by Jonathan Latham, PhD
Who would have thought that at Cornell University, arguably the most highly regarded agricultural university in the world, no scientist would speak for the benefits and safety of GMOs?
Perhaps I should have known, however. Last year I was invited to debate the merits of GMOs at Colby College in Maine. Also invited were food activist Jodi Koberinski, Stephen Moose (University of Illinois), and Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science and prominent advocate of GMOs worldwide. Soon after Lynas heard I was coming, however, he pulled out of the debate.
It’s not the first time. Most memorably, in 2001, I attended a court case in which the British government abandoned prosecution of two of its citizens who had pulled up GMOs planted for a scientific experiment. The government preferred to lose the case rather than have the science of GMOs inspected by the judicial system. The defendants were duly and unanimously acquitted, with the judge describing them as the kind of people he would like to invite to dinner.
This avoidance of public debate is part of a pattern and the reasons are simple: in any fair fight, the arguments for the safety and benefits of GMOs fail.
As I have discussed elsewhere, there are strong scientific reasons to doubt the safety of GMO crops. The arguments against them are not limited to the dramatic increases in pesticide use they have engendered. GMOs also created the massive and dangerous consolidation being seen in the agriculture and seed sectors and have greatly reduced options available to farmers. Remarkably, they even yield less.
Most recently, the scientific literature has yielded new concerns over the predicted widespread use of a new generation of GMO crops resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D (Lurquin, 2016). These crops resist the herbicide by breaking it down into a known toxic metabolite called 2,4-DCP and other derivatives that probably remain in the crop until harvest. As the paper states:
“Unfortunately, much reduced phytotoxicity does not necessarily mean that…2,4-D resistant crop plants are safe for consumption. Indeed, 2,4-DCP is cytotoxic to a variety of animals and animal cell lines.” (Lurquin, 2016).
In the final analysis, almost everyone loses from GMOs, except the makers themselves. These harms are often hidden or obfuscated, but in an unbiased debate they cannot be. Proponents of GMOs thus find themselves defending the indefensible and sometimes they collapse into blustering idiocy.
What makes this event particularly noteworthy is that Cornell University is the home of the Cornell Alliance for Science, an organisation funded by the Gates Foundation and by agribusiness to the tune of $5.6million. The purported mission of the Cornell Alliance is to explain the science underlying biotechnology and GMOs. Yet the Alliance has refused to offer a speaker despite numerous requests from Robert Schooler the student organiser of the discussion. Neither, despite numerous direct emails, was Robert able to find Cornell faculty prepared to defend them. So he asked the Dean of its College of Agriculture, Kathryn Boor. She declined to find someone—though she “wished him luck”. Much the same applied to other notable public GMO proponents (Karl Haro von Mogel [of Biology Fortified] and Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project). This usually vociferous duo initially accepted subject to funding. When it was offered they backed out.
Anticipating some of this reluctance I reached out to Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer and publicist-in-chief, and to Mark Lynas, who has a position at Cornell, and to Kevin Folta via his blog. Kevin Folta is the go-to travelling academic of the GMO industry. Folta didn’t respond but Lynas said he was abroad. Promoting GMOs perhaps? The only Cornell academic who did respond positively was Joe Regenstein of the Food Science dept. However, his conditions (no “debate” and to request the moderator) were declined by Robert Schooler. Robert Schooler also did not want only one speaker on one side.
So will anyone debate Michael Hanson (of the Consumers Union) and myself at Cornell University on October 5th at 7pm in Anabel Taylor Hall? If you are reading this and have a PhD in a relevant field and wish to defend GMOs we hereby invite you. And if the Alliance for Science, funded by the Gates foundation, can’t find you travel money I am sure we can. Otherwise, the debate may constitute GMO talking points read out by cardboard cutouts. Bill and Melinda Gates may even consider they are entitled to demand their money back from the Cornell Alliance. Or they may just infer for themselves that GMOs are indeed indefensible.
Lurquin P. (2016) Production of a toxic metabolite in 2,4-D-resistant GM crop plants. 3 Biotech 6: 82. doi:10.1007/s13205-016-0387-9
Correction: this article previously implied that Karl Haro von Mogel works at the Genetic Literacy Project. This is not the case. He is at Biology Fortified.