The false controversy of GMO safety

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It’s difficult to imagine a future in which people don’t question scientific findings. For the most part, this skepticism is a good thing: it spurs debate, fosters discussion between the public and the scientific community, and ultimately increases public understanding of science. But when these inquiries are based on ideological judgments or fear, as is the case with the widespread apprehension about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), both scientists and science communicators must carefully craft public statements to prevent dangerous misinterpretations.

The potential consequences of skewing the public view of GMOs in one way or the other are difficult to overstate. If proponents are correct, GMOs could dramatically improve crop yields and even increase the nutrient content of foods. But many opponents claim GMOs may be carcinogenic and could harm human health in ways we can’t currently predict. Public opinion, which does not necessarily reflect the scientific consensus, is one of policy’s major driving forces. It follows that scientists and science writers have a responsibility to take the gravity of these possible outcomes seriously.

In particular, it’s crucial that science writers do not needlessly inflame the issue by failing to properly contextualize their conclusions. The New York Times recently published an investigative piece that revealed that numerous researchers on both sides of the GMO debate have financial relationships with industry. Despite the fact that industry ties are extremely common among academic scientists, especially those whose research has clear applications, disseminating this information is still important. People have a right to know—and researchers have a duty to report—when there may be conflicts of interest.

It may not be immediately clear how reporting these findings in any context could possibly cause harm, since the potential conflicts detailed in the article apply to both pro- and anti-GMO researchers. But when an issue becomes as emotionally charged as is the GMO debate, non-scientists and scientists both can fall victim to confirmation bias, incorporating mostly the evidence that aligns with their own preconceived notions. The seemingly balanced view presented in the New York Times article, which implies ethical corruption of researchers on both sides of the debate, is just a step away from the middle-ground fallacy.

There is no mention in the article of just what proportion of researchers supporting either claim have financial conflicts of interest, yet the number of words devoted to each side’s purported corruption is similar. More distressingly, the statement that “there is no evidence that academic work was compromised” is made only once and is buried far enough into the article that it’s easily missed. This gives proponents and opponents alike a way to discredit the other side’s arguments without evaluating them logically—both can claim that any research that doesn’t support their view is unreliable and biased beyond redemption.

Compounding the issue, researchers themselves often unwittingly contribute to false controversy by making themselves appear less than credible. There’s no way to prove it, but I suspect that one side of this multifaceted problem is the way scientists tend to interpret questions. Like many scientists I know, I’ve made a nasty habit of answering questions a little too literally. Maybe it’s a learned behavior that originated during my undergraduate studies, when grades teetered on technicalities in the interpretation of exam questions. Or maybe it’s a personality trait—one for which scientific training somehow selects. Either way, when I’m asked whether GMOs are dangerous, literal interpretation dictates my reply: “No.”

But of course, it’s not so simple. Many of my colleagues in the biological sciences have also joined this chorus of “no,” and it’s easy, from where we stand, to understand the reasons. We know that we mean that there’s no evidence and no scientific reason to suspect that GMOs are intrinsically harmful. (Of course, a GMO engineered to produce toxic compounds or allergens would not be safe.) But by responding this way, we’re not really answering the real question people are asking. It’s common knowledge that Monsanto, one of the largest and best-known GMO purveyors, has engaged in business practices that could be called ethically questionable at best. The use of specific GMOs, such as those that rely on extensive use of certain pesticides, might have harmful consequences. So when scientists say that GMOs are safe when we really mean that there is nothing inherently dangerous about genetic modification in itself, it only increases public mistrust.

If this seems like a quibble over semantics, consider the recent explosion of news articles purporting that octopuses have “alien” DNA. It’s clear that many of these articles descend from a single source, propagated by copycat writers who don’t bother to read or don’t have the expertise to understand the research on which they report. Nowhere in the original paper—which is open access, so anyone can read it—do the authors even use the word “alien” to describe octopus DNA. In fact, the octopus genome confirmed some long-suspected evolutionary relationships. Aside from being misleading, the completely baseless claims in the press that octopus DNA is so strange that it may as well be extraterrestrial are now being hijacked by intelligent design creationists, who assert that the research contradicts evolutionary theory even though the original article actually supports the opposite conclusion.

Given that it is a relatively new issue and has little to do with religion per se, it’s unlikely that most people’s pro- or anti-GMO views are as entrenched as those concerning creationism or evolution. To shift the public perception of this issue away from a black-and-white ideological debate, science communicators should take a cue from the factors that have led to the recent fluctuations in the public view of vaccine safety. The themes underlying concerns about GMO and vaccine safety are eerily similar. In both cases, there were assertions of conflicts of interest and methodological issues in research on both sides of the issue. Similarly, GMO- and vaccine-opponents often view large corporations with much to gain from the continued use of their products as the antagonists.

A major factor in restoring the positive public view of vaccine safety was undoubtedly the huge volume of accessibly written, thoroughly researched articles declaring that vaccines are extremely effective and have favorable safety profiles. Critically, these articles also emphasized the evidence that the main concerns about vaccine safety (particularly autism) were completely unfounded while also addressing the fact that some people, such as those with weakened immune systems or certain allergies, can actually be harmed by vaccines. The proliferation of these articles represents a change in course compared to earlier reports from many news outlets, a distressing fraction of which made it seem that pro- and anti-vaccine views were equally evidenced and worthy of consideration, mirroring the current state of writing on GMOs.

In the case of GMO safety, as in vaccine safety, the issue is much more than an academic squabble. Shifting the tide of public opinion in the wrong direction could have enduring repercussions. If past experience is any indication, anyone who writes about GMOs today must consider that every single word matters. This is not a topic on which it is journalistically appropriate to take a neutral stance in the interest of appearing unbiased. Stirring up false controversy, even unintentionally, can have a serious impact on public opinion, which shapes policy—and, as a result, the world.

© Nicole Haloupek 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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