Science not likely to decide food issues

Nov 4, 2013

Panelists, including Frances Moore Lappe (second from left), speak to a symposium at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa.
Credit Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

Hot-button food issues of the day, such as the use of genetically modified organisms or the treatment of livestock, tend to pit large industries against smaller activist groups. Often, both sides will claim the science supports what they are saying. That can leave consumers, most of whom aren’t scientists, in a bit of a bind.

Take the question of genetically modified organisms as an example. Genetic modification of seeds is widely used in the United States but remains controversial. It’s banned in the European Union because many people question its safety and environmental impact.  So when the 2013 World Food Prize, an award for innovation in food production, recently went to three pioneers of the technology, one of the most ardent opponents of it visited Des Moines to join a World Food Prize symposium on the question.

“I thought it would be a whole lot easier not to, and so I felt that I should (come),” said Frances Moore Lappe of the Small Planet Institute after the session. She has been writing about and working on food, hunger and environmental issues for more than four decades. She says many scientific studies raise questions about GMOs. She cites some in her fact sheet called “7 Really Good Reasons to Re-think GMOs”.

“We have a link to all the sources that we use and we have links to the studies so that people can see how we interpreted them,” she said. “I know that there are very serious scientists who’ve done experiments that raise questions for them about safety.”

But another activist, Mark Lynas, disagrees, even though he used to be radically opposed to the use of genetically modified (GM)crops and years ago even participated in direct-action campaigns against GMOs.

“I destroyed GM maize, canola, sugar beets – maybe one or two others,” he said. “It’s dark, so you can’t always tell.”

But Earlier this year, Lynas announced he had changed his mind. Now, he says he accepts what he sees as a scientific consensus that GMOs in food are safe.

“All of these are questions which have been very directly addressed many times over, independently and through studies which are conducted by industry and then assessed by the regulators,” Lynas said. “And there’s only so many times you can ask the same question and get the same answer.”

Advocates for two opposing views both point to scientific studies they say back up their positions. But as consumers, many people expect that when something is backed up by science it is the truth.

“Consumers think that science is definitive. But the important thing to remember is that science is a process,” said Lydia Zepeda, a University of Wisconsin-Madison consumer science professor.

Studies may use different designs, or types of analyses, or even start with different questions, Zepeda said. And that means they can legitimately arrive at conflicting results. That places a burden on consumers.

“How can consumers be expected to know more than scientists? I think the bottom line is, they can’t,” Zepeda said.

So where does that leave the rest of us? Zepeda’s tip to consumers: follow the money.  Greater transparency could help everyone. That means more openness about who funds scientific research and, Lynas points out, about who pays for activist campaigns. Zepeda also has another suggestion.

“People may have gotten into their positions,” she said, “but they still might want to listen to each other.”