Dr. Oz again takes on the GMO controversy again—Science or myth?

| February 20, 2014 |
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Celebrity talk show host Dr. Oz has a complicated and controversial relationship with GMOs—demonstrated again with his latest foray into this scientific minefield. Last week his show focused for the third time on GMOs, with a segment titled: No to GMOs: The Global Conspiracy to Keep You From Knowing the Truth About Your Food. Oz pledged to address the myths and truths about GMOs, then did precisely the opposite.

The sentiments of one pop health expert don’t necessarily warrant concern from the scientific community. But Oz visits the homes of nearly four million people a day with his television show and about the same number of people visit his website every month and have “liked” his Facebook page. His reach is only growing: Hearst Magazines recently launched the inaugural issue of his magazine, Dr. Oz The Good Life. His influence may be great, but the scientific knowledge he imparts regarding GMOs is not.

During his most recent GMO segment, he briefly discussed the “fish tomato,” an early hallmark and great source of contention in the GMO debate. The experimental tomato, never commercialized, added a gene from a winter flounder in order to create a fruit that could withstand frost.

From Oz’s language and visual aids–he showed two bins of identical tomatoes one labeled non-GMO and one labeled GMO–viewers wouldn’t be blamed for thinking the “fish tomatoes” were showing up in their salads. They are not. Putting aside the fact that the insertion of genes into a tomato to protect it from frost has been shown to be harmless, there are, in fact, no GM tomatoes approved or in the pipeline. He mocked up an image with apparently one goal in mind—to get the audience to go “ick,” fanning their anxiety about “Frankenfoods.”

Oz then moved on to his main argument against GMOs in this episode: the claim that growing genetically modified crops has led to increased use of “dangerous” pesticides. According to Oz, pesticides “have crept their way into the food supply in a big way because of genetically modified foods.” This is a familiar argument against GMOs advanced by activists, but it’s not accurate. Scientific studies have actually shown that an increase in GMO farming has led to a marked decrease in the most toxic pesticides.

He devoted the rest of the segment to the importance of labeling foods with GMOs because, as he claimed in the introduction, “Many believe it’s global conspiracy to keep you from knowing if you’re eating genetically modified foods. You want GMOs labeled, but the food industry is fighting back. Spending millions to keep those labels out of the supermarket.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food companies that sell a lot of products with GMOs, had a predictable response, but one that highlights Oz’s lack of scientific grounding in his coverage:

Providing consumers with safe products is our number one priority, and we understand that some consumers have questions about genetically modified food ingredients. Genetically modified ingredients are not only safe for people and our planet, but also have a number of important benefits.

Virtually every credible food safety organization and scientific study has found genetically modified food ingredients are safe and there are no negative health effects associated with their use. GMO crops use less water and fewer pesticides, reduce the price of crops by 15-30% and can help us feed a growing global population of seven billion people.

In the past Oz has been criticized by a wide range of sources­–from a petition in Academics Review, an association of geneticists and other scientists that evaluates popular scientific claims, to the New Yorker, which profiled Oz–for allowing Jeffrey Smith the activist, author and filmmaker behind Genetic Roulette, a book and film critical of genetic modification, to claim, unchallenged, that GMOs are dangerous. (Oz’s wife, Lisa, an author and frequent co-host on Oz’s radio show, was a narrator of the film version of Genetic Roulette.) In an article for Forbes, Jon Entine, the executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, likened Oz’s fear-based “investigations” into GMOs to malpractice.

Oz’s recent show included no scientists—only a woman, presumably a mom, who was confused about GMO labeling, and Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group. Keith Kloor, a Discover magazine blogger, took Oz to task for using “an activist from an environmental group with a demonstrable anti-GMO bias as an expert on the safety of agricultural biotechnology.”

Oz’s segments on GMOs are consistently critical, but in an article he wrote for Time Magazine in 2012 he took a more nuanced stance. OZ said he considered GMOs safe and that those who buy organic and try to avoid GMOs and chemicals in their food are snobs, snooty and elitists. Many anti-GMO activists called him a sell-out for his balanced comments.

When asked about the article by Miami New Times, Oz said: “I spoke out openly about the fact that I think we deserve as a nation to know if a food is GMO. Doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t eat GMO foods, but as you say, we don’t know, really, what the impact of these foods is going to be across our population, so at least let me know!”

Oz’s website also uses more broad-minded language. “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are highly controversial, but there are legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate,” the site reads. That balanced language is not reflected on his shows, which, like the latest segment, are more likely to promote urban myths than sound science.

The truth is every major international science body in the world has reviewed multiple independent studies and has come to the conclusion GMO crops are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods—a fact that viewers are not likely to hear on Dr. Oz.

Gloria Dawson is a writer and editor at the Genetic Literacy Project. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Nautilus, National Geographic online, Modern Farmer, Gastronomica, Columbia Journalism Review online, and others.

 

  • JanetS

    Could you point me to some of these long term studies of GMO foods that point to it being harmless? I’m working on research for my county farm bureau.

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      I suggest you check out the database at Biofortified.org’s GENERA project for a list of studies. They have about half of the studies performed. Anything longer than 90 days is considered a long term study. No study shows anything is “harmless”; that’s not how studies work; no substance can be proven “harmless.” There are no studies–short or long term–that show that GMOs cause any unique harm that is not also found in organic or conventional varieties. That’s all that science can show.

  • Brent BT

    Aside from the opportunity to make money, I still find it hard to believe that a physician would risk his reputation promoting such bizarre, unsupportable claims. Doesn’t he know that even if there is a temporary wave of uninformed public sentiment, his reputation will ultimately be tarnished for promoting views with no good scientific basis?

  • LogicalReason

    Hilarious article.

    Do we acknowledge that there are more pesticides in GMO foods? If yes, we then ask, are pesticides ingestion healthy?

    From there, we can remove the bullshit.

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      Actually there are less synthetic pesticides in GMO foods…a 90% reduction in the US over the past 15 years in Bt crops. As for herbicide resistant crops, there has been a reduction in per acre use of toxic chemicals because the herbecides used in GM crops profile as less harmful than what they replaced. Studies have shown almost all foods are safe and have little or no chemical residue, and those that do for the most part have residue below harmful levels. Hope that answers your questions.

      • LogicalReason

        I would say that you may have actually have a coherent systematic the premise genetically modified crops contain fewer traces of pesticides, than your argument is a valid one.

        Not sure why the rest of my comment was erased.

        • http://www.insectnation.org Andy Buckley

          I’m nothing like as expert as Jon, but typically reports of pesticides on organic crops only consider synthetic pesticides, the sort which are forbidden by organic certification. That’s misleading, because organics _are_ allowed to use “old style” pesticides which are often more harmful than the newer synthetic kinds.

          I’d be interested to see what Jon or others have to say about that Forbes article. The graphs do not quite show what is discussed — they show the fraction of land sprayed with glyphosate, which is not the same as either the volume of glyphosate sprayed, nor the volume (or, better, aggregated toxicity) of all pesticides.

          The link to “Scientific studies” in the article also discusses something a bit different again: that the rise in GMOs in the US has led to a reduction in “the most toxic pesticides”… that is why it would be interesting to see the trend for total aggregated toxicity. The linked article is worth reading (and is short) as it puts in context that the amount of active ingredient sprayed per unit area is really very small, so the answer to your question “are pesticides ingestion healthy?” is “yes, at typical levels”.

  • Len

    In the article is stated “pesticides “have crept their way into the food supply in a big way
    because of genetically modified foods.” This is a familiar argument
    against GMOs advanced by activists, but it’s not accurate. ”
    Can you / someone point out the source of that info?
    thanks