One student’s experience of pro-GMO propaganda at Cornell University
My name is Robert, and I am a Cornell University undergraduate student. However, I’m not sure if I want to be one any more. Allow me to explain.
Cornell, as an institution, appears to be complicit in a shocking amount of ecologically destructive, academically unethical, and scientifically deceitful behaviour. Perhaps the most potent example is Cornell’s deep ties to industrial GMO agriculture, and the affiliated corporations such as Monsanto. I’d like to share how I became aware of this troubling state of affairs.
Throughout my secondary education, I’ve always had a passion for science. In particular, physics and mathematics captured my fascination. My sophomore AP physics teacher, Mr. Jones, became my main source of motivation to succeed. He convinced us students that our generation was crucial to repairing humanity’s relationship to science, and how we would play key roles in solving immense global issues, such as climate change. Thank you Mr. Jones! Without your vision, I would have never had the chance to attend such an amazing university.
I came to Cornell as freshman, deeply unaware of our current GMO agriculture paradigm, and my university’s connection to it. It just wasn’t on my radar quite yet. After two years of school, I was rather uninspired to continue traditional study. I never felt quite at ease, jumping through hoops, taking classes and tests that didn’t inspire me, in exchange for a piece of paper (degree) that somehow magically granted me a superior life. I know many undergraduates fit right in with the university education model, and that’s fantastic. I certainly didn’t, and my mental and physical health began to suffer as a result. I was left with no choice but to take a leave of absence, and pursue another path.
Instead, I began to self-study nutrition in earnest, honestly, out of pure necessity. Luckily, I found Cornell Professor Emeritus T. Colin Campbell’s legendary epidemiological research on nutrition and human disease. His evidence was so clear that I quickly transitioned to a plant-based diet. This personal dietary shift had profound benefits, dispelled my depression, and led me to a deep fascination with the precursor to nutrition: agriculture. I became particularly interested in agroecology. I was astonished to learn that there existed alternatives to chemical-intensive, corporate-controlled models of agriculture, and that they were far safer, more effective, and more sustainable. During my time away from Cornell, I participated in three unique seasons of agroecological crop production, with incredible results. I am immensely grateful for these experiences.
It’s impossible to study and practice agroecology without becoming deeply aware of the other end of the spectrum: the genetic modification of our food supply, ruled by giant agribusiness corporations.
Currently, the vast majority of US commodity crops (corn, soy, alfalfa, sugar beet) are genetically engineered to either withstand Roundup herbicide or produce Bt toxin pesticide. These “technologies” are ecologically damaging and unsafe. The majority of these crops go to feed animals in factory farms. The remainder generally gets converted into corn syrup, white sugar, vegetable oil, or biofuels — you know, good stuff! This combined approach of growing GMO commodity monoculture crops, and feeding them to factory-farmed livestock, is one of the most ecologically destructive forces our planet has ever seen. It’s also a leading contributor to climate change. In fact, some experts believe it to be the leading cause.
As Professor T. Colin Campbell will tell you, the foods that come from this system (animal products and processed foods) are responsible for causing the vast majority of chronic disease. That’s a story for another day.
Cornell’s GMO Propaganda Campaign
I came back to Cornell a changed person, with a drastically different perspective. I was in for quite a shock, however: I sat in on a course entitled “The GMO Debate”. I was expecting members of an intellectual community coming together, with proponents and critics of GMO food each giving the best verified evidence they had to support their cause. Given all that I had learned about GMO agriculture, I was excited to participate for the “GMO skeptic” side.
The GMO Debate course, which ran in the fall of 2015, was a blatant display of unscientific propaganda in an academic setting. There were a total of 4 active professors in the course, and several guest speakers. They took turns each session defending industrial agriculture and biotechnology with exactly zero critical examination of GMOs. In spite of the course’s name, there was a complete lack of actual “debate”. Here are some of the more memorable claims I heard that fall semester:
* GMO food is necessary to feed the world
* there is no instance of harm from agricultural GMOs
* glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, is safer than coffee and table salt
* if you believe in science, you must believe in GMO technology
* the science of genetic engineering is well understood
* “what off-target effects?” … when asked about the proven biochemical risks of GE technology
* Vitamin A rice is curing children of Vitamin A deficiency (even though the IRRI, the research institute responsible for rolling it out, says it won’t be ready for some years)
* Current pesticides and herbicides don’t pose an ecological or human health risk
* Bt is an organic pesticide, therefore Bt GMO crops are safe and pose no additional risk
* Bt crops work just fine — but we are now engineering insects as a complementary technology — to make the Bt work better
* “Are you scared of GMO insects? Because you shouldn’t be.”
* GMO crops are the most rigorously tested crops in the history of food
* “If [renowned environmentalist] Rachel Carson were alive today, she would be pro-GMO”.
It gets better. During the semester, emails were released following a Freedom of Information Act request, showing that all four of the professors in the class, as well as several guest speakers, the head of Cornell’s pro-GMO group “Alliance for Science”, and the Dean of the College of Arts and Life Sciences were all copied in on emails with Monsanto. This was part of a much larger circle of academics promoting GMO crops on behalf of the biotech industry. Jonathan Latham PhD, virologist and editor of independentsciencenews.org, documented this in an article titled “The Puppetmasters of Academia”. I highly recommend giving it a read, for further context.
Perhaps saddest of all was the inclusion of several visiting African agriculture-academics in the course. They were brought here by the “Cornell Alliance for Science”. This organization was completely funded by a $5.6 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and appears to espouse only pro-GMO rhetoric. For those of you who are unaware, Bill Gates is a proponent of using agricultural biotechnology in Africa, India, and other developing regions. So in essence, a group of African representatives got indoctrinated into the industrial and GMO agriculture framework, and were sent home to disseminate this information ... after all, who could question the expertise of an Ivy League powerhouse such as Cornell?
I then learned of Cornell’s deep historic ties to the biotech industry, which explained what I witnessed in the “GMO Debate” course. Notable examples include the invention of both the controversial bovine growth hormone, and the particle bombardment (“gene gun”) method of creating GMO crops. Both of these cases are connected to Monsanto.
To say the least, I was completely stunned.
What I’m going to do about all of this
You didn’t think I was just going to complain about a pro-GMO, industry-sponsored Cornell all day, did you? Good, because I have come up with a plan to create actual, lasting change on campus.
A student-led, expert-backed, evidence-based GMO course
I have decided to host an independent course on the current GMO paradigm, in response to Cornell’s course. It will be held on campus, but will have zero influence from Cornell or any biotech organization. Every Wednesday evening, from September 7th to November 16, we will host a lecture. This lecture series is completely free, open to the entire Cornell community and broader public, and will be published online (for free, forever) at my project, gmowtf.com.
There will be several experts and scientists coming in to lecture for this course. Frances Moore Lappé, of “Diet for a Small Planet” and “World Hunger: 10 Myths” fame, will be introducing the course on September 7, via video presentation. She will be speaking on how GMO agriculture is unnecessary to end world hunger.
Steven Druker is a public interest attorney and author of the powerful book “Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public”, which Jane Goodall (in her foreword) hails as “one of the most important books in the last 50 years”. He will be giving two lectures that elaborate on the themes in the book’s subtitle and demonstrate that the GMO venture has been chronically and crucially dependent on deception, and could not survive without it.
Jonathan Latham PhD will be giving two lectures, on the dangers of Roundup Ready and Bt crops, respectively. He will also be participating in our special October 5 debate, representing the anti-GMO panel, alongside Michael Hansen PhD, a senior scientist for the Consumers Union. Jonathan has direct experience genetically modifying organisms, so his expertise is guaranteed.
Allison Wilson PhD is a geneticist and editor/science director of the Bioscience Resource Project. She will be giving a lecture on how GMOs are actually created, to dispel any industry myths of precision, accuracy, or deep genetic understanding.
Belinda Martineau PhD is a geneticist with an interesting history — she was on the team of genetic engineers that created the first commercial GM food crop, the Flavr Savr Tomato. She authored a book on her experience, titled “First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Foods”. Her lecture will be a historical and personal account of the science, regulation, and commercialization of genetically engineered foods, effectively giving context for today’s GMO paradigm.
My personal scientific hero, T. Colin Campbell, who started me on this whole journey years ago, will not be speaking on GMOs per se … but will address some critically important, related topics: academic freedom and scientific integrity. He began his Cornell career over half a century ago, and has “seen it all”. He has fascinating anecdotes that will illuminate these campus-wide issues beautifully.
Jane Goodall, if you’re reading this, you are personally invited to take time out of your busy schedule to come and give the final capstone lecture. I know how passionate you are about saving our species, our planet, and all of its beautiful inhabitants. Your wise presence in this project would take it to the next level. Alternatively, please consider a short video interview. This offer stands indefinitely. Same for Vandana Shiva!
All in all, our independent GMO lecture series will focus on real threats and real solutions to our current ecological crisis … and perhaps most importantly, will feature 100% less Monsanto influence than Cornell’s course! Sounds good to me.
Taking it further
I’m on my second leave of absence from Cornell to work on this project, and due to my experiences, I have somewhat given up on a Cornell degree … not that I was ever intensely focused on attaining one. This GMO course is by far the most important thing I can do with my Cornell “career”. However, it is just the beginning of my plan.
Remember the $5.6 million Bill Gates gave Cornell through his foundation, to push the pro-GMO propaganda? Well, to coincide with our course, we’re launching an initiative to raise the same amount of money or more to sponsor more appropriate forms of agriculture, educational outreach, and activism. Go to gmowtf.com for more information, but in essence, this would finance:
* Continued grassroots educational activism at Cornell, and similar programs in other compromised universities (UC Davis and Berkeley, University of Florida, etc.) across the country.
* A plant-based, NON-GMO independent dining hall for Cornell students. It would source as close to 100% organic and local food as possible. Ideally, it would be cheaper than Cornell’s plan (plant-based eaters won’t subsidize expensive meat and dairy for omnivorous eaters).
* gmowtf.com as a permanent, free, independent, constantly updated resource for GMO science, policy, news, etc. … also the GMO course would remain online
* My dream: a research farm focused on rigorous analysis of agroecological practices. There is an infinitum of fascinatingly effective agroecological techniques that are underrepresented in the scientific community (in favour of faddist, ineffective GMO “technology”).
* Completely paying off student debt for a group of 10-15 undergraduates who are willing to help spread this message to the Cornell community.
Mr. Gates, if you truly care about feeding the world in a safe and sustainable manner, and if you are truly dedicated to science and to the kind of open, fact-based discourse on which it depends, I implore you to learn the important facts about which you have apparently been misinformed — and which are being systematically misrepresented by the Cornell organization you are funding. You can easily gain illumination by reading “Altered Genes, Twisted Truth” by Steven Druker, one of our key contributors to our independent GMO course. You might find Chapter 11, on the ramifications and risks of altering complex information systems, of particular interest. You are, after all, the world’s most famous software developer!
As that chapter demonstrates, biotechnicians are significantly altering the most complex yet least understood group of information systems on earth — the ones that undergird the development and function of living organisms. Yet, they fail to implement the kind of safeguards that software engineers have learned are imperative when making even minor revisions to life-critical human-made systems. Can this be legitimately called science-based engineering?
Bill, feel free to reach out to any of the experts in our course, and don’t be hesitant to update your views on GMO agriculture in light of new understanding. A genuine scientist lives by this principle.
I invite you all to go to gmowtf.com and explore my proposals more. Please bear with the construction of the site in the coming weeks, in preparation for our amazing GMO course!
We live in somewhat of a scientific dark age. Our universities have become extensions of corporate power, at the cost of our health, livelihoods, and ecology. This has to stop, yesterday. We cannot afford to spread lies to our undergraduate students. Cornell, please reconsider your ways. Until you do, I will be doing everything in my power to counter your industry GMO propaganda efforts with the facts.
Image: Robert Schooler.