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The fall of Gary Hirshberg: From reformer to reactionary anti-science propagandist?

, | July 20, 2015

I knew Gary Hirshberg when he was a leader in social responsibility. This article is in part a letter from me, Jon Entine, to a man I once admired greatly.

Hirshberg, if you are not familiar with his name, is the chief benefactor and head of Just Label It, which champions labeling of GMOs and misleadingly insinuates that GM foods could pose serious health and environmental problems.

NOTE: The Genetic Literacy Project has a detailed Biotech Gallery profile of Gary Hirshberg HERE.

Hirshberg made his fortune as chairman and former president of Stonyfield Organic, which produces a variety of signature organic dairy related products, and is one of the pioneers in the natural food movement. When we first began talking in 1993, Hirshberg’s reputation extended beyond the nascent organic market: He was a leader in what was then called the “corporate social responsibility movement,” which included a group of outspoken young business leaders pushing the edges of ethics in business; brash entrepreneurs such as Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, and Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, and the newly emerging promoters of “ethical investing”. They represented the early core group that helped launched what today is called the sustainability movement, and it’s now entirely mainstream. Good for Gary.

In 1993, I stumbled across startling information that one of the stalwarts of “social responsibility,” Anita Roddick, was anything but responsible. Despite her soaring rhetoric about enabling women and helping the “third world” and running her company based on ethics and love, her Body Shop was an ethical and financial mess. As I chronicled in a series of articles, Roddick had stolen the name, catalogues, price sheets and product lines from original The Body Shop—an independent collection of five San Francisco area stores that preceded her company by almost a decade (and which later successfully sued Roddick for theft, reaching a multi-million dollar settlement to allow Roddick to use the name and product lines she stole).

Roddick was a shell of ethics from the start. Her ‘natural’ products were made from cheap petrochemicals; it underpaid its mostly female staff; its claims of helping indigenous people through fair trade, turned out to be almost entirely a marketing sham, and its network of costly franchised stores, sold mostly to idealistic women, turned out to be a Ponzi scheme, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in closures and franchise-fraud suit settlements. I chronicled the hypocrisy in numerous articles (if you’re interested in The Body Shop saga, read about it here; here is a social audit). Body Shop’s fall from grace is now featured in business ethics textbook case studies.

Hirshberg’s demand for evidence

Which brings me back to Gary Hirshberg. When I first began investigating Body Shop, I went to Ben Cohen and other “leaders” of the socially responsible business community to share my findings, sure that they would be as outraged as me at the abuse of our idealism, this betrayal of progressivism. But Cohen and many other “ethical” leaders encouraged me to scuttle my findings. “These revelations could kill the business ethics movement,” I was told Cohen had said after he had read my privately circulated social audit of the company.

But not Gary. “It’s sad, for Roddick and for the movement, but your research speaks for itself,” he told me in one of numerous phone calls. “You can’t suppress it. We were caught napping. We accepted her at her word, and she just lied. Facts are facts. We, as a movement, have to be able to work our way through this hypocrisy, and publicly cleanse ourself, if we are worthy of being called a movement.” Good for Gary. I published the article, Roddick and her empire began crumbling, Body Shop’s franchisees, employees and trading partners saw their lots transformed for the better—and the social responsibility movement recovered.

Over the years since I had grown to respect Hirshberg and his moral strength so much that I later featured him in a cover story, for the magazine Ethical Corporation, in 2008. As I wrote to open that story:

In the early 1980s, Gary Hirshberg, then an environmental activist and author of a book on wind-powered water pumps, launched with a friend a school in New Hampshire to teach sustainable agriculture. Reflecting the values of many young people of his generation, the pair wanted to change the world.

Responding to Will Saletan’s Slate investigation

Where has that enlightened, evidence grounded, ethical, idealistic Gary Hirshberg gone?

I am writing this because of Gary’s ludicrous (that’s an understated and, yet, appropriate word for it) response to Will Saletan’s analysis of the consistent mendacity of anti-GMO activists. Hirshberg posted a response to the article on Slate’s comment section, which I reproduce in full, because it cries out for a response.Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 10.55.34 AM

Hirshberg always claimed to be to be evidence based—he certainly was in 1993 and 1994 when he endorsed my research on Roddick’s Body Shop—so his response to Saletan’s meticulously documented article is nothing less than shocking: It’s intellectually lazy and ethically challenged. He basically repeats virtually verbatim a liturgy of timeworn and long since discredited anti-GM myths.

I reviewed Hirshberg’s claims along with Bruce Chassy, professor Emeritus of Food Safety and Nutritional Sciences from the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; he served as the assistant dean for Science Communications in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and was head of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois from 1989 to 2000.

From whom we seek advice, expert guidance, and evidence is critical since it determines what we believe. A review of Hirshberg’s comments here and in prior statements suggests that he has been listening not to voices of established, independent scientists but to ideologues more committed to a cause than the truth. It’s the exact opposite of the position he took with me more than twenty years ago. Concerned by this distortion of the science, Bruce Chassy and I decided to write this open letter and critique of Hirshberg’s views with the hope of prompting a genuine dialogue–based on the most robust independent science by the best scientists at the world’s most prestigious science organizations.

Hirshberg Point 1

Factually not true.

If Hirshberg is making the point that no, we didn’t put 10 humans in one box and feed them non-gmo foods, and 10 in another box and feed them GM foods for a lifetime to see if there were any longterm effects, then he has a case. But that’s now how food studies, on GMOs or anything else, are done or can be done. Keeping in mind that expert panels like the National Academy of Science and the Royal Society (UK) among many others around the globe could not identify any new or different risk associated with GM foods, one has to question just why Hirschberg or anyone else would ask for long term studies if it was not intended simply to mislead and scare less expert audiences. Good studies start with a scientifically reasonable hypotheses. Feeding humans or animals GM foods for long periods of time just to see what happens is exactly how not to do a good experiment. Safety scientists rely instead on careful studies of any changes in composition, nutritional value, and allergenicity among others; these studies cost 10s of millions of dollars and take years to complete. It is disingenuous to suggest that proper studies have not been done.

What has been done?

Hirshberg claims there have been no government or independent studies into the long-term safety or impact of GMOs. In fact, there have been more than 1,000 peer-reviewed, published papers from independent sources on GMO plants involving their human, animal and environmental safety and efficacy. The European Union, which nobody can claim is in the pockets of the GMO industry, has conducted extensive reviews—hundreds of them—and found GMO plants to be safe.

Here’s the press release from Biology Fortified’s launch of GENERA, in which they discuss the prevalence of independent GM crop research.

Our guess is he’s trying to turn on the issue of “long term.” In the science community, 90 day studies of rats are considered long term. That said, there have been more than 50 studies of longer than 90 days, up to two years, (Genetic Literacy Project provides examples here.)

and only ONE in a prominent peer reviewed publication—Séralini’s withdrawn study later republished without peer review in a pay for play journal—suggested any possible issues. But even the Séralini study found no direct concern about GMOs. If you analyze his own data the only significant finding was that female rats feed the herbicide glyphosate, sometimes used in tandem with some GM crops, lived longer than other groups.

Also, we have almost 20 years of data monitoring animals who have been fed GMO feed since 1996. Absolutely zero issues of unusual problems despite several trillion meals and hundreds of billions of animals. If there were any issues, they would have shown up in the monitoring before and after data: here.

Note that Hirshberg doesn’t address the fact that the consensus of the science community is that GM foods are safer than conventional/organic foods because of the extensive safety testing, particularly on the issue or allergens. (Would peanuts or kiwis be approved if they were the result of GM? Never because of high prevelance of allergy causing proteins, but they get a free pass in our current system that regulates GMO crops more than conventional. Check out this Boing Boing article on conventionally bred, poisonous potatoes. It’s the a good case study for illustrating how unbalanced the scrutiny is on GM crops as FDA doesn’t review conventionally bred plant.

In 2004, a National Academies panel on the unintended health effects of genetic engineering reported that conventional potato breeders continue to try to increase the amount of solanine produced by the leaves and vines of their potato plants in hopes of making those plants more naturally pest-resistant. Because of that, the USDA actually has a recommended limit for solanine content of new potato varieties — but that limit isn’t strictly enforced. Gould’s point isn’t that genetic modification is always better than conventional breeding. It’s not. Instead, they’re both tools — imperfect technologies that could produce unintended side effects. Which one you choose to use depends on what you’re trying to do. But, either way, you can’t say that one is scary and one is safe…

As Thomas DeGregori wrote in 2004 – an organically produced and bred zucchini plant turned out to be poisonous…

year ago in New Zealand, there was an outbreak of food poisoning from a “killer zucchini” that hospitalized a number of people. Environmentalists jumped all over the story until it was determined that the culprit was “organic” zucchini….  The more vulnerable “organic” zucchini was genetically inferior because of inbreeding. They expressed dangerously high levels of the toxin curcubitan. Had this been a transgenic plant, we would be hearing about it ad nauseam, but being that it was “organic,” it was quickly consigned to an Orwellian memory hole….
 

A conventionally bred celery (and cucumbers) which made their way to market without scrutiny by FDA were found to be so toxic that they caused dermatitis and rashes on the farm workers who handled it: here and here.

Related article:  Viewpoint: How anti-glyphosate activists deny science when debating the herbicide's safety

Hirshberg Point 2

Factually not true.

The FDA does only a cursory review of these studies?

The FDA review process take multiple years and involves transparent public review and comments prior to approval of any GMO crop.  None of Hirshberg’s organic products undergo any such similar scrutiny and they aren’t required to be mandatorily labelled – and likely Hirshberg and his organic allies demanding mandatory GMO labeling would oppose such mandatory identity tracking of organic foods. There is of course no testing or tracking of 3,000 foods/crops modified through mutagenesis. Here is an article by Nathanael Johnson in Grist that addresses, and dismisses, Hirshberg’s deceptive claim. Geneticist Val Giddings also addressed this in detail in public testimony on the Connecticut labeling bill.

Setting aside the fact that the FDA review process involves the FDA interacting with the developer for several years which gives them an opportunity to direct the developers safety studies in order to answer FDA’s scientific questions before a formal review starts, it’s worth noting that these same products approved by FDA also pass rigorous multi-year mandatory reviews in Japan, Korea, Australia, Canada, China and dozens of other countries. It’s is misleading to suggest that FDA just gives them a quick pass. Actually it’s a lie.

Point 3

Factually not true.

The first thing that needs to be said to this point is that companies regularly provide new GM products for independent testing. The only thing researchers have to agree to is that they follow all the containment and safety procedures that apply to GM crops and that they not plant them commercially nor pass them along to other researchers and growers. Companies also require that the researchers they provide samples to have no conflicts of interest, are qualified to do such studies, have a track record of publishing good science, and have no obviously disqualifying anti-GM bias. It should come as no surprise that companies are reluctant to provide experimental material to critics who distort the truth about their products.

Independent tests are also done by researchers in countries that require the government or selected labs to independently verify the developer’s’ claims. As noted above EU has published hundreds of papers on GM safety. As a consequence there are literally hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies that wholly confirm the studies submitted by developers of GM crops. All of these studies required access to GM products; the same products that Hirschberg claims are not available for independent study. And, in spite of the qualifications laid out in the paragraph above, there are a few dozen papers published by anti-GM researchers—often sponsored by anti-GM groups or companies that stand to profit from anti-GM propaganda—that have obviously had access to GM products with which to do flawed studies.

Farmers choose to agree to tech use agreements when they buy software, farm machinery and many other products they use to improve their operations. Such agreements allow companies to recoup their development costs over time and make technology more accessible to farmers at lower costs. This would also be the case for the software, machinery and other investments used to run Hirshberg’s multi-billion dollar organic businesses and farms, it would be interesting to see him try to run his empire without access to such technology. Indeed, Stonyfield has strict language about anyone using their proprietary intellectual property on their own website. Google “Stonyfield” and “licensing agreement” to see the numerous use agreements they have with various partners. Do intellectual property laws only apply for organic companies?

Hirshberg Point 4

There are many things that consumers may wish to know. The FDA mandates that manufacturers provide basic information a consumer should and sometimes must know (identity, size, ingredients or contents, nutrition facts, and who to contact if there is a problem). All other information such as kosher, organic, vegan is voluntarily placed on products by manufacturers to serve specific consumer preferences and markets. In this regard a consumer wishing to avoid GM foods can do so by purchasing any of the more than 25,000 products labeled GMO free or, alternatively they can buy any organic product.

Hirshberg makes no rational case for mandatory labeling because giving people choice is not his objective. The leading anti-GMO activists that Hirshberg stands arm-in-arm with at public events and in written articles claim to support a “right to know” but that is a lie, and Hirshberg knows it. Here is a an infographic (pdf here) put together by the Genetic Literacy Project, with actual quotes from “right to know” advocates caught off guard being candid about their true intentions:

img-glpentinerighttoknowinfographic_091152119539
Click image for larger version.

Gary, what’s happened to you? What’s disconcerting is the cavernous and still growing gap between the fact driven Hirshberg that we used to know and the mess of an argument that you now present in your case against genetically modified foods. You do not sound like a reasoned and wise CEO—the Hirshberg that was a leader in corporate social responsibility—but a shrill propagandist. A reactionary. Smart people, ethical people, socially responsible thought leaders have the courage to change their minds when presented with the evidence.

Genetic modification is one tool in farmer’s tool box. Don’t demonize it. Join with the American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, European Commission, Royal Academy of Science and more than 100 of the world’s most prestigious independent science organizations—and every major liberal media outlet in the United States—in standing up for science rather than for Gilles-Éric Séralini.

Gary, other thought leaders in the environmental movement have closely examined the evidence on GM crops, looked closely at the science, consulted the world’s top scientists and ultimately changed their views: Patrick Moore, Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand and most recently Bill Nye. That took courage and ethics.

Gary would you be willing to engage in a dialogue on these issues? Talk to independent scientists? Discuss the issues with others who have been open to empirical evidence?

Please contact us.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter

Bruce Chassy, professor Emeritus of Food Safety and Nutritional Sciences from the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; he served as the Assistant Dean for Science Communications in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and was head of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois from 1989 to 2000. Follow him on Twitter: @BruceMatthewCha .

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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