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Were you paid by Monsanto?

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | November 18, 2014

Recently I was interviewed for an article published in California Magazine. It is a well-written article about the controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). I made my usual points: GMOs have actually done much good by reducing commodity prices, increasing yields, saving land and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving the health of farm workers. It has a much larger potential, which is lost because of heavy regulation.

The day before the paper went to print the journalist asked me whether my work “was paid by Monsanto”. The answer was a clear and definite “NO”. I did this research as part of my main research work paid by the University and my chair. Actually, I had been working on GMOs before I even heard about Monsanto. I learned about this new technology and realized its potential, and ended up editing a special issue of a journal on the potential benefits and limitations of GMOs. Even the noted environmentalist David Piemental contributed to this issue, raising concerns about some aspects of the technology. I myself was concerned about intellectual property rights, access to and control of the technologies, access for the poor, and appropriate regulation. I have been working on GMOs now for more than 20 years.

Then I asked myself: Why do people assume that if you are pro-GMO, you are being paid by Monsanto? One answer might be ‘common knowledge’. I have heard more than once that “everyone knows that GMOs are bad for health, the environment and society, and it has made evil companies like Monsanto rich,” and the implication is that since Zilberman is not ignorant he must be paid.

My response to this perspective – “Really? Who is everyone?”

All of the major national academies of science in the US, England and even in France have officially stated that GM foods are not more dangerous than other types, and that GMOs have actually had health and environmental benefits. Even the man that coined the term biodiversity, E.O. Wilson, and the great Jared Diamond think that GMOs are essential for sustainable development. Thus when people only listen to their own circle, they will have a biased perception of the bigger picture.

Another reason why people might assume that I am in Monsanto’s pocket is that I am a Professor at Berkeley, and “Berkeley only supports the progressive agenda,” as I am frequently reminded. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Berkeley is incredibly diverse: it has noted anti-GMO scholars, including Michael Pollan as well as Professor Steven Lindow, who conducted the first GMO field trial in 1987, and his innovation to introduce genetically engineered organisms to treat plants was protested heavily by activists. Our plant biology department is the best in the world and has given birth to innovations that will eventually benefit humanity. Berkeley was also the center of research that led to the development of the A-bomb and many important chemicals, major breakthroughs in computer technology, and the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s.

Perhaps people assume that I am paid by Monsanto because I am an environmental economist. Some of my students have assumed that if you are an environmental economist, you must take an ‘environmental’ position. But to be an environmental economist or scientist you do not need to be an ‘environmentalist’. You need to know your science, but are not committed to any particular perspective, rather you emphasize the perspective of the potential benefit to society as a whole. A researcher must be an independent thinker and let the findings speak for themselves. In my case, my position on payment for ecosystem services may be regarded as ‘pro-environment,’ but in other areas that may not be the case.

Environmental groups themselves have their own agendas that include their own economic survival as well as satisfying their opinionated donors that may have deep pockets and good intentions but might lack the technical expertise needed to develop the most effective solutions to major problems. The irresponsible position of Greenpeace in the Golden Rice debate is one primary example.

At the same time, support for GMOs does not necessarily equate to support for Monsanto. I, for example, agree that the heavy regulatory regime of today might have been implicitly supported by major GM companies because it allows them tighter control over the technology.

What I am trying to emphasize is that I am an economist that strongly objects to the assumption that people do what they do only because of money. In one of my papers, we conjecture that people pursue fame, fortune, and freedom in their professional choices. Individuals that go into academia tend to put a heavier weight on fame and freedom. Thank goodness I am paid well enough by the University to afford to keep my dignity and integrity while pursuing my own research agenda. Throughout my 30-year career, my research has been funded to the tune of $10 million + by my salary and research grants and cooperative agreements by agencies such as the EPA, the World Bank, the USDA, environmental groups, and various foundations. I once received $10,000 for contributing to a sustainability report produced by Monsanto (Gustafson et al. 2013). This has not supported any of my other research on GMOs.

While I appreciate the fame and fortune that may come with my work, it is not at the expense of selling my soul. I believe that this true for many of colleagues, whether they are pro or anti-GMO.

The First GMO Field Tests

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/004016259500062F

Comments to “Were you paid by Monsanto?

  1. David, as a proud UCB graduate and both personal and professional (not in the same industry) acquaintance, I was pleased to read your well-reasoned thoughts. I have had concerns about GMOs and industry influence, but have hoped the motivations and results were for the common good, to feed more people nutritious food at lower costs to raise the world’s populations’ standards of living and health.

    Many, but not all, in the first world can afford nutritious food, but it will take advanced agriculture techniques to feed the starving masses and extend life expectancy and quality of life.

    Thank you for your clarity of thought. I know firsthand that you have not “profited” from industry payoffs. Your personal integrity is beyond reproach.

  2. I need help understanding:

    1) You say: “the journalist asked me whether my work “was paid by Monsanto”. The answer was a clear and definite “NO”.” (par.2); and “I once received $10,000 for contributing to a sustainability report produced by Monsanto (Gustafson et al. 2013). This has not supported any of my other research on GMOs.” (par.10)

    Is the “my work” from the first quote a distinct specific project from the one in the second quote (Gustafson, et. al.), and is that clear in the first quote? The overall thrust of your argument here seems to be “I am not a paid stooge.” OK, but not taking direct payment from (very, very powerful, often allegedly downright ‘we’ll destroy you if you don’t buy our seed’ scary) interested parties, for every — as opposed to one or two… — projects, does not eliminate every appearance of partiality.

    But it’s not just about you. Your work ‘dovetails’ nicely with Monsanto. They see that, they splash the cash in your direction. People whose work does not dovetail with Monsanto and the like, do not get that cash. They tend to be more marginalized? Probably. I think this is where scientists need to stand up to – not just the corporations, but the universities! – and say, keep your money away.

    And can you really say that knowing figures such as 10 grand can come to you if you get in good with certain companies, will not effect your judgment? Maybe not for the first project, but what about next time? You may be quite comfy cozy with your university gig; those amounts aren’t exactly chump change. We don’t let judges get paid by people they let off on some legal technicality, and then just say it was because they were following the law like all good judges do.

  3. Sir, I will comment, fully following the guidelines of Berkeley’s comment policies. I hope that a second try will not entice one to feel censorship is being practiced at one of our countries greatest examples of college enlightenment.

    “people sometimes conflate two different factors:
    The business practices of Monsanto
    The creation and availability of GMOs”

    That’s because… they are in this country, and for all real purposes, one and the same!! When you have lobbyists paying off legislators and company men as future legislators, you literally have a company paving its way into the world with a big fat permission slip from the same gov’t that tells us it is ‘looking out for our health and safety’. When you have mergers of the few major corporations proposed [Monsanto and Syngenta etc.] the monopoly that results ties both of these two ideas inextricably together. The business practices of GMO availability are then, via the magic of crony capitalism, one and the same.

    “If viewed as an advance in plant breeding, is there an objection to plant breeding?”

    -Pretty sure plant breeding is not even in the same category of manipulation of the blueprints of life, the very core genetic makeup of organisms. Genetic engineering is fundamentally different from traditional methods of plant and animal breeding because it crosses biological barriers, transferring genes from one species to another. It is also a slow and natural process, not the drastic, mad-scientist version companies are employing now.

    “if viewed from a perspective that we are modifying nature, sigh, our very existence does that.”

    Yeah, but our ‘very existence’ is not replacing DNA from a frog and inserting them into humans to make us swim faster! THAT would be an equal comparison…not merely affecting nature in an ‘arguably’ natural pace. Bioengineered crops will do wide-reaching damage to the environment. Insect-resistant crops may harm species that are not their target, such as monarch butterflies. On the other hand, the insects that GM crops are designed to kill could develop resistance to those crops, ultimately requiring farmers to use more aggressive control measures, such as increased use of chemical sprays.

    More research is needed on the potential of GM crops to transfer their genes to other crops or wild relatives. Transfer of pesticide-resistant genes to related weeds may produce “super weeds” —those immune to commonly used control methods. Likewise, viral genes added to a plant to confer resistance may be transferred to other viral pathogens, leading to new, more virulent strains of the viruses. Gene transfer could also cause non-GM crops to be contaminated by GM crops in neighboring fields, threatening the rich crop diversity of many developing countries. Now global warming, THAT is agreed upon by nearly all scientists, yet is largely ignored as a selfish partisan rhetoric.

  4. Hi David: There is quite a bit to unpack with this particular point. I, too, have noticed this phenomenon that you are describing.

    As a non-industy person I can tell you that the average person is skeptical about GMO foods and Monsanto. I have seen the argument over and over again calling anti-GMO (which I am not btw) anti-science. I’ve even seen this argument against pro-labelling people (completely different argument).

    This is the wrong argument for your industry and one GE advocates should stay away from. If you go to a GI specialist, at least half of them will tell you to stay away from GMO foods entirely. This happened to me twice. This seems odd when advocates of GMOs claim to have academic consensus.

    The issue here is not the conflict, rather the way people in your industry react to dissenting opinions. There are people (paid and otherwise) whose only task in life is to troll message boards to shout down at people just trying to figure this situation out. This leads to even greater skepticism.

    I also think that anyone who doesn’t work for Monsanto but supports GE should run from Monsanto screaming. They are cutting edge, but consistently make many unethical choices. I applaud your post, and your perspective. Thanks for your time.

  5. Well-stated, David, and very much appreciate you bringing facts and reason to a variety of natural resource discussions.

  6. David, thanks for your clear and most helpful statement and your important research work on GMOs. Evidence of net benefits for people and ecology of biotechnologies will be more and more convincing. And as more small businesses actually enter the scenery, the focus on big business concerns will diminish in the future. Best, Joachim

    • Joachim: You are correct and that is part of the reason the anti-GMO industry is pushing so hard for increased regulations/costs of all new GE crops. if they can make the regulation costs prohibitive then most small developers will be unable to advance their discoveries to market.

  7. Very well articulated set of points, as usual, David.
    It seems to me that especially with Monsanto and GMO in the same sentence, people sometimes conflate two different factors:
    The business practices of Monsanto
    The creation and availability of GMOs

    Some of the arguments one hears from people who are anti-GMO, apply to the unknown, projected environmental effects of GMOs, but most apply to the practices pursued by Monsanto.

    I am agnostic on the GMO issue — if viewed as an advance in plant breeding, is there an objection to plant breeding?
    if viewed from a perspective that we are modifying nature, sigh, our very existence does that.

    Monsanto’s business practices and their impact on farmers may be a fair target — I have not studied this issue, but find it interesting that those arguments are often brought up in the same larger argument against GMOs

    So, if David makes a rational argument (at least his rationale) for GMOs, then he is considered in the pay of Monsanto?

  8. David, thank you for this piece. I often get asked (with built in assumptions) about GMOs and Monstanto and I find it very difficult to explain the complexity and grey areas of the debate. Thanks for sharing it with the ELP group email list.
    Christie Getman (ELP’09)

  9. Great article! I have also been working on making GMOs for some 20 years, for reasons as diverse as making virus-resistant maize, to making vaccines and biologics – and I have lost count of how many times I have been asked about Monsanto. I have received money from biotech firms and from pharma, but never from Monsanto – yet I am immediately tarred with the Big M brush of shame, and also dismissed as a dishonest broker in any discussion about GMOs.

    Strange, that: I got into this business to try and do some good; to improve crops for poor people; to make drugs for developing country markets – yet I’m obviously in Monsanto’s pocket and my opinion is worth nothing.

    So it goes.

  10. David! Your points are well elucidated and strait forward, but opinions conceived or bought are like two edge-sword that are difficult to convince or reject. Because both have specific functions to perform and those that are in different schools of thought will see differently.

    The same debate was experimented between Profs Claire Kremen and David during the last Bearselp programme 2014 session, during which they argued for or against GMO and Agro-diversity. Though politics can not be overruled in any system but pros and cons of the Modified Organisms have proved beyond reasonable doubt that danger is looming in the world health sector with continuous increase in health-related symptoms and diseases both in advanced and developing countries. Likewise ecosystem is facing untold loss and destruction (climate change).

    If care is not taken to control the wheel of technological advancement, truly there will be plenty of food being supplied by GMO but will produce more unhealthy population that will feed on them either paid by Monsantos or not, which is not main point of argument.

  11. i make my living from GMO free ingredients and yet believe in what professor Zilberman states. i am not a hypocrite, just making a salary while pursuing my opinion, without felling guilty.
    Zev

  12. Dear David: Thanks for a nice post, I think we should not have a doubt on the integrity and honesty of some one or of any organization. We must appreciate the contributions of either sides of supporters and deniers of GMOs. Your contribution in research on GMO for supporting environmental conservation and poor segment of the society is invaluable but the voice of environmentalists and NGOs for environmental protection must be appreciated as well. I think that building a general view about all NGOs and environmental organization that they are compelled by money business and donors priority would be unfair and is same like view about you paid by Monsanto.

    Finally we must welcome the critique and diversity in opinions because the diversity is the first path of truth.

    –Kakar

  13. Money does play a role in this seemingly never-ending debate over GMOs. I submit that if we “follow the money” (as we are constantly urged to do), a clear path will lead us to the organic food industry, a multi-billion dollar purveyor of fear and untruths.

    Many studies (including a comprehensive one from Stanford) have shown that organic foods are not significantly more nutritious than conventional products. Do they taste better? That is, of course, subjective — but I recommend a viewing of Penn and Teller’s short video on YouTube (look up organic food tasting/Penn and Teller).

    I find it an outrage that a scholar of professor Zilberman’s caliber should have his integrity questioned by activists whose main accomplishment has been to deprive children in the Third World of vitamin A-enhanced Golden Rice.

  14. Dear David, Thanks for an excellent post. As an economist, I really appreciate your point that people are motivated by many forces other than money (including honor), and its corollary that NGOs are just as concerned about their financial bottom line as any corporation. They make their money in different ways, but they have to make money to survive. That doesn’t mean money is ALL they care about, but they are not purely altruistic.

    The tendency for each side in this debate to dismiss the other as delusional or corrupt is very worrying. As scientists (even social scientists) we ought to be able to look at evidence, question our own assumptions, and change our minds when the evidence warrants. I’m afraid too many of us are just looking for evidence that reinforces our prior beliefs.

    Terri

  15. David, You are an honest broker in every sense — thank you for continuing to bring good economics/science to critical important human issues. Cathy Kling

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