GMO Labeling is Anti-Scientific

No one wants their views to be labeled as anti-scientific. That is why those who hold anti-scientific view points try so hard to shield themselves from this accusation. A good example of this is David Gorski’s long running blog series about the anti-vaccine movements consistent denial that they are, in fact, anti-vaccine. In this post I will address a similar claim made by those who are critical of the scientific consensus surrounding genetically engineered foods, focusing on an article written by philosopher Roberta Millstein, titled, “GMOs? Not So Fast”. In this article, she argues that those who are critical of GMOs are not necessarily anti-science, and that the problem instead involves values. Although she holds more reasonable positions than some of her more flagrant anti-science compatriots (I’m looking at you Natural News), her position still should be characterized as anti-scientific.

Framing the Debate

Millstein begins her article by framing the GMO debate in the context of labeling. Proponents of labeling argue that the consumer has a right-to-know how their food is made. In contrast, she claims that many scientists are against labeling because it is anti-scientific. Right from the start, I think this is a straw-man of the actual views held by scientists who are against labeling, although this will become more clear when we reach the core of her argument.

Millstein’s description of what GMOs are, is fairly accurate. What has come to be called Genetically Modified Organisms, is a process in which a gene is transferred from one individual or species into another. That gene is then expressed in the newly created plant, leading to the various desired traits that are currently used by biotechnologists. Millstein is right to point out that most of the crops you will find in the market that are genetically modified have been engineered in various ways to combat pests, whether they be other plants or insects. However, when she frames why these traits have been selected, she states, “Biotech companies claim that modifications like these will increase crop yields, save farmers time and money, and reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides.” Notice the use of Biotech companies, as opposed to stating that these positions are advocated by scientists. Both independent scientists and Biotech companies think this technology is effective at increasing yields, saving money and lowering the use of pesticides, but by framing it in the context of Biotech companies Millstein is shaping the narrative, whether intentionally or not.

She also briefly touches upon other types of GMO crops, such as biofortified vitamin A rice (golden rice), as well as disease resistant papayas and oranges. All of which are the products of independent groups. In the case of golden rice it is given away for free. None of these facts were addressed by Millstein, and they reflect her anti-corporate bias when assessing the pros and cons of GMOs. Being against corporate involvement with biotechnology says little about the actual effects of biotechnology in general, yet that seems to be the main focus of those who claim to be critical of GMOs. This corporate aspect of biotechnology continues to pop up through out her paper, and will be further addressed through out my criticism.

Science is Full of Values

The main bulk of Millstein’s paper is a list of six problems with the claim that GMO critics are anti-scientific. The first three points are basically the same, that science is value laden. This itself is not controversial, especially given the history of the philosophy of science during the 20th century. This means, according to Millstein, that critics of GMOs might not be necessarily criticizing data, but instead are criticizing certain values in relation to GMOs, such as a consumers right-to-know. Science can tell us what is in something, and can give us reasonable evidence of the safety of something, but cannot tell us what our rights are. I agree with this, GMO science is not value free, but is motivated by the values of safety, for the environment and health, and for economics, which could potentially benefit both farmers and large corporations.

This is why I think her view is a straw-man, because it unfairly portrays the pro-GMO scientist as someone who disregards other peoples values. Health, the environment, and probably certain aspects of economic growth, would be values shared by both sides of the GMO debate. The problem is that both sides disagree about the science, which is why the anti-science claim is relevant and not being misapplied. Millstein also fails to give evidence or examples of this phenomenon, which is interesting, considering it is the main thesis of her article.

Why Anti-GMO is Anti-Science

The last three problems listed by Millstein, are the exact reasons why those critical of GMOs are, in fact, anti-science. Problem number four states, “There really is something biologically new about GMOs”. She points out, that those who are pro-GMO claim that “farmers have been genetically modifying foods for centuries”, and she reasonably points out that this is misleading. However, in describing modern agricultural practices, Millstein only mentions selective breeding and hybridization, which is also misleading since it leaves out the conventionally used process of mutagenesis. She also mentioned that gene transfer technology can take genes from different species (say from a pig to an orange), which is also true, but misleading. Nature does not discriminate based on where the genes come from. In fact, we share various genes between a large spectrum of species, and everything seems to be working out just fine. The worry of this kind of gene transfer, according to Millstein, is that it will result in an increase of unintended genetic effects, and she cites a 2004 National Research Council book on assessing the unintended effects of genetically engineered food to support this claim.

I don’t know why Millstein neglected to talk about mutagenesis, but it’s omission is interesting considering the argument she is making. There is no movement to label food produced by mutagenesis, at least not one that has the same kind of national support as GMO labeling (I certainly haven’t heard of one). Yet the process of mutagenesis, which haphazardly creates new genetic strains by exposing plants to radiation should be far more concerning than GMOs. At least with GMOs, we are specifically selecting traits, which then we can monitor for their effects. With food produced through plants exposed to mutagenesis, no testing is necessary before the product hits the shelf.

Now, I am not worried about plants being produced through mutagenesis, but according to the science that Millstein herself provides, the 2004 book by the National Research Council, mutagenesis is far worse when it comes to unintended genetic effects. So, given that Millstein thinks GMOs are inherently risky, due to their unintended effects, why is there a lack of condemnation of mutagenesis? Whether in her paper or in the wider public? We have been using mutagenesis for much longer (since the 1920’s), so if there were negative effects due to this process I imagine they would have surfaced already. And considering that mutagenesis is inherently more risky than GMO breeding, by Millstein’s own arguments, what does that say about the scientific literacy of those who still claim we should be concerned about one and not the other?

Another omission by Millstein is that, contrary to those against GMOs, gene transfer does, in fact, readily occur in nature. With no intervention by humans at all, gene transfer occurs between species, usually carried out by viruses or bacterium. Scientists are essentially doing the same thing with GMOs, which is why they view the procedure as relatively safe. The fact that genes are jumping species all through out nature has not led to all the health or environmental catastrophes predicted by the anti-GMO movement. So why assume that now that we are artificially doing it, things will be much worse?

To her credit, Millstein does point out that a lot of anti-GMO activists are wrong to be against GMOs because they are “unnatural”, but she still thinks that the process of gene transfer gives us reason for concern. In the same 2004 book cited earlier by Millstein, bacterial gene transfer is listed just below artificial gene transfer, and both are listed below mutagenesis. So, no, there is nothing really biologically “new” about GMOs, and no reason to fear it above and beyond the conventional processes we already use.

The Plague of Conspiratorial Ideation

Problem five proclaims that safety data is not as good as those, who are pro-GMO, claim it to be. Most of Millstein’s argument is to portray the government regulatory bodies in charge of food safety as being inept or corrupt. It is true that there is no rule mandating specific testing for GMOs, yet no GMO has been approved by the FDA without a significant amount of testing. This also paints the research with a narrow brush, since several of these studies have been done at reputable institutions with independent scientists. You can always claim that not enough time has passed, or more research is needed, but there is no evidence to suspect major health complications, and a lot of evidence suggesting there has been none so far.

Shill and conspiracy claims are leveled by most anti-science advocates, and Millstein’s argument tends in this direction, while not overtly stating it. She instead tries to paint a picture of all the research being highly disputed and weak at best, or lacking oversight, which allows for nefarious corporate meddling. But, if the data were that weak, how does it explain the scientific consensus over the safety of GMO crops? Does Millstein have information that the relevant scientists don’t? Are they too corrupted to see their own flawed literature, requiring outside help from anti-GMO crusaders?

I often find it sad, and slightly ironic, that those who continuously preach in favour of the scientific consensus over antropogenic global warming fail to appreciate the consensus formed around the safety of GMO crops. Somehow Monsanto succeeded at corrupting academia when it comes to agricultural science, yet poor Exxon couldn’t expend enough funds to warp the morality of those climate scientists! If there is a good reason for why Monsanto succeeded where Exxon failed, I have yet to hear it, and I would bet it doesn’t exist. This failure at bridging the gap between respect for the climate consensus and the scientific consensus supporting GMOs among environmental activists is elegantly explained by ex-anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas, and I highly recommend his speech on the subject.

Millstein argues that those who are anti-GMO should be treated different than those who deny evolution, or reject the science of anthropogenic global warming, because each case is different, and have different reasons for being doubted. However, there is a common thread in all these anti arguments, in that they first try to discredit an entire field in the face of a strong consensus by claiming that the research available is weak, then they cherry pick the field for bad studies, or studies which contradict the consensus. The last move is to claim some sort of large conspiracy involving either a political or corporate force or both!

I see no reason to think that Millstein’s argument is any different on this front. I see the growing consensus between independent and corporate scientists for the safety and efficacy of GMO crops to be quite compelling, but obviously Millstein does not. And beyond slamming my fists against the table and repeating this fact over and over again, I doubt Millstein will be convinced.

Even if we were to dismiss the safety studies, due to possible regulatory incompetence or direct corrupt manipulation, there still has not been one iota of data to suggest that GMOs are harmful. There is also no reason to expect that GMOs are risky for human health, and no mechanism is provided by Millstein or other critics to explain how this harm could occur. Allergens are often raised as the number one concern, but this harm, if it exists, would not be an unknown. When it comes to allergens, what matters is what material gets expressed by the genes. There is nothing inherently risky about eating DNA, your body destroys it when you eat it. However, an allergen is the product of gene expression, and we can detect those in the final product. If, for example, we insert a gene into corn which expresses the same allergen that people react to who have peanut allergies, we would be able to detect this before a crop comes to market. No company will ever make crops that, for example, contain large amounts of cyanide which kill people after consumption. What economic benefit do companies gain when all their customers are dead? These are also problems which could occur during conventional practices such as mutagenesis, and are therefore not specific to GMOs, but even if they were to occur in GMOs there is no reason to think we will miss them in our research. So until a mechanism is proposed which represents a specific threat from GMOs I think it is safe to side with the scientific consensus that GMOs are safe.

Of course nothing can be 100% perfectly safe, as Millstein herself points out, but how high does the threshold need to be, and why should we hold GMOs to a harsher standard? She may argue that she values a higher threshold than the scientists, but she would probably run into some inconsistencies if she maintains this line of argumentation.

Millstein then proceeds to undermine her own argument by proclaiming that not all GMOs are the same, which not only makes labeling difficult (if not impossible), but also would mean that conventional breeding is also risky by the same argument. If we shouldn’t treat all GMOs as one super group, why is there a double standard when it comes to conventionally bred crops? Why is there no call to test every new genetic variation, regardless of how it is created? Millstein gives no answer here, and her silence is telling.

Contexts are Important, but so are Facts

Her final problem with GMO crops involves the environment, and her argument suffers from similar issues found in problem five. Most of the things she finds problematic with GMOs and their environmental impact are not specific to GMOs. Weed and insect resistance to pesticides is an agricultural problem not just a GMO problem. She also raises concern about gene flow, but if the genes in GMO products are not themselves worrisome, why is GMO gene flow worse than non-GMO gene flow?

She also raises concerns about impacted species. Glyphosate, which is used on some GMO crops, kills milkweed which is eaten by monarch butterflies, thus glyphosate use is contributing to the death of monarch butterflies. But again, what does this have to do with GMOs? Agriculture, no matter how it is practiced, impacts the environment. There are also ways to alleviate the monarch issue without discontinuing the use of GMO crops by, for example, providing land devoted to milkweed.

Part of Millstein’s argument seems to be that labeling products as GMO will help people in choosing the foods that don’t have such a negative impact, but if we stop using glyphosate resistant crops, what other crops will we be using? It is not like we would just throw are hands up and cease using pesticides. It is true that there may be negative consequences of pesticide use, but the consequences of not using pesticides, or using older and worse pesticides, needs to be considered as well. But again! What does this have to do with GMOs?

Millstein’s final objection is that even if you say these practices are not inherent to GMOs themselves (which I have been saying in the last three paragraphs), but part of a bad cultural context, such as introducing GMOs, without proper instructions to farmers in India, leading to economic complications. Then refusing to eat GMOs, by properly labeling the food, could improve the situation. She explains that we are stuck with the context we are in, and we have to make real world decisions based on those contexts.

Sure, context matters, but if GMOs are irrelevant, they are… irrelevant. I fail to see how boycotting GMOs in this particular situation would have solved anything, especially since they were not the problem. The problem was human mismanagement. Merely saying, “context matters” gets us nowhere. For starters, I am not yet convinced the context is that dire. Secondly, if one GMO company mismanaged GMO implementation in one region, is that really indicative of a larger problem specifically related to GMOs? But if we should treat this claim seriously, how is labeling going to help? Considering her own position that GMOs should all be treated differently, how does a consumer assess whether or not this particular GMO product is part of the harmful context based on the GMO label? Especially considering that most of the negative implications (if there even are negative implications) of GMOs that she raises are against strains created by agricultural companies? What effect would this have on the papaya, and the various economic communities which depend on its production? And, yet again, what types of practices do we use in their place? It is not clear that there are better alternatives. Those praised by Millstein, such as rice root intensification, have their own problems and have not been widely adopted. So yes, context does matter,  it just doesn’t support the anti-GMO position.

A lot of the studies Millstein refers to have been thoroughly debunked elsewhere. No, neonicotinoids are not as easily problematic for the bees, it is far more complicated. No, 250,000 Indian farmers have not committed suicide because of GMO crops. Like the consistent chants of evolution deniers for missing links, these readily available anti-GMO retorts will constantly rear their ugly heads.They will continue to deny that these studies are discredited and the scientific community will continue to bash its head against the table. CONSENSUS! CONSENSUS!!!!

Conclusion

Which brings us back to the core of her argument, that straw-man from the very beginning, that the pro-GMO scientist is someone who disregards other peoples values. In reality, they are actually against labeling because the information is useless to the consumer, which is a value that happens to be supported by the science. There is no reason to treat all GMOs the same. GMO labeling tells you absolutely nothing about the crops safety or environmental impact, since it only informs you about the process in which it was created and not about why it is specifically harmful. A gene, whether produced artificially through gene transfer or whether produced through plant hybridization or even mutagenesis or any other conventional practice of plant breeding will behave no differently when it is expressed. Mutagenesis, which is the process of breeding biotechnologists will continue to use if GMO sales decrease is arguably a riskier breeding process, even by Millstein’s own standards, yet is not labeled.

Should consumers have a right-to-know? How far should this right extend? Should we begin labeling every naturally occurring chemical compound that occurs in our produce, even if they are viewed negatively by the public? Such as pears, grapes, bananas, cauliflowers, potatoes, cabbages and apples, which contain formaldehyde? Or the fact that coffee is possibly carcinogenic? Is overloading the consumer with information all that psychologically feasible? Do we really want to spend money on regulatory boards for labels which are useless? If labeling creates a market for even worse foods, for the environment and our health, is that not a context worth being worried about? Don’t we all want a healthy more environmentally friendly world to live in?

So, to straw-man scientists as being ignorant of their own value laden conclusions, ignores the fact that the values at issue are shared by both pro-GMO and anti-GMO advocates, the only difference is that the science is on the pro-GMO side, and that is why the anti-GMO position is anti-scientific.

I also recommend Jon Entine’s companion piece to Roberta Millstein’s article found in the same journal, which covers a lot of the issues I raised here and more.

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