A Giant Rests

Kevin Folta's Facebook Announcement

A 15-year legacy comes to end as Kevin Folta announces retirement from public science advocacy. The relentless attacks came to a fever pitch with multiple FOIA ploys launched against him with a Buzzfeed cherry on top1.  Much has been said2 and more will follow in the community I’m sure. Emotions are running high and that is to be expected. It’s testament to the impact Kevin Folta has made upon the public. The most prevalent emotions expressed are anger and despair. Those certainly are valid emotions to have. Before we react rashly though, I think some channeling and reflection is in order to help quell our discomfort.

The situation may seem dire. Personal attacks from antiGMO seem to be getting more vicious and companies are adopting cynical “no GMO” appeals as if it’s a good thing.  But I would dare to say that we have never had so many science pro-GMO advocates fighting the good fight. Interest groups are swelling with members and every day yet another satirist is born under some pseudonym lampooning somebody like Food Babe3. Social media has exploded and we are shifting the culture. This is a movement.

This burgeoning pro-science movement4 is not a fluke. It’s something, a long time coming, that science defenders have been cultivating for us. They came many years before, fighting the good fight, diligently, enduringly. It is upon the shoulders of these giants for which we can now contemplate the state of affairs for which we find ourselves. As the years pass, these champions fall away, many nameless, never lauded. But their legacy is with us. We are bootstrapped with the tools needed to carry on the fight. Like anti-vaccinationists who have the privilege of not knowing disease we too can fall in a similar trap of not seeing the forest for the trees. Pro-GMO is not new, but it is different, it needs to be.

I mean not to downplay the fall of my own hero, Kevin Folta. While I risk sounding like a Folta fanboy, I, like many others owe their illumination to his tireless efforts. It’s his inspiration that has led me to build several advocacy projects. I do know he’s human, though. He’s surprised me both in positive and negative ways. I accept him still, for we all stumble. Yet he has made a huge impact before doing so. It’s not an excuse or justification of anything. But there is a debt to repay and we all owe it. Now this giant rests. Let’s respect that and constructively regroup.

What do we do now? We organize and take action. We launch grassroots efforts to reach the fence sitters and general public. We cultivate the soil making conditions optimal for positive growth. We do the hard work as many movements before us have done. We utilize the lessons they’ve learned honed by the social science we do.

Sometimes what we don’t do is just as important. We don’t mirror our adversaries. We don’t allow them to take the lead. To win the public we maintain our ethical high ground. We exemplify the moral standards of our cause because our cause is just.

I’ve seen lamenting and lashing out. Science denialists are being called hate groups and terrorists. This is a cathartic reaction that threatens to derail a trajectory to make a positive difference. I’ve seen personally how the word terrorist is painted upon my animal rights cohorts. People who in no way threatened any lives for an agenda. Hate group is also a term that means more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just a group that hates something. Words like these have given weight beyond an appeal to definition. Hastily employing them is a form of appropriation that will cost us valuable ethical currency. Wrong is wrong and we cannot justify bad behavior.

As the movement grows there will tend to be some who are disruptive to the cause. Often it’s unintentional and they are acting instinctively. But sometimes it can be intentional, agent provocateurs. We may not know which so it is up to us to call out (or call in) unethical behavior in our own ranks. As our detractors become more and more heinous, we must show it for what it is. Returning in kind will make us look indistinguishable to the public. They will try to unravel us with anger but let it instead fuel efforts to make change.

I believe in people. I do think many anti-GMO people are victims of manipulation. I think we will win this. But it is time for everybody, not only science experts, to rise up. There are grassroots efforts being planned and getting launched. March Against Myths, I believe, showed there is interest and potential to harness.

If you’re upset about Kevin Folta and want to do something I would suggest first sending him a message of support5. Then get involved with advocacy organizations6 or start one. Participate at your level of interest and expertise. But regardless, we can all have honest conversations with people in our social circles. We’re going to have to tackle this one conversation at a time. The same way Kevin Folta did, and they can’t shut us all up.

  1. The Buzzfeed article with the clickbait title “Seed Money: Confessions of a Monsanto Apologist” might be better titled as: “10 Things Kevin Folta Did and You Won’t Believe #7!”
  2. Respectful Insolence: A sad day for public science advocacy
    WIRED: Anti-GMO Activist Seeks to Expose Scientists’ Emails With Big Ag
    Neurological Blog: How To Attack a Public Scientist
    Pharyngula: Harassment by FOIA
  3. Whether or not it’s helpful for the broader cause I would still consider it a measure of interest.
  4. Not just pro-GMO mind you, it’s pro-science including issues of vaccinations, climate change, etc.
  5. Facebook Page, Blog comment, email
  6. Biology Fortified
    Sense About Science
    Alliance For Science
    March Against Myths

Disease Dangers in the Vegan Community


Maybe consider a protective suit at vegan events.

Lack of vaccine awareness and acceptance is a largely unaddressed issue that threatens the vegan community. It’s particularly relevant now, in light of the vaccine crisis we are experiencing. Influenza hit us hard last year in 2014. Infectious diseases that were nearly eradicated, like measles (in the Chicago area!) and whooping cough, are making a comeback. These are life-threatening diseases that a simple vaccination can help curtail. Now as a parent with a new baby, I have a revitalized concern. This is (some of) the story of our struggle in tackling anti-vaccination in our vegan community.

Vegan Chicago Advocates for Vaccination

Vegan Chicago is a vegan support and social group I organize. In 2012 we started promoting the idea of vaccinations to members. We have an interest in creating a safe space for our members. We also noticed a growing contingent of anti-vax sentiments within the vegan community. This was something we felt compelled to address and sought out an expert to speak at one of our speaker events.

We searched high and low for a credible expert to talk about vaccination. With the generous help of our science allies we found a good candidate. It wasn’t without controversy though. The event page started getting swamped by vegans peppering fear, uncertainty and doubt1 throughout. With the well poisoned, the event did end up having a reduced attendance unfortunately. The recording made a good podcast episode though2.

The doctor made an interesting point during the talk. He said herd immunity is a myth. People susceptible to infectious disease are not necessarily evenly dispersed throughout the population. They tend to cluster in communities (like those who tend to avoid vaccines). So there is a lack of any protection for an increased chance of exposure. On top of that, infectious disease is just a plane trip away. So our efforts in bringing together a vegan community may be putting individuals at a higher risk!

The Flu Vaccine

Vegan Chicago poster promoting flu vaccine.

Vegan Chicago poster promoting flu vaccine.

Fast-forward a year, 2013 and we’re tabling the Chicago VeganMania fest. We’re featuring a poster that’s reminding people to get their flu shot. Now, we know influenza vaccines use chicken eggs in their production. And eggs, as an animal product, are something vegans avoid. But we take the qualification of “as far as is possible and practicable”3 to heart. We advocate for this medical prophylactic over the modicum of egg used. Still though, many vegans balked.

But ok, since so many vegans had this hang-up, we rolled up our sleeves and sought out the rumored eggless version.  We soon discovered that a new vaccine used an insect cell line instead of chicken eggs4. “ANIMAL INGREDIENT, NOT VEGAN!” you say. Well, it’s more wonderfully complicated than that.

The fall armyworm is a common agricultural pest, which makes it a much-studied organism. From this organism there is a continuously cultured cell line for use in scientific research. It was originally procured in 1970 from the ovarian tissues of fall armyworms. Specifically this flu vaccine uses a cloned substrain of these cells (Sf9). A virus is genetically modified to infect these cloned insect cells. The result is the creation of the appropriate hemagglutinin protein required for the final vaccine.5

Fall armyworm.

Fall armyworm.

A similar biotech process is used in creating synthetic insulin. We used to rely on mashing up tons of pig and cow pancreases for insulin. Now we now can create it using genetically modified bacteria. Technology has this potential to help reduce our reliance on animal bodies.6 The same is true here with this vaccine. This can help displace millions of eggs each year. Isn’t that an amazing wonder of biotechnology? The vegan concerns that fall armyworms in 1970 died in the development of this vaccine are absurd. Consider the number of armyworms killed with insecticide every year for vegan food (Organic too btw).

In 2014 we hoped to bring this eggless flu vaccine to Chicago VeganMania as a pop-up clinic. It was a natural fit and what an opportunity for vegans! There would be a ton of people there from all over the place and the timing was at the start of the flu season. We worked throughout the year to establish a relationship with the vaccine developer and all the people involved in doing a pop-up clinic. Ultimately we were told that the Chicago VeganMania board7 wouldn’t allow us to bring in the pop-up clinic.

What they did allow was the usual hodgepodge of charlatanry. Reiki, chiropractic, organic food, and anti-GMO are examples of such allowed vendors8. It was disappointing and frustrating. Withholding access to this amazing medical innovation doesn’t seem to me supportive of the vegan community. It’s a missed opportunity, at best, to promote true evidence-based health and wellness.

In looking for alternative venues to bring this vaccine to our community we talked to many people. From the Chicago Department of Public Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, hospitals, alderpeople, and park supervisors, everybody was encouraging. There was a hint of: “You privileged vegans won’t get vaccinated when we have underserved populations clamoring for vaccines?!” Yep, I’m living an Onion article.

Vegan Chicago did send out a poll9 to our nearly 3,000 Vegan Chicago members to gauge interest in the vaccine. Over 50 replied in the affirmative and that was a nice surprise! I didn’t expect even that response. So it could be that vegans aren’t so anti-vaccine after all (or that our Vegan Chicago members tend to be more scientifically minded). The original Vegan Society sent me this page regarding their stance on medicine10 and paper11 on their stance on medicine.

Anti-Vax is Not Vegan

The eggless flu vaccine is relatively easier to find this year. When people’s lives are at risk a bit of egg isn’t worth avoiding. But isn’t it damn cool that we can have our kale and eat it too?  Veganism is a loose guideline on avoiding the exploitation of another. Fear mongering over puritanical and dogmatic standards is not in the spirit of the movement. Nitpicking something for containing a molecule of animal can cause more harm than the originating vegan intention. It misses opportunities to displace animal products, and it puts animals (human and other) into harm’s way. As we saw with anti-GMO12 animals are now being tortured13 looking for any tenuous confirmation. Animals have suffered enough over this anti-vax nonsense. We are better than this.

It is our moral obligation to impede the spread of infectious diseases. Vaccination is an important tool in the toolbox to do that. Forgoing vaccination is a threat to the bodily integrity of others. This unethical practice has no place in the vegan community (and society at large). Be the immune response to this junk info viral invader. Let’s not offer anti-vax a refuge to fester and perpetuate. It does so when we are complicit in our idle silence.

Further Info:
Vaccines, Vegans, & Autistic Puppies, Oh My! | Skeptical Vegan
Vaccine “Controversy” | Vegan Skeptic
Anti-vax and Veganism | Reasonable Vegan
Vegan Flu Shots: A Guide | Ed v. Food
DNA – Playing God (PBS Documentary) | YouTube

  1. FUD – Fear, uncertainty and doubt | Wikipedia
  2. Vegan Chicago Podcast: Episode #003 – Vaccines with Kenneth Alexander, MD
  3. “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” | The Vegan Society
  4.  The vegans arent going to kill us! Thanks to a GMO virus 😉 | erv
  5.  A Worm’s Ovary Cells Become A Flu Vaccine Machine | Health News : NPR
  6. Celebrating a Milestone: FDA’s Approval of First Genetically-Engineered Product | FDA
  7. Organizing committee for Chicago Vegan Mania 2014: Josh Alper, John Beske, Kevin Cooney, Mike Durshmid, Anne Marie Fosnacht, Robinlee Garber, Gill Gillono, Jim Glackin, Kristin Konrady, Jeff Olichwier, Marla Rose, Rob Sax, Robin Plotter Sax, Rachel Shippee, Minku Sharma, Sandi Swiss.
  8.  Are veggie festivals worth putting up with pseudoscientific trinkets and petty fraud? | Reasonable Vegan
  9.  Vegan Chicago email vaccine poll.
  10.  “Currently all medicine in the UK must be tested on animals before it is deemed safe for human use, but please note: The Vegan Society DOES NOT recommend you avoid medication prescribed to you by your doctor – a dead vegan is no good to anyone!”| The Vegan Society
  11.  Suitability of common drugs for patients who avoid animal products | The BMJ
  12. Vegans Exploit Tumored Rat Victims | Pythagorean Crank
  13.  Antivaccine activists fund a study to show vaccines cause autism. It backfires spectacularly. « Science-Based Medicine

Disclosing What Kevin Folta Said About FoodBabe

A Piece of FoltaThis is an open letter of sorts to Vani Hari (aka FoodBabe). I’m just some punk kid but I have some insider info on Kevin Folta that Vani may be interested in.

Dear Vani Hari,

I think a part of the story may be missing in the results of your FOIA request1 on Dr. Kevin Folta for mentions of you in his correspondence.2 There’s something I feel I must disclose about what he told me in person about you. First a bit of background so you might better understand the context for the shocking thing he said.


Smells like eepa.

This silly picture of me smelling Kevin3 was taken in 2014 after our dinner at a vegan restaurant.  I live in Chicago and Kevin Folta grew up here too. Sometimes we get together for a brew or two if he happens to be in town. Kevin ordered an IPA and said “…or as I like to call them, ‘eepa.’” That’s Kevin for you. His quirky humor doesn’t always hit the mark but it’s fun nonetheless if not eye-roll-worthy.

I first discovered Kevin on a podcast where he talked about GMO.4 Being a vegan activist I was inherently anti-GMO cuz, um, it’s unnatural and icky! I chaired for our local EarthSave International chapter and handed out anti-GMO literature at a dozen events. But the way he talked about this issue blew my mind wide open. I immediately sent him an email asking for his advice on bringing that info to my Vegan Chicago group and he replied within hours! He even offered to do a talk for us when he might next be in town. We eventually did indeed do just that and the talk was recorded and posted on our Vegan Chicago Podcast.5 He treated the audience with such respect and consideration,6 addressing our specific concerns regarding the use of animals. We discovered uncharted intersections of biotech and veganism and it changed the course of my activism.

Vegan Chicago with Kevin Folta

Vegan Chicago with Kevin Folta 2010

I’ve since learned Kevin is a true local and has a deep history with Chicago knowing all its nooks and crannies. He played in a local band or two, one being called the “Insane War Tomatoes.” Being a half generation behind him I never caught the blip his band might have made on the scene. But he reminisces fondly on those times and I swear everywhere we go somebody eventually says “Hey don’t I know you?” and he’ll respond “Yeah I’m Kevin and we…” and acquaintances find each other after what is probably a few decades. Amazing. He has a buddy who owns this venue or works at that bar, the dude is connected (still!) and people like him. He’s a surprisingly multifaceted guy.7

Kevin’s made up of the raw Heartland material forged in the city of broad shoulders that’s so familiar to me. Down to earth, unpretentious and good-hearted. It seems that Chicagoans who tear themselves away from the Midwest often do well elsewhere. My geekier friends explain this as the photonucleic effect and maybe that explains Kevin’s move to the sunshine state. He’s in his element though exuding passion for his work and advocacy efforts. I used to assume it was his smarts and scientific training that made him a magnetic science communicator, but seeing the more personal side of him, I’ve come to realize it’s the other way around. It’s his genuine personality and warm heart that makes up the engine that drives him.

What Kevin Folta Confided to Me About You

That last time I saw him in person in December of 2014, like I said, Kevin spoke of you. I was driving him back to his hotel when he said something to the effect of ‘If she only understood the truth she would be a great ally for science advocacy’. I thought he was joking at first, but no, he was actually enthusiastic about you! Your passion and communication skills had him inspired. It’s something you both have in common after all. He believed in your sincerity and thought his outreach might find you like it’s done for so many others like myself. I was incredulous, it surprised me to see him speak so positively of you. I wished him luck but harbored little hope that his plan would work. 8

KevinFoltaEmoSince then, things obviously didn’t work out that way. I’ve seen him lose a little heart. He probably still clings, though, to some hope that the two of you have a chance to partner up to solve the world’s problems. But maybe you’ll be able to cherry pick something nasty from his emails. If there is, I wouldn’t begrudge him any frustration. He’s just a person, like every other scientist. Your attack on Kevin Folta doesn’t worry me as I’m sure it doesn’t so much worry him. What does worry me is the compounding pile of devotees inspired by you and others who take things too 9 far10 with threats of personal violence11 and the chilling effect that will have on current and future science communicators.

I hope this doesn’t cause Kevin further stress or embarrassment (sorry Kevin). I feel like much of what usually concerns you, Vani, does so because you only see a small piece of the puzzle. Context is so important, and when you step back to see the big picture the world is a particularly marvelous and awe-inspiring place. Let’s put the rest of the pieces in, together.

Pythagorean Crank

  1. The Shocking Email From Monsanto: Why I am submitting a FOIA request | FoodBabe
  2. The FOIA Babe, and the New Abuse of Vanity Harassment | Science 2.0
  3. Yes, that’s me smelling Kevin’s hair: Status of the Strategic Shampoo Reserve
  4. #71 – Genetically Modified Foods: Science for the People
  5. Episode #001 – GMOs with Kevin Folta, PhD | Vegan Chicago Podcast
  6. Vegan Chicago Discussion board – PRE-TALK: Genetically-Modified Food Talk, POST-TALK: Genetically-Modified Food Talk
  7. He invented the “Buzz(ed) Aldrin” drink that’s famous at skeptic and science events.
  8. Though I also recommended he consider not doing the Joe Rogan podcast but he was undeterred and blew Joe Rogan away in an epic 3 hour-long interview.
  9. Bringing My Dead Mother to their Disgusting Cause | Illumination
  10.  Now Posting in Craiglist | Illumination
  11.  Cyber Threats and Why I Remain Anonymous | It’s MomSense