When NGOs can’t be trusted

DonateNonprofitsLogos304I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reporting a story for the Guardian on NGOs and GMOs–specifically, the ways that some nonprofit groups have stirred up fears about genetically-modified organisms, by taking facts out of context, distorting mainstream science or, occasionally, saying things that simply are not true. I did the story in part because I believe that agricultural biotechnology could be–could be–a valuable tool as we try to feed people in a resource-constrained and warming world. I’m by no means an enthusiastic fan of biotech crops — the rollout of the technology has been managed poorly by the industry–but I’m fairly confident  that they have enormous potential. That potential will never be realized until we can have a rational fact-based debate about how the technology should be managed.

But my hope is that this story will make a bigger and more important point about the non-profit sector: That the claims of NGOs and advocacy groups should be received with the same skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to claims from business and government. That might seem like an obvious point, but my experience tells me that many people tend to take what NGOs say at face value. Public opinion surveys also find that NGOs are trusted, far more than corporations or the government.

On the GMO issue, this is a terrible  shame. But it helps to explain why, as I write

so many people – 48%, according to Gallup – believe that foods produced using genetic engineering pose a serious health hazard, despite assurances from corporations, government regulators and mainstream scientists that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now on the market are safe and, indeed, have been studied, tested and regulated more than any other food product in history.

More broadly, though, it’s too easy to forget that NGOs, like companies or the government or, indeed, all of us, are driven by a set of incentives. Again, from the story:

..non-profits and the people who lead them are subject to the same temptations, pressures and incentives that drive companies: They are self-interested. They seek attention in a noisy marketplace. And they rely on the financial support of donors, just as companies depend on customers.

As it happens, some of the groups opposed to the spread of GMOS are backed largely by corporate interests: Just Label It, a dot-org coalition that favors GMO labels is financed by organic and “natural” food companies that benefit from the anxiety around biotech food.

Follow the money, as Woodward & Bernstein used to say. A lot of money behind the anti-GMO movement comes from the organic food industry. Right now, the best way to avoid GMOs at the supermarket is to buy organic.

To take an example from another arena: When I talk to scientists or engineers about climate change, most do not believe we will be able to power the US economy anytime soon entirely with renewable energy. They believe that some form of zero-carbon baseload power will be needed — either nuclear energy or coal plants with carbon capture. (About which there was a bit of encouraging news this week.) In the US, depending entirely on solar and wind, along with the required energy storage and transmission lines, would be enormously expensive. In places like China and India, it’s unthinkable. So it makes sense for the US to find ways to make nuclear power or coal plants with carbon capture a lot cheaper, so we can export those technologies to the developing world. This is true for solar and wind as well, of course.

Yet environmental groups–the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, in particular–are implacably opposed to nuclear power and, as best as I can tell, they oppose coal with carbon capture. Fracking, too. I don’t doubt the sincerity or the intelligence of their leaders, but I have to believe that if they wavered in their opposition to nukes and coal with carbon capture, their customers, i.e., their members and donors, would revolt. So, at the very least, the deep green groups are less than transparent about the tradeoffs that will be required if we give up on nuclear or so-called clean coal, and put all of our investment into wind and solar.

Another example, from the story:

The issue of credibility goes well beyond GMOs, of course. What’s the most effective way to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people? It’s hard to know whether a comprehensive approach (the Millennium Villages), major health initiatives (the Gates Foundation), micro enterprise (Kiva) or disaster relief (Care) will work best. Each NGO understandably touts its own approach. Meanwhile, economists say trade has done more than aid to help the global poor.

A bigger and more important point, which I’ll save for another day, is the question of who is holding NGOs accountable. It’s an important question because, like it or not, as taxpayers we all help finance the nonprofit sector because donations to NGOs are frequently tax-deductible.

None of this is intended to diminish the enormous value delivered by the nonprofit sector. My next Guardian story will be built upon a terrific new report on corporate taxation put together by a couple of NGOs. The NGOs that I know best, those in the environmental sector, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, for the most part do great work. My wife and older daughter work for NGOs, and I’m on the board of Net Impact, a nonprofit that I (obviously) believe in strongly.

None of which means you should automatically believe everything you hear from a so-called public interest group. You shouldn’t.

GMOs, engineered to make better food

GMO_s_300_300_100With some reluctance, I’m again writing this week about  genetically-modified organisms. My reluctance stems from the fact that on this topic, most people’s minds appear to be made up. People tend to be for ‘em or agin’ em, and for whatever reason, most aren’t open to listening to arguments that challenge their settled view.

My own views are undecided when it comes to the debate over labeling, and the environmental benefits, if any, of GMOs. I’m persuaded that the health risks of eating GMOs, which most Americans do every day, are zero or close to zero although, again, I’m not going to try to change the minds of those who believe otherwise. I’m concerned, finally, about the intellectual property issues surrounding GMOs, although, again, this is complicated because it takes many years and millions of dollars of investment to develop new crops.

Today’s story took root (pun alert!) last winter when I visited the Johnston, Iowa, headquarters of Pioneer, the big seed company owned by DuPont. (It’s near Des Moines, where I moderated a panel on food security at Drake University.) I toured a couple of labs — one for conventional breeding, another for genetic engineering, and chatted with scientists and executives. Pioneer has a fascinating history, by the way: It was founded in 1926 by Henry A. Wallace, who learned about plants as a young boy from his neighbor, George Washington Carver, and went on to become FDR’s secretary of agriculture and vice president.

In any event, while at Pioneer, I heard about genetically-engineered soybeans that have been branded as Plenish. They were designed to make soybean oil that is free of trans fats, and thus healthier than conventional soybean oil. Earlier, I’d heard about a biotech potato under development called Innate, which reduces black spots and thereby means fewer potatoes are wasted. These are among the first biotech crops to promise direct, tangible benefits to consumers, and I decided that was worth a story for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

It’s easy to understand why many Americans are unenthusiastic about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Although supermarket aisles are lined with foods made from biotech crops – most cereals, frozen foods, canned soups, vegetable oils, soft drinks, baby formula, tofu and even milk contain GMOs – consumers have yet to see tangible benefits from GMOs. The biotech industry has been slow to develop food that is healthier, better tasting or longer lasting – to its political detriment.

As Food and Water Watch, a critic of GMOs, has argued, hyperbolically: “The only ones experiencing any benefits from GE crops are the few, massive corporations that are controlling the food system at every step and seeing large profit margins.”

That is about to change.

Pioneer, the big seed company owned by DuPont, is bringing to the market a brand of genetically engineered soybean called Plenish that the company says will produce a healthier oil, free of transfats. Plenish oils have been designed to replace the unhealthy partially hydrogenated oils used to fry food and to keep cookies and crackers, crackers and chips from going stale.

Meantime, the JR Simplot Co, the US’s biggest potato processor, is seeking regulatory approval for genetically engineered potatoes branded as Innate. Simplot says the Innate potatoes will limit black spots from bruising, deliver improved taste and reduce the formation of acrylamide, a naturally occurring chemical that has been identified as a potential carcinogen and is created when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures.

You can think of these new products as GMOs 2.0 – biotech foods designed not just for farmers but for consumers, too. Other examplesinclude the Arctic Apple, which like the Innate potato is engineered not to go brown, and a soybean oil enriched with Omega-3 fatty acids from Monsanto.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Biotech crops are winning over farmers

Bill Gates with farmers in India

The debate over biotech crops has become predictable.

In his 2012 annual letter from the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates, who has a near-religious faith in technology and innovation, argues that an “extremely important revolution” in plant science, i.e., genetically-engineered crops, can help farmers in poor countries by giving them access to new varieties of crops that will better resist disease and adapt to climate change.

Days later, the Center for Food Safety, a Washington watchdog group and persistent critic of Big Ag, pushed back, saying that biotech crops had failed to deliver on their promise to alleviate hunger, and that Gates would do better to support low-cost “agroecological techniques” that don’t depend on patented, genetically-engineered seeds.

The conflicting claims and supporting data are hard to sift through. Will disease-resistant biotech cassava answer the prayers of Christina Mwinjipe, a farmer in Tanzania, whose crops are threatened by diseases, as Gates writes? Or will patented genetically engineered crops prove disastrous for the 1.4 billion farmers in  the global south who now save seeds from one season to the next, as Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, argues?

The voices of farmers are rarely heard in these debates. (They’re probably working too hard.) But data released this week indicates  farmers, through their actions, are voting for biotech crops.

Last year, farmers planted an additional 12 million hectares of biotech crops, an increase of 8 percent over 2010, according to the annual biotech crop report of the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications).

Most of that growth — 8.2 million hectares — came from the developing world, lead by Brazil and  India, the report says. The growth rate for biotech crops in developing countries was 11 percent, twice as fast and twice as large as industrial countries at 5 percent or 3.8 million hectares.

“Unprecedented adoption rates are testimony to overwhelming trust and confidence in biotech crops by millions of farmers worldwide,” said Clive James, the report’s author, in a statement. It must be said that James is an unabashed supporter of biotech crops but as best I can tell, his numbers haven’t been challenged. [click to continue...]