Union of Concerned Scientists Failing on Farming

Ok, this is a little different, but it's annoying, so I'm going to talk about it. Let me begin by saying I love the Union of Concerned Scientists. They've been wonderful advocates on climate change for decades; they are media savvy, they train scientists to be media savvy, and they push the media and policy makers alike to understand the scientific consensus. When it comes to climate change, I trust them over just about any other source.

Which is why it's so disappointing that they are so wrong on genetically modified organisms.

Several years ago, UCS decided to branch out into the science of how we grow our food. This should be a wonderful thing - our agriculture system is badly broken, and there are scientific and technological solutions to help feed a growing human population while minimizing environmental impact.

There's a better way to grow our food. Working with nature instead of against it, sustainable agriculture uses 21st-century techniques and technologies to implement time-tested ideas such as crop rotation, integrated plant/animal systems, and organic soil amendments.

Sustainable agriculture is less damaging to the environment than industrial agriculture, and produces a richer, more diverse mix of foods. It's productive enough to feed the world, and efficient enough to succeed in the marketplace—but current U.S. agricultural policy stacks the deck in favor of industrial food production.

We need evidence-based advocates pressing this message, and UCS recently put out a big press release on a path to environmentally sustainable farming. They've got great information and resources, and I'd love to recommend them as a one-stop-shop for scientific information about the way we grow our food. But I can't, and it's because of this:

While the risks of genetic engineering have sometimes been exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may produce new allergens and toxins, spread harmful traits to weeds and non-GE crops, or harm animals that consume them.

There's so much here to address, but I'll just point you to others that make the points that genetically engineered crops are or can be more environmentally friendly, and there's never been a credible report of any pathology linked to GMOs.  There was recently an entire issue of the journal Nature (one of the most well-respected science journals in the world), in which even the most critical article basically exonerated GMO of any health impacts.

Yes, there are problems like herbicide resistant "superweeds," but this is not a problem unique to GMO - any strategy to stop pests, be they insects or weeds in agriculture, or infectious microbes in humans will lead to resistance. The mechanism is different but the end result is the same. It's also clear that there are bad uses of genetic engineering technology. And there are problems with monoculture and unsustainable farming and overuse of pesticides etc etc, but once again, these are not products of GMO technology, they are a products of industrial farming - practices used by farmers of organic and GE crops alike. UCS is right to advocate for reform of these practices, but genetic engineering is a technology that could help us escape from these practices, not a barrier to reform.

The scientific consensus on GMO may not be quite as clear as on climate change, but it's close, and it's upsetting that the UCS is joining in with the anti-science crowd on the potential risks.