In 2014, Maine became the second state to adopt a law requiring labels identifying all products containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Like Connecticut’s law, which was the first of its kind in the nation, Maine’s GMO labeling law will only go into effect if four other states adopt a similar requirement. Some Maine activists, however, are pushing to abolish the four state requirement and implement mandatory labeling immediately.
Proponents of labeling claim that there is something inherently dangerous about GMOs. The scientific consensus on GMO foods, however, is that they are as safe to consume as “traditional” foods. Why then, do so many Mainers sincerely believe that GMOs are inherently dangerous?
Anti-GMO Activists Engage in Parallel Science
The last several years has seen an increase in what Marcel Kuntz, Director of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, calls “parallel science.”
“Political ecologists–commentators in the media and among NGO advocacy groups–like science…when it confirms their views. When it contradicts them, rather than changing their minds, they often prefer to change the science to fit their ideology. They have thus created a “parallel science.”
In parallel science, activists dismiss political opponents as having conflicted interests, having ties to the industry, or being biased. They then label the research backing their own views as “independent.” In this way, activists can disregard the mainstream scientific consensus in favor of fringe scientists and research that backs their own particular ideology. In order to maintain their ideology, activists must disengage from the scientific process while creating a separate, parallel work of scientific research that appears to justify their viewpoint.
In Maine, parallel science has reared its ugly head in the debate over GMO labeling. Advocates push junk science, while refusing to look at the vast collection of research affirming the safety of products containing GMOs.
Anti-GMO activists like to claim that there are only a few studies on GMOs that can really be trusted–the ones that agree with their ideological viewpoint. For example, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardiners Association (MOFGA) states on its website, “The few unbiased studies conducted outside the aegis of the biotech manufacturers have indicated that various GE organisms may threaten human health[.]” Here, MOFGA is engaging in parallel science by claiming (1) all mainstream research on GMOs is biased, and (2) there are only a few independent studies that can really be trusted.
The truth is, GMOs have been the subject of a vast collection of research. In a survey, Italian researchers cataloged over 1700 studies showing that GMOs had no significant health risks. “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops,” the researchers concluded.
As of January, only 300 scientists have signed a petition claiming that there is no consensus on GMO safety. Compare that to the tens of thousands of scientists who have signed petitions opposing the scientific consensus on man-made global warming. Yet in popular culture, man-made global warming is treated as scientific fact, whereas GMO safety is treated as a conspiracy propagated by corporations like Monsanto.
Anti-GMO Advocates Push Junk Science
Perhaps the most widely used, and seemingly most damning, case cited in these debates is a study by Gilles-Eric Séralini purporting to prove that rats who had been fed pesticide resistant corn developed mammary tumors and liver disease and died shortly thereafter.
That study was, and still is, widely publicized by activists even as mainstream scientists have denounced it. The study was retracted by the journal it was published in, with the editor stating that the study didn’t hold up to the necessary research standards. No study since then has been able to replicate Séralini’s results. Even with this almost universal backlash among mainstream scientists, activists continue to submit the study as proof that GMOs are dangerous.
In Maine, the retracted study continues to be passed around carelessly. In a recent blog post, former Senate candidate Cynthia Dill wrote, “There isn’t any research that says genetically modified food is dangerous? Have you fallen off your horse? There’s plenty!” The website she links to cites the retracted rat study as one of 10 studies “proving” that GMOs are unhealthy. The retracted study also shows up in testimonies submitted on GMO labeling legislation, and was referenced by Maine State Rep. Lance Harvell (R-Farmington) in a floor speech on LD 718, the original GMO labeling bill.
The Path Forward
The fact is, most reputable organizations and scientists agree that GMOs are not dangerous, and the almost hysterical fight for GMO labeling laws is steeped in junk science. People and organizations across Maine are waking up to the truth about GMOs even as activists push their parallel science.
In an editorial last month, the Portland Press Herald walked back a 2013 statement that the science on GMOs was “unclear.” Now the newspaper admits that there is a strong scientific consensus supporting consumption of GMOs. “Critics of GMOs say the FDA does not properly enforce its rules, or that the research upholding the safety of genetically modified food is supported by GMO producers themselves,” states the editorial. “But, again, those claims do not hold up.”
As Maine citizens and legislators look into GMOs, they’re finding that the available data and research isn’t as limited as anti-GMO activists claim. As Mainers come in line with the scientific consensus on GMOs, parallel science and hyperbolic claims will fall by the wayside.
An image included in this piece contained at least two inaccurately sourced quotations. The quotations in questions came from reputable publications and support the claims made here, however, the image has been removed as not to detract from the article as a whole. This serves as a timely reminder to myself and others to always double check the source before sharing information. The image used can be found here.