Pursuing truth and transparency for public health

GMO Science For Sale

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 12, “Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs,” by Gary Ruskin, co-director of the public watchdog group US Right to Know.

It is presumed by many that science proceeds like an arrow straight towards the discovery of truth, without bending due to any economic forces that may bear upon it.

In fact, sometimes the opposite is true.

Science is for sale. Powerful corporations can procure it in many ways, some subtle, some not. But in the aggregate, they can have a powerful effect on what is known and what is not known. That appears especially true for the agrichemical industry.

What follows is a discussion of a few ways that science can be swayed, bought or biased by the agrichemical industry. It is outside the scope of this report to recount all of instances in which these tactics have been used. Rather, this is merely an effort to sketch the tactics that have been employed by the agrichemical industry.[1]

Suppression of adverse findings

We have already discussed how industry can suppress adverse studies and findings, with some examples from the pharmaceutical industry. Similar things appear to have happened in the agrichemical industry. According to Scientific American, “In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering.”[2] For example, University of California, Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes explains:

“I was approached by the manufacturer [Syngenta] and asked to study the effects of atrazine, the herbicide, on frogs. And after I discovered that it interfered with male development and caused males to turn into females, to develop eggs, the company tried to prevent me from publishing and from discussing that work with other scientists outside of their panel.”[3]

Here’s another example: after Ohio State University plant ecologist Allison Snow uncovered preliminary evidence that a genetically engineered sunflower could make wild sunflowers grow like weeds, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Dow AgroSciences “blocked a follow-up study by refusing to allow the team access to either the transgene or the seeds from the earlier study,” according to a report in Nature.[4] “It is very frustrating,” Snow told Nature. “We want to do good science. But this is keeping us from answering questions we want to ask.”

The New York Times reported on how Syngenta stymied the work of University of Minnesota entomology Professor Ken Ostlie. Dr. Ostlie

said he had permission from three companies in 2007 to compare how well their insect-resistant corn varieties fared against the rootworms found in his state. But in 2008, Syngenta, one of the three companies, withdrew its permission and the study had to stop.

“The company just decided it was not in its best interest to let it continue,” Dr. Ostlie said.[5]

In another case, university scientists working on a GMO corn variety found that it was decimating beneficial lady beetles that had been fed the corn. According to an article in Nature Biotechnology,

When the researchers presented their results to Pioneer, the company forbade them from publicizing the data. “The company came back and said ‘you are under no circumstances able to publicize this data in any way’,” says a scientist associated with the project, who asked to remain anonymous. Because the product had not yet been commercialized, the research agreement gave Pioneer the right to prevent publication of their results.[6]

In the realm of pharmaceuticals, activists have worked hard to compel industry to produce a registry of all clinical trials, to ensure transparency of scientific results. As the New York Times explains, “Until recently, the idea that companies should routinely hand over detailed data about their clinical trials might have sounded far-fetched. Now, the onus is on the industry to explain why it shouldn’t.”[7]

In particular, prospective registration of safety testing is a good remedy to ensure transparency and to prevent suppression of findings of health or environmental risks of genetically engineered food or crops.

Regarding health or environmental risks, there is no compelling reason why the agrichemical industry should be able to keep its research findings secret. When human health or the environment is at stake, there should be a strong predisposition to transparency, and to releasing scientific results – published or not – into the public domain.

Currently, there is at no registry of scientific experiments on the health or environmental effects of genetically engineered crops. So, there is no way to discover whether the agrichemical industry has suppressed any other such experiments. The record of the pharmaceutical industry suggests that suppression of adverse results is likely to occur in the agrichemical industry.

Harming the careers of scientists who produce adverse findings

We have discussed how the agrichemical industry and its allies have repeatedly attacked scientists who have produced findings adverse to its interests, including Tyrone Hayes,[8] Ignacio Chapela,[9] Arpad Pusztai,[10] Gilles-Eric Séralini,[11] Manuela Malatesta,[12] and Emma Rosi-Marshall.[13]

Funding shapes what research is conducted

The agrichemical companies are unlikely to support research that may undermine their financial interests. Meanwhile, there is a declining amount of public funds available for agricultural research. As Cornell Professor Elson Shields explains, “In my 30 years as a public scientist, there’s been a dramatic erosion of public funding. And that makes science more dependent on private funding.”[14] That means less funding for independent studies to assess health and environmental risks of genetically engineered food and crops.

Supporting academic departments and scientists who produce positive findings

“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” the old saying goes. According to Food & Water Watch’s report on corporate funding of university agriculture research, “Public Research, Private Gain,” by 2010 private contributions supplied nearly one-quarter of all agriculture research funding at U.S. land grant universities.[15]

Such funding likely brings many benefits to the agrichemical industry. For example, in a survey of over 3,000 scientists, 16% admitted to “changing the design, methodology or results of a study in response pressure from a funding source” within the previous three years. Among mid-career scientists, 21% admitted to this.[16]

In 2011, a study in the journal Food Policy reviewed 94 articles about health risks or nutritional values of GMOs. It found that “the existence of either financial or professional conflict of interest was associated to study outcomes that cast genetically modified products in a favorable light,” and that “a strong association was found between author affiliation to industry (professional conflict of interest) and study outcome.”[17]

This is an old phenomenon in the pesticide industry. More than fifty years ago, in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote that the chemical companies were “pouring money into universities to support research on insecticides.” She asked, of academic scientists funded by the chemical industry: “Can we then expect them to bite the hand that literally feeds them?” She continues, “But knowing their bias, how much credence can we give to their protests that insecticides are harmless?”[18]

There appear to be many close parallels with pharmaceutical industry, because of the size and scope of its grants to academic institutions and individual scientists. In her famous essay, “Is Academic Medicine For Sale,” then-editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine (and now senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School) Marcia Angell asks: “Why shouldn’t clinical researchers have close ties to industry?” She answers:

One obvious concern is that these ties will bias research, both the kind of work that is done and the way it is reported…there is now considerable evidence that researchers with ties to drug companies are indeed more likely to report results that are favorable to the products of those companies than researchers without such ties. That does not conclusively prove that researchers are influenced by their financial ties to industry. Conceivably, drug companies seek out researchers who happen to be getting positive results. But I believe bias is the most likely explanation, and in either case, it is clear that the more enthusiastic researchers are, the more assured they can be of industry funding…. It is that close and remunerative collaboration with a company naturally creates goodwill on the part of researchers and the hope that the largesse will continue. This attitude can subtly influence scientific judgment in ways that may be difficult to discern.[19]

Financial incentives for scientists encourage positive results for the agrichemical industry

If scientists who produce positive results for the agrichemical industry are financially rewarded with grants and other career-enhancements, and those who produce adverse results are attacked in serious and potentially career-threatening ways, then this likely predisposes some scientists to work with industry and to produce positive results for them.

This likely shapes what studies are proposed and carried out, what results are published, and therefore what is “known” about genetically engineered crops and the pesticides with which it is grown.

Positive studies are more likely to be published than adverse ones. It is well understood that there is “publication bias” regarding clinical trials of pharmaceuticals. As Ben Goldacre explained it in the New York Times,

Trials with positive or flattering results, unsurprisingly, are about twice as likely to be published — and this is true for both academic research and industry studies.

If I toss a coin, but hide the result every time it comes up tails, it looks as if I always throw heads. You wouldn’t tolerate that if we were choosing who should go first in a game of pocket billiards, but in medicine, it’s accepted as the norm.[20]

Given the parallels between the pharmaceutical and agrichemical industries, and their generous funding of scientific experimentation, such “publication bias” may well be the norm in studies of the health risks of genetically engineered food.

Is there any independent US-based testing of health of environmental risks of GMOs?

The agrichemical companies hold intellectual property rights to the genetically engineered crops that they produce. Any use of those crops – for farming, scientific experiment, or anything else — in the U.S. is only by permission of the companies that own the intellectual property.

So, in that important sense, research on these foods and crops is not truly independent of the agrichemical companies.

Research findings about health or environmental risks of genetically engineered food and crops would be more convincing if it were fully independent of the agrichemical companies that produce them, i.e., if it were not necessary to receive their permission to study their products. As a remedy, Scientific American has proposed that “Going forward, the EPA should also require, as a condition of approving the sale of new seeds, that independent researchers have unfettered access to all products currently on the market.”[21]

Scientists have criticized the agrichemical industry for denying access to their seeds and crops. According to a 2009 editorial in Scientific American,

Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers….

* * *

“It is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough,” wrote Elson J. Shields, an entomologist at Cornell University, in a letter to an official at the Environmental Protection Agency…“but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward [seed-enhancement] technology.”

* * *

when scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation’s food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country’s agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous.[22]

The agrichemical industry responded to the scientists’ criticism by loosening some restrictions on research uses of its seeds. But some restrictions still seem to remain. For example, academic scientists still can’t perform experiments on seeds before they are released on the market.

Some scientists are still skeptical of the ways that industry still controls research on their crops. According to Professor Elson Shields of Cornell, “Each company has to decide how many universities to make those [research] agreements with…What justification they have and why they pick one over the other, that’s above my pay grade. It may be that they know there’s a scientist whose work they don’t like, so they don’t choose that university.”[23]

Conflicts of interest have tainted scientific reviews of genetically engineered food

There are at least two prominent cases in which conflicts of interest have marred the outcomes of scientific reviews of genetically engineered foods.

Twelve days before California voted on the ballot initiative Proposition 37, for labeling of genetically engineered food, the board of directors of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science released a statement that genetically engineered crops “pose no greater risk than the same foods made from crops modified by conventional plant breeding techniques,” and that mandatory labeling of GMOs could therefore “mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”[24]

However, at the time the AAAS board released its statement, its chair was Nina Federoff, who has close ties to the biotechnology industry. For five years, she was a member of the scientific advisory board of Evogene, an Israeli biotechnology company.[25] She was a “long-time member” of the board of directors of the biotechnology firm Sigma-Aldrich.[26] In her role as “science and technology advisor” to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, the Pesticide Action Network called her “literally the U.S. ambassador for GE.”[27] She even endorsed a campaign statement by opponents of Proposition 37, offering that she was “passionately opposed to labeling” of genetically engineered food.[28] [29] In response, a group of scientists and physicians, including “many long-standing members” of AAAS, rejected the AAAS statement on GMOs, because it “tramples the rights of consumers to make informed choices.”[30]

In a similar case, a study conducted for the National Academy of Sciences[31] was tainted because the “study director,” Michael J. Phillips, left his position midway for position at the Biotechnology Industry Organization.[32] Phillips later became vice-president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.[33] Environmental and consumer groups also pointed out numerous other conflicts of interest among those who produced the National Academy of Sciences study.[34]

Like the pharmaceutical industry, the agrichemical industry has deployed many tools and techniques to bias science in its favor. Given the history in both of these industries, it is naïve, at best, to believe that science cannot be manipulated in myriad ways, and that is objective regarding matters where corporations and industries have billions of dollars at stake.


[1] See, for example, Dan Fagin, Marianne Lavelle and the Center for Public Integrity, Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law and Endangers Your Health. (Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1996.).

[2]Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?Scientific American, July 20, 2009.

[3]Silencing the Scientist: Tyrone Hayes on Being Targeted by Herbicide Firm Syngenta.” Democracy Now, February 21, 2014. See also Rachel Aviv, “A Valuable Reputation.” New Yorker, February 10, 2014.

[4] Rex Dalton and San Diego, “Superweed Study Falters as Seed Firms Deny Access to Transgene.” Nature, October 17, 2002. 419, 655. doi:10.1038/419655a.

[5] Andrew Pollack, “Crop Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research.” New York Times, February 19, 2009.

[6] Emily Waltz, “Under Wraps.” Nature Biotechnology 27, 880-882 (2009). doi:10.1038/nbt1009-880.

[7] Katie Thomas, “Breaking the Seal on Drug Research.” New York Times, June 29, 2013.

[8] Rachel Aviv, “A Valuable Reputation.” New Yorker, February 10, 2014. Clare Howard, “Syngenta’s Campaign to Protect Atrazine, Discredit Critics.” Environmental Health News, June 17, 2013. “Silencing the Scientist: Tyrone Hayes on Being Targeted by Herbicide Firm Syngenta.” Democracy Now, February 21, 2014.

[9] George Monbiot, “The Fake Persuaders.” Guardian, May 14, 2002. Andrew Rowell, “Immoral Maize.” GMWatch.

[10] Andrew Rowell, “The Sinister Sacking of the World’s Leading GM Expert and the Trail That Leads to Tony Blair and the White House.” Daily Mail, July 7, 2003, “Why I Cannot Remain Silent: Interview with Dr. Arpad Pusztai.” GM-Free, August/September, 1999. Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of the World’s Food Supply. (New York: New Press, 2010), pp. 178-187. Marion Nestle, Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), pp. 186-9.

[11] Adriane Fugh-Berman and Thomas G. Sherman, “Rounding Up Scientific Journals.” Bioethics Forum, January 10, 2014. “Controversial Seralini Study Linking GM to Cancer in Rats Is Republished.” Guardian, June 24, 2014. Barbara Casassus, “Paper Claiming GM Link with Tumours Republished.” Nature, June 24, 2014. doi:10.1038/nature.2014.15463.

[12] See interview with Manuela Malatesta in Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of the World’s Food Supply. (New York: New Press, 2010), pp. 176-177.

[13] Emily Waltz, “GM Crops: Battlefield.” Nature, September 2, 2009. 461, 27-32. doi:10.1038/461027a.

[14] Nathaniel Johnson, “Genetically Modified Seed Research: What’s Locked and What Isn’t.Grist, August 5, 2013.

[15]Public Research, Private Gain: Corporate Influence Over University Agriculture Research.” Food & Water Watch, April 2012.

[16] Brian C. Martinson, Melissa S. Anderson, Raymond de Vries, “Scientists Behaving Badly.” Nature, June 9, 2005. 435, 737-738, DOI: 10.1038/435737a.

[17] Johan Diels, Mario Cunha, Célia Manaia, Bernardo Sabugosa-Madeira, Margarida Silva, “Association of Financial or Professional Conflict of Interest to Research Outcomes on Health Risks or Nutritional Assessment Studies of Genetically Modified Products.” Food Policy, April 2011. Vol. 36, Issue 2, pp. 197-203. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.11.016.

[18] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), pp. 258-59.

[19] Marcia Angell, “Is Academic Medicine For Sale?New England Journal of Medicine, May 18, 2000. 342:1516-1518. DOI: 10.1056/NEJM200005183422009.

[20] Ben Goldacre, “Health Care’s Trick Coin.” New York Times, February 1, 2013.

[21]Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?Scientific American, July 20, 2009.

[22]Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?Scientific American, July 20, 2009. See also Andrew Pollack, “Crop Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research.” New York Times, February 19, 2009.

[23] Nathaniel Johnson, “Genetically Modified Seed Research: What’s Locked and What Isn’t.Grist, August 5, 2013.

[24]AAAS Board of Directors: Legally Mandating GM Food Labels Could ‘Mislead and Falsely Alarm Consumers.’” American Academy for the Advancement of Science news release, October 25, 2012. “Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors on Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, October 20, 2012.

[25]Professor Nina V. Fedoroff, the U.S. Secretary of State’s New Science and Technology Adviser, Resigns from Evogene’s Scientific Advisory Board.” Evogene news release, July 22, 2007.

[26]Sigma-Aldrich Board Member Nina Fedoroff Resigns to Become Science and Technology Adviser to U.S. Secretary of State.” Sigma-Aldrich news release.

[27] Heather Pilatic, “20 Yrs Later, the Biotech Brigade Marches on….” Pesticide Action Network North America, May 31, 2012.

[28]Coalition Against the Deceptive and Costly Food Labeling Proposition says Scientists and Academic Community Oppose Ballot Measure Mandating Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods.” Coalition Against the Deceptive and Costly Food Labeling Proposition news release, June 13, 2012.

[29] For background on Federoff’s ties to the agrichemical and biotechnology industries, see for example Tom Philpott, “U.S. Foreign Policy: GMO All the Way.” Grist, August 26, 2008.

Michele Simon, “Is a Major Science Group Stumping for Monsanto?Grist, October 30, 2012. Russell Mokhiber, “AAAS Captured from the Top Down.” Corporate Crime Reporter, November 1, 2012. See also Charlie Cray, “California Prop 37: The Right to Know.” Greenpeace, October 31, 2012.

[30] Patricia Hunt et al., “Yes: Food Labels Would Let Consumers Make Informed Choices.” Environmental Health News.

[31] Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants: Science and Regulation. (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000).

[32] Melody Petersen, “Biotech Expert’s New Job Casts a Shadow on Report.” New York Times, August 16, 1999.

[33]People.” Nature Biotechnology, 21, 1401 (2003). doi:10.1038/nbt1103-1401.

[34]Environmental and Consumer Groups Question Credibility of Controversial NAS Study on Biotech Foods.” National Environmental Trust news release, April 5, 2000. See also Meredith Wadman, “GM Advisory Panel Is Slanted, Say Critics.” Nature, May 6, 1999. 399, 7. doi:10.1038/19817.