Post-Truth Science

“March Against Monsanto” protesters in Los Angeles, October 2013. (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)
Attempts to discredit genetically modified crops and the herbicide glyphosate have no scientific basis.

‘Post-truth” is much in the news these days — both the word itself and the phenomenon it describes, in which (according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which chose “post-truth” as its Word of the Year) “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Consider, for example, the way emotionally charged reporting turned the scientific consensus on biotechnology — in particular, genetically modified (GM) foods and the herbicide glyphosate — into a circus of public confusion that reached even our nation’s highest office.

Humans have been tinkering with plant genetics far longer than they have understood the mechanisms that allow their actions. But genetic engineering as understood today involves the delicate in vitro process of inserting, removing, or altering genes to create a favorable trait. It can be used to guard food crops from premature spoilage, confer drought resistance, and, perhaps most controversially, allow for the survival of applications of weed killer.

Glyphosate, the world’s most heavily used herbicide, has hampered excess weed growth for nearly half a century — and not only in GM fields. By allowing farmers to use less water and requiring minimal tilling, the weed killer (better known as Roundup) minimizes erosion and agricultural runoff into the water supply. And, like all herbicides sold in the U.S., glyphosate has passed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) risk assessment — twice, in fact.

Glyphosate has been particularly effective in combination with Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready”–branded sugar beets, alfalfa, cotton, soy, and other crops, which have been engineered to withstand a single strong application of Roundup that would kill non-GM crops. This eliminates the need for repeated smaller doses. The weeds die, but the crops don’t, and besides saving time and money, less of the herbicide is released into the environment. It’s a multiple win, something that almost everyone on the political spectrum should be able to favor.

But today, genetically modified produce and glyphosate face uncertainty from every angle.

In late July, President Obama signed the nation’s first mandatory GM-labeling legislation into law. The bipartisan measure gives food manufacturers two years to adopt one of three labels — a Department of Agriculture–sanctioned symbol, a plain-language print label, or a QR code scannable by cell phones — to inform consumers of the presence of GM ingredients in products.

Despite White House recognition of the “broad consensus that foods from genetically engineered crops are safe,” pandering to unscientific misgivings suggests that foods containing GMs are something to be avoided.

In truth, glyphosate has been subjected to extensive toxicological review in the decades since its creation. Data from over 300 independent studies consistently fail to implicate glyphosate as a danger to human development, reproduction, hormone regulation, or immunological or neurological functioning.

Yet popular publications and blogs appear unfazed by professional science’s unanimous support for the safety of GM foods and their accompanying technologies. Are the halls of Congress and the Oval Office less swayed by unbiased science than by the emotional appeals of online activism?

Are the halls of Congress and the Oval Office less swayed by unbiased science than by the emotional appeals of online activism?

The tactics used to undercut public opinion mirror those that were used to force GM products out of the European market, and the anti-GM trend has farmers on edge as glyphosate nears the end of its third routine EPA review.

Since the early 2000s, groups opposed to genetically modified food have attempted, with some success, to construct a popular narrative maligning glyphosate by connecting it with health ailments. The lowest-hanging fruit? Purported ties to cancer. With more than 1.5 million new cases each year, it’s safe to say that cancer’s pervasiveness and uncertain outcome make it a particularly emotionally charged subject. So when a 2012 French study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology showed tumor growth in rats exposed to a glyphosate-containing weed killer, activist groups issued press releases, reporters breathlessly pushed out stories, and the public’s heart skipped a collective beat.

The behavior betrays one of the most disturbing trends in science and health journalism today. Our hyper-competitive 24-hour news cycle incentivizes reporters to publish stories as quickly as possible, often forgoing the extensive background research necessary to effectively communicate a scientific position. Far too often, this results in fantastical headlines that distort the results of the research they’re based upon.

Had journalists reported on the French study responsibly by soliciting the opinion of other toxicologists, they might have stumbled upon one of the 22 scientists who immediately contacted the journal in question to criticize the quality of the experiment. Even a simple Google search would have uncovered a history of anti-GM activism on the part of the lead author. Follow-up stories could have noted that the original paper was swiftly retracted.

The New York TimesAndrew Revkin blames pervasive misinformation in part on “single-study syndrome,” in which agenda-driven fringe groups promote studies supporting a predetermined position — no matter how questionable the research behind them may be.

Extensive research supports the safety of both glyphosate and the GM food cultivated with it. Five nations and the European Union have independently concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer. In September of last year, as part of the EPA’s ongoing evaluation of the herbicide’s health implications, the Office of Pesticide Programs reviewed 37 years’ worth of data to conclude (once again) that glyphosate is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

The science appears settled, with a majority of professional scientists believing foods grown with pesticides to be safe and close to 90 percent believing genetically modified foods to be safe. Yet the cultural war against glyphosate and the GM food cultivated with it rages on, with only about a third of Americans (including, apparently, most of our elected representatives) holding the same belief.

The pervasiveness of inaccurate science reporting has taken its toll on policy and the public. When “GM-free” becomes the equivalent of “risk-free,” we’ve officially entered an era in which fear plays a far greater role than unbiased statistics in telling the public what is and isn’t safe.


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