As reported in this week's UK Guardian, Nina Federoff spoke about threats to science at a meeting of 8,000 professional scientists. The former Bush Administration official and GMO proponent described her "profound depression" at how difficult it is to “get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.” I too have agonized over our inability to talk seriously about climate change.
However — and this is no small matter — by conflating fringe climate-deniers with established scientists raising valid concerns about the effects of GMOs, Federoff undermines the scientific integrity that she purports to uphold. The hypocrisy is astonishing.
The reason we cannot get a reality-based conversation started on GMOs is because we have precious little independent science on their effectiveness or safety. We know so little about GMOs' safety or efficacy because global ag biotech firms like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont actively suppress science under the heading of protecting “confidential business information.” Companies routinely deny scientists’ research requests and suppress publication of research by threatening legal action, a practice one scientist describes as “chilling.”
In February 2009, 26 corn-pest scientists anonymously submitted a statement to U.S. EPA decrying industry’s prohibitive restrictions on independent research, especially as concerns ag biotech. They submitted the following statement anonymously for fear of being blacklisted:
“Technology/stewardship agreements required for the purchase of genetically modified seed explicitly prohibit research. These agreements inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry. As a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology, its performance, its management implications, IRM, and its interactions with insect biology. Consequently, data flowing to an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel from the public sector is unduly limited.”
The same year, the editors of Scientific American warned of the debilitating effects of the ag biotech industry’s attacks on science:
“Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers."
When the world’s top scientists have been allowed to examine freely the available evidence, unfettered by corporate restrictions, the results stand in startling contrast to industry claims. Four years ago, the agricultural equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was completed, the World Bank and UN-led International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). I participated as a lead author in that rigorous 4-year process, in which over 400 scientist and development experts from more than 80 countries conducted the most comprehensive assessment of international agricultural technology to date. The IAASTD’s findings were clear:
Genetically engineered crops have failed to deliver on industry promises of increased yields, nutritional value, salt or drought-tolerance.
The unprecedented pace of corporate concentration in the pesticide and seed industry has enabled the ag biotech industry to exert undue influence over public policy and research institutions, funneling public resources towards products that have benefited their manufacturers without generating benefits for the world’s poor.
The developing world’s best hopes for feeding itself, especially under conditions of climate change, lie not in GMOs, but rather in approaches such as agroecology—the integration of cutting-edge agroecological sciences with farmer innovation and locally appropriate, productive and profitable, ecological farming practices. The ability of agroecology to double food production within 10 years was recently re-affirmed by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
So yes, let’s beat back the “anti-science lobby” and restore scientific integrity to public policy and independence and transparency to our research institutions. The future of our planet depends on it.