Expert response from David Tribe Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer, Agriculture and Food Systems/Microbiology and Immunology, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia
Friday, 13/12/2013 13:40
Scientific arguments are not settled by counting the number of people supporting an opinion. They start with a careful search for scientifically valid evidence, and they carry this forward with open-minded and careful, logical reasoning, and false conclusions are eliminated from the discussion. Good scientific reasoning also takes notice of the whole body of evidence on a topic and updates the verdict as new evidence becomes available.
The I-SIS website mentioned in the question has a public letter with over 800 signatories. Most scientists, when making a scientific judgment, don’t really care about such lists, and who signed the letter doesn’t enter into their thinking, and it is quite right that they take this line.
Albert Einstein said this best (quoting Michio Kaku’s article at Encyclopedia Britannica):
“One Hundred Authors Against Einstein was [a short book] published in 1931 [that said the Theory of Relativity is wrong]. When asked to comment on this denunciation of relativity by so many scientists, Einstein replied that to defeat relativity, one did not need the word of 100 scientists, just one fact.”
So let’s take a scientific approach and look at what evidence is presented in the I-SIS letter, and evaluate whether the claims it makes are true.
Definitely, some of the letter is wrong or out of date. In the years since 2000, when the letter was signed, many more scientific publications on the topics have come out.
These new publications have settled many of the questions that are raised in terms of whether GM crops are bad. These publications (numbering thousands in total) involve many thousands of scientists. About one in four of them, or even more, are not connected with commercial seed companies selling GM crops.
The letter claims that “GM crops offer no benefits to farmers or consumers.” This claim ignores the huge benefits of insect-protected biotech corn and cotton, which save many farmers from unnecessary exposure to toxic pesticides. Insect-protected GM corn is of special value to food consumers and farmers, as it reduces harm to animals and people from eating moldy, insect-damaged corn. Such damaged corn often contains residues of a cancer-causing mold toxin called fumonisin that accumulates in mold-affected grain. This benefit of safer corn is especially important for poorer people in developing countries in Latin America, Africa and China, where corn is a staple item in their daily diet. Clearly, as the evidence stands today, the 800 letter-signers are wrong about the benefits of GM crops.
The letter at the I-SIS website also publicizes worries about the “spread of antibiotic resistance marker genes that would render infectious diseases untreatable, the generation of new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, and harmful mutations which may lead to cancer.”
There are good reasons for believing such risks are insignificant. Some of these reasons are explained at the following website entries (which I wrote with Professor Bruce Chassy):
- GM foods are irrelevant to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria
- Disease-resistant crops do not cause human diseases
Much of the rest of the letter is really about a somewhat different issue than whether GMOs are good or bad. For instance, the letter ends with a plea for the wider use of alternative farming practices.
Quite likely, some of the scientists signing the letter at I-SIS may have changed their minds about GMOs in the years since 2000.
Returning to the second question posed: “How many scientist[s] believe that GMOs are good and do all of these scientists work for big agro corporations?”
When asked this question, most scientists would say something like, not all GMOs are bad, and some GMOs are a really good idea.
Most modern biologists know that GMOs have been a tremendous boost to scientific research. In basic biology research areas connected with medicine, cell biology and even zoology and evolution studies, GMOs are seen by almost all knowledgeable people as an extremely useful experimental tool, and they have accelerated progress in many areas of science—for example, by giving us new ways of making insulin that is essential for treating diabetes, or tools for discovery of drugs to manage HIV virus infections. (I personally have done this type of work, and I know the genetic engineering methods have played a hugely important role in developing treatments for virus diseases such as AIDS or hepatitis.)
As far as how many scientists support crop GMOs that provide benefits to fight malnutrition, more than 6,500 scientists recently signed a petition to protest against destruction by activists of GM rice field trials in the Philippines. This rice has potential to prevent diseases that occur in people with vitamin A deficiency, that is widespread in many regions where rice is a staple food. (See "Global scientific community condemns the recent destruction of field trials of Golden Rice in the Philippines".)
A wide range of scientific investigations on seed breeding, food safety and food improvement using GM crops have been and are currently being done outside seed companies. Many government-funded studies have been carried out in the EU, for example.
I personally know many university and non-corporate scientists who are extremely enthusiastic about GM crops and are busy developing GM crops that help the poor. These include mineral- and vitamin-fortified crops that can alleviate micronutrient malnutrition.
- "Qld scientists create GM banana plant"
- "Mice fed on a diet enriched with genetically engineered multivitamin corn show no sub-acute toxic effects and no sub-chronic toxicity"
- "Biofortification of cassava makes real progress thanks to SNP detection methods"
If more people knew about the many non-commercial research GM crop efforts that are deliberately targeted to help the poor, I am sure these efforts would get wide support inside and outside the academic community from both scientists and non-scientists. They certainly dispel the impression that GMOs are only of interest to large seed companies.
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