The Union of Concerned Scientists and Scientific Consensus

ucs-logo-questionDoes The Union of Concerned Scientists concur with the broad scientific consensus that GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat? And 9 other points.

In the last few days, Margaret Mellon and Doug Gurian-Sherman have clarified the position of the Union of Concerned Scientists on various blogs and forums. Their responses are often quite lengthy so I will summarize my understanding here of the UCS position based on their responses:

UCS concurs with the broad scientific consensus (see main articles for citations) that:

1. Each GE crop must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
2. In the case of GE cotton, the technology has enhanced yields in many parts of the world.
3. The planting of GE cotton has reduced the use of sprayed insecticides.
4. GE papaya has enhanced yields.
5. GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat.
6. The GE crops themselves are safe for the environment. However overuse of herbicides or pesticides on any type of farms (GE, nonGE or organic) can leads to herbicide resistant weeds or insects that tolerate the pesticide.
7. GE crops are just one of the many tools that can be used to enhance the sustainability of farms.
8.  Enhanced public funding for breeding is needed
9. The planting of GE corn in the US has benefited growers of non-GE corn
10.  The technology of GE has not solved all agricultural problems. But we should not throw out the technology for that reason. (Just as we do not consider vaccination as a technological failure because there are still diseases for which we don’t yet have vaccines)

I am glad to see that UCS has come forward to clarify their position.

The other points that Gurian-Sherman and Mellon raise (e.g. the relevance of peer review, the relative merits of breeding and GE to address diverse agricultural problems etc.) will be taken up in a discussion on biofortifed.org in the near future.

Update: Quite puzzling, even though they have said essentially these same things in their discussion with me, Margaret Mellon and Doug Gurian-Sherman now say that the only point they agree with is that public support of plant breeding is needed.

Pam Ronald’s statements above do not represent positions of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
If anyone wants to know our views about agriculture, we urge them to read our blogs, our website and our reports.
Margaret Mellon and Doug Gurian-Sherman

We do support increased funding for public breeding programs. But on other points, as noted above, please see our web pages and reports.

To resolve this issue I will update this post with links to their statements supporting this summary above, with the hope of moving the discussion forward to what aspects of scientific consensus on GE crops the UCS agrees with and what they dispute, and why.

Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her research focuses on the genetics of rice. With her husband, she co-wrote Tomorrow's Table:organic farming, genetics and the future of food. She writes a blog of the same name.

Posted in Commentary
31 comments on “The Union of Concerned Scientists and Scientific Consensus
  1. MaryM says:

    Well, that’s handy to have. And yet seems so contrary to what I’ve seen them say on pieces around the mediasphere. Surely I’m just remembering wrong.

  2. I have asked UCS to state their concurrence of these points on their home page and (because after all, they do use the word “scientists” in the title of their organization), to remove the nonsensical, nonscientific, scary stuff that fan the flames of fear that they have prominently placed on their website (e.g. “Failure to Yield” , “Toxins”, “allergens” etc.).

  3. There certainly are issues and concerns regarding GMOs, but I am always thrilled when discussions are informed by peer-reviewed science. Great job, UCS!

    I recently wrote a peer-reviewed newsletter article summarizing the benefits of certain GMO traits in terms of reducing naturally occurring toxins in corn. The article seems relevant to this general discussion, so it can be found at: http://graincrops.blogspot.com/2013/08/gmos-and-corn-mycotoxins.html

    • It seems they are disputing all but one of the ten points. Who knows where it will go from here.

      Thanks for the link to the paper! The evidence has been pretty clear about that issue. Not a panacea, of course, but an improvement.

  4. Cami Ryan says:

    Thanks for compiling and posting Pamela. Wow. The skeptic in me has to ask… Why the sudden 180? Am I missing something?

    • Pam Ronald says:

      Previously, in their fine print, UCS has acknowledged that they concur with the broad scientific consensus but their position was not widely known and often conflicted with their public statements. Please consider that this is my summary of their comments. I have asked UCS to let us know if I have misrepresented their position on any of these 10 points.

  5. Ben Schaefer says:

    I wonder if they are starting to feel the heat from all the internet memes that have probably been made using their logos or quotes and pasted or used on their FB page that they never really endorsed.
    More and more I am starting to see people calling out occupy sites, MAM, and others for perpetrating such obviously lies and scare tactics. No one will ever make a change using those tactics as your springboard!

  6. John R, Diaz says:

    MaryM, Cami, to find out the Union of Concerned Scientist’s true stand, just log on these links below. These days anyone can write an article with half truths. Oh hey,wait, that’s what they write about below. Even Time magazine admits they do not fact check. The second link from the UCS was from July 2013.

    http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/environmental-effects-of.html

    http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/scientific_integrity/how-corporations-corrupt-science.pdf

  7. Kevin Folta says:

    Margaret and Doug,

    Welcome to the Union of Unconcerned Scientists.

    Kevin

  8. Tom says:

    I’d like to take it to another level with “Scientists Concerned about the Union of Concerned Scientists”.

  9. In Mellon’s response on the Bostom Review Forum (which I find fairly reasonable), she writes: “But these are special cases. Even if successful in given instances, applications of genetic engineering may not provide unalloyed benefits to producer communities. Saving the Florida citrus industry might disadvantage citrus farmers in California or other parts of the world.”

    I don’t understand this. It’s not a good idea to use GE to make oranges that resist greening disease because that might help Florida’s orange industry more than California’s (or elsewhere)? So, we shouldn’t use GE (or any agricultural technique) to help deal with rust because that would advantage some farmers (those at greater risk of rust) than others? Is there some reading I don’t understand that is more reasonable?

    • MaryM says:

      What’s especially bizarre about this is that citrus greening is in California (and Texas), and has been in Brazil already. That argument makes no sense at all.

  10. “Saving the Florida citrus industry might disadvantage citrus farmers in California or other parts of the world.”

    Somehow I missed that on the first read, thanks for catching it. Like you, I am unable to wrap my head around it and make any logical sense of it. Then I realize that it is not logic that motivates a statement like that, but politics.

  11. Margaret Mellon says:

    Dr Ronald’s statements above do not, I repeat DO NOT, represent the positions of the Union Concerned Scientists (UCS) on agriculture or genetic engineering. Furthermore, \ we are NOT in dialogue with Dr. Ronald on the issue of consensus.

    If anyone wants to know what our views are, we invite them to read the UCS website http://www.ucsusa.org, the UCS blog, the Equation, and our reports.

    Margaret Mellon and Doug Gurian-Sherman

    • Dylan says:

      Any possibility of clarifying UCS’s position on the statements Dr. Ronald. I also believe she is accurately summarizing some of the things that you and Gurian-Sherman have now said.

    • BuckarooSamurai says:

      Why did you just link to the ucusa.org page rather than to the page clarifying your position?

    • I find this entire conversation depressing. Is it so hard to say why each point does or does not agree with your position (and point to a document if you want to elaborate more)? I actually would support the UCS (financially even!) except that I find your the most easily found position pages about GE crops to not be very nuanced and seem to paint all GE crops as harmful (and in some cases stoke fear about them that isn’t warranted).

      But from reading your own response in the Boston Review Forum (and many things Doug Gurian-Sherman has said in many places), Ronald’s list seems to be pretty well inline with that. It’s actually one of the better short AND nuanced position lists I’ve seen since it acknowledges the mixed benefits and risks of genetic engineering and related technology. Is this really just about *appearing* to align with Pamela Ronald who is frequently maligned as an uncritical “GMO defender” and thus the UCS would be painted the same way?

      • mikeb says:

        Yes, and the TONE of Mellon’s response it particularly depressing.

      • Agreed. I would love to support UCS but their refusal to follow the science instead of their agendas proves to me they are a dinosaur that does not deserve my time or money. The worst part is that other sections of UCS are doing great things, but the agriculture section is really dragging the whole organization down, and has been for years. It would be so easy to solve this problem, but the tone of this response by Mellon shows that there will be no changes under this regime.

    • the bug guy says:

      Gee, my scientific training included the encouragement of dialog. Thanks for clarifying that the UCS is not interested. That tells me a lot about your credibility.

  12. First Officer says:

    “Even if successful in given instances, applications of genetic engineering may not provide unalloyed benefits to producer communities. Saving the Florida citrus industry might disadvantage citrus farmers in California or other parts of the world.” – Margaret Mellon

    So, even if the above is true, Florida is just supposed to take the disadvantage handed to it by the disease in the first place?

  13. BuckarooSamurai says:

    “Even if successful in given instances, applications of genetic engineering may not provide unalloyed benefits to producer communities.

    Let me rephrase that for you to exemplify how wrong headed this sounds

    “Even if successful in given instances, applications of vaccines may not provide unalloyed benefits to communities.”

    This seems like Ludditism pure and simple.

  14. Pam the Artist says:

    Sorry, I am not a scientist, but I do rely on scientists for information.
    When receiving information from scientists, I have developed a a habit of checking their funding sources. It is all well and good to point fingers at others regarding their “agenda” but the truth is, where money is involved, there is always the possibility of some bias.
    I would be pleased to know where the funding for this site, for UCD biology and for the author’s current and recent grants is coming from. I realize this is a large request and would like express my appreciation in advance for the effort it will require. Thank you.

    • Hi Pam, it’s great that you rely on scientists for information. I do too! But I wonder, if you “have developed a a habit of checking their funding sources” then why didn’t you do the checking for yourself this time? Biofortified has a easy-to-find funding page in our header (hover your mouse over “About” then click on “Financial Information”). Pam has been clear about her funding elsewhere. I feel like your comment is an underhanded way of calling Pam a shill (and Biofortified, too), which really isn’t cool. I could just as easily ask where you get your funding, and since you don’t leave a link with your name or even give us your full name, I can’t even search for you. Seems like a double standard, you know? I don’t mean to be mean or anything like that but doesn’t this seem silly?

    • theoldtechnite says:

      Money is not the only source of bias in this world. Romanticism can and often is a more powerful source of bias, trumping and even reversing economic gain. I find this is often the case with many anti-gmoer’s as they bring up arguments such as this is against natural law or GE is desrespectful to mother earth. Often, too, when you ask what should be done to feed the billions, ideas such as permaculture and total localization is brought forth.

      At least, with someone simply driven by profit, you can bargain with. Not so with someone who has an obsession with a misguided romantic vision of how things should be.

  15. Chuck Lasker says:

    Do we know of any actual scientists in this “union?”

  16. John Purvis says:

    Can you name some independent long term animal studies that show GMO’s safety.

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