The debate over testing and labelling of genetically modified foods has many scientists worried. Here's why free expression advocates should be equally concerned.
As the U.S. and the world braced themselves for the results of one of the most polarising and tense presidential campaigns in recent history last fall, many Californians were focused on a ballot measure that had become as hotly disputed in the final months of the election as the presidency itself.
Proposition 37 proposed the labelling of foods made from genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) crops – crops produced from seeds whose DNA has been altered to enhance desired traits, such as resistance to herbicides. Critics have long claimed that the health risks associated with such foods have never been properly assessed and raise concerns over environmental impacts, including the emergence of new “super” weeds resistant to herbicides.
Proponents of the ballot measure argued that Californians had the right to know what was in their food; opponents countered that such a move would result in a hike in food prices as new labelling costs were passed on to consumers.
Polls showed overwhelming support for “Prop 37” as late as September, with some results putting “Yes” support at over 75 percent – not surprising perhaps for a state that has been at the forefront of the local food movement in North America since before it could be considered a movement. But California wasn’t alone. In independent surveys conducted across the country over the past 10 years, Americans have consistently shown close to 90 percent support for labelling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
By early October, however, the margins had narrowed considerably. A flood of ads from the “‘No’ on 37” campaign, financed by agro-chemical giants such as Monsanto, Dupont, Kraft, and Coca Cola pummelled the “Right to Know” forces, as doctors reassured voters there was nothing scary about GMOs. In the end, the “No” campaign’s US$46 million push was decisive. Outspent by 5 to 1, the yes side lost the ballot measure by a slim margin: 53-47 percent.
The staggering sums invested by the agro-chemical industry in the debate should not be surprising in what is turning out to be an historic battle. The U.S. remains one of the few industrialised countries that does not impose mandatory labelling of GMOs; 61 other countries, such as France, Russia, Brazil and Japan, already have similar legislation. A victory in California would have opened the floodgates for other states as well – and indeed the world – with obvious consequences for the corporate food industry.
But biotech’s fight against transparency is nothing new. The industry has vigorously opposed labelling and regulation attempts since 1992. Back then, it managed to convince U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials, with the help of FDA policy guru and former Monsanto lawyer Michael Taylor, of the “substantial equivalence” of their new product – essentially, that the new crops were not sufficiently distinct from traditional crops to justify special safety testing or labelling. The principle would become the cornerstone of safety assessment for GM foods, paving the way for a lax regulatory system that would last more than two decades.
Independent research on GM crops is troublingly scarce. A crucial factor behind the dearth of such studies is the industry’s use of its seed patents (exclusive rights over how the new genetically altered seeds are used) to restrict independent inquiry. According to a 2012 report by Earth Open Source, “Permission to study GM crops is withheld or made so difficult to obtain that research is effectively blocked.”
In 2009, a group of 26 entomologists sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), protesting the restrictions and “selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward [seed-enhancement] technology.” Most chose to withhold their names for fear of reprisals.
Even when permission is granted, seed companies reserve the right to block publication of studies. A scathing editorial published in Scientific American in 2009 explained: “In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering.”
Independent scientists whose findings contradict claims of biotech companies regularly come under attack by GM proponents. According to author and consumer advocate Jeffrey Smith, there is nothing random about the targeting. “The attack on scientists is very well structured by the biotech industry,” says Smith. “It’s systematic, it’s worldwide, it’s very coordinated. It’s part of the way that they do business.”
Studies pointing to environmental or health-related risks from GM crops are particularly sensitive. Researchers who have exposed such risks have faced harassment, threats, intimidation and smear campaigns. Others have been derided simply for questioning the adequacy of testing protocols for GM approval. When eminent Indian biologist Pushpa M.Bhargava sounded the alarm over lax regulatory standards in his country, his scientific credentials were called into question and he was dismissed as “anti-government”.
One of the first scientists to endure the full wrath of the industry was Dr. Arpad Pusztai, one of the world’s leading experts on feeding studies. In 1998, Dr. Pusztai, a biochemist with the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, led a team of more than 20 scientists through a comparative study that found significant developmental differences and suppressed immune systems in rats fed with GM potatoes. With the support of Rowett’s director – and out of concern for the public – Pusztai went public with his findings ahead of publication on an investigative current affairs programme for Britain’s ITV.
Though his director had earlier issued a press release praising Pusztai’s work, two phone calls from the prime minister’s office may have prompted the institute to do an about-face; within 48 hours Pusztai was fired from his job of 35 years, his data confiscated and his research team disbanded. Under threat of lawsuit he was barred from speaking to his colleagues or to the media about his findings.
What hurt the scientist most, however, was the campaign by industry-backed research centres and by the British government to misrepresent his findings and discredit his work. Pusztai remains under a lifetime suspension from the Royal Society, the U.K.’s scientific academy.
While Pusztai’s findings eventually passed peer review and were published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, the case sent a chill over the scientific community – and a clear message to scientists about who controlled academic freedom.
That message was underscored less than three years later in another case halfway around the world. Dr. Ignacio Chapela, a microbiologist with the University of California, Berkeley, and his student, David Quist, were conducting experiments on native maize varieties in Oaxaca, Mexico, when they discovered the crops had been contaminated by GM genes. The finding was a shock: in 1998 Mexico had issued a moratorium on the planting of GM corn in an effort to protect the genetic diversity of its biological heritage. So where were the genes coming from? Chapela and Quist’s study clearly showed what environmentalists had been warning about for years: that GM corn imports from the U.S were polluting indigenous varieties. The discovery contradicted long-held industry claims that crop spread could be controlled.
As a courtesy to the Mexican government, Chapela shared his preliminary findings with agricultural officials. He then sent his study to Nature magazine, where it was peer reviewed by five other scientists before being published in November 2001. Reaction was swift. In a plot turn worthy of a spy thriller, Chapela was taken by taxi to an abandoned building in Mexico City to meet with a furious senior government official whose various attempts to get him to retract his article included bribes, intimidation and the ultimate threat: “I know where your children go to school.”
As news of the study’s results began to leak even before Nature‘s publication, the threats and intimidation turned to smear tactics. Some of the most virulent attacks came courtesy of two email addresses that were later traced to The Bivings Group, a public relations firm hired by Monsanto. Bivings conducted a viral marketing campaign using fabricated identities to discredit Chapela’s findings.
Though the study was published, the fallout over the findings was so explosive that Nature later published an editorial distancing itself from the study – an unprecedented move in the magazine’s 133-year history and criticised by many scientists for its contempt of the scientific process. Chapela remains convinced the magazine was pressured by industry to withdraw its support for the study.
Pusztai’s and Chapela’s stories are two chilling examples of pressures faced by scientists who have authored risk-finding studies. And while such pressures are not rare, what has many scientists increasingly troubled is the shift in tenor of the debate around GM studies. In September 2012, when French professor Gilles-Eric Séralini and a group of scientists at the University of Caen discovered increased rates of cancer in rats fed on genetically modified corn, their work was variously disparaged by critics as “biased”, “bogus”, “fraudulent”, “sub-standard” and “sloppy, agenda-based science”. According to Earth Open Source, that kind of language is new to science. “The trend of attempting to silence or discredit research that finds problems with GMOs is unprecedented and has grown in parallel with the commercialisation of GM crops.”
An article in Nature magazine in September 2009 raised similar concerns about the tone of the debate around GMOs. One scientist who found herself the target of a particularly pointed backlash noted, “These are not the kind of tactics we’re used to in science.” What has changed, in short, is the scientific process itself: rather than proposing further study to address perceived research flaws, critics simply denigrate the results. Another scientist put it more simply: “To try to dismiss the research out of hand ignores how science is supposed to work.”
For a growing number of global citizens concerned about where their food comes from, the shroud over GM science is unacceptable. The right to test biotech companies’ claims about their seeds is a cornerstone of the scientific process. It is, in other words, “how science is supposed to work.” To suppress those efforts is not only anti-science, it’s undemocratic.
Diane Partenio is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto.