"Doom and gloomers." That's what my father used to call people who talked about global warming not as a chance to work on their tans, but as something that ought to be keeping humankind up at night. He'd toss the newspaper aside, or change the subject at dinner. He still does, in fact. Fortunately much of America — or at least the people we elected to run it — has accepted that climate change is not only a real and present threat, but that it's imperative we revisit some of the assumptions that got us into this mess.
Alas, public debate about the safety of growing and eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) remains stalled at where climate change was circa 1993, back when Al Gore published "Earth in the Balance" to a deafening silence. Americans tend to dismiss serious discussions about the risks of GMOs with a "doom and gloomers" shrug. They're here, they're queer, get over it.
This is a mistake. It's one that Europeans, the Japanese, and plenty of other industrialized and developing nations have avoided. As with climate change, the longer American citizens refuse to learn about this issue, the hotter the water we frogs are sitting in gets. Writes technology reporter Denise Caruso in her excellent book, "Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet": As long as scientists can justifiably "declare that we, the innumerate public, lack the mental capacity to understand what they, the experts, do...there can be no common ground for understanding between those who create risk and we who must bear it." And if the current economic meltdown, caused by financial instruments too complex for any mere mortals other than hedge fund managers to understand, has taught us anything, it's that an ignorant public is begging to get shafted.
A paper just published May 25 in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Society of Agriculture and Food gives people the tools with which to grasp the science behind transgenic food crops, what questions we should be asking, and a potential path out of this mess. In it Don Lotter, a UC-Davis trained scientist, makes a persuasive case that the transgenic seed industry is built on fundamentally flawed science, and that companies like Monsanto have used their vast market power to reshape university research, manipulate public opinion, and coerce regulatory agencies into reckless acceptance of risky technologies. And that scientists have looked the other way while they did so.
"The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science" paper ought to be required reading for any American citizen who didn't sign the consent form about the risks of the "largest diet experiment in history," as he calls it. That includes you, me, your kids, every member of Congress, and every researcher who still believes in independent science.
Whistleblow your house down
Lotter has a Ph.D. in agroecology from the University of California, Davis, and a master of professional studies in international agricultural and rural development from Cornell University. At various times he has taught environmental science, soil science, plant science, entomology, and vegetable crop production for Santa Monica College, Imperial Valley College, and UC Davis. He is not tenure track and said in a phone interview last night that this paper certainly "wasn't going to help my chances of getting a job" (for reasons that will become clear in a bit). He was recently a visiting scholar in the department of plant pathology at Colegio Postgraduados in Chapingo, Mexico. His research on organic agriculture has been published in the Journal of Alternative Agriculture and the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture.
"The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science"is published in two parts that take up 37 of the Journal of Society of Agriculture and Food's 68 pages. Part one, "The Development of a Flawed Enterprise" (PDF) covers some territory familiar to those who've read recent books on GMOs such as "Intervention" or environmental journalist Claire Hope Cummings' "Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds." In it, Lotter does an excellent job of briskly walking readers through the growth of the transgenic crops industry and pointing out the critical junctures at which regulatory agencies grabbed the nearest handy rubber stamp. He also explains, in clear, jargon-free language, the science by which transgenic crops are created, and the specific red flags identified by the handful of existing independent studies. In summary, the three most serious concerns about biotech food, feed, and fiber crops are:
This sounds like a dry helping of doom and gloom, but it doesn't read that way. Lotter salts the paper with statements such as "This is a story of how a grand scientific vision, plant transgenics, a science that its developers believed would vastly improve the world food supply while at the same time generating huge profits, blinded many of those scientist-developers to the increasingly serious flaws in the basic model, mechanics, and end-products of the enterprise." And later: "This early industry pressure and science community compliance for a premature green light for transgenic crops is now coming back to bite the industry and the science community, and bite them very seriously."
You don't tend to see such verbal swashbuckling in peer-reviewed journals, and in fact the International Journal of Society of Agriculture & Food published Lotter's paper as a "work in progress." Such submissions, it carefully disclaims on its website, "are non-refereed and unedited and are aimed at presenting results from work not yet ready for publication while stimulating discussion and debate on current topics of interest to agri-food researchers." And yet, as the PDF of the article indicates, and Lotter confirmed, his paper was reviewed for a solid year before it was accepted for publication.
One can only presume that the IJSAF reviewers reluctant to sign off formally on publishing "The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science" were caught up in the very web of industry and peer pressure that Lotter indicts in part two, titled "Academic Capitalism and the Loss of Scientific Integrity" (PDF).
This is where it gets really interesting, from a sociological standpoint: Lotter discusses the large-scale morphing of university science programs in the past 25 years from a model that focused on conducting non-proprietary science for the "public good" — Robert Merton's CUDoS model (communalism, universality, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism) — to one of "academic capitalism," in which research professors freely partnered with industry to further the "knowledge economy." This transition has had many ripple effects: university dependence on private industry funding means that proprietary technologies have overtaken collaborative science. Power follows the money: expert scientific bodies on transgenics now tend to be staffed by pro-industry scientists with personal financial interests in the outcome of transgenics. And of course, as it always does, power corrupts: industry-sponsored and industry-conducted research has been found to have "deficient scientific protocols, bias, and possible fraud," writes Lotter.
Meanwhile, the discriminatory treatment and outright harassment of university researchers and government scientists who have dared to question the party line on biotech sends a clear signal to young faculty. The message, writes Lotter, is "Don't challenge the transgenics paradigm if you want tenure."
Lotter did his postdoc work on organic crop systems at the Rodale Institute, but when it comes to the future of agriculture, he claims not to be reflexively "pro-organic." He writes in the paper that he "does not believe that future food production should be limited to organic methods as defined by current certification protocols." Instead, he proposes that agro-ecological engineering — including high-tech monitoring of pests, soil and plant nutrient status, weed and other research-based parameters — serve as the foundation for crop systems, "on top of which can be put chemical and biotechnological modalities" such as moderate, carefully timed amounts of synthetic nitrogen and the selective use of herbicides.
Nor is the paper wholeheartedly anti-transgenic. Lotter argues that if we weed out the problem areas of "food, feed, and fiber crop transgenics," then transgenic bacterial and pharmaceutical crops (in which a single compound is isolated could continue to be developed). I have some concerns with his assertion that creating new bacteria is inherently safer than manipulating higher plants and animals, as well as with his belief that pharmaceuticals grown in food crops can ever be bio-contained indoors and their waste agricultural products disposed of safely. But as Lotter goes so far as to admit in the paper, his goal is to reassure biotech scientists that his "calls for the rolling back of food transgenics therefore should not be seen as a threat to the entire industry" — that the years they have invested in the field are still valuable.
Why? "Because we need them," he told me. "We have to divide and conquer, to get at least a few scientists to question what's happened here." The only way the United States is going to be able to roll back transgenic food, feed (for meat animals), and fiber crops is through policy changes, and there won't be any policy changes as long as scientists are afraid to break ranks and say that the Emperor Monsanto et al. has no clothes.
Elsewhere in the world, plenty of scientists are willing to go on record opposing current GMOs. Much of the best research into their potential side effects on human and ecological health has been conducted in Europe. And in April 2008, as Lotter writes, 400 agricultural scientists and experts in 57 nations signed developed a United Nations-sponsored document known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, and 57 nations approved it. The IAASTD's final report criticized the "Green Revolution" style of capital-intensive, high-environmental impact, technology- and yield-centered approach of agriculture and recommended that developing nations base their future food production around local and regionally derived sustainable and agro-ecological strategies. Not GMOs.
As we followed here with interest, Monsanto and Syngenta — the two biotechnology-industry representatives in the IAASTD discussions, who were initially enthusiastic about convening a food production strategy agreement for developing countries — took their balls and went home in January 2008, when it was clear that nobody at the IASSTD was interested in playing their game anymore. (Update: Please see Jack Heinemann's comment below, for a discussion of the two companies' roles.) The United States, Canada, and Australia did not sign the agreement.
America's ag philosophy as mullet: GMO business in the front, organic party in the back
Today, we have a Secretary of Agriculture who continues the longstanding tradition of pushing U.S. biotech interests abroad, but who's broken with all precedent to plant an organic garden at his department's Washington, DC headquarters, just like his boss's wife did at the White House. GMO food is a huge trade issue, and it's been a long time since the USDA was the People's Department, as Lincoln called it, instead of the Multinational Corporations' Department. (Monsanto owns some 90% of transgenic traits in use around the world. As of 2006, soy, corn, canola, and cotton accounted for nearly 100% of the world's 80 million hectares of transgenic crops, nearly all of which used to be grown in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, and Brazil, but China is now hard at work.) And recent rumors suggest that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will soon be soon coming out with the administration's international development objectives, and that those objectives will be include alleviating world hunger — through, you guessed it, transgenic technology.
Legislation codifying this philosophy will likely follow, unless by some miracle American consumers wake up and start protesting — or U.S. scientists start admitting that not only have GMO food crops never been adequately tested before being unleashed on unsuspecting consumers and the environment, but they don't even do what Monsanto loves to claim they do: increase yields. (Read the summary of the report "Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops," by plant pathology and molecular biology Ph.D Doug Gurian-Sherman, posted by Ethicurean's Elanor in April.) The biggest achievement to date of RoundupReady and BT tolerant crops, alleged Denise Caruso in "Intervention," has been less labor for farmers.
And yet the trope that only biotech can feed the world persists. Lotter has an interesting section in part two of the paper about how well the biotech industry has controlled the "information environment" for transgenic crops. Media reporting has overwhelmingly depended on pro-transgenics university scientists, he claims, and both the media and the public have been easily manipulated by industry's "not-so-subtle targeting of [our] predisposition to guilt. The message that 'biotechnology is needed to feed a hungry world' has come to the forefront as a strategy in the promotion of transgenics."
One need look no further than Monsanto's current ad campaign to see this strategy in action. However, I would argue that something beyond than media bias and an apathetic public are behind the rise of transgenic crops in America, Canada, and Australia. Americans possess a deeply rooted, patriotic confidence in our country's technology efforts in general — we put a man on the moon, we developed the personal computers that revolutionized civilization, etc. — a sort of "technological utopianism," as Lotter calls it in a slightly different context. Ever since the debacle of mad-cow disease in the early 1990s, European scientific development, by contrast, has tended to operate according to the precautionary principle essentially expressed as "better safe than sorry." More Americans seem to believe that the government is steadfastly looking out for us, at least on a health and safety level, than do citizens of other countries, with longer histories and concomitantly longer memories.
We are paying a high price currently for our naivete about a highly complex industry and our blind trust that somewhere, government regulatory agencies were keeping a watchful eye over things. It's well past time for American citizens and policymakers to get over our dislike of "doom and gloom" topics and educate ourselves about the imperfect science behind the creation and propagation of the vast majority of the commodity foods in this country — and grasp how little we know about what this technology could be doing to our bodies, farm animals, and the microorganisms in our soil and water. Then, and only then, can those that have unleashed these risks on humankind and their human lab rats have an informed public discussion about how we are going to put Pandora back in the box, instead of continuing to push GMOs on the rest of the world.
Photo: Soybean field in Indiana from iStockphoto.
Updated June 4 at 5:30 pm to reflect corrections left in comments section, and June 5 to update journal links, after its website structure apparently changed.