrolled 34 Farm Partners. Additionally, we collaborated with 10 farmers from the Massachusetts chapter of NOFA, bringing the total participating farmers to 44. All participating farmers were trained to use the RFC Collect App for data collection, given a 1-year subscription to FarmOS (an open-source farm management platform) and were provided sample packets that included pre-labelled sample bags, a soil probe, an android phone (if needed) and postage-paid shipping envelopes. The RFC worked directly with FarmOS, with support from OpenTEAM, to build integrations in the RFC Collect app, so that Farm Partners could push and pull data between their FarmOS and RFC Collect accounts.

In short, for every sample submitted, Farm Partners:

  1. Map the field in FarmOS. These fields were then available to be referenced in the RFC Collect App so the RFC could trace each sample back to a specific field.
  2. Complete a “Planting Form – RFC Farm Partners” survey that captures key crop management data such as tillage, addition of amendments and whether the crops were planted in the field directly from seed or transplanted.
  3. Record post-planting management by completing the “In Season Management Form – RFC Farm Partners” survey once per crop or multiple “Weekly Management Form – RFC Farm Partners” surveys during the growing season.
  4. At harvest samples and metadata were collected. Each sample included the crop and two soils samples–in depths increments of 0-10 cm and 10-20 cm–from within 12 inches of the crop sample. A “Sample Collection Survey” was completed to capture key sample metadata (crop variety and the sample number from the provided sample bag) and ship the sample to the RFC lab.

Data Partner Program

In order to capture variability across food supply chains and meet our goal of analyzing 3,000-4,000 food samples, we needed volunteers who were willing to submit samples from stores, markets and farms from across the USA. The RFC recruited 26 volunteers, called Data Partners, from the BFA Soil and Nutrition Conference (2018 and 2019) and the BFA Newsletter in three cohorts throughout the year.

Data Partners were provided with a sample packet, including an android phone (if needed), a soil probe, pre-labelled sample bags and postage-paid shipping envelopes. They were asked to collect samples from stores, farmers markets and farms in their area on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. A detailed sampling plan was developed for each Data Partner to provide some guidance and to ensure that the RFC was receiving food from a diversity of management, source and produce types.

When sampling, Data Partners completed a “Sample Collection Survey” which captures key sample metadata. If samples came from a store, metadata included labeling information (certified organic, greenhouse grown, etc). If the Data Partner visited a farmers market or farm, then sample metadata included farm practices (organic, no-till, cover cropping, etc), use of irrigation and types of amendments used (mulch, compost, fertilizer, etc).


For each of 6 crops, Table X shows the median of each nutrient listed. Units are: Antioxidants — uM Fe2+ equivalents per 100g fresh weight. Polyphenols — ug/ml Gallic Acid equivalents per 100g fresh weight. Brix — brix value (using digital brix meter / refractometer).
Minerals –All minerals (S, P, K, etc.) for soil and crops are reported in parts per million (ppm) except silicon in soils, which is in %.
Table X also shows the ratio, for each crop, of the sample with the highest value for that nutrient compared to the sample with the lowest value, a measure of the variability for that nutrient in each of our tested crops.

The RFC lab received 2,095 samples from across the USA in 2019, with 813, 230 and 988 samples coming from farms, farmers markets and stores, respectively and 63 samples where the sample source was not known. While the samples collected fell short of our goal of 3,000 samples, the RFC was able to source samples from a wide variety of states, farms, stores, and store brands, see the Sample Diversity Table on the next page. Farm partners submitted 438 samples, and the RFC received detailed planting and post-planting management data for 92% and 87% of those samples, respectively. The remaining samples were received from 26 Data Partners. Working directly with farmers helped the RFC to collect detailed crop variety data, with 92.4% of samples arriving from Farm Partners having variety data compared to 79.2% of farm samples from Data Partners. Likewise, variety data was only available for 21.7% and 18.7% of samples from farmers markets and stores, respectively.

The median concentration and the max:min ratio of each nutrient are presented in Table X for each crop. Not surprisingly, kale was the most nutrient dense of the crops analyzed in 2019 with the highest levels of antioxidants, polyphenols and many minerals. There was also significant variation across all nutrients and crops measured in 2019, with the max:min ratio ranging from 3 to over 500. While part of this variation can be explained by the wide range of samples that the RFC analyzed, it shows that not all food is created equally.

Determining the causes of Variation

This Classification Table of crop antioxidant and polyphenol levels allows the quick comparison of the analysis methods listed down the left. Metadata records color and crop source. Bionutrient meter is a handheld device, Siware is an expensive hi-tech device, both analyze reflected light, whether from surface (non-destructive) or juiced sample (destructive). Individual methods as well as combinations are measured, enabling fuller comparison. The darker the color in the box the more reliable the RFC lab considers the reading.

Separating out the causes of variation in a large observational study such as this can be very difficult. Some of those causes of variation, like climate region or soil type, farmers have no control over. Other sources of variation, like farm practices, farmers can control. So we will focus on those results here.

The graphs on the previous page show the effects of different farm practices or food labels on multiple crop nutrients, averaged across all 6 crops the RFC analyzed. For example, the antioxidant shift with cover crops was about 0.1, meaning that cover crops boosted antioxidant content by 10% compared to produce with no practices listed. While no graph has all positive or all negative shifts, we do see some clear trends. For example, practices that can increase soil health, such as cover cropping, no-till and organic, tend to have mostly positive shifts. On the other hand, crops grown in more artificial environments, like greenhouses and hydroponics, had more negative shifts.

Predicting of Variation

The RFC lab is using the Bionutrient Meter, a low-cost handheld device, and more expensive benchtop instruments to develop tools to predict nutrient density in foods. These models can be developed for consumers (non-destructive methods like scanning the surface of produce in the grocery store) or supply chain models (where a small amount of sample can be destructively sampled by juicing). The classification table on the next page provides more details about our findings, but here are key findings:

The Bionutrient meter, combined with the appropriately attainable metadata, is just as effective at predicting nutrient quality as the much more expensive and complicated benchtop Siware device.
Using the variety data may provide a large boost to the predictive capacity of the Bionutrient meter. For this reason, the RFC should put more emphasis on capturing variety data in 2020.
The best predictive capacity came when attempting to predict the highest (top 25%) and lowest (bottom 25%) nutrient densities. In this case the model lumped all the samples in the 25 – 75% range into the same group. This recognizes that the primary goal is to determine if a food is above average, average, or below average.

For more information, visit our Knowledge Base at https://lab.realfoodcampaign.org/, where we will continue to update results from 2019 and 2020.