1.Scientific Consensus on GM is an Illusion
2.Climate denial, science and Genetic Modification
3.Why do key GM advocates deny mainstream scientific opinion on climate change?
NOTE: Tom Philpott has just engaged in a debate on Twitter with the science writer Keith Kloor over Kloor's claim that GM opposition is equivalent to climate change denial. Tom Philpott made a number of important points about this claim:
*Climate denial has a massive industry behind it; GMO critique bucks up against a massive industry. Not good analogy
*The IPCC confirmed the consensus on climate, whereas its analogy for agriculture, IAASTD, did nothing of the sort for GMOs.
*To equate GMO critique to climate denial is to engage in smear to end debate, not to engage in debate.
Here is an earlier piece by Tom on the same topic published in SEED magazine as part of a series of articles to which other contributers were Pamela Ronald, a pro-GM plant geneticist, Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, Nina Fedoroff, the pro-GM former science and technology adviser to the US Secretary of State, and Noel Kingsbury, a pro-GM horticulturalist and writer.
We have also added two other past pieces (items 2 and 3) relevant to the same issue, the last of which highlights the irony that a number of key GM advocates actually deny mainstream scientific opinion on climate change!
1.Scientific Consensus on GM is an Illusion
The assumption is that a global scientific consensus has formed around the value of patent-protected transgenic crops, analogous to the general agreement around human-induced climate change. Yet that is clearly false.
Let’s start by looking at the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a three-year project to assess the role of agricultural knowledge, science, and technology in reducing hunger and poverty, improving rural livelihoods, and facilitating environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable development.
Widely compared to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which definitively established a scientific consensus around climate change on its release in 2007, the IAASTD engaged 400 scientists from around the globe under the aegis of the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. According to the Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report, the effort was originally “stimulated by discussions at the World Bank with the private sector and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on the state of scientific understanding of biotechnology and more specifically transgenics.”
If transgenic-crop technology had captured the broad approval of the global agricultural-science community, here was the place to show it. But what happened? According to the Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report:
"Assessment of biotechnology is lagging behind development; information can be anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty on benefits and harms is unavoidable. There is a wide range of perspectives on the environmental, human health and economic risks and benefits of modern biotechnology; many of these risks are as yet unknown...
The application of modern biotechnology outside containment, such as the use of genetically modified (GM) crops, is much more contentious [than biotechnology within containment, e.g., industrial enzymes]. For example, data based on some years and some GM crops indicate highly variable 10 to 33 percent yield gains in some places and yield declines in others."
The report goes on to call for a whole new framework for crop-biotechnology researchan implicit rebuke to the current one:
"Biotechnologies should be used to maintain local expertise and germplasm so that the capacity for further research resides within the local community. Such R&D would put much needed emphasis onto participatory breeding projects and agroecology."
Thus, whereas the IPCC revealed broad agreement among the global scientific community around climate change, the IAASTDarguably the "IPCC of agriculture"showed deep ambivalence among scientists over transgenic crops.
The real question becomes: How can serious publications like Seed claim that skepticism toward GMOs reflects a “scientific flip-flop”? To be sure, the illusion of a broad consensus holds sway in the United States, and the IAASTD has clearly failed to correct it. The US media greeted its release with near-complete silencein stark contrast to its reception in the European media.
So, how did this spectral scientific consensus for GMOs come into being? In a two-part article called ” The Genetic Engineering of Food and The Failure of Science,” recently published as a “work in progress” by the peer-reviewed International Journal of the Sociology of Food and Agriculture, the agroecologist Don Lotter ventures to answer this.
Lotter's paper traces the history of the rise of plant transgenics, convincingly arguing that political and economic power, not scientific rigor, have driven the technology’s ascent. He shows that the hyper-liberal US regulatory regime around GMOs stems not from an overwhelming weight of evidence, but rather from close, often revolving-door ties between the industry and US administrations dating back to Reagan. Take the assumption that transgenic foods have been proven to have no ill effects on human health. Far from being exhaustively studied, it turns out, that question has been largely ignoredleft by US regulators to be sorted out by the industry itself. When there have been long-term trials by independent researchers, the results have hardly been comforting.
For example, writes Lotter:
"In a 2008 report (Velimirov et al., 2008) of research commissioned by the Austrian government, a long-term animal feeding experiment showed significant reproductive problems in transgenic corn-fed rats when all groups were subject to multiple birth cycles, a regimen that has not hitherto been examined in feeding studies comparing transgenic and non-transgenic foods."
Thus in the first-ever multi-generational study of the effects of GMO food, evidence of serious reproductive trouble comes to light: reduced birth weight and fertility. If the reproductive system can be viewed as a proxy for broad health, then the Austrian study raises serious questions about the effects of consuming foods derived from transgenic cropsi.e., upwards of 70 percent of the products found on U.S. supermarket shelves. Yet, as in the case of the IAASTD, the Austrian study dropped with a thud by the US media.
The Austrian results raise an obvious question: why did the first multigenerational study of the health effects of GMOs emerge more than a decade after their broad introduction in the United States? Lotter devotes the second half of his paper, "Academic Capitalism and the Loss of Scientific Integrity," to answering that question.
Lotter traces the generally blasé approach to GMO research to "the restructuring of research university science programs in the past 25 years from a non-proprietary 'public goods' approach to one based on dependence on private industry." He teases out the following ramifications:
”¢ tolerance by the scientific community of bias against and mistreatment of non-compliant scientists whose work results in negative findings for transgenics, including editorial decisions by peer-reviewed journals, as well as tolerance of biotechnology industry manipulation of the information environment
”¢ monopolization of the make-up of expert scientific bodies on transgenics by pro-industry scientists with vested interests in transgenics
”¢ deficient scientific protocols, bias, and possible fraud in industry-sponsored and industry-conducted safety testing of transgenic foods
”¢ increasing politically and commercially driven manipulation of science within federal regulatory bodies such as the FDA
Lotter delivers well-documented examples to support each of those charges. He shows, for example, that the USDA dispersed $1.8 billion for crop biotechnology research to universities between 1992 and 2002, of which one percent ($18 million) went to "risk-related research.” He cites another peer-reviewed study showing that university biotech research has "'overwhelmingly been targeted at plants and traits that are of interest to the largest firms," and that "research on non-proprietary solutions which benefit the wider public has been lacking”¦This arena should be central to the mission of universities and other non-profit research institutions.”
It's worth noting that the IAASTD points out similar concerns in the industry-dominated research agendas at public universities:
"An emphasis on modern biotechnology without ensuring adequate support for other agricultural research can alter education and training programs and reduce the number of professionals in other core agricultural sciences. This situation can be self-reinforcing since today’s students define tomorrow’s educational and training opportunities."
A recent event reported by the New York Times illustrates the lack of independenceand thus, arguably, rigorthat surrounds too much GMO research. A group of 23 US scientists signed a letter to the EPA declaring that, “No truly independent research [on GMOs] can be legally conducted on many critical questions.” The Times reported that because of draconian intellectual property laws, scientists can’t grow GMO crops for research purposes without gaining permission from the corporations that own the germplasmpermission which is sometimes denied or granted only on condition that the companies can review findings before publication.
Stunningly, "The researchers ”¦ withheld their names [from the EPA letter] because they feared being cut off from research by the companies," The Times reports.
So this is the sort of scientific consensus around GMOs that environmentalists should bow toone literally based on fear among tenured faculty?
Ultimately, scientific responses to the advent of climate change and the rise of GMOs make a poor comparison. The consensus around climate change developed in spite of a multi-decade campaign by some of the globe's most powerful and lucrative industriesthe petroleum and coal giantsto protect markets worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The consensus around GMOsor at least the specter of onearose through the lobbying and support of an industry desperate to protect its own multibillion-dollar investments. I predict this bought-and-paid-for consensus will prove short-lived.
2.Climate denial, science and Genetic Modification
Rooted, August 2 2011
Greenpeace have been strongly criticised in recent weeks over the destruction of a trial crop of genetically modified wheat. Some critics have labelled the organisation ‘anti-science’ and claim that opposition to GM crops somehow contradicts the support of climate science.
Firstly, it is useful to revisit what ‘science’ actually is, and what it isn’t.
Science is broadly defined as the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. The scientific method involves observing the world, putting forward a hypothesis (theory), and then attempting to disprove that hypothesis. Theories that can’t be disproved become accepted, until they are disproved and replaced by a theory that is more robust.
So, contrary to much popular opinion, science really isn’t about ‘proof’ at all. It is about ‘disproof’.
In relation to global warming, after many years of observing trends in nature (rising CO2 levels in the ocean and atmosphere, slow but steady increases in global average temperatures etc.), scientists put forward the theory of ‘man made global warming’. Scientists have been trying to disprove this theory, but so far they haven’t succeeded it remains the best theory to describe what is happening to the global climate system.
What climate deniers and so-called ‘climate sceptics’ seem to misunderstand amid their attempts to discredit climate science, is that the mainstream scientific process that they are railing against is actually geared around trying to ‘disprove’ the theory of man-made global warming. The reason that I call them ‘climate deniers’ rather than ‘climate sceptics’ is that all climate scientists are sceptical of the theory of global warming as a result of the scientific method they use, but what we see from the deniers is just that outright denial.
But the scientific method does not stand alone in our decision making about science and technological development. Science is, and must be, guided by values and principles, one of which is the ‘precautionary principle’. The application of the precautionary principle helps to determine where the burden of proof or the burden of disproof should lie.
In the case of climate change, the burden of proof, or the burden of disproof is clear. There is an obvious trend happening in the world that is widely regarded as potentially dangerous. A theory has been identified to describe what is happening, this theory has withstood enormous scientific scrutiny and is therefore widely accepted by the scientific community with a high level of confidence. The negative consequences of global warming happening are enormous compared to cost of doing something about it. The burden of proof clearly rests upon climate deniers (or indeed climate scientists) to disprove the theory of human induced global warming. I hope they manage to do it because the implications of global warming are almost too disturbing to contemplate.
In the case of genetically engineered foods however, the issues are less straightforward and reveal the political and values based judgements that are also made as part of the scientific process. But firstly, it is important to be clear that genetically modified foods are not science. Nuclear power isn’t ‘science either. Neither are pop-up toasters. They are the commercial products that rely on scientific understanding for their development.
The ‘science’ involved in genetic engineering is the theory of the genome and the relationships between DNA, RNA and proteins. One of the technological spin-offs of these scientific theories (which thus far have not been disproven) is a technique of inserting genes from one species into the genome of another in order to achieve a beneficial trait in the recipient organism. The body of scientific evidence suggests that the relationships between DNA, RNA and proteins are extremely complex and the implications of inserting a foreign gene are likely to be many and unpredictable.
For example, the Human Genome Project revealed that we humans have far fewer genes than previously expected around 20,500 genes that encode the proteins for all the parts of our bodies. On the other hand, the tiny roundworm (Caenorhabditis elegans) has nearly as many genes as we doapproximately 20,100but far fewer body parts. It is estimated that some 650,000 protein interactions occur in humans, approximately three times more than that in the roundworm. Moreover, it seems that a single protein can have dozens, if not hundreds, of different interactions.
We need to remember this complexity in the relationships between DNA, RNA and proteins when it comes to how we regulate genetically engineered organisms.
The problem, and a root cause of the controversy over the regulation of GM foods, is that determining where the burden of proof should lie for safety of new products not a scientific ‘given’. It is actually a value judgement based largely on an assessment of costs and benefits. The proponents of GM (biotech companies, chemical companies and some scientists) argue in favour of the doctrine of ‘substantial equivalence’. In effect, it assumes that genetically engineered foods are substantially equivalent to traditionally bred varieties of the same food because only a small number of extra genes have been inserted. As a result of this assumption, GM foods are assumed to be safe until proven otherwise.
On the other hand, many public health organisations, environmental groups and some scientists argue that ‘substantial equivalence’ does not account for the complexity of possible results arising from the insertion of novel genes into organisms, and that unexpected effects are likely. Accordingly, if a precautionary approach is taken, then the burden of proof should be on the proponents of GM to demonstrate that GM foods are safe in much the same way that new pharmaceuticals need to be demonstrated to be safe.
Ultimately, this debate is not about science, it is about politics. It is about evaluating who benefits from GM crops, and who should bear the risks. Greenpeace’s position is influenced by the simple observation that most of the GM crops that have been developed have been done so for the private benefit of agro-chemical companies that wish to extend their control over the food chain.
From our discussions with public health experts around the world, a common view emerges: If the potential risks of negative health impacts from GM foods became manifest, then the impacts could be significant, would be spread widely within the community and would be difficult to detect (in part due to poor labelling requirements).
The high profile public debate about genetically engineered foods has been mischaracterised as a pro vs. anti science debate, but it is really a debate about the politics of technology, and about the risks and benefits of one particular technology. A similar parallel in the climate change debate would not be about whether or not climate change is happening, it would be about whether nuclear power is an appropriate solution to climate change, or whether a particular geo-engineering application should be deployed to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
Whenever you have a cost/benefit equation, you need to deal with value judgements and vested interests. In cases where the people taking a risk are the people benefitting, you are likely to see widespread acceptance. A good example of this is the mobile phones which offer clear benefits to people even though there are concerns over a possible increased incidence of brain cancer. With GM foods, the companies benefit, consumers bear the health risks, and the risks of GM crops are ‘externalised’ upon the wider environment.
Greenpeace is not opposed to the science of genetics. We are not opposed to research into new and innovative forms of plant breeding. What Greenpeace are opposed to is the widespread release of genetically modified organisms into the environment and the food chain without due diligence being done on the risk of long-term negative impacts. Our position is based on the precautionary principle, on respect for science, and on critical analysis of the environmental and social risks of new technologies.
3.Why do key GM advocates deny mainstream scientific opinion on climate change?
Although originally written some 8 years ago now, Robert Vint's piece below continues to be remarkably relevant, not least as the U.S. continues to aggressively promote GMOs while dragging its heels on meaningful action on climate change.
One point to add is that there are many others who could be added to Robert's list of overlapping GMO advocates and human-induced climate change deniers. For instance, in the UK, obvious candidates include the:
*Scientific Alliance – director: the former Dupont lobbyist Martin Livermore [scientific advisors to the SA have included Prof Vivian Moses and Prof Anthony Trewavas – one of the leading critics at the moment of Seralini, among several other well known pro-GM scientists]
*various lobby groups associated with Julian Morris, Roger Bate and Kendra Okonski (eg the International Policy Network, Institute of Economic Affairs, the European Science and Environment Forum)
*LM network, which includes Spiked Online and the Institute of Ideas, and which has key place-people in science-media lobby groups like Sense About Science, which has been remarkably quiet on the climate issue yet claims to be a leading defender of sound science.
In the US, an obvious addition would be Monsanto's "corporate partner", the Congress of Racial Equality, who as well as taking money from Monsanto gets big bucks from ExxonMobil to attack action on climate change.
Other keen GM advocates and climate change skeptics include the American Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Hudson Institute and the mother of all U.S. right-wing think tanks and wise use groups, Ron Arnold's Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.
Leading climate-change deniers, the George C. Marshall Institute has the well known GM advocate Henry I. Miller as a member of its scientific advisory board. Another GM advocacy group underplaying the threat of climate change is the American Council on Science and Health, amongst whose advisors are Miller again, CS Prakash of AgBioWorld fame (see below), and Dennis Avery (see below).
An interesting point, of course, is that when it comes to GM crops, the GM lobbyists accuse their critics of not kow towing to what they claim is the scientific mainstream. When it comes to climate change, they reverse this and attack people as cowardly for not daring to challenge the scientific consensus.
WHY DO THE KEY GM FOOD ADVOCATES OPPOSE THE KYOTO TREATY?
Subscribers to Dr C.S.Prakash's pro-biotech 'AgBioView' email list will be familiar with the names of some of the key global promoters of GM food and crops, most of whom are based in the USA, such as those named below. [website at www.agbioworld.org ]
Interestingly they all have websites that not only defend GM food but also attack the Kyoto Treaty on global warming:
1. Philip Stott, ProBiotech (Organiser of the UK 'Seeds of Opportunity Conference' with the U.S embassy) [His disciples include Nigel and Dominic Lawson]
2. Steven J. Milloy, Citizens for the Integrity of Science www.junkscience.com and www.nomorescares.com
3. Alex Avery, Center for Global Food Issues www.cgfi.com & his father, Dennis Avery, The Hudson Institute www.hudson.org [Dennis Avery has since published with Fred Singer the book: Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1500 Years]
4. Frances B Smith, Consumer Alert www.consumeralert.org (A "consumer" group opposing consumer safety and rights)
5. Gregory Conko, Competitive Enterprise Institute www.cei.org/ceimain.asp [who co-founded CS Prakash's AgBioWorld campaign which has the biggest pro-GM listserv]
6. John Carlisle, National Center for Public Policy Research www.nationalcenter.org
How, one might ask, are GM and CO2 connected – other than that they both have implications for the regulation of big business? Is it possible that these people are called in whenever such businesses run into trouble? The issues addressed on these websites do suggest this:
1,2,3,4,5,6 oppose the Kyoto treaty and CO2 emission regulations
1,2,3,4,5,6 oppose organic farming & labels [Alex & Dennis Avery are the leading opponents of organic farming]
1,2,5,6 oppose concern about rainforest destruction.
2,5,6 oppose tobacco taxes & regulation. [Milloy is a former tobacco industry lobbyist and CEI is tobacco industry funded]
2,6 oppose gun control laws
Stephen Milloy (2) is a former tobacco industry lobbyist [and a former Monsanto lobbyist] as well as a former executive director of TASSC, a front organisation created by tobacco giant Philip Morris. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (5) and Consumer Alert (4) are also recipients of Big Tobacco funding. [PRWatch investigates 'No More Scares' http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/168.htm ] The Hudson Institute (3) which opposes organic farming and pesticide regulation, is biotech industry funded. (Donors include: AgrEvo, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto, Novartis, Zeneca).
These groups are closely linked to one another (see their link pages and two fake 'consumer' alliances that they have jointly created: National Consumer Coalition www.foodstuff.org and International Consumers for a Civil Society www.icfcs.org ) They share a common philosophy that generally includes:
a. Support for unregulated global free trade and the World Trade Organisation.
b. Opposition to environmental, gun, health and safety, and food labelling regulations and to the Precautionary Principle.
c. Denial of environmental problems such as global warming, rainforest destruction, DDT and agrochemicals.
d. Support for the oil and nuclear industries and for the unregulated use of fossil fuels.
e. Support of biotechnology and transnational corporations.
f. Belief that environmental and safety concerns as mere marketing stunts by organic and green businesses.
ARTICLES BY GM-PROMOTERS OPPOSING ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATIONS AND CONSUMER PROTECTION:
1. Philip Stott, ProBiotech:
*Hot Air + Flawed Science = Dangerous Emissions
*Tropical Rain Forests: Exposing the Myths www.ecotrop.org (click on 'rainforest' left link) "Over the years, a series of 'little green lies' has been insidiously applied to tropical rain forests with the aim of persuading Governments, and all of us, that we do not simply 'like' or 'want' to keep these forests, but that we 'need' them scientifically for sound ecology "
*Critical 'Global Warming' Reports www.ecotrop.org (click on 'Climate 3' left link)
2. Steven J. Milloy, Citizens for the Integrity of Science:
*Gun Control Science Misfires www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,7217,00.html
*Organic Industry Groups Spread Fear for Profit
*100 things you should know about DDT www.junkscience.com/ddtfaq.htm
*Biotech foods www.junkscience.com/consumer/consumer_biotech.htm
3. Alex Avery, Center for Global Food Issues & Dennis Avery, The Hudson Institute:
*American Outlook Contradicts Environmentalists on the Effects of "Global Warming" www.hudson.org/press5.htm
*Global Warming-Boon for Mankind?
*The Hidden Dangers in Organic Food www.hudson.org/averydoc9d.htm
*New Organic Food Standards Could Use Warning Labels
*Another Dubious Link Between Pesticides And Cancer
*Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic www.hudson.org/upcoming.htm
4. Frances B Smith, Consumer Alert:
*Consumer group relieved at announcement on CO2
*The Biosafety Protocol: The Real Losers Are Developing Countries [PDF]
5. Gregory Conko, Competitive Enterprise Institute:
*Organic Food Standards May Violate First Amendment
*"Precautionary Principle" Stalls Advances in Food Technology
*CEI Applauds End of US Support for Kyoto Protocol
*The Costs of Kyoto www.cei.org/books/costsofkyoto.html
*Public Interest Group Hails Supreme Court Snuff-Out of FDA Tobacco Regs
6. John Carlisle, National Center for Public Policy Research:
*U.S.D.A. Organic Food Labels Are Misleading – 5/00
*Biotechnology: Putting an End to World Hunger – June 2000
*Bush Must Kill Kyoto Global Warming Treaty & Stop Congressional Efforts to Regulate CO2 www.nationalcenter.org/NPA328.html
*The Federal Tobacco Lawsuit is Bad Economics, Bad Law & Bad Governing
Scientific consensus on GM is an illusion
1.Scientific Consensus on GM is an Illusion