Activists aim to discredit NAS biotech study before it starts

By Agri-Pulse staff

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 27, 2014 - A National Academy of Sciences committee, charged with updating a 2010 study that found “substantial net environmental and economic benefits” from biotechnology on the farm, is under attack from critics trying to lay the groundwork to fault the eventual findings of the study that they fear will ratify the global scientific consensus in support of biotech agriculture.

The committee launches its new study, A Science-based Look at Genetically Engineered Crops, at meetings in Washington next month to “provide an independent, objective examination of what has been learned since the introduction of GE crops, based on current evidence.” By early 2016, it promises to have a report based on its expert assessments of the basis of “purported benefits” as well as “purported negative effects” of biotech crops.

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A collection of people whose careers have been built around finding fault with agricultural biotechnology - and much else about modern agriculture - complained earlier this month that the committee lacks balance. It “appears predisposed to endorse GE crops, without undertaking a balanced and evidence-based assessment of the real-world impacts of the technology,” says Marcia Ishii-Eiteman of the Pesticide Action Network of North America. In a letter, the dissidents asked to expand the committee to include members known for opposition to the technology.

To properly assess “complex agronomic, ecological, economic, social, political and cultural impacts of GE crops around the world demands a panel of highly skilled experts trained in the social sciences and in multidisciplinary analysis and having real-world experience beyond the microscope,” Ishii-Eiteman writes. “As currently configured, the panel has nowhere near the scholarly or real-world expertise required to produce a credible product.”

What the critics understandably fear is that the committee's conclusion will be similar to that of a predecessor NAS committee which generated a 2010 report finding that “GE crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally.” 

Herbicide-tolerant crops complement conservation tillage and reduce adverse effects on soil and water quality, it says, and insecticide-resistant crops have cut the use of chemicals. The earlier committee report is Impact of GE Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States.

The academy's committee is headed by Fred Gould, widely-respected William Neal Reynolds distinguished professor of entomology and co-director of the Center on Genetic Engineering and Society at North Carolina State. He's been on several previous academy committees. Most other members are distinguished academics and policy experts such as Michael Rodemeyer, an attorney who headed the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology a decade ago.

But to the assortment of critics led by Ishii-Eiteman, the academy committee is “dominated by researchers from the biophysical sciences, the majority falling within a narrow range of disciplines and fields” who work “within a GE crop development framework” but lack sufficient social science expertise needed to answer broad questions about GE crop impact.”

Some of its members, the critics assert, “come from the biosafety and biotechnology support programs of USAID and USDA and the Monsanto-affiliated Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, institutions “devoted to the research, development, commercialization, export and/or trade in GE crops.” Shorthand translation: they are devoted to science and won't take politics into account. Subsequently, Karen Hokanson, who consulted at the Danforth center, resigned from the panel.

But the National Research Council (NRC), which is running the study for the academy, instead invited several of the most outspoken critics to address the opening session at the NAS headquarters on Sept. 15-17. Their presence could cut one of two ways: either it provides them a respectable forum to reiterate opinions long held but seldom persuasive, or it will allow the committee to say that it had agreed to consider their views.

The most notable critic on the roster is Gilles-Eric Seralini, whose far-fetched paper claiming that glyphosate-resistant corn caused tumors in rats was retracted by the scientific journal in which it appeared. He'll speak by a video connection. Other familiar faces from the anti-biotech barricades scheduled to appear: Jeffrey Smith, the “yogic flying” founder of his own Institute for Responsible Technology and one-time Natural Law Party candidate in Iowa; Hope Shand of the old Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA); Michael Hansen of Consumers Union; Chuck Benbrook of Washington State; Glenn Davis Stone of Washington University, St. Louis; and Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Center for Food Safety. The program will include a few experts who promote a science-based view of biotechnology, including R. James Cook, retired Washington State agriculture dean who argued against a state mandatory biotech labeling initiative last year; and Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project at George Mason University.

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