As to be expected, there was a scientist in the field of genomics aggressively speaking out against one of my TEDx talks. It sparked an outcry that hit a resurgence again this week.
It’s not the first time that my work has come under fire, nor will it be the last as the information that I present is disruptive. To many, it creates a cognitive dissonance - a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs or values and can often elicit a strong emotional reaction.
And it did just that earlier this year, whena scientist at the University of Florida which houses the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences questioned one of my presentations.
So when I looked into the work of the person making the accusations, I was not surprised that he had dedicated his life to plant research and genetic engineering. His commitment is remarkable. I understand it, because it is that same dedication that I have to my research and work into the financial engineering and the role it can play in the integrity of science.
That dedication, that level of commitment, is something to be honored, not slandered, as it is not without sacrifice. And we actually went on to speak, sharing our concerns over barriers to entry that can hinder innovation, the impact that climate change is having on food supplies and other topics.
But his criticism was that of a subject that continues to raise itself as to whether or not genetically engineered crops are safe.
The scientific debate tends to center around whether genetically engineered crops have been “thoroughly tested,” while a debate around the financial engineering of the science continues to grow.
And with deep respect for the scientist with whom I eventually spoke and his research and dedication to his students, it is important to look at the independent science, because as the Union for Concerned Scientists states:
“Political interference in federal government science is weakening our nation's ability to respond to the complex challenges we face. Because policy makers depend on impartial research to make informed decisions, we are mobilizing scientists and citizens alike to push for reforms that will enable our leaders to fully protect our health, safety, and environment.”
In a Science Magazine in 2000, a Spanish researcher named Jose L. Domingo who later went on to write a 2007 paper, “Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature,” found only seven peer reviewed papers on genetically engineered crop safety as of 2000, most of them dealing with short-term nutritional effects.
According to Dr. Charles Benbrook, who worked in Washington, D.C. on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997, served for 1.5 years as the agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at the end of the Carter Administration, and following the election of Ronald Reagan, moved to Capitol Hill in early 1981 and was the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues, what that means is that at the time that two genetically engineered products were approved for the food supply, there were no studies in the open scientific literature.
Let’s stop and think about that for a minute in the context of something that is more familiar.
Can you imagine if a medical device or a new pharmaceutical drug were introduced with no studies in the open scientific literature for public review? Or if a car was introduced onto the highway in the same manner?
The concern is shared by the National Academy of Sciences in the paper, Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Consequences, "As with all other technologies for genetic modification, they also carry the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health."
Furthermore, according to Benbook, as of 2007 and Domingo's more recent and comprehensive review, a “Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature", there are still no more than about ten studies assessing the toxicological impact of genetically engineered ingredients in our food supply, almost all are limited in scope (there is a review of 24 studies focusing on nutritional equivalency), and short term, with most of them dealing with genetically engineered foods other than corn and soybeans.
Which means that the bottom line is that there are no published, peer reviewed studies on the toxicological impacts of today's commercial genetically engineered ingredients now found in our food supply, and almost none on older genetically engineered ingredients, that provide evidence that show that these foods are toxicologically safe.
At the conclusion of the abstract for the paper, the author himself poses the question: “where is the scientific evidence showing that GM plants/food are toxicologically safe?”
To me, that is a question so important that it was unequivocally an “Idea Worth Spreading,” a question worth asking, a dialogue worth having.
Correlation is not causation but with the Centers for Disease Control now reporting that cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children under the age of fifteen, that there has been a 265% increase in the rates of hostpiatlizations related to food allergic reaction, it is worth noting that “no evidence of harm” is not the same as “evidence of no harm.”
What we are witnessing, through 55 members of Congress that have called for the labeling of these ingredients, the over one million Americans who have sent comments to the FDA asking for the same, interest in a TEDx talk given by a former financial analyst, author and mother of four, is a movement, perhaps begun by the Spanish researcher with his ask for the scientific evidence showing that genetically engineered foods are toxicologically safe, and a call for the labeling of these foods, as they are labeled in over 40 countries around the world, until we have more science.
It is a call for studies that might alert a pregnant woman working on a farm about the impact that her exposure to these crops and the chemicals used to produce them might have on the health of her unborn babies.
It is a call for science and for the research that tells a mother if her child is allergic to conventional soybeans, the kind that has been in our food supply for generations, or if her child is allergic to the genetically engineered components now found in soybeans that were introduced in the late 1990s.
It is a call for the scientific tests that would enable a father to test his child for those differences at his allergist’s office.
It is a call for science and our right to know about the foods that we are eating and what their impact might be on the health of our families.
Is correlation causation? Not at all, but with millions of Americans beginning to wake up to the fact that we have additives in our food supply, from lean beef trimmings, to artificial growth hormones to genetically engineered ingredients, additives that were not in our foods a generation ago, we are asking for more science, integrity in science, full disclosure of the financial engineering behind the science, and for labels and the right to make an informed choice about what we are feeding our families.
We have learned what can happen otherwise, from the tobacco industry to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, so I hope that the TED team will continue the conversation with consumers, genetic engineers as well as financial ones, economists and the medical community in a forum in which attendees can express their opinions and one that requires full disclosure of any institutional ties, research grants or patents of those involved to preserve the dialogue and the scientific integrity of the discussion.
Because as Carl Sagan once said, "We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology."
An idea worth spreading? A dialogue worth having? Absolutely.
And while we talk about it, let's label these ingredients as they are labeled in countries around the world - like England, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, China, Russia and India, so that Americans have the same liberty to know that these new ingredients have been introduced into our food, too.
Scientific Integrity: Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/
Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: http://www.biosafety.ru/ftp/domingo.pdf
Faculty Endowments: http://www.uff.ufl.edu/FacultyEndowments/ProfessorshipInfo.asp?ProfessorshipFund=007489
Kevin Folta's Blog: http://kfolta.blogspot.com/2012/03/complete-insanity-in-theater-built-by.html
UF Scientists Collaborate with Monsanto: http://news.ifas.ufl.edu/2011/10/14/uf-scientists-collaborate-with-monsanto-to-develop-improved-computer-model-for-corn-production/
The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster: A Study in Organizational Ethics http://pirate.shu.edu/~mckenndo/pdfs/The%20Space%20Shuttle%20Challenger%20Disaster.pdf
Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Consequences http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309092094