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GMO Science: Plenty of Opinions, Not Enough Studies

September 3, 2015

Speaking this week during a tour of the Bay Farm Research Farm in Columbia, Mo., Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) blasted skeptics of genetically modified organisms and called for increased funding for the research and development of GMOs.

“It’s ironic to me that the same group that’s pounding the table about climate change wants to ignore the science with GMOs,” she told scientists at the GMO research facility. “If you believe in science, you believe in science. You can’t just pick and choose depending on the issue.”

According to reports, the senator also admonished the agricultural genetics researchers in the room to toughen up and ignore “a small group of people making a lot of noise” about genetically engineered crops.

Setting aside for a moment Sen. McCaskill’s obvious conflict of interest on the topic—since 2011, Monsanto Corp., which is headquartered in McCaskill’s home state, has shelled out nearly $38,000 to her campaign war chest—the problem with her dismissal of GMO skeptics is that the science is far from settled. With just 37 percent of American consumers confident that GMO foods are safe to eat and more than 90 percent supportive of a mandatory label for genetically engineered foods, the burden is on GMO backers to prove otherwise. But precious little research of that kind exists.

How do we know? GMO scientists are telling us.

“I now believe … that GMO crops still run far ahead of our understanding of their risks,” Dr. Jonathan R. Latham, who as a young plant biologist genetically engineered plant crops as part of his Ph.D in the early 1990s, wrote in a recent article.

These risks, he writes, are numerous, including rushed and sloppily executed risk assessments, the numerous toxins in crops engineered to repel insects, the tendency for farmers to spray crops with even more herbicide once a GE crop has become resistant, and a little-known viral sequence in GE crops that may expose us to potentially harmful proteins.

Almost none of these threats have been studied adequately, Latham asserts, which is reason enough to be skeptical of GMOs and at the very least, label products containing them. As Congress reconvenes next week to consider an industry-backed, federal anti-labeling law referred to as the “DARK Act,” this appeal couldn’t be more timely. But GMOs and the corporations that make them should be judged on ethical grounds as well as scientific.

“The commercial purpose of GMOs is not to feed the world or improve farming,” he concludes. “Rather, they exist to gain intellectual property (i.e. patent rights) over seeds and plant breeding and to drive agriculture in directions that benefit agribusiness.”

Illustration by Karley Koenig

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats, TakePart.com, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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