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August 2008 Updates

Monsanto Looks to Sell Dairy Hormone Business

By Andrew Martin and Andrew Pollack
New York Times
August 7, 2008

After struggling to gain consumer acceptance, Monsanto on Wednesday announced that it would try to sell its business of producing an artificial growth hormone for dairy cows. The company will focus instead on its thriving business of selling seeds and developing ways to improve crops.

The decision comes as more retailers, saying they are responding to consumer demand, are selling dairy products from cows not treated with the artificial hormone.

Wal-Mart, Kroger and Publix are among the retailers that now sell house-brand milk from untreated cows. Almost all of the fresh milk sold by Dean Foods, the nation's largest milk bottler, also comes from cows that were not treated with the artificial hormone, a spokeswoman said.

Monsanto officials said the decision was not related to the retail trend and that business for the artificial hormone, sold under the brand name Posilac, remained brisk. Monsanto, which is based in St. Louis and is the only commercial manufacturer of the hormone, declined to provide sales numbers.

Selling Posilac "will allow Monsanto to focus on the growth of its core seeds and traits business while ensuring that loyal dairy farmers continue to receive the value of Posilac in their operations," Carl Casale, Monsanto's executive vice president for strategy and operations, said in a statement.

The growth hormone, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1993, was one of the first applications of genetic engineering used in food production. When the artificial hormone, which is made in genetically modified bacteria, is injected into cows, it increases milk production by about a gallon a day. A 2007 survey by the Department of Agriculture said 17 percent of the nation's dairy cows were receiving it.

Despite the government's approval, many advocacy groups have long maintained that Posilac is bad for the health of cows. Some even claim it could pose a cancer risk in people, though little scientific evidence has emerged to support that view. Their concerns have been fueled by the refusal of many countries, including Canada and members of the European Union, to permit the use of the hormone.

"I think they saw the handwriting on the wall and gave up," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington. "It's a major victory for consumers."

Mr. Kimbrell said the original idea of marketing a growth hormone for milk production was flawed because milk is so emblematic of childhood. Fear of the effects of the artificial hormone was one of the primary drivers behind the growth of the organic dairy industry, he said.

But Elena Gonser, a dairy farmer in Everson, Wash., contended that consumers had been misled by misinformation. She added that Posilac, which is also known as bovine somatotropin or BST, was safe and effective.

"I believe it's just catering to ignorance to tell people it's BST-free, and it's better for you," said Ms. Gonser, who along with her husband runs a farm that has 70 cows.

But she added: "I'm not surprised to find they want to step back from it. It's gotten a bad rap for so long."

Monsanto's announcement comes after a year of pitched battles over labeling on dairy packages. A year ago, Monsanto tried unsuccessfully to persuade federal officials to crack down on labels that say the milk has been produced without the hormone, arguing that milk from treated cows was the same as that from untreated cows.

In the months since, a Monsanto-backed advocacy group and a handful of dairy organizations have struggled to have similar laws or regulations passed at the state level. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the secretary of agriculture banned the labels, only to have his order overturned by the governor amid a consumer uproar.

Monsanto will continue to sell and market the product until a buyer is found, said Christie Chavis, who leads commercial development and strategy for the company's animal agriculture business unit. Posilac is sold in 20 countries.

Ms. Chavis said that the artificial hormone was safe and also good for the environment, saying that it takes fewer cows and less resources to produce the same volume of milk.

Jim Werkhoven, a dairy farmer in Monroe, Wash., said he was disappointed when he learned of the move on Wednesday from a Monsanto industrial relations executive.

"I certainly understand from a business perspective why they may be doing this," he said. "At the end of the day, the customer is going to be the one that sets the rules, and at the end of the day, it's going to be the customer that pays the price."


The Four Barriers to the Genetically Modified "Food Revolution"
(and Why No One Is Talking About Them)

By Paul Roberts
Slate Magazine
August 08, 2008

Could this be the turning point for genetically modified food? As food prices have soared around the world, agro-industry companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, along with their allies in Washington, have been carefully positioning GM technology as our last, best hope against a global food catastrophe. Since traditional crop-breeding methods aren't keeping up with soaring food demand, they argue, we have no choice but to re-engineer our crops at the molecular level to give bigger yields.

Appealing as this argument sounds, it misses the real obstacles facing GM. Yes, traditional crop science is struggling. And yes, rising food prices might help consumers and lawmakers overcome their fears about GM's safety (especially as some of those concerns are overblown). But neither change will alter the fact that GM crop technology itself isn't ready to save the world. Despite GM's potential, the technology faces substantial technical and economic barriers before it will spark a second green revolution - barriers that aren't being discussed in the newly energized debate over genetically modified food.

For starters, for all the talk of saving the world from hunger, the GM industry isn't focusing on crops that are truly relevant to global food security. Today, most GM research targets big Western cash crops: Two of the best-selling GM products are corn and soybeans engineered to tolerate the popular herbicide Roundup. But these high-tech seeds are designed for large-scale, mechanized farmers in North and South America and are of no use to the billions of developing-world farmers who make up three-quarters of the global-farming work force - but without whom lasting global food security can't be achieved.

By contrast, relatively little GM investment is going into the crops that do matter to poor farmers - cassava, sorghum, millet, pigeon pea, chickpea, and groundnut. These crops are more nutritionally balanced than corn or soybeans and are far better suited to the local soils and often-tough climates of poor nations. Yet, because poor farmers can't afford high-tech seeds, GM companies have little incentive to invest research dollars to improve "marginal" crops. Instead, they focus on the money makers: According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, just four commercial crops - corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton - account for 85 percent of all GM crops planted worldwide.

GM companies also aren't being honest about what this technology can do - and what it can't. In the rush to exploit the current crisis, the industry routinely promises to re-engineer crops to give massive yields - Monsanto has vowed to double grain yields by 2030 - or to grow with less water or to thrive in degraded soils. But delivering on such promises will be much harder than is currently acknowledged. Whereas making corn tolerate Roundup required the manipulation of just one gene, boosting yield is vastly more complex, says Kendall Lamkey, a crop-breeding expert who chairs Iowa State University's Department of Agronomy. Yield is the expression of a plant's reproductive success, and reproduction takes nearly all of a plant's survival "skills," from its capacity to cope with temperature changes to its resistance to bugs. In other words, says Lamkey, to boost yields through genetic modification, GM companies must manipulate thousands of genes - and so far, they've had limit! ed success.

In fact, many breeding experts believe that the fastest way to boost yields isn't by engineering new seeds but by exploiting the untapped potential of existing seeds. As Lamkey points out, the yields for corn and soybeans on America's top-performing farms are more than double the national average for those same crops. (In 2007, the top soybean farmer produced 154 bushels per acre, compared with the national average of around 41 bushels.) That means there is considerable room for improvement before these seeds are maxed out. These "top producers" aren't using different seeds; instead, they're benefiting from better soils, using better farming practices, and applying lots of water, fertilizer, and other chemicals - factors that GM technology won't influence anyway.

To be fair, GM technologists may eventually master the complexity of yield - but not without spending lots of money and lots of time; Monsanto says it will need at least two decades for its big yield boosts. That means the world has little hope for quick relief - and that GM companies have little hope for a quick return on their investment. Thus, for all the hype about using GM to solve the current crisis, or to end hunger generally, the industry will be financially inclined to focus on simpler projects with faster payoffs, such as new varieties of commercial crops bred to tolerate herbicides and pesticides.

Even if GM companies do manage to improve crops that truly matter for food security, these miracle seeds won't help if they're not accessible to poor farmers. That means companies must either price seeds cheaply enough for farmers to buy each year or stop objecting when poor farmers save and reuse the seeds the following year. Today, Monsanto and other seed companies object strenuously to seed saving, which they call "seed piracy" and which they claim deprives them of profits. Yet seed saving is central to food security for the billions of farmers too poor to buy new seeds every season. More to the point, while pirated profits are a real issue among wealthy Western farmers, it's a bogus concern in the developing world, where poor farmers were never going to buy new seeds - and certainly not expensive GM seeds - every year anyway.

In fact, many critics believe the GM industry's objections to seed saving have less to do with lost profits in the developing world than with the industry's long-term goal of owning, literally, the seed sector. When seeds are conventionally bred, breeders don't own them - anyone can use or improve the seeds. But genetic modification allows a company to claim property rights over a particular DNA blueprint and to charge a licensing fee for each and every copy - much as Microsoft now claims an interest in each and every copy of Windows. By relaxing its proprietary zeal and allowing seeds in the developing world to be "open source," the GM industry could do much to bolster claims that it is really trying to help poor farmers.

Finally, if the industry wants public support, it can no longer dismiss public concerns about the risks of GM crops - health risks for humans but also the ecological risk that GM crops will escape farms and contaminate the wilderness. True, some concerns are overblown. Ecological contamination, or "gene flow," is a real threat only when pollen from a GM crop in a farm field finds a nearby wild relative; in the United States, most commercial crops such as corn or soybeans don't have any wild relatives. But gene flow is a possible concern in places like Chile, where commercial potatoes do have wild relatives. Human health risks are even less clear-cut. Though we've yet to see credible reports of GM foods causing human health problems, we've also not had the benefit of credible long-term health studies.

Until such studies have been completed, the GM industry needs to stop regarding a skeptical public as a nuisance. And even if GM technology is shown to be safe, the industry needs to accept that many consumers may still choose not to eat genetically modified foods. That means no more lawsuits against food companies that market their food as "GM free." That also means no more lobbying against laws requiring that foods with GM ingredients be labeled as such. Consumers have a right to know what's in their food.

What would the industry get in return for such good behavior? Money, for one. Whatever one thinks of the GM industry, it's hardly fair to force private companies to make products for farmers so poor they can't pay. Once upon a time, breeding new crops for poor farmers was inseparable from the West's larger food-aid strategy and was managed - and financed - largely by governments. (Indeed, most of the green revolution miracle crops from the 1960s were bred by government- and foundation-backed researchers.) Since then, much of the public-sector breeding enterprise has been dismantled (partly at the behest of the seed industry, which was tired of competing with public agencies), leaving a massive gap in our system for developing critical new crops.

GM companies say they (and their technologies) offer the best means of closing that gap. But it's hard to see why these companies would invest heavily in regionally appropriate, but potentially unprofitable, crops. Rather, what's more likely is that the industry will use the promise of a solution to the food crisis to press for more regulatory flexibility and more consumer acceptance - and then use that freedom to keep making the same big-money cash crops they always have.

We shouldn't be shocked by such pragmatism. Seed companies, like any company, are in business to make money. But our policy toward GM companies should be no less pragmatic. If we want private companies to take on what is essentially a public job - helping farmers too poor to participate in the market economy - we're going to have to pay them to do it. So let's make a deal: In return for targeting vital regional and local crops, and for making the seeds accessible to poor farmers, GM companies will get hefty subsidies for research and development of these crops.

Would such a deal be enough to ignite a gene revolution? If the main obstacle to GM miracles is lack of financial and political support, as the industry argues, then such a deal could be the catalyst for serious innovation. But if, as many critics believe, the real obstacle here is that GM technology simply isn't all that its proponents claim, that the real challenges of food insecurity - degraded soils, political instability, lack of water, and soaring energy costs - are beyond the reach of a single technology, that, too, would quickly become clear. In either case, by reframing the GM debate as a challenge to do the revolution right, we can encourage a more constructive conversation about the real role that this technology might play in the future of food security.


Dr. Pusztai on 10th Anniversary of GM Safety Scandal

August 10, 2008

NOTE: On the 10th August 1998 the GM debate changed forever with the broadcast of a programme on British TV about GM food safety featuring a brief but revealing interview with Dr Arpad Pusztai about his research into this issue. Item 1 is Dr Pusztai's comment on the anniversary, while item 2 is GM Watch's look at the scandal he helped expose and the attacks he subsequently suffered.

I thought that I should write to you on the 10th anniversary of my 150 seconds of TV "fame" and tell you what I think now. It is very appropriate to write to you because you have provided the most comprehensive service to inform people about the shenanigans of the GM biotechnology industry and its advocates.

On this anniversary I have to admit that, unfortunately, not much has changed since 1998. In one of the few sentences I said in my broadcast ten years ago, I asked for a credible GM testing protocol to be established that would be acceptable to the majority of scientists and to people in general. 10 years on we still haven't got one. Instead, in Europe we have an unelected EFSA GMO Panel with no clear responsibility to European consumers, which invariably underwrites the safety of whatever product the GM biotech industry is pushing onto us.

All of us asked for independent, transparent and inclusive research into the safety of GM plants, and particularly those used in foods. There is not much sign of this either. There are still "many opinions but very few data"; less than three dozen peer-reviewed scientific papers have been published describing the results of work relating to GM safety that could actually be regarded as being of an academic standard; and the majority of even these is from industry-supported labs. Instead we have the likes of Tony Trewavas and others writing unsupported claims for the safety of GM food and defaming people like Rachel Carson who can no longer defend herself; not that she needs to be defended from such nonentities.

In normal times one would not pay much attention to such people desperately trying to be seen as the advocates of true science, but these are not normal times. The mostly engineered (GM engineered) food crisis gives the GM biotech industry and its warriors an opportunity to come to the fore with claims that GM is the only way to save a hungry world; a claim not much supported by responsible bodies, such as the IAASTD. The advocates of GM also now think that they have found a chink in the armoury of people's resolve that they can exploit by telling us that we would not be able to feed our animals without GM feedstuffs. In this way, they hope to bring in GM by the backdoor. Please remember that whatever our animals eat, we shall also get back indirectly. Rather ominously, there has been no work whatever to show the safety of the meat of GM-fed animals.

We must not underestimate the financial and political clout of the GM biotechnology industry. Most of our politicians are committed to the successful introduction of GM foods. We must therefore use all means at our disposal to show people the shallowness of these claims by the industry and the lack of credible science behind them, and then trust to people's good sense, just as in 1998, to see through the falseness of the claims for the safety of untested GM foods.

Let's hope that on the 20th anniversary I shall not have to write another warning letter about the dangers of untested GM foods!

Best wishes to all
Arpad Pusztai


The Pusztai Scandal Laid Bare

GM Watch
August 10. 2005

. . . on the 10th August 1998 the GM debate changed forever.

The story began three years earlier. That's when the UK government's Scottish Office commissioned a three-year multi-centre research programme into the safety of GM food under the coordination of Dr Arpad Pusztai. At that time there was not a single publication in a peer-reviewed journal on the safety of GM food.

Dr Pusztai, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was an eminent scientist. He was the world's leading expert on the plant proteins known as lectins. He had published three books and over 270 scientific studies.

He and his team fought off competition from 28 other research organisations from across Europe to be awarded the GBP1.6 million contract by the Scottish Office. The project methodology was also reviewed and passed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) - the UK government's main funding body for the biological sciences.

The research involved feeding GM potatoes to rats and monitoring physiological changes. By late 1997 preliminary results from the rat-feeding experiments were showing totally unexpected and worrying changes in the size and weight of the rat's body organs. Liver and heart sizes were getting smaller, and so was the brain. There were also indications that the rats' immune systems were weakening.

Dr Pusztai was interviewed for a programme about GM food being made by Granada TV's 'The World in Action'. The filming took place in late June 1998 with the agreement of the director of the Rowett Institute, Professor James, and in the presence of the Rowett Institute's press officer. The World in Action interview was broadcast on the evening of Monday 10th August 1998.

Later that evening Professor James congratulated Dr Pusztai on his TV appearance, commenting on 'how well Arpad had handled the questions'. The next day a further press release from the Rowett noted that 'a range of carefully controlled studies underlie the basis of Dr Pusztai's concerns'. However, reportedly following two calls to the Rowett from the Prime Minister's Office, the Government, the Royal Society and the Rowett launched a vitriolic campaign to sack, silence and ridicule Dr Pusztai.

He was accused of unprofessional conduct because his work had not been peer-reviewed. However, his research subsequently passed peer-review after being reviewed by a larger than usual panel of scientists and was published (see below). Many people also take the view that in circumstances where research is giving rise to serious concerns that may need to be addressed sooner rather than later, it is acceptable for scientists to act as whistle blowers and draw attention to the problems their research is uncovering even prior to peer-reviewed publication.

The Government criticised the methodology of Pusztai's research despite the fact that this had been approved in advance by its own Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Neither the Government nor any other official body has ever repeated or refined Dr Pusztai's experiments to test the validity of his results.

The Royal Society and its leading Fellows were key players in the attacks on Dr Pusztai from the time he went public with doubts about the safety of GM foods. In February 1999, for instance, nineteen Fellows of the Royal Society condemned Pusztai, in all but name, in a letter published in the national press. Among the signatories was Peter Lachmann, who played a key role in the attacks on Pusztai.

Three months later in May 1999 the Royal Society published a partial 'peer review' of Pusztai's then unpublished research. This review was based not on a properly prepared paper, like that Pusztai and his collaborator Ewen submitted to The Lancet for peer-review, but on a far-from-complete internal report intended for use by Pusztai's research team at the Rowett Institute.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, described the Royal Society review as 'a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication of their work.'

The Royal Society's review was organised by members of a working group appointed by the Society in coordination with the Society's officers. The Royal Society claimed that anyone who had already commented on the Pusztai affair had been excluded from this decision making process in order to avoid bias. However, William Hill, Patrick Bateson, Brian Heap and Eric Ash, who were all involved, were all among the co-signatories of the letter condemning Pusztai that had been published in The Daily Telegraph back in February.

In addition, four key people involved, including the Chair of the working group, Noreen Murray, as well as Brian Heap, Rebecca Bowden and Sir Aaron Klug, were all part of the earlier working group that had issued the Royal Society's 1998 report supporting GM foods.

There were other issues of bias. For instance, William Hill, the chair of the Pusztai working group, was also the deputy chair of the Roslin Institute, famous for genetically modifying animals and for cloning Dolly the sheep. Roslin in turn had links to Geron Biomed for whom Lachmann consulted. Similarly, Noreen Murray was the wife of the co-founder of Europe's first biotechnology company, Biogen.

Undaunted by the Royal Society's attack on their unpublished work, Pusztai and his co-researcher, Prof Stanley Ewen, submitted their final paper on their experiments to The Lancet. It was sent to six reviewers, double the normal number, and a clear majority were in favour of its publication.

However, prior to publication the Lancet's editor Richard Horton received a phone call from Peter Lachmann, the former Vice-President of the Royal Society. According to Horton, Lachmann called him 'immoral' for publishing something he knew to be 'untrue'. Towards the end of the conversation Horton says Lachmann also told him that if he published Pusztai's paper, this would 'have implications for his personal position' as editor.

The Guardian broke the news of Horton being threatened in November 1999 in a front-page story. It quoted Horton saying that the Royal Society had acted like a Star Chamber over the Pusztai affair. 'The Royal Society has absolutely no remit to conduct that sort of inquiry.' Lachmann denied threatening Horton although he admitted making the phone call in order to discuss the pending publication.

The Guardian also talked of a GM 'rebuttal unit' operating from within the Royal Society. According to the journalist Andy Rowell, who helped research The Guardian article, Rebecca Bowden, who had coordinated the Pusztai peer-review and who had worked for the Government's Biotechnology Unit before joining The Royal Society in 1998, admitted to the paper, 'We have an organization that filters the news out there. It's really an information exchange to keep an eye on what's happening and to know what the government is having problems about . . . its just so that I know who to put up.'

The attacks on The Lancet editor and his decision to publish Pusztai's paper continued. Sir Aaron Klug, vigorously opposed the publication of Pusztai's research, saying it was fatally flawed in design because the protein content of the diets which control groups of rats were fed on was not the same as that of the other diets. Pusztai commented: 'In fact, the paper clearly states that ALL diets had the same protein content and were iso-energetic. I cannot assume that Sir Aaron is not sufficiently intelligent to read a simple statement as that, so the only conclusion I can come to is that he deliberately briefed the reporters with something that was untrue.'

Richard Horton remained unbowed. 'Stanley Ewen and Arpad Pusztai's research letter,' he wrote, 'was published on grounds of scientific merit, as well as public interest'. What Sir Aaron Klug from the Royal Society cannot 'defend is the reckless decision of the Royal Society to abandon the principles of due process in passing judgement on their work. To review and then publish criticism of these researchers' findings without publishing either their original data or their response was, at best, unfair and ill-judged'.

The attacks continue unabated. Peter Lachmann's successor as Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, Patrick Bateson, told readers of the British Association's journal Science and Public Affairs that The Lancet had only published Pusztai's research 'in the face of objections by its statistically-competent referees' (June 2002, Mavericks are not always right). Bateson, presumably deliberately, inverts the fact that Pusztai's Lancet paper successfully came through a peer review process that was far more stringent than that applying to most published papers.

In an article in The Independent, giving the Royal Society's views on why the public no longer trusts experts like themselves - 'Scientists blame media and fraud for fall in public trust' - Pusztai's work is categorised as 'fraud'. Pusztai's peer reviewers, we are told in the article, 'refused it for publication, citing numerous flaws in its methods - notably that the rats in the experiment had not been fed GM potatoes, but normal ones spiked with a toxin that GM potatoes might have made.' Almost every word of this is straight fabrication. There was no fraud. Rats were fed GM potatoes. The publication of Pusztai's Lancet paper was supported by a clear majority of its peer reviewers, etc. etc. It is particularly ironic that such a travesty should have been published in an article reporting the Royal Society's concerns about the reporting of science in the media.

In February 2002 a new Royal Society report on GM crops was published as an update to the Society's September 1998 report on GM. The expert group which produced it was much more broadly based than in '98 and the report took a noticeably more cautious line. 'British Scientists Turn on GM Foods', ran The Guardian's headline on a report which included an admission 'that GM technology could lead to... unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional status of foods'.

The expert group was chaired by Jim Smith, who had sat on the Society's Pusztai working group, and tucked away inside the report was a paragraph on Pusztai. Once again, it was designed to mislead.

The first part of the paragraph read: 'In June 1999, the Royal Society published a report, review of data on possible toxicity of GM potatoes, in response to claims made by Dr Pusztai (Ewen and Pusztai, 1999). The report found that Dr Pusztai had produced no convincing evidence of adverse effects from GM potatoes on the growth of rats or their immune function.'

The Royal Society report references the phrase 'claims made by Dr Pusztai' - claims it said it had reviewed - to the article published by Pusztai and Ewen in The Lancet in 1999. In fact, however, the Royal Society's partial review of Pusztai's research was published months before The Lancet article appeared. The Royal Society thus conceals the fact that it had only ever reviewed part of Pusztai's data, condemning him ahead of publication of his actual paper.

The 2002 report continued: 'It concluded that the only way to clarify Dr Pusztai's claims would be to refine his experimental design and carry out further studies to test clearly defined hypotheses focused on the specific effects reported by him. Such studies, on the results of feeding GM sweet peppers and GM tomatoes to rats, and GM soya to mice and rats, have now been completed and no adverse effects have been found (Gasson and Burke, 2001).'

But the Gasson and Burke paper, to which these further feeding studies are referenced by the Society, was not a piece of primary research but an 'opinion' piece written by two pro-GM scientists, Mike Gasson and Derek Burke. Worse, one of t he two further studies mentioned had not even been published, except by way of summary, ie it had never been fully peer-reviewed. In other words, the Royal Society uses an unpublished and un-peer-reviewed study to attack Pusztai, two years after it had condemned him for speaking to the media without first publishing peer-reviewed work.

In response to criticism, the Royal Society admitted that the work in question remained unpublished but said this was not a problem because, 'it had been discussed at international scientific conferences'. By this definition, however, Pusztai's research would have been equally validated before the Society ever launched its partial review as it had been presented at an international conference prior to the Society's review. Curiously, the Royal Society has also described the opinion piece by Gasson and Burke as 'primary research,' even though it is a literature review involving no lab work.

Andy Rowell, author of a book that deals extensively with the Royal Society's role in the Pusztai affair, writes, 'the fundamental flaw in the scientific establishment's response is not that they try and damn Pusztai with unpublished data, nor is it that they have overlooked published studies [supporting Pusztai's concerns], but that in 1999, everyone agreed that more work was needed. Three years later, that work remains to be undertaken... [A] scientific body, like The Royal Society, that allocates millions in research funds every year, could have funded a repeat of Pusztai's experiments.'

Nobody ever has.

Much of the information above comes from Andy Rowell's book, 'Don't Worry: Its Safe To Eat'.

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