March 1, 2015
On February 8th 2015 the Washington Post ran an editorial by the Opinion page Editor Fred Hiatt titled ‘Science That is Hard to Swallow’ . His premise is that the science on GMO safety is settled. You can find the entire piece here:
On February 10th the STrib reprinted the Washington Post Editorial on their opinion page. I wrote the following in response. They thanked me for my work and asked for 10 days to print it. Time’s up.
February, 10, 2015
I am writing thank Mr Editor Hiatt for settling the debate about GMO labeling once and for all. The only thing missing from his call to scientific reasoning was any data.
A quick google search for climate change temperature data and finds 100 millions hits from universities, NASA, NOAA. There are all manner of charts, data points, graphs, etc. Easily accessible data is all over the place. A similar search for GMO food safety data does not bring up much in the way of easily accessible results, making Mr Editor Hiatt’s claim of settled science hard to verify.
The GENERA website has lots of interesting scholarly articles concerning GMOs. Many of the articles deal with feeding GMO diets to livestock and report finding no trace of GMO protein in their blood or tissues. GENERA also lists a Canadian study finds traces of GMO corn proteins in the blood of pregnant and non pregnant women in eastern townships of Quebec. That seems rather contradictory for settled science. Or are they saying the GMOs interact with humans differently than livestock ? Unsettling.
The magazine Scientific American has noted that the companies that produce genetically modified seed control the use of the seed for research and have a say over what data gets released. You can find a contract stating that on the back of any bag of GMO seed. That sure makes it seem like those companies don’t want just any researcher testing the safety of their products and publishing the results. That lack of open access has the appearance of hiding something.
Anecdotally there are hundreds or thousands of studies purporting to show that GMOs are safe. Unfortunately, toxicology studies only show whether the substance in question will or won’t kill all the rats in 90 days. And all of those studies are approved by the owners of the GMO seeds. Not completely reassuring for a lifetime of eating, especially coming from companies that produced products like Agent Orange, DDT, PCBs. Not that they would lie, but they may not showing us all their cards either.
To dig a little deeper, there is the issue of the approval of GM products and crops in the ‘90s. The revolving door between the FDA and Monsanto was spinning pretty fast back then. I’m not saying anything untoward was happening, but it certainly looked fishy.
We all know that corporations are all about making money. An obviously egregious example is the financial industry and the collapse of the housing bubble. Big pharmaceutical and chemical companies don’t have a better set of values and ethics. They are not bad people or even breaking the law, they just have a responsibility to their shareholders. I would be more trusting of the claims of settled science if the whole process was more open and accessible.
And then there is the increase in immunological illnesses that has occurred in the past 20 years. Our immune system reacts to novel proteins, things that we have not seen before. Many of the diseases have to do with digestion and diet, which would at least appear to be related to what we are eating. The big change that happened in the food in the last 20 years was the introduction of novel GM proteins. A 90 day toxicology study does not say much about effects that take years to manifest. Not labeling GMOs in foods makes for a very large uncontrolled long term feeding experiment, which is not at all scientific.
When I talk about organic agriculture to college students I like to ask them a few questions to see where they are at, what they are interested in. When I ask ‘Who eats genetically modified foods ?’ One girl timidly raises her hand. When I ask ‘Who eats a mostly organic diet ?’ The same girl raises her hand. Consumer’s (when did we go from being citizens to consumers ?) level awareness of GMOs in their diet is abysmal, but surveys show that upwards of 90% of people think GMO foods should be labeled.
If GMO crops had some advantage besides selling herbicides wouldn’t every box of cornflakes have a banner that proclaimed NOW WITH MORE GMOs! ? They don’t. One of the arguments against labeling GMOs in food is that the Invisible Hand of the Free Market would reject them. But, science be damned, isn’t that the way the market is supposed to work ?
In his call to science Mr Editor Hiatt also trots out the victims of starvation. He fails to mention that there is more than enough food produced today to feed the world’s billion plus hungry people. The problem is that people living on less than $1 per day can’t afford to buy food. If exponential population growth continues until 2050 even more of the world’s population will be trying to live on pennies a day. GMOs are no solution to abject poverty.
Mr Editor Hiatt mentions some of the other promises of GMOs. Observation shows that so far GMO crops have been a failure when it comes to dealing with pests and weeds. Corn root worms developed resistance to Bt corn in a few short years. Weeds developed resistance to GMO crops’ companion herbicides in less than 20 years.
The chemical companies recognized this problem and their solution is to introduce new GMO seeds that are also resistant to older more toxic herbicides like dicamba and 2,4-d. Except that weeds are already resistant to dicamba and 2,4-d. Not exactly a long lasting solution.
Just like reduced pesticide use, higher yields, drought resistance, more nutrients, etc. the claims of benefits are simply vaporware deployed to enhance a corporate bottom line.
So, let’s settle the science once and for all. How about if we trade GMO labeling for free and independent access to all GMO seeds and crops for all researchers interested in testing them in food safety, long term feeding, immunology, etc. studies ? Until that happens, labeling GMO foods makes a lot of sense.