GMOs – a game of risk

January 29, 2015 by Pat Thomas

GMO media-watchers will know that very recently there has been a biotech PR onslaught, the goal of which is to juxtapose the words ‘GMOs’ and ‘safe’ in such a way they the two concepts become ‘normalised’ as being associated with one another.

Nothing could be further from the truth and we must do all we can to challenge this assumption.

In 2013, nearly 300 independent scientists from around the world issued a public warning that there was no scientific consensus about the safety of eating genetically modified food, and that the risks, as demonstrated in independent research, gave “serious cause for concern.”

The statement which drew a line in the sand and which has grown in importance and prominence since that time, has now been published in a scientific journal.

According to the eminent scientists behind it, the joint statement shows that this claimed ‘consensus’ is “an artificial construct that has been falsely perpetuated through diverse fora.”

In other words it’s a lie that has been uncritically parroted, and spread far and wide by a disreputable assortment of biotech companies and lobbyists, professional sceptics and rent-a-quote scientists.

Standing in the way of good science

For decades, the safety of GMOs has been a hotly controversial topic that has been much debated around the world. Published results, as they can be in any field of study, are contradictory, and there are several reasons for this including:

  • the range of different research methods employed
  • the inadequacies of available procedures
  • differences in the analysis and interpretation of data

Rigorous assessment of GMO safety has also been hampered by the lack of funding for independent scientists. Research for the public good has been further constrained by property rights issues – biotech companies who own the patents on GM material are unwilling to make these materials available for other to study and when they do these materials often come with unacceptable terms such as requiring researchers to sign contractual agreements which give the biotech companies control over publication of the results. Because of this reputable independent scientists can find studying GMOs difficult if not impossible.

These are amongst the issues tackled in our Letter from America initiative

No agreement on what ‘safe’ means

There is likewise no international agreement on what constitutes a ‘safe’ GMO which is why policymakers from over 160 countries – in line with the UN’s Cartagena Biosafety Protocol and the Guidelines of the Codex Alimentarius – have agreed that the most rational way to proceed is to look at the authorisation of GMOs on case-by-case basis to determine whether they meet the national criteria for `safe’.

For more on this see our article Who says GMOs are safe? (and who says they’re not).

This valuable joint statement neither affirms nor denies the safety of GMOs. Instead it concludes that the scarcity and contradictory nature of the scientific evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims of safety, or of lack of safety, of GMOs.

This is an important conclusion. When it comes to GMOs we must be mindful of both the unknowns and the unknowables. To date those who have insisted on acknowledging these have been loudly accused of being anti-science,

Indeed we hear a lot of guff these days about “good science” how if campaigners, who are not after all “proper scientists” will only get out of everyone’s way, science will save us all.

Most of this nonsense comes from people whose agendas are simply to maintain the corporate status quo.  Anyone who presents a different view is branded “anti-science” and that is – apparently – a BAD thing to be. Or is it? I guess that depends on your definition of science.

As the challenging, but always good value academic and science writer Alice Bell writes: “When people use the term “anti-science”, I want to know what definition of science they’ve based their concept of anti on. Who’d be simplistic enough to be “pro” the whole of science? What sort of shallow, shampoo advert “science bit” approach to the complexities of modernity are they living by?”

Good science?

Science is in such a mess at the moment that we can’t even trust that ‘scientists’ are who they say they are, let alone that the ‘evidence’, whatever that is, speaks for itself.

A case in point is an international gathering of scientists in Brazil which took a critical look at the so-called protectors of ‘good science’ – the UK’s Science Media Centre (SCM).

The SMC is the acceptable face of the sceptic movement here in the UK. It professes to make sense of the science – especially where complex issues like climate change and GMOs are concerned.

Its briefings and “expert reactions” have become a staple of British (and indeed international) mass media, and are featured regularly in places like the BBC and the Guardian, without so much as an editor’s eye or pen having gone through them.

Now there is an emerging body of evidence that shines a harsh light on the self-professed independence and objectivity of the SMC.

Bad science

One researcher, for example, found that between 2011-2012 in UK newspapers more than half the SMC’s expert reactions were covered in the press and, in 23% per cent of cases only the SMC’s ‘experts’ were quoted – no other voice was present.

Worse, 60% of articles based on the SMC media briefings featured no non-SMC sourced material.

Another found that some 20 of the SMC’s 100 most quoted experts were not scientists – defined as having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society. Instead they were lobbyists for, and CEOs of, industry groups.

Not surprisingly he also found that the SMC’s opinions were skewed towards corporate science which represents the interests of its corporate donors.

When you read about GMOs in the newspapers, by and large, this is what you are reading press; releases written by industry and reproduced without question or critique. These stories belie the substantial game of risk that GMO proponents are playing with our farms and our food and our health.

Giving this kind of corporate science ascendency and complete dominion over complex social problems is at best foolhardy and at worst dangerous.

Clinging to the notion that science – as it is currently practiced, mispracticed, abused and misconceived – will save us is like clinging to a drowning man.

Let’s hope this latest attempt by reputable scientists will bring some balance back to the debate.