Is Monsanto on the side of science?

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Is Monsanto on the side of science?

Monsanto says it supports science. And people who support GM say that people who criticize them are against science. But is this true? Claire Robinson looks at the treatment of scientists who study the safety of GM foods.

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Alamy/Custom Medical Stock

Judy Carman (an Australian scientist) decided to study animals eating GM crops. So she asked three GMO companies for some seeds. One company didn’t reply; another company wanted the details of her study first.

Monsanto sent her a legal document. She had to sign it, agreeing to give Monsanto the results of the study before publication. Carman said: ‘It meant we would have to legally do that if they gave us seeds or not. No sensible scientist would agree to this, and we didn’t.’

Scientists who want to find out if a GM crop is safe to eat or if it is bad for the environment need to get GM and non-GM seeds. They need to grow them in the same conditions. So if they find any differences in an experiment, they know it is because of genetic modification (GM), and not because of something else, like different growing conditions.

But Monsanto and other GMO companies do not give many seeds to independent researchers. People who buy Monsanto’s GM seeds have to sign an agreement. This says they will not use the seeds or crop for research or give them to other people for research. And if GMO companies give permission to do the research, they don’t allow publication if the results are not good for them (Scientific American says).

So Carman used similar (“non-isogenic”) crops. And she found toxic effects in the pigs that ate GM food.

The French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini also had difficulty getting seeds for his study of rats eating Monsanto’s GM maize NK603. No farmer wanted to break their agreement with Monsanto. Finally a farm school agreed to grow the crops if they did not say their name.

Nathanael Johnson (food writer) has claimed that GMO companies have controlled who gets seeds since 2009 through agreements with some universities. Carman says these are research agreements to make new GMOs, not to test for safety. And they will not let us see them to see the conditions the researchers work under.

Scientists under attack

What’s the problem if you tell Monsanto about your research before you do it? Scientists studying the safety of GM crops say they, and their studies, have been attacked. They say they are afraid. If they tell Monsanto before they do research, this will help them plan the attacks.

In some cases, scientists who support GMO have tried to force editors of journals not to publish the study. Or to cancel the study after publishing it. In the 1990s the editor of The Lancet said that someone important from Britain’s Royal Society told him he might lose his job if he published the research of Arpad Pusztai (a scientist at the Rowett Institute in Scotland). Pusztai’s research had found toxic effects in rats eating GM potatoes. The editor published the research, but many supporters of GMO tried to say the research was not true. Pusztai lost his job, funding and research team, and was not allowed to speak about his research.

Someone from Rowett said that someone from Monsanto phoned US President Bill Clinton about Pusztai. Clinton then called British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who then called the Rowett Institute.

A Rowett director said the Americans put pressure on Tony Blair’s office. They thought the study would be bad for the biotechnology industry, and Monsanto. Another company, Bivings Woodell, a PR company working for Monsanto did the same thing to against a study in 2001 that found GMO contamination in native Mexican maize.

It is still difficult for independent researchers to study GMO risks. But Monsanto and other GMO companies often do not need to be involved. They have many supporters at universities and institutes to fight for them. Look at these examples.

Gilles-Eric Séralini: In 2012 the French researcher published in Food and Chemical Toxicology a two-year study. It found liver and kidney damage in rats eating Monsanto GM maize and very small amounts of the Roundup herbicide they grow the maize with.

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Gilles-Eric Séralini (second from right) and his team. They found liver and kidney damage to rats fed Monsanto’s GM maize.

When the study was published, university scientists started the pressure. So the editor cancelled the study because of ‘some inconclusive results’.

But David Schubert (professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California) said that this was not a good reason for taking back the study. Another journal later published Séralini’s study.

No-one said publicly that many of the people against Séralini were supporters of the GMO industry. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also criticized the study, but it is not independent: more than half of EFSA experts have connections with the industries they regulate.

Judy Carman: Carman got money from the government for a GMO feeding study. But, in the next 10 years, many scientists who support GMO attacked her. They said she was lying or bad for the university. Carman said: ‘They wanted me to lose my job.’

Carman had to leave two university jobs. She is lucky because she does not need money from a university job, but most scientists do. 'Most scientists need to keep their university job to pay for food and housing, so this would force them to stop studying GMOs.’

Manuela Malatesta: The Italian researcher found that Monsanto’s GM soy was bad for the liver, pancreas and testes of mice. After she published her papers, she says she was forced to leave her job at the university (she had worked there for 10 years). She could not get more money to continue her research.

She said: ‘Scientists cannot research GMOs now. You can’t find money for it... People don’t want to find answers to difficult questions. This is because people are afraid of Monsanto and GMOs.’

Michael Antoniou (a molecular geneticist in London) says that normally, when scientists discover something worrying, they plan more experiments to see if there really is a problem for health or the environment.

But with GM crops and foods, this does not happen. Antoniou says it’s terrible that the GMO industry stop the publications and the scientists. It has never before happened with science.

The business university

Many public scientists and organizations support the GMO industry because they need the money from business. GMO companies have people on university boards and they give money for research, buildings and departments.

Monsanto has given at least a million dollars to the University of Florida Foundation. Many US universities that do crop research get money from Monsanto. Some academic scientists own GMO patents and are part of other companies that develop GM crops.

In Britain, the public institute Rothamsted Research works with Monsanto. People say Monsanto gave money to the Rowett Institute before Pusztai published his study on GM potatoes. Universities are now businesses and scientists are now business and sales people.

Because companies pay, they can control the research, so people only do research that is good for them. The companies develop patented GM crops together with the institution and the institution does research that shows the GM crops are safe. Also, the companies now have many scientists who support GMO.

Is Monsanto on the side of science? The answer is: ‘Only if it can control and profit from it.’ This is against science. Science should be free to study what it needs to.

Claire Robinson wrote (with two genetic engineers) GMO Myths and Truths You can get this free here: earthopensource.org. She is an editor at GMWatch: http://www.gmwatch.org/ – for information about GM crops and foods.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/2015/04/01/monsanto-science-safety/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).