Wednesday, 22 January 2014

"The science is settled'... but only when it suits you

There are many things I don't get [e.g.].
Here's a recent one: the folks who argue that global warming (a.k.a. "climate change") is an earthly crisis, urge the skeptics to accept the scientific consensus, because "the science is settled" [e.g.].
But when it comes to the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), many of those same folks ignore the science and cry "Frankinfoods" to try to scare governments into banning them.
David Suzuki is a case in point. In his appearance on Australia's Q & A program back in October, he made his familiar case for the urgency to deal with carbon emissions causing global warming, repeating his call for climate "deniers" to be arrested.  Arrested?  "You bet!" he says.
Yet, 34 minutes into the video, when the subject turns to GMOs, he staunchly refuses to accept the science -- which was well presented by two professors in the audience -- that GMOs are safe and have been clearly shown to be safe -- scientifically! -- over decades of research and practice.
   [See also below *, on Suzuki's stunning ignorance on global temperatures] 
Ditto the petition site, which screams "Stop the Monsanto frankinseed factory" (based on no science) while in other petitions it calls for urgent action on climate change, based on "what scientists say".  Mind you, I think plenty of what Avaaz does is good and helps the world.  Just not all of it.  And certainly not in the case of GMOs.
Because the science on the safety of GMO's is just as settled as that on AGW.  GMOs are safe.
What's my evidence for that?
Well, here's a summary of the consensus (a full version, with links, is below the fold):
  • The US National Academy of Sciences: GM foods are "safe".
  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science: GMOs are "safe".
  • The American Medical Association:  GM foods are "as safe to eat as any other food".
  • The European Commission: GM foods are "safe".
  • The Royal Society of Medicine: "Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects...".
  • The Largest Ever Review of Studies on GMOs: there is "no evidence of harm" from GMOs.
  • The French Supreme Court: struck down France's GMO ban because the government had shown "no credible evidence of any harm to humans or the environment".
  • World Health Organisation: " effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved." 
That's a pretty impressive list of the premier science bodies in the world.  All conclude that, after many years of study and practice, GMOs are safe.
And what do we have on the GMO-skeptics ("deniers"?) side of the argument? Well, if you Google it, there's plenty there, but little that stands up to scrutiny and none that belies the consensus of the leading international scientific bodies.  A typical example of a "GMO denier" is "GMOs... risks and dangers".  This, it turns out, is a conspiracy site (it's a "9/11 truther" for example). Its main source on GMOs is a fellow called Jeffrey M. Smith, a "self-published author", whose own first example of harm is a study purporting to show that rats which ate GM foods developed cancer at higher rates than the control rats.  But, as is well-known to those who follow this issue, that study was widely debunked and retracted from the magazine in which it had appeared.

I am not the only one who doesn't get the cognitive dissonance of people who claim to follow the science in the case of global warming, but ignore it in the case of GMOs.
A recent article in the left-leaning International New York Times, A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops, quotes a plant pathologist, perplexed to find himself at odds with traditional allies on the liberal left:
These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill [to ban GMOs]. “It hurts.”
That article also shows the duplicitous tactics used by supporters of the ban on GMOs in Hawaii, including simply ignoring scientific evidence they didn't like.
So, there it is.  Believe the science. Or believe Avaaz, crying "Frankinfoods", with no science.
"Frankinfoods" is a farrago of fallacious furphies, I say.
[*] Suzuki showed himself to be shockingly ignorant of crucial aspects of the global warming story, especially the primary sources of global temperature measurements: HadCRUT, RSS and the like. Goodness me, even I know them!  Should not the man who presents himself as a global crusader for the science of AGW be rather more familiar with them than I am?  Yet he had not heard of these sources of global temperature measurement!  The QandA presenter and Suzuki's questioners were rather bemused at his stunning ignorance.
Related story: "Hybrid-rice pioneer Yuan Longping backs genetically modified foods", SCMP, 12 Jan 14.

Below is the full text of the evidence from scientific bodies on the safety of GMOs, which I summarised above.  It comes from Ramez Naam's blog.  You may well wonder, as I did, who is this fellow Ramez Naam?  As it happens he is a "computer scientist, futurist and award-winning author".  But it hardly matters who he is. What matters is that he cites credible authorities and that the links to those authorities check out.  That is not the case with the self-published "expert" Jeffrey M. Smith whose links to studies do not check out.  You might object that in citing "authorities" I'm making the error of argumentum ab auctoritate, argument from authority, not always they best way to press a point in debate.  But that's what we non-scientists, a.k.a. "the general public", are doing in both the cases of climate change and of GMOs.  We must, if we are not scientists, be guided by what the science says for global warming and for genetically modified foods.

The US National Academy of Sciences
This is the premier scientific body in the United States.  They have repeatedly found genetically modified food safe, noting that after billions of meals served, “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”
They’ve also found that genetically engineered crops are kinder to the environment than non-genetically engineered crops.  The National Academy of Science’s 2010 report, Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, found that GM crops planted to date had reduced insecticide use, reduced use of the most dangerous herbicides, increased the frequency of conservation tillage and no-till farming, reduced carbon emissions, reduced soil runoffs, and improved soil quality. The report said that, “Generally, GE (GMO) crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science
This is the largest organization made up of professional scientists in the United States, and also publisher of Science magazine, one of the two most respected scientific journals in the world.  The AAAS says “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.”
The American Medical Association
The premier body of physicians in the United States.  They have consistently found genetically modified foods as safe to eat as any other food, stating “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods”.
The European Commission
Europe is extremely anti-GMO.  But even there, the scientific community is clear that genetically modified foods are safe.  The scientific advisor to the European Comission has said “there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food”.
The European Commission’s 2010 report on genetically engineered food (based on independent research not funded by any biotech company) said: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”
Royal Society of Medicine
England’s top medical society, the British equivalent of the American Medical Association, published a review of all the information about genetically modified foods that concluded, “Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.”
The Largest Ever Review of Studies on GMOs
In 2013, a group of Italian scientists (from a country where no GMOs are grown) conducted the largest-ever survey of scientific information on genetically modified foods. They looked at 1,783 published research papers, reviews, and reports on GMOs. What they found was no evidence of harm.
“The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”
The French Supreme Court
The French Supreme Court isn’t a scientific body, but I mention them here because their recent decision was so remarkable.  France is a very anti-GMO country.  Yet the French Supreme Court struck down France’s GMO ban, ruling that the government had shown no credible evidence of any harm to humans or the environment.  You can read about that here.
World Health Organisation: "Frequently Asked questions on genetically modified foods", here.