On Double Standards and the Union of Concerned Scientists

By Keith Kloor | August 22, 2014 9:05 am

Several weeks ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists posted a hard-hitting rebuttal to a famous environmentalist, someone who is normally an ally. Here’s a taste:

A new and misnamed book co-authored by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak,  is filled with exactly the kinds of misrepresentations of facts and slippery slope distortions of research that sway people—often those who are most earnest about seeking information—away from the science.

The piece went on to state that research findings cited by Kennedy were “taken out of context” and that, “contrary to what the book would have us believe, children are not being exposed to dangerous levels of ethyl mercury in vaccines.”

The critique did not mince words:

As RFK Jr. should well know from his work on climate change, generating doubt by misrepresenting the science has negative consequences for the public. Because of his stature and good work on so many other issues, he has a special responsibility to get the science right.

Might the same be said for public interest organizations with prominent stature? Should they too be expected not to misrepresent science? Do they have a special responsibility to get the science right?

If so, then the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) might want to take a look in the mirror. For the same criticism they make of Kennedy has been leveled against them–on the issue of GMOs. At the organization’s website, here is one glaring example of what drives many scientists crazy about the way UCS characterizes crop biotechnology:

While the risks of genetic engineering have sometimes been exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may produce new allergens and toxins, spread harmful traits to weeds and non-GE crops, or harm animals that consume them.

In truth, the risks of genetic engineering are grossly exaggerated and misrepresented on a regular basis by influential NGO’s and environmental leaders, such as the individual profiled in this week’s New Yorker by Michael Specter. (Be sure to read his complementary web piece on food labels and GMOs.) Prominent green organizations, in particular, regularly distort the facts on genetic engineering in the same manner that many climate skeptics distort the facts on global warming. This is a head scratcher.

For as Columbia University’s Earth Institute notes at its blog,

there is broad consensus that GMOs are safe. The World Health Organization states that “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.” The American Medical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science oppose the labeling of GM foods because no scientific evidence of harm has been found. A 2011 University of Nottingham School of Biosciences review of 12 long-term studies and 12 multi-generational studies of GM foods found no evidence of health hazards, and determined that GM plants “can be safely used in food and feed.”

Back to the Union of Concerned Scientists and its assertion that genetically engineered crops “may produce new allergens and toxins…”

In a detailed rebuke published last year at Scientific American, microbiologist Kevin Bonham wrote:

This statement is at best wildly misleading and at worse an all-out fabrication. For an organization dedicated to informing citizens about science, I’m a bit appalled that they got this one so wrong.

Here’s another example. Their former lead scientist on this issue (who recently decamped to the Center for Food Safety) asserted in March:

It’s also worth noting that there’s no real consensus on GMO crop safety.

As I wrote here, it’s also worth noting that he was citing a “fringy, science-denying group (on the issue of GMO safety, anyway).”

It would be nice if a leading, highly trusted scientific group held itself to the same evidence-based standards it holds others. Alas, when it comes to GMOs that is not the case.

Additional Reading:

“Why NGO’s can’t be trusted on GMO’s,” by Marc Gunther (Guardian)

“The truth about GMOs,”  by Pamela Ronald (Boston Review)

“Persistent anti-GMO myths, by Steven Novella (Neurologica)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs, science
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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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