The Royal Society (the United Kingdom's oldest science organization) has released a slick information guide pitching genetically modified organisms (GMO's). It's a document giving 18 answers to 18 questions about GMO's.
A page from the info guide
At the beginning of the document there is some cleverly worded text designed to make you think that the document is going to be a balanced look at the topic of GMO's. We are told that balanced focus groups were created:
There were eight groups in total and 66 members of the public took part. Participants were recruited for a range of views based on those for and against GM or who were undecided, in order to reflect the findings of a nationally representative survey on the subject.
But these focus groups were just kind of a smoke screen, because we are then told that “the following set of 18 questions was the outcome of the responses from the focus groups,” and that the answers to the questions were written by “a group of experts who have endeavored to ensure the answers are factual, as much as possible, and not associated with any value judgment.” So the focus groups were ignored when writing the answers to the questions. That's hardly a technique for providing a balanced examination of an issue. The claim that the answers in the document are “not associated with any value judgment” is misleading, because the answers do actually make value judgments such as favorable judgments about genetically modified crops.
The key question addressed is question 8, which is “Is it Safe to Eat GM Crops?” The following answer is given:
Yes. There is no evidence that a crop is dangerous to eat just because it is GM. There could be risks associated with the specific new gene introduced, which is why each crop with a new characteristic introduced by GM is subject to close scrutiny. Since the first widespread commercialisation of GM produce 18 years ago there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop.
Asking “Is it safe to eat genetically modified crops” is not asking the right question, because “is it safe” questions are so vague and debatable that almost any answer can be justified. Is it safe to drink three glasses of vodka a night, or to drive at 70 miles an hour on the highway, or to live in a beachfront house in Florida (where hurricanes are common)? It is easy to make a case for either the “yes” or “no” answers.
A much better question to ask is: is there a reasonable chance that you will be harmed if you consume genetically modified crops? The answer to this question is: yes, there is. Such a chance is probably much less than 50%, but it is substantial nonetheless. The roles that genes play are often extremely complex and obscure. It is not very unlikely that we may discover harmful effects from genetically modified food. While each genetically modified crop may be tested before it is released, there is still the possibility that eating certain combinations of genetically modified crops might turn out to be dangerous. Similarly, neither carbon nor oxygen is harmful in itself, but a certain combination of them (carbon monoxide) can be fatal.
A study published in 2012 found that a genetically modified crop and a herbicide it was engineered to be grown with caused severe organ damage and hormonal disruption in rats fed over a long-term period of two years. Eventual consequences for some of the rats included tumors. Published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the study was carried out by a team led by Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini. A kind of intellectual lynch mob quickly formed, led by pro-GMO interests, which caused the paper to be retracted. The incident was a great black mark on contemporary bio-science, and seems like a very troubling attempt at a cover-up. After a long delay another scientific journal published the study. See here for other information about the study.
We hear no specific mention of Seralini's research in the long Royal Society document on GMO's. The Royal Society document inconsistently states the following about genetically modified foods (GM):
Since the first widespread commercialisation of GM produce 18 years ago there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop....There have been a few studies claiming damage to human or animal health from specific foods that have been developed using GM.
The second statement contradicts the first statement, particularly since the Royal Society document does nothing to dispute these “studies claiming damage to human or animal health from specific foods that have been developed using GM” other than to weakly note they have been “challenged.”
Should we think that genetically modified foods are very safe on the grounds that “Since the first widespread commercialisation of GM produce 18 years ago there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop”? Not necessarily. As they say in the investment industry, “Past results do not guarantee future results.” The fact that something hasn't yet produced much harm doesn't show it won't produce harm in the future. The passengers on the fatal flights of the Hindenberg and the Challenger probably thought they were safe, on the grounds they were using technology which hadn't failed in quite a long while.
Beware of experts telling you something is safe based on a past performance record. At about the beginning of 2008, the financial experts such as Standard and Poor's told us that CMO tranches were a very safe investment, based on their previous performance record. But in 2008 such investments experienced a disastrous large-scale failure, with defaults aplenty, and investors losing billions. If something unexpected like that happens with genetically modified foods, we might see a large-scale loss of life.
Question 13 of the 18 questions asks this about genetically modified crops: “GM crops have only been around for 20 years, might there still be unexpected and untoward side effects?” The answer given by the Royal Society document is: yes. So if there might be unexpected and untoward side effects from eating genetically modified crops, as the Royal Society document admits in answering Question 13, why was the answer it gave to question 8 (“Is It Safe to Eat GM Crops?”) a simple “Yes” answer? Given what the Royal Society has answered for question 13, it seems that the answer to question 8 (“Is It Safe to Eat GM Crops?”) should have not been a simple “Yes, “ but instead something like, “Probably, but there may be unexpected and untoward side effects from eating genetically modified crops.”
See this link for a critical analysis of the deficiencies of the Royal Society document on GMO's, which has some notable omissions and inconsistencies.
The Royal Society information guide answers 18 questions about genetically modified food, but it doesn't answer the question below, which would make a useful addition to their guide.
Their guide left out this Question 19Postscript: A recent ethically troubling news story tells us, "The blueprint for life - DNA - has been altered in human embryos for the first time in the UK." This raises the question: what will they do with the monsters that will result from trial-and-error experimentation with DNA in human embryos? Will they coldly kill off such bad results, or lock them up, as suggested in the speculative visual below?