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Will The U.S. National Academy Of Sciences Fumble Its Reassessment Of GMOs?

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The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences held two days of discussions  on the controversial issue of crop biotechnology as it collects information for a spring 2016 report. The ad-hoc committee of 18 scientists is pledged to take “a science-based look at genetically-engineered crops.” Will it do that? The first two days were not encouraging.

The National Academy of Sciences has itself previously concluded that genetically modified foods are as safe or safer than conventional or oganics, as have dozens of other prominent independent science organizations. Yet of the 17 speakers over two days, 12 were critical of crop biotechnology, mostly representing dedicated anti-GMO advocacy organizations, such as the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, ETC Group, Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others; two others expressed no opinion one way or the other, but endorsed a “big tent” approach to the assessment.

Here is how the NRC committee’s website frames its mission:

People around the world have a wide range of questions and opinions about the economic, agronomic, health, safety, or other impacts of GE crops and food.   Claims and research that extol both the benefits and risks of GE crops have created a confusing landscape for the public and for policy makers.  This National Research Council study is intended to provide an independent, objective examination of what has been learned since the introduction of GE crops, based on current evidence. The study will assess whether initial concerns and promises were realized since the introduction of GE crops and will investigate new concerns and recent claims.

The speakers offered the committee a range of views from university professors and non-governmental experts who have battled over biotech crops for decades. Below are my remarks at the conference, on September 16.

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I'm Jon Entine, executive director of the Genes and Science. We are a non-profit NGO. We receive no industry funding. We welcome blog contributions from anyone from any ideological perspective—supportive of or critical of human or agricultural genetics—including everyone on this panel and those testifying over these two days. I am also a Senior Fellow at the World Food Center's Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy at the University of California-Davis.

Agricultural biotechnology is an important and evolving issue. I am not a scientist; I’m a science journalist dedicated to analyzing the politicization of biotechnology. I’ve written three books on genetics and more than a thousand articles, including in peer review journals.

I’m going to use the term “GMO” in this talk but want to make an important point: ‘Genetically modified organism’ is a meaningless term. GM is a process. Each GM crop is unique. You cannot group nutritionally enhanced Golden Rice with herbicide tolerant corn: Different crop, different trait, different consumer.

There exists a range of viewpoints about whether genetic engineering promotes deleterious farming and ecological practices—the so-called dangers of corporate controlled industrial agriculture; or the over-production of commodity crops that some say contribute to our collective weight problem. Those are important issues; they just don’t apply specifically to GMOs.

The central issue that you must assess is the safety of GM foods. Hopefully you will focus not just on specific facts, but also on the process of science:

  • Reproducibility of studies
  • Skepticism of one-off research
  • Weight of evidence
  • Willingness to revise theories in the light of new, reproducible data

In that context, many of those who maintain that GMOs are potentially harmful, while sincere for the most part, are engaging not in science but in politics. Let me give you an example. Anti-GMO NGOs often claim that the safety of genetically engineered foods cannot be assured because Big Ag funds most GMO research and there have been almost no long-term safety studies. On its website, the Union of Concerned Scientists claims: “It is ... an exaggeration … to state that there are no health risks associated with GE. … not enough is known; research on the effects of specific genes has been limited—and tightly controlled by the industry.

That is just wrong.

Biology Fortified’s GENERA database lists more than 1,000 studies with another 1,300 or so to add. GM crops have been investigated for more than 20 years. There are nuances in conclusions, but the evidence is consistent whether the study was funded by industry or the European Commission: GM crops are as safe as other conventional or organic crops and foods—or safer.

What about the claim made by Charles Benbrook and repeated endlessly by anti-GMO activists that there have been few or no long-term studies? That’s false. GENERA lists more than three-dozen examples of multi-year studies showing no unusual health consequences from consuming GMOs. A recent updated review published last December of 33 studies—17 long-term and 16 multigenerational studies—by a team of scientists including Chelsea Snell and Agnès Ricroch found, “Results…do not suggest any health hazards…and there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed.”

In early September came the publication of an unprecedented study that covers literally trillions of meals. Writing in the Journal of Animal ScienceUniversity of California-Davis geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam oversaw the longest term monitoring of the health impact of GM crops in history. She reviewed 29 years of feeding data covering more than 100 billion animals, from before 1996 when feed was 100 percent non-GMO, until after its introduction when it soared past 90 percent.

The study is unusual because of the vast trove of records examined. Van Eenennaam reviewed heath parameters including somatic cell count (SCC—an indicator of mastitis and inflammation in the udder) and pre and post mortem condemnation records in cattle, as ill cattle cannot be approved for meat, as well as mortality in the poultry industry. “It should be noted that if animals are sick they do not grow well, and growth rates have not be affected by GMO feed,” Van Eennaam told me.

The paper also summarizes the results of two thorough multigenerational studies that examined the long-term effects of feeding a GMO corn variety to food-producing animals, specifically, a German study in dairy cattle and an Irish study in pigs that included several papers looking specifically at health indicators. These studies were notable in that they included appropriate controls consuming isogenic non-GE lines of corn, and both comprehensively examined a range of phenotypes and indicators of health using sophisticated techniques including histopathology and hematological analyses. These papers found that that transgenerational consumption of these GMO corn diets was not detrimental to animal health.

It should be underscored that animal feeding studies are the basis for evaluating the safety of GMO crops; we do not do human studies on foods or drugs except for monitoring. The data also show that GM feed is safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO feed. There was no evidence of any health risk to the animals and no evidence to suggest any health effect on humans who eat those animals.

There have been a few one-off outliers animal laboratory studies, such as the GMO corn-glyphosate study by Séralini, which was retracted and republished without peer review. But think about it: If his data were credible and 80 percent of food in the United States was poison, what would be a Nobel Prize winning paper would not have had to be published in the Environmental Sciences Europe—an obscure ‘pay for play’ journal to which the French professor purchased access to. Good journals would not accept the tortured statistics, missing controls and over-interpretation of limited data.

You, this panel, has an opportunity to end this charade, this faux debate over GMO safety: There are simply no credible studies in top flight journals—and none that has been repeated—that suggest serious likely safety issues that would not also apply to conventional or organic foods.

The scientific consensus does not mean the public embraces sound science on GMOs anymore than the certainty of natural selection closes the public debate over evolution. Polls indicate half of Americans believe in creationism or God-guided evolution. We see the same split between public opinion and science on the safety of vaccinations, on anthropogenic impacts on global warming—and with GMOs.

More than 100 of the world’s independent science bodies—including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association and every major science oversight group in Europe and across the developed and developing world—have by now issued summary statements that foods made from genetically modified crops are as safe as conventional or organic varieties—and often times are safer because they undergo extensive evaluations for approval.

I’ve identified only two dissenting organizations: The American Academy of Environmental Medicine, an alternative medicine organization that among other dubious beliefs promotes the view that vaccines are dangerous...

And ENSSER—the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, founded by professor Seralini. Its deputy chair is a member of Seralini’s research team. Numerous GMO critics speaking at this meeting are members, including Seralini; Gurian-Sherman; Hansen; Benbrook and Janet Cotter of Greenpeace.

Many of ENSSER’s scientists, including some appearing before the National Research Council, have accused many scientists at independent groups such as the World Health Organisation, European Food Safety Authority and the NRC—perhaps you, the scientists charged with reassessing crop biotechnology—are akin to shills—part of a global conspiracy of Monsanto, Big Ag and Big Chem; putting corporate profits ahead of consumer safety.

That’s just not responsible.

In recent months, many Academy members have expressed concern, even fury, about the low level of expertise of some of those invited. Many of their concerns are reflected in the document left for your review by Nina Federoff, an Academy member and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Biological Sciences. Their statement echoes the words of Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford, former head of the FDA and distinguished member of the NAS. He has chided those “who give up the difficult task of finding out where the weight of scientific opinion lies, and instead attach equal value to each side in an effort to approximate fairness.” This results, he said, in “extraordinary opinions…promoted to a form of respectability that approaches equal status.”

If this meeting were being held at, say, the British Royal Society, I would wager many representatives from anti-GMO NGOs would not have been invited. Britain’s most senior scientist, president of the Royal Society Sir Paul Nurse, recently rebuked influential figures who he said distort science to support political, religious or ideological pre-conceived agendas. He was referencing in part, those who oppose transgenics in agriculture.

I don’t question the sincerity of the concerns of those invited about the future of food and farming any more than I would question the fervent belief of a Young Earth Christian that the earth is 6,000 years old. And I appreciate the bind that you faced in organizing this project. While not respected in the broader science community, some of those invited are part of the public conversation, just as creationists are part of the debate over evolution.

You face pressure to demonstrate to skeptics of GE that the NRC and by proxy the American people are listening to their concerns. Perhaps it made sense to invite science’s harshest critics. But panel members, don’t assume that those who will have spoken will ultimately embrace this process. Emboldened by the implicit endorsement that an appearance at the Academy confers, they will resume their campaigns to scare the public about a safe technology. Don’t be shocked that for years to come, they will make hay that they have been “consulted” by the National Academy of Sciences about GMOs. Don’t be surprised that when you issue your report in 2016, you will be ridiculed for holding what they will then characterize as a “rigged NRC process.”

That’s even more of a reason that if your goal is to demonstrate your leadership, it’s critical that you speak out about what the consensus science shows—no wavering or hedging to appease critics that fail to use good science. You may have to take a forceful and uncomfortable stand in the face of vocal criticism. Science is not a democracy. We don’t get to vote on whether a whale is a fish or a mammal.

As you move forward in this process, be wary of advocacy NGOs—organizations like the Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, ETC Group, Union of Concerned Scientists and Consumers Union, among those represented here. They invariably present only one side of this complex issue.

Contrast that with the NGO that I founded three years ago—the Genes and Science. Its independent writers express their personal views—there is no “GLP editorial line” like you will find with the activist NGOs represented at this meetring. The GLP also daily aggregates a dozen published stories no matter what their ideological bent. Over the week before this meeting, for example, the GLP carried a report from Mother Jones criticizing biotech supporters who equate anti-GMOers with climate denialism; a defense of Vandana Shiva’s critique of the Green Revolution; and a polemic claiming the overturning of Kauai’s anti-GMO law reflects the “corporate control” of our legal system.

The GLP is an NGO that believes that it has a responsibility to present a variety of viewpoints, even ones that I personally don’t agree with. That’s what journalists call “objectivity”. What we will not engage in—what threatens to hijack your process in evaluating crop biotechnology—is “false balance.”

False balance is a term in journalism that refers to presenting issues in which there is an overwhelming consensus in a way that makes it seem as if there are two fairly equal contrary viewpoints or two spokespeople of equal credibility. A cartoon about false balance illustrates this distressing phenomenon well.

A Larry King-like moderator of a two-person debate says: “So, we’ll be talking with Dr. Jenkins of the National Institute of Health about the result of his three-year study. And then for a different take, we’ll talk to Roger here, who I understand has reached the opposite conclusion by sitting on his couch and speculating.”

Journalists writing about GMOs often demonstrate false balance, such as a Reuters article on labeling that appeared in early September:

“Consumer groups and lawmakers pushing for mandatory labeling of GMOs say there is no scientific consensus on their safety,” Carey Gillam wrote. “But the food and agriculture industries, including the makers of genetically modified corn, soybeans, canola…say their products are proven safe.”

Note how the reporter associates activists and conscientious legislators with protecting consumer safety while she makes it seem that Big Ag is the only defender of the safety of GMOs. Yet as we know, it’s not industry that has concluded that GMOs pose no unusual harm but every major independent global science organization. The Reuters article illustrates false balance—the lowest form of journalism.

We all experienced an example of false balance in the September 15 presentation to the National Research panel by Glenn Stone, a sociocultural anthropologist at Washington University, St. Louis. He challenged claims that that the introduction of GM Bt cotton in India resulted in superior yields. The rise couldn’t have been from GMO crops, he told us, because only a fraction of India’s farmers were purchasing GM seeds when the yield rate began to soar in 2002. According to Stone, the India GM crops cause yield rise” is a post-modernist pro-GMO narrative. “Attribution of yield rises in Bt technology but trends fit adoption of Bt seeds poorly,” Stone concluded.

Simply said, Stone is wrong. He presented a chart of aggregate trends—not from a study mind you but from a news article—that is far too imprecise from which to draw any reasonable conclusions.

However, data from actual farmers who switched from conventional to GM seeds and tracked their yields demonstrates conclusively that Bt crops do significantly bump yields. A gold standard journal, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published a study in 2012, highlighted in Nature, post-dating Stone’s aging critique, documenting exactly that.

Two independent researchers with no conflicts of interest interviewed 533 farm households that switched from conventional to Bt cotton between 2002 and 2008. “The analysis showed,” they wrote, “that the yield of plots planted with Bt cotton increased by 24 percent compared with conventional cotton plots. This translated to a 50 percent increase in profits.”

There are a half-dozen similar studies (here, here, here, here), and all show the identical thing: Bt crops increase yields substantially while the use of insecticides plunges. It’s not that a key element of Stone’s perspective is not without merit—issues are grey and simplistic narratives are almost always wrong in part—but that he was creating his own narrative by not presenting to the panel the contextualized information. The presentation on Monday was not a case of false balance; it was selective presentation of data.

Increased yields are not limited to cotton. GE papaya has seen s 20-fold increase, for example. If you do not cherry-pick individual studies, but review multiple studies, every GM crop out yields conventional and organic competitors even though the current generation of GM crops was never specifically designed to increase yield.

PG Economics, which annually tallies the benefits of GM crops, has other example of how yield has fared in numerous studies from around the world:

  • Mexico - yield increases with herbicide tolerant soybean of 9 percent.
  • Romania – yield increases with herbicide tolerant soybeans have averaged 31 percent.
  • Philippines – average yield increase of 15 percent with herbicide tolerant corn.
  • Philippines – average yield increase of 24 percent with insect resistant corn.

As the authors of the PNAS study note, referencing critiques like Stone’s, “Civil society groups tend to emphasize potential risks of GM crops and question reports about positive agronomic and economic effects.” They specifically cite a 2009 polemic by Doug Gurian-Sherman, “Failure to Yield,” which appears on the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists, where he used to work.

What you will not find at UCS, or on most advocacy NGO sites, is a summary or link to the PNAS study or dozens of others that directly contradict Gurian-Sherman’s ideological perspective. Gurian-Sherman, who recently decamped at the Center for Food Safety after years at UCS, repeated this one-note bias just last week in a polemic blog he co-authored with other CFS colleagues.

Anti-GMO NGOs are notorious for selectively presenting data. Consider claims made September 15 by Gurian-Sherman, his CFS colleague Bill Freese and Charles Benbrook, a Washington State University research professor and long-time consultant for the organic industry, that GMOs are a “failure” and a “disaster”—those are their words. Why? In part, Benbrook says, because they’ve resulted in increased use of agricultural chemicals—a claim repeated as gospel on hundreds of websites. (See CFS polemic) Such broad claims are misleading and contradicted by Benbrook’s own studies.

Benbrook in his research—published in the same marginal pay-for-play journal that republished Seralini’s discredited anti-GMO study—focuses on herbicide weight, not toxicity. The use of herbicide resistant GMOs has led to the substitution of far less toxic pesticides, particularly biodegradable and non-carcinogenic glyphosate, for chemicals known to cause harm to humans and beneficial insects.

Bt crops have contributed to a dramatic drop in pesticide use—a 10-fold reduction in sprayed insecticides over the last 15 years according to the latest USDA report.

Many anti-GMO NGOs engage in sensationalism as a matter of course. I recently debated Hansen and noted that Consumer Reports, on its GMO page, features a tomato being shot up by a needle. Needless to say, there are no approved GM tomatoes and DNA is not injected into fruits with medical needles. That’s not science; that’s campaigning.

The most extreme promoter of this kind of exaggerated criticism: Jeffrey Smith. He peddles views (often passing along the anti-GMO perspective of the American Academy of Environmental Science) that humanity is courting ecological and health catastrophe: Crop biotechnology cause autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and obesity. The evidence? There is no hard evidence. The rise in the incidences of those diseases vaguely correlates with GMO consumption—as does the increased consumption of organic foods. Does having a popular Internet following and appearances on Dr. Oz mean that this panel has to take this pseudo-science seriously? Notoriety should not be a substitute for good science.

The key challenge ahead for this panel: Will you resist the pressure from anti-GMO activists to legitimize their claims? Drawing a line down the 50-yard line and presenting with equal weight arguments from both sides is not only lazy journalism it is lazy science. That would be false balance.

Going forward, I urge you to focus on the many promising GM innovations that may never come to fruition if anti-GMO NGO views prevail: Golden Rice; nutrition-enhanced cassava; oranges, bananas, coffee beans, grapes and the like resistant to viruses or fungi; trees that can be rescued from near extinction, and dozens more cutting edge crops and plants. Will you leave innovations stillborn? If we don’t have all the tools available to combat global hunger—from organic farmers as well as from conventional agriculture—children will die.

I also hope you appreciate that your report will guide future regulation. Anti-GMO NGOs are urging you to tighten and lengthen the approval process. It’s already taken 17 years to run the regulatory gauntlet for a transgenic salmon that every US agency that has examined, has concluded is safe and nutritious, and it still remains unapproved. As Nina Federoff, Academy member and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has written, “The three regulatory agencies need to coordinate a single set of requirements that focuses on the hazards presented by novel traits, not the method by which they were introduced. They need to accelerate the process, so that it takes months, not years, to get regulatory approval for a new crop modification. Above all, they need to stop regulating modifications for which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm."

The growth of the American economy depends upon innovation. Regulation that prevents The Next Big Thing is truly a lost opportunity—many once-touted biotech innovations have been killed in the crib by over-regulation: Triffid flax, Flvr Savr tomato, NewLeaf Potatoes and almost the entire field of transgenic animals. No longer can we expect breakthroughs in GE biorational pesticides, microorganisms to clean up toxic spills or transgenic animals.

Do we want to continue to thwart startups or university research projects? Or should we link science to regulatory sanity and revise the approval process to reflect what we’ve learned over decades of research and years of experience and trillions of meals?

And finally: Be bold. Bring public opinion along with you. It's easy to scare people in the name of precaution; science sets a higher standard.

To summarize my presentation, I would make these points:

  • DON’T LEGITIMIZE IDEOLOGY: Ground your report in reproducible findings. Distinguish between science and social views.
  • INCLUDE SCIENTISTS IN THE TRENCHES: Seek a diversity of input that includes experts innovating novel traits, not just scientists who have spent a few years on a regulatory committee.
  • INVOLVE FARMERS: Ask farmers why they use BT crops; it’s because they use less toxic inputs. Interview a GM papaya farmer, who might otherwise be working at a 7/11 if not for this technology.
  • NO FALSE BALANCE: Call out selective presentation of viewpoints.
  • FOCUS ON BIOTECH 2.0: Don’t just review existing crops, focus forward on innovations such as nutrition-enhanced and disease resistant crops that could whither if you fumble your charge.
  • REVISE, STREAMLINE AND FAST TRACK REGULATION: Recognize this report will serve as a blueprint for legislation and oversight; the United States could squander biotech’s promise if the current regulatory framework remains in place or is larded with additional restriction.

Follow Jon Entine, on Twitter @JonEntine

I cover science and public policy, environmental sustainability, media ideology, NGO advocacy and corporate responsibility. I'm executive director of the Genetic Literacy…

I cover science and public policy, environmental sustainability, media ideology, NGO advocacy and corporate responsibility. I'm executive director of the Genes and Science (, an independent NGO, and Senior Fellow at the World Food Center's Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy at the University of California-Davis. I've edited/authored seven books on genetics, chemicals, risk assessment and sustainability, and my favorite, on why I never graduated from college football player (place kicker) to pro athlete: "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It". Previously, I was a producer and executive for 20 yeas at ABC News and NBC News. Motto: Follow the facts, not the ideology. Play hard. Love dogs.