Climate change is real and GM technology is safe, but those in denial want to undermine the public understanding of science with misinformation and pseudo-debate
The authors are former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Barely a week goes by, it seems, without some new attack on science. For years, oil and coal lobbies have orchestrated assaults on climate scientists, while the religious right continues to oppose the teaching of evolution in US schools, questioning the basic tenets of evolutionary biology.
Denialism does its damage by driving a wedge between science and society, undermining public understanding of science with misinformation and confusing pseudo-debate. The effects can be seen not just in climate change mitigation efforts, but in peoples’ health – witness the recent US upsurge in childhood measles concentrated in areas where there is opposition to vaccines. No wonder the latest survey of scientists by the Pew Research Center found scientists increasingly pessimistic about how their work is viewed in the wider society.
In the latest organised attack on science, 14 senior US scientists are being targeted by anti-GM lobby group US Right to Know (USRTK), an offshoot of the failed California GM labelling campaign Yes on 37. USRTK is using the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) to demand access to years of private emails and other correspondence of these scientists, undoubtedly aiming to undermine their credentials and sully their names in public.
As three former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, we know how important it is for scientists to engage meaningfully in societal debates about their work. But we also know how important it is for scientists to be able to speak freely in conducting their work, both publicly and privately. USRTK’s attack is reminiscent of ‘Climategate’, where the release of private emails did immense, unwarranted damage to the reputations of climate scientists. Now the vocal anti-GM lobby appears to be taking a page out of the Climategate playbook.
The facts are clear: the scientific consensus on the safety of foods derived from GM plants is equivalent to that on global climate change driven by human activities. The AAAS has issued statements on both subjects, underscoring that climate change is real and that GM technology is safe. Numerous other learned societies and public bodies have reached the same conclusions and continue to be attacked by science deniers on both issues.
USRTK’s statements are unambiguous – it views any scientist with the temerity to speak out in public on biotechnology as part of “the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry.” Hence its FoIA requests focus on any email exchanges with biotech companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont, as well as other organisations, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Council for Biotechnology Information. These researchers have denied receiving hidden funding from these groups, yet a good deal of damage can be done with private communications quoted out of context.
Ironically, USRTK is less eager to reveal its own agenda and funding. Its website reveals only one donor, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a group that seeks to turn US agriculture 100% organic and eliminate GM crops. It is clearly promoting the interests of the organic food business, now a $63bn (£42bn) dollar industry.
The OCA has a clear game plan – to drive increased sales of higher-priced organic produce by convincing consumers that conventionally farmed foods are swimming in pesticide residues, that GM crops are dangerous, and that biotechnology companies that sell GM seeds are evil. But OCA does not restrict its anti-science activities to agriculture. Its website is also riddled with anti-vaccine misinformation, for example that “it is important to know how to protect your children and yourself with homeopathic and natural alternatives to vaccines to build your natural immunity” and other such dangerous nonsense.
Moreover, OCA’s assertion that we can feed the world organically and without modern technology is nothing short of delusional. We live on a finite planet with a human population of 7.2bn, a number that is increasing by almost 100,000 per day. Our ability to minimise the effects of famine has depended on the application of science and technology to agriculture since the time of the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago. The key innovations have been in genetics and plant breeding, synthetic fertilisers, and farm mechanisation.
A recent meta-analysis concluded that adoption of GM crops since 1996 has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22% and increased farmer profits by 68%. Moreover, the gains were larger for developing countries than developed countries. We need more science, not less, if we are to feed the coming world of 9.5bn in 2050 without further destroying fragile ecosystems and driving more species to extinction.
Hostile challenges to intellectual enterprises such as universities and the people who practice science within them are hugely detrimental to our ability to make rational, evidence-based decisions in free societies.
If we allow ideologically-motivated campaigners to harass and threaten our leading thinkers and intellectual institutions, there will be less progress than we could otherwise achieve. Our civilisation can do better than that. We want to be able to vision a healthy, sustainable and vibrant future. But we can’t get there without science.
Nina Fedoroff is an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State University; Peter Raven is Director Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and Phillip Sharp is Institute Professor in the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology