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Using Science Against the People’s Will: Risk Assessment of Genetically-Engineered Food

by Gerardo Otero on September 3, 2019
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A review of Sheldon Krimsky. GMOs Decoded: A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods. Cambridge, MA and London, England: MIT Press. 2019.

No new technology has ever been as controversial or divisive as food biotechnology, says Sheldom Krinsmsy in GMOs Decoded. He offers a careful analysis of scientific studies on each of the various contentious issues that have made genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) so rabble-rousing. For millennia humans have been fiddling with plant sexuality to purposefully reshuffle their genes. But, since the 1980s, such tinkering has been aided by much more powerful gene-splicing technologies that can insert genes from any species into plants. Transgenic crops engineered to resist herbicides or insert a pesticide gene have been the main GMOs. The first type is called Roundup-Ready crops, after Monsanto’s herbicide trademark; and the second type is called Bt crops for the insertion of bacillus thuringiencis, an insecticide. Other crops have been engineered for both purposes. A huge increase in the use of the herbicide glyphosate and pest resistance to Bt has mounted with GMOs. Multiple corporate mergers also occurred: large chemical and pharmaceutical companies bought seed companies to produce transgenic seeds.

Regulatory approaches between the European Union and the United States differ. In the United States it is assumed that the process of producing new plants is irrelevant, as long as the product shows to have “substantial equivalence” with their relatives produced with traditional breeding. With substantial equivalence, crops are “generally regarded as safe” or GRAS. In the European Union, substantial equivalence has to be demonstrated with studies.

Krimsky presents a long summary of studies that show the non-harmful health effects of GMOs in humans, but all are short-term, focused on chronic effects. Critics would like to see omics studies (on the distinct classes of molecules), in vitro tests, and long-term animal feeding studies, to reduce GMO uncertainty of unanticipated effects. For instance, it is possible that nutritional content has changed in comparison to non-GMO variants, but this is entirely unexplored. The most favorable studies have been funded by industry, with a narrow focus on health risk, but no database exists on adverse effects of GMOs. Pro-GMO scientists and industry are quick to ignore or dismiss studies showing adverse effects, arguing, for instance, that their sample sizes are inadequate. The point, suggests Krimsky, is to sow doubt that any adverse effects exist (89).

Industry successfully lobbied the U.S. government to prevent GMO-content labeling laws for food: “agribusiness used a First Amendment argument that requiring food labeling makes manufacturers ‘speak’ against their will” (99). This stand goes against 90% of the population that would like to know what’s in their food (150).

The official response to risk by corporations and regulatory agencies has been to focus on “scientific risk assessment” (130), leading to “uncertainty intolerance.” Krimsky rightly indicates that the root of the opposition to GMOs, though, is monopoly control of the world’s food supply (134), seen as an enormous assault on democracy. In the European Union, patenting life is seen as immoral when material that is critical to the common heritage of humankind is at stake. Still, even in Europe, “patenting of life forms sui generis became the new normal” (134). Patents are thus the means to monopoly control of germplasm and achieve hegemony (domination, really) in agriculture. Farmers become serfs (135). Opponents distrust the GMO enterprise, as Krimsky cites, in part because studies of scientific articles have found a “strong association . . . between author affiliation to industry . . . and study outcomes” (136).

Krimsky does a fine job of synthesizing the scientific risk assessment literature on GMOs, sometimes exaggerating in coming off as unbiased. For instance, he could take a firmer stand on issues for which there are clear grounds for critique, such as yield. The most credible study he cites, based on macrodata from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, compares corn and soybeans yields in the European Union and the United States from 1961 to 2010. If anything, the EU yields were higher, although use of GMOs was much lower in Europe (145). The scientific paradigms of regulatory agencies are evidently molded by industry lobbies, so the entire risk-assessment enterprise is made to serve agribusiness.

Although Krimsky presents biotechnology as “revolutionary,” he does not specify in what sense. If it’s not in increased yield or risk elimination, what makes GMOs revolutionary? I have argued elsewhere that biotechnology’s main impact has been on the agrarian social structure, which combined with the neoliberal turn in Latin America. This combination firmly established agribusiness multinational corporations as the undisputed rulers of what we eat, bankrupting smallholder farmers and peasants.

Nutritional changes could be related to the rise of junk food, Krimsky suggests, and this could be why people are getting fatter in the United States and beyond. In The Neoliberal Diet, I found that mainstream explanations of obesity argue that people simply eat too much “energy-dense” food, while exercising too little. Swapping the chips and sodas for fruits and vegetables and exercising more, the problem would be solved.

For me, increased obesity does not result merely from individual food and lifestyle choices. Since the 1980s, the neoliberal turn in policy and practice has promoted trade liberalization, retrenchment of the welfare regime but also continued agricultural subsidies, particularly for transgenic corn and soybeans in the United States. Neoliberal regulation has enabled agribusiness multinationals to thrive based on highly processed foods, many of them originating in these crops, a diet loaded with refined flour and sugars—and meat. This neoliberal diet has been exported around the globe, often at the expense of people’s health.

Krimsky offers a fine synthesis of risk analysis of biotechnology, with its narrow focus, points to huge lacunae in long-term studies, and points to larger socioeconomic impact analysis of a food system controlled by oligopolistic structures. How social movements and the state can change them for a healthier diet should be at the center of future studies.

Gerardo Otero
Gerardo Otero is Professor of International Studies and sociology at Simon Fraser University. Author of Farewell to the Peasantry? Political Class Formation in Rural Mexico (Westview 1999), he has published numerous scholarly articles, chapters and books about the political economy of agriculture and food, civil society and the state in Mexico and Latin America. His latest article (2015) is “The Neoliberal Diet and Inequality in the United States,” published in Social Science & Medicine.

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