Biotech FAIL: Bad Science, Worse Faith and Superweeds

If you yawned your way through science class back in school, you're not alone. American students have lagged in the science department for years, with fourth and eighth graders recently placing eleventh among international peers. While this is often framed in terms of an inability to compete in the global marketplace, it has another insidious effect: ignorance when it comes to scientific issues that have great social and environmental impacts, leaving us vulnerable to questionable science. What if, while we were sleeping through class, a well-meaning but ethically compromised teacher received funding to conduct dangerous experiments in our presence, feed us the results, and dump the toxic byproducts in the river next to the school?

That's kind of the state of industrial agriculture, according to a new paper, "The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science" (full text available for download here) published in this month's issue of The International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food, and our future food supply is on the line, not to mention our health. The sharp-witted Bonnie Powell of The Ethicurean blogged about the report yesterday.

Even Bonnie's post is a little dense for a lay person, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the three terrifying "red flags" of GMO foods identified by Lotter's paper, which she breaks into digestible bullets and that I'll chew up a little more for you:
  • the introduction of "novel proteins created by accident in transgenic foods" (leading to food allergies and toxicity, and nearly impossible for consumers to guard against because GM foods aren't labeled in this country)
  • "the horizontal transfer of transgenes to other organisms" (the animal equivilant of cross-pollination of GM seeds, which Powell points out has not been studied in the long term)
  • environmental side effects including breeding insects and other organisms with greater resistance to pesticides, new superweeds, and contaminated soil and water
So what's the benefit? Monsanto, by far the world's leading proponent of GMOs, is currently
. The company repeatedly returns to its holy grail, the so-called Green Revolution, which supposedly solved hunger in India. But in fact, just last year, the farce of the Green Revolution was severely criticized by scientists and experts from 57 other countries. More from Bonnie:

And in April 2008, as Lotter writes, 400 agricultural scientists and experts in 57 nations signed a United Nations-sponsored document known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. The IAASTD's final report criticized the "Green Revolution" style of capital-intensive, high-environmental impact, technology- and yield-centered approach of agriculture and recommended that developing nations base their future food production around local and regionally derived sustainable and agro-ecological strategies. Not GMOs.

As we followed here with interest, Monsanto and Syngenta -- the two biotechnology-industry representatives in the IAASTD discussions, who were initially enthusiastic about convening a food production strategy agreement for developing countries -- took their balls and went home in January 2008, when it was clear that nobody at the IASSTD was interested in playing their game anymore. The United States, Canada, and Australia did not sign the agreement.

And yet, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack continues to push the biotech agenda abroad and in the U.S. Senate, with a proposed Global Food Security Bill that would mandate GMO research funds as part of foreign food aid. Such requirements could trap farmers in the Global South in a system of dependence on multinational corporations for seeds they might otherwise have saved, and force them to buy chemicals year after year that strip their soil of minerals and pollute their water.

The second half of Lotter's study, Academic Capitalism and the Loss of Scientific Integrity, chronicles the questionable circumstances under which GMO technology was given the green light. He details the effects of "the large-scale restructuring of university science programs in the past 25 years from a model based on non-proprietary science for the 'public good' to the 'academic capitalism' model." He goes on to describe how dependence on corporate dollars corrupted science to do its bidding with "deficient scientific protocols, bias, and possible fraud in industry-sponsored and industry-conducted research; increasing politically and commercially driven manipulation of science within federal regulatory bodies such as the FDA; and bias in the peer-review process, tolerance by the scientific community of biotechnology industry manipulation of the information environment, and of biased treatment and harassment of non-compliant scientists."

The fact that so many of our government agency employees have worked for the very corporations they are now supposed to regulate, in the areas they govern and that so many officials have received campaign donations from these same corporations could account for their tendency to rely on this dubious research, but perhaps the reason so many of them continue to ride this precarious bandwagon is that they're not so great at science, either. Genetic modification is hard to wrap your head around.

One would think, however, that the big-brained folks at the Gates Foundation would have no problem understanding the science behind biotech and the potential problems with it, but if the government and academics are on the bandwagon and Monsanto is behind the wheel, Gates is definitely pitching in for gas with grants to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). What gives? Lotter and Powell both allude, in terms of America's acceptance of this dubiously tested technology, to our belief, as a culture, in science and innovation, and who stands for innovation more than Gates?

But bearing in mind that we are talking about our ecology, our health and our global food supply -- not really the kind of stuff we want to leave to chance -- we would likely do well to follow the example of our European counterparts, who, as Powell points out, have "tended to operate according to the precautionary principle essentially expressed as 'better safe than sorry.'"

In the end, Lotter says that he's not exclusively anti-GMOs, and whether this stance is meant to temper the rocking of the academic boat (a doctor of agroecology, Lotter has taught for years within the system he's bucking, and is not on a tenure track) or a genuine desire to call back only the most grievously dangerous of these technologies, it makes sense not to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. But I would encourage consumers (and Gates, and government agencies) to err on the side of caution as well, and to entertain the idea that real innovation in the food and agriculture world may not be the stuff of spliced genes, petrochemicals and intellectual property but rather a better understanding of the nature of soil and weather and time-tested methods of food production, like compost and worms.

Originally published on The Green Fork.