Scientific American science panel may get lost in translation

Scientific American science panel may get lost in translation

Is science explained fairly in the media? This Thursday, scientists and journalists will gather in Washington, D.C. to consider that question at an event called Lost in Translation, hosted by Scientific American. Given the sponsors and panelists, Friends of the Earth has serious concerns that scientific integrity and a balanced perspective may be what’s lost in translation.

The event cosponsor, GMO Answers, is a PR and marketing website for genetically engineered foods funded by Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Bayer, Dow and DuPont. Created in 2013 by a biotech trade association to “help clear up confusion and dispel distrust” about genetic engineering, GMO Answers regularly over-hypes the benefits and downplays risks associated with GMOs, including growing weed resistance, increased use of pesticides and related health concerns.

As Friends of the Earth’s report “Spinning Food documents, agrichemical companies and their allies are spending tens of millions of dollars a year on tobacco-style PR tactics to flood news outlets and social media platforms with misleading messages about the safety and necessity of GMOs and chemical-intensive industrial agriculture.

While being framed as a serious discussion about communicating science accurately, the Scientific American event looks like a continuation of this industry PR campaign; as it offers only pro-GMO speakers and no dissenting perspectives on the topic.

The panel includes:

  • Keith Kloor, a freelance reporter and part-time journalism professor at New York University who has promoted “clean coal” and is a regular defender of GMOs who attacks critics as unscientific and “politically stupid,” according to PolluterWatch;
  • Tamar Haspel, a freelance journalist who has received funding from the agrichemical industry to moderate industry sponsored panel events and seminars on communicating positive attributes of GMOs, according to a Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting article;
  • Nina Federoff, an emeritus professor at Penn State University who also works at OFW Law, which is a powerhouse food and agribusiness lobbying firm. OFW Law is registered as having lobbied for the Council for Biotechnology Information and Syngenta.

Industry panelists also include Kate Hall, managing director for the Council for Biotechnology Information; Seema Kumar, vice president at Johnson & Johnson; and Donna Nelson, president of the American Chemical Society.

Another point that is likely to be “lost in translation” is the fact that there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety. Over 300 scientists, academics and doctors state this clearly in this peer-reviewed article. The World Health Organization affirms that it is not possible to make general statements about the safety of GMOs, and that they should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

GMO advocates often push an incorrect message that the science is settled on the safety of GMOs. To reinforce this message, they inaccurately conflate the scientific consensus on climate change and vaccines with the science on GMOs; which has raised more questions than it has answered. The Scientific American panel looks poised to play right into this false narrative, given the participation of climate heavyweight James Hansen and infectious disease experts alongside pro-GMO speakers.

As Timothy Wise of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University wrote, “What we’re seeing is a concerted campaign to…paint GMO critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages.”

A serious and scientific discussion about genetically engineered foods would include information about, not just the possible benefits of GMOs, but also the growing concerns about risks of widespread adoption of the genetically engineered traits that have been commercialized to date — nearly all of which have been engineered to be resistant to herbicides or to express an insecticide. As a direct result of GMO planting in the United States, the use of glyphosateon farm fields has grown 16-fold since the 1990s, when herbicide-tolerant GMOs were introduced.

This increase has had a number of consequences, from growing weed resistance (nearly half of all American farmers report herbicide-resistant weeds on their farms) to the eradication of milkweed on farms decimating monarch populations. As for public health, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer recently designated glyphosate, the herbicide most widely used on GMOs, a probable human carcinogen

A discussion about science in the media should also include full transparency about industry funding to experts and journalists. Unfortunately, an event sponsored by the chemical industry, offering only pro-GMO speakers who do not disclose their funding, is unlikely to offer anything useful to public understanding of science. Scientific American owes better to its readers.

As it stands, this event is set to be yet another reverberation in the biotech industry echo chamber.

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