On Dr. Kevin Folta, The New York Times, and Witch Trials.

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke.

Recently an article from the New York Times smearing Dr. Kevin Folta became the highlight of the organiphiles’ day.  However, the statements within the article, with short examination, debunked themselves.

I love it when they make my job easy.

Dr. Folta and thirty-nine other scientists have been under vicious attacks from activists organization with the goal of silencing the researchers stepping into the public eye with their valuable work. The results from these attacks, for just Folta alone, have included doxxing, his family being threatened, and his graduate students’ names being published for harassment.

This is the result of the same ‘claim anything’ internet culture that propagates every atrocious myth under the sun. From the debunked yet still wildly popular autism-vaccine link, to the myth that bread is made of yoga mats, to the lethal green juice and coffee enemas cancer “treatment” that’s led to more than a few premature deaths, why would suspicion about GMOs be any different? When curiosity leads one to google Folta’s research, ‘GMOs,’ over half of the links from respectable appearing sources on the first page say that GMOs are dangerous. So why wouldn’t a mother who’s just trying to make the right decisions for her family, on an instinctive level, choose to think this sufficiently advanced technology is harmful magic to her children being touted by this evil magician Folta?

I mean look at him, he looks evil: 

 

However, peeling back the alarmism, the words in the New York Times piece debunk itself. 

Eric Lipton’s smear piece readily admits that “there is no evidence that (Folta’s) academic work was compromised.”

Lipton, tattoo that backwards on your ass and stare into a mirror until the ink is tickling your prostate.

This would have been the end of a piece with integrity, but instead Lipton artfully cherry picks about a dozen passages out of context from nearly five-thousands emails sequestered in the FOIA request from the group USRTK. If you’re going to only use about a dozen quotes, at least don’t admit the source material is five-thousand pages long. Working with that much material, a thousand monkeys with a thousand piles of poo to fling could eventually compose the Mona Lisa, and Lipton opted to fling this non-existent nefarious relationship between Folta and executives at Monsanto.

In terms of funding, Dr. Folta’s outreach program received a relatively small grant, $25k, specifically to fund the cost of travel to speak about genetically modified crops, Folta’s area of expertise. 

I’ve met Dr. Folta at one of these events at UC Davis and, as a fellow science speaker, been impressed by both his research and his ability to speak and answer questions for scientists and non-scientists alike. He is also deeply passionate about helping the lives of those less fortunate through biotechnology. He’s traveled many times over to the developing world and seen the ravages of malnutrition that occur when biotechnology is blocked. He returned with the quote regarding our battle between organic and conventional crops from a colleague in Africa, confused that “in America, your fight is between good food and good food.”

Folta labors to bring that good food to those who need it, even while his livelihood is being threatened. Since the FOIA request, the entire grant has been divested towards other programs at the university. So now this professor who’s already swimming in work just has to scramble, once again, to find funds for his outreach program. All this is because activists abusing FOIA found his source of funding objectionable without finding a single point of contention in his research other than “GMOs make me scared because science.”

In a landscape of misinformation about GMOs, having a world class researcher speaking about his results to the public is incredibly valuable, and universities are always scraping for funding for research, never mind an outreach program. Though that $25k would be a small impact in terms of research, it would have been surprising if a university science department could pull it out of their very tight budget; they can pay a PhD student for a year for that much, why would they give it to a professor to go speak elsewhere? It’s also comparatively a drop in the bucket compared to the total size of a research budget, upwards of tens of millions per year, depending on the university. But if anybody is still of the impression that this minor $25k grant “paid off” Folta’s research results, they’re either the sort whose career integrity is personally for sale for a fraction of a year’s salary, or they do not understand how much scientific research costs.

Furthermore, Dr. Charles Benbrook, cited as an industry expert and comparing Folta to a “skunk”, was funded at Washington State University entirely by the organic industry with a $250k grant. Given that all this fuss is over a $25k grant as an alleged conflict of interest, it’s telling of Lipton’s position that he chose to omit the amount of Benbrook’s outside funding for his while kicking up dust over a grant worth a tenth the amount.

The motive is simple; disparage biotechnology at any cost, scientific accuracy and consumer be damned. Because when you make lifesaving technology indistinguishable from magic, lives are maimed, and good scientists pay the price.

Everybody’s encouraged to ask questions, but when they don’t like the answers and resort to constructing false narratives about the scientists in order to discredit the science? They need to be stopped. Dr. Folta and the thirty-nine other scientists who are going to continue to receive these attacks deserve the full scientific community’s support right now.  It’s not enough for these people that they don’t want to eat GMOs, they want to stop scientists from working or speaking on GMOs. These are the type of activists who first say that a genetically modified crop needs more testing and when they get near the facilities? They burn the test fields. Because fire is the appropriate treatment for something you only understand as dangerous magic. 

There’s a small village in north east Massachusetts with a penchant for witch trials with some proud traditions being upheld here. As for Lipton, Hari, and the members of USRTK? The village is missing a few idiots.

-SciBabe.

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56 Comments

  1. Oh, SciBabe! You are just so awesome.
    As an alumna of University of Florida, I couldn’t be more proud of Dr. Folta for sticking to his guns and taking the high road in defending himself. I’m relieved that he has friends and allies like you. As far as I know, the University backs him, and I hope they continue to do so. I also hope he takes into account that there have been benefits in what he’s going through, and also in the articles like this that you’ve been writing. People like me (with a degree in graphic design – not too much bio-science going on there) have been paying attention and learning so much about GMOs, and understanding the science behind them, and we in turn, can work to educate our anti-GMO friends. Thank you for arming us “artsy folk” with info! Please keep up the great work, we’re listening.
    -Steph

    • His blog now lies silent, after he said he couldn’t blog any longer. I suspect that the university no longer has his back.
      When researchers are silenced, when speech is repressed, academia died a little with each one.

      • He can still speak. His speech is not repressed. He just does not enjoy the golden megaphone of the public university and the aura of being an “independent scientist” because reality caught up with him, as it needs to with everyone in such a key position.

        • Yup. Reality did catch up with him. The reality of an uninformed mob mentality fueled by an anti-science rhetoric playing on people’s fears. When it gets to the point that your ethical professional activities are drawing personal threats from those with an agenda, a sane person steps back and tries to decide if the distraction from his primary teaching and research duties as well as the risk to himself and family are worth the continued effort. Faced with well-funded frothing-at-the-mouth opponents who have shown no need to stay professional in the debate, I’d have probable chosen to back out as well.

          His university has had his back. They supported him as both criticism and threats poured in. (How many outraged removal-demand emails did they get because the university accepted a small outreach grant?)

          At least show some consistency.

          • It’s not about him personally. It’s about the public needing to know about the shenanigans that go on behind the scenes to “manage” public perception in dishonest ways, introducing bias into what is supposed to be unbiased science. It’s thinks like the collusion between the PR firm Ketchum and Monsanto PR executives, and various supposed independent journalists and scientists to create an illusion of general consensus that glyphosate and GMOs are safe. I’m agnostic on the question of GMOs, i think glyphosate is a problem, but the worse part is the distortion of public knowledge.

          • So, germane to this article and comment thread, disclosing things happens when researchers are silenced.
            That is not only counterintuitive, it’s nonsense in the extreme!
            But, to address your nonsense, how horrible a company that sells a product is to have PR executives manage advertisements and media relations! Why, they should have used witch doctors instead!
            Even more laughable is that somehow, Monsanto is magically forcing tens of thousands of journalists and scientists to follow their orders.
            Are space aliens involved in this vast conspiracy as well? You’ll need them, as you’re now describing mind control.

  2. Beautifully written. I love that you have sympathy for confused people who really are just trying to do their best and who are overwhelmed by the amount of (mis)information out there.

  3. It’s amazing that technological advancements by very intelligent scientists have allowed a class of comparatively ignorant humans to flourish, to the point where the ignorant are banding together against the very scientists that are responsible for the incredible lives they would otherwise not have had. Who could have predicted this negative consequence of technological advancement? Some fallen angels come to mind… For a quite unscientific analogy. Another would be don’t bite the hand that feeds you…. Literally.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I wish that there were far more scientists who would be more visible to the public regarding this FOIA intimidation to 39 of their colleagues. Dr. Folta does not deserve this campaign against him. If more scientists don’t speak out more visibly, and send a clear message to the public about this injustice, then the next group of scientists could be pro-evolution scientists, or pro-anthropogenic view of climate change scientists, etc. This issue really worries me, especially when pseudo-science is allowed to “win” because of terrorist tactics. I don’t use the word “terrorist” lightly, Dr. Folta has been intimidated both psychologically and physically because of all this.

  5. Excuse me, but is that a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale can on the table?
    If that is the case he’s a triple win of a human:
    1. knows science,
    2. loves animals,
    3. drinks good beer.

    Well done and screw the anti-science/anti-progress assholes.

          • Meh, someone can enjoy a beer without being a raging alcoholic
            Indeed, when reading the tripe anti-science types blather, a drink or fifty helps relieve the irritation.
            Personally, a cold beer on a hot day is a match made in heaven.
            The rest of the time, it’s either Black Bush Irish whiskey or a good Canadian blend. Who knows? With luck, some good GMO grain will double the capacity of the distilleries.
            Then, they’ll be able to keep up with my demand. 😉

  6. Another tour de force. Just like to add to the, “at any cost”. … and lives be damned, literally, by the millions.

    Yes, history will not look kindly on Gary Ruskin and his ilk and will remember the heroes like Folta and you.

  7. “Humanity tends to fear that which it does not understand; and seeks to destroy that which it fears.”

    It seems that we are still just a hair’s breadth from being barbarians at a moment’s notice. We hae accomplished so much, but we still have so very far to go. If things do not improve beyond this, I weep for the species. Our own stupidity will be the death of us.

  8. “Lipton, tattoo that backwards on your ass and stare into a mirror until the ink is tickling your prostate” ….

    you have a colorful turn of phrase.

  9. I first heard of Dr Folta when reading about anti-GMO pieces; he would say lets look at the data, or work with me and lets design some experiments to test what you are claiming. He came across as a genuine scientist, I have a lot of respect for him.
    Dr Steve Novella has a good write up in Neurologica (http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/nature-defends-science-communication/). He also points out that USRTK which obtained the emails, was able to do so with $47 500 of Big Organic funding. What a bunch of hypocritical wankers.

  10. A friend has been FOIA’d several times this year by the same environmental group and the time it takes away from his/her work is measurable. S/he always thought of his/herself as an environmentalist and now s/he is accused of being in bed with BigAg .Depressing that these groups are so anti science.Woo be damned.

  11. I’m a biology major and medical student, and your blog debunks ALL of the worst pseudoscience and so-called “health” trends that I hate. (Speaking of GMOs, I hope you have done/will do a piece on golden rice at some point!) Thank you, and when you figure out how to make the general public listen to science, I’m in.

    • Wow you’re a biology major where did you get your degree was it from a now deregistered online scam university.
      Why have many countries banned GMOs the list grows weekly.
      Dr. Folta receives grants from Monsanto and the likes, there is a petition going around asking the president at Folta’s university to fire him, over 100,000 signatures have been collected so far.

      • 1. You disagreeing with me does not mean that my degrees- multiple degrees, from real universities- are fake.
        2. A bunch of signatures from zealots who don’t understand science does not mean that Dr. Folta’s research is in any way tainted by a grant that he got for a comm program.

        And it’s pretty telling that his university didn’t fire him. Given that students still want to study under him since he’s a world class geneticist, I think that invalidates your bullshit.

        • Just another case of an individual failing to comprehend the difference between political pandering to a loud minority and evidence based science.

          As my company pays for college, I think I’ll add a biochemistry, then genetics course in the midst of my other courses. Regrettably, I’m a bit distant to take a genetics course from the good doctor, but I’m sure we could correspond. 🙂

  12. Speaking of Vani Hari the Food Fool’s “yoga mat chemical” BS: one of these days I’d LOVE to slip that idiot a list of all the plastics acetic acid is in. I can just see it now: “Are you pouring Elmer’s Glue on your salad?”

    • Never mind about acetic acid, tell him that his belly is full of hydrochloric acid. You know, bathroom cleaner. And that it dissociates into hydronium and chloride ions. Imagine! Hydronium! Chloride! Poisons, both of them! That should freak him out. Or maybe he’ll just recommend more spinach for cleansing the toxins.

      But I’m afraid you’re preaching to the choir, SciBabe. I doubt that those who need to untangle their messinformation read your blog.

      Have a good day,

      • Well i read this blog and i suffer from severe chemophobia. I am extremely afraid to eat fish from the Housatonic River and the Hudson River or anywhere in Anniston, Alabama, or to grow food in certain soils in Clyde, Ohio — can you guess the common denominator chemical in those locations?

        Hint: three letters, 209 congeners, lipiphilic, biomagnifies, affects thyroid function, causes cancer, causes hypertension, was used as a pesticide carrier early in the chemical food era, and was made by Big M while they hid the real dangers, as revealed in legal documents in the year 2000.

        • Fun fact: for the last 2.3 billion years the atmosphere has been fouled with an element deadly to essential parts of the biosphere: oxygen.

          We must work to eradicate O2 NOW! If we burn all Earthly combustibles, I wonder what would go first – the fuel or the oxygen?

          The drastic CO2 increase would be a problem, but I suspect the epochal lack of sunlight would solve that nasty warming problem, if you believe that particular hoax.

          I don’t know whether Humanity can do what Nature has tried and failed at 5 times: total eukaryote extinction (I assume prokaryotes will thrive no matter what).

          I hope you enjoyed the satire. No hijacking was intended.

        • Sage, in fairness, it’s true that powerful People and Institutions are capable of enormous Evil, but they can also do enormous Good. I suspect M fits that description.

          2 ubiquitous GMOs created in antiquity that we enjoy today: dogs and bananas.

          The world is dangerous enough as it is and doesn’t need fear-based, evidence-free First World problems added into the mix.

        • When I was a kid some 70 years ago, we could buy DDT powder in little round squeeze boxes, about the size of chewing baccy boxes. You tapped or squeezed the box and DDT powder came out. I regret to say that I experimented on the flies that infested the attic windows. Blew DDT powder all over them and watched them die. I inhaled quite a lot of that stuff, too, and as far as can tell it didn’t have much negative effect.

          In defence of DDT use, I’d just like to remind people that the toxicity tests of the time could not pick up on its serious long-term effects. The irony is that it was DDT that taught us that the then apparently adequate testing regimes were not good enough. Testing has become powerful and simple enough that a high school chem lab can detect much smaller concentrations of toxins than were detectable some 70 years ago.

          Bottom line: we do the best we can with information that is always and inevitably less than perfect. That’s life.

          • DDT- when used appropriately- is pretty safe for humans and is still used- in much more appropriate amounts- to control malaria outbreaks. It’s approximated that it’s saved a half a billion lives from death from malaria.

            The raptor lives are important, absolutely true. But so are a half a billion humans. We need to keep innovating and finding better solutions, but never discount one entirely when it’s the best technology we have available to save lives.

          • The difference in the use of DDT today vs before its harm was discovered is, localized usage vs indiscriminate usage of DDT.
            But, as you said, it’s a balance between massive malaria outbreaks and curbing malaria outbreaks. This is especially true with Plasmodium Falciparum outbreaks, due to the impact of that specific genus of malaria parasite.

      • They’d better watch out for hydroxic acid and dihydrogen monoxide.
        Now, excuse me while I take a drink of hydrol, mixed with μ-Oxido dihydrogen, solid phase.

  13. I am very glad for USTRK’s work in exposing connections and motivations on the very important questions about the safety of our food supply, and i’m very grateful for the work of Vani Hari (Food Babe) as well. I’m quite familiar with both and have thought long and hard about both.

    • Feel free to follow the village idiot, when it comes to modern science.
      I’ll stick with evidence based science over pseudoscience every time.

      • And… i’ll stick with science, too. Unbiased science. That is one reason i’m with USRTK on this — because we need to know when science is being gamed. We need to know more than what was actually revealed, too. We need more transparency than this. We needed to know when DuPont was poisoning people with PFOA (C8) and knew about it, and we needed to know when Monsanto was poisoning people with PCBs. We need to know these things because of the nature of chemicals and contamination. There are some things that cannot be reversed, and to take the word of those who stand to profit given the track record is not wise.

        • Oh, so you want to know when you’re bing poisoned by “chemicals”.
          OK, what does this chemical do in the environment? C2H6O.
          How about CH4N2O?
          How about NH4NO3 + CaMg (CO3)2?
          Or C55H98O6?
          Finally, what would C11H26NO2PS do in the environment?
          Here’s a hint, the first four are common in the environment, the last isn’t.
          The first chemical is one I regularly utilize as well.
          Since you know more than scientists from 1935 until 1970 and 1951 and that was two years before we figured out what DNA looked like, you can identify all of those extremely common chemicals and you’d have to look up the last one.

          • A puzzling comment.

            Anyway, i knew the first one offhand — it’s ethanol. And yes, i like a beer sometimes as well.

            The others, urea, ammonium nitrate, triglyceride (body fat), and then a nerve agent which is a toxin to humans and classified as a weapon of mass destruction? I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. Please be more explicit as to your intent of this message.

          • Those were a few simple chemicals, how many did you look up?
            How many that you can’t look up would you know how they behaved in the environment or even within your body?

            As for ethanol, I use 190 everclear to clean my macbook pro aluminum body. It works better than most solvents to clean off oxidized oils from my hands, evaporates rapidly and leaves no residue. 🙂
            For imbibing, I stick with Canadian whiskey or Irish Whiskey, as my fancy decides. Although, I’ve been known to make a joke straight out of Doctor Strangelove…

          • Actually, my point is, if you know the formula of a well known chemical, you can look it up and know what it’d do in the environment.
            What I didn’t mention was in regards to the nerve agent, how stable is it in the environment?
            Extremely, it’s a persistent nerve agent. You’d not know that from the formula though.
            In short, knowing the chemical formula of a complex chemical doesn’t tell one all about that chemical, add in a complex environment or even physiology, well, all bets are off without testing.

  14. The heading “Dr. Folta and thirty-nine other scientists have been under vicious attacks…” appalls me. But I know what fearful people, ignorant of science are capable of. And also those with a vested interest in not finding out. I worked as a scientist in the climate change area for 15+ years.

    AND I am against GMOs. Studies of them are too narrow and do not look at long term effects for the rest of the environment.

    I am thinking of eucalyptus die-back caused by foxes. In an area being logged, trees up to 100m from the newly made access roads were dying. This study was about 10 years ago.

    Eventually the causal link was found. Foxes hunt wallabies near the new roads. Wallabies who used to dig up and eat fungus on the tree roots decline in numbers. The fungus, necessary for tree roots to absorb nutrients are no longer being spread around. Over 5-10 years, trees die off.

    I would like to see 10-30 year testing of each GMO technology before declaring it safe.

    • We’ve been studying them for about that long. So even by your metric, they’re safe.

      What next, a hundred years? How many people have to starve from not being allowed life saving technology before your arbitrary measure says they’re fine?

      • People aren’t starving due to a lack of food. They are starving because they can’t afford to pay for it. There is a difference.

        Crops yields have DECREASED ever since GMO’s hit the scene. If anything will cause a food shortage, GMO’s are it.

        From MIT: “Other technologies available have fewer scientific unknowns, less possibility of forming cycles of farmer debt, and have led to equally significant reductions in hunger. Integrated pest management, organic farming, and other improved farming practices may increase yields just as effectively as would introducing transgenic organisms. As such, we will not promote their widespread use until more research has been done on long term health effects, GMO seeds are available outside of corporate agriculture control, the biological effects of gene insertion are better understood, and research confirms that the presence of GMOs will not harm the native species in an ecosystem.”

        http://12.000.scripts.mit.edu/mission2014/genetically-modified-crops

        Tell me SciBabe, is MIT “anti-science?”

  15. Ah, the famine in Africa is due to GMO plants, not a lack of water! How fascinating and powerful those altered genes are, altering the very climate!

    Tell that to someone who wasn’t there, I’ve been there and witnessed the parched ground. Even a cactus would have trouble with the lack of rain there.

    So, tell us all, using the various pesticides that must be free in your version of the world, as you object to the cost of GMO seeds, what proportion of the crop survives to harvest?
    Or are we doing without all of those pesticides and have a substantial amount of the crop destroyed by pests?
    Have you ever witnessed a locust swarm? I have, impressive and there’s an instinctive fear of the cloud.
    I guess your non-GMO plants would just snap those insects up, like a venus flytrap, huh?

    From your own source:
    “Use of transgenic plants increases yields and decreases the need for pesticide use, thereby preventing significant ecological damage. GM pesticide-producing crops are engineered to produce Bt toxins, a crystal protein naturally synthesized by the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that these toxins do not activate in the human gut, and pose no risk to human health (EPA). The endotoxins are insecticidal and exhibit low environmental persistence (meaning they degrade quickly), making them ideal for expression in crops (Sharma, 2010). Although Bt is lethal to many insects, multiple scientific studies have found them to be harmless to wild mammals, birds, pets, and humans; Bt endotoxins may as well be considered “biopesticides” (Sharma, 2010). ”

    Evil!

    Again, from your own source:
    The European corn borer, a widespread crop pest, claims 7 percent of the world’s corn supply each year. Use of Bt corn has saved US farmers in Iowa and Nebraska alone up to 1.7 billion dollars in fighting this pest over the past 14 years, when compared to non-Bt variants (Hutchinson). Spanish farmers who have implemented Bt maize have found a 10 percent increase in yields, with up to 20 percent increases in borer-infested areas (Europa). Along with increasing yields, Bt crops also decrease pesticide usage. Some estimates indicate that if “50% of maize, oil seed rape, sugar beet, and cotton grown in the EU were GM varieties, pesticide in the EU/year would decrease by 14.5 million kg of formulated product”, and “there would be a reduction of 7.5 million hectares sprayed, which would save 20.5 million liters of diesel and result in a reduction of approximately 73,000 tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere” (Phipps). A reduction of 13 million kg of pesticide in the United States has been recorded in soybean and corn fields in between 1997 and 2009, after the introduction of genetically modified crops (Phipps). Pesticide usage is reduced by a projected 2.5 million pounds a year in the US alone due to introduction of Bt crops (USDA). It is projected that the introduction of Bt resistant sugar beet in Europe would decrease pesticide usage in kilograms per year by 2,208 kg and increase yield by 5,050 kg per year (Gianessi). Europe, a place where transgenic plants are marginally utilized, uses roughly 3 kg of pesticide per hectare, compared to the United States’ 2.5 (Goodplanet).

    Increased yield where not exists, magic!

    More horror!
    Overall, we believe that biotechnology has great potential to bring about many benefits to provide for food security, especially in the third world. These benefits include, but are not limited to, the reduction of crop loss to environmental stress, the prevention of vitamin deficiency through more nutritious crops, the prevention of food spoilage before it is brought to market, the alleviation of soil degradation in the Third World, the potential use in agroforestry systems to create more efficient and non-competitive nitrogen fixers, the potential to synthesize more potent biopesticides for organic farming, the potential to create plants built to bioremediate contaminated soils, and the potential to create plants that thrive in rooftop or vertical farms. However, although promising, agricultural technology has not yet delivered on the aforementioned fronts.

    Yeah, food security is evil, right up there with letting kids grow up to become adults is evil.
    Or something.

    Your own source contradicts the lack of increased crop yield and less pesticide usage.

  16. You’re kidding me. So you think empty rhetoric is “nicely done” — the level of dialog here makes it clear that there is serious desire to push an agenda and no commitment to truth, which means determining the nature of reality, which is really the purpose of science when it’s practiced truly. What we see here is a bastardization of the concept of “science” according to the “Skeptoid” misrepresentations of it, generally serving the chemical industry’s disinformation needs. It’s a sad and immoral thing to distort human knowledge for the profits of a few at the expense of humans at large. It’s actually against the species being, and against the general moral code of most humans, which is pretty much the definition of “evil” — and the costs are great and therefore people want very much to rid ourselves of this cancerous cultural phenom.

  17. So, crop harvests that are 20 – 30 times what “organic” crops would yield is bad for humanity? More food is bad?
    Greater crop yield means the costs are lower.
    As for your “people want very much…”, I’m a person, as is my wife and together, we’re people and are quite happy with GMO foods. My only discontent is that panicked people raising hell make it hard for me to get GMO foods for my home garden. That makes this veteran fighting mad.

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