“Ideas worth spreading:” that’s the tag line for a worldwide series of educational events that have been held since 1990 under the banner of ‘TED,’ an organization that has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years.
Its wildly popular “TED talks” have been bold, inspiring, and freely available to watch and share. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve welcomed outside-the-mainstream thinkers and have been reasonably resistant to big corporate influence.
Some of TED’s most-shared talks have been from organic foodies like Robyn O’Brien and Birke Baehr, who recommend investing a localized, sovereign food system that is not unlike the one recommended by the United Nations to “feed the world.”
Organic and non-GMO ideas have almost always been allowed to spread freely through the TED organization, much like seeds did among farmers prior to the introduction of GMOs.
But a recent talk at the annual conference in Vancouver (combined with a curious blog post) is raising questions as to where TED’s true allegiances lie.
TED Questioned Over “Anti-GMO Foodists” Blog Post
Most of the pro-organic presentations held have been TEDx talks in cities around the world, independently organized events under the TED umbrella.
Despite the success of several of these TEDx talks on organic, local and healthy food, many worried that a 2012 blog post signaled a shift.
The alternative health website Natural News first brought attention to the blog post titled ‘A Letter to the TEDx Community on TEDx and Bad Science,’ and accused the organization of aligning with Monsanto.
The TED blog post mentioned “anti-GMO foodists” as part of a “red flag topic” that independent organizers should watch out for when putting together events, along with “food as medicine,” “alternative medicine,” and even spirituality-related topics.
Following the Natural News report, the TED blog was deluged with comments and TED went into damage control mode, telling readers that it has not “banned discussion of GMOs” and that it does not have a relationship with Monsanto.
Monsanto Funded Researcher Takes the Stage at TEDx
Despite this reassurance, the door appears to have been officially opened to the highly controversial pro-corporate “science” based approach of allowing GMO advocates some would label as propagandists to take the stage, as a March 2015 talk at TED Vancouver by Pamela Ronald suggested.
“Genetic improvement of plants isn’t new,” Ronald said during her talk according to this blog post from TED’s website.
“Ancient corn had a case so hard that it couldn’t be chewed; the ancient banana was full of large seeds; ancient Brussels sprouts weren’t actually individual objects,” she added.
“To create these crops, breeders used many kinds of genetic techniques…Today breeders have even more the options choose from (editor’s note: like gene splicing them in a lab, which is far different). Some of them are extraordinarily precise.”
Unfortunately for the audience who might not know any better, Ronald is simply using the same verbal sleight-of-hand that astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson used when he attempted to conflate the genetic engineering of plants in a lab with traditional plant breeding in the field.
Ronald’s biases are also well established (and her credentials strongly questioned, more on that later): she’s accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in researching grants from Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred to work on the rice gene in the laboratory according to an article by Tom Knudson in the Sacramento Bee.
A professor of plant pathology at UC-Davis, Ronald has long served as a public face and proponent for GMOs in the mainstream media, but her science is far from airtight: as noted in this article, two of Ronald’s studies that formed the basis of her research on rice plants have actually been retracted, leading to serious questions about her scientific credibility.
After all, it was a single retraction of a study linking GMOs to tumors that caused the Biotech industry to launch a massive campaign attacking the credibility of French Scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini, whose work was stricken from one journal immediately after it hired an ex-Monsanto employee to its editorial board and was later republished in another peer-reviewed scientific journal. Séralini’s reputation took a major hit in the American mainstream media and still hasn’t recovered even after his work was republished.
But in this case, TEDx seemingly had no problem inviting a woman who’s been a part of more than her fair share of what the Biotech industry would call “bad science,” which is exactly what the 2013 TED blog post told its organizers to watch out for when putting together events.
Which of course begs the obvious question: does the highly esteemed TEDx organization really know “bad science” when it sees it?
Sponsors Raise Further Questions
While the TED Conference was not directly sponsored by Monsanto or any other GMO seed companies, two sponsors, Abbott Nutrition and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, certainly raise further questions.
Abbott Nutrition is a major player in the food industry that produces “nutrition” drinks loaded with genetically modified ingredients like Ensure as well as baby formulas like Similac. They’ve rejected shareholder requests to label or remove GMOs in the past and seem heavily invested in GMO technology for their products.
Abbott is also one of the top sponsors of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the top dietitians’ association in the United States, and a member of the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association, which has spent millions to deny Americans the right to know if their food contains GMOs or not.
There’s also the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which sponsors the Trust for America’s Health, a policy advocating organization responsible for creating many pro-Big Food bills including some crafted by the notorious Michael R. Taylor, the former Monsanto VP who is now the Deputy Commissioner of Foods at the FDA.
Is Hope Lost for TED and Organic Supporters?
The organization has said in the past that TEDx events are noteworthy because of the lack of corporate influence involved.
But with edicts to be “aware of anti-GMO foodists” coming down from the top, and a clear pro-GMO and pro-corporate slant now working its way into the organization, it’s more than fair to wonder if the TED Conference itself, and its smaller “independently organized” TEDx talks, will ever be the same.
The good news is that the same social media voices that helped give rise to this Age of TED as a world thought leader now have the same opportunity to voice their displeasure with an outfit that has clearly been straying way too far from its original principles.