Genetically modified organisms (GMOs or GMs) are one of the most well studied areas of biological and agricultural research. However, one of the tactics of the GMO refusers is that “there’s no proof that GMOs are safe.” It’s time to look at the GMO science facts – examining myth from science.
Typically, in a debate, the side making the assertion (those that say GMOs are unsafe) are responsible for the evidence that supports their contention. But, the anti-GMO gang relies upon the argument from ignorance, trying to force the argument to “if you can’t prove that they’re safe, they must be unsafe.”
The anti-GMO forces also like to invoke the precautionary principle, which attempts to shift the burden of proof to those who are advocating GMOs (or any new technology) until the advocates “prove” that there are absolutely no negative consequences of using GMOs.
The principle is often cited by anti-science and/or environmental activists when there is a perceived lack of evidence showing that a technology is absolutely safe.
I’ve written numerous articles about GMOs, focusing on scientific evidence supported by high quality research. And more than a few articles debunked myths and bad research from the anti-GMO crowd. To assist those who are doing research on the topic, this article was created to be a one-stop shop for GMO science facts – and fiction.
Monsanto glyphosate (Roundup) is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds, especially annual broadleaf weeds and grasses that are known to compete with commercial crops grown around the world. It has several advantages over many herbicides in that it breaks down in the soil into non-toxic organic molecules, reducing or eliminating contamination of groundwater and lower soils.
Monsanto has developed genetically modified (GMO) grains that are resistant to glyphosate, so that agriculture can apply the herbicide to kill the competitive weeds while not harming the crop. This allows farmers to suppress the weeds while allowing better production out of the grain crop.
Whatever the benefits of Monsanto glyphosate, GMOs and the herbicide are tied together in many minds. And there has been an ongoing effort by many people to claim that glyphosate causes cancer. But let’s look at the science, because maybe we’ll get some information.
For the past few years, I’ve posted nearly 50 articles here discussing the relative safety of genetically engineered crops. I’ve debunked myths. I’ve written about massive studies that show that they are safe for humans and animals, and, frankly, also for the environment.
One of the tropes of the anti-GMO movement is that nature does it better for food, a logical fallacy. In other words, they believe that our ancestors’ foods are somehow better than our GMO foods. Of course, this belies the fact that there are over ten thousand years of GMO foods – it’s really not something that showed up during the last century or so.
People seem to endow “nature” with a special status that is ridiculous. Evolution proceeds along a random process where environmental changes select for certain mutations over time (and yes, I’m oversimplifying the process), which is called natural selection. Moreover, there are random mutations that just occur that provide no benefit to the organism, although they might in the future because of some environmental change.
Nature has no goal. It has no guidance. It has no underlying value of good or evil. Unless you believe that some higher being controls it, and at that point, you’re a creationist, claiming that “nature” is better than the alternative is basically ridiculous.
So, we’re going to talk about how genetic modification has moved from the early days of waiting for a random, beneficial mutation to the modern world of genetic modification.
In 2012, the interwebs exploded because of an article (pdf) published in Food and Chemical Toxicology by Gilles-Eric Séralini et al. that attempted to show that GMOs cause cancer in rats fed genetically modified corn which is resistant to the herbicide Roundup. They also found similar health problems in rats fed the herbicide alone (along with non-GM feed). The rodents experienced hormone imbalances, along with more and larger mammary tumors, earlier in life, than rats fed a non-GM diet. The authors claimed that the GM- or pesticide-fed rats also died earlier.
Séralini et al. stated that this is the first time GMO corn has been tested for toxicity throughout a rat’s lifespan even though this type of GM corn accounts for more than half of the US crop.
Séralini’s article could have been an important part of the discourse regarding the safety of GMOs – except for a few important problems. Scientists across the world criticized the study for its bad study design, bad statistics, and overhyping of the results.
I personally found the study lacking in basic toxicology methodology, like providing us with dose-response studies, that show us at what level of consumption of the GMO corn would have an effect (if there is one). Of course, Séralini used so few rats in his “study” that it would have been difficult if not possible to develop a dose response.
Dr. Folta is considered to be an expert in plant genetics including genetic modification of plants. He has been studying this field for nearly three decades, published extensively in real peer-reviewed journals, and has trained legions of graduate students. He should be considered a real authority figure in GMO research.
This will be a repeating theme of this article – the science deniers who are harassing Kevin Folta are almost exactly the same as the science deniers who attack climate change scientists. They must be proud of this.
As I have written previously, a PLoS blog was posted that served as an attack piece on GMO scientist Kevin Folta – a respected University of Florida plant genetics researcher. The PLoS post, written by Paul D. Thacker and Charles Seife, attacked Dr. Folta for a whole host of sins, including a claim that he was more or less directing Monsanto’s strategies for dealing with GMO labeling laws.
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]The University of Florida will re-allocate a donation intended to improve the public’s understanding of science after public threats to the researcher. The Monsanto Company donated $25,000 to support the Talking Biotech program, a science communication effort that provided on-campus workshops to train scientists about how to engage the public on agricultural biotechnology. The university will reallocate the funds to the campus food pantry.[/infobox]
In other words, because of attacks and threats, an unrestricted donation from Monsanto, used to teach scientists to communicate ideas better has been transferred to a food pantry (which is a pretty good second choice).
Science communication is important. I think sometimes we scientists can get incredibly obtuse and complicated in communicating ideas. Well, science is obtuse and complex, but if there are better ways to say it, maybe we can help the public grasp that evolution is a fact, or anthropogenic climate change is a fact, or that, yes, the safety of GMOs is a fact.
There isn’t one stitch of evidence (unless you think that the bad journalism from PLoS constitutes evidence) that Dr. Folta was influenced by Monsanto. These personal attacks assume that Dr. Folta can be bought for $25,000. So, the attackers must have such a limited view of themselves, that they would sell out for $25,000, then applying their own ethics to others.
It’s ridiculous to believe that scientists could be bought (especially at that price, which wouldn’t even get you a good used car these days). But more than that, Dr. Folta has evidence backing his science. And it’s not Monsanto money.
Remember, the scientific consensus, based on evidence from thousands of researchers, is that GMOs are safe for humans, animals and the environment. So, were these thousands all bought off for $25,000? And if they were, in today’s world, wouldn’t someone already become a whistleblower on Twitter by now?
Notice how stupid conspiracies fall apart with nary an effort from an amateur writer like me?
You know what’s ironic? That we have accused the right wing political groups (especially in the USA) of wanting to suppress science, and showing no respect for it. The left wing, generally the political groups that hate GMOs, has shown the same disregard of good science. I don’t like any science denier, whatever side of the political spectrum on which they exist.
And now they’re practicing an anti-science terrorism, hardly different than what the right wing has been doing with climate change scientists. As a progressive, I am so embarrassed by the anti-science attitudes of many progressives, who make up junk science to criticize vaccines and GMOs. It’s sad.
Nevertheless, I hope these things will pass with regards to Dr. Folta. And he can get back to doing real science, something his haters wouldn’t understand, given their sniping from the pseudoscience sidelines.
Admittedly, some of the denialism is based on political expediency. Climate change denialism is a fundamental aspect of many politically conservative voters across the world, but especially in the United States, where Republican legislatures in the United States have passed anti-anthropogenic global warming legislation.
They both tend to reject science. They both use the same character attacks on supporters. And they both are awfully good at cherry-picking data that buttresses their a priori conclusions. In other words, they look for the data to support their beliefs, rather than the scientific method which is to find what conclusions can be supported by the evidence.
Let’s look at something that just happened which should remove any doubt that anti-science believers use the same tactics, probably because they lack any evidence. It’s apparent that they all meet at some anti-science convention to receive training on how to do this best.