Dr. Oz asks who can we trust when it comes to Genetically Engineered Crops?

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Click here to see the Dr. Oz show on GE crops with yours truly.

I tried to provide a science-based perspective to the audience.

It was a tough go, though, because one of the other panelists (Jeffery Smith, a former Iowa political candidate for the Natural Law Party with no discernible scientific or agricultural training) believes that eating GE crops causes infertility, organ damage and endocrine disruption. Of course, the scientific evidence for these statements is about as strong as saying that looking at carrots will give you brain tumors.

Can the audience glean that from the information presented on the show? I am afraid not.

What we do know is that after 14 years of consumption there has been not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment (and many indisputable benefits).

I did my best to refute the worst “woo woo pseudoscience” but it was difficult. I asked the producers (who were very nice by the way) to remove the scary graphics and bullet points but no luck. I argued that showing that stuff would tarnish Dr. Oz’s reputation and harm his viewers (who are now probably terrified- I can just imagine my mother-in-law taking note on all the “points” made).

I had a chance to plug some great science-based, academic, non-profit sites (bioforitifed,org, ucbiotech.org and academicsreview.org) but all of my case specific examples (reduced insecticide use in GE cotton fields, enhanced biodiversity, disease resistant papaya, Golden rice) were cut from the TV version. I guess the producers did not want to mix too much scientific evidence in there with the fantastical stuff.

The show demonstrates yet again that as scientists, we cannot dismiss the general anxiety about genetic engineering, and the distrust of science and scientists in general.

So how can we help the public understand the scientific process and learn to distinguish high-quality scientific research that has stood the test of time and can largely be relied on from simple assertions or unsubstantiated rumors?

This is one of the reasons Raoul and I wrote our book. We included a chapter describing how non-scientist can distinguish between fact and fiction. As an example of psedoscience riddled with conflicts of interests and errors, just take a look at Smith.

To “demonstrate” that genetic engineering is dangerous, Smith cites the experiment of a seventeen-year-old student who fed mice genetically engineered potatoes. According to the referenced Web site, ” . . . [the mice] fed GM ate more, probably because they were slightly heavier on average to begin with, but they gained less weight.” In addition, ” . . . marked behavioral diff erences” were observed though, the boy admitted, “these were ‘subjective’ and not quantitative.” Smith argues that this experiment demonstrates that GE food may have negative effects on the “human psyche” and concludes that the boy “has put the scientists to shame.” The implication is that the public can trust this experiment carried out by a student, unhampered by scientific training but not those of peer-reviewed research. Smith ignores the fact that this experiment conducted by a teenager was not subjected to the rigorous methods that are inherent to the scientific process.

In the case of the boy and the mice, I found that the reference given for the boy’s work was to another Web site, and that that web site referred to even another Web site (which is now defunct as far as I can tell). It turns out that the only documentation of this “experiment” was a chance meeting with the boy’s mother, who was the source of the “scientific information.” “Mum Guusje is very proud of her son. . . .”

Why would someone cite a conversation with a boy’s mother as science? Either Smith lacks a basic understanding of the scientific process, or he simply does not care, or both (or something even more sinister…). But he should care; for this kind of deception only confuses and frightens people.

Most people would agree that a mother usually believes the best about her son. Therefore, a mother’s recommendation represents a clear conflict of interest in such a case. Studies tainted by such undisclosed conflicts of interests are a major concern in the debate about genetic engineering. If the only peer-reviewed data on the benefits of GE crops were supplied by parties whose primary concern is not the public good but private interest, then the public would have reason to question the integrity of the research (which is why I try to cite only non-profit peer-reviewed research). Similarly, if a person with a strong stance on the use of GE in agriculture is an employee of a for-profit biotechnology or organic industry, such employment should be disclosed because a conflict of interest may exist.

(Full disclosure: All the research in my lab is funded by non-profit sources. The salaries of Raoul and I are paid by UC Davis and government grants. Neither of us are paid by biotechnology companies or the organic industry).

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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.