The GM crops debate: Campaigners for and against go head-to-head

Claire Robinson of GMWatch and Mark Lynas, an author and proponent of GM technology, debate the pros and cons of GM crops

This week The Independent has been investigating the future of genetically modified food – nearly 20 years since the first GM crops were planted.

To round the series off we asked one pro and one anti GM campaigner to go head to head on the issues in an email exchange to help readers make up their own minds. Claire Robinson of GMWatch and Mark Lynas, an author and proponent of GM technology, took up the challenge

Dear Claire,

The good thing about science is that it can make you change your mind. Ideologies hate to shift, but the scientific method's ability to marshall facts and empirical data to challenge existing beliefs is crucial - and always has been, from Copernicus to Darwin. The problems come, I think, when people refuse to accept overwhelming scientific evidence on an issue, for whatever reason, and instead cling to unscientific or even anti-scientific beliefs.

I was on your side 15 years ago, opposing GM crops, when there was little evidence of their safety and the precautionary principle seemed apt. But since then sufficient published data has accumulated (now totaling hundreds of peer-reviewed papers) that there is now an overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety of GM technology.

I suspect you might deny this, just as climate change deniers refuse to accept the wisdom of the 1,500 experts who make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So let me quote to you two sentences from statements produced by the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the most prestigious scientific societies in the world.

The first reads: "The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society." The second reads: "The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe." I admit, it was this contradiction between promoting climate change science and denying GM science that made me change my mind on the latter issue. I wonder: now that the experts have spoken, what would it take to change yours?

Best wishes,

Mark

 

Dear Mark

I agree it’s vital to make judgments about the safety of GM crops based on empirical evidence. That’s why I got together with two genetic engineers to publish a compilation of peer-reviewed studies and other well documented evidence showing that GM crops have not been proven safe to eat or for the environment and that some GMOs have been shown to be unsafe (GMO Myths and Truths, available free from earthopensource.org).

We are not alone in our view. This year a statement signed by over 300 scientists and researchers titled, “No scientific consensus on GMO safety”, was published in a peer-reviewed journal. The authors analysed peer-reviewed studies and concluded that the claimed consensus on GMO safety is an “artificial construct that has been falsely perpetuated”.

Many scientific organisations have issued statements that cast doubt on GMO safety and/or say that the jury is still out. Even the statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science board of directors that you cite was condemned by 21 dissenting scientists, including members of the AAAS, as “an Orwellian argument”. The scientists warned that the herbicides with which GMOs are grown “may induce detrimental health effects even at low exposure levels”.

That warning has now gained the support of the IARC, the cancer research arm of the World Health Organisation, which has declared that glyphosate herbicide, used on over 80% of all GM crops, probably causes cancer. It’s also largely responsible for a massive 90% decline of the monarch butterfly.

You conflate opposition to GMOs with climate science denial. But the only connection is that claims that GMOs are safe and that man-made climate change isn’t real are both pushed by powerful industry lobbies. Some lobbyists, like Patrick Moore, promote both arguments – but they are as false as they are self-interested.

Yours,

Claire

 

Dear Claire,

You're right - I do compare your position of denying the science on GM safety with climate denial. That is because the parallels are obvious. You illustrate this well by citing lots of pseudo-scientific and cherry-picked 'studies' to support your position. You also refer to dissenting scientists - but there are numerous identical statements by those who do not accept the science on climate change that exactly mirror your 'no consensus' stance.

And the tactics can be nasty in both anti-science campaigns. During the 'Climategate' furore well-respected scientists were hounded and harassed by campaigners. The anti-GM lobby is doing the same: recently a US-based anti-GM group issued a fusillade of nuisance freedom of information requests against some of the top genetics scientists in US public universities. Three former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one of them a Nobel prize-winner, wrote an editorial to protest this "attack on science" by anti-GM campaigners who are "taking a page out of the Climategate playbook".

The tactics have worked well unfortunately. In a recent US survey conducted by Pew and the AAAS, the gap between the public and the scientists was greater for GMOs than any other issue. Only 37% of the public thought GM foods were safe, compared to 88% of scientists. This is a greater gap in public understanding even than climate change, where 50% of the public thought it was real as compared to 87% of scientists. The gaps over vaccinations and evolution were smaller still. So well done - you have done a better job in undermining science even than ExxonMobil!

I'll finish by repeating my earlier question: is there any scientific evidence that could change your mind on any aspect of GM? Or is your opposition as religiously fundamentalist as it seems?

Yours,

Mark

 

Dear Mark

You claim to support “science” but avoid addressing any point of science – instead relying on name-calling (with your reference to religious fundamentalism) and rhetorical grandstanding. This is consistent with your history of misrepresenting science and inflating your own role in the anti-GMO movement.

The scientific disagreements on GMO safety are based on hard data – unlike the climate denial bandwagon, which is a construct of the fossil fuel industry. Distrust of GMOs will continue among scientists and the public as long as GMO approvals are granted on the basis of inadequate safety tests sponsored by the manufacturer – and as long as every independent scientist who publishes research exposing the dangers of GMOs is attacked by an aggressive pro-GMO lobby. The proper scientific response to such findings is to do more research. But with GMOs, no worrying study is ever replicated. Instead the inquiry is aggressively shut down and the scientists smeared. That is the true “anti-science” attitude.

You ask: is there any scientific evidence that could change your mind on any aspect of GM? Regarding food safety, tests should include transcriptomics, metabolomics and proteomics analyses to identify changes caused by the GM process; long-term (2-year+ and multigenerational) feeding trials in rats; and dose escalation trials in human volunteers. After commercialization, monitoring is necessary. All tests should be carried out by independent scientists from a publicly administered fund of money contributed by the GMO company.

However, this only addresses the narrow question of the safety of one GMO. The more pressing need is for us to step back and identify the real problems in food and agriculture and decide together on the best solutions. In line with the conclusion of the IAASTD report on agriculture, authored by over 400 scientists and sponsored by the UN and World Bank, those solutions are likely to be found in agroecology and natural breeding – not GM.

Yours,

Claire

 

Dear Claire,

On the personal question, I have no interest in hyping up my role in the early anti-GM movement - because I am ashamed of it, and the actions I did. Only a fortnight ago I was accused by a scientist in a US university of having personally done a lot of damage to his discipline. I did not take this as a compliment.

You say more studies need to be done. This is a time-honoured delaying tactic. So although the experts in the European Food Standards Agency, the Royal Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academies of Science of Europe, the African Academies of Science, the World Health Organisation and every other reputable body that has looked at the evidence is satisfied that GM technology presents no additional risk, you still want to block it.

It is odd that the anti-GM people never complain about chemical or radiation mutagenesis, which blasts apart the crop genome to develop new traits - which can then be taken directly to market with no safety studies needed, and even labelled organic. This is a much riskier technology than GM, where the genes in question are understood precisely, and there is molecular characterisation and compositional analysis done as standard. Why the inconsistency?

Your thesis really comes down to a gigantic conspiracy theory, where the entire scientific community is somehow in the pocket of 'the corporations'. Not only is this smearing the reputations of thousands of independent scientists who work in this area, but it also serves the convenient purpose of enabling you to ignore all the scientific evidence that contradicts your ideology. One recent study looked at 100 billion farm animals that have consumed GM products over 15 years and found... nothing. Or take a look at the recent meta-study that found GM crops globally have reduced pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22% and increased farmer profits by 68%.

Most farmers using GM crops are now in developing countries, where increasing agricultural productivity is a top priority to address rural poverty and malnutrition. Indeed, it is in the developing world where - as revealed in the Independent earlier this week - the anti-GM lobby has done its most pernicious damage. I think farmers in places like Uganda and Kenya should be allowed to choose which crops they grow - rather than being ordered around by well-fed rich-country activists like yourself who are superstitious about modern crop technology.

Yours,

Mark

 

Dear Mark

You talk of the importance of farmer choice to grow GM crops. But farmers are often not given the choice. GM Bt cotton was forced into Indonesia by the bribing of a government official and with the army riding shotgun. The experiment came to an end when the crop failed and angry farmers burned the fields. Bt cotton was forced into India, and GM soy into Brazil, by the smuggling of illegal GM seeds. This month thousands of farmers in India took to the streets in protest against GMO field trials and other “anti-farmer” policies of the new Modi government. In none of these cases did farmers have a choice. And GMO contamination of non-GM crops rapidly removes any remaining “choice”.

The project of a few large agrochemical companies to own the seed and food supply through patented GM crop technology doesn’t require “conspiracy”. It requires a business plan and money – money on which our public research institutes have come to depend for funding.

You ignored evidence that many scientists and scientific organizations warn that GM crops pose risks beyond those of ordinary crops. And the US lawyer Steven Druker’s new book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, details the fraud perpetuated on the public by officials at the Food and Drug Administration, who ignored toxic effects in industry’s own animal feeding studies and ushered GM foods onto world markets against the warnings of the agency’s own senior scientists.

Your promotion of the study by former Monsanto scientist Alison Van Eeenennaam as proof of GMO safety shows you don’t understand it. The data are uncontrolled, so we don’t know which animals were eating GMOs for how long. Over 90% of the animals in the study are broiler chickens, which live for only 49 days. Unless GM foods were acutely toxic (even smoking is not), this tells us nothing about their safety for humans and other mammals over the long term.

The meta-study that found GM crops have reduced pesticide use and increased yields and farm profits came to this conclusion by looking at small-scale GM projects in the early years of GM crops, before herbicide-resistant weeds (now infesting nearly half of US farmland) and insecticide-resistant pests rendered GM traits less effective. A study that looked at large-scale real-farm performance found that Europe’s mostly non-GM farming produces better yields than the US’s mostly GM farming, with less pesticide use.

To sum up, GM has failed. After 30 years and billions of dollars of investment, it has brought us safety questions, superweeds, and the decline of the monarch butterfly. It’s time to invest resources into areas that will bring us healthy food that is safe for the environment.

Yours,

Claire

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