Common sense speaks louder than pseudoscience
By KEVIN RICHARDS
For the Capital Press
The French philosopher Voltaire famously said, "Common sense is not so common." Activists trying to disprove the safety of agriculture biotechnology seem devoted to proving his witticism.
Another so-called study, released this month by one of Voltaire's countrymen, purports to show that a steady diet of biotech-enhanced corn causes tumors in lab rats. Sadly, the truth is the study is little more than blatant anti-technology propaganda, and the lead researcher is an activist with a reputation for playing fast and loose with the scientific method when it comes to agriculture biotechnology.
The study, published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal, hit the media on Sept. 19. Despite attempts by the authors to quell scientific scrutiny, the study was immediately questioned and comprehensively discredited by every reputable scientific source that has weighed in. Defects in the study are so frequent and obvious that a full list would be comical if not for the harm intended by the deliberately faulty science.
For example, the researchers chose a type of rat used in cancer research that has been bred to increase susceptibility to tumors; rats in control groups were so few and inconsistently analyzed to render the results statistically meaningless; and, perhaps most revealingly, when releasing the study, the authors attempted to stack the deck by asking friendly journalists to agree not to seek opinions from independent experts.
Such are the tactics used today by anti-science activists devoted to rolling back technological advances in agriculture. They have no use for the staples of thoughtful analysis: defensible science, sound economics and an appreciation for actual consumer, industry and environmental impacts.
Unfortunately, bad science can still make good headlines. The faulty French study is making its way through the typical sympathetic media outlets where activists are also calling for a moratorium on biotech regulatory approvals. Russia, in a very opportunistic trade move, has already announced it was suspending imports of certain varieties of biotech corn as a result. And the study is fueling the Prop 37 campaign in California, which intends to further frighten consumers with misleading food labels.
What can defenders of agricultural biotechnology say and do when faced by such a shocking barrage of misinformation? Let's look at five points.
* Genetic modification of food is not new. Recombinant DNA methods are just the latest in a long progression aimed at improving species for the benefit of mankind, starting with domestication of crops and livestock and including selective breeding and more recent gene modification techniques. Indeed, today's biotechnology is actually more precise and predictable than other cruder yet less regulated methods from the past.
* The overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety of modern biotechnology is unequivocal. After reviewing decades of research spanning hundreds of studies, the European Commission -- not a polity known for its friendliness toward biotechnology -- recently concluded that biotech foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences agree.
* Agriculture products derived from biotechnology are the most thoroughly reviewed and strictly regulated in history. In the U.S., the Agriculture Department, the Environment Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration share responsibilities for rigorously evaluating the human and environmental safety of biotech crops and food.
* The benefits of agriculture biotechnology are vast and undeniable. With adoption rates in the U.S. hovering at 90 percent for corn, soybeans and cotton, farmers have resoundingly endorsed biotechnology as a tool to improve yield and profitability by reducing the use of costly inputs, improving weed management and reducing tillage for better soil, water and air quality. Denying the potential of biotechnology would require putting incredible demand on scarce environment resources while depriving consumers--including those in the poorest regions of the world--of a more affordable and higher quality food supply.
* Finally, farmers and ranchers have been feeding literally billions of livestock genetically engineered corn and soybeans for almost two decades without any evidence of health risks. For the record, that is a slightly larger sample size than the French research team's rat feeding study.
When it comes to the safety and benefits of biotechnology there is factual track record. You don't have to be a molecular biologist to exercise a little common sense.
Kevin Richards is director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation specializing in biotechnology, sustainable agriculture and international environmental agreements.