According to environmentalist Mark Lynas, denying the scientific consensus that genetically modified organisms are safe to eat is the same as saying that vaccines are unsafe or climate change isn't real. Lynas was being provocative, but his rhetoric was a hook for a more sophisticated message: If you claim to believe in science, you have to accept science's conclusions, even if they contradict what you believe.
"People aren't forming their opinions based on empirical evidence," Lynas told an audience that filled about two-thirds of Boise's Egyptian Theatre on May 19. "The science has a tough time confronting emotion."
Attendance was diverse at Lynas' talk, titled "GMOs are Green: How One Environmentalist Changed His Mind." The people who showed up represented a range of opinions about genetically modified crops, from farmers who grow GM corn to anti-GMO activists, and they left with new tools for thinking about a technology that is either a lifeline for farmers and a hungry world, or unethical experimentation on the part of chemical companies and agribusiness. Not everyone was convinced by Lynas' argument.
One attendee, Dr. Alice Blake, cited the 1932-1972 Tuskegee experiments—in which black men in Alabama were secretly infected with syphilis to track the disease—and other examples of scientific malpractice when asking Lynas for comment on GMOs.
"I question at times what the scientific community does," she said.
GMOs are organisms that have been manipulated on the genetic level. Scientists splice genes from one life form into another to promote certain characteristics, which can include heat-, drought-, virus- and insect resistance, as well as enhanced nutritional properties. But GMO detractors are wary of the potential health and environmental consequences of the technology—and worry that multinational corporations like Monsanto are pushing GM crops before they've been adequately assessed.
"We hear all these stories about cooking the books. How can we believe science anymore?" asked Terry Jones, a Weiser farmer who grows GM corn, during a question-and-answer period following Lynas' talk.
Online commenters were quick to address other facets of the debate.
"Our protest is rooted in the effects produced by multinational corporate manipulations and lies that are counter to living in harmony with the natural world for the sake of profits," boiseweekly.com user Heinrich wrote.
"Allowing crops to grow in harsher conditions would get the food to where it's needed," wrote Facebook user Travis Herman.
The divide between the public and scientists prompted the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to issue a statement in 2013 affirming that there is consensus among scientists that GM foods are safe to eat. In January 2015, a Pew Research Center study showed that while 88 percent of AAAS scientists believe it is safe to eat GM foods, just 37 percent of adults in the United States believe the same.
GMO Free Idaho President Jenny Easley told Boise Weekly that scientific consensus on GMOs has been widely touted by the technology's proponents, but described it as "a fairly limited argument."
"Yes, scientific communities have embraced GMO technology, but I don't think that the question to the scientific community has been posed in different ways," she said.
Genetically modifying plants is a relatively new phenomenon—the first commercially available GM plant was the FlavrSavr tomato in 1994—which means that few long-term studies have been performed on GM crops to assess what effect they'll have on the environment. One common genetic enhancement, which includes splicing a protein from the soil-dwelling Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria into crops' genes, provides some insecticidal properties but has generated controversy over its alleged role in killing monarch butterflies and contributing to bee colony collapse.
Studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences and the USDA, however, concluded that Bt crops did not contain sufficient concentrations of the insecticide to kill monarch butterfly larvae. There is ongoing debate about the role of Bt crops in colony collapse disorder, with a variety of studies drawing and discrediting correlations between Bt crops and the phenomenon.
Easley doesn't believe adequate research has been conducted into whether Bt crops are safe for human consumption, citing scientists' focus on whether GM crops directly affect human health and what she said are insufficient safety testing regulations.
"The scientific community isn't asking questions beyond the DNA itself," she said. "Pharmaceuticals use genetically modified genes a lot in the creation of medicine, but they have a rigorous safety testing mechanism in place. There's a whole framework in place to track potential problems, and that's not the case with genetically modified food."
Another source of angst is who is developing GM crops. In many cases, these crops aren't developed by independent scientists, but by laboratories at agricultural and biotech companies like J.R. Simplot Company and Monsanto, in part because of the high cost of developing GM technology. Late last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Simplot's Innate potato, which resists bruising and releases less of a potentially carcinogenic chemical when fried. Nonetheless, Simplot's oldest business partner, McDonald's, as well as ConAGra and McCain Foods, have said they will not purchase the potatoes, though McDonald's does source some GMO products for its food.
"Regulatory compliance and consumer acceptance for the use of any new technology will guide our actions," McCain said in a statement.
While GM foods available to the public meet regulatory standards, Lynas seeks public acceptance of those same foods, but syncing public and scientific understanding of GMOs is no easy task. During his talk, he, again being provocative, suggested that people be discerning in how they educate themselves on the issue.
"Try to go a bit beyond the University of Google," he said.