GMO (part 1 of 3) by Matt Stranberg
When people learn that I recently obtained my Masters in Nutrition, I am often bombarded with a variety of questions. These questions typically pertain to low carb diets, kale, gluten, paleo, or a new miracle supplement mentioned on Dr. Oz. Occasionally I am asked to share my opinion on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Most GMO questions arise from online articles vilifying GMO, and their endless purported evils, or from a local chiropractor’s advice to address joint problems with a “GMO free diet.” Chances are you have seen products labeled “Non-GMO,” or heard news stories detailing protests to promote GMO labeling. Interestingly enough, these examples are but a small fraction of the issues involving GMO. Thus, before I offer my opinion regarding this issue, I will explore the background of GMO issues as the basis for my conclusions.
A Brave New World
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety defines a GMO as an analogous term to: “Living Modified Organism,” (The Nature of GMOs, 2000). This is classified as “an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques, (The Nature of GMOs, 2000). Organisms that have been genetically modified include microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, insects, plants, fish, and mammals. Contrary to popular knowledge, GMO technology extends far beyond food. GMOs encompass a large spectrum of technologies ranging from food and animals, to bacteria, and stem cell research.
Many of these technologies are nascent. Biotech companies have produced crops that tout improved yields, inborn pest resistance, and claims of improved taste and nutritional value (Reasons we do need GM Foods: It is about improving nutrition, 2009). Similarly, scientists are involved with stem cell cloning and gene manipulations as part of GMO research. Many of the aforementioned technologies assert goals of “eradicating disease,” and “curing cancer.” Biotech companies, and related scientists, suggest Utopian promises regarding the triumph of humanity over natures’ shortcomings, (Tribe, 2012). Even companies such as Google have invested heavily in GMO technology, such as a company called “Calico,” that “aims to fight aging and ‘solve death’.” (How Google’s Calico aims to fight aging and ‘solve death’, 2013).” When popular press views the technology as a whole, GMO advances seem to be the answer to many of life’s questions. Similar to the Carborundum Company’s slogan in the late 1970’s, Biotech appears to boast that “Progress has become a matter of doing what nature never intended (Gussow J. D., 1978).” The technologies promise to provide a future life that promotes stability, ameliorates the pains of aging, disease and death, and provides a cornucopia of ‘perfect’ nutritionally dense delicious foods for the world’s population.
Despite these impressive claims, when I hear that we “need something,” I have found it useful to employ healthy skepticism. This skepticism helps me develop my own educated opinions, and ultimately safeguards my freedoms. In my experience, I have found it useful to demand robust evidence to support strong claims. Historical trends and lessons from wise sages such as Karl Popper would suggest that, “those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.” Personally, Biotech’s claims immediately seem “too good to be true.” Unlike most popular sentiments though, I implore individuals to avoid immediately dismissing or promoting the veracity of GMO’s promises and instead analyze the accompanying arguments.
The Safeguard of Science
The GMO debate often considers the safety of these products as they relate to human health. GMO supporters primarily highlight the suggested scientific consensus is largely based in over 600 published safety assessments, (Tribe, 2012). GMO proponents such as Monsanto, and pundit David Tribe, proclaim to help laymen navigate the confusing myths of modern biology by stating that, “the scientific consensus around the safety of genetically modified foods is as strong as the scientific consensus around climate change. These foods are subjected to more testing than any other, and everything tells us that they’re safe,” (Tribe, 2012).
This position contrasts with the position of by The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, who state:
“As scientists, physicians, academics, and experts from disciplines relevant to the scientific, legal, social and safety assessment aspects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), we strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a “scientific consensus” on GMO safety and that the debate on this topic is “over,”” (Statement: No scientific consensus on GMO safety, 2013)
The European Network instead claims that, “consensus on GMO safety does not exist,” and states that: “(The scientific consensus) is misleading and misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue.” These critics largely refer to the promotion of consensus and regulation by the self regulated Biotech, Agribusiness, Pesticide and Pharmaceutical industries. The group also decries GMO proponents by stating that their stance, “encourages a climate of complacency that could lead to a lack of regulatory and scientific rigor and appropriate caution, potentially endangering the health of humans, animals, and the environment.” They warn that “Science and society do not proceed on the basis of a constructed consensus, as current knowledge is always open to well-founded challenge and disagreement,” and, “endorse the need for further independent scientific inquiry and informed public discussion on GM product safety and urge GM proponents to do the same,” (Statement: No scientific consensus on GMO safety, 2013).
In addition to the rejection of the scientific consensus, individuals such as author Michael Antoniou highlight, “an increasing number of studies (that) are showing problems with GMOs and their associated pesticides, such as Roundup,” and assert that “there is evidence that Roundup, even at the low levels permitted in food and drinking water, could lead to serious effects on health over time, such as liver and kidney toxicity.” He suggests that, based on this evidence, the pesticide exposure levels regarded as safe by regulators around the world are questionable,” (GMO Myths and Truths Report , 2014). Activists Dr. Chapela and Dr. Huber, present similar concerns regarding possible harm but have been largely silenced by agribusiness focused scientific committees. (Cummings, 2005).
In addition to these objections, other GMO opponents reference:
- A lack of epidemiological studies investigating potential effects of GM food consumption on human health
- Scientific and governmental claims that endorse GMO safety are exaggerated or inaccurate
- EU research project does not provide reliable evidence of GM food safety
- The list of several hundred studies does not show GM food safety
- There is no consensus on the environmental risks of GM crops
- International agreements show widespread recognition of risks posed by GM foods and crops (Statement: No scientific consensus on GMO safety, 2013)
These disagreements clearly demonstrate the intensity of conflict between the opposing camps. When analyzing the aforementioned studies and viewed solely through the lens of the scientific Randomized Control Trial (RCT) focused argument, though, it appears that the GMO safety argument asserting “direct harm and imminent danger,” may be overall weaker on the basis of quantity of quality studies. The famous anti-GMO Seralini study that is frequently cited by GMO opposition, for instance, appears weak and contains numerous flaws, (Novella, 2013). This is also the case for the embarrassing Carman Pig Stomach Case, which was published despite numerous flaws (Gorski, 2013). It is a shame that these studies dominate the popular GMO opposition arguments, as there is a significant number of legitimate GMO critiques available. When analyzing the conversation, a Carman-Seralini based safety argument ironically weakens the efforts of GMO opponents, especially in relation to the scientific community. Although the critiques of these studies are important, a variety of weak studies do not, however, validate the arguments posited by the “pro-GMO” Biotech camp. When comparing the literature review of safety studies, the concerns regarding quantity as an insufficient measure of safety seem reasonable. To suggest otherwise implies that most international positions which contrast the United States’ discourse are illegitimate. The implications of this inference are disconcerting.
Although the scientific consensus has long been a contentious issue, the debate extends beyond the RCT study focus, as comprehensive scientific inquiry encompasses many viewpoints. When expanding the lens to other domains, to include philosophical scientific arguments, critics have argued: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of harm.” These conundrums are present in every profession, as researcher Chris Masterjohn asserts that many experts sometimes “naively assume that any unmeasured confounding is likely to be simple and straightforward,” and can sometimes overplay strengths while failing to recognize critical limitations,” (When Standing At the Brink of the Abyss, Staring Into the Great Unknown, We Randomize, 2011) Reputable critiques suggest that a RCT-focused argument appears weak when analyzed in conjunction with Stanford’s John P. A. Ioannidis paper regarding, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” (Ioannidis, 2005). These red flags seem increasingly apparent, especially in relation to studies involving non-linear complex systems, such as psychosocial experiments or the environment. Research and experience demonstrate that isolated conclusions on a small scale are often susceptible to inappropriate extrapolated conclusions at the macro level, (Ioannidis, 2005). This concern is relevant to assessments claiming, “research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias, (Ioannidis, 2005).” Randy Schekman, Nobel Prize winner, further questioned the scientific consensus of research studies when, in 2013, he criticized peer-reviewed journals by stating that: ” Leading academic journals are distorting the scientific process and represent a “tyranny” that must be broke [sic], (Ian Sample, 2013).” Writer Éric Lépine asserts similar concerns stating that, “The peer-review process, if not broken, is seriously under strain.” He cites the “partisan and self-interested aspects” and “unseemly behavior, gender and racial biases, personal vendettas, that certainly don’t belong anywhere within a scholarly environment.” Austin L. Hughes discusses in “The Folly of Scientism,” that these vendettas are often based on the notion that philosophers go so far as to use ‘institutional factors’ as the criteria of ‘good science’.” He expands upon this notion stating that:
“By this criterion, we would differentiate good science from bad science simply by asking which proposals agencies like the National Science Foundation deem worthy of funding, or which papers peer-review committees deem worthy of publication. The problems with this definition of science are myriad. First, it is essentially circular: science simply is what scientists do. Second, the high confidence in funding and peer-review panels should seem misplaced to anyone who has served on these panels and witnessed the extent to which preconceived notions, personal vendettas, and the like can torpedo even the best proposals. Moreover, simplistically defining science by its institutions is complicated by the ample history of scientific institutions that have been notoriously unreliable. The fundamental problem raised by the identification of ‘good science’ with ‘institutional science’ is that it assumes the practitioners of science to be inherently exempt, at least in the long term, from the corrupting influences that affect all other human practices and institutions. This assumption is at best naïve and at worst dangerous. If any human institution is held to be exempt from the petty, self-serving, and corrupting motivations that plague us all, the result will almost inevitably be the creation of a priestly caste demanding adulation and required to answer to no one but itself, (Hughes, 2012)”
Éric Lépine’s colleague Roger Berkowitz expresses similar sentiments critiquing Oreskes asserting that, “The argument that [any consensus is based on facts] rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer-review, moving towards consensus. Peer-review, for Oreskes, ‘is a crucial part of science.’ And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer-review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: ‘The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.” Considering these reports, the GMO scientific consensus seems especially questionable, as unlike Climate Change, ninety-five per cent of GMO proponents originate from the United States (Randerson, 2008).
Expanding upon this theme, Nassim Taleb has based his career on these topics and published numerous works regarding the dangers of misunderstood probabilities and false conclusions. His works and colleagues have suggested that the GMO scientific consensus is most likely the result of flawed reductionist logic. They have raised concerns ranging from numerous fallacies, to monocultures and systemic risk, (Bar-Yam & Taleb, 2014). Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment, has voiced similar concerns regarding faulty reductionist logic in his excellent article, “GMOs Silver Bullets and the Trap of Reductionist Thinking,” (Foley, 2014).
In addition to these arguments Taleb has extended these critiques to suggest that many GMO proponents lack “skin in the game,” are victims of the “Soviet Harvard delusion,” and related “neomania” This implies that the GMO proponents are attracted to the allures of new technologies, possibly employ faulty logic, and are ultimately willing to expose others to more harm than themselves. The result of their intervention could be a primary example of iatrogenic naive interventionism, (Taleb, 2001). This implies that even individuals with seemingly altruistic intentions might cause harm during their attempts to treat, due to their inclination to intervene, even when deemed unnecessary. In addition, this argument is further strengthened by utilizing tools such as Carl Sagan’s “baloney detection kit,” to employ a healthy skepticism in the face of Biotech’s bold claims, (Popova, 2014). Numerous corporations in the past, for instance, have distorted science to manufacture uncertainty regarding the dangers of their product. Two primary examples of these distortions are discussed by Daniel Engber, who recalls that, “the cigarette manufacturers would “establish—once and for all—that no scientific evidence has ever been produced, presented or submitted to prove conclusively that cigarette smoking causes cancer.” Tanning industries similarly boasted “the lack of “compelling evidence” that links UV exposure to melanoma,” (Engber, 2008). Past mistakes thus emphasize the need to question the authority of purported experts.
By now, it is apparent that the temporal components of analyzing the scientific debate can sometimes be a significant constraining factor. Since the scientific aspects of the GMO debate include many domains of science, this section has only discussed a few major arguments. Unfortunately, many GMO opponents, especially in social media, focus on embarrassingly flawed and unscientific arguments, which highlight their ignorance and weaken their potency. They vilify their opponents with polemic diatribes and seek to polarize based on ad-hominem arguments. This stance is tragic, because GMO proponents often categorize many well-respected individuals, who cite the legitimate claims of GMO opposition, as illegitimate conspiracy theorists. They are frequently dismissed as “not true authorities, especially in the realms of science,” (Tribe, 2012). They are derided as radicals, and luddites, who oppose the progress of the human race. Pundits such as Tribe have claimed that the GMO opposition is “waging a war on science,” (Tribe, 2012). Although only time will verify which scientific position is ultimately valid, the foundational basis of the safety measures utilized by GMO proponents is rarely discussed.
In part 2 Matt discusses GMOs related to food system safety, world hunger, and global warming.
A complete list of references will be published with part 3. You can also download the entire three-part series with references as one pdf here: GMO-Boon-Bust-Blight
1 The peer-review process, if not broken, is seriously under strain. Arguing that it’s the “best we have” is not really an argument… There is no doubt an urgent need for reviewing of this apparent bottleneck and of the corruption (at various levels in the process) that takes place. I can’t help but question to what extent the current blind peer-review process survives today solely (or in large part) because the appearance in peer-reviewed journals too often serves as the standard for tenure and promotion decisions? I also worry about the amount of useful information that ends up being lost with this binary/dichotomic “accept/refuse” system (especially in light of the acceptance rates, and how some journals seemingly put a premium on keeping these as low as possible)… Biophysicist Luca Turin is notorious for pointing out the partisan and self-interested aspects of the peer-review process, and how it stymies creativity in academe, while excluding the unorthodox. These are serious concerns that need to be addressed… As a friend pointed out in a prior conversation, it doesn’t mean doing away completely with the current approach, but simply acknowledging that there are issues that we need to be dealing with. In the name of science… M. Piggliucci, not long ago, explained: “I am sympathetic to that position, particularly because as author, editor and reviewer I have seen my share of unseemly behavior, gender and racial biases, personal vendettas, and so on that certainly don’t belong anywhere within a scholarly environment.” In other words: we can do better. – Éric Lépine’s thoughts concerning the peer-review process
Bio: I am a health and performance consultant. I have devoted my life to mastering health, performance and improving the lives of others. I emphasize a holistic, evidence-based, results driven approach in conjunction with solutions that are catered to the specific needs of my clients. Although prepared in a variety of bodies of knowledge, I primarily specialize in applied exercise physiology, nutrition, and counseling as they relate to health and performance enhancement.
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