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Philip A. Loring @ConserveChange
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1. In response to some aggressive challenges (#troll) on some of the statements I make in my recent @Ensia article, I thought it important to share the following points (thread)
2. Here’s the link to the article in question.
3. And here’s a link to another essay I wrote a while ago that dives in deeper:…
4. I will address these points: my characterization of the ‘consensus’ on GMO safety; my claim that lab-based GM is fundamentally different than on-farm selection and hybridization; my claim that many rationales given for GM are spurious
5. For many, I will refer to the extensive study compiled by the @NASEM_Ag examining the state of science on GMOs from multiple perspectives, including human and ecosystem health, benefits to farmers, food security, etc:
6. The study is over 600 pages, so here’s a link to their summary table of findings:…
7. The challenger in question asked if I had read this report (I have, its my job to read such things), and in fact, nearly all of my points are confirmed in this document
8. First, let’s talk about consensus. I argue in my Ensia piece that its irresponsible to certify consensus on the safety of GMOs. Current science on current GMOs is pretty clear regarding safety (which I wrote), and the NAS report confirms this.
9. However, there are peer review publications questioning how this consensus is being determined and leveraged as rhetoric
10. In 2015, Krimsky did an analysis of multiple reviews, studies, and reports from professional agencies (including the NAS) and calls this an “illusory consensus.”…
11. In Krimsky’s words, “One cannot read these systematic reviews and conclude that the science on health effects of GMOs has been resolved within the scientific community”
12. Nonetheless, let’s take the consensus as being robust.
13. My problem is how industry wields this particular body of scientific findings to proclaim all GMO technologies, now and in the future, as safe.
14. This is an incredibly weak inference. In science, there are both strong and weak inferences. See here for the definitive discussion:…
15. the point is that inferences about the safety of a category of technologies that are always changing cannot be strong because new independent variables can be introduced with each new technological development.
16. The NAS study makes this point repeatedly. It identifies multiple legitimate risks with GM technology and recommends the development of new methods and research for evaluating that risk on a case by case basis.
17. The NAS also further acknowledge these risks by saying government regulations are necessary for ensuring the public’s safety. If the “consensus” were as definitive and unimpeachable as industry advocates claim, NAS would not make this recommendation.
18. The NAS study also emphasizes the importance of transparency for minimizing current and future risks, which I note specifically in my column as a justification for labeling. Why be transparent if safety is not a concern?
19. To make an analogy. saying that all GMOs will always be safe based on existing examples is like saying that all guns will always be safe for widespread ownership based on an examination of muskets and Derringers.
20. Even some GM advocates admit this point, though they understandably minimize its relevance…
21. Given the fact that scholars continue to dispute this, including those within the group that contributed to the NAS study, broad and final declarations about safety are indeed, irresponsible. Here’s another peer-reviewed dissent:…
22. Next, the person who challenged my writing argued that being “anti-GMO” has a social justice problem, and that without GMOs, people will starve. They offered this Forbes commentary:…
23. This argument is empirically bankrupt. Food insecurity and hunger are not at all related to production shortfalls. They are driven first and foremost by social issues like poverty, colonial legacies, and conflict…
24. What’s more, there’s no evidence that GMOs can help solve these problems. The NAS study points out that while some people have seen economic gains from growing GMOs, the results are largely heterogeneous, with some winners and some losers.
25. Not surprisingly, the losers are often smallholders. They also note that solutions to social issues like access to credit and extension are likely to have a greater impact than development of new GMOs.
26. Thus, the NAS says that research on GMOs should not take away from investments in ‘proven technologies’ to solve food and hunger problems.
27. Others have addressed this as well. See here for a great discussion by Azadi and Ho of GMO and organic options for developing countries https://www-sciencedirect-com/science/article/pii/S0734975009001876
28. TL;DR: Azadi and Ho say “there is indeed no indication that biotechnology could and will compensate for shortcomings of industrial agriculture”
29. Important to understand that GMO applications may be good in one context and unhelpful in others; In areas practicing traditional, rain-fed agriculture, organic methods are likely to increase yields, whereas in developed countries, organic may (at first) lower yields
30. Likewise, many studies show that organic approaches are likely to be more resilient because of crop diversity…
31. As I discuss here, diverse systems are generally more resilient and less vulnerable than standardized ones.…
32. This has already been seen for the impacts of climate change on North American agriculture:…
33. Ultimately, as Dibden and colleagues conclude, “the contribution of agricultural biotechnology to food security, whether as benefactor or threat, thus remains as hotly contested as ever” https://www-sciencedirect-com/science/article/pii/S0743016711001045
34. So, it shouldn’t e surprising that the NAS is circumspect about arguments for GMOs that cite food security and hunger as motivations. They find that seeking to improve yields and productivity with GM would require ‘long term’ projects.
35. The NAS also notes that there is a lot of uncertainty about whether GMOs can actually achieve yield increases and such projects should be accompanied by “careful caveats”
36. Incidentally, this great study by Reaganold and Wachter shows how even in cases where conventional agriculture may achieve better yields, the myriad other social and ecological outcomes suffer in comparison to organic agriculture…
37. And finally I turn to this contention that the “GMO” label is essentially meaningless, and that there’s no meaningful distinction between lab-based genetic manipulation and field-based hybridization and seed saving.
38. This is also fundamentally inaccurate. Any producer can engage in seed saving and hybridization. GMO happens in expensive labs with expensive equipment and requires significant technological expertise.
39. GMO also happens within a closed paradigm of intellectual property (e.g., patents). This is one of my biggest concerns.
40. The NAS reports disagreement in the literature on the impact of patents and other intellectual property controls on farmers, but that there is good evidence that patents limit access by small farmers, marketers, and breeders (whether or not the patented plant is GE).
41. What’s more, the NAS study firmly establishes the importance of conventional breeding. Interestingly, they say that there is evidence that BT resistance may evolve more slowly, and cumulative yields may be higher, if both BT and non GM varieties of maize are grown
42. There are loads of reasons related to biodiversity, cultural diversity, food sovereignty, and resilience, to strengthen conventional breeding methods.
43. Whereas GMO development happens separate from wild biodiversity, conventional involves interplay among wild and domesticated organisms, which has been historically important to developing crop diversity. See Nabhan on this:…
44. Too, plant scientists are already proposing that too much selection can eliminate important traits from wild organisms that contribute to drought and pest resistance…
45. An aside: A clear sign that people do not want to engage in the debate is when they challenge language. The Forbes & Tagliabue articles both do this –challenge the very concept of GMO, in the same way as gun ownership advocates challenge the concept of ‘assault weapons’.
46. This is similar to the fallacy of the heap – the notion that since something is difficult to define that it don’t exist.
47. SCOTUS Justice Potter Steward summed up the absurdity of this kind of argument in his 1964 ruling on Jacobellis v. Ohio: “Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly [defining pornography] but I know it when I see it.”
48. I’ll end this thread with a quote from the NAS that paraphrases the thesis of my @Ensia piece: “policy regarding GE has scientific, legal, and social dimensions, with questions that cannot be answered by science alone.”
49. I am not fundamentally "anti-GMO". GMO technologies have legitimate application. My assessment of our food systems and the problems therein is that these applications are narrow
50. It is not denialism to look at these vast nuances and be skeptical of GMO technology. It is denialism to ignore all of this and decry as denialism those in search of an inclusive and informed social discourse on this issue.
PS1 - Normally I would not engage with people who barrage you with spurious statements, half truths, and vacuous memes, but I thought this was a good opportunity to check myself for confirmation bias by revisiting the issue and looking for new science
PS2 - if your immediate reaction to anything in this thread is “wrong” or “yeah but” without digging in deeper, you are the victim of your own confirmation bias. Good scientists must always work against this
PS3 – the age of a scientific publication is irrelevant to its relevance or veracity.
PS4 – I highly recommend that people look at the preface of the NAS report. They discuss the difficulty they faced and pressure from all sides for trying to do this report justice. Like good scientists do, they rejected the smokescreen and produced a very nuanced document.
PS5 - this thread turned out to be way too much about the 'safety' issue, which generally I think is a red herring from many other aspects of the technology that are actively being debated and explored by scientists but are not as discussed as they ought be
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