Serving science or Monsanto?

Cross posted from Appetite for Profit


With about a week to go before California voters head to the polls to decide the fate of Proposition 37, which would require GMO foods to be labeled, I expected an already ugly campaign to get even uglier.


But the latest gift to the No on 37 campaign smells especially bad. Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS – goes by “Triple A-S”) released this “statement” on GMO labeling that sounds like it was drafted by Monsanto. The statement ends with the non-scientific but very quote-worthy conclusion that “mandating such a label can only serve to mis­lead and falsely alarm consumers.” While Prop 37 is never mentioned, what purpose could the timing serve other than persuading Californians to vote no on the measure?


This paragraph of the AAAS press release sounds especially familiar:


Several current efforts to require labeling of GM foods are not being driven by any credible scientific evidence that these foods are dangerous… Rather, GM labeling initiatives are being advanced by “the persistent perception that such foods are somehow ‘unnatural,’” as well as efforts to gain competitive advantages within the marketplace, and the false belief that GM crops are untested.


These talking points come straight from the No on 37 campaign. For example, “gain competitive advantages”? What does that have to do with science? Nothing, but it’s a favorite refrain from the No side, which I know because it showed up on the mailer sent to my home.


Also, it’s not a “false belief” that GM crops are untested, it’s scientific fact. According to David Schubert, professor and Laboratory Head Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute: “Any statement suggesting extensive safety testing of all genetically modified crops is absolutely false. A majority of the new GM crops coming through the agriculture biotech pipeline have had zero testing done on them.”


Also, Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist with Consumers Union, notes that unlike in other countries, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require safety testing for genetically-engineered plants or foods. He also says the AAAS statement “is filled with distortion and misleading statements. If mandatory labeling of GM foods would ‘mislead and alarm consumers,’ does the AAAS really believe that 60 other countries are misleading and alarming their consumers?”


Just as suspicious for its pro-biotech spin is how the AAAS statement lists other organizations as claiming that GMO foods are safe to consume, using rhetoric that strongly echoes the No campaign:


The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion…


Where did this handy list come from? The No campaign listed three of these four groups – the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences – in the official California voter guide as concluding GMO foods are safe. But in fact, the World Health Organization says that ongoing risk assessments are needed and that “GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” Meanwhile, the American Medical Association favors pre-market safety testing, which the FDA does not require. How did a science organization miss all of that?


But back to the suspicious timing of the statement’s release: who exactly instigated it? The statement says it’s from the AAAS board of directors. Who are they? The board chair, Nina Federoff has an impressive pedigree, including a stint as science advisor to Condoleezza Rice. Curiously, Federoff has been listed as a leading scientist on the No on 37 website since June, where she is quoted as being “passionately opposed to labeling.” Maybe her previous board membership with Sigma-Aldrich Chemical Company helped drive that passion.


And perhaps the anti-GMO labeling statement from AAAS has been in motion at least since June, timed to be released as Election Day neared. Looking over this page of AAAS “policy statements,” others also seem well-timed, but they are on bland issues that warrant little scientific debate. For example, in March AAAS urged the Tennessee legislature to reject a silly bill aimed at undermining science education on evolution and climate change. Other letters appear to take similarly uncontroversial scientific positions or are simply asking Congress not to cut federal funding for science programs.


So the question remains: Why this position right now? Why would such a mainstream scientific organization stick its neck out on a highly controversial issue just days before the election? And how we can trust any future AAAS statements to be based on science, instead of what this looks like: A carefully-orchestrated political and public relations maneuver that puts the AAAS motto to shame: “Advancing science, serving society.” The only interests this charade serves are those of the biotech, chemical, and junk food industries.