Biotechnology companies like Monsanto are hiring academics to speak on their behalf about the supposed safety and benefits of genetically modified food products to help save them from a tsunami of bad press.
Despite overall increased sales, Monsanto has faced a firestorm of controversy over GMOs, as more environmentalists and scientists alike have started to confront the company over concerns that its products could make humans sick and forever damage and contaminate non-GMO crops. Monsanto, the largest seed company in the world, signed on academics to serve as impartial judges, The New York Times reported Sep. 5. 
“Professors/researchers/scientists have a big white hat in this debate and support in their states, from politicians to producers,” Bill Mashek, a vice president at Ketchum, a public relations firm hired by the biotechnology industry, said in an email to a University of Florida professor. “Keep it up!”
“It is in the public interest for academics to weigh in credibly, not only to consumers but to stakeholders like lawmakers and regulators as well,” says Charla Lord, a Monsanto spokeswoman.
But biotech isn’t the only industry bringing on the ‘professionals’ to raise awareness (though they have more money to do so); organic food companies have pulled academia into the mix, too. The yogurt company Stonyfield Farm has hired its own arsenal of researchers to butt heads with Monsanto.
The Times reports that the war is growing more fierce as the Senate prepares to act on a new law already passed by the House that bans states from adopting their own laws requiring GMO companies to label which GM ingredients are included in their foods. Vermont is currently the only state set to require the labels, but it may not go into effect in July 2016 as planned if the food industry – which backs the House bill – has its way. 
It seems perfectly reasonable that consumers should be permitted to know what’s in their food, but the industry vehemently disagrees. They say labeling would just cause a wide variety of laws to go into effect across the country that would be costly for food companies and mystifying to consumers. Is that really true?
Statistically speaking, Americans would rather be slightly confused than completely left in the dark, though, as a December Associated Press-GfK poll found that two-thirds of Americans support labeling of GM ingredients on food packages. The conflicting information provided by both sides only adds to the confusion.
Labeling GM products would make it far easier for consumers to understand what they’re eating than simply listening to input from professors and researchers who may or may not be trustworthy. As The Times points out, dozens of articles have been published by the biotech industry under the names of prominent academics, but they were actually drafted by industry consultants.
Scientists like Kevin Folta, the chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, have even received grants from Monsanto to travel the country defending GMOs.
Folta, along with other prominent academics, was asked by the Council for Biotechnology Information to participate in the website GMO Answers, which was purportedly designed to answer the public’s questions about GMOs. But rather than supplying Folta with only questions sent in by consumers, the council also gave Folta draft answers, which he followed almost verbatim.
Fortunately, the GMO opposition is winning, at least for now. Numerous food companies have pledged to reduce or eliminate their use of genetically engineered ingredients, in part to satisfy the public’s desires.
Interestingly, recently a former GMO scientist wrote a piece for AlterNet about why he is now having serious second thoughts about the risks of GMOs. Jonathan Latham, Ph.D., writes that he was not all that concerned at first about the possible effects of GM plants on human health or the environment, mainly because neither he nor his fellow scientists thought that GMOs would ever be eaten. 
Latham writes that, 20 years ago, commercial interests were running far ahead of scientific knowledge, and the same is true today, as GMO soybeans, papaya, corn, canola, and cotton are being commercially grown all over the world.
“I now believe, as a much more experienced scientist, that GMO crops still run far ahead of our understanding of their risks. In broad outline, the reasons for this belief are quite simple,” Latham said. “I have become much more appreciative of the complexity of biological organisms and their capacity for benefits and harms. As a scientist I have become much more humble about the capacity of science to do more than scratch the surface in its understanding of the deep complexity and diversity of the natural world. To paraphrase a cliché, I more and more appreciate that as scientists we understand less and less.”
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.