Risks of the gaps

posted in: Food, Science | 3

Editor’s Note: The following post was part of an April Fools Joke. Go here for more details.

By William Harvey:

As I always say, “All we know is still infinitely less than all that remains unknown.” As a statement of fact, it is plainly obvious, but what is less obvious is that it also makes a splendid guiding principle for life.

I try as best I can to base my life in the best that science has to offer, but I know (more than most it seems) that often times, science does not have all the information we need to make decisions. In many areas of science, from global warming to evolutionary biology, there are gaps in our knowledge that make deciding on a course of action difficult. So I think we need to return to some of the fundamentals.

Some scientists say that we don’t know enough about global warming, that the gaps in our knowledge of climate science are too big to make policy decisions based upon it. We could just listen to the majority of climate scientists, but ‘consensus’ is not a reliable guide for truth – it merely reflects the current state of knowledge, which in science, is always changing. But what is not changing is that large corporations continue to profit off of climate science denialism, and the risk of inaction outweighs the risk of action.

In evolution, creationists often point to ‘gaps’ in evolution, such as between one fossil and another, and are fond at pointing out when a new fossil turns up that the number of gaps have increased. I think they have a very valid point, and it got me thinking about food safety in the same terms. We are currently grappling with huge gaps in our food safety net, with salmonella-contaminated peanuts and more, and people are calling for more regulations and more checks to fill in those gaps.

In the case of genetic engineering, I have come across studies that claim that GMOs are safe based upon a protein analysis here, or a microarray there. What these researchers are admitting by even doing this research is that there are huge safety risks involved in genetic modification, and they are hard at work filling those gaps in the GMO safety net after-the-fact.

Or post-mortem, I should say. A scientist and author, Jeffrey Smith, has chronicled a laundry list of food safety hazards created by genetic engineering, from dead sheep to increases in allergies. Merely from growing GMO soy in England in 1999, the harvest at the end of the season was enough to increase soy allergies by a whopping 50% earlier the same year. Genetic engineers are frantically trying to figure out what went wrong, while nations around the world (except for the totalitarian regimes of China, Brazil, Cuba, Australia, and the US) continue to reject GMOs.

How did these food risks slip through the thin safety net? Followup studies on the proteins introduced have found nothing, nor have studies that look at the changes in gene expression caused by introducing a foreign gene. Apparently, the changes caused by genetic engineering are less than those caused by traditional breeding.

But every time they close one gap, they open up two more. Sure, the gene expression is below the natural variation, but this just means that that is not the reason why GMOs are unsafe. That gap is filled, but it opens up even more gaps – researchers now have to investigate every single gene that was affected! If those genes are not sufficient to explain what we think is going on, then they have to sink deeper into the mire of endless scientific experimentation.

You may call it ‘moving the goalposts,’ but as long as science continues to not find the danger that we are looking for in GMOs, the danger must still lurk somewhere in the gaps in our knowledge. Only by knowing the totality of everything there is to know about each GMO, from genomics, to transcriptomics, proteomics, and epi-genomics, phenomics, and nutrigenomics will we ever have enough information to state that a GMO is safe to eat.

This may make the pro-biotech folks balk – how can they ever pay for all of this – but that is the genius of the precautionary principle. By weighing down GMO approval with more exacting regulatory hurdles, it will not be worth it to try to use genetic engineering at all – and the use of this corporate technology will dry up. As long as we can stay one step ahead of the science with regulatory policies, we can prevent this scourge from continuing to spread all over the planet.

William Harvey is the Director of Global GMO Policy at Greenpeace International. He makes his own Biodynamic Wine from the safety of Marin County, which is GE Free.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.