A Science Panel Dives Deep Into the GMO Thicket

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 on the 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.

45 Responses to “A Science Panel Dives Deep Into the GMO Thicket”

  1. mem_somerville says:

    Did you see what Wayne Parrott noticed about it? At least they aren’t pretending.
    https://twitter.com/ProfParrott/status/510398636308848641

    But that said–I’m afraid they have to listen to them. Just like that hilarious meeting in Arizona that politicians had to hold about the chemtrails. The crankosphere keeps conspiracy-theorizing about their exclusion from the discussion, and if they weren’t allowed to talk, it would just be more evidence of the conspiracy. Don’t you see?

    But in the end, it probably won’t matter. There’s not a single thing that Smith says backed by any legitimate evidence. Everyone already knows about the Seralini fishing trips. The science will stand up (she said, looking at today’s drama in climate science….sigh…).

    I think the panel can find the wheat from the chaff. Unless, of course, they’ve been bought by big Organic…

    http://youtu.be/8lXdyD2Yzls

  2. Dylan says:

    Are there going to be reports on the presentations and the discussion afterwards? I’m curious what the committee response to Benbrook is.

  3. Tom Scharf says:

    This is exactly the way it should work. Each side should see this as an opportunity to make their case. If the anti-GMO case is as weak as KK suggests (and I suspect it is) then this should be apparent to all. Hopefully those hearing the panel will be allowed to make probing questions to the the integrity of the research and findings.

    Will this move the dial on public opinion? Probably not. Will the media cover it at all, much less allow for someone to get an in-depth view of the subject? I doubt it.

  4. JH says:

    “This is exactly the way it should work.”

    Except it won’t. The anti-gmo industry reps will just deny that they lost the argument. That’s the method du jour:

    There’s no AGW pause.
    Massive inflation is just around the corner
    GMOs are dangerous
    Vaccines cause autism
    Standardized testing doesn’t work

  5. mem_somerville says:

    I couldn’t watch the whole thing today, but I saw the part with Benbrook, Stone, and Shand. Most of the discussion seemed to be the same usual stuff of conflating herbicides, patents, and corporations with GMO. I couldn’t extract issues from their stuff that was unique to GMOs that you couldn’t say about new conventional varieties, hybrids, other herbicides, or other insecticides–or other corporations.

  6. JH says:

    ‘this talk of “de-skilling” the American farmer’

    Why is this tolerated as part of a discussion about the safety of GMO?

  7. Tom says:

    Let’s not forget how we “de-skilled” our doctors back in the day. Disinfectants, antibiotics, x-rays, vaccines – I say we go back to good ol’ organic medicine: either bleed the patient or chip a hole in their skull to let the demons out.

  8. Sterling Ericsson says:

    It’s sad that you’re anti-science in regards to climate change. I’ve never understood how people can justify that when the scientific evidence is quite clear on all those topics mentioned. Being a climate change denier, but pro-GMO is just as hypocritical as being a supporter of climate change science, but anti-GMO.

  9. Buddy199 says:

    Personally, I find the apocalyptic hysteria and quasi-religious overtones of many climate change advocates to be off-putting and unscientific.

  10. First Officer says:

    All Jeff Smith needs to do to remove all doubt about his expertise is to yogic fly in from the airport. What’s stopping him already?

  11. First Officer says:

    Tis enough to make a paleo caveman cry! Just can’t find a decent flint chipper these days.

  12. iFred says:

    People just don’t want to see and believe the truth:

    Fukushima would kill 10 thousands of people
    AGW will fry us all
    GMO will make zombies of us all.

    And admit, what is more exiting?

  13. Chris Preston says:

    I am guessing that Fred Gould and others think it would be a good idea to hear the concerns of those opposed to GM technology. However, having participated in exercises like this in the past, I am pessimistic of anyone learning anything.

    Benbrook, Smith, Seralini et al. are not going to change any of their positions because the NAS states that such positions are unscientific. There will simply be accusations of the NAS being in the pay of Monsanto.

    What I can guarantee will happen is that some of the speakers will tout their invitation to appear before the NAS to be evidence that their position has NAS backing.

  14. JH says:

    “I’ve never understood how people can justify [an anti-science position on climate change] when the scientific evidence is quite clear”

    You don’t even know what my position on climate change is. How do you know it’s “anti-science”? 🙂

  15. Tom Scharf says:

    OK Sterling. Here’s you chance to show us how you are pro-science. Let us know exactly what is being “denied” by the anti-science crowd. Let’s see if you understand what the issues are.

  16. Tom Scharf says:

    The science establishment that is funded by public funds should be willing to engage in public debates that have policy implications. Even if they deem these debates to be unworthy of their time. What matters is what is in the public’s interest, not the scientists.

    I don’t think locking oneself up in the ivory tower and appealing to their own authority is an effective tactic in a contentious policy debate.

    Those debating are not going to change their minds, that is a given, and is simply human nature. That is not the goal of this exercise.

    For those who are interested it is an opportunity to hear both sides of the debate, and it is also a current snapshot of what each sides thinks, which they will need to defend going forward as the facts change.

    For example, if you make a huge deal out of French rat tumors from GMO corn, and a series of current and future studies shows this to be unfounded, then your credibility will suffer.

    It is also an opportunity to force the backers of extreme positions to answer direct and difficult questions. Force them to go on the record in an environment that is not friendly. When they offer up a press release or other self generated propaganda, they do not have to answer hard questions. Here they do.

  17. mem_somerville says:

    I agree with this–but also that the fringe will use this as evidence of their credibility now: Oh! He was called to testify to the NAS11!! He’s legit1!!

    But it’s looking to me more like an opportunity to hoist themselves on their petards. The committee questions just eviscerated the Greenpeace rep’s grasp of biology. I was cheering from my desk. But mostly it became perfectly clear that they knew the score here. My confidence in them was high, but it’s even more solid now.

  18. Sterling Ericsson says:

    Is there video of this somewhere that we can watch?

  19. mem_somerville says:

    They tell us the video recordings will be available on the NAS web site. But I haven’t seen a date on when to expect them.

  20. Chris Preston says:

    Tom, in general I agree. In fact I spend a lot of my own time in public discussions of science. However, having been involved in similar exercises, I am pessimistic of any useful outcome. There is limited value in providing a platform to those who are not interest in dialogue.

    Smith, Seralini, etc. actually have no scientific credibility left to lose. They will have an uncomfortable time answering hard questions and the NAS can feel all smug about it afterwards, but none of those who support Smith or Seralini or Benbrook will take any notice at all. Because their position on this has nothing to do with science. A report will be written, but in the public arena, things will be as they have always been. Smith will continue to write his self-published books and appear on talk shows and go on about how he was invited to present to the NAS. Seralini will continue to perform poorly thought out experiments and get them published in bottom-feeding journals.

    Perhaps I am too cynical for my own good. If scientists want to influence the views of the public, they need to do so out on the public’s home turf.

  21. JH says:

    Agreed.

    The reality is this: if the science people conduct themselves well and do their jobs, the nutters will come out looking like just what they are: nutters.

    Perhaps that’s why Gore and some of the leading climate scientist climate policy advocates were so virulently against debating skeptics – they knew who would come out looking like crackpots.

  22. Tom Scharf says:

    I probably have to agree that this effort is somewhat futile scientifically, but this is really a proxy for the policy debate.

    Something we have all seen is that cranks will wrap themselves in the cloak of science to support a pre-determined agenda. It is a useful exercise to shoot a few holes in that cloak.

    These guys tend to be narcissistic and PR hounds, but when the policy side does not seem to be properly aligned with the science side, it is a good idea to go on offense. If you are winning the policy battle, maybe it is better to play defense.

  23. John Zohn says:

    Bought off by Monsanto isn’t necessarily what happened to make some of these conclusions inaccurate. The connection between higher levels of cancer, autism and allergies and GMOs is just a positive correlation but not necessarily causation. I have a question for the people think it’s just a conspiracy theory that Monsanto would have any influence to discredit any study that comes to the conclusion that there is a causative effect between GMOs and diseases. Do you think that the fossil fuel industry doesn’t pay off scientists (or should I say “biostitutes”) to come up with bogus science claims that global warming isn’t occurring? Or do you think that the cigarette industry didn’t pay off scientist to say that first hand or second hand smoke doesn’t cause heart and lung disease? And if you do beleive that those industries did and continue to spread misinformation, do you think that the divine Monsanto corporation would never do such a thing?

  24. mem_somerville says:

    Monsanto: The Gigantic Evil Megacorp (that’s actually kinda a pipsqueak)

    ExxonMobil makes more than 26 times more money than Monsanto, and has a higher net profit margin, too. Combined, the country’s top 5 oil companies have a gross revenue exceeding $1.3 trillion, more than 87 times Monsanto’s revenue, and yet…

    …they still can’t get the world’s scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing.

    If the oil companies can’t buy a conspiracy of scientists, how can a pipsqueak like Monsanto manage it?

    I’m planning a more in-depth blog post about GMOs and anti-GMO activism later. But the “Monsanto buys off scientists” conspiracy nuttiness needed addressing on its own, because it’s so ridiculous.

    Yes, it’s much easier to believe that every scientist has been bought than to actually look at the data.

  25. Tom Scharf says:

    I’ve brought this up several times before.

    The government (FDA) requires companies to pay for the government’s own mandated testing so the taxpayers do not have to foot the bill.

    Some people like to turn this into “no independent testing” propaganda. This is wrong. The testing is performed to standards created by the FDA.

    As someone who has suffered through FDA mandated medical device testing, I can assure you that the last thing they worry about is making it is easy on the private sector.

    There are industry groups that formally meet with the FDA and work out test standards and attempt to eliminate items that over are burdensome and/or ineffective. The overriding thought process at the FDA is patient (public) safety. Like most bureaucrats, they defer to CYA and will err to over-testing.

  26. Tom says:

    Follow the money all the way. Who benefits from scaring the public about the the supposed dangers of GM food? The people who sell food that is specifically certified to be GM-free – organic.

  27. LCarey says:

    Keith – since the new “Precautionary Principle” paper by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and others in the Extreme Risk Initiative at the NYU School of Engineering has now been out for a couple of weeks, may we assume that you will soon have a lengthy response to their rather severe criticism of the methods of risk assessment applied to date with respect to GMO technology? I don’t believe that I have previously seen an analysis presented in terms of systemic risk, fat tails, fragility and ruin probability.

  28. JH says:

    If the testing is done or contracted by the companies, the anti-corporate types will cry that it’s not independent. If it’s done by the government, they’ll cry that we’re “socializing the cost and privatizing the profit”.

  29. Tom says:

    Maybe he falls under the same restrictions as commercial drones.

  30. First Officer says:

    And they’re way behind on their Monsanto shill T-shirt deliveries. Is that any way to run a world dominating evil empire?

  31. First Officer says:

    As the other commercial drones?

  32. ecstatist says:

    The tobacco companies held off the truth with the aid of the governments who had a tax and pension funding interest that smokers would continue to die early.
    Conventional plant breeding does not intermix genes from different species.
    The US government and Montsanto are war criminals with agent orange use.
    How much political money is used by Montsanto?
    If
    Montsanto believes that truth should be open and free, why do they
    fight tooth and nail against truth and the full truth being available on
    food labeling.
    “GMOs will allow less herbicide/pesticide use! Yet
    some GMOs are to allow a greater use (Roundup ready) and others get the
    plant to make pesticide unseen in that plant before.
    Montsanto “We won’t show you our records and lab and field notes because ………… it’s our intellectual property and it might help our competition and because ……..”
    Government: “Gee! Why don’t you trust us? (snigger.)”

  33. Warren Lauzon says:

    Bullshit. Scientists never said that smoking was good for you, Madison Avenue did.

  34. John Turner says:

    I am cynical. Unless all scientists involved are free from threat,
    the results won’t be objective. No science reporter should keep his job unless he openly discusses who paid for whatever is studied.

    Monsanto has been connected with criminal activity. Opponents have
    been intimidated and even assaulted.
    Have people forgotten what happened with the Tobacco industry in the US? Criminal stonewalling persisted for decades. If there are problems with Roundup, why should anyone be surprised if there is a whitewash?

  35. John Turner says:

    Warren, you don’t know what you are talking about. The position that smoking was “good” for you was abandoned early. “Unproven” was the battle cry.

    A huge amount of science was paid for by the Tobacco Industry. The results was predictable.

    I am amazed by the level of apology in the comments here. Who do you guys work for?

  36. Tom says:

    “Scientists used to say that smoking wasn’t dangerous” is a zombie myth that just refuses to die. In fact scientists showed a significant increase in lung cancer among smokers as far back as the early fifties (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13160495 ). Now how about you show me some proof of the opposite in the form of published articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals?

  37. Tom says:

    “Opponents have been intimidated and even assaulted.”

    I want names and verified incidents please. Like this:

    Marie Mason (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Mason ) of the Earth Liberation Front firebombed Michigan State University in 1999 because of their work with GMOs.

    Now who’s being intimidated and even assaulted?

  38. Smarter than Your Average Bear says:

    It’s not so much are GMOs dangerous to humans (no evidence exists that shows they are) but rather what are they doing to the environment as a result. Specifically RoundUp ready seeds are causing massive uses of RoundUp which in turn is spurring the evolution of super weeds that are immune to RoundUp – a vicious cycle. How is the pollen from these plants interacting with non-GMO plants – is it forcing a move to ever more mono-culture, which in the face of global climate change would be an incredibly stupid thing to do.

  39. Tom says:

    Ok, there are a few things we need to clear up.

    1. Not all GMOs are plants. There are more genetically modified bacteria and fungi than plants and also quite a number of animals.

    2. Not all GM plants are engineered to be herbicide resistant but it is one of the most popular traits among farmers at the moment.

    3. Herbicide resistance is caused by herbicide use irrespective of whether or not GM crops are involved.

    4. RoundUp was used for twenty years before the commercial release of RoundUp Ready crops. There were already known cases of RoundUp resistant weeds by then.

    5. The term “super weed” is meaningless. A RoundUp resistant weed is only a problem if you’re using RoundUp. It will not be resistant to other classes of herbicides (atrazine, 2,4-D etc) and it will certainly not be a problem for organic growers since they’re not allowed to use RoundUp.

    6. RoundUp is completely biodegradable and also allows the farmer to switch to no-till farming, which improves soil quality and saves tractor fuel.

    7. Hybridization with non-GM variants is only a problem if there are close relatives in the vicinity. Not the case in the US but can be an issue for corn in Mexico e.g. However, there are engineering strategies that could deal with this (insertion of the transgene in the chloroplast genome means that it’s not transmitted through pollen).

  40. John Turner says:

    I am not interested in a pissing contest with your kind.

    Here’s a link for you… http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/09/10/1015320/-Why-High-Functioning-Psychopaths-Rule-The-World#

    If the shoe fits wear it. If it pinches, it fits too close.

  41. Tom says:

    Seriously? You can’t even give me one example? Don’t make wild accusations if you can’t back them up. Or to put that another way – don’t get into a pissing contest if all you’re going to do is pee your pants.

  42. John Turner says:

    Fine:

    “In essence, Monsanto had used Percy Schmeiser as a test case to see how far they could exercise intellectual property rights (IPR) over farmers’ rights. “At one point, Monsanto had nineteen lawyers in court, I had one. Talk about intimidation,” Percy said.”

    Was Andres Carrasco intimidated?

    Irina Ermakova? Burned papers? Seriously?

    Of course those Russians are all liars. Probably burned them herself.

    Let the reader look up the facts of the cases and decide for himself.

    As for you Tom, what’s your angle? Judging from the speed of your replies, monitoring this stuff is pretty important to you.

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Upton Sinclair

  43. Guest says:

    Testing…

  44. radioactive badger says:

    “Conventional plant breeding does not intermix genes from different species”

    WUT?

    This is a straight up lie or incredible ignorance. This is done all the time when you graft the branch of one plant onto the body of another, and that technique has been done since the agricultural revolution which brought us out of the caves and brought us beer.

  45. radioactive badger says:

    I’m a genetically modified human. Well, not really, but medicine features mouse proteins spliced into it. I was something of a pioneer since I was still a minor before it was approved for the use for people in my condition and for children. With elderly patients they’re wary of possible organ damage, but there’s no possibility of acquiring cancer or autism from it.

    How must parents of autistic children or autistic adults must feel when their issues are treated like political footballs or placed on the same plane as cancer?

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