Viewpoint: The public loses when a ‘prestigious’ journal such as Nature indulges in political activism

On Oct. 10, 2018, the journal Nature publishedOptions for keeping the food system within environmental limits” by Marco Springmann et al.

Here is the summary:

The food system is a major driver of climate change, changes in land use, depletion of freshwater resources, and pollution of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems through excessive nitrogen and phosphorus inputs.

Here we show that between 2010 and 2050, as a result of expected changes in population and income levels, the environmental effects of the food system could increase by 50–90% in the absence of technological changes and dedicated mitigation measures, reaching levels that are beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity.

We analyse several options for reducing the environmental effects of the food system, including dietary changes towards healthier, more plant-based diets, improvements in technologies and management, and reductions in food loss and waste.

We find that no single measure is enough to keep these effects within all planetary boundaries simultaneously, and that a synergistic combination of measures will be needed to sufficiently mitigate the projected increase in environmental pressures.

I won’t comment on it, except to say that it seems to be stating the obvious, at least in regards to the basic principles of population growth and our food supply, although predictions out 30 years should be taken with an appropriate grain of salt. It’s not the subject of this post. My concerns are what appeared to be the slipping editorial standards and a descent into activism at a journal widely considered one of the most prestigious science publications in the world.

The tendentious piece was followed two weeks later by a follow-up letter,Governments should unite to curb meat consumption,” that built upon the above-cited article.

It is signed by a single person: Philip Lymbery, from the University of Winchester, UK, with no further credentials listed. What is his function at the university? What scientific publications has he produced? Google Scholar returns no results.

In fact, he is not a scholar at all. His main occupation is chief executive officer of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), an activist and lobbying organization promoting an end to our current meat production system—what it calls ‘factory farming’—as a means to promote the welfare of farm animals.

farming 12 4 18

Surpisingly, the principal occupation and the organization of the signatory are not indicated.

Additionaly, some 60 to 70 co-signatories are listed in an additional information section. For academics, the list only mentions university affiliation; for others, the city of residence with no organizational affiliation noted. In that list, Lymbery is followed by “Jane Goodall, Bournemouth, UK”. The famed primatologist is no doubt a prestigious person, but does she have the credentials to express herself on food policy in a scientific journal? Goodall has made a name for herself more recently with her suspect ‘knowledge’ of agricultural biotechnology, which she virulently opposes, and which includes writing endorsements for the anti-GMO industry’s leading crank, Jeffrey Smith.

And what about “Dave Goulson, University of Sussex, UK,” whose specialty is bees—and widely known among anti-pesticide activists as a ‘scientist-for-hire’? And “Hans Herren, Millennium Institute, Washington DC, USA”,  a co-organizer of the infamous “International Monsanto Tribunal” masquerade?

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What does this letter mean? The list of signatories raises strong suspicions. But the key message is crystal clear:

…We urge countries to work with the United Nations towards a global agreement on food and agriculture that promotes the adoption of such diets [“more plant-based ‘flexitarian’ diets”], which are more sustainable than meat-based diets and are backed by evidence on healthy eating.

Nature is of course free to set its editorial policy, but are the original article and this letter really about science? I would argue that it’s activism. It’s not about contributing to the thoughts about future policies but about promoting a particular lifestyle and dietary preference.

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This expression of activism is awkward on two counts.

The signatories appear to have no idea of what such an agreement might be. What would it contain by way of provisions, obligations or measures for its implementation?

Long live the global Food Gosplan! Preferably managed by diplomats.

And this call for a global food governance system, if not a form of dictatorship, is ‘supported’ by clichés that are constantly repeated in support of activist agendas. There is in particular:

In industrial agriculture, cereals that are edible to humans are fed to animals for conversion into meat and milk. This undermines our food security: rearing livestock is efficient only if the animals convert materials we cannot consume into food we can eat. That means raising them on extensive grasslands, rotating integrated crop-livestock systems and using by-products, unavoidable food waste and crop residues as feed.

These activist critics are proposing to reinvent the agricultural sciences, but without regard for real world complexities. Because, for example, producing livestock only on “extensive grasslands” has a cost in terms of productivity and sustainability compared to a farrow and finish system. And “rotating integrated crop-livestock systems” means temporarily diverting land dedicated to the production of food to produce feed for livestock.

The future envisioned by the signees—food coercion through agricultural coercion would be marvelous under such a proposal:

Feeding animals exclusively on such materials would greatly reduce the availability and hence the consumption of meat and dairy products, as well as the use of water, energy and pesticides—thereby cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.

This is not the first time in recent years that Nature has ventured into the field of food politics and activism with a letter from Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel, “Risks associated with glyphosate weedkiller resurface.” Nature subsequently turning down a response to these questionable claims (see “Viewpoint: Questioning Nature’s publication of anti-glyphosate letter”).

The journal has now done it again. It is not good for the prestige of this ‘prestigious’ journal Nature.

It’s not good for science either. And that’s a problem.

André Heitz is an agronomist by training and former United Nations system civil servant with the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). He blogs in French

18 thoughts on “Viewpoint: The public loses when a ‘prestigious’ journal such as Nature indulges in political activism”

  1. ” in the absence of technological changes” So the entire piece in Nature is unrealistic. The journal used be have much higher standards based on sound science. Pity.

    • Technological changes? Like GMO crops?
      No I’m being absurd, they couldn’t have meant that, they mean things like “lab meat” right? Vast vats of algae feeding off refuse and absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere (all produced by “natural” breeding techniques of course) whilst peasant farmers in idyllic pastoral fields cut and thresh wheat by hand.
      Yet much of what they wish for could become available, if only they would look at new technologies, farming with little or no pesticides, no till farming, and the already mentioned Lab Meat created by feeding and causing the replication of animal cells under sterile conditions without adding hormones.It seems the far left like to fundamentally change any “win-win” situation they encounter!

  2. I heard the same arguments / discussion when I was studying Agriculture in university in the mid 1960’s.Plant breading and other agricultural technologies including increased atmospheric carbon dioxide continue to increase food production.
    The discussion regarding waste of water in growing food is misconstrued, as an example it takes say 1,000 pounds of water to produce a bushel of wheat. When harvested the bushel of wheat is 12% moisture and weighs 60 pounds. Twelve percent of 60 equals 7.2 pounds of water which means that the remaining 992.8 pounds of water evaporated into the atmosphere only to come down as rain somewhere else.

  3. Nature magazine has gotten really bad lately, and not just on this issue. My latest issue (29 November 2018) had an editorial titled “Beware the rise of the radical right: academic freedom is on the hit list when politicians of the extreme right gain office — as they have done in some European countries.” Here is a quote (comments in parentheses are my own) from the editorial: “Now that the EU governments include parties who do not believe in the rights of people of people from minority groups (huh?!), the consensus on climate change (um… what is this “consensus” — does there exist academic freedom to question any aspect of this?), or, indeed academic freedom (um… as long as you agree with us, you have “freedom”?), it will become more difficult for the EU as a whole to either advance, advocate or protect policies in these fields.”
    The mis-use of science to advance a particular political agenda is chilling… and it permeates most scientific organizations these days. I’ve already canceled my subscription to Science magazine for this reason.
    As to the topic of this article, I’m on an all-carnivore diet and believe the health benefits of this diet to be strong, despite the suspect “science” indicating otherwise.

  4. I can’t see that it matters who wrote and published the article, who wrote the letter or how many not unintelligent people co-signed it. This not a scientific experiment repeatable for verification….this is the future of Humankind and the sustainabiity of the human race. We can’t afford to get it wrong.
    So far as I am aware, and I am no scholar, true science considers all variables and preserves an open and enquiring mind until all of the evidence is gathered and an indisputable conclusion is reached.
    To paraphrase the legendary Jesus of Nazareth: “Beware, blind guides, lest while straining out gnats ye swallow a camel.”

  5. Mr. Heitz, you offer no facts to rebut the facts in the Nature article and the conclusions those facts lead to; instead, you attack Nature because they printed a well researched, independent article that you don’t like.

    I have been following GLP to see if it is a believable source of information. The US Right To Know website had this to say:

    Posted on October 7, 2018 by Gary Ruskin: Jon Entine is executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project and principal of the public relations firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients included Monsanto. Entine portrays himself as an objective authority on science, but evidence shows that he is a longtime PR operative with deep ties to the chemical industry and undisclosed industry funding. He plays a central role in the agrichemical industry’s efforts to promote GMOs and pesticides, and attack critics.

    A 2015 Monsanto PR document named the Genetic Literacy Project as an “industry partner” that could help “orchestrate outcry” against the World Health Organization’s cancer research panel for their finding that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is probably carcinogenic to humans.

    Would anyone care to comment on this? I have now reached my conclusion on GLP and will continue to read articles they provide with the understanding that they are funded by Monsanto, et al with a bias toward them and against independent researchers. I will continue to read GLP articles because they are informative and it is very important to hear both sides of any dispute. Monsanto is not evil . . . it is simply profitable.

    • Monsanto! Monsanto! Monsanto! Is that the best you can do? The Genetic Literacy Project is a 501(c)(3) organization and anyone can see who provides funds to GLP: Let’s see, in 2017-2018:

      John Templeton Foundation: $267,687
      Searle Freedom Trust: $75,000
      Winkler Family Foundation: $165,000
      Center for Food Integrity: $50,000
      Phil Harvey, DKT Liberty Project: $65,000
      Triad Foundation: $5,000
      Individual donations: $7,723.43

      Hmmm, no Monsanto here. Individual donations? Oh, that’s me! I’m just a “lowly” elementary school teacher who gave $100.

      • I was hoping for a more constructive reply than you provided. I too saw the GLP website and am well aware that GLP is a 501c3, est. 2012, and I saw the donation table (ref. wikipedia). Nature Magazine is a British scientific journal published since 1869 with a long list of landmark papers that changed the course of human history (ref. wikipedia). My conclusion is that both publications are worth reading and may or may not have an editorial bias which is NOT reflected in their published research articles. My issue is with Mr. Heitz who does NOT write for GLP but expresses his own opinion and attacks Nature magazine for publishing research that does not align with his world view but offers no facts to refute the article. I am interested in learning and understanding . . . NOT in arguing and preaching. As I said in my post above, I do see value in GLP and will continue to read their articles, as well as Nature articles, but will be mindful of the fact that GLP does post opinion pieces by some who are clearly biased and
        emotional; I will discount those opinions, most notably those of Mr. Heitz unless he has something better to offer. Where do you stand Stuart?

        • I was hoping for a more constructive original comment. You whined about Mr. Heitz not dealing with the arguments in the Nature article and then you mentioned Monsanto four times in what amounts to an ad hominem attack on GLP and Mr. Entine. I’m find glad you still see value in GLP despite your belief it is a propaganda site for Monsanto. Where do I stand? I stand on the side of science.

          • Respectfully Stuart M., I too stand on the side of science, so we should be able to find common ground. I said quite clearly in both my original comment, addressed to Mr. Heitz, and in my reply to your comment that I find GLP informative and will continue to read their articles; that does not constitute an attack. I did quote a post by Gary Ruskin that was critical of GLP, Monsanto and Mr. Entine and asked if anyone had a comment on that since I don’t know Mr. Ruskin or his organization; my thought was that someone might have information that would refute Gary Ruskin’s statement. Your responses are certainly heated in defence of GLP and Mr. Entine but they do not shed any light on the issue of interest to me; to wit, “Is GLP a reliable source of information?” Tentatively, my conclusion is that they are but the passion that I find in the comments section is disappointing.

            Repeating what I said . . . I am interested in learning and understanding . . . NOT in arguing and preaching. Take a deep breath, calm down and read what I wrote once more with the aim of understanding rather than arguing. I think what you are telling me is that you find GLP to be informative and worth reading; it would help me if you would simply say that. Thank you for making an effort to enlighten me but I would prefer that you first try to understand what I said. Have fun today.

          • Yes, yes, you are giving me the Peter Boghossian treatment. “I just want to understand! Now, tell me again…” If you really were a regular GLP reader, you would have looked into its articles on Gary Ruskin and his US Right to Know organization. The USRTK has made it its specialty to harass academics in the biotechnology field by filing FOI requests for all their emails, then misrepresenting conversations in the emails to suggest the academics are somehow in cahoots with agribusiness. The USRTK itself is on the take from the Organic Consumers Association to the tune of $400,000. Gary Ruskin is an anti-science crank who feels GMOs should be labeled because…? They contain DNA? Every food except maybe salt contains DNA. Now see, you have made me waste lots of my time looking up things you really should have already known if you had been a GLP reader for more than a week. But please keep reading here, you might learn something. And please drop the “I am interested in learning and understanding…” phony subterfuge. None of us here became GLP readers yesterday.

          • Oh, I’m a troll now, huh? And all that info on Gary Ruskin and the USRTK I looked up bored you? I wonder why. A troll is someone who comments at a website just to create havoc. A very cowardly troll feigns interest in the subject matter but really has already made his mind up. He wastes the time of the website users asking for explanations that he has no intention of accepting. He tries to keep this trolling going by constantly asking new questions. Well, thank you for stopping so quickly.

    • Dear Mr. Joe Bachofen,

      The above piece is a “viewpoint” and yes, an “attacke” as you put it with a high dose of exaggeration (“criticism” would be more appropriate) on Nature’s editorial Policy.

      The reason, however, is not ” because they printed a well researched, independent article that you don’t like.” It is clearly and unambiguously

  6. The premise of Mr Heitz’ editorial is that science and political activism are totally separate and should remain separate.That is a false dichotomy that is widely used to try to silence voices. Everything is political to some extent, and science should play a role. To even characterize the Nature editorial as “political activism” is a misnomer. The Nature editorial is a ‘review’ based summary of what we know about the environmental impact of the food system now and into the future. To me that seems like a totally appropriate, welcome, topic for a science journal. The defensive tone and flimsy accusations of this GLP editorial raise questions for me about the ultimate aims and integrity of this website.

    • Dear Mr. Sean Feder,

      No, “The premise of [the] editorial — a viewpoint, by the way — is NOT that science and political activism are totally separate. There are enough examples of “science” being straight political activism. To cite two other journals — one having retracted, the other reprublished an article — we were no longer in the realm of science when they published the photos of three rats afflicted with enormous tumors.

      There is a difference between policy and political activism, with a vast grey area in between. Science being put at the service of political causes and programs is good or bad, questionable or unquestionable, objectionable or unobjectionable, depending on the circumstances… and one’s viewpoint.

      Whether science and political activism should remain separate is an interesting philosophical issue, to which there probably is no straight answer.

      Political activism — by scientists — can be expressed in many ways. But the viewpoint that I expressed is clear: scientific journals should keep away from activism.

      AH

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