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Focus on Agriculture

October 1, 2012

On Biotech, Common Sense Speaks Louder than Pseudoscience

By Kevin Richards

The French philosopher Voltaire famously said, “Common sense is not so common.” Activists trying to disprove the safety of agriculture biotechnology seem devoted to proving his witticism.

Another so-called study, released last month by one of Voltaire’s countrymen, purports to show that a steady diet of biotech-enhanced corn causes tumors in lab rats. Sadly, the truth is the study is little more than blatant anti-technology propaganda, and the lead researcher is an activist with a reputation for playing fast and loose with the scientific method when it comes to agriculture biotechnology.

The study, published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal, hit the media on Sept. 19. Despite attempts by the authors to quell scientific scrutiny, the study was immediately questioned and comprehensively discredited by every reputable scientific source that has weighed in. Defects in the study are so frequent and obvious that a full list would be comical if not for the harm intended by the deliberately faulty science.

For example, the researchers chose a type of rat used in cancer research that has been bred to increase susceptibility to tumors; rats in control groups were so few and inconsistently analyzed to render the results statistically meaningless; and, perhaps most revealingly, when releasing the study, the authors attempted to stack the deck by asking friendly journalists to agree not to seek opinions from independent experts.

Such are the tactics used today by anti-science activists devoted to rolling back technological advances in agriculture. They have no use for the staples of thoughtful analysis: defensible science, sound economics and an appreciation for actual consumer, industry and environmental impacts.

Unfortunately, bad science can still make good headlines. The faulty French study is making its way through the typical sympathetic media outlets where activists are also calling for a moratorium on biotech regulatory approvals. Russia, in a very opportunistic trade move, has already announced it was suspending imports of certain varieties of biotech corn as a result. And, the study is fueling the Prop 37 campaign in California, which intends to further frighten consumers with misleading food labels.

What can defenders of agricultural biotechnology say and do when faced by such a shocking barrage of misinformation? Let’s look at five points.

Kevin Richards is director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation specializing in biotechnology, sustainable agriculture and international environmental agreements.