Feb 10 2010
Much like global warming, recycling, and organic farming – genetically modified or GM foods is a scientific controversy where there is significant disagreement within the skeptical movement. People who are generally science and reason-based find it difficult to completely wrap their heads around the complex information and come to a confident conclusion. Or they find it challenging to find objective sources of information that are not filtered through political bias. Or they find it difficult to figure out what the scientific consensus is, because the experts seems to be divided.
As a result ask a room full of skeptics (all of whom agree on UFOs, bigfoot, homeopathy, and free energy) what they think about any of these topics and they are likely to give an opinion that is in line with their political ideology. Where confusion reigns, opinion is king.
This is where critical thinking skills are really put to the test – put aside ideological bias, dig through the misinformation and spin, identify the relevant issues, and try to come to a balanced assessment. And sometimes you just have to say – “I don’t know.”
I saw this recent story on the GM crop controversy in India, so I decided to dig in and update my opinion on the whole GM crop thing. The controversy is about introducing the first GM vegetable in India – BT brinjal – a purple squash-looking vegetable. (OK – my esteemed colleague Rebecca Watson informs me that brinjal is in fact eggplant. I did not recognize it as such from the pictures attached to this story – it must be an Indian variety with which I am not familiar.) BT stands for Bacillus thuringiensis – a bacteria that makes a protein which is toxic to certain pest insects. BT pesticide has been used for years on many crops. With genetic engineering, the gene for the pesticide protein can be inserted into the genome of various plants, which will then make their own pesticide.
There is already in use BT cotton and BT corn, among other crops. The alleged advantage is that such crops have higher yields and require fewer pesticide sprayings, and so they are more cost effective. It is further claimed that this is beneficial for the environment because it reduces pesticide runoff. The BT protein has been deemed safe for non-target species, including people, and it breaks down quickly so does not hang around in the environment.
So according to proponents, it’s the best thing since sliced bread.
But surfing around PubMed turns up contradictions to just about every claim for benefit: that it does not increase yields, for example. There are also concerns about evolving resistance among target pests, but then there are also strategies to minimize this.
But the biggest controversy, which extends to all GM crops, is whether or not it has been adequately proven to be safe. This is one of those controversies that cannot be objectively resolved, because critics can set the bar for safety arbitrarily high, or proponents arbitrarily low. How much evidence is enough?
We see this in other controversies as well. The anti-vaxxers will likely argue forever that vaccines have not been adequately tested. Global warming dissidents can emphasize doubt about global warming, and the tobacco industry can claim that we really haven’t proven that smoking causes lung cancer.
On the other hand, there really isn’t sufficient evidence for cold fusion, and I think most herbal products should be tested more before they are allowed to be marketed.
Further, most fears about GM crops concern what is not known – will the genes have unanticipated consequences, will they spread into wild plants or other crops? There are also economic concerns about the notion of corporations owning crop species. On the one hand we have corporations assuring us their products are safe, and on the other we have environmentalists making some blanket condemnations. Neither extreme seems trustworthy.
Somewhere in there is an awful lot of science, but it is often conflicting and difficult to put into context.
So – I am not really sure about this one. The evidence I can find suggests that BT brinjal is probably safe, and farmers want it. I don’t buy what appears to be hysterical fears about frankenfoods, and I think many people underestimate the extent to which all crops are already the products of thousands of years of genetic manipulation through cultivation. Yet there are legitimate concerns about the true advantages of these crops and the extent of safety testing. I am leaning in favor of GM crops, and specifically BT crops, that do seem to be backed by some solid science, but it’s a tentative conclusion and I’m going to keep exploring.
For now India is putting BT brinjal on hold. They seem to be confused also – the evidence seems good, but doubts remain, and in any case the public requires more reassurance before GM food crops will be rolled out. When there is uncertainty, fear and doubt seems to win the day.
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