UPDATE (May 2016): I just produced this cartoon guide to the issue.
UPDATE (May 2016): Global Justice Now launches fun campaign against Monsanto’s Roundup.
UPDATE (Sept 2015): Bella Caledonia article exposes Sense About Science!
Since I wrote the article below, criticising Sense About Science’s unevidenced pro-GM rants, Bella Caledonia has exposed the individuals on the extreme libertarian right who are behind this murky organisation. The BBC utterly failed in its duty to investigate and question this organisation and its motives.
Yawn – the BBC champions GM yet again
This morning I was once again infuriated by the BBC’s blatant championing of GM. I was listening to BBC Radio Scotland (Good Morning Scotland) when they wheeled out two supposed representatives of the scientific community who laid into the Scottish Government for its recent ban on GM crops.
None of that famed BBC ‘balance’
The BBC failed, of course, to offer a platform to a scientist opposed to GM, leaving the naive listener under the impression that scientists overwhelmingly support GM and that it is anti-scientific to oppose it. In reality, I maintain that the more extreme pro-GMers represent the worst aspects of science – thin-end-of-nothingers, who know nothing beyond the vanishingly small confines of their specialism, far less anything about food sovereignty, ecology or health, and whose main concern is their next source of funding, which invariably comes from a multinational corporation concerned solely with making money from agro-industry. It’s hard not see such people as little more than conscienceless hirelings, willing to turn a blind eye as long as the cheque is big enough.
Rather than stop with these unsubstantiated allegations, however, I present below a detailed rebuttal of the rantings of two scientists explicitly representing ‘the view of science’ on a website by the name of Sense About Science (an Orwellian title if ever there were one). For multiple reasons, the statements on the website appear to fall short of what might be expected from an organisation purporting to ‘promote general understanding of scientific evidence, such as use of statistics [and] the process of peer review’.
Here are two questions on GM, supposedly submitted by the public for an expert scientific response, together with the answers by the so-called experts (I dissect their responses below):
(A) In a recent response piece to a news article in the BMJ detailing a new diet policy, it was claimed that organic farmers are “pioneers for health and ecology”. Does organic food really benefit human health?
Hugh Mann’s comment on a report detailing the failure of a UK government food and health policy suggests he believes organic food is the mystical answer to all our public health problems. Indeed, we “owe a special debt of gratitude” to organic farmers which is collected at the till when we purchase their produce.
In fact there is little evidence that organically grown produce is compositionally any different to conventionally produced food nor is it any safer. There have actually been incidences of contaminated organic crops causing serious public health issues.
Similarly, the absence of biotechnology from organic produce is of no relevance to public nutrition policy. There is overwhelming evidence attesting to the absence of a risk to human health resulting from the process of genetic engineering. Although organic food consumers avoid exposure to residues of modern, highly tested and regulated synthetic pesticides they may be unaware that organic systems are permitted to use old ones such as pyrethrum, the highly toxic compound copper sulphate and Bt toxin, amongst others.
Buying organic food at local markets is a luxury of a comfortable lifestyle far out of reach of those most in need of access to cheaper, healthier options.
(B) “I’ve read the claim that “No GM crops have been bred that consistently yield more”. Is there any context to add to this or is it simply the case that GM crops don’t produce higher yields?”
Professor Kevin Folta:
The literature clearly shows that yields are approximately the same between GM and non-GM equivalents, often more because of the GM insect protection, sometimes a little less. However, no GM crop contains genes that specifically target yield. They ensure the same yield at a lower cost and less environmental impact.
There are genes that do significantly impact yields, but those have not been commercialized, mostly because of high regulatory barriers.
(A) Matt Audley’s comments on organic farming
|Extract from ‘Sense About Science’ website||Comment|
|Matt Audley||Who is Matt Audley? As far as I can ascertain he is a PhD student who writes a stridently pro-GM blog. It would be interesting to know who is funding his studentship and whether he has any background in ecology or the health sciences. These questions, far from ad hominem attacks, are relevant to his credibility, as should become clear from the rest of this.|
|Hugh Mann’s comment on a report detailing the failure of a UK government food and health policy suggests he believes organic food is the mystical answer to all our public health problems.||This is a subjective and pejorative interpretation, surprising for a website that purports to represent science. Rather than discrediting Hugh Mann, it reveals the prejudices of the author.|
|Indeed, we “owe a special debt of gratitude” to organic farmers which is collected at the till when we purchase their produce.||Facile insult. Sarcasm of this nature is out of place on a website that claims to represent science. Again, no evidence is provided.|
|In fact there is little evidence that organically grown produce is compositionally any different to conventionally produced food.||Unevidenced assertion. Below are extracts from just two (of many) relevant articles and papers. The first, citing peer-reviewed literature, argues inter alia that the concept of ‘substantial equivalence’ is meaningless in itself, i.e. that compositional analysis may be misleading and irrelevant (in other words, a red herring) when it comes to health and safety. The second article, which is itself peer-reviewed, demonstrates that, in any case, compositional differences do exist.
1) ‘The preferred approach of the industry has been to use compositional comparisons between GM and non-GM crops. When they are not significantly different the two are regarded as “substantially equivalent”, and therefore the GM food crop is regarded as safe as its conventional counterpart. This ensures that GM crops can be patented without animal testing. However, substantial equivalence is an unscientific concept that has never been properly defined and there are no legally binding rules on how to establish it.’ (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-2)
2) Chemical Analysis of BT corn…
|There have actually been incidences of contaminated organic crops causing serious public health issues.||A blatant red herring. Of course, all crops can become contaminated. Organic crops are not peculiarly susceptible. If one looks at this issue in more depth it becomes apparent that food waste (including through contamination) is a major global issue and that a considerable part of this is due to inadequate storage, which leaves food open to contamination with such things as Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus. GM technology does not address this kind of hazard. Indeed, it could be argued that it diverts resources away from such easily addressed and highly significant threats to the global food supply.
Furthermore, most GM crops are inherently contaminated with pesticides:
· So-called ‘Roundup-Ready’ (RR), or glyphosate-resistant crops, are exposed to high levels of this herbicide (and therefore contain residues of it), which was recently described as a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organisation (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-4). France subsequently moved to restrict retail sales (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-5).
· ‘Bt’ crops have been genetically engineered to produce Bacillus thuringiensis insecticidal protein, and so contain it.
|Similarly, the absence of biotechnology from organic produce is of no relevance to public nutrition policy. There is overwhelming evidence attesting to the absence of a risk to human health resulting from the process of genetic engineering.||Wrong. GM-related companies have fought tooth and nail to prevent human food containing GM products being labelled as such, thus hampering epidemiological studies on their effects on human health. In the first half of 2014 alone, these companies are estimated to have spent more than $27-million on anti-labelling campaigns (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-6). Why have they done this, if they are so confident that their products are safe?
Matt Audley mentions ‘overwhelming evidence’ of no risk to human health, but fails to cite a single paper. If he had done his homework he would have discovered a 2011 paper reviewing studies on the long-term health impacts of GM crops (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-a).
Despite the fact that most of these studies were carried out by the very biotechnology companies responsible for commercialising the GM plants (and so cannot be regarded as independent), the work of about half the research groups involved raised ‘serious concerns’ about GM crops.
This raises the question of what constitutes credible, overwhelming scientific evidence. There are several elements to this:
(1) First of all, if no evidence for deleterious effects of X on health has been found this is not the same as saying that there is overwhelming evidence that such effects do not exist, particularly if the experiments or surveys that would find such effects have not been carried out. As pointed out above, GM companies scarcely put themselves out to facilitate such work with regard to GM crops, doing what they can to thwart, in particular, human epidemiological studies. Indeed, some contend that they have actively sought to destroy the reputations of scientists who have looked for health effects and those who seek to publicise their findings (see, for example, http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-b and http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-c).
(2) On a related topic, note that the manufacturers of neonicotinoid insecticides argued that their products were safe. It took sophisticated experiments by independent researchers to reveal just how harmful these products are to pollinating insects (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-d).
To develop the point about independence further, while peer-reviewed literature is often described as ‘the gold standard’ for scientific evidence, of itself a peer-reviewed paper does not constitute overwhelming evidence. The case for something becomes stronger when the work is replicated by independent researchers. The reason a single peer-reviewed paper does not constitute overwhelming evidence is that science works on a probabilistic basis. In general, science considers that a resultant is significant if, in the absence of ‘a real effect’, the results obtained could only have been expected to occur less often than on one in twenty occasions.
To use a specific example, let us say that one is attempting to see if a GM crop has a higher yield than a non-GM one. One could conduct a trial, planting ten similar plots with each variety and comparing the results. If the GM crop had no effect on yield, then one would expect that a ‘significant effect’ would only show up on fewer than one in twenty occasions on which one ran such a trial. However, if one ran the trial often then one would, by chance, be highly likely to find one trial that yielded ‘significant’ results. One could then publish these results with no reference to the ‘unsuccessful’ trials, and claim that GM crops increased or decreased yields, depending on what one wished to demonstrate. The selective publication of ‘successful’ trials, or the equally unprincipled suppression of ‘unsuccessful’ ones, is a recognised phenomenon in the pharmaceuticals industry (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-e). It would be strange indeed if similar corporations involved in the GM business did not also indulge in such behaviour from time to time.
For this reason, replication by truly independent scientists is the real ‘gold standard’ of scientific evidence. In the case of GM this would mean scientists who do not stand to benefit, directly or indirectly (think career progression, for example), from GM technology.
In this context, the 2011 review paper cited above, which found, despite the fact that most trials on the health effects of GM were carried out by research groups with interests in the field, that about half of the groups’ work raised ‘serious concerns’, is truly alarming.
|Although organic food consumers avoid exposure to residues of modern, highly tested and regulated synthetic pesticides they may be unaware that organic systems are permitted to use old ones such as pyrethrum, the highly toxic compound copper sulphate and Bt toxin, amongst others.||‘…modern, highly tested and regulated’? Buzz About Bees (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-f) states:
‘The CRD, HSE and Defra have ignored the advice in the EU Directive (2009/128/EC) on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides about conducting research: “Research programmes aimed at determining the impacts of pesticide use on human health and the environment, including studies on high-risk groups, should be promoted.”’
Audley writes: ‘[O]rganic systems are permitted to use old [pesticides] such as pyrethrum, the highly toxic compound copper sulphate and Bt toxin, amongst others.’ This is a red herring. The risks associated with toxins depends on what their properties are and how they are used, and inappropriate use of toxins in one system of farming does not justify inappropriate use in others.
Note in particular that if Audley is concerned about the topical use of Bt toxin in organic farming (i.e. on the outside of crops, where it washes off) then he should be greatly disturbed by the use of Bacillus thuringiensis genes in GM crops, because the toxin is then present inside the plants.
|Buying organic food at local markets is a luxury of a comfortable lifestyle far out of reach of those most in need of access to cheaper, healthier options.||There is so much prejudice, misinformation and political ideology compressed into this sentence that it requires considerable unpacking.
Audley sets up the straw-doll image of consumers of organic food as well-off but ignorant people who exclusively purchase this apparently expensive but inferior sustenance at local markets, largely because (we infer from his previous remarks) they misguidedly believe such food is healthier, and perhaps also because that it is a marker of status (suggested by his use of the loaded word ‘lifestyle’). He further appears to take as a given the merit of ‘cheap’ food (as opposed to affordable food within a fairer, more equal society) and he attempts (by further implication) to present agro-industry as the champion of the common people. Indeed, it is hard not to see this sentence as the cynical stoking (or, at least, manipulation) of class prejudice.
Audley implies that food other than organic is ‘healthier’, without defining his terms or citing any evidence to justify such a blanket statement. (His previous statements certainly do not contain such evidence.) This, in the context of its appearance as official opinion on a website purporting to represent science, is surely enough on its own to justify the charge that the website is bringing science into disrepute.
Notable by its absence from what Audley says is the topic of the environmental costs of food production systems, their relative productivity (for example, with regard to the ratio of fossil fuel energy used to grow, harvest, process, package and transport food to the energy derived from it) and, therefore, their sustainability. Such considerations are, of course, regarded as irrelevancies (‘externalities’) by many economists. When such costs are factored in (even if one neglects the issue of the health impact of diets driven by the marketing skills and short-term profit-seeking of multinational corporations) then there is no such thing as the ‘cheap’ food Audley endorses.
Agro-industry (of which GM-related companies such as Syngenta, Monsanto and Bayer constitute a considerable part) is concentrating wealth and power, increasing inequality as it puts ever more resources into fewer hands. These resources include both plant varieties and land, with indigenous peoples displaced (from their often highly productive and ecologically appropriate farming) by vast monoculture-based enterprises (dependent on the massive use of fossil fuels), and invaluable genetic resources (heritage crop varieties) destroyed and/or controlled. See Global Justice Now’s briefing on food sovereignty for a concise overview: http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-g.
I work for one of many organisations (many are members of Nourish) that believe that everyone should have access to environmentally sound and pesticide-free food. We see this as a right, not a luxury reserved for Audley’s straw dolls. Furthermore, far from insisting that people should only buy such food from farmers’ markets, we encourage and help them to grow their own (an activity good for mental and physical health in its own right, cf. the application of pesticides to hectares of industrial monoculture), and we are also considering other intiatives to help the less advantaged enjoy good and environmentally sound food.
As a final point in relation to Audley’s championing of (superficially) ‘cheap’ food, note that simply by not wasting food the average UK household would have £470 more to spend on it per year (£700 for a family with children) (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-h). (Reducing food waste, and so both reducing environmental impact and freeing up income, is another of the areas of concern of the organisation for which I work.)
(B) Professor Kevin Folta’s comments on the yield, cost and environmental impact of GM crops
|Extract from ‘Sense About Science’ website||
|Professor Kevin Folta||Who is Kevin Folta? Kevin Folta is a well-known pro-GM activist. He has no background in ecology or health matters, as far as I can determine. According to GM Watch (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-i):
‘Folta is a molecular biologist with no known health background. On GMOanswers, a website run by the GMO industry, it says, “Kevin Folta is a professor in and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Gainesville. He got his PhD in Molecular Biology from University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998, and he has worked at University of Wisconsin before settling in at University of Florida. Dr Folta researches the functional genomics of small fruit crops, the plant transformation, the genetic basis of flavors, and studies at photomorphogenesis and flowering. He has also written many publications and edited books, most recently was the 2011 Genetics, Genomics, and Breeding of Berries. Dr Folta received the NSF CAREER Award, an HHMI Mentoring Award and was recognized as “University of Florida Foundation Research Professor” in 2010.’
‘If you want to know about the genetic basis of flavours or the functional genomics of small fruit crops, Folta is your man. But how likely is it that Folta, a professor in the horticultural sciences department, will know and understand the impact of diet on human health? Is he a doctor, dietitian or nutritionist? Nope. Does he have a master’s degree in public health or PhD in a related field? Nope. Does he understand how we determine if something is safe for humans? Nope. The bottom line is that he does not have the qualifications to weigh in on diet and human health. But does he? Yes, all the time.’
I would point out that similar arguments can be used with reference to his comments about the environmental impact of GM crops – he does not have the qualifications to weigh in on this topic either. But does he weigh in on it? Yes, as he has done on the ‘Sense About Science’ website.
What motivates Folta? The GM Watch article cited above goes on to say:
‘Folta says that people often accuse him of working for or being funded by Monsanto. But he replies, “I have never received any financial compensation for my time,” implying that he does not have a conflict of interest with regards to his work around GMOs. However, he works for a university that receives funding from the GMO industry. So he stands to benefit if GMOs do well and could potentially lose his job if funding for GMO research wanes.’
Here are two other illuminating references to Folta:
· AN OPEN LETTER TO PROFESSOR KEVIN FOLTA ON FOIA REQUESTS (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-j)
|The literature clearly shows that yields are approximately the same between GM and non-GM equivalents, often more because of the GM insect protection, sometimes a little less. However, no GM crop contains genes that specifically target yield. They ensure the same yield at a lower cost and less environmental impact.||The key assertions here are that GM crops ensure the same yield ‘at lower cost’ and ‘less environmental impact’. I am astounded by what Folta writes. Under what circumstances can GM crops produce yields equivalent to those of non-GM crops at the same cost and with less environmental impact? Is he, perchance, only comparing one form of monoculture-based, pesticide- and fossil fuel-dependent agro-industry with another? Even then, I contend he would have to be highly selective in what evidence he used to back such assertions. (Of course, he provides no data at all.)
There is abundant evidence that GM crops are expensive and have a high environmental impact and that the absolute yields from much more environmentally benign and cheaper forms of agriculture (for example, those described by such not-necessarily-exclusive terms as ‘eco-agriculture’, ‘organic farming’, ‘permaculture’, ‘agroforestry’ and ‘analog forestry’) are at least comparable, if not higher, particularly in conditions found in the developing world. Of course the yields of the latter, in relative terms (relative to cost or fossil fuel input, for example) are hugely higher, and this is a far more important point.
Here are just a few references, of the many available in support of my comments:
· GM Crops and Food Security (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-l)
· GM Corn Farmers Lose Lands, Increase Debts Says New Research (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-m)
· Loss of Biodiversity and Genetically Modified Crops
· Can Organic Farming Feed Us All? (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-o)
· Permaculture and the Myth of Scarcity (http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-p)
As a footnote to this section, note that the question of yield, per se, is not a significant issue when it comes to global food security, because the world already produces far more food than is needed, wasting about a third of it. (See the FAO report, ‘Global food losses and food waste’, http://tinyurl.com/sasletter-q.) GM advocates often talk about the need to increase food production. At least Audley and Folta have not made this error in the comments addresed here.
|There are genes that do significantly impact yields, but those have not been commercialized, mostly because of high regulatory barriers.|| This is the typical ‘jam tomorrow’ argument, beloved of GM-advocates. The fact is that the only two major comercial innovations they have produced, despite massive investment over decades, are inserting the Bt gene and inserting genes conferring resistance to glyphosate. Both these damaging ‘advances’ are discussed above.
Of course they want lower ‘regulatory barriers’ – more profit and to hell with the risk! I prefer to call them ‘sensible regulatory safeguards’.
Yes, food supply is a global issue, but the problem is one of waste, lack of food sovereignty and huge inequality, and by and large the multinational agro-industrial companies behind GM are part of the problem, not the solution.
Here – and the irony is not lost on me – is a lovely BBC documentary which illustrates what most certainly is part of the solution: