A "TomPaine.com Face-off" between Professor Philip Stott and Peter Montague on GM foods. Fav. bit: "Thus Professor Stott's conclusion is not based on data. To put it bluntly, he made it up."
GM Foods and the National Academy of Sciences
Montague vs. Stott
Peter Montague and Philip Stott . Mr. Montague is the director of the Environmental Research Foundation. Mr. Stott is a professor of biogeography at the University of London, UK.
Editor's Note: The following is a "TomPaine.com Face-off" between Professor Philip Stott and Peter Montague, on genetically modified foods. Professor Stott wrote to TomPaine.com in response to Mr. Montague's article, "If You're Not Concerned About GM Foods You Will Be After You Read This." Mr. Montague's piece originally appeared on Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly.
Professor Stott: Dear Tom Paine,
You are rightly admired for your 'common sense'; I hope you will not mind, therefore, if a fellow Brit pours scorn on the gross misuse of the National [Academy of ] Sciences report [on GM Food] by Peter Montague in his travesty of an article on GM crops. The report went out of its way to say that the panel supported the development of these crops. How on earth can Mr. Montague write what he does?
Montague: So far as I know the National Academy of Sciences has never opposed any new technology. However, over the years, the Academy has expressed concerns about several new technologies, one of them being genetically engineered foods. In my article, I accurately reported the Academy's most recent expressions of concern about such foods.
Stott: The reality behind all the hysteria is that:-
Montague: As Professor Stott doubtless knows, hysteria has a specific meaning. I am not aware of any hysteria. Why does Professor Stott fail to offer evidence for his assertions?
Stott: (a) biotech crops are already the most tested ever (nine years to commercialization) - cf. this with all the totally untested so-called 'health foods' littering the shelves of pharmacies and chemists;
Montague: Now Professor Stott offers us a red herring. The National Academy didn't ask, "Have genetically engineered foods been tested more or less than some other foods?" The Academy asked, "Have genetically engineered foods been tested sufficiently to protect public health and the environment?" In answering that question the Academy criticized the safety protocols that have been used thus far, and the Academy said it is "highly desirable" that better safety tests be developed and used. Evidently Professor Stott wants to divert our attention away from the Academy's important conclusion that genetically engineered foods have been inadequately tested for safety.
Stott: (b) During the whole of their now long development and use, there hasn't been a single case of a problem with nutrition (and don't bring up the L-tryptophan business - that was discredited ages ago) - cf. this with E-coli and organic production;
Montague: Again, Professor Stott is stating conclusions not based on any facts. How can Professor Stott know there have been no problems? The National Academy said repeatedly that genetically modified foods might cause allergic reactions in some people and that allergic reactions can be serious, even life-threatening. To know whether allergic reactions were occurring, one would need to maintain a registry of allergic reactions and then examine individual cases to pin down the cause. No such registry exists. Physicians in this country are not required to report allergic reactions that they observe in their patients. Therefore, relevant data are not being collected, much less analyzed. Refusing to look for a problem is not the same thing as having evidence that a problem does not exist. The truth is, no one knows the consequences of exposing hundreds of millions of people to genetically engineered foods, and, furthermore, no one it making any effort to find out. Thus Professor Stott's conclusion is not based on data. To put it bluntly, he made it up.
Stott: (c) There is growing evidence that the consequent reduction in chemical spraying is already increasing, for example, bird biodiversity - and just look, by contrast, at the total misuse of the Monarch butterfly claims, which were shown to be ecologically meaningless. In the USA alone, there have been over 5000 trials and 24,000 field trials!
Montague: On two counts, Professor Stott appears to be badly misinformed. First, there is solid evidence from farms in this country that genetically modified crops often require more pesticides than traditional crops, not less. The corporations that sell genetically modified seeds initially claimed that such crops would reduce pesticide use, but actual experience on American farms has proven these claims false. Why is Professor Stott repeating these false claims? (To get the facts, read http://www.pmac.net/IWFS.pdf or listen to http://www.aces.uiuc.edu/worldfood/1999/broadcast/schedule.html).
Secondly, the National Academy of Sciences says that damage to non-target organisms (such as Monarch butterflies) is poorly understood and that "further field-based research is needed" before conclusions can be drawn. (See page 38 of the Academy's report, available at http://www.nap.edu/html/gmpp/ Professor Stott has stated a conclusion that the Academy said cannot be supported by available facts.
Stott: Frankly, the last thing you want is a cross-fertilization of America by the current hysteria from Europe. The reality is that these are the crops of the future and it is vital that the USA leads the way. Your readers might like to visit the 'ProBiotech Web Site' (http://www.probiotech.fsnet.co.uk) for a full refutation of Mr. Montague's gross distortions.
Montague: If these are the foods of the future, as Professor Stott claims they are, why not label them and let people decide for themselves what's best? If these products are so beneficial and safe, why are the biotech firms and the government afraid to label them, afraid to allow people to make informed choices in the grocery store?
In sum: It is evident that Professor Stott has abandoned his role as a serious scholar and has become a cheerleader for the biotech industry. Frankly, his willingness to disregard the available facts makes me wonder whether the good professor has been taking research money from the biotech corporations.
Professor Stott Fights Back:
Thanks for asking me to reply to Peter Montague's comments on my brief critique of his original article on biotech crops.
You always know that an argument is 'weak' when the protagonist has to resort to ad personam abuse. Peter writes: "It is evident that Professor Stott has abandoned his role as a serious scholar and has become a cheerleader for the biotech industry. Frankly, his willingness to disregard the available facts makes me wonder whether the good professor has been taking research money from the biotech corporations."
Peter then wishes to be pedantic about my use of my word 'hysteria'; I am happy to replace this with 'ecochondria' or 'ecohype' if he would prefer?
And hype it all is. The fact is that biotech plants have been around since 1983, the first commercial product since the late 1980s, and the first full product, the famous FLAVR SAVR *TM* tomato, since 1994. Moreover, between 1996 and 1999, the world commercial acreage of biotechnology crops rose from 4.3 to over 100 million acres, with 81 million acres in Canada and the US, 16 million acres in Argentina, and 1 million acres in both China and Australia. The 1999 Canada/US figure included 28.3 million acres of corn, 35 million acres of soybeans, and 5.3 million acres of oilseed rape (canola). In 2000, 52% of the US soybean crop is predicted to be genetically modified.
And throughout all this long history there has not been one single substantiated problem with either human nutrition or the environment. As the National Academy of Sciences says: "The committee is not aware of any evidence that foods on the market are unsafe to eat as a result of genetic modicitaion." That is all anyone can ever say. 100% certainty is never an option in anything. And, with regard to the environment, in the US alone, there have been over 5000 full trials and over 24,000 field trials.
Now, of course, more research, more trials, more care is always needed. But I can publically state that I, for one, would be much happier eating a biotech product than either a conventional product or, for that matter, a so-called 'organic' product. Moreover I am all for labelling, but *only* if that label is truly informative, without bias, and legal. Coming up with labels that are truly informative and unbiased is far from easy. Do you reflect process, protein product, both, or what? No label must indicate either advertently or inadvertently that something is 'better' or 'worse' without clear evidence to that effect. Already US attempts to define 'organic' are running into precisely this problem.
To sum up therefore: biotech crops are the most tested to date; we must, of course, always test more, and we can label if it is truly informative, unbiased and legal. I am not sure, however, that this is possible in the climate currently being engendered by Peter and his extreme environmentalist friends.
Thanks again for letting me come back on this.
Peter Montague's Very Last Jab:
Professor Stott writes,
"But I can publically state that I, for one, would be much happier eating a biotech product than either a conventional product or, for that matter, a so-called 'organic' product."
This reminds me of the advocates for nuclear power who used to offer to eat plutonium to show how safe it really is. I always thought it was an excellent idea for nuclear power advocates to eat plutonium, the more the better.
And for the same reason I think it is an excellent idea for Professor Stott to eat as much genetically modified food as he can get his hands on. (I would, however, prefer that this food be grown in a laboratory so that Professor Stott doesn't irretrievably contaminate the natural environment with rogue gene products while he fulfills his kinky fantasy.)
Then we all relax and let Darwinian evolution take its course.
Copyright 1999-2001 The Florence Fund