As the National Research Council (NRC) continues its ongoing investigation into GMOs, the group held a two-day workshop last week to discuss a related issue: how to successfully communicate the science of GMOs to the public. I had hoped that the two-day meeting might be instructive—at the very least to hear the perspectives of the scientists working on this issue—but I also had my doubts.
The organizers of the workshop included staff from the Cornell Alliance for Science, an industry-aligned, pro-GMO advocacy group. The invited panelists included a representative from Monsanto and several pro-biotech academics. The only journalist presenting was Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, who has not been shy about trumpeting what she sees as the benefits of GMOs. And NRC’s organizing body overseeing the workshop included representatives from Monsanto and Dupont.
Nowhere among all of the invitees and organizers did there appear to be a scientist critical of GMOs—no one who was likely to act as a robust counterpoint or to challenge false assumptions. Though there is a lively scientific debate about GMOs, with many scientists questioning the safety and merits of the technology, the NRC seemed to have excluded these voices. And it is difficult to imagine how the NRC could not have foreseen the impact that such one-sidedness would have on the conversation.
The pro-GMO sentiment in the room was definitely palpable at times, as participants devolved into a conversation that implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—framed the problem at hand as how to convince the public to embrace GMOs or how to challenge GMO opponents. I sat and listened as presenters and panelists mischaracterized GMO opponents as vandalizing labs or threatening and harassing scientists. It was notable that these remarks, which grossly misrepresent GMO critics, including many university scientists, went totally unchallenged. Also notable, I did not hear a single mention of the various abuses of science perpetrated by biotech companies, which censor and restrict unfavorable science—and even engage in attacks on the reputations of scientists pursuing unfavorable research.
Many of the invited presenters, including several social scientists, addressed the GMO communication issue through discussing the climate-change debate, where, despite the existence of a “scientific consensus” on human-caused climate change, there remains a highly polarized debate about whether climate change is real. Whether these social scientists realized it or not, the climate-change example plays into the dominant media campaign of the biotech industry and pro-GMO advocates, who have tried for years to claim that a “scientific consensus” also exists in the GMO debate—even as this totally unfounded talking point has been explicitly challenged by hundreds of PhD scientists.
Blogger Keith Kloor, an ardent supporter of GMOs, offers an unfortunately accurate take on the NRC workshop, which he called “excellent,” concluding: “How to reduce consumer anxiety about GMOs? Perhaps this week’s NAS workshop will offer some constructive approaches I can try out with my friends and family.”
It’s not that the workshop was without (a very few) bright moments—there were at least a couple very brief flashes of perspective, such as when Ohio State University Professor Allison Snow broke from the herd and volunteered that public-interest groups have made important contributions to the scientific discourse. But overall, the workshop didn’t feel that different from the dozens of industry-funded agricultural conferences that descend on Washington each year, where GMO critics are ignored or marginalized at best, vilified at worst.
The NRC is supposed to provide independent, objective advice to the nation about scientific issues, but it’s exceedingly difficult to see how last week’s workshop fits into that mission. From my perspective, the event was a big disappointment and a very sizable, very unfortunate step in the wrong direction—a poignant illustration of how easily the discourse on GMOs is distorted when only one perspective is invited to the table.