Are the Pro-GM Debaters Playing Fair?

There is no consensus among scientists as to whether GM foods are safe.
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The only conclusive statement that can be made about the raging controversy over the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods is that the scientific discussion of this matter is still not settled. Indeed, there is no consensus among scientists as to whether GM foods are safe.


To drive this point home, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility released a statement to this effect. Since its original publication in 2013, it has been signed by over 300 scientists and has been peer reviewed for publication.


According to the abstract:


"A broad community of independent scientific researchers and scholars challenges recent claims of a consensus over the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In the following joint statement, the claimed consensus is shown to be an artificial construct that has been falsely perpetuated through diverse fora. Irrespective of contradictory evidence in the refereed literature, as documented below, the claim that there is now a consensus on the safety of GMOs continues to be widely and often uncritically aired. For decades, the safety of GMOs has been a hotly controversial topic that has been much debated around the world. Published results are contradictory, in part due to the range of different research methods employed, an inadequacy of available procedures, and differences in the analysis and interpretation of data.


“The joint statement developed and signed by over 300 independent researchers, and reproduced and published below, does not assert that GMOs are unsafe or safe. Rather, the statement concludes that the scarcity and contradictory nature of the scientific evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims of safety, or of lack of safety, of GMOs. Claims of consensus on the safety of GMOs are not supported by an objective analysis of the refereed literature."


According to the statement, no human epidemiological studies have ever been made to ascertain the potential health effects of GM foods, so therefore the often heard claim that millions of people have eaten these foods for the past 20 years with no ill effects has zero scientific basis.


In the absence of human epidemiological research, we have only animal feeding studies to look at for actual health data. Do these studies show no health risks, as GM advocates claim? The statement's authors refer to a comprehensive review of peer reviewed animal feeding studies, which concludes that there are roughly as many studies that raise concerns as those that find nothing to worry about. The great majority of the latter were funded by the biotechnology industry.


As for the "countless studies" that purportedly find GM to be safe, the statement's signatories also find issue with these. The European Union Research Project, which cites 50 EU-funded studies undertaken between 2001 and 2010, often cited to this effect, "was not designed to test safety and provides no reliable evidence of safety". And the "hundreds of studies" referred to by the pro-biotech web site Biofortified for the most part do not address safety at all and some of them even raise safety concerns.


This debate has taken on a new urgency in the wake of U.S. authorities' regulatory approval of the GM "Artic" apple in February 2015 in spite of heated opposition from consumer and environmental groups.(1) In response to the uncritical media coverage hailing and celebrating this novel product, the signatories reissued their statement and called on the media to be more honest in its reporting of the GM debate.


“Not one independent, public safety study has been carried out on the Arctic apple, and yet some media stories have reported it is ‘safe,’” said Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen, PhD. “We call on the press to accurately report on the science of GMOs, particularly the health and environmental concerns raised by scientists and the lack of required safety studies that leave questions about the safety of genetically engineered foods.”


GM critics were particularly rankled by a March 2015 National Geographic article, titled “The War on Science.” The article, authored by Joel Achenbach, bemoans the popularity of pseudoscience and irrational beliefs and then goes on to lump GM foes together with Christian creationists and climate change deniers, basing himself on the non-existing scientific consensus in favor of GM foods.


“The article itself hardly touches the GM controversy or the science”, said Tufts University professor Timothy Wise, commenting on the National Geographic piece. “What we’re seeing is a concerted campaign to do exactly what National Geographic has knowingly or unknowingly done: paint GM critics as anti-science while offering no serious discussion of the scientific controversy that still rages.”


GM advocates heap ridicule and abuse not only on those who question the safety of the technology but also on those who state the reality that there is no scientific consensus in this matter. Why? Considering the history of corporate manipulation of public opinion through “independent” experts who just so happen to be funded by the very industries that they defend, it is not unfair at all to ask if some people in the GM debate are being paid off. It is not an unreasonable concern in light of this news item from February 2015:


“A FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request filed by Greenpeace has won the release of documents showing Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics scientist Wei-Hock Soon, one of the most frequently cited scientists claiming that greenhouse gas emissions do not contribute to global warming, has received $1.2 million in funding from the fossil fuel industry over the last decade. In that time Soon has regularly avoided citing the conflict of interest in his scientific papers, appearing to violate ‘ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work’ in at least eight cases. The documents show Soon described many of these papers, as well as his Congressional testimony, as ‘deliverables’ when communicating with his corporate sponsors.”


How independent are the “independent” experts that advocate for GM foods? Are they being secretly paid like climate “skeptic” Mr. Soon? The activist group U.S. Right To Know (USRTK), decided to find out. On February 2015 USRTK filed a FOIA request for the e-mails and correspondence of public university professors that write for GMO Answers, a pro-GM advocacy web site set up by the Ketchum public relations agency. “We taxpayers deserve to know the details about when our taxpayer-paid employees front for private corporations and their slick PR firms,” said Gary Ruskin, the organization´s executive director.


In a press release, the organization said, “The public records requests filed by U.S. Right to Know covered correspondence to and from professors who work for publicly-funded universities and agrochemical companies such as Monsanto, as well as to and from PR firms such as Ketchum or Fleishman Hillard, and to and from trade associations such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Council for Biotechnology Information. The requests are not an effort to obtain any personal information or academic research involving the professors.”


According to press reports, the petitioned universities are said to be “rattled” by the request, and at least one has refused to comply. On February 12, Biofortified published a commentary by Kevin Folta titled “Silencing public scientists”, which described the FOIA request as a malicious act aimed at intimidating scientists.


The following day, Ruskin published an open letter to Folta. “These professors are public employees”, the letter said. “They are paid by the taxpayers to work for the public good; their university affiliations give them the status of 'independent' experts, and they are often quoted in the media as independent experts. But when these professors are closely coordinating with agrochemical corporations and their slick PR firms to shape the public dialogue in ways that foster private gain for corporations, or when they act as the public face for industry PR, we have the right to know what they did and how they did it.”


Of particular interest to USRTK is finding out if public university professors, particularly from the University of California, were involved in the 2012 biotech industry-funded campaign against Proposition 37, a California ballot measure that would have made the labeling of GM foods compulsory. Were UC professors, employees of the state of California, involved in affecting the outcome of a state referendum? And if so, were they being covertly paid by private industry?


So it bears asking, are the public personalities and purportedly independent experts that support GM foods playing fair? If they refuse to disclose their contacts with the GM industry, what are they hiding?



- Carmelo Ruiz.  Puerto Rican journalist.  In 2012 Ruiz played an important role in the campaign for California´s Proposition 37 as social media director of the Organic Consumers Association´s Millions Against Monsanto campaign.


(1) “The USDA has neglected to look at the full range of risks from these apples. In its environmental assessment, the USDA glossed over the possibility of unintentional effects associated with the technology used to engineer these apples, potential economic impacts on the U.S. and international apple market, effects of potential contamination for non-GMO and organic apple growers and the impact of the non-browning gene silencing which also can weaken plant defenses and plant health.”


(This content was originally published by teleSUR at the following address: If you intend to use it, please cite the source and provide a link to the original article.
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