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Science, Sustainability, World Hunger, and GMOs: A Skeptic’s Rebuttal

GMO corn

Top 3 Killers of Scientific Understanding: Bias, Bias, Bias

Imagine that Walmart publishes an in-house study, in which Walmart executives find that Walmart brand clothing is far superior to every other brand of clothing. The executives aggressively prevent anyone else from performing any investigation on the clothing in question, and get caught several times trying to bribe or suppress critics. When shoppers bring back clothing that fell apart the first time it was worn, Walmart workers say, ‘Oh no it didn’t!! Our clothing is very high quality — it’s been SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN!!!’

The issue of bias in scientific discovery can be daunting, sneaking in and skewing data despite the best efforts of honest investigators. It can also be overt, predictable, and transparently profit-driven.

Proponents of reason-based (vs. profit-based) decision making constantly guard against bias in data collection and interpretation, to the best of their abilities. The scientific community has developed strategies like double-blind studies, randomized sampling, and the process of peer review to decrease the tendency of researchers to find what they want (or expect) to find.

Since the introduction of GMO agriculture in the 1990’s, the biotechnology industry has been careful to ensure the highest possible level of scientific bias, in researching the effects of their products upon the world.

I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post: for support, rather than illumination.

— David Ogilvy

“JUUUUUUUUUUUST Trust Us!” Isn’t Science

The biotechnology industry itself is in charge of all safety research for GM foods and farming techniques, and has fought tooth and nail to prevent non-industry researchers from studying potential health risks related to transgenic food crops. In some cases industry has actively attempted to keep consumers from hearing about GM problems, by trying to bribe public officials or suppress media reports when harmful effects of genetically engineered food products were identified.

Biotechnology proponents like to frame GM labeling advocates as ‘anti-science‘– but industry’s deliberate experiment manipulation and data suppression is the very antithesis of good science, making any kind of meaningful GMO risk assessment difficult if not impossible.

In one 2010 report on health concerns surrounding Roundup-Ready soybeans and glyphosphates, authors also point out that:

Contrary to claims by the GM industry and its supporters, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never approved any GM food as safe. Instead, it de-regulated GM foods in the early1990s, ruling that they are “substantially equivalent” to non-GM foods and do not need any special safety tesing. The ruling was widely recognized as a political decision with no basis in science.

Even the assertion that ‘GMOs are safe’ exemplifies non-science-based thinking: each new genetic modification differs from every other, and must be evaluated on its own merits (or lack thereof). From a health perspective, human consumption of Bt in corn raises different potential issues compared to Roundup Ready soybeans — there’s no scientific reason to expect that the effects of consuming  Bacillus thuringiensis are in any way equivalent (or even similar to) increased dietary or environmental exposure (for example) to Roundup’s glyphosate.

From an environmental perspective, the effects of Bt cotton on surrounding ecosystems can’t be conflated with the impact of ever-escalating Roundup resistance; and stacked-resistance crops offer a completely different set of environmental problems, compared to either of these, such as ‘superweeds’ resistant to both Roundup and Agent Orange poison 2,4-D. With broad assertions that ‘GMOs are’ [insert flattering adjective here], the language of the biotech industry and their flock clearly represents the world of marketing — not the world of science.

Deliberate Data Deficit

Where are the peer reviewed studies, on human consumption and potential health effects related to GMO foods? Where are the independent studies exploring potential problems from chronic, developmental, and reproductive toxicity related to eating each type of GMO food now ubiquitous in our food supply?

Those studies exist only in the imagination of future would-be researchers.

According to a 2011 analysis of Monsanto’s data from 19 GM food studies– which is what we have to settle for, since independent researchers are prevented from conducting independent testing or reporting un-GMO-flattering conclusions– results raised what should have been further research questions:

Several convergent data appear to indicate liver and kidney problems as end points of GMO diet effects in the above-mentioned experiments. This was confirmed by our meta-analysis of all the in vivo studies published, which revealed that the kidneys were particularly affected, concentrating 43.5% of all disrupted parameters in males, whereas the liver was more specifically disrupted in females (30.8% of all disrupted parameters)…

The 90-day-long tests are insufficient to evaluate chronic toxicity, and the signs highlighted in the kidneys and livers could be the onset of chronic diseases. However, no minimal length for the tests is yet obligatory for any of the GMOs cultivated on a large scale, and this is socially unacceptable in terms of consumer health protection.

The limitations of existing toxicity studies, in concert with the ongoing lack of unbiased peer-reviewed research, raise the specter of potential GM food toxicity that hasn’t been found yet because it hasn’t been sought.

A large and growing body of evidence points to potential problems related to GMO consumption, including evidence of nearly nonexistent regulation of these substances with largely unknown effects on human physiology.

That kind of persistent determination to avoid gathering potentially unflattering data represents the opposite of a science-based world view, within the biotech industry and its zealots. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

Bob and Weave, Baby: Bob and Weave!

The chemical companies and their acolytes are quick to suppress, attack, and dismiss evidence that GMOs may not be the promised agricultural Messiah after all.

Evidence that traditional methods outperform genetic engineering, in increasing crop yields? Ignore that! Evidence that traditional non-GMO farming methods result in the same level of weed control, but with cleaner groundwater and less environmental contaminants? Poppycock! Evidence that a GMO-driven farming model facilitates resistant pests, and can be devastating to poor farming communities? Look away!! Ignore the facts behind the curtain!! Because, you know, if you don’t like GMOs you’re ANTI-SCIENCE!!!

That is simply not a pro-science argument, and no amount of jumping up and down and insisting otherwise will change that fact in any way.

GMO Labeling: Science Fears Not the Light of Day

The GMO labeling issue finally made national headlines this year, with California’s Prop 37. The biotech industry spent millions to deny consumers information about their food — and to deny potential researchers the ability to design studies examining any correlations that may exist between GMO food consumption and changes in human health.

Health and sustainability advocates clamor for more data, while GMO advocates fight hard to restrict information access. By fighting ferociously against mandatory labeling for genetically modified foods, industry seems determined to prevent independent researchers from designing studies that could begin to even attempt to answer some of the persistent questions surrounding health and environmental impacts of GMOs.

Which group’s actions, then, are anti-science?

Environmentalism vs. Corporatism

In terms of climate change and other environmental impacts, evidence accumulates that systems (such as GMO agriculture) dependent on fossil fuel inputs are fundamentally problematic, and unsustainable at a both local and global levels.

Since their rise to agricultural dominion in the 1990s, global biodiversity has diminished and climate change has advanced alarmingly — more rapidly than most theoretical models anticipated. What evidence supports the hypothesis that continued pursuit of research-intensive oil-dependent pesticide-escalating biodiversity-diminishing biotech crops will do anything other than continue to exacerbate these problems?

That evidence is imaginary; but there’s a very real and growing body of evidence that the chemical companies driving GMO agriculture will do, say, or spend absolutely anything in order to keep their profits in the (ever warmer) stratosphere.

Next>>> World Hunger, Food Monopolies, and the Ethics of Patenting Seed

6 comments
  1. Dee

    wow! well done, tanya! this is such a thorough and well-referenced article. how could anyone offer a satisfactory pro-GMO rebuttal to the clear call for skepticism that the evidence laid out here urges? i will share this far and wide. this is a really important issue that affects all of us but slips so often under the radar. thanks for the hard work you put in to make this issue and the evidence around it so accessible.

    1. Tanya Sitton

      Thank you, Dee! I think it’s pinging on the public’s radar more and more, but industry has a monster of a marketing budget and (so far) has been all to successful in outshouting critics, and shaping public opinion towards corporate goals (despite the ethical and evidentiary problems inherent in what they’re selling). As public awareness grows, I think that will become harder to manage that spin. Thanks for sharing! :-)

  2. John L. Farthing

    An essential feature of scientific thinking is a healthy skepticism, a refusal to accept claims without exposing them to rigorous critical scrutiny. Science is all about a careful examination of the facts and a determination to follow the facts wherever they lead without giving way to bias, prejudice, or economic self-interest. Given the prestige of science in the modern world, nothing is more crucial for those who seek a rational, sustainable public policy than to unmask allegedly scientific claims that are actually in service to the vested interests of corporations that put profits to shareholders above public health and safety. EDB has become a reliable source of alternatives to corporate “science,” and Ms. Sitton’s critique of Mark Lynas’s revisionism vis-a-vis GMOs is an important public service. Well researched and clearly articulated, this essay deserves a wide readership. Pass it on!

  3. Xplorexpress

    Strange this so sudden and drastic change… would like to know… well… was he paid by Monsanto a substantial amount of $$$ to now go with them??? More when you read that more and more reports now are bringing proofs of the danger of these modified genetics. Really weird!

    Thank you for this interesting article

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