May 7, 2014
By Glenn Gilchrist
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Glenn Gilchrist, an environmentalist who has worked with both national and grassroots organizations. He is also a nature photographer and freelance writer. His blog is at www.glenngilchrist.com.
Can you imagine a circumstance that would prompt serious journalists with national exposure to equate Vermonters in general and their lawmakers specifically with “climate change skeptics” and “science denying creationists”? Well, Vermonter, it seems that your insistence on being informed about the contents of the food you eat has just relegated you to the scrap heap of scientific ignorance and denial. At least that is how some journalists are telling it.
Our critics, who include writers for Forbes and Discover Magazine, state that the evidence supporting GMO food safety is so convincing that no further debate is required and that GMO skeptics are no more credible than any other science denier. Not only do they discount all arguments that question GMO food safety, they also ignore the many other important and related issues addressed in Vermont H.112.
Trevor Butterworth, writing for Forbes, states in his post “Science Free News Coverage of Vermont GMO Labeling” that reporters should be characterizing Vermont’s legislation as a misrepresentation of scientific expertise. He writes that media coverage of the legislation is biased, and with the exception of a Reuters news article, completely lacks scientific comment by geneticists or biologists.
The Reuters article references a statement made last October by a “Group of 93” international scientists who said there was a lack of empirical and scientific evidence to support false claims by the bio-tech industry about a “consensus” on safety. So while Butterworth is pleased to hear from science, he dismisses this particular group as unqualified.
In other words, Butterworth asserts that Vermont lawmakers ignored, or were ignorant of science when they crafted GMO labeling legislation, and the media as a whole is guilty of the same.
Note however, that Vermont H.112 does not exactly ignore the issue of science as noted here in Section 1 (D):
“… the FDA regulates genetically engineered foods in the same way it regulates foods developed by traditional plant breeding, but, according to Dr. James Maryanski, FDA biotechnology coordinator (1985−2008), the decision to regulate genetically engineered food in this manner was a political decision not based in science” (emphasis added).
Butterworth refers us to an “excellent” discussion of GMO science by Keith Kloor, a distinguished, generally progressive journalist writing on Discovery Magazine’s blog (“GMOs, Journalism and False Balance”) where he characterizes the “Group of 93 “ as a “fringy, science denying group (on the issue of GMO safety, anyway).”
The group, by the way, has grown to 297 scientists and professionals associated with the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER).
ENSSER responds in “297 scientists and experts agree GMOs not proven safe” with comments by Dr. Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University that:
“Adverse consequences of GMO crops are not restricted to keeling over dead after eating genetically adulterated unlabeled food (GAUF). My concerns include subtle changes in nutritional quality or mycotoxins, increasing food allergens, unsustainable farming practices, dependency on chemical inputs, lack of transparency in evaluating food quality and safety, and the transformation of farming practices into a modern form of serfdom, where the seed is intellectual property leased by the farmer” (emphasis added).
Note that the ENSSER statement extends the argument well beyond just food safety, as does Vermont in Section 1 (G) of H.112:
“The result is public uncertainty about the nutrition, health, safety, environmental impacts, and the proliferation of genetic engineering technology …”
Butterworth and Kloor discount the opinions of the group because not all of the scientists who signed the statement are geneticists, and because one of them, Gilles-Eric Séralin, authored a study that was subsequently denounced by critics – about which the Economist reported “that the journal’s publisher said there was no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.”
If we look at the facts, we find that the group of 297 signatories (as of Oct. 31, 2013) may not all be geneticists, but the majority are engaged in some area of science or agriculture. It is safe to assume that most are familiar with the concept of the scientific method and can read a scientific paper beyond the abstract. But the point is moot – focusing on and then discounting the work of one group of scientists does not discount their entire field of study.
The reality is that the scientific literature is rife with examples of animal studies that support GMO product safety. It is also rife with studies that shed doubt on GMO product safety. It is also true that there are far more scientists than the Group of 297 voicing serious concerns. For example, Dr. Don Huber, a leading GMO expert, award-winning, internationally recognized scientist, and professor of plant pathology at Purdue University for the past 35 years, has stated clearly that there are no peer-reviewed scientific papers establishing the safety of GMO crops.
It seems obvious that what we have here does not constitute a consensus, yet Kloor states that by giving these scientists a voice, the media is guilty of “false balance” and has created a “false equivalence.” He compares GMO label proponents with climate change deniers as if the weight of evidence purported by the different sides of these differing subjects was identical.
Butterworth and Kloor suggest we be guided by the statements of medical and scientific institutions, such as the American Medical Association (whose expertise in both nutrition and agriculture is questionable) and the National Academy of Sciences.
While prestigious institutions, one must be cautious about embracing them as The Ultimate Authority and realize that in today’s business climate, even they are capable of commercial bias and mistakes. It is quite dangerous to defer our own conclusions to those of entrenched institutions based on assumed authority, especially when the stakes are this high. It is even more difficult when one considers that over 60 countries, including those of the European Union, have banned or seriously restricted the sale of GMO foods. And more difficult yet when one realizes the complete lack of any human trials.
If this seems a bit harsh one need only recall a time when the AMA and many physicians advised patients that there were no ill effects attributable to smoking tobacco and, in fact, saw a proliferation of advertising such as “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” Furthermore, the pages of The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association hosted and profited from many tobacco advertisements for a very, very long time.
As mentioned above, there are many published animal studies – and some claim to prove the safety of GMO food products. Many authors cite a 2011 study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology titled “Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: A literature review,” for example. The lead author was Chelsea Snell, a student at the University of Nottingham at the time of the study. Full text here.
The authors examined “12 long-term studies (of more than 90 days, up to 2 years in duration) and 12 multigenerational studies (from 2 to 5 generations)” and concluded that “Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically signiﬁcant differences within parameters observed.”
Snell et al. summarized each of the 24 animal studies they reviewed, included the original researchers’ main findings and interpretations, and then added their own opinions about how the study designs may have affected the validity of the findings.
Of the 24 studies they reviewed, many reported differences between animals fed GMO foods compared to controls who ate non-GMO varieties. Differences such as elevated metabolic rates and changes in pancreatic, liver and other organ function were common.
Snell et al. respond by reporting experimental design problems with each of the studies that showed differences between GMO and non-GMO fed animals and even with studies that showed no difference between GMO and non-GMO groups. This would suggest the possibility that current (or their chosen) research models are weak and that more and better research need be done. Instead Snell et al. suggest that their review somehow proves the safety of GMO foods. Once again, what we have here can hardly be considered a consensus.
Furthermore, the studies described in the review span only 90 days to two years, were conducted mostly on rats and mice, and do not dispute the position stated in Vermont H.112 Section 1 G that: “There have been no long-term studies in the United States that examine the safety of human consumption of genetically engineered foods.”
On the contrary their findings do support the concerns of Vermonter’s expressed in Section 1B:
“(A) Independent studies in laboratory animals indicate that the ingestion of genetically engineered foods may lead to health problems such as gastrointestinal damage, liver and kidney damage, reproductive problems, immune system interference, and allergic responses.”
Butterworth diminishes and derides the Vermont legislation and subsequent media attention by reducing the issue simply to our desire to be seen as fighting “a battle between brave, concerned citizens and bad big business.”
Yet we know that much of the research done on GMO safety is funded directly or indirectly by agribusinesses who have a vested interest in the outcomes. We know that trade organizations such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association have spent millions of dollars combating state and federal GMO labeling laws and indoctrinating the public with the idea that GMO labeling will create an undue hardship on businesses. That changing labels will cost millions of dollars – costs that will be passed on to consumers. Give it some time, and we’ll even hear that labeling will cost jobs!
Another possible interpretation is that agribusiness stakeholders are worried that once products are labeled as containing GMOs, people may choose not to buy them. Because really, are label changes on consumer products all that uncommon? And expensive? Of course not. But allowing GMO products to be put at a competitive disadvantage by simply telling us what they are – that is just unacceptable to their business interests. So labels be damned.
This, like most debates, is ultimately a question of values; values relevant not just to foods, but to many areas, such as pharmaceuticals, toxic effects of resource extraction and so many more.
Do we ingest (or otherwise consume) things until they are proven dangerous, or do we avoid those things we perceive to be dangerous until it is proven that they are safe.
… and …
In matters of health and nutrition (to name just a few), do we have the right to know?