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Environment

A Science Panel Dives Deep Into the GMO Thicket

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorSeptember 15, 2014 9:25 AM

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The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is embarking on a comprehensive study of genetically engineered (GE) crops. It will examine the historic development of agricultural biotechnology, assess the "purported" benefits and negatives of GE crops, review food and environmental safety issues, and explore where the technology may be headed. What is prompting such a deep dive into a thorny thicket? This:

Consumers in the United States and abroad get conflicting information about GE crops. Proponents tout the benefits while opponents emphasize the risks. There is a need for an independent, objective study that examines what has been learned about GE crops, assesses whether initial concerns and promises were realized since their introduction, and investigates new concerns and recent claims.

It so happens that the first public meeting for this study will be held today and tomorrow. More on this in a minute. First, let's review essential findings on crop biotechnology and related food safety concerns from the past decade. In 2004, an NAS report declared:

To date, more than 98 million acres of genetically modified crops have been grown worldwide. No evidence of human health problems associated with these ingredients of these crops or resulting food products have been identified.

(As of last year, that cumulative total stood at 4 billion acres.) In 2008, a paper published in the UK's Royal Society of Medicine noted:

Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers comring from that most litigious of countries, the USA.

In 2010, the European Union declared:

The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that that biotechnology, and in particular, GMOs, are no more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.

Finally, the World Health Organization (WHO) states:

GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.

I know, I know, all these scientific institutions, professional societies and health bodies are bought off by Monsanto. Seriously, back to the NAS study now underway. Remember, the justification for it is that "the public gets conflicting information about GE crops." Yet, as I showed above, there is nothing ambiguous about the safety of GMOs. This is not to say that agricultural biotechnology doesn't warrant strict regulation, monitoring, and continued testing. But let's be clear: Thus far, nothing in the global food supply derived from genetically modified crops has been found harmful to public health. So where is "conflicting information" coming from? Unfortunately, much skewed information on GMOs comes from thought leaders, advocacy journalists, and public interest groups, as I discussed in this 2012 Slate piece. And it will be on display at this week's NAS public meeting. For a virtual who's who of cranks, pseudoscientists and ideologues--the worker bees and stars onthe anti-GMO circuit--will be appearing before the committee (Reputable scientists and science communicators will also be represented.) I don't have time to run through them all, but two notorious individuals (who should be familiar to anyone vaguely familiar with the GMO discourse) are giving their presentations back to back on Tuesday: Jeffrey Smith and Gilles-Éric Séralini. Smith is the author of two self-published books on GMOs-- Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette. He appears to have no scientific credentials. I've discussed Smith several times in this space, including here. He's made two appearances on the Dr. Oz show. One of them was a segment called, “GMO Foods: Are They Dangerous to Your Health?” As Michael Specter recounts in The New Yorker:

Oz was not subtle. “You’re probably eating them right now and don’t even know,” he began, darkly invoking “the brave new world of food. Are they safe?” Oz then introduced Jeffrey Smith, the author of “Genetic Roulette,” who says that engineered foods may cause many serious diseases, including colitis, asthma, and cancer. Smith has also made a film version of the book; Oz, for the sake of full disclosure, noted that “my wife, Lisa, was a narrator in Jeffrey’s film.” He added that no scientists were willing to share the stage with Smith. “So today we are doing something we have never done before,” Oz said. “After Jeffrey makes his points, he has to leave the stage before we can speak with the scientists in favor of genetically modified foods.” Other than to say that Smith was controversial, Oz did not indicate why no scientists would appear with him.

But Smith is just a fear-mongering messenger indulged by the likes of Dr. Oz. Séralini is a French researcher who published a deeply flawed (and ultimately retracted) study on GMO corn-fed rats and manipulated the media's initial coverage of it. (This is the zombie paper that will not die.) Having Séralini give expert testimony at a scientific panel on GMOs is like having Andrew Wakefield present evidence at a similar panel on vaccine safety. But hey, if the goal of the NAS committee is to discern nonsense from actual facts on genetically modified crops, then I suppose it is helpful to hear straight from the sources who have most succeeded in distorting the science of biotechnology and confusing the public about GMOs.

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