Did green groups learn anti-GMO tactics from climate sceptics?
By Peter Teffer
Environment NGOs often cast doubt about the safety of GMOs but do their claims about the lack of scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified products stand up?
Organisations such as Greenpeace regularly say that the researchers who carry out scientific studies that find results in favour of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are often not independent and paid for by biotechnology companies.
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However, the research NGOs use as proof of their claim there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety could be discredited with the same accusations.
There are many non-scientific arguments which countries put forward for not introducing GMOs onto their territory - the issue is an emotive one in several member states.
The European Commission published a proposal on Wednesday (22 April) giving national governments the power to ban the import of specific GMOs even if they have been approved in the EU-wide authorisation process.
The arguments by opposing member states, says the commission paper, “have usually nothing to do with science, but rather concern other aspects of the societal debate in their country”.
According to a review of 1,783 scientific papers on the safety of genetically modified – sometimes called genetically engineered (GE) – crops, the technology appears safe.
“The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops; however, the debate is still intense”, said the review.
What is consensus?
Greenpeace is one of the NGOs challenging the claim that the scientific community has reached a consensus on the issue.
This website sat down with food campaigner Franziska Achterberg and spokesperson Luisa Colasimone in their office in Brussels.
When asked what Greenpeace's main evidence was for the claim there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety, they referred to an article titled: 'No scientific consensus on GMO safety'.
The six page statement refers to 37 scientific articles or reports. It says “the claimed consensus is shown to be an artificial construct that has been falsely perpetuated”.
“For each issue, they are saying for each evidence there is counter-evidence”, noted Achterberg.
“It's not [just] one article. It's one statement that refers to a large number of articles”, added Colasimone.
But the article does not refer to the review of 1,783 scientific papers, or other statements by scientists that there is a scientific consensus.
So why is Greenpeace embracing the scientific consensus on climate change, but challenging it on GMO safety?
“The thing is: your reasoning is correct in the conclusion”, said Colasimone.
“The problem is in the starting point. You are starting with the assumption that those studies that you are referring to are totally independent. Independent studies on GMO safety are very rare. The majority of the studies conducted are financed by the biotech industry.”
But an EU commission report from 2010, which looked at 10 years of EU-funded research on the matter, noted “a growing body of evidence that biotechnology is not more risky than alternative technologies”.
“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 e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”
Greenpeace’s Colasimone notes that the ‘No consensus’ article has 313 signatories.
“It's important, because it's not one person saying there are all these studies. There are at least 300 scientists, recognising there is a very large number of studies getting to different conclusions,” she said.
But the independence of those signatories can also be questioned, as well as the depth of their membership in the scientific community.
Even though the statement says it has a “broad community of independent scientific researchers and scholars” behind it, the list of signatories include several activists, a campaigner for the European Parliament's Greens group, and 50 medical doctors.
Medical doctors are a part of the scientific community, Colasimone said, because they “studied medicine”.
The two Greenpeace activists focused their arguments on the independence of the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa), which looks at the scientific evidence to determine whether to give a positive or negative review on a GMO.
“The Efsa board is also made up of people who have links with the industry. That doesn't make them necessarily objective,” said Colasimone.
Meanwhile, a discussion can be had over what scientific consensus actually means in practice.
Anne Glover, the previous EU commission's chief scientific adviser, notes that she uses “the Oxford English Dictionary definition of consensus, namely, 'general agreement'."
“In those terms, there is consensus that GM technology is safe,” she wrote in an email exchange with this website.
“We use the technology widely in research, to produce pharmaceuticals, biologically useful compounds and also GM foods and feedstuff”, she added
She also pointed out that even if all the 313 of the ‘no consensus’ signatories were members of the scientific community, there are millions of scientists.
So if opponents want to prove there is no consensus in terms of the number of scientists, they would need to provide a much greater number of dissenting views.
“A few 100 or a few 1,000 signing statements saying they disagree with something does not challenge the idea of a general agreement, i.e. consensus,” said Glover.
Climate change tactics
Last summer, Greenpeace and other NGOs accused Glover of providing "one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture".
This type of argument is similar to how climate change deniers target climate scientists.
Statements that dispute the scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming have been signed by several thousands, including those that Greenpeace would refer to as the scientific community, namely people who have graduated with a science degree.
Greenpeace dismisses such petitions and refers to the scientific consensus.
However, the NGO does not entirely dispel the impression it is arguing that a certain number of signatories with university degrees is a relevant fact in one case (GMOs), but irrelevant in another (climate change).
“I will get back with an answer to that”, Achterberg said.
“I think it's an important point. Are we selective in using science - I would definitely argue we're not.”
A day after the interview, Achterberg sent an e-mail referring again to the ‘No consensus’ article, and some additional links.
One was a link to a report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development, a group of 400 scientists.
The report says that the “environmental impacts of GM crops are inconclusive” and that there “are a limited number of properly designed and independently peer-reviewed studies on human health … some have provided evidence for potential undesirable effects”.
But one fact is clear: in the EU there is general doubt among the public about the safety of GMOs.
A 2010 poll by the commission showed that 59 percent of those Europeans surveyed said they thought GM food was not safe for their or their family's health. The results ranged from 80 percent in Latvia, to 64 percent in Germany, down to 37 percent in Malta.
“The point is, there is a dispute among scientists. There is a dispute about safety, and there is a dispute about whether or not there is consensus. For me, the safest statement to say here, is there is no consensus across scientists”, said Achterberg.
But in doing so, the NGOs have adopted a method for which they have heavily criticised in climate change deniers.