Monday, February 2, 2015

No consensus on genetic engineering safety? Depends on your definition of consensus.

Opponents of genetic engineering are cheering a peer-reviewed survey that has found 300 self-selected folks willing to say they don’t think there’s consensus on the safety of the technology.

The paper has been out for a couple of years, but press coverage keeps coming out in the anti-GMO field. It’s of interest to Hawai`i both because of the power of the genetic engineering furor in the Islands, and because a co-author is Vandana Shiva, the anti-GMO diva who recently spoke in the Capitol rotunda during the opening day of the Hawai`i State Legislature.

There are lots of problems with that paper’s claims, including that much bigger groups claim the science of genetic engineering is pretty well settled and that GM foods are safe to eat.

One of them, the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the respected American Association for the Advancement of Science, last week (Jan. 29, 2015) published its survey, which found that of 3,700 scientists queried, 88 percent said GMO food is safe to eat. 

If you read the no-consensus study, several things leap out. Not the least of them is that several of the authors walked into the study with a background in attacking the genetic engineering industry.

One of the authors is anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva, who famously asserts credentials as a scientist but whose degree is in arts and humanities. Her own bio says she is “trained as a physicist,” specializing in quantum theory, which has little to do with agriculture, chemistry, genetic engineering and epidemiology. 

Co-author Ricarda Steinbrecher holds the opinion that “Genetic Engineering is a test tube science and is prematurely applied in food production.”

Co-author Philip Bereano is described as “engaged activist concerning genetically modified (GM) foods.” 

Co-author Eva Novotny, in a letter to The Guardian newspaper, argues in an article headlined “Pro-GM scientists should admit defeat and redirect their talents,” and that “corporate control must be dismantled.” 

There’s a fascinating “pot calling the kettle black” issue, as this internal circle of like-minded anti-GMO stakeholders in its paper uses this language

“Decisions on the future of our food and agriculture should not be based on misleading and misrepresentative claims by an internal circle of likeminded stakeholders that a ‘scientific consensus’ exists on GMO safety.”

Then there is the issue of the paper’s content.

First, it’s not an original scientific paper at all. Rather, it’s a summary of a study on the activist website of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility. ENSSER's own website says it is focused on “the negative impacts of new technologies and their products.” 

It is clear that some of the concerns are not about genetic engineering but about genetic engineering for pesticide resistance. It argues that “some reviews and individual studies have associated them with increased herbicide use.”

The 300 scientists are self-selected, and haven't necessarily done any research on the subject: The ENSSER website asks you to write in and sign up. Interestingly, there are lots of doctors, but also lots of veterinarians and foresters, a land planner, and a bunch of folks whose expertise is unlisted. One says he is an official of the controversial Club of Rome.

And the fundamental question: The paper argues that there is no consensus on GMO food safety. It says there isn’t consensus on the grounds that there are studies that disagree with that conclusion.
This raises the core issue: What does consensus mean?  

There is the problem. If you go to Webster, it means two different things, depending on who’s using it: unanimity and majority. I used the Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition.

So, the 300-scientist paper is absolutely right if consensus means unanimous agreement; clearly if one person disagrees, you don’t have that. This climate change denial website argues that it's not consensus unless "all scientists of any stature believe." That's a pretty tough standard, by which you might have trouble getting consensus around the existence of gravity.

But the 300-scientist paper is absolutely wrong if you mean majority, because as Pew suggests, a very, very big majority says they’re fine with eating GM products. This climate change site suggests a consensus is a majority.

Who are the PEW AAAS scientists who think eating genetically engineered food is safe? Those polled include 3,748 scientists, including 1,802 in the biological and medical sciences. The rest of them are spread between chemistry, earth sciences, engineering, math and computer sciences, physics and astronomy and social sciences and policy.

They were asked about a range of issues. Seventy nine percent of them feel it’s a major problem that news services don’t distinguish between “well-founded and not well-founded scientific findings.” And 84 percent said it’s a major problem that the general public doesn’t know much about science.

A full 98 percent believe in evolution. Eighty-seven percent believe “the earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels.” Ninety-four percent believe climate change is a very or somewhat serious problem. Most favor nuclear power and most oppose fracking. Eighty-six percent believe ALL children should be vaccinated.

And on the issues at hand? Sixty-eight percent say it’s generally safe to eat foods grown with pesticides and 88 percent say it’s generally safe to eat genetically modified foods. That's about 3,300 of the 3,748 polled.

As an afternote, I'll apologize for the number of hyperlinks in this article. I wanted to be sure to attribute the various statements and studies referenced.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015


Joan Conrow said...

No need apologize for the hyperlinks, Jan. It just reminds all of us that you do your homework, which is why your blog is a valuable resource. Mahalo.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing the literarure search and verifying sources, which will be helpful for the soon-to-convene Joint Fact FInding group.

Anonymous said...

Scientists with objectivity can agree GMO food is "safe" in that the human body can digest it. One study also indicated GMO potatoes lacked essential nutrition as compared to non-GMO potatoes? Even so, if one is hungry then at least the GMO food fills the potato chips.

antonio said...

Can you provide a link to that study?