A New Wrinkle In The GMO Debate: Find Yourself Some Scientists And Pay Them

gmo.jpgAre you confused by GMOs? Only a minority of Americans can even explain what “GMO” stands for. Competing claims about GMOs’ benefits and possible harmfulness confuse the debate further.

Framing the issue as simply “pro” or “con” is far too simplistic an approach to such a complicated part of our food system. Now another confusing reason that GMOs are so controversial—and complex—has emerged: food industry groups are funding scientists’ research.

The newly formed anti-GMO labeling group US Right to Know recently requested access to emails of academics at public institutions (a legal request under the Freedom of Information Act) and uncovered some researchers’ deep ties with the food industry, according to Eric Lipton of the NY Times. Lipton explains that the real problem might not be the influence over the academic integrity of the research, but rather the way the food industry is using these academics as mouthpieces to support their agendas:

The emails provide a rare view into the strategy and tactics of a lobbying campaign that has transformed ivory tower elites into powerful players. The use by both sides of third-party scientists, and their supposedly unbiased research, helps explain why the American public is often confused as it processes the conflicting information.

Lipton quotes academics from both sides (those funded by organic food industry groups and those funded by biotech groups) as “feeling used,” or at least being uncomfortable with the advocacy role that they agreed to. Lipton spends most of the article on the machinations of Monsanto and other big agribusiness companies, but even the feel-good organic food folks don’t have clean hands in this mess: Stonyfield Farms has been involved with academics and used them to support their staunch anti-GMO stance.

In a follow up to Lipton’s article, Jonathan Latham, PhD, executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, explains that while the academics in Lipton’s article are certainly players in this game, there are even bigger “fish to fry” when it comes to the ways the biotech industry has co-opted academics for advocacy purposes:

So the story that academia’s most vocal GMO defenders, and some of its most prominent scientists, are copied into these emails is missing. The focus on individuals like Folta occludes a demonstration, for the first time ever, of long-suspected and intricate coordination and cooperation among them. 

We’re no stranger to the ways that science can influence policy, and food groups can influence science, but the implications of this current GMO debate are made more significant by the DARK Act, an anti-GMO labeling bill that has already passed in the House. While the biotech industry has stood up against GMO labeling because of concerns that it will cause confusion and unnecessary fear amongst consumers (as well as diminish their profit margins), Libby Folly of Environmental Working Group explains that accepting GMO labeling could be a boon for food companies, according to MIT researcher, Alexis H. Bateman:

Besides improving relationships with customers, Bateman says, labeling could save companies money by forcing them to take a close look at their supply chains, showing where they could become more efficient. It could also help ensure an unbroken supply and improve relationships with vendors, both of which reduce a company’s risk. She says smart companies will not only oppose the DARK Act, but get ahead of the game by acting on their own now."

Of course we realize the irony of citing an academic after reporting on Lipton’s article, but consumer demand is such an important part of business that Bateman’s perspective seems valid in this context. We’re watching the DARK Act closely as the GMO debate lurches forward. We hope that solid science, and the protection of human and environmental health, will prevail.


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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