Saturday, June 10, 2006

No consensus yet on safety of GM food
by Richard Seah Siew Sai
Health Ministry, CASE and other agencies should educate public on GM food
by Dr Ooi Can Seng

Going to handle these two letters together because the sentiments are similar (though not identical) and a similar (and possibly identical) response should be sufficient to rebut them simultaneously. The first is a little more alarmist than the second.

IN HER reply to a letter about the labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods, Ms Airani Ramli of the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee stated that 'the lack of international consensus refers to labelling of GM foods and not safety of GM foods' (ST, June 5).

She seems to suggest that there is consensus on the safety of GM foods. This is not so. There is continuing debate about the safety of GM foods. A number of scientists continue to express concern.

There is generally a consensus on the safety of GM food, the problems expressed earlier with GM food have more to do with the danger of transference of GM genes from GMO (genetically modified organisms) to non-GMO, which is fundamentally irrelevant if GM foods are safe. The other problem, which postulates a highly convoluted and improbable chain of events, which results in some form of insidious mutation has been shown to be speculative and as yet still theoretical. Besides which, genes are destroyed during the cooking process and in particular the sort of processing and preservative processes of modern global trade in food.

And yes, the entire Monarch Butterfly story, while true, is nevertheless utterly irrelevant to safety of GM food because the freaking plant was modified to express a naturally occurring plant insecticide so obviously it was going to kill the butterfly!

But if you change "the food safety of GM food" to "theory of Evolution", you get an eerily familiar form of argumentation as we shall come to see.

This is a dangerous form of rhethoric that has serious implications and consequences, both direct and indirect. The direct is when you have famine strickened African nations rejecting food aid on the basis that they are GM and therefore unsafe. The indirect one is more general. The EU is infamous for having a whole slew of safety regulations that are premised not on scientific consensus and sensible standards but the equivalent form of paranoid adherence to the uncertainty and precautionary principle. The result is an standard of arsenic particle level in ground water that would save one extra life every fifteen years at a cost of $35 million dollars per year. That is money that would have been spent more fruitfully saving more lives at a much lower cost.

Ms Ramli herself states that 'so far, there has been no conclusive scientific evidence that GM foods now in the market are unsafe'.

'No conclusive evidence' means that, either way, scientists do not know for sure. Scientists do not know that GM foods are definitely unsafe; neither do they know that GM foods are definitely safe.

I get frequently annoyed when people use the inherent uncertainty that exists within Science and the natural humility of working with and acknowledging probabilities against Science itself. It's intellectually dishonest in the sense that Science never expresses anything as a certainty, a near certainty perhaps but never absolutely.

While the way he couched the various possibilities is technically and logically true, it's actually rather facetious.

Because, couched another way, since one cannot prove a negative, absence of evidence should generally be accepted as evidence of absence. For barring which, we would have to accept the possibility of the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus existing. Again, he who asserts much prove and without some form of scientific and causal link, it's sounding like a one-note-charlie when they keep harping on the refrain that we do not have "consensus".

In fact, I do wonder what would persuade them otherwise considering that this appears (like other pseudo-scientific controversies e.g. Evolution, HIV/AIDS link, MMR-Autism link) to be ideological rather than anything else.

Moreover, Ms Ramli's discussion about the difficulties of detection is largely irrelevant.

Firstly, is she saying that if a criminal goes into hiding and becomes hard to detect, then it is not practical to seek him out and to inform the public about him?

If the person is innocent and only you think he's guilty, should the public waste their expense in searching for him especially if he has the ability to become say...invisible?

Secondly, when certain food products are already known to contain GM material (equivalent to a person who is already known to be a criminal), there is no need for detection. In this case, why can't consumers be informed so that they can make their own choices?

I think I will address this issue of "informed choice" a little later in the second letter because that author makes a more compelling argument.
As a nation, we are not afraid to be among the world leaders in taking bold measures, such as banning chewing gum, curbing smoking in public places and imposing the death penalty on drug traffickers.

But when it comes to labelling GM foods - as well as labelling foods that contain trans fats, which are now widely agreed to be very harmful to health - we choose to be a laggard by adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

Why not? He might think that they are dangerous, but if the scientific literature doesn't think so, I'll be more than willing to put up with the oft-chance that they are wrong, then to live in perpetual paranoia and with a precautionary principle that would shut down innovation.
I find this very disappointing. hoo? But on a more serious note, I do wonder if he did any research beyond simply reading anti-GM books and sites. This is because the evidence tends to point rather overwhelmingly in one particular direction.

At least one of the benefits of being a debater is having to do both sides of the was instructive to say the least.

I thank Ms Airani Ramli of the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee for her reply 'GM labelling regime must be practical' (ST, June 5) in response to my letter.

I am, however, dismayed and shocked. The reply ignores some very important issues. It merely states the difficulties in detecting genetically modified ingredients.

I read the letter and he's right insofar as her letter was focussed on the practicality of labelling GM food. But this was because given that GM food is no more unsafe than non-GM food, why should labelling be made the de facto policy?
While there is no evidence that GM foods are unsafe for consumption, there is also no evidence that they are safe in the long-term. Science is not yet able to give us answers on the long-term effects.

I'm not entirely sure what this means in the sense that why isn't Science able to give us answers on or in the long term, whether through clinical trials or otherwise.

The basic point I want to make here is the same one as above. When is absence of evidence not evidence of absence? I think the argument here isn't a logical one but a rational choice one. Basically, if GM food does not provide any obvious benefit (it does in terms of higher yields, higher nutrition and being less exhaustive of the soil and/or dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides) and there is the possibility that there might be some unknown harm, then it would be rational to make such a choice.

But the real question to ask is, where is or how can there be harm to ourselves through GM foods?

Since science cannot tell us about the long-term safety of GM foods, we can either ban them or let the consumers make their own decision. The latter is a practical solution.

Fair enough, but I disagree with his solution. More below.
To do this, consumers must be educated and informed. At least three things must be done:

One, the GMAC, the Ministry of Health, the Consumers Association of Singapore and other relevant authorities must embark on a campaign to educate the public on what we know about GM foods.

We could, but I doubt he agrees with the assessment and consensus or not he wouldn't be writing this letter. But the problem is that such letters mislead the public into thinking there is indeed a problem, which now makes education necessary...but to reverse the damage done.
Two, GM foods should be labelled. If there are ambiguities, a label saying 'GM ingredients may be found here' should be on the packaging.

Why? I disagree with GM foods having to label themselves much less "possible" GM traces. The reason is that it's a form of poisoning-the-well. The impression that your average consumer is going to take away with him is that there are problems with GM and that unfair discriminates against GM food producers for no good reason while making them bear an extra cost.

If he's so adamant about "consumer choice" why not get non-GM food suppliers label their stuff non-GM, although again, the difficulties in detecting trace amounts and possible contamination will make that impossible.
Three, our government has to make the food industry transparent and accountable. Legislation should be passed so that GM ingredients are not be added insidiously into food products.

Bah.... "Insidiously"?!! Unless it is for fraudulent purposes like passing off, why should that happen?
The information from the GM industry could be misleading and we should be aware of this. By choosing not to label GM foods, the GMAC has taken the convenient and easy way out of a potentially serious health problem. It also gives the impression that GM foods are the same as non-GM foods.

How are they different? Wheat is still wheat, salmon is still salmon and once cooked and processed, all genes are destroyed. I do note that very often anti-GM groups don't seem to mind cross-breeding which is really just a more ineffective way of doing the same thing.
Is the committee just hoping that there will not be any dire consequences in future? This is irresponsible and such an attitude is shocking.

Not if they can rely in good faith on the scientific consensus that it is indeed safe. By extension of his "logic" we could well and good ban all forms of medication on the basis that hey we don't know and can't figure out the long term effects and that we're simply hoping that there will be no dire consequences in the future!
The GMAC and the various authorities are giving GM foods the benefit of the doubt and this is irrational. Let the people decide for themselves.

So it's irrational to believe in the scientific process and the scientific consensus now? This is particularly irrational if he's a medical doctor for his entire education, knowledge and livelihood is premised on those two things.




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