It feels odd to be prizing a European agency in this age of Euro-scepticism. But I believe that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and its advisors deserve recognition. They deserve to be prized for standing by evidence-based science against the onslaughts of postmodern pseudoscience.
A recent report in the prestigious journal Science (1) describes how EFSA has angered environmental and consumer groups by always ruling that genetically modified organisms (GMs) pose no health risks.
EFSA faces no small foes: hordes of sandal-wearing militant European middleclassers; in Britain, lead into battle by Charles the Frankenstein foods’ slayer. Supporting GMs is also an uphill battle; sandals’ brigade-dominated media will always be hostile, generating panic out of nothing.
People that oppose GMs have argued that EFSA is not entirely independent of the food industry. Contrary to this argument, EFSA has pushed forward the world’s most aggressive legislation against non evidence-based claims for foods. This decision was highly resisted by the food industry. Food manufacturers in Europe are no longer allowed to bluff about the health effects of thousands of their products. Companies are now hiring scientific advisors just to help them to stretch their claims as much as they can. From now on, claiming that a chocolate “helps children grow” will hardly be possible though (2).
Smears about the links between EFSA and industry are pointless; the real issue is GMs and health risks. Taking EFSA out of the equation, independent scientific studies have always failed to find any adverse health effect caused by GMs. This year Snell et al. have reviewed 24 independent scientific studies (3) on the differences between GM and non-GM crops. In all 24 studies GM crops were proven to be equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and safe to be used in food.
We need to stand up and defend not just science but reality. Many politicians will not care about reality; they will only care about opinion polls. As an example, EFSA have so far approved every GM that it has reviewed; at the European Commission however, Luxembourg and Austria’s politicians have voted against EFSA’s advice every single time (1).
On this context, it is dreadful that some scientists will not make clear that their opposition to GMs is not rational but simply a matter of personal preference, just as their favourite brand of soft drinks is. Scientists are mostly middleclass and not entirely free from social trends in their environment. But for a scientist, to disguise personal fancies as rational decisions is intellectually dishonest. The public need to be reassured that there is nothing wrong with GMs. The decision to eat non-GM (like eating kosher) has nothing to do with science; it’s just a question of personal liking.
(1) Science. Vol. 338 p1146 2012
(2) Reuters.com Mon Dec 5, 2011
(3) Food and Chemical Toxicology Vol. 50 p1134 2012