For several months, there’s been heated controversy in California over Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would require labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods in that state. Not surprisingly, Monsanto, Du Pont, and the other manufacturers of these novel products — joined by major corporations like Pepsi and General Mills whose products contain ingredients derived from them — have committed tens of millions of dollars to a massive advertising campaign to defeat this measure. Equally unsurprising, these ads contain several distortions and are highly deceptive. But what has surprised many people is the fact that the American Association for the Advancement of Science also decided to lend its weight to the anti-labeling campaign. On October 20, the association’s Board of Directors issued a statement concluding that mandatory labeling of GM foods “can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.” But what’s truly misleading is the purportedly science-based statement that’s supposed to support this conclusion. Following is the open letter I’ve sent to the Board pointing out the main falsehoods in their statement and demanding that they retract them and set the record straight
An Open Letter to the Board of Directors
of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
Retract the Misrepresentations in Your Statement About Genetically Modified Foods
Although your statement of 20 October 2012 in opposition to the labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods professes to speak with scientific authority, it contains a number of false assertions in an attempt to portray them as safe. Because this statement was obviously intended to defeat a California ballot initiative that would require labeling of GM foods in that state, it’s important that you take steps to cure the confusion you’ve caused by acknowledging your errors and setting the record straight.
The following paragraphs describe the misrepresentations that must be rectified – and provide the actual facts.
The WHO has not declared that GM Foods are Safe –
and Several Eminent Organizations Have Cautioned about Their Risks
You state that the World Health Organization concluded that GM foods are “no riskier” than conventionally produced foods. But in reality, the WHO’s stated position is that “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods” and that their safety should therefore be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Moreover, you proclaim that “every respected organization” that has examined the evidence has also concluded that GM foods are “no riskier” than their conventional counterparts. This claim is astounding in light of the fact that several respected scientific organizations have concluded otherwise. For instance, the expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada issued an extensive report declaring (a) that it is “scientifically unjustifiable” to presume that GM foods are safe and (b) that the “default presumption” for every GE food should be that the genetic alteration has induced unintended and potentially hazardous side effects. In describing the report’s criticism of the current approach to regulating GM foods, the Toronto Star stated: “The experts say this approach is fatally flawed … and exposes Canadians to several potential health risks, including toxicity and allergic reactions.”
The British Medical Association has also expressed reservations about the safety of these novel products. As described in the British Medical Journal, the Association released a 2004 report stating that “more research is needed to show that genetically modified (GM) food crops and ingredients are safe for people and the environment and that they offer real benefits over traditionally grown foods.”
Even the evaluation conducted by the biotechnology task force of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that GM foods pose an unusual set of risks. This was exposed when the lawsuit headed by the public interest organization I direct forced the FDA to divulge its files. For example, Dr. Louis Pribyl of the FDA Microbiology Group wrote, “There is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering…” He added that some aspects of gene splicing “…may be more hazardous.” Dr. E.J. Matthews of the FDA’s Toxicology Group warned that GE plants could contain unexpected toxins that could “…be uniquely different chemicals that are usually expressed in unrelated plants.” Citing the potential for such unintended dangers, the Director of FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) called for GE products to be demonstrated safe prior to marketing. He stated: “… CVM believes that animal feeds derived from genetically modified plants present unique animal and food safety concerns.” He explained that residues of unexpected substances could make meat and milk products harmful to humans. Because of the potential for unexpected harmful effects, the FDA experts advised that every GE food should undergo rigorous testing to screen for them.
The pervasiveness of the concerns within the scientific staff is attested by a memo from an FDA official stating: “The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks.”
However, because the FDA has an explicit agenda “to foster” the biotechnology industry, its politically appointed administrators covered up their scientists’ warnings and professed themselves “not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way” (as made clear in its article “Genetically Engineered Foods,” published in FDA Consumer in 1993.) Thus, the FDA’s so-called determination that GM foods are as safe as conventional ones was not made by its scientists and was not based on scientific considerations. Rather, it was driven by political and economic pressures and guided by a deputy commissioner for policy who, as a partner in a major law firm, had previously represented Monsanto – and who was hired by Monsanto as a vice president after the FDA’s fraudulent policy was established.
The FDA Does Not Require any Safety Testing of GM Foods
You state: “In order to receive regulatory approval in the United States, each new GM crop must be subjected to rigorous analysis and testing.” And you indicate that the testing must demonstrate the foods are safe to eat. But, in actuality, the FDA does not regulate GM foods at all; and it doesn’t require any tests. Although federal law does require that foods containing novel additives must be proven safe prior to marketing, and although the FDA has acknowledged that crops with chunks of foreign DNA inserted into their genome come under the purview of this mandate, the agency has nevertheless failed to demand that GM foods be tested to any degree; and it has allowed them to be marketed without the proof of safety that the law prescribes.
Consequently, all submissions of data to the FDA by manufacturers of GM foods have been purely voluntary. Further, they’ve been too superficial to demonstrate safety; and the FDA has repeatedly acknowledged that this voluntary consultation process does not constitute a genuine scientific review (See Maryanski, J., “Safety Assurance of Foods Derived by Modern Biotechnology in the United States.” July 1996; and “Health risks of genetically modified foods,” The Lancet,May 29, 1999, at 1811.). Moreover, independent scientists who have analyzed the process have confirmed its inadequacy.
GM Foods Have Not Been Proven Safe – and Several Tests Have Raised Legitimate Concerns
Your claim that extensive testing has shown that eating GM foods is no riskier than eating conventional ones is also false. To support it, you rely on a statement in a report by the European Commission regarding 131 research projects the EU has funded. But you fail to note that only twenty-two of them related to food safety. Moreover, a team of independent reviewers (including two molecular biologists) who reviewed the ten most recent of these twenty-two has concluded: “Within those ten projects, there is astonishingly little data of the type that could be used as credible evidence regarding the safety or harmfulness of GM foods.” They found that only one of the projects resulted in published studies on GM food safety – and that these three studies “do not show the safety of GM food but rather give cause for concern.” What’s more, because none of the GM crops that are on the market were involved, even if the tests had demonstrated safety, the results could not be extended to any of the GM foods that people are actually consuming.
Further, none of the other 12 projects demonstrated food safety either. In fact, their titles indicate that they were primarily focused on evaluating test methodologies or gauging consumer attitudes. Thus, to the extent the EU report you’ve cited actually reflects on food safety, it goes against your claim.
Moreover, as numerous experts have recognized, not even one GM food has been demonstrated to be safe, let alone all of them. As David Schubert, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has recently written: “As a medical research scientist who published a comprehensive, peer-reviewed critique of genetically modified food safety testing, I can state confidently that it is false to say such foods and the toxic chemicals they require are extensively tested and proved safe. No producer-independent safety testing, long-term or multigenerational rodent studies or epidemiological studies have been done to support the hypothesis that these foods are safe.”
However, while no tests have proven any GM food safe, several have detected adverse effects on the test animals; and your assertion that none of these studies has “stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny” is yet another falsehood. As Dr. Schubert points out, there are several published studies “demonstrating toxicity” to rodents fed GM food. Such studies have stood up to the peer-review process of standard scientific journals, including the prestigious publication, The Lancet.
You Have a Duty to Retract Your Misrepresentations and Set the Record Straight
It’s disgraceful that the board of directors of one of the world’s leading scientific organizations has issued so many falsehoods in the name of science – and in a manner that has misled the public about a major issue of great concern. If you are truly dedicated to the advancement of science and the accurate presentation of facts, you will promptly and publicly acknowledge your errors, retract your false statements, and set the record straight.
Otherwise, you will demonstrate that you are far more devoted to advancing the GM food venture than to advancing science and honoring the truth.
Steven M. Druker, 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