This Crowdfunded Experiment Offers A Lesson For Monsanto On Transparency

Photo credit: Karl Haro von Mogel

Has Monsanto been ghostwriting research? According to several articles over the past few weeks, the agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation, which has served as a public bogeyman of all things evil in “big ag,” has been covertly involved in writing an “independent review” of the carcinogenic potential of Roundup, an herbicide used on crops engineered to tolerate it, among other articles and papers. According to internal Monsanto emails, “Academic papers vindicating its Roundup herbicide were written with the help of its employees,” Bloomberg reported.

Though the term “ghostwriting” here is hyperbole — according to Bloomberg “Monsanto scientists were heavily involved in organizing, reviewing, and editing drafts submitted by the outside experts” — Monsanto’s transparency blunder helps cement the popular narrative that the company covertly controls our food supply, casting doubt on modern agricultural practices as a whole.

“It can simultaneously be true that Monsanto acted improperly AND that the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs and glyphosate is sound ,” wrote scientist and communicator Dr. Alison “Mommy, PhD” Bernstein in a post on Facebook. “Unfortunately, when you act like there is something to hide, people will think you have something to hide.” Scientist Dr. Layla Katiraee also weighed in on Facebook, writing, “Unfortunately, since Monsanto seems to be synonymous with GMOs in the minds of many in the public, it casts a shadow over the entire technology.”

Katiraee makes a good point. As I wrote last year:

In the public psyche, the term GMO has become synonymous with Monsanto and the evils the agricultural company symbolizes. While business practices of massive corporations can and should be questioned, much of why Monsanto is hated is based in myth (for example, the company doesn’t sue farmers for unintentional contamination).

But this particular transgression is not based in myth, as internal company emails reveal. In Monsanto’s defense, as Bloomberg explained:

Monsanto did only “cosmetic editing” of the Intertek papers and nothing “substantive” to alter panelists’ conclusions, says Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president for global strategy. While the “choice of words” in the Declaration of Interest “was not ideal,” he says, “it didn’t change the science.”

The language in the Declaration of Interest in the paper is worse than “not ideal” though — “Funding for this evaluation was provided to Intertek by the Monsanto Company which is a primary producer of glyphosate and products containing this active ingredient. Neither any Monsanto company employees nor any attorneys reviewed any of the Expert Panel’s manuscripts prior to submission to the journal.”

Unfortunately, this is a bigger problem for the world than for Monsanto. The perception that “GMO” is synonymous with Monsanto casts a shadow on a crucial technology, and PR gaffes from the company don’t help.

Genetic engineering (GE) — just one of an array of plant breeding tools — results in targeted genetic changes that benefit farmers or consumers, reduce food waste, remove harmful allergens, increase nutritional content, or just plain look cool.

It’s important to note that “Genetically Modified Organism” is an arbitrary term. Nearly all of the foods we eat, including those labeled natural, organic and even heirloom, have had their genetic makeup changed using unnatural methods, including exposure of plants to chemicals and radiation. I’ve discussed this several times, including here and here.

Sometimes GE methods are the most suited to achieve necessary traits like disease resistance because certain plants have long breeding cycles, some plants are sterile, or certain traits are otherwise difficult to achieve with older, less precise techniques. Sometimes other methods are better suited than GE. Genetic engineering is one tool in an agricultural toolbox, and it makes sense to pick the best tool for a job. These technologies have already helped farmers, reduced carbon emissions, and saved the Hawaiian papaya industry among other feats and given the chance, genetic engineering can help feed and nourish the world’s booming population while making the best use of land and resources.

Not all genetically engineered crops are Monsanto products. As I’ve written before, anti-GE sentiment helps stifle important innovation:

Non-browning Arctic Apples and Innate Potatoes, neither of which are Monsanto products, are poised to hit the market, and will reduce food waste due to brown spots and bruises. But these are the exception and not the rule, due to the burdensome regulatory atmosphere that misinformation and ideology have sown. Gluten-free wheat with the potential to help celiac disease patients, tear-free onions, and bananas resistant to xanthomonas wilt (which is threatening food security in Uganda and eastern Africa) are all among GE plants stuck in purgatory.

The science on the safety of glyphosate is unlikely to fall into question — not one regulatory body in the world considers the thoroughly-studied herbicide carcinogenic. And while it’s not at all unusual for material transfer agreements (MTA) to require that the owner of the intellectual properly see and weigh in prior to submission, Monsanto’s failure to disclose its involvement is more than just a poor “choice of words.”

Enter a little crowdfunded “Citizen Science experiment.” Undertaken in response to a far-reaching internet meme — a viral image of an uneaten ear of “GMO” corn next to an almost fully-consumed ear of organic corn — the experiment sought to test the hypothesis that wild animals avoid genetically engineered food. Launched in 2015, the data from hundreds of completed experiments and thousands of observations from citizen scientists around the country are in and analyzed, and being prepared for publication.

Even before submission to a scientific journal for peer review, the experiment offers a lesson on transparency. In an overview of final steps, co-PI (Principal Investigator) Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel wrote:

The ears of corn we used for the experiment were donated by Monsanto, and we signed a Material Transfer Agreement with them, which allowed us to conduct our experiments with their corn, and laid out everyone’s rights. As part of that agreement, we will be sharing our results and our draft of the paper with them prior to submitting it to a peer-reviewed journal. This is a very standard practice when scientists are studying patented material owned by someone else, and it ensures that we can publish our results — whatever we find — and they get a heads-up on it before we go to publication. Their scientists may even make suggestions such as how to describe their maize varieties or suggest analyses, but we alone have the power to do anything based on those suggestions.

“One of my goals with this project is to show how science can answer public questions and concerns in a transparent manner,” Haro von Mogel told me. “I’m trying to redefine the terms by which companies like Monsanto and others interact with the public and other scientists.”

(My own disclosure: I participated in the experiment and volunteered my time to help package, affix shipping labels to, and transport several experiment kits from where they were stored in my home city of Madison, Wisconsin to the post office. Haro von Mogel lived in Madison at the time, and his residence was the storage location from which all kits went out across the country.)

As Bernstein wrote in a blog post about conflicts of interest in science, “[C]redibility is our currency. Transparency and disclosure about conflicts of interest are critical to maintain our credibility.”

To maintain credibility is to constantly keep conduct in check, whether or not internal emails will ever be exposed. “I don’t think Monsanto’s scientists will have anything radical to say about our results,” said Haro von Mogel. “But if they do make some helpful suggestions we’ll be sure to credit them while showing the public what those were.”