April was full of indicators that the tide is turning in favor of science and sound evidence in the US media. From the rising scrutiny of anti-biotech messengers Dr. Oz and the Food Babe, to the Daily Show's comic look at GM-critic Jeffrey Smith which featured Cornell's own Walter DeJong, an evidence-driven potato breeder, as protagonist, the month was encouraging for allies of science. As the month closed, there was overwhelming criticism of fast food chain Chipotle's announcement they were no longer serving GMO food. Critics of Chipotle's attempt to use unfounded fear of GMOs to bolster their sales came from as diverse sources as enviro magazine, Mother Jones, to reputable dailies like the Washington Post, and heralded bloggers such as NPR's Dan Charles. The conversation is changing in favor of science and evidence.
In Africa, a major milestone was reached with the passage of Nigeria's Biosafety bill — an achievement we celebrate with our Nigerian Science Allies, including OFAB director Rose Gidado. In the Western Hemisphere, Brazilians celebrated the approval of GE eucalyptus — a product that stands to improve Brazil's environmental footprint through increased yields and reduced deforestation.
The Alliance staff covered lots of ground this month, meeting farmers in India who are reaping the health, environmental, and monetary benefits of Bt cotton. We travelled to Bangladesh to talk to farmers who are growing GE eggplant that requires fewer pesticides — a technology that the farmers we met in West Bengal India, in contrast, cannot yet access.
In Kenya, we met farmers pushing for access to important climate-ready innovations such as water-efficient and disease-resistant maize. We'll soon share these stories with you on our website.
The global Alliance network was strengthened this month as 48 allies from 16 countries honed skills to better organize our pro-science efforts in a two-day Alliance for Science Biotechnology leadership program short course, held in Nairobi, in collaboration with founding Science Ally Margaret Karembu, of ISAAA.
Scientists needed to help journalists and policy-makers improve their coverage and understanding of ag biotech and human genetics issues. Learn more about how you can share your expertise to improve public understanding at the Genetic Experts News Service.
12-Week Fellowship Program in Science Communications
Starting August 2015, the Alliance is launching our Global Leadership Fellows Program, a certificate program designed to empower emerging leaders who will improve science communications and promote evidence-based decision-making around the globe. For more information on the 12-week program's curriculum and application requirements, visit our program web site.
I hope you enjoy these accounts and more in May's issue of the Monthly Monitor. Please continue to help us grow our collaborative community by sharing this newsletter and encouraging the allies in your networks to Join the Allliance.
Sarah Evanega Director, Cornell Alliance for Science
Grassroots from the Ground Up: The Alliance for Science's First Course
How do you build a successful grassroots campaign as opposed to random, haphazard
campaigning, and #askforevidence instead of caving to anti-GMO activists? These were just some of the questions addressed during the Alliance for Science's first Biotechnology Leadership Course, held in Nairobi, Kenya, April 10-11. The two-day course involved intensive training for leaders around the globe who are committed to advocating for increased access to agricultural innovations, including biotechnology. "There are many passionate participants eager to grow and strengthen the Alliance," said Sarah Davidson Evanega, director of the Alliance. <More>
Nigeria Approves Biosafety Bill, Paving the Way for GE Crops
On April 21, Nigeria's outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan signed the country's Biosafety Act, paving the way for the introduction of biotech crops that will play a critical role in ensuring food security for Africa's most populous nation.
Jonathan's approval, which concludes a nearly 10-year effort to gain passage of the Biosafety Act, was hailed by proponents as a critical step in giving Nigerian farmers access to GE seeds that are resistant to drought and pests, and that could vastly reduce the need for costly fertilizers and insecticides.
"[Biotech] will create more employment, boost food production that will put a smile on the faces of farmers and elevate hunger if given good attention by government," said Professor Lucy Jumeyi Ogbadu, the Director General and CEO of Nigeria's Biotechnology Development Agency, in a release. <More>
How I Got Converted to GMO Food: A Report from Bangladesh
Mohammed Rahman used to spray his crops with insecticides dozens of times each year; he no longer needs to spray and his yield has doubled. Rahman now sells his brinjal at a small premium at a local market, billing them as "insecticide free." His profits are increasing.
Rahman's story was reported last month by the Alliance's Mark Lynas, who saw firsthand the transformative impact of GE eggplant on the lives of smallholder farmers in Bangladesh. Writing for the New York Times, Lynas described how Bt eggplant provided by the government-run Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute has eliminated the need for dangerous and costly pesticides for the 108 farmers participating in the crop trial. Although Lynas's report reveals the life changing potential of Bt brinjal, it also shows the ominous challenges facing scientists and farmers in Bangladesh, and throughout the developing world. <More>
Golden Rice Scientists Receive White House Humanitarian Award
Last month, the White House honored three of the Golden Rice Project's leading scientists not for their scientific accomplishment, but for an intellectual property innovation — one that has created the enabling conditions for tens of millions of people to benefit from Vitamin-A enhanced rice. <More>
GENeS Launches — New Resource Aims to Improve Media Coverage of Ag Biotech
How often have you been frustrated by the rampant misinformation in media coverage of ag biotech? How many times have you wondered why a reporter quoted that source, or that agenda-driven organization rather than the field's leading expert?
Late last month, a new project called the Genetic Expert News Service (GENeS)launched with the goal of significantly improving the accuracy of media coverage of genetics and biotechnology. When news about biotechnology breaks, journalists often struggle to answer critical questions on deadline.<More>
C.S. Prakash To Receive Borlaug Communications Award
Anyone who has closely tracked the GMO conversation over the past decade knows the name C.S. Prakash. Although Channapatana S. Prakash is perhaps most widely known for his Internet advocacy (beginning with the pioneering AgBioView, an email newsletter that curated global biotech news and played a critical role in forging a network of thousands of biotech allies), his work has extended far beyond the Internet.
Last month, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) announced that it will honor Prakash, a Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics at Tuskegee University, with its 2015 Borlaug Communication Award. <More>
Victory for Science: Brazil Approves FuturaGene's Biotech Eucalyptus Tree
Last month, the global scientific community won a huge victory when Brazil's National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio) approved the commercial use of the first high-yield biotech eucalyptus tree — a tree that will produce more wood using less land.
As many Monthly Monitor readers know, the decision is particularly meaningful because it comes less than six weeks after hundreds of anti-GMO protestors attempted to stop the approval process for the GM tree — despite years of biosafety assessment that has concluded that the tree is just as safe as conventionally-bred eucalyptus trees. <More>
In the Aftermath of Science#14, Kevin Folta Warns that FOIAs are "Chilling" Dialogue; Urges Scientists to Communicate
University of Florida horticulturalist Kevin Folta was one of the 14 public sector scientists who received Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in February demanding that he share years of personal correspondence with a list of agricultural companies, trade organizations, communications and NGOs.
In an April essay for the American Society for Plant Biology, Folta makes a powerful and deeply personal appeal to fellow scientists. Folta shares his firsthand observation of how the US RTK has had a "chilling" impact on colleagues, and why he believes it's so critical that fellow scientists are not intimidated by these tactics. "To move science's discoveries from the laboratory to widely accepted application will require all of our participation," Folta writes, "and communicating with a curious public must become a priority mission for us as scientists." Read Folta's full essay here.
5 Questions with Alan Levinovitz, author of The Gluten Lie
Why do so many people believe in food fears that aren't supported by solid scientific evidence?
Alan Levinovitz, author of a new book, The Gluten Lie, provides a fresh perspective on this vexing question in this month's Alliance Q&A. "It's not that we need more evidence," says Levinovitz, "it's that we need to address myths and superstitions underlying the fears." <More>
The Daily Show Examines Activist Jeffrey Smith's Claims about GMO Potatoes — And Comes Out in Favor of Science
On April 23, Jon Stewart's popular news satire show took a look at activist Jeffrey Smith's claims about the health risks of a GMO potato recently approved by the FDA. The Daily Show has frequently tackled science-related issues such as climate change, evolution, and vaccines, but has shied away from GMOs. In a hugely encouraging sign that the cultural tide is changing in favor of the scientific consensus on GMO, the Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi interviewed Jeffrey Smith about the J.R. Simplot company's Innate potatoes, and then checks Smith's claims about the potato's health risks with a leading scientist, Cornell's very own Walter De Jong, Associate Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics. Watch the Daily Show's hilarious "The Return of Simplot Conspiracy."
India Emerges as Center of GE Research, but Foreign Financed Protests Slow Adoption
India is showing great potential to become a world leader in ag biotech, but a massive, well-funded and growing anti-GM movement is succeeding in blocking adoption, writes Vijay K. Vijayaraghavan in the Genetic Literacy Project. <More>
Could New Gene-Editing Technologies Help Spawn Small Biotech Companies?
In recent months, the Monthly Monitor has tracked the mounting coverage of gene-editing techniques like TALENs and CRISPR. We've read about their potential to accelerate breeding programs, to avoid the regulations associated with GMOs, and to dispel consumer fears of transgenics. But in last month's MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado reported on another potential implication of the new generation of gene-editing techniques: they could foster the growth of smaller biotech companies. <More>
A Psychological Explanation for GMO Opposition
A new paper in the journal Trends in Plant Science, titled "The Intuitive Appeal of GMO Opposition," draws on research in the psychological sciences to shed light on the widening gulf between the public's perception of GMOs and the overwhelming scientific evidence about their safety.
The researchers — a team of Belgian philosophers and biologists — argue that opposition to GMOs stems from deep cognitive biases, and that humans are highly susceptible to emotional appeals put out by environmental organizations and other opponents of GMOs. <More>
Each month, the Alliance tracks the world's top news and opinions on agricultural biotechnology. If you or someone in your organization is interested in contributing reports to the Monthly Monitor, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. We always encourage you to submit important news reports from your region.
1. Chipotle Stops Using GE Ingredients
Chipotle Mexican Grill announced last month that it has removed all ingredients made from GMOs from its menu, except for beverages. Although the move is part of a growing trend in the food industry (food companies such as Nestle, Pepsi, and Kraft all have pledged to offer GMO-free products), Chipotle is the first major restaurant chain to declare itself GMO-free. Not surprisingly, the announcement from a company with more than 1700 stores in North America and Europe generated global media coverage and polarized responses. <More>
2. Dr. Oz Faces Mounting Criticism For Promoting Junk Science on Health Remedies, GMOs
Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity physician nicknamed "America's Doctor," faced furious criticism in April for offering health advice that was not supported by sound science, and for giving voice to views — such as those of anti-GMO activist Jeffrey Smith — that grossly conflict with the scientific consensus. <More>
3. EU Approves GM Crops, Pushes Forth Plan to Let Member States Decide
Last month, the European Union generated widespread media coverage with two major announcements on biotech foods. The EU authorized 10 new types of GM maize, soybeans, cotton, and oilseed rape as either human food or animal feed. They are the first new GM crops approved by the EU since 2013, according to Reuters. The EU also announced the details of its plan — approved by the European Parliament in January — to allow its individual member states to decide for themselves whether to cultivate GE foods. <More>
4. Germany's National Academy of Science Strongly Endorses GM Crops
The debate over the future of GM crops is growing in Germany, reported Ned Stafford in Chemistry World. In late March, Leopoldina, Germany's national academy of sciences, strongly endorsed the adoption of GM crops in a statement that highlighted the safety of modern molecular breeding and its economic and environmental benefits.
The GM statement, issued by the country's oldest scientific society, comes as the debate over the future of GM foods begins in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. In anticipation of the approval of the EU's plan to shift authority on GMO to member states, anti-GMO activists and politicians, including the country's environment minister Barbara Hendricks, are backing efforts to ban cultivation of GM crops in Germany.<More>
5. Japanese Farmers Petition for GM Field Tests
On April 7, a coalition of 50 Japanese farmers in the cities of Iwamizawa and Kitami formally submitted a petition requesting field trials of GM soybean, maize, and sugar beet. According to ISAAA, the petition, submitted to the Hokkaido Research Organization, is the first effort initiated by Japanese farmers to test GM crops in the field. <More>
Russia: GMO Legislation Continues to Tighten
Russia is considering a complete ban on the cultivation of grain and livestock containing GMOs, reported Vladislav Vorotnikov in Global Meat News. Last month, Russia's State Duma started to debate a new bill, which could add a number of amendments to the current legislation on GMOs. <More>
Ghana: GE Cowpea, Rice Faces Lawsuit
Just two months after reports that Bt cowpea had succeeded in the second year of field trials, the crop faces a challenge from one of Ghana's leading political parties. The Convention People's Party (CPP) announced last month that it is joining the organization Food Sovereignty Ghana in a lawsuit that would stop the release of GE cowpea and rice. <More>
US: Judge Upholds Vermont's GMO Labeling Law
A federal judge has rejected a bid to strike down a Vermont law that would make the state the first in the country to require GMO labeling, the Associated Press reported. <More>
Kenya: Scientists: "Repeal Ban on GMO Imports Now"
A group of leading scientists meeting at the International Agri-biotech and Biosafety Communication conference in Nairobi last month harshly criticized the country's Health Secretary for ignoring the opinion of the National Biosafety Authority in favor of a task force report whose composition was "biased," the Daily Nation reported. In a statement, the group called for an immediate repeal of the country's ban on GMO imports.<More>
Oceania: Facing Food Security Emergency, Vanuatu Threatens to Deport Anti-GMO group
Vanuatu, a tiny South Pacific nation 1000 miles off the coast of Australia, has taken an unprecedented stand against anti-GMO activists. According to a report on Radio New Zealand, the island nation has threatened the anti-GMO group, called the New Caledonian NGO Stop GMO Pacific, with deportation if it does not stop spreading what the government is calling "unnecessary propaganda about the danger of GM plant material." <More>