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Genetic Engineering Lobbyist’s Trumpian Methods

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor and United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007.

KUALA LUMPUR, Jun 13 2017 (IPS) - To her credit, Dr Mahaletchumy has pioneered and promoted science journalism in Malaysia. This is indeed commendable in the face of the recent resurgence of obscurantism of various types, both traditional and modern.

But she has done herself, journalism and science a great disservice by using her position of influence to lobby for her faith in genetic engineering, promoting another obscurantism in the guise of science. In her blatantly polemical GE advocacy, she uses caricature and rhetoric to misrepresent and defame those she disagrees with.

She accuses us of “spreading flawed arguments and inaccurate information”, “demonising private industry”, and making “a number of sweeping statements with inaccuracies about lower yield gains with genetically engineered crops, higher usage of herbicides, decline in crop and (sic) biodiversity, rising pest resistance, carcinogenicity of glyphosate, and increase in corporate power”.

To be sure, our article was never intended for a scientific journal, but rather for IPS readers to appreciate the implications of recent research. It nevertheless provided links to relevant research for those interested, which she chose to ignore while accusing us of lying (‘false news’) in Trumpian fashion.

Most importantly, she does not directly refute any of our arguments or the evidence that the increased output from non-GE crops has exceeded the productivity growth of GE crops due to, among others, the rise of pesticide resistance – our main argument. Nor does she bother to refute the mounting evidence of greater farmer reliance on commercial agrochemicals, especially herbicides.

GE advocates cannot have it both ways. One cannot insist that only GE can increase output and productivity as well as improve farmers’ net incomes and the environment without offering or citing systematic evidence, and simply reject inconvenient evidence to the contrary.

Dr Mahaletchumy fails to actually quote anything we actually wrote or to show how the sources we use are wrong. Her effort to discredit us resorts to innuendo and insinuation. While accusing us of selective citation, she has little hesitation to do what she condemns, citing only one person, Graham Brookes, not once, but twice, to make her case.

Instead of creating false news, as she claims we did, inter alia, we relied on and provided links to the US National Academy of Sciences report on Genetically Engineered Crops. The report provides an authoritative review of the now very considerable and diverse research on related issues. While the encyclopaedic volume admittedly includes a bland summary, the report itself offers a richly textured survey of evidence from many peer-reviewed studies.

She also refuses to recognize that most people go hungry in the world because they cannot afford access to the food they need and not because there is not enough food grown in the world.

Meanwhile, government and philanthropic funding of public research and development has declined while private corporate interests have been promoting GE, not exactly for charitable reasons.

We draw conclusions which other science journalists have also drawn, but instead of critically addressing our arguments, she lumps us together with GE critics, and invokes the same arguments and sources of the heavily corporate funded GE lobby.

Let me be very clear. We are keen supporters of technological progress, including biotechnology. And as we made clear, genetic modification is as old as nature itself. Unlike GE opponents, we remain open-minded about it.

Dr Mahaletchumy is correct that there continues to be some debate over whether glyphosates are carcinogenic. This is partly why we insist on adherence to long established scientific ethics, including the ‘precautionary’ principle.

But one cannot go ‘authority shopping’ — by dismissing the World Health Organization when it is inconvenient, and citing any body saying otherwise, especially when its authority is not relevant — as she does.

We have previously shown how misleading research findings funded by the US Sugar Foundation had damaging consequences for world health for half a century.

We are also concerned about the unintended consequences of scientific progress. For example, the excessive use of cheap antibiotics for both humans and animals has generated antibiotic-resistant bacteria for every class of antibiotics, with annual mortality rates due to antibiotic resistant diseases expected to rise exponentially to ten million by mid-century.

One wonders why a journalist resorts to fraudulent misrepresentation in the cause of any advocacy, or in this case, to deceptively insist that her faith that GE is the only way forward is irrefutable science.

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