Last week, as I read a Washington Post article titled “107 Nobel laureates sign letter blasting Greenpeace over GMOs,” I took note that the story fits in perfectly with the Post editorial board’s recently issued position on GMOs, which argues that “scaremongering” activists are getting in the way of scientific progress on GMOs.
I also noted that the Post, in driving its point home, avoids a lot of inconvenient questions.
Most obviously, how exactly did the 107 Nobel laureates—almost none of whom work in agriculture or have any expertise on GMOs—get involved in an attack on Greenpeace’s position on genetically engineered “golden rice?” Of all the pressing scientific issues, and all the ways to issue a statement, why pick this issue—and why pick a fight?
Industry Attacks on Activists
Working at Food & Water Watch, I’m very familiar with the industry tactic of blaming the failures of GMOs on activists. The content of the Nobel letter, which blames Greenpeace for the failure of genetically engineered “golden rice,” rings familiar. But it does not ring true.
In fact, just a few months ago, a peer-reviewed study examined the failures of “golden rice” and announced that Greenpeace was not to blame, noting that “golden rice” has failed due to technical problems with genetic engineering. After 24 years of work, “golden rice” remains a proposition—not a life-saving crop that will cure vitamin A deficiency, as promised.
So, why are 107 Nobel laureates saying the opposite—and using some pretty amped up, emotional rhetoric?
In the search for answers, I went to the official press event at the National Press Club in Washington. But as soon as I disclosed my affiliation with Food & Water Watch, a man guarding the door refused my entry. A representative from Greenpeace was also turned away—even though he was there to offer a response to the letter that the Nobel laureates had sent his organization. Without press credentials, the man told us, we weren’t allowed in.
Moments later, the man allowed a representative from Center for Science in the Public Interest, which supports the use of GMOs, to enter the press event.
And then I realized who this bouncer was: Jay Byrne, a former Monsanto communications executive who now runs a private consulting firm that works with biotech companies.
— Tim Schwab (@TimothyWSchwab) June 30, 2016
The more I learned about this campaign, the more questions appeared.
Last week, documents released through a Freedom of Information Act Request included emails from 2010 between Jay Byrne and an industry-aligned university professor, discussing ways to attack and discredit Greenpeace.
The biotechnology industry’s promises of silver-bullet GMOs coming down the pipeline remain just that—industry promises.
The full scope of Byrne’s role in the Greenpeace-Nobel campaign remains unknown, but it’s notable that he wasn’t the only industry representative at the event. Industry consultant Val Giddings was milling about. And leading the event was Dr. Richard Roberts of New England Biolabs, a private biotech firm whose products are mentioned in patents from Dow Agrosciences and Monsanto. Roberts, a Nobel winner, organized the Nobel campaign against Greenpeace.
Who wasn’t at the press event? I didn’t see the Austrian playwright who won a Nobel in literature in 2004, whose name is on the Greenpeace letter. Nor did I see Alfred Gilman, also on the letter. He died six months ago.
There is a lot about this campaign that isn’t adding up, and I expect more details will emerge in the days and weeks ahead. What we already know is that the Greenpeace letter doesn’t change the GMO debate one iota. Though the Post doesn’t report it, hundreds of PhD scientists continue to raise questions about the safety of GMOs, and the biotechnology industry’s promises of silver-bullet GMOs coming down the pipeline remain just that—industry promises.