John Fagan, Ph.D. is a leading authority on sustainability in the food system. As Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Global ID Group, he pioneered the development of innovative tools to verify and advance food purity, safety and sustainability. These tools include DNA tests for genetically engineered foods, the first certification program for Non-GMO foods, and a leading program certifying corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability in food and agriculture, which is now administered by the non-profit ProTerra Foundation. Dr. Fagan holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology from Cornell University.
While scientific studies indicate concern about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), there is still a significant lack of access to testing and researching these seeds and products. John Fagan expresses his concern for GMOs as well as the negative effects of the power and influence of the biotechnology industry.
Douglas Gayeton: Should people be concerned about GMOs?
John Fagan: Absolutely. When I started talking about GMOs in 1994, we could say that there were risks based on what we knew. But now there are hundreds of peer reviewed scientific studies showing that GMOs are hazardous to our health and damage the environment. There is also clear evidence that they have social and cultural impacts that are highly undesirable.
We published a paper on the Internet last summer called "GMOs Myths and Truths." It has something around 400 plus citations, 240 some of those that are peer reviewed scientific papers and another 127 some are UN and government reports all relating to the GMOs issue. The weight of evidence indicates that these are hazardous to our health. The minimum that should be done in response is that every GMO needs to be tested rigorously before it's put in the market.
Douglas Gayeton: Is it true that in many cases it is difficult to test GMOs because testing facilities don't have access to GMO seeds?
John Fagan: Yes, it’s the scariest situation I've ever seen. The biotechnology industry uses their patent rights and contracts that they require farmers to sign to control access to the materials. As a result, it’s very difficult for scientists to impartially and independently test the safety of GMOs. However, there are ways to do it and we’ve helped a lot of scientists get the materials they need to do that work.
It's a very difficult situation. When scientists do publish results that are not complimentary to the GM crops, the biotech industry has such a huge PR machine and so many resources to put into it that they can tear these people apart. There are many stories of how scientists’ careers are ruined and their lives are made miserable because of these situations.
The most recent example was a French scientist, Gilles-Eric Séralini. He published some work and like all scientific papers, it had flaws. Regardless, his paper revealed very important and concerning things about a certain genetically modified corn variety. He was torn apart because it wasn't perfect. Six months later, the same institutions that were attacking him and discounting his work started saying, “Maybe we do need some long term studies.”
Douglas Gayeton: Why can I still find GMO products on my grocery store shelf, even with such a prevalence of evidence about the harmful effects?
John Fagan: You can still find those products for the same reason that it took over 30 years for the tobacco industry to be brought into justice. There is a systematic approach that the tobacco industry used to generate doubt. The research was there, but they could always find enough doubt to prevent anyone from doing anything. The same thing is happening with GMOs.
It’s a situation where the powers of money and influence have had a very negative effect. [Those powers] have protected this technology from being properly evaluated and used. The evidence out there is such that if this were a new drug being tested today with the same results, that drug never would have been commercialized. Because of the much weaker system forged by GM crops, these have been commercialized and are protected even today.