8 December 2015

Statement on Philippines Supreme Court decision

The Cornell Alliance for Science would like to express its disappointment in light of the decision on Bt talong (eggplant) by the Supreme Court of the Philippines on December 8, 2015.

According to the decision, the field-testing of Bt talong is "permanently enjoined," or prohibited. Additionally, the national biosafety system DA 2002-8 is declared "null and void," while any further field testing, import, or use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) is "temporarily enjoined" until a new biosafety order is passed.

In this decision, the Justices have sided with Greenpeace and others seeking a ban on the testing and development of Bt talong. The Court considered the submitted evidence without due consideration of scientific expertise, to the extent of granting validity to studies already shown unsound by the mainstream scientific community. Unfortunately, sources published by anti-biotechnology activists on the Internet were given more weight than peer-reviewed scientific articles published by world-renowned experts in top-ranked scholarly journals.

Following evidence submitted by Greenpeace and its witnesses at earlier hearings to the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court ignored authoritative scientific governing bodies that attest to the absence of unique risks of GMOs. Such includes widely cited statements from organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. National Academies of Science, and other national academies around the world.

By blatantly privileging to the "no consensus" statements published by dissenting activist organizations, this court decision sets a bad precedent. The same reasoning could be applied in other areas such as climate science or vaccination research, where small numbers of dissenters challenge the overwhelming weight of expert opinion. It is disappointing that the Supreme Court gave equal merit to these witnesses despite their varying relevant scientific backgrounds and expertise on the subject — of Bt talong in particular, and GMOs in general. Should membership of a high caliber expert institution or a distinguished publication record in the peer-reviewed literature not carry more weight than a group that offers retracted articles or the misrepresentation of facts as evidence? This is an example of "false balance" of representation of science in action, and results in factually inaccurate statements going into the record, unchallenged.

As a partner institution involved in the development of Bt talong in the Philippines, as well as in India and Bangladesh (as part of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II of USAID), the Alliance for Science at Cornell University rejects the assertions of witnesses supplied by anti-GMO groups. The Court states: "There exists a preponderance of evidence that the release of GMOs into the environment threatens to damage our ecosystems... and eventually the health of our people once the Bt eggplants are consumed as food."

This is not the case: Our university staff and faculty would not engage in a project with knowledge of even a small real risk of serious harm to the environment or human health. Bt crops have been widely consumed in the global food supply for nearly two decades, and hundreds of studies have confirmed that the Bt proteins are not toxic to animals other than target pest species. The same Bt protein is widely used as a pesticide spray by organic farmers.

In ruling against Bt talong, the Supreme Court uses the precautionary principle ill advisedly. It states that "uncertainty, the possibility of irreversible harm and the possibility of serious harm" posed by Bt talong field trials warrant invocation of the precautionary principle; that "cases must be resolved in favor of the constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology." Such a ruling neglects the already existing risk to farmers, consumers, and the environment of a cropping system that is dependent on the use of high inputs of potentially toxic insecticides.

In uncritically accepting the negative overall framing of the GMO issue presented by Greenpeace and other activist groups, the Court leaves little room for a genuinely balanced consideration of risks and benefits. This hinders scientific progress, and interrupts the knowledge-based improvements in agricultural sustainability in the Philippines. It denies the choice of farmers interested in cultivating Bt talong as a cost-effective, safer pest management method.

Stopping science and technological progress does not automatically reduce risk; instead, it raises different risks by not addressing pressing food security and environmental problems these emerging technologies are designed to address.  

The Cornell Alliance for Science will continue to promote an informed conversation about plant biotechnology with the express goal of allowing farmers and consumers worldwide access to innovation needed to create a more sustainable agricultural system. The recent Philippine Supreme Court decision is a step backwards in this effort. It is a blow to the entire global scientific and agricultural communities, and a sad day for science.

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23 November 2015

Cornell Alliance for Science Launches
Global Conversation to End Hunger

The Cornell Alliance for Science converged on the United Nations Nov. 17 to launch a global conversation on ending world hunger.

As the Manhattan skyline twinkled in the background, the Alliance's 25 newly graduated Global Leadership Fellows mingled with diplomats, journalists, academics and science allies, sharing the personal stories that prompted them to embrace technological tools in the quest for food security.

The Fellows, who represent 10 nations, had just completed a 12-week intensive course in science, communications and grassroots organizing at Cornell University. They were the first cohorts in a pioneering program conceived by Cornell plant biologist Dr. Sarah Evanega and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"We must use the tools of science to end the disparity we see around the world," Evanega told the crowd of 100 persons assembled at the gala. "I'd like to work toward ensuring that every parent has the opportunity to put warm nutritious food in front of their children three times a day, and that every mother can both feed her children and send them to school."

Representatives from the Ghana, Indonesia, Uganda and Kenya embassies spoke of the critical need to address world hunger issues and the role that biotechnology can play in advancing agriculture.

"I feel there couldn't be a better place than the UN to begin a conversation, but be careful of the UN — sometimes we talk too much and forget implementation in the field," said Indonesian Ambassador Desra Percaya. "It's very important."

The Fellows, who return to their countries this week, will pursue that implementation through campaigns and communication strategies aimed at improving public understanding of the role that biotechnology and science can play in ending hunger.

"Access to agricultural innovations can reduce drudgery, increase productivity and incomes, and ultimately increase opportunities for education," Evanega said.

"You must get to the villages where people are so you can help them make a difference, because that is where the problem is," Kenyan goodwill ambassador Peter Rono advised the Fellows.

"I have no doubt their efforts will be of great consequence," said Dr. Max Pfeffer, Senior Associate Dean of Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Science.

Among those sharing their personal stories were Father Emmanuel C. Alparce of the Philippines, who said that millions of his countrymen are hungry. "I'm here because I believe biotech will improve the lives of my people and my farmers," he said.

Joni Kamiya told of how her father's Hawaii papaya farm was suffering "a slow death" from the ravages of a plant virus until Cornell scientists genetically engineered a virus-resistant variety.

"He accepted this technology to keep our farm going," she said, noting that now she devotes much of her time to dispelling misinformation about biotechnology on social media. "It's funny that my little thing on the Internet was helping farmers in Hawaii, and hopefully it will help others around the world."

Nassib Mugwanya spoke of how farmers in his home country of Uganda are suffering from hunger and economic setbacks because plant viruses are ravaging the essential cassava crop. Scientists have genetically engineered cassava to resist these viruses, but political activists have blocked its introduction.

"Even though the solution is right in front of us, right within our reach, the legislative climate has not been right to have this crop on their farms," he said.

Jayson Merkley, an Oregon-based researcher with Vegan GMO, told of how he'd initially been opposed to biotechnology, but had come to understand that the anti-GMO stance held by most vegans is hindering efforts to address hunger and poverty.

"Despite being good people with the best of intentions, we're driving a wedge between these biotech tools and the people who need them," Merkley said.

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10 June 2015

Cornell Alliance for Science launches Global Ag Journalism Fellowship

Seoul, South Korea: The Cornell Alliance for Science is launching a global fellowship program to support journalism in agriculture. The program was announced during a session jointly sponsored by the Alliance for Science and SciDev.Net that explores the role of journalists in promoting technology choice for farmers at the 9th Conference of the World Federation of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea on June 10, 2015.

“We want to support independent journalists who are doing in-depth reporting on important topics in agriculture related to food security and innovative agricultural practices,” said Sarah Evanega, director of the Alliance for Science. “We want to hear about scientists who are engaged with end users in developing new technologies, the men and women farmers who are adopting them, novel approaches to communicating about the technologies, and — at the end of the day — what the impact is for families and communities.”

According to Evanega, there will be two kinds of fellowships: opportunities that support journalists working solo, and opportunities that support collaborations involving two or more journalists. For the latter option, the Alliance encourages applications from journalists where half of the team comes from the developing world, and the other half from more developed countries.

“It's great to see the Alliance recognize the particular value and needs of journalists from the industrializing world. I am also happy to see the provision for some innovative collaboration between journalists,” said Nick Ishmael Perkins, director of SciDev.Net, the world’s leading online source of news and analysis about science and technology across the developing world. 

Individual Journalism Fellowship awards will be issued in amounts from $5000 to $15,000. Collaborative Journalism Fellowship awards will be issued in amounts up to $25,000. The Alliance hopes that the Collaborative track will inspire working partnerships among journalists who may otherwise not have the opportunity to work together.

“Supporting journalists to write articles that explore access to innovation is core to the Alliance’s mission,” said Evanega.

The Alliance for Science is a communications initiative with the goal of promoting access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability and raising the quality of life globally. Based at Cornell University and funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Alliance is evolving chapters with partners around the globe.

Applications will be reviewed beginning July 1, 2015 and will operate on a rolling basis.  To apply, see:

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1 April 2015

US Government Seeks Young Scientists for $25,000 ASPIRE Prize   

The United States Department of State is seeking nominations to represent the United States for the 2015 APEC Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education (ASPIRE).  Sponsored by Wiley and Elsevier, the $25,000 ASPIRE Prize award recognizes young scientists who have demonstrated a commitment to both excellence in scientific research, cooperation with scientists from other Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries. The deadline for nominees is April 20th. For more information on how to apply, please click here


30 March 2015

Brazilian Scientists Thank the Alliance and our Allies

Recently over 1400 people showed their support to researchers in Brazil whose crops had been destroyed, and encouraged the Brazilian government to continue important meetings on the potential use of biotechnology. Click here to learn more. The scientists at Futuregene, whose research was vandalized, asked the Alliance to send the signers their thank you message: 

"We would like to express our gratitude for the petition of support by the international scientific community condemning the invasion of FuturaGene's facilities in Brazil and the disruption of the Brazilian Technical Commission of Biosafety (CTNBio) meeting of March the 5th, which was due to deliberate and vote on the submission by FuturaGene for the commercial deployment of a yield enhanced genetically modified eucalyptus event. 

These violent acts came as a shocking surprise both for FuturaGene and the CTNBio. They are in stark contrast to the open and transparent dialogue which FuturaGene has maintained with civil society throughout its development process and against the legal and democratic principles under which the CTNBio is constituted, as well as the basic need and right to conduct objective scientific discovery and development for the betterment of society. 

The significant support that the initiative has assembled from scientists and society in general is of great importance to FuturaGene, since it encourages us to persevere in our mission towards building a more sustainable future through technological innovation. We believe it will also be highly appreciated by the CTNBio members, as this is a clear demonstration of sympathy and support from their scientific peers from around the world.

Warm regards,

The FuturaGene Team"


21 August 2014

New Cornell Alliance for Science awarded grant

The Cornell Alliance for Science seeks to add a stronger voice for science and depolarize the charged debate around agricultural biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Supported by a $5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science will help inform decision-makers and consumers through an online information portal and training programs to help researchers and stakeholders effectively communicate the potential impacts of agricultural technology and how such technology works.

The project will involve developing multimedia resources, including videos of farmers from around the world documenting their struggles to deal with pests, diseases, crop failure and the limited resources available in the face of poverty and climate change.

“Proponents and opponents alike speculate whether biotech crops are of benefit to farmers, but rarely are those farmers engaged in the biotech discourse or their voices heard,” said Sarah Evanega, senior associate director of International Programs in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), who will lead the project.

“Our goal is to depolarize the GMO debate and engage with potential partners who may share common values around poverty reduction and sustainable agriculture, but may not be well informed about the potential biotechnology has for solving major agricultural challenges,” Evanega said. “For instance, pro-biotech activists share a lot of the same anti-pesticide, low-input, sustainable-agriculture vision as the organic movement.”

Evanega and her team hope to help engage such potential partners and foster more constructive policies about biotechnology as a useful tool to address major agricultural challenges.

The grant will allow the Cornell Alliance for Science to host annual conferences, short courses and semesterlong CALS certificate programs in biotechnology leadership, among other activities.

Evanega said the initial concept was informed by a February 2014 gathering at Cornell of 34 representatives from public sector and not-for-profit organizations in 12 countries that discussed a new vision for biotechnology communications.

“Like elsewhere in the world, African scientists still find it challenging to effectively inform the public about their work and its relevance to society,” said Barbara M. Zawedde, coordinator of the Uganda Biosciences Information Center at the National Agricultural Research Organization. “Our effective communication will enable African farmers and citizens to exercise their sovereign right of informed decisions on whether to adopt certain crops and technologies depending on their needs and priorities.”

In part because of its land-grant heritage, CALS regularly hosts forums and media events about various agricultural technologies and the role they could play in providing sustainable solutions to major global challenges.

“Biotechnology is a potential game-changer for farmers in less developed countries and an important tool in the toolbox for addressing global challenges, such as persistent poverty, a changing and erratic climate, and the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050,” said Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS. “Improving agricultural biotechnology communications is a challenge that must be met if innovations developed in public sector institutions like Cornell are ever to reach farmers in their fields.”


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