HSU’s ‘Anti-GMO Speaker Series’ tells one side of the biotechnology controversy

Last week we learned that Humboldt State will fulfill its role of community leadership by presenting speakers with strong points of view on the issue of biotechnology, specifically, genetically engineered food, popularly known as GMOs. Here’s the announcement:

HSU Press Release

Humboldt State University and GMO Free Humboldt present the Genetically Modified Organism Fall Speaker Series Aug. 29, Sept. 5 and Sept. 12 on the HSU campus.

Lectures are free and open to the public and will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Native American Forum, Room 162 of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Building.

Ray Seidler kicks off the speaker series Aug. 29 with “The Truth About GMOs.” Seidler spent 16 years as a professor of microbiology at Oregon State University and 17 years as senior research scientist and team leader at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

He has authored or co-authored over 155 peer reviewed publications and three books. While at the EPA, Seidler also wrote the first GMO biosafety research plan and conducted extensive research on GMOs.

KevbadgeOn Sept. 5, Michael Hansen presents “Are Genetically Engineered Foods Safe to Eat? What Are the Risks, and Who Ensures Safety?” Hansen is a senior staff scientist at Consumers Union, a national non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the rights of consumers and the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

Hansen has been responsible for developing Consumers Union positions on safety, testing and labeling of genetically engineered food and mad cow disease. Since 2003, he has worked on a multi-state effort to ban the use of food crops to produce pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals.

Ignacio Chapela delivers the final installment of the speaker series Sept. 12 with “GMOs: Who Wins, Who Loses?”

Chapela has held various research posts in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway and the United States. Before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley, Chapela worked in the agro- and pharmaceutical industry, academia and policy-making institutions. In addition to working on microbial ecology, he has also researched the access, ownership and stewardship of genetic resources.

For more information on the GMO Speaker Series, contact Noah Zerbe, chair of the Department of Politics, at (707) 826-3911 or [email protected] or Bill Schaser of GMO Free Humboldt at (707) 443-5323 or [email protected].

Is that all there is?

It’s a timely development, since ballot Measure P will offer Humboldt residents the opportunity to ban cultivation of biotech crops in this county.

Voters will have to do a risk/benefit calculation as to whether the benefits extolled by backers – pest and disease resistance, increased productivity and improved nutrition among them – outweigh the risks, which local Measure P backers GMO Free Humboldt (GMOFH) say pose a clear and present danger to local organic agriculture and the economy.

Not everyone agrees that biotech crops pose any hazard at all. In fact, support for GMO crops in the scientific community is roughly at the same level as that for anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

The scientific consensus is that biotech is well-understood, and like technological innovations such as crop rotation, offers important tools and benefits to farmers and consumers, with little risk. Opposition to both biotechnology and AGW tends to be cultural and political in nature, rather than science-based.

There are always outlier scientists who dissent from the mainstream scientific consensus, and to the dismay of biotech supporters, HSU’s Genetically Modified Organism Fall Speaker Series is – so far – composed exclusively of those who hold this fringe view.

It would be as though HSU offered a Climate Change Fall Speaker Series, with all three speakers denying that global warming exists. There are places in the country where that would go over very well.

The announcement didn’t go unnoticed in the scientific community. This comment was posted in response on the Union’s website:

‘Anti-GMO Speaker Series’

Noah Zerbe, a Politics Professor, gives the political group academic cover by calling this “A Humboldt State University Speaker Series” even though HSU had no role in selecting the speakers, and the speakers were picked specifically to promote a political ideology. He further gives it the misleading title of “GMO Speaker Series” rather than “Anti-GMO speaker series.”

Noah Zerbe should be ashamed of himself for letting the University be manipulated into promoting political organizations with anti-science viewpoints. It does the University, the students and the community a disservice.

Mark Wilson

Professor of Biology

Humboldt State University

The rest of the story?

Former HSU President and genetic scientist Rollin Richmond also weighed in, saying he was “puzzled” by Zerbe’s one-sided booking. He publicly stated on the local Humboldt Skeptics Facebook page that “HSU needs to do better.”

Scan Humboldt State’s Mission, Vision and Values at humboldt.edu/president/vision, and see for yourself how many bullet points are violated by the university presenting only a minority scientific view of a heated controversy with a related ballot measure coming up Nov. 4.

Zerbe initially referred all questions to Bill Shaser of GMOFH. Shaser denied Wilson’s allegation that the organization paid for the speakers, though he said it did arrange for their appearance at HSU.

Shaser denied that the lineup is unbalanced. He said the three speakers will evenhandedly relate scientific concerns about GMOs and that they represent the entire Speaker Series’ lineup.

As we went to press...

One way out would be if these were just the first three speakers in the series, with three more to come  who would offer the evidence-based, majority scientific consensus.

The original announcement didn’t mention further speakers to come, and best we can tell, there weren’t going to be any. But over the  weekend, something apparently changed, and for the better.

As we went to press Monday, Zerbe called to say he was “now working on adding more speakers.”

Whatever happens with the Speaker Series, the university’s radio station will offer a range of views of the issue.


KHSU 90.5 FM’s Thursday Night Talk will host two shows on the topic of biotechnology. The first is Aug. 28, at 7 p.m., hosted by Eric Kirk and features GMO opponent Ray Seidler.

The second is two weeks later on Sept. 11, is hosted by Kevin Hoover and features biotechnology advocates. More details to follow.



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  1. Kevin Hoover said:

    Thanks, I’d like to address that.

    Humboldt State is offering a lecture series on an issue about which voters will vote yes or no in six weeks. The university is presenting only the “yes” side.

    Anyone with a sense of fair play or respect for our citizens’ ability to sort things out for themselves can see the problem there. It’s a fairly atrocious misstep for a university founded on knowledge and ideas. It explicitly violates multiple bullet points in HSU’s stated Mission, Vision and Values.

    None of those three anti-GMO speakers has any obligation to present pro-biotech views that they don’t hold. It’s the university’s responsibility to present citizens with all the relevant points of view with diverse speakers.

    By the same token, when I write an opinion column, I’m not obliged to espouse views I don’t hold. Nor is any other opinion writer, including, I hope, you.

    As an editor, it is my responsibility to ensure that our readers are exposed to all points of view, and that is what I’ve always done and will continue to do.

    Here are some links to our past coverage, both news and opinion plus policy documents and more. Please page through them and I’m pretty sure you’ll see that based on what they convey, a thoughtful person could form any opinion on GMOs/biotech – pro, con or meh.



  2. moe said:

    I never intended to attack you personally and I apologize if you took it that way. I only intended to critique your critique.

    All I see is an article that critiques a speaker series that never promised to show both sides. Seeing as the point of this article is how looked down upon it is to do so, I thought the article would hold itself to the standard its attempting to perpetuate.

  3. Kevin Hoover said:

    Moe, two more points:
    1. If you search this and the Arcata Eye website using “GMO,” you will find a variety of views in the topic of biotechnology. In fact, you will find everything that has been submitted to the newspaper. We are actively soliciting more content from all sides.
    2. The nature of your comments well encapsulates the general tenor of the anti-GMO side – relentlessly personal and insulting. This is what we who hold the science-based pro-biotech views must constantly deal with.
    Tell you what – why don’t you write a piece advocating for Measure P, and we will run it in the newspaper?
    Meanwhile, consider discussing this issue in a more substantive and less hostile manner. Just a suggestion – the hostility isn’t necessary and doesn’t become you. Call me with any questions: 826-7000. Thanks!

  4. moe said:

    So I see you have found how helpful it is to only display your viewpoint when trying to get your point across. If you mentioned GMO Free Humboldt’s concerns about genetic contamination, protecting the economy by protecting local farmers who could face lawsuits over genetic contamination and limiting chemical exposure through banning the plants made to be used with such chemicals, I guess you would be distracting from your attack on GMO Free Humboldt.

  5. Kevin Hoover said:

    1. The university is presenting a single viewpoint regarding an issue about which there is a ballot measure Nov. 4. Surely you respect the intellect of the community enough to let them evaluate both sides.
    2. This is an news analysis opinion column, not a news story. There’s no requirement to offer opposing views. We have invited GMO Free Humboldt to submit columns in which their views may be aired.

  6. moe said:

    The series is being put on at Humboldt State, so? Now because they are using their campus as it is supposed to be used (how many speakers, performances and artists come through here? yes?) they should use their own resources to continue the series to please opponents? If opponents have an issue they should bring their own speakers to HSU, nobody is stopping them and I am sure HSU would host them if approached.
    Stop expecting everybody to do everything and do it yourself, nobody stopped you. That is ridiculous to expect a campaign to feature information that they believe to be false, and it is ridiculous to expect the University to counter everything they host. Next time a country singer comes to HSU I will be sure to demand they bring a Metal artist to “balance” it. Get over yourself and your high expectations that you do not even hold yourself to.

    Now that I think about it, this article could use some balancing. You mentioned 3 specific “benefits” of GMOs get did not mention 3 specific problems Measure P finds with GMOs. Looks like you cannot even stick to your own standards.

  7. Miles Stockdale said:

    “A diverse, integrated ecosystem designed farm, with diverse genetics, is the best way to ensure pest and disease resistance, increase productivity and provide improved nutrition.”

    Even if we grant that as all true (although I don’t think there is much evidence to support your claim), there is still no reason to oppose other beneficial solutions (ie GMOs). Perfect is the enemy of the good. –Voltaire

  8. Kevin Hoover said:

    “‘Benefits[of GMO’s] extolled by backers – pest and disease resistance, increased productivity and improved nutrition among them.’ This statement maybe what they extoll, but they are just not true.”

    That makes me I wonder why more and more farmers choose to utilize biotech products. Is it because they don’t work as advertised, or because they do?

  9. Kevin Hoover said:

    ” A diverse, integrated ecosystem designed farm, with diverse genetics, is the best way to ensure pest and disease resistance, increase productivity and provide improved nutrition. Hands down.”

    Sounds good to me, though I wonder if it scales up. Not all farms are CSAs. I’m guessing that idyllic model is limited to small organic farms or gardens.

    I just don’t see why biotechnology has to be excluded. If you have any good reasons, I’d like to hear them.

    Sorry you don’t like the tone. Please, compare it to the tone on the anti-GMO fora and tell me what you find out.

    “You are an advocate, so can you really report neutrally?”

    Yes, I can. But I don’t. I took myself off the reporting beat re: biotechnology a while back. I don’t do any reporting on that other than mechanical tasks like routing e-mail or suggesting sources for the reporter who has handled most of those stories, Bryn Robertson.

    I’ve also invited GMOFH to submit opinion pieces advocating their point of view.

    We even structured the KHSU TNT shows so that I am hosting only the second show, on which biotech advocates appear.

    Does that address your questions?

  10. Susan Ornelas said:

    Kevin you state that “benefits[of GMO’s] extolled by backers – pest and disease resistance, increased productivity and improved nutrition among them”. This statement maybe what they extoll, but they are just not true. A diverse, integrated ecosystem designed farm, with diverse genetics, is the best way to ensure pest and disease resistance, increase productivity and provide improved nutrition. Hands down. And – I am bothered by your tone – you expect an inclusive discussion when someone wants to speak against GMO’s, but you are not very inclusive in your own ‘pro-GMO’ forums. You are an advocate, so can you really report neutrally?

  11. hyperzombie said:

    When is the Anti -vax and chemtrails speakers series?

  12. Miles Stockdale said:

    Yes, Zerbe and HSU should be ashamed of themselves. Maybe next they can set up an Evolution Speaker’s Series with nothing but 3 prominent creationists and then follow that up with a Speaker’s Series with only the couple odd ducks that believe the earth is flat.

    I mean if you are going to promote bad science to the students and the community why stop at just promoting GMO bad science.

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