Scientific Consensus on GM is an Illusion

			Tom Philpott

/(Tom Philpott is the food editor at, where he maintains 
the column "Victual Reality 
<>."  He also farms and 
cooks at Maverick Farms <>, a 
sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge 
Mountains of North Carolina.)/

	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 
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
    ä /

    /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 research - an 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 IAASTD - 
arguably 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 silence - in 
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 ignored - left 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 crops - i.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 blasť 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

    /* 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 ä 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

	A recent event reported 
<> by the New 
York Times  illustrates the lack of independence - and thus, 
arguably, rigor - that 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 germplasm - permission which is sometimes denied or 
granted only on condition that the companies can review findings 
before publication.

	Stunningly, "The researchers ä 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 
environmentalist should bow to - one 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 industries - the 
petroleum and coal giants - to protect markets worth hundreds of 
billions of dollars.  The consensus around GMOs - or at least the 
specter of one - arose 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