Who knows what scientists don't know

November 2015

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Writing in the Huffington Post, one US farmer quoted a poll earlier this year which found that 93 percent of Americans believe that GMO food should be labelled. He commented "Consider this statistic a moment: 93 percent of Americans actually agrees on something. This from a society where 26 percent of respondents still believe the sun orbits around the earth."

Presumably to fulfil its mission to "Strengthen support for science and technology enterprise" or perhaps to "Promote the responsible use of science in public policy", the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) produced a Statement in 2012 which concluded that "legally mandating (GMO labelling) can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers." In a country where 93 percent of the people are already alarmed, it's difficult to see how a label would mislead them any further.

Apparently supporting the case for public misconceptions as the root cause for the desire for GM food labelling, a Pew survey of AAAS scientists found that 88 percent of scientists say GM foods are generally safe to eat. In contrast, only 36 percent of the general public say such foods are safe, and 57 percent say GM foods are unsafe.

This sounds like a resounding majority vote for GM food safety from 'those who know', while the poor misled and deluded public are shaking in their shoes at the GM bogey-man.

Or is it?

GMO Free USA questioned whether scientists responding to the survey actually knew what "genetic modification" means. In the USA, it's more usual to call GMOs "genetically engineered", while "genetic modification" often refers to conventional breeding, or random mutations induced, for example, by irradiation.

This raises the question of who were the scientists who said GM foods are safe? The AAAS is an association of many learned scientific bodies, covering the whole gamut of of scientific disciplines.

In the survey 50 per cent of respondents listed their field as being from "Agriculture, Biological and Medical Sciences". Those in agriculture are likely to be well-connected to the biotech industry and are unlikely to have any expertise in novel food safety considerations.

'Biological' and 'Medical' science can cover many fields way outside of food safety issues. How many of them had knowledge and experience in the relevant fields of toxicology, dietetics, allergy etc. can only be guessed: perhaps they're the 12 percent of scientists who said GM foods aren't generally safe to eat?

Many scientists now routinely create and use GM DNA, GM cells, GM mice, and GM bacteria which are useful models for experimentation: they can claim experience in genetic engineering and GMOs, but food safety is a different ball-game.

Interestingly, the Pew survey also asked the question "From what you've heard or read, would you say scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of genetically modified crops ... ?", to which 67 percent of the general public replied "Scientists do NOT have a clear understanding."

Taking all these together, does this suggest scientists just don't know they don't know?

The AAAS sounds like a great resource, a drawing together of the multitude of specialist scientific bodies. But, the composition of the Board which produced the Statement on GM labelling consisted of a biotechnologist as chair, an entrepreneur founder of a biotechnology company, an astrophysicist and a psychologist. Even with all the expertise in the world seemingly at its fingertips, the AAAS seems not to know what it doesn't know.

OUR COMMENT

We couldn't help noticing that the AAAS Statement was on the labelling of "Genetically Modified Foods", not US-style "Genetically Engineered".

What we do know is that contrary to the claims of those who don't know they don't know, GM foods (including the toxins they accumulate) haven't been tested for chronic health effects and recent science is suggesting this is a very serious knowledge gap indeed. The gap will only be filled if you keep asking for it.



SOURCES
  • We've Missed the Entire Point About GM food - A Farmer Explains Why, www.huffingtonpost.com, 22.09.15
  • Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 20.10.12
  • AAAS Mission, www.aaas.org
  • Why did AAAS scientists disagree with health professionals on GMO safety? GM Watch 09.08.15, GMO Free USA Editorial, August 2015

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