In this week’s #SkepticalTuesday article, I talk about a particularly poor piece of anti-GMO “reporting” that caught my eye last week. It doesn’t go well.
Last week, this article passed across my desk. It’s called “No Scientific Evidence of GM Food Safety” and it’s written by one Nafeez Ahmed, working for something called “INSURGE Intelligence” over at Medium. To call it biased would be, I suppose, a bit expected, but it’s only the root of the problem. In this article, Ahmed has committed pretty much every cardinal sin of reporting on GMOs, and all of them are based on a lack of genuine interest in understanding the topic, stemming from his anti-GMO bias.
He starts with a report commissioned by the government of Norway and undertaken by Georgina Catacora-Vargas of the Genøk Centre for Biodiversity. There are some flaws with this study, some larger than others, but all are magnified many times over when refracted through Ahmed’s anti-GMO bias.
First off, let’s take a look at what the study says.
This report seeks to contribute to the operationalization of the concepts of “sustainable development”, “societal benefits” and “ethical justifiability” of the Norwegian Gene Technology Act.
That is to say, it’s a report written, primarily, to “operationalize” (or, in English, to “put into use”) three primary concepts of one of the most extreme anti-GMO stances in the world.
Norway is one of the most restrictive countries with regard to the importation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and does not allow for GMO production. It has yet to approve an application for the import of foodstuffs that include GMOs. Norway applies the precautionary principle when vetting GMOs and in addition requires any user or importer of a GMO to show that the use is ethically and socially justifiable, requiring proof both that the GMO is not harmful and that its use will benefit society. [emphasis mine]
That is, instead of applying the null hypothesis, as we apply to non-GMO crops, it applies the precautionary principle. The null hypothesis, if you’re not aware, is the procedure of assuming no relation between things until a relation between them is proven. The precautionary principle, on the other hand, assumes a relationship (i.e. new=harmful) unless otherwise proven. This logic permeates Catacora-Vargas’s report, and begins the distortion that Ahmed’s report magnifies.
Next comes a fairly weak methodology:
In order to achieve this, the report addresses the questions surrounding the sustainability of herbicide-tolerant crops identified by the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board. The report uses the case of Intacta™ Roundup Ready™ 2Pro—a genetically modified stacked crop–used in Brazilian agriculture. This report summarizes, consolidates and contrasts the information provided by the dossier on the environmental and food biosafety of Intacta™ Roundup Ready™ 2Pro submitted by the applicant to the Brazilian authorities, as well as different findings reported by relevant empirical studies. The compiled information is organized in two sections. The first part addresses ecological aspects of the genetically modified herbicide tolerant plant and its related herbicide (glyphosate and related commercial formulations). The second section describes social and economic issues. Of particular importance, the report contrasts the applicant´s conclusions regarding the absence of adverse effects against the literature’s findings on the existence of an array of possible harmful impacts.
So, in an effort to study the large-scale concepts of sustainability, societal benefits, and ethics of GMOs, Catacora-Vargas looked at one GMO product, unsurprisingly one of Monsanto’s “roundup-ready” products, in one country, Brazil, “as well as different findings reported by relevant empirical studies,” all on the Intacta Roundup Ready 2Pro soybean — or if they couldn’t find a study about that, then about “equivalent stacked GM soybean varieties” …and if not in Brazil, then as close as they could get, you know, geographically. I won’t go so far as to say nothing in the report is true — that would be hyperbole and probably wrong to boot, but unfortunately the “relevant empirical studies” also include the infamous Seralini study that purported to show that roundup-ready corn causes cancer in mice — the one that was retracted by the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2013 and republished unconvincingly in another journal the next year. It also includes the Carman pig study that elicited great skepticism. Not to say that all the sources cited are poor — but when Seralini and Carman are cited without any hint of skepticism (or mention that these studies have been widely criticized), this doesn’t bode well for the rest of the study, especially any claims regarding the health impacts on humans.
The added problem with the study is that its focus is a “roundup-ready” crop. Roundup, known chemically as glyphosate, is a herbicide. It kills 99.9% of all green plants by interfering with an enzyme that rids them of a specific acid called shikimic acid. This acid then builds up in the plants (where it would normally be removed by the enzyme) and kills them. So-called “roundup-ready” plants have another way of getting rid of this acid built into them genetically, and so cannot be killed by glyphosate. Despite being the latest kickaround kid of the anti-GMO movement (and blamed for everything from cancer to autism — sound familiar?) there is no evidence that it is harmful to anything but plants. Why? Because it doesn’t interact with humans. We don’t produce shikimic acid; we don’t have the enzyme that gets rid of it that glyphosate interferes with; and glyphosate doesn’t stay in the human body. But because glyphosate is an anti-GMO bogeyman, they went with it, and then decided to use it to typify all GMO crops.
Of particular importance, the report contrasts the applicant´s conclusions regarding the absence of adverse effects against the literature’s findings on the existence of an array of possible harmful impacts.
Contrasting the “absence of adverse effects” with “possible harmful impacts” is at the heart of this study. But when your “possible harmful impacts” come from studies like Seralini and Carman, and when you ignore the fact that a lot of GMO crops have nothing to do with glyphosate (and when you take into account the flaws inherent in applying the precautionary principle, to boot) you end up with a very weak study.
Which is then turned into an even weaker “news” article.
“It is “premature” to declare GM safe due to “incomplete” scientific knowledge, finds report commissioned by Norwegian Environment Agency,” reads the subheading. “A new study commissioned by the Norwegian government, and conducted by a nationally recognised scientific authority on the safety of biotechnologies, concludes that available scientific data on GM crops is inadequate to prove their safety.”
At the heart of this article is a serious fuzziness on just what the author means by “safe.”
Does he mean it in terms of health? Environment? Economics?
The problem is, it doesn’t matter to Ahmed. He’s already decided that he’s writing an article that says “GMOs are bad.”
Take a look at his three subsections:
1. “Absence of evidence“: in this section he focuses on the study itself, which says there’s no evidence that GMOs are “safe” — based entirely on one crop, one not-terribly-well-done study, and the precautionary principle.
2. “Monsanto responds“: in this section he takes a few choice quotes from a Monsanto representative, who basically says glyphosate is safe, and then contrasts it with quotes from the same not-terribly-well-done study. (Note also the shift from the safety of the GMO itself to that of the herbicide being used on it).
3. “Monsanto’s flagship GMO condemned by WHO“: in this section he just cobbles together anything he can to make us think GMO crops are bad — from an unrelated GM wheat’s inability to kill aphids (remember, roundup only kills plants, so it’s about something entirely different); to the WHO study that classifies glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” — the same classification as formaldehyde, which we eat and produce in our own bodies (remember, “the dose makes the difference!” — and as SkepticalRaptor pointed out before, it’s an unconvincing bit of research that has since been countered by better research); to a quote from an anti-GMO group “Genewatch UK” that says weeds are now showing resistance to glyphosate (which counter to Ahmed’s probable intentions, forces one to wonder how bad glyphosate can really be if it’s not even that good at killing plants).
He then tries to put a neat little bow on it by returning to the first and last problem of the article: an unexamined faith in the precautionary principle. As we are told over and over (without any proof in the article):
“It is premature to assert that GM crops are safe.”
And you know what? It always will be.
Because if you ignore study after study after study after study that cannot find a link between, for example, glyphosate and cancer, and wait until you find a study that somehow, miraculously, proves the absence of a link, you’ll be waiting forever, because that’s not how science works.
Furthermore, the precautionary principle fails to take into account the very real threats to human life we do know about: the growing number of humans and the challenges of feeding them all, for instance, or the reliance on actually bad-for-humans pesticides, or all the other problems with conventional crops that GMOs are aimed at fixing. When will we start asking all forms of produce — naval oranges, seedless grapes, non-GMO (but still incredibly man-made) corn — to prove they are “safe”?
We won’t. Because in the end this kind of study isn’t about safety. It’s not even about sustainability. It’s about an anti-scientific worldview and an adherence to popular (mistaken) ideology.
Now, is it possible that some GMO crops are “unsafe” — if not for human consumption, but for the environment? Certainly. But what studies (and articles) like these fail to take into account is the already-existing “unsafe” practices in the food chain: the genuinely toxic herbicides and pesticides that are used in the absence of GMOs; the unsustainable over-application of nitrogen-based fertilizers causing dead spots in the ocean; the antibiotic-resistant bacteria being created by the misuse of antibiotics on farm animals. These are real problems, but the solutions to them?
They won’t be found in studies or articles like these.
Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science and skepticism (and bad anti-GMO reporting) here at This Week In Tomorrow.