My open response to pro-GMO scientist Dr. Steve Savage

So, Dr. Steve Savage just sent me an email - and I replied. In case you don't know, he's a plant pathologist by training and a proponent of agricultural biotechnology and GMOs. He's worked in academia, been a part of the DuPont team, and has written extensively about agriculture, usually defending GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, and criticizing organic agriculture. He has a popular blog, but also writes for Forbes and BioFortified. Oh, and he also is a contributor to GMO Answers, like some of the Cornell faculty I criticize. To me, it is rather obvious that GMO Answers is a propaganda campaign created by the PR firm Ketchum ... but I digress, onto the juicy content! Also, I promise I don't swear in this one ... not too much, at least:

Dr. Steve Savage sent me an email. The subject line was:

"Your argument with Cornell"

Here is the unedited text from the body of the email:


You seem like a bright student, but one of the most important lessons in life that you need to learn is that it is extremely important to know what you don't know.  I've been involved in ag for 40 years and I still need to remember that maxim every day.  You may think you've got it all figured out and are clear about who is right and wrong.  I'd simply like to suggest that you may be overestimating your perspective.

You have selected a certain subset of input from the scientific community and rejected the rest.  It seems that your criterion is philosophical, not scientific.

Issues to do with food and agriculture are too important to be driven by ideology alone and that seems to be your path.

If you ever want to evaluate things more objectively I'm open to conversation.


Here is my response to Steve. I'll comment further on this interaction below. This reply remains unedited, save for a few typos/errors I personally fixed. Also, the links included below I've added in for reference; I did not send Steve these links, save for the two explicitly mentioned to him. OK, enough disclaimers, here it is:

Thank you for your kind introduction, Steve. I really appreciate it. But I must admit, I've know who you are for quite some time, based on your online presence.

Have you gone through the lectures we've held on campus, or at least skimmed through them ( What particular claims, that I or my colleagues have made, do you take issue with? I'd be happy to open up a discussion. As of today, I stand by every claim made by our course. More importantly, I stand by the ethos that the "food movement" represents: taking back science from corporate control, protecting farmer's rights, implementing an actually effective regulatory body, spreading the science of agroecology to impoverished farmers. If this is "ideology", call me guilty. 

A quick scan of your most popular blog posts shows that we're definitely at odds with respect to several topics. For example, you state in your enlist-duo-defending blog post:

" 'GMO' is a meaningless term because essentially all crops have been 'genetically modified' in some way throughout human history. That is why most of them are suitable for human consumption."

This is exactly the rhetoric that I am battling with my Cornell GMO course. You and I both know that genetic engineering, particularly gene-gun assisted breeding, has nothing in common with sexual selection. The difference is, I point this out in depth (with the help of Allison Wilson and, you know, the actual science), while you and your colleagues continue to espouse the myth.

Cornell kids are smart. Don't you think they should know that it takes hundreds of thousands of attempts with a gene gun, to create only a handful of crops that might work in the field? Doesn't this shatter the Monsanto myth of "precision"?

What about that the decidedly pro-GMO NAS actually admits that gene-gun, combined with tissue culture, combined with sexual breeding (how the vast majority of GMOs are actually made) represents the most mutagenic method of creating crops, by far?

All I'm trying to do is bring light to these issues, that are so conveniently glossed over by my professors. Any real genetic engineer (or proponent of the tech) wouldn't run and hide from the truth of their own discipline. 

But more importantly, why did I take a "GMO Debate Course" at Cornell that turned out to be 100% pro-GMO, and, as it turns out, led by professors that are actively communicating with Monsanto?

Why didn't they mention herbicide resistance? Why didn't they mention that the world record in rice yield was set just down the hall, by organic agroecologists, with no chemical inputs, patents, GMO seeds, etc? Surely people concerned with feeding the world would be shouting such a discovery from the rooftops!

Why did Peter Davies tell me that Golden Rice was healing children of Vitamin A deficiency, when a quick scan of the website of the organization creating the rice itself says clearly it has never been commercially applied, and is still several years from actual release? Why didn't Peter Davies tell me that the actual reason the 4th (!) iteration of golden rice failed was because the transgene was inserted (randomly, accidentally) into a key area of the genome dealing with plant growth?

Is it because he's holding onto a pro-GMO ideology, at the expense of the facts? Which one of us is more ideology-driven? The professor, spouting pro-Golden Rice rhetoric without clear explanation of its failure? Or the student, who hosted an independent course to shatter the Golden Rice myths, among other things. Is it "ideology" for me to correct my professors on key scientific and socioeconomic issues?

But then again, Peter is your colleague over at the Ketchum-funded ...

And further ... and I don't want to sound accusatory here ... but perhaps you are the one holding onto an ideology. After all, in your Nobel Laureate/Greenpeace article for Forbes, you fail to mention any of the actual, scientific, real world issues with Golden Rice, and seem to imply full blame on anti-GMO people for its lack of success. You state:

"A couple of weeks ago I met one of the scientists who helped with the Golden Rice project.  It was sad to hear how frustrating and discouraging it has been for him to to see something with so much potential for good being irrationally and inhumanely blocked by players like Greenpeace."

Now Steve, why would you fail to discuss the technical aspects of the golden rice failure? It's actually quite fascinating, scientifically. Surely, even the most staunchly pro-GMO technologist would want to address these issues head-on, just like a structural engineer would tackle weaknesses in their building projects!

I could go on. Again, I must stress, my main motivations are countering the (intentional or otherwise) factually incorrect information presented by my professors, and adding some nuance to the discussion. I could host 10 anti-GMO courses at Cornell, and Cornell would still be extremely biased toward GMOs and the biotech ag industry, and away from agroecology.

But if you really want to prove us wrong, why not come out and debate Michael Hansen, or Jonathan Latham, or Michael Antoniou this Fall? All the Cornell pro-GMO faculty refused our polite requests last year. I've been craving a debate for some time, but have been having a real bitch of a time finding credentialed pro-GMO scientists to actually defend their claims under scrutiny from other scientists.

By the way, this is the link to the session that should have been a debate, had we not faced "empty chair syndrome". Let me know what you think.

Looking forward to you and a scientist friend coming out and defending your positions this fall. Again, we'd be delighted to have you, and it would go much further than a one-on-one dialogue between us. 

Keep in touch.



End of dialogue. Back to the post.

What do you think about this? Was I fair in my response? What do you think of Steve's popular blog posts, defending McDonald's french fries, GMOs, glyphosate, pesticide treadmills, etc? What do you think of his critiques of organic agriculture? Are they fair and balanced?

I'll give Steve one thing: he isn't afraid to boldly stand by the claims he makes. The problem is, more often than not, those claims are wrong. I really hope we can convince him to come out and defend his positions, publicly, at Cornell University. It's a shame we have to import debate team members from the outside, when it would be so easy if Cornell's Alliance for Science simply chose to participate in a real debate on campus. Fingers crossed.

Steve stresses the importance of "knowing what one doesn't know". Pretty ironic, considering the genetic engineering venture is replete with examples of scientists not having any clue as to what they're actually doing. If they did, hey, maybe Golden Rice would actually work! All of this is lost on the ideologically driven GMO cultists, of course. Why else would any sane, logical, so-called scientifically-minded individual continue to blame Greenpeace for a clear scientific and technological failure like Golden Rice (to name but one example)?

I'm getting rather tired of being told that I don't understand genetic engineering and agriculture by people who clearly don't understand it themselves. But then again, that's why I started this whole project. I know that the older generations of GM supporters are a lost cause; they refuse to update their perspective in the face of ample evidence, and continue their faith-based (not evidence-based) support of industrial agriculture. I have nothing to offer them that hasn't been offered numerous times before.

I do this for my generation. I refuse to allow propaganda, intentional corporate confusion, and plain-old lack of critical thinking, to sway my peers from the truth - about science, society, economics, agriculture, food security, and everything else. Thank you for helping me with this mission, and thank you for supporting and spreading my work, and the work of my scientist/activist friends who contributed to our growing collective body of knowledge.

We will gain back control of our food supply. We will rescue science from the abyss. We won't stop until we succeed.