The 180

Analysis: Scientists agree GMOs are safe, but unlikely to convince skeptics quickly

A new report from the National Academy of Science has concluded genetically modified organisms are safe for human consumption, and have not had an adverse impact on the environment. But journalist Tamar Haspel says the comprehensive report will probably not be enough to change the thinking on GMOs.
A protester holds a sign reading "Ban GMO" in the "March Against Monsanto" in Toronto, May 24, 2014. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Earlier this week, the National Academy of Sciences — a science group founded by the U.S. Congress— issued its latest report on genetically engineered crops. 

The report concludes that GMOs, genetically modified organisms, are safe to eat.

But even before it came out, the report and the NAS were criticized by Food & Water Watch, a consumer rights group. It accused some members of the committee that prepared the report of receiving research funding from biotech companies, or having other ties to the industry.

And that doesn't really surprise food and science journalist Tamar Haspel. Despite the evidence, she questions whether science will change the minds of the fiercest critics of GMOs. 

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.

Why is it that this issue has become such a lightning rod for so many people?

There is a lot about the way we grow food, both in the U.S. and Canada, that makes people uncomfortable. We have farmers growing vast tracts of corn and soy. Those corn and soy seeds come from a very small group of seed suppliers, they are fed with synthetic fertilizers, they are sprayed with synthetic chemicals — so we have this system that is not optimal for environmental health because it's not very diverse and it has a fairly heavy reliance on synthetic inputs and it ends up in processed food, which is exhibit A in what's wrong with the way we eat. 

But processed food is legitimately killing us. This study says GMOs aren't. But if you look at the two — you'd see more passion being directed at 'Frankenfoods'

It's a good point. One of the real issues here is that people feel as if they understand what processed food is and when they eat processed food, they feel as if it's a decision they make. But genetically modified food is mysterious and it's hidden in our food supply because most foods that have it aren't labelled. So they feel as if the wool is being pulled over their eyes. When you take a risk and incorporate Doritos into your diet, you know what you're doing. But with GMOs, it's essentially being imposed on you by a corporation you probably don't trust. 

Food and Water Watch called into question the integrity of the report and the NAS — what do those concerns tell you about the current state of the debate around GMOs? 

It's pretty sad isn't it? The NAS is one of the most august and respected research groups in the U.S. The chairman of this report's committee, Fred Gould, has expressed his reservations and skepticism around genetically modified crops. Certainly of the 20 people, some of them have had involvement with the biotech industry, but many of the scientists had no connection whatsoever. If the only argument against this report is that the National Academy of Sciences is bought and paid for, then we've come to a sad pass in our public discourse. 

Given that, how useful are reports like this when it comes to advancing people's understanding of the pros and cons of GE crops? 

That is the $64 million question. I'm really curious to know whether this report will change anyone's minds. And the answer, I'm speculating, is that it won't change minds in the way we think of minds changing — with an "AHA!" moment — where you realize the error of your ways or someone presents to you this compelling argument and you change your mind. I think people's minds change slowly and they probably change much more in an aggregate way. So it's the slow accumulation of those reports, the slow changing of the minds by some thought leaders on the anti-GMO side and gradually it starts to shift.