The Guardian's "sustainable business" editor misrepresents scientist's arguments and scientific evidence to promote GMOs
The Guardian's "sustainable business" editor Marc Gunther has written an article which is being widely touted around by GMO proponents, called "Why NGOs can’t be trusted on GMOs". The article (reproduced below) reads like a GMO lobby response to a situation whereby increasingly, the public doesn't trust GMO lobbyists to tell the truth about GMO risks and would rather trust NGOs.
One of the NGOs that, according to Gunther, can't be trusted on GMOs is Consumers' Union. However, Gunther's article seriously misrepresents arguments made by the Consumers' Union senior scientist Dr Michael Hansen, as well as repeating time-honoured misleading claims by the GMO lobby.
For example, Gunther takes issue with Hansen's statement that "there is virtually no independent safety testing of these crops in the US due to intellectual property right problems".
Gunther counters Hansen by stating, "The European Commission spent more than 200m euros of public funds on GMO research between 2001 and 2010. The EU summarizes about 50 studies in this 264-page report, which is easily found online."
What Gunther fails to point out is that the EU Commission's report contains only a tiny handful of safety studies on GMOs. None were on commercialised GMOs, probably because the industry controls access to the GMO materials needed for such tests and will not release them to independent researchers except under conditions that no serious independent scientist would agree to.
Interestingly, the few animal feeding studies that did get done under this EU research project all found unexpected and concerning results from the GMO diet.
The rest of the EU studies were on peripheral issues like consumer perception of GMO risks and attempts to establish reliable methodologies for GMO safety testing.
So the EU report does not support Gunther's claims, but instead backs Hansen's point that there is virtually no independent safety testing of GMO crops.
Gunther also objected to Hansen's statement that "as a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology”.
Hansen had cited a 2009 letter to the EPA written by 26 public-sector scientists, complaining of lack of access to GMO materials for independent research.
Gunther claims, "Since that letter five years ago, those scientists have gotten access to genetically modified seeds for research purposes. In fact, Monsanto, the bête noire of anti-GMO activists, had actually already made its seeds available to independent researchers before the letter was written."
Gunther cites as his source the pro-GMO food writer Nathanael Johnson, "a journalist who has carefully researched GMOs, dug into this issue last year for Grist, so it’s no secret that the 2009 complaint cited by Hansen is out of date."
But far from being "out of date", Hansen's statement that independent scientists cannot get access to GMO seeds for research purposes is still accurate, according to scientists who have actually attempted to do such research. They include Dr Judy Carman and Prof GE Seralini.
Consumers' Union sent a response to Jennifer Kho, Gunther's editor at the Guardian, complaining about Gunther's poor journalism and misrepresentation of Hansen's views. The Guardian posted the CU letter, but on a separate page to the main defamatory article, at the foot of yet another pile of pro-GMO verbiage from Gunther.
1. Letter from Consumers' Union to Jennifer Kho of The Guardian
2. Why NGOs can’t be trusted on GMOs
1. Letter from Consumers' Union to Jennifer Kho of The Guardian
The Guardian, 18 July 2014
We read with growing concern and dismay Marc Gunther's article and accompanying post entitled "Why NGOs Can’t Be Trusted on GMOs". I am writing to you in my capacity as Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, one of the organizations Mr. Gunther states can not be trusted. I write as well as head of the department in which Michael Hansen, Ph.D, who is quoted in the article, is Senior Scientist. We are one of the organizations that Mr. Gunther says "don't always stick to the truth". I am writing to protest this characterization in the strongest possible terms, which borders on character defamation.
I am also contacting you as Mr. Gunther’s editor, because we do not believe Mr. Gunther has adhered to normal journalistic standards, or carried out the kind of first-rate reporting we normally see at the Guardian, in preparing this article.
Mr. Gunther, like all reporters, will form opinions in the course of reporting a story. However we would expect that a writer at the Guardian would approach a story with an open mind and report with fairness. While Mr. Gunther intended to focus a great deal of his article on criticisms of Dr. Hansen's testimony before state legislative hearings, particularly criticisms leveled by Dr. Val Giddings, who has testified at hearings for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Gunther never interviewed Dr. Hansen or spoke to him. This, despite both our communications consultant and Dr. Hansen offering a phone conversation between the two. Rather, Mr. Gunther chose to ask a series of questions in writing, by e-mail, to which Dr. Hansen responded, offering to talk further. Dr. Hansen's e-mail was posted in its entirety in a linked document. However, Dr. Hansen's written answers were never incorporated in or referred to in Mr. Gunther’s article. They were, in fact, ignored.
Thus, Mr. Gunther criticizes Dr. Hansen for saying that the U.S. "does not require genetically engineered plants to be proven safe”. Mr. Gunther agrees that is a true statement but states that it is impossible to prove GMOs are safe. Dr. Hansen addressed exactly what he meant by "proven safe" in his email to Mr. Gunther - that we think all GMOs should go through a safety assessment like they do in Europe, and like food additives go through in the U.S.
This is what Dr. Hansen and Consumers Union mean by "proven safe" and it is clearly something that is possible to do and for which there are regulatory precedents. Yet Mr. Gunther failed to incorporate any of this explanation in his article.
Dr. Hansen's quote is presented under Mr, Gunther's introductory statement that "two of the main NGO arguments around GMOs just don't hold up to scrutiny: "GMOs are unhealthy". This however has never been Consumers Union's position. As Dr. Hansen explicitly stated in this e-mail: "The bottom line is that [CU and I] are not saying that all GE foods are dangerous, just as we’d never say that all potential food additives are dangerous. We do say that the U.S. should require safety assessments on foods derived from GE organisms, and that those safety assessments should be consistent with the guidelines developed by the Codex Alimentarius Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology.” (Codex is the UN food standards agency.) Thus, Mr. Gunther creates a straw man, attacking us for a position that we have never held.
Further on, Mr. Gunther states that Dr. Hansen "is misleading" and is "intellectually dishonest" when he says that "there is virtually no independent safety testing of these crops in the U.S. due to intellectual property right problems". Again, however, Mr. Gunther agrees this is true ("his statement may be factually defensible") but quotes an article in Grist as providing evidence to the contrary. Dr. Hansen was never given an opportunity to explain why he thought, and still thinks, as many agree, that the Grist article does not give the full story. His written response to Mr. Gunther more fully explaining his view was again not incorporated in the article.
Compounding the lack of fair reporting, Mr. Gunther sent Dr. Hansen’s e-mail to Karl Haro von Mogel, a Ph.D. candidate in plant genetics and director of the non-profit Biology Fortified, to critique further, and published a lengthy comment from Mr. von Mogel on the Guardian website along with Dr. Hansen’s e-mail. Dr. Hansen was not informed this was being done, nor did he ever get a chance to respond or reply to the new set of criticisms.
Dr. Hansen is not only a long and valued Senior Scientist at Consumers Reports, which has 8 million paid subscribers to its print and web publications. He is also a globally recognized expert on GMOs and their safety risks. He served on three World Health Organization expert consultations for example, including the 2003 FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on the Safety Assessment of Foods Derived from Genetically Modified Animals, including Fish and the 2007 FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on the Safety Assessment of Foods Derived from Recombinant-DNA Animals.
The Guardian has done a disservice to its readers as well as Dr. Hansen's reputation, with this article. We urge you to 1) cite corrections to the article based on this letter; 2) conduct additional reporting, using a reporter who can approach the issue with more objectivity and who adheres to fair journalistic standards; and 3) allow for this letter to be reprinted as a response and accompany Gunther’s article.
If you would like to discuss this in more detail, please feel free to contact me in our office in Yonkers, NY, 914-378-2457.
Thank you for considering these views.
Director, Food Policy Initiatives
Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports
101 Truman Ave
Yonkers, NY 10703
2. Why NGOs can’t be trusted on GMOs
The Guardian, 16 July 2014
When non-profit organizations do battle with big business, the non-profits – or public interest groups, if you prefer – have a major advantage: They are trusted, far more than corporations or the government.
This helps explain why so many people – 48%, according to Gallup – believe that foods produced using genetic engineering pose a serious health hazard, despite assurances from corporations, government regulators and mainstream scientists that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now on the market are safe and, indeed, have been studied, tested, and regulated more than any other food product in history.
Who, after all, are you going to believe: Monsanto, one of the most hated companies on the planet, or Friends of the Earth? When the Center for Food Safety warns of the dangers of genetically modified salmon, which it calls “Frankenfish”, retailers and restaurants pay attention – even if the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it’s safe to eat. And if we turn to the widely admired Consumer Reports for its ratings of cars and refrigerators, why not follow the advice of its parent company, Consumers Union, which warns of the dangers of biotech food?
The reason is that advocacy groups – no matter what the issue – are not immune to pressures like other social institutions, as we’ll explain below. So at the very least, the arguments of NGOs should be subjected to the skepticism and fact-checking that is brought to bear on the claims made by business or government. And it turns out that two of the main NGO arguments around GMOs just don’t hold up to scrutiny:
1) GMOs are unhealthy
Let’s begin with the most emotional issue – the impact of GMOs on human health.
Friends of the Earth says: "We have a right to food that is good for our bodies and our environment. Numerous studies show that genetically engineered foods can pose serious risks to both."
Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, has testified (pdf):
"The US does not require genetically engineered plants to be proven safe before they go on the market."
The Organic Consumers Association says GM crops, "Can be toxic, allergenic, or less nutritious than their natural counterparts".
Read those claims carefully. It’s true that GE foods can pose risks. So can most everything else sold in the supermarket or health food store, including, most recently, chicken, bean sprouts and cheese, not to mention the sodas, sugary cereals and snacks that contribute to diabetes and obesity.
While Hansen doesn't actually say that GMOs are unsafe - and says explicitly in an email to me that "I and [Consumers Union] are not saying that all GE foods are dangerous" - his implication clearly is that some GMO foods are unsafe; otherwise, they wouldn't need testing.
It’s also true that the US “does not require genetically engineered plants to be proven safe”. But it’s impossible to prove that GMOs or, for that matter, conventional foods are safe.
The question is, where is the evidence that indicates that the GMOs on the market are unsafe? Are they any riskier than the food you buy at the grocery store, a farmer’s market or a restaurant?
The fact is, hundreds of studies have been unable to identify any health risks posed by foods containing biotech crops, according to the industry and the FDA, which says that GMOs on the market are safe to eat.
Last year, in the journal Nature Biotechnology, a story headlined “How Safe Do Transgenic Crops Need to Be?” looked at 20 years of peer-reviewed studies of possible health effects of GMOs and reported that: "Critics and proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) alike agree that genetically modified foods have failed to produce any untoward health effects, and that the risk to human health from foods contaminated with pathogens is far greater than from GMOs."
If you choose not to believe the industry, the government or a respected scientific journal, consider what America’s doctors, through the American Medical Association (AMA), say about biotech crops and human health: "Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature."
Finally, here’s what the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a 2012 statement: "The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques."
2) The research on GMOs can’t be trusted
Opponents of biotech crops discount the safety studies, which brings us to a second frequently heard claim: that you can’t trust the research on GMOs because the studies are controlled or funded by industry:
Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm wrote on the Just Label It website that "all the research conducted around the safety of genetically engineered crops has been funded by the GMO patent holders themselves".
Michael Hansen of Consumers Union, testified before a state legislature earlier this year, "there is virtually no independent safety testing of these crops in the US due to intellectual property right problems".
Hirshberg’s claim is wrong. Hansen’s is misleading.
The European Commission spent more than 200m euros of public funds on GMO research between 2001 and 2010. The EU summarizes about 50 studies in this 264-page report, which is easily found online. I tried to politely point this out in a comment on Hirshberg’s Just Label It blog, but my comment was not approved for publication. The blog has been shared more than 2,000 times on Facebook, spreading misinformation. Hirshberg has told me by email that he stands by the claim.
As for Hansen, his use of qualifiers like “virtually” and “in the US” means that his statement may be factually defensible, but it is intellectually dishonest because it implies an absence of independent research.
Karl Haro von Mogel, who is compiling a database of GMO studies at the website Biofortified, says he has read and catalogued about 400 studies, more than a third of which are independently funded. He couldn’t say how many of the independent studies were performed in the US, but notes that “a study on MON 810 maize done outside the US is still a study done on MON 810 maize”.
Worse, Hansen backs up his claim, which he has repeated in testimony to several state legislatures, by quoting from a 2009 letter to the EPA written by 26 public-sector scientists: “[A]s a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology.”
Since that letter five years ago, those scientists have gotten access to genetically modified seeds for research purposes. In fact, Monsanto, the bête noire of anti-GMO activists, had actually already made its seeds available to independent researchers before the letter was written.
Nathanael Johnson, a journalist who has carefully researched GMOs, dug into this issue last year for "Grist", so it’s no secret that the 2009 complaint cited by Hansen is out of date.