May 07, 2021

People decide in open society

I was forwarded a copy of Nancy Oden’s op-ed piece from Sept. 4, called “Without people’s consent.” As a professor at a New England University who consults for several of the “pesticide and mutant plant corporations” mentioned in the article, I feel obliged to respond.

While I strongly sympathize with the fundamental idea in the article that there should be vigorous public discussion of all issues affecting the public — not just the allocation of university research funds — I also feel strongly that the public should have access to the best quality information and knowledge about the issues. Unfortunately, Oden’s commentary did not do justice to much of the information available.

Two factual issues were particularly disturbing. The first is the statement, made uncritically, that Roundup, a very widely used weed killer, “is now implicated in non-Hodgkins lymphoma.” In fact, the closest this product has ever come to such an implication was the observation that a small number of cases of this disease in a Swedish study had used it, among other farm chemicals. While this is an interesting observation for scientists, it must be put into scientific context, for example the fact that extensive animal experiments have shown that the ingredients in Roundup are NOT the kind that cause mutations and cancer, and for this reason the chemical has been listed as a non-carcinogen by every major national and international body which regulates such things. What Ms. Oden has done has incriminated a chemical based on one small bit of information, withholding from your readers the other important pieces of the data.

Perhaps more disturbing in the article is the discussion about “mutated” corn and soybeans. While many reasonable scientists have raised important concerns about safety aspects of biotechnology as they have with chemicals and other environmental issues, the notion that genetically modified corn is “fake” or somehow “mutilated” represents a misunderstanding of what the technology is about. In fact, farmers have been genetically modifying crops for centuries.

Long before Mendel taught the world about plant genes, farmers knew that if they planted only seeds from the hardiest crops, and the plants that had characteristics they preferred (which were caused by genetic mutations), they could change the whole field over a few years. In this way the corn we now like here in New England bears absolutely no resemblance whatever to the plant which transferred from Mexico to our native American ancestors. It has become literally a different species because of this “genetic engineering.” Over the past two decades scientists have now learned to speed this process because we actually can identify the genes for the characteristics we prefer, and can bypass the generations of trial and error of the past.

Yes, the science of transferring genes does raise important environmental and ethical questions which demand public involvement and debate. But the cornerstone of such knowledge and debate has to be good, clear, dispassionate public knowledge about the issues. Critics, like Oden, owe their readers enough information to understand what the potential risks and concerns are, as well as what the benefits are. She does not mention, for example, that growth of some of the “fake” plants requires far lower levels of pesticide applications, with obvious environmetnal advantages.

In the end, the public will decide these issues in an open society such as ours, as well it should. I can only hope that the public is operating with the highest level of information when it does. I beleive it is the role of responsible media, like the Bangor Daily News, to provide such balance wherever it can.

Mark R. Cullen, M.D. is professor of Medicine and Public Health at Yale University’s School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

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