In a provocative speech praised by some delegates but dismissed by others as patronizing and insulting, New Yorker’s Michael Specter said it was high time we engaged in a rational debate about risk and reward when it comes to food production.
“Are GM crops 100% safe? Of course not; nothing is 100% safe,” said Specter, who has recently written a book entitled ‘Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives’.
“There are lots of things we could do better, but let’s do them better instead of saying we should never have done them in the first place.”
Yet the obsession with all things ‘natural’ and ‘non-GMO’ has diverted attention from the critical nutritional and environmental issues facing the food industry - and policy makers - such as how we are going to feed everyone on a planet with finite resources, a changing climate and a growing population, he argued.
Are GM crops 100% safe? Of course not. Nothing is 100% safe
And while they are not a panacea, any technologies that enable yields and nutrients to increase without using more pesticides, or water, will be a key part of the toolkit in future, he claimed.
If people have concerns about the control that biotech firms such as Monsanto exert over patenting seeds, this was something they should address through political channels, but not by bashing GM technology per se, he added.
“I completely understand these concerns,” he said, but questions over patents and IP should not be conflated with questions over food safety, testing, yields and labeling, he said.
“[These concerns] are about power. And you can elect people to challenge that.”
Scientists have their own agenda, design studies to deliver the results they want, and ignore data that doesn’t support the hypothesis they are pushing
Of course scientists often get things wrong, have their own agenda, design studies to deliver the results they want, and ignore or don't publish data that doesn’t support the hypothesis they are pushing at any given time, he acknowledged.
It is also difficult for consumers to gain perspective when the findings of individual scientific studies are reported without any context (‘Study shows ingredient X could cause cancer’ followed by ‘Study shows ingredient X may help reduce the risk of cancer’ a week later), he accepted.
But we should not forget that scientific advances in medicine and food production have been largely responsible for the huge leap in life expectancy over the past century, he said.
Andy Bellatti: Specter was “hostile and inflammatory”.
However, not everyone in the audience appreciated Specter’s tone or his message.
Andy Bellatti, RD, founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, told FoodNavigator-USA that Specter was “hostile and inflammatory”.
He added: “He intimated that anyone who doesn't support GMO agriculture is an ‘anti-science’ elitist, and ranted on a variety of topics (raw milk, PETA, Greenpeace) without ever once touching on the actual topic at hand: public-private collaborations.
“Specter started his talk by stating that those who advocate for organics as a solution are rich (he let the audience know that he himself is rich and therefore doesn't have any qualms if produce at his home goes bad before he is able to eat it), self-involved, and out of touch."
More smug and mocking rants against Greenpeace and raw milk
He added: “Despite the fact that an abundance of food is thrown out and wasted on a daily basis, he based a large part of his talk on the myth that hunger is simply about not having or growing enough food to feed the world.
“The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, meanwhile, has stated that the three main causes of hunger are poverty, conflict, and climate change. According to Specter, solutions for hunger that don't have to do with GMOs are well-meaning and "cute", but will never work.
“He then went on more smug and mocking rants against Greenpeace and raw milk. How any of that related to the topic at hand (public-private collaborations) alluded me and everyone who was seated around me.”
CORRECTION: FoodNavigator-USA apologizes for incorrectly referring to Michael Specter as a 'keynote speaker' in the original version of this article. Specter was one of 250+ speakers that were part of the 140 different presentations that took place at FNCE. The keynote speakers were only at opening session, closing session and member showcase.