Bruce Chassy comments on biotech controversies in Chicago
Chassy comments on biotech controversies in Chicago
via GMO Pundit a.k.a. David Tribe
The BIO Industry Conference, held this year in Chicago, is an annual event that draws thousands of attendees from all over the world to hear the latest and greatest news from all fields of biotechnology.
This year as usual, interest in agricultural biotechnology and its challenges was high. Both the considerable benefits, and the long running controversies about crop GMOs, were discussed from all angles in several well attended sessions.
After one of these sessions, Professor Bruce Chassy (co-founder with Dr David Tribe of the website Academics Review) was interviewed by Agricultural Biotech consultant Dr L. Val Giddings. Here is the transcript of that interview:
VAL GIDDINGS INTERVIEWS BRUCE CHASSY (University of Illinois) -- "WHY THE CONTINUING CONTROVERSY OVER AG BIOTECH?" BIO 2010 -- CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, USA
Wednesday, May 5th. 2010
Giddings: Why is there still controversy about ag biotech after all these years?
Chassy: The science and results are clear: products of biotechnology are probably safer than any others. There is no scientific controversy or doubt about the real-world outcomes. They are all positive, good for consumers, farmers, the environment.
Giddings: Then why do we keep hearing about all the risks of GM crops?
Chassy: There is a well financed and organized global opposition to GM crops that spreads misinformation and fear. Make no mistake about it, this isn't a grass roots opposition, it is a small handful of people who are paid to block GM crops to benefit certain countries and companies that profit from higher prices for organic and GM-free foods.
Giddings: How can we set the record straight?
Chassy: There is nobody credible talking in favor of GM crops. The industry can't do it, they have a clear conflict of interest. It's not the regulators job--they regulate and stay neutral; USDA and FDA are afraid of being sued by these groups already. The food industry isn't going to fight for GM crops, especially when they make more money from organic foods. Then there are the scientists: they know the truth, but it's not their job to argue with the NGOs. They have labs to run, students to teach, grants and papers to write. So at the end of the day, there is nobody to advocate for an accurate and impartial representation of the facts about GM crops.
Giddings: What can be done about it?
Chassy: Scientists need to speak out and realize that if someone else distorts the facts it's their responsibility to set the record straight. An example -- Jeff Smith claims he's an expert on GM safety and has written several books about the dangers. David Tribe (University of Melbourne) and I analyzed all the arguments Smith makes in his book Genetic Roulette. Not one of the claims Smith makes withstands scrutiny--I would call it peer review but Smith isn't a scientist or a peer. You can see our work at a website we created to expose scientific hoaxes. Eventually, we hope to grow the website to cover many scientific issues about which there is a lot of misinformation. Think of it as a place for critical thinking about the facts and the peer-review that was never done.
Giddings: Well that sounds like a great idea, but what do you mean by the "peer-review" that was never done?
Chassy: Most of the claims about GM crops are not based on the scientific ("peer-reviewed") literature. Scientists publish their work and then wait for colleagues to approve or disapprove. Peers will point out flaws in the method, results or conclusions. It's the way we separate the wheat from the chaff in science. Only when work is corroborated, often by independent repetition in another lab, does a scientific consensus of its validity emerge. Bad papers do get past editors and reviewers and get published, but they do not stand the test of time or gain acceptance.
The few shabby anti-GM papers that are in the literature have been rejected by regulatory agencies and the community at large. By contrast, the way biotech opponents do science is to announce it on BBC or in the Huffington Post. They make claims and spread fear based on unpublished studies. Often these claims are based on purportedly preliminary results from studies bought and paid for by anti-GM organizations. The studies are never published but the opponents don't care because their objective to scare people about GMOs, not to advance science. If you want to see how bad their facts and logic are, go to http://academicsreview.org and judge our work for yourself.
Both Chassy and Giddings are well qualified to discuss agbiotech policy intiatives and last July their article Igniting Agricultural Innovation: Biotechnology Policy Prescriptions for a New Administration at Science Policy welcomed the new US administration with some sage advice.
How Public Perception Affects Adoption of Technologies that Help Feed the World
More from correspondent Val Giddings at the BIO conference currently running in Chicago
How Public Perception Affects Adoption of Technologies that Help Feed the World was the topic Wednesday afternoon of one of the liveliest panels we’ve seen in a while. Moderated by Sally Squires (Weber Shandwick, former Washington Post writer) panelists included Margaret Zeigler (Congressional Hunger Center), Michael Specter (The New Yorker, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens our Lives), Maywa Montenegro (Seed Magazine) and Bruce Chassy (University of Illinois).
The session was well attended, nearly SRO, with almost a hundred folks in the audience. Topics ranged widely, though they did not include anything about opinion polling, as one might have assumed from the session title. Instead they touched on common misconceptions about biotech (that biotech foods have less nutrition, or biotech seeds are infertile), how people assess different types of risks differently (and usually at odds with the data). Many things were said by the panelists, most of them true. But there were a few howlers, and perhaps most surprisingly, they never named the elephant in the room: Does public perception affect the adoption of biotechnology? Of course it does. But perhaps not always as one might expect. Data the world over show opposition to be more theoretical than real: folks may say they are opposed, but at point of purchase, with few exceptions, they almost always buy based on quality and cost, where biotech foods stack up very well indeed. But the
perception of consumer resistance makes political decision makers reluctant to remove barriers, and the perception of resistance is the product of smoke, mirrors, and an aggressive, well funded, and ruthless campaign of unrelenting mendacity by self-styled “green” groups who have been called “murderous hypocrites.” Too bad we couldn’t get former European Commission staffer (now retired) Mark Cantley, to join the group and name this beast.
The howlers: in response to a question as to how the situation could be improved, one panelist opined that “We (the sorts of folks in the audience) should “stop vilifying Alice Waters and Michael Pollan”¦” Excuse me? Fair disclosure as the recipient of no small amount of vilification at the hands and pens of biotech opponents, my view may be colored. But the last time I checked the vilification balance was pretty lopsided, with about a hundred examples originating with the mendacious for every one from the data-based pro-science camp. This is not, I am said to say, a textbook example of moral equivalence.
Another howler One panelist offered her informed opinion that small farmers in central America are opposed to biotech because they are skeptical of technological innovation. Let’s see”¦ would these be the same custodians of maize landraces, who have an unmatched and unbroken innovative history spanning ten millennia during which their approach to plant stewardship has made a fetish of importing germplasm, conducting experimental crosses with it, and selecting products from the results to weave into their ongoing harvests? Explanation FAIL.
Third howler A panelist suggested that the role of NGOs has been, on balance, positive in the area of biotech and food. Yes, there have been a small number of vocal NGOs in opposition, but the vast majority of them are honestly and helpfully focused on trying to improve food security for the poor of the earth. Well”¦ I’m not sure I can do better than to quote my teenage daughter: OMG!!!! I am glad to hear that some NGOs are doing good things on food and hunger issues. But until they break ranks with Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth to condemn their profoundly misguided, contrafactual, and anti human campaigns against crops that reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture while increasing quality and safety of food and the economics of smallholder farming they are complicit and indictable.
But what’s a good panel without a howler or two? If you missed it, you missed it. Don’t make the same mistake next year.
“stop vilifying Alice Waters and Michael Pollan”¦”
Hmm. Lets see--- one Peruvian scientist facing jail for speaking out about hear-say nonsense that's unpublished, undisclosed and not peer-reviewed, but still used to achieve political outcomes. Other scientists threatened with legal action to close-down their fair public comment. Time and time again, pro-biotech opinion leaders being branded as shills for Monsanto (and same with this website). Monsanto itself being caste as Monsatan. Websites devoted to listing purported business connections of science commentators which are never checked with the scientists concerned. Outrageous claims against Golden Rice -- e.g its a Trojan Horse, 9 kg needed to have effect --- to deny poor communities and children its benefits for years on end. European blackmail of African countries on trade to persuade them not to use GM technology, even as poverty of farmers in Africa is so different to that of subsidised EU farmers.
And the audience are blamed for giving giving Waters and Pollan a hard-time?.
Yes indeed, we don't have moral-equivalence here.