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Points to Consider: The Worldwide Scientific Consensus on GMO Safety

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Ideological opponents to crops improved through biotechnology work very hard to convince people of their alleged dangers. They are hampered in these efforts by the existence of a robust, worldwide consensus on the safety of these crops and the foods derived from them. They claim, therefore, that this consensus does not exist, and hold up a variety of alleged authorities who deny the consensus to argue that it doesn’t exist. We take a closer look.

ORIGINAL PAPER: European Network of Scientists for Social & Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) Statement: No scientific consensus on GMO safety  

PRIMARY CLAIMS OF THE ORIGINAL PAPER:

  • There is no consensus among scientists on the safety of crops and foods improved through biotechnology.
  • The scientific studies claimed to show the safety of GMOs have been bought and paid for by industry.

SALIENT FACTS & CONTEXT:  

  • What does “consensus” mean? Per Miriam Webster Dictionary “the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned.”
  • There most definitely is a global scientific consensus on the safety of crops and foods derived through biotechnology on the market today. It is wide, deep, and extraordinarily strong.
  • This consensus follows from decades of research by scientists in academia, publicly funded research institutes and organizations, as well as industry laboratories. They all reach the same conclusions
  • If it were the case that questions of scientific fact were decided by the number of signatures on petitions, then the ENSSER statement would be outweighed by numerous others arguing there is a consensus on safety:

PUBLISHED ANALYSIS AND REBUTTAL:

  • A recent meta review by independent Italian scientists: summarizes the global consensus on GMO safety:

http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Nicolia-20131.pdf

  • The Genetic Literacy project argues that GM foods are among the most analyzed subjects in science:

http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/08/with-2000-global-studies-confirming-safety-gm-foods-among-most-analyzed-subject-in-science/#.U2qFo4FdVLD

  • Indeed, the consensus supporting the safety of crops and foods improved through biotechnology is, if anything, stronger than that behind anthropogenic climate change.

http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/07/08/climate-change-vs-gmos-comparing-the-independent-global-scientific-consensus/

  • “Indeed, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods; and if there are unforeseen environmental effects – none have appeared as yet – these should be rapidly detected by our monitoring requirements. On the other hand, the benefits of these plants and products for human health and the environment become increasingly clear.”
  • European Commission, Press Release of 8 October 2001, announcing the release of 15-year study:

http://ec.europa.eu/research/fp5/eag-gmo.html

  • The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies:

http://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/pdf/a_decade_of_eu-funded_gmo_research.pdf

  • A powerful rebuttal of the claim that the only studies showing GMO safety are industry funded:

http://realfoodorg.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/about-those-industry-funded-gmo-studies/

  • An independent blog summarizes some of the long term feeding studies alleged not to have been done:

http://www.skepticink.com/smilodonsretreat/2012/10/24/a-survey-of-long-term-gm-food-studies/

ADDITIONAL REPRESENTATIVE VOICES:

  • “Indeed, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods; and if there are unforeseen environmental effects – none have appeared as yet – these should be rapidly detected by our monitoring requirements. On the other hand, the benefits of these plants and products for human health and the environment become increasingly clear.”

–European Commission, Press Release of 8 October 2001, announcing the release of 15 year study incl 81 projects/70M euros, 400 teams (http://ec.europa.eu/research/fp5/eag-gmo.html and http://ec.europa.eu/research/fp5/pdf/eag-gmo.pdf )

  • “…because the technique is so sophisticated, in many ways it is probably safer for you to eat GM products – plants that have been generated through GM – than normal plant foods, if you have any sort of reaction to food, because you can snip out the proteins that cause the negative reaction to certain parts of the population.”

–Sir David King, Chief Science Advisor, UK. The Guardian Unlimited, 27 November 2007 http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/Story/0,,2217712,00.html

  • “In contrast to adverse health effects that have been associated with some traditional food production methods, similar serious health effects have not been identified as a result of genetic engineering techniques used in food production. This may be because developers of bioengineered organisms perform extensive compositional analyses to determine that each phenotype is desirable and to ensure that unintended changes have not occurred in key components of food.” (p. x).

–National Academy of Sciences, 2004. Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. National Research Council, Washington DC. 256pp. ISBN 0-309-53194-2. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10977.html.

  • “…in consuming food derived from GM plants approved in the EU and in the USA, the risk is in no way higher than in the consumption of food from conventionally grown plants. On the contrary, in some cases food from GM plants appears to be superior in respect to health.”

— Union of the German Academies of Science and Humanities. Commission Green Biotechnology, InterAcademy Panel Initiative on Genetically Modified Organisms. Group of the International Workshop Berlin 2006. “Are there health hazards for the consumer from eating genetically modified food?” at http://www.interacademies.net/Object.File/Master/6/749/GMGeneFood.pdf

  • “If we look at evidence from [more than] 15 years of growing and consuming GMO foods globally, then there is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that’s pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food.”

Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser, European Commission, 2012

  • “GMO products have been tested to a particularly high extent and are subjected to rigid legislation control.”

–Commission on Green Biotechnology, Union of the German Academies of Science & Humanities

  • “Food from GM Maize is more healthy than from conventionally grown maize… samples with the highest fumonisin concentrations are found in products labeled ‘organic.’ ”

–Commission on Green Biotechnology, Union of the German Academies of Science & Humanities, at www.abic2004.org/download/reportongmohazards.pdf

  • “…the dangers of unintentional DNA mutation are much higher in the process of conventional plant breeding… than in the generation of GM plants. Furthermore, GM products are subject to rigid testing with livestock and rats before approval.”

–Commission on Green Biotechnology, Union of the German Academies of Science & Humanities, at www.abic2004.org/download/reportongmohazards.pdf

  • “Whereas for conventional varieties there is no legal requirement for allergy tests of their products, for GMO products, very strict allergy tests are mandatory… For this reason, the risk of GM plants causing allergies can be regarded as substantially lower than that of products from conventional breeding.”

–Commission on Green Biotechnology, Union of the German Academies of Science & Humanities, at www.abic2004.org/download/reportongmohazards.pdf

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Signers of the ENSSER petition are notable for the extent to which the population is enriched for those lacking relevant background or expertise to sustain informed opinions in the area. See the list of signatories with their qualifications and credentials.

As documented in the sources above, virtually every authoritative scientific body in the world that has examined the safety of crops and foods derived through biotechnology has concluded they are as safe as any other foods. In an attempt to negate this consensus, opponents routinely cite The American Academy Of Environmental Medicine, which has taken an opposing position. But the AAEM is neither influential nor highly regarded, and has been listed by Quackwatch as a “Questionable Organization.” It does not represent a recognized specialty, and is not widely recognized  as a reliable source.

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About the author

L. Val Giddings is a senior fellow at ITIF with three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He is also president and CEO of PrometheusAB, Inc., providing consulting services on biotechnology issues to governments, multilateral organizations, and industry clients. Before founding PrometheusAB, he served eight years as vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization and a decade as a regulatory official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Giddings received his Ph.D. in genetics and evolutionary biology from the University of Hawaii in 1980.
  • guest

    What do you mean by this statement? “Signers of the ENSSER petition are notable for the extent to which the population is enriched for those lacking relevant background or expertise to sustain informed opinions in the area.” The nearly 300 signatures are scientists: biologists, chemists, geneticists, medical doctors, etc.