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Ralph Nader falls for organic propaganda

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Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has had a long and storied career standing up for consumers after careful research into product safety. His first book, Unsafe at Any Speed chronicled the dangers of the 1960 Corvair in some detail. However, Mr. Nader is now 80 years old, and it may be that some of the writings attributed to him are drafted by his staff, many of whom may not be as meticulous as Mr. Nader has been.

His latest broadside in Saturday’s Huffington Post is titled “The Food Safety Movement Grows Tall” and is an unabashed attack on genetically modified crops. Rather than being well researched, it simply echoes the propaganda of the organic food industry, who are desperately trying to grow their small business by scaring people away from perfectly safe genetically modified crops.

And, in fact, the references Mr Nader’s article does use are not to scientific papers but to other opinion pieces and other second rate work. Below is some of the misinformation Mr Nader and his staff perpetuate.

1. 93% of Americans think GMOs should be labeled. This is true if you use a “push poll” such as the NY Times Poll and ask “Should GMOs be labeled?” but if you ask Americans “What additional information should appear on food labels?” the International Food Information Council found that only 24% thought that any changes were needed and, of those, only 3% mentioned biotechnology. And in a similar report by the UK Food Standards Agency, only 2% said they looked for GM information on food labels and when prompted, only 4% said it was important.

2. Genetically engineered food has yet to be proved safe. Nor has any other food. You cannot “prove” safety using scientific methods. You can only establish low levels of risk based on currently available information. And this has been done many thousands of times over the past 20 years. Consumers have been eating foods from genetically modified crops for that long and there is not a single verified case of any reaction to such foods. Further, there are an enormous number of studies showing the safety of GM foods. A review by Nicolia found 1783 such papers and none suggesting any problems.

The article cites a quote from the Center for Food Safety claiming the FDA in 1998 admitted it had “no dispositive scientific findings.” This quote does not appear anywhere in the literature and thus we cannot discover its context, but the FDA’s position on the safety of GM plants is clear. Less clear is exactly who the Center for Food Safety is, as they do not seem to have a single PhD scientist on their board or staff.

3. There is no scientific consensus on the risks of eating GM foods. The scientific consensus is overwhelming. Every major scientific organization world wide has considered the science and concluded that GM crops pose no more harm than conventional foods. Coupled with the thousands of papers in Nicolia’s review, this is pretty conclusive. The fact that some small organization such as ENSSER, made up primarily of activists, has created a petition to the contrary is not relevant. Scientific consensus is determined by a study of the literature in the field, not by petition.

4. Nineteen studies published in Environmental Sciences Europe show effects on animal’s livers and kidneys. This paper is by activist Giles-Eric Seralini of the French anti-GMO organization CRIIGEN, and given that Seralini’s major rat paper was withdrawn because of bad science, this paper is not likely to be more credible. Since animals worldwide are fed similar diets, these effects in a few cases seem unlikely to be credible.

5. GM foods can induce allergic reactions. This is simply untrue. Every single GM crop goes through an extensive safety testing period, often lasting up to 10 years, and the genetic sequences of the genes in these crops are exactly known and compared with the sequences of all known allergens as part of the FDA approval process. There are no reported instances of allergic reactions in the scientific literature.

6. Agrochemical companies do not allow research on their seeds. The contracts farmers sign contain a restriction that the farmer cannot carry out research on the seeds, but once the crop is grown, anyone can buy it and carry out whatever research they want. Furthermore, all biotech companies have in place research agreements with all major universities allowing research of any kind.

7. Costs of labeling GM foods would be negligible. The article cites Joanna Shepherd-Bailey’s naïve and unpublished paper, prepared during the run-up to the defeat of California’s Proposition 37 GM labeling law. She completely neglects the enormous cost of supply chain segregation down to the farmer and grain elevator level. None of that is being done now and keeping GM and non GM crops separate would require separate handling facilities. Today farmers may grow some and non GM crops in different fields depending on their particular needs and microclimates, but they deliver them all to the same grain elevator, since they are nutritionally identical.

8. Sleazy Democratic lobbyists are plying their trade to keep you from knowing what’s in your food. Let’s get back to some science here: genetic modification is a breeding technique. It is not an ingredient. Genetically modified corn and conventional corn are nutritionally identical and there is no “evil ingredient” to worry about. That sentence is the worst kind of smear.

9. Genetic engineering has led to increased use of pesticides. This is just not true: it is not even reasonable. If you develop corn which generates its own Bt to kill corn borer and corn rootworm, then you will naturally not need as much pesticide: you will use much less! Chuck Benbrook’s paper is not one of his best works, and has been severely criticized by other experts in the field for his misleading assumptions on pesticide use. And, in fact other papers have found the opposite effect, notably ones by Brookes and Barfoot.

10. The Big 6 chemical and seed companies are working diligently to monopolize the food system. This bizarre claim then refers to a non-peer reviewed article by Paul Towers of the activist Pesticide Action Network, which makes the absurd assumption that these companies oppose GMO labeling because they want to sell more pesticides, again referring to Benbrook’s less than credible paper above. And the idea that anyone is working to monopolize the food system is simply paranoia and totally unproven.

Nader’s article closes by praising developing coalitions of Democrats and Republicans who want to take action on these issues. However, passionate, but uninformed mobs are not the best basis for policy making as David Ropeik wrote in his article “Fear GMOs but Fear Decisions Made by the Angry Mob.” Nader and his staff need to review the actual science before shooting off with scare tactics like these.

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CORRECTION: The Center for Food Safety has asked us for a correction, saying "Center for Food Safety has two full time staff scientists with PhDs. Center for Food Safety also retains the services two additional scientists with PhDs under consulting agreements. These scientists include: Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, Dr. Lisa Bunin, Dr. Marti Crouch, Dr. Margaret Mellon Please remove the inaccurate statements and issue a correction. Regards, Abigail Seiler"

However, their web site showed 2 PhDs: Ashley Lukens who has a PhD in political science, and Lisa Bunin who received her PhD in environmental sociology. Since this article was written, Doug Gurian-Sherman from the Union of Concerned Scientist joined their staff as well. His PhD is in plant pathology. Crouch and Mellon are at the Union of Concerned Scientists, another activist group who has taken anti-science stances against GMOs.

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