Written By:Alan McHughen, Special to National Post | Jan 25, 2013
GMOs (genetically modified organism) 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.
For various reasons, this recombinant DNA technology, DNA, is scary to some. Back in 1998, Prince Charles 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.” Still others fear the apparently uncertain safety record of GMOs, and the idea that this technology may inadvertently introduce safety hazards into foods. And 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.
The reality is that GMO technologies 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.
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. None is peer reviewed, however. The late evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould referred to 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.”
But biotechnology is not Rifkin’s main target. His real bugbears are capitalism and modern agriculture; the hybrid progeny of these two foretell, according to Rifkin’s junk-science theory, the demise of humanity.
Greenpeace and other special interest groups, such as Friends of the Earth and the U.K.’s Soil Association, have 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 that 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.
Another popular junk scientist is Jeffrey Smith, who has penned several books decrying the alleged hazards of modern agriculture, saving his 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 tone 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.
Social media fuel the fire: 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 such as Smith instead of authentic experts in nutrition or agronomy, people who might actually bring legitimate questions and concerns to the discussion.
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.
Fortunately, there are reputable sources out there, too. But the sources suffer from relatively low conventional and social media profiles: They tend to appear near the bottom of Internet searches, even though they 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. These groups are not selling GMOs, and therefore are 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.
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, for instance, concluded that GM technology is not inherently hazardous: “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”
Closer inspection of Smith’s CV reveals that the closest he has come to scientific credentials is working as a ballroom dance instructor.
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.
Similar studies also are conducted by 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.
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 reflected 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.
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 an unsuspecting populace.
Adapted from the Winter, 2013 edition of C2C Journal, whose theme is “Quacks and Conspiracies: The undermining of science and your health.” Alan McHughen is a public sector educator, scientist and consumer advocate.