Drawing on more than two years of Food & Water Watch research, The New York Times has published a damning account of the conflicts-of-interest culture that pervades the National Academies of Sciences’ (NAS) work on GMOs.
The Times notes the deeply one-sided panels of scientists that the Academies convenes to author its GMO reports, many of whom have undisclosed financial conflicts of interest. It also describes a troubling revolving door of staff between the NAS and the biotechnology industry.
This story validates years of Food & Water Watch and other advocates’ efforts to expose NAS’s far-reaching conflicts of interest, which introduce bias into science and also policy making—because the federal government uses taxpayer-funded NAS research to develop “science-based” rules and regulations.
The Times story should spark a Congressional investigation into the NAS and prompt the federal government to avoid utilizing any scientific advice produce by NAS about GMOs. Just as important, it should shape how we view the larger scientific discourse on GMOs, which has long be very heavily influenced by the biotechnology industry—at public universities, academic journals, or prominent non-profit groups.
In the summer of 2014, Food & Water Watch began documenting the outsized role that the biotechnology industry was playing in the NAS’s work on GMOs. We noted the deeply one-sided panel of scientists that NAS had recruited to author a new GMO report, many of whom had industry ties. “If industry is going to have a seat—or a surrogate—at the table,” we asked, “why don’t farmers and consumers have a champion sitting across from them?”
We provided substantial documentation to NAS and asked that changes be made, but got no response. As the NAS project progressed, the group held a one-sided workshop on GMOs organized and overseen by pro-GMO organizations, including Monsanto and DuPont (who, it was later revealed, also funded the workshop).
In early 2016, the NAS initiated a second GMO project, again lead by a panel of scientists overwhelmed with industry perspectives. Once again, Food & Water Watch provided the NAS with documentation about undisclosed conflicts of interest and asked that NAS make changes. Shortly after, 39 academics and public-interest groups signed on to a letter sent to NAS that echoed Food & Water Watch’s complaint, offering a withering critique about the “troubling trend of one-sidedness at the NRC that jeopardizes public trust.” This time NAS responded, but only to say it didn’t think it had a problem.
In May of 2016, NAS released a major new GMO report whose top-level finding, widely broadcast by the media, was that GMOs are safe. The day before the report’s release, Food & Water Watch issued a 10-page report documenting NAS’s structural conflicts of interests—including the millions of dollars it receives from biotech companies like Monsanto and DuPont, whose representatives sit on institutional boards overseeing GMO projects.
Most recently, in July, we uncovered damning evidence that an NAS project director was applying to work for the biotechnology industry group at the same time he was overseeing a GMO report at NAS, which prompted the New York Times story.
This isn’t the first time this narrative has appeared in the Times, and it’s sad that the NAS would repeatedly subject itself to this kind of public embarrassment rather than simply doing the right thing. In failing to address its ethical lapses, the NAS telegraphs a message to the scientific community that conflicts of interest don’t matter, when very clearly they do.
The NAS would be wise to take this opportunity to become a leader on conflicts of interest—and to start to produce the objective, independent science that the world desperately needs on the topic of GMOs.