I can’t really blame the journalists. They’re effectively in the infotainment business. And if punters are more likely to buy newspapers with scary stories about genetically modified crops than newspapers taking the consensus of scientists that the GMOs that have made it through the regulatory approval processes have had a far more thorough going-over than ones that have used other mutagenic techniques, well, we can’t really blame them too much.
It can screw up policy though. There’s a pretty serious externality through the political system where bogus scare stories whip up demand for regulatory regimes. Politicians cater to those demands.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time at Offsetting hitting on this kind of theme around bogus studies of the social costs of alcohol that do much to inflame public sentiment against consumption but little to inform.
Today’s edition: GMOs. A paper in Cell Research last year suggested that bits of microRNA from food could migrate into people and so GMO bits could be dangerous. Canterbury biologist Jack Heinemann then put out a paper arguing, as I understand things, that if the Cell Research paper were right, then GMO wheat could also affect gene expression in people via the same mechanism. Most scientists working in the area thought this nonsense; the Science Media Centre put out a few rebuttals.
Paul Gorman at the Christchurch Press covered the controversy, highlighting all the scary bits.
- Lax GM rules may bite back – scientists: the gene silencing mechanism (noted in Cell Research) could yield scary results in people, FSANZ needs to prove that it doesn’t, etc.
- Greens challenge criticism of scientists over GM. Gorman paints it as scientists against Food Standards Australia-New Zealand, but lots of play for the Green Party’s critique of FSANZ’s competence.
- Scientists fall out over GM research. Gorman highlights accusations of bias on the part of the Science Media Centre, continues to portray FSANZ as incompetent.
In contrast to these findings, the report on p. 965 finds no evidence for uptake of plant miRNA168a in the plasma and liver of mice fed a rice diet. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay data from the current study also contradict western blots from the Zhang paper that suggested miR168a directly suppressed levels of low-density lipoprotein receptor adapter protein 1 (LDLRAP1) in mice. Finally, the miRagen study suggests differences in diet composition, rather than miRNA-mediated cross-kingdom gene regulation, likely account for alterations in low-density lipoprotein in mouse plasma.But why put the paper in Nature Biotechnology rather than Cell Research, where the original report was published? In fact, the miRagen investigators did submit their paper to that journal but were told that “it is a bit hard to publish a paper of which the results are largely negative.”We differ with this assessment and believe the paper is worthy of publication precisely because it is a negative result throwing light on a key research question.The original finding from Zhang and colleagues that plant miRNAs are capable of cross-kingdom gene regulation was an extraordinary claim. It went against a large body of research in which the systemic administration of double-stranded RNAs was shown incapable of triggering the RNA interference pathway in humans (and mice). It also raised concerns that plant miRNAs could pose health risks to humans. Indeed, last March, an article published in Environment International (55, 43–55, 2013) went so far as to claim that gene modification of plants using gene silencing mechanisms raises concerns for human health and that these concerns are not adequately considered in food safety assessments. This prompted the regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand to undertake an assessment of the scientific literature on the issue and to publish a position statement on the regulation of genetically modified crops developed using gene silencing.
Bottom line seems to be that FSANZ and the Science Media Centre were right, the Greens (again) were latching on to fringe findings that supported their priors, and the media ran a scare campaign.
The whole Nature Biotechnology editorial is worth reading. They worry a lot about publication incentives and replication work.
I continue to see no scientific basis for demands that GMO foods be labelled. It just feeds the panic. And I continue to update my priors on those who take the GMO fearmongering seriously. There are real social costs to feeding this kind of nonsense. Jenny McCarthy has much for which to answer; so too do the GMO-worriers.