Bioethics, Scientific Research and the GMO Debate


“Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors…in order that the creations of our minds shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind.  Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.” – Albert Einstein’s Speech to students at California Institute of Technology on February 16, 1931

“Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.  Only when we do not have to be accountable to anybody can we find joy in scientific endeavor.” – Albert Einstein, March 24, 1951

The GMO food debate is not a debate between those who are anti-science and those who are pro-science.   It is an internal ethical debate among scientists as to science’s relationship to the public good or corporate interests.

The conversation will revolve around the courage of independent scientists who value the importance of unbiased research and who have a firm understanding of the ethics of scientific research.  In the interest of professional integrity, they must and many have demanded the need to fully and comprehensively research GMO food crops without restrictive research mandates that fail to take into account the impact of biotechnologies on our health and environment and without the threat of the “purse” from the biotech industry.

Moreover, the scientific community must not create a wedge in public policy decisions that posits food security issues as science versus anti-science.  In this regard, Albert Einstein’s quotes above are relevant here.  In one, he cautions scientists not to be financially beholden to anybody and in another he advises young scientists not to present their profession as superior to the interests of the public good.  Recently, philosophy professor Gary Gutting in his New York Times piece Science’s Humanties Gap writes: “the greater problem is scientists’ failure to attend to what’s going on in the humanities.”  As it relates to the GMO debate, this piece coupled with Einstein’s caution shows that the GMO debate is not between pro-science versus anti-science, rather a one between ethical based science or a narrow technocratic science.

Despite Einstein’s caution to see technical advancements in the context of society’s benefits, Scientific American did exactly the opposite by publishing an editorial on why GMO labeling was a bad idea placing science in opposition to the public’s genuine concern to know what they consume in their food and demand that food be properly labeled.  Disturbing are the assertions made under the cover of science that are inaccurate.  The article inaccurately suggests that genetically modified foods are the same as conventional breeding processes. Further, the article asserts that GMO has been determined “just as safe” when studies suggest otherwise and that the United States Food and Drug Administration tests GMO products when in fact they do not conduct their own independent studies.  The article makes some generalized market predictions on how labeling GMO foods would deter consumers from purchasing them and be forced to purchase the more expensive non-GMO products.  As a result, food prices for consumers would increase.  Leaving aside the failure to provide any data to support such a conclusion, this is inaccurate because we would have seen the demise of fast food chains with the introduction of organic food markets.  Finally, there is my favorite support for GMO technology – the farmers in India.  Somehow labeling GMO foods in America would hurt farmers far away in India.  What is evidenced from the piece by Scientific American is the lack of independent research on GMO food.

In this regard, the scientific research in the GMO debate should revive the urgent need for publicly-funded research where the integrity of the research is key to public policy considerations.  Broadly, it should invoke a higher question of what are the ethical responsibilities of scientists who are advocating for GMO crops in the name of science, funded by corporate interests, and without much consideration or exercise of caution in the interest of the public good.  Furthermore, as Beth Hoffman’s piece in Forbes states, just because science can genetically engineer food, does it mean we should.

Outside of the United States, in South Asia, Bangladeshi farmers and health activists filed a petition at the end of July of 2013 to halt the field trials of GMO eggplant and its release into the commercial market.  The release would be the first GMO crop in the region.  The research in Bangladesh has been conducted by Cornell University funded by Monsanto and US AID through its Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II.  As a result, decision makers in Bangladesh believe that since an elite academic institution is involved then such research must be objective.  However, Cornell fails to disclose to the public that its source of support is from biotech companies that stand to financially gain from any release of the crop.  In 2012, Food and Water Watch reported that a quarter of funding for agricultural research came from private donors, which discourages research that might critique an industrial model of agriculture.  The corporate influence on public research should concern us all in accepting wholesale the objectivity of the research that GMO food is safe.  Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist with Union of Concerned Scientists, also expressed concerns regarding the limited research mandates by biotech companies that prevent independent scientists from testing the assertion that GMO crops are safe.  Patent laws that do not exempt agricultural researchers ensure that companies control what research is conducted.

Recent visits to Bangladesh show that the modified eggplant field trials are not being conducted in any scientifically controlled environment.  Despite such concerns regarding methodology, recently, an expert committee found the field trials of GMO eggplant safe.  Prior to this decision, in letters dated August 21, 2013, scientist David Schubert of the Salk Institute wrote to Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, expressing his concern over the introduction of BT Brinjal because of the lack of adequately safety testing for food consumption.  Similarly, in a August 15, 2013 letter to Sheikh Hasina, David Andow of the University of Minnesota who states that he is neither an opponent nor proponent of GMO, urges that “environmental issues are considered with sufficient scientific rigor before taking commercialization decisions as indicated under the Cartegena Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity.”  (Copies of letters available upon request)  Mr. Andow is referring to the mandate of states to exercise precautionary principle when it comes to new technologies that may cause irreversible damage to our environment.  With two scientists demanding caution, what expert committee could have found the modified eggplant safe for consumption reflects the challenge of science’s credibility in the GMO debate.

In India, where there is a moratorium on the commercial release of modified eggplant, the debate has centered on presenting those opposed to the commercial release of GMO food crop as anti-science.  Much of the rhetoric from scientists who support GMO technologies similarly present food activists as spreading fear in the public.  The polarization of food justice activists, farmers, and general public on one side and those who support science creates a dangerous false dichotomy.  All sides should want to have unbiased and accurate research, especially when public health and the environment are at stake.

Thus far, there are serious concerns about the scope and methods of the GMO research.  Funding is a key concern.  When institutions like Cornell receive significant biotech funding, and they fail to disclose their source of funding and their potential conflict of interest to the public, it calls into serious question the credibility of the research.  Furthermore, it calls into question the credibility of science.

Professionals, even in the legal profession, have some basic guidelines to monitor their influence on the public.  To use the force of “science” in support of GMO creates an odd situation where those who demand a full study on the environmental impact are anti-science when the need for full and comprehensive research is the ethical scientific position to take.  In an Open Letter by Steve Drucker of the Alliance for Biointegrity to the Board of Directors of American Association for Advancement of Science makes this precise point, when he writes:

“Although your statement of 20 October 2012 in opposition to the labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods professes to speak with scientific authority, it contains a number of false assertions in the attempt to portray them as safe.  Because this statement was obviously intended to defeat a California ballot initiative that would require labeling of GMO foods in that state, it’s important that you take steps to cure the confusion you’ve caused by acknowledging your errors and setting the record straight.”

Drucker proceeds to illustrate how there is no definitive research on the safety of GMO foods.  He quotes David Schubert to counter the assertion that is often made that GMO foods have been proven to be safe.  Schubert writes: “As a medical research scientist who published a comprehensive, peer-reviewed critique of genetically modified food safety testing, I can state confidently that it is false to say such foods and the toxic chemicals they require are extensively tested and proved safe.  No producer-independent safety testing, long-term or multigenerational rodent studies or epidemiological studies have been done to support the hypothesis that these foods are safe.”

Instead of making accurate statements on the safety of GMO foods, and demanding integrity and ethics in research, the Scientific American and other professional scientific organizations seem to be advocating for GMO crops.  Even pernicious, when independent scientists try to present their studies that question the safety of GMO foods, they are seriously maligned publicly such as was French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini.  However,  Séralini notes that much of the criticism came from industry scientists.

In the absence of publicly-funded independent scientific research, consumers in the GMO debate find themselves in the crossfires of scientists claiming both the dangers and benefits of GMO food crops.  I started this piece stating that ultimately the GMO debate is not about pro-science versus anti-science.  Rather, it is about corporate influenced scientific research or scientific research grounded in the public good.  In this internal battle for the conscience, ethics and integrity of science, scientists ignore Einstein’s ethical caution that technologies, including genetic engineering, should be developed with scientific certainty that people’s health and safety will not be impacted.  In the GMO debate, while the fate of people, their health, and environment are at stake, so are the ethics, credibility and integrity of scientific research.








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