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When PR trumps science: The repentant environmentalist: Part 2

The Repentant Environmentalist: Part 2 
Jonathan Matthews
Spinwatch, 27 February 2013
[multiple links to sources in original]

Jonathan Matthews of GMWatch looks at how the bogus PR packaging of Mark Lynas explored in Part 1 of this article has been used to smuggle in some seriously bad science. (For the responses of Lynas and others to Part 1 see here.)

When the author Mark Lynas caused a social media sensation by apologizing for founding the anti-GM movement, he was at pains to explain that his change of heart came from his discovery of science.

His pitch to this January's Oxford Farming Conference was that while in his anti-GM days he was doing little more than peddling 'green urban myths', his support for GM was now firmly grounded in the best scientific evidence.

Lynas explained that writing his two books on climate change had forced him to learn how to read scientific papers and to understand statistics. In addition, the global warming debate had taught him that "the only facts that mattered were the ones published in the most distinguished scholarly journals". In an American TV interview, Lynas added that his change of heart on GM came "from the fact that I've spent a long time studying the science on biotechnology".

There have been a number of excellent responses to Lynas. For instance, Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman, a former risk assessor of GM crops for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has shown how Lynas ignores inconvenient facts that undermine his claims. He and the University of Michigan Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, John Vandermeer, have suggested the problems with Lynas' arguments arise from his naïve and simplistic use of science. 

But could something else be going on here? Could Lynas's depiction of his GM conversion being all about junking dogma for hard data, be better understood as part of a carefully crafted and rhetorically effective PR narrative - in fact, as part of the same PR narrative as his apology for helping to found the anti-GM movement?

Proof of safety

We saw in the first part of this article how Lynas's mea culpa was based on a massively over-stated claim. That there is a similar hollowness to his claim to base his arguments on the best science can easily be seen in what is probably the most quoted part of his Oxford speech. Here Lynas declares:

"I don't know about you, but I've had enough. So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe - over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food."

Lynas said something very similar in the speech he gave in Norwich at the end of last year: "Back in 1995 we didn't know everything that we know today. Now after two trillion GM meals have been served and eaten, I don't think we need to discuss the safety of GM." Note that back in December only "two", not "three", trillion GM meals had been eaten. Obviously, an enormous number got eaten over Christmas.

Wondering where Lynas got these two trillion GM meals "served and eaten" from, I Googled it. This threw up several recent items quoting his Norwich speech, but there was one item that predated it that used almost identical wording to my search. Curiously, this "2 trillion GM food meals served and eaten" was to be found in one of the leaked emails from EuropaBio, Europe's leading biotech industry lobby group.

In these emails, as we noted in Part 1, EuropaBio outline how they intend to use apparently independent GM ambassadors (including Lynas, although he denies having been recruited) to get across their message that the GM debate is now over.

Here's how their PR expert lays out their game plan:

"The initial objective [of the GM ambassadors programme] must be to draw a line under the old, sterile debate around GM, and ask Europeans to think again about GM based on the following simple proposition: "It was fair enough to be suspicious of GMOs in the mid-1990s when they had never been tried and the science seemed frightening. But after 15 years of successfully growing GM crops around the world, with over 2 trillion GM food meals served and eaten, with no negative effects for health or the environment, maybe we should think again."'

Think of a number

Of course, the fact that his science is to be found in the industry's PR playbook doesn't mean it's invalid. So let's look at what this claim is based on and how it has been developed.

It first seems to have popped up in 2003 when Jim Peacock, a very industry-friendly GM scientist, told Australia's National Press Club, "I have calculated that at least 30 billion meals involving these [GM] crops have been eaten in the past six years... and there is not a single report of adverse health effects."

Five years later in 2008 EuropaBio were putting the GM meals figure at "more than 200 billion" in their promotional material, and by 2010 the figure had reached '300 billion', according to Maurice Moloney another industry-friendly GM scientist.

If this seems to provide some sort of recognizable (if steeply rising) trajectory, then we also need to factor in that back in 2006 Monsanto had already started claiming in its promotional material that 'experts' had put the GM meals figure at around "1 trillion".

I couldn't find any advance on "1 trillion" until the 7th of July 2011. That was the day when the views of two different biotech industry lobbyists were published on opposite sides of the world. And whereas the CEO of CropLife Australia told his readers that the GM meals figure currently stood at "over one trillion", Bayer's Julian Little informed a British farming paper that it had now hit "two trillion".

Three months later in the leaked outline of its GM ambassadors strategy, EuropaBio, as we've seen, was also making use of Little's "two trillion" figure. That might seem surprising, given that just three years earlier in 2008, after 12 years of GM crop production, EuropaBio had placed the figure closer to 200 billion. But by this point runaway GM-meal inflation had set in, and in April 2012 Bayer's Julian Little, who had first increased the meals figure to 'two trillion' only nine months earlier, upped it again to over "three trillion". In his Norwich talk last December Lynas seems to have taken his cue from EuropaBio, but just a month later in Oxford he followed Julian Little's lead and ordered up a further trillion GM meals, just for good measure.

It seems pretty clear from all this that the number of meals cannot have been haphazardly skyrocketing because of any careful updating of Jim Peacock's original calculations, or revision of his undisclosed methodology, but simply because the bigger the number, the greater the impact.

Unpacking those "GM meals"

But even if all these "billions" and 'trillions' have mostly been plucked out of a PR playbook, couldn't there still be a valid argument lurking behind them, i.e. a lot of GM meals have been eaten, no harm has been proven, so GM foods must be safe?

But we need to unpack these "GM meals" a little before we can make proper sense of them.  There are actually only a few GM crops in commercial production that are grown very widely: soya, maize, oilseed rape (canola) and cotton are the main contenders, and the vast majority of these don't end up on people's dinner plates - certainly not directly. Instead they go into animal feed, biofuels and fibre (cotton). In addition, where they do most typically go directly into the food chain, it is not as whole foods but as ingredients in processed foods.

And there's a further problem with what constitutes "GM meals". GM supporters when challenged over the safety of GM foods, almost invariably insist that they need to be looked at on a case by case basis. In other words, they argue that if any specific GM food does have adverse effects, this problem may not be common to all. If this is the case, then how can we lump ingredients derived from different GM crops - or different mixtures of GM crops (and let's not forget that even individual crops like maize may be engineered with a variety of different traits or combinations of traits) - into a simple catch all?

And as well as the problem of what constitutes "GM meals", how could we detect any adverse effects anyway? In North America, where most of these ingredients are being consumed, whether they are GM or not does not have to be disclosed on the label. So it is very hard to pin down their consumption.

On top of that, no one is actively monitoring for harm. There have been no epidemiological studies, and while the feasibility of so-called "post-marketing monitoring" of GM foods has been under discussion for years, to date no system of surveillance has ever been introduced anywhere.

As a result, as Ben Miflin, a well known GM supporter, told the journal Nature, "any unanticipated health impact of such foods would need to be a "monumental disaster" to be detectable". According to Miflin, "a general increase in gastrointestinal disorders, for example, would be difficult to attribute to a particular food, given the diverse possible origins of such symptoms".

And if we're looking at chronic effects, these would only emerge long term. This, of course, makes Lynas's "decade and a half" a relatively short period of time. And when any adverse effects did emerge, the dietary link would have to be made. With trans fats, for instance, it took decades before it was established that this novel food had caused millions of premature deaths.

In short, talk of "trillions" of "GM meals" proving safety is grounded in complacency rather than science. Yet Lynas (like EuropaBio) makes it the lynchpin of his argument that GM safety is incontestable and so the GM debate must move on.

More empty rhetoric

But in an American TV interview given after his Oxford speech, Lynas did offer a more substantial argument for GM food safety: "In the EU these tests [on each new GM product that reaches the market] are all done independently and they're done by independent scientists." And Lynas also made this point in his recent BBC Hardtalk interview: "It's a powerful technology, which is why it's been tested independently before it's brought onto the market."

This sounds reassuring but happens to be untrue. GM products are authorized for commercialization in the European Union on the basis of tests arranged by the corporations that want to market them. No independent testing at all need occur.

Worse, intellectual property rights restrictions have been used aggressively by the GM firms to create obstacles to the kind of independent testing that Lynas claims is routinely required. As the science correspondent of the Financial Times has commented,"Imagine pharmaceutical companies trying to prevent medical researchers comparing patented drugs or investigating their side-effects - it is unthinkable. Yet scientists cannot independently examine raw materials in the food supply or investigate plants that cover a lot of rural America."

Data or dogma?

Lynas appears to oversell the evidence on GM safety with political, as well as rhetorical, intent. In his Norwich speech, for instance, he goes directly from talking about trillions of GM meals to demanding that we "roll back a decade and a half of pointless regulation which is strangling an important new technology".

And in his Oxford speech, he even gives a precise figure for the cost of this regulatory burden. But the former EPA assessor, Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman, is scathing about the way Lynas misrepresents the data:

"Lynas incorrectly cites a recent report commissioned by the pesticide industry's own trade group [Croplife], saying that it documents costs of about $139 million to navigate regulations on GE [genetic engineering]. Instead, the report states that the large majority of those costs are for R&D and other expenses rather than regulatory compliance."

In other words, the regulatory costs that Lynas is talking about are just a fraction of the total costs for developing the GM crop trait. This is because GM is an incredibly expensive technology to start with, quite independently of any regulatory costs - something Lynas completely fails to acknowledge.

In fact, Gurian-Sherman points out that you can not only do conventional crop breeding for a miniscule fraction of the cost of the GM R&D revealed in the Croplife report, but this kind of non-GM breeding continues to be far more successful for all the types of traits - drought tolerance, increased yield, nutrient enhancement and so on - that Lynas implies only GM can deliver efficiently.

This raises an interesting question. If there are viable lower-cost alternatives, why are our scarce public science resources being used to develop a hugely expensive technology? For the industry the answer is obvious - because GM so readily enables proprietary control of food and farming. And, interestingly, Lynas's "science" seems to frequently derive from industry-friendly sources. 

GM industry myths

Despite his new found love of data, there is precious little of it in his Oxford speech beyond his massively inflated figure on regulatory costs, his trillions of GM meals, and a claim that farmers are earning "billions" from GM crops. The source for this last claim can be found in his book The God Species.

It is a global review of the impacts of GM crops that Lynas draws on for a series of claims about GM's supposed benefits. These include GM reducing overall pesticide use, and "another substantial [environmental] benefit" - that herbicide tolerant GM crops "allow the adoption of no-till agriculture", i.e. the elimination of ploughing, thereby helping, Lynas says, to conserve carbon and to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem with this is that it is based on a myth. Far from needing GM crops to "allow" no-till agriculture, the majority of no-till adoption had already taken place before 1996, the year GM crops first came onto the market. U.S. Department of Agriculture data are quite clear about this.

It's also worth noting that the most recent peer reviewed analysis shows that GM crops have led to an overall increase in pesticide use, the exact opposite of what Lynas says in his book, and something he dismissed in his Oxford speech as a "green urban myth".

So where is Lynas getting his data on this? The review he repeatedly cites was published in AgBioForum - the Journal of Agrobiotechnology Management & Economics, and while it deploys an impressive array of tables and figures, the sources and methodologies used to generate them are often far from clear. In fact, many of the statements in the review, including the ones drawn on by Lynas, do not have specific citations.

The best indication of possible sources are to be found in the review's "References" section, although the publications listed there are not linked to specific parts of the text; some data sources are also given in an appendix. Among those repeatedly listed are not only Monsanto but organisations and researchers (e.g. NCFAP, Clive James) known to have strong industry affiliations and whose work makes use of industry sources. In addition, many of the sources identified in the review were not published in peer-reviewed journals.

AgBioForum is a peer-reviewed journal, but unusually it doesn't seem to require any declaration of funding and interests by its authors. This is important because the two authors of the review that Lynas cites are co-directors of a company that has GM firms and their lobbyists among its clients. And a similar review by the same authors is known to have been commissioned by Monsanto.

AgBioForum itself is funded by the Illinois-Missouri Biotechnology Alliance (IMBA) whose declared purpose is "to fund biotechnology research... directed at expanding the volume of profitable businesses in the U.S. food and agricultural sector". IMBA also says it got its U.S. Department of Agriculture grant-funded status with the help of a Monsanto CEO. And AgBioForum's editorial advisers include well known GM proponents, like C. S. Prakash and Martina McGloughlin, with links to the industry. 

So despite telling his Oxford audience that the only facts that mattered were "the ones published in the most distinguished scholarly journals", Lynas seems happy to repeatedly make claims derived from AgBioForum, Croplife and other industry-friendly sources.

Shutting down debate

It should be clear from all this that there is a debate to be had around not just the safety of GM crops but their agronomic, environmental, and socio-economic impacts. But Lynas doesn't seem to want to have that debate. 

Those who have challenged his claims have found he is not only reluctant to engage with the points at issue but that he resorts to name-calling, subject-changing, and "rhetorical hyperventilation", as Tom Philpott terms it. This includes making loaded accusations that in some cases he has subsequently had to retract as untrue.

Lynas's other tactic for shutting down debate is to try and invalidate the expertise of whoever disagrees with him. This stratagem was very much to the fore in his Hardtalk interview, where the concerns of scientists about GM were directly put to him. He repeatedly dismissed the biologists and geneticists concerned as either "campaigners" ('You've got to be able to quote to me scientists who are disinterested'), or by claiming that their expertise was insufficient because they weren't genetic engineers. This is about as reasonable as excluding all but nuclear engineers from the nuclear debate.

Another Lynas gambit is to appeal not to the evidence but to authority. In his Hardtalk interview, for instance, he said he had received support privately from "the real scientists who are doing genetics work", including the chair of the AAAS, Nina Fedoroff. Fedoroff, however, is far from a "disinterested" scientist. A pioneer in the field of transgenics and one of the early GM patent holders, she has a long history of biotech industry affiliations. Unabashed, Lynas has made available an interview with Fedoroff, in which she gives his claims her general blessing while adding, "I particularly enjoyed your assessment of the organic movement - a huge commercial hoax."

It's not just antipathy to organic that these two have in common. Fedoroff also makes extravagant claims for GM without the supporting data. And like Lynas, she promotes an agenda of radical deregulation while pushing a worldview reminiscent of Dubya's "You're either with us or with the terrorists", in which GM dissent is condemned as denialist "anti-science".

Privatising progress

Dr Jack Stilgoe, an expert on science and innovation at University College London, gives an insight into the political intent behind this rhetoric:

"The use of the term "anti-science" reflects a privatisation of the idea of progress that is dangerous for science and society. As soon as science is seen as inseparably wedded to one particular trajectory, particularly when that trajectory is Fedoroff's favourite topic of GM crops, debate becomes impossible. I know dozens of scientists who are anti-GM, or anti- a particular sort of GM. Are they anti-science?"

Science policy experts like Stilgoe and like SPRU's Prof Andy Stirling also point out that technological choices are not hardwired into nature, and that they are choices that should not just belong to big government, big science and big business.

But Lynas is intent not on opening out the GM debate but on closing it down, not least by amplifying and legitimizing industry-friendly PR as incontrovertible scientific evidence. And although his contribution to the GM debate is near identical to the industry's talking points, and his 'science' is as heavily spun as his "history", the PR narrative he employs of the sinner saved by science has won him a big audience and powerful backers. 

In the final part of The Repentant Environmentalist we will look at the perfect reciprocity that exists between the neoliberal transformation of science and society, and the emergence of this particular PR trope that seeks to validate the corporate agenda while denigrating its critics and sidelining the alternatives.

Jonathan Matthews is the founder and director of GMWatch and has written numerous articles on the politics and spin around GM crops. He's a contributing author to Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy, eds Dinan and Miller (Pluto Press). Additional research: Claire Robinson, co-editor, GMWatch.