By: Paul Hanley

The scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified organisms is as "overwhelming" as the scientific consensus on man-made climate change.

In fact, 89 per cent of scientists who study GMOs, reports Murray Mandryk in his column, Science should drive GMO debate, are convinced they are safe.

However, the notion of overwhelming consensus on GMO safety is inaccurate. Claims of consensus are not supported by an objective analysis of the refereed literature, according to 300 independent scientific researchers who signed a joint statement to that effect published in the journal, Environmental Sciences Europe.

To be clear, these researchers are not asserting that GMOs are unsafe. Neither am I. Rather, they reviewed the science and concluded that the scarcity and contradictory nature of the evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims of safety – or lack of safety – of GMOs.

The lack of overwhelming global consensus on safety is also evidenced by the agreement of policy-makers from more than 160 countries, in the United Nations' Cartagena Biosafety Protocol and the Guidelines of the Codex Alimentarius to authorize careful case-by-case assessment of each GMO by national authorities to determine whether the particular construct satisfies national criteria for safety.

Comparing the weak consensus on GMOs with the strong consensus on climate change is misleading. Climate science is infinitely complex, but practically every climatologist in the world and every relevant scientific and academic institution affirms the basic premise that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases are changing the climate.

Plus, it has been shown conclusively that climate denial has been fabricated by individuals funded by big oil and coal. With GMOs, it's the other way around.

One review of the science found that most studies that conclude GM foods are as safe and nutritious as those obtained by conventional breeding were "performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible (for) commercializing these GM plants." So follow the money. Unlike paid climate deniers,

"GMO deniers" have nothing to gain financially. In fact, scientists and others who articulate concerns about safety are often subject to vicious criticism, or worse. Many GMOs deniers actually are concerned about the increased use of the herbicides associated with GM crops rather than the safety of the GMOs themselves. Almost all GMOs in use are engineered to make them tolerate herbicides.

Herbicide-resistant technology was supposed to reduce the need for herbicides and replace older herbicides with safer ones. But statistics show a continuous increase in usage of farm chemicals, and an explosion in the use of glyphosate, better known at Roundup.

Not surprisingly, glyphosate-resistant weeds have become widespread – a negative impact no one denies. Consequently, fields must now be treated with multiple herbicides, including 2,4-D. As mentioned in previous columns, the World Health Organization has recently issued warnings about the probable carcinogenicity of glyphosate and the possible carcinogenicity of 2,4-D. Even if the chemicals potentially cause cancer or other problems such as genetic mutation and neurological illness, proponents argue the exposure is so small that the actual impact is essentially zero. However, some medical researchers have pointed out that current knowledge of low-dose, endocrine-mediated and epigenetic effects of chemicals were not taken into account when the use of these chemicals was approved.

There is also another category of concern to consider. Though not safety related, it's no less troubling.

Throughout history, farmers have saved seeds to replant subsequent crops. That has changed dramatically. Many major crops are genetically modified. Now companies that sell farmers the associated chemicals and the GM seeds retain ownership of the seeds.

The introduction of herbicide resistant GMO technology is a package deal that transfers control of our most basic human need, food, from hundreds of thousands of independent farmers into the hands of a handful of self-interested, for-profit corporations.

Is that a good thing? Many knowledgeable observers of the agri-food system are concerned about the long-term implications of the shift.

So the whole GMO package does have significant socioeconomic, health, and environmental impacts. This is not to say the impacts are all bad, but there is certainly no overwhelming consensus that they are all good.

Originally Published: The Star Phoenix