Last month, Food & Water Watch correctly predicted that the National Research Council’s (NRC) far-reaching ties to the biotechnology industry would greatly weaken the organization’s forthcoming report on genetically modified (GMO) foods and crops. We all saw the headlines the next day: Most news reports led with the top-level messaging of the NRC’s press materials, that there is no evidence that GMOs are unsafe to eat or present risks to the environment.
But this message is not in line with the wider scientific discourse.
A peer-reviewed study published last year detailed the concerns of hundreds of expert scientists who concluded that there is no “scientific consensus” on GMO safety. While that’s not diametrically opposite to what NRC said, it sends a far different message than last week’s headlines.
These hundreds of scientists highlighted the available evidence indicating safety concerns (but did not declare GMOs safe or unsafe) and prominently cited the need for more research because of the many scientific gaps. They noted that “genetic engineering differs from conventional breeding” and, as such, “safety assessments should be required.” And they made a point to note that the biotechnology industry has played a very large a role in the science on this issue, which has enormous potential to bias research.
The report heavily cites industry studies—without prominently disclosing they were funded by Monsanto—to arrive at an industry-friendly finding related to glyphosate and cancer.
These scientists issued this statement because they worried about the irresponsible use of the term “scientific consensus” around GMOs, which they said is inaccurate and “encourages a climate of complacency that could lead to a lack of regulatory and scientific rigour and appropriate caution, potentially endangering the health of humans, animals, and the environment.”
The NRC avoided using the word “consensus,” but the message it sent to the media clearly supported the safety of GMOs, evident in almost every headline written about the report.
Dr. Philip Landrigan, a dean at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is one of several scientists to offer criticism of the report, calling NRC’s “failure to look seriously at potential health hazards of increased herbicide use [with GMO production] to be a serious omission.”
In the places where NRC does address this issue, health concerns tend to be dismissed, such as this statement: “The most detailed epidemiological study that tested for a relationship between cancer and glyphosate [an herbicide widely used with GMOs] as well as other agricultural chemicals found ‘no consistent pattern of positive associations indicating a causal relationship between total cancer (in adults or children) or any site-specific cancer and exposure to glyphosate.’”
NRC doesn’t note that the study referenced here was funded by Monsanto. A few pages later, NRC cites Monsanto-funded studies five times in one passage (again without disclosure) to arrive at the determination that glyphosate is not linked to cancer in farmworkers.
Does that mean glyphosate definitely causes cancer in farmworkers? No (not necessarily), but it is a good illustration of several blind spots in NRC’s work, including its failure to meaningfully consider how much influence the biotech industry has over science—and how this can introduce bias. This omission might have had something to do with NRC’s own far-reaching ties to industry.
Did the NRC’s favorable safety messaging have anything to do with the millions of dollars it receives from companies like Monsanto and DuPont? The fact that the GMO study was authored by an unbalanced panel of scientists, many of whom have ties to the biotechnology industry? Or that a representative from Monsanto sat on the NRC board overseeing the GMO project?
The NRC report isn’t all bad, and there’s plenty of nuance if you have time to wade into its 400 pages. But I think it’s fair to say that a more balanced group of scientists, working under the auspices of an organization with no ties to the biotechnology industry, would have arrived at different safety findings—and top-level messaging—than the NRC did.
Read more in our new report, Under the Influence: The National Research Council and GMOs.