WePlanet – the ecomodernist group behind the letter – is accused of smelling of astroturf. By Jonathan Matthews and Claire Robinson
When news broke that a majority of MEPs on the environment committee of the European Parliament had voted to scrap safety checks, labelling and liability for new GMOs, the lobby group WePlanet were jubilant, declaring it a “Huge Win!” that showed “we can beat the anti-science lobby if we stand together and get organised”.
And WePlanet were in no doubt about the critical role played in this triumph for deregulation by their Open Letter, signed by 35 Nobel laureates, “calling for Europe not to listen to populist misinformation and ignorance... It is critical that the voices of these eminent scientists have been heard today.”
But the molecular geneticist Professor Michael Antoniou has pointed out that WePlanet’s Open Letter – despite the star power of the Nobel laureate and celebrity author signatories attached to it – is completely “devoid of scientific substance”. It’s also dishonest. And that is not surprising, given the nature of the lobbyists that orchestrated the whole affair.
WePlanet rounded off their celebratory statement about their successful lobbying by telling their supporters to “Donate today to help secure more wins like this!” And they are already offering to cover the cost of transporting their supporters to Strasbourg early next month to demonstrate outside the European Parliament when MEPs vote on deregulation. (This is not the first pro-GMO protest WePlanet have orchestrated.)
Despite their almost continual pleas for donations, WePlanet, formerly known as RePlanet, are in fact lavishly (and extremely dubiously) funded to promote GMOs, alongside nuclear power and synthetic foods. Indeed, they have been accused, with some justification, of having “all the hallmarks of a sophisticated astroturf organisation, whose real job is to advance industry interests, not least by weakening EU regulations around agrochemicals and ‘novel foods’”. Their co-founder and Senior Strategist, Mark Lynas, has also been repeatedly called out for making inaccurate, misleading, and even totally fabricated claims.
It is perhaps not surprising then that WePlanet solicited support for their Open Letter by misleadingly maintaining that under existing GMO regulations, “new genomic techniques (NGTs)”, such as gene editing, are not allowed in the European Union. That isn’t true but it’s par for the course with WePlanet, which in its parallel Reboot Food campaign similarly calls on the EU to “Legalise gene editing, genetic modification and other new breeding techniques.”
In reality, the use of gene editing and older-style genetic modification techniques is perfectly legal in the EU. Similarly, GMOs, whether created via old-style GM or new-style gene editing, have long been legal in Europe, both for consumption and for cultivation. How else could GM maize have been grown for years in both Spain and Portugal?
What the GMO industry and its supporters, like WePlanet, actually object to is the fact that GMOs in Europe can’t currently be placed on the market without being safety assessed, traceable, and labelled, which allows consumers and the food industry to choose to avoid them. Deregulation would make it impossible to do that and so creates a much more attractive market for GMOs.
Billions of euros
Yet WePlanet claim in their letter that “A recent report showed that failure to allow NGTs could cost the European economy 300 billion euros annually in ‘benefits forgone’ across multiple sectors.” Apart from falsely implying NGTs are not currently allowed, this statement also fails to spell out that the report promising the EU all those billions in benefits wasn’t written by experts but was the work of WePlanet’s Mark Lynas, together with a co-author from the ecomodernist Breakthrough Institute, a US think tank that lobbies for techno-fixes.
The report was published by Lynas’s employer, the Gates-funded Alliance for Science – a GMO propaganda outfit based in New York. It was then launched in Europe at an event bought and paid for by WePlanet and the Alliance for Science, who have been working in tandem on promoting deregulation in Europe, including training up young scientists to spread the word.
Despite being deliberately misleading and, as Prof Antoniou says, “devoid of scientific substance”, WePlanet’s Open Letter has attracted over 1,000 scientist signatories and lots of publicity, almost certainly because of the eye-catching support of the 35 Nobel laureates and the two celebrity authors whose names are attached. But these much-advertised star signatories may not be as shiny as they seem.
Much has been made of the letter’s lead signatories, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier – superstars in the world of biotech thanks to their discovery of the CRISPR/Cas gene editing tool, which landed them a Nobel Prize. But however celebrated, Doudna and Charpentier are far from disinterested scientists. They are biotech entrepreneurs who have founded companies to license out CRISPR technology to, among others, the big GMO and chemical corporations. Prominent among these is DuPont – now Corteva, enabling it to achieve its patent-controlled dominance of CRISPR technology in the agricultural arena.
In total, as research by the Italian food sovereignty group Centro Internazionale Crocevia has uncovered, Doudna and Charpentier are listed as inventors on 516 patents filed on CRISPR at the global level, 66 of which are European patents. All of which casts a somewhat different light on their support for relaxing the rules on the technology they’re so heavily invested in.
The letter’s fourth and fifth signatories are its other big-name supporters – Steven Pinker and Peter Singer. But once again, there are reasons to distrust the judgement of these “world-renowned authors”, as Mark Lynas bills them.
Bioethicist Peter Singer is probably best known for his long-standing support for animal rights, but far more controversial is his support not only for the genetic engineering of human beings but for infanticide – his “writings on the permissibility of euthanizing certain disabled newborns (Kuhse and Singer, 1985)... (have) inspired howls of outrage, and accusations of fascism”.
Star psychologist Steven Pinker, like Mark Lynas and his WePlanet colleagues, identifies as an “ecomodernist” and is well known for his euphoric celebrations of technological progress. But like Singer, Pinker has also inspired outrage, not least because of his disregard for inequality and his aid in Jeffrey Epstein’s legal defence. Pinker has also drawn criticism for his association with the Breakthrough Institute and for promoting writings of theirs that downplay the threat from climate change.
Déja vu all over again
But it is the letter’s other lead signatory that probably holds the key not only to how so many other laureates ended up on WePlanet’s letter, but also to who is really orchestrating the whole affair.
Sir Richard J. Roberts is the chief scientific officer for New England Biolabs, a private biotech firm whose products are mentioned in patents from Dow Agrosciences (now part of Corteva) and Monsanto (now owned by Bayer). Roberts is an avid biotech booster who claims millions will die unless GM crops are adopted and that opposing their adoption constitutes “a crime against humanity”. He is also an old hand when it comes to rustling up large numbers of Nobel laureates, often with no expert knowledge of the topic in question, for headline-grabbing open letters in defence of biotech interests.
In 2020, for instance, Roberts organised 77 Nobel laureates to sign onto a letter defending Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance and calling for the reinstatement of its National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, cancelled because of concerns over EcoHealth’s role in controversial work in Wuhan on SARS coronaviruses that some scientists believe could have led to the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems Roberts also “warned off” scientists taking an interest in the possibility that the pandemic had such origins.
Even more to the point is Roberts’ first publicity-seeking laureate effort in 2016 when, in the words of a Washington Post article, “more than 100 Nobel laureates… signed a letter urging Greenpeace to end its opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs)”. That letter centred on highly emotive claims about Greenpeace obstructing the development of golden rice that were subsequently contradicted by a top researcher at the institute actually developing the rice, and which even Mark Lynas felt forced to admit were inaccurate and “overblown”.
PR for the biotech industry
Although Roberts was front and centre of that #Nobels4GMOs campaign, it later emerged that another key player was Monsanto’s former Director of Corporate Communications, Jay Byrne, who even acted as bouncer at a press event organised to promote the letter. Byrne subsequently confirmed to the investigative journalist Vincent Harmsen that he had provided PR guidance to Roberts for a full year leading up to the launch of the #Nobels4GMOs campaign.
After leaving Monsanto, Byrne started his own PR firm, v-Fluence, located, like Monsanto, in St Louis – and with Monsanto among its chemical and biotech industry clients. Byrne is a past master at covert PR operations and exerting hidden influence, which, as Vincent Harmsen notes, includes transferring industry funds to scientists and employing scientists for PR purposes, including attacking the industry’s critics, while keeping industry’s involvement carefully concealed.
Byrne has also been a PR advisor to Mark Lynas’s employer, the Alliance for Science, since the Alliance’s inception back in 2014. Indeed, Byrne and Lynas are known to have been working together on promoting GM crops even before Lynas joined the Alliance in 2014.
Given that this notorious industry spin doctor has been a PR mentor for over a decade to WePlanet’s co-founder and Senior Strategist and has also worked intimately with Roberts on at least one strikingly similar attempt to deploy Nobel laureates to influence the GM debate, it is hard not to see the latest laureates’ letter in support of biotech as just a continuation of the industry-friendly trajectory of its equally misleading golden rice predecessor.
Finally, as Byrne is a PR advisor to Lynas and the Alliance for Science, it also seems probable that he had a hand in the report they produced promising all those billions of euros in benefits in return for deregulation.
Industry’s unproven promises
All of this may help explain why the people who claim to be “standing up for science” come armed not with science but a sales prospectus made up of industry talking points.
In WePlanet’s letter there is no explanation as to why the scientific experts at the French government’s food safety agency ANSES say there is no scientific basis to the European Commission’s deregulation proposals, or why the German Federal Agency for Nature Protection also has concerns about the proposals. Nor is there anything to counter the many concerns about the proposals to be found in carefully referenced statements and letters from other European scientists and academics, as can found here, here, and here.
WePlanet’s letter instead focuses on the GMO industry’s unproven promises that new GMOs will finally do what previous GMOs have so signally failed to do: reduce pesticide use and enable farmers to cope with the challenges of climate change – in spite of evidence-based analyses showing that new GMOs can contribute little or nothing to these goals.
That WePlanet’s letter is couched in the language of PR and marketing, not science, is in a way understandable, because the question of deregulation is not about science – it is about sales of patented new GMO products.
Of course, WePlanet’s letter has attracted vastly more scientist signatures than any of the statements of carefully referenced concerns – understandably perhaps in these days of limited budgets and restricted career opportunities, given the massive funding bonanza and “new jobs and greater economic prosperity” promised by all those billions of euros. And then there’s the security of being in company with 35 Nobel laureates.
But as Philip Stark, associate dean, division of mathematical and physical sciences and professor of statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, commented about the first “Nobels for GMOs” letter, science is “about evidence not authority… Science is supposed to be ‘show me’, not ‘trust me’… Nobel prize or not.”
After all, even the most authoritative scientific bodies can get it badly wrong, as Le Monde’s science correspondent Stephane Foucart recently noted in an article in which he called the misuse of scientific authority “a scourge”. Foucart gives multiple examples of national scientific academies acting as relay stations for industry. At one time, for instance, France’s Academy of Sciences was even a bastion of climate skepticism. It also spoke out against the precautionary principle in support of shale gas exploration. Likewise, the Academy of Agriculture’s statement recommending the total privatisation of agricultural advice turned out to have been written by former executives and consultants from the pesticide industry. And as late as 1996, the National Academy of Medicine pleaded for the continued use of asbestos.
Ad hominem attacks
But the laureates’ letter doesn’t just rely on invoking authority and unproven promises. They also, as Professor Antoniou noted, resort to insults. Thus, those with concerns about deregulation are, according to the letter, lost in “ideology and dogmatism” and are just “saying ‘no’ to scientific progress”. They’re also called “reactive anti-science lobbyists in the Brussels bubble”, who are lost in “the darkness of anti-science fearmongering”.
This kind of attack dog language is favoured by Jay Byrne, and by Lynas and the Alliance for Science, whom he has mentored, who deploy the term “anti-science” ad nauseam. But is it really how we account for the views of the experts at ANSES and the German Federal Agency for Nature Protection, or all the other scientists with major concerns about these proposals?
Responding to the laureates’ letter, Prof Jack Stilgoe, who teaches courses on science and technology policy, responsible science and innovation and the governance of emerging technologies at University College London, drew attention to an article he’d previously written in which he called the term “anti-science” unhelpful and suggested it is a weapon deployed against those asking awkward questions. He says it “reflects a privatisation of the idea of progress that is dangerous for science and society. As soon as science is seen as inseparably wedded to one particular trajectory, particularly when that trajectory is… GM crops, debate becomes impossible. I know dozens of scientists who are anti-GM, or anti- a particular sort of GM. Are they anti-science?”
Prof Antoniou makes a similar point: “I am not the only scientist in mainstream academia and expert in molecular genetics and genetic engineering technologies who harbours grave concerns about the European Commission’s proposal for deregulation of NGTs. We are not ‘reactive anti-science lobbyists in the Brussels bubble’, which in any case is a false and defamatory description of the NGOs in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe who are challenging NGT deregulation. My own experience from engaging with these organisations is that they are led by scientific evidence and a responsible determination to put people and the environment before profits.”
The laureates’ letter raises real doubts about whether those behind it share that determination.
1. Communicated to GMWatch via email and cited with permission.
2. Those MEPs and policymakers who are proposing to exempt certain new GMOs from being patented – and on this hypothetical basis would find the ongoing deregulation plans acceptable – are living under a delusion. Both new GMO products and the techniques with which they are made are protected by patents. Pigs will fly before new GMOs are freed from these intellectual property constraints. And it is not within the EU’s power to ban patents – see this, this, and this.