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Post-Truth Science: GMOs and Glyphosate

January 30, 2017
Attempts to discredit genetically modified crops and the herbicide glyphosate have no scientific basis, according to a National Review column by Joseph Perrone. Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science:

‘Post-truth” is much in the news these days – both the word itself and the phenomenon it describes, in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Consider, for example, the way emotionally charged reporting turned the scientific consensus on biotechnology – in particular, genetically modified (GM) foods and the herbicide glyphosate – into a circus of public confusion that reached even our nation’s highest office.

Genetic engineering as understood today involves the delicate in vitro process of inserting, removing, or altering genes to create a favorable trait. It can be used to guard food crops from premature spoilage, confer drought resistance, and, perhaps most controversially, allow for the survival of applications of weed killer.

Glyphosate, the world’s most heavily used herbicide, has hampered excess weed growth for nearly half a century – and not only in GM fields. By allowing farmers to use less water and requiring minimal tilling, the weed killer (better known as Roundup) minimizes erosion and agricultural runoff into the water supply. And, like all herbicides sold in the U.S., glyphosate has passed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) risk assessment – twice, in fact.

But today, genetically modified produce and glyphosate face uncertainty from every angle.

Our hyper-competitive 24-hour news cycle incentivizes reporters to publish stories as quickly as possible, often forgoing the extensive background research necessary to effectively communicate a scientific position. Far too often, this results in fantastical headlines that distort the results of the research they’re based upon.

Extensive research supports the safety of both glyphosate and the GM food cultivated with it. The science appears settled, with a majority of professional scientists believing foods grown with pesticides to be safe and close to 90 percent believing genetically modified foods to be safe. Yet the cultural war against glyphosate and the GM food cultivated with it rages on.

When “GM-free” becomes the equivalent of “risk-free,” we’ve officially entered an era in which fear plays a far greater role than unbiased statistics in telling the public what is and isn’t safe.