A scientific consensus is one of the most powerful principles in science, sitting just below the predictive power of a scientific theory. In general, a scientific consensus is the collective opinion and judgement of scientists in a particular field of study. This consensus implies general agreement, and disagreement is limited (sometimes from individuals who are not experts in the field) and considered insignificant.
This lead me to a search for the prevailing scientific consensus on GMO safety and climate change.
For clarity, the major difference between a scientific theory and a scientific consensus is that a theory is essentially considered a fact. The theory of gravity is a fact. The theory of evolution is a fact. A theory is so predictive, it is supported by so much evidence, and it is so well accepted, it would take an incredible amount of data to refute it.
The only thing that matters in forming a scientific consensus or theory is evidence. Not rhetoric. Not debate. Not opinion. Not political expediency. Not logical fallacies. Just evidence.
I’ve written about the scientific consensus on GMOs, and it is clear that nearly every independent scientific organization across the world agrees that GMOs are safe for humans and/or the environment. Moreover, most of these same organizations provide a similar consensus about climate change–ironically, there is a significant portion of people who deny one consensus but accept the other, despite the fact that the consensus for both scientific principles are based on nearly overwhelming evidence.
On the next page, I will review the statements of seven prestigious scientific organizations across the world for the scientific consensus on GMO safety and on climate change.
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Climate change–”The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.” (AAAS Board Statement on Climate Change, 2009)
GMOs–”The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” (AAAS Board Statement on Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods, 2013)
American Medical Association
Climate change–The “AMA … supports the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report and concurs with the scientific consensus that the Earth is undergoing adverse global climate change and that anthropogenic contributions are significant.” (AMA policies for the health of the nation, 2016)
GMOs–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.” (Report of the Council on Science and Public Health, pdf, 2012)
National Academies of Science (USA)
Climate change–”The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking steps to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.” (Understanding and Responding to Climate Change, pdf, 2005) “There is unequivocal evidence that the Earth’s climate is warming…. The consensus among climate experts is that it is extremely likely that the main cause of recent warming is the ‘greenhouse’ gases (GHGs) emitted by human activities, in particular the burning of fossil fuels —coal, oil and gas — and the destruction of forests.” (Climate Change Fact Sheet, 2012)
GMOs–”Genetic engineering is one of the newer technologies available to produce desired traits in plants and animals used for food, but it poses no health risks that cannot also arise from conventional breeding and other methods used to create new foods.” (Expert Consensus Report: Safety of Genetically Modified Foods, 2004) “An analysis of the U.S. experience with genetically engineered crops shows that they offer substantial net environmental and economic benefits compared to conventional crops. Generally, GE crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally.” (Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, 2010)
World Health Organization
Climate change–”There is now widespread agreement that the Earth is warming, due to emissions of greenhouse gases caused by human activity. It is also clear that current trends in energy use, development, and population growth will lead to continuing – and more severe – climate change.” (Protecting Health from Climate Change, 2008)
GMOs–”GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous application of safety assessments based on the Codex Alimentarius principles and, where appropriate, adequate post market monitoring, should form the basis for ensuring the safety of GM foods.” (Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods, 2015)
Climate change–”There is now broad scientific and political consensus that we have entered a period of unavoidable and unprecedented climate change. Impacts on biodiversity in the EU are already evident. Climate change has the potential, over a period of a few decades, to undermine our efforts for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Substantial cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are essential to mitigate the longer–term threat to biodiversity..” (Climate Change, 2015)
GMOs–”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 no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.” (A decade of EU-funded GMO research, pdf, 2010)
The Royal Society (UK)
Climate change–”There is strong evidence that the warming of the Earth over the last half-century has been caused largely by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use, including agriculture and deforestation.” (Climate Change: A summary of the science, 2010)
GMOs–”A previous Royal Society report (2002) and the Government’s GM Science Review (2003/2004) assessed the possibilities of health impacts from GM crops and found no evidence of harm. Since then no significant new evidence has appeared. There is therefore no reason to suspect that the process of genetic modification of crops should per se present new allergic or toxic reactions.” (Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture, 2009)
International Science Academies: Joint Statement
Climate change–”There is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring. The evidence comes from direct measurements of rising surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures and from phenomena such as increases in average global sea levels, retreating glaciers, and changes to many physical and biological systems. It is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities. This warming has already led to changes in the Earth’s climate.” (The global response to climate change, pdf, 2005)
GMOs–”GM technology has shown its potential to address micro-nutrient deficiencies [in developing nations].” “GM technology, coupled with important developments in other areas, should be used to increase the production of main food staples, improve the efficiency of production, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and provide access to food for small-scale farmers.” “Decisions regarding safety should be based on the nature of the product, rather than on the method by which it was modified. It is important to bear in mind that many of the crop plants we use contain natural toxins and allergens.” (Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture, 2000)
Summary of the scientific consensus on GMO and climate change
The consensus for anthropogenic climate change AND the safety of GMOs can best be defined as “overwhelming.” I find it ironic that many who think (without evidence) that GMOs are dangerous also think that climate change is real. And to be fair, there are others who do the opposite. There are groups on Facebook who ridicule every anti-GMO claim, yet, in the very next sentence deny the fact of climate change.
Some of the deniers do so out of political expediency. There is a general belief, though not supported by data, that the left wing accepts climate change but denies the safety of GMOs. And generally, there is a feeling that the right wing accepts GMO safety but denies climate change.
The fact is the scientific evidence, produced in massive quantities, support the positions that humans have caused climate change and that GMOs are safe to humans and to the environment.
Now watch what happens. Someone will cherry pick one peer-reviewed study that assaults these consensuses (wow, that’s the plural?)–then this “someone” will now claim that the consensus doesn’t exist. Or they will claim the consensus of some non-mainstream organization, which uses the non-scientific method of creating an a priori conclusion then attempt to find the evidence that supports that, is more important.
The only thing we can do to find a consensus is to look at the broad body of evidence, and state, “this is what we know.” Yes, the consensus can change. But that is rare, and when it does, it’s because of scientific evidence. It is simply an argument from ignorance to claim that because we don’t have all the evidence it is possible that the consensus is wrong. It doesn’t work that way.
Editor’s note – this article was first published in 2015. It’s been updated to include new links and improved the layout.