Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Someone recently posted a scientific article on our Facebook page which purportedly demonstrates that Roundup can be damaging to earthworms at concentrations that would typically be used in a field situation. Wow. Scary. I mean really, if we’re damaging earthworms when we apply Roundup, then that lends fuel to the emotional fires that rage against this pesticide. But is that really what this article shows?

It’s unfortunate, but most of you will not be able to see the article that I’m writing about because you won’t have access to the journal in which it was published. Here’s the abstract though.

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11270-014-2207-3

Basically what the authors did was to place worms in small pots, expose the pots to different concentrations of a commercial formulation of Roundup, and measure how the worms fared over time (about a month and a half). Unsurprisingly, the worms not exposed to Roundup performed better than the worms exposed to the Roundup.

After reading the above paragraph you might think that this is an open and shut case. Roundup is bad for worms, potentially leading to “local extinction” of these animals in agricultural fields (that’s the authors’ wording).

It’s not that simple. The authors are stretching well beyond the data, and the research has some issues, most of which could be cleared up by better, more thorough reporting.

First, let’s take a look at some of the problems that this paper has in terms of reporting its materials and methods. You may think this is picky, but it’s not. It’s fundamental to figuring out how valid the reported results are. From the materials and methods as they were written it is impossible to figure out exactly what was done in terms of watering the pots (we know soil moisture was kept at 80%, but we don’t know how. Watering? With what?). We don’t know what the ground plant materials were that were added to the pots (Lima beans?). We know that pots were placed into 1m X 1m X 0.60 m containers, but we don’t know how many pots were placed into each container or whether pots were randomized by treatment within each container. Sure, we could make assumptions – but in a well written scientific paper we shouldn’t have to. Would knowing these things affect how the worms performed in the Roundup treatment versus the no Roundup treatment? In a word, yes. The watering regime in particular might very well alter the results of this study.

That’s enough of that. Now let’s take a look at my BIG PROBLEM with this study. Six worms were placed into small (28cm X 14cm), half-filled pots and treated, or not treated, with Roundup.

Let me offer an extreme analogy to explain why this is such a problem. Let’s say that you want to see whether shooting bullets into the ocean will kill all of the fish that live there. To test the theory you grab a 50 pound fish and you stick it in a 5 gallon bucket. The tail is hanging out, the fins are flapping, water is getting all over the place. Then you shoot the bucket. Dead fish. You do this 50 more times. Each time, dead fish. You conclude that shooting bullets into the ocean is indeed a threat to fish and may lead to local extinction. Right?

Wrong.

From this study you can conclude that bullets can kill fish. That’s an easy conclusion to make. You cannot conclude that shooting bullets into the ocean will kill all the fish there. Now, if we hired a swat team to fire bullets into the ocean and all the fish were killed, well then we could make that conclusion. Would that actually happen though? No way of knowing unless we try it. I suspect the ocean would retain its fish – but I’m just hypothesizing. (Quick FYI – high velocity bullets lose so much of their speed when they hit water that they wouldn’t be lethal to fish after traveling about 3-4 feet).

There are any number of studies out there that FORCE target organisms to be exposed to whatever chemical is being tested (that is basically what is being done here). These studies CAN show that the chemicals tested MAY affect the target organism. They CANNOT show that the target organism IS AFFECTED IN A GIVEN ENVIRONMENT. You need to test the chemical in that environment to figure that out.

To give an example of how you might test the effects of Roundup against worms in an agricultural environment: Take an acre of agricultural field, divide it into six sections. Treat three with Roundup and control weeds in the other three sections with hand weeding. Sample the sections every two or three weeks after Roundup application to see how the worms are doing.

Now, my final problems with this paper. Much of it is related to other, already published studies. This, in and of itself, is no problem. It is good that there are many studies on this topic. The problem is that most of these studies weren’t mentioned in this article. When I read a scientific article I count on its authors to put their study into context for me so that I can see where it belongs in the already existing collection of related literature. Without referencing these older papers the authors do us a disservice. I’m not going to list out all of the studies, but if you go to scholar.google.com and type in earthworm and glyphosate you’ll see what I mean.

I believe that any experiment from which data can be extracted should be published. I think that the authors of this article had every right to publish it. However, as a scientist, I think that there are enough problems with the reporting of this article, particularly the materials and methods, that, as it is currently presented, I can’t extract much of value. I certainly can’t reach the sweeping conclusions that its authors do.

Some Thoughts on Extension

For those of you who are out of the academic loop, Extension is that part of academia tasked with delivering research based information to those who can use it. You’ll hear other definitions, but I think that this basic one is the most useful for the following discussion. Extension, as a general rule, is tightly tied to agricultural sciences though it may include everything from child care to math or even computer science.

For fifteen years I was a part of Extension at the University level. During that time (1998-2013) my formal Extension title was Nursery Management Specialist and my job was to deliver information to the nursery industry. I was OK at this job, but discovered that my real passion was delivering horticultural information to the public. In 2008 my job was formally changed. I retained the title Nursery Management Specialist, but my duties expanded to include delivering information to the public. Besides my extension title, I also had an academic rank which was, from 1998-2004, Assistant Professor, and which became Associate Professor after I achieved tenure in 2004. For personnel in the applied sciences it is typical to have a percentage associated with their Extension appointment which indicates (roughly) how much of their effort should be put into extension. My Extension appointment was 60% throughout my University career.

I’m giving the above information so that anyone reading this will have a sense of what my experience with Extension is and the perspective from which I speak. I welcome disagreement, I know that my views aren’t the only ones out there. That said, here are the points that I want to make:

1. I believe that Extension is important.
2. I believe that Extension is dying.
3. I believe that Extension cannot be saved unless personnel in administrative roles make some fundamental changes to the way things are currently done.

Let’s start with #1. Extension is important because it provides a link between us and the people who do research that impacts us. Simple as that. Though I have known of exceptions, Extension personnel are usually non-biased individuals who deliver research based information to whoever they can. If you aren’t getting your information from someone in Extension then you’re probably getting it from someone who stands to profit from whatever information they provide. This alone makes Extension important.

#2. Extension is suffering a slow and agonizing death. Certainly there are some people out there who choose to ignore what’s going on, or to see it through rose colored glasses, but that doesn’t change what’s happening. I’ve had numerous people show me particular things that Extension has done which are wonderful, but these things are exceptions and not rules. There are a number of reasons why Extension is failing, many of them are economic, but I think the problem sits much deeper than that and that even a major influx of money would fail to turn things around unless Extension administration changes their tune.

There are actually two types of Extension work. The first is commercial, and the second is consumer. Commercial Extension has a strong presence. Extension personnel who work with farmers who grow crops like soy, corn, cattle, etc. have a long history of working with the industry and that relationship is strong and promises to stay strong, though industry reps from pesticide and fertilizer companies are making great headway in reducing the dependence that farmers have on Extension personnel. In horticultural crops (nursery, greenhouse, etc.) I see essentially the same thing. Extension personnel are respected, but day to day information needs, such as how to control a particular pest, come from pesticide and fertilizer companies who put a lot of time and effort into building relationships with their customers. Once upon a time much of the information that pesticide and fertilizer companies doled out did come indirectly from Extension, but nowadays most of these companies have their own experts (Who may have been trained by Extension people). Though I see an eroding dependence on Extension in the world of commercial extension, the place where I have a much greater concern is consumer Extension. Extension personnel who work in consumer Extension deal with the public. Over the years consumer Extension has come to mean Master Gardeners and 4H. Both of these are fine institutions, but if you think that Extension is providing research based information to everyone who needs it by educating these two groups then you’re sadly mistaken. They are competing poorly with companies like Scott’s or businesses like Home Depot. And when the consumer thinks of a horticulture guru they’re more likely to think of Paul Tukey or P. Allen Smith than their extension agent or specialist. The long and short of it is that Extension has better information than any other source, but they’re not very good at disseminating it.

I see two fundamental problems with extension. The first is that extension has failed to keep up with current communication trends. Right now you are reading a blog with some information on it. There’s a garden professors facebook page too. But when the average individual is looking for information on how to care for plants where do they go? That’s right, a search engine – probably google. And when you type in a query about something like “when to seed your lawn”, or “how to fertilize”, what pops up? Mostly information from Lowes or Scott’s or Home Depot, or youtube, or Popular Mechanics or This Old House. Extension articles may or may not be present in searches. When they are I select them, but how many consumers are this discriminating? Sure, it’s possible that Extension originally provided the information that other companies are now spreading around, but you’d never know it by reading the articles. In fact, some of the recommendations are so terrible that I can’t imagine them coming from Extension. Over the last few years something called eXtension has popped up that supposedly provides extension with an online presence. I know that some people are using it. Indeed, this blog is currently housed in eXtension. Seen eXtension pop up in your google searches much? The problem of largely missing trends in information dissemination dovetails nicely with the next problem, that of reward for accomplishment.

The second fundamental problem that I see with Extension is that the experts who we rely on to gather and distribute research based information aren’t given credit for what they do. By experts I mean the University Faculty who are supposed to gather content and distribute it. This problem has many facets, perhaps the most important of which is that University faculty are judged primarily on two things: the number of papers they write and the grants they bring in. I can’t say that the other stuff, like teaching and presentations, are ignored, but they certainly don’t hold the same weight as papers and money. When new faculty are brought in they quickly learn that they need to write papers and bring in money to achieve tenure. So here’s the issue, to get tenure (and keep my job) I need to write papers and get money, but to accomplish my job I need to communicate with people – so should I spend my time and creative energy trying to develop new ways to communicate with people and avenues for disseminating information, or on producing papers and getting money when I know I can just do a few Master Gardener talks giving me enough credit for doing Extension work that nobody will complain. The answer is obvious, and demonstrates another problem with the system, new faculty hires who have Extension appointments are brought on for their ability to write papers and get grants rather than their ability to communicate. For Extension Faculty the number of people reached with useful information and the novel techniques used to disseminate this information are largely ignored. I suppose that if you published a paper about disseminating information you’d get credit, but come on, if I’m stopping to publish a paper about it – it takes a heck of a long time to write a paper – then I’m going to lose any momentum I have over my competition who doesn’t have to publish a paper – like a pesticide or fertilizer company. For most of the world the proof is in the pudding. In academia the proof is in the paper. This is a problem when you’re competing with for-profit companies.

#3. In my opinion Extension can only be saved if academic administrators value Extension work at a level that is at least close to how they value research. Extension people who are competing with for-profit companies to deliver information are hamstrung from the get go not only because they don’t have the financial resources that for-profit companies do, but also because they don’t receive tangible appreciation for their work (such as raises, tenure, and promotion). An “attaboy!” just doesn’t cut it. As anyone in the business world knows, to accomplish a goal you hire good, qualified people and reward them for their successes. If Extension is to succeed that’s really all that needs to be done.

So, you may disagree with me on some of my points above. Good! Let me know about it. I’d be very pleased to have my mind changed.

Hello Charlotte!

I’m sure you haven’t been wondering where I’ve been for the past five months or so, but just in case you have, I’ve been reshuffling my life and relocating. Where am I now? The family and I have moved to Charlotte, North Carolina where I now work at Central Piedmont Community College. Why? Because we wanted to be closer to family, we wanted a warmer climate, and I wanted to spend more time teaching. That said, I had a great time at the University of Minnesota and have only good things to say about my time there.

The great thing about my new job is that I have the opportunity to teach a diverse student population a broad spectrum of classes. This coming semester I’ll be teaching five classes including Specialty Crops (we’ll be concentrating on hydroponic systems for growing veggies – it’s a great way to learn about what plants need to grow), Plant Propagation (My favorite! Everything from cuttings and seeds to budding and grafting), Greenhouse Management, Applied Plant Science and Plant Materials I. And Hey, if you live near Charlotte, I’d love to see you in one of my classes! CPCC is one of the most affordable schools in the country and the classes are open access – in other words anyone can sign up! Since I don’t have the chance to do as much research as I did in Minnesota, I’ve compensated by having my students conduct experiments in the classes – and we’ve had a lot of fun. We’ve done everything from extracting essential oils using cold fat and steam extractions to rooting cuttings using 2,4 D and spiking the atmosphere with carbon dioxide using soda bottles. I’ll be posting about all of these projects in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, it looks like vinegar based BBQ with fried okra for dinner!

What’s in the Worm Juice?

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I would be taking a look at the leachate that comes from vermicompost. Here is the worm house, owned by Master Gardener Meleah Maynard, from which this leachate came. This is a picture from when the house was new — it now has multiple floors.

It has been running for a few years now, and the “ingredients” that she puts in, mostly table scraps, are pretty typical of what anyone would put into compost. She reports that it produces about a gallon of leachate every 2-3 weeks. The leachate from this house has the following properties:

  • pH – 8.5: That’s a high pH for soil, but for a fertilizer added every week or two it’s fine.
  • Nitrogen – 1120 ppm: That’s high for a fertilizer.  About twice the concentration I’d use if I were applying a liquid fertilizer to my plants at home. The nitrogen is present mostly as nitrate, which is a good thing.  If the nitrogen were present primarily as ammonium, that might cause problems.
  • Phosphorus – 22 ppm: That’s a good/appropriate concentration of phosphorus for most plants. It’s much less than we apply when we use a typical garden fertilizer. Potassium – 5034 ppm: This is an order of magnitude higher than we’d apply for most plants using a liquid fertilizer.
  • Calcium – 279 ppm: This is a reasonable amount of calcium.
  • Magnesium – 211 ppm: This is reasonable amount of magnesium.
  • Sodium – 634 ppm: I’d like to see less sodium, but this shouldn’t cause a major problem.
  • Other elements present included Iron, Copper, Manganese, Zinc, Molybdenum, and Boron, all at levels less than 1 ppm.

So what’s my conclusion? I think that, based on the nutrients and nothing else (no trials), this could be a great liquid fertilizer if it were used properly. I’d recommend diluting it somewhere between 1:1 and 1:5 worm juice : water before applying it, and I’d only apply it once every week or two. If you want to use it, try it on something that you’re not too concerned about first, just to make sure that it doesn’t do anything too terrible (It shouldn’t, but I believe in caution).