Source - The Guardian, by Marc Gunther
July 16, 2014
When non-profit organizations do battle with big business, the non-profits – or public interest groups, if you prefer – have a major advantage: They are trusted, far more than corporations or the government.
This helps explain why so many people – 48%, according to Gallup – believe that foods produced using genetic engineering pose a serious health hazard, despite assurances from corporations, government regulators and mainstream scientists that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now on the market are safe and, indeed, have been studied, tested and regulated more than any other food product in history.
Who, after all, are you going to believe: Monsanto, one of the most hated companies on the planet, or Friends of the Earth? When theCenter for Food Safety warns of the dangers of genetically modified salmon, which it calls “Frankenfish,” retailers and restaurants pay attention – even if the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it’s safe to eat. And if we turn to the widely admired Consumer Reports for its ratings of cars and refrigerators, why not follow the advice of its parent company, Consumers Union, which warns of the dangers of biotech food?
The reason is that advocacy groups – no matter what the issue – are not immune to pressures like other social institutions, as we’ll explain below. So at the very least, the arguments of NGOs should be subjected to the skepticism and fact-checking that is brought to bear on the claims made by business or government. And it turns out that two of the main NGO arguments around GMOs just don’t hold up to scrutiny:
1) GMOs are unhealthy
Let’s begin with the most emotional issue – the impact of GMOs on human health.
Friends of the Earth says:
We have a right to food that is good for our bodies and our environment. Numerous studies show that genetically engineered foods can pose serious risks to both.
Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, has testified (pdf):
The US does not require genetically engineered plants to be proven safe before they go on the market.
The Organic Consumers Association says GM crops:
Can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts.
Read those claims carefully. It’s true that GE foods can pose risks. So can most everything else sold in the supermarket or health food store, including, most recently, chicken, bean sprouts and cheese, not to mention the sodas, sugary cereals and snacks that contribute to diabetes and obesity.
While Hansen doesn’t actually say that GMOs are unsafe - and says explicitly in an email to me that “I and [Consumers Union] are not saying that all GE foods are dangerous” - his implication clearly is that some GMO foods are unsafe; otherwise, they wouldn’t need testing.
It’s also true that the US “does not require genetically engineered plants to be proven safe.” But it’s impossible to prove that GMOs or, for that matter, conventional foods are safe.
The question is, where is the evidence that indicates that the GMOs on the market are unsafe? Are they any riskier than the food you buy at the grocery store, a farmer’s market or a restaurant?
The fact is, hundreds of studies have been unable to identify any health risks posed by foods containing biotech crops, according to the industry and the FDA, which says that GMOs on the market are safe to eat.
Last year, in the journal Nature Biotechnology, a story headlined “How Safe Do Transgenic Crops Need to Be?” looked at 20 years of peer-reviewed studies of possible health effects of GMOs and reported that:
Critics and proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) alike agree that genetically modified foods have failed to produce any untoward health effects, and that the risk to human health from foods contaminated with pathogens is far greater than from GMOs.
If you choose not to believe the industry, the government or a respected scientific journal, consider what America’s doctors, through the American Medical Association (AMA), say about biotech crops and human health:
Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.
Finally, here’s what the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a 2012 statement:
The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
2) The research on GMOs can’t be trusted
Opponents of biotech crops discount the safety studies, which brings us to a second frequently heard claim: that you can’t trust the research on GMOs because the studies are controlled or funded by industry:
Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm wrote on the Just Label It website that:
… all the research conducted around the safety of genetically engineered crops has been funded by the GMO patent holders themselves.
Michael Hansen of Consumers Union, testified before a state legislature(pdf) earlier this year:
… there is virtually no independent safety testing of these crops in the US due to intellectual property right problems.
Hirshberg’s claim is wrong. Hansen’s is misleading.
The European Commission spent more than 200m euros of public funds on GMO research between 2001 and 2010. The EU summarizes about 50 studies in this 264-page report, which is easily found online. I tried to politely point this out in a comment on Hirshberg’s Just Label It blog, but my comment was not approved for publication. The blog has been shared more than 2,000 times on Facebook, spreading misinformation. Hirshberg has told me by email that he stands by the claim.
As for Hansen, his use of qualifiers like “virtually” and “in the US” means that his statement may be factually defensible, but it is intellectually dishonest because it implies an absence of independent research.
Karl Haro von Mogel, who is compiling a database of GMO studies at the website Biofortified, says he has read and catalogued about 400 studies, more than a third of which are independently funded. He couldn’t say how many of the independent studies were performed in the US, but notes that “a study on MON 810 maize done outside the US is still a study done on MON 810 maize”.
Worse, Hansen backs up his claim, which he has repeated in testimony to several state legislatures, by quoting from a 2009 letter to the EPA written by 26 public-sector scientists: “as a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology.”
Since that letter five years ago, those scientists have gotten access to genetically modified seeds for research purposes. In fact, Monsanto, the bête noire of anti-GMO activists, had actually already made its seeds available to independent researchers before the letter was written.
Nathanael Johnson, a journalist who has carefully researched GMOs, dug into this issue last year for Grist, so it’s no secret that the 2009 complaint cited by Hansen is out of date.
Case study: AquaBounty salmon
All this back and forth may seem academic. It’s not.
A company called AquaBounty has invested more than $70m in developing a faster-growing salmon that it says will improve the productivity and sustainability of salmon farming. The FDA found the biotech salmon do not pose a threat to the environment and are “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon”, with “no biologically relevant difference”. But it may never reach stores, as a result of a hard-hitting campaign launched by the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch and Friends of the Earth.
The campaign has successfully kept genetically modified salmon off the shelves of about 60 supermarkets, including Kroger’s, Safeway, Target, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market. It sent this “nutrition label” (pdf) for the salmon to numerous restaurants and retailers and asked them not to sell the fish. (Note that this isn’t about labeling or choice; it’s about keeping a product off the market.)
Complete with skull and crossbones, the mock label cherry picks data from a 180-page FDA analysis to suggest that the salmon are unsafe and unhealthy – just the opposite of what the FDA found. The label disingenuously misleads consumers.
Why use imagery usually used to indicate poison? Jaydee Hanson, a senior policy analyst at the center, responded by email: “We give it a skull and cross bones warning as we don’t have enough good data to make any other determination. The fault lies both with the company and the FDA. They both have tried to take too many short cuts in their rush to get their product to unsuspecting consumers.”
Most would agree that genetically modified salmon should be thoroughly examined, regulated and debated before it’s put on the market. But it’s hard to have an intelligent conversation about the risks and benefits of biotech salmon in the face of this type of scare campaign.
Let’s be clear. None of this is to suggest that there aren’t legitimate reasons to oppose GMOs. There are. The industry’s track record of managing biotech crops does not inspire confidence: On at least two occasions, biotech crops – corn in one case and rice in another – that were not approved for human consumption inadvertently found their way into the food system.
GMOs, so far, have enabled homogenized monocultures more than crop diversity. The patenting of genes raises intellectual property issues. And the benefits of GMOS have been oversold by the industry: they haven’t, so far, done much to feed the hungry.
That’s why we need a rational debate about GMOs, one that’s based on science and not scare-mongering. Like any new technology, biotech agriculture brings with it risks and benefits. Both are real. But there’s little doubt that genetic engineering could turn out to a valuable technology that, if properly managed, could help to deliver abundant, affordable, sustainable and healthy food to many millions of people.
For consumers of information, though, the more important point is this: Be skeptical about the claims of NGOs, whether we’re talking about GMOs or anything else. After all, non-profits and the people who lead them are subject to the same temptations, pressures and incentives that drive companies: They are self-interested. They seek attention in a noisy marketplace. And they rely on the financial support of donors, just as companies depend on customers.
As it happens, some of the groups opposed to the spread of GMOS are backed largely by corporate interests: Just Label It, a dot-org coalition that favors GMO labels is financed by organic and “natural” food companies that benefit from the anxiety around biotech food.
A matter of trust
The issue of credibility goes well beyond GMOs, of course. What’s the most effective way to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people? It’s hard to know whether a comprehensive approach (the Millennium Villages), major health initiatives (the Gates Foundation), micro enterprise (Kiva) or disaster relief (Care) will work best. Each NGO understandably touts its own approach. Meanwhile, economists say trade has done more than aid to help the global poor.
Can the US economy be powered without fossil fuels or nuclear energy by 2025 or even 2050? The Sierra Club and Greenpeace say so, but they don’t say that electricity generated by wind or solar power costs much more than power from coal or natural gas. Business-friendly NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, meanwhile, don’t talk much about the environmental costs of overconsumption or eating meat – perhaps because their corporate partners, board members and major donors don’t want to be told they are part of the problem.
That said, many NGOs have earned the trust that we give them. They are vital watchdogs for powerful institutions, including business and government, which may be why, for seven years in a row, they have been ranked as the most trusted institutions by the annual Edelman Trust Barometer.
But as Richard Edelman, the president and CEO of the big global PR firm, says: “NGOs should not be self-satisfied.” It takes a long time to build trust, and not nearly as long to squander it.
• For those who want to dig even deeper into this topic, view additional background documents, and an explanation of how this story was reported, here.
• After this piece was published, the Consumer Union wrote a letter to the editor that disagreed with its conclusions. We’ve added it to thedocuments here.
• This article was amended on 18 July 2014. An earlier version implied that Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, had claimed that GMOs are unhealthy. In fact, Hansen and the Consumers Union doesn’t claim that all GMOs are unsafe, but that products with GMOs should be tested for safety.
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