Anti-GMO leaders withdraw from Great Biotech Debate

The Forum will go on.

By Jon Entine. Republished with permission from the Genetic Literacy Project.

Over the weekend, the cartoonish ‘March Against Monsanto’ played out in many cities across the United States and the world, invariably to small crowds—although the organizers and anti-biotech NGOs did their best to claim inflated numbers in an attempt to garner headlines.

One of the biggest disappointments for organizers was in foodie central, Denver, where an estimated two hundred people (organizers had predicted 5,000) turned out to hear anti biotech author and activist Jeffrey Smith rail against Monsanto.

That’s the same Jeffrey Smith who earlier last week withdrew from the planned “Great Biotechnology” debate scheduled for June 4 at the CATO Institute in Washington, DC. The event was shaping up to be a genuine first—a civil discussion between pro-science advocates sympathetic to the role of biotechnology in food and farming and dedicated opponents who believe transgenic foods are a violation of nature and harmful to humans and animals.

Smith, if you’re not familiar with him, founded an organization known as the Institute for Responsible Technology. He’s written two anti-biotech self-published books and produced a documentary narrated by the wife of Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose show he has appeared on numerous times to rail against Monsanto and crop biotechnology.

Oz often characterizes Smith as a “scientist.” However his employment history reflects no formal training in any aspect of science, let alone biotechnology. Keith Kloor, who writes a respected blog for Discover, refers to him as a prototypical purveyor of pseudo-science. “He is the equivalent of an anti-vaccine leader, someone who is quite successful in spreading fear and false information,” Kloor writes.

As Kloor notes, Smith’s Wikipedia bio seems a fair representation of his cult following and importance among anti-GM campaigners:

A variety of American organic food companies see Smith “as a champion for their interests”, and Smith’s supporters describe him as “arguably the world’s foremost expert on the topic of genetically modified foods”. Michael Specter, writing in The New Yorker, reported that Smith was presented as a “scientist” on The Dr. Oz Show although he lacks any scientific experience or relevant qualifications. Bruce Chassy, a molecular biologist and food scientist, wrote to the show arguing that Smith’s “only professional experience prior to taking up his crusade against biotechnology is as a ballroom-dance teacher, yogic flying instructor, and political candidate for the Maharishi cult’s natural-law party.”

FrankNSmith

Oddly, no rash showed up on Jeffrey Smith’s hand after holding Frank.

The director of the Organic Consumers Association says Smith is “respected as a public educator on GMOs” while “supporters of biotechnology” have described him as “misinformed and misleading” and as “an activist with no scientific or medical background” who is known for his “near-hysterical criticism of biotech foods.”

Organizing opposites

When I was putting together this panel, Smith was clearly the perfect choice to represent the “other side.” After all, in controversies, you don’t get to choose your opposition; the public does that for you. For whatever reason, Smith has become wildly popular among the antis, and his books—however dubiously written and sourced—are cited as canon by rank and file protestors.

Despite his questionable reputation among serious scientists (he is often referred to in conversations with top geneticists as a ‘scam artist’) over the course of the months planning this event we talked many times. I found Smith to be engaging, witty, and in his own way very smart. I too wondered if he was a huckster, cashing in on his new celebrity; I can say, honestly, I found him nothing if not sincere. At every step along the process, he demonstrated integrity. I believe his understanding of science, risk and genetics are frighteningly thin, but I don’t believe the misinformation he is spouting is entirely calculated. I like him to this day, and hope at some point we can re-engage in a civil and open discussion.

Smith and I are communicators, although of two very different kinds. As we were planning the event, we agreed it would be best to bring scientists into the mix. He opted to recruit French professor Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen, whose paper released last fall claiming that rats fed Monsanto’s genetically modified corn developed multiple cancerous tumors turned him into a global celebrity among anti-biotech campaigners. The anomalous study was savaged by mainstream scientists and rejected by every major independent research organization in the world that reviewed it. It was rife with methodological problems and obvious ideological biases.  Nonetheless it has become a poster child for “GMOs will kill you” and Monsanto conspiracy theorists. Seralini, who agreed to join us via Skype, was the best the anti-biotech campaigners had to offer.

Gilles-Eric Séralini, as depicted on his activist fan site run by Claire Robinson from GM Watch.

To counter Seralini, I originally recruited Anastasia Bodnar,  who has expertise in plant genetics, biotechnology, and sustainable agriculture. Most notably, she is co-director of the non-profit Biology Fortified, a site popular among young sustainability-focused scientists, geneticists and food experts. She previously was a Presidential Management Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, and currently works at the USDA.

However, because of a work conflict, she had to pull out. On short notice, I recruited a more than capable replacement in Kevin Folta, Interim Chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. He’s published two seminal texts on genomics and dozens of articles, and actively engages biotech issues in public. Like Bodnar, he is one of an emerging group of post-ideological scientists who understand the constructive potential of biotechnology.

Smith pulls out; Seralini follows

The debate began to unravel just two weeks before the scheduled event. Smith objected to the unexpected substitution of Folta, who is an active online presence, engaging and debating campaigners and carefully laying out counter, science-based arguments. Smith immediately balked at the substitution. According to Smith, Folta had “crossed the line” in some criticisms of him, although he didn’t provide any examples. His nerves clearly jangled, Smith ultimately decided he was not comfortable with Folta, and said he would not debate. He then said he had too many commitments, and could not prepare for the event even if he had wanted to. He then promptly flew off to Denver to address a relative handful of fellow anti-Monsanto conspiracy theory protesters missing out on the opportunity to talk with tens of thousands of people through this Internet streamed debate.

Seralini’s withdraw was equally messy. After Smith’s decision, he suddenly decided that my previously published criticisms of his studies were “libelous” and that he would never be involved in a debate with me. In fact, I had posted a number of articles in Forbes about the Seralini Affair seven months ago; he was well aware of those, as he had reference them in communications in the weeks prior to his pullout.

Kevin Folta: Kryptonite for Anti-GMO Activists.

Why the sudden turnaround? Seralini sent a torrent of bizarre notes, saying he would not debate Folta because he was not a toxicologist and only a toxicologist would fairly review his work. Folta, of course, is a prominent plant geneticist that reviews and edits scholarly work across disciplines.   The Great Debate was never going to focus entirely on Seralini’s controversial study; it was about the future of food and the farm. But the hubristic French scientist apparently had been expecting to turn the debate into the Eric Seralini Show; when he finally realized he’d have to debate science—and the broad issues of biotechnology and world food security—he panicked and withdrew.

It’s only a guess, but I believe Folta scared the bejeebers out of him. Folta is a dogged defender of science, with a nuanced understanding of the benefits and the challenges that accompany this powerful but complicated technology. He’s not afraid to go on the web or into public hornet’s nests to make the case for science.

Folta and I, with CATO’s support, are committed to going on with the public event. We will present both sides of the issue—in fact we will go out of our way, for the sake of a vigorous public discussion, to “make the case against biotech crops.” This is a discussion worth having.  Stay tuned for updates. Please do check out the event on Tuesday, June 4, 2:00-4:00 pm Eastern Time. It will be streamed live on CATO’s site as well as on the Genetic Literacy Project.

(Editor’s Note: The Biofortified Blog will be covering the details of the Cato Forum and announcing how you can watch in person or around the world.)

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

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13 comments to Anti-GMO leaders withdraw from Great Biotech Debate

  • Ute Lehmann

    Monsanto abuses and is abusing chemistry, now Monsanto starts to abuse biotechnology. Finally Monsanto harms farmers and mankind. Thats my opinion: Yes to biotechnology but no to Monsanto.

  • If I’m not mistaken isn’t Seralini…. not a toxicologist? Does this make him unqualified to comment on his own work? The mind boggles.

  • What a shame. Why don’t you consider having an open ended discussion with questions at the end of the debate, ie to allow comments from the public? I for one would have a few questions/statements: (1) what is the risk assessment model for biotech crops, including the risk factors? Is the risk assessment model appropriate to protect the environment and human health? What kinds of toxicity testing is being done on GM crops? In particular long term chronic studies? If none, when are they likely to happen? If none, why are we putting the horse before the cart? How big is biotech research (economics?) How much funding of GM research falls into public funding vs private? Do you think private funding creates any kind of bias? Why do we allow private research companies to hide their research behind IP laws? We need more independent regulation of this kind of research. Would biotech companies be prepared to drop gm technology in favour of more publicly acceptable technologies? Are there any? Do you think researchers now believe they have no option but to continue with gm technology considering the amount of money(?) already invested? Seralini–an interesting fellow. He’s no lightweight is he in the scientific community? 52 papers; long history. While he’s research has been ‘savaged’ there appears to be no retraction of his work? My understanding most of the ‘savaging’ of his (recent) research came from his use of a certain rat breed. One letter to the editor regarding his most recent work, however, (Heinemann) points out that Monsanto used this breed of rat in its studies? I’m not sure what time this will be streaming in Australia but if I can I will listen in, just to check on impartiality :) Oh and next time why not look further afield for ‘opponents’? This is a world wide debate. Maybe this recent research will help you balance your arguments particularly with regard to risk assessments http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412013000494

  • Susan, that’s exactly what we will be doing. You can send in questions during the debate using the hashtag #gmodebate, and we will try to get to them. Jon Entine

  • Andre

    Séralini is a professor of molecular biology.

    He has no academic or other credentials in toxicology.

    And by the way he claims to have been « an expert since 1998 for the French Government, the European Union and more recently for Canada and India » (backcover of Ces OGM qui changent le monde, Flammarion, 2010). He is not.

    He has been a member of the French advisory committees on genetic engineering from 1998 to 2007.

    As regards India, he claims to have written an opinion for the Supreme Court. Fact is, he wrote it for Aruna Rodrigues, the main petitioner in the brinjal case. The last sentence of his paper reads: « This critical review of Mahyco’s data on Bt brinjal is commissioned by Greenpeace ».

    And, by the way, he also « embellished » his resume with the International scientist of the year 2011 award, a bogus certificate awarded by a company named International Biographical Centre of Cambridge, England, for some US$300-400. And he took quite some time to take it down from his CRIIGEN website (« to avoid useless polemics ») and off his resume.

    « Seralini–an interesting fellow. » Oh yes! And there is much more…

    « 52 papers » ? It’s not one, but more than one of them which have been « savaged ».

    If he believes he can fool people with an honorary degree scam, does’nt he also fool them with his « science »? In fact, it has been demonstrated that he fooled the Indian Supreme Court; and you do not need any degree to understand.

  • Susan

    If you are truly interested in the truth, perhaps you can promote the idea that biotech firms such as Monsanto change their current contract to allow health testing of their products? Currently, it prohibits any research.. We need valid, independent studies.

    This should be against the law.. (pardon the text, that’s how it copied from the pdf.)

    “Gro w er ma y no t pl a nt and ma y not tra n sfer to o t hers f o r planti n g a ny Se e d t ha t th e Growe r has produc e d co nta i ni n g pa t ented Mon sa nto T echnolo g i e s fo r crop breedi n g, re se arc h , o r g ener a tion of herbicide r egistrat i on data. Growe r may no t cond u c t resea r ch on Grower ‘ s c r op p r oduced f r om Seed ot h er t h a n to m a ke a g r onomic compar i sons an d con du ct yie l d test i ng f or Grower’ s own u s e .”

    http://thefarmerslife.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/scan_doc0004.pdf

    • Jonathan

      Susan,

      the text you quoted says “Grower may not conduct research on Grower‘s crop produced from Seed other than to make agronomic comparisons and conduct yield testing for Grower’s own use.”

      It doesn’t say anything about allowing health testing of the GM crop. Only that the Grower wouldn’t be allowed to do it.

      On the contrary Monsanto do allow 3rd parties to evaluate their products. They even have a section of their website devoted to “The myth about controlling research” http://monsantoblog.com/2012/09/06/the-myth-about-controlling-research/

    • Loren E

      Yes Susan,
      You do raise some interesting questions above. I would suggest you start with the GENERA tab above to see what is being done. Then check the AllergenOnline site out of the University of Nebraska. Hundreds and hundreds of studies, some probably better than others, but none with the fanfare of the Seralini work. This guy, like Smith, is a master of science by press release. He agreed to pre-release his work to selected reporters as long as they did no fact checking. So all the gory pics hit the press BEFORE the scientific community could assess the work. See Arjo et al., Transgenic Research, (2013) 22:255-267 for some comprehensive ‘savaging’. This group of scientists are the real heavyweights. Seralini is to science what Geraldo Rivera is to investigative reporting.

      • Why didn’t Arjo et al make their paper open access? People are just going to shrug their shoulders and say “whatever, can’t access it.”

        • Andre

          Very easy to fetch. It’s here :

          http://www.ask-force.org/web/Seralini/Arjo-Plurality-Opinion-Scientific-Discourse-Seralini-2013.pdf

          People who would shrug their shoulders… would not even try to fetch it.

          But I agree, the paper should have been made open access as a matter of public interest in restoring scientific sanity.

          « He agreed to pre-release his work to selected reporters as long as they did no fact checking » ?

          The confidentiality clause included a penalty threat of… some 3 million Euros (the alleged cost of the experiment)!

          « …gory pics »? Scientists – but not « ordinary » readers of press releases and press articles – will have noticed that, contrary to good scientific and editorial practices, in short, ethics – there is no picture of a tumor-affected rat from the control group. So it is not just « science by press release », but science by tabloids.

  • They had not counted on the awesome power of Folt-ron!

  • It looks like the so called March against Monsanto yesterday has turned out to be a bigger disapointment.

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