How National Geographic Got it Wrong on GMO Science

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Judging a book, or in this case a magazine article, by it’s cover, I was prepared to dislike Joel Achenbach’s “War on Science” story in National Geographic. Turns out it’s an insightful, beautifully written piece about the psychology that influences scientific belief.

Too bad Achenbach got it wrong on the science of genetic engineering, and allowed his piece to be used as PR fodder for the agrichemical industry. I’m guessing that the higher ups at Monsanto and their PR firms have already ordered up poster-sized copies of the cover image, which conflates concerns about GMOs with climate change denial – a talking point the PR gurus have been pushing hard.

Achenbach devotes just one sentence of his story to GMO science, and the sentence is at odds with international scientific agreements about genetic engineering. He writes, “We’re asked to believe, for example, that it’s safe to eat food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, the experts point out, there’s no evidence that it isn’t and no reason to believe that altering genes precisely in a lab is more dangerous than altering them wholesale through traditional breeding.”

What the experts actually say, via internationally accepted agreements, is that genetic engineering is different from traditional breeding and carries different risks:

The United Nation’s Codex Alimentarius and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety agree that genetic engineering differs from conventional breeding and that safety assessments should be required before GM organisms are used in food or released into the environment.

The World Health Organization states that “GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis” and “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”

Unfortunately, the United States does not follow this standard for case-by-case safety assessments of GMOs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 1992 guidance on GMOs (still in effect) states that GMOs are “substantially equivalent” to regular crops, but it is not based on any science whatsoever and was introduced by then-Vice President Dan Quayle at a biotechnology conference as part of Quayle’s “regulatory relief initiative.” Here’s the background. For more details, see Gary Ruskin’s report Seedy Business.

For a more thorough explanation of the contradictory and very much unsettled science on the safety of GMOs, see the journal statement signed by over 300 scientists, MDs and scholars, “No scientific consensus on GMO safety.” This week, consumer watchdog groups, including Center for Food Safety, Consumer’s Union, Friends of the Earth and U.S. Right to Know called on journalists to do a better job of accurately reporting on the science of GMOs and to stop relying on talking points.

For the record, at U.S. Right to Know, we believe that GMOs could have some useful benefits in the future. However, genetic engineering of our food should proceed only with full transparency and robust independent science that makes an authentic attempt to understand the consequences, including impacts on health and the environment.