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Tuft University’s Tim Wise says in the face of uncertain science what’s needed is more science not deregulation

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. The debate over the safety of genetically modified foods is heading to the Senate next week. The House passed the bill called the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 back in July. On the surface it sounds like it protects consumers’ rights to know what’s in their food, but critics say it does the opposite. Now joining us to better understand the Safe Act is Timothy Wise. He directs the policy research program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. Thanks for joining us, Tim. TIM WISE: Great to be here, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: So Tim, you’ve written that the Safe Act is truly the labeling law to end all labeling laws. What do you mean by that? WISE: Well, the Orwellian title of the act, the Safe Act and the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act, makes it sound very much like it is intended to put in place a labeling regimen for genetically modified food, something that 90 percent of Americans in polls have said they want. But in fact what it does is it takes the regulatory authority out of the hands of the FDA. It makes state-level labeling initiatives like we’ve seen in Vermont and other states illegal. And it puts in place a voluntary labeling mandate that, that really only allows the people to, companies to label things that don’t contain genetically modified foods. So it is truly a labeling law that ends the possibility of other labeling laws. DESVARIEUX: Who are the interests behind this labeling law? The bill was drafted by the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association, right? WISE: Right. I mean, obviously the biotech industry is very much a part of this. But so too the, you know, the big agri-food industries have invested heavily in the campaigns to stop state-level genetically modified food labeling laws, and the efforts here to undo what, what consumers are trying to get done at the state level. DESVARIEUX: But on the contrary, Tim, I’m going to just present the counterpoint. Those supporting the bill say that the public is grossly misinformed on the issue. The Pew Institute poll indicated that 88 percent of scientists think GM foods are safe, while just 37 percent of the public thinks so. So is there some sort of GMO safety denial going on here? WISE: No, I think what’s going on is a very concerted campaign by the biotech industry and their backers to declare the debate over. To essentially say that there’s a scientific consensus, that GMOs are safe and we should just stop talking about it. We should stop debating it. That all the campaigners crying about frankenfoods are misleading the public and that’s why they are so skeptical of GMOs. I mean, in fact, I think the Pew poll shows precisely the gap between scientists who believe in new scientific technologies, and it’s not surprising that they would, and a skeptical public that is drawing on its own very deep experience with corporations that misrepresent the safety of their products and a federal regulatory system that fails to protect consumers when manufacturers misrepresent their products. We only need to think about the tobacco industry to recognize that the federal government was lax in regulating tobacco. The tobacco companies lied about and misrepresented the safety of their products, and they turned out not to be safe. DESVARIEUX: And right now what we do know about GMO safety is also sort of a debate in the, in the science world. Although like I said, 88 percent of scientists do think that they’re safe. But there is some debate because the WHO, the World Health Organization, concluded that glyphosate, the herbicide in Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller, is probably carcinogenic to humans. And critics will say that this doesn’t point out that GMOs are unsafe, but just that the herbicide is. So Tim, what is your response to that? And what can we say for certain about the safety of GMOs based on the science? WISE: Well, what you can say for certain is that there, is that the science is unsettled on the question. There are studies that show some GMOs to not cause health problems for animals. That’s the study, those are the types of studies, that are done in advance of–that need to be done in advance of the release of a new GMO. But there are plenty of studies that have also shown problems. So in the face of uncertain science what is needed is more science. That is, a result that suggests that there is a danger should be replicated. Should be replicated on a wider scale. Should be replicated on a longer term, in a longer-term study that actually takes the warning seriously and then investigates whether or not, scientifically, whether or not there is indeed a danger. That’s what doesn’t happen now. Right now the federal government of the United States does not do the same level of safety test, pre-release safety testing of GMOs that’s done in Europe and most of the rest of the world that’s recommended by international agencies. In fact, the Safe law, proposed law in Congress now, would essentially ensure that we never do that kind of safety testing. The evidence–and a colleague at, one of my colleagues at Tufts University just did an exhaustive study of the literature and found plenty of evidence, that there are animal studies that have shown cause for concern and danger to humans, potential danger to humans. The glyphosate issue absolutely is a big danger, and I’ll say more about that in a minute. But he found that, you know, the assertion that the international academic associations, like the National Academy of Sciences, are all in agreement that GMOs are safe. They absolutely are not. There is no scientific consensus yet. There is a need for more precaution. And that’s what I’ve argued, and many have argued, that the debate should really be about what level of precaution we as a democratic society are comfortable with. And I think the gap in that poll, in that Pew poll, is that scientists are not surprisingly more accepting of a risk and of a low level of precaution than the public, which has seen plenty of examples where it’s, where it’s been endangered by industries not telling the truth about their products and governments not adequately regulating those products. It’s entirely misleading to separate the technology that GMOs were created to enable, which is that the plants that have the genetic modification are modified to tolerate high levels of application of glyphosate, to separate that from the large volumes of glyphosate that are now being sprayed on corn and soybeans, among other crops, all over the United States, is just entirely misleading. It’s also–it’s also really worrisome, and frankly I’ll tell you that I personally started to get much more worried about my own health and safety in this area, precisely because what those Roundup-ready crops allow farmers to do is liberally spray a pesticide, an herbicide, directly onto the plant that we’re going to eat. Normally herbicides are sprayed on the weeds, not on the plants, because the plants would die, too. But with the Roundup-ready crops they can spray the plants themselves. That means that the issue of residues is much more serious, and the issue of the amount of exposure that could come through, often four, five, six times in a season these crops are sprayed, often just before harvest because they want to eliminate all the weeds so they’re not harvesting any weeds. It makes the weeding, the harvesting easier. So the finding that this is a probable human carcinogen is very, very worrisome, and it’s entirely related. All the more worrisome, in fact, because of Roundup-ready technology that allows that probable carcinogen to be sprayed directly on the plants. DESVARIEUX: We’re going to keep an eye on this Safe Act that’s supposed to be coming up next week in the Senate. And Tim, we should mention that there was bipartisan support on this bill as well. So Tim, we’d love to have you back on just to follow this issue. Thank you so much for being with us. WISE: It’s been a, it’s a pleasure. Thank you. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Timothy A. Wise is the director of the Land and Food Rights Program at the Small Planet Institute. He also directs the Policy Research Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. He is the former executive director of Grassroots International, a Boston-based international aid organization. He holds a Masters in Public Policy from Tufts' Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Department. Tim is the author of Hogging the Gains From Trade: The Real Winners from U.S. Trade and Agricultural Policies