GMOs: Group Refutes Claim of ‘Scientific Consensus’

Just in time for the vote on GMO labeling Initiative 522, a European group is bucking the notion that there is a “consensus” on whether genetically-engineered foods are safe. Such a consensus “does not exist,” declares a statement released Monday by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility.

The letter was signed by nearly 100 scientists, academics and GMO watchdogs. Most come from Europe, but a number also hail from the U.S., including Washington State University agricultural economist Chuck Benbrook and Philip Bereano, a University of Washington professor emeritus of technology and public policy.

Reached today at his home office in Troy, Oregon, Benbrook says that I-522 was one motivation for the statement, which was several months in the works. Another was last week’s award of the World Food Prize to three researchers who have played leading roles in the development of genetically-modified crops.

Despite its firm stance on what it portrays as an ongoing scientific debate about GMOs, the statement marshals a nuanced argument on the research and opinions that have come out to date. For instance, it points to a handful of potentially alarming studies on animals who have been fed genetically-modified crops, but does not claim the results are definitive. Rather it says the studies should be “followed up by “targeted research that could confirm or refute the initial findings.”

Likewise, the statement acknowledges scientific organizations around the world that have weighed in positively on GMOs, but notes qualifications in their assessments.

For example, a statement by the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health acknowledged “a small potential for adverse events … due mainly to horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity, and toxicity” and recommended that the current voluntary notification procedure practised in the US prior to market release of GM crops be made mandatory. It should be noted that even a “small potential for adverse events” may turn out to be significant, given the widespread exposure of human and animal populations to GM crops.

Benbrook, although a frequently-cited GMO critic, takes a strikingly nuanced position as well when talking to Seattle Weekly this morning. “The message I want to drive home is the fact that when I and other people raise safety concerns, it does not mean we are aware of information about problems that have occurred—or even that we expect that after testing with 21st century methods that there will be problems. But we feel that technology that alters the composition of food could lead to problems beyond science’s ability to predict.”

That’s a far cry from calling GMOs “frankenfoods,” as they are sometimes labeled by hardcore critics. It even bespeaks a kind of consensus, concerning the lack of reliable evidence about GMO health risks. See the early October white paper from the Washington State Academy of Sciences, which noted “there have been no statistically significant, repeatable evidence of adverse human health consequences due to GM products.”

But, of course, Benbrook and others like him believe that the hypotothetical risks they see demand more independent research, tougher regulation and, some argue, labeling. On the latter point, we’ll soon see whether voters agree.

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