Public skepticism is growing over a new report that claims genetically modified (GE or GMO) foods are safe for consumption, particularly as information emerges that the organization that produced the report has ties to the biotechnology industry.
Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects (pdf), released Tuesday by the federally-supported National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, states not only that GMO crops are safe to eat, but that they have no adverse environmental impacts and have cut down on pesticide use. Its publication comes as U.S. Congress—which founded the institution—considers making GMO labeling mandatory on consumer products.
"There clearly are strong non-safety arguments and considerable public support for mandatory labeling of products containing GE material. The committee does not believe that mandatory labeling of foods with GE content is justified to protect public health," the report states.
However, one day before publication, the environmental advocacy group Food & Water Watch (FWW) reported in an issue brief (pdf) that the National Research Council (NRC)—the National Academy of Sciences' research arm—has deep ties to the biotech and agricultural industries, which FWW says have "created conflicts of interests at every level of the organization."
The NRC and the National Academy of Science take millions of dollars in funding from corporations like Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow Chemical, FWW reported in its issue brief, Under the Influence: The National Research Council and GMOs (pdf).
Representatives from those companies—along with Cargill, General Mills, and Nestlé Purina, among other GMO-friendly businesses—also sit on the NRC's board that oversees GMO projects. NRC has not publicly disclosed those ties, FWW said. In fact, more than half of the invited authors of the new report have ties to the industry.
According to the issue brief, not only does the NRC have a history of bias toward the industry, it has also worked to silence critics of GMOs and of the companies that sit on its board.
"While companies like Monsanto and its academic partners are heavily involved in the NRC's work on GMOs, critics have long been marginalized," said Wenonah Hauter, FWW executive director. "Many groups have called on the NRC many times to reduce industry influence, noting how conflicts of interest clearly diminish its independence and scientific integrity."
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The issue brief states:
Weak, watered-down or biased findings from the NRC have a very real impact on our food system. Policy makers develop “science-based” rules and regulations on GMOs based on what the science says—especially what the NRC says, because it is part of the National Academy of Sciences, chartered by Congress to provide scientific advice to the federal government.
And this is where science can become politicized. Companies like Monsanto need favorable science and academic allies to push their controversial products through regulatory approval and on to American farms. Corporate agribusinesses pour millions of dollars into our public universities, play a heavy hand in peer-reviewed scientific journals and seek to influence prestigious scientific bodies like the National Research Council.
Despite these criticisms, the NRC has continued to cover up its connections to agribusiness and the true influence the industry wields over its research.
"Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the NRC is required to form balanced committees of scientists to carry out its research—and to disclose any conflicts of interest," Hauter continued. "Yet the NRC failed to disclose even the conflicts of the members of this deeply unbalanced committee."
In its issue brief, FWW called for specific changes to combat industry influence:
- Congress should expand and enforce the Federal Advisory Committee Act to ensure that the scientific advice the NRC produces for the government is free of conflicts of interest and bias;
- Congress should immediately halt all taxpayer funding for agricultural projects at the NRC until meaningful conflicts-of-interest policies are enforced;
- The NRC should no longer engage funders, directors, authors or reviewers that have a financial interest in the outcome of any of the NRC's work; and
- The NRC should prohibit the citation of science funded or authored by industry, given the obvious potential for bias.
"Agribusiness companies like Monsanto have an outsized role at our public universities, at peer-reviewed journals, and the NRC," Hauter concluded. "We won't have good public policy on new technologies like GMOs until these rampant conflicts of interest are exposed."