Anti-biotech group uses big tobacco strategy to refute GM research

In 1839, in the historical play Cardinal Richelieu, playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Since 2014, in both the United States and Canada, the pen has been progressively attacked by the sword.

Academic freedoms of biotech researchers have been attacked by an organization known as the US Right to Know (USRTK).

The USRTK is a U.S. shell organization (funded by more than $400,000 per year from the organic industry) created to attack academic research on the benefits of biotechnology and genetically modified crops. The organization works to attack, discredit and scare academics.

So far, more than 40 academics have been publicly accused of being corrupted by the biotech industry.

The USRTK has also demanded access to academics’ and researchers’ work emails in attempts to discredit them.

The USRTK has adopted a method used by the big tobacco companies to establish distrust in scientists.

In their book Merchants of Doubt, authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway identify how the tobacco industry organized targeted criticisms of the American surgeon general and scientists that reported the health dangers of smoking.

Tobacco companies in the 1960s funded shell organizations to refute the research on the dangers of smoking. In addition, these organizations attempted to tarnish the reputations of the authors (scientists and academics) of this research.

Like big tobacco, USRTK (or perhaps big organic) has adopted the strategy of “killing the messenger.” By attacking academics researching the impacts and benefits of GM crops, USRTK is creating a negative environment and trying to scare the academic community to step back from future involvement on this research area.

This is an issue because it threatens the freedoms of academics to probe, explore and research the good and the bad of the leading issues of the day.

Using an actual sword today is rather passé. Instead, the USRTK sword is access to email requests, used to damage the reputation of respected and credible academics.

In its latest sword thrust, the USRTK has launched an attack on the University of Saskatchewan by accusing professor Peter Phillips and myself.

In my case, hundreds of hours will be spent sifting through my emails, time that I could better spend mentoring students or working on important agricultural projects, such as those in developing countries.

Led by Gary Ruskin, it seems that the USRTK firmly believe that academic freedoms should not exist in our society.

Instead, they would prefer that special interest groups (like organic companies) dictate what re-search should be allowed to be conducted by academics.

There’s no honour in riding their steeds into university offices, waving their swords around and terrifying those who follow academic professionalism in GM crop research.

Such campaigns of fear and intimidation have failed countless times throughout history and I hope it fails again.

While frustrating, the “Big Tobacco” strategy that the USRTK is employing doesn’t work. It didn’t work for the large tobacco companies in the 1960s and 1970s be-cause most of them were sued for the health problems caused by their product.

Ruskin and the organic industry are terrified that the message about the health and environmental benefits from GM crops is gaining acceptance by the public and are mounting up, swords in hand, to strike fear into the hearts of those of us that undertake this research.

It would appear that Bulwer-Lytton’s words are as true today as they were 180 years ago. There’s strong evidence that the academic pen is indeed mightier than Ruskin’s USRTK organic sword.

Stuart Smyth is an assistant professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s agricultural and resource economics department and holds the university’s Industry Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation. This blog appeared on the SAIFood website.

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