It’s hard to dialogue…

Genetic engineering is just one of the many many parts of ag that are really really difficult to discuss. We all come to the table with our own biases, our own understanding of the way things “should” be, based on our experiences, education, philosophy, religion… all of the things that make us who we are. While these individual characteristics are valuable and important, they can lead us to react inappropriately to people who have views that are different than ours. They can also cause us to be combative rather than receptive to proposals of dialogue.
One particular example of bias preventing dialogue is conspiracy theories involving “big ag”. There exists these ideas that everyone who interacts with “big ag” is somehow part of “big ag”. People who subscribe to this view include farmers as part of “big ag”, as described by Nate Taylor on All Things Agriculture:

You obviously have many issues with the current food system, and I do not disagree that there are many to go after, but including the farmer in that mix and then calling them Big-Ag because it is easy and people “understand it” doesn’t help and creates divides. I am not Big-Ag and never have been.

There is a real interaction between farmers and “big ag”. They buy products from and sell their crops to corporations that are considered to be part of “big ag”. This doesn’t mean that the farmers are in cahoots with some master plan of “big ag” or that their personal philosophies align with whatever people think “big ag” stands for.
Whether it’s explicitly stated or not, there is a general feeling coming from opponents of “big ag” that farmers are stupid, greedy, or malicious tools of “the man”. Maybe the opponents of “big ag” don’t mean to target individual farmers, ranchers, ag researchers, and others but it sure feels that way. I’ve seen quite a few farmers get angry at getting lumped with a concept that they don’t feel adequately represents them. The claims feel like attacks, and result in people wanting to fight back. It’s sad, because this isn’t a fight, or shouldn’t be.
Science bloggers like those of us here at Biofortified are often claimed to be part of “big ag”, even when we are very forthcoming about exactly how we are funded, who we work for, etc. Like farmers, we do have an interaction with “big ag” in that we read and analyze their research, and we may see scientific merit in their work. We might work with the UDSA currently or plan to in the future. We might currently or plan to participate in academic research that is funded by the USDA and/or agricultural companies. We might even end up with jobs at companies like Monsanto, Pioneer, or Syngenta. As bloggers, we might communicate directly with these companies in order to get information, as the saying goes, straight from the horse’s mouth. Like farmers, that interaction does not mean that our personal philosophies are aligned with whatever philosophies people think “big ag” stand for. Also like farmers, when people lump us with the negative ideas that people have about “big ag” or “industry”, we get frustrated and sometimes we take it personally.
So here I’ll leave the abstract discussion and speak more personally. I am unfortunately too optimistic when it comes to people in that I expect people to be truthful, to be careful about what they say, to be observant of how their actions and words affect others, to not repeat information that they have heard with out at least a quick investigation. While I know these things aren’t universally true, I like to follow the moral “treat others as you would like to be treated”. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that don’t reciprocate.
In a lot of cases, the attacks have been personal. I’ve gotten comments on my blog that include physical threats. I’ve been called a charlatan, a fraud, a shill (and those are the nice ones). I’ve been told directly and had it implied that I’m some sort of corporate zombie without an opinion of my own. I’ve been told that Monsanto is my puppeteer and that they are what’s really behind my blogging efforts and my small successes. of these confuse the crap out of me because I’ve always been as open and honest as I can. I admit when I’ve made mistakes and sometimes turn my position around 180° when more information presents itself. I’m not dogmatic or unreasonable. So, can you blame me when I am a bit defensive? Can you say I’m unreasonable when I strongly react to unfounded claims involving me, my co-bloggers, our efforts to nurture dialogue on a complicated subject? Sure, you can say it, but you wouldn’t be right.
Here at Biofortified, we’re honestly hoping to engage in dialogue. We honestly want to both learn and teach in a two-way conversation. The thing is, it’s not two-way unless you get involved. We may have been preaching to the choir, but it’s not because we don’t want other people in the church. So get on in here. Comment on posts, get involved in the forum. Write responses on your own blog and let us know about them so we can respond in kind. Let’s actually work to expand our own and each others’ knowledge and world views. I’m ready. Are you?


  1. Hi Anastasia
    I manage a public awareness program here in Australia (at Uni of Melbourne, across the road from David Tribe) called the Gene and NanoTechnology Information Service. I too am trying to foster an informed dialogue and have come across the same criticism you have, though nothing in the spiteful league as you seem to have copped. I have been accused of being in the pocket on Monsanto becasue, although funded by the Australian Government, we operate in partnership with the University of Melbourne and the Uni does research on GM crops, therefore I am in the pocket of Monsanto. I wonder at the rationle some people have about judging impartiality and genuine dialogue. But as you point out, it is a complex debate and there are people with strong views, so I just accept this and try and get such people engaged in the discussion. On the GNTIS blog there are posts about some of my experiences with the general public and (I think) my thoughts on some of the interactive community workshops we have conducted on GM foods. If not then I might have to do a post about them. The opinions and behaviours of people in these workshops is not unexpected, but it does contradict the generalised opinion polls about GM foods.
    There are a few posts about GM foods in general as well.
    I will be monitoring Biofortified closely from now on, and contributing my thoughts where appropriate. Good stuff
    Jason Major

  2. @Jason: Glad to hear that someone is carrying the torch for this communication on nanotech too. I’m hearing _exactly_ the same arguments, and seeing the same strategy, on the anti-nano front. It’s laughable to watch, but I’m afraid it works on susceptible minds.
    Good luck with that–and use the science social network as effectively as these guys to call in the troops for that too 🙂

  3. I’m new to the discussion and have read several articles from the archives to familiarize myself with your arguments and I find most of them persuasive. The one concern that I’ve heard discussed in the anti-GM lists is the “Terminator” gene and the concerns about what could happen if this spreads to other crops. I searched and don’t see any mention of this in the archives. Is this a real concern or something overblown? It’s scary sounding and doesn’t have any of the socially redeeming qualities of other GM crops.
    Would love to learn more.

  4. Hi Foible, thanks for the compliment! Well, the Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), aka ‘terminator’ would have a very hard time spreading to other crops. It is designed to prevent seeds from germinating, so it couldn’t spread past one generation except on a rare occasion (with a mutation). Anastasia has written several posts about them on her blog, Genetic Maize:
    I am working on a post about the issue, too. The weird thing is that people who are against genetic engineering want GE crops not to spread pollen that can fertilize other plants. But then if the seed companies develop a way to do that (GURTs), then they are ‘trying to take over the food supply.’ I think the primary objection to GURTs is economic and social and not scientific. Just think – seedless watermelons are kind of the same thing!

  5. Karl,
    Thanks for the link. You’re right about the social/economic aspect of GURTs being the initial stumbling block. Without looking into the issue, I imagined that the fears of agripocalypse were overblown as any hybrid would contain variations and within one generation the sterile ones would be instantly outcompeted by their virile siblings but I hadn’t seen anyone mount much of a defence.
    Since there are already patents, laws and money spent on prosecuting the infringements this GURT is meant to deter, I still remain philosophically opposed to this just as I am to DRM in the tech world but it’s good to know that it’s a philosophical difference which won’t spill over into the real world 🙂

  6. Anastasia,
    I certainly don’t disagree with your general points here (and applaud you for your and others efforts in this blog), but I think we need to be upfront here and admit that both sides can be just as quick to attack and judge. After 30 years in Ag research, I’ve seen and met plenty of producers who off hand-idly dismissed anything with the labels “organic” or “alternative” and were quite venomous in their attacks and opinions of “the other side”, all with little justification. Not all of us are privileged to work with the enlightened (or do I dare say progressive) producer communities of a UC Davis or Iowa State. Even in those communities, I note a recent article I read about a large Ag contributor to the UC Ag system who threatened to withdraw his financial support simply because Michael Pollan was invited to give a talk. As with most things, it takes two to tango …
    Again, I thank you and the others here for your efforts and look forward to future blogs.

  7. Ahh, now you have me laughing! Why the hell did the site give my post an angry face? 🙂 I love it and might have to steal it 🙂

  8. Hey Anastasia,
    My question would be then, how do we talk about the systemic aspects of multinational corporate agriculture and the pressures it applies and powers it has, without making individuals ‘feel bad.’
    I tried to give this analogy in another response. When people of color talk about racism, they are often immediately dragged into conversations about individual people’s feelings. Often an individual white person will get defensive, when the people he or she is talking with are trying to address a systemic dynamic, a part of history, an event, a funding scenario…or a thousand other topics. The person of color trying to address a situation that the individual had nothing to do with directly, and yet suddenly it is all about that particular white person’s relationships and personal psycho-history. It makes it fairly hard to get to the meat of the topic.
    None of it is personal, but people work very hard to make it so. We need to be able to talk about systems, about macro economics, about the fall out of policy choices made long ago, about the failures of past and present foresight, without taking it all on as a personal criticism.
    That will make it easier for all of us to talk constructively about our hopes, visions, goals, and projects as well.
    It is possible for a system dynamic or process to be an ‘enemy’ without making the people in that system the enemy.
    I do know how you feel though. If I had a dime for every time someone called me a feminazi, a commie, a vegan, an anti-scientific fear monger, conspiracy theorist, an Obama Dupe Slut (that was fun!) well, I’d be living large. I know myself and so I know none of these things are true, so I just continue to do my thing.
    Also – How frustrating is it when someone you perceive as not being sufficiently clued chimes in on your bailywick? How pissed am I at Sen. John McCain, admitted computophobe and ignoramus is trying to kill net neutrality? Shut UP, Sir!
    I think too – twitter in particular – should never be used as a place to hold a conversation. It is not built for that, and over and over again, I have seen it lead down to the pools of offal faster than you can say Jack Sprat. Sound bites are not a conversation, and arguing back and forth on twitter is a boring thing for anyone to witness..It is a devolutionary medium if used that way.
    There are people out there, whose stock in trade is insult. They enjoy it. There are also people out there who enjoy a battle of wits. Not everyone comes that well armed, and some certainly come overly armed. There are also a lot of people out there who are insulted when no insult was intended. I will be honest, I lack patience to deal with the later type.

  9. @Liz M: A lot of “discussions” I have on the internet on this topic are with non-scientists. They don’t seem to understand that being challenged to provide legitimate sources is not a personal attack and/or an insult. It’s what we are trained to do in science. I think that’s part of the problem as well. Very different strategies and perceptions from both groups.

  10. Is every objection you encounter based on some ‘provable’ aspect of reality? I don’t think all are. That’s part of the problem as well. Can I prove that Joe Leiberman for instance is a shill for Big Insurance? I think that would be awfully hard to prove – But I know what I know. (Don’t worry Anastasia I am not calling you a shill for anyting…)
    Some aspects of reality are too complex, too multi-layered too involved to ‘prove’. I’m not trying to go religious on you at all, but for instance arguments about political economy or the influence of multinationals on science doesn’t come down to one set of facts that can be tested and replicated in an enclosed trail. Not everything can be handled with the scientific method. Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of the scientific method.
    Can you prove to me that science and technology as practiced today are not bound up very intricately with the private interests of particularly powerful multinationals? Multinationals which have a history as bad actors? Well you can’t prove a negative. This is not saying that individual scientists lack integrity (in any group of humans a subset will of course lack integrity)but that there is a ocean we are all swimming in, which is rarely taken note of.
    And please don’t suggest I am saying we move to a communist system where science and tech could be ‘pure’ – because I’m not suggesting that.
    Big Ag is a system of relationships, practices, incentives and interdependencies which in the end must serve short term the quarterly interests of the share holders of particular multinational corporations. The issues we must contend with do not fall neatly into quarters. No matter what the lawyers and ad men say, at base this is reality. Is it testable and provable?
    (And diminishing the arguments by suggestion those that make it, just want to ‘stick it to the man’ the same sort of crap you complain about Anastasia, right?)

  11. Safety, reduced pesticide use, increased productivity with less land and less oil in some cases, improved growth in stress conditions, biodiversity, etc….all of the unfounded objections on those areas are defensible with data. A great post on that is here:
    That’s why we expect if people are going to make claims counter to that they need to bring the data.
    Big Activist is also a system of relationships, practices, incentives and interdependencies –and sometimes that is now part of Big Organic, as we saw with the competition. And those people may also be working for –god forbid– paychecks or book contracts.
    But I guess you are saying that unprovable stuff –“faith based” assertions, as it were– are good enough for you? That doesn’t really work for me and most scientists. And I’m definitely not interested in government policy based on that.
    Another thing that would be great is to reduce the influence of the corporations in this arena. Supporting funding for plant science and training therein would be awesome. But I’ve seen eco-activists oppose that, though, because the word “biotechnology” is in the documents and they can’t separate the technology from the corporations in their heads. And unfortunately some of the extreme activists damage academic projects making that harder and more expensive to accomplish as well.
    Tell me: are you opposed to the technology if it is separate from the corporations?

  12. “faith based” – so this will I guess from Mary be more of the same…Thanks for ignoring the substance of the post and working to frame me as some sort of loon. Nice.
    The corporations are not in our heads. They are the most forceful configuration of interests on the planet bar none and I include the US military. You assess them as ethically benign. I disagree, I think anyone with a rounded historical knowledge of how corporations came into this world and how they have come to be so strong, cannot access all of them as benign, just like people. In any group of 100 you will have a percentage of people that are complete alturists ( a very small number – angelic people) another cohort of alloyed, self interested alturists (do well by doing good), another of larger cohort of people who do their jobs and try generally to do the right thing, but don’t think all that much about it (and are hence just along for the ride.) Another group of sometimes bad actors who are situationally heavily self interested and covert. And you have a cohort that is completely self interested, devious, unethical and even criminal, beyond them the pathologic narcissists and the dangerous mentally ill. In any group of one hundred you will have this (and a more complex mix). The same is true of corporations.
    I’m not going to defend what I am saying against what extremists have done in the name of anti-corporate activism. Yes, activists do overtly bad things while defending themselves as freedom fighters. Being at the short end of power turns a percentage of people into terrorists. This has always and will ever be true. Are you trying to lump me in with them? No I guess you’re not, it’s just a lame rhetorical strategy you’ve deployed and not to be taken personally.
    There is no such thing as “Big Activism” relative to Big Pharma or Big Ag, when you compare the resources available to each agenda. And by resources I mean cold hard cash.
    I do think we should fund science much more heavily from the civil coffers. I also think we need to up massively on what we spend on science and math education. I also think we need to up critical thinking, (real)history and civics in school.
    If people have a problem with biotechnology it is not soley because of the science. It is because they feel it is paternalistically being forced on people whether they like it or not, beyond soveignty and civic deliberation.
    What you object to, is that anyone would have the temerity to suggest that the non-scientists should have any say at all. Its an afront to some of you who deep down believe that science is pure and shouldn’t be hampered by the opinions, concerns or desires of the polity. They frustrate you, imbedded intellectually as you are in the positive possibilities of your entire education, your career, and your positive vision of life in the future. – As a technologist – I DO understand.
    I was and am mad as hell at the anti-stem cell research camp. I don’t think religious ideas about the ‘sanctity of God’s plan’ or some environmentalists ‘sanctity of nature’ – has much place in the world given the situation we are all in or the problems on our plate. As Stuart Brand said, “We are gods we better get used to it.” That said – I don’t see the maturity in evidence needed to take all this seriously.
    I once had a months long argument with a VP of the Swedish nuclear power board about nuclear energy. He kept coming at it from the physics POV, the engineering POV… In then end he conceded that the US was too immature, corrupt, and unstable to handle the whole magilla – soup to nuts in perpetuity.
    Well science just like any room of 100 is made up of some evolved ethical people, a lot of punters and some folks that work day and night to land on top no matter who gets hurt. Is that something I am taking on ‘faith’ would you suggest, or is it just common sense and what most of us call experience.

  13. Sorry missed your last question… opposed to biotech on principle, and in particulars no…nor am I opposed to nano tech on principle..But as either are moving swiftly to market and will be absolutly ubiquitous, without deliberation, or measuring them against for instance the precautionary principle…And because no scientist worth his or her salt can talk about either without involking a long list of possible negative outcomes I think that discussion has to be made more accessible to everyone.
    The problem for me is it is constantly framed as ‘Luddites’ versus progressive scientists… and I think it’s much more complicated than that…don’t you?

  14. A) I’m an aspiring chef, really into slow food, heirloom, organic and locally produced food (usually tastes better), which has led me to think about food and farming in ways that can be of a positive effect on stewardship of our land, climate, culture, health, etc. Which leads me to think that history has shown us (irish potato famine) that an emphasis on monocultures is not a good idea for humanity. And public perception right now is that genetic modification of crops is not to promote biodiversity, but to help monocultures thrive. Which I think if you take history into account, might not be a good bet for humans. So that’s just one side…
    And then there’s
    B) I am so absolutely fascinated with science and technology, grew up dissecting computers and machines, LOVE robots, chemistry and biology, and think that I would possibly clone myself just to see what would happen… and that by my nature, I am curious to see what bioengineering can do for foods, crops, farming etc…
    So even in my own snapshot of the issue, I have multiple viewpoints and opinions.. and argue with myself over the matter! Trying to cultivate the skill of debating without emotion, I tend to get fired up about things, which on one hand can lead to persuasive debating… but on the other hand can stifle true discovery.. good luck everybody on this issue.

  15. @liz: Glad to hear you are not opposed to the technology. What usually happens in these discussions is the fog of corporate conspiracy is drawn over it, which makes it impossible to discuss the realities.
    There are plenty of examples of academic research on this topic. Pam Ronald here is one. Here’s another story I really enjoyed: And those of us in science hear about lots of these projects. It’s only on the blogs that you are led to believe all GMO = only BigAg.
    Yet the same conspiracies around BigPharma or BigBank don’t dissuade people from giving their kids antibiotics, or using their credit cards. They seem to understand there are responsible uses of the products.
    And if you respect Stewart Brand you should watch this video of a talk for his new book. And pick up that new book. It should be very enlightening for you.

  16. Karl – The main objection to terminator seeds that it forms a sterile plant that won’t reseed. It makes the plant a proprietary object which requires the farmer to buy new seed and never collect or save seed, which is a practice growers all over the world have used forever. Monsanto in particular has over the last decades been buying up seed companies. People very reasonably are anti-monopoly and anti-trust, and object to the process of domination of seed on market and in traditional cultures through the patent process.

  17. So any critique of multinational practices and operation is a ‘conspiracy theory’…how handy. So again, you don’t actually address anything I’ve said, I think maybe you and I don’t need to continue, but I’ll leave you with this.
    Glad you brought up anti-biotics. Because people demand them and becuase docs have on average 8 minutes and very little testing available to them – they hand them out like candy. The out come is of course that they are becoming less effective. One of those grand unintended consequences, which as I am sure you are aware is quite dire.
    Thank you for making my point for me. People are people and again to that 100 people (in any set you will have those that are rabidly responsible and use things only as they should, the others who never read a label or directions in their lives, and the others who fancy themselves tinkerers and actively use meds and products ‘offlabel’) The forces of an overly powerful sector in this case, the insurance industry, have distorted the wise practice of medicine…which you probably agree would mean more time with a patient and a test to determine if that patient should get that anti-biotic or just a few days rest. The result? The development of antibiotic resistant strains of things that are very good at killing us.
    Does that mean I am against antibiotics? What do you think Mary?
    Anyway. Thanks for the book recommendation, it was already on my list. Been a fan of Stuarts since I was on the wEll os so long ago.

  18. Sorry – if not clear that was addressed to Mary. And I wouldn’t say I don’t “object to the technology” – That would be to compartmentalize far to many of my objections. You can’t at this time separate the technology from it’s market push by a tiny number of corporations.

  19. RE Liz: “Karl – The main objection to terminator seeds that it forms a sterile plant that won’t reseed. It makes the plant a proprietary object which requires the farmer to buy new seed and never collect or save seed, which is a practice growers all over the world have used forever. Monsanto in particular has over the last decades been buying up seed companies. People very reasonably are anti-monopoly and anti-trust, and object to the process of domination of seed on market and in traditional cultures through the patent process.”
    And if a seed company does get a monopoly on seeds – we have laws to deal with that and I would join in opposing such a monopoly. But even if you count all the big half-dozen companies in the private seed industry, they only have a )big) slice of the commercial seed market. And that’s only about a third of the total seed market – the other 2/3s are seeds provided by public groups and seeds that are saved.
    On the seeds saved for millennia issue, consider the advent of hybrid corn. What hybrids did was increase yield and other beneficial traits, but at the cost of seed saving. Although they could save seeds from hybrids, those did them little good because they didn’t breed true. This had a restructuring effect on agriculture and seeds, and was one of the major driving forces behind the early seed industry. The point is that it involved a change from the traditional practice, one that has been almost universal.
    What came along with hybrids was intellectual property rights for plant breeders. Many people think that IP in plants came with genetic engineering, but it came long before, in 1929 with the Plant Patent Act. That’s when plants became patentable – and when a breeder develops an inbred line of say, maize, they can patent it and prevent anyone else from breeding with it without your permission, if I understand it correctly. My point is that genetic engineering doesn’t fundamentally change these things, and isn’t going to necessarily lead down the road to monopoly.
    Consider also that you could have Open-Source genetically engineered crops, which Michael Pollan has voiced interest in. moreover, there are several GE crops that can be freely grown, seed saved, and more. For example, there is one called Liberty Link which has no such restrictions because the company that made it still has the patent on the herbicide that the plants can tolerate. And a professor at my school has a crop variety coming out soon where the patent on the inbreds only restricts you from growing hybrid seed for commercial purposes, and doesn’t restrict you from using the inbred seeds for your own breeding purposes. There are a lot of different ways of handling the IP of crop improvement that can be consonant with your values. It’s not a technology or scientific issue but a legal and social one, then.
    By the way, thanks for joining in on the discussion and sticking around.
    Re: Robert Stevens
    Well, try to think about genetic engineering in the context of plant breeding. People say that GE is just another way of ‘supporting monocultures.’ But breeding can also ‘support monocultures’ if you are breeding for that context. So just like you could breed for a non-monoculture situation, you could engineer for that, too. I think the GE=monoculture is a way of framing the issue used by the anti-GE folks that misses the mark. For example, Bt-corn is grown in a monoculture, but that same trait would help in non-monoculture situations. For example, I get some veggies from a CSA farm that is organic (in exchange for pollination services from my bees), and the sweet corn comes about 1/3 wormy. If they could (and were willing to) grow Bt sweet corn they would have almost no wormy ears – and this is a diverse farm, not a monoculture.
    Another trait that would work just fine (and maybe better) in non-monoculture situations could be nitrogen-use efficiency – getting the same growth on half of the nitrogen applied to – or in – the soil.
    Its great that you are an aspiring chef! I’m one only at home. Feel free to share some recipes in the forum. We have a GE food cooking video on the way in the near future, BTW.

  20. @Liz: I’m sorry, I thought you were done with me

    I think maybe you and I don’t need to continue, but I’ll leave you with this.

    And I’m sorry if I was confused by your statement where I asked specifically about the technology:

    opposed to biotech on principle, and in particulars no…nor am I opposed to nano tech on principle

    I could have sworn you said “no” there.
    I hesitate to guess if you are opposed to antibiotics, because I don’t apparently understand what “no” means in your other statement — I’ll let you tell me straight out. Do you use any pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics? Do you use any bank products — credit cards, retirement plans?
    There are people out there who are actually withholding vaccines from their kids, and the kids are getting whooping cough or measles — because they have problems with Big Pharma. I would hope you wouldn’t be so cavalier as to withhold antibiotics from a kid with bacterial pneumonia because some people misuse antibiotics.
    As I said, some people can recognize responsible uses of technology even if they hate the corporations involved.
    And as for Big Activist, I would encourage you to check out the Greenpeace budget and view their “cold hard cash”. (don’t forget to add the appropriate zeros in the table on page 25). It’s much larger than that of your average grad student in plant science, even though my grad studies in plant science were some years ago. And it’s even larger than many biotechs I’m aware of.

  21. Karl – very good points. Open source anything is interesting! And if I am honest, I will say that the genie is out of the bottle, and I have no power or intention to put it back in. The same is true of robotics, nanotech and biotech… I think it’s our nature to expand and explore. I think it comes down to pessimism or optimism about all this turning out well! None of us know the answer to this, and I would be happy to see more people on all sides admitting as much.
    Those that don’t get a bit queasy about the ride, aren’t paying attention in my book.
    Mary we are done.

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  23. Hey guys!
    I’d like to encourage you to participate in this discussion:
    Started here:
    Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities?
    Continues here:
    Responding to Alex Steffen’s Critique of Transition at WorldChanging
    I think folks here would have interesting views to add.
    Take care,
    Also just finished reading Paul Hawkens Blessed Unrest. I think it’s required reading for everyone interested in the topics we are working through here.

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