By Tim Schwab
In a recent article about Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s future political prospects, Vilsack discussed his hope that the 2016 presidential election will offer an opportunity to initiate a national science-based debate on key public policy issues.
“On the right you have climate change deniers and on the left you have people raising issues about GMOs,” Vilsack said. “And the science doesn’t support either one of those positions.”
Vilsack nails the climate change talking point, but misses the boat on GMOs. His statement is not only factually incorrect, it is also a shameful parroting of talking points from biotechnology giants like Monsanto. In reality, unlike climate change, there is no scientific consensus on GMOs, and much of the evidence that the biotech industry and its advocates use to promote the consensus myth is spurious, inaccurate and, well, unscientific. There are, in fact, many scientific issues with GMOs, and there are many expert scientists—hundreds, in fact—who have said as much.
You may also notice another big problem in Vilsack’s comments. He is not actually calling for a science-based debate on GMOs. By saying that there is a consensus on GMOs, he’s saying the debate is over.
That’s an especially odd position given that new science continues to emerge about the risks associated with GMOs. In March, the World Health Organization determined that Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, the use of which has skyrocketed with GMO crops that are engineered to be sprayed with it, is probably carcinogenic to humans.
But more troubling than Vilsack’s efforts to quash the public debate on GMOs are new allegations that he is overseeing censorship of research produced by USDA scientists that is unfavorable to corporate agribusiness. The whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a legal petition last month documenting damning examples of USDA subjecting its scientists to:
“Directives not to publish data on certain topics of particular sensitivity to industry…
“Orders to rewrite scientific articles already accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal to remove sections which could provoke industry objections…
“Summons to meet with [USDA] Secretary Vilsack in an effort to induce retraction of a paper that drew the ire of industry representatives”
Tellingly, the only company mentioned by name in the petition is Monsanto.
Secretary Vilsack sits atop the largest public agriculture research enterprise in the United States—and one of the largest such research organizations in the world. The USDA spends hundreds of millions of dollars on research each year, which, in theory, should be making food production safer and more sustainable while also helping farmers and consumers. But too often we see that USDA’s research agenda is geared toward empowering and enriching corporate interests, seldom challenging or questioning risky and unstudied industry products and practices, like the use of GMOs.
The allegations that the USDA is censoring unfavorable research echoes the many documented cases where public university researchers have had research censored at the behest of biotech companies, which exercise enormous influence over science through the millions of dollars they pour into university research programs.
The biotech industry also pours millions of dollars into politics, including $572 million in the last decade lobbying congress and funding political campaigns. Industry’s deep pockets buy pro-industry regulations, friendly government administrators and, according to the new whistleblower allegations, influence over government science.
At a time when states across the country are calling for mandatory GMO labeling and new science is emerging showing problems with GMO crops, Vilsack’s industry talking points are woefully out of step with American consumers and also American voters, who will weigh in on the presidential ticket next year.