Genetic Literacy Project Special Report: GMO: Beyond the Science

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 11.42.48 PM

What’s a GMO? That’s the question posed by the Jimmy Kimmel show in October to random people, and the answers were not only hilarious, they were also revealing. Although the social media buzz would suggest that people are uneasy about genetic engineering, those interviewed had no clue what a “genetically modified organism” really is. And for good reason: GMO is a meaningless term, as genetic modification is a process and each GM drug or crop or food is unique, offering various benefit and risk tradeoffs.

The same kind of fuzziness surrounds the labeling debate. While as many as 93 percent of people have responded in polls that they believe foods containing GMOs should be “identified”, those results were from classic “push” polls in which consumers were asked various forms of the leading question: “Do you support labeling of GMOs?” That’s a combination of negative stigmatization and suggestive questioning; no surprise, polling experts say, that the percentage of those in support of labeling were high.

What happens when people were not prompted? When asked the open-ended question if there was anything not now on labels that they would like to see added, only 4 percent of Americans even mentioned GM labeling.

These and other surveys suggest that most people have little understanding of the technology or its potential impact, good or bad. Most people’s views range from indifference to a hazy uneasiness. To many GMOs are like a black box, filled to the brim with the unknown. Will it be filled with fears or science?

Yet crop biotechnology—GMOs if you will—is far from an inscrutable subject. The technology is straightforward and well studied. The environmental inputs and impacts have been extensively evaluated. We have close to two decades of data about the economic impact of GM crops—what’s been gained and what’s being lost to antiquated regulations. And we are learning the consequences of anti-technology fever—the ongoing campaigns by activists to demonize GMOs.

Beginning Tuesday, December 3, the Genetic Literacy Project launches a 6-part series: GMO: Beyond the Science. Our goal is to try to fill the vacuum created by misinformation and doubt. Each Tuesday and Thursday over the next two weeks, we will present another dimension of the GMO debate. We hope to stimulate a public discussion on genetic modification based on science, not fear.

DECEMBER 2: PART I: Green Genes: Sustainability Advantages of Herbicide Tolerant and Insect Resistant Crops

Cornell University entomologist Anthony Shelton and David Shaw, vice president for Research and Economic Development, Mississippi State University address concerns expressed by some that GMOs have led to an increase in the use of herbicides and pesticides.

DECEMBER 4: PART II: Anti-GMO Activism and Its Impact on Food Security

Kevin M. Folta, Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida addresses, weighs in on the debate over GMOs and the role that activist groups are having on shaping public opinion.

DECEMBER 9: PART III: Global Risks of Rejecting Agricultural Biotechnology

Harvard Kennedy School’s Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development and director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project, looks beyond our borders, taking a look at how the debate over GMOs in the western world impacts developing countries.

DECEMBER 11: PART IV: Economic Consequences of Regulations of GM Crops

Peter W.B. Phillips, Professor at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, asks whether regulations are hampering the potential for biotechnology to contribute to address growing concerns about population and food.

DECEMBER 16: PART V: GMO Safety and Regulations

Alan McHughen, public sector educator, scientist and consumer advocate with the University of California, Riverside examines the tempestuous debate stirred by crop biotechnology opponents who contend that GMO crops present unique safety and health hazards.

DECEMBER 18: PART VI: GMOs and Global Food Security

David Zilberman, University of California Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics assesses the political, economic and regulatory climate and the future of crop biotechnology—and innovation itself.

  • NoToGMOs

    Interesting that not one of the speakers include anyone from the medical profession or for that matter anyone with credentials and relevant expertise/experience in human and animal health and safety such as toxicologists, biochemists, geneticists, molecular biologists (not plant molecular biologists!), veterinarians etc.

    • That’s because this isn’t a discussion of safety. There are thousands of studies that prove GMOs in use today are safe. This is a discussion of the benefits, impacts, economics and poiiltics of GMOs. Your handle says it all–you are opposed to GMOs and you are primed and ready to criticize anything that is said. How about opening your mind and objectively participating in an objective discussion? This issue is too important to all of us to take a fixed position and argue it no matter what the logic or evidence.

      • munchygut

        “Why bother talking at all? When so many wear a filter that only lets them see what they already believe. They take their biases on faith, then cherry pick only the facts that let them feel even more certain. They aren’t going to change. They aren’t going to even perceive the things that might lead them to change. It’s very sad.” -Steinberg

      • NoToGMOs

        I wish there would be a public discussion by relevant experts of the safety aspect, especially since that is what the public is most concerned about. You cannot have a discussion of the impacts of GMOs without considering what they have done and what they can do to our health. And for that we need experts in the field of health, not plant scientists with conflicts of interest.

        Y’all haven’t done a good job of ‘proving’ the safety of currently used GMOs to the public. Just throwing out that there are ‘thousands’ of studies that prove safety and expecting the public to swallow that without question….is where your ‘side’ has failed.

        Get out the experts, let’s dissect and analyze those studies publicly. The public is not as scientifically dumb as you seem to think. If you’re indeed right that those studies prove GMO safety, then you have nothing to worry about. Right?

        • I’m afraid nothing will convince you–look at your handle. It says NO NEVER I’M CONVINCED ALREADY in big bold letters. You really don’t want a public discussion or you would have found it in the many papers written on the topic AND–more importantly–in the public hearings and public records on every single GMO approval here and in other countries. There are very complete records and the regulatory agencies respond to every point that bears on safety. When a product is approved it’s because it has been dissected and passed every test. Come on, admit it what you are trying to do is raise other people’s doubts and argue your anti-GMO sentiments. I have no problem with that, you’re entitled to your opinion and I’ll even defend your right to it. But let’s not pretend that there’s any scientific or logical need to revisit the safety of approved GM crops or that the public hasn’t been given every chance to dissect. I wonder what there is about 1000s of scientific studies that doesn’t impress you. Opponents of GM crops routinely appear and testify at approval hearings, some of which have been televised.

          At least we agree on one thing. Science and regulators have failed to explain the science and safety as well as anti-GMO advocates have managed to instill fear and deliberately peddle misinformation about GMOs. You’re right the some of the public may have some concerns or misperceptions about GM crops. That’s because of a large and well-oiled propaganda machine that has been thrown against them. Scientists have not been very effective at responding. That said, all the information that’s needed to understand these issues is already a matter of public record.

          Now could we go back to the real issue? Why are you so certain that you’re right? Why are you so certain that it makes so much sense to be unconditionally opposed to GMOs that you stake your name on it? Where’s this coming from? That’s what we’d all like to understand. If we understood that better maybe we’d be able have a real and meaningful discussion.

          • NoToGMOs

            It speaks volumes about your intentions when you attempt to make this about my username. I chose this username years ago, before most of the public started waking up to the fact that they were being used as subjects in a large, uncontrolled experiment without their knowledge and/or consent. I chose it in response to the 2 main GMOs-Bt and herbicide resistant-that have been grown for the past 18 years and constitute over 99% of GMOs ever grown and continue to be currently grown.

            I have nothing against recombinant DNA technology. I think its a wonderful technology that would be very useful to mankind if used correctly, transparently and justly. I admire the wonderful public sector and university scientists who, using taxpayer money, discovered the basics and laid the framework for this technology. What I do not admire and what I am vehemently opposed to is the usurping (theft actually, if you think about it) of this knowledge and groundwork done by honest, hardworking scientists by huge amoral chemical corporations that have succeeded, by using the patent system and capturing regulatory bodies and politicians – to basically take control of our food supply. Something as essential as the food we eat, should not be controlled by any one entity. That is immoral and wrong.

            When you look at the GMO issue, you have to look at it with multiple lenses. There are social aspects, environmental aspects, health aspects, issues of patenting, corruption, role of money in influencing science etc. etc. You cannot look at it as isolated pockets that have nothing to do with each other. So when you say that we should trust regulatory agencies who have approved these crops based on ‘complete’ tests and records, you forget to mention the ‘revolving doors’ between these agencies and corporations, how these agencies don’t conduct independent tests of their own on GMO crops, but instead rely on the information ‘voluntarily’ submitted to them by the manufacturer of the product seeking approval. If you cannot see how that is a conflict of interest, then you will never understand where I and millions of others are coming from.

            “That’s because of a large and well-oiled propaganda machine that has been thrown against them.”

            You must be joking (or projecting), right? A large, well-oiled propaganda machine from moms, dads and concerned grassroots citizens? You know as well as I do where the large, well-oiled propaganda is coming from – and it’s definitely NOT from the ordinary citizens concerned about the food they eat. Unlike you, who may have a vested interested in keeping the status quo and continuing with the use of these crops, due to your professional involvement in this technology, the only vested interest I, as a parent and concerned citizen have, is the health of my children and the planet I will be leaving for them. Fortunately for me, I have a background in a field of science that enables me to see BS for what it is… when GMO proponents say there are ‘thousands’ of studies confirming GMO safety to humans, that there is a ‘consensus’ on GMO safety, that ‘GMOs are the most tested product’ in history, ‘trillions of meals eaten without a single adverse effect’ etc.

          • rejecting hype

            “…large, uncontrolled experiment.” Wow. Smacks of conspiracy theory to me. Just sayin.’
            But let me ask; is it not a “large, uncontrolled experiment” when organic farmers use mutagenesis (look it up) to develop THEIR seeds? Or not? Is it all about GMOs with you?

          • rejecting hype

            “Patenting and corruption.” Wow. More conspiracy, with a dash of pure ole ignorance. Look it up: MANY seeds, including hybrid AND organic, are patented. Have been since 1930. Educate yourself please and dump the rhetoric.

        • agbioscience

          I have said the following explanation about “proving they’re safe” soooo many times … oughta get paid by a high school science department, I think….
          OK, Notogmos (name says your openmindedness quotient pretty clearly, btw): here’s why you cannot “prove they’re safe.”
          In science and statistics, you cannot ever prove that X is Y (i.e. that gmos are safe, in our example). You can only show with statistical reliability that it is highly improbable that X is NOT Y. Example: Can you “prove” the sun will rise tomorrow? Of course you can’t. No one can. But you CAN show, through statistical probability, that it’s very highly unlikely that the sun WON’T rise tomorrow. That’s called, in statistics, “rejecting the null hypothesis.” Please check out what I’m sayin’ with your kid’s high school science teacher.
          And PUH-LEEZ stop thinking in error that ANYone is ever gonna be able to “prove” that gmos are “safe,” or that any X

          • agbioscience

            …or that any “X is Y” can be “proven. That’s not how science works.
            You can still choose to be no on gmos; that’s your choice. But don’t do it based on bad (or no) science.

  • Mottfolly I

    NoToGMOs, Be sure to read the Dec 16 Part 5, it will cover that aspect.

    • NoToGMOs

      I would definitely read it if that aspect is to be covered by an expert in human or animal health issues, such as a medical doctor or a researcher in a relevant field such as toxicology or biochemistry and one who doesn’t have a conflict of interest with regards to this issue.

  • Robert Howd

    There are no inherent scientific or health-related reasons to oppose introduction of GMO crops. What matters is the product, not the technology. Thus, while there could be some problem with any particular product – Bt corn, for example – being against GMOs as a whole because a particular product may have a problem just doesn’t make sense to me. Being anti-Monsanto or anti-corporate agriculture has its own rationale, but it’s not really about the food. Wanting to label the food as a statement against Monsanto and corporate agriculture is an awfully blunt tool, I think. And Quixotic.

    • NoToGMOs

      “What matters is the product, not the technology.”

      Actually, the technology matters. Especially when that technology is intrinsically linked to the use of pesticides (Roundup ready crops and now 2,4-D ready crops) and comes packaged with its own pesticide (Bt crops). These 2 GMO crops constitute over 99% of all GMOs ever grown and currently grown.

      • Doug

        Round up and 2,4-D are herbicides not pesticides. If it’s 99% of all “GMO” crops ever grown and 18 years of data show no adverse effects on livestock or on humans then the technology has proven to be equal to conventional crop creation.

        • NoToGMOs

          Herbicides, insecticides, fungicides etc. all fall under the broad umbrella of ‘pesticides’. Pesticides are chemicals or biological agents that kill pests such as weeds/plants (killed by herbicides), insects (killed by insecticides), fungi/mold (killed by fungicides) and other ‘-cides’.

          and 18 years of data show no adverse effects on livestock or on humans”

          Kindly link me to or show me the 18 years of data that shows no adverse effects on humans.

  • Giovanni Tagliabue

    post Jon! Never stop insisting on the blunder generated by the meaningless
    bogus “GMO” pseudo-category. See also: “the actual purchase behaviour of consumers
    regarding GM food products does not correspond to their stated attitude when
    questioned on the subject; […] when GM food products are available on the
    shelves, consumers are generally willing to buy them.” (Lusser et al. [2012],
    International workshop on socioeconomic impacts of genetically modified crops,
    p. 13,
    “A voiced negative attitude of consumers in responses to questionnaires about
    their intentions is not a reliable guide for what they actually do in
    supermarket.” (Sleenhoff, Susanne; Osseweijer, Patricia [2013], Consumer
    choice: Linking consumer intentions to actual purchase of GM labeled food
    Knight et al. [2007], Acceptance of GM food-an experiment in six countries (in
    Nature journal), summarized at