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Anastasia Bodnar
Plant geneticist, animal lover, skeptic.
Plant geneticist, animal lover, skeptic.

Anastasia's posts

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This makes me want to use G+ much more often!
A richer hashtag experience in Google Search

The #hashtags you see in Google+ posts are a useful way to discover conversations around a particular topic. In May we added related hashtags to the Google+ stream, turning any post into an opportunity to go deeper and explore what’s interesting to you.

Today we’re bringing a richer hashtag experience to Google Search. Here’s how it works:

- When you search on Google for a hashtag, say [#AmericasCup] or [#WaterfallWednesday], a set of relevant Google+ posts may appear to the right of regular results.
- You’ll only be able to see posts that have been shared publicly or shared with you.
- If you click on any of these posts you'll go to Google+, where you'll see the full set of relevant posts.
- You'll also see links to search for these hashtags on other social sites.

Today's update will be available (initially) to English language users on and It’ll be live within the next few hours, so give it a go and let us know what you think.


#canhazpdf  ? :D

I'm hoping to get the pdfs for the following papers. Thank you very much!

Liang Jing, Bing Chen, Baiyu Zhang, and Jisi Zheng (2012). Monte Carlo Simulation–Aided Analytic Hierarchy Process Approach: Case Study of Assessing Preferred Non-Point-Source Pollution Control Best Management Practices. J. Environ. Eng. 139(5): 618-626.

R. Banuelas and J. Antony (2004) Modified analytic hierarchy process to incorporate uncertainty and managerial aspects. Int. J. Prod. Res. 42 (18): 3841-3872.

Let's say you see a child being spanked and you are concerned, but it is't bad enough to call the police. The police just aren't able to act when abuse is at that relatively minor level. The next day, you see the child being beaten. Should you not call the police now because you couldn't before? 

I do not understand this line of "reasoning".

I've often seen the claim that politicians are bought off by their campaign contributions. And I have seen a few anecdotes that seem to prove this true. But the plural of anecdote is not data. Has anyone seen an actual analysis of bills proposed, votes, etc compared to campaign contributions?

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The recent destruction of the scientific work at the International Rice Research Institute was certainly appalling. But the side effect of the quality discussion that ensued was at least useful. And the rallying of the scientific community to condemn the vandalism was also nice to see.

Having Michael Pollan even say the trials should continue was probably the biggest surprise.

There is a petition to condemn the actions that has thousands of signatures now. And unlike typical online petitions, this one is largely signed by people whose hair is not on fire. The comments have been made available in a giant list, and they were really hopeful and knowledgeable.

When it hit 5000+ signatures, I extracted the comments and created a word cloud of the common words*. I really liked the way it came out.

*Technical note: I combined all the instances of golden + rice so they would be one word together #goldenrice .

Here's the petition.

Here's Michael Pollan in the NYT:

Here is the IRRI:


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Saw a post on "Food Safety News" that I just had to reply to Here's my comment in case it isn't posted...

This article was reasonably informative, though the lack of citations makes it impossible for readers to find where you got this information. I'm assuming that the author used sources, so why weren't they linked here?

There was one phrase that I just couldn't let go without comment: "naturally occurring toxins (which some research has suggested are equally as potent as synthetic toxins)"

Seriously? Have you ever heard of ricin? Nicotine or caffeine? Plants produce some deadly stuff! Natural toxins are certainly as potent as synthetic toxins, and many natural toxins are MORE potent than many synthetic toxins. A quick and easy primer on Wikipedia (with sources): We've known for a long time that the grand majority (99+%) of pesticides that we eat are produced by the plants we eat:

The reason for all this natural toxicity is obvious: plants can't run away, so they protect themselves with chemicals. This holds true for all plants, including those grown organically.

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Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental Impact of Conventional, Natural and Grass-Fed Beef Production Systems by Judith L. Capper

@ScienceBasedRD shared this on twitter, and I have a few quick observations...

First, the conclusion seems reasonable - that conventional beef is more resource efficient. While a unit of land under pasture may be less harmed, you get a lot less beef from it. It just takes a lot longer for a grass finished cow to get to market weight - and that means more feed is needed for daily maintenance (the calories all animals burn just to stay alive, move around, etc) plus more waste over the animal's lifetime. 

However, modeling is not easy. The more variables you add the greater the chance that there will be errors. Thankfully modeling environmental impact of cows is not quite as difficult as modeling global climate change, but it's still pretty hard. I'm not sure how accurate a model will be in telling you the actual impact of the different farming systems, especially if some of the model variables are based on assumptions rather than data.

As I go through the paper, the first thing that strikes me as odd is figure 2.1.2. Why include dairy for conventional and natural but not grass fed? There are grass fed dairies, so why leave them out? It seems like an uneven comparison. The methods say "As dairy calves entering the beef system are characteristically finished within feedlots and cull dairy cows would not be eligible to be sold as grass-fed beef, the GFD system did not include any animals from the dairy industry." But that doesn't include existing grassfed dairies. It would be nice to see the results with grassfed dairies too so we can see what happens. Perhaps if grassfed added dairies that would help even the balance.

There are other aspects that were included that surely favor the grass fed farms. According to the methods, Jude included not only pesticide and fertilizer for feed production but even the impact of production of the pesticides and fertilizer. She also included average transport of animals for conventional and natural while grassfed was assumed to live on farm for their entire lives. But these are relatively small impacts compared to animal waste and water as far as I can tell.

When I get to the results (table 2) the first thing I notice is water use. It says that conventional uses 485,698 liters while grassfed uses 1,957,224 liters. Cows that live longer need to drink more water, sure, but this difference seems too wide. The huge difference is based on the assumption that 50% of pasture land in the grass fed system is irrigated. When that is changed to lower % irrigated the water use declines sharply: 25% 1,044,070, 15% 678,808, 5% 313,547. Irrigation for crops for grain finished cows "was calculated from application rates and proportions of crops irrigated according to the Census of Agriculture Ranch and Irrigation Survey".

Due to the differences in water use alone, I'm wondering what the environmental impact is per region of the country (or other countries, too). This information would be useful for consumers considering whether to "buy local" as well as for state governments, etc looking to make policy decisions. I'm surprised regional differences in water use isn't discussed. 

Overall, the assumptions seem reasonable, except for perhaps for water use and the missing consideration of grass fed dairies. Overall, conventional beef does seem to be more efficient than natural or grassfed. 

I have to add one thing that was not in the paper, one thing that proponents of animal ag do not like to think about  - and even get very angry if you dare mention it!

Cows are not efficient at turning plants into meat. Even the most efficient animals still have to use part of their food to make bones and other in-edibles*, to move around, to heat their bodies, etc and make waste. Why loose so much energy through the animal when we can just eat the plants ourselves? Of course, we have to eat more grams of plant matter to get the same nutrition that we would get from meat, but the overall efficiency is still better, not to mention the health benefits of a diet rich in whole grains and veggies.

This is basic biology - higher trophic levels are less efficient than lower trophic levels. If we act as primary consumers rather than secondary consumers (at least some or most of the time) then the environment wins. Of course meat can be a healthy part of a balanced diet, but it's dangerous to assume that 200lbs yearly per person is a sustainable level of meat consumption, especially when we have developing countries hungry for more and more meat. We just don't have the land or the water (even if we assume the most efficient cows ever) to allow for all of the waste that comes with being a secondary consumer. 

To me, the solution is to aim for production of animal products that is as efficient as possible (including consideration of the environment) but also to decrease overall meat consumption and/or move meat consumption to more efficient animals based on the land types that are available yet not better used for other functions. This will increase efficiency of the entire food system as well as improve biodiversity on farms (growing more diverse grains, etc instead of just cattle feed) and improve human diets.

* Yes, some of the in-edibles can be useful products. However, many have more efficient alternatives but the animal product is used just because it's a cheap byproduct of meat. Finding a use for byproducts might make the system more efficient, but we also need to look outside the system to see if other alternatives are actually more efficient. 

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Research has shown that the majority of consumers just have more important things to worry about than GMOs, and that even when there are labels and they state they will avoid GMOs, they still buy foods with GMOs. And this is despite anti GMO folks doing their best to whip up a froth made of bad science and poor information. 

Some argue that this lack of interest is due to a lack of education on the subject. For example:

"a survey conducted last year by the B.C. Growers' Association found that 76 per cent of Canadians feel that the federal government hasn't given them enough information on GM foods. Another nine per cent said they’d never even heard of GM foods."

I can appreciate that people want more information, but this isn't 1980. There is a TON of information available online from governments and universities, as well as companies, NGOs and blogs. Don't have internet at home? Try the library. 

While government agencies and universities can do a better job of presenting information clearly, is it really the responsibility of the government to start an education campaign on GMOs? Where would such education be held - perhaps in high school? Do we really want them to do this, considering that most schools can't manage to teach biology? 

Also, aren't there WAY more pressing issues than GMOs? I'm thinking basic food safety, food allergies, basic nutrition and how to read food labels... plus there's so many non-food issues like vaccinations, sexual health, how to take care of an infant, first aid, how to weatherize your home, and so many other things that we really need to know!

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Wondering about Colony Collapse Disorder? Check out this introduction by +Biofortified's resident entomologist!

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Need moar help!

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has a great website where you can search by county to see what endangered / threatened organisms live there, and it will generate a CSV or Excel doc with the list. This is great, but what if I have a list of 300 counties!?  Right now, I'm doing this by hand, yay :(

There's gotta be a way to make a tool that will take my list of counties as input, then spit out a CSV with the organisms and associated info by county. I'd like to ask FWS for help, but don't even know what terms to use to describe what I'm looking for.

How can I summarize this in a way that a computer scientist / database person will immediately understand?
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