Viewpoint: ‘Big Ag’ owns scientists who endorse safety of GMOs? Busting the anti-biotech movement’s favorite myth

| September 27, 2019
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This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

If you follow science news, you’re probably aware of the collection of documents called the “Monsanto Papers” released by the activist group U.S. Right to Know (USRTK). The GMO opponents at USRTK have used these documents, mostly internal company communications, to allege that big biotechnology firms have paid scientists to deny the dangers posed by GMOs and corrupted science in the process. [Read GLP’s analysis of the Monsanto Papers.]

Outside of the activist world inhabited by USRTK, however, this is just a fabricated conspiracy. While it’s true that big companies wield influence in the scientific community, they haven’t tried to corrupt science—and they couldn’t even if they wanted to.

Scientists as rebels

Historically speaking, scientists have been  stubborn, independent people, who share a willingness to rebel “…against the…local prevailing culture,” as the renowned physicist Freeman Dyson argued. On top of that, the majority of scientists are politically progressive. According to the Pew Research Center, 55% of U.S. researchers label themselves liberal, another 32% call themselves moderate, and neither group is especially fond of corporations. The story is the same in Europe; scientists across the Atlantic lean left, as well. Most importantly, almost 60% of researchers in this field have no financial relationship with industry.

big ag 1 5 18 2The activists at USRTK want you to believe, then, that a constituency of rebellious liberals with no financial incentive has nonetheless been bought and paid for by Monsanto (now owned by Bayer). While that might make for a good movie plot, a more reasonable explanation is that scientists, despite their dislike of corporations, know that biotechnology has made our food supply safer and more sustainable so they don’t attack the companies that develop transgenic crops.

Industry still answers to regulators

USRTK’s conspiracy theory also tells us that government regulatory agencies have been captured by industry, and thus no longer restrict the activity of big companies as they should. But you could also reasonably argue that some agencies have been captured by anti-biotech activists.

For example, the European Union may ban glyphosate by 2022—a safe, effective herbicide that’s been used for 40 years, and has been paired with transgenic crops since the mid 1990s—despite protest from farmers’ unions, industry lobbyists and European scientists. Moreover, GMO crops are strictly regulated in Europe, to the point that the EU has “a de facto moratorium on GMO approvals.” The same restriction applies to crops developed with CRISPR and other new breeding techniques. This is obviously not the work of gigantic companies like Bayer, whose profitability hinges on their ability to sell seeds to farmers.

Related article:  EU health commissioner: Anti-vaccine, glyphosate 'conspiracy theories' threaten Europe with 'new middle ages'

big ag 1 5 18 3The reality is that regulators are extremely critical of big business, because activist groups like USRTK have convinced EU officials that transgenic crops are somehow dangerous. As plant geneticist Kevin Folta told me during a recent interview, European regulators are so adamantly opposed to GMOs that biotech companies have given up trying to get approval for their new seeds in many European countries. This scenario is possible because food safety regulators and activists share a common ideological framework, so their goals are very similar.

The organic industry tried to buy science—and failed

If any industry has tried to buy itself some scientific credibility, it’s the multi-billion dollar organic industry. Through their lobbying groups, this cadre of powerful corporations, has paid scientists to publish research with predetermined conclusions and recruited apologists in the media to promote this activist science in the public square.

But these attempts to manipulate policy makers and the public have met fierce resistance, primarily from the scientific community, which went on the offensive when big organic tried to pay off a few fringe researchers in their ranks. If scientists were for sale, the organics industry should have been able to pull it off without too much trouble. The fact that they were caught red handed is a clear indication that scientists have more integrity than activists claim.


So while USRTK continues to allege that a corporate conspiracy is corrupting science and poisoning the world’s food supply, a mountain of evidence tells us that literally the exact opposite is true. Scientists aren’t for sale; they never have been and their work is making the world a better place.

A version of this article previously ran on the GLP on January 18, 2018.

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s senior agricultural genetics and special projects editor. He is a science writer and podcast host. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

This article originally appeared at RealClearScience as Corporations Have Not Corrupted Science and has been republished here with permission.

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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