Scientific Consensus on Climate Change and GE Crops

A story today by Andrew Revkin in the New York Times reveals that for more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.
“Some environmentalists have compared the tactic to that once used by tobacco companies, which for decades insisted that the science linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer was uncertain. By questioning the science on global warming, these environmentalists say, groups like the Global Climate Coalition were able to sow enough doubt to blunt public concern about a consequential issue and delay government action.
George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.
‘They didn’t have to win the argument to succeed,” Mr. Monbiot said, “only to cause as much confusion as possible.’ ”
Why does this sound so familiar?
The debate on GE crops has gone a similar route, although this time the concerted campaign to mislead the public on the scientific consensus about a critical environmental issue of our time has come from a coalition from the progressive left rather than the right using nearly identical tactics. As is clear from numerous scientific reports from leading scientific agencies such as the National Academy of Sciences, the broad scientific consensus is that the GE crops on the market are safe to eat and have clear environmental benefits.
Is there a philosophical conversation to be had on whether or not we want bacterial genes in our crops? Certainly.
Do we need to integrate ecologically-based farming practices into your production food system? Absolutely
Can we say that ALL GE crops in the future will be safe to eat? No.
But if we are going to move to a more sustainable agriculture, feed the growing population and protect our environment, then we’ve got to start by being honest about the science.

Pamela Ronald

Written by Pamela Ronald

Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology and Chair of the Plant Genomics Program at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. With her husband, she co-wrote Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. Dr. Ronald was one of the co-founders of Biology Fortified.

7 comments

  1. I totally agree. I want to have the science going forward. Although it hasn’t mattered in the past–we’ve had the safety data for a long time. Opponents don’t accept it.
    And the internet myths they keep floating just won’t stop perpetuating. I am really stumped about how to combat that. There was a great post about battling the opponents of science on a blog the other day: The Asymmetric Advantage of Bullsh-t. It so crystallized the problem for me. But I don’t know how to solve it.

  2. Manufactured doubt is the stock-in-trade. The same thing goes for anti-evolution organizations. By trying to poke holes in the evidence, looking for little gaps in knowledge that aren’t explicitly and specifically observed, you can portray the impression that the scientists don’t know enough.
    It then becomes fairly easy to argue that all the scientists need to do is go find out just a little more information, and then the opposition will change its minds.
    Experience from watching these debates unfold has taught me that this is a case of the ever-moving goalposts. ‘Oh you just found another human fossil ancestor that fills in a gap… well now you have two gaps instead of one!’ – or – ‘Oh, so now you know that the Sun is not contributing the lion’s share of extra heat energy… but you haven’t studied the effect of cosmic rays on global warming – you’ll need 50 more years of data to satisfy me.’
    We see some of the same things going on with this debate. On golden rice, the rice is criticized as not providing enough beta-carotene. Then once Golden Rice 2 came along which provides more, it becomes – ‘ack now you have to prove that you’re not going to kill people with beta-carotene!’ (Which it wouldn’t.)
    It is fairly obvious that the argument is political when no one says this about conventionally-bred carrots, or herbicide-tolerant wheat that was obtained through mutagenesis. Only if it’s a ‘GMO’ are there such huge demands for more evidence. Evidence, which when given, is systematically ignored.

  3. Very well put karl. I will link to this on my other blog.
    The other very important issue is that the “GE crops cause cancer” position has intercalated into the DNA of many people. They believe it.

  4. Don’t forget miscarriages…
    People tend to remember the claims that have been made and not where they got them. This is a challenge to skeptical thinking everywhere, and there was a paper from last year that showed a little about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to debunking. I’ll dig it up soon.

  5. Really.
    Really?
    The opponents of GE are like the tobacco companies? I see it a much different way. I see another organization of large companies in an industry using misleading tactics, false advertising, and millions in lobbying to make sure their products get sold. I see regular people putting their savings into documentaries and books, and their time into articles and protests. Biotech is tobacco. When doctors started questioning the safety of tobacco, they were discredited, and called charlatans and blasphemers. Now we see similar things happening with Arpad Pusztai and others. When the issue of labeling cigarettes arose, tobacco companies fought voraciously against it, assuming no one would buy them with the label. Sound familiar? Big-biotech is now hiring the same PR and marketing companies that big tobacco once used. You’ve got it backwards. Consumers have nothing to gain from GE foods, so why would we risk eating them? They are not cheaper, they are subsidized, meaning what I don’t pay at the store, I pay in taxes. They are not healthier, nor are they beneficial in any way except to the farmer, who saves money and labor, and the seed company. The traits introduced have done nothing to benefit anyone but the seed company. And the problems, such as crops not producing seed due to lab errors, would never happen with native varieties. You’ve got it way backwards, and I await the day that GE has to be labeled, or is even banned from food crops altogether. Very dangerous stuff, people, don’t get caught up in the media blitz, just make sure we don’t ruin the earth’s ability to produce food for us.

  6. Naturally, large companies have to be wrong, and small writers who make money off of raising doubt have to be right. Especially since some of them advertise for other companies that believe they can make money off of “no GMO” labeling. Arpad Puztai went to the media before finishing his research, which is a huge scientific mistake. The result was that he lacked the proper controls to make the conclusions that he did.
    Although the currently commercialized GE foods were not engineered with consumer-oriented traits, there have been a few tangible benefits. First, Bt corn has reduced the pesticides applied to the corn, as well as the levels of dangerous fungal mycotoxins. These mycotoxins are produced by fungi that infect insect-bitten grains – you might be surprised at how big of an issue it is. In Bt sweet corn, again there have been fewer pesticides applied, and the ears are not infested with earworm, which isn’t dangerous but is certainly unappetizing. (and ruins part of the ear)
    You do echo a general desire amongst consumers for traits that directly benefit them – and there are many such traits along the way, such as folate-enhanced tomatoes, anthocyanin antioxidant-enhanced tomatoes, calcium-enhanced lettuce, and Omega-3 oil enhanced soybeans.
    I would like to point out that you seem to agree that the GE traits are beneficial to the farmer, but one sentence later you contradict yourself and claim that it does not benefit anyone but the seed producer.
    Touche’ on getting caught up in media blitz.

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