Fakethrough! GMOs and the Capitulation of Science Journalism

by Jonathan Latham

by Jonathan Latham, PhD

Good journalism examines its sources critically, it takes nothing at face value, places its topics in a historical context, and it values above all the public interest. Such journalism is, most people agree, essential to any equitable and open system of government. These statements are, if anything, especially applicable to the science media. But while the media in general has recently taken much criticism, for trivialising news and other flaws, the science media has somehow escaped serious attention. This is unfortunate because no country in the world has a healthy science media.

This is science journalism?

According to the New York Times genetically engineered Xa21 rice was big news (Song et al 1995). In a 1995 article titled “Genetic Engineering Creates Rice Resistant to Destructive Blight”, journalist Sandra Blakeslee wrote it was:

“the first time that a disease-resistance gene has been put into rice”

Another biotech breakthrough
Yet another biotech breakthrough?

Blakeslee then quoted a senior figure, Gary Toenissen, deputy director of agricultural sciences at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, as saying it heralded

“a new era in plant genetics and resistance breeding”.

But eighteen years after that article was written, the failure of these predictions is clear. No commercial GMO rice of any kind exists, nor has Xa21 or any similar gene for disease resistance been developed for commercial purposes.

Neither was the research as novel as the Times made it sound. Though Toenissen claimed it was:

“the first time that a disease-resistance gene has been put into rice”,

readers were not told that this gene was already in rice plants, because rice is where it came from (Song et al 1995). Blakeslee thus described neither a conceptual nor a commercial breakthrough. But it was certainly a very useful PR boost for plant biotechnology.

The high protein cassava that never was

Cassava packs a protein punch with bean genes was the title of a 2011 New Scientist article portraying a new GMO cassava developed by Dr Claude Fauquet and colleagues of the Donald Danforth Center, St Louis, USA. The Center, which is largely funded by Monsanto, had produced a GMO cassava using money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Thanks to the addition of a synthetic protein (called zeolin), the modified cassava was reported to contain protein levels elevated by a factor of four and apparently sufficient to greatly improve the nourishment of “hungry children” (Abhary et al 2011).

But despite the enthusiasm of New Scientist, SciDevNet, and many other media outlets, no such cassava is ever likely to feed the hungry of Africa. A subsequent investigation at the Danforth Center found that the “modified” cassava plants in their greenhouses had no zeolin gene in them. They were not transgenic at all, despite the fact that illustrations in the Abhary publication appeared to show they were. The Abhary paper was therefore retracted (this was later noted by New Scientist and SciDevNet).

According to Danforth President James Carrington, the main author (Abhary) had left the country along with vital information:

“The specific route by which these [plants] were produced we could not determine.“

As Retraction Watch discovered, that appears to have been the end of high-protein cassava:

“The Fauquet lab has not gone back to redo the study properly,” Carrington said, “because the Gates grant that funded the project ended a few years ago.”

The virus-resistant sweet potato that vanished

In 2001 US special envoy Dr Andrew Young flew into Kenya to launch a GM virus-resistant sweet potato developed with Monsanto by Dr. Florence Wambugu. According to Forbes magazine its yields were “astonishing”, fully twice that of standard sweet potatoes. Dr. Wambugu, at that time the Kenyan project leader, told the Toronto Globe and Mail that her “modified sweet potato, for example, can increase yields from four tonnes per hectare to 10 tonnes”, and Canada’s National Post called GMOs a technology to pull “the African continent out of decades of economic and social despair”.

These eulogies appeared despite the absence of any scientific confirmation of the claims.

Subsequently, in 2004, it was acknowledged in Kenyan newspapers and on the website GMWatch that Monsanto’s virus resistance was ineffective in field tests and an official report even claimed that “non-transgenic crops used as controls yielded much more per tuber compared to the transgenics”. Kenyan scientists involved in field testing were quoted as saying that:

all lines tested were susceptible to viral attacks.” and:

The transgenic material did not quite withstand virus challenge in the field.”

Even these negative reports, however, didn’t prevent this being cited once again in the US press, this time by celebrity scientist Pamela Ronald. Ronald wrote in the May 14th 2010 New York Times, that “virus-resistant sweet potatoes and high-yielding pearl millet are just a few examples of genetically engineered foods that could improve the lives of the poor around the globe.”

But in fact no GMO virus-resistant sweet potato varieties or scientific publications on this project have ever emerged from Kenya or elsewhere. Presumably the story reported by Kenyan newspapers, that yields were considerably less than “astonishing”, was the accurate one.

Edible vaccines prove fruitless

While successful nutrient-fortified crops and virus resistance traits are routinely developed in non-GMO plant breeding programmes, the creation of edible vaccines seemed to be a potentially unique opportunity for GMO crops:

“Tangible consumer benefits could turn the debate on genetically modified food,”

said Novartis CEO Daniel Vasella about the PR possibilities of edible vaccines.

The edible vaccine concept (variously, lettuce, tomatoes, bananas and potatoes) was once described by the Guardian in 2000 as “the most exciting area of biological science”, almost ready to “benefit millions of people in the developing world who could not afford western medicine.” Similar reports, spanning the years 2000-2005, appeared on PBS radio, in the New York Times, Scientific American (twice), and many other high profile media sources.

The articles typically focused on the theoretical advantages of edible vaccines (cheapness and ease of preservation) but neglected to discuss their downsides. These turn out to dwarf (as discussed at length here) the problems they are intended to solve. For example, most established vaccines are not edible. They are injected expressly because they must bypass the saliva and stomach acids that would render them useless. At the same time, GMO plants that produce vaccines have often not grown well.

Yet other downsides of edible vaccines stem from the questionable wisdom of making living medical products that are visually indistinguishable from food; others from the problems associated with self-medication by untrained individuals. With plants grown in backyards how will individuals keep track of the dose they have received? How does one safeguard the food supply against contamination with vaccine genes? How should edible vaccine programmes overcome likely inconsistencies of dose due to natural variations in climate, season, and other factors?

An alternative edible vaccine scenario often put forward, in which the vaccine is grown in a regional centre and distributed from there, poses its own problems, such as how to transport the edible vaccine, which is a perishable foodstuff, separately from the rest of the food supply?

As a consequence of these unresolved issues no product has gone beyond the status of a small initial trial in people or animals and a 2011 scientific review concluded: “Edible transgenic plant vaccines have a long way to go before they will be ready for large-scale tests”. Yet even a large-scale test is not a final product.

Golden rice, the emperor of GMOs

Golden rice has the kind of PR to ensure it needs no introduction. The search term: “golden rice” + vitamin A generates 131,000 results on Google’s internet search engine (1).

Golden rice has genes inserted which produce in its endosperm modest quantities of beta-carotene, the precursor molecule of vitamin A. Golden rice has become the standard bearer for the humanitarian and beneficial use of a GMO and was famously featured on the cover of Time magazine as well as being the inspiration for eleven separate articles in the New York Times alone.

And as documented in a recent report from German NGO Testbiotech, the PR campaign for golden rice commandeered the phrase “crime against humanity”. Typical is The Hindu of India’s description of a recent visit to that country by Nobel prizewinner Richard J. Roberts (whose prize was unrelated to agriculture). The Hindu wrote:

“Describing the protest by “green” parties in Europe against GM crops as a “crime against humanity,” he particularly drew attention to the project to produce a GM rice variety for tackling the problem of vitamin A deficiency in India and other countries.” (The Hindu Dec 10th 2013)

The scientific reality of golden rice could hardly be more different to that implied by the heavy-handed PR. Prior to 2005, all such publicity pertained to golden rice 1 (GR1) (Ye et al. 2000). Amidst an almost total absence of journalistic scepticism, only Greenpeace and Vandana Shiva pointed out that the claims for it were false: GR1 was incapable of solving vitamin A deficiencies because the levels of beta-carotene were too low. This was disputed at the time, but it is a clear acknowledgement of GR1’s failure that Syngenta developed a new rice (GR2) (Paine et al 2005).

The current version of golden rice (GR2) has been the subject of just three scientific publications (Paine et al 2005; Tang et al 2009; Tang et al 2012). Nothing is known about its yield or agronomic characteristics and hardly any more is known about its efficacy or safety. GR2 has not been approved for commercial use or public consumption in any country. It is thus a product still in development, and indeed the transgenes in GR2 have only recently been crossed into the indica rice subspecies that most Asian people eat. There is thus what must surely be an unprecedented disparity between the number of articles generated around golden rice and its actual achievement, which currently stands at zero.

On occasion, the better parts of this press coverage have indicated that there are socio-cultural and technical obstacles to golden rice achieving genuine success in improving the nutrition of those with a Vitamin A deficiency. For a start golden rice will have to be widely grown (which means replacing many thousands of local varieties, or breeding the transgenes into each one); it must be made available to the poorest and most isolated (who actually need it); and it will have to overcome strong cultural preferences for white rice (by means not yet known). Moreover, in both scientific trials on humans (Tang et al 2009; Tang et al 2012) GR2 was immediately frozen at -70C to prevent loss of the apparently easily degraded beta-carotene (2). It was then fed to the study participants with 10% or more butter or oil (to ensure the availability of the fat necessary for absorption of beta-carotene). It perhaps doesn’t need saying that -70C storage capability and comparably fatty diets are not characteristics of those likely to be deficient in vitamin A.

Thus, between its technical flaws and its requirement for very large quantities of financial resources and political will (for plant breeding, distribution, etc.), it is highly probable that golden rice will never progress beyond a nice media story.

Indeed, following Greenpeace and Vandana Shiva, Michael Pollan proposed that golden rice (at that time GR1) was a “purely rhetorical technology”. Pollan’s scepticism proved fully correct, yet somehow only those three managed to disclose certain key facts. The entire science media failed, being apparently too enthralled by golden rice’s grenade-proof greenhouse in Switzerland.

But the main point, besides that New York Times readers may be the world’s most misinformed, is that golden rice is not alone, it is just one example among many of preliminary or doubtful research projects being inflated into positive global GMO news stories.

The ingredients missing from science journalism

These five ‘humanitarian’ GMO stories, often presented without doubts or caveats, are to be found literally by the thousands in the global news media. To adequately understand the full extent of this journalistic problem, however, it is necessary to briefly consider the specific intellectual and journalistic deficiencies they contain.

Firstly, these news stories offer robust evidence that science reporting is plagued by the same fundamental problem that pervades the rest of commercial journalism. It is the problem summed up by newspaper man Lord Northcliffe as:

“News is what people do not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

In biotech reporting, this defect is characterised firstly by missing context. Science journalism could at any point over the lifetime of biotechnology have asked some foundational public interest questions: Is the technology ready? Are the regulators competent? Why is it considered appropriate for industry to fund and conduct its own safety studies? What are the views of dissenting scientists? And many others. Yet only a tiny handful of professional science journalists have ever escaped the standard narrow framing around a specific product, which therefore leaves the reader imagining there are good answers to these questions. Michael Pollan’s excellent Playing God in the Garden is almost unique in this respect.

The second failing is that fakethrough reporting is simple old-time boosterism, whose art largely consists of leaving information out. Except it isn’t quite that innocuous. Because these products are not just the latest cell phone, the quantity of information left out is enormously large and hugely significant. As a non-technical example: when the reader is expected to believe that the agribusiness industry is operating a humanitarian enterprise, is it appropriate to leave out (or deny) the same industry’s historical record of intimidating farmers or manufacturing dangerous agricultural products and then denying and evading responsibility?

The authors of these articles may reasonably argue that in a short space some assumptions have to be made; but readers can hardly note omissions for themselves when the contradictory facts or viewpoints have never been reported, either in their own newspaper, or even in any commercial media.

For example, when the UN published a major report by hundreds of scientists proposing that industrial agriculture and GMOs were inappropriate solutions for agriculture and poverty, the New York Times never once mentioned it. Only years later did guest writers ever reference the IAASTD at “the paper of record”.

As a further example, in the typical fakethrough article, technical success is treated as a given. The presumption seems to be that biotech seed developers can introduce at will almost any trait they choose. What is never pointed out, however, is that all existing commercialised GMO crops are based on a very small number of conceptually simple modifications of conventionally-bred crops. These insect resistance and herbicide resistance traits are single genes and do not require complex understanding of, or deliberate interference with, existing biochemical pathways. In contrast, the new ‘humanitarian’ traits are (in often numerous ways) adventures into much less well understood areas of biology.

The gap between the global coverage and wide acclaim versus the ensuing reality in which two of these five ‘breakthroughs’ failed (or never existed) and the rest which never progressed, can now be understood. That vast gap is a precise and evidence-based barometer of the integrity of GMO news coverage worldwide and unquestionably it points to uniformly one-sided reporting of no value to readers. Its major use is to demonstrate the extent to which biotech journalism has been captured by agribusiness interests.

The journalistic rationale for celebrating putative future successes and discounting actual failures, was advanced by Gregg Easterbrook in a New York Times opinion piece about biofortified GMOs:

“The important thing to keep in mind is that the transgenic crops in the news today are just the first manifestations of a fundamental new idea. Much better versions are coming.” (New York Times Nov 19 1999)

In this view theoretical possibilities alone are what matter; real GMO failures are irrelevant. Which just happens to be how the industry sees the situation. It is as if reporters covering the nuclear power industry, rather than describing accidents, cost overruns, or cover-ups, were to focus on the humanitarian uses of nuclear-powered electricity (4).

Unfortunately, as these and other equally important stories show, this uncritical industry-pleasing approach guides almost all science journalism today (3).

Science journalists can do better, however. Michael Pollan (in Playing God..) ably dissected GMO regulatory gaps and later critiqued golden rice (nota bene: from outside the science pages), pointing out in the process golden rice’s $50 million PR budget. The website GMWatch.org frequently points out unheralded non-GMO breeding successes of comparable importance.

The way of total information control

These misreports of biotechnology are endlessly useful to the industry. Articles about supposed breakthroughs constitute the excuse for stern editorials in prestigious magazines decrying ‘irrational objections’ to GMOs. Supposed breakthroughs, like golden rice, can also represent a valuable opportunity to prize open specific foreign markets to GMOs. But the main benefit is less obvious but more fundamental.

Agribusiness is an industry whose financial success springs ultimately from building a technological treadmill and establishing monopoly control of agriculture. However, its products are invariably dispensable to agriculture and it struggles to develop new ones. Therefore, fakethroughs’ great value is to confirm, in the eyes of the world, the industry’s broad claims to be ethical, innovative, and essential to a sustainable future.

The fundamental driver behind scientific misreporting, therefore, is not intellectually lazy journalists (though they do help). It is that for agribusinesses and other powerful corporations everything is at stake in science journalism. Their reputations as essential and ethical organisations are daily at risk for the reason that it is in science that the hypocrisy is most self-evident: of financing climate change denial while espousing corporate responsibility, of insisting on due process while buying ones way into the political process (or bribing government officials), of attempting to undermine environmental and worker safety legislation, while describing oneself as a clean green global good citizen, and so on.

Imagine if the New York Times or NBC published, under appropriately scathing headlines, a full and detailed analysis of how GMO corporations perennially manipulate the scientific literature? And then Fox News reported the real story of how the FDA, advised by its own scientists that GMOs should receive close scrutiny, took the purely political and probably illegal decision to disregard that advice? And then each story was picked up by all the other radio, print and TV news outlets? Customers would rebel, political support would disappear (not least because this would discredit the official policy information democratic representatives receive). The agbiotech industry would probably collapse as a result. Consequently, it must make sure such a scenario never happens.

It is for just this reason that BASF, Coca-Cola, Merck, L’Oreal, Monsanto, Syngenta, Smith & Nephew, the Nuclear Industry Association and their competitors now support coordinated attempts to manage scientific news coverage in the form of the UK’s Science Media Centre. And now, having decided that this method of information control is effective, or maybe that the threat from the internet is sufficiently serious, they are adding some international offshoots.

The marketing of fakethroughs is important as a component of the general manipulation of the science media. But it is in turn only a part of the barely understood but vast web of influence by which the biotech industry meticulously orchestrates the perception of itself (and its products).

What is new today, and which wasn’t the case thirty years ago, is that individual industrial sectors such as the life science industry are nowadays sufficiently profitable, monopolistic, and global that they can and do coordinate the flow of information across three distinct but nevertheless interconnected domains of thought: the public domain (TV, radio, print), the scientific domain (peer-reviewed publications), and the policy domain (government reports and bureaucratic discussions).

A case in point occurred in 2007 when a hitherto sceptical EU parliament commissioned a comprehensive investigation and subsequent report (called BIO4EU) into the bold claims behind the new ‘knowledge-based bio-economy’.

The evidence base for these claims, as disclosed in the BIO4EU report, was dismayingly weak. Consequently, the life science industry mobilised its resources to ensure that the document text inflated the underlying data and the executive summary inflated the text to the extent that thousands of biotech jobs were converted into millions. The EU parliament was even told, in BIO4EUs summary, that the new bio-economy would

“break the link between economic growth and pressure on the environment”

(though this assertion was not mentioned or justified in the text) and that:

It is said that money does not grow on trees, but more of our economic prosperity will be based on agricultural produce. Not only will farmers grow food for a larger population, but much of the economy will also be based on the raw materials they grow: new foods, biofuels, and biomaterials.”

Nothing in the underlying data collected for the report warranted these conclusions but concerted industry pressure on the EU institute that prepared the report averted a potential disaster for the industry. Obviously, the fakethrough data that was appearing in the print media must not be contradicted by policy-oriented research.

The EU parliamentarians were probably never made aware that their report was nothing but a giant fraud, but this case demonstrates the extent to which industry PR efforts extend, to use a military term, to full spectrum dominance of the total information environment. This is how it becomes possible for an industry image of ever increasing ambition to be separated from dull reality by a gulf so enormous that, were it to open, it would probably swallow the industry whole.

But in this the biotech industry is no different from almost every realm of economic activity. From the food industry to the mining industry, to the conduct of wars, very few people would support these activities in anything like their present form if they were truly informed. It follows that the underlying reason businesses operate as they do is that the modern press fails in its fundamental purpose. In 1822 James Madison wrote that:

“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.”

This statement was surely intended to be understood literally, and now, two hundred years later, when we have entered fully into the state which James Madison envisaged, it is time to take Madison at his word and ask: Is it not possible that solving the great problems of our age: climate change, social injustice, and ecological sustainability, is as simple as creating an effective media? Or, to put it another way, can it be done without one?

1. Search conducted on Dec 10th 2013

2. The probable reason is that rice is dry while other sources of beta-carotene (e.g. spinach) are hydrated. The high water content probably normally protects the beta-carotene from oxidation.

3. Internalisation of industry PR is also obvious in the value-laden terminology with which journalists refer to biotechnology. The science media has failed to dissect the language that the industry uses, and which intentionally obscures what is actually being done. Genes are “added” as if biotechnology were a simple mathematics problem; organisms are genetically “engineered” as if they were not living systems; traits are described as “approved” even though (in the US) FDA merely consults, the USDA has a very narrow remit and the EPA often has no role at all.

4. There are intriguing parallels between nuclear power and genetic engineering. Both technologies are unnecessary (in the sense that both make a product (electricity, seeds) that was already being made, and less expensively), both are cumbersome and resource-intensive compared to their competitors, both are doubted by the wider public, and both are largely driven by an agenda their proponents attempt to keep hidden. In the case of nuclear power that agenda is to conceal activities associated with nuclear weapons and often to milk them for subsidies. For GMOs the concealed agenda is to exploit the intellectual property potential of transgenes to monopolise the seed supply and so to ultimately control agriculture.

But perhaps the most important parallel is that both are attempts to control within narrow parameters, and over extended time periods, highly complex and improperly understood systems (nuclear reactors and living organisms). In this respect the two technologies are probably unique among all human endeavours.

Abhary M, Siritunga D, Stevens G, Taylor N J, Fauquet CM (2011) Transgenic Biofortification of the Starchy Staple Cassava (Manihot esculenta) Generates a Novel Sink for Protein. PLoS One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016256
Paine J.A., Shipton, C.A., Chaggar, S., Howells, R.M., Kennedy, M.J., Vernon, G., Wright, S.Y., Hinchliffe, E., Adams, J.L., Silverstone, A.L. & Drake, R., (2005) Improving the nutritional value of Golden Rice through increased pro vitamin A content. Nature Biotechnology, 23: 482-487.
Tang G, J Qin, GG Dolnikowski, RM Russell, and MA Grusak (2009) Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A. Am J Clin Nutr 89: 6 1776-1783.
Tang G, Y Hu, S Yin, Y Wang, GE Dallal, MA Grusak, and RM Russell (2012) β-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as β-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. Am J Clin Nutr 96: 658-664.
Song WY, Wang G-L, Chen L-L, Kim H-S, Pi L-Y, Holsten T, et al (1995) A receptor kinase-like protein encoded by the rice disease resistance gene, Xa21″. Science 270 (5243): 1804–6. December 1995. doi:10.1126/science.270.5243.1804.
Ye, X. et al. (2000) Engineering the provitamin A (b -carotene) biosynthetic pathway into (carotenoid-free) rice endosperm. Science 287: 303–305.


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Comments 26
  • An unintended consequence of developing rhetoric to influence government policy in the 1980’s was that a number of pat phrases were developed which were useful in creating spin for company employees that allowed them to become willfully ignorant of the downsides of what they were doing and carry on for decades in the deceptive work of their well-paying biotech jobs. Those phrases became the talking points at parties to justify jobs to skeptical friends and relatives and those phrases became part of the general lexicon. They allowed everyone to be sedated into accepting corporate behaviours and irresponsible science that would have been intolerable otherwise.

  • This is superb fusion of investigative muckraking and science journalism, the kind of scandalous, appalling stuff that ought to be up in lights. But since it is news, and not advertising, it probably won’t get there easily. I used to think that agribusiness was just big, mediocre and stupid. Thanks to efforts like this I now see it as big, mediocre, and utterly sinister and pernicious in ways beyond my cynical imagination. How did it come about, mostly within my lifetime, that American farmers went from being the independent backbone of our prosperity to being driven from their own land own by ruthless corporate collectivism and indentured servitude? Eisenhower worried about the military-industrial complex but it’s far worse now. It’s a military-governmental-industrial-agribusiness-energy-surveillance state complex (more hyphens can be added) that seems to be rapidly metamorphosing into something so terrible that it is almost too painful to contemplate. But we must. Thanks, Jonathan.

  • A relevant adjunct to Dr. Latham’s informative article:

    The manufacturers of GM seeds are no longer agricultural corporations, since the world’s largest chemical producing firms bought out the seed companies in order to link their own patented toxic products with proprietary varieties termed “Substantially Equivalent” in relation to the environment, yet Miraculous and Necessary for combating world hunger.

    Is that even possible? Of course not! it’s part and parcel of the most salient characteristic of the Bio-tech Industry: Fraud and Subversion; by co-opting and corrupting public policy and the political process, the mass media and even the research agenda.

    The influence of ill-gotten money in politics is a tough nut to crack under the present system. Getting money out of politics is essential in order to preserve both the world’s ecosystems and the public’s health. (And the negative effects of GM crops on both are what makes the bio-tech industry’s earning ill-gotten).

    Lastly, the fact that the chemical industry forms part of the Military Industrial Complex helps explain their aggressive nature.

    • May I add that it’s important to understand that arguably the biggest obstacle to getting money out of politics is not the politicians or the lobbies, it is the media. That is because the money in politics is spent on advertising.

      • Yes that is true. Never-the-less: Policy decisions are being made by bio-tech industry employees installed in publicly funded positions within the government and many legislators are beholden to the industry also based on the campaign contributions received from that source and this can be dealt with.

        In other words: Advertising can be controlled when demonstrated as being untruthful but otherwise, the bio-tech industry is free to promote their products, to the extent that those products are legal in the first place.

        And THAT is the fault of legislators whose principal concern is remaining in office rather than protecting the environment, the food supply and consumer health. Contributions made to legislators can and should be controlled in order to change the balance of power because at present the desk is stacked against the public interest.

        In conclusions: Getting money out of the marketplace is less possible and harder to justify than removing it from politics and policy formation.

  • I am writing from the UK.
    EU and the “knowledge-based bio-economy”
    I think maybe there is more to be said about this thread. ETC Group mention the OECD here: http://www.etcgroup.org/content/new-biomassters.
    I would like to know more……………
    Independent EU Institute
    I did click on the link (independent EU institute) and it does say the European Commission’s in house science service? Jonathan is probably familiar with the website, but for those of you who are not, here is a link to Corporate Europe Observatory regarding EFSA, the European Food Standard’s Agency: http://corporateeurope.org/efsa/2013/12/efsa-urged-clean-list-public-interest-organisations-0.
    I am going to drop Jonathan a line about Horizon2020 (EU).
    In the UK it is important that we know as much as we can, as the British Government are carrying out a review of EU competencies. Basically speaking the UK Government is pro GM, so what to do?
    Important to try and get one’s head around it all with all the talk of Trade Deals…………
    Report here: http://www.tni.org/briefing/brave-new-transatlantic-partnership?context=70931
    Finally, back to a 2007 cable (assuming the various “leaks” are accurate): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-smith/wikileaks-us-should-retal_b_799271.html.

    • The independent EU Institute is the Joint Research Centre. Theresa is correct that it is funded by the EU. They wanted it to be independent of any individual government. Any funding makes one dependent on someone, though. It is unconnected to the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), though that is also funded by the EU.

  • GRAIN published this article in 2001 on Golden Rice. There are also more recent articles on the website.

    “The marketing of fakethroughs is an important component of a general manipulation of the science media. But interference with the media is in turn only a part of the barely understood but vast web of influence by which the biotech industry meticulously orchestrates the perception of itself (and its products).”

    Vast Network of Influence:
    “In this Briefing, we (GRAIN) look at how the US’s agricultural reconstruction work in Afghanistan and Iraq not only gives easy entry to US agribusiness and pushes neoliberal policies, something that has always been a primary function of US development assistance, but is also an intrinsic part of the US military campaign in these countries and the surrounding regions. Seen together with the growing clout that the US and its corporate allies exercise over donor agencies and global bodies – such as the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centres, which influence the food and farm policies adopted by the recipient countries – this is an alarming development. These are not unique cases born from unusual circumstances, but constitute a likely template for US activities overseas, as it continues to expand its “war on terror” and pursue US corporate interests.”

    • @Theresa, I looked over the GRAIN website. Looks like propaganda, not science based or necessarily reality based… it is extremist. I do agree that agro-biodiversity is important, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t exist with other more productive crops, especially if those crops are providing more nutrition. Rice self pollinates and cross contamination is low because of this trait; it isn’t like the golden rice is going to be grown in the same field with traditional/heirloom varieties….. Even still, in a traditional rice field, cross contamination does occur from related grasses nearby, but that doesn’t threaten the overall variety, no one is protesting against grasses related to heirloom rice varieties. Golden rice is just another tool for us, we are adapting to various challenges.

      Linking an article about golden rice from 2001 is absolutely irrelevant as the golden rice variety has been improved since then, the newest generation of golden rice contains enough Vit A to prevent deficiency with 1 bowl of rice.
      Just because a new rice variety exists doesn’t mean that people will not seek other sources of food. Who wouldn’t prefer a mango or sweet potato to rice? Actually a bowl of mango and sweetened rice together with coconut milk sounds even better! But if people don’t have access to these other foods and this rice is being distributed to these locations through humanitarian efforts (rice without the tendency to rot as mangoes, sweet potatoes, and leafy vegetables do), this can be the difference between blindness that is plaguing hundreds of thousands of people. Blindness from deficiency is linked to Vit A not the other deficiencies that were mentioned in the article…… If these people are in general deficient of nutrition, obviously they lack access to mangoes, sweet potatoes etc. That is a non-solution at this. We may as well list off all the ideal things that they need, it does just as much good as telling the world to fight against efforts to HELP them with golden rice because a variety of nutritional food (that they don’t have) would be better…. So would…. a well functioning government and infrastructure, shall we come up with some more currently unattainable solutions? HOPEFULLY in the future, this will not be the case and over time, development starting from the bottom, historically, thriving societies begin with agriculture and work their way up.
      Yes, modern agriculture is dependent on oil, efforts are being made to reduce that usage and hopefully, considering society in general is dependent on oil, future technologies will support an alternative energy source. If not, then we will be dealing with a complete different world from what we have today.
      Does the argument of an agricultural system that is dependent on oil justify preventing millions of people from receiving nutrition and achieving an independent agricultural system that is successful enough to enable them to have excess crops so that they are not just working to survive?
      From what I have read about the farmers in the Philippines who destroyed the golden rice fields under testing stages was that they were misinformed and funded by Greenpeace who is also held responsible for preventing Bt eggplant. How are these people supposed to get out of poverty if they can’t even produce a crop that gives them excess??? Are they supposed to just wait around, starving, suffering, until the world figures out how to do things without petro?
      I read in one of the GRAIN articles a suggestion to encourage kitchen gardening? That sounds like a cruel joke. I grow food, what you can grow in a kitchen will feed a singe person for maybe a day…. How long does it take for a food to go from seed to being significant enough to harvest? 30-60 and sometimes more days and many foods can not be grown indoors.
      Here are some interesting statistics from Africa where organic farming is the defacto method: Two-thirds of all Africans depend on farming or animal grazing for their food and income, and nearly all of their operations are small-scale.
      Eighty percent of the labor on these farms is done by women and children, in part because it provides so little income for working-age men.
      Agribusiness firms are nowhere to be seen, and chemical fertilizer applications per hectare are less than one-tenth the industrial world average. Insecticides and herbicides are not affordable, so crops suffer pest damage, and the weeding is done by children who would be better off in school. Nobody grows genetically engineered crops because governments in Africa – following Europe’s lead – have not approved such crops for use.
      I suggest reading, “Starved for Science” http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/2008/03/how-biotechnology-is-being-kept-out-of.html

      We have successful GM crops that are tolerant to drought and water salinity and crops that don’t require as much nitrogen. These are traits that are beneficial to 3rd world people and our environment. Yet, articles such as this one on independentsciencenews focuses on failure and even worse, distorts the facts…. either through not reading the article thoroughly enough or being very creative in their interpretation of the article. I wonder how the authors of those studies (Guangwen Tang) would feel about independentsciencenews doing that to their hard work?
      I didn’t want to fact check the entire 8 pages of the article. I imagine it is full of distortions of the facts.
      They obviously assumed no one would bother to read the studies or that they wouldn’t comprehend them.

      • Given the absence of references for so many of your claims, this rhetoric-embedded screed looks more like polemic than material inviting analysis and response. I’ll leave that with you.

        • Jryan, you say that GRAIN is propaganda because it is extremist. What it is really extremist is thinking that small-scale farming is extremist. You may be an expert in Plant Molecular Genetics (as I also am), but it does not seem that you are ALSO and expert in economic reason for hunger. You may think that we need to produce more. But this is totally false, as more food than we need is produced. Even more, you may think that industrial agriculture produces more food than small-scale farming. Well, I strongly suggest you to read this scientific article:


          In figure 6 you may see that agroecological systems produce, in average, 79% more than industrial agriculture.

          If you compare a monoculture system without chemicals or GM crops and a monoculture with chemicals or GM, you sometimes will find advantages of the second model. You also may find more productivity (because it uses the energy of oil, that will not last forever and it will have no substitute), but productivity is not production. And GRAIN is not defending the first model, but a small-scale, agroecological system. Just listen what Via Campesina, the biggest social organization in world, say about economic disadvantages of big-scale and oil-dependent farming. They know it because they suffer.

          Please, get out of the lab for a while and visit these farmers. Stop thinking that you have ‘the responsability of saving the world’ when you do not know why people are suffering. I suggest you to develop a different kind of GM crops… those resistant to free market traits, food speculation, land grabbing, peak oil and so on.

          Before talking about hunger, learn about economy and ecology… and be critical.

      • Jrayn your analysis is trite and well off the mark. Some have covered some aspects of your scattershot thinking but I would just like to point out a few falsehoods and inconsistencies in your attempt at a rebuttal.

        Firstly what GM crops are there which are drought and saline tolerant and require less nitrogen? I Put it to you that these too are of the same nature of crop that the original analysis has debunked.The simply do not exist and if they do they don’t work properly, beyond the hype. We have heard a lot about GM drought resistant maize but how did it feature in the major midwest US drought for instance? My reading of the evidence is that it was a flat out failure. However I also read several other studies of farmers that used proper agronomic science and not only managed to produce viable crops through that drought but thrived, because they cared for the soil, a fundamental basis for good agricultural practice. That is science, not jamming genes in crops. That is technology and misplaced technology at that.

        Further there are now numerous examples of conventionally bred crops such as maize and sorghum, which have been shown and proven to be far more drought resistant and high yielding than any GM crop yet on the market. Sure a GM crop may be produced that may be shown to be drought resistant but nothing on the market stands up to close scrutiny, beyond the hype you and your fellow travellers rely upon.

        Second, re your take on the presence of agribuisiness in Africa, you clearly do not have a clue what you are talking about. There is a major thrust into Africa by big agribuisiness, where companies like DuPont/ Pioneer are heavily and increasingly invested in the market, along with other companies like Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta. There is a major push to control the seed market in Africa by these entities. AGRA works closely with these and other large agro concerns to push intensive agriculture into the area.

        However the yields achieved by any of the seed varieties, anywhere in the world, sold by these companies have not increased anywhere through the application of GM technology. Rather it is only their increased control of the total number of varieties and their ability to tap into and leverage their increased control of this germplasm that has raised yeilds, where they have risen. And they certainly have not risen across the board, no matter how loud they crow.

        Finally your claim that its “articles like this that distort the facts” when it is the sort of trite, shallow, self serving analyses that you have just dished up in response to the article above, which does far more to distort not just the facts but reality. Possibly you simply don’t know what you are talking about (if i grant you the credit of doubt). Or your have chosen to believe the lies and misinformation that the GM industry and the pro GM lobby has been churning out for the last two decades or more. Or, most likely, that you chose to try to continue to hope to repeat the lie so that people will believe it eventually, through its repetition.

        The fact is that your analysis is wide of the mark and fails to stand up to meaningful scrutiny. Here in Africa we have been hearing about drought resistant potatoes and maize and all kinds of crops, about streak virus resistant maize, about inserting genes from the resurrection plant into crops so that they can go into hibernation in drought, etc etc, for over 15 years. And has any of this come to pass? Not a sausage, let alone a viable crop.

        Yet at the same time we have seen extensive breakthroughs with conventional breeding – high protein maize, drought resistant staple crops such as beans and sorghum, rice, and also extremely high vitamin A sweet potatoes and other crops bred from conventional lines. But have we heard about these. Nooo, of course not; much more sexy to rant about yellow rice in the NYT and murdochs rags.

        The fact and reality is that the focus on some sort of GM miracle is a major problem because it takes our eyes off the real ball, which is improved breeding, not just genetic fiddling around the edges. More important are improved agronomic practices. This is the key to feeding not just Africa but the world.

        A century ago we used one calorie of energy to produce 2 calories of food. Today we use around 14 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. This is the model that the developed world is attempting to force on Africa and the developing world. The reality is that energy has become ever more expensive and more importantly, valuable (ie we should not be wasting precious oil and fossil fuels as chemicals and fertilisers). What we need is diverse farming, not monocrop yellow rice or augmented maize or soy. Those are rubbish foods that are making the world more unhealthy. They are the problem, not the solution.

        These crops also yield, at the very most, around 10 tonnes (and more often far less than half of that) per hectare, per annum. Yet we have mixed farming practices in Africa that yield over 25 and even exceed 30 tonnes of healthy vegetable produce per hectare per annum.

        So what do we need – better facts, better agronomy and better food, or more of the same – concentration of farming in large farms, producing unsustainable, unhealthy crops using damaging technology and industry spin an dlies? The answer my friend is self evident.

        So please stop trying to sell us lies and distortions to fill our bellies. We are already satiated with this nonsense. Rather we need to make 2014 the year to call a halt to this insanity.

    • Theresa, Thanks for the link to the Grain article on golden rice. I was surprised to read the pricing arrangements for golden rice in the hands of poor farmers/developing nations in a 2001 article – I had thought they were the result of more recent negotiations. It was also interesting to read the concerns of community organisations in Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh and also the Philippines voice through MASIPAG – “The Farmer Scientist Partnership for Development Inc”. MASIPAG put out a statement fully upholding the action of the Philippine farmers to uproot the golden rice trials in 2013, so they have been involved in this and aware of the PR and media for a very long time. http://masipag.org/2013/09/masipag-upholds-farmers-action-against-the-golden-rice-field-trials/

  • The possibility of golden rice being useful is seeming so remote now that I’m starting to wonder if the delay in finalisation of the project is actually being supported by commercial GM interests. The industry is so adamantly blaming others for the delay, beyond any rational basis, that it takes the appearance of a strategy to keep the focus away from themselves. Was the time spent wrangling over patents really an effort to keep the project alive in the PR sense?

  • It is so great to meet real researchers!! I have been doing my PhD in Plant Molecular Genetics in Spain and I have become really tired of famous researchers talking about saving the world hand in hand with big companies. They say we need to produce more food, which is totally wrong… They do not consider peak oil and oil-dependent agriculture, or agrobusiness practices and logic, or hedge-funds betting on the price of food, or land grabbing… They know nothing… and they think they know everything. This is not Science: this is politics. Metallica said: arrogance and ignorance go hand in hand. Now I understand they were right.

    Thanks for being a spot of light in the dark world of ‘science’…

  • This article is ironic. The Economics of Happiness sharing a huge poorly researched article on the failures of science and investigative reporting. Not feeling very happy reading this at face value. Golden rice, focus on the short comings of the 1st generation of the rice, ignoring the fact that those short comings were overcome and it does provide enough Vit A. There are 2 studies sited, one does state freezing it, but it was for an experiment, it was frozen and shipped from Japan to Boston, then analyzed for nutritional content prior to cooking, then cooked and analyzed for nutritional content AFTER being cooked, then froze again for another shipment to the actual human trial, then it was cooked again! Considering being cooked more than once and still providing enough Vit A, that sounds like success. The other human trial didn’t involve any freezing, it was stored at normal temperature. The other misinterpretation… The subjects were fed, Golden rice, spinach, and Vit. A oil, to compare absorption rates.
    Read the science behind GR on the actual webpage… or just focus on what a failure scientists have been when trying to feed starving blind people.
    I read about the cassava. That story is actually an example of why peer review is important. Once the scientific PEERS attempted to repeat the study and found it to not be repeatable the article was retracted. Other success stories in GM that this article fails to mention have been very thoroughly peer reviewed and those products remain on the market and successful. Not may on the market, but considering it takes over a decade and 100s of millions of dollars to get ONE food through testing and safety approval, it is not surprising we don’t have more examples of success, such as the papaya, corn, soy, canola, and hopefully golden rice can make it over the last hurdles.

    • Hi JRayn
      If we had a comments policy it would disbar sly comments but leaving aside those you seem to have three points
      1) “those short comings were overcome” well, not exactly. Twenty times almost nothing (GR1) is still not much (GR2). And it still leaves degradation and absorption issues under real life conditions, and other issues, unresolved.
      2) “for an experiment”: freezing was justified (you think) because it was an experiment. But it was supposed to be an experiment that showed that GR2 could work in the real world. -70C isnt the real world. The authors and the referees were in error in not highlighting the importance of -70C freezing before cooking steps, in my opinion. But that would have ruined the PR.
      3) My point is that both were -70C frozen after harvesting and before cooking. Again, cooking, refreezing, flying to Boston, microwaving, adding oil/butter, is not how GR is supposed to be used in actuality and therefore these experiments have little value.

    • Hi JRayn
      I left a comment on Golden Rice above on 8 January. GRAIN have several articles on Golden Rice going back to 2001. If you have time you might want to read each GRAIN article on Golden Rice very thoroughly, but it will take you some time. Then if you still feel there is no room for another view point, then I suggest you write to GRAIN and slowly take up each point with them that you disagree with. There are many many NGOs, organisations, large and small community groups and individuals working on food sovereignty, local, sustainability, ethical and ecology issues. Some of these organisations and individuals will also have an understanding of the geopolitics and many years of experience and research behind them. Some of these organisations are doing very good work highlighting the cross contamination and heritage seed issues etc., not to mention the toxic soy issue. You may have not realised it yet, but Jonathan Latham has made some very valid and vital points and he is certainly not alone in his opinion. I also have a contact who has experience of the nuclear industry. With respect, you need to be careful.

      Miki above has correctly commented, “….They do not consider peak oil and oil-dependent agriculture, or agrobusiness practices and logic, or hedge-funds betting on the price of food, or land grabbing…”. I would add the arms trade to this list and more….. All of this can be researched and checked, but it all takes time. You may find of interest the work of Antonia Juhasz and her writing about a company called BearingPoint. I am from the UK. War on Want and World Development Movement are doing some very good work. I would also recommend Mark Curtis’ book Web of Deceit and Linda Polman’s War Games.

    • JRayn, By report, and as shown by other studies the cooking methods didn’t degrade the beta-carotene
      (Tang 2009) “The rice was cooked for 30 min. Our analysis showed that the total amount of Golden Rice b-carotene in the dose was the same before and after it was cooked (0.99 or 1.53 mg b-carotene in a dose).”
      Degradation of beta-carotene seems to be more related to time and susceptibility to oxidation, but that this can be suspended through deep freezing.
      Bunea (2008) reported that beta-carotene in spinach rapidly degraded over three days of refrigeration at 4dC, but was maintained after blanching then freezing over a month at -18dC. This frozen sample was subsequently boiled for 10 minutes and beta carotene was not lost.

      The spinach used in Tang 2012 as the bioavailability comparator to golden rice was not frozen prior to initial cooking (unlike the rice), but instead, shipped on ice.

      In the PR environment golden rice is promoted as something that poor farmers can grow, keep after harvest (over a year) and have their nutritional needs met. This is doubtful if the beta-carotene in the rice degrades over a few days/weeks/months in ordinary grain storage.

  • I have read and am very much aware of GMO pundit and David Tribe.

    I did not want you to reply to me as such, but to GRAIN. Replying to me will not help get the matter sorted, understandings talked through regarding view points etc. You would need to read GRAIN’s more up to date articles, but this takes time and you appear to have given up on them.

    Is it wise to whitewash all the humanitarian issues GRAIN are trying to deal with by using the phrase extremist propaganda, after all you both want the same thing. It is NOT just about the science. You could read up on land grab and domination of the seed market. There are plenty of articles on the internet regarding Golden Rice, with respect, giving different view points, both on the science and on the ethical issues. Generally speaking, there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. You are one of the scientists who believe they are safe, other scientists do not. Other organisations and individuals do not think Golden the best or only solution (as we agree) even on the assumption it is safe.

    The 2001 article of interest to me as I am interested in the companies and organisations involved. Generally, I am very very interested in the political shenanigans and having a level playing field for scientific debate. Political/corporate shenanigans – these DO exist, the Golden Rice example aside.

    Anyway, thank you for taking the time to respond in detail and for looking at the GRAIN site even if you do not like it :-). I will think about the comments you made and I will think about articles I have read with a different view point.

    Here is one of GRAINS longer articles, I have read it several times.
    John Zerzan thinks problems started with agriculture but we won’t go there……….

  • Good website and video informing how the Trade Deals could hinder scientific safety enquiry and regulation and much much more…………

  • Posted Yesterday:


    A wealth of reliable, objective and well documented insights on the reality of what GM seeds signify.

    There is no better source of information on this subject than the the Institute for Science in Society.

  • I am writing from the UK. A friend sent me the below. Does anyone have any comments about the final paragraph?

    “Our main conclusion is that there is a lack of professionalism within EFSA and a lack of awareness on scientific integrity. We have proposed that EFSA should act just as the US environmental protection agency , and put in place a ‘science integrity officer’ whose job is to change the culture at the agency, and restore independent science by involving independent scientists.”


    Corporate Europe Observatory also have plenty of information on their website.

    What do we know about the EPA’s “science integrity officer”?

  • UK
    Dr Mastroneni’s perspective on regulation.
    I wonder what his definition of peer review is?
    In this lecture, Dr Michele Mastroeni (Innogen Research Fellow at University of Edinburgh) discusses the problems and prospects of regulation of genetially modified crops at the European level, examining the actors, structures, and competing interests at play in the process.

    More issues regarding regulation here, MSc programme in Management of Bioeconomy, Innovation and Governance (MSc BIG):
    “This programme had a highly successful first year, with our students undertaking timely and relevant research projects and work placements in the UK and abroad. MSc BIG continues to be a one of its kind programme that draws on current, real life case studies and the latest research findings to prepare students for successful careers in life science industry and policy sectors. There is certainly a continuing need for programmes such as this, particularly as we anticipate how it will link into the Horizon 2020 commitment to the bioeconomy and other bioeconomy initiatives around the world.”

    UK Inquiry
    The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) believes that GM is one of several technologies necessary to foster a “vibrant sector” in UK agriculture. But the European Union’s application of the ‘precautionary principle’ has been criticized for holding back development of the technology, despite European Commission reports finding no scientific evidence associating GM organisms with higher risks for the environment or food and feed safety.

    Further viewpoints
    …Recently, the CEOs of several agrochemical companies sent a letter to the Presidents of the European Commission, Parliament and Council calling on them to stop applying the precautionary principle to risk assessments and start applying the ‘Innovation Principle’, to stimulate economic recovery in Europe…..

    “The food industry must be kept at bay from the risk assessment of its products
    An open letter to Member States to refuse the appointment of food industry lobbyists at the Board of the European Food Safety Autority (EFSA)”

  • This article was mentioned in “Proceedings of the 2014 Summit on Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture,” edited by Bill Tracy and Michael Sligh, Rural Advancement Foundation International, (RAFI); March 2014 (page 122). Good.

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