As the National Research Council (NRC) sets out on an 18-month, “science-based” study into the safety, benefits and drawbacks of GMOs, it will be interesting to see which science—and which scientists—the NRC will be consulting.
The initial indications aren’t great. While the NRC boasts that it is aiming to “provide an independent, objective assessment of what has been learned since GE crops were introduced,” several of the scientific experts it has selected to direct the new report have substantial ties to industry—and are clearly in a position to advocate on behalf of biotech companies.
The reason this matters is because the biotech industry has long had an outsized role in shaping the science surrounding GMOs, with tactics including funding and authoring countless studies, censoring or restricting independent research and attacking unfavorable findings. The result of this influence is a body of scientific literature with substantial industry bias and major gaps—especially in safety research. Industry also uses its unparalleled financial resources to bulldoze the public debate on GMOs, including spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress. Do biotech companies really need another platform to advocate their pro-GMO stance?
Consider some of the scientists that NRC wants to run the new GMO study:
Karen Hokanson, though she does not work directly for a biotech company, works as a consultant for the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a pro-GMO research center funded by Monsanto (whose corporate headquarters are just across the street). She has also worked at the Program for Biosafety Systems, a diplomacy effort to promote acceptance of GMOs abroad, mainly in Africa, that is directed by a prominent GMO advocate and former Monsanto executive.
Another proposed member, Robert Whitaker, works for the Monsanto-sponsored Produce Marketing Association and previously was employed at the DNA Plant Technology Corporation, which worked on developing GMO fruits and vegetables.
Several academics who work on developing GMOs and have substantial professional or financial ties to industry were also appointed to the panel.
Perhaps the NRC feels that such industry influence has no bearing on its ability to carry out an independent, objective study. We disagree, and that’s why Food & Water Watch submitted comments to the Council asking it to reduce the heavy industry influence on its scientific review of GMOs—or, at the very least, provide a robust counterpoint. If industry is going to have a seat—or a surrogate—at the table, why don’t farmers and consumers have a champion sitting across from them? If the NRC panel is going to be a partisan affair, why can’t we make it bi-partisan, including both GMO advocates and critics?
It’s important that NRC get this influential study off on the right foot, as its findings will be used by our nation’s policy makers to draft rules, regulations and laws surrounding agricultural policy and safety assessments of new GMOs.