GMO controversy -- Keith Kloor and Respondents

gmo tomato

Editor: Below is an article by Keith Kloor from Salon, followed by counter-commentary via Portside, claiming anti-scientific bias behind GMO (genetically modified organism) foods.

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GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left

 

Keith Kloor

 

I used to think that nothing rivaled the misinformation spewed by climate change skeptics and spinmeisters.

Then I started paying attention to how anti-GMO campaigners have distorted the science on genetically modified foods. You might be surprised at how successful they've been and who has helped them pull it off.

I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.

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In short, I’ve learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.

The latest audacious example of scientific distortion came last week, in the form of a controversial (but peer reviewed!) study that generated worldwide headlines. A French research team purportedly found that GMO corn fed to rats caused them to develop giant tumors and die prematurely.

Within 24 hours, the study's credibility was shredded by scores of scientists. The consensus judgment was swift and damning: The study was riddled with errors—serious, blatantly obvious flaws that should have been caught by peer reviewers. Many critics pointed out that the researchers chose a strain of rodents extremely prone to tumors. Other key aspects of the study, such as its sample size and statistical analysis, have also been highly criticized. One University of Florida scientist suggests the study was "designed to frighten" the public.*

That's no stretch of the imagination, considering the history of the lead author, Gilles-Eric Seralini, who, as NPR reports, "has been campaigning against GM crops since 1997," and whose research methods have been "questioned before," according to the New York Times.

The circumstances surrounding Seralini's GMO rat-tumor study range from bizarre (as a French magazine breathlessly reports, it was conducted in clandestine conditions) to dubious (funding was provided by an anti-biotechnology organization whose scientific board Seralini heads).

Another big red flag: Seralini and his co-authors manipulated some members of the media to prevent outside scrutiny of their study. (The strategy appears to have worked like a charm in Europe.) Some reporters allowed themselves to be stenographers by signing nondisclosure agreements stipulating they not solicit independent expert opinion before the paper was released. That has riled up  science journalists such as Carl Zimmer, who wrote on his Discover magazine blog: "This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science. It speaks badly for the scientists involved, but we journalists have to grant that it speaks badly to our profession, too. ... If someone hands you confidentiality agreements to sign, so that you will have no choice but to produce a one-sided article, WALK AWAY. Otherwise, you are being played."

Speaking of being played, have I mentioned yet that Seralini's book on GMOs, All Guinea Pigs! is being published (in French) this week? Oh, and there's also a documentary based on his book coming out simultaneously. You can get details on both at the website of the anti-biotetch organization that sponsored his study. The site features gross-out pictures of those GMO corn-fed rats with ping-pong-ball-size tumors.

It's all very convenient, isn't it?

None of this seems to bother Tom Philpott, the popular food blogger for Mother Jones, who writes that Seralini's results "shine a harsh light on the ag-biotech industry's mantra that GMOs have indisputably proven safe to eat."

Philpott often trumpets the ecological and public-health dangers posed by genetically modified crops. But such concerns about GMOs, which are regularly echoed at other left-leaning media outlets, have little merit. As Pamela Ronald, a UC-Davis plant geneticist,pointed out last year in Scientific American: "There is broad scientiļ¬c consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops."

So what explains the lingering suspicions that some people (even those who aren’t Monsanto-hating, organic-food-only eaters) still harbor? Some of these folks are worried about new genes being introduced into plant and animal species. But humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals pretty much since we moved out of caves, manipulating their genes all the while. The process was just slower before biotechnology came along.

Still, being uneasy about a powerful, new technology doesn’t make you a wild-eyed paranoid. The precautionary principle is a worthy one to live by. But people should know that GMOs are tightly regulated (some scientists say in an overly burdensome manner).

Many environmentalists are concerned that genetically modified animals such as “Franken-salmon” could get loose in the wild and out-compete their nonengineered cousins, or lead to breeding problems for the wild members of the species. But even the scientist on whose research the “Trojan gene” hypothesis is based says the risk to wild salmon is “low” and that his work has been misrepresented by GMO opponents.

Another big concern that has been widely reported is the “rapid growth of tenacious super weeds” that now defy Monsanto’s trademark Roundup herbicide. That has led farmers to spray their fields with an increasing amount of the chemical weed-killer. Additionally, some research suggests that other pests are evolving a resistance to GMO crops. But these problems are not unique to genetic engineering. The history of agriculture is one of a never-ending battle between humans and pests.

On balance, the positives of GM crops seem to vastly outweigh the negatives. A recent 20-year study published in Nature found that GM crops helped a beneficial insect ecosystem to thrive and migrate into surrounding fields. For an overview of the benefits (and enduring concerns) of GM crops, see this recent post by Pamela Ronald.

The bottom line for people worried about GMO ingredients in their food is that there is no credible scientific evidence that GMOs pose a health risk.

Even Philpott, in his charitable take on the Seralini study, admits that, "no one has ever dropped dead from drinking, say, a Coke sweetened with high-fructose syrup from GMO corn." In the next breath, though, he wonders: "But what about 'chronic' effects, ones that come on gradually and can't be easily tied to any one thing? Here we are eating in the dark." Despite the study being a train wreck, Philpott's takeaway is that it "provides a disturbing hint that all might not be right with our food—and shows beyond a doubt that further study is needed." What's beyond a doubt here is Philpott's unwillingness to call bullshit when it's staring him in the face.

I single out Philpott not to pick on him, but because he represents the most reasonable, level-headed voice of the anti-GMO brigade (whose most extreme adherents don white hazmat suits and destroy research plots). The same goes for Grist, which calls the French study "important" and says "it's worth paying attention to what Seralini has done.”

Such acceptance by lefties of what everyone else in the reality-based science community derides as patently bad science is “just plain depressing,” writes a medical researcher who blogs under the name Orac. He compares the misuse of science and scare tactics by GMO opponents to the behavior of the anti-vaccine movement.

The anti-GM bias also reveals a glaring intellectual inconsistency of the eco-concerned media. When it comes to climate science, for example, Grist and Mother Jones are quick to call out the denialism of pundits and politicians. But when it comes to the science of genetic engineering, writers at these same outlets are quick to seize on pseudoscientific claims, based on the flimsiest of evidence, of cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting, ecosystem-killing GMOs.

This brand of fear-mongering is what I've come to expect from environmental groups,anti-GMO activists, and their most shamelessly exploitive soul travelers. This is what agenda-driven ideologues do. The Seralini study has already been seized on by supporters of California's Proposition 37, a voter initiative that, if successful in November, would require most foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such in the state.

What's disconcerting is when big media outlets and influential thought leaderslegitimize pseudoscience and perpetuate some of the most outrageous tabloid myths, which have been given fresh currency by a slanted 2011 documentary that is taken at face value at places like the Huffington Post.

In a recent commentary for Nature, Yale University's Dan Kahan lamented the "polluted science communication environment" that has deeply polarized the climate debate. He writes: “People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand.” This means that lefties in the media and prominent scholars and food advocates who truly care about the planet are information brokers. So they have a choice to make: On the GMO issue, they can be scrupulous in their analysis of facts and risks, or they can continue to pollute the science communication environment.

 

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Portside commentary from Chris Lowe.

 

It is a shame that Portside chose to circulate this tendentious, one-sided, pro-corporate industrial agriculture piece.

Start with the headline.  Climate change skeptics are on the side of large corporate interests who benefit from ecological destruction and argue for deregulation.  Who occupies the similar position in the GMO debates? People like Keith Kloor.  Climate skeptics, pro-corporate and anti- regulation. GMO skeptics, anti-corporate and pro-regulation. Not the same.

Then there is the prestidigitation, bait-and-switch character of the argument.  This operates at two levels, that of the French study, and the question of what the GMO debate is about, which goes far beyond the possible health harms caused by the genetic modifications in
consumed foods.

The French study addressed two topics:  possible health harms caused by the genetically modified plant material, and possible health harms caused by consuming Roundup that makes its way onto and into food.  Kloor addresses only the first question.  Even if the French study is as slanted as he says, it points to need for further research on how protecting plants from being killed by pesticides by genetic modification may lead to more pesticides entering the food chain.  Kloor is intellectually dishonest in not acknowledging that
issue.

That issue points to two larger social ecological issues related to GMO crops:  the promotion of ecologically and public health destructive industrial monoculture in agriculture, and regulatory capture and politicized defundiing of the regulatory agencies (FDA, USDA and EPA) charged with protecting the public health and the ecology in our food system, by oligarchical and oligopolistic corporate interests.

Even when the genetic modifications involved resemble those made by older selective breeding methods, many of those methods have been hugely destructive to plant diversity in themselves (read _Tomatoland_ for one good recent example, similar literature exists for maize, bananas and apples). Speeding up that process is not progressive.  Moreover, the old and new genetic modifications are tied to high inputs of herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers, many of which also involve processes that add to the greenhouse gas burden. The
herbicides and insecticides in turn affect flora and fauna far beyond their industrial agriculture intended targets, and enter into animal and human food chains. Significant GMO technology is directed to expanding the use of pesticides.

The purported scientific consensus is questionable. Kloor points to the anti-GMO intellectual commitments of the authors of the French study.  It's a fair point.  He does not raise the question of the economic interests behind pro- GMO scientific activity, which include both
direct funding from the GMO producing corporations, the skewing of federal agricultural research priorities and definitions to industrial agriculture that shapes academic research, and the corporatization of even public universities toward an orientation toward corporate theories of intellectual property.  Plus research in general is woefully underfunded.

Those problems are compounded by an attitude that says "no evidence means no risk."  This is legitimate over time, if the right questions are asked and actual research on them is conducted.  But in a situation where some questions are put off the table, and no research is done simply because it is not funded in other cases, and policy directives to evaluation committees mandate the assumption of no risk despite the manifestly inadequate level of research, the claim of scientific consensus is spurious.  There is bureaucratic-industrial consensus.

Then there is the matter of the ethics of authoritarian science.  One of the reasons science is in the parlous state that it is, in terms of the breadth of cultural acceptance being less than it should be, is that far too many scientists adopt an authoritarian and paternalistic
attitude toward the public.  A proper scientific attitude looks to sharing best current knowledge and educating the public about it.  But it also acknowledges that best current knowledge changes, and sometimes has been spectacularly and destructively wrong, as in the
case of the scientistic racism that was the "consensus science" of the Western world from the 1870s to the 1940s.  Other cases much closer to GMO issues include the failures to recognize the processes that would lead to resistance to anti-biotics and pesticides in medicine and agriculture, and the continuing regulatory inability to cope with those issues in the face of corporate interests, and the erroneous imposition of Western agricultural "science" in African ecologies with very different characteristics, causing ecological
devastation.

Real science is humble.  Scientism is arrogant, authoritarian and patronizing, like Kloor's article. Scientism is self-defeating, as it only creates distrust. It is the enemy of true science and of the goal of creating a scientifically literate and engaged public.

As the example of scientistic racism shows directly, and the other examples show in terms of their implication with class-based economic systems and colonialism and neo- colonialism, many of the issues around the application of scientific knowledge are not scientific issues.  They are ethical and social and political and policy issues. Scientists are not necessarily experts in those areas. Often they are quite deficient in thinking about them.

Finally, there is the issue of consumer choice and informed consent, particularly when it comes to choices of what one ingests, but also how one acts as a consumer within the economic system.  Generally speaking the left has supported food labeling.  Health science may tell me that eating many of the food additives that are required on labels probably won't hurt me.  It does not tell me about the tens of thousands of chemicals that have been created and not studied for health consequences.  It does not tell me about the ecological consequences of the production of those chemicals or the synthesis of foods out of them in combination with plant and animal products.  My own experience tells me that many of those foods are of low quality and in combination with my sedentary lifeways probably are bad for my health.

Preferring not to eat them may be irrational.  Food preferences are irrational.  De gustibus non est disputandum.  I have the right to be irrational, and I have the right to know what I am choosing to eat or not to eat. If that creates a marketing problem for Monsanto and the maize farmers, good.  They need to deal with it, and so do the genetic scientists.

Are people who prefer to pay more to eat organic food irrational?  Or are they seeking to find ways to act collectively to promote ecologically sustainable food systems?  Is the pesticide and fertilizer based industrial monoculture food system that Kloor and
Monsanto promote really rational?  I say its preferences should not dictate my freedom to know what I'm eating and to choose according to my own lights.  That's not a scientific issue.  It's an ethical and political one.

Chris Lowe

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Comments

  • I agree with this article in many ways. Some people are so blind when it comes to GMO's. Agriculture is making strides forward, and some people can't keep up.

    Posted by Lori Wardynski, 11/28/2012 1:03pm (2 years ago)

  • I don't know if GMO products are toxic or not, but often they, as well as industrial food in general, have less nutritious components, e.g. cows are fatter from not grazing or eating grass, chickens are so fat they can't walk, certain grains or vegetables are mass produced because they yield more crop, everything is filled with corn syrup or saturated fats, even if they are not as tasty or nutritious, etc. It's great to have cheap food (at least the production is, retail is another matter), but if everyone is in the hospital, racking up bills, is it really cheaper or is just another nationalization of the problems of factory food (high medicare bills)?

    Posted by yoyo, 10/09/2012 1:22am (2 years ago)

  • From one hand I understand the use of GMO - to contradict the insects and weather influences. From the other hand, the impact on the human's health isn't tested enough.
    So, as for me, I prefer to know I'm eating clear healthy vegetables, fruits etc.

    Posted by William Miller, 10/04/2012 9:33am (2 years ago)

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