Who’s afraid of the big bad GMO?

Alan McHughen
January 21, 2013
In over 30 years, there is not one documented case of harm to humans, animals or the environment from genetically modified organisms. But you wouldn’t know that from the fear-mongering anti-GMO movement. Alan McHughen, from the department of botany and plant sciences at the University of California, Riverside fills in the missing facts on GMOs.

Who’s afraid of the big bad GMO?

Alan McHughen
January 21, 2013
In over 30 years, there is not one documented case of harm to humans, animals or the environment from genetically modified organisms. But you wouldn’t know that from the fear-mongering anti-GMO movement. Alan McHughen, from the department of botany and plant sciences at the University of California, Riverside fills in the missing facts on GMOs.
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Prince Charles and Junk Science

Just mention “GMO” (genetically modified organism) and some people run scared – why? GMOs are products of technologies developed during the 1970s and 1980s that allow researchers to take DNA (i.e., genetic information) from any plant, animal or microbe and combine it with the DNA of any other plant, animal or microbe. The resulting transgenic organism (e.g., a bacterium with a human insulin gene inserted) remains essentially identical; however, it now expresses insulin per the example or whatever the new trait of the inserted DNA is.

For various reasons, this recombinant DNA technology, rDNA, is scary to some. Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, does not like it for moral and ethical reasons. Back in 1998, he wrote in The Daily Telegraph, that “I happen to believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God and to God alone.” Others base their fear along naturalistic notions, asserting that humans are undermining Mother Nature’s species barrier by moving genes from one species to another. People who hold this view are invariably befuddled when confronted with examples of genetic modification where the perceived species barrier is not violated – e.g., where genes are transferred within the species or where undesirable genes are removed.

Still others fear the apparently uncertain safety record of the GMOs and the idea that this technology may inadvertently introduce safety hazards into foods. Finally, another large segment fears not the technology per se but rather the idea of technology and big multinational corporations dominating the food supply. Leading GMO seed developer Monsanto, for example, is the company many people love to hate.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. When these disparate groups come together to fight passionately against GMOs, it means they are locking arms with those who were, and will be again, enemies on other issues.

Some facts: Not one documented case of harm in three decades

GMO technologies have been around since the early 1970s and have given us many useful products, from human insulin to safer crops grown with fewer pesticides. Moreover, in over 30 years of experience, according to authoritative sources such as the U.S. National Academies and the American Medical Association, there is not one documented case of harm to humans, animals or the environment from GM products.

That is an impressive track record, considering the extent of GM products in pharmaceuticals, agriculture, food and industrial applications. So why are so many still fearful of this technology? One simple answer is junk science and its carefully crafted use as a weapon of mass fear.

Send in the (junk science) clowns

Jeremy Rifkin was the first junk dealer to make big money by scaring people about the potential dangers of genetic engineering. Rifkin is no scientist, but an economist and prolific story spinner – the author of numerous books such as Algeny (1983) and The Biotech Century (1999). They are all, apparently, classified as non-fiction. Unlike most other science and medical books, however, none is peer reviewed. The late evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould referred to Rifkin’s 1983 book Algeny as “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship,” and in 1989, Time magazine ran a story titled “The Most Hated Man in Science.” Still, Edgar Allen Poe made money from selling horror stories – why not Rifkin?

In the peer-review process, the usually anonymous reviewers make suggestions for improvement prior to publication, thus protecting the author from the public embarrassment of publishing a flawed work. But one of the hallmarks of the junk scientist is an unnaturally disquieting lack of shame. When the fatal scientific defects are exposed to the world, the junk scientist is not the least bit embarrassed, responding instead with an ad hominem attack on the whistleblower, accusing him or her of being in league with the devil or, worse, Monsanto.

In reality, biotechnology is not Rifkin’s main targets. The real bugbears are capitalism and modern agriculture; the hybrid progeny of these two foretell, according to Rifkin’s junk science portrayal, the demise of humanity.

Not to be outdone in the chase for money from fear-mongering, Greenpeace and other special interest groups, such as Friends of the Earth and the U.K.’s Soil Association, deployed their considerable media-manipulating machinery to spread more scare stories.

Activists claimed they were performing a public service by alerting locals in Africa that GM foods from the United States would render the men impotent. In the Philippines, people were told, and some convinced, by activist scaremongers that merely walking through a field of genetically modified corn could turn heterosexual, virile men gay. European activists went to Zambia during the height of the 2002 famine and convinced then president Levy Mwanawasa that the GM corn in food aid contributed by the United States was “poison.” As reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation, Mwanawasa duly locked up the food in the warehouses – the same GM corn eaten without incident by millions of Americans – and then watched his subjects die, insisting such a fate was preferable to eating “poison.” That is, until the starving Zambians broke into the warehouses and gorged themselves healthy on the allegedly poisonous corn.

Junk science and politics

Other examples of junk science being used to deny access to valuable GMOs include the so-called terminator technology, which in theory renders seeds sterile but has never been shown to actually cause seed sterility in practice. But that fact has not impeded the widespread misbelief that terminator technology is present in most or all GM seeds. In 2010, Indian scientists were seeking approval for insect resistant GM brinjal (eggplant) from India’s Minister of Environment and Forests. Opposition spokesperson Bharat Mansata pleaded with the Minister to reject the GM eggplant because “… once the terminator seeds are released into a region, the trait of seed sterility can pass to other non-genetically-engineered crops and plants, making most or all of the seeds in the region sterile!” Apparently, no one thought to ask the obvious question of how these supposedly sterile terminator seeds can even sprout, let alone pass on the trait to offspring, as they themselves are sterile.

Meanwhile, the New World spawned another popular junk scientist in the person of Jeffrey Smith, who has penned several books decrying his perceived hazards of modern agriculture, saving the most potent venom for genetically modified crops and foods. Smith’s self-published, non-peer-reviewed Genetic Roulette, for example, expounds upon already questionable reports – almost all from non-peer-reviewed sources – in a confident, technical voice that suggests that he actually has some scientific or medical credentials. However, closer inspection of Smith’s CV reveals that the closest he has come to scientific credentials is working as a ballroom dance instructor and a flying carpet yogi. Genetic Roulette is so packed with scientific misunderstanding and misinformation that a group of actual scientific experts established a Web site to counter and explain, point by point, some 65 false claims.

Distinguishing real scientists from junk scientists: credentials and associations

Whatever became of credentials? The media have an ethical obligation to present balance – both sides of a story – especially for a controversial topic. When, say, an evolutionary biologist publishes a study opining on when our ancestral humans diverged from Neanderthals, the media typically interview another credentialed scientist with a different interpretation of the findings. This is how science advances – objectively collected evidence is peer reviewed and opened for discussion among experts in the field. Disputes can be passionate, which spawned what is known as Sayre’s Law: “Academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low.”

But the ultimate result is an increase in overall understanding of how nature works. Academics are held accountable; colleagues and rivals remember an academic’s proclamations. After too many erroneous predictions, the academic loses credibility in the eyes of his or her peers and is banished to the dank basement of the Ivory Tower. But the junk scientist, when called out on an incorrect prediction, simply moves on to the next issue or the next book. No accountability, no defending past statements when they are shown to be false. Social media fuel the fire, as anyone can publish any outlandish junk science claim on the Internet.

But when a plant breeder develops a strain of rice that is enhanced to help overcome vitamin A deficiency, rampant in poor tropical countries, the media interview (and give prominence to) pseudoscientific scaremongers like Smith instead of authentic experts in nutrition or agronomy, people who might actually bring legitimate questions and concerns to the discussion.

Entertainers Penn & Teller applied reductio ad absurdum (reduce to absurdity)  to a video to illustrate the lunacy of such a lopsided media “balance.” It highlights the difference between scientist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, and Greenpeace activists  (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIvNopv9Pa8). Borlaug is the father of the Green Revolution and credited with saving the lives of a billion humans by breeding better crops in developing countries. In other words, unlike some well-fed 20-something anti-technology activists with no credentials or qualifications who were attempting to disparage modern agricultural technologies, Borlaug knows about science and also about saving human lives.

Curiously, the junk scientists are fond of selectively quoting “scientific studies” (some of which are even peer reviewed) purportedly supporting their agenda. Revealingly, in a desperate but futile appeal to authority, these same people rarely, if ever, cite solid peer-reviewed studies that reject their position. This cherry-picking of data favourable to a set agenda and ignoring or discrediting contrary data is particularly pernicious when it creeps into the scientific realm.

Recently, French scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini and his team published a peer-reviewed paper that claimed harm to test animals after they were fed GM corn for two years.  Séralini boasted that his paper was the first long-term GM feeding trial. But Séralini, and later his disciples, failed to note the many other peer-reviewed, long-term GM feeding studies, including one in the journal in which his claims appeared, that concluded the opposite about the effect of GM food on animals: that such food was as safe, or safer, than regular non-GM food and feed.

Scientists are, assuredly, humans and come in all political stripes and flavours. It is not difficult to find scientifically credentialed individuals who have let their subjective passions override their scientific objectivity and allow their biases to drive their scientific endeavours. Typically, such conflicted scientists design and conduct experiments with the express purpose of generating data to support a predetermined conclusion rather than designing for the true scientific process of allowing the data to illuminate the truth.

The response for lay people

So what is a poor interested layperson to do? Even when cognizant of the fact that the bulk of information about GM technology on the Internet is wrong and that each side of a controversial issue like GM food safety garners support from some (apparently) qualified scientists, where does the layperson turn to find accurate and objective information?

Fortunately, there are sources. Unfortunately, the sources suffer from relatively low conventional and social media profiles – they tend to appear near the bottom of Internet searches – but rank at the top of scientific credibility. They are mainly the professional scientific and medical associations, groups such as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society and the American Medical Association. Such groups effectively moderate the extreme individuals who inhabit the fringes of every community. When these groups conduct a study on a given issue, all viewpoints are represented and the final assessment includes due consideration of the whole body of knowledge, pro and con, surrounding the issue.

These groups are also immune to the charge often leveled by pseudo-scientists and anti-technology activists that the private sector lies, cheats and steals to show its products in a good light, and the fudging of GMO safety data is therefore de rigueur. In the same vein, and applying the old sports maxim that the best defence is to be offensive, any public academic scientist who dares challenge the junk science is labeled an industry shill.

The real evidence

When it comes to the safety and sustainability of GM technologies in agriculture and food production, the U.S. National Academies of Science have conducted expert reviews of GMO safety going back to 1986. All are feely available online, if one knows where to look. Every single one of these studies has reached the same general conclusion: GMOs are no more hazardous than are other forms of breeding. A major investigation in 2004 into the safety of genetically engineered foods concluded that GM technology is not inherently hazardous and asserted, “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.” There have been no verified reports of adverse effects subsequently, either.

A more recent study, from 2010, investigated the impact of genetically engineered crops on farm sustainability in the United States. This study concluded that genetic engineering technology has produced substantial net environmental and economic benefits compared with the use of non-GM crops. Sensibly, the report does caution that the continuation of GM crop benefits requires diligence and good risk management.

Similar studies are also conducted by public scientists in other countries around the world. That includes the last bastion of backward thinking against agricultural GMOs, the European Union. There, anti-science advocacy groups have been successful in scaring much of the public. To support the European political leadership that has sought scientific justification for banning GMOs, the European Commission has been a major sponsor of public research into the safety of GMOs for over 25 years. Unfortunately for the European politicians who’d hoped to reveal some new hazards, all of the EU-funded research to date concludes the same as all other public studies into the safety of GMOs: that GM technology poses no new risks.

However, the EU scientific community continues to thwart the EU political agenda. In 2001, the EU scientific community issued a report summarizing its research findings: Eighty-one research projects into GMO safety conducted by 400 teams of public scientists in non-commercial labs at a cost of 70-million euros concluded that GMOs are no more hazardous than are other forms of plant breeding. A follow-up report published in 2010 continued the same theme, documenting 50 additional GMO safety projects funded by EU taxpayers and involving more than 400 public, non-commercial labs at a cost of more than 200-million euros.

The conclusion: GMOs are no more hazardous than other forms of breeding are. Is it not strikingly odd that these diverse professional scientific associations all came to the same general conclusion about the safety of GMOs? And is it not equally odd that the junk scientists and their followers rarely cite these peer-reviewed scientific studies?

Unfortunately, the junk dealers and anti-technology NGOs use social media skillfully, and they recruit impressionable students each year to help “save the planet.” This domination of the Internet and the free workforce of volunteers overwhelm the efforts of legitimate scientist educators, few of whom actually have public education or outreach in their job descriptions. Overcoming junk science and allowing a truly informed public debate on both the risks and benefits of GMO crops and foods require supporting legitimate research into GMO safety and providing the results to the public in a transparent manner. It also requires credible experts who can help the interested public understand the nuances that are often beyond the ken of the anti-technology activists. Until this occurs, the junk scientists will continue to solicit donations by invoking the Big Bad GMO in order to strike fear into the hearts of the unsuspecting populace.

~

Alan McHughen is a public sector educator, scientist and consumer advocate. After earning his doctorate at Oxford University, Dr. McHughen worked at Yale University and the University of Saskatchewan before joining the University of California, Riverside. A molecular geneticist with an interest in crop improvement and environmental sustainability, he helped develop US and Canadian regulations governing the safety of genetically engineered crops and foods. He served on US National Academy of Sciences panels investigating the environmental effects of transgenic plants, a second investigating the safety of genetically engineered foods and helped review a third looking at sustainability and economic impacts of biotechnology on US agriculture. Having developed internationally approved commercial crop varieties using both conventional breeding and genetic engineering techniques, he has firsthand experience with the relevant technical, biosafety and policy issues from both sides of the regulatory process. His award winning book, ‘Pandora’s Picnic Basket; The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods’ uses understandable, consumer-friendly language to explode the myths and explore the genuine risks of genetic modification (GM) technology. More recently, Dr McHughen served as a Jefferson Science Fellow at US Department of State and as a Senior Policy Analyst at the White House.

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