"Fear mongers" make good living by misrepresenting science, says GMO expert

In advance of his appearance at the upcoming Trottier Symposium (Sept. 28-29), GMO expert Kevin Folta spoke to the Reporter about genetically modified foods.
Dr. Kevin Folta is a Professor and the Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida.
Dr. Kevin Folta is a Professor and the Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida.

Dr. Kevin Folta is a Professor and the Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida and one of this year’s speakers at the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium (Sept. 28-29). His talk, Marketing a Mistrust of the Safest Food Supply in History, will focus on the rising perception of danger that accompanies genetic modification in our food supply, despite any actual evidence supporting this. These suspicions are not driven by science, but rather marketing strategies designed to promise a certain lifestyle and healthy alternative. In advance of the Trottier Symposium, Folta spoke to the Reporter.

Get more information about the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium

What is your view on labeling of genetically modified foods?

Labels provide important information to consumers about the content of the food inside, and current FDA rules require any potentially harmful ingredients to be noted on the label. However, it has been widely shown that ingredients derived from transgenic (GM) plants are equivalent, or virtually equivalent, to those form non-transgenic sources. Since they are the same, there is no reason to differentiate them with labels that simply identify different ways to get to an identical product.

Furthermore, it will be costly and perhaps challenging to test foods labeled as non-GM, to ensure the content matches the label. For example, GM sugar and non-GM sugar will be almost impossible to reliably separate with tests, because sucrose (table sugar) contains no DNA or protein. Furthermore, the laws proposed have been designed with huge numbers of exemptions, and often have technical flaws and bad definitions.

Perhaps the most compelling reason is that those not wishing to consume ingredients from transgenic plants can purchase the well-labeled Non-GMO Project items or those labeled organic. They already have that choice without a new, clunky infrastructure.

A fair, informative and helpful system could potentially be devised. However, all efforts so far are activist inspired, and seek to differentiate products, preceding organized boycotts and bans. That has been clearly articulated. To a scientist, it seems like a way to identify safe, wholesome food so that it could be separated from other safe, wholesome food. Not a great reason to create new laws and accompanying bureaucracy.

What do you think of Scotland’s decision to ban the growing of genetically modified crops?

Scotland’s decision is an example of how malleable politicians will make a popular stand to garner votes and warm fuzzy feelings in defiance of science. Scotland has very little, if any, agriculture that would benefit from transgenic crop technologies at this time, so it is easy to opt out of something you don’t have an immediate need for. It is kind of like a chef taking a visible stand on not buying a construction helmet.

The problem is that it now handcuffs Scottish farmers in the event a transgenic solution could be meaningful, such as if a crop they grow suddenly faces a catastrophic problem. Potatoes resistant to key pests are in development, and could cut the massive use of fungicides and insecticides used to grow potatoes. These environmentally-friendly, more sustainable GM products will not be available to Scottish growers. It should be noted that this is only a ban on growing the crops. There is no mention to ban imports of such crops, because significant imports of soy and corn are used to feed livestock, as is true across the EU.

Much has recently been made of glyphosate, the herbicide used on genetically engineered herbicide resistant crops, being declared a “probable human carcinogen.” What is your view on the risks of glyphosate for the population?

What you are seeing is a shift of activist attention from the crops to one of the chemicals used in some of the cultivation. The crops have had an undeniably perfect health safety record, and those opposed to the technology find themselves in a difficult position to substantiate claims. They now wish to manufacture risk around glyphosate, the herbicide used in growing many of them.

The IARC re-classification as a “probable carcinogen” was a surprise to anyone that has studied the hundreds of independent safety assessments and experimental trials. It appears the decision was made based on an extremely limited number of studies that report tenuous associations with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. No causal mechanism has been identified or proposed.

This extremely conservative re-classification places glyphosate as a comparable hazard to third-shift work, cell phones or working in a hair salon.

This reclassification only recognizes glyphosate as a potential, probable hazard. This has become a flashpoint for activists to scare concerned citizens, as they now can build a thin, poorly understood link to a dread disease. What they fail to mention is that we have almost no exposure to this herbicide. More exposure likely comes from residential use compared to food-borne residues. In an agricultural setting the product is sprayed on weeds and crop plants early in their development, and is not sprayed on GM crop plants after they flower — so none is sprayed on the plant parts we eat. Residues, if present, are present approximately ten-thousand times below the levels known to cause biological effects.

In other words, you are not exposed to meaningful doses. If you are, you are encountering a risk on-par with a cell phone.

This product has been used safely to cut farm costs for forty years, with lower environmental impacts than previous-generation herbicides. It is always good to reassess and re-investigate the safety of agricultural chemicals. However, the IARC decision seems to overstep the available data, and the decision certainly has provoked a disproportionately negative reaction from those wishing to vilify farming and ag chemicals.

How do you think scientifically uneducated GMO fear mongerers like the “Food Babe” should be handled by the scientific community?

Scientists always have made the mistake of fighting scientific illiteracy with a deluge of hard science information. While that seems to make sense, we can’t use evidence alone to change the minds of people that don’t make decisions based on evidence.

The fear mongers make a good living off of misrepresenting science, so they are quick to marginalize scientists that seek to clarify food issues. We’re not used to having facts refuted without parallel evidence, so this puts scientists in a tricky situation to respond effectively. We usually just drop out of the conversation, as it is a no-win situation.

But now we’re realizing that it is critical for a scientific community (and science enthusiasts) to bring soft and effective conversation, and stand in opposition to such claims. Inflammatory or angry opposition just alienates the people we need to inspire most. We need to come as teachers that share the same interests in food, farming and health, only with a relatable evidence-based approach. Start from shared interests and concerns, talk about the values we all have in common, and then show how science and technology can help satisfy those issues.

When you have evidence and truth there’s no reason to get too nasty, and as tempting as it is to simply fire an angry response to someone making silly claims, it is important to remember that others are watching. Our responses as caring teachers are compelling and effective to those that are just concerned about their food.

Get more information about the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium.

Q&As with other speakers at the Lorne Trottier Public Symposium

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