Charles Benbrook

Credit: Genetic Literacy Project

Charles Benbrook is an agricultural economist and consultant to the organic food lobby. He is one of the few credentialed scholars who espouses skepticism about GMOs and is revered by the anti-biotech movement as a result. However, his work is typically published in journals with questionable reputations and universally rejected by experts who don’t share his fringe views about agriculture.

Increased Pesticide Use? Charles Benbrook Misleads the Public

In 2012, Benbrook authored a paper suggesting that genetically modified crops had increased the use of pesticides and fast-tracked the growth of “superweeds.” Naturally, the anti-biotech movement praised the paper, and Benbrook received favorable media coverage from his friends at Mother Jones. But there’s more to the story. Besides being published in a pay-to-play journal, the study was heavily criticized by experts for using incomplete data and exaggerating the environmental effects of the pesticides.

Plant pathologist Steve Savage pointed out, for instance, that Benbrook’s focus on the overall increase in pesticide use ignores the importance of toxicity in the equation; newer chemicals used to control weeds and pests are much less toxic than their predecessors, a point Benbrook briefly acknowledged in his paper but failed to develop for his readers. In a 2017 email released under a FOIA request, Benbrook conceded and elaborated on Savage’s point, admitting that “the chemical alternatives [to glyphosate] are almost certainly orders of magnitude worse, both in terms of environmental and human health risks.”

Savage further explained that the dangers posed by traditional weed control practices, like plowing for example, promote soil erosion and significant fuel use, which have serious environmental impacts. On balance, then, more pesticide use is a perfect example of sustainable farming.

Charles Benbrook’s Organic Milk Claims Fail Peer Review

The following year, Benbrook co-authored a paper claiming that organic milk is healthier than conventional milk, because it contains more omega-3 fatty acids. The paper was published in the open access journal PLoS ONE, but a wide-ranging group of experts shot Benbrook’s hypothesis full of holes.

UC-Davis’s Alison Van Eenennaam explained that grass-fed cows produce milk with higher omega-3 levels, whether the milk is produced organically or conventionally. The National Dairy Council, which just wants people to drink milk (organic and conventional), was quick to dispel Benbrook’s claims as well, noting that “[b]oth organic and conventionally-produced milk are excellent choices. There simply is no nutritionally superior alternative.” Finally, a 2010 paper, much larger and better designed than Benbrook’s, concluded that “there were no meaningful differences [between types of milk] that would affect public health and … all milks were similar in nutritional quality and wholesomeness.”

Big Organic Hires Charles Benbrook to Boost Its Credibility

Benbrook’s status as an organic industry shill was confirmed when the New York Times published some of his emails in late 2015, which revealed that the economist was hired to create talking points for the industry and help the Organic Consumers Association lobby for state and federal GMO labeling laws.

Another selection of Benbrook’s emails, released the following week, shows that he further colluded with the organic industry to write and publish academic articles designed to build a case against the use of herbicides and genetic modification. In one email, Benbrook eagerly volunteered his services as an expert witness in the coming legal battles against biotech firms like Monsanto and Syngenta for $200 an hour.

When asked about his relationship with the organic industry, Benbrook explained that he was paid to give the anti-GMO lobby a veneer of scientific integrity. “They want to influence the public,” he told The New York Times. “They could conduct those studies on their own and put this information on their website. But nobody would believe them. There is a friggin’ war going on around this stuff. And everyone is looking to gain as much leverage as they can.”