COURNOYER: End science fiction at Yale

All living things evolved from a common ancestor. Sexual orientation is not a choice. The earth’s climate is warming. These statements are overwhelmingly accepted as fact by the scientific community. Nevertheless, myths about these important issues are widespread and have dangerous outcomes. Some schools teach that intelligent design is science. Discrimination against LGBT individuals is commonplace and deadly. Complacency about climate change is the norm.

Fortunately, the Yale community usually acknowledges scientific consensus. One notable exception, however, is the case of genetically engineered crops, also known as genetically modified, GE or GM. On Oct. 26, several campus groups hosted Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation, who discussed a lawsuit he is leading against the agriculture biotech giant Monsanto.

The suit seeks to prevent Monsanto from suing farmers for intellectual property infringement if their crops were to be contaminated by traces of Monsanto’s patented genetic material from neighboring fields. While the suit, in essence, is reasonable, Ravicher tried to bolster his case by spreading myths about GE crops that are routinely parroted in the sustainable agriculture community. The falsehoods were so egregious that the scientific community must speak up.

Most environmental groups include opposition to GE crops on their list of campaigns but tend to flub the facts. Since the term refers to crops that were developed using a certain technique, it is impossible to speak of the crops themselves in general terms. Just as it is impossible to say all products of electrical engineering are dangerous or safe, it is impossible to make blanket statements about products of plant genetic engineering. There are a few GE crops in fields today, many in development now, and countless yet to be dreamed up. GE can make plants more resistant to diseases, pests, herbicides, drought or floods. It can make plants more nutritious, less allergenic or optimized for biofuels. Both sides of the debate are guilty of generalizing, referring to GE crops either as a miracle or as the scourge of the earth.

Nonetheless, it is scientifically undisputed that GE crops planted to date are no worse for the environment or for human health than the conventional varieties they replaced. There are no conceivable negative effects, even in the long term. In fact, the report card for their overall performance thus far, depending on the time and place, is a win for the environment and for farmers. Thanks to their adoption, farmers have made more money, sprayed fewer pesticides, burned less fossil fuel, and caused less soil erosion. GE opponents routinely deny these facts and assert the contrary.

The scientific consensus derives from the collective work of hundreds of scientists detailed in hundreds of peer reviewed publications. Since citing them all here would be impossible, those interested can consult a two-part review called “Genetically engineered plants and foods: A scientist’s analysis of the issue” by Peggy Lemaux, a professor of plant biology at the University of California-Berkeley, who specializes in science communication.

Ravicher used the common argument that there is no real science on GE crops because Monsanto prevents it or is in cahoots with the studies’ authors. Despite sponsoring some public research and occasionally resisting unfettered investigation of its seeds, Monsanto is not behind the studies cited in Lemaux’s review. Ravicher also claimed that in spite of offering no benefits, farmers continue to opt for Monsanto seeds because Monsanto dupes them or leaves them no options. In reality, 94 percent of farmers in the US have chosen herbicide-tolerant GE soybeans because they make weed control more efficient.

Opponents conflate risks of GE crops with tangential issues in agriculture. Wariness of Monsanto’s dominance in the seed industry is a valid concern. Expressing this by claiming GE seeds are dangerous, however, is like opposing Microsoft’s dominance by claiming PCs are bad for your health. Likewise, manifesting opposition to intensive crop monocultures by protesting GE crops is futile. The two are not necessarily intertwined. I strongly support sustainable agriculture but consider anti-GE activism counterproductive.

The acceptance of myths about GE crops poses real dangers. To name a few, famine-stricken Zambia rejected food aid in 2002 because it was GE and presumed to be dangerous. Provitamin A enriched “Golden Rice” is stalled and awaiting approval when it could be preventing blindness in children. Open research of GE crops in Europe has almost vanished, not because of Monsanto, but, ironically, because anti-GE activists routinely destroy field trials.

Scores of innovations that could be solving the innumerable problems of agriculture remain unrealized. Misinformation about GE crops is common, but I expected better from a talk held at the Yale Law School. Providing a safe haven for science denialists at an academic institution constitutes a breach of academic integrity.