It is commonly asserted within liberal circles that there is a Republican War on Science. Certainly, otherwise rational Republicans often become so seemingly irrational when matters of science enter the political arena. For example, a 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 81 percent of Democrats but only 49 percent of Republicans, and 41 percent of Tea Party Republicans, believe that the Earth is getting warmer. Similarly, in 2012 Gallup found that 58 percent of Republicans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present forms within the last 10,000 years, compared to 41 percent of Democrats.
There is, however, an equally disturbing, yet more scantily covered, strain of anti-science that persists on the political Left. The strain is reflected in the stats cited above: 19 percent of Democrats doubt the Earth is getting warmer, and 41 percent are young earth creationists. But it continues to the Lefts almost religious fervor over the environment – the sanctity of air, water, and especially, our food.
In “progressive” circles, words like “GMOs” (genetically modified organisms), “Monsanto” and “profit” are often dropped like syllogistic bombs. Left-leaning news organizations, prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs and influential food columnists have stoked fears about GMOs and spewed misinformation supported by dodgy science and propaganda.
The reaction on the Left to a 2012 study from a French research team provides an illustrative example. The study, published in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, purportedly found that GMO corn fed to rats caused them to develop large tumors and die prematurely.
The study was severely criticized by scores of scientists, who pointed out that it was riddled with errors and blatantly obvious flaws. Methodologically, one immediate problem was that the line of rodents used in the study, known as Sprague-Dawley rats, are frequently used in cancer research because of their tendency to naturally develop tumors at a high rate, regardless of what they eat or how they’re raised. Compounding this problem was the size of the control group – there were at least nine times more test animals than control animals.
But aside from methodological flaws, the study’s results did not stand up to scrutiny. The study showed that no matter how much of either herbicide laden or genetically modified maize the rats ate in proportion to their other food, the rates of cancer and premature death remained constant. But to be meaningful, toxicology studies like this should show a dose-dependent response (i.e., if something is toxic, more of it should be more toxic). The authors of the study, however, appear to have never tested their results to see if they had to do with random effects, which is a real possibility, particularly because this study was the first one showing that genetically modified foods could produce tumors at all, let alone the drastic ones shown in the paper.
It is for many of these reasons why one University of Florida scientists suggested the study was “designed to frighten” the public rather than meaningfully contribute to the debate . Anti-GMO groups and commentators, however, rallied behind the study as evidence of the deleterious long-term effects of GMOs. The headlines on the press releases sounded the alarm – one headline, for example, read, “BREAKING NEWS: New Study Links Genetically Engineered Food to Tumors.” And the substance of these articles reflected the scurrilous rhetoric that often warps the climate debate. Tom Philpott, a popular food blogger for Mother Jones, wrote that the study’s results “shine a harsh light on the ag-biotech industry’s mantra that GMOs have indisputably proven safe to eat.” Similarly, Grist called the study “important” and said that “it’s worth paying attention to what Seralini [the lead author] has done.”
Blind acceptance of patently bad science is just plain depressing, particularly from Mother Jones and Grist, organizations that, when it comes to climate science, for example, are quick to call out the denialism of pundits and politicians.
From the first generation of genetically modified crops, two main areas of concern have emerged, namely risk to the environment and risk to human health. Although more research is clearly necessary in order to build confidence in the evaluation and acceptance of genetically modified foods by both the scientific community and the general public, there is currently no credible scientific evidence that GMOs pose a health risk or are harmful to the environment. Rather, the scientific literature suggests that genetically modified products are as safe and nutritious as the respective conventional non-genetically modified plant.
Or, as Pamela Ronald, a UC-Davis plant geneticist, wrote in Scientific American: “There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.”
The precautionary principle is a worthy one to live by. Indeed, some of the health concerns of food-safety advocates are clearly warranted. There is plenty of scientific evidence, for example, to recommend caution with respect to certain kinds of genetic modification where the genes involved confer antibiotic resistance. But the polluted science communication environment that has deeply polarized this debate reveals a glaring intellectual inconsistency of the eco-concerned media.
“Too often in the GM-food debate, generalizations and extremism lead to sterile public and political discourse that obscures key issues: what sorts of GM crops might bring true benefits to agriculture and consumers; how to avoid monopolization of farming choices; and what types of sustainable agriculture we want in the future,” Nature editors said in September 2012. “Polarized debates, not GMOs, are the poison to be avoided.”
** Featured Image Credit: Rosewoman on Flickr