Over the last four months, 121 Nobel laureates have signed a letter extolling the safety and benefits of GM crops. Prof David Schubert and Steven M. Druker, JD explain why they consider the letter an affront to science and the public trust.
Over the last four months, 121 Nobel laureates have signed a letter extolling the safety and benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops and alleging that organizations and individuals that don’t support their unfettered introduction are committing a “crime against humanity”. The campaign to obtain the signatures was organized by Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs, who, with assistance from Monsanto’s former head of corporate communications, staged a press conference in Washington, D.C. to publicize the letter.
Not surprisingly, this letter has had a major impact. However, although it purports to be science-based, most of its chief assertions are demonstrably false.
Among them is the claim that scientific and regulatory agencies have “consistently” found that GM crops are “as safe or safer” than conventional ones. This is clearly untrue, and multiple scientific panels have concluded otherwise. For instance, an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada asserted that the “default prediction” for every GM food should be that it contains unintended and potentially harmful side effects. Other respected institutions, such as the British Medical Association and the Public Health Association of Australia have also expressed concerns, with the Australian association calling for an “indefinite freeze” on GM crops until their safety has been demonstrated. Most recently, Vladimir Putin, on the advice of Russian scientists, signed a ban on GM crops into law.
Equally false is the letter’s assertion that “there has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals” caused by consuming a GM product. In fact, many people died and thousands were sickened by a food supplement of tryptophan produced from GM bacteria. And a large body of peer-reviewed scientific literature demonstrates adverse health effects on laboratory and farm animals caused by GM foods, as well as by chemicals required for their cultivation.
Bogus claims about GMO golden rice
The letter’s claims about the only GM product it specifically mentions, Golden Rice, are also bogus. That product, which is designed to overproduce beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, was developed in hopes of solving the widespread vitamin A deficiency in parts of Asia, which can lead to blindness and even death. Astonishingly, the letter insinuates not only that the rice will solve the problem, but that those who question its safety have unconscionably caused millions of deaths by blocking its use. Yet, in reality, it’s not in circulation because it hasn’t performed well and is nowhere near readiness; and the International Rice Research Institute has stated it’s still unclear whether the rice is capable of curing the deficiency.
Furthermore, even if this GM rice were fully efficacious and ready, from the perspective of a scientist who has studied beta-carotene in the context of brain development (a perspective one of us possesses), it should be delayed because it poses a major health risk.
First, as recognized by the recent National Academy of Science (NAS) report on GM crops, the type of modification required to make golden rice is prone to generate unwanted byproducts. Second, some of the rice’s abundant byproducts will likely be related to retinoic acid, a compound that causes birth defects even at ultra-low levels. Perhaps more worrisome, proponents apparently want to feed this experimental rice to multitudes of children without first performing rigorous testing to make sure that it won’t harm mice!
The letter’s other main claims are contrary to fact as well. For example, it boasts that GM crops are “less damaging to the environment” and are necessary to “feed the world”. But in reality, GM monocropping and the high levels of herbicides it requires have decimated the population of monarch butterflies, induced the development of herbicide-resistant superweeds, and contaminated the bodies of the human population in the developed world with glyphosate: a toxin, endocrine disrupter, and potential carcinogen. Moreover, an extensive study sponsored by the World Bank and four United Nations agencies determined that GM crops are not needed to feed the world and that sustainable agroecological techniques should instead be utilized.
So why would more than a hundred Nobel laureates sign a grossly inaccurate letter that was apparently intended to suppress serious discussion about the risks of GM foods?
The most likely explanation is they were not aware of the relevant facts, trusted that the letter was accurate, and assumed they were upholding science and supporting an important humanitarian cause. A substantial percentage are physicists and economists (one even received her prize for literature). We’d be willing to bet that none of the biologists was aware of the pertinent facts either — and that if they had been adequately informed, they would not have lent their names to such a devious public relations ploy. We’re also confident that if they knew the truth about golden rice, and how questionable it is, they would not promote it unless it had gone through extensive safety testing in animals and there was a rigorous post-release monitoring program in place.
It would be a shame if their unfairly obtained endorsements afford the deceptive letter an aura of scientific authority it doesn’t deserve — and persuade policy makers to weaken the current set of regulations that are already inadequate to screen for the abnormal risks of GM crops about which so many independent experts have warned. While GM technology may have valuable applications in fields such as medicine, its current use in food production entails substantial risks that are routinely misrepresented. The letter signed by the laureates does not reflect reality, and they should confirm this fact for themselves and then denounce it as an affront to science and the public trust.
David Schubert, PhD
Professor, Salk Institute for Biological Studies
La Jolla, CA 92037
Steven M. Druker, JD
Executive Director, Alliance for Bio-Integrity
Author of Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public
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