Thomas Sims gets it

Thomas Sims, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Biological Sciences department at NIU. He was interviewed for a column about genetically engineered crops written for Northern Star Online, that claimed that GE foods are unsafe, quoting Dr. Oz, Jeffrey Smith, and the AAEM.

Here is an example of the claims made in the piece.

Between the U.S. and European countries, which has more instances of food allergies? Which has more instances of asthma or autism? Which has more instances of cancer and heart disease? Yes, I understand many factors play a role in these distinctions. However, I think it would be unwise to ignore the relation between the introduction of GM foods and higher instances of food-related allergies. Do you honestly believe major corporations care more about the health and safety of the public over their ability to make a profit?

His words only got a brief mention, and his response is a model for how scientists should respond to these kinds of claims. We have received permission to republish his spot-on commentary. (He has asked that I obscure the name of the young reporter who wrote the column so that it is about the information and not the person. So only the name has been edited.) Enjoy!

Column regarding genetically modified foods was one-sided and misinformed

This author’s column on Genetically Modified (GM) foods  is a thinly-veiled hatchet job, repeating a mixture of half-truths, lies and grossly misinformed opinions about this technology. This was disappointing, as she interviewed me (I’m an “NIU Expert” on plant genetic engineering) at some length during the preparation of her column.

Judging from the content in her column, she came to this subject with a pre-formed agenda, and wasn’t interested in accuracy or real science. Let me be absolutely clear that I am not upset or concerned that she used little if any of the information she and I discussed. This was an opinion piece and she was perfectly within her rights to use or not use any information that I provided to her. I have no ego involved here.

What I found disappointing, however, is that the author gave enormous credibility to anti-GMO advocates, when for the most part those opinions have little, if any, real scientific credibility.

When reporters are writing about science-related issues, whether that be GMOs, vaccines, Global Climate Change or E. coli from German organic farms that has recently killed at least 40 people, they have an obligation to do their best to understand the science and to realize that when experimental evidence is involved, not all opinions are equal.

Having been interviewed on the basis of what seems to me to border on false pretenses, I would like to provide a different perspective on several of the points raised in her article. As an example, she lifts (verbatim) a statement from the website of the official-sounding American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) about the “serious health risks associated with GM food consumption.”

Quackwatch.org lists AAEM at the top of a list of questionable organizations and explains that AAEM was founded by Theron Randolph in 1965 to promote the now-thoroughly-discredited idea of “multiple chemical sensitivity.” AAEM lists several studies in its bibliography that it claims point out the danger of GM foods.

Had she bothered to check these out she would have found that the few peer-reviewed, scientifically-vetted articles quoted showed marginal (and often statistically insignificant) differences in studies of animals fed diets of GM food vs. non-GM food, with the authors of the articles stating that the few differences shown might well be due to factors unrelated to the GM protein present in the food.

This is a typical tactic of extreme advocacy groups: take an inconclusive study, with a couple of data points that might suggest some difference (whether biologically significant or not), blow it all out of proportion from the conclusions of the actual scientists and trumpet it as showing dangers to health and well-being.

What about Dr. Oz, “a surgeon acclaimed for providing health advice”? The author conveniently left out of her piece other statements from the doctoroz.com website such as: “Overwhelmingly…studies indicate that GMOs are safe to consume.”, “Easier farming means more food which, in turn, means less expensive food…less expensive food makes it easier to feed hungry populations around the world,” and “GMOs can be modified to have greater nutritional value…scientists…have genetically modified rice to contain significantly higher amounts of vitamin A.” (More on that in a bit.)

OK, how about the “Institute for Responsible Technology”? Well that turns out to be the personal website of Jeffrey Smith, an anti-GMO agitator with no scientific credentials. Mr. Smith’s self-published anti-GMO books and claims have been thoroughly refuted by academics, including Professors Bruce Chassy and David Tribe (www.academicsreview.org). As they say, consider the source.

Let me briefly return to the genetically modified “Golden Rice” referred to above. This rice variety has been genetically engineered by the non-profit Golden Rice Project (www.goldenrice.org) to produce Vitamin A in the rice grain, something that is not possible to attain by conventional breeding. Vitamin-A deficiency contributes to over 500,000 cases of blindness in children in countries with rice-dependent poor populations (Nature 29, July 2010, p 561). Seventy percent of these children will die within a year of going blind. Golden Rice was developed over 10 years ago, will be provided free of charge, and has the potential to save millions of lives.

Yet Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other anti-GMO organizations have consistently opposed and delayed its introduction. Why? I don’t know, but to me it says that the political agendas of these organizations are more important to them than the lives of millions of poor children, and that’s tragic.

“when experimental evidence is involved, not all opinions are equal”

Right on.

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.