If you can’t attack the message, attack the messenger. The recent Civil Beat article by Dr. Hector Valenzuela brought to light a disturbing theme in the ongoing discussions about genetically modified crops – the implication that scientists who conduct research on crop genetics or have received funding to support their research are biased and cannot be trusted to make truthful statements about GM crops.

This unfounded and inaccurate accusation that research funding buys biased results has actually been stretched even further as essentially a blanket condemnation of all university agricultural scientists (ironically except for those making the accusation). For example, in a recent radio interview about the GMO controversy in Hawaii, it was noted that agricultural scientists at the University of Florida were guilty of a conflict of interest because a pesticide manufacturer had been acknowledged in an agricultural publication distributed by that university. There was no connection to the particular scientist being discussed, except that he was in the same college.

The implication that funded research equals biased research perpetuates a misunderstanding about how universities operate. Universities pay for faculty salaries and buildings. All other costs of doing scientific research are expected to come from extramural grants and contracts. This is how professors pay student stipends, buy supplies and equipment, and can afford to travel for research purposes or to attend conferences. To imply that faculty sell their souls for this financial support is ridiculous.

In science, obtaining extramural funds is part of a professor’s job, so that she can carry out research that benefits the public. Scientists who are unable to obtain either private or public support for their research efforts would never be considered more “independent” by their colleagues, although it’s possible in some cases that they might be considered less productive. Please note that I’m talking about university science research specifically here, since certainly there are some fields of study where extramural funding is not as necessary nor the norm.

Private companies fund research at universities precisely because they want new and unbiased information. They look to experts in the field for honest results. When the research funding comes from public agencies like USDA, as is the case with Dr. Miyasaka and others accused of conflicts of interest by Dr. Valenzuela, it is especially ludicrous to condemn any statements they make about the benefits of GM crops as biased.

These are scientists with degrees in crop science who have devoted their careers to applying modern tools to solve serious agricultural problems. It sets a dangerous precedent for society when we are told that we can’t believe the real experts, who have spent years studying crop science and genetics. Instead, we are asked to trust individuals who do not have such training and experience and whose lack of knowledge is misconstrued to mean a lack of bias.

Unfounded attacks on the ethics and motives of agricultural researchers, who are often the peers and colleagues of those making the attacks, should be unacceptable. Likewise, the claims are misleading that there is no scientific consensus supporting GM crop safety when one clearly exists, as is well illustrated hereand here. Of course there are always dissenters, and references continue to be made to a few debunked studies purporting to demonstrate harm.

Setting imaginary fears aside, there are legitimate issues to discuss here, but they are more political than scientific issues. Unfortunately, fear sells better than serious discussions of land use policy, population growth, climate change, energy and economic policies.

Instead of fearing bogeymen, we need to focus on the need to apply all the tools available to us to create sustainable agriculture systems in the face of a rapidly increasing population, rising energy costs, constant pest and disease pressure, and arid and less fertile land across the globe. Clearly, genetic modification is expensive and will not be the answer to every problem, but it can be an important tool to fight pests, to increase yields while decreasing the need for inputs like fertilizer and water, and to save lives by increasing plant nutritional content. Rather than attacking each other, we really need to work together to feed the world.

About the author: Dr. Ken Grace is an entomologist and Interim Associate Dean and Director for Research in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), University of Hawaii at Manoa. He has been with the college for 24 years, including nine years as chair of the Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences. The views expressed are his own and not those of CTAHR.

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