NOTE: There have been repeated attempts of late to assert that there's a "broad", or "overwhelming", "scientific consensus" on the safety of GM foods. There have also been several notable attempts to brand scepticism about GM as comparable to scepticism about climate change, on which there is indeed an overwhelming scientific consensus.
EuropaBio's Director of Agricultural Biotechnology, for instance, has even gone so far as to claim, "The scientific consensus on GM crops is even greater than that for climate change."
And Mark Lynas and the blogger Keith Kloor have made very similar assertions. Lynas, for instance, declared in his Oxford speech that "on GM there is a rock-solid scientific consensus."
But as Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who is a former EPA biotech specialist, points out: "While there is broad consensus on climate science, there is anything but on many aspects of GE science." And he points to solid peer-reviewed studies that "question many aspects of the safety, impact, or sustainability of GE..."
The claim of a "broad scientific consensus" on GM, however, continues to be asserted, primarily it would seem as a stratagem for shutting down debate. And for that reason it is often combined with an attempt to label critics of GM as "anti-science".
The consensus claim has also cropped up in a number of Wikipedia entries on GM, which for some time seem to have been a particular target of GM promoters. This has led to the following analysis which carefully investigates how the consensus claim is being supported.
The results are highly revealing, and we recommend reading this analysis in full. You'll need to go to the original for the links to sources and also for where emphasis has been added.
EXTRACT: *None of [the sources] provide evidence of a “broad scientific consensus” that “food on the market derived from GM crops pose no greater risk than conventional food.”
*A number of these sources, like Pamela Ronald's article, make completely false claims based on egregious misrepresentations of the sources they cite.
*Others do not make false statements - but neither do they support the claim made...
*Some of these reports play a shell game, referring back to other reports, which refer to still others, and so on...
Some users on Wikipedia are misrepresenting scientific assessment of the safety of genetically modified foods. An accusation such as this cannot be made lightly and must be investigated seriously. If the investigations show results, the response must also be serious.
We will begin by analyzing the sources currently provided in support of the following claim:
There is broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from GM crops pose no greater risk than conventional food.
We will demonstrate that many of the sources provided are used inappropriately, and that they themselves misrepresent the factual basis for their claims. Our analysis will not rely on original research, but on assessment of the quality of the sources—and of how they relate to the claim. Thus, we will limit ourselves to examination of the sources themselves and to secondary literature that comments on these sources directly.
What “Scientific Consensus”?
“Broad scientific consensus” is phrase that has appears in a number of recent secondary reports about genetic modification. When certain authors see fit to report on a "scientific consensus", “broad” seems to be the modifier of choice—to the point where you can search for “scientific consensus” on genetic engineering and see that it's almost always described as “broad”.
The GMO club on Wikipedia also likes to harp on this supposed consensus, mentioning it in every article possible. BlackHades recently wrote: “We can only write what WP:reliable sources state and when several WP:reliable sources affirm the 'broad scientific consensus' statement, that is what we write.” Jytdog, Arc de Ciel, bobrayner, IRWolfie, and AIRcorn (and more recently: a13ean, Thargor Orlando, and some new/anonymous accounts) are all supporters of this claim; some of these users have antagonized and belittled editors who disagree.
A great deal of energy has gone into asserting the existence of this consensus. But what evidence has been provided?
The biggest repeaters of this phrase are Forbes, Discover, and Scientific American. The claim is sometimes sourced to Pamela Ronald, a professor of genetic engineering at UC Davis.
Ronald was using the claim as early as 2008, as you can see [here] at her blog. She uses this wording in several places.
Ronald's first defense of the claim, that I have found, occurred in a 2010 “debate” hosted by The Economist:
"There is broad scientific consensus that GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat. The National Research Council (NRC), a non-profit institution that provides science, technology, and health policy advice to the US Congress, reports that the process of genetic engineering poses a similar risk of unintended consequences as conventional approaches of genetic alteration. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, GE crops have not caused a single instance of harm to human health or the environment. The NRC findings have been confirmed by leading scientific agencies around the world. For instance, the Joint Research Centre, the European Union's scientific and technical research laboratory and an integral part of the European Commission, recently concluded that there is a comprehensive body of knowledge that adequately addresses the food safety issue of GE crops and that the crops currently on the market have not caused any known health effects. In contrast, every year there are thousands of reported pesticide poisonings (around 1,200 each year in California alone; 300,000 deaths globally)." [Emphasis added here and below.]
Google Scholar searches suggest that the phrase appears in her published work with a 2011 article in Genetics. Here, Ronald expands further, but cites the same two studies:
"There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops (Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Committee on Environmental Impacts Associated with Commercialization of Transgenic Plants, National Research Council, and Division on Earth and Life Studies 2002). Both the U.S. National Research Council and the Joint Research Centre (the European Union's scientific and technical research laboratory and an integral part of the European Commission) have concluded that there is a comprehensive body of knowledge that adequately addresses the food safety issue of genetically engineered crops (Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health and National Research Council 2004; European Commission Joint Research Centre 2008). These and other recent reports conclude that the processes of genetic engineering and conventional breeding are no different in terms of unintended consequences to human health and the environment (European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation 2010)."
"This is not to say that every new variety will be as benign as the crops currently on the market. This is because each new plant variety (whether it is developed through genetic engineering or conventional approaches of genetic modification) carries a risk of unintended consequences. Whereas each new genetically engineered crop variety is assessed on a case-by-case basis by three governmental agencies, conventional crops are not regulated by these agencies. Still, to date, compounds with harmful effects on humans or animals have been documented only in foods developed through conventional breeding approaches. For example, conventional breeders selected a celery variety with relatively high amounts of psoralens to deter insect predators that damage the plant. Some farm workers who harvested such celery developed a severe skin rash—an unintended consequence of this breeding strategy (Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health and National Research Council 2004)."
(The rest of the article does not address the topic of safety, focusing instead on the virtues of genetic modification for farmers. Ronald's article at the Scientific American blog is substantially identical.)
Ronald does not review the literature herself, but relies on two sources for her claim. The first is a report published in 2004: “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects”.
This report also does not perform a literature review. Its main purpose seems to be establishing a rhetorical equivalence between foods that are “genetically engineered” and other foods—produced through "conventional" agriculture (i.e., cross-breeding)—which are “genetically modified”. The usefulness of this report from a public relations standpoint is clear: it blurs the line between biotech engineering and conventional agriculture.
Even so, the report very clearly does not support Ronald's claim. It states that there is not yet enough information available to determine the "biological relevance" of changes made through genetic engineering:
"Although compositional changes can be detected readily in food, and the power of profiling techniques is rapidly increasing our ability to identify compositional differences between GE food products and their conventional counterparts, methods for determining the biological relevance of these changes and predicting unintended adverse health effects are understudied. As discussed in this report, further advances in analytical technologies and their interpretation are needed to address these limitations." (p. 177)
One of the main features of the report is this chart, which ranks the levels of risk to be expected from different models of genetic modification. It is quite obvious from this chart that genetic engineering bears greater risks of unintended genetic effects than does conventional agricultural breeding.
Ronald cites a 2008 report from Europe titled “Scientific and Technical Contribution to the Development of an Overall Health Strategy in the Area of GMOs ”. This report takes a stance that much more aggressively favors genetically modified crops—and opposes regulations.
As it happens, this report explains directly why Ronald's equivocation (repeated constantly by Team GMO on Wikipedia) about conventional food is wrong:
"Following the comparative safety assessment approach, the safety of a GMO is established relative to a conventional counterpart, which implicitly presumes the safety of the latter. This is based on the fact that whilst conventional foods usually have not been tested for safety, their history of safe use indicates that a positive balance has been found between the potentially negative and positive effects of the many substances present within these foods."
It also mentions at least one pretty good idea for improving tests of genetically modified products:
" ... these authors recommended including an additional non-GM diet that has been spiked with the transgenic protein, so that effects due to this protein and other components of the GM diet can be distinguished."
But this document does not affirm the existence of a scientific consensus on GMO safety. Like the previous report, it is more of a rhetorical advisory to regulators than an attempt to comprehensively review the available literature. The introduction (p. 5) states: “It is important to note that the analyses and discussions which have led to the present report have concentrated on the current approaches to assess the potential health effects of GM food and feed products and not on the nature of those effects themselves.”
Indeed it acknowledges some forms of GMO risk. For example: “particular consideration should be paid in the environmental risk assessment to GMOs containing antibiotic resistance genes in order to phase out any antibiotic resistance genes that may have an adverse effect on human health and/ or the environment.” But the paper does not dwell on negative consequences of these risks, precisely because it envisions a best-case scenario in which genetically modified foods are perfectly well-regulated.
The report does mention one test on humans: A 1999 study in which 11 people were fed genetically modified tilapia for five days. Their blood did not contrast significantly with samples taken from a control group.
In a section on animal testing, the report describes ambivalent results. Some studies have not found health effects of genetically modified foods. Others have. In Wainwright et al. (2003): “The results show some differences between the GM canola oil and borage oil groups, including decreased body weight and altered brain lipid composition.”
In another study:
"A group of researchers has also published various studies on the ultrastructure of cells of various organs (liver, spleen, testes) of mice fed glyphosate resistant soybean for up to eight months [Vecchio et al., 2004, and references therein]. Whilst these authors note that the nucleus and other organelles may show changes depending on the diet, the cause of these changes has not been established. In addition, the origin of the GM soybean is not specified in detail and the model employed is not routinely used in toxicity testing."
Finally, the report notes an accidental release of genetically modified food known to provoke allergies:
"Cry9C also has elicited an allergic serum reaction in Brown Norway rats, which are known to be IgE-hyperresponders, whilst also another protein without known allergenic properties tested positive in the same test. Based on these considerations, Starlink™ has previously only been allowed onto the market for feed use. Despite this, it accidentally has become commingled with human food products derived from maize, such as taco shells. This has instigated a major recall action and a request to consumers to report any allergic reactions that might have been related to the consumption of Starlink-containing products."
Based on the two reports described above Pamela Ronald made this statement: “There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat.”
And that statement has been repeated multiple times by “science journalists”, smugly contemptuous of those who disagree.
“Broad scientific consensus”, Ronald's phrase has also been heavily promoted on Wikipedia, appearing at Genetically modified food, Genetically modified food controversies, and Regulation of the release of genetically modified organisms. An acrimonious edit conflict erupted at March Against Monsanto over whether the “broad scientific consensus” must be mentioned as a counterweight to activists' claims.
Dozens of other related pages defer safety concerns to the “controversy” and “regulation” pages—with the result that “broad scientific consensus” is portrayed as the final word on a wide range of topics.
What citations are invoked in support of these claims?
As of 9 June, Regulation of the release of genetically modified organisms still says: “there is now broad scientific consensus that GE crops on the market are safe to eat.” Two citations are given. One is a report from 2000 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); the other is Ronald's 2011 article at Scientific American.
We have seen that Ronald's claim is based on smoke and mirrors. What of the OECD? One might easily say that the OECD is biased towards Western industry. One might also argue that the report is outdated, given how many new products have entered the market since the year 2000.
But first: what is the basis for the claim being made? The footnote on Wikipedia helpfully provides this quotation:
"Much experience has been gained in the safety assessment of the first generation of foods derived through modern biotechnology, and those countries that have conducted assessments are confident that those GM foods they have approved are as safe as other foods."
This quotation comes from item 4 in the executive summary. The next lines of this item read:
"Nevertheless, some have raised concerns about the adequacy of existing test methods. For example, more standardised procedures to establish substantial equivalence are needed, as well as improved methods to assess the allergenicity of proteins new to the diet (together with their digestibility and toxicity) taking regional differences in diet into account."
Immediately, we can conclude that although “those countries that have conducted assessments” may be satisfied with the products they have approved, noteworthy actors that are not countries would beg to differ. Quite clearly, the statement applies to certain governments, not to scientists.
The report goes on to describe (pp. 26–27) a number of very serious objections to the current process for approving GMOs as safe. The report attributes these objections not to dissident countries but to “some countries” and to the World Health Organization.
The report is explicit about the lack of consensus:
"If a protein is shown to be resistant to typical digestive fluids, there may be added exposure to the intact protein or to large pieces of the protein. This digestive resistance would lead to a different analysis than if the protein were broken down as expected. However, there is still no consensus on resistant proteins being a significantly different risk if none of the other toxicity tests yields adverse results." (p. 27)
In short, the sources currently used at Regulation of the release of genetically modified organisms to demonstrate a “broad scientific consensus” roundly suggest the opposite.
Intro to “Genetically modified food controversies”
Moving on to the Genetically modified food controversies, we find a more moderate claim and a pile of citations. (The claim was moderated and the new citations added after critical discussion on the talk page; however, no serious effort was made to re-examine the “consensus” claim based on the presentation of new sources. The situation is similar at Genetically modified food and the citations are identical.)
The six hyperlinked footnotes are already intimidating. In the footnotes, we see that even more studies are actually linked, since footnote six poetically contains six unique citations. These footnotes get a lot of use throughout the article.
Do these 13 studies support the claim for which they are cited? Let's dive in.
Footnote 1 is a short press release issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
There is actually some secondary literature on this press release, which contains little analysis of its own. Dated 20 October 2012, the statement addresses a then-upcoming vote by Californians on labeling of genetically modified food. It urges them to reject labeling
Michele Simon wrote an article about this statement, asking “Is AAAS Serving Science or Monsanto?” With this article, Simon calls attention to several broad and unsupported claims made by the AAAS Board—and questions the Board's motivations, given chair Nina Fedoroff's ties to the chemical industry.
The Council for Responsible Genetics also objected to the AAAS statement.
"We are deeply concerned that a scientific body such as the AAAS would take such an action without giving a complete review of the science behind its statement."
"As scientists, they should know that citing a few studies in favor of their position can no longer be considered a compelling argument. Indeed, the AAAS Board did not conduct a thorough analysis of the literature, nor did they include studies that could cast doubt upon their conclusions. The truth is we do not know conclusively what the long-term effects of growing and consuming GM crops will be."
"There have been very few systematic and independent animal studies testing the safety of GM crops. Since 1992 the FDA policy considers the insertion of foreign genes into the plant genomes of crops as the equivalent of hybrid crops - crosses within the same species - and therefore exempt from the regulations on food additives."
"Yet we know enough to have valid concerns. The plant genome is not like a Lego set; it is more like an ecosystem. You simply cannot predict the safety of gene inserts unless you do the testing."
"Most GM food studies have been generated by industry and it is the industry itself with sole access to so much of the data. There is little funding of independent studies on the effects of GM foods, and those few scientists who have engaged in such studies and reported concerns are discounted. Their concerns cannot be resolved without serious and independent scientific study."
"We are particularly concerned that at a time when conflicts of interest have become a major concern in science that the AAAS Board would not openly divulge that some in the AAAS leadership appear to have longstanding ties to the biotech industry. Since these ties have not been transparently disclosed, it is unclear whether there could also be ties to industrial concerns that might influence decision making of the AAAS leadership. Surely any reader of their position is entitled to such facts in considering their position. We advocate for full disclosure of all such ties by AAAS leaders."
"The fact that no deaths have been attributed to GM crops does not mean they are safe. We do not see deaths associated with bisphenol A (BPA) and yet there are hundreds of studies pointing to risks. Risks that consumers have carefully considered when choosing whether or not to buy products containing BPA."
We hope to explore these concerns in greater depth with future reports. For now: both of these quotations make clear that the AAAS position does not reflect a consensus of scientists, but in fact a pre-election political position taken by a small number of people.
Now, gentle reader, you may already feel the onset of Press Release Fatigue—that frustration you experience, when reading through dozens of angry bloated “statements”, that makes you want to throw your hands up and let someone else deal with the problem.
But just look at this report for a minute. Does it seem honest? Does it seem like a good source for Wikipedia's article on controversies about genetically modified food? Should it be the most frequently used source for this article? (It is cited six times in all.) Why is currently the most frequently used source?
What of the sources on which the AAAS calls? They state:
"The EU, for example, has invested more than €300 million in research on the biosafety of GMOs. Its recent report states: 'The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.'"
Could this be true? Did the European Union, notorious for resisting the influx of GMO food from the USA, finally conclude that genetic modification is safe?
The document cited is actually a compilation of essays, only one of which pertains to “GMOs and Food Safety”. The author is Harry A. Kuiper, who reiterates the argument that the European testing regime is strong and will be able to detect and block potentially harmful organisms. He writes: “Extensive research on GMOs, co-funded by the European Commission over the last two decades, has significantly contributed to being able to identify and characterize possible risks associated with foods/feed derived from GMOs.”
Recall that the AAAS promised an equivalence between genetically modified and conventional foods. Kuiper does write: “These activities provide at least equal assurance of the safety of these foods compared to conventional counterparts, provided these GM products have been approved by the EU and the national food safety evaluation procedures.”
Just as we saw in Ronald's work, above, the AAAS has distorted the claim in its reference, ignoring the role of regulators in guaranteeing safety. This is not a minor omission—it is a complete omission, because the documents being cited do not review the literature on GMO safety. They only discuss a best-case scenario for European regulators.
There is no particular reason to believe in this best-case scenario, especially because Kuiper is a high-ranking regulator—or deregulator—who has pushed lower GMO standards since 2003.
Testbiotech (a small group of researchers led by Christoph Then) and Corporate Europe Observatory describe their complaint against Kuiper's position:
"Testbiotech, supported by Corporate Observatory Europe (CEO), is today filing a new complaint with the EU Ombudsman questioning the independence of the chair of the panel of experts tasked with assessing the risk of new genetically engineered plants entering the European Union. Harry Kuiper has chaired the GMO Panel at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) since 2003 but has also maintained strong ties with International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) including taking part in a task force led by a Monsanto employee. ILSI is funded by the food and agrochemical industry and Kuiper's work on the task force was alongside staff from Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont, and Syngenta, all of which produce genetically engineered plants."
"Testbiotech research has shown that the work of this ILSI task force has directly influenced Kuiper’s work at EFSA. Kuiper is expected to leave the GMO panel within the next few months as he comes to the end of his term. Christoph Then of Testbiotech said: 'We urgently need more clarity. Harry Kuiper has been involved in each and every case of risk assessment of genetically engineered plants since the start of EFSA. The public has a right to know if consumers and the environment were really protected in the best possible way.'"
"Nina Holland from Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) added: 'Harry Kuiper's position as a chair of the GMO Panel is a clear case of conflict of interest. This raises important questions about the decisions made while he was chair and we want the Ombudsman to investigate this.'"
Again, even if Kuiper were completely correct, his arguments fall far short of demonstrating a consensus on GMO safety. We have here another case of one person misleadingly portrayed as thousands of scientists.
Footnote 2 cites a political resolution passed in December 2012 by the American Medical Association.
This resolution, too, came in advance of the California vote on GMO labeling. The document is much more comprehensive than the AAAS statement (and even compared to the EU report cited therein).
The resolution says that no links have been found between genetic engineering and health problems, and that although some risks exist they are small. It argues that there is low risk to human health from certain scenarios, including horizontal gene transfer to humans, toxic transgenes, and allergens. Its statement on allergens is the most definitive: "To date, no evidence has supported an increased degree of allergenicity of bioengineered foods compared to their non-bioengineered counterparts.” It does not evaluate the possible effects of glyphosate (the main ingredient of Monsanto's Roundup), or of various other identified risks of genetic engineering.
The resolution makes reference to a 1987 position by the National Academy of Sciences (home of the National Research Council) which suggested that there was no inherent reason to scrutinize genetically engineered crops more than conventional crops. This organization has itself been forced to revise this assessment, as we saw in the 2004 report discussed above.
However: The AMA resolution does not say that genetically engineered foods are safe, or that there is a broad scientific consensus on the matter.
The conclusion of this statement opposes labeling but says that stronger regulation is necessary: “Council believes that pre-market safety assessment should shift from a voluntary notification process to a mandatory requirement.”
Several people noted that the AMA's recommendations seemed strangely contradictory. Marion Nestle wrote: “Here's what surprises me: in recommending premarket safety testing, which is not now required, the AMA appears to be raising serious questions about the safety of GM foods. If such doubts exist, shouldn't GM foods be labeled so the public has a choice?”
Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association (a group which did also have a financial stake in the GMO labeling vote) said:
"We are disappointed, and frankly confused. On the one hand, the AMA is telling consumers that GMOs should be tested for any potential health hazards, before food manufacturers are allowed to sell them to the public. On the other hand, they’re effectively saying that it’s OK that products containing GMOs are not labeled. It makes no sense to acknowledge enough doubt about the safety of genetically engineered ingredients to recommend pre-market testing, but disagree that consumers should have the right to know which foods contain GMOs. Shouldn’t consumers be able to avoid GMOs unless they have first been proven safe?"
In fact, the AMA's argument against labeling is this: “... the FDA cannot require labeling based solely on differences in the production process if the resulting products are not materially different or do not pose a safety risk”. It would, in this view, be unfair to label all genetically modified foods when only some of them actually constitute a risk. However, the current voluntary regime of regulations does not, according to the AMA, do a good job of determining which GMOs are risky. Therefore, goes the logic, labeling is wrong but more pre-market regulation is necessary.
An interesting position with debatable merits—but not support for the “broad scientific consensus” theory.
WHO, date unknown
Footnote 3 is “20 questions on genetically modified foods” at the World Health Organization website—specific authorship unknown. Two excerpts:
"Q8. Are GM foods safe?
"Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.
"GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles and, where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM foods.
"Q15. What is the state of public debate on GM foods in other regions of the world? The release of GMOs into the environment and the marketing of GM foods have resulted in a public debate in many parts of the world. This debate is likely to continue, probably in the broader context of other uses of biotechnology (e.g. in human medicine) and their consequences for human societies. Even though the issues under debate are usually very similar (costs and benefits, safety issues), the outcome of the debate differs from country to country. On issues such as labelling and traceability of GM foods as a way to address consumer concerns, there is no consensus to date. This has become apparent during discussions within the Codex Alimentarius Commission over the past few years."
There's nothing here we haven't already discussed. There are no sources, author, or date. I don't know why this source is included. By the way, a substantial report located in the same region of the WHO website states:
"Conflicting assessments and incomplete substantiation of the benefits, risks and limitations of GM food organisms by various scientific, commercial, consumer and public organizations have resulted in national and international controversy regarding their safe use as food and safe release into the environment. An example is the debate on food aid that contained GM material offered to countries in southern Africa in 2002, after 13 million people faced famine following failed harvests. This international debate highlighted several important issues, such as health, safety, development, ownership and international trade in GMOs."
"Such controversies have not only highlighted the wide range of opinions within and between Member States', but also the existing diversity in regulatory frame works and principles for assessing benefits and risks of GMOs."
Footnote 4 is the 2004 National Research Council report discussed above. Remember this chart?
A comment in the footnote reads: “See pp11ff on need for better standards and tools to evaluate GM food.” Presumably this message assists readers who find this footnote after reading the claim: “There is a view from many of the scientists and regulators who support GM food that there is a continuing need for improved testing technologies and protocols to identify and manage risk better .” That's just fine.
But nothing in this study supports the claim of safety equivalence between GM and conventional food—let alone the claim of “broad scientific consensus”.
We should be troubled by the fact that this article is misused in the same way by Ronald and on Wikipedia article.
Footnote 5 is A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001-2010) We've already discussed how this reference takes us to Harry Kuiper and the world of European regulatory agencies. Again, we should be dismayed by the pattern of misuse—this time mimicking the AAAS statement.
Footnote 6 brings us another six studies.
First is “Safety of Genetically Engineered Food”, a fact sheet coming out of UC Davis in 2006.
The paper mentions several incidents of toxicity resulting from genetically engineered foods, concluding in each case that the genetic engineering itself was not the problematic element. (It discusses the “Starlink” incident descirbed above, as well as a faulty batch of genetically engineered L-tryptophan from Japan.)
This document is three pages long. It does conclude: “While genetic engineering of foods continues to generate concern and controversy for some consumers, evidence to date has not indicated that any foods developed for human consumption using genetic engineering techniques pose risks greater than foods produced using traditional methods.”
Simple enough. This is probably the best time to use the saying “absence of evidence does not imply evidence of absence”. It is quite a short paper, doesn't do much of a literature review, and doesn't address the issue of consensus. Still: of all the sources so far, this one is neither greatly abusive nor greatly abused.
Next is Pamela Ronald's article in Genetics. We've already talked about that article and delved into the sources it misuses.
Henry I. Miller's “A golden opportunity, squandered” uses the phrase “broad scientific consensus”! Look!
"There is absolutely nothing about Golden Rice that should require endless case-by-case reviews and bureaucratic dithering. As the journal Nature editorialized in 1992, a broad scientific consensus holds that ‘the same physical and biological laws govern the response of organisms modified by modern molecular and cellular methods and those produced by classical methods....[Therefore] no conceptual distinction exists between genetic modification of plants and microorganisms by classical methods or by molecular techniques that modify DNA and transfer genes.’ "
1992 is kind of a throwback for a 2009 article, but maybe Nature really had a point. Even if we take Miller's claim at face value, however, he is not making a blanket statement about the safety of genetically modified foods. He is claiming that the process of genetic engineering incurs no additional risk. But let's dig a little deeper.
When I do a search for the editorial I find that it is cited often and almost only by Henry I. Miller. The half-page editorial [sorry, paywall; check your local library] itself is an endorsement of the George H.W. Bush administration's new policy on biotechnology: the “substantial equivalence” rule that has exempted genetically engineered foods from government testing. The editorial (following a warning against painting the US as a “black sheep” on climate change or forcing an “uneconomic use of resources”) reads:
"The Administration of US President George Bush has just issued a policy on the regulation of biotechnology that is utterly in keeping with good science. Perhaps it should not be surprising that this is so, but for the past two decades biotechnology has gained such a reputation as a boeygman of science that it is refreshing to see that clear thinking prevailed at the White House, where a biotechnology policy has been in the works for more than a year.2
"The policy, which is meant to inform the way individual regulatory agencies handle biotechnology products, states that 'the same physical and biological laws govern the response of organisms modified by modern molecular and cellular methods... [Therefore] no conceptual distinction exists between genetic modification of plants and microorganisms by classical methods or by molecular techniques that modify DNA and transfer genes.'"
Yes, you read that correctly. The words quoted by Miller are not attributed to a “consensus” of any sort; they are not even those of the Nature editorial board—they are a quotation from a draft version of a permissive government policy.
Actually Nature also mis-attributes the quotation, which they have spliced together in the wrong order from a 1989 handbook (p. 15 and p. 14) published by the National Research Council! You'll recall that from above that the National Research Council had by 2004 completely reversed its position on this very particular issue. (Don't forget that chart!)
The Nature editorial continues in praising this policy, discounting the fears of skeptics, and repeating the argument that conventional foods and pesticides are also dangerous. Here is the closest it comes to discussing the safety of genetic modification:
"It is not surprising that biotechnology products, particularly those released into the environment by the agricultural and chemical industries, have elicited strong negative reactions from environmental groups, as well as from ordinary citizens. After all, the very scientists who developed recombinant DNA technology were the ones who alerted the public to its potential hazards, particularly if gene-spliced organisms were to multiply out of control. But 20 years of real-life experimental and commercial science has shown those fears to be largely baseless, while the benefits of the technology (creating herbicide-resistance crops, for instance) are easy to identify."
It also says: “The US policy also acknowledges one of the important scientific truths about modern biotechnology products. They may be safer than their conventionally derived counterparts, largely because their characteristics—often down to the level of DNA sequences—are so thoroughly known.” New evidence (much of it published in Nature) has since shown this article of faith to be wrong in several ways.
But, to recap: in 2009, Henry I. Miller made a false claim about a 1992 Nature editorial, attributing to a “broad consensus of scientists” text which had been questionably reproduced from a 1989 NRC report. And then someone on Wikipedia added the article to support a claim that not even Miller had made.
Bett, Ouma & De Groote, 2010
Bett, Ouma & De Groote paper: “Perspectives of gatekeepers in the Kenyan food industry toward genetically modified food” (2010). [Paywall!]
If you just looked at the title of this paper, you might think it's about attitudes of “gatekeepers in the Kenyan food industry” and not about scientists.
OK, that's true. The paper is about convincing Kenyans that GMOs are good for them. But it does contain this sentence: “Empirical evidence shows the high potential of the technology, and there is now a scientific consensus that the currently available transgenic crops and the derived foods are safe for consumption (FAO, 2004).” Boom! What's “(FAO, 2004)”? (And isn't that a funny use of “is now”, in 2010?)
Well, FAO 2004 is this report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization: “]http://www.fao.org/docrep/006/Y5160E/Y5160E00.htm The State of Food and Agriculture 2003 – 2004: Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting the needs of the poor?]”.
It's a big report, so let's skip to the section on “Health and environmental impacts of transgenic crops”. They did use some materials from an industry-funded biotech research center. Let's see what they have to say.
"Currently available transgenic crops and foods derived from them have been judged safe to eat and the methods used to test their safety have been deemed appropriate. These conclusions represent the consensus of the scientific evidence surveyed by the ICSU (2003) and they are consistent with the views of the World Health Organization (WHO, 2002). These foods have been assessed for increased risks to human health by several national regulatory authorities (inter alia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States) using their national food safety procedures (ICSU). To date no verifiable untoward toxic or nutritionally deleterious effects resulting from the consumption of foods derived from genetically modified crops have been discovered anywhere in the world (GM Science Review Panel). Many millions of people have consumed foods derived from GM plants - mainly maize, soybean and oilseed rape - without any observed adverse effects (ICSU)."
So they claim there's a consensus on safety... but as usual they're not the ones who did the literature review. We'll check out the report that they cite shortly. We might also be a little suspicious of the claim that safety testing is working for the US, since due to the “substantial equivalence” rule, there is no safety testing. But check out what the report says next:
"The lack of evidence of negative effects, however, does not mean that new transgenic foods are without risk (ICSU, GM Science Review Panel). Scientists acknowledge that not enough is known about the long-term effects of transgenic (and most traditional) foods. It will be difficult to detect long-term effects because of many confounding factors such as the underlying genetic variability in foods and problems in assessing the impacts of whole foods. Furthermore, newer, more complex genetically transformed foods may be more difficult to assess and may increase the possibility of unintended effects. New profiling or “fingerprinting” tools may be useful in testing whole foods for unintended changes in composition (ICSU)."
What? Seriously? So genetically modified foods are “safe to eat” even though the long-term health effects are unknown? What do they even mean by “safe to eat”? It's almost as if someone came in and rewrote the first part of the report to make genetic modification sound safer than it really is.
Does the ICSU report support FAO's conclusion? This is a 2003 report written by “G. J. Persley, The Doyle Foundation for The International Council for Science”. G. J. Persley is the head of the Doyle Foundation. (The Doyle Foundation is named for late World Bank consultant Jack Doyle; G. J. Persley was his spouse. The “ICSU report” seems to be their most recent publication.)
"Currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat. Food safety assessments by national regulatory agencies in several countries have deemed currently available GM foods to be as safe to eat as their conventional counterparts and suitable for human consumption. This view is shared by several intergovernmental agencies, including the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission on food safety.
So Perley's argument is once again not about scientific consensus but about government regulators. Government regulators say GMOs must be safe, so they must be safe—even though the US government does not regulate GMOs, based on rules passed against the objection of its own scientists. And as usual, Persely doesn't conduct a literature review but instead cites the OECD, whose report from 2000 we've already discussed.
Consumers International said this about the FAO report:
"Reported successes are not the result of GM. The FAO report champions the successful use of molecular markers for pearl millet in India, tissue culture for virus-free planting stocks of bananas in Kenya and the eradication of rinderpest. However, the report fails to emphasise that these processes do not involve any genetic engineering or genetic modification.
"A biased, outmoded, and unilateral assessment. The report does not seriously consider any downside to agriculture biotechnology in general and transgenic technology in particular. It suggests genetic engineering alone can feed the poor and clean up the environment and pays little attention to the widely acknowledged alternatives.
"The report contradicts the FAO’s own findings. The chapter: ’From the Green Revolution to the Gene Revolution’ pays no attention to the environmental and social downsides of the initiative. This is despite the FAO regional office in Asia’s long-held acknowledgement of the downsides of the Green Revolution and the need to look for more ecologically and socially rational forms of agriculture.
"A betrayal of its own endeavour. The FAO has previously put out some excellent papers on the ethics of biotechnology and its recent consultations on GM have been well balanced. Its latest drive to promote SARD (sustainable agriculture and rural development) should also be commended. This report falls well short of FAO standards and is a stain on its reputation.
"The absence of a meaningful consultation process has left many NGO’s feeling angered. This comes after the FAO agreed to a multi-stakeholder process to develop the concept of food sovereignty, including consultation with NGOs and rural people’s organisations."
Dominic Glover explained in 2010:
"The period around the turn of the twenty-first century was punctuated by the release of a succession of weighty reports by major international organisations and august scientific institutions, which encouraged the development and commercialisation of genetically modified (GM, transgenic) crops to improve developing-country agriculture (FAO 2004; IFAD 2001; IFPRI 1999; Nuffield Council on Bioethics 1999; Royal Society of London et al. 2000; UNDP 2001). Although they were sprinkled with qualifications about careful safety assessment and socio-economic factors, these documents nevertheless appeared to represent an emerging scientific and policy consensus that GM crop technology would be ‘pro-poor’."
"That optimistic consensus depended on a number of key, unacknowledged and often questionable assumptions about the ways in which the technology would be developed and its likely impacts on poverty, hunger and the livelihoods of the poor (Levidow 2001; Scoones 2002a, 2007)."
Logical and tolerant as we are, we might not dismiss these reports simply because they are based on an effort to market genetically modified products to the Third World. However, we have seen that the reports themselves do not provide evidence of a scientific consensus about anything; they simply attribute this finding of consensus to other reports. This consensus is about as real as Orbis Tertius—but more dangerous.
Quan, McCluskey, & Wahl, 2004
Quan, McCluskey, & Wahl, “Effects of Information on Consumers' Willingness to Pay for GM-Corn-Fed Beef”, 2004
Another one of many studies on how to market GMO products to regular people—by telling those people that GMO products are safe. “There is general agreement among scientists on the safety of meats from animals fed on GM feeds.” This is quite a different thing than the safety of genetically modified foods themselves.
As it happens, the source cited is a press release from the group “Internutrition” criticizing the government of Switzerland for its moratorium on genetically modified products. As far as I can tell, this press release only says that some scientists (and others) expressed “their doubts” (“leurs doutes ”) during the political process. The press release cites no reports or other documents whatsoever.
Internutrition is an biotech consulting group.
Let's take this moment to consider the arguments made by a swarm of sources in 2000 – 2004 that GM products “currently on the market” are safe because they have been approved by government regulators. Should we infer that if regulators have not approved the products as safe, then they might not be safe? Can something be “safe” for Americans but not for the Swiss? Epistemologically modified food for thought.
Preston, 2011 (2004)
Our last source might also be the most interesting. First, because it's the only literature review in the whole list of 13 citations. Second, because of the source.
On Wikipedia, this citation gives a date of 2011. This date is obviously wrong, as none of the references listed were published after 2004.
We have known since 2002 that AgBioWorld is secretly hosted by The Bivings Group, a consulting firm employed by Monsanto to spread disinformation over the internet. (More on The Bivings Group later. Interestingly, 2011 is also the year that The Bivings Group shut down, to be regrouped into “The Brick Factory”. Maybe they were too busy to do an update.)
The post is written Christopher Preston, Senior Lecturer in Weed Management at the University of Adelaide.
“We noted the excellent contribution by Dr. Chris Preston, 'Peer Reviewed Publications on the Safety of GM Foods,' AgBioView, Dec. 3, 2004”, wrote two Monsanto representatives on the same website.
So that gives you some idea of what you're looking at … and answers the date question.
Arpad Pusztai had this to say:
"The next comment is that they looked at academic as opposed to production studies. These latter have very little scientific value; we used to call them at the Rowett Institute: "feed them and weigh them".
"The next point is that my Nutrition and Health (2002) paper is not a review but, rather interestingly, Dr Preston did not mention our 2003 review that was published just at the same time as the Pryme & Lembcke review (even though I gave the reference to it in my previous comments on his assertions that he must have received because he did publicly respond to one of the points) but which also included more papers with analytical comparisons between GM and parent lines.
"I think Dr Preston's list is quite revealing in terms of his scientific approach to this topic, particularly as regards the failure to distinguish between a scientific study and an animal production exercise. When I was asked by Professor Mosenthin to write my next review (to be published next year) he emphatically asked me to leave out all production studies from the review as these may be of some value to commercial animal production but have limited scientific value."
And by the way, says Pusztai:
"Actually, Dr Preston missed two Malatesta papers, perhaps because they both show bad effects on the liver and the pancreas of mice fed RR soya, and quite a few others, but for these he will have to read my new review next year."
Key points so far:
*None of them provide evidence of a “broad scientific consensus” that “food on the market derived from GM crops pose no greater risk than conventional food.”
*A number of these sources, like Pamela Ronald's article, make completely false claims based on egregious misrepresentations of the sources they cite.
*Others do not make false statements—but neither do they support the claim made on Wikipedia that “There is broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from GM crops pose no greater risk than conventional food.”
*Some of these reports play a shell game, referring back to other reports, which refer to still others, and so on.
*For a surprisingly large number of these documents, the ultimate source for their claim of comparative GMO safety is the fact that government regulators have approved genetically modified food for sale on the market. Within this rationale, the claim that "food on the market derived from GM crops pose no greater risk than conventional food" is at its very best tautological, since the food is on the market because regulators allowed it onto the market.
*The rule adopted by the US government (in 1992) dictates that genetically modified foods are "substantially equivalent" to conventional foods and therefore do not require independent testing. The existence of this rule does not constitute a scientific consensus, and it is reprehensible for anyone to represent it as such. We hope to delve further into the "substantial equivalence" rule—how it was adopted, how it was used, and how it is portrayed—in future reports.
*It is imperative that Wikipedia not misrepresent the position of government regulators as the position of a "broad consensus of scientists"—yet this is precisely what has been done by some editors (in citing the WHO) and by some of the authors described above.
*These sources do not address the safety hazards associated with eating residues from Monsanto's “Roundup” herbicide—identified currently as appropriate to include within the page on "genetically modified food controversies" but not acknowledged as a potential source of risk.
*In most cases, there were clear vectors of influence that might explain why the author promoted the conclusion that they did. We do not need to consider these sources of bias as independently disqualifying factors; however, they help paint a picture that explains some of the misrepresentation we are witnessing.
*Incidentally, the claim that “No reports of ill effects have been documented in the human population from GM food” is also utterly wrong but not our focus right now.
*Based on the inadequacy of these sources alone, Wikipedia should not claim that there is a “broad scientific consensus” on the comparative safety of genetically modified foods.
*We need to ask serious questions about the users who are fanatically promoting the "broad scientific consensus" claim on Wikipedia. Will they acknowledge this report on their sources? Will they find new sources of similar quality? Will they produce high-quality sources to support their claim? And most importantly: was their misrepresentation of these sources (and omission of others) naive or deliberate?
Thank you for reading—and perhaps responding with appropriate action. Pleased stay tuned for future reports on this issue. groupuscule (talk) 05:56, 12 June 2013 (UTC)