What GMO Consensus?

Corn

Photo by Doug Wilson.

In a recent debate about genetically engineered foods, Monsanto’s Canada’s director of public and industry affairs, reiterated a common refrain about the safety of GMOs: “When you look at the overwhelming body of scientific consensus on the issue of agricultural biotechnology, it’s pretty clear that this technology is safe and useful.” (emphasis added). The journalist Mark Lynas, a converted anti-GMO activist, has declared the GMO debate “dead”.  The UK Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, recently told a British newspaper that opponents of Golden Rice are “wicked.”  Not surprisingly, others disagree.

The debate may be over for agri-biotech companies and their supporters.  Yet, while they may have conveniently declared a scientific “consensus” on the safety of GMOs, the reality is far from that.

In response to such grandiose claims, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), released a statement signed by nearly 300 scientists, physicians and academics declaring that, in fact, there is no such consensus.

“Given the scientific evidence at hand, sweeping claims that GM crops are substantially equivalent to, and as safe as, non-GM crops are not justifiable,” underscored one of the signatories, Professor Elena Alvarez-Buyllla, coordinator of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics of Plant Development and Evolution, Institute of Ecology, UNAM, Mexico.

“Because rigorous safety testing has not happened with GMO crops, I remain skeptical,” said Dr. Sheldon Krimsky, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University and an adjunct professor in the department of public health and family medicine at the Tufts School of Medicine.

There are many problems with the industry’s bombastic claims. ENSSER, for example, points to data gaps and disconcerting findings in certain studies that are yet to be followed up and research calls to the European Union and the French government for long-term studies evaluating the health impacts of GMOs. The studies finding GMOs are safe and as nutritious as conventional foods, says ENSSER, are mostly “performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible [for] commercializing these GM plants.”  That’s hardly a scientific consensus, let alone overwhelming.

Furthermore, ENSSER refutes industry claims that scientific and governmental bodies endorse GMO safety as “exaggerated or inaccurate.” For instance, as far back as 2001, says ENSSER, an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada issued a report criticizing the country’s regulatory system for GM foods and crops, declaring it as “scientifically unjustifiable” to presume that GM foods are safe without rigorous scientific testing.

The United States, for its part, has a splintered approach to overseeing GMOs and insufficient coordination between the three regulating agencies. One of the regulating agencies, the Food and Drug Administration, takes the position that GMOs should be regulated as ordinary food, regarding them as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) and has never subjected GMOs to food safety reviews. Another regulating agency, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), approved most applications for biotech field releases, and, by some accounts, has never denied an application from Monsanto. And that’s not even the worst of USDA’s regulatory shortcomings and we documented the agency’s more significant failures in our articles here. Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency’s  (EPA) oversight is also heavily criticized for, among other reasons, having industry bias, relying on questionable industry studies and ignoring adverse impact on non-target animals.

ENSSER’s petition is not the first time members of the scientific community voiced their concerns about sweeping claims churned out by the agri-biotech PR machine through its supporters. Last year, for example, more than 20 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science challenged the “AAAS Board of Directors statement opposing efforts to require labeling of foods containing products derived from genetically modified crop plants,” arguing that the Board’s position “is an Orwellian argument that violates the right of consumers to make informed decisions.”  An EarthOpenSource 2012 report also pointed out there “[t]here is no scientific consensus that GM crops are safe, especially when the views of the scientific community independent of the GM crop development industry are taken into account.” Add to that the many studies and reports that question all the claims of made by GMO food producers, developed by the likes of Charles Benbrook, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Ignacio Chapela, Jack Heinemann, Doug Gurian-Sherman and Margaret Mellon, to name some of the well known scientists, and it becomes clear that the idea of a consensus on the safety of GMOs is engineered by those who would most benefit from it.