GM Free Cymru

GMOs: dogma instead of science

Date Added to website 20rd June 2015

[Note: this article has also been published in the London Progressive Journal: ]

As the arguments about the safety of GMOs are bandied about in the media, and as the biotechnology corporations come under heavier and more concerted attack from NGOs and consumer groups on both sides of the Atlantic, there are clear signs that the producers of GMOs and the regulators are suffering from a siege mentality.

This is not surprising, since in Europe the Commission (ably assisted by the European Food Safety Authority) has been "facilitating" the greater use of GMOs in the food chain for years, in spite of the fact that only one GMO (MON810 corn) has succeeded in obtaining consent for open-field cultivation; and in the United States more than 90% of all cotton, corn and soy bean acreage is now planted with GM crops.

Conveniently and traditionally, the proponents of GMOs have portrayed themselves as the upholders of sound science, while they have characterized their opponents as being driven by politics, ideology, emotion and even hysteria. A pliant and lazy media has gone along with that travesty and even promoted it -- but now it is apparent that things are not that simple. Both the background and the foreground have changed. So what is the emerging scenario?

In the US, there is a "perfect storm" brewing up around the cultivation and use of GMO crops. If they should be rejected by the public and by the food industry, there is effectively nothing to replace them, since commercial aspirations have been allowed by a supine regulatory system to trump public health concerns. The furore over GMO labelling is growing louder, and as corporations like Monsanto and Du Pont seek to thwart the demands of the public through the expenditure of millions of PR dollars they are stoking the flames of mistrust and even hatred. That is not a very sensible strategy in a country where the consumer is supposed always to be right and where market forces are revered even more than religious beliefs.

As far as Europe is concerned, consumers do not want GMOs in their food chain, and they are mystified that the EC spends so much time and effort in setting up and modifying authorisation procedures. The only explanation seems to be that the Commission is more interested in maintaining good relations with the American administration and the WTO, and with a small GMO science community, than in responding to the concerns of millions of its own citizens.

On both sides of the Atlantic, we see a democratic deficit in the matter of GMOs. So we, the members of the public, are told we must have GMOs whether we want them or not, and we are supposed to trust the assurances of the regulators, the biotechnology corporations (and their tame scientists) that all is well and that no possible harm can come to us if GMOs are present in our food supplies. The problem that the advocates of GMOs have is that the members of the public are not as gullible as they used to be. People mistrust politicians, they mistrust giant corporations, and nowadays they mistrust science and scientists. The standard response of the GMO lobby is to say that there must be more sophisticated "education", and that when academic institutions and researchers declare GMOs to be safe, they must be believed, because only they fully understand the issues. The lobbyists promote the entirely false view that there is a scientific consensus on GMO safety. Just keep on feeding propaganda to the media, they say, and all will eventually be well.

The trouble with that proposition is that members of the public are nowadays quite sophisticated -- and millions of them are also trained scientists who recognize pseudo-science for what it is. In Europe, scepticism directed towards GMOs is at a constant high level, and in the United States a previously malleable public has been stirred from its complacency by a dramatic decline in public health and a simple desire for adequate labelling of everyday food items. GMOs are labelled all over the world, say the pro-labelling groups, and so why not in America? What is it that the biotech corporations and the food manufacturers want to hide?

Well, in the USA they want to hide a great deal, and with every week that passes, the weight of "inconvenient" evidence of GMO harm increases. NGOs are becoming increasingly effective in the dissemination of that evidence, and previously apathetic members of the public are becoming responsive. Heavily-promoted pronouncements by Tom Vilsack and others relating to a " science-based, rules-based system" in which GMOs are seen as contributing to global food security are greeted with derision, since NGOs know that the USA works systematically to undermine -- rather than enhance -- the regulation of GMOs across the planet. Furthermore, more and more well-informed members of the public are fully aware that there has not been a single long-term carefully-controlled toxicology study on animals which demonstrates GMO safety. Nor is there a single epidemiological study which compares one human test group consuming GMOs with a control group consuming a fully GM-free diet. More to the point, evidence is accumulating of real health benefits that accrue to children and adults with medical problems when they switch from a modern diet containing GMOs to a clean or fully organic diet.

At a fundamental level, the GMO advocates in the United Sates have a problem, because the myth has always been peddled that GMOs are "no different" from the parent varieties from which they are bred. Two completely unscientific concepts underpin that myth: one is that GMOs are "generally recognized as safe" and the other is that they are "substantially equivalent" to other plants. So any acceptance that GMOs have to be labelled simply because they are GMOs is, as far as the regulators and the biotech corporations are concerned, completely out of the question. But they are caught between a rock and a hard place, because there are lucrative patents and commercial secrets relating to those same GMOs which are jealously guarded through the courts; and if those special varieties are claimed to be different enough for patent protection, how can they, at the same time, be the same as the old-fashioned crops developed through conventional breeding? And there's another thing -- many crucial "safety studies" conducted by the GMO applicants and submitted in support of their submissions are nutritional rather than toxicology studies, and many others are designated as "trade secrets", hidden away from public scrutiny. Once again, Monsanto and its allies in the US administration need to be reminded that the members of the public are not stupid.

In Europe, things are different, because GMOs are recognized in law as being "distinctive, unique and stable" organisms which are created in a laboratory and which are associated with a special set of risks. EU regulations and risk assessments are based upon these assumptions, with broad support from member states and European citizens. The trouble is that the Americans hate regulation of any sort, and that they exert constant diplomatic and commercial pressure on the EU to permit a free flow of American GMOs into the European market place. The Commission has cobbled together a crude compromise, trying to appease both the member states and the USA by on the one hand maintaining a relatively strict regulatory system and on the other hand "facilitating" GMO consents with the assistance of EFSA and other agencies. At the same time the Commission has consistently promoted the view that the science-based assessments from EFSA cannot be questioned, let alone faulted, and that GMOs are safe. Those assessments are so infallible, says the Commission in its infinite wisdom, that Member States wishing to ban specific GMOs can only do that on non-scientific grounds. This is a truly grotesque state of affairs.

So at the heart of the GMO debate, on both sides of the Atlantic, the official line is that GMOs are effectively harmless to human health and the environment, and that there is a scientific consensus to back up that position. But it's worth recalling that the official line was adopted more than twenty years ago, that it was based upon highly defective science, and that the "scientific consensus" has long since disappeared. Indeed, as many national governments, NGOs and independent scientists are constantly pointing out, there are now scores of peer-reviewed papers in the science literature that point to substantial animal health and environmental damage arising from the use of GMO crops.

The response of the American and European regulators to this new scenario is nothing short of scandalous. They have simply retreated into a bunker in which dogma has taken the place of science. So instead of accepting scientific uncertainty where it clearly exists, they have denied it, and have signally failed to do what they are supposed to do by law -- and that is to apply the Precautionary Principle. In Europe, quite recently, 17 new GMOs were given approvals for importation and food and feed use, in spite of the fact that some of them will actually increase public exposure to the toxic chemical glyphosate, which has been newly designated as a "probable carcinogen" by the WHO Cancer Panel. Joined-up thinking is not an EU strong point.

Much more seriously, in the last two or three years, we have seen a sinister shift away from science as it should be practiced towards a sort of "scientific orthodoxy" in which convenient science relating to GMOs is accepted on the nod while "inconvenient" science showing harm is subjected to intense and almost obsessive critical scrutiny. This involves breathtaking double standards and hypocrisy. Both EFSA and the EC have been implicated in the process of undermining the credibility of independent scientists and even in the vilification of those mavericks whose evidence (even if it is published in the peer-reviwed science journals) is deemed to undermine the prevailing belief system regarding GMO safety. Stalin would have been proud of what is happening to science in Europe, and to its eternal shame even the august Royal Society now seems to exist in a state of denial about the demonstrable harm done to the environment and to mammal health through the growing and consumption of GMO crops. So dogma has replaced science, and the blame for this has to be laid at the door of those who are heavily involved in the promotion of GMOs.

That's a bad enough, but it gets worse. We now see an extraordinary attempt by quite senior scientists to redefine the meaning of the term "scientific evidence." Consider these statements:
"In the area of GM organisms, the science says that there is no specific scientific evidence of risks to human and animal health or the environment, yet most European parliaments have voted against the introduction of such organisms." (Robert Madelin, Director-General of DG Connect in the European Commission) (1)
"There is simply no evidence that consumption of any approved GM crop causes any health problems to humans or animals." (Prof Joe Perry, Chair, GMO Panel of EFSA) (2)
"If we look at evidence from [more than] 15 years of growing and consuming GMO foods globally, then there is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health............" (Prof Anne Glover, Past Chief Scientific Adviser to EC President Barroso) (3)
"There is no evidence that GM technologies are any riskier than conventional breeding technologies and this has been confirmed by thousands of research projects. Food produced with GM technology is very common in other parts of the world, without any evidence that this has been harmful to the people that consumed it or to the environment at large." (Prof Anne Glover, Past Chief Scientific Adviser to EC President Barroso) (4)
"In aggregate, the conclusion from the scientific literature is that there is no validated evidence to associate the first generation of GM crops, that have been cultivated for more than 15 years worldwide (and commercialisation was dependent on more than 20 years of prior art in plant sciences), with higher risks to the environment or for food and feed safety compared with conventional varieties of the same crop." (EASAC Report: Planting the Future, June 2013) (5)

All of these statements are gross and cynical misrepresentations of the truth. We should really call them lies, since those responsible for them are fully aware that they do not tell the whole truth and that there is abundant evidence which directly contradicts what they are saying. They have seen that evidence, since many of us who belong to NGOs have made a point of sending it to them.

Let's remind ourselves what "scientific evidence" is. In science, evidence is factual information relating to phenomena, obtained by observation or experimentation and brought forward in support of an hypothesis. Evidence should be scrutinized or disputed, and it may even be found to be faulty or inconclusive, but in the context of scientific debate it must be respected, especially if it is peer-reviewed and honestly presented. To claim that it is not "evidence", simply because you disagree with it or find it unconvincing, is to show disrespect for your fellow scientists and disdain for the scientific processes involved in hypothesis testing.

All of us who have scientific training are aware that the phrase "there is no evidence" is a profoundly dangerous one, since it almost always means "there is evidence, but I choose to ignore it." Until the GMO industry and its scientists, the regulators and the biotechnology science establishment demonstrate a greater respect for science and all its uncertainties, and dump the dogma relating to GMO safety, the reputation of science and scientists will continue to slide. So can we please have more respect for independent science and for the views of those of us whose experiments unearth "inconvenient" things, or who just happen to be both scientists and consumers?

Brian John