Scaring people and challenging consensus science is a big business in the GMO skeptics movement. Fringe outfits like Joseph Mercola's eponymous site—"the World's #1 Natural Health website"—and Mike Adams at Natural News are convinced they can drive traffic to their alternative medicine and conspiracy websites to buy 'natural' cures and bogus 'alternative' products. Nothing infuriates them more than when a highly respected science or medical organization appears to side with Big Ag.
It's a favorite meme among anti-GMO activists: research that supports the GMO safety consensus (or reporting about research on science-based sites) is dismissed as corrupt and untrustworthy if any of the funding came from agribusinesses or if the authors have (or have had) a relationship with any corporation. Phrases like "shill for Monsanto" or "you're bought and paid for by Big Ag," are commonplace in social media, particularly among anti-GMOers and conspiracy sites, and versions of these comments show up on anti-corporate leftist blogs.
They've made their way into the mainstream media. One egregious but a familiar example of a media outlet supposedly 'exposing' scurrilous agribusiness influence over research is a UK Daily Mail story from 2014 titled: "Scientists' hidden links to the GM food giants: Disturbing truth behind official report that said UK should forge on with Frankenfoods."
The almost hysterical report—accompanied by a Greenpeace mocked up picture of actors in hazmat tending to crops—centers around a report by an independent science advisory council to the British Prime Minister that urged the government to fast-track GM foods. One of the authors, it turns out, worked for a time for the respected Sainsbury Laboratory, which supports biotechnology research. Another helped found an organization that actively promotes GM research. A third was a consultant to Syngenta. Shills all of them!
Ironically, the Daily Mail built its story around the condemnatory words of Claire Robinson, one of the driving forces behind the anti-biotechnology, who is a co-managing editor of GM Watch—which is heavily funded by the organic industry. [Read GLP's profile of GM Watch here]
“By no stretch of the imagination can these people be described as independent scientist. Their views should be treated with the same skepticism we would apply to any sales pitch," said Robinson. Robinson also manages the website promoting the research of Gilles-Éric Séralini, whose work supposedly documents the dangers of GMOs and was largely financed by an Australian based homeopathy company, Greenpeace, the anti-GMO UK Soil Association, and the US-based Rodale Institute. [Read GLP's profile of Rodal Institute here]. A number of activist organizations funnel money to Robinson, Séralini, and other scientists and websites via an obscure US NGO known as the Sustainable Food Alliance (SFA).
Meanwhile, in North America, University of Florida researcher Kevin Folta still battles vicious and often libelous conflict of interest accusations because his university accepted a $25,000 "unrestricted gift that was never used, but donated to a campus food pantry."
While Folta was being hammed on social media by activists, the leading spokesperson for the organic industry, and the author of numerous articles sharply critical of crop biotechnology—Charles Benbrook—saw his anti-GMO conclusions widely promoted in the US and global media. The GLP and other organizations subsequently uncovered Benbrook's funding history. For years, his work at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) at Washington State University was funded entirely by organic industry contributions, including from Stonyfield Organic, United Natural Foods, Whole Foods, and the Clif Bar Family Foundation, according to emails obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by the New York Times. That affiliation ended in the spring of 2015, when his contract was not extended.
We live in an era in which government and corporations are not held in very high esteem.It has become acceptable for journalists to dismiss the credibility of research in which funding was provided by a corporation—unless the industry has a providential halo like the natural or organic sectors. The GMO debate is suffused with such concerns. So it's fair to ask:
- Does industry funding of crop biotechnology research result in less credible findings than when the government or non-profits supply the research dollars?
- One of the pillars determining the credibility of research findings is whether the data can be replicated. What's the experience so far?
- What happens when "independent" researchers and industry scientists research the same or very similar questions?
The conflict of interest debate in science research has been ongoing for decades. In fact, as the chart below shows, the role of industry funding for science-related research and development has increased steadily since the 1950s.
Because of the increasing costs and time to commercialize a new genetically engineered product—an estimated 13 years and $135 million for each trait—most of the next generation transgenic products will likely only reach commercialization if they are developed by deep-pocketed corporations that can afford to fund the research. (Universities and governments could emerge as more viable funders if regulatory controls are streamlined or gene editing of plants and animals, which does not involve the transfer of foreign genes, ends up being lightly regulated.)
Scientists are divided on the issue of whether industry funding necessarily compromises biotech research. According to research, however, there are few indications of systemic bias. Agricultural scientists who interact with the public are under an enormous amount of scrutiny, within the university and by the public, which makes indiscretions less likely. And conflicts are often just as likely to 'corrupt' so-called independent researchers as corporation funded research. Any sources of funding and ideological identifications—among NGOs, non-profits, other civil and governmental organizations—may engender conflicts of interest and biases that influence reported research. Powerful biases may also arise for many non-monetary reasons, including an investigator's desire for notoriety or a strong ideological belief—Séralini's and Benbrook's research come to mind.
We were able to find only one peer-reviewed study on the GMO funding controversy, with the authors finding no evidence of bias due to financial conflicts of interest. They did find bias associated with professional conflicts of interest—at least one author was affiliated with a company that could have benefitted from a study's outcome. A separate independent analysis also suggests that industry funding has not biased studies on genetically engineered crops.
In the published debate over food industry funding of public health research that focused on sugary foods, the British Medical Journal in April 2016 carried responses from Oxford University behavioral medicine professor Paul Aveyard and Vitality Institute leader Derek Yach debating University of Bath public health professor Anna Gilmore and public health and University of Liverpool policy professor Simon Capewell. Aveyard and Yach argued that in many science domains, industry researchers are the only ones during applied research who are coming up with products that can be commercialized.
Supporting a role for industry funding, Aveyard and Yach said:
It would be absurd for health policy researchers to shun collaborating with the food industry. But working with the food industry inevitably involves accepting its funding, in kind at least. In many cases food industry and health goals clearly align and co-funding in kind or through direct payment from industry is appropriate.
They also argued for transparency and a Chinese wall between the corporate funders and the scientists:
Independent researchers should be responsible for design, conduct and analysis of the research and not the company. …Direct payments from the food industry…require strong safeguards to avoid bias and the appearance of bias: researchers should have no commercial interest in the product, payments should be made to the organization not the researchers and should reflect the cost of the research.
Arguing against industry funding, Gilmore and Capewell believed that the inherent conflict of interest was often too high to surmount:
Corporations are legally required to maximize shareholder profits and therefore have to oppose public health policies that could threaten profits. …diverse industries with products that can damage health have worked systematically to subvert the scientific process. The research they fund produces unique favorable outcomes.
Concurring with Aveyard and Yach, they see a potential role for corporations going forward.
We need more radical funding models that allow corporations to fund research while protecting that research from their influence. Dedicated manufacturer taxes, license fees or legally mandated contributions are most likely to maximize transparency and minimize conflicts of interest.
Pressures on researchers
Other issues beyond the source of funding can also bias scientific research, among them:
- Clinical trial results aren’t always published, especially when they are negative. This type of publication bias has plagued science long before the debate on funding sources, and some journals are starting to look at ways to publish more negative, refuting studies.
- Research that shows 'no harm' are less likely to be published. Journals, like newspapers, thrive on controversial research conclusions. When researchers who believe a substance might pose an ecological or human safety issue discover otherwise, there is often diminished interest from the researchers to publish, and often less interest from journals.
- Government funding for science is competitive, and often goes to university researchers who are under pressure to “publish or perish.” Pressure to "find something" is intense. Tenure, promotions, and opportunities for more funding can depend on the number of papers published, the status of the journal doing the publishing, and the reception the paper received. This can result in the publication of marginally negative findings, which can be misinterpreted as revolutionary.
- Stanford University epidemiologist John Ioannidis’s well reported 2005 paper, "Why Most Research Findings are False,” examined a wide number of factors behind why so many journal articles turn out, after publication, to be inaccurate, including methodological flaws in the research; researcher’s desire for meaningful (aka, positive and therefore well publicized) findings; and a desire for professional advancement that leads some to selectively interpret data; and of course financial conflicts of interest.
Séralini's GMO research clearly highlights all of Ioannidis' factors.
While food and agricultural industry funding may heighten concerns of bias and provide fodder for the ongoing debate over food and technology, there is no evidence that corporate funding itself has contributed to systemic misrepresentations, errors, fraudulent results, or bias. As with any scientific endeavor, the data matter most.
It's also not clear that most of the research to date on GM crops has been funded by industry, as activists claim. A public database of research tells a different story. The resource is the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA). The results, represented on the graphic below jointly developed by Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI) ( an independent tax-exempt non-profit) and the Genetic Literacy Project show that independent peer-reviewed research on GMOs is common, conducted worldwide—and based on a random sampling of the available studies (more than 2500), more the half of the research on GMOs has been government or university funded:
Out of the first 400 randomly-selected studies available in the GENERA beta test, half of them were funded entirely by government agencies and independent nonprofit organizations. And the government-funded research is worldwide in scope—concentrated in Europe and Asia, followed by North America and Australia. These findings should turn the heads of people who reflexively believe biotechnology research is dominated by corporate US-based laboratories.
Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and nonprofits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.