I am writing in response to the anonymous commentary to the Maui Weekly (July 10 issue) titled "Why We don't Trust Monsanto." The first and most important point I would like to make to the writer of that commentary is that you should not look for unbiased research-based information on any topic, from sources that stand to profit from their ability to sway the reader's alliances. Biased sources for genetically modified food would include Biotech Seed companies, and on the non-GMO side, advocates like Jeffrey Smith, who sells his books and documentaries, and gives talks on this subject as sole beneficiary of his "nonprofit" organization. Would you trust a car salesman to tell you what is wrong with a car you were interested in, or would you check consumer reports?
As a plant geneticist and a professor at the University of Hawai'i Maui College, I am often asked how to assess the issues surrounding GMOs. In my introductory genetics class, I give students guidelines on how to evaluate technical areas of scientific research that can be useful to all who are interested in learning more about GMOs. The first guideline is to look closely at the data that supports the scientific claims being made. It is not unusual for claims to be made and widely publicized without reliable supporting data (i.e. MMR vaccine causing autism).
The data should be evaluated for its credibility by verifying that it has been "Peer Reviewed." Peer review is a built-in check and balance system in science that allows for the close scrutiny and testing of data by other experts in the field. The second guideline is to check that the information comes from known "experts" in the field being investigated. It is a rare individual who may be considered an expert in more than one or two areas of science that are not closely related.
This is also true for medicine (would you see a dermatologist for a heart problem?), and it is also true in basic and applied research. The primary reason for the specialization is due to the enormous amount of data being generated and the time it takes to receive a terminal degree (Ph.D.) to be considered an expert. It is difficult to keep current with all the research in one's own area of expertise--let alone areas outside your field. Therefore, scientists and individuals in the medical field rely on review articles that summarize the current research -- comprehensive studies done by experts in several areas of related research -- and, of course, their own research and experience to keep current.
If one looks at the literature and the studies that have been done on the safety, benefits, risks and regulations of GMOs, they will find that there is overwhelming agreement by the worldwide scientific and medical communities that the use of biotechnology in agriculture is being properly regulated, is benefiting the farmers and the environment, and that there is no compelling evidence that any significant risks exist that would suggest a need for the development of more state or local regulatory boards. Such studies on GMOs have been implemented by the World Health Organization, The EPA, The FDA, The USDA, The American Toxicology Society, The American Medical Association, The National Academy of Sciences, our own University of Hawai'i researchers, and numerous other universities and research institutes around the world.
Again, I would like to restate that decisions made in science and medicine must be based on credible and substantial scientific data by experts in the field.
It is impossible to explain all of the science behind most high-tech fields to a point where lay-people will feel comfortable with the technology based on their understanding of it. Therefore, I instruct my students to base their conclusions on the cumulative studies, reports and findings of the majority of the world's scientific bodies and not on the concerns of a few individuals. Concern due to a lack of understanding or knowledge is not unimportant, but it should not dictate legislative action.
I think author and Medical Doctor (M.D.) Michael Crichton said it best in the following quote: "Because in the end, science offers us the only way out of politics. And if we allow science to become politicized, then we are lost. We will enter the Internet version of the dark ages, an era of shifting fears and wild prejudices, transmitted to people who don't know any better. That's not a good future for the human race."