Drought is threatening to turn Eastern Africa into yet another scene of devastating famine. Already, livestock are dying because they lack water to drink, and the farms can’t grow enough feed for them.
Yet, in Tanzania, government workers recently poured bags of special drought-resistant corn into a pit and set them ablaze.
Biosafety regulations that critics call overly stringent and draconian regarding Genetically Modified Organisms, like the corn in Tanzania, required that workers destroy the food after it had gone through a field trial.
“It struck me as an appalling symbol of GMO regulations,” said Mark Lynas, a visiting fellow for the Cornell University Alliance for Science, who was there when the food was burned in March. “Just a few miles from where they burned the corn, there are people who are desperately hungry because of the current drought.”
The field trial was partly conducted by U.S.-based Monsanto, a favorite target of left-wing criticism for industry research on foods. Lynas said the scientific consensus on GMO is that it is safe. But left-wing pressure has led to “political superstition” when it comes to genetically modified foods, he said.
“This is the left wing equivalent of climate change denialism,” said Lynas, “While the anti-GMO people belittle Republicans and industry, they are falling into the same trap as climate change deniers when they claim there is something unsafe about GMO’s.”
The American Academy for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, seems to agree with Lynas’ assessment.
“The science is quite clear,” the AAAS says, “crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”
But anti-GMO activists have taken a hard line on those who promote it. Scientists have been threatened and research labs, including a Monsanto facility in Italy last month, have been bombed. In 2004, less than a year into the program, Greenpeace shut down an initiative helping family farmers in Thailand grow virus-resistant papayas.
Those threats, Lynas said, have had an inevitable chilling effect on science.
“It’s very difficult to be a scientist in an area of political controversy. Why would you go into this area if your work is going to be banned by the European Union because of activist fearmongering?”
The debate over GMO foods is just one example of how political pressure could have a profound impact on science. In 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama made a campaign pledge to require the labeling of genetically modified foods. Critics on the left say he never fulfilled his pledge because of industry resistance.
Today, the Department of Agriculture under President Trump is throwing its weight behind genetically modified foods with a new GMO-friendly information campaign. Democrats have accused the president of turning the USDA into a “pro-industry advertising business.”
In another sign of the new industry-friendly approach, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is overhauling how the EPA does scientific analysis. Pruitt is considering replacing half the scientists on a key EPA advisory board with researchers from the fossil fuel industry.
Former New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, a Democrat, criticized the move away from public sector university researchers.
“Academic scientists play a critical role in informing policy with scientific research results at every level, including the federal government,” he told the Washington Post.
But others say it’s a welcome departure from efforts by previous administrations to bring more government intrusion in science.
“The left can eschew industry-funded research supporting the safety of consumer products because it fits their narrative that ‘Big Business is poisoning our families,’” said Dr. Joseph Perrone, chief science officer at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Accountability in Science. “The Trump Administration has the right idea to rein in previous Administrations’ overreach, such as balancing advisory committees with industry representatives as well as academic scientists.”
Part of the reason for that, say experts, is that public-sector scientists themselves may have become too political.
“In my view, many scientists have become political activists using the pulpit of their positions in prestigious scientific organizations,” said prominent Australian marine geophysicist Peter Ridd of James Cook University in Queensland, who has studied the Great Barrier Reef since 1984.
The wider implication for science and society is profound. In short we can no longer trust scientists or our scientific institutions on environmental and many other issues simply because the requisite amount of checking and replication does not routinely occur,” Ridd told Fox News.
For example, a survey in March by an Australian group called the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, led the Washington Post to opine, “The Great Barrier Reef is Dying.”
Ridd called the survey, partly conducted by his own university, “extremely shoddy.”
“By only focusing on the shallow corals they have probably greatly exaggerated the extent of the bleaching,” Ridd said.
A spokesman for ARC told Fox News the aerial surveys were “carried out by trained and experienced staff” but seemed to distance the group from the shocking headlines seen around the world. The surveys “confirmed widespread coral bleaching,” the spokesman said, “but also showed the bleaching was patchy and there were many reefs that remained largely unaffected.”
Ridd said Trump may be correct in shifting U.S. policy on science.
“The common man and Donald Trump fundamentally don’t trust scientists – in my view with very good reason,” he said. “I say this as a scientist my entire working life.”
Perrone argued that one of the strengths of industry-led science is that it is largely apolitical by design and subject to corrective market forces.
“While there can be bad actors,” he said, “the private sector faces strong incentives to produce safe products and maintain consumer trust though sound science.”
When biased interests drive science, Perrone said trouble often follows. For example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, has received more than $139 million in grants from the U.S. government over the last 20 years. Among other things, the IARC has determined that working the night shift, using cell phones, eating hot dogs and breathing “outdoor air pollution” can all cause cancer.
“This agency permits subpar toxicological studies to push its chemophobic agenda,” Perrone said.
Meanwhile, the EPA Integrated Risk Information System program (IRIS) has been reproached by other federal research entities, like the National Research Council, “for being far too expansive and lacking consistency, transparency, and proper methodology in evaluating the toxicity of chemicals,” added Perrone.
But Holt said U.S.-backed research has significant global impact. Private sector research, he said, while “productive and beneficial” is almost always short-term and product-oriented. Plus, the president doesn’t have an actual plan for science, Holt said.
“The silence of the Trump Administration on matters of science and the appointment of scientists is ominous,” said Holt, who is now CEO of the AAAS. “There are only the vaguest suggestions of plans to fill the many dozens of open science positions. He has given no indication that he understands the purpose of science or the method of science.”
Perrone disagrees but does worry that the Trump administration is moving too aggressively on certain issues.
“As far as science is concerned, the White House seems to be taking two steps forward and one step back,” Perrone told Fox News. “Proposals to indiscriminately slash and burn health and research programming are not the best way to achieve sound science. Poor regulations should be eliminated just as much as thoughtful, pragmatic policies are enacted.”