Lynas’s claims on GMO food safety are “unscientific, illogical and absurd”

It’s good to see knowledgeable commentators like genetic engineer Dr Belinda Martineau and ag journalist Alan Guebert commenting skeptically on Mark Lynas’s misrepresentation of the scientific and political reality of GM crops.

We have one comment on Guebert’s statement that EU member state’s GMO cultivation bans “are more about the next election than what’s next in science”.

EU member states’ attitudes towards GMOs are indeed in part political – as they should be – but in many cases they are also informed by strong scientific arguments.

Individual member states have submitted strong objections to EFSA’s declarations of safety for some GMOs and have invoked the “safeguard clause” provided by the European GMO regulations to ban the cultivation of these GMOs on their territory.

The safeguard clause allows a member state to ban the use or cultivation of a GMO based on risk to health or the environment.

While the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the EU Commission have disagreed with these bans, the member states concerned have argued them on scientific grounds.

Our own experience of talking to GMO regulatory experts in GMO-skeptical member states is that they have plenty of scientific concerns about the effects of GMOs on health and the environment.

These concerns are fuelled by the lack of long-term safety testing in animal feeding studies prior to regulatory authorisation and EFSA’s tendency to dismiss significant effects in animals fed GMOs by claiming those effects are not biologically significant – a concept which, however, has never been defined.

It’s doubtless true that scientific evidence of varying quality can be found to support whatever political stance a member state decides to take on GMOs. But that just proves that science doesn’t deal in absolutes. It’s rife with uncertainties and is confounded by such factors as who paid for the research, who framed the question it’s addressing, and how the data are interpreted.

Such scientific uncertainty is one good reason why decisions on whether to adopt GMOs must remain predominantly political – yet informed by rigorous science carried out in the public interest.

1. When food is genetically modified
2. Farm and Food: The sounds of science

1. When food is genetically modified

Belinda Martineau
The New York Times, 30 Oct 2015

To the Editor:

Re “Europe Turns Against Science” (Sunday Review, Oct. 25):

Having been a crop genetic engineer myself (I helped bring the world’s first genetically engineered whole food, the Flavr Savr tomato, to market), I take issue with Mark Lynas’s reference to a “worldwide scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering.”

Genetic engineering is a technology. Each product of any technology will (or at least can) be different; the various products of crop genetic engineering certainly are. And because each product is different — not only in the ways genetic engineers design and expect them to be, but also by potentially containing unique unintended and unexpected changes — the safety of each one must be assessed individually.

The World Health Organization agrees: “Different G.M. organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual G.M. foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all G.M. foods.”

Making general claims about the safety of genetic engineering, especially in light of previously commercialized yet worrisome products like StarLink corn, is therefore unscientific, illogical and absurd.

Davis, Calif.

2. Farm and Food: The sounds of science

Alan Guebert, 31 Oct 2015

Increasingly, farmers and ranchers agree that “sound science” is science that sounds good to them rather than science that is scientifically sound. Bad science, on the other hand, is science that sounds bad to them even if the majority of scientists agree on it.

For example, a November 2014 poll by Purdue University and Iowa State University showed that “more than 90 percent of the 173 scientists surveyed believed climate change was occurring, with more than 80 percent attributing climate change … to a combination of human activities and natural causes.”

By contrast, "66 percent of 4,778 corn producers surveyed said they believed climate change was occurring, with 8 percent pinpointing human activities as the main cause” while “31 percent said there was not enough evidence to determine whether climate change was happening or not.”

The reason for the wide differences, the researchers explained, is pretty simple: “Scientists are saying climate change is happening, and agricultural commodity groups and farmers are saying they don’t believe it.”

So, if you believe it, it’s science; if you don’t believe it, it isn’t science.

Fine, but that describes politics, not science. Indeed, noted the Purdue-Iowa State researchers, “Whenever climate change gets introduced, the conversation tends to turn political.”

The same changeover occurred in an Oct. 25 New York Times op/ed titled “With G.M.O. Policies, Europe Turns Against Science,” written by a Brit, Mark Lynas, who serves as “the political director for the Cornell Alliance for Science at Cornell University.”

The column, a 1,500-word blast at 17 European nations that recently banned the “cultivation of genetically modified crops,” begins with a cannon shot; he groups the nations into “the ‘Coalition of the Ignorant.’”

Lynas, a writer, not a scientist, chose those words for maximum effect, of course, because his ignorant “coalition” includes several nations that all but invented science: Germany, Austria, France, Denmark, and Italy.

Now, however, he writes, their acceptance of these GMO “prohibitions expose the worrying reality of how far Europe has gone in setting itself against modern science.” But, he immediately adds, “True, the bans do not apply directly to scientific research…”

Wait a second; the "bans do not apply directly to scientific research…”?

So, in fact, this “Coalition of the Ignorant” has not set itself “against modern science.” The nations’ leaders, in fact, may well understand how important GMOs will be in the future because the “cultivation” bans (Temporary? Permanent? Lynas doesn’t say) “do not apply directly to scientific research.”

Those two facts explain the politics behind GMOs in Europe, not the science, and neither have anything to do with ignorance -- other than the author choosing to ignore the political reality of most European consumers and leaders.

In short, the bans are more about the next election than what’s next in science.

Lynas’s polarizing op-ed may have hit on the greater truth about science more than either he or Cornell University or the GMO-promoting Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation -- which gave his boss, the Cornell Alliance for Science, a $5.6 million grant in August 2014 to, ironically, “depolarize the charged debate around” GMOs -- ever could have dreamed of.

That greater truth, a career scientist friend of mine explains, is our “failure to accept that the role of science is to reveal the mysteries of nature while the role of society” -- and, yes, that includes poetry as well as politics -- “is to reflect on the meaning and value of the mysteries that have been revealed.”

Society shouldn’t blindly accept science nor should it make science a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Instead, science and society “should be complementing rather than competing in the quest to reveal the unknown truth about nature which, of course, includes us.”

That, he adds with a wink, isn’t science; it’s wisdom.

The Farm and Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Source material, past columns and information on The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey, a book by Guebert and Mary Grace Foxwell, are posted at