Recently I was interviewed for an article published in California Magazine. It is a well-written article about the controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). I made my usual points: GMOs have actually done much good by reducing commodity prices, increasing yields, saving land and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving the health of farm workers. It has a much larger potential, which is lost because of heavy regulation.
The day before the paper went to print the journalist asked me whether my work “was paid by Monsanto”. The answer was a clear and definite “NO”. I did this research as part of my main research work paid by the University and my chair. Actually, I had been working on GMOs before I even heard about Monsanto. I learned about this new technology and realized its potential, and ended up editing a special issue of a journal on the potential benefits and limitations of GMOs. Even the noted environmentalist David Piemental contributed to this issue, raising concerns about some aspects of the technology. I myself was concerned about intellectual property rights, access to and control of the technologies, access for the poor, and appropriate regulation. I have been working on GMOs now for more than 20 years.
Then I asked myself: Why do people assume that if you are pro-GMO, you are being paid by Monsanto? One answer might be ‘common knowledge’. I have heard more than once that “everyone knows that GMOs are bad for health, the environment and society, and it has made evil companies like Monsanto rich,” and the implication is that since Zilberman is not ignorant he must be paid.
My response to this perspective – “Really? Who is everyone?”
All of the major national academies of science in the US, England and even in France have officially stated that GM foods are not more dangerous than other types, and that GMOs have actually had health and environmental benefits. Even the man that coined the term biodiversity, E.O. Wilson, and the great Jared Diamond think that GMOs are essential for sustainable development. Thus when people only listen to their own circle, they will have a biased perception of the bigger picture.
Another reason why people might assume that I am in Monsanto’s pocket is that I am a Professor at Berkeley, and “Berkeley only supports the progressive agenda,” as I am frequently reminded. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Berkeley is incredibly diverse: it has noted anti-GMO scholars, including Michael Pollan as well as Professor Steven Lindow, who conducted the first GMO field trial in 1987, and his innovation to introduce genetically engineered organisms to treat plants was protested heavily by activists. Our plant biology department is the best in the world and has given birth to innovations that will eventually benefit humanity. Berkeley was also the center of research that led to the development of the A-bomb and many important chemicals, major breakthroughs in computer technology, and the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s.
Perhaps people assume that I am paid by Monsanto because I am an environmental economist. Some of my students have assumed that if you are an environmental economist, you must take an ‘environmental’ position. But to be an environmental economist or scientist you do not need to be an ‘environmentalist’. You need to know your science, but are not committed to any particular perspective, rather you emphasize the perspective of the potential benefit to society as a whole. A researcher must be an independent thinker and let the findings speak for themselves. In my case, my position on payment for ecosystem services may be regarded as ‘pro-environment,’ but in other areas that may not be the case.
Environmental groups themselves have their own agendas that include their own economic survival as well as satisfying their opinionated donors that may have deep pockets and good intentions but might lack the technical expertise needed to develop the most effective solutions to major problems. The irresponsible position of Greenpeace in the Golden Rice debate is one primary example.
At the same time, support for GMOs does not necessarily equate to support for Monsanto. I, for example, agree that the heavy regulatory regime of today might have been implicitly supported by major GM companies because it allows them tighter control over the technology.
What I am trying to emphasize is that I am an economist that strongly objects to the assumption that people do what they do only because of money. In one of my papers, we conjecture that people pursue fame, fortune, and freedom in their professional choices. Individuals that go into academia tend to put a heavier weight on fame and freedom. Thank goodness I am paid well enough by the University to afford to keep my dignity and integrity while pursuing my own research agenda. Throughout my 30-year career, my research has been funded to the tune of $10 million + by my salary and research grants and cooperative agreements by agencies such as the EPA, the World Bank, the USDA, environmental groups, and various foundations. I once received $10,000 for contributing to a sustainability report produced by Monsanto (Gustafson et al. 2013). This has not supported any of my other research on GMOs.
While I appreciate the fame and fortune that may come with my work, it is not at the expense of selling my soul. I believe that this true for many of colleagues, whether they are pro or anti-GMO.