Monday, August 22, 2011

Are GM foods safe? Listen to disinterested scientists, not those with vested interests

An op-ed piece in the New York Times on Friday, "Engineering food for all", advocates the easing of federal regulations for genetically modified (GM) foods.  The author's point is that GM foods haven't been proven harmful, and the world needs more food, so let's stop putting barriers in the way of high tech solutions.
Civilization depends on our expanding ability to produce food efficiently, which has markedly accelerated thanks to science and technology. The use of chemicals for fertilization and for pest and disease control, the induction of beneficial mutations in plants with chemicals or radiation to improve yields, and the mechanization of agriculture have all increased the amount of food that can be grown on each acre of land by as much as 10 times in the last 100 years. 
But, the author says, regulations are getting in the way of progress.

This illustrates some issues regarding the relationship between science and the society that invests in it.  The issues are not simple, but they are very important.  In this example, the question of whether genetically modified foods are safe is an important issue of our day, but from a policy point of view it needs to be evaluated dispassionately, by parties with no vested interest.  And because there are huge vested interests at stake, it behooves the observers of the debate to know who is telling us what and why.

We'd be much more inclined to consider this op-ed piece on its face value if we didn't know the author, Nina Fedoroff, a Penn State professor of biology.  She has been a highly placed science adviser to the government,  and is a person of strong opinions who is not shy to state them (as the op-ed reflects).

Nina Fedoroff is an excellent scientist, with a long and distinguished record (that's why she was asked to be an adviser).  She was a student of Barbara McClintock's and has a fine record of research in plant genetics.  But, she has a history of serving on the boards of biotech and GM companies, and she is the author of a recent very pro-industry book on genetically modified foods, so it's totally fair, and highly precedented, to  think of her as an advocate for industry rather than a more objective adviser.  And advocacy does not necessarily make good science.

Fedoroff says, for example:
... genetically modified crops containing an extra gene that confers resistance to certain insects require much less pesticide. This is good for the environment because toxic pesticides decrease the supply of food for birds and run off the land to poison rivers, lakes and oceans.
This is true as far as it goes.  But, as we've written on MT before (e.g., here), the widespread use of insect-resistant plants, genetically modified plants that produce a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin that is lethal to many plant pests is a real boon to many previously insignificant insects, who no longer have to compete with the major targets of the toxin for food or ground, and so thrive.

Farmers then find themselves spraying with insecticides once again, erasing the immediate benefits of Bt plants such as those Dr Fedoroff mentions, the decreased use of pesticide, less runoff into waters, etc.  This unsurprising result was predicted by many evolutionary biologists, though Monsanto assured us it wouldn't happen.  That it is happening is widespread knowledge, but this didn't make it into Dr Fedoroff's piece.  Why not?  If the evidence was misinterpreted or is not compelling, but is clearly 'out there', one would expect it to be acknowledged and dismissed.  Among the industry's excuses, if it's fair to call them that, is that they'll keep a step ahead of the evolution of resistance to their modifications.  But one can't just automatically take their word for it, given the history we already have. 

In addition, the op-ed piece focuses simply on food supply, the need to produce more, when much of the problem feeding the world is political.  Even if farmers produced only GM food, 12 million people would still be starving, or on the verge in Somalia, where militants with guns are preventing food from being distributed.  The food is there, the people can't get it.  The solution has to be much broader than high tech science, and arguably, resolving political and food policy issues has to be done before we make more food.  Opponents of industrialized agriculture argue that more diversified, mixed and smaller scale farming would be better for soil, sustainable, and also able to feed everyone.  And there are many other political and economic aspects of the way big agribusiness works relative to local farmers and their incomes, all well-known among the people who think about these things.  There may be no simple answers, but the controversies are not simple and objections should not just be dismissed by omission.

How to feed the world is a real and long-standing question.  But advocacy pieces by leading scientists who can be taken, or mistaken, as mouthpieces for industry are not the way to move the debate forward -- even if of course, advocacy pieces written by anti-GM activists can be equally slanted, and equally suspect.  We cannot accuse Nina of being wrong about the facts, except in the sense of omission, and we can't even make a knowledgeable argument against (or for) various aspects of the issues.  She may be entirely correct, or the objections may be valid but unimportant in the balance of things.  The point is that science at the policy level should be less affected by vested interests and, especially,  advisers should be dispassionate about the issues so that officials like politicians and bureaucrats, who haven't the expertise to make decisions without external advice, are given advice that is less polarized.

There is no shortage of polarized opinion, and there are plenty of lobbyists who have hardly-restricted access to politicians.  It's their job to push a point of view.  GM crops are only one example.  Climate change, the need for trips to Mars, and even evolution itself are other such issues.  Lobbying is a major way our society makes decisions.  But even when, as in the case of evolution, one point of view is massively supported by the evidence, a policy adviser should be able to present the perspectives of various points of view rather than simply advocate.  Even in the evolution example, politicians should know why some hold 'anti' views in the face of the evidence and why those views aren't supported by the evidence.

We're not stating any opinion about GM crops.  The 'op' in op-ed gives authors the right to give opinions.  But advocacy can be incompatible with good science, and while it may sell media it can often polarize rather than inform society.


eric schmidt said...

Once in an mandatory ethics seminar an local prof sat with us to discuss GM. She was decidedly pro-GM and at least vaguely hostile to critical points of view. After the seminar I looked up her lab web page and I saw that she had obtained a patent for a GM modified plant and owned a start up biotech company. This wasn't disclosed during the seminar she lead. I thought the situation seemed at little seedy, and this was an ethics course after all. I didn't necessarily disagree with her but I was upset nonetheless because I felt like the organizers felt like we (the ones taking the seminar) needed to be indoctrinated in the "right view point" and we couldn't be trusted to hear a pro- vs con or at the least view point from someone not invested in GM. I'm a bit reflexively suspicious of GM anyway, and this experience certainly fed that because it was a first hand look at the intersection of academic science and pro-cooperate views disguising short sighted profit motives with notions of concerns for longer term interests of general people. As if the first page of any corporate charter is full of altruistic thoughts.

Anne Buchanan said...

I would have felt the same way. Especially in an ethics course. This is why journals have authors disclose whether they have a financial interest in whatever topic they are publishing on, of course. I don't happen to think that's terribly useful as it gives you no way to evaluate the science -- you know the author has a vested interest, but does this mean you shouldn't trust any of his or her results? Take them all with a grain of salt? Whatever that would mean.

It's better than not disclosing, certainly. But it is no assurance that the author has done the work without a bias, intended or otherwise.

James Goetz said...

I'll disclose that I'm merely rambling. Here's a point of irony that I always considered. Every scientist who runs a lab has a financial interest in the success of their lab and publishing record. However, that is much more subtle than this start up company owner teaching about the ethics or their products without disclosing their financial interests.

Concerning GM, I support that we go forward with it with caution. Also, any new effective insecticide, whether GM or inorganic chemistry, will inadvertently open up new niche and new problems. So I'm not concerned if the new problems develop from GM or other chemistry, but, yes, let's be honest about potential new problems and the discovery of new problems say ten years down the line after the implementation of a new farming invention.

Ken Weiss said...

Our point is that the facts are complex, answers clearly not very definitive at this stage (and we are not experts by any means). But we feel that there is too much advocacy in this arena so that facts are hard to evaluate, even as policy is being set.

Anne Buchanan said...

Jim, it's not just scientists, of course, for whom blowing one's own horn can be a conflict of interest. It's true of anyone with a vested interest in what they do -- it's the nature of the beast. Car mechanics, dentists, editors... This is why there are checks, such as second opinions, and, in science, replication. Iffy or incomplete data or interpretation is likely to be discovered pretty quickly.

James T. Fisher said...

The European Union and the United States have strong disagreements over the EU's regulation of genetically modified food. The US claims these regulations violate free trade agreements, the EU counter-position is that free trade is not truly free without informed consent.

James Goetz said...

Yes, Anne, I agree with you. I by no means wanted to single out scientists. :)