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August 14, 2018

Editor's Page

No evidence showing GMOs are more dangerous non-GMOs

Mark R. Howard | 9/26/2014

Kevin Folta is a scientist, chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at IFAS at the University of Florida. He has a Ph.D. in molecular biology. He is an expert in how plants and light interact and also in how genes affect plants, ranging from how genes make a plant grow and flower to how they make the plant taste. One particular focus of Folta’s is the genomics of strawberries, an important crop in Florida.

Folta’s expertise frequently brings him into discussions of “genetically modified organisms” — most commonly referred to as GMOs. His experience in the public arena is frequently frustrating.

Scientists and farmers have been mixing the genes of plants through breeding for hundreds of years to create new varieties — apples, for example, that are sweeter than the strains they were bred from, or higher-yielding varieties of corn. At their most basic, GMO plants and crops are elite hybrid varieties in which scientists use biotechnology to add one or two genes that contribute “a trait you can’t add through standard hybridization,” Folta says.

Typically, the two traits in GMO crops are resistance to herbicide, so that the farmer can spray crops for weeds without killing the crops, and resistance to insects — the addition of a naturally occurring protein kills certain insects at the larval stage, meaning the farmer doesn’t have to use as much insecticide. Today, according to the USDA, about 90% of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. The other major crop in which GMO strains predominate is soy. GMOs are also used, to a much lesser degree, in growing canola, cotton, papaya, squash and sugar beets.

For Folta and just about everybody in the area of crop science and plant molecular biology, the science is, as they say, settled. There is simply no real debate in the scientific literature, he says, about the safety of GMO crops — “no hard, reproducible data” that indicate that GMO crops are dangerous or more potentially dangerous than traditionally bred plant products. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek story noted, “While the debate about the impact of GM crops on the environment continues, the question of their effect on human health looks increasingly settled. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, Britain’s Royal Society, the European Commission and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others, have all surveyed the substantial research literature and found no evidence that the GM foods on the market today are unsafe to eat.” The “evidence” of harm cited by opponents of GMO crops, Folta says, comes almost exclusively from papers from obscure journals, studies that have been refuted by the mainstream scientific community, or work that couldn’t be repeated by other scientists.

What surprises Folta most is the vitriolic response to calm, rational efforts to introduce science into the discussion. “If you confront somebody with evidence, they tend to dig their heels in even harder,” Folta says, “and they do anything they can to discredit the evidence, then discredit the messenger.” He routinely encounters shrill citations of obscure studies that the anti-GMO activists frequently haven’t read or understood (but which Folta has), followed by charges that he’s funded by Monsanto (he’s not).

“The irony for me is that I probably agree with them on 90% of every other social issue. And I try to come to them as a teacher and I’m thrown out the door.” Some of the public discussions Folta has participated in involve efforts to require labeling of foods that contain GMOs. During the past two sessions of the Florida Legislature, bills have been proposed that would have required such labeling. As a scientist, Folta recoils at what he sees as attempts to put a “poison” label on food he knows to be safe. “The cost of labeling would be incredible in terms of enforcement and litigation. I don’t know what tests you would do — you’d have to trace a product from its origin all the way back through the supply chain. The labeling laws are under-thought in so many ways. And for what? To protect people from nothing.”

Ultimately, he says, what he and other scientists in the public arena are up against is not a competing set of scientific data. Rather, they’re facing the phenomenon that saturates American society today — instead of informing themselves on a given issue with the best information available, people who subscribe to one set of beliefs reflexively buy into a whole cross-section of associated beliefs.

And so many on the right willfully reject scientific research across a range that has run the gamut from evolution and climate change to even fluoride in drinking water — on the philosophy that anything that can be connected with the “government” is inherently evil. Some “progressives,” meanwhile, reflexively dismiss the science behind vaccines, for example, or GMOs — based essentially on the philosophy that anything connected with business is necessarily suspect.

There is a big irony unfolding here. With one hand, we are putting more emphasis on STEM and science in our educational systems, on the very valid assumption that we need to hone those skills to be competitive in the modern world. With the other, however, we are creating a political society that’s making us less receptive to what all the science and math have to teach us.

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