The Center for Science in the Public Interest is known in public interest circles as one of the premiere food safety public interest groups in Washington, D.C.
But that reputation has suffered over the years because of the group’s stance on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – including its opposition to mandatory labeling of GMO foods.
That GMO stance aligns CSPI with pro-GMO organizations and against other consumer groups – including Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union and US Right to Know.
In 2015, CSPI refused to debate Consumers Union’s Michael Hansen on the question of mandatory labeling of GMO foods.
“Why is CSPI defending a technology that has health and environmental risks but nearly no consumer benefits?” asked Gary Ruskin of US Right to Know at the time. “CSPI has done a lot of good work over the years. But on the issue of GMOs, they have lost their way.”
Now, Greg Jaffe, the head CSPI’s Biotechnology Project, has publically aligned himself with one of the most pro-GMO groups in the country – the Cornell Alliance for Science.
Jaffe works part time as the Cornell Alliance for Science associate director of legal affairs.
“CSPI contracts with Cornell for part of his salary to have Greg provide expert technical assistance to the Alliance for Science,” said CSPI’s Jeff Cronin. “The Alliance for Science, like CSPI, takes no donations from corporations and discloses its donors on its website.”
Cronin would not say how much Cornell is paying Jaffe.
(The Cornell Alliance for Science primary donor is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But the Alliance does list as one of its funders a corporation – Blue Mountain Capital, a hedge fund with $21 billion under management.)
The public interest community sees Jaffe’s move to Cornell as a step too far.
“For decades, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has done great work on integrity in science, and exposing corporate front groups,” Ruskin told Corporate Crime Reporter. “It is regrettable that their standards have sunk so low that one of their staff, Greg Jaffe, now serves as the associate director of legal affairs for the Cornell Alliance for Science, a public relations shop that parrots agrichemical industry propaganda, partners with industry front groups, and works closely with many of the industry’s leading messengers.”
“We hope that CSPI will come to its senses, and stop supporting front group activities it has honorably decried for so long,” Ruskin said.
US Right to Know put out a report in October 2018 titled Cornell Alliance for Science is a PR Campaign for the Agrichemical Industry.
The Gates Foundation helped launch the Cornell Alliance for Science in 2014 as an effort to “depolarize the charged debate” around genetically modified foods (GMOs).
“The Gates Foundation Deputy Director Rob Horsch, who worked for Monsanto Company for 25 years, leads the foundation’s agricultural research and development strategies, which have drawn criticism for relentlessly promoting GMOs and agrichemicals in Africa over the opposition of Africa-based groups and social movements, and despite many concerns and doubts about genetically engineered crops across Africa,” according to the report.
Jaydee Hanson of the Center for Food Safety said that Jaffe’s work with the Alliance “certainly makes Jaffe look way more partisan.”
“In taking a position with the Alliance, Jaffe went a step too far,” Hanson said. “It totally undermines whatever neutrality he had cultivated.”
Doug Gurian-Sherman was present at the creation of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 2001.
He was soon joined by Greg Jaffe as a co-director.
Jaffe is now the sole director of the Biotechnology Project at CSPI and Gurian-Sherman has his own consulting firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Jaffe is more pro-GMO, Gurian-Sherman – not so much.
Gurian-Sherman studied plant pathology and genetic engineering at the University of California Berkeley. He ended up working at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I left EPA at the end of 2000 when the Bush administration came in,” Gurian-Sherman told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last year. “I was also disillusioned with the way the EPA was handling genetic engineering. And I was disillusioned with the bureaucracy.”
How long were you at the EPA?
“About five years. I started in 1995 and left in 2001 to go to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. One of my goals was to work as a scientist with a public interest group. Michael Jacobson at CSPI was just starting a new program on biotechnology and he contacted me to see if I was interested in directing the program. I jumped on it. I knew a bit about CSPI’s reputation and the work they did.”
Were you the head of the new group from the beginning?
“I was the initial director. And then Greg Jaffe joined. And he was brought on as my co-director very shortly after, within a couple of months. That was in early 2001. Jaffe came in soon thereafter.”
“For myself that I was optimistic about what we might do. It was over a period of several years that I grew unhappy and disillusioned with the direction it was taking.”
“Part of the question was a matter of degree. Can this be regulated safely? What would be required to do that? And over time, not only how can it be regulated safely but how can it best be developed in ways that might be best for society.”
“My initial thinking was – I was not convinced that it would be an important beneficial technology for society. But I was cautiously optimistic that with the right kind of regulatory regime, at least the harmful manifestations of the technology could be weeded out and prevented from reaching the market. We were not anywhere near that and still are not anywhere near that in terms of our regulatory system.”
“That was my initial perspective. And it was largely in line with CSPI.”
Was it your perspective at that time that GMOs were just a handmaiden to industrial agriculture and thus wouldn’t benefit society?
“No. I wasn’t thinking as much initially about those broader social implications. I certainly was thinking about the corporate use of the technology at the time. Some of the same players – Monsanto, DuPont, Dow – were clearly dominating the technology. And I certainly was concerned about that. Going back to my Science for the People days, if not before, I have been concerned about corporate power and corporate consolidation. That aspect of it was certainly on my mind. And it was a major concern. At that point, my analysis had not reached conclusions that the technology had an inherent tendency to be controlled and dominated by the industry. Or as you put it, it was often a handmaiden of the industry.”
“At the initial stages, I had not done the analysis or thought deeply enough about whether the technology was capable of being developed independent of the big corporations and whether the corporate influence could be adequately tamped down and controlled to allow public aspects to be developed. That came over time and came later.”
At what point in time at CSPI did you start thinking – this is going in a direction I’m not comfortable with?
“CSPI has not been a partner with the other progressive public interest groups in the United States and around the world on genetic engineering.”
What groups are you talking about?
“It has changed over time. At the time, one of the major groups in the United States was the Union of Concerned Scientists, who I eventually ended up working for. Their position was similar to mine – genetic engineering maybe had some promise but was causing many more problems than it was solving. It was mainly detrimental, the regulations were drastically inadequate, we needed more sustainable farming and conventional crop breeding rather than genetic engineering.”
“Their program was led at the time by Margaret Mellon and Jane Rissler. Environmental Defense Fund was a major player with Rebecca Goldberg. They had positions similar to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Consumers Union has a research arm. Michael Hansen and others there played a big role. And this goes back into the late 1980s. Friends of the Earth had some involvement at the time.”
“Another group that started around that time was the Center for Food Safety. I also worked with them for a time. They have done a lot of the legal work, filing lawsuits against particular applications of the technology, especially the herbicide resistant crops. Andrew Kimbrell was an acolyte of Jeremy Rifkin. His first lawsuit was against the lab in Berkeley where I was doing my PhD.”
“The Union of Concerned Scientists changed directions in 2014 under a new director. Margaret Mellon and I left the program at that time. They are no longer working on genetic engineering.”
Then the current groups are Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety. US Right to Know. Greenpeace, and Organic Consumers Association and others.
“Yes. They are still involved. But it’s interesting because the groups critical have changed somewhat and dispersed. There are smaller groups like Food Democracy Now. And many of the groups are working to get mandatory labeling.”
Why did CSPI move in the other direction?
“I don’t know. It’s a good question to ask. CSPI has certainly been associating themselves with positions similar to the GMO pesticide industry despite some criticisms of the technology. And that differs from the positions of the liberal and progressive public interest community, which on the whole has been opposed or skeptical of genetic engineering.”
“I’m sure I am forgetting other groups. But these groups worked together. There was communication, strategy, among these groups. And CSPI has never been a part of that coalition. And not only nationally, but internationally.”
What about Jaffe signing on with Cornell?
“That is not the only pro-GMO group he is aligned with. And I am not questioning his motives. But it does raise questions as to why they are comfortable to collaborate with organizations that are highly pro-GMO. From my understanding, CSPI’s position is they are pro-GMO with some reservations.”
“Jaffe was also very involved with the Program for Biosafety Systems, which is associated with the green revolution centers, in particular the International Food Policy Research Institute. And he has had associations with the US Agency for International Development, which is pro-GMO. It’s an interesting mix of bedfellows supporting the GMO project. He helps third world countries develop regulatory systems that allow the countries to choose GMOs. But many of civil society groups in these African and other countries say these regulations facilitate large pesticide/GMO corporations to penetrate those countries.”
“CSPI has said it wants to position itself between industry and the civil society sector, which they see as both having extreme positions on genetic engineering – again paraphrasing. They see civil society as hyping the risks and industry as minimizing those risks. But in fact, CSPI has eschewed civil society groups which oppose GMOs on safety and other grounds. But CSPI is comfortable associating itself widely with groups that are highly pro-GMO and have positions similar to the industry. CSPI’s talking points are mostly in line with industry talking points.”
“It raises the question, which I don’t have the answer to, as to why they are often found associated with these groups that are pro-GMO, and reluctant to be involved with civil society groups.”
Cornell is funded by the pro-GMO Gates Foundation.
“The Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science, industry, academics associated with the GMO technology, the US government – they all want to open up markets in developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa. In all of these cases, policy supporters of genetic engineering recognize the importance those countries having social systems, regulatory systems, intellectual property systems that facilitate the private sector commodification or use of genetic engineering in those countries. And Jaffe’s expertise is as a legal expert on the regulation of genetic engineering.”
They would argue that as part of the green revolution – we are going to feed the world.
“Where I have a major philosophical difference with CSPI goes back to my early days in biology as part of a social system. I see these technologies as being embedded in a political and economic context that is not neutral. CSPI has said and Jaffe has said that they take an incrementalist approach to solving these problems.”
“They can defend that by saying the broader system based approaches are just unrealistic while an incrementalist approach does some real good in preventing or stopping some harmful applications of various technologies. It’s been a good thing to get trans fats off the market. That kind of approach can have a lot of merit in a sane society that basically does the right thing and is egalitarian and broadly democratic.”
“But in a society that has a broken democracy, dominated by corporate interests and powerful economic interests, that kind of approach can be misleading and like a bandaid. What you have in the case of genetic engineering is CSPI touting the reduction of chemical pesticides in Bt crops, which I agree is a good thing.”
“But what they don’t talk about is the nature of industrial agriculture, which this is a part of and remains highly dependent on those pesticides. What has happened with insecticides in major Bt crops like corn or cotton, sprayed insecticides have been reduced, but seed coating insecticides, neonicotinoids, are more widely used now than the sprayed insecticides. And these are the very insecticides that are associated with killing off bees and other pollinators. There is a tremendous amount of research on that.”