Scientist’s book casts skeptical eye on GM foods

Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food

Proponents of genetically modified foods like to say there is broad consensus in the scientific community that GM foods are safe and benefit human health and the environment. Not so true. One scientist, Lisa Weasel, Ph.D., a molecular biologist and professor of biology at Portland State University in Oregon, has cast a skeptical eye at the GM food industry with her new book, Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food.

Ms. Weasel received a National Science Foundation grant to research and publish her book. She spent five years researching and traveling the world to study the impacts of GM farming and food in the United States, Europe, India, Zambia, and Thailand.

What led you to write the book?
Primarily, I wanted to look at the global ethics of genetically modified food. The ethics of

GM food for the environment, life on earth, food aid, and hunger, and answering questions like, “is this a dangerous technology being used on hungry people in the world?”And who is in charge of regulating this technology? Is it good science or greedy science?
GM food is intersecting with everyone’s life, and I feel strongly that this is an issue people need to be informed about. I wrote the book in a way that people can understand and decide for themselves.

Researchers believe that if you find an issue that people need to know about, then it’s your responsibility to get that information to them.

What was one of the key findings of your research in writing the book?
The biggest finding was that there is so much politics and money in the GM industry debate. Business and politics are intertwined, and it’s impossible to keep the politics out. It made me ask questions: “Who runs government regulations on GM foods?,” “Why is all the safety testing done by the biotechnology companies?” and “Why is it that a food coloring has to listed on a food label, but not a GM food ingredient?”

I discovered that this is not the unbiased science that I was taught to practice.

Surveys consistently show that a majority of Americans are unaware that they eat GM foods. Based on your research, what is your perspective on this?
I think there is growing awareness of GM foods. In the past year or two, I see that more people are realizing that GM food is something they want to pay attention to.

There is also more public attention on food, especially on organic and sustainability. Food scares, such as melamine, salmonella, tainted spinach, are making people more concerned about their food, and the GM food issue draws attention from those problems.

I recently spoke with Dr. Judy Carman, a scientist from Australia, who said that safety testing of GM foods is inadequate. Would you agree with that assessment?
In my book, I describe an anecdote when Zambia was expected to accept GM food aid from the United States in 2003. When a Zambian healthcare worker asked US officials about safety testing of GM food on humans, the officials said it was unethical to test the foods on humans. This caused the healthcare worker to ask “Isn’t it unethical to give it to us without testing as well?”

Safety testing is very limited. Who’s doing the safety test? When Monsanto wanted to introduce rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), they commissioned the University of Vermont to study its impacts. Monsanto did not like the results, so the data was suppressed. In the end activists forced the results to be made public.

President Obama has expressed support for GM food labeling in the US in the past, as has new ag secretary Tom Vilsack. Do you think GM food labeling has a chance of being established in the US?
With enough consumer demand, change can happen. Look what happened with the rejection of rBGH in milk. Wal-Mart is selling rBGH-free milk because of consumer pressure. I am a proponent of labeling.

Do you think there is a role for biotechnology in agriculture? What is that role?
There are good uses of biotechnology. There should be more research in the understanding of genomics. Marker assisted breeding and conventional genetics have been powerful solutions.

Unfortunately, the huge emphasis on GM crops is blinding us from seeking better, more sustainable options.

Genetics is beautiful. It allows us to gain so much knowledge about plants. Instead we hear that GM is biotechnology.

It’s a question of who controls the science. Today we have privatization of science and technology where the focus is on developing products that generate the biggest profit. Food that is privatized may not be good for human health or the environment and won’t contribute to global food security. Plants aren’t a factory for profit.

When it comes to food, we should think what is the best solution for global food security? We should be able to develop better solutions when the goal is altruistic.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report February 2009