Mark Lynas Promotes the Agrichemical Industry’s Commercial Agenda

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See also: Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR Campaign for the Agrichemical Industry

Mark Lynas is a former journalist turned promotional advocate for genetically engineered foods and pesticides who makes inaccurate claims about those products from his perch at the Cornell Alliance for Science and in his new book, “Seeds of Science.” Lynas is closely tied in with other key players in the agrichemical industry’s PR and lobbying efforts.

Scientists and food experts say Lynas is wrong on science

Scientists and food policy experts have sharply criticized Lynas for his inaccurate and unscientific promotional efforts for GMOs and pesticides. See articles by (emphases ours):

David Schubert, PhD, Head, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory & Professor at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies (San Diego Union Tribune letter):

“Unlike Mark Lynas, who is not a scientist and whose words (Michael) Gerson is parroting (in his review of “Seeds of Science”), I can unequivocally state that there is no scientific consensus about GMO safety and that most of his statements are false. The statement that GMO foods are safe to eat because there is no evidence for harm is not valid because there are no studies on human safety.”

“In contrast, there is evidence for the toxicity of both GMO plants and the chemicals required for their production in animals.”

“GMO crops have produced no benefits for society as a whole, but have resulted in an enormous increase in human exposure to agricultural chemicals.”

Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD, former senior scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists:

“Here are some of the incorrect or misleading points that Lynas makes about the science or development of GE.” … “Instead of debating or discussing the actual science, Lynas casts aspersions and resorts to relying on authority rather than data or research.”

Belinda Martineau, PhD, genetic engineer who helped develop the first GMO food (NYT letter and Biotech Salon):

Lynas’ claim about the certainty of GMO safety is “unscientific, illogical and absurd.”

Eric Holt-Giménez, PhD, Director Food First/Institute of Food Policy and Development (Huffington Post):

“The laundry list of what Mark Lynas got wrong about both GMOs and science is extensive, and has been refuted point by point by some of the world’s leading agroecologists and biologists.”

John Vandermeer, PhD, Professor, Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan (Food First):

Mark Lynas “has discovered high school biology. Now it’s time to go to college. The things he might discover are, for example, the endocrine system.”

Timothy A. Wise, Director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University (Food Tank):

Mark Lynas has “made a career out of … demonization

Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, 35 member groups active in 50 African countries (2018 statement):

“Lynas claims that African anti-GMO campaigners are well funded ‘driving posh cars’ whereas they are clearly massively outgunned in a David vs Goliath battle by biotech corporations with stock market values bigger than the GDPs of their target African countries. The fly-in pundit’s contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakeable.”

Pesticide messaging based on industry talking points, not science  

An example of how Mark Lynas promotes agrichemical industry talking points – rather than honest science reporting – is his article attacking the scientists of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) for classifying glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

A Monsanto public relations document reveals the corporation’s plan to discredit the IARC cancer scientists by engaging “industry partners” (including Sense About Science, where Lynas served on the advisory board) to orchestrate “outcry” and “outrage” against the “politically charged” cancer report.

Lynas’ messaging follows right along. He declared glyphosate to be the “most benign chemical in world farming” and described the expert panel’s cancer report as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by people overcome with “hysteria and emotion” who went out and got a “flaky offshoot of the World Health Organization” to declare glyphosate carcinogenic.

In reality, IARC panels are comprised of leading experts from multiple fields in cancer research who conduct comprehensive science reviews to identify cancer hazards to inform global policies to prevent cancer – a role that has made IARC a target of food and chemical industry propaganda campaigns.

In pushing his case that “activist groups abused science and sidelined evidence-based policy in the glyphosate saga,” Lynas ignored substantial evidence, widely reported throughout the world, that Monsanto manipulated the science and regulatory reviews on glyphosate for decades using covert tactics including ghostwriting studies and articles, killing studies, pushing dubious science, attacking scientists and strong-arming regulatory agencies.

Lynas sidestepped all that hard evidence and focused instead (as Monsanto’s partner spin groups did) on promoting the misleading reporting of Kate Kelland, a Reuters reporter with close ties to the corporate-funded Science Media Centre, the sister organization of Sense About Science, as a central source.

In a recent ABC interview, Lynas admitted, “I wasn’t interested in the science. I didn’t read a single scientific paper when I was an activist.” Despite his current platform at Cornell Alliance for Science, Lynas’ work continues to display little interest or scholarship in science. His communications for Cornell – such as his most recent argument that “the environmental movement is causing hunger and poverty”– follow the same pattern as his glyphosate defense post: misleading narratives that ignore data to push the talking points and commercial interests of the agrichemical industry.

Promoted by, tied to pesticide industry propaganda network 

Agrichemical companies and their public relations operatives frequently promote Mark Lynas and his work. See for example Monsanto’s website, many promotional tweets by pesticide industry trade groups, lobby groups, pro-industry academics and writers, and various Monsanto employees, and the dozens of Lynas’ articles promoted by Genetic Literacy Project, a propaganda group that partners with Monsanto.

Lynas and Cornell Alliance for Science also collaborate with other key players in the agrichemical industry’s lobbying and propaganda network.

Partnered with Monsanto “partner” groups

A confidential Monsanto PR plan dated February 2015 named four tiers of “industry partners” company executives planned to engage in their efforts to discredit the world’s leading cancer research agency in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weed killer. Two of the groups named in the Monsanto PR plan – Sense About Science and Biofortified – have partnered with the Cornell Alliance for Science.

See also: Monsanto relied on these “partners” to attack top cancer scientists

Sense About Science – Lynas has served for several years on their advisory council – is listed in the Monsanto Plan as a  “Tier 2″ “industry partner,” and as a possibility to “lead industry response” in the media to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer hazard report. The co-founder (and current “patron”) of Sense About Science is Lord Dick Taverne, an English politician who learned about science communication in part from his work promoting and defending the tobacco industry in the 1990s, according to The Intercept and documents from the UCSF Tobacco Industry Archive.

Sense About Science USA partners with the Cornell Alliance for Science to offer “statistical consultation for journalists” via the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending toxic products for the chemical, soda and drug industries.

Another group listed as a “partner” in the Monsanto PR plan, Biofortified, partnered with Cornell Alliance for Science on a petition to oppose the use of the Freedom of Information Act to investigate the links between publicly funded academics and the agrichemical industry. Fellows trained by Cornell Alliance for Science worked with Biofortified/MAMyths to protest Indian environmentalist and author Vandana Shiva.

Aligned with climate science skeptic to launch pro-fracking, pro-nuke, GMO “movement” 

Lynas calls himself a co-founder of the “movement” of “ecomodernism,” a corporate-aligned strain of “environmentalism” that writer George Monbiot describes as “take no political action to protect the natural world.” The group promotes fracking, nuclear power, and agrichemical products as ecological solutions. According to its leaders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, energy technologies favored by the oil billionaire Koch brothers “are doing far more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the ones favored by the climate-apocalyptic Left.” Nordhaus is also a board member (along with Jon Entine and Drew Kershen) of the Science Literacy Project, the parent organization of Genetic Literacy Project, a propaganda group that partners with Monsanto.

At a failed launch event for ecomodernism in September 2015, Lynas aligned himself with Owen Paterson, a prominent climate science denialist who slashed funding for efforts to prepare the UK for global warming during his stint as environment secretary  there.

That same month, Paterson spoke at Cornell Alliance for Science, where he promoted GMOs in a hyperbolic speech filled with unsupportable claims, and accused environmentalists of allowing children to die in Africa. Paterson’s speech at Cornell won praise from the industry-funded front group American Council on Science and Health in a blog titled “Billion dollar green campaigns kill poor children,” written by ACSH’s former acting director Gil Ross, a physician who went to jail for Medicaid fraud.

Mark Lynas background  

Lynas authored several books on climate change (one of which was recognized by the Royal Society) before he attracted worldwide attention with his “conversion” from an anti-GMO activist to a promoter of the technology with a widely-promoted 2013 speech at Oxford that critics have called misleading.

Several months later  Lynas became a fellow at Cornell University Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and began working for the Cornell Alliance for Science, a communications campaign developed in 2014 to promote GMOs with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

See: Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign?

Lynas identified himself as the “political director” for Cornell Alliance for Science in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. The Cornell Alliance for Science does not explain what its political agenda is, but the group’s messaging and goals closely track the agrichemical industry’s commercial agenda: to increase acceptance of genetically engineered crops and pesticides around the world, particularly in Africa.

Mysterious Lynas PR push, and leaked EuropaBio memo

The massive media coverage of Lynas’ pro-GMO conversion in 2013 raised suspicions that an industry PR campaign was helping to elevate him behind the scenes. A leaked 2011 memo from an industry PR firm — describing plans to recruit high profile “ambassadors” to lobby for GMO acceptance – heightened suspicions of industry backing because the document specifically named Lynas. Lynas has said the industry group never approached him.

According to a Guardian report, EuropaBio, a trade group whose members include Monsanto and Bayer, planned to recruit PR ambassadors to help decision makers “rethink Europe’s position on GM crops.” The ambassadors would not be paid directly but would receive travel expenses and “dedicated communications support” from industry funding. The PR firm’s operative rep claimed to “have interest from” Lynas, among others, in the ambassador role. Lynas denied having any contact with them. “I have not been asked to be an ambassador, nor would I accept such a request if asked,” he told the Guardian.

Gates Foundation, GMOs & Monsanto

The Gates Foundation – the principal funder for the Cornell Alliance for Science — has been sharply criticized for its agricultural development funding strategies, specifically for spending most of its funds “to feed the poor in Africa” on scientists in wealthy nations (see 2014 GRAIN analysis), and for colonialist strategies that are “exacerbating global inequality and entrenching corporate power globally” (see 2016 report by Global Justice Now).

The Gates Foundation massively expanded its funding for agricultural projects about a decade ago, after Monsanto’s former head of international development, Rob Horsch, joined the foundation’s agricultural development leadership team.

Lynas’ new book “Seeds of Science” spends a chapter (“The True History of Monsanto”) trying to explain some of the corporation’s past sins and lauding Rob Horsch at length. It spends another chapter (“Africa: Let Them Eat Organic Baby Corn”) arguing that Africans need agrichemical industry products to feed themselves.

Criticisms of the Gates Foundation’s colonialist approach to Africa

Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why the GMO Promoters Get it So Wrong About Africa, statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, 5/7/2018

Are Gates and Rockefeller using their influence to set agenda in poor states? “Study identifies Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations among rich donors that are close to government and may be skewing priorities,” by John Vidal, The Guardian, 1/15/2016

Philanthropic Power and Development. Who shapes the agenda? by Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz, 2015 report (page 48).

Philanthrocapitalism: The Gates Foundation’s African programmes are not charity, by Philip L Bereano, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, Third World Resurgence, 2017

How Bill Gates is Helping KFC Take Over Africa, by Alex Park, Mother Jones, 1/10/2014

Gates Foundation’s Seed Agenda in Africa ‘Another Form of Colonialism,’ Warns Protesters, by Lauren McCauley, Common Dreams, 3/23/2015

Gates Foundation is spearheading neoliberal plunder of African agriculture, by Colin Todhunter, The Ecologist, 1/21/2016

How does the Gates Foundation spend its money to feed the world? GRAIN report, 2014

Bill Gates is on a mission to sell GMOs to Africa, but he’s not telling the whole truth, by Stacy Malkan, Alternet, 3/24/2016

GMOs 2.0: Is Synthetic Biology Heading to a Food or Drink Near You?

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Old school stevia.

Old school stevia plant made by nature.

This article was originally published in Huffington Post.

By Stacy Malkan

Our culture is smitten with the notion that technology can save us – or at least create great business opportunities! Cargill, for example, is working on a new food technology that mimics stevia, a sugar substitute derived from plant leaves, for the “exploding sports nutrition market.”

Cargill’s new product, EverSweet, uses genetically engineered yeast to convert sugar molecules to mimic the properties of stevia, with no need for the plant itself.

It was developed using synthetic biology (or “synbio” for short), a new form of genetic engineering that involves changing or creating DNA to artificially synthesize compounds rather than extract them from natural sources – a process sometimes referred to as GMOs 2.0.

On June 1, U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the way for EverSweet with a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) designation. Eventually it could be used in “everything from dairy to tabletop sweeteners and alcoholic beverages, but low or zero calorie beverages are the sweet spot,” according to Food Navigator.

And so begins the next new food technology revolution: corporations racing to move food production from the land to the lab without laws or regulations in place that require scientific assessments or transparency.

How will they sell synthetic biology to consumers?

A big challenge facing synthetic biology is that today’s consumers want fresh natural foods with simple clear labels – what Food Business News dubbed the “trend of the year” last year.

“Why would we want synbio foods?” Eve Turrow Paul, a writer and corporate brand advisor, asked rhetorically in The Huffington Post. “Well, a few reasons. Number one on the list is climate change.”

Climate change is the number one reason for synthetic biology? What about capturing the exploding sports nutrition market?

Therein lies the PR challenge facing new food technologies: how to position food products created with strange-sounding lab techniques for the purposes of patents and profits as something safe that actually benefits consumers.

The largest agribusiness, food and synthetic biology companies got together in San Francisco in 2014 to discuss this PR challenge.

Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth, who attended the meeting, described it as “an alarming insight into the synthetic biology industry’s process of creating a sugar-coated media narrative to confuse the public, ignore the risks, and claim the mantle of ‘sustainability’ for potentially profitable new synthetic biology products.”

PR strategists at the meeting recommended avoiding terms like “synthetic biology” and “genetic engineering” (too scary, too much backlash), and suggested going with more vague descriptions such as “fermentation derived” and “nature identical.”

They recommended focusing the media on stories of hope and promise, capturing public emotion, and making food activists “feel like we are we are all marching under the same banner” for food sustainability, transparency and food sovereignty.

Targeting transparency

Somebody was listening. The story about Cargill’s big stevia opportunity didn’t mention genetic engineering or synthetic biology, but did describe “fermentation as a path.” It ended with a promise that Cargill has nothing to hide about how the ingredients are made and will clearly and accurately label products.

“We have targeted this space in a completely transparent manner,” said Steve Fabro, Cargill global programs marketing manager.

The new ingredient coincides with big changes at Cargill. After two years of declining profits, America’s largest private company is repositioning itself “to satisfy consumers in Western markets who are shying away from the mainstream food brands that rely on low-cost, commoditized ingredients that have been the specialty of companies like Cargill,” reported Jacob Bunge in the Wall Street Journal.

Consumers “want to know what’s in their food, who made it, what kind of company is it, are they ethical, how do they treat animals?” Cargill Chief Executive David MacLennan told Bunge.

With synthetic biology ingredients, that could prove to be a challenge.

When asked exactly how they plan to label EverSweet, Cargill communications lead Kelly Sheehan responded via email, 

“Consumers should be able to tell the difference on a label between stevia from leaf and steviol glycosides produced through fermentation. Stevia from leaf in the US is currently labeled as ‘stevia leaf extract.’ EverSweet will be labeled in the US as ‘steviol glycosides’ or ‘Reb M and Reb D.’ In the EU the expectation is EverSweet would receive a modified E number to differentiate the two products.”

 Sheehan added, “Cargill is committed to transparency and sharing product information at Cargill.com from ‘stevia leaf extract’ to ‘non-GMO stevia leaf extract.’”

Confusing? Perhaps, but labeling decisions may be left up to the companies. As with first-generation GMOs, labeling is not required in the U.S. (although Vermont will require GMO labeling starting July 1 unless Congress intervenes) and companies are free to market their products as “natural” (although FDA is reviewing use of that term). There are no safety standards and no testing requirements for foods developed with synthetic biology.

This lax system pleases the companies eager to patent new food technologies.

As Perls described the synthetic biology PR meeting, “A clear theme at the meeting was that the fewer government regulations the better, and industry self-regulation is best. There was a general consensus in the room that the public should not be concerned about a lack of data on safety; however, the internal and self-funded corporate studies are proprietary and cannot be shared with the public.”

Where have we heard this story before?

Proprietary information, patents, lack of transparency and industry self-scrutiny have been the hallmarks of first-generation GMOs – and the fuel for growing consumer distrust and demands for transparency that have caught the food industry off guard.

The corporations that profit from traditional GMOs – primarily Monsanto, Dow and other big chemical-seed companies – have responded to the backlash as big corporations often do: by throwing huge amounts of money at PR operations to attack critics and spin their products as necessary to feed the world.

The marketing promises have failed to materialize. A May 2016 report by the National Academy of Sciences found no evidence that GMO crops had changed the rate of increase in yields, and no clear benefits for small, impoverished farms in developing countries.

Nevertheless, GMO proponents claim, as Bill Gates did in a Wall Street Journal interview, that Africans will starve unless they embrace climate-friendly, vitamin-enriched GMO crops. Gates neglected to mention that these crops still don’t exist after 20 years of trials and promises.

Instead, most genetically engineered crops are herbicide-tolerant crops that are raising concerns about health problems linked to chemical exposures. These crops have increased sales of chemicals owned by the same corporations that own the patents for GMO seeds – an excellent profit model, but one that is turning out to be not so great for health and ecology.

The promise of synthetic biology

The same sorts of promises that failed to materialize in 20 years of GMO crops are fueling the buzz around next-generation genetic engineering.

Synthetic biology techniques “could deliver more-nutritious crops that thrive with less water, land, and energy, and fewer chemical inputs, in more variable climates and on lands that otherwise would not support intensive farming,” reported Josie Garthwaite in The Atlantic.

While proponents focus on possible future benefits, skeptics are raising concerns about risks and unintended consequences. With no pre-market safety assessments for synthetic biology foods, environmental and health impacts are largely unknown, but critics say there is one area in which the dangers are already apparent: economic damage to indigenous farmers as lab-grown compounds replace field-grown crops. Farmers in Paraguay and Kenya, for example, depend on stevia crops.

“By competing with poor farmers and misleading consumers about the origins of its ingredients, EverSweet and other examples of synthetic biology are generating bitterness at both ends of the product chain,” wrote Jim Thomas and Silvia Rabiero of The ETC Group in Project Syndicate.

The path forward for synthetic biology

As battle lines get drawn on the new food frontier, some difficult questions arise. How can we ensure that innovations in agriculture benefit society and consumers? How can new food technologies developed to capture markets, patents and corporate profits ever prioritize sustainability, food security and climate change solutions?

It’s going to take more than marketing slogans, and the clock is ticking to figure it out as new technologies race forward.

As Adele Peters reported in Fast Company, a new gene morphing technology called CRISPR, which makes it “possible to quickly and easily edit DNA,” is coming to a supermarket near you.

“If editing a single gene might have taken years with older techniques, now it can happen in a matter of days with a single grad student,” Peters reported.

What could possibly go wrong?

In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided that a CRISPR mushroom will not be subject to regulation.

On June 1, scientists announced the start of a 10-year project that aims to synthetically create an entire human genome. The project is called Human Genome Project – Write, “because it is aimed at writing the DNA of life,” reported Andrew Pollack in The New York Times.

On June 8, the National Academy of Sciences released a report about “gene drives,” a new type of genetic engineering that can spread gene modifications throughout an entire population of organisms, permanently altering a species.

Gene drives “are not ready to be released into the environment,” NAS said in its press release calling for “more research and robust assessment.” Unfortunately, the NAS report failed to articulate a precautionary regulatory framework that would protect people and the environment.

Could synthetic biology, gene editing and gene drives have benefits for society? Possibly yes. But will they? And what are the risks?

If corporations are allowed to deploy genetic engineering technologies for commercial gain with no government oversight, no independent scientific assessments, and no transparency, benefits to society will be left off the menu and consumers will be in the dark about what we’re eating and feeding our families.

Stacy Malkan is the co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit food industry research group. She also does consulting work with Friends of the Earth. Follow her on Twitter @StacyMalkan

What Bill Gates Isn’t Saying About GMOs

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Also see:
Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign? And why is Gates Foundation funding it?

As the big food companies announce plans to label genetically engineered foods in the United States, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the stories we hear from proponents and people who are raising concerns about the controversial food technology. Two recent videos illuminate the divide over GMOs.

In January, Bill Gates explained his support for genetic engineering in an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Blumenstein:

“What are called GMOs are done by changing the genes of the plant, and it’s done in a way where there’s a very thorough safety procedure, and it’s pretty incredible because it reduces the amount of pesticide you need, raises productivity (and) can help with malnutrition by getting vitamin fortification. And so I think, for Africa, this is going to make a huge difference, particularly as they face climate change …

The US, China, Brazil, are using these things and if you want farmers in Africa to improve nutrition and be competitive on the world market, you know, as long as the right safety things are done, that’s really beneficial. It’s kind of a second round of the green revolution. And so the Africans I think will choose to let their people have enough to eat.”

If Gates is right, that’s great news. That means the key to solving the hunger problem is lowering barriers for companies to get their climate-resilient, nutrition-improved genetically engineered crops to market.

Is Gates right?  

Another video released the same week as Gates’ WSJ interview provides a different perspective.

The short film by the Center for Food Safety describes how the state of Hawaii, which hosts more open-air fields of experimental genetically engineered crops than any other state, has become contaminated with high volumes of toxic pesticides.

The film and report explain that five multinational agrichemical companies run 97% of GE field tests on Hawaii, and the large majority of the crops are engineered to survive herbicides. According to the video:

“With so many GE field tests in such a small state, many people in Hawaii live, work and go to school near intensively sprayed test sites. Pesticides often drift so it’s no wonder that children and school and entire communities are getting sick. To make matters even worse, in most cases, these companies are not even required to disclose what they’re spraying.”

If the Center for Food Safety is right, that’s a big problem. Both these stories can’t be right at the same time, can they?

Facts on the ground

Following the thread of the Gates’ narrative, one would expect the agricultural fields of Hawaii – the leading testing grounds for genetically engineered crops in the U.S. – to be bustling with low-pesticide, climate-resilient, vitamin-enhanced crops.

Instead, the large majority of GMO crops being grown on Hawaii and in the US are herbicide-tolerant crops that are driving up the use of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and a chemical the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classify as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In the 20 years since Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” GMO corn and soy, glyphosate use has increased 15-fold and it is now “the most heavily-used agricultural chemical in the history of the world”, reported Douglas Main in Newsweek.

The heavy herbicide use has accelerated weed resistance on millions of acres of farmland. To deal with this problem, Monsanto is rolling out new genetically engineered soybeans designed to survive a combination of weed-killing chemicals, glyphosate and dicamba. EPA has yet to approve the new herbicide mix.

But Dow Chemical just got the green light from a federal judge for its new weed-killer combo of 2,4D and glyphosate, called Enlist Duo, designed for Dow’s Enlist GMO seeds. EPA tossed aside its own safety data to approve Enlist Duo, reported Patricia Callahan in Chicago Tribune.

The agency then reversed course and asked the court to vacate its own approval – a request the judge denied without giving reason.

All of this raises questions about the claims Bill Gates made in his Wall Street Journal interview about thorough safety procedures and reduced use of pesticides.

 Concerns grow in Hawaii, Argentina, Iowa

Instead of bustling with promising new types of resilient adaptive GMO crops, Hawaii is bustling with grassroots efforts to protect communities from pesticide drift, require chemical companies to disclose the pesticides they are using, and restrict GMO crop-growing in areas near schools and nursing homes.

Schools near farms in Kauai have been evacuated due to pesticide drift, and doctors in Hawaii say they are observing increases in birth defects and other illnesses they suspect may be related to pesticides, reported Christopher Pala in the Guardian and The Ecologist.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, prenatal and early-life pesticide exposures are linked to childhood cancers, decreased cognitive function, behavioral problems and birth defects.

In Argentina – the world’s third largest producer of GMO crops – doctors are also raising concerns about higher than average rates of cancer and birth defects they suspect are related to pesticides, reported Michael Warren in The Associated Press.

Warren’s story from 2013 cited evidence of “uncontrolled pesticide applications”:

“The Associated Press documented dozens of cases around the country where poisons are applied in ways unanticipated by regulatory science or specifically banned by existing law. The spray drifts into schools and homes and settles over water sources; farmworkers mix poisons with no protective gear; villagers store water in pesticide containers that should have been destroyed.”

In a follow-up story, Monsanto defended glyphosate as safe and called for more controls to stop the misuse of agricultural chemicals, and Warren reported:

“Argentine doctors interviewed by the AP said their caseloads – not laboratory experiments – show an apparent correlation between the arrival of intensive industrial agriculture and rising rates of cancer and birth defects in rural communities, and they’re calling for broader, longer-term studies to rule out agrochemical exposure as a cause of these and other illnesses.”

Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher responded, “the absence of reliable data makes it very difficult to establish trends in disease incidence and even more difficult to establish causal relationships. To our knowledge there are no established causal relationships.”

The absence of reliable data is compounded by the fact that most chemicals are assessed for safety on an individual basis, yet exposures typically involve chemical combinations.

 ‘We are breathing, eating, and drinking agrochemicals’

A recent UCLA study found that California regulators are failing to assess the health risks of pesticide mixtures, even though farm communities – including areas near schools, day care centers and parks – are exposed to multiple pesticides, which can have larger-than-anticipated health impacts.

Exposures also occur by multiple routes. Reporting on health problems and community concerns in Avia Teria, a rural town in Argentina surrounded by soybean fields, Elizabeth Grossman wrote in National Geographic:

“Because so many pesticides are used in Argentina’s farm towns, the challenges of understanding what may be causing the health problems are considerable, says Nicolas Loyacono, a University of Buenos Aires environmental health scientist and physician. In these communities, Loyacono says, “we are breathing, eating, and drinking agrochemicals.”

In Iowa, which grows more genetically engineered corn than any other state in the U.S., water supplies have been polluted by chemical run off from corn and animal farms, reported Richard Manning in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine:

“Scientists from the state’s agricultural department and Iowa State University have penciled out and tested a program of such low-tech solutions. If 40% of the cropland claimed by corn were planted with other crops and permanent pasture, the whole litany of problems caused by industrial agriculture – certainly the nitrate pollution of drinking water – would begin to evaporate.”

These experiences in three areas leading the world in GMO crop production are obviously relevant to the question of whether Africa should embrace GMOs as the best solution for future food security. So why isn’t Bill Gates discussing these issues?

Propaganda watch

GMO proponents like to focus on possible future uses of genetic engineering technology, while downplaying, ignoring or denying the risks. They often try to marginalize critics who raise concerns as uninformed or anti-science; or, as Gates did, they suggest a false choice that countries must accept GMOs if they want “to let their people have enough to eat.”

This logic leaps over the fact that, after decades of development, most GMO crops are still engineered to withstand herbicides or produce insecticides (or both) while more complicated (and much hyped) traits, such as vitamin-enhancement, have failed to get off the ground.

“Like the hover boards of the Back to the Future franchise, golden rice is an old idea that looms just beyond the grasp of reality,” reported Tom Philpott in Mother Jones.

Meanwhile, the multinational agrichemical companies that also own a large portion of the seed business are profiting from both the herbicide-resistant seeds and the herbicides they are designed to resist, and many new GMO applications in the pipeline follow this same vein.

These corporations have also spent hundreds of million dollars on public relations efforts to promote industrial-scale, chemical-intensive, GMO agriculture as the answer to world hunger – using similar talking points that Gates put forth in his Wall Street Journal interview, and that Gates-funded groups also echo.

For a recent article in The Ecologist, I analyzed the messaging of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO communications program launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

My analysis found that the group provides little information about possible risks or downsides of GMOs, and instead amplifies the agrichemical industry’s PR mantra that the science is settled on the safety and necessity of GMOs.

For example, the group’s FAQ states,

“You are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than be hurt by GE food – and that’s not an exaggeration.”

This contradicts the World Health Organization, which states, “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” Over 300 scientists, MDs and academics have said there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”

The concerns scientists are raising about the glyphosate-based herbicides that go with GMOs are also obviously relevant to the safety discussion.

Yet rather than raising these issues as part of a robust science discussion, the Cornell Alliance for Science deploys fellows and associates to downplay concerns about pesticides in Hawaii and attack journalists who report on these concerns.

It’s difficult to understand how these sorts of shenanigans are helping to solve hunger in Africa.

Public science for sale

The Cornell Alliance for Science is the latest example of a larger troubling pattern of universities and academics serving corporate interests over science.

Recent scandals relating to this trend include Coca-Cola funded professors who downplayed the link between diet and obesity, a climate-skeptic professor who described his scientific papers as “deliverables” for corporate funders, and documents obtained by my group U.S. Right to Know that reveal professors working closely with Monsanto to promote GMOs without revealing their ties to Monsanto.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped expose the Flint water crisis, warned that public science is in grave danger.

“I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill – pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index – and the idea of science as a public good is being lost … People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.”

As the world’s wealthiest foundation and as major funders of academic research, especially in the realm of agriculture, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is in a position to support science in the public interest.

Gates Foundation strategies, however, often align with corporate interests. A 2014 analysis by the Barcelona-based research group Grain found that about 90% of the $3 billion the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent to benefit hungry people in the world’s poorest countries went to wealthy nations, mostly for high-tech research.

A January 2016 report by the UK advocacy group Global Justice Now argues that Gates Foundation spending, especially on agricultural projects, is exacerbating inequality and entrenching corporate power globally.

“Perhaps what is most striking about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is that despite its aggressive corporate strategy and extraordinary influence across governments, academics and the media, there is an absence of critical voices,” the group said.

But corporate voices are close at hand. The head of the Gates Foundation agricultural research and development team is Rob Horsch, who spent decades of his career at Monsanto.

 The case for an honest conversation

Rather than making the propaganda case for GMOs, Bill Gates and Gates-funded groups could play an important role in elevating the scientific integrity of the GMO debate, and ensuring that new food technologies truly benefit communities.

Technology isn’t inherently good or bad; it all depends on the context. As Gates put it, “as long as the right safety things are done.” But those safety things aren’t being done.

Protecting children from toxic pesticide exposures in Hawaii and Argentina and cleaning up water supplies in Iowa doesn’t have to prevent genetic engineering from moving forward. But those issues certainly highlight the need to take a precautionary approach with GMOs and pesticides.

That would require robust and independent assessments of health and environmental impacts, and protections for farmworkers and communities.

That would require transparency, including labeling GMO foods as well as open access to scientific data, public notification of pesticide spraying, and full disclosure of industry influence over academic and science organizations.

It would require having a more honest conversation about GMOs and pesticides so that all nations can use the full breadth of scientific knowledge as they consider whether or not to adopt agrichemical industry technologies for their food supply.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. Sign up for our newsletter here. Stacy is author of the book, ‘Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,’ (New Society Publishing, 2007) and co-founded the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Follow Stacy on Twitter: @stacymalkan.