Cornell Faculty Refuse to Defend GMO Crops

by Jonathan Latham

by Jonathan Latham, PhD

Who would have thought that at Cornell University, arguably the most highly regarded agricultural university in the world, no scientist would speak for the benefits and safety of GMOs?

Perhaps I should have known, however. Last year I was invited to debate the merits of GMOs at Colby College in Maine. Also invited were food activist Jodi Koberinski, Stephen Moose (University of Illinois), and Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science and prominent advocate of GMOs worldwide. Soon after Lynas heard I was coming, however, he pulled out of the debate.

It’s not the first time. Most memorably, in 2001, I attended a court case in which the British government abandoned prosecution of two of its citizens who had pulled up GMOs planted for a scientific experiment. The government preferred to lose the case rather than have the science of GMOs inspected by the judicial system. The defendants were duly and unanimously acquitted, with the judge describing them as the kind of people he would like to invite to dinner.

This avoidance of public debate is part of a pattern and the reasons are simple: in any fair fight, the arguments for the safety and benefits of GMOs fail.empty-chair

As I have discussed elsewhere, there are strong scientific reasons to doubt the safety of GMO crops. The arguments against them are not limited to the dramatic increases in pesticide use they have engendered. GMOs also created the massive and dangerous consolidation being seen in the agriculture and seed sectors and have greatly reduced options available to farmers. Remarkably, they even yield less.

Most recently, the scientific literature has yielded new concerns over the predicted widespread use of a new generation of GMO crops resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D (Lurquin, 2016). These crops resist the herbicide by breaking it down into a known toxic metabolite called 2,4-DCP and other derivatives that probably remain in the crop until harvest. As the paper states:

“Unfortunately, much reduced phytotoxicity does not necessarily mean that2,4-D resistant crop plants are safe for consumption. Indeed, 2,4-DCP is cytotoxic to a variety of animals and animal cell lines.” (Lurquin, 2016).

In the final analysis, almost everyone loses from GMOs, except the makers themselves. These harms are often hidden or obfuscated, but in an unbiased debate they cannot be. Proponents of GMOs thus find themselves defending the indefensible and sometimes they collapse into blustering idiocy.

What makes this event particularly noteworthy is that Cornell University is the home of the Cornell Alliance for Science, an organisation funded by the Gates Foundation and by agribusiness to the tune of $5.6million. The purported mission of the Cornell Alliance is to explain the science underlying biotechnology and GMOs. Yet the Alliance has refused to offer a speaker despite numerous requests from Robert Schooler the student organiser of the discussion. Neither, despite numerous direct emails, was Robert able to find Cornell faculty prepared to defend them. So he asked the Dean of its College of Agriculture, Kathryn Boor. She declined to find someone—though she “wished him luck”. Much the same applied to other notable public GMO proponents (Karl Haro von Mogel [of Biology Fortified] and Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project). This usually vociferous duo initially accepted subject to funding. When it was offered they backed out.

The Invitation: From Kevin Folta’s blog (Sept 26)
The Invitation: From Kevin Folta’s blog (Sept 26)

Anticipating some of this reluctance I reached out to Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer and publicist-in-chief, and to Mark Lynas, who has a position at Cornell, and to Kevin Folta via his blog. Kevin Folta is the go-to travelling academic of the GMO industry. Folta didn’t respond but Lynas said he was abroad. Promoting GMOs perhaps? The only Cornell academic who did respond positively was Joe Regenstein of the Food Science dept. However, his conditions (no “debate” and to request the moderator) were declined by Robert Schooler. Robert Schooler also did not want only one speaker on one side.

So will anyone debate Michael Hanson (of the Consumers Union) and myself at Cornell University on October 5th at 7pm in Anabel Taylor Hall? If you are reading this and have a PhD in a relevant field and wish to defend GMOs we hereby invite you. And if the Alliance for Science, funded by the Gates foundation, can’t find you travel money I am sure we can. Otherwise, the debate may constitute GMO talking points read out by cardboard cutouts. Bill and Melinda Gates may even consider they are entitled to demand their money back from the Cornell Alliance. Or they may just infer for themselves that GMOs are indeed indefensible.


Lurquin P. (2016) Production of a toxic metabolite in 2,4-D-resistant GM crop plants. 3 Biotech 6: 82. doi:10.1007/s13205-016-0387-9

Correction: this article previously implied that Karl Haro von Mogel works at the Genetic Literacy Project. This is not the case. He is at Biology Fortified.

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Comments 13
  • This unwillingness of pro-GM scientists to debate on the scientific evidence relating to GMOs reminds me of the public hearings held in the United Kingdom during 2000-2002 about whether AgrEvo’s (AgrEvo later became Aventis and then became Bayer CropScience) GM maize ‘Chardon LL’ should be placed on the National Seed List. It was the first GMO to be so considered in the UK. Many scientists and other experts gave evidence against listing, but the only people who were in favour were from AgrEvo — and they were all lawyers!

    Another incident indicates that Monsanto employees do not trust the safety of their own crops. Jeffrey Smith, a high-profile American campaigner against GM crops, spoke on a televised programme in the United States. Also speaking was someone from Monsanto, who made it a condition that Jeffrey must leave the platform before she begins. When the chairman asked her whether she feeds her children GM crops, she replied only that she gives them the highest quality food. This was not a clear answer, so the chairman pressed her again and again, but the reply was always the same in slightly different words.

    Another example of mistrust by Monsanto employees came around 2000: an article was published saying that many chefs were avoiding the use of GM crops in their restaurants. Greenpeace added one more establishment to those: Monsanto’s own cafeteria! The cafeteria had to stop serving GM foods because the employees did not want to eat them.

  • The empty chair photo takes this blog post to the next level LOL

    I’m not too worried about K Folta and others complaining, would want better debaters anyways 😉

    I’m more concerned about how Cornell Alliance for Science members, whose sole job is to promote and defend GMOs, refuse to debate the issue on their own campus. I don’t recall them having a problem spreading lies when it was just me in a classroom of 100+ calling them out. Once the real scientists show up, they back down.

    Thank the stars for Jonathan Latham and Michael Hansen!

  • Thank you for writing this, Jonathan. The sequence of events in the past week has been very illuminating. When putting together an academic debate or panel discussion, particularly for a classroom environment, it begins with honesty, transparency, and respect. None of that has happened here.

    First, you claim that I was invited and agreed to participate. This is a lie. I have not in any way accepted an invitation to debate on October 5th, pending funding or otherwise. Therefore the statement that I “backed out” is also a lie. Four days ago when you initially made claims on twitter about me, I made it quite clear that I had made no such agreement.
    If perhaps you have been misled and were not paying attention, I invite you to retract and apologize, leaving that apology up in perpetuity everywhere you have published these claims.

    Robert Schooler threw around a lot of “invites” to debate in his “course” on social media. I received one such “invite” from Robert on facebook on September 17, saying he does not have money to pay for travel, which makes that a non-starter. Fast forward to Monday, September 26, I received a second “invite” from Robert, this time promising funding from an un-named source, and with one week to go before the event in question. I did not say no to it, but asked for a detailed email invitation to answer specific questions about the format, speakers, and funding. None came.

    When you are asking someone to take time out their schedule and travel thousands of miles to participate in an event, you need to be prepared to provide this information. Ironically, the post you invited Dr. Folta on in a comment was about transparency, yet no transparency occurred on your end!
    His response:

    Apparently, multiple simultaneous invitations were sent out on Monday the 26th of September for a “debate” on Wednesday, October 5th, through the most peculiar channels imaginable. These “invitations” were not made in good faith, and were intentionally sent through side channels at the last minute to preclude participation, and to try to stir up controversy to advertise the event. This behavior shows a deep disrespect and an unwillingness to engage in honest dialog.

    Despite such bizarre antics, I have still not rejected the offer to come and participate in a discussion. My request for a detailed invitation still stands, and it appears that I may have an opening in my schedule in November which could accommodate traveling to Ithaca. It also seems that the lecture series schedule says “TBA” on November 16th. If I receive a real invitation by email, I will take a careful look and likely come back with specific and reasonable requirements. It may take a few emails to hammer everything out. This is over a month away, so if dialog is truly what you desire, you know what to do.

    • I will forward this message to Robert Schooler. Hopefully something can be done. I should also add that the purpose of this article is to highlight the behaviour of Cornell faculty and the Alliance for Science. Potential debaters from out of town were invited “in extremis” when it became apparent that the Alliance was not likely to participate.

    • You keep misleading everyone Karl.

      I fully admit it was short notice when I officially invited you with funding. Remember before, I promised to contact you as soon as the funding was ready? I did so.

      Remember, we’re only doing this (contacting you, Jon Entine, and Folta) because Cornell Alliance for Science refuses to defend their claims they espouse to undergraduate students in an actual debate. This is the real point of this article. You and Jon are just a passing mention.

      You did deny my offer for October 5th, despite claiming otherwise. This is totally understandable given the circumstances. If you are willing to come out for November 16th and debate Jonathan L one-on-one, particularly regarding the nuts-and-bolts genetics aspect of GMOs, be my guest. I don’t know how much more detail you need. We’re not trying to trick you or anything, I just want a real GMO debate on campus. You claimed Jonathan was wrong ages ago, and I immediately gave you the chance to defend your claims, either via video interview (free) or in-person debate (subject to funding).

      Again, apologize for the confusion, and truly no hard feelings, Hope you can understand we waited as long as possible to get a Cornell faculty on board, as this is the whole point of this project. Still waiting for you to post just one article critical of Monsanto on your Biofortified blog. The evidence is ample enough for you to do so. Can’t wait till you join my cause in fighting the subversion of science for corporate gain. Best, Robert

  • I love this. You invite me to a discussion days before it is happening by a cryptic invite in an old blog. It shows how you guys roll, and is a great beacon for those that are trying to understand who to trust. You are deceptive non-transparent trolls, and I love it!

    It shows the underhanded, non-transparent, deceptive means you use to harass legitimate scientists and try to fool the public.

    We have a hurricane coming to Florida that might cancel my previous appointments. If that happens, I might join your debate by skype, I’m glad to do that if my obligations erode.

    I’d love to be there in person. I can’t possibly do that on a day’s notice. That’s a really weak move you guys. Very weak.

    If you want to see how I debated Hansen before, just google “Folta, Hansen, Hoffstra, debate” That was one of the easier victories.

    Plug me in via skype. I’ll be glad to discuss the issues.


    • The invitation to Dr Folta read: “Dr Folta, We have organised a panel discussion on Oct 5th at 7pm to debate GMOs. However, no one at Cornell University has yet come forward to present the pro-GMO side. As a regular speaker and PhD scientist you would be perfect. Please come if you have time in your schedule. Thank you. Jonathan” [Date Sept 26]. Readers can judge for themselves whether that invitation is “old” or “cryptic”.

    • Tu quoque, tu quoque

      The name-calling is so unbecoming.

  • The problem is, that there are already too many people on this earth. Growth of human world population:

    By 2050, the problem overpopulation becomes critical. Then we won’t have enough food worldwide. Another reason for this problem is global warming. Therefore, scientists have been trying to solve this problem with genetically modified foods. But gen manipulation also has its limitations. What comes next? “Soylent Green”? Within the next decades natural food will become more and more expensive. Especially poor people will be forced to buy cheaper GM foods. We still don’t know how this will affect the human body.

    Unfortunately, scientists are concerned only with the effects of the overpopulation. But it’s always better to worry about the causes of a problem. Some countries in Asia and Africa have already recognized this problem, and they have been trying different things to slow down the growth of their population: mass abortions, financial incentive and laws. But mostly without mentionable success. So what shall we do? Wait until overpopulation and lack of food are the reasons for a new world war? You certainly know this famous quote of Einstein:

    ‘I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.’

    I believe, nobody wants to live on a destroyed and radioactive planet.

    I am ready to help.

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