In which I go toe to toe with H. Clinton’s science czar over GMOs
The questions were shamelessly loaded:
Why do many environmentalists trust science when it comes to climate change but not when it comes to genetic engineering? Is the fear really about the technology itself or is it a mistrust of big agribusiness?
When do you plan to stop beating your wife, or start taking science seriously, you fear-mongering hippie? But I couldn’t resist taking the bait on a Seed Magazine forum on science and GMOs–mainly because Nina Fedoroff, science and technology adviser to the US Secretary of State and to the administrator of USAID, was also participating.
Who could resist going toe to toe with Hillary Rodham Clinton’s science czar? Not I.
While I think the package presents a robust enough debate, I feel like the panel was nearly as loaded as the questions: three pro-GMO scientists — one with a high post in government — vs. Raj Patel and me. Raj is a great writer and scholar; but, like me, he’s not a scientist. I don’t know whom else Seed invited to contribute, and I realize getting these things together is chaotic. You can only publish what gets handed in. But the panel’s composition reinforces the assumptions enshrined in the questions: real scientists love GMOs, and hysterical environmentalists oppose them.
Yet as I show in my entry, the scientific “consensus” around GMOs is an illusion. Industry dogma aside, real skepticism around GMOs flourishes in the scientific community. Where, for example, was Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists? Gurian-Sherman has a doctorate in plant pathology from Berkeley and has worked on GMO policy for the USDA and EPA. He is the author, most recently, of the report “Failure to Yield,” which documents the, well, failure of GMOs to deliver real gains in crop yield, despite much industry claptrap to the contrary. Gurian-Sherman just told me he wasn’t approached to conrtribute. That just seems silly to me.
Or for that matter, where were the 26 university scientists who recently complained to the EPA that “no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions” around GMOs, because companies like Monsanto have control over who uses their seeds and for what purpose? True, they would be a bit hard to dig up, given that they declined to sign their names to the complaint “because they feared being cut off from research by the companies,” as The New York Times recently reported.
But a few of them did speak on record to The Times, including the University of Minnesota entomologist Ken Ostlie, who had this to say:
If a company can control the research that appears in the public domain, they can reduce the potential negatives that can come out of any research.
Ostle’s perspective would have added much to the debate, I’d wager. And he is one of the many credentialed scientists who could have added a critical perspective. As for the scientists who did participate, they mainly dished up Monsanto talking points, barely warmed over. Here’s UC Davis plant pathologist Pamela Ronald:
The misdirected protests [against GMOs] are an unfortunate diversion from the obvious: We need to feed more people on less land with less water and do it in a way that reduces environmentally harmful inputs. This is a critical environmental issue of our time.
And here is horticulturalist Noel Kingsbury:
World population is increasing, arable land availability is decreasing, and water resources are shrinking. We need every technology possible to increase yields, reduce toxic pesticide use, improve nutritional value, and feed the world.
By 2050, say United Nations’ experts, our planet must double food production to feed an anticipated population of 9.3 billion people. (That figure is 40 percent higher than today’s 6.6 billion.) Then factor in a pressured water supply, an energy-supply crunch and climate change. How do we surmount these obstacles? Agricultural innovation holds a key solution –and Monsanto pledges to do our part.
As for Fedoroff, Clinton’s science czar, her entry is full of similar rhetoric. She goes over the line, though, with this statement.
Fact: Modern genetic modification of crops is responsible for most of the crop yield increases of recent years.
Come now. The above-linked Gurian-Sherman paper shreds that notion. It’s a sad but all too familiar spectacle to see a public servant mouthing inaccuracies on behalf of some dodgy industry.
Condoleezza Rice originally hired Fed0roff to her current post; Clinton has elected to keep her on. For grins, I’m pasting in a post I wrote about her back in August 2008, which looks at her background working for the industry she now promotes as a State Department rep. Warning–the last line might be a bit painful.
Genetically modified diplomat
U.S. foreign policy: GMO all the way
Aug. 25, 2008
About a week ago, The New York Times ran a brief interview with Nina V. Fedoroff, official “science and technology adviser” to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Not surprisingly, Condoleezza Rice’s science czar has a special place in her heart for genetically modified organisms. In the Times interview, Fedoroff defends GMOs:
There’s almost no food that isn’t genetically modified. Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution…. The paradox is that now that we’ve invented techniques that introduce just one gene without disturbing the rest, some people think that’s terrible.
Right; GMOs merely mimic nature, and are thus no different than any other organisms. But if that’s true, then why do GMOs require such draconian intellectual property protection? Why should Monsanto be able to enforce patent claims on, say, Round Up Ready soybean seeds if they’re really just the same as other soybeans?
Perhaps Fedoroff is pushing an open-source approach to GMOs — the idea that a handful of of companies shouldn’t be able to lock up ownership of the globe’s most widely planted seeds. But given her corporate affiliations — which the Times didn’t see fit to divulge — that’s doubtful.
On taking the job at State in 2007, Fedoroff stepped down from her post on the “scientific advisory board” of Evogene, an Israeli agriculture-biotech firm. She had held the post for five years. What does Evogene do? According to the company’s “about us” page, it’s “geared toward developing improved plants for the agriculture and biofuel industries through the use of plant genomics.”
And that means working with the very few companies that control the GMO-seed business:
A number of improved plant traits are in relatively advanced stages of development through deals and collaborations with world leading companies, such as Monsanto Company, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and other [sic].
At the same time, Fedoroff was also serving on the board of Sigma-Aldrich, a transnational biotechnology company. According to its “about us” page, Sigma-Aldrich’s “biochemical and organic chemical products and kits are used in scientific and genomic research, biotechnology, pharmaceutical development, the diagnosis of disease and as key components in pharmaceutical and other high technology manufacturing.” In other words, like Evogene, Sigma-Aldrich provides services to the big ag-biotech companies.
And gets up to all manner of dodgy stuff, like projects to “develop cell-lines and transgenic animals that have targeted modifications in a specified gene in a specified species.”
In this day and age, it seems perfectly natural that U.S. ag-development policy should be dominated by the agenda of such companies. Let’s hope that changes soon.