I have been writing about the GMO scientific consensus for quite some time, because this scientific consensus for the safety of GMO crops is so overwhelming that it’s almost impossible to ignore. Let me put it this way – if you accept the enormous evidence that supports the scientific theory of climate change, then you should know that there is almost the same volume of evidence that supports the safety of genetically modified foods.
If you accept the science of climate change, but deny the science of GMOs, then you are a science denier. It’s pretty simple. In fact, many of us think that GMO deniers are the left’s version of climate change deniers.
The scientific consensus is based only on evidence. Not politics. Not your snowflake opinion. And certainly not on your cherry picked junk science. The scientific consensus is the collective opinion and judgement of scientists in a particular field of study. This consensus implies general agreement, and if there is disagreement, it is limited and generally insignificant.
Moreover, a consensus is not permanent, because, as I’ve said a number of times, science is not a dogma. If contradictory evidence arises, of the same quality that formed the original consensus, then the established concord could fall apart, or move to a different one. Remember, all science is provisional – if the evidence changes, the consensus changes.
So, the GMO scientific consensus is based on mountains and mountains of evidence, reviewed by the best scientific bodies in the world. These are the world’s leading scientists, individuals with expertise in agriculture, genetics, biotechnology, and other related fields, who have come together to review that data, and, eventually come to a consensus that appeals to the broadest swath of scientists.
Of course, I’ve written about the GMO scientific consensus many times. Reading comments to those articles are always amusing. In the past, I generally relied on a couple of august scientific bodies for this consensus, but I always get the comment, “yeah but they’re bought off by Monsanto, it only represents a couple of countries,” or any number of other logical fallacies. Thanks to an exhaustive list produced by the Credible Hulk, it’s time to review all of the world’s science organizations’ statements on the GMO scientific consensus. Spoiler alert – there is no consensus that will state GMOs are evil, dangerous, or cause us to fall over dead because corn is growing out of our brain.
Just to be perfectly clear, the term GMO also encompasses other terms like genetically engineered or genetically modified foods. There are no differences between these various terms for these foods. Furthermore, the scientific consensus includes two separate, but related claims:
- All GMO crops, that were developed using modern genetic engineering processes and that are approved for commercial use by national regulatory bodies, are as safe to consume and as safe for the environment as the corresponding non-GMO counterparts.
- Modern genetic engineering would be no more likely to cause unpredicted dangers than would other methods of changing an organism’s genome (for example, selective breeding, radiation mutagenesis, polyploidy or wide cross hybridization) which have been employed in agriculture for over 10,000 years. And we simply reject the naturalistic fallacy, which some use to claim that “natural” changes to the genome are inherently “better” than genetic engineering.
Meta reviews that form the basis of the GMO scientific consensus
In the hierarchy of scientific evidence, the meta review or systematic review, which collects and critically analyzes multiple research studies or papers often combining data from these studies, sits at the pinnacle of scientific research. Meta reviews are the platinum, with embedded diamonds, standard for scientific data. They remove bad studies, and focus on unbiased, well designed, ones, rolling up the data into a form that says, “this seems to be the valid conclusion of the best studies on a subject.”
These published results form the basis of a consensus. Without one (usually several) systematic review, it’s nearly impossible to come to a credible scientific consensus. So, let’s look at some of the best studies that have been published recently.
In this review of the health impact of GMO crops in long-term animal feeding trials (my review of the study), the authors concluded that:
Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed. However, some small differences were observed, though these fell within the normal variation range of the considered parameter and thus had no biological or toxicological significance. If required, a 90-day feeding study performed in rodents, according to the OECD Test Guideline, is generally considered sufficient in order to evaluate the health effects of GM feed. The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.
In a systematic review of the last 10 years of GMO crop safety research (my review of this article is here), which included nearly 1800 studies, the authors concluded that:
We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE crop safety for the last 10 years that catches the scientific consensus matured since GE plants became widely cultivated worldwide, and we can conclude that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.
Interestingly, the authors also acknowledged that better scientific communication will help balance the public perception of GMOs with the real science. Maybe my posting here will help.
In a review of 20 years of research on genetically modified crops, the authors deduced that:
It is concluded that suspect unintended compositional effects that could be caused by genetic modification have not materialized on the basis of this substantial literature. Hence, compositional equivalence studies uniquely required for GM crops may no longer be justified on the basis of scientific uncertainty.
In a recent study of over 100 billion animals, which included trillions (yes, trillions) of data points and incorporated nearly 29 years of data (before and after the introduction of GMO crops), the authors concluded that:
These field data sets, representing over 100 billion animals following the introduction of GE crops, did not reveal unfavorable or perturbed trends in livestock health and productivity. No study has revealed any differences in the nutritional profile of animal products derived from GE-fed animals.
In a review of over 200 primary studies, the authors found that,
…extensive testing of Bt proteins, single-Bt trait crops, and stacked trait crops containing Bt proteins has not revealed any harm to non-target insects and other non-target species, including humans.
Just in case the reader is going to make the false claim that GM crops use more pesticides, we’ve got evidence there too. In a meta analysis of 147 original studies, the authors found that “GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.” In other words, not only are genetically modified crops safe, they help the farmer. The authors concluded that:
This meta-analysis confirms that – in spite of impact heterogeneity – the average agronomic and economic benefits of GM crops are large and significant. Impacts vary especially by modified crop trait and geographic region.
These studies are five powerful, large, and unbiased reviews of robust data from around the world. They embrace thousands of studies, published in highly respected journals – they are not one-off, badly designed junk science like the retracted and highly ridiculed “study” from Séralini.
And one more thing – if you’re going to claim that all of this research has been purchased by Monsanto, in reality, about half of the genetically modified food research is independently funded. In fact, all of these meta reviews gave more weight to unbiased studies, whether it was pro or anti GMO. And claims of massive conspiracies to hide real harm from GMO crops are simply not credible.
The GMO scientific consensus
Let’s take a close look at the various organizations who have come to a scientific consensus on the safety of GMO crops and foods. There are a lot, so grab your GMO free nonfat soy latte, and read away.
The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe … The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: 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.
The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences is an international non-profit organization that has as its stated goals to promote cooperation among scientists, to defend scientific freedom, to encourage scientific responsibility, and to support scientific education and science outreach for the betterment of all humanity. It is the world’s largest and most prestigious general scientific society, and is the publisher of the well-known scientific journal Science.
(The) AMA recognizes that there is no evidence that unique hazards exist either in the use of rDNA (GE) techniques or in the movement of genes between unrelated organisms. 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.”
The American Council on Science and Health stated the following:
[W]ith the continuing accumulation of evidence of safety and efficiency, and the complete absence of any evidence of harm to the public or the environment, more and more consumers are becoming as comfortable with agricultural biotechnology as they are with medical biotechnology.
The American Phytopathological Society (APS), which represents approximately 5,000 scientists who work with plant pathogens, the diseases they cause, and ways of controlling them, supports biotechnology as a means for improving plant health, food safety, and sustainable growth in plant productivity.
The ASM is not aware of any acceptable evidence that food produced with biotechnology and subject to FDA oversight constitutes high risk or is unsafe. We are sufficiently convinced to assure the public that plant varieties and products created with biotechnology have the potential of improved nutrition, better taste and longer shelf-life.”
The risks of unintended consequences of this type of gene transfer are comparable to the random mixing of genes that occurs during classical breeding. The ASPB believes strongly that, with continued responsible regulation and oversight, GE will bring many significant health and environmental benefits to the world and its people.
The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology claimed the following:
Over the last decade, 8.5 million farmers have grown transgenic varieties of crops on more than 1 billion acres of farmland in 17 countries. These crops have been consumed by humans and animals in most countries. Transgenic crops on the market today are as safe to eat as their conventional counterparts, and likely more so given the greater regulatory scrutiny to which they are exposed.
The National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious scientific bodies in the world, made the following statement about genetically modified crops:
The introduction of GE crops has reduced pesticide use or the toxicity of pesticides used on fields where soybean, corn, and cotton are grown. Available evidence indicates that no-till practices and HR crops are complementary, and each has encouraged the other’s adoption. Conservation tillage, especially no-till, reduces soil erosion and can improve soil quality. The pesticide shifts and increase in conservation till-age with GE crops have generally benefited farmers who adopted them so far. Conservation tillage practices can also improve water quality by reducing the volume of runoff from farms into surface water, thereby reducing sedimentation and contamination from farm chemicals.
Despite the fact that these are all independent scientific organizations, someone will claim “but they’re all American organizations, who obviously sold out to Monsanto.” Yeah, that happens, even though those claims lack credibility, because inventing a conspiracy theory is so much easier than listening to scientific experts.
Just to pander to these conspiracy theories, let’s look at what independent international scientific organizations say about genetically modified crops and foods. Just for some balance.
The World Health Organization has taken the following position:
No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.
Although they take no official position, The Royal Society of Medicine (UK) published the following conclusion in a peer reviewed paper:
Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.
The International Seed Federation issued the following statement:
Today, data shows that GM crops and foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts: millions of hectares worldwide have been cultivated with GM crops and billions of people have eaten GM foods without any documented harmful effect on human health or the environment.
The International Society of African Scientists has concluded that:
Africa and the Caribbean cannot afford to be left further behind in acquiring the uses and benefits of this new agricultural revolution.
The Society for In Vitro Biology concluded the following:
The SIVB supports the current science-based approach for the evaluation and regulation of genetically engineered crops. The SIVB supports the need for easy public access to available information on the safety of genetically modified crop products. In addition, the SIVB feels that foods from genetically modified crops, which are determined to be substantially equivalent to those made from crops, do not require mandatory labeling.
The Society of Toxicology stated the following in their official journal:
Scientific analysis indicates that the process of BD (Biotechnology-Derived) food production is unlikely to lead to hazards of a different nature from those already familiar to toxicologists. The safety of current BD foods, compared with their conventional counterparts, can be assessed with reasonable certainty using established and accepted methods of analytical, nutritional, and toxicological research.
In a statement prepared by the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences, and the Third World Academy of Sciences:
Foods can be produced through the use of GM technology that are more nutritious, stable in storage, and in principle health promoting – bringing benefits to consumers in both industrialized and developing nations.
There is a zombie trope that keeps appearing that European scientists are more ethical, and thus, more skeptical of genetically modified foods than unethical American scientists. Moreover, it is believed that Europeans have access to super secret data that shows that GMO crops are dangerous to human health, and that’s why some European countries ban GM crops. Well, other than that being utter nonsense (archived), several European centered scientific organizations are, in fact, very supportive of genetically modified crops.
The European Union (EU) has funded almost two decades of GMO research. Although they don’t have an official position, they did conclude the following (pdf, archive):
The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies. (page 16).
The EU Commission further elaborated on their position, policies, and procedures regarding GMO crops here.
The Foundation on Biotechnology Awareness and Education published the following statement from the Union of the German Academies of Science and Humanities, the Commission Green Biotechnology, and the Inter-Academy Panel Initiative on Generically Modified Organisms Group of the International Workshop Berlin:
In summary, the evidence suggests it to be most unlikely that the consumption of the well-characterised transgenic DNA from approved GMO food harbours any recognisable health risk.
Food derived from GM plants approved in the EU and the US poses no risks greater than those from the corresponding conventional food. On the contrary, in some cases food from GM plants appears to be superior with respect to health.
The prestigious French Academy of Science published the following consensus statement regarding GMO crops (pdf, French):
This analysis shows that all the criticisms against GMOs can be largely dismissed on strictly scientific criteria.
Fourteen Italian scientific organizations published the following consensus document (pdf, Italian) on the safety of GMOs (translated from Italian):
GMOs are regulated by a regulatory framework that is unmatched in the food industry and therefore they prove to be more controlled than any other food product.
All the analysis for food safety assessment must also be carried out before placing them on the market.
It is appropriate to focus the analysis not so much on the technology with which these plants are produced, but rather on genetic traits inserted, following a case-by case evaluation.
GMOs on the market today, having successfully passed all the tests and procedures necessary for authorization must, on the basis of current knowledge, be safe to use as human and animal food.
The TL;DR version
The international GMO scientific consensus is overwhelming – GMO crops are safe for humans, animals and for the environment. You may have an opinion that GMO crops aren’t safe for you, but it would be an unfounded, uninformed, and unrealistic opinion. The scientific evidence, backed up by thousands of publications, is enormous.
I know that there will be comments that say “but Monsanto!!!” Or, “Round Up kills” (well, it doesn’t, but it also has absolutely nothing to do with genetically modified crops). Or you will cherry pick some obscure study in a bad journal or some pseudoscience website to “prove” GMOs destroy human health.
If you want to dispute the safety of GMOs, avoid all logical fallacies. And then get your PhD in biotechnology. And then do some primary research, have it published, and then start a discussion that in some mysterious and heretofore unknown manner, GMO crops somehow harm something. Of course, you’d be in line for a Nobel Prize if you did. Because there’s no convincingly plausible biological mechanism that would lead anyone to presume that genetically modified foods would cause any harm to humans or anything else. None.
But of course, there will be those who will push their unscientific opinion because somehow their knowledge is better than that of thousands of real scientists across the world. But just remember, you are no different than your standard climate change denier.
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- Van Eenennaam AL, Young AE. Prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations. J Anim Sci. 2014 Oct;92(10):4255-78. doi: 10.2527/jas.2014-8124. Review. Erratum in: J Anim Sci. 2014 Nov;92(11):5293. PubMed PMID: 25184846.
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