Public Perceptions: Social Media Conversations with Dr. Benbrook and Friends, #1
Source: Facebook, September 29, 2016
This conversation was sparked by an thoughtful question about the polarized debate on GMOs from Chris Holman and rolled on from there. For context, this dialogue occurred amidst news about Monsanto’s first CRISPR license, as well as the recent merger of the ag biotech giant with another behemoth of the industry, Germany’s Bayer. This exchange is a great example of the thoughtful conversations happening all around the world about the politics and policy behind GMOs.
It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In the realm of GMOs, it seems like the discussion is framed by consumer groups who offer a largely un-nuanced “anti” position and industry and its advocates offering a similarly basic “pro” stance that coats itself with noble rhetoric and the occasional platitude.
My question has to do with the unintended consequences of either position. For instance, the anti-GMO stance on GMO sugar beets leads to other forms of sugar (assuming we consume the same amount). That could mean sugar cane, which is not a crop that likely meshes too well with the environmental positions one finds aligned with many anti-GMO points of view.
For industry, we’ve invoked the need to feed the world for quite some time now. Keeping in mind that this future world is based on predictions and current trends. This has rationalized a lot of things in agriculture today (i.e. GMOs writ large) that are argued as necessary steps toward solving the future food issue. For some reason there is an aversion to applying the same sort of logic and rationalizing to today’s needs and today’s food issues. So, we end up with over-production coupled with a refusal to address production issues, for one. This helps create the downturn in the farm economy and kills farms. The current paradigm doesn’t seem to care, as it values the Butz Doctrine [Hygeia Analytics Note: Earl Butz was the US Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford and was an avid proponent of large-scale corporate farming] to this day. The trajectory for where this takes us is not a mystery, either.
So, what other allegedly good intentions gone awry and unintended consequences have you noticed in the GMO discussion? How do we inject nuance into the discussion and come away relatively unscathed when the dominant messages are so invested in maintaining the rhetorical landscapes they’ve created for their war.
Chris, really tough but interesting question. I think historians will judge the impact of GE technology on food and ag very harshly from the 1990s through 20??. One way to measure and compare the impacts of different technologies is to approximate a ratio where the numerator is actual impacts/consequences based on how a technology ends up being used and the denominator is a measure of what the technology could have been used to accomplish. On this measure, cell phones would rate pretty high, nuclear power somewhere in the middle and GE ag technology very low.
The biggest problem with GE ag technology that is now indisputable is how it’s been deployed, and in particular, over reliance on one herbicide (glyphosate) and herbicides as a class. Ditto, Bt crops. This assumes that once fully tested, today’s GE technologies prove to be as safe as conventional crops. Industry advocates believe this has already been proven, and the really true believers felt all along that there was/is no need for any testing or monitoring.
I sure hope they are right, but I feel the industry, government, and a majority of academia has been reckless and cavalier in imposing on society uncertain and largely hidden risks. Had the proper research been done back when these technologies were entering the commercialization phase, the debate would not have become so polarized and grounded in belief and mythology, instead of facts and science. But it’s too late now, no one knows how to put humpty-dumpty back together, and the struggle will go on.
The best way forward, when the “system” realizes we have a problem and its collateral damage is no longer acceptable, will require three parallel initiatives. First, figure out a way to deal with unfinished business re: testing/regulating current generation technology. Fund NIH, NIEHS, and independent scientists to do the work. Second, put in place a Codex-like pre-market testing and regulatory review process, with post-approval surveillance as recommended in every NAS report, but never done. Third, develop tools/tactics/policies that assure an appropriate degree of discipline in where, how, and how often GE technologies are used, so that we avoid melt-downs like the one happening now as glyphosate resistant weeds spread across a few hundred million acres. That is what is needed to begin the healing.
Ok, so my focus generally tends to be on how to force the conversation to be more honest. In that light, where do you think consumer groups or the “anti” arguments in general have shot themselves in the foot? Same question for the “pro” arguments. Generally speaking, it seems like most sides in this discussion benefit a bit from keeping things somewhat foggy. Are there areas that the “anti” crowd should just acknowledge as being “ok” (i.e. sound science) so that time isn’t spent on arguing about them? Are there areas where the “pro” crowd should jump off the talking points wagon and enter into the conversation with an emphasis on the merits vs. the ideology? I know “the merits” is subjective, but when I use the term I mean that we can have an open and fair discussion about any of this by looking at the studies, the parameters, the realities, and so on….and avoid falling into the vacuum where a lot of these conversations conveniently take place.
The bigger question here is, for me anyway, where is the heart of the discussion? Once you strip the ego, money, ideology, etc away from what we’re talking about…what are we left with? It seems like this is where the focus should be. So much time is spent in predictable tit-for-tat debates (i.e. vs. dialogue or persuasive dialectics) that we are all shooting ourselves in the foot when we allow ourselves to slide back into the warm and fuzzy rhetorical confines that are reluctant to be open-minded…at least a lot of the time.
I agree that for most participants in the debate, gene expression (dialogue) is generally true to form. The “middle” ground, out there were the nuance exists, has become a near-no-man’s land, because any individual who ventures there pays a price from those who see things as black and white.
The biggest trap and mistake the “anti” crowd has made, and will continue to fall into, is believing all biotech in ag is inherently bad, even borderline evil, in and of itself. Our experience with herbicide-tolerant crops and Bt crops shows clearly that when and how, and how widely, a GE technology is used has a huge role in driving adverse outcomes.
Imagine if RR technology had been marketed to deal with fields on which weeds had gotten out of control, with use limited to twice in three years, and after that, no more than once every four. Deployed this way, RR technology would have become the global, failing weed-management-system reset option. A higher premium could have been charged, resulting in solid returns, and even more importantly, sustainable returns with no trianwrecks. This mindset also blinds the anti-community to applications that could offer decidedly positive risk-benefit tradeoffs, e.g. GE insulin, a GE-developed non-allergenic peanut, low acrylamide potatoes, GE vaccines for bird flu that can also kill people, and microbial seed inoculants that protect against soil-borne pathogens.
Among the true believers and proponents of GE ag technology, several important mistakes are worth noting. The three biggest have been encouraging, and even sometimes compelling, farmers to pay for a genetic solution to what is inherently a management problem. This profoundly simple yet important insight came first (to me) from Anne Clarke, a former professor at Guelph University in Canada. Second, technology advocates should have anticipated the European-like consumer skepticism re: the safety of the technology. They did not, or chose to ignore it, and now they have created a growing cohort of people and organizations who oppose the technology for a long list of reasons. Third, the industry thought it could win the public debate, and avoid any serious regulatory delays, by controlling the science that is done on their technology. And not just the science, but who gets to conduct it, on what terms, and what they can say about it. Their remarkably successful efforts in controlling science has gone too far, and has in effect taken the U.S. out of the global debate over the safety of today’s, and emerging, GE-based ag technologies.
As I said earlier, it is much easier to understand how we got to this very unhealthy place in our national discourse over GE ag technology, and how to use it and manage it, than it is to fix it.
I wrote a story about rBGH for Muscle & Fitness magazine back in ’96, Charles. My editor called it, “The best-written story I’ve ever received.” Monsanto called it grounds for action and threatened the publisher. The publisher killed the story. The editor quit over the censorship. And what I’d learned from over 600 pages of interviews and sci papers was kept out of public discourse because Monsanto didn’t want any negative information threatening their GE baby.
That’s corporate fascism. Monsanto gets to say what is true. A reporter does not. When they have hundreds of lawyers whose only job is to promote the Monsanto world view and squash dissent, science is lost and scientific integrity is destroyed.
If GE technology is so great, why can’t it stand up to REAL scientific scrutiny and OPEN public discourse? What’s in the files back at Monsanto corporate that we’ll never get to see? Something that made them threaten to sue a muscle magazine over way back in ’96. In my experience, people with that much paranoia usually have something to hide.
One of the largely unrecognized costs of GE crop technology is the erosion caused in its wake in the integrity and independence of the land grant university system. This debate would turn on a dime if the general public were aware of the degree to which the biotech industry controls the flow of science, what scientists can do with GE seeds, what gets published about GE technology, and what scientists in the system can say to the media and policy-makers without suffering the consequences.
There is a presumption that land grant research must be carefully tracking the pros and cons, risks and benefits of the technology, and that the literature must therefore cover these issues pretty thoroughly. Not true, not even close. The literature is rigged in many ways, ranging from corporate financed and controlled journals, corporate influence over reviewers, corporate influence over funding, corporate ghost-writing of papers and reviews, and aggressive attacks on anyone who wanders into this arena and raises questions or concerns, or even offers suggestions on how to improve the science-base supporting regulation. When the public loses faith in the integrity of science, the policy process loses its grounding. Ill-informed decisions often make matters worse, further eroding trust in science. E.g., the total failure of “product stewardship” in the case of glyphosate herbicide and RR crops
Yes, I noted a lot of fear in many of my interview subjects towards Monsanto. I was unfamiliar with the company when I started writing the piece on rBGH, so I went in pretty innocent and wide-eyed. At first, I thought the various anti groups and dairy farmers might be misrepresenting or overstating their case.
But as I learned more about the process that brought rBGH to market and the revolving door between Monsanto and FDA, I became more and more suspicious of Monsanto’s claims of rigorous science and product safety.
Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for policy at the time, wrote the FDA’s rBGH labeling guidelines. Prior to going to FDA, he was in-house counsel at Monsanto for seven years. Margaret Miller and Suzanne Sechen, who were involved in getting rBGH approved by FDA, also were ex-Monsanto employees.
When I hung up the phone after interviewing a dairy farmer reduced to tears from telling me the story of losing much of his herd to complications from rBGH, I was shaken.
I held off getting confirmations and denials from Monsanto till just before submitting my article. I had a strong feeling they would react badly to the piece. Sure enough, the Monsanto flack I got on the phone grilled me after the interview was over about the magazine article and the tenor of the piece. When I said there were some doubts about rBGH’s path to market, he became agitated and got off the phone. It was only a few hours later I got the call that the story had been killed.
I just laugh now when I hear there is “broad consensus” that GE technology is safe. There is in fact “broad consensus” that messing with Monsanto can get you defunded and unemployable. Publishing a sci paper in opposition to anything Monsanto wants to do is potential career suicide. It certainly killed my relationship with Muscle & Fitness magazine. Joe Weider acted like I’d fallen into a pile of cow patties after that story. Suddenly, I went from “great idea, how soon can you give us 4,000 words on that?” to “we’ve got all the stories we need for this issue”. I never wrote for them again.