A Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this year revealed differences between what ordinary citizens believe and how those beliefs are in contrast to what scientists believe. The poll covered a variety of issues, but the one I’m concerned with is the data on the safety of GMO foods. The poll showed that “a majority of the general public (57%) says that genetically modified (GM) foods are generally unsafe to eat, while 37% says such foods are generally safe; by contrast, 88% of AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] scientists say GM foods are generally safe.” For many people in the media, this poll provides rock solid evidence that GMOs are safe to eat. Leaving aside the issues of pesticide use, reduced yields, and the fact that GMO crops are used almost exclusively to feed animals or produce biofuels, all of which I’ve written about in the last couple of years, there remains the question of how these scientists arrived at the belief that genetically modified foods are safe to eat.
There are dissident voices, however, in the scientific community that resist the conventional belief that GMOS are safe. One such voice comes from Dr. Thierry Vrain, a retired soil biologist and genetic scientist who worked for Agriculture Canada and was the “designated spokesperson to assure the public of the safety of GMO crops.” His reasons for becoming a “GMO whistleblower” are compelling, and an article written in 2013 is worth the read. The section that interested me the most, however, revolved around how scientific projects are funded. Dr. Vrain was asked “how can scientists operate independently when their paycheque depends on supporting a scientific point of view.” His answer is long, but provides an area of thought little considered by those who automatically accept a scientific opinion without delving into how and why such an opinion was formed. Dr. Vrain explains:
“When I started 30 years ago, I was given a lab, a technical assistant and a small budget and basically the game was play in the lab and make sure you publish and the more you publish, the better. So it was called ‘publish or perish.’ But something happened 25 years ago; the game changed. When I started, corporate sponsors were not allowed. I could not go to Monsanto and say, ‘are you interested in me doing some work in my lab and for a small grant I could do research for you.’ But 25 years ago, it became allowed and then it became very strongly encouraged to seek corporate funding. The more industry was interested in your project, the more outside money you could have. That was a sign that you were doing good work because you were getting extra funding so the government didn’t have to give you money for your lab. So more and more that became the thing of the day, and, of course, there was lots of money for molecular biology. Others complained that all the money went to molecular biology in the late 80s and 90s. Not only that, if you were successful and hit on a really good project, you could patent. So from ‘publish or perish’ we went to ‘patent and get rich.’ Now a lot of scientists get grants from biotech companies. When you get a half a million dollar grant, you have five graduate students, three post docs, and a big lab and now you’re professor so and so because you have a big lab with lots of money flowing. But if you publish results that are not acceptable to companies such as Monsanto, your corporate grant is going to dry up.”
Dr. Vrain’s knowledge of how scientific inquiry is propelled is not new. In the past decade it has been well documented that biotech companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta regulate what research can be done on their GMO seeds. In order to conduct research on the seeds, scientists must adhere to user-agreements prohibiting research that would examine whether GM crops lead to unintended environmental side effects. Elson J. Shields, an entomologist at Cornell University, in a letter he and 26 other scientists wrote to the EPA in 2009, said that “it is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough, but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward technology.” What Monsanto and other companies are doing to prevent research on their GM seeds is legal, as genetically modified crops are patentable inventions. Christian Krupke, a Purdue University entomologist who also signed the letter to the EPA, simply said, “Industry is completely driving the bus.” The Union of Concerned Scientists believes that this is not how science should operate. They believe that if indeed GMOs are safe, the biotech companies need to back up their rhetoric, and the only way to do that is to let truly independent research take place.
The lesson to the scientific community has been, since 1998, one of adhere to the dictates of Monsanto et al. or be fired and publicly humiliated. Given that scientists truly are afraid of having their careers ruined, it’s difficult to automatically assume that those 88% of scientists from AAAS arrived at their conclusions apart from the wishes of the biotech communities.
Recipe of the Week
Potato soups are ubiquitous, but this one was very satisfying.
Potato Soup with Veggies and Sheep Cheese
4 russet potatoes, washed and chopped (don’t peel them)
1 large green or red bell pepper
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 onion, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 lb creamy sheep or goat cheese
2 quarts homemade chicken stock
2 sausage links of your choice, casings removed
salt and pepper to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy soup pot. Add the sausage meat and cook until brown. Add the onion, celery and carrot and cook until the onion is translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and stir in for about 1 minute. Put the sausage back in the pot, add the potatoes and stock and cook on low heat for about 1/2 hour, or until the potatoes are quite done. Turn off the heat and puree the soup. Add the cheese and taste for salt and pepper.