Science abused: The UK House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology’s report hyping GM crops has predictably been welcomed by the pro-GMO Science Media Centre (SMC) – but a closer look reveals it has turned its back on science and public health, writes Claire Robinson in the first of a two-part series
The Science and Technology Committee’s report blames Europe’s precautionary GMO regulation for preventing the adoption of GM crops in the UK, Europe, and the developing world. The pro-GMO Science Media Centre publicised the report with a welcoming selection of quotes from GMO advocates. For example, Johnjoe McFadden, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey, offered the emotive claim that “The cost of the eco lobby’s opposition to GMO Golden Rice has been about 1.4m life years lost last decade in India alone”.
McFadden’s quote, with its blatant disregard for facts, sets the tone for the report itself. In reality, the IRRI, the body responsible for rolling out GMO Golden Rice, admitted that the crop failed its field trials and hasn’t been proven safe to eat or effective in alleviating vitamin A deficiency in malnourished people. All these basic research and development problems, as the IRRI said, will cause further delays in making Golden Rice available. So to claim that green lobby’s opposition to GMO Golden Rice has cost even one life is a lie. On the contrary, the real crime against humanity consists in pouring further resources into GMO Golden Rice at the expense of successful and readily available alternatives that require only modest funding and political will to expand.
A more critical view of the Select Committee’s report came from Dr Rupert Read, reader in philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Dr Read condemned the report’s “shocking ignorance of scientific logic and the nature of risk” and said it confused “inconclusive evidence of harm from GMOs with conclusive evidence of safety”. The risk expert Nassim Nicholas Taleb was more blunt, calling the report “an insult to science”. The analysis below gives just a few examples of how the report sells science short and puts public health at risk.
EU-funded GMO research offers no evidence of GMO safety
The Select Committee report claims, “Scientific evidence supporting the safety of genetically modified crops, in respect of both human and animal health and the environment, is very strong.” The evidence cited is the EU Commission report, “A decade of EU-funded GMO research”.
It’s true that this EU report did conclude that GMOs were “not, per se, more risky than… conventional plant breeding technologies.” But as the Earth Open Source report GMO Myths and Truths pointed out, the EU report presents no data that could provide evidence to support that conclusion – for example, from long-term feeding studies in animals. Of the small handful of animal feeding studies carried out under the project, none tested a commercialized GM food; none tested the GM food for long-term effects; all found worrying differences in the GM-fed animals, including alterations in blood biochemistry and immune responses; and none were able to conclude on the safety of the GM food tested, let alone on the safety of GM foods in general. Indeed, the purpose of the EU report was not to test any GMO food for safety, but to focus on developing safety assessment “approaches”.
The resulting report is an odd creature. It’s not written as a scientific report, with references given to back up specific claims. Instead, a few references to published papers are listed randomly on some pages, with no clue provided as to which of the report’s claims they are supposed to support.
The Select Committee’s purpose in citing this unscientific EU report is to influence Europe’s and the UK’s GMO policy. As citizens who will be affected by these policies, we are entitled to ask why the authors apparently failed to read and evaluate the report using scientific criteria. If the Select Committee genuinely believes that the report does give evidence of GMO safety, they must cite the specific data points from actual studies that demonstrate it.
Committee relies on outdated data
The Committee displays scientific ignorance in its uncritical reliance on a recently published meta-analysis by Klümper and Qaim, which claims that GM crops have “reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%”.
This meta-analysis is being widely cited by lobbyists who want to push Europe down the GMO path. But it relies on outdated data from the early 2000s – before herbicide-resistant superweeds and Bt resistant pests made GM herbicide-tolerant and Bt insecticidal traits less effective and caused higher costs and inconvenience to farmers. An analysis by Dr Charles Benbrook, based on more up-to-date USDA data, shows that GM crops in North America have increased overall pesticide use by 7%.
Klümper and Qaim’s meta-analysis also ignores the fact – detailed in Benbrook’s analysis – that Bt crops are in themselves pesticides, with the total pesticide content in the plants’ cells often being many times greater than the volume of chemical spray pesticides that are supposed to be replaced. The Bt toxins in GM crops are not the same as the natural Bt long used as an insecticide spray by organic and conventional farmers – they are structurally different and have a different mode of action, which could explain why they have been found to be toxic to non-target insects and mammals in some studies.
Regarding yields, Klümper and Qaim’s meta-analysis uses suspect data collected from Monsanto field trials, which drew intense criticism for claiming 80% yield hikes for Bt over non-Bt cotton. Even the former Syngenta employee and supporter of GM crops, Dr Shanthu Shantharam, complained, "This kind of shoddy publication based on meagre and questionable field data in reputed journals like SCIENCE do more harm to science and technology development, perhaps set GMO technology backwards."
The real picture on GMO yields is clear from a study published in 2013 by Heinemann and colleagues. The study looked at 50 years’ worth of data from the US and Europe, before and after GM was introduced in the US. It found that yields for staple crops in the US – which are largely GM – have declined since GM has been adopted, and are lagging behind those of Europe, where production is mostly non-GM. Europe also uses less pesticides.[3,4]
Even if Klümper and Qaim turned out to be right and some GM crops in some countries were delivering superior yields, this would not be due to GM. That’s because GM traits do not confer higher yields but tolerance to herbicides or an insecticidal toxin trait. A high-yielding GM crop is a crop with high-yielding background genetics achieved by conventional breeding, into which GM traits for herbicide tolerance or insecticidal proteins have been inserted. As the US Department of Agriculture stated in 2014, “Over the first 15 years of commercial use, GE seeds have not been shown to increase yield potentials of the varieties” and yields may be “lower” in some cases, depending on the background genetics of the variety used.
Klümper and Qaim select much of their yield data from short-term and small-scale trials early in the release period for any specific GMO, thus confusing the well-known biasing factor of good farmers devoting extra resources to expensive seeds with their true performance in large-scale cultivation. The more relevant comparison would be large-scale long-term analyses of yields in real farming conditions, such as that conducted by Heinemann and colleagues.
Committee ignores evidence of harm from GM crops
The Committee appears to be unaware of any studies documenting the toxic effects of Bt crops on non-target and beneficial insects later than John Losey’s 1999 study, which found that Bt pollen harmed monarch butterfly larvae. The Committee cites as evidence that Bt crops are safe for butterflies a non-peer-reviewed report by the pro-GMO Royal Society, which presents no new data. At the same time, the Committee ignores many peer-reviewed studies showing that Bt crops and pollen cause direct harm to beneficial and non-target insects, including monarchs and other butterflies.
In conclusion, the Select Committee relies on outdated and discredited data to paint a fantasy picture of the success of GM crops, while ignoring more up-to-date and relevant data that threaten that picture.
1. Klümper W and Qaim M. A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops.
PLOSOne, November 3 2014. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0111629
2. Benbrook C. Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the US – The first sixteen years. Environmental Sciences Europe 24(24). 28 September 2012.
3. Heinemann JA et al (2013). Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. 14 June. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14735903.2013.806408#.UrnaHfYnuUc
4. Heinemann JA et al (2014). Reply to comment on sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. 4 August. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14735903.2014.939843
5. Fernandez-Cornejo J et al (2014). Genetically engineered crops in the United States. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err162.aspx#.U0P_qMfc26x
6. Stone GD (2012). Constructing facts: Bt cotton narratives in India. Economic and Political Weekly 47(38):62-70. http://www.epw.in/special-articles/constructing-facts.html
7. Heinemann JA et al (2014). Reply to comment on sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. 4 August. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14735903.2014.939843
8. p.11 of the Select Committee report, footnote 39
9. Losey JE et al (1999). Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae. Nature 399:214. 20 May. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10353241. Available at: http://www.mindfully.org/GE/Transgenic-Pollen-Monarch20may99.htm
Note: Where links are given to the Earth Open Source report GMO Myths and Truths, this is shorthand for referencing the peer-reviewed studies and other evidenced data collected in the relevant sections of the report.