In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Mark Lynas recently wrote that “There is an equivalent level of scientific consensus on both issues…that climate change is real and genetically modified foods are safe.”
But comparing the issues of climate change and genetically modified (GM; AKA genetically engineered, GE) foods in terms of “scientific consensus” is not a valid comparison.
Climate change is a phenomenon, a phenomenon being studied by many scientists, using many techniques, publishing many studies. Scientific consensus as to whether that particular phenomenon is real may be ascertained based on the resulting body of science.
GE food crops, on the other hand, are not a single phenomenon. They are the products of a technology. And it is not possible to ascertain whether all products–past, present and future–developed using a technology, any technology, are safe. And to make such a general claim is not scientific; it is absurd.
Take nuclear fission technology, for example. Nuclear power plants, built carefully and regulated by a government, may be safe. Nevertheless, the nuclear reactors in Fukashima, Japan–for reasons related to both how the technology was used (the design of the reactors) and how the products of the technology were regulated–were not safe enough when disaster hit in March 2011. (The current Japanese plan for cleaning up Fukashima is expected to take another 30-40 years.)
Each product of any technology will (or at least can) be different…the various products of crop genetic engineering certainly are. And because each GE product is different–not only in the ways genetic engineers design and expect them to be, but also by potentially containing unique unintended and unexpected changes–the safety of each different product of this powerful technology needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
So any all-encompassing statement, or consensus, claiming that “genetically modified foods are safe” is–there is just no better word for it–absurd.
The World Heath Organization agrees: “Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”
And we Americans have already experienced examples of commercialized GE food crops of questionable “safety,” the GE corn product that was the subject of the French study Lynas mentioned in his NYT op-ed being one of them. (Please see my post on that subject, including mention that the proper scientific response to a study deemed–after careful scrutiny of not just the paper’s contents but also the study’s raw data–to be merely “inconclusive,” is to repeat the study, in this case with many more control animals.)
Others include a Bt GE corn (Bt176) that a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA determined was approximately 100 times more hazardous to Monarch butterfly larvae than other Bt GE corn products, and another Bt GE product (StarLink™ corn) that, after it was removed from the market out of concern that it could prove to be a human allergen (no evidence for that was found in initial CDC studies), the FDA was still concerned enough about its “safety” that the US corn crop was monitored for another seven years until levels of StarLink™ corn were low enough that officials felt comfortable enough to cease monitoring efforts.
As a society, we need to learn from these mistakes in how the technology of genetic engineering has been used to design individual GE food crops and in how the products of this imperfect technology have been imperfectly regulated.
Making general statements claiming “genetically modified foods are safe” is counterproductive to that learning process. It is also illogical and unscientific.
Instead, we need to evaluate the products of this technology on a case-by-case basis, something the regulatory system in the US is not currently doing.
Therefore, in my opinion, a great step toward de-polarizing the debate over “GMOs” would be to develop a new system for regulating the products of this powerful technology.
Wouldn’t it be nice if a scientific consensus on that particular issue, as well as on what that new regulatory system might look like, could be reached?