Monday, May 9, 2022

#2536: Charles Benbrook

One of the leading anti-GMO activists in the US, Charles M. “Chuck” Benbrook is an agricultural economist, pesticide litigation consultant and former adjunct professor with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) at Washington State – a job fully funded by the organic food industry with no independent funding or funding from the university. Benbrook was also scientific advisor for the organic industry research organization The Organic Center, which does not mean that his efforts, or those of the center, were particularly science-based. Benbrook is best known for his promotion of pseudoscience and his willingness to use any tactic and gambit possible, no matter how dirty, to defend the efforts of the industries that hire him from actual scientific research and data, and to influence public opinion, as well as to produce strikingly flawed studies in support of said industries (the efforts are, for Benbrook and his side, a matter of winning, not of ensuring that they are actually right through evidence and genuine research). What’s really worrying, though, is how many people view him asan authority worth listening to.

 

During his time at the CSANR, Benbrook directed the organic industry-funded “Measure to Manage” program, and conducted several studies also funded in their entirety by the organic food industry, which also paid for his lobbying efforts to require that genetically modified organisms be labelled. His contract with Washington State was terminated after he “forgot” to disclose his industry-funded conflicts of interest. It is noteworthy that Benbrook also directed the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Agriculture from 1984 to 1990, but was ultimately let go, after several warnings, because he used the authority of his position to promote pseudoscience and conspiracy theories – what the NAS more diplomatically described as public comments on incomplete research that did not reflect the views of the academic professional reviewers at the Academy.

 

Since his NAS days, Benbrook has primarily been working as an expert for hire. He was, for instance, chief ‘scientist’ at the Organic Center, a ‘research’ organization funded by the organic industry and operating under the management of the Organic Trade Association, relationships that the center did not want to be publicly known – it really is striking, and really a system feature, how anti-GMO and anti-pesticide activist groups like to run the shill gambit and appeals to Monsanto, falsely accusing those who disagree with them of being bought and paid by industry interest on whatever flimsy (and often non-existent) multiple-degrees-of-separation line they can imagine, while being themselves entirely in the pocket of and producing research results to order from Big Organic. From a cynical point of view, the dynamics are understandable. The research underpinning the scientific consensus on GMO or glyphosate safety is demonstrably largely free of industry-related conflicts of interest. And if you apply just a bit of reason, it should really be obvious how ridiculous the claim is that studies that show that GMOs and pesticides are safe are compromised by Big Industry interests: It really isn’t in the best interests of said industry to influence results so that it looks like things are safe and effective when they really aren’t: as the industry very well knows, mistakes in the assessment of safety of their products will come back to harm them down the road. For the anti-GMO activists, the situation is different: their goal isn’t to establish the safety of their own products, but to undermine public confidence in others’ products: And then, why would truth, accuracy and accountably matter? There is a reason why FUD tactics are effective. It’s worth noting that the only major case of scientific misconduct in research on glyphosate that has come to light is … yes, precisely: Benbrook’s.

 

Over the last decade, Benbrook has also served as expert witness in several GMO- and pesticide-related lawsuits. Since 2014, he has been a paid litigation consultant for mass tort pesticide litigators on class action cases involving glyphosate, paraquat, and chlorpyrifos.

 

In 2018, Benbrook established the Heartland Research Study and Heartland Health Research Alliance, LTD, which is a front for the organic industry – they were notably funded by organic grocery magnate Mark Squire, as well as leading anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist (and also anti-glyphosate activist) Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The study group works to establish at least a perception of a connection between pesticide use and health issues for women and children in order to promote a shift to organic production methods and the use of organic pesticides that are at least as dangerous as conventional ones. (What counts as an organic industry-accepted pesticide and what doesn’t is based on appealing to nature and seems in practice to be determined by relatively arbitrary, pseudo-theological agreements between industry leaders.)

 

“Research”

Benbrook has produced a number of studies whose methodology ranges from fair to sloppy to straight-out pseudoscientific. Among the most famous is a 2012 garbage study funded by the organic industry that concluded that genetically modified foods have resulted in increased pesticide use, putatively because weeds are growing resistant to glyphosate – even people not paying particular attention to the antics of anti-GMO activist may have picked up on that one. The rather crucial flaws of the study include failing to take into account the fact that glyphosate is less toxic than other herbicides (so that net toxicity may decrease even if total herbicide use increases) and pulling estimates out of his own ass because data provided by the National Agricultural Statistics Service don’t in fact distinguish between GM and non-GM crops.

 

That study in particular promoted Benbrook to being someone mainstream media would seek out as an actual expert on issues related to pesticides or GMO, and they would often portray him, implicitly or explicitly, as an independent commentator rather than someone who was completely on the payroll of industry interests. Benbrook has of course extensively exploited his position to systematically lobby journalists to provide sympathetic coverage of his work and the industry interests that pay him, for instance to provide coverage of his pro-organic milk study. As opposed to how media portrayed it, the vast majority of independent research (which Benbrook’s was emphatically not) on the topic was sharply critical of that study, but you would never guess from the media coverage.

 

There is some further discussion of Benbrook’s research efforts here.

 

(More) Anti-GMO Activities

Benbrook is a prolific speaker and signatory to various petitions. A recurring feature of his contributions is, of course, attempts to poisoning the well by suggesting conspiratorial collusions between researchers, industry and regulatory systems, in particular to promote the idea that one cannot trust GMOs because the regulatory systems in place rely too much on studies supplied by companies that develop such foods. Of course, as mentioned above, the claim is false, The irony is that, as Amy Levy and Julie Kelly point out, Benbrook himself “has been bankrolled by the organic industry for years and his research is always favorable to the anti-GMO organic industry. […] Quite simply, the money trail behind Benbrook’s latest work can be directly traced to the organic industry that greatly profits from any bad news about Monsanto, glyphosate or GMOs.”*

 

*Teachable moment: The dynamics here nicely illustrate the difference between a fallacious ad homiem and legitimate IBE inferences – though it might immediately look like both Benbrook, on the one hand, and Levy & Kelly, on the other, appeal to questionable motivations, there is a world of difference: Benbrook commits an ad hominem fallacy because he appeals to industry funding to question studies on GMO safety without engaging with the actual studies; Levy & Kelly, on the other hand, starts by establishing that Benbrook systematically draws the wrong conclusions, and then point to vested interests to explain why that is the case. There is a golden rule of rational debate (and if anyone knows the reference, please tell us) stating that you are not allowed to try to explain why someone is wrong before you have shown that they are, in fact, wrong. Benbrook violates that rule; Levy & Kelly don’t.

 

You can find a decent illustration of Benbrook’s level of integrity here.

 

(More) Anti-Pesticide Activities

According to serious studies, organic foods do not confer significant health advantages compared to conventional foods. Benbrook, of course, is not particularly happy with that conclusion and has campaigned extensively in various media to get official institutions to dismiss studies that conclude that glyphosate is safe based on careful research and rather adopt the views Benbrook’s gut feelings tell him are correct. According to actual expertsBenbrook’s conclusions conflict with virtually all peer reviewed studies, including two recent studies in PNAS and Nature.”

 

There is an unbiased introduction to glyphosate here for those in need of a primer.

 

Diagnosis: This is perhaps the war that the denialist side is most likely to win, at least in the short term; there is already an obvious asymmetry between those who claim that GMOs and glyphosate are safe, even though that claim is backed by scientific consensus – since it really is in their self-interest that the research is careful and accurate – and the denialists backed by Big Organic, whose FUD strategies would really see little benefit from being truthful and accurate. And the case of Charles Benbrook is a pretty vivid illustration of the asymmetry. A substantial threat to civilization.

14 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Well, we all know when it comes to Big Pharma verses Big Organic who has killed the most people!! Ask the Sacklers!

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    1. It's not Big Pharma's fault that you're a pathetic loser who can't get laid.

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    2. Wow, that was an intelligent comment! And btw, what in the hell is "Big Organic"? Does anyone in his right mind believe there is anything there able to compete, information-wise or otherwise, with the billionaires who own / control Big Pharma, or that they don't fund the studies that result in approval of their products by the FDA, etc.? Btw, fwiw, to stave off the inevitable ad hominems from pseudo-rationalists, I'm happily married.

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    3. Hey, Steven? I hear you're called a big thinker--by people who lisp! And for the record, I stopped arguing with people like you for the same reason doctors don't give medicine to corpses.

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    4. Steve: You're not seriously under the delusion that organic products you buy at WholeFoods or Costco actually come from family-run, small, genuinely local businesses? Earthbound Farm or Horizon Organic are multi-billion industrial complexes. (Many of the organic companies are also owned by Kraft and Kellogg's and the like, by the way.) You're not seriously buying the image of the organic industry as more wholesome, less turbocapitalist than other industries? Good lord, the world is full of fools.

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    5. You should stop trying to read minds. You're no good at it. I've not been a WholeFoods in over 10 years, since well before Amazon (not a food company) bought them, and I don't think I've ever been in a CostCo (also not a food company but a Walmart wannabe that happens to sell food). Not everything labeled "organic" really is, moreover. (What? Corporations would lie to you? Say it isn't so, Joe!)

      The place to find out if there's any real competition between organic and, well, the kind of crap Walmart passes off as food, is to look at readily available lists of top corporations like Fortune 500, where you'll find Walmart (right at the top), Pfizer, Tyson Foods, Kroger, etc. None of the organic food cos. you name on that list. Look for yourself (top 100): https://www.careerswave.in/fortune-500-companies-list-2022/

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    6. Just to note, I tossed Pfizer onto that list because they, like other billionaire leviathans (including Amazon and Berkshire Hathaway) really were the only beneficiaries of the so-called pandemic.

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    7. Goal-post shifting much, Steven? Above, you expressed incredulity at the expression "Big Organic". I pointed out that, yes, organic food companies are billion-dollar industries. And they are funding people like Benbrook and his organizations to provide pseudoscientific smearing of the competition.

      I did not allege that those organic companies were anything like the biggest in the US. Why on Earth would that be relevant? The point is that they are big industries, and they fund marketing strategies and smear campaigns.

      Other companies aren't any more altruistic, but as I carefully explain in the post, there is nevertheless an asymmetry here: It's in the big food companies' interest to do safety studies properly, since if they don't, *they* will suffer for it. Their motivation is pure self-interest, of course, but the result is nonetheless that things are done more or less properly.

      Not so for the Benbrook-led campaigns pushed by Big Organic: accountability and accuracy is *not* in their self-interest when the purpose is merely to push fear, uncertainty and doubt.

      And it is sort of important to see that major asymmetry, and that it arises simply *because* all those companies are motivated merely by self-interest.

      And to back it up: Benbrook and his organizations have been caught red-handed a number of times doing things improperly: failing to disclose conflicts of interest, shoddy methods, amped up rhetoric based on nothing, and so on. It is, for instance, noteworthy - once again - that the only major case of scientific misconduct in research on glyphosate is precisely Benbrook. And it's not because of lack of trying to uncover such misconduct!

      You seem to be systematically missing the simple points here, Steven, and people are laughing at you for missing them, because they are really obvious. Instead of addressing the simple points, you keep bringing up list of big, morally questionable companies. And yes: they are morally questionable, but that's completely irrelevant to what the rest of us are discussing. And it's just not silly whataboutism you're engaged in: you genuinely seem to fail to grasp why those lists are irrelevant to what is being discussed.

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    8. I did not "move the goal posts" I broadened the discussion. If you don't accept that as a legitimate move, that's your choice. It's your blog. But this "Big Organic" of yours simply doesn't exist. There are no billion-dollar corporations out there competing with Big Food (e.g., Tyson Foods), and yes, it is relevant because in America, *money is power*. There may be a few outfits sending some Benbrook's way. Doesn't mean there's a conspiracy to promote "pseudoscience" and "smear the competition" going on that threatens the body politic. There are a few individuals, organizations and publications who get a few shillings from me each month because I support what they say/do. Does that make me *us* "substantial threats to civilization"? I love how you pseudo-rationalists ridicule "conspiracy theories" but in your hyperbole, you never notice your own.

      Who are (is?) "the rest of us" discussing "the relevant points" and "laughing at me." The only other poster I see is Night Train, whose gibberish recalls the typical fifth grade bully with about the same credibility. What is laughable is the idea that the "self-interest" of billionaire-owned corporations is protecting the public. The American public is the most obese, sickly, and drugged-up in all of human history, with the most chronic conditions (managed for profit) ever. While the additive-filled and preservative-laden "food" they consume isn't the whole story, it's a big part of the story. If a handful of small, organic firms want to offer an alternative to this junk, and if people want to buy that alternative, that's their choice ... whatever The Science says. It is my choice, too, since when I gave up processed foods filled with additives like MSG and HFCS (not to mention GMOs), and factory-farmed meat, my own health improved immeasurably.

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    9. You certainly did move the goal posts. No one is claiming that Big Organic is as big as Big Food (in a sense: much of the organic production is governed by Big Food operations too). The post concerns the well-documented efforts by Big Organic to promote pseudoscience and scare tactics, and I have given you the documentation (follow the link). Moreover, the post takes up the important asymmetry between studies on food safety financed by Big Food (importantly, much research to the effect that GMOs and glyphosate, say, is completely independent), and the FUD tactics by Big Organic. Benbrook is *proof* of those tactics.

      But you clearly cherish your misinformation, here, having apparently bought into the today's is the sickest generation myth pushed by so many conspiracy websites. Heck, you even invoke the *MSG* scare. I thought that racistly motivated conspiracy theory had died more than a decade ago, but I suppose I should have realized that conspiracy theories never die.

      At bottom, though, is your failure to realize the basic point that Big Pharma being shit doesn't mean that alternative cures work, or that Big Food being shit doesn't mean that your oh-so-wholesome organic neighborhood farm is good. Organic firms are not science-based or evidence-based, and has no accountability. You have no reason to think that they are motivated by altruism any more than Big Food. And as I have tried to explain: there are dirty tactics available to them that aren't really available to Big Food. But you are right that it's your choice.

      Nice touch to end with a meaningless it worked for me anecdote, a pretty audacious gambit, one might say, on a blog devoted to critical thinking issues.

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    10. Big pharma and Big food being shit? Yet everything they promote is accepted by your primary source Rational wiki as being "science" and "evidence" based! Sounds like blind faith to me!

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    11. " Yet everything they promote is accepted by your primary source Rational wiki as being "science" and "evidence" based"

      This is inaccurate. Both Rationalwiki and I accept the science, and calibrate our levels of confidence to the evidence. I may be wrong, of course - nothing in science is certain - and will adjust my confidence in light of the evidence. But you need evidence. And paranoia and conspiracy mongering, the obvious and documented pseudoscience of people like Benbrook, or fallacious appeals to nature aren't evidence. I don't think you know what "blind faith" means.

      It *is*, however, interesting that a lot of people today seem to treat food and nutrition as something resembling a pseudo-religious practice. Advice associated with hipster food fads, trending blogs and suchlike, often bear striking resemblance to religious creeds and invocations (especially when accompanied by unexplained references to "natural" or "toxins"), and behavior associated with food trends resemble cultish, religious rituals more than anything else. The claims and statements rarely has anything to do with reality or evidence.

      Real nutritional advice is actually pretty boring. Food is fuel. It isn't medicine: It doesn't cure anything and rarely do much to protect you from anything. Little of it will harm you either, unless you get far too much of it. There are no superfoods, and for most of the different stuff - minerals and vitamins and suchlike - you actually need, the amounts you in fact need are small enough that they are easily achieved through a normal, varied diet. Getting more than the minimum threshold won't do anything for you. It's all really pretty boring and mundane. There are plenty of cults and gurus that really, really want it to look otherwise, however.

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  3. Be cool Night Train and GD and allow Steve and I to have our illusion! Look on the bright side. With us going organic that leaves more Round-up for you guys!!

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