The Planted Row: Let science be your guide

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Farm Forum

A very polite reader called me this week to inform me that a doctor told her genetically-modified crops are unsafe and are causing increased cancer rates. When I informed her that no reputable scientific studies have found current genetically-modified foods to be unsafe, she didn’t believe me. She said there’s plenty of studies that show GM foods to be unsafe.

The key word in my statement was “reputable.” To my knowledge, there have been no studies that show GM foods to be unsafe conducted by reputable, unbiased organizations. In fact, this summer the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released a 388-page report which concluded that genetically-engineered foods do not cause cancer and other diseases. The report compared data from more than 900 studies conducted over 20 years.

I know that, after reading this, some readers will write or call me to tell me exactly how wrong I am. I welcome their feedback. Before you get too upset, you should know that I appreciate organic crops as a marketing strategy allowing smaller producers to remain competitive. I am also aware of recent, ongoing studies which have found organic crops to contain higher concentrations of certain nutrients. (That’s not the same thing as saying GM foods are unsafe.)

How we form our opinions comes down to what we trust. Do you trust anecdotal evidence or do you trust science? As I told the reader, I am a person who trusts reputable, peer-reviewed science. After all, it’s what’s given us this modern world in which humans are safer and live longer than they ever have before.

Now, many conventional farmers might agree with me about trusting the science behind GM crops. Yet, some of those same people have trouble trusting the science behind climate change. That’s a bit of a conundrum for me. Do people decide to trust food and agricultural scientists but distrust climate scientists? I don’t understand that. It’s the process behind science that I trust, not the discipline of study.

The scientific method demands that we come up with a hypothesis and then test that hypothesis with an experiment to find out if it is true. Once we come up with our results, we allow peers to review them to make sure we didn’t make a mistake. Then we publish those results and allow others to replicate our experiment and see if they get the same results.

So far, the vast preponderance of peer-reviewed, replicated evidence supports the hypothesis that the climate is changing and mankind is causing it. If you don’t believe me, see what the good folks at NASA have to say on the subject at http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/.

I don’t like it. You don’t like it. But if the evidence supports it, then we should treat it as true until evidence to the contrary is forthcoming. The only thing left to decide is what we are going to do about it.

The last time I wrote about climate change, several readers wrote in to tell me the world is roughly 6,000 years old and that I need to read my Bible. As you have no doubt realized by now, this isn’t a faith column. However, if God put us on this world, then I certainly believe he gave us the ability to mess it up. (I point to the tale of Adam and Eve as my evidence.)

Folks, climate change isn’t a religious issue just as the conditions in your fields aren’t a religious issue. It’s just the current set of real-world circumstances we are dealing with.

You’ll find an article by the Associated Press on page 73F of this paper that states climate change is one of the most divisive subjects in the U.S. Several experts are quoted as saying that conservatives don’t believe in climate change. One even says, “They think it’s like Martians.”

I grew up in a conservative family. I love living here in South Dakota, a state largely dominated by conservatives. But climate change shouldn’t be a political issue. The scientific evidence tells us it’s happening. If you don’t want to believe it, ask yourself why that is. Is it because fixing it will require effort and resources you don’t want to devote to the problem?

Most farmers I know are able to see a problem in their fields, acknowledge that it exists (however inconvenient it might be) and then take steps to address it. What I don’t understand is that when the evidence is telling us there’s a problem with the world and we’re causing it, why so many of us refuse to even acknowledge the problem exists.