With a week to go before California voters head to the polls to decide the fate of Proposition 37, which would require genetically modified (or GMO) foods to be labeled, I’ve been expecting an ugly campaign fueled by $41 million in corporate ad dollars to get even uglier.
But the latest gift to the No on 37 campaign smells especially bad. Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released this “statement” [PDF] on GMO labeling that sounds like it was drafted by Monsanto. It ends with the non-scientific but very quote-worthy conclusion that “mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”
While Prop 37 is never mentioned, what purpose could the timing serve other than to persuade Californians to vote no on the measure? This paragraph of the AAAS press release sounds especially familiar:
Several current efforts to require labeling of GM foods are not being driven by any credible scientific evidence that these foods are dangerous … Rather, GM labeling initiatives are being advanced by “the persistent perception that such foods are somehow ‘unnatural,’” as well as efforts to gain competitive advantages within the marketplace, and the false belief that GM crops are untested.
These talking points come straight from the No on 37 campaign. For example, what does the idea of “gaining competitive advantages” have to do with science? Nothing, but it’s a favorite refrain from the anti-labeling side. In fact, the idea was featured on the mailer sent to my home.
The statement also claims it’s a “false belief” that GM crops are untested. On the contrary, that is a scientific fact. According to David Schubert, professor and laboratory head at the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute: “Any statement suggesting extensive safety testing of all genetically modified crops is absolutely false. A majority of the new GM crops coming through the agriculture biotech pipeline have had zero testing done on them.”
In a statement he made earlier this year, Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist with Consumers Union, noted [PDF] that, unlike in other countries, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require safety testing for genetically engineered plants or foods. In a recent email to the Yes on 37 campaign, Hansen described the AAAS statement as, “filled with distortion and misleading statements. If mandatory labeling of GM foods would ‘mislead and alarm consumers,’ does the AAAS really believe that 60 other countries are misleading and alarming their consumers?”
As suspicious as the pro-biotech spin of this recent statement is the fact that the AAAS statement [PDF] lists other organizations that apparently claim that GMO foods are safe to consume, using rhetoric that strongly echoes the No campaign:
The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion …
Where did this handy list come from? The No campaign listed three of these four groups — the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences — in the official California voter guide as concluding GMO foods are safe. But in fact, the World Health Organization says that ongoing risk assessments are needed and that “GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” Meanwhile, the American Medical Association favors pre-market safety testing, which the FDA does not require. So, how did a science organization miss all of that?
In their statement, the AAAS wrote:
The EU, for example, has invested more than €300 million in research on the biosafety of GMOs. Its recent report states: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”
Michael Hansen takes issue with this assertion. In a recent email, he wrote: “Perhaps the most galling part is the quote about the 10 year EU study. That quote does not come from the study itself, but by a representative of the EU Commission in a press release. If you actually look at the “study” it’s just a review of all the EU-funded biotech work for a ten year period. Most of the studies were about developing test methodologies to use in investigating genetic engineering (GE), not GE safety studies themselves. In fact, only three of the studies could be considered GE feeding trials and they all did find effects. Dr. Fedoroff has been using that quote a good deal ever since that EU review was released.”
But back to the suspicious timing of the statement’s release. What I want to know is: Who exactly instigated it? The statement says it’s from the AAAS board of directors. Who are they? The board chair, Nina Federoff, has an impressive pedigree, including a stint as science advisor to Condoleezza Rice. Curiously, Federoff has been listed as a leading scientist on the No on 37 website since June, where she is quoted as being “passionately opposed to labeling.” Maybe her previous board membership with Sigma-Aldrich Chemical Company helped drive that passion.
It seems possible that this anti-GMO labeling statement from AAAS has been in motion since June, and has been timed to be released near Election Day. Looking over this page of AAAS “policy statements,” others also seem well-timed, but they are on bland issues that warrant little scientific debate. For example, in March, AAAS urged the Tennessee legislature to reject a silly bill aimed at undermining science education on evolution and climate change. Other letters appear to take similarly uncontroversial scientific positions or are simply asking Congress [PDF] not to cut federal funding for science programs.
So the question remains: Why this position right now? Why would such a mainstream scientific organization stick its neck out on a highly controversial issue just days before the election? And how can we trust any future AAAS statements to be based on science, instead of what this looks like: a carefully orchestrated political and public relations maneuver that puts the AAAS motto — “Advancing science, serving society” — to shame. The only interests this statement serves are those of the biotech, chemical, and junk food industries.