Myth of Independent Science Haunts Biotech Industry

One of the arguments in support of genetically engineered foods (GE or GMO) has been that GMOs are safe because the government approved them after a thorough review of the scientific data. If it turns out, as is the case, that the scientific research is lacking, incomplete, unreliable, under-reported, suppressed, manipulated or has a host of other problems as discussed recently in a Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) report, then the bastion of GMO advocacy crumbles.

The UCS’s report compiles the five basic methods that corporations use to influence scientific and policy making processes:

Corrupting the Science. Corporations suppress research, intimidate scientists, manipulate study designs, ghostwrite scientific articles, and selectively publish results that suit their interests.

Shaping Public Perception. Private interests downplay evidence, exaggerate uncertainty, vilify scientists, hide behind front groups, and feed the media slanted news stories.

Restricting Agency Effectiveness. Companies attack the science behind agency policy, hinder the regulatory process, corrupt advisory panels, exploit the “revolving door” between corporate and government employment, censor scientists, and withhold information from the public.

Influencing Congress. By spending billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions, corporate interests gain undue access to members of Congress, encouraging them to challenge scientific consensus, delay action on critical problems, and shape the use of science in policy making.

Exploiting Judicial Pathways. Corporate interests have expanded their influence on the judicial system, used the courts to undermine science, and exploited judicial processes to bully and silence scientists.

While the report is not limited to the biotech industry, those who have been following the GMO debate will undoubtedly recognize these hallmarks of corporate shenanigans. In fact, many scientists have previously voiced concerns about their inability to conduct independent research on genetically engineered seeds without interference, intimidation or fear from the makers of those seeds. For example, in 2009, 26 university entomologists wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency noting that “[n]o truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions involving [genetically engineered] crops.” A Scientific American editorial on this issue noted in 2009 that  “agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.”

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued in an op-ed article for the L.A. Times, that,

agricultural companies hold a pocketbook advantage in terms of research. For example, they fund much of the agricultural safety research done in the U.S. And when deciding whether to allow a genetically engineered crop onto the market, the Department of Agriculture and other regulatory agencies do not perform their own experiments on the performance and safety of the product; instead, they rely largely on studies submitted by the companies themselves.

There are other examples of corporate influence over biotechnology. For example, documents obtained by the Center For Food Safety during litigation concerning the USDA’s failure to conduct an environmental impact statement prior to deregulating GE alfalfa shed light as to the the extent of Monsanto’s involvement in the approval process. See our other articles on the corporate influence in science and the lack of independent biotech research here, herehere, herehere, here and here.

Similarly, Don Huber, a plant pathologist of 50 years standing, now Emeritus Professor at Purdue University, who ruffled some feathers last year when he wrote a letter to U.S. Sec. of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, about a new infectious agent that had been discovered which is “widespread, very serious, and in much higher concentrations in Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans and corn,” highlighted the problem of corporate influence in science in an interview last May:

Funding for applied research is hard to come by and publishing in this area can also be difficult. I know from the International Symposium on Glyphosate that they had to find a journal publisher outside this country to publish the research data and symposium proceedings. It’s pretty hard to get it published in the States. There are also some hazards to publishing if you’re a young researcher doing research that runs counter to the current popular concepts. A lot of research on safety of genetic engineering is done outside of this country because it’s difficult to gain access to the materials, or the statements you have to sign to have access to those materials state that you won’t publish without permission of the supplier. I think the 26 entomologists who sent their letter to EPA in 2009 stated it aptly when they said that objective data wasn’t available to the EPA because the materials haven’t been available to them or that they’re denied the opportunity to publish their data.

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There are scientists who have experienced a situation where their career became very short or they had to change paths in order to survive and stay in the system.

  • Mojoboto

    Great summary of the fraught relationship between science, policy and
    commercial enterprise.  A valuable caution for anyone living in the modern
    world, where these three are inevitably interlaced.  This goes for the biotech
    industry and those who oppose it, many of whom have their own corporate or
    ideological interests at stake.  For example, The Union of Concerned Scientists
    has an axe to grind.  Their preferences for some peer-reviewed findings over
    others are definitely moved by more than the quality of the science!  The
    question is not whether we trust science done by scientists in industry, academy
    or private institute, but how we structure relationships to minimize undue
    influence.

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  • Bernie Mooney

    Wow. I just came across this article. If you replace “GMO” with “climate change” and you would have the argument of the climate change deniers using bogus science just as they do.

  • edgeben

    I’d be much more inclined to accept Dr. Huber’s claims of a “widespread, very serious, new infectious agent” when he provides some actual evidence of its existence. I don’t believe there are any corporations preventing him from doing that, as patent protection for glyphosate has expired.