Scientists Speak Out Against Modified Foods

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In late October, a group of scientists signed a joint statement that warned, "The claimed consensus on GM organism safety does not exist." 

This was in part a response to the ritual shamings that scientists are subjected to when their controversial findings challenge official GM doctrine. The number of signatories quickly rose to over 200.

Earlier this year, a team led by Flinders University epidemiologist and biochemist Adjunct Associate Professor Judy Carman published a peer-reviewed toxicology study that found pigs fed GM maize and GM soy suffered organ damage compared with the control group of pigs. These findings aligned with a 2005 CSIRO GM field-pea study that suggested the GM process may create novel proteins and sugar-chains that can be allergenic or toxic.

But the study went largely unreported, and Carman — like the CSIRO’s Maarten Stapper, WA’s Department of Agriculture’s Patrick Fels, and others before them — endured the public smearing scientists face when their findings challenge official GM doctrine.

Even before release, her team's findings were branded "junk science", "pseudoscience" and "bad science" by agritech spokespeople and industry-funded scientists. (Carman answers her detractors here.)

Science sociologists Professor Brian Martin and Dr Sandrine Thérèse call these shamings “degradation rituals". In these rituals, methodology that may once have been considered the gold standard is recast by opposing scientists as "flawed" or "junk science".

Still, Dr Carman appeared on ABC Radio, where she told listeners that such feeding studies are not required by FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand), which relies on industry data for its safety assessment of GM foods. In turn, Carman's study was immediately dismissed by FSANZ and the GM industry it regulates.

As Tasmania reviews its bans on GM crops this month, GM advocates have been appearing in force in news media and opinion sites. At The Conversation, scientists David Tribe and Rick Roush portray those who criticise GM foods as “anti-science” and “anti-GM extremists” who are “rejecting science”.

Similarly, CSIRO’s corporate communications advisor Craig Cormick claims that those who support GM foods tend to be “pro-science” while those who reject GM “have tendencies towards conspiracy theories".

These claims are not evidence-based.

First, as the new joint statement makes explicit, there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GM products. Second, scholarly studies, including Swinburne University’s National Technology and Society Monitor, consistently find that although Australians have “high levels of trust in science”, most remain sceptical of the benefits claimed for GM products and are concerned about the multinational industries and regulations surrounding these. Many support GM technologies in medicine but not in our food chain.

Yet GM advocates frame their position as scientific consensus against public ignorance. Conservative columnist Nicolle Flint wrote in the Fairfax press that, “Extensive research exists proving the safety and environmental benefits of GM crops based on scientific fact, not emotion.”

Many geneticists, toxicologists, agronomists, epidemiologists, biochemists and public health scientists disagree, but there is a price for going public. "Most have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals," reports Scientific American.

Most scientists who have conducted independent studies that suggest risks from consuming or growing GM products have their findings routinely ridiculed by biotech industry scientists and spin doctors, and dismissed by the public bodies that regulate them.

The problem is deep-rooted. "Agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers" by denying access to GM seeds, reports Scientific American:

"[O]nly studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering."

“It is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests,” said Cornell University's entomologist Elson J. Shields, “but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be" toward GM technology. In her introduction to the Australian edition of Genetic Roulette, with contributions from thirty scientists, Rosemary Stanton OAM reports the same problem.

Those few studies that against the odds are permitted, funded and peer-reviewed but have negative results are routinely dismissed as "inconclusive" by GM industry scientists and government regulators. To be conclusive, studies must be repeated, which takes political will and funding.

Moreover, the GM industry doesn’t repeat studies that show evidence of adverse effects. (An ostensible exception is CSIRO’s GM field-pea study, which I wrote about here at NM. It has undergone millions of Euros worth of repeat studies, the findings of which are mixed.)

So when regulators take a weight-of-evidence approach to declare safety or benefit, the scales tend to tip in favour studies that take political will or industry funding. Consequently, negative studies tend to be sidelined in media because of a putative "consensus" on safety and benefit.

For instance, recent research published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability finds that GM crops have lower long-term yields than non-GM crops. The study concurs with a handful of previous findings that GM crops have led to an increase in overall pesticide and herbicide use. These results remain under-reported and dismissed, while studies with positive results continue to dominate rural media.

The famously flawed peer review process (like democracy, the "least-worst" system we have) cannot address these systemic problems. Asymmetry in scientific debate is a vexing issue for those of us troubled by the way the climate change debate played out, in which a small number of scientists and lobbyists, some with fossil-fuel funding, achieved disproportionate coverage for their claims. The GM product lobbyists also tend to work with organisations or research projects that lean on industry partners.

This is not to suggest a conspiracy or wilful dishonesty among industry-supported scientists, but to acknowledge the well-documented evidence that industry-backed research is far more likely to produce findings and doctrines favourable to industry. Science does not exist in an apolitical and unproblematic realm. By ignoring inconvenient evidence and claiming scientific consensus, the lobbyists and regulators alike are promoting ideology over a more scientific approach to truth.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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