Earlier this year a group of protesters from the group “Take the Flour back” marched on Rothamsted Research Institute with the intent on destroying public science, in this case a field of genetically engineered wheat. In doing so, they were not only anti-science, but anti-democracy.
Debates about controversial technology like Genetic engineering or nuclear power often come down to one simple question: who to trust? It is “normal” – for people who have not really thought about it- to be distrustful of science done or funded by or in anyway connected with Big Evil Faceless corporations, especially if they are Monsanto; and indeed it is of course standard procedure for science papers to declare any potential conflict of interest- if they do not do so, then there are double the reasons to be wary of their conclusions.
However, just because a study is funded by a company with a profit motive does not mean that the science is wrong or bad; it could just as easily be good science. The idea that corporations, in league with public scientists, would happily risk serious public health outcomes for profit seems an almost pathological level of paranoia on a par with the worst of conspiracy theories. It would clearly not be in their interests: to date, no adverse health effects from GE crops have been found; if there ever was any, it would set back the GE cause by decades. To show bad science is being practiced, you would need to read the studies, scrutinize its methods and conclusions and challenge it on its own terms to refute it- in other words, you would need to engage with the normal workings of science yourself.
This takes some study and work; much easier to just go to a dedicated anti-GE site and pull out some “report” or paper or anything really that tells us: GE is dangerous, the companies are trying to take over the world’s food supply and we should just not trust them.
But why should we trust the activist sites? This is the question I would like to ask protesters, because in my frequent debates and conversations with them, they seem quite unaware that there maybe bias and vested interests on both sides of the issue. All too often it seems to come down to a conviction that Capitalism is Bad- and therefore Wrong-and anything that attacks Capitalism is Good- and therefore Right.
There are vested interests on the opposition side: Greenpeace, which calls for a complete ban on GE- has an annual turn-over of $100milion, and thousands of salaried employees. What would be the career prospects I wonder if a Greenpeace employee started to say, “well, you now, not all GE is bad, a lot of it is from publicly funded science; I think we should at least support well-regulated trials”? And Greenpeace don’t seem to do anything practical like, you know, producing food and actually feeding people with that money- it is all of it for propaganda.
Then there is the Organic industry- also with an absolutist complete ban position- worth about $100 Billion (that’s with a “B”). Add to that Big Quacka – with a turnover of over $30Billion in the US alone (2009)- and you have I think sufficient case to be at least as wary of the activist cause as of the corporations.
An example of the connections between these groups can be seen with who is funding support in California for the Proposition 37 campaign for compulsory labeling of GMOs in food:
Ironically, the largest single contributor to the pro-labeling effort is the internet “health advisor,” Dr. Mercola whose $800,000 donation was funded by his thriving, natural supplement business. There is very little regulatory oversight for that multi-billion dollar supplement industry in terms of required testing either human safety or product efficacy. When it comes to safety testing, GMO crops are far more intensively scrutinized than something like Dr. Mercola’s supplements.
(See here and here for more discussion on the network of anti-GE groups and individuals, showing connections between the quackery of Dr. Oz and Jeffrey Smith, the Natural Law Party and the Maharishi Institute, and anti-GE groups.)
When looking at the health claims for-and-against GE crops, we need to examine it in the context of a huge, well-funded industry of misinformation, scare-mongering and false claims. How do I know it is misinformation? Surely, at best I have only shown that both sides might have vested interests- should we conclude that the rational position is to remain neutral, sit on the fence, take a “I don’t know” position- but perhaps tend towards erring on the side of caution?
This would be wrong. The reason is that, in opposition to the campaigning groups sits, not just Big Business, but pretty much unanimous opinion of the worlds public science academies.
There is no genuine scientific controversy over the basic safety of GMOs. In an article published this week Professor Pamela Ronald writes:
the U.S. National Research Council and the European commission have concluded that the process of genetic engineering is no more “risky” than conventional genetic modification and that all GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat and safe for the environment.
Ronald also references the European Union’s chief scientist, renowned biologist Anne Glover, who stated last week:
we have so much very robust evidence, and the precautionary principle is no longer relevant with GMO foods or crops.
If we look at evidence from [more than] 15 years of growing and consuming GMO foods globally, then there is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that’s pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food.
I would say there is risk in eating food and that’s what people forget. Eating food is risky, most of us forget that most plants are toxic, and it’s only because we cook them, or the quantity that we eat them in, that makes them suitable…..
The bottom line for me is that there is no more risk in GMO food than conventionally farmed food, it has nothing to do with genetic engineering, so if you decide that you want to implement the regulations in such a way that you want to prevent the use [of GMO food] then that has to be talked about, and people need to be clear why you have rejected it.
Ronald considers Glover’s assessment of GE crops as being safe to eat as “a wholly uncontroversial comment—at least among scientists.”
Yet this is not the impression you would get from even the most cursory glance at any of the many anti-GMO websites. Thus for example, scroll down the home page of saynotogmos.org and you will see a link to the activist report GMO Myths and Truths with the bye-line “Scientists speak out to counter industry myths.” But this is a lie- there will always be the odd scientist on any topic who will take a contrary view- this is exactly how the alternative medicine industry works as well. The “GMO Myths and Truths” report does the rounds and is regularly cited by campaigners; yet it does not pass muster as a scientific report at all, and is readily debunked here.
One of the authors, Michael Antoniou, looks authoritative with plenty of scientific-looking credentials; but apparently not very esteemed outside his narrow field of anti-GE activism. He also writes for Greenpeace. A good description of how Greenpeace operate can be found here. There he is writing alongside Vandana Shiva, a leading activist- not a scientist- who among other deceptions is famous for bizarre claims about “Terminator” seeds – (which have never been released outside a lab): “The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants” she states in her 2000 book Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply “would result in a global catastrophe that would eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet”.
The existence of Terminator seeds- the very name intended to instil fear and dread- is the most commonly repeated myth that I come across; it is worth quietly contemplating a moment what it might mean that a main reason for opposition to genetic engineering is the fear of seed sterility spreading through seeds- a trait that does not even exist in cultivation.
See also Kieth Kloor :
In truth, the uncontrollable spread of disinformation about GMOs is what’s really contaminating the environment. The latest, most egregious example is a report with an Orwellian title, “GMO Myths and Truths” that purports to be science-based….In actuality, it’s an extended Gish Gallop that twists science in the most cynical fashion to advance an ideological agenda.
The claim that it is a response to “industry myths” is simply false: maybe there are some “industry myths” around GMOs but the claims actually addressed in the paper are largely supported by public scientists as well.
“Ah!” people exclaim, “but Monsanto fund public universities as well! The science academies are in bed with Big Business! This is how capitalism works!” So let’s see what a public scientist working with transgenes has to say- here is Kevin Folta with Thoughts from a “Shill for Monsanto”
If I wanted to work for Big Ag I could easily find a position there. I’d triple my salary, work about the same hours, and never write a grant proposal again. In the days of state and federal budget issues with science, it is an increasingly attractive alternative.
But my passion is exploration in science, working with students, postdocs, visiting scientists, farmers and the industry. I want to make tools and techniques that come from the public sector, not that are locked in a proprietary corporate structure. Such endeavors would be severely limited with a position in a big ag company.
In the late 1980′s I interned with Cargill Hybrid Seeds and really disliked the pace of corporate science. Even with a job offer and big bucks for the time, I elected to stay in academic science (and nine years of graduate education!).
So don’t tell me who I work for. I’m really proud to work for YOU, and such assertions just destroy the communication and learning process, both ways.
The comments are worth reading as well- Folta gives a vigorous and angry response to the suggestion that Monsanto’s affiliation with Folta’s university has any influence on biasing his work:
Your second paragraph shows your absolute ignorance. It is a common refuge for those grasping for straws to play six-degrees-of-Monsanto-separation using Google. You try to find some link so that you can tell me that everything I do is crap. Nice job.
This makes me so incredibly mad. I almost don’t want to dignify this with a comment. Yes, Monsanto put up funds to establish an endowed professorship. In fact, I know the guy hired into that quite well. Now you show me how a company providing money to a private institution has influenced my work, or the work of my 2500+ colleagues at UF. Show me.
It all comes down to the same thing: those who are ideologically committed to a total ban on GE crops do everything they can to tarnish public scientists by association without themselves engaging with the science at all; while at the same time taking as gospel every proclamation by the anti-GE industry that makes the technology look Bad. As is common with defenders of quackery, the establishment is seen to be biased and suspect; there is never even the slightest consideration that the quacks might be biased, that people’s personal experience and “intuition” could be biased.
Which is of course why we need science, which could almost be defined as “a method of uncovering, reducing and eliminating bias.”
We live in a complicated world. No-one can know everything; nor do we have the time to check the scientific validity of every report that comes out or every fear-mongering headline. And yet, to a very large degree, we accept the safety standards laid down by our statutory bodies; we accept the safety of the food we buy, the gadgets we use, the infrastructure we depend on. Sometimes, things go wrong, as happened with the tragic case of organic beansprouts; but on the whole, given the complexity and global nature of our food systems, safety regulations seem remarkably, well, safe and effective.
(If you don’t accept this, you should read this post by Deborah Blum to compare food safety now with 100 years ago.)
In an attempt to engage in debate with Take the Flour Back, the researchers at Rothamsted wrote a statement saying:
Our research is trying to shed light on questions about the safety and usefulness of new varieties of the staple food crops on which all of us depend. Activists might prefer never to know whether our new wheat variety would work, but we believe they are in a minority – in a democratic society most people value factual knowledge and they understand that it is necessary for sensible decision making.
Public perception of science is an issue for democracy. When protesters claim, as they do in Ireland, that the “public” do not want GMOs, they are breaching the democratic mandate of Teagasc, the state agriculture and research body: the unqualified do not have a right to interfere with day-to-day research in this way. If people who unquestioningly believe reports such as GMO Myths, and know nothing about the science, are prepared to take direct action and destroy publicly funded science- as was threatened by Take Back the Flour, and actually implemented in Belgium recently (where wild varieties were destroyed in addition to GMOs) they are acting against democracy, against the interests of wider society.
Earlier in the week I was discussing this controversial topic with an old friend of mine, an organic gardener, who takes an ideologically entrenched position against genetic engineering in any form. I urged him to correspond with the public scientists in Teagasc who are conducting the GMO potato trials, as I had done; he replied “I would rather not.” What a depressingly closed-minded attitude.
In a democratic society, we have no choice but to leave science to the scientists. If we doubt their work, the least we can do is engage with them directly. Their responses may surprise us. When lies from the opposition groups are so easily exposed, this is in any case the only ethical position to take. The only alternative is to get involved in science yourself; but if activists were even just to read some science, any actual science at all, if they were to search science blogs rather than just wallow in the sewers of the anti-GE movement, they might just find at least some of their fears alleviated.