Should we be worried about GMOs?
Yes, to some extent – well, we should be prudent: we need to keep monitoring and we need to keep vigilant – BUT – the overwhelming scientific evidence to date is that they are safe – and there have literally been thousands of studies on GMOs. To quote from one science-blog article these are the critical conclusions most scientists have drawn:
1) All the currently approved commercially available crops that have been brought about via modern molecular genetic engineering techniques are at least as safe to consume (and are at least as safe for the environment) as their corresponding non-GE counterparts.
2) There is nothing about the process of modern genetic engineering that makes unpredicted dangers any more intrinsically likely than would be the case with other methods of altering an organism’s genome (I.e. Selective breeding radiation mutagenesis, polyploidy or wide cross hybridization).
Have there been studies that have found negative effects? Yes, there are a few – but most scientists see those studies as flawed or inconclusive, and they are massively outweighed by studies that concluded the opposite, as above. As an example, here’s a description of one particularly controversial study that found negative effects – that has now been retracted by the publisher – the Seralini rats study on GMOs.
Of course it’s very difficult to prove an absence of risk – hence the need for continued vigilance.
What I’ve just written is hotly disputed by many – and I’m fully aware that when it comes to GMOs there is a large contingent – especially on the liberal left – who are vigorously opposed to this assertion. There’s probably more opposition to GMOs in Europe (although Europe’s main scientific academies say they are safe) and a number of countries have banned imports of GMO foods.
What is true is that GMO foods have totally penetrated the market in the US and we are, and have been, eating vast quantities of them for a long time.
But here’s where I’m going to annoy that large contingent. Let me quote this Pew Study in the US:
A majority ofthe general public (57%) says that genetically modified (GM) foods are generally unsafe to eat, while 37% says such foods are safe; by contrast, 88% of AAAS scientists say GM foods are generally safe.The gap between citizens and scientists in seeing GM foods as safe is 51 percentage points. This is the largest opinion difference between the public and scientists.
In fact, it’s not just an 88% majority of American Association for the Advancement of Science scientists who say that GMO foods are safe to eat, it’s most major national and international scientific bodies around the world – from the US, to Europe, to Australia, to the World Health Organization – that have concluded the same thing. See a partial list of such organizations here further down the article.
So the consensus among scientists re GMOs is similar to the worldwide consensus of scientists on climate change (98% according to some surveys) and on the effectiveness and overall of safety of vaccines (backed by by the overwhelming majority of scientists based on very large studies).
Needless to say, there are strong, very persistent groups who are totally opposed to all of the above: to vaccines, and also to the assertion that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity. (The political spread is different – I’d hazard a guess that anti-vaccine sentiment is evenly spread across the political arena from left to right, while anti-climate change is more on the political right).
Of course, this is very much the case with GMOs – just google GMO and you’ll find dozens of crusading groups who are furious that major scientific bodies are supporting the conclusion that GMOs are safe – or more strictly, that GMOs, which have been in very widespread use for the past several decades, have yet to be shown to have any discernible negative health impact on humans or animals.
And whether it’s GMOs, vaccines or climate change, it’s the same argument essentially in each case: the vast majority of scientists can’t be trusted because they have commercial pressures, or interests, not to tell the truth. So the claim is that there is a global conspiracy by the majority of scientists to mislead the public, fueled by big money from big pharma, agribusiness, and the medical establishment.
In turn, the critics turn to the minority studies and the minority of scientists – but also a large number of non-specialists – who argue that the vast majority of scientists are wrong.
Whose perspective is it more rational to give greater weight to? Who is more likely to be giving out information that is scientifically accurate?
I can see more reasons why GMOs are unpopular on the liberal left: they are produced by large agribusiness companies; there are issues around financial monopoly and patenting of genes; they are perceived as non-natural. There’s also concern that they will damage the environment (but here again the scientific consensus is as follows: they don’t – or at least not more than other products).
I agree that commercial monopolies can easily be problematic, but that is a completely different issue to my question: are they safe or not? It’s surely a mistake to conflate these two issues – or to allow sentiments about one to lead to conclusions about the other.
So let’s take an individual case in point – the recent wide-ranging study (essentially a study of studies – a systematic review) published by the National Academy of Sciences.
Their main conclusion:
The design and analysis of many animal-feeding studies were not optimal, but the large number of experimental studies provided reasonable evidence that animals were not harmed by eating food derived from GE crops. Additionally, long-term data on livestock health before and after the introduction of GE crops showed no adverse effects associated with GE crops. The committee also examined epidemiological data on incidence of cancers and other human-health problems over time and found no substantiated evidence that foods from GE crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.
It’s a vast study of decades of research. But can we trust it? I don’t disagree at all that it is legitimate to subject studies like this to scrutiny. Is the National Academy of Sciences trustworthy? Are the scientists biased, and do they have conflicts of interest because of close ties with the industry? If you read the web, you’ll find people asserting exactly this.
But to be as fair as I can on this – I’ve looked up the study – I’ve looked up who was on the panel; I’ve looked up who funded the research and I’ve looked up the procedure for appointing the panel and how they approach conflicts of interest. You can examine all this through the links below.
So please if you’re interested – follow up each link – read who is on the panel, google them, look for references; find out about the institutions sponsoring the panel and do your due diligence on those two – and let me know if you find something dubious.
Maybe no one can answer every sceptical question – but there’s an enormous amount of publicly available information there that anyone can assess.
I can’t myself claim to have done an absolutely exhaustive study of every single lead here, but from what I’ve read online I don’t see any significant signs of conflicts of interest – either with the scientists themselves, or with bodies funding it – but of course I could have missed something.
A note on the page about procedures: while saying they screen out conflicts of interests, they do in fact deliberately look for a range of different opinions and viewpoints on the panel.
Here you go:
- Membership of the research team
- Research project overview and funding sources
- Method for selecting panel and screening for conflicts of interest
And here’s an overview of the study, from a supportive point of view, from a blog I read frequently – Science Based Medicine – and here’s an NPR article on the research which quotes the chair of the panel.
I am not in any way arguing that ALL the issues have been settled – that would truly be unscientific – ongoing research and vigilance needs to be maintained – and here’s another article from Scientific American which gives a sympathetic hearing to one or two sceptics, while also referring to the consensus – but in addition arguing that dismissals of scepticism have been too harsh.
I have a bigger point to make, and I’ve referred to it on other posts: I’m worried by a kind of global scepticism I come across fairly frequently: namely that you can’t trust ANYONE, not scientists, not researchers, not governments, not the media. But if that is the case we are truly paralysed. If we don’t trust that we can access accurate scientific results we really are in a bind.
Of course it’s true – in non-democratic countries, or in instances where scientists ARE hired guns for commercial interests (and yes it happens quite a lot of the time) that scientists aren’t always to be trusted. Yes – we need to be very wary of studies coming from unfree societies, or studies sponsored by commercial interests on crucial issues that affect our lives.
But are we really saying, in situations like climate change, vaccines and GMOs that very large majorities of scientists are deliberately and knowingly deceiving us? That they are ALL in thrall to commercial interests or political interference? If so, it doesn’t seem to be a world that I recognize. Perhaps I’m uncommonly naive, but from my own encounters with scientists, and from what I read, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that a very substantial proportion of scientists do research because they are interested in finding out whether various hypotheses are correct or not, and to get an insight into what is actually happening in the universe.
And another thought: if science has been completely hijacked by lackeys for commercial interests, how come it’s been so successful over the last five centuries? Surely if scientists were only working to a commercial (or political) diktat, rather than factual reality, science would have failed abysmally by now and been dismissed. (And since there’s never been a higher degree of scrutiny or public information sharing than in the present day, there’s reason to think that in the past science was quite possibly more vulnerable to commercial and political pressure – think of Galileo under house arrest, or the astronomer Bruno Giordano being executed after displeasing the Inquisition with theories that suggested that stars were distant suns with their own planets, among other things.)
Anyway, I’ve tried to give out as much information as I can – especially on that one influential study above.
And finally, I AM arguing there is an existing general scientific consensus on GMOs – whether you agree with it or not – since I have the impression that this state of affairs is not well publicised.