Although my lecture to the Alliance for Science countered their preconceptions, the fellows who asked questions were respectful, and we had a productive, non-confrontational discussion. Some of them also brought their copies of the book for me to sign.
Surprisingly, the Cornell Alliance for Science, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and strongly promotes genetically engineered (GE) crops, does not seem to share the narrow-minded attitude regularly expressed by one of its chief spokespersons.
Despite the fact that Mark Lynas, the organization's widely quoted Visiting Fellow, has repeatedly declared that the debate about these crops is 'over' - and that we no longer need to discuss whether they're safe - the organization's Director, Dr. Sarah Davidson Evanega, has not only fostered the debate's continuation, she has recently taken it to a new level.
In an unexpected and commendable step, she distributed a new book that presents a well-documented case against the GE food venture to all 25 participants in the Alliance's Global Leadership Fellows Program; and she then arranged for them to attend a public lecture delivered by the book's author on September 30th.
I am that author, and I'm pleased to point out that through these actions, the Alliance has initiated a major, and most welcome, shift in the debate.
Previously, proponents of GE crops have routinely tried to quash uncomfortable facts, and they all too often have vigorously (and unfairly) disparaged research and writings that they deem threatening in order to dissuade people from paying attention to them.
In that vein, several ardent defenders of GE foods have issued purported reviews of my book that so seriously misrepresent the content it's difficult to believe that they've actually read what they were commenting on.
Nonetheless, these bogus reviews have deterred many people from reading the book, which was their apparent aim.
Confronting rather than ignoring contrary evidence
But the Alliance for Science has broken with these practices, and by enabling its leadership fellows to read my book and attend my lecture, exposed them to extensive evidence about the extraordinary risks that GE crops pose to both human and environmental health.
Moreover, it also exposed them to documentation of how that evidence has been persistently suppressed or distorted by individuals and institutions that claim to be acting in the name of science.
The book is titled: Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public. And above that title, the front cover displays a quote from Jane Goodall's foreword hailing the work as "one of the most important books of the last 50 years."
So if the fellows only read that cover, they will receive a strong message that counters the standard story expounded by the proponents of GE crops; and if they merely look at the back cover as well, they will absorb additional boundary-breaking information.
It contains praise from experts who have thoroughly scrutinized the book, and their statements stand not only as an endorsement, but as an indictment of the GE food venture.
For example, after commending the book as "outstanding, welll reasoned and scientifically solid", David Schubert, a Professor and Laboratory Director at the prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Studies asserted, "Through its masterful marshalling of facts, it dispels the cloud of disinformation that has misled people into believing that GE foods have been adequately tested and don't entail abnormal risk."
Further, John Ikerd, a Professor Emeritus of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Missouri has written: "The evidence is comprehensive and irrefutable; the reasoning is clear and compelling. No one has documented other cases of irresponsible behavior by government regulators and the scientific establishment nearly as well as Druker documents this one."
Perhaps more disturbing, Tara Cook-Littman, a concerned attorney has declared: "As a former New York City prosecutor, I was shocked to discover how the FDA illegally exempted GE foods from the rigorous testing mandated by federal statute. And as the mother of three young kids, I was outraged to learn how America's children are being callously exposed to experimental foods that were deemed abnormally risky by the FDA's own experts."
If the leadership fellows then read the book itself, their current views will be challenged far more strongly - intensifying the challenge they received from hearing the facts presented in my lecture.
Yet, although that lecture countered their preconceptions, the fellows who asked questions were respectful, and we had a productive, non-confrontational discussion. Some of them also brought their copies of the book for me to sign.
Additional displays of open-mindedness
What's more, the Alliance's refreshing open-mindedness was expressed in other ways as well. For instance, Dr. Evanega and an Associate Director, Atu Darko, met with me for 40 minutes on the afternoon of September 30th, prior to attending my lecture that evening along with the leadership fellows.
The tone was consistently friendly; and we agreed that because the Alliance for Science is (according to its stated mission) ultimately dedicated to fostering the accurate communication of science and to enabling evidence-based decision making, and because the organization I direct (the Alliance for Bio-Integrity) shares those goals, we should endeavor to work in harmony as much as possible.
And we acknowledged that although we have significant disagreements, it would be fruitful to collaborate in clarifying a set of facts on which we can agree - a project I look forward to pursuing.
I also suggested that Bill and Melinda Gates be advised to read my book because it almost certainly contains substantial important information of which they are unaware. I emphasized they would be especially interested in the chapter that examines genetic engineering from the standpoint of software engineering and demonstrates how, from that angle of analysis, the process is unavoidably - and unreasonably - risky.
After the lecture, Dr. Evanega added another pleasant surprise by inviting me to do a video interview for the Alliance the next morning. The staff member who conducted it, Rebecca Harrison, a PhD student in Science and Technology Studies, had already read my entire book; and the questions she asked were informed, incisive, and fair.
How the debate could be productively transcended
Rebecca and I had a pleasant conversation afterward, and when I noted that I would be willing to return and participate in discussions or a debate, she remarked that she preferred not to think in terms of debates because in that format, the participants are focused on defeating one another.
She said that she favored situations in which those coming from opposing viewpoints can engage in constructive dialogue not only to discern the grounds on which they disagree, but to explore and expand the common ground between them.
I think that's a promising approach, and if the Alliance for Science sincerely wishes to follow it, I am prepared to accept that within the context of such a specific endeavor, the GMO debate can be provisionally treated as 'over'.
Steven M. Druker is Executive Director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity.
Author's note: My visit to Ithaca, New York, the home of Cornell University and its Alliance for Science, was organized and skillfully coordinated by Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson, the directors of the Bioscience Resource Project.