Richard Green on the Scientific Consensus and GMOs
Please allow Richard to introduce himself and to give his motivations for writing this article:
“I’m a long time reader but a first time writer. I’m a microbiologist by education and spent my career in biopharmaceuticals. When it comes to genetically engineering and agriculture I’m an interested layman who is learning as he goes. I’ve often seen people reference organizations that support the GMO consensus but usually it is with a meme or only a couple of organizations. What I wanted was a link that referenced a nice number of them, and had a more neutral tone. Since I couldn’t find one I thought I’d make one instead.”
Scientific Consensus and GMOs
The information on a scientific consensus is easy enough to find, but for the topic of GMOs it is in multiple places, and more often than not, misinformation comes up first on Internet searches. So I thought I’d assemble the data I’ve found useful in one easy to reference location.
What follows is a discussion of scientific consensus and what it means in relation to GMOs. I’ve broken it into segments using the Q&A format as a convention.
What is scientific consensus?
What is a scientific consensus? What follows is an explanation derived from various discussions on the Internet. The text that inspired, and much of the verbiage, of this description can be found here and here.
A scientific consensus indicates that scientists have stopped arguing among themselves. It means ideas have been tested and retested, points have been raised and refuted, and faulty hypotheses have been abandoned. The data is now clear enough that experts (people who may not necessarily like or want to agree with each other) can look at it and interpret it the same way. It is not a popularity contest; it means the sheer weight of the compelling evidence has narrowed the avenues of research to areas that continue to make sense.
If you would like more detail on what a scientific consensus means, please refer to the Skeptical Raptor Blog.
Does the consensus mean that everyone agrees?
No. A scientific consensus is not complete unanimity. You will always find people who will deny the consensus for whatever reasons:
- Here is a petition that purports to have thousands of scientists that disagree with the consensus on climate change: Global Warming Petition Project
- Scientists that disagree with Evolution can be found here: 100 Scientists, National Poll Challenge Darwinism
- Of course there are those that disagree with the consensus on GMOs: ISIS Letter
If you are motivated, it is easy to deny a consensus. You can rally around a single study or cherry pick results. These tactics and others are outlined in the five elements of denialism.
As stated above, consensus is achieved through the sheer weight of compelling evidence. Gathering the signatures of scientists and others on statements, petitions or letters is not enough to counter consensus. What is needed is data. It is a bit trite, but when bucking a consensus, the extraordinary claim will require extraordinary evidence.
The scientific consensus can change as new evidence is revealed, but it requires confirmation of the new data. At one time Newton’s work was the consensus on gravity, but then Einstein came along with an improved model.
How do you find the scientific consensus?
That can be tricky. There are a lot of organizations with legitimate sounding names that will say they have the answer. Quackwatch has a long list of questionable organizations here. Sadly, it is only a partial list.
There is always reviewing the data first hand. But looking at hundreds of studies is not really practical, even if you have the technical background. A better option is to look at published overviews. I have lifted the reasons why from M. Brazeau’s blog on industry funded studies: “Literature reviews (video) and meta-analyses are a great way for getting a sense of the weight of the evidence on a given topic. They help us avoid single study syndrome and keep us from missing the forest for the trees.” Here is a PDF of one such overview.
But even these can be hard for a layperson to understand and are often hidden behind paywalls where you can only view the abstract. Abstracts alone might give you some sense of the study, but they can also be misunderstood when viewed alone. The entire investigation is needed to properly understand the context.
Another obstacle to a personal data review is that the Internet is a treacherous place when looking for scientific information. How do you know the study or website you’ve located is reliable? Not to worry, here are a few sites that can help you in sorting fact from the fiction: VirginiaTech guide, UC Berkeley guide, and GMO Skepti-Forum guide.
The most straightforward way to know the consensus on a topic is to review what respected scientific, medical, and regulatory organizations have determined. Let the experts be your guide.
What is the scientific consensus on GMOs?
Genetically engineered crops currently available to the public pose no greater health risks or environmental concerns than their non-engineered counterparts.
Organizations that support the scientific consensus on GMOs:
This is a partial list of well-respected organizations that have commented on genetically modified crops including a link to where they made the statement:
- American Association for the Advancement of Science: ”The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” (http://tinyurl.com/kkf277d)
- American Medical Association: ”There is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods. Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.” (http://bit.ly/166OUdM)
- The United States National Academy of Sciences: “Environmental effects at the farm level have occurred as a result of the adoption of GE crops and the agricultural practices that accompany their cultivation. The introduction of GE crops has reduced pesticide use or the toxicity of pesticides used on fields where soybean, corn, and cotton are grown.” (http://tinyurl.com/l75nmc2)
- World Health Organization: ”No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” (http://bit.ly/18yzzVI)
- The United States National Academy of Sciences: “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.” (http://tinyurl.com/m8muumm)
- American Phytopathological Society: ”The American Phytopathological Society (APS), which represents approximately 5,000 scientists who work with plant pathogens, the diseases they cause, and ways of controlling them, supports biotechnology as a means for improving plant health, food safety, and sustainable growth in plant productivity.” (http://bit.ly/14Ft4RL)
- American Society for Cell Biology: ”Far from presenting a threat to the public health, GM crops in many cases improve it. The ASCB vigorously supports research and development in the area of genetically engineered organisms, including the development of genetically modified (GM) crop plants.” (http://bit.ly/1ApHGEW)
- American Society for Microbiology: ”The ASM is not aware of any acceptable evidence that food produced with biotechnology and subject to FDA oversight constitutes high risk or is unsafe. We are sufficiently convinced to assure the public that plant varieties and products created with biotechnology have the potential of improved nutrition, better taste and longer shelf-life.” (http://bit.ly/13Cl2ak)
- American Society of Plant Biologists: ”The risks of unintended consequences of this type of gene transfer are comparable to the random mixing of genes that occurs during classical breeding… The ASPB believes strongly that, with continued responsible regulation and oversight, GE will bring many significant health and environmental benefits to the world and its people.” (http://bit.ly/13bLJiR)
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “FDA is confident that the bioengineered foods on the United States market today are as safe as their conventional counterparts.” (http://tinyurl.com/qzkpacd)
- Health Canada: “Health Canada is not aware of any published scientific evidence demonstrating that novel foods are any less safe than traditional foods.” (http://tinyurl.com/pou7ma6)
- Society of Toxicology: ”Scientific analysis indicates that the process of GM food production is unlikely to lead to hazards of a different nature than those already familiar to toxicologists. The level of safety of current GM foods to consumers appears to be equivalent to that of traditional foods.” (http://bit.ly/13bOaSt)
- International Seed Federation: ”The development of GM crops has benefited farmers, consumers and the environment… Today, data shows that GM crops and foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts: millions of hectares worldwide have been cultivated with GM crops and billions of people have eaten GM foods without any documented harmful effect on human health or the environment.” (http://bit.ly/138rZLW)
- Council for Agricultural Science and Technology: ”Over the last decade, 8.5 million farmers have grown transgenic varieties of crops on more than 1 billion acres of farmland in 17 countries. These crops have been consumed by humans and animals in most countries. Transgenic crops on the market today are as safe to eat as their conventional counterparts, and likely more so given the greater regulatory scrutiny to which they are exposed.” (http://tinyurl.com/o72hu84)
- Society for In Vitro Biology: ”The SIVB supports the current science-based approach for the evaluation and regulation of genetically engineered crops. The SIVB supports the need for easy public access to available information on the safety of genetically modified crop products. In addition, the SIVB feels that foods from genetically modified crops, which are determined to be substantially equivalent to those made from crops, do not require mandatory labeling.” (http://bit.ly/18yFDxo)
- American Dietetic Association: ”It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that agricultural and food biotechnology techniques can enhance the quality, safety, nutritional value, and variety of food available for human consumption and increase the efficiency of food production, food processing, food distribution, and environmental and waste management.” (http://1.usa.gov/12hvWnE) Update: The American Dietetic Association (ADA) has become The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). While the above statement reflected the ADA’s position the president of AND has stated that AND is currently neutral and has no position on GMOs.
- Federation of Animal Science Societies: ”Meat, milk and eggs from livestock and poultry consuming biotech feeds are safe for human consumption.” (http://bit.ly/133F79K)
- Consensus document on GMOs Safety (14 Italian scientific societies): ”GMOs on the market today, having successfully passed all the tests and procedures necessary to authorization, are to be considered, on the basis of current knowledge, safe to use for human and animal consumption.” (http://bit.ly/166WHYZ) Google translate (http://tinyurl.com/noawpkm)
- “Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture” – Prepared by the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences, and the Third World Academy of Sciences: “Foods can be produced through the use of GM technology that are more nutritious, stable in storage, and in principle health promoting – bringing benefits to consumers in both industrialized and developing nations.” (http://bit.ly/17Cliq5)
- French Academy of Science: ”All criticisms against GMOs can be largely rejected on strictly scientific criteria.” (http://bit.ly/15Hm3wO) Google translate (http://tinyurl.com/nwoztm8)
- International Society of African Scientists: ”Africa and the Caribbean cannot afford to be left further behind in acquiring the uses and benefits of this new agricultural revolution.” (http://bit.ly/14Fp1oK)
- Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities: ”Food derived from GM plants approved in the EU and the US poses no risks greater than those from the corresponding conventional food. On the contrary, in some cases food from GM plants appears to be superior with respect to health.” (http://bit.ly/17ClMMF)
- International Council for Science: ”Currently available genetically modified crops – and foods derived from them – have been judged safe to eat, and the methods used to test them have been deemed appropriate.” (http://tinyurl.com/na7ojbu)
Photo Credit: Biblioteca de la Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias del Trabajo | CC
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I have a question. I was debating about GMO’s on Facebook (as one does), and one of the GMO critics said that Monsanto has stipulations in some kind of agreement you sign when purchasing seeds that you will not be using it to publish critical research of their product. I’ve heard this in other places, is it true? If so how does it affect the studies from the associations above?
Hey there, thank you for the question. We’ve actually had that discussion on our forums before. I would suggest asking in our Facebook group to get a detailed answer as well as some useful sources: https://www.facebook.com/groups/GMOSF/
Someone might also be able to direct you to the previous thread if you ask.
You might also find the answer on our list of Facebook threads: http://wiki.skeptiforum.org/wiki/GMO_Skepti-Forum_Threads
This thread might be a good start: https://www.facebook.com/groups/GMOSF/permalink/356864584452798
If that was true, how could Seralini publish his results about Monsanto’s corn?
Because the intellectual property only extends to the seeds, not the corn.
It is true, but that stipulation only extends to the seeds. Once the crop is grown Monsanto loses all claim. So you could do any experiments you want on an ear of corn, but not on the seed you buy from them. They say say it has to do with protecting IP. Unless Monsanto knows something every other geneticist in the world knows, if you test the corn you’re basically testing the seed.
Hey Richard, this is great! The links to the sites and reports is extremely helpful. I have been using a link to an infographic from http://www.axismundionline.com:
And been meaning to track down links but you have saved me the trouble! Thank you
[…] Sadly, he also raises the canard that’s becoming popular among his allies, and among climate contrarians—that “consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough” as Earth Open Source claims. This is a despicable misrepresentation of the facts, as legitimate scientific organizations support the consensus on the safety of GMOs. […]
[…] digestibility a relatively straightforward process. These safeguards are doing their job, as the scientific consensus is quite clear, the currently approved GE crops pose no greater health or environmental concerns […]
[…] Consensus”: Another common point of confusion is when scientists say that there is a strong scientific consensus that climate change is happening and that it's being caused by human activity.Â When most people […]
There is the argument, that a lot of illnesses have risen since the introduction of GMOs (food allergies, cancer, autism etc etc). There seems to be some correlation. Is there evidence that this correlation is clearly not causational, or does the scientific consensus only say that so far we have not found any causation?
There has also been the rise in organic food over the same time period, so you can just as easily blame them.
There has also been the rise in organic food over the same time period
Evidence that organic food has become more popular over the same time period? Really?
a lot of illnesses have risen (sic) since the introduction of GMOs…There seems to be some correlation.
to which you replied
There has also been the rise in organic food over the same time period, so you can just as easily blame them. [for the rise in a lot of illnesses ].
Come now. You can
Sterling is likely pointing out the problem with conflating causes and correlations. It’s unlikely that Sterling is saying that the increase in organic food popularity is *causing* illness. Suggesting that correlation implies causation leads to many silly and fallacious conclusions. Using organic food is satire of using GMOs.
Given his history of avoiding actually answering any point that I make about his borderline tendention/mendacity, I think the chance of your interpretation being correct is low.
Just a thought.
No, I think my interpretation is quite accurate.
Correlation definetly implies causation.
For people who know what “implies” means, that is, and don’t repeat the mantra “correlation doesn’t imply causation” like parrots.
It just doesn’t nessecitate or prove causation. But it certainly does imply it.
That’s how we begin checking for a cause: by examining correlations between items.
I was joking, but pointing out that correlation arguments are stupid. Unless there is specific evidence for a claim, correlation is meaningless. I do not think organic food has any relation to illnesses, however the rise of organic food and the sale of organic food correlates with said illness rise.
Basically, I was jokingly pointing out that correlation is bad science and bad argumentation.
First, evidence that organic food (something mostly relegated to for weathy upper/middle classes) has seen the SAME levels of consumption as GMO food. If organic has 1/10 the consumption, then one could more easily say that the rise of GMO is most probable cause of those diceases than organic food.
Second, your argument doesn’t negate the probability that GMO might be a cause for those diceases. Just adds that organic food might be too.
So, how about both questions are answered?
It wouldn’t need to have the same level of consumption as GMOs. It would just need to correlate with the increase in illness.
And I wasn’t really making the argument. I was more pointing out how correlation is a stupid argument from the get go.
Hey everyone, I really feel that credit should have been given in this article, as there is a section which is copied verbatim from a little piece my co-admin wrote for IFHP. This post seems to have been inspired by it, which is great, but I do think credit was due! Here is his post: https://www.facebook.com/hatepseudoscience/posts/264020913745778
Thank you very much for letting me know! I’ve added the credit to the section and I’ll let the author know. I’m sincerely sorry for uncredited material on my website and that you had to step up to say something. I Fucking Hate Pseudoscience is a fantastic page, so I hope a lot of people go there. If there’s anything else I can do, please let me know.
I think that section should be a link to the URL that I just posted.
I would like to echo Knigel’s thanks. I’ve edited the section to reference two URLs from IFHP. I’m equal parts mortified and grateful. I could go over my faulty thinking that led me to believe that I would not be able to relocate the source of the language I so admired on consensus, but I’ll just cut to the chase and say I really blew it on that paragraph.
I am truly grateful to you for bringing this my attention, and should I be luckily enough to write another piece I will be scrupulous in my referencing.
For some reason it’s not letting me sign in as IFHP. But thanks very much for doing that – it is greatly appreciated!
Good write-up. 😀
(feel free to delete all these comments now if you’d prefer)
Sorry, I just switched over our comments to Disqus last night, so that’s why you wouldn’t be able to log in.
Thank you very much for understanding. Please let me know if you ever want anything posted on our website. I’d be happy to share your material 🙂
Cheers for that! I will let you know. It’s probably not the right thing for your page, but the thing I really need sharing at the moment is my crowdfunding appeal. Here’s a blog post I wrote about it. It’s supposed to be inspiring! If you felt like throwing a quid my way, I’d be really happy to have you in my blog audience. The idea is to share my degree with donors so that they can benefit directly from making a donation. http://hatepseudoscience.com/2014/06/28/life-is-short/
The blog post contains a link to my crowdfunding project page, where it’s easy to make a donation.
Cool, I’ll put that up on my Facebook wall 🙂
[…] who accepts the global consensus on global warming but falls short on accepting the global consensus on GE-crops. His vague cautions against unknown risks apply equally to creating new crops from any form of […]
[…] some computers might be used to commit identity theft. That being said, there is a clear scientific consensus on the safety of GMO products currently on the market. This consensus is solid enough that pundits […]
In which “science” suddenly turns into an IMAGINARY IDEAL instead of the dirty, filthy, unromantic reality,and the imaginary ideal then gets used as a proof behind academic fashion.
Bunch of cargo cultists.
[…] Richard Green on the Scientific Consensus and GMOs | www.skeptiforum.org […]
Thanks so much for this – just spent the past few hours reading statements like the ones you have linked to. FYI: The statement you have as coming from The Royal Society of Medicine is actually from a review published in the journal of the Royal Society for Medicine…ie a single paper with three authors, which is different than a proclamation by a scientific society. Given that the goal is to demonstrate scientific consensus, that may be important. Cheers.
[…] This is a good place to start exploring this idea: skeptiforum.org/richard-green-on-the-scientific-consensus-and-gmos. […]
[…] consensus on climate change, they belittle these same science institutions by denying the consensus on genetic engineering […]
[…] http://www.skeptiforum.org/richard-green-on-the-scientific-consensus-and-gmos/ […]
The quote below which is attributed to The Royal Society of Medicine found on many memes and elsewhere was initially included in the article. It has subsequently been removed, as the quote does not come from the Society but from a paper published in the Society’s journal. I’ve added it to the comments for those looking for a link to this common quote.
From the Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine: ”Foods derived from GM
crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for
more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to
human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of
countries, the USA.” (http://1.usa.gov/12huL7Z)
Richard, your links for the AMA and NAS do not lead to pages that confirm the quotes you’ve used. AMA is a login page and NAS page does not contain the quote.
Update: A good 50% of the links you’ve got here do not lead to the quote associated with each one.
I’ve checked over the links.
The American Society for Cell Biology was off and I’ve updated the link.
Sadly AMA now requires a log in to view the PDF but if you register and log in you can find the statement.
The others work well for me. I’m sorry you are having trouble locating the quotes on their respective pages. Thanks for letting me know.
I don’t really follow-up all that often so if the organizations change their websites sometimes a link may become out of date.
[…] not the dangerous horrible evil that many (embarrassingly, liberal) people say they are? Check out this and this. You’ll see an array of respected, non-profit, non-corporate-sponsored scientific […]
[…]  http://www.skeptiforum.org/richard-green-on-the-scientific-consensus-and-gmos/ […]
Great article and educational resource. I don’t know whether your webpage got hacked, but when I click on “GMO Skepti-Forum Guide”, I got directed to a porno website. You should probably correct this link.
Thanks for the heads up. The gmosf link was to our old website that was expired. Seems that someone else bought that domain and has screwed with my previous article link.
Here’s the correct link: http://skeptiforum.org/a-guide-to-looking-smart-on-the-internet-how-to-find-and-evaluate-online-information/
[…] community has a strong consensus that GMOs are as safe as anything else we could eat. See here for […]
Having read Green’s credentials, which are pretty mundane really. run of the mill qualification, first time writer and “learner as he goes”, I am much more convinced by the research and findings of Prof. Seralini when it comes to discussing the GMO issue. I think Green is contributing to the confusion that he purports to be investigating.
If someone gives weight to credentials and qualifications, that person
would be logically consistent by also considering the credentials and
qualifications of the sources given in this piece.
More directly, according to your implied argument, you should be even more
convinced by the sources included in this article because of their
relevant and expert credentials and qualifications.
If you have arguments against the experts Richard provides, you should focus on
building that case instead of resorting to an inferior argument of
shooting the messenger.
Lastly, I should point out that your response is based on your mention of a proclaimed expert. Would you argue that no one should listen to your opinion since you are only referring to someone else’s research? I suspect that a more reasonable argument would be that we readers should look at the sources themselves and seek to critically evaluate those sources with a skeptical attitude.
I agree wholeheartedly, so go and do it.
Let’s do it together.
Which of the sources from this article do you believe was misinterpreted or is in itself incorrect in some way?
Of Richard’s sources, which do you think is the strongest piece of information and which do you think is the weakest?
Further, how would you rate the qualifications of these sources compared to Seralini?
[…] pursing a STEM Master’s degree. When I first wrote this piece in 2014, it was hard to find a good, succinct explanation of the concept of scientific consensus for a lay reader. I have a hard time seeing how not having a […]
[…] denialism. And the state initiative campaigns led to major scientific organizations [PDF] issuing consensus statements on GMOs. All this started to impact how the mainstream press covered the […]
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