GMOs And Scientific Hegemony
10 April, 2014
Marc van Montagu, professor emeritus of Ghent University (Belgium), was co-discoverer of the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, and its DNA that caused plant tumours. This discovery was the precursor to technology that today permits recombinant gene technology, also known as gene-splicing or genetic modification (GM), by laboratory-based, artificial transfer of genes across species.
Prof.Montagu, as a scientist and strong promoter of GM for food crops, was recently invited to India by the Association of Biotech Led Enterprises Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), a collective of agro-biotech industrial corporations, to help it push Government of India (GoI) for introduction of GM food crops into India. This piece is a response to statements made by Prof.Montagu in an interview. [Ref.1].
It is necessary at the outset, to note that the constituents of ABLE-AG are giant business-industrial corporations like Monsanto, Bayer and BASF, and domestic corporations like Mahyco, Advanta and J.K.Seeds. ABLE-AG represents its constituents and acts in their best interests to promote agri-biotech business. ABLE-AG was joined by the National Academy for Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) and the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), to pressure GoI for removal of State clearances for projects to research and commercially produce GM crops. [Ref.2].
The interview deals with questions and Prof.Montagu's responses to them. He begins by saying,“I am actually talking to scientists, the rationalist ones, to tell them that people have irrational fears. They should understand that people are irrational” and “live by their emotion”. Here, Prof.Montagu certifies himself as a rational scientist and arrogates to himself the role of deciding which scientists are rational. His scientific hubris goes further to declare that those people who are not among his select group of rational scientists are irrational, at least inasmuch as GM is concerned. This attitude is unbecoming of a scientist. He goes on to aver that “There is no argument against GMOs”, perhaps referring to scientists who agree with him. However, Prof.Montagu cannot possibly be unaware of the substantial body of independent, peer-reviewed scientific research whose results show that industry-sponsored research which has not been peer-reviewed, has serious flaws.
Prof.Montagu criticizes Prof. Gilles-Eric Seralini in his statement, “... saying, like Seralini says, that GMOs cause tumours and create cancer is nonsense. No scientist will agree”. He boldly states that a scientist of the standing of Seralini is talking nonsense, and again that no (rational) scientist would agree with Seralini. Without holding any brief for Seralini, it goes against the scientific temper to accuse another dissenting scientist of being irrational and talking nonsense. Indeed, it is impossible to prove a negative, namely, that GMOs cannot cause tumours or cancer. Prof.Montagu's extreme impatience with views that differ from his own, appears to cloud his scientific training of rational and dignified discussion based upon facts and findings.
More to the point, whereas Monsanto studied rats fed on GMO maize Monsanto NK603 for 90 days and reported nothing adverse, Prof.Seralini's group studied rats fed on the same Monsanto NK603 for a larger number of parameters and noted that the first tumours appeared only after 4 to 7 months. If Prof.Montagu is unaware of this, he is not scientifically up to date (perhaps excusable, considering his advanced age) and should not be irresponsibly accusing dissenting scientists. On the other hand, if he is aware, he must have a very strong reason for rubbishing Seralini and his published work as “nonsense”.
Dr.Gilles-Eric Seralini is Professor of molecular biology in University of Caen (France) and, along with colleagues, has undertaken counter-expertise appraisals of data delivered originally by Monsanto in order to justify the commercialization of three of its GM maize lines (MON 863, MON 810, NK603). The re-analyses by Prof.Seralini and colleagues question the reliability of Monsanto’s data to formally prove the safety of these three GM maize lines, on grounds of inadequacies in methodology, and lack of robustness in statistical analysis. This has clearly angered Monsanto, which has enormous financial resources and trans-continental reach, including a “revolving door” for scientific and policy management appointments with the U.S Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) and the European Food Authority. [Ref.3].
It is known that USFDA scientists had continually warned regulators that GM crops could create unpredictable and hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxin production, nutritional problems, and new diseases, and had recommended that long-term studies were needed to fully assess the effect of GM foods on other crops, the ecosystem, and animal and human health. But the “revolving door” that saw GM-industry scientists, lawyers, influential persons and corporate honchos into the USFDA and back into the industry, ensured that these warnings were ignored. However, Prof.Montagu says that he is “looking for scientific papers that are correct and that are acceptable and that really show that there are problems”. Again here, Prof.Montagu appoints himself as the arbiter of what is “correct” and “acceptable” and what can “really show” problems. It is legend that the GM industry has consistently resisted open and transparent debate, and when confronted with scientific evidence of inadequacy, calmly shifts the goalposts. Sadly, a scientist of the stature of Prof.Montagu appears to have fallen prey to corporate influence.
When Prof.Montagu says, ”The story is that the green movement, which wants to block the GM crops because they get an income from it, ...”, he implies that the “green movement” has a profit-motive agenda in opposing GM crops. If this accusation is accepted for the sake of argument, then Prof.Montagu lays himself open to reciprocal accusation of attacking the critics of GM due to similar motivation, or even being on the payroll of GM corporations. The so-called green movement consists of people including highly qualified scientists, who question the veracity of tests by Monsanto and other corporations on several grounds including withholding vital scientific information on the plea of corporate confidentiality. Much of the research carried out by the GM corporations is carried out within their own laboratories and is not open to third party scrutiny.
With reference to environmental damage, Prof.Montagu attacks GMO opposers thus:“If the green activists say they can work a miracle by going back to traditional methods of agriculture, they are lying. And they know it ...”. This writer has not heard of green activists claiming to work miracles or going “back” to traditional methods of agriculture, except for advocating use of organic fertilizers and pesticides both for healthy food and for reducing input costs. Prof.Montagu, a very senior scientist, has no excuse for using intemperate language in place of scientific argument.
Prof.Montagu, in generous praise of GM technology says, “Oh, the benefit [of this expensive technology] is enormous. Otherwise everybody would be starving if we didn't use chemicals. Why can't we have just organic agriculture? Because there would be no yield.”. Either Prof.Montagu has been badly misquoted, or else he seriously believes that everybody would be starving but for chemical farming, because organic agriculture would produce no yield. The learned professor appears to have been won over by the industrial lobby that sells agricultural chemicals.
Regarding use of chemical 2,4-D, Prof.Montagu says:“If it were not safe, no company would release such a product in the market.”. The learned professor's faith in corporate honesty and integrity is truly touching. Perhaps he is unaware of the fact that safety standards are mostly drafted or dictated by the industry, and some members of industry cover-up non-adherence to even those standards by various means including, to put it bluntly, bribing regulatory officials. Or, with greater “investment”, creating a lobby to get standards changed or policies amended. All this of course, is done only to ensure that the product is sold and profits raked in, and the moneys invested in lobbying etc., are only an insignificant reduction in profits and declared dividends. It is amazing how Prof.Montagu is innocent of the real world outside of his laboratory.
Lastly, Prof.Montagu says: “[Dr.M.S.]Swaminathan has a responsibility not only as a scientist; he also has a lot of political responsibility. He's not 100 percent a scientist.”, because “... he helps the government and advises decision-makers in the country.”. This is the most serious accusation of all and reveals Prof.Montagu's mindset. He seems to imply that having political responsibility and scientific accountability are mutually exclusive. Prof.Montagu appears to think that his own laboratory and work has been paid for by some extra-terrestrial entity, and not by the society of which he was and remains a part. He appears to believe that helping government and advising decision-makers detracts from Dr.Swaminathan's capability and integrity as a scientist. Prof.Montagu imagines that he is himself above such “politics”, even while he advises his Indian hosts (ABLE-AG) on how to enhance their business.
Prof.Montagu's claim to be apolitical simply means that “his science” conforms to the policy of the agency that has funded his work and paid his salary. He seems to assume that “rational” scientists are all honest persons who are single-mindedly engrossed in their task of pursuing knowledge. Such near-sainthood may be present in a very few scientists, but the reality is that the run-of-the-mill scientist is far from this ideal. He/she is a political creature who is not uninterested in promotion or recognition or earning more money. Even if not corrupt in the conventional sense, a scientist cannot produce impartial scientific results when he/she is beholden to a company or the entity which is funding his research or paying his salary. He will sing the tune of his benefactors or those paying for his travel and hospitality. This necessarily impinges on the rationality of his science. Prof.Marc van Montagu cannot be an exception.
1. Latha Jishnu; “GM crop benefits are all in the future”; Excerpts of an Interview of Marc van Montagu by Latha Jishnu; Down To Earth; Vol.22, No.21; March 16-31, 2014; pp.46,48.
2. Jyotika Sood; “Moily bats for GM crops”; Down To Earth; Vol.22, No.21; March 16-31, 2014; pp.9-10.
3. Colin Todhunter; “GMOs, Science And Nonsense: Retracting Seralini's Study”; Countercurrents.org; December 6, 2013.
Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired in 1996 as Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ AG's Branch. He holds a PhD degree in Structural Dynamics from I.I.T, Madras. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA, in international studies. With over 370 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his current area of interest is strategic and development-related issues. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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