THAT NEW GMO REPORT IS QUITE A BIG DEAL
If there can be a definitive take on the interminable wrangles over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as crop plants, it is this one: the massive National Academy of Sciences report, out this week. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects, available as a free download here, probably will be close to the last word for years to come.
But if what you heard about the report is that it gives GMOs a free pass, as Kaleigh Rogers implied at Motherboard, you have been misinformed. Instead read the clever and reliable Joel Achenbach’s assessment at Speaking of Science: “No “substantiated” evidence exists that genetically engineered crops have caused health problems in humans or damaged the environment, but it’s too soon to be making broad statements, positive or negative, about laboratory-based manipulations of crop genomes.”
In short, if you nursed the fantasy that there is a simple yes or no answer to the decades-long contention over GMO safety, forget it. No 388-page report is going to contain anything other than nuances and caveats.
Does that mean the report is useless? Not at all. Grist’s Nathanael Johnson, about as trustworthy a journalism source on GMOs as there is, declares that the report is actually revolutionary. “The main generalization we can take from it is that we shouldn’t make generalizations about GMOs,” he says. “The National Academies wants us to stop obsessing over whether something is a GMO, and ask instead if a given crop makes the world better or worse.”
This is not a new idea. The sensible notion that each GMO should be judged on its own merits (or de-) has been around as long people have been arguing over genetic engineering’s safety, which is to say at least as far back as the legendary Asilomar conference in 1975.
It’s not, however, an idea embraced by either the friends or enemies of genetically modified crops. They want you to believe either that GMOs are all about making food healthier and are the only hope for feeding the world or, contrariwise, that they will make you and your children and grandchildren and their grandchildren sick sick sick while also wrecking the environment. Sloganeering is not well adapted to nuances and caveats.
Will the new report change that? I’m dubious that it will finally have an impact on the public debate, although (some) regulators will probably get the message that case-by-case is the rational approach. It will make their jobs harder and more expensive, though, and legislators won’t like that.
Achenbach’s post quotes a few of the report’s critics. As I said here at On Science Blogs a while back, my hunch is that the new trend to voluntary labeling of GMO-containing products is a savvy strategy for GMO proponents. It could do a lot to make GMOs seem familiar and safe instead of alien and dangerous.
OTOH, some candy manufacturers like Hershey are returning to non-GMO sugar. At The Salt, Dan Charles has a nice take on the problems this poses for sugar beet farmers, who are convinced that their GMO crops are superior, especially for the environment.
Brad Plumer presented his five takeaways from the new GMO report at Vox:
“1) The best evidence suggests current GM crops are just as safe to eat as regular crops.
“2) Current GM crops have proven valuable to many farmers — but context matters.” By context Plumer means, for example, that while herbicide- and pest-resistance are genetically engineered traits that have helped many farmers, they can also involve expensive patented seeds that hurt poor farmers.
“3) Beware of simplistic arguments over whether GM crops can ‘feed the world.'” There’s a big difference between potential crop yield and actual real-world yield.
“4) Some GM crops have had positive environmental effects — but watch out for ‘superweeds.'” Genetic pest resistance can benefit the environment by reducing pesticide use, but herbicides that help herbicide-resistant crops compete with weeds have also created herbicide-resistant weeds.
“5) Genetic engineering is changing radically — and regulations need to adjust.” Especially the new gene-editing techniques like CRISPR, which I’ve written about often here at On Science Blogs, have generated novel technical uncertainties–not to mention ethical issues–that policymakers and regulators are only beginning to wrestle with.
PDFs of Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects can be had free. Download the full report or individual chapters here.
NAS put on an extensive “public release event” for the report. Videos of the press conference and Q&A with selected NAS committee members can be found here, along with a PDF document containing the slides in the report.
JOHN OLIVER EXPLAINS SCIENCE REPORTING FOR YOU
John Oliver’s weekly HBO show Last Week Tonight is unique: a TV series that, although marketed as comedy, treats serious subjects–and treats them seriously. I guess it’s Oliver’s presentation that brings on the laughter, because in fact much of his content is alarming, infuriating, startling, and not really funny at all. Sometimes it’s tragic, or close to it. A bit Orwellian. I mean that in a good way.
The studio audience goes wild anyway. Sometimes I have wondered if they’re actually paying attention to what he’s saying, or only to his expressive face.
Recently it was science news’s turn in Oliver’s barrel. (I assume he has lots of help from writers, and some of this stuff is quite brilliant.) Find the 19 minutes of video several places, for example Tara Haelle’s post at Covering Health, the blog at the Association of Health Care Journalists. She called it “truly valuable advice for news consumers and for reporters.”
Oliver did indeed do a remarkable job of describing how badly science news is conveyed and some of the reasons why. At no time was he denigrating science; quite the opposite, insisting how important it is.
For the critique, Oliver worked his way through hyping press releases, pressures on scientists to publish work that appears hot, new, trendy, and even shocking, the economics of failure to replicate, the superficiality of coverage on television talk shows and news programs, flaws in study design. He even took on p-hacking, describing it as “basically collecting lots of variables and then playing with your data until you find something that counts as statistically significant but is probably meaningless.”
Nearly all the science blog comments I found adored what Oliver did, and some berated the media and journalists for getting science wrong. Haelle’s post is an example. So is Phil Plait’s.
At Ars Technica, John Timmer did not entirely blame science writers. He argued that the problems start long before the media get hold of a study. These problems are “either endemic to modern science itself or are driven by the researchers and universities they work for. When it comes to problems with public understanding, the scientific community has a lot to answer for.”
Julia Belluz echoed that critique at Vox, noting that the International Society for Stem Cell Research has issued “guidelines urging researchers to communicate their findings to the public in a more balanced way.” The point, she says, is that “scientists also need to start taking more responsibility for overhyped claims about their work.”
Makes a nice change.