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Sheldon Krimsky

Q&A with Sheldon Krimsky

Alonso Nichols/Tufts University/file

For 30 years as head of the Council for Responsible Genetics, Sheldon Krimsky has been following the debate over genetically modified foods. Krimsky, a longtime Tufts University professor, has written or edited 13 books about science and society. In his newest book of essays, “The GMO
Deception,” coedited with Jeremy Gruber, Krimsky criticizes the agriculture and food industries for changing the genetic makeup of the food we eat. He says he’s not in favor or against genetically modified organisms, but believes that science
demands caution.

Q. Why did you write this book and why now?

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A. There’s quite a lot of confusion, ambiguity, and controversy over GMOs and it’s hard to understand where it’s all coming from and why science has not been able to resolve it. We thought this was the right moment to put together a volume on various topics that have been subject to public interest and controversy, such as: Are they safe to eat? Are GMOs going to be our savior of world hunger? Are GMOs really going to contribute to sustainable agriculture?

Q. You’ve clearly taken an anti-GMO position in the book.

A. We were not going to produce a balanced presentation of ‘here’s Monsanto’s position’ and ‘here’s the position of Greenpeace.’ Rather, we took a wide spectrum of people who were skeptics for different reasons and we wanted their voices to be represented.

Q. So you’re not opposed to GMOs, just skeptical?

A. One of the core values of science is ‘organized skepticism.’ When claims are made, you have to start with skepticism until the evidence is so strong that your skepticism disappears. You don’t in science start by saying ‘Yes, I like this hypothesis and it must be true.’

Q. Why has the issue of GMO safety become so contentious?

A. The problem with GMOs goes back to 1992 after the Quayle Commission [named for then-vice president Dan Quayle] issued guidelines for biotechnology. That report advised the FDA that ‘you didn’t need to test any of these products.’ They simply told industry if you see any problems, let us know.

Q. You disagree with that approach?

A. You cannot predict what’s going to happen to an organism if you put in a foreign gene. It could interfere with other genes, it could over-express some things and under-express other things. You cannot make predictions without testing them.

Q. So, if a company inserts a gene, they can’t control where it goes or what it does?

A. Genes do more than one thing. If you think of the genome as an ecosystem rather than a Lego system, it gives you a different idea of what the possibilities are. We have to test in order to understand what the foreign gene is going to do to the organism.

Q. Why is tinkering with genes any worse than breeding for traits we want?

A. Hybrid crops are in the same species. In genetically engineered crops, you’re taking a gene from a completely distant species, and putting it in a plant genome. It’d be like saying let’s put a few animal genes into the gamete of human beings and assume that it’s no different than if we just threw in some genes from another human being.

Q. What about the testing that has been done? Hasn’t the vast majority of research found GMOs to be safe and no different from ordinary crops?

A. Why is it that every time a scientist finds an adverse result in a feeding experiment they are vilified? Is this the appropriate way of treating scientists who’ve found a negative result?

Q. Can you be specific?

A. The most recent case was a French scientist who published in a peer reviewed journal. At first the editors supported his work. Then they got a lot of criticism about the study. A little over a year after it was published, the editors retracted the study — not because there was anything wrong, not because there was scientific fraud, but because the results they said were not definitive. Immediately, over 100 scientists around the world came to [the author, Gilles-Éric] Séralini’s support and said this is unconscionable. This isn’t how science works. Another journal went ahead and decided to publish the study that was retracted.

Q. Wasn’t there criticism that the scenario posed by Séralini’s research was unrealistic?

A. When you’re looking at risks for a product or technology, it is rational to look at worst-case scenarios. If you’re testing the safety of a new airplane, you want to test it at the limits, not in safe flying conditions.

Q. So this one negative finding carries more weight than dozens of positive ones?

A. Whenever you’re looking at the risk of a product, a single negative result is more important than 99 positive results, especially when a substantial number of those positive results are funded by the agribusiness industry. We’ve had products on the market for 50 years: PCBs, asbestos, tobacco, DDT. Early on people said they were safe.

Q. Is there anything that would convince you that GMOs are safe?

A. I would feel convinced if there were independent studies asking the right questions and seeking experiments looking for the most vulnerable cases.

Q. Do you eat GMOs yourself?

A. I try to buy organic, because that’s the only reasonable way we have to avoid GMOs. It’s very difficult when you eat in restaurants, but in our home we try and buy organic.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Karen Weintraub can be reached at weintraubkaren@gmail.com and on Twitter @kweintraub.
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