Being Against Genetically Modified Crops Means Being Anti-Science

And notwithstanding its boasts to the contrary, the port side of the partisan divide can be just as anti-science as it accuses the starboard side of being:

From the moment the bill to ban genetically engineered crops on the island of Hawaii was introduced in May 2013, it garnered more vocal support than any the County Council here had ever considered, even the perennially popular bids to decriminalize marijuana.

Public hearings were dominated by recitations of the ills often attributed to genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s: cancer in rats, a rise in childhood allergies, out-of-control superweeds, genetic contamination, overuse of pesticides, the disappearance of butterflies and bees.

Like some others on the nine-member Council, Greggor Ilagan was not even sure at the outset of the debate exactly what genetically modified organisms were: living things whose DNA has been altered, often with the addition of a gene from a distant species, to produce a desired trait. But he could see why almost all of his colleagues had been persuaded of the virtue of turning the island into what the bill’s proponents called a “G.M.O.-free oasis.”

“You just type ‘G.M.O.’ and everything you see is negative,” he told his staff. Opposing the ban also seemed likely to ruin anyone’s re-election prospects.

Yet doubts nagged at the councilman, who was serving his first two-year term. The island’s papaya farmers said that an engineered variety had saved their fruit from a devastating disease. A study reporting that a diet of G.M.O. corn caused tumors in rats, mentioned often by the ban’s supporters, turned out to have been thoroughly debunked.

And University of Hawaii biologists urged the Council to consider the global scientific consensus, which holds that existing genetically engineered crops are no riskier than others, and have provided some tangible benefits.

“Are we going to just ignore them?” Mr. Ilagan wondered.

[. . .]

Scientists, who have come to rely on liberals in political battles over stem-cell research, climate change and the teaching of evolution, have been dismayed to find themselves at odds with their traditional allies on this issue. Some compare the hostility to G.M.O.s to the rejection of climate-change science, except with liberal opponents instead of conservative ones.

“These are my people, they’re lefties, I’m with them on almost everything,” said Michael Shintaku, a plant pathologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who testified several times against the bill. “It hurts.”

There is, of course, absolutely no evidence whatsoever that GMOs harm public health. On the flip side, there is plenty of evidence that the anti-GMO crowd relies on poorly conducted scientific research to foster the fantasy that GMOs are a danger and a threat. Presumably, however, we are supposed to be swayed by the following sort of people and the following sort of arguments:

In the three minutes allotted to each speaker at the July hearing, some told personal tales of all manner of illness, including children’s allergies, cured after going on a “non-G.M.O.” diet. One woman took the microphone “on behalf of Mother Earth and all sentient beings.” Nomi Carmona encouraged Council members to visit the website of her group, Babes Against Biotech, where analyses of Monsanto’s campaign contributions are intermingled with pictures of bikini-clad women.

[. . .]

What really stuck with Mr. Ilagan were the descriptions of tumorous rats. Reading testimony submitted before the hearing, he had blanched at grotesque pictures of the animals fed Monsanto’s corn, modified with a gene from bacteria to tolerate an herbicide. According to the French researcher who performed the study, they developed more tumors and died earlier than those in the control group.

“Are we all going to get cancer?” Mr. Ilagan wondered.

The next week, when his legislative assistant alerted him that the rat study encountered near-universal scorn from scientists after its release in autumn 2012, doubt about much of what Mr. Ilagan had heard began to prick at his mind.

“Come to find out, the kind of rats they used would get tumors anyway,” he told his staff. “And the sample size was too small for any conclusive results.”

Sensitive to the accusation that her bill was antiscience, Ms. Wille had circulated material to support it. But in almost every case, Mr. Ilagan and his staff found evidence that seemed to undermine the claims.

A report, in an obscure Russian journal, about hamsters that lost the ability to reproduce after three generations as a result of a diet of genetically modified soybeans had been contradicted by many other studies and deemed bogus by mainstream scientists.

Mr. Ilagan discounted the correlations between the rise in childhood allergies and the consumption of G.M.O.s, cited by Ms. Wille and others, after reading of the common mistake of confusing correlation for causation. (One graph, illustrating the weakness of conclusions based on correlation, charted the lock-step rise in organic food sales and autism diagnoses.)

Butterflies were disappearing, but Mr. Ilagan learned that it was not a toxin produced by modified plants that harmed them, as he had thought. Instead, the herbicide used in conjunction with some genetically modified crops (as well as some that were not) meant the milkweed on which they hatched was no longer found on most Midwestern farms.

He heard many times that there were no independent studies of the safety of genetically modified organisms. But Biofortified, which received no funding from industry, listed more than a hundred such studies, including a 2010 comprehensive review sponsored by the European Union, that found “no scientific evidence associating G.M.O.s with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.” It echoed similar statements by the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A blog post on the website of NPR, a news source Mr. Ilagan trusted, cataloged what it called “Top Five Myths of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted.” No. 1 was a thing he had long believed: “Seeds from G.M.O.s are sterile.”

One of the more alarming effects of G.M.O.s that Ms. Wille had cited was suicides among farmers in India, purportedly driven into debt by the high cost of patented, genetically modified cotton seeds.

Biotechnology companies, she said, “come in and give it away cheap, and then raise prices.”

Monsanto’s cotton, engineered with a gene from bacteria to ward off certain insects, had “pushed 270,000 farmers to suicide” since the company started selling it in India in 2002, the activist Vandana Shiva said in a Honolulu speech Ms. Wille attended.

But in Nature, a leading academic journal, Mr. Ilagan found an article with the subhead “GM Cotton Has Driven Farmers to Suicide: False.”

And these are the people and the claims we should listen to when it comes to debating science and public health issues?

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