Monsanto, Biased Scientists, or the Media: Which One Scares You Most?

Advocates masquerading as scientists to try and establish credibility for biased claims do the public, and science, serious harm. And journalists who fail to call them out and report biased studies as fact compound the damage.

The headline on the website of the environmentalist organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) focuses on two of the movement's biggest current bogeymen; Monsanto, and its popular pesticide, glyphosate. Study: Monsanto's Glyphosate Most heavily Used Weed-Killer in History, the EWG story reports;


Glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready” genetically engineered crops were introduced in 1996.

In 2014, enough glyphosate was sprayed to leave more than three-quarters of a pound of the active ingredient on every harvested acre of cropland in the U.S., and remarkably, almost a half pound per acre on all cropland worldwide (0.53 kilogram/hectare).

And the EWG report quotes the author of the study, Charles Benbrook, warning that

The dramatic and rapid growth in overall use of glyphosate will likely contribute to a host of adverse environmental and public health consequences.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the EWG story fails to note (as the study itself does) that while he prepared this study, Benbrook was at Washington State University, where his program:

received funding from foundations, organic food companies, and co-ops.

That’s a far less-than-honest effort at transparency. Benbrook is a widely known and longstanding advocate for organic farming and a leading voice in the movement opposed to genetically modified food. The foundations and companies that created his position at Washington State, giving him a credible academic base from which to advocate his views, were all associated with the organics industry, which he worked for directly before moving to the university. He has been paid by a host of corporate and environmental organizations that vilify Monsanto, glyphosate specifically, and pesticides and genetically modified food generally. When all these overt conflicts of interest were revealed last year, (first by The New York Times in the article "Washington State Professor Allies with the Organics Industry") the university eliminated Benbrook’s position.

            But as I said, it’s not surprising that an environmental group might not mention anything that questions Benbrook’s credibility as an unbiased researcher. They are advocates. That’s what advocates do. What is surprising, and should be worrying to a public that relies on the general news media for fair and reliable information about risk, is that Benbrook’s conflicts of interest weren’t mentioned in most of the news reports about his study — some of which sound suspiciously like the story EWG ran.

            Compare the headline at Phys.org (mission statement: “Our job is to find the interesting science and technology stories, uncover the details, and give our readers their daily dose of news at a single source.) — Monsanto's glyphosate now most heavily used weed-killer in history, study says. Phys.org is largely just an aggregator, hungry for traffic and readership. But aggregation sites are a growing part of the new media world by which the public learns about risk. Reporting on this study without noting Benbrook’s conflicts leaves Phys.org readers dangerously ill-informed and unable to question whether the "facts" in the study are as Benbrook claims them to be.

So does Newsweek’s story Glyphosate Now the Most-Used Agricultural Chemical EverReporter Doug Main never mentions Benbrook’s conflicts of interest. Nor does he challenge Benbrook’s alarms about the actual risk of glyphosate, a subject of much disagreement among the top food safety regulators in the world.

How about the Minnesota Star Tribune, in a brief piece written by a friend of mine (and great guy), Tom Meersman. Monsanto weed killer Roundup is a huge seller. Tom doesn't mention Benbrook's well-established bias or funding conflicts either.

Farmers Weekly, A UK-based agricultural news service, also regurgitates Benbrook's findings while raising no questions about his honesty although it does note, in its last paragraph, the scientific debate about the potential risk of glyphosate, which Benbrook and EWG fail to mention — Report confirms massive rise in farmers use of glyphosate.

Cleveland.com reports on the study (World roundup: More pesticides used since GMO crops) and only mentions that Benbrook is "an organics consultant."

Compare those reports to the solid job done by Science 2.0 in Glyphosate Now Most Popular Weed Killer In History, Laments Economist Chuck Benbrook. It not only notes Benbrook’s biases and funding conflicts at several points, but also, even more importantly, puts the actual danger of glyphosate in perspective, rather than just regurgitating the fears of an advocate with a well-known bias. It suggests there are reasons to question what Benbrook says and raises those questions itself, on behalf of the reader.

There is a lot to worry about in all of this. Glyphosate may be harmful to human or environmental health, although it has replaced pesticides that were known to be far more toxic to farm workers and the environment, a fact which none of the stories mentions. Monsanto is a big international corporation, out to enrich itself and its shareholders. These bogeymen are worthy of concern.

But of far more concern is the growing trend of dishonest scientists using the supposedly credible "peer-reviewed scientific literature" not to promote knowledge but to advocate biases and points of view. Scientists influenced by corporate money have been doing this on all sorts of issues for years, and appropriately, journalists have been raising red flags about conflicts of interest from corporate influence. Environmental and public health scientists are doing it more and more too. It is unfortunate that those conflicts of interest, just as relevant to the reader, are not flagged nearly as much, as should have been done with Benbrook.

The public really ought to worry about this, about advocates posing as honest scientists and about journalists who fail to report conflicts of interest or challenge the pseudoscience, bias-as-fact “peer-reviewed scientific evidence” of advocates heavily funded by parties with vested interests on any side of any contentious issue. Such incomplete reporting gives these claims a stamp of credibility they don’t deserve. It establishes these questionable assertions as fact in the public’s mind. It leaves people poorly equipped to make intelligent choices about questions of health and safety, and manipulated by a point of view. 

Of course that’s just what Benbrook and the anti-GMO funders of his research hope. Shame on them (and others on all sides of many issues) for such deceit. But shame, too, on journalists, who bear a moral responsibility to help us sort fact from spin so we can make more informed decisions about how best to keep ourselves safe. And bravo to the journalists, like those at Science 2.0, who recognize this responsibility and serve the public well by being more careful. These are the sources of information, in this new and fractionalized media world, we should reward with our readership, and our trust.

(Here is my own conflict of interest statement; I have been paid to teach the psychology of risk perception to a wide range of companies, academic institutions, government agencies, and non-government organizations, including several seeking help understanding public concerns about pesticides and about genetically modified food.)

Image: GettyImages, Phillipe Huegen

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.