Is GM food safe?

The short answer is yes.

The slightly longer answer…

A paper has just been published in the Critical Reviews in Biotechnology journal cataloguing and summarising 1783 scientific studies that looked into the safety and environmental impact of GM food. Its conclusion was that

The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops

In addition, there is a consensus conclusion from science organisations worldwide, that GM foods are safe. So why then is there such apparent controversy about the topic?

A search of just one online newspaper, the Daily Mail, reveals hundreds of articles about GM food. Many of these question their safety or environmental impact. To get a flavour of the concerns raised by journalists about this issue, I will analyse the first article I clicked on.

ImageThe title of this article ‘‘Frankenstein food’ a good thing? It’s all great GM lies‘ is unashamedly provocative and immediately tells us the stance the journalist is going to be taking. The thrust of the article relate to comments made by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson about whether meat being sold in the UK has been raised on a GM diet. I will however jump forward to focus on the claims made by the article about GM food safety.

The biggest piece of evidence against the safety of GM foods used by the article comes in the form of a scientific study by Dr Spiroux de Vendômois et al in the International Journal of Biological Sciences. Whilst the study in questions concludes that it identified new side effects related to the consumption of GM food, it also has many problems. Chiefly among these is a small sample size. As admitted in the paper

Only 10 rats were measured per group for blood and urine parameters and served as the basis for the major statistical analyses conducted.

When statistical analyses is based upon such a small sample size, it is very difficult to determine what is causing the effects that you are seeing in the data.

The Daily Mail article references a number of other pieces of evidence to further support it claim. It talks about “large-scale GM crop trials conducted in this country”. Without further details or references to this however, I was unable to investigate this.  Other unreferenced claims about studies are also made. The journalist also uses a second hand anecdote to further make her point.

That might explain some anecdotal evidence I came across recently concerning a Danish farmer whose pig herd had mysteriously fallen ill.

Finally, the article cites public opinion in its argument against the proliferation of GM foods in the UK.

a British Science Association survey showed public support for GM crops declining from 46 per cent in 2002 to just 27 per cent now

Of course, it is very easy to cherry pick numbers from two particular years of a survey (and from one of the many questions that was asked) to make your point. I might equally say (using that very same survey) that 25% Britons are now unconcerned by GM food, compared with 17% in 2003. The caution with which we should approach these figures is emphasised by Dr Tom MacMillan, director of innovation at the Soil Association.

The share saying they agree that GM food “should be encouraged” actually drops from 46% in 2002 to 27% in 2012. Not only does that directly call into question the notion that there is greater public appetite for GM, but the fact that the figures are 35% in 2005 yet 44% in 2010 suggest it is absolute nonsense to suggest a clear trend here.

In summery, there is a significant amount of evidence saying that GM foods are both safe to eat and safe to the environment, There still however remains, particularly in the media, the perception, that GM food is unsafe or that the evidence of its safety is not sufficient. Articles claiming such, like the Daily Mail article presented here, point towards single specific studies (which in this case had significant methodological flaws) for support, whilst ignoring the large body of reputable evidence available. In addition, anecdotal evidence and specially selected survey results are used as to support a particular claim.

When trying to sell a certain story or viewpoint, it is of course easy to find a particular study, anecdote or statistic that appears to back you up. Science however does not work like that. Science requires continuous questioning, testing and experimentation in order to come to (and maintain) a consensus conclusion. That is exactly why we can now say that GM food is safe.


Sense About Science media workshop

I have often found myself frustrated about the way in which science is represented in the media. I don’t think this is something just restricted to the usual suspects of the Daily Mail and Fox News but is something more prevalent in the way in which science is perceived by people in general. This was brought to my attention just a few weeks ago when searching for science books within Waterstones in Piccadilly, London. Despite being the flagship store in London and possessing eight and a half miles of shelving, I was surprised to find a science section comprising of just a few hundred books, many of which were actually abut DIY.

With a newfound resolve to somehow help right this perceived wrong, I recalled a presentation I attended that was given by a member of an organisation dedicated to achieving a better representation and understanding of science. This organisation (as I later found out) was Sense about Science and, after applying online, I was lucky enough to make it onto one of their quarter yearly media workshops.

Sense About Science media workshopThe day started at a leisurely 10.30am (for those of us living in London) with registration, a wide assortment of chocolate biscuits and a ‘goodie bag’ containing a rather futuristic looking mouse mat. The first discussion of the day began half an hour later, with the three invited panellists speaking about their experiences with the media. Robert Dorey talked about what he called “the good, the bad and the off-the-wall” of media interaction. In the ‘bad’ part of his talk, Robert Dorey explained that one of the biggest challenges associated with live radio interviews was that everything you say is broadcast. It is therefore important to be clear about what you are saying and also to be aware of the situation that you are entering into (since you may well be having to contend with sound effects and the like). Conversely, a pre-recorded interview can mean that much of what you say (often the very thing that you actually wanted to say) is mercilessly edited out of the final program.

Following a brief talk by each of the panellists, there was the opportunity for questions and discussion.  Questions asked included “How do you deal with questions from fundamentalists?” and “How do you get your core message across?”. The advice given was that you don’t always have to answer a question and, if you do, your answer should be well thought out beforehand. The discussion part of this first session involved dividing into four groups based upon the shapes printed on our name badges (which somewhat unfortunately included squares).  Within our groups we were asked to think about the good and bad aspects of media reporting of science. Perhaps the most pertinent point made by my group was that the agenda of the journalist is different to that of the scientist. Whilst this can help to make science stories more entertaining to the public, it can lead to misrepresentation and selective bias.

The next part of the session was a panel discussion on what journalists are looking for. One of the panellists was Claire Coleman, a freelance journalist who often reports on science stories for the Daily Mail. She said how her non-scientific background was of benefit to her since it made communication with readers (who generally also do not have a scientific background) easier. I contended this point later on, during the questions portion of the session, by arguing that a lack of training in the field that the journalist worked would not be seen as an obstacle in other disciplines, such a finance or sport. Midway through the talks from the panellists, the session was halted by an ominously sounding “sewage emergency”. Thankfully, following a timely relocation of everyone to the first floor of a nearby pub, the session was able to continue.

The final session of the day involved representatives from a university media office, Voice of Young Science and Sense About Science. In particular, I found the advice on the various ways in which we can communicate our research useful. One of the key points I think the panellists made was that it is vital to think about what it is that the journalist wants. By thinking from their perspective, we can think of our research in terms of a message that means something to the public. Indeed, we also have to realise that sometimes our work is simply not suitable for media reporting.

In summary, the workshop, my first foray into the other side of science reporting (the reporting side) was a great experience and one that I feel will better prepare me for any future encounters with the media. It has also (as workshops have a habit of doing) inspired me to be a bit more proactive in getting a better representation of science into the wider world.