Another unpublished letter to the editor

If the Strib does print this, I’ll make a correction…

On reading the piece by Caitlin Dewey about the generically engineered (GE or GMO) Arctic Apples in the Sunday January 29, 2017 Science and Health section of the paper I noticed a few inaccuracies. With all the recent interest in fake news, I wanted to bring them to light.

Since any critical discussion of genetic engineering is met with cries of ‘anti-science’ you should know that I have a degree in Physics from the UofM and worked for a high tech company for 18 years helping researchers in the US and around the world make laser based velocity measurements on micron sized particles.  Just sayin’…

The first half of the article is mostly cheerleading for an apple created with a new GE technology (technology is different than science ) that suppresses the expression of a least 4 of 10 similar genes in the fruit. In the second half the writer  stumbles over a few inconvenient truths.

The writer’s claim that there is ‘scientific consensus that genetic engineering is not dangerous to human health’ is incorrect.

Consensus is commonly understood to mean ‘everyone agrees’.  At best, the consensus in this case would not include scientists at the EPA who set the safe exposure level to glyphosate ( part and parcel of most GMO crops) at 0.1 ppb in the 1980s, scientists at the  FDA who expressed concerns when GE / GMO crops were introduced in the early 1990s (who by the way, were simply over ruled by an administrator), through to scientists at the IARC who labeled glyphosate a probable human carcinogen in 2015.

In addition, science is based on an examination of data. If there were indeed meaningful scientific consensus on the safety of human consumption of GE / GMO food, all those scientists would have had to see compelling, reliable data that convinced them of that.  However, that data either does not exist, has not been collected, or is unavailable for them to review.

It is absurd to claim scientific consensus exists based on data that has not been seen, much less replicated. That is opinion rather than science. The writer’s claim of consensus is as meaningless as saying there is consensus among organic farmers on the spin of the various flavors of quarks in dark matter.

Another obvious inaccuracy is the statement that ‘most agricultural engineering  has focused almost exclusively on improving yields’.  I’m sure the author means in the context of GE / GMOs, otherwise that statement would be drifting towards misleading.

In the late 1990s variety trials conducted by universities around the country, including the UofM, show a decline in yield for RoundUp Ready soybeans when compared to conventional beans. Published data shows the average yield in central Minnesota was 55.5 bu./acre for conventional public and private varieties while RoundUp Ready beans averaged 48.0 bu./acre. There are several years of data, but there is no need to present it here as it is easy to find.  It is pretty clear that most GE crops were created to resist applications of RoundUp.  Yield increases are due to conventional breeding and selection.

Now, to come back to the point about anyone who is critical of GE / GMO technology is anti-science. People who are wary of GE foods and their inherent pesticide residues, would love to have access to safety data on these crops and products.  Especially interesting would be the long term toxicology, immunological,  and epidemiological studies done on consuming GMO crops, and RoundUp as applied, rather than the single pure compound glyphosate as approved (a nitpicky, nerdy point, but science is that way). These would be very concrete steps in building a real scientific consensus on the safety of consuming GE crops.