Serving Science or Monsanto?

Timing of AAAS statement on GMO labeling is highly suspicious

With about a week to go before California voters head to the polls to decide the fate of Proposition 37, which would require GMO foods to be labeled, I expected an already ugly campaign to get even uglier.

But the latest gift to the No on 37 campaign smells especially bad. Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS – goes by “Triple A-S”) released this “statement” on GMO labeling that sounds like it was drafted by Monsanto. The statement ends with the non-scientific but very quote-worthy conclusion that “mandating such a label can only serve to mis­lead and falsely alarm consumers.” While Prop 37 is never mentioned, what purpose could the timing serve other than persuading Californians to vote no on the measure?

This paragraph of the AAAS press release sounds especially familiar:

Several current efforts to require labeling of GM foods are not being driven by any credible scientific evidence that these foods are dangerous… Rather, GM labeling initiatives are being advanced by “the persistent perception that such foods are somehow ‘unnatural,’” as well as efforts to gain competitive advantages within the marketplace, and the false belief that GM crops are untested.

These talking points come straight from the No on 37 campaign. For example, “gain competitive advantages”? What does that have to do with science? Nothing, but it’s a favorite refrain from the No side, which I know because it showed up on the mailer sent to my home.

Also, it’s not a “false belief” that GM crops are untested, it’s scientific fact. According to David Schubert, professor and Laboratory Head Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute: “Any statement suggesting extensive safety testing of all genetically modified crops is absolutely false. A majority of the new GM crops coming through the agriculture biotech pipeline have had zero testing done on them.”

Also, Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist with Consumers Union, notes that unlike in other countries, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require safety testing for genetically-engineered plants or foods. He also says the AAAS statement “is filled with distortion and misleading statements. If mandatory labeling of GM foods would ‘mislead and alarm consumers,’ does the AAAS really believe that 60 other countries are misleading and alarming their consumers?”

Just as suspicious for its pro-biotech spin is how the AAAS statement lists other organizations as claiming that GMO foods are safe to consume, using rhetoric that strongly echoes the No campaign:

The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion…

Where did this handy list come from? The No campaign listed three of these four groups – the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences – in the official California voter guide as concluding GMO foods are safe. But in fact, the World Health Organization says that ongoing risk assessments are needed and that “GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” Meanwhile, the American Medical Association favors pre-market safety testing, which the FDA does not require. How did a science organization miss all of that?

But back to the suspicious timing of the statement’s release: who exactly instigated it? The statement says it’s from the AAAS board of directors. Who are they? The board chair, Nina Federoff has an impressive pedigree, including a stint as science advisor to Condoleezza Rice. Curiously, Federoff has been listed as a leading scientist on the No on 37 website since June, where she is quoted as being “passionately opposed to labeling.” Maybe her previous board membership with Sigma-Aldrich Chemical Company helped drive that passion.

And perhaps the anti-GMO labeling statement from AAAS has been in motion at least since June, timed to be released as Election Day neared. Looking over this page of AAAS “policy statements,” others also seem well-timed, but they are on bland issues that warrant little scientific debate. For example, in March AAAS urged the Tennessee legislature to reject a silly bill aimed at undermining science education on evolution and climate change. Other letters appear to take similarly uncontroversial scientific positions or are simply asking Congress not to cut federal funding for science programs.

So the question remains: Why this position right now? Why would such a mainstream scientific organization stick its neck out on a highly controversial issue just days before the election? And how we can trust any future AAAS statements to be based on science, instead of what this looks like: A carefully-orchestrated political and public relations maneuver that puts the AAAS motto to shame: “Advancing science, serving society.” The only interests this charade serves are those of the biotech, chemical, and junk food industries.

20 Responses to “Serving Science or Monsanto?”

  1. Mary says:

    It’s offensive to me, as a consumer and an a member of the American public, that the food industry is willing to generalize us all, as being bunch of dim-witted, panicky people, completely incapable of making informed choices for ourselves. Just the inference that food producers and manufacturers should have the right not to inform us that our food products are genetically modified is enough to insult the intelligence of each and every American consumer.

  2. Pulo says:

    So, one issue with GM crops is their safety. Setting aside that issue for a few moments, I support labeling because I don’t believe that crops based on proprietary, patented genetic material are good for society. I guess you could say I prefer “open source” food, and I would like to encourage its success in the market by buying it exclusively. For that we need labeling. GM food is, like it or not, a political issue. Monsanto and others have found enough support in the political sphere , through lobbying and other means, to, on the one hand be able to patent GM crops as novel, no prior-art, never before seen in nature (otherwise no patent) and safe because exactly like all the other food you eat, no differences, just like in nature.

    To continue sliding down the slope of proprietary, closed-source food without discussion, without the opportunity to spend our food budgets as we see fit, seems not to be in alignment with an open society with “free market” principles. So, even setting aside the safety issue, which I do not think we should do, the societal impacts of patented genetic material in our food stream require transparency. Label it.

  3. Matt Snyder says:

    Not sticking it’s neck out. AAAS is calling bullshit to GMO hysteria. Is there a magic number of scientific organizations that have to come out for you to stop entertaining conspiracy theories?

  4. Dee Cota says:

    I have read so much misinformation regarding the above. Here is a staement from the American
    Academy of Environmrntal Medicine at( On July 12,2012 states the following.
    The American Acedemy of Environmental Medicine and AMA’s Policy on GMO Foods.
    Wichita, K5- The American Acedemy of Environmental Medicine applauds the new policy position of the American Medical Association in support of manatory premarket systematic safety assessment for genetically engineered foods. AAEM is very excited to have the AMA join them in understanding the importance of safety testing.
    In May 2009, the AAEM called for a moratoriumon on GMO, 1. for physicians to educate their patients, the medical community and the public to avoid GM foods. 2. Physcians to consider the role of GM foods in their patients disease process. 3.More independent long term scientic studies to begin gathering data to investigate the role of GM foods on human health.
    The AAEM encourages the American Medical Association to join the AAEM and the other19 physicians who at the AMA meeting in Chicago to call for mandatory labeling of GM foods.
    “In 2012, research still shows that GM foods pose a threat to consumers health,” said Dr. Amy L. Dean, President Elect of AAEM. The AAEM’s position on GM foods can be found at

    • Mike says:

      I’ve looked at the position statements, a few papers and the “sources” published by the American Acedemy of Environmental Medicine. I am not impressed, in fact, I say quack.

  5. gregorylent says:

    lots of sneering hubbub about people being “anti-science” … but there is a huge anti-science position that recognizes science and scientists have severe limitations … and it is often accompanied by a hubris that is not at all becoming.

    see big pharma, big agri, big tobacco, big most everything.

  6. Adam says:

    I came here from a Tweet from Michael Pollan, who I generally respect, though I don’t agree with everything he’s saying about Prop 37.

    If you read the AAAS statement, your line:
    “Also, it’s not a “false belief” that GM crops are untested, it’s scientific fact.”
    is completely disingenuous, not to mention being wrong. The very next line of the AAAS piece references an extensive study of the safety of GMOs. If you want to take issue with that study (which is actually a review of over 100 studies), then do it, but don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

    I also do not understand what is suspicious about the timing of their statement. I agree that they released it so that voters could take it into consideration when they vote on Prop 37, but I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

    • KE says:

      It’s quite easy to make general statements about a massive group of non-related studies. Piecemeal statements have no value.

      That said, you are possibly misinterpreting the statement: They “are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” What are these conventional plant breeding technologies that they speak of? What does not riskier actually mean? Not riskier for the consumer to eat? Not riskier to grow? Not riskier to create the seed itself? Oh that’s right, there is no way of knowing because this is simply a statement with nothing in print to back it up or explain it properly.

      Long-term effects of CONSUMING GM foods have not been studied; their safety has not been verified; hence this only being a statement and not peer-reviewed, evidence-based published research. The only argument against this are the 12 studies mentioned later that were done on animals, that claim to be long-term but again have no published proof, and that only found the products to be nutritionally equivalent. Nutritional equivalence is not on trial here and has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they are safe to eat long-term.

  7. Byron says:

    Excellent article Michele!

    You know, looking at all the outrage going on these days including this blatant and offensive attempt to get people to vote against their own best interests, to convince them that hiding information from them is actually good, that ignorance is bliss, sometimes one gets the idea that the world really is run by cold-blooded reptiles in disguise.

    Anyway I do wish people would expound on the MANY times in the past that Monsanto has stated that they were FOR labeling of GM foods. ‘Course that was BEFORE they knew that such labeling might cost them some money in lost customers.

  8. Byron says:

    Here’s a shorter version of that link:

    And one quote from it made by former Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro:

    “One can make a reasonable argument that consumers and citizens have a right to know anything they wish to know. It is they who are choosing these products and it is they who are choosing and judging their governments. So it is almost impossible to make a case that information should be withheld from consumers…. consumers’, in my view [have an] unquestioned, right to know anything they wish to know about the products they consume…. it is not my role, or Monsanto’s role, to decide these things. It is society’s role to decide those questions after appropriate debate” To the question “So you are open to labeling being introduced then?” Shapiro answered: “Yes. Of course”.

  9. Zoom says:

    There have been no safety studies longer than 90 days. After all this time and debate doesn’t that strike people as just a bit suspicious? And why is it that the FDA does no studies of it’s own, why instead do they rely solely on “studies” put out by Monsanto, a corporation proven to have a, shall we say, less than ethical view of the world? Why is it that the AAAS apparently has no issue with that?

    How does one company have so much power that it can subvert the will of the rest of the world?

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  16. I am so grateful to Michele Simon for investigating and summarizing the improper industry influence in the AAAS and so many other organizations that we used to think were impartial. I have long been aware of front groups and industry infiltration of otherwise respectable scientific organizations, which is how the tobacco industry spreads its P.R. But even I was shocked and saddened to learn that this type of corporate influence extends further than I expected.

    The challenge before us to expose lies and promote the truth seems daunting. Ms. Simon’s success is an inspiring example that it is possible. All of us can support her efforts by spreading this information through corporate, alternative, and social media. Corporate (“mainstream”) media is beholden to these corporations to some extent, but they did report the astounding story about the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Health providers can work within our professional societies to promote this work as well.

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