by Marion Nestle
May 18 2016

New report on GMOs: safe but “more research needed” (sigh)

The National Academies of Science has just released its long-awaited report “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects.”

I was a reviewer on this report months ago and as far as I can tell it hasn’t changed much from when I sent in my comments.  Here’s what I said:

In light of public polarization of opinion of GE foods, this report tries to do something quite difficult—to come to evidence-based opinions about the risks and benefits of these foods now and in the future.  The report makes it clear that the committee listened carefully to a wide variety of opinions about risks and benefits and tried to make sense of the varying viewpoints based on available evidence.  This was not easy, given the inadequacy of much of the evidence.

I give the report high marks for its neutral tone and cautious interpretations.  The report clearly reveals how little is known about the effects of GE foods, how much GE is about crops fed to animals and how little is about food for people (except indirectly), and how minimally the promises of food biotechnology have been realized, except as they benefit large agricultural producers.

In trying to be fair, the committee will please nobody.  Proponents will be distressed that the benefits are not more strongly celebrated.  Critics will be upset that the report treats many of their concerns pejoratively (“activism”).  Both sides will find plenty in the report to buttress their views.  The overall conclusion, “more research needed,” makes sense but is not helpful in bringing the two sides together.

Some examples:

The Environmental Working Group, for example, likes:

  • The implied call for mandatory GMO labeling: “Mandatory labeling provides the opportunity for consumers to make their own personal risk-benefit decisions.”
  • The recommendations to fix the GMO regulatory system, including putting in some limits on “GMO crops and the chemicals used with them.”
  • The confirmation that “GMO crops have not, to date, increased actual yields and should not be exclusively relied upon to meet long-term food security needs.”

But Food & Water Watch issued a statement and a position paper claiming that the Academies and committee members have ties to the biotechnology industry and agricultural corporations.  The group says that Monsanto, DuPont and Dow Chemical Company each donated between $1 million and $5 million to the Academies in 2014, citing a treasurer’s report, and that the report is conflicted from the get go.

Today’s New York Times has a good summary of diverse reactions to the report, and points out:

Perhaps because of the sensitivity and complexity of the issue, many of the document’s conclusions are hedged by caveats.

“We received impassioned requests to give the public a simple, general, authoritative answer about G.E. crops,” Fred Gould, a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University and chairman of the committee that compiled the report, wrote in the preface. “Given the complexity of G.E. issues, we did not see that as appropriate.”

  • kw

    Please check the treasurers report you link to. My reading leads me to believe that monsanto, dupont, and dow each donated a cumulative amount of $1-5 million over the period of 1919-2014 (95 years). If I’m interpreting this correctly it greatly decreases the magnitude of the conflict reported, though clearly does not remove it.

  • Pogo333

    It seems rather apparent that you read the report correctly. Ms. Nestle appears to be conflating the cumulative donations for Monsanto, Dow, and DuPont (pages 41-42) with their 2014 donations which add up to somewhere in the $25-50K range (E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company) according to the report (see pages 42-46 for the CY2014 donations). That’s a remarkably different value than $1 to 5 million apiece. I hope she read the actual report more carefully than she did the treasurer’s report, but that rather flagrant error of bias from a simple document doesn’t give me much hope for her analysis of a rather more complicated one.

  • razorjack

    Here are the facts:

    National Academy is taking funding from biotechnology firms and using “pro-GMO scientists” to write its reports.

    Notable Biotech Corporate Donations to the National Academy of Sciences NAS Donor and Amount:
    Monsanto $1-$5 million
    DuPont $1-$5 million
    Dow Chemical $1-$5 million

    Companies and Industry Associations on the NRC Board Overseeing GMO Projects, 1987-Present:
    Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)
    General Mills
    Novus International
    Nestlé Purina
    Pioneer Hi-Bred

    2014-2016 NRC Committee Members With Ties to Industry or GMO Advocacy

    David Stelly – Texas A&M – Research collaborator with Monsanto, Bayer, Dow Agrosciences

    Neal Stewart – University of Tennessee – Consulted for Dow Agrosciences and Syngenta 36 patents on GMOs

    Richard Dixon – University of North Texas – Consulted for Monsanto four times; received more than $1 million from biotech industry for research has patents on GMOs

    Bob Whitake – Produce Marketing Association – Works for organization sponsored by Monsanto and Bayer

    Karen Hokanson – Donald Danforth Plant Science Center – Consults with Monsanto-sponsored organizations and a pro-GMO group

    Bruce Hamaker – Purdue University – Director of research center funded by biotech industry

    Richard Amasino – University of Wisconsin Patents on GMOs – He also engages in pro-GMO political advocacy

    Dominique Brossard – University of Wisconsin – Previously worked for a Monsanto-partner organization that helps commercialize GMOs advocates in media in favor of GMO

    Peter Kareiva – The Nature Conservancy – Works for organization that receives millions of dollars from biotech companies these companies also sit on a Nature Conservancy advisory board

    Robin Buell – Michigan State University – Involved in GMO development.
    patent related to GMOs

    Jose Farck-Zepeda – International Food Policy Research Institute – Works for organization that supports GMOs; collaborates with industry supporters on research advocating use of GMOs in Africa

    Kevin Pixley – International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center – Research collaborator with Syngenta Foundation works for organization that supports and develops GMOs

    The report I cited contains much more of the same.

  • razorjack

    See the FACTs in my post above.

  • Pogo333

    Thanks for the cut-and-paste talking points. You are welcome to actually address the issue raised in the discussion above.

  • razorjack

    Smart readers will pay attention to the actual facts and not the spin of and industry PR astroturfer like you.

  • SageThinker

    I think that industry alignment among the reviewers is more important than direct funding. You get “your people” in there, and then let them do what they know they are supposed to do, and it’s all roses for the industry agenda.

  • SageThinker

    Wow…. pretty much the elephant in the room — that many of the reviewers are quite industry-aligned and of course will see the world through the industry rose colored glasses. I see it in science — some people are “sold” on GMOs and their associated chemicals and for them, they can do no wrong. They seem to have blinders about any evidence of harm. For instance, atrazine…. Tyrone Hayes found harm, but the industry slandered and followed him in a COINTELPRO style way. Eventually we find out atrazine really is harmful to amphibians and he’s vindicated after being abused for 15 years…. anyway… same with glyphosate. Same with Bt toxin GMO trait…. industry influences science when there is huge vested interest at stake. Cf climate change denialism.

  • SageThinker

    Note that if ONE single reviewer as on the IARC panel who found glyphosate to cause cancer, has any connection to an environmental group, the industry smear machine was all over that — “OH NO! This person has a tie to an enviro group! Bias!” but they totally think it’s fine if most of the reviewers of their chemicals have strong ties to their own industry. Sure… move on… nothing to see here. The reach goes into the EPA and FDA as well as the EFSA, too.

  • SageThinker

    I see what razorjack is referring to. Their post really shows some serious connections between the NAS and the industry that stands to benefit from a favorable review of GMOs and associate chemicals like glyphosate. That’s how influence works, more than direct funding, anyway. You get the “good people” in the positions of authority to do your bidding with a wink and a handshake behind closed doors…. that’s the way the world turns these days. Climate change denialism, Lamar Smith, etc…. lunatic puppets in the agencies and the government and the academy. Insidious corruption of human knowledge.

  • razorjack

    This happened after Monsanto and the EPA saw Monsanto’s own science which showed that glyphosate causes cancer. They called the science “inconvenient” and hid the science from the science community as a trade secret. The EPA then approved glyphosate over the objections of their own staff scientists. Since then Monsanto and their industry has made glyphosate the largest selling pesticide on the planet by telling the world that glyphosate is safe.

  • razorjack

    That is the standard operating procedure in the GMO pesticide industry as well as others these days. When an honest scientist, like Tyrone Hayes and Seralini as well as so many other discover things that conflict with the industry agenda. The industry will wind up the PR smear machine to try and destroy the career of any scientist who dare publish honest science.

  • Rob Bright

    Far too many conflicts of interest, industry involvement (infiltration?) to take this report at face value. Clearly industry has its grubby little mitts all over this…

  • The brainless conspiratorial delusions of a coke addict who picks weeds on an organic flower farm. Thanks for playing.

  • razorjack

    Steve Munn is a known industry criminal thug. ……He is a stalker and a hacker and troll he has a mental illness impairs his ability to function like a decent human being. Please forgive him, he can’t help himself. ….

  • Pogo333

    And Razorjack and his legion of sockpuppets agree with you. The bigger issue is demonstrating clear industry bias of the panelists in the report itself. When you assume that funding always taints, as you and Razorjack aver, then that tainting will manifest itself in the panel’s product. I don’t see that in this document. Perhaps you and Razorjack can share some specific examples that concern you from the report. Money may influence in some cases, but money also follows knowledge and expertise. Organizations typically fund those who are best positioned with expertise, ideas, and resources, to yield the best work. And those are also the types of people who end up on NAS panels.

  • The counterpoint I like to make is that before AGW became (correctly in my view) a headline issue, climate research funding was a trickle. Nowadays it attracts a flood of funding and hundreds of scientists depend on that funding for their livelihood. Does that mean AGW research cannot be trusted? As most anti-GMOers are concerned about AGW, they need to explain their contradictory attitude.

  • SageThinker

    It’s obvious to anyone who is not ideologically blindered that industry people vote industry. You troll.

  • Pogo333

    I have no idea why this is directed at me, or even how it is remotely relevant to any of my comments. Care to clarify?

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