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Science not likely to resolve dicey food issues

Hot-button food issues of the day, such as the use of genetically modified organisms or the treatment of livestock, tend to pit large industries against smaller activist groups. Often, both sides will claim the science supports what they are saying. That can leave consumers in a bit of a bind.

Take the question of genetically modified organisms, as an example. Genetic modification of seeds is widely used in the United States but remains controversial. It’s banned in the European Union because many people question its safety and environmental impact.  So when the 2013 World Food Prize, an award for innovation in food production, recently went to three pioneers of the technology, one of the most ardent opponents of it visited Des Moines to join a World Food Prize symposium on the question.

“I thought it would be a whole lot easier not to, and so I felt that I should (come),” said Frances Moore Lappe of the Small Planet Institute after the session. She’s been writing about and working on food, hunger and environmental issues for more than four decades. She says many scientific studies raise questions about GMOs. She cites some in her fact sheet called “7 Really Good Reasons to Re-think GMOs”.

“We have a link to all the sources that we use and we have links to the studies so that people can see how we interpreted them,” she said. “I know that there are very serious scientists who’ve done experiments that raise questions for them about safety.”

But another activist, Mark Lynas, disagrees, even though he used to be radically opposed to the use of modified crops.

“I destroyed GM maize, canola, sugar beets, maybe one or two others,” he said. “It’s dark so you can’t always tell.”

Nearly 20 years ago, Lynas participated in direct-action campaigns against GMOs. But earlier this year, he announced he’d changed his mind. Now, he says he accepts what he sees as a scientific consensus that GMOs in food are safe.

“All of these are questions which have been very directly addressed many times over, independently and through studies which are conducted by industry and then assessed by the regulators,” Lynas said. “And there’s only so many times you can ask the same question and get the same answer.”

But as consumers, many people expect that when something is backed up by science it is the truth.

“Consumers think that science is definitive. But the important thing to remember is that science is a process,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison consumer science professor Lydia Zepeda. But, she said studies may use different designs, or types of analyses, or even start with different questions. And that means they can legitimately arrive at conflicting results.  That places a burden on consumers.

“How can consumers be expected to know more than scientists? I think the bottom line is, they can’t,” Zepeda said.

With both sides claiming the support of scientific studies, where does that leave the rest of us?

Zepeda’s tip to consumers is: follow the money.  Greater transparency could help everyone. That means more openness about who funds scientific research and, Lynas points out, about who pays for activist campaigns. Zepeda also has another suggestion.

“People may have gotten into their positions but,” she said, “they still might want to listen to each other.”

If you listen, you can hear where even adversaries such as Moore Lappe and Lynas have much in common, once they stop disputing each other’s scientific claims.

“The beauty of agro-ecology, that approach of applying ecological science—it’s not anti-science, it’s applying science to farming—is that it empowers farmers through building their knowledge,” said Moore Lappe.

At the World Food Prize symposium, Mark Lynas said, “I am all for diversity, right? I’m all for agro-ecology, I’m all for organic farming. But at the same time, if some farmers want to use BT crops, which are resistant to pests and reduce their use of pesticides that way, then they should have option to do that.”

And so on GMOs and on other food issues, the activists will continue their campaigns. For consumers, trying to understand the science may not be necessary or even helpful. Figuring out who’s paying for it might help some people gain a broader understanding of the battle. But Zepeda says her studies show that the biggest influence on our purchases…is habit.

“We all have habits and there are certain things that we buy and we buy those same things all the time,” Zepeda said.   

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames