Academics Join GMO Labeling War Between Big Ag and Organic Industries

Scientists as Weapons in the GMO Labeling Debate

Monsanto and other biotech industry big shots are recruiting academics to speak on their behalf, in an attempt to combat the bad press their genetically modified food products receive, reports the New York Times. The news is based on a series of emails released by the company.

Meanwhile, companies with interests in organic foods—such as Organic Valley, Whole Foods, Stonyfield Farm, and United Natural Foods, Inc.—are recruiting their own group of experts to advocate in favor of GMO labeling.

According to The New York Times:

The emails provide a rare view into the strategy and tactics of a lobbying campaign that has transformed ivory tower elites into powerful players. The use by both sides of third-party scientists, and their supposedly unbiased research, helps explain why the American public is often confused as it processes the conflicting information.

This long standing argument has heated up as Congress debates the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which GMO labeling advocates have nicknamed the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act (DARK Act). The bill would create a framework for a federally standard—but voluntary—GMO labeling system, which would essentially preempt the current patchwork of state and local labeling laws, making them unenforceable. The bill would also block any FDA GMO labeling efforts.

The lobbying effort has led to big payoffs for Monsanto, including the approval of new genetically modified seeds, reports The New York Times.

Charla Lord, a Monsanto spokeswoman, said that partnerships with academics are about clarifying science. “It is in the public interest for academics to weigh in credibly, not only to consumers but to stakeholders like lawmakers and regulators as well,” she said to The New York Times.

Labeling advocates have expressed concern, however, after documents obtained by the publication revealed that scientists like Dr. Kevin M. Folta, Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, received undisclosed grants in unknown amounts to help with the biotech outreach effort.

“Nobody tells me what to say, and nobody tells me what to think,” he said to The New York Times. “Every point I make is based on evidence.”

The previously undisclosed information was obtained in thousands of emails requested by the nonprofit U.S. Right to Know, which has close ties to the organic industry. While scientists like Dr. Folta reject assertions that they have been compensated personally, travel to events where they advocated for Monsanto were paid for by the company. That said, organic industries have also used academics to convey their message.

Again, The New York Times:

At Washington State, Dr. [Charles] Benbrook was supported by many of the same financial backers, including Organic Valley, Whole Foods, Stonyfield and United Natural Foods Inc. The companies stayed closely involved in his research and advocacy, helping him push reporters to write about his studies, including one concluding that organic milk, produced without any G.M.O.-produced feed for the cows, had greater nutritional value.

Although the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 has already passed in the House of Representatives, the debate and lobbying efforts will likely continue as the bill is considered by the Senate with scientists presenting their findings on behalf of both sides.

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Man reading labels image via Shuttershock