GMO Free USA questions the findings of a survey that found 88% of scientists polled thought GM foods were safe
A Pew survey earlier this year found that 88% of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) scientists say GM foods are generally safe to eat. In contrast a majority – 57% – of the general public says that GM foods are generally unsafe to eat, with only 37% saying such foods are safe.
GMO proponents have trumpeted these findings as a sign that the public have got it wrong on GM crops and scientists have got it right.
But GMO Free USA has an entirely different take on the Pew survey. In a masterly analysis, the group shows that on the subject of GMO food safety, the AAAS scientists are out of step with health professionals and that it is people who oppose GMO labelling who are “anti-science”.
This is an article with a delayed fuse: it’s well worth reading to the end.
GMO Free USA, August 2015
A recent Pew survey of AAAS scientists raises more questions than answers, namely, why do the AAAS scientists surveyed seem to disagree with surveys of health professionals on the topic of GMOs?
First, some points about the Pew survey of AAAS scientists.(1) There is no survey or test given to the scientists surveyed about their knowledge of GMOs. It is therefore impossible to say what they know about GMOs. It is not possible to know whether every scientist taking the survey understood what a GMO is. The question they were asked is, "Do you think it is generally safe or unsafe to eat genetically modified foods?"
Since there is no clarification in the survey for what "genetically modified" means. It is possible they didn't understand what was being asked. For example, the terms used in the U.S. are different from those in the EU and other countries. The USDA and the FDA generally use the term "genetically engineered".(2,3)
Many people in the U.S., including many scientists, use "genetic modification" when describing conventional breeding. However, since no definition of "genetically modified" was provided, this U.S. based group of scientists may have believed they were being asked about conventional breeding and not genetic engineering.
Another question they were asked also sheds light on the situation:
"Do you think it is generally safe or unsafe to eat foods grown with pesticides?"
68 Generally safe, 31 Generally unsafe, 1 No answer
According to the USDA, 94 percent of soy, 93 percent of corn and 96 percent of cotton acreage in the U.S. were either herbicide tolerant and/or pesticide expressing genetically engineered crops.(4)
So if the overwhelming majority of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. are "grown with pesticides" this again calls into question whether they understood the question about "genetically modified" foods since there is a 20% difference between the "Generally Safe" group when asked about foods "grown with pesticides" and "genetically modified" foods.
In fact, the survey itself shows that whoever wrote the questions for the survey didn't know a lot about GMOs. If we look at the survey questions asked of the general public, it starts off with a definition that includes:
"Scientists can change the genes in some food crops and farm animals to make them grow faster or bigger and be more resistant to bugs, weeds, and disease."
This is a terrible definition, since it says "more resistant to bugs, weeds" when really the overwhelming majority of genetically engineered crops are resistant to weed killer (herbicides) and not weeds. However, it does give the survey participants a better idea that the question is about genetically engineered food and not conventionally bred food.
After the definition is given to the general public they are asked:
"Do you think it is generally safe or unsafe to eat genetically modified foods?"
37 Generally safe, 57 Generally unsafe, 6 Don’t know/Refused
However, it is obvious from the definition given that the general public are not being told that the overwhelming majority of genetically engineered foods are "grown with pesticides". That explains why, as with the AAAS members, their answer to this next question about foods "grown with pesticides" is different compared to the question about "genetically modified" foods.
"Do you think it is generally safe or unsafe to eat foods grown with pesticides?"
28 Generally safe 69 Generally unsafe 3 Don’t know/Refused
According to the Pew survey of scientists (in Question 42) 50% of the scientists list their field as being "Agriculture, Biological & Medical Sciences". The remaining 50% identify their field as one which would likely have little, if any, impact on their ability to assess GMO food safety. It is important that actual experts in the health field are surveyed and not agricultural scientists who are generally not qualified to assess health and could be potentially biased. For example, a survey of climatologists found 90% of climate scientists agreed that humans are about equally responsible, or more responsible than nature for climate change. In comparison, of the agricultural scientists surveyed less than 51% agreed that humans are at least equally responsible as nature for climate change. Of the climate scientists surveyed only 5% believed there wasn't enough evidence to conclude climate change was occurring. In comparison, 25% of agricultural scientists either believed there wasn't enough evidence to conclude climate change was occurring or denied climate change was occurring at all.(5) Examples such as this suggest agricultural scientists may have a very different opinion than the actual experts in a particular field.
While the survey omits the exact fields(Q43) and what percent of the 50% is Agriculture, the next field of "Biological" likely includes biotechnologists who may work for biotech companies that make GE crops and have a conflict of interest as well. As with agriculture, biotechnology as a field would not necessarily be a qualification to assess health and it could be a potential conflict of interest with those in agricultural or biotechnology fields often receiving funding or collaborating with biotech companies. The survey identifies 21% of those surveyed work in industry and at least 25% have received funding from industry in the last 5 years. Though we don't know specifically who works for industry or received funding from industry, it is likely that many of those work in agriculture or biotechnology. This is significant since a previous survey concluded that funding from, or employment in, the biotech industry had a significant effect on the perspective held by the scientists who had a positive attitude towards GE crops.(6)
Since most of the AAAS scientists surveyed do not appear to be experts in food safety or health, what do the actual experts think and how do they match up to AAAS scientists?
In a 2013 survey of 200 medical doctors, 80.5% of the participants believed that GE foods are harmful.(7) The authors also stated, "In a similar study conducted by Engin et al., the said ratio was 66.7%. Kocak et al. conducted a study among medical faculty students and found that the ratio of those not consuming GMO foods was 54.4%. Both Engin and Kocak stated that the reason of finding such low ratios was having a population composed of students yet to work at medical sector. When we take into account the higher ratio found in our study, it is possible to say that medical doctors are more sensitive compared to the medical students. This can be attributed to the fact that the average age and education and experience levels are higher in medical doctors when compared to medical students".
If more health education and experience is related to an increased questioning of the safety of GE foods, this may explain why the AAAS scientists surveyed, who mostly appear to be in fields not related to health, are more likely to disagree with the health experts.
In a 2012 survey of 284 registered dietitians, only 29.4% of those surveyed believed that "GM foods are completely safe to eat". While 30% disagreed.
The survey also determined that the more knowledgeable a dietitian was on GMO, the more likely they were to oppose GMO usage.
When given the statement "Scientists cannot predict future outcomes of genetically modified foods,” 60.5% agreed.(8) When the general public were asked a similar question, in the Pew survey, "From what you’ve heard or read, would you say scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of genetically modified crops OR are scientists NOT clear about this?”, 67% replied "Scientists do NOT have a clear understanding.”
At a 2014 Queen's University Belfast ASSET conference, where about 350 scientists, regulators and industry representatives involved in food safety were scheduled to attend, an entry survey of the audience found 44% were pro-GM, 37% were opposed to GM and 17% were neutral. An opinion poll of the same group, at the end, found 40% were pro-GM, 42% were opposed to GM and 17% were neutral. Keep in mind that some of the audience were industry representatives and possibly have a conflict of interest.(9)
So why are the opinions of the AAAS scientists surveyed so different than the actual food safety experts, who seem to have opinions similar to the general public? While it is possible some of the AAAS scientists surveyed in fields not related to food safety or health have done some related research, it is more likely that most have little knowledge of health or GMOs, possibly even confusing "genetically modified" with conventional breeding, and/or have formed their opinion of GMOs based on an earlier statement by the AAAS Board of Directors regarding GMO labeling.(10)
This earlier statement was voted on by the chair of the board at the time who is a biotechnologist, with a conflict of interest, who worked with biotech companies Sigma Aldrich and Evogene.(11) The remaining members who voted included a founder of a biotechnology company, an entrepreneur, an astrophysicist and a psychologist. So it would seem these scientists involved were either biased and/or in fields not related to food safety or health. This could explain the inaccuracies in the statement by the AAAS Board of Directors(12) and why it has been so controversial.(13,14)
This statement against GMO labeling also seems to disagree with surveys of health professionals, reports and resolutions passed by public health groups.(15)
For example, in a 2015 survey, physicians were asked “Should food manufacturers be required to label products containing GMOs?". Of the 2,097 physicians who responded, 68% selected yes.(16)
In the 2012 survey of 284 registered dietitians, when they were given the statement "I believe consumers have the right to know what they are feeding themselves and their families - therefore genetically modified organisms should be labeled." 88.1% agreed.
With such differences between between the health professionals surveyed and the AAAS Board of Directors, one must question their statement. After all, the word science originates with the Latin "scientia" meaning knowledge. Labeling is print attached to an object giving information about it, and information is the communication of knowledge. Therefore, being anti-labeling would be equivalent to being anti-science.
1. Pew Research Center, January 29, 2015, “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society” http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/01/PI_ScienceandSociety_Report_012915.pdf
2. Biotechnology Permits -- 7 Code of Federal Regulations part 340 http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/pdf/7cfr340.pdf
3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, May 06, 2015, "Genetically Engineered Plants for Food & Feed FDA's Biotechnology Policy"
4. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, July 09, 2015, "Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S."
5. Prokopy, L. S., Morton, L. W., Arbuckle Jr, J. G., Mase, A. S., & Wilke, A. K. (2015). Agricultural stakeholder views on climate change: implications for conducting research and outreach. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 96(2), 181-190. http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/BAMS-D-13-00172.1
6. Kvakkestad, V., Gillund, F., Kjølberg, K. A., & Vatn, A. (2007). Scientists' perspectives on the deliberate release of GM crops. Environmental Values, 79-104. http://www.environmentandsociety.org/sites/default/files/key_docs/ev_16no.1_kvakkestad_gillund_kjolberg__vatn.pdf
7. Hasan Basri Savas, Fatih Gultekin, Duygu Kumbul Doguc, Omer Oren, Mesut Guler, Hilal Demiralay. "Medical Doctors’ Perceptions of Genetically Modified Foods." Journal of Clinical and Analytical Medicine, 2014 http://www.jcam.com.tr/files/KATD-2639.pdf
8. Vogliano, C. T. (2012) Knowledge Base and Perception Registered Dietitians Hold on the Genetic Modification of Foods. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=kent1353297827&disposition=inline
9. Margaret Donnelly, April 10, 2014, ‘The safety of GM food for consumption has yet to be proven’. Agriland Media Ltd. http://www.agriland.ie/news/safety-gm-food-consumption-yet-proven/
10. AAAS Board of Directors, October 20, 2012, "Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods" http://www.aaas.org/news/statement-aaas-board-directors-labeling-genetically-modified-foods
11. Nina V. Fedoroff Former Board Member at Sigma-Aldrich Corporation http://people.equilar.com/bio/nina-fedoroff-sigma-aldrich/salary/650672#.UmC950nD_ui
12. Doug Gurian-Sherman, November 2, 2012, A Contrary Perspective on the AAAS Board Statement Against Labeling of Engineered Foods.
13. Patricia Hunt and 20 other scientists, "Yes: Food labels would let consumers make informed choices" Environmental Health Sciences http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2012/yes-labels-on-gm-foods
14. Priest SH, Valenti JM, Logan RA, Rogers CL, Dunwoody S, Griffin RJ, Long M, Friedman SM, Stocking SH, Rowan KE, Steinke J. (2013) AAAS position on GM foods could backfire. Science. Feb 15;339(6121):756. http://www.somas.stonybrook.edu/~frisk/Frisk%20papers/Science-2013-Chapman-757.pdf
15. GMO Free USA 'GMO Safety' http://www.gmofreeusa.org/research/gmo-safety/
16. SERMO, June 15, 2015, 'What physicians think about GMO labeling' http://blog.sermo.com/2015/06/15/physicians-think-gmo-labeling/