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.)
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 experts “Benbrook’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.