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GMO Critics Get Their Say
Monday, September 15, 2014 9:06AM CDT

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

OMAHA (DTN) -- Some of the most vocal critics of genetically engineered crops will get a spotlight shined on them this week in Washington, D.C., as the National Research Council holds two days of hearings as part of the group's latest review of crop biotechnology.

It's an unusual open-door venue for the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The NRC prides itself as a prestigious science institution set up to provide expert studies to the nation's policymakers. Currently, NRC is taking another look at biotech crops in a report expected out in 2016. NRC stated the purpose of the biotech-crops study is to "conduct a broad review of available information on genetically-engineered (GE) crops in the context of the contemporary global food and agricultural system."

The study "will assess whether initial concerns and promises were realized since the introduction of GE crops and will investigate new concerns and recent claims."

Yet, the hearings on Monday and Tuesday offer a seat at the witness table to groups such as the Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch and Consumers Union. Each group has taken positions of adamant opposition to foods with ingredients from biotech crops. Some have called for outright bans on certain biotech crops.

The hearing list is filled with sustainability and organic advocates, anthropologists, sociologists, communication professors, journalists and independent researchers.

Author Jon Entine is one of the 25 or so people who will testify. Entine is a journalist by profession who became a defender of biotechnology and is now executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, which often clashes with biotech opponents. Entine said he wants to point out to the NRC the "false balance" among those testifying that is weighted more heavily toward critics of biotechnology.

"They are not mainstream critics, either," said Entine, who also has a fellowship at the University of California-Davis World Food Center. "It's one thing to be critical of it, and that's fine. There should be healthy debate. These issues should be robustly debated, but some of these people are part of what I would call rogue's gallery of critics."

Among those testifying is Iowan Jeffrey Smith, who has written books and created films dedicated to criticizing genetically-engineered foods. Smith studied at the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa and is a self-proclaimed "leading consumer advocate promoting healthier non-GMO choices." Smith has been on TV shows such as Dr. Oz arguing against biotechnology. Smith is the sole employee for an institute he created. Smith offers seminars for people to talk about "the dangers of GMOs.

Also scheduled to testify through an on-line connection is Gilles Eric Seralini, a molecular biologist from the University of Caen in France, Seralini has repeatedly published papers or attempted to publish papers claiming that foods derived from biotech crops are unsafe. He also has sued groups that criticized his work and methodologies.

Seralini produced a report in 2012 claiming that rats died earlier from a diet based on glyphosate-resistant corn than other rats. Seralini's rats were actually fed both Roundup-Ready corn and doses of Roundup itself. The experiment generated a heavy dose of scientific backlash that eventually caused the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology to retract Seralini's paper, which was later published elsewhere without scientific peer review. Seralini continues to defend his study and maintains a website devoted to the study's results and antibiotic analysis.

Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, or BIO, said in an email that BIO will not have anyone testifying at the meeting, but the group would like to see farmers submit formal comments about biotech crops on their own operation.

Cathy Enright, executive vice president for food and agriculture at BIO, stated, "BIO and its members welcome the National Academy of Sciences' overarching goal of providing an independent examination of scientific evidence on the impacts of genetically engineered crops. Since 1987, the National Academies have issued numerous reports on GE crops, and all have reached the same conclusion: The risks of GE crops are the same as the risks of conventional crops. We are not aware of any new, scientifically valid research that calls into question the risks of GE crops, and therefore are confident this NAS committee will reaffirm the findings of all previous reports."

Entine said he is concerned about the National Research Council offering testimony to scientists and non-scientists whose positions have been discredited in the past. Entine said he thinks the rationale is that NRC will be able to engage in the public-relations and social media surrounding the debate.

"I am just guessing, but it seems like their rationale is to invite critics, the sharpest critics -- maybe not the most informed critics -- but ones that have captured media attention and are well represented on social media and the web. Let them have their say, then no one can accuse them (NRC) of not hearing from the most vocal, popular critics of genetic modification."

Entine said he believes the NRC's hearing "will boomerang" because it offers a chance to provide credentials to some critics on the debate. After the hearing, the biotech critics will be able to add to their resumes and websites that they testified as experts on biotech crops before the National Research Council.

"If they believe that in any way they will somehow diffuse the criticism, they (NRC) are wrong," Entine said, noting that critics of biotechnology are not looking for balance. "Critics will not embrace any data that contradicts their ideological line. I think this will boomerang on the NRC."

The NRC has scheduled a second public meeting on Dec. 10-11 to discuss other aspects of biotech crops.

People can sign up for updates about the study, recommend experts on biotech crops and find a link to watch the hearings at http://nas-sites.org/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com.

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN.


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