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Science, Uncertainty, and Erring on the Safe Side

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March Against Monsanto 2015, Philadelphia
March Against Monsanto 2015, Philadelphia
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This commentary originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on May 19, 2015

The recent announcement by restaurant chain Chipotle that it has removed all genetically modified foods from its menu was cheered by many, but also derided by some, who say it is pandering or fear mongering based on junk science. Some critics cited a widely circulated Pew survey released in January that showed a growing divergence of opinions and beliefs between the American public and the scientific community on issues including evolution (a 33% difference), climate change (37%), and the safety of pesticides (40%) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food supply (51%).

Evolution is unique, because for some it contradicts strongly held religious beliefs. But the disconnects surrounding issues like climate change and the safety of pesticides and GMOs, while distinct, are in ways related. And they can tell us a lot about each other.

The public lag behind the scientific community's acceptance of the role of humans in climate change is primarily due to a deliberate and intentional campaign by well-moneyed interests to produce enough bogus science to confuse the issue. The science used to sow doubt about climate change may have been cherry picked, misinterpreted or just plain wrong, and it was widely promoted by businesses and politicians with an agenda. But it was initially reported by actual or purported members of the scientific community. The confusion it created continues to reverberate, undermining public consensus on climate change and efforts to forge appropriate policy responses to limit the impacts of it.

The science about the safe levels of pesticides, on the other hand, has been legitimately changeable at best. According to the Pew study, 68% of scientists think it is safe to eat food grown with pesticides, compared to only 28% of the public. But the history of pesticides provides many examples of chemicals once touted as harmless that were subsequently shown to be unsafe. There may not have been the same kind of orchestrated campaign of scientific fraud as was the case with climate change (or tobacco), but again and again, declarations of safety presented as settled scientific fact have later been revisited, revised, and retracted.

In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto's Round Up weed killer, is "probably carcinogenic to humans." Often promoted as one of the safest pesticides around, glyphosate is the most popular weed-killer in the world and the one Monsanto's "Round-Up Ready" GMO crops are engineered to resist.

It is understandable that trust in the science behind those earlier declarations of safety might be shaken. And Monsanto's immediate attack of the science behind the WHO report further undermines public trust in science. Given how science has been indicted by both sides in cases like this, it should come as no surprise that there is lingering uncertainty.

A certain amount of skepticism is even less surprising when so much of the science in question is paid for by powerful players with vested interests. In recent decades, the public and the scientific community have become more savvy about scientific bias, from subtle predispositions regarding data selection or study design to outright fraud, and of growing importance, the number of studies whose results are never published at all. It is widely acknowledged that vested interests tend to err on the side most beneficial to them, and when science is funded by industry, that has a powerful effect.

Regarding the safety of GMOs, it would be surprising if confusion and disagreement did not permeate the issue. Obfuscation has been a hallmark of the integration of GMOs into our food supply since their introduction, and as they quietly took over 90% of our most basic commodity crops. It has manifested in efforts to limit or control what science is being conducted and what results are released, and in a broad campaign to prevent GMOs from being labeled and to prevent consumers from making informed choices.

After years of seeing science contradicted, misrepresented, and twisted to make one point or another, when 32% of scientists say it is not safe to eat food grown with pesticides, it is understandable that 72% of the public thinks they might have a point. And when a not-insignificant 12% of the scientific community says that genetically modified foods are not safe to eat, what that means to many people is that the 88% who do think they are safe might not know for sure.

When interpreting the vast amounts of often conflicting scientific information out there and deciding what to trust, it makes sense that the people would err on the side most protective of the future of their planet, of their own health and safety and that of their children. In other words, to err on the safe side.

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Jon McGoran is the author of six novels, including the ecological thrillers Drift, Deadout, and their forthcoming sequel Dust Up, which deal with today's biotech food industry. He has been writing about food and sustainability for over 20 years, (more...)

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