The Absurdity of Claiming that “All GMOs are Safe”

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?

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24 Responses to The Absurdity of Claiming that “All GMOs are Safe”

  1. Sally Fox says:

    Your points are so well stated, thank you so much for articulating what should have been made clear to those not familiar with the nuts and bolts of the technology decades ago. I agree wholeheartedly that the solution is to construct a proper and transparent regulatory system that can address each product released into the environment (vs cultured/fermented in a lab and whose product is purified prior to sale) on a case by case basis.

  2. Julia Ross says:

    Saying that “GMOs have been proven safe” is equivalent to saying “Drugs” have been proven safe. The fact is that some drugs may be safe while others are not and this emerges after years of rigorous scientific studies. Obviously, every new drug requires many years of rigorous study before it is approved for sale. GMOs undergo no such scrutiny but rather the most superficial studies done by the biotech companies themselves. Of course, many drugs that are approved to be sold also have many known side effects. Similarly, it is likely that many GMOs have “side effects” like damage to the liver and kidneys, environmental impacts, etc., etc. Finally, of course, there have been many genetically engineered plants that have proved to be unsafe such as peas that produced allergic reactions. So, clearly, every GMO has the potential to not be safe either directly to humans or harmful to the environment, animals, etc. I spoke to a PhD in the biotech industry who stated that they fought hard to make sure that GMOs did not come under a similar regulatory regime as drugs because they feared that they would not pass regulatory scrutiny. Given studies such as Seralini, it is possible that many GMOs would never have seen the light of day had they been forced to demonstrate the same safety levels of drugs. However, while drugs are not given to everyone, virtually everyone in America is eating GMOs every day in a massive, unregulated scientific experiment.

    • jskirk88 says:

      Just a great comment. I really like how you point out that it’s like saying “all drugs” have been proven safe. I hope you don’t mind, I’m going to steal that concept.

  3. windsun33 says:

    One thing that really muddies the waters and prevents a rational discussion is the virulence of the anti-GMO/anti-Monsanto factions. So many wild, exaggerated and simply made up claims are made on such sites as Natural News and then repeated ad infinitum in forums that it is difficult to take a middle ground. All they have succeeded in doing is polarize the issue to the point where you end up with no real discussion.

    • Belinda says:

      In my opinion, the pro-GMO/pro-Monsanto factions have exhibited “virulence” on this issue as well: e.g. I’ve seen comments from pro-GMO scientists calling people “murderers” for their stand on this issue. In fact, I’ve had reporters tell me that it is refreshing to find a “genetic engineer” like me who is not a “zealot” about this technology.
      I strongly believe that it is not the job of scientists who utilize this technology to be zealots about it; it is their job to explain the technology, its weaknesses as well as its strengths, so that society as a whole can make informed decisions about whether and how to use it.
      From my vantage point, most genetic engineers have trouble admitting, in public anyway, that genetic engineering is anything but perfect, and that lack of transparency over the past 20 years has definitely contributed to the polarization of this debate.
      The point is not to take a middle ground. The point is to conduct cost/risk/benefit analyses of the technology and its products. And to do that properly we need all the information available, not just generalizations about “precision” or “safety” that fail to include the imprecise or safety-related details.
      The “relationship” between proponents and opponents of genetic engineering, like any relationship, is two-way. I can see where opponents may feel they have been kept in the dark, lied to (by omission or otherwise), denied free choices in the grocery store, etc., and that has contributed to the polarization.
      And, in my opinion, depolarization will require more transparency about the costs/risks/benefits of genetic engineering…as opposed to, for example, websites that claim to be about using all the tools in the agricultural toolbox yet promote GMOs essentially exclusively.

  4. reminds me of the 50’s when everyone said cigarettes were safe, and even doctors promoted them. or the early years of nuclear power when it was seen as the panacea for everything and soldiers were sent to explosion sites with little more than goggles to study the impact.

    • jskirk88 says:

      “The Big Tobacco playbook looked something like this: (1) pay scientists to produce studies defending your product; (2) develop an intricate web of PR experts and front groups to spread doubt about the real science; (3) relentlessly attack your opponents. (Washington Post).. hm. Sound like any GMO foods companies you know?

      Interestingly, Monsanto hired a PR firm (Ketchum) a few years ago – the same guys that for decades helped to try to convince the American public that cigarettes were not only safe, but scientifically proven to be safe. A good book: “The Merchants of Doubt.” – How a Handful of scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming; Naomi Oreskes, and Erik M.Conway.

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  6. Biotechie says:

    Couldn’t agree more with the content of this post. Lynas is an idiot who was on the wrong side of this issue before and now is making equally uninformed comments on behalf of the technology. *sigh*

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  9. Reblogged this on Ban GMOs Now Blog and commented:
    The title says it all: it is absurd to claim that all GMOs are safe.

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