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Science, safety, and trust: The case of transgenic food

Authors:
  • MUSE - Science museum, Trento, Italy

Abstract

Genetically modified (GM) food is discussed as an example of the controversial relation between the intrinsic uncertainty of the scientific approach and the demand of citizen-consumers to use products of science innovation that are known to be safe. On the whole, peer-reviewed studies on GM food safety do not note significant health risks, with a few exceptions, like the most renowned "Pusztai affair" and the recent "Seralini case." These latter studies have been disregarded by the scientific community, based on incorrect experimental designs and statistic analysis. Such contradictory results show the complexity of risk evaluation, and raise concerns in the citizen-consumers against the GM food. A thoughtful consideration by scientific community and decision makers of the moral values that are present in risk evaluation and risk management should be the most trustable answer to citizen-consumers to their claim for clear and definitive answers concerning safety/un-safety of GM food.

Supplementary resource (1)

... Genetically modified food, however, is an example of the controversial relation between the inherent uncertainty of the scientific approach and the need of consumers to use products resulting from scientific developments thought to be safe [10]. Significant health risks have not been reported in peer-reviewed studies on GM food safety/security, which may cause some publication bias [11] but with a few exceptions, like the most famous "Monarch Butterfly controversy" [12], "Pusztai case" [13] and the "Séralini case" [14]. ...
... The complexity of risk evaluation is shown in these conflicting results, and concerns about the citizen-consumers have been raised against GM food [10]. Of most concern, aroused from the controversial events and some research results, is the potential of carcinogenesis, teratogenesis [16], lethal effects and adverse influences on fertility. ...
... 11 of 13 authors, who have published ten or more included studies, were from European Food Safety Authority and published 12 included articles as co-authors. They were Christina Tlustos (published 12 included articles), Claudia Bolognesi (12), Konrad Grob (12), Vittorio Silano (12), Andre Penninks (11), Gilles Riviere (11), Holger Zorn (11), Karl-Heinz Engel (11), Yi Liu (11), Natalia Kovalkovicova (10), Sirpa Karenlampi (10). In addition to the above 12 articles, the top 3 of the 11 authors who published five or more included studies was Yang Xiao-Guang (from Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, published 11 included articles), Wang Jing (from Tianjin Centre for Disease Control and Of the 204 included studies, one was a double-blind crossover trial (n = 36) in humans and the others were all animal studies. ...
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Objective A systematic review of animal and human studies was conducted on genetically modified (GM) food consumption to assess its safety in terms of adverse effects/events to inform public concerns and future research. Methods Seven electronic databases were searched from January 1st 1983 till July 11th 2020 for in vivo, animal and human studies on the incidence of adverse effects/events of GM products consumption. Two authors independently identified eligible studies, assessed the study quality, and extracted data on the name of the periodical, author and affiliation, literature type, the theme of the study, publication year, funding, sample size, target population characteristics, type of the intervention/exposure, outcomes and outcome measures, and details of adverse effects/events. We used the Chi-square test to compare the adverse event reporting rates in articles funded by industry funding, government funding or unfunded articles. Results One crossover trial in humans and 203 animal studies from 179 articles met the inclusion criteria. The study quality was all assessed as being unclear or having a high risk of bias. Minor illnesses were reported in the human trial. Among the 204 studies, 59.46% of adverse events (22 of 37) were serious adverse events from 16 animal studies (7.84%). No significant differences were found in the adverse event reporting rates either between industry and government funding ( χ ² = 2.286, P = 0.131), industry and non-industry funding ( χ ² = 1.761, P = 0.185) or funded and non-funded articles ( χ ² = 0.491, P = 0.483). We finally identified 21 GM food-related adverse events involving 7 GM events (NK603 × MON810 maize, GTS 40-3-2 soybean, NK603 maize, MON863 maize, MON810 maize, MON863 × MON810 × NK603 maize and GM Shanyou 63 rice), which had all been on regulatory approval in some countries/regions. Conclusion Serious adverse events of GM consumption include mortality, tumour or cancer, significant low fertility, decreased learning and reaction abilities, and some organ abnormalities. Further clinical trials and long-term cohort studies in human populations, especially on GM food-related adverse events and the corresponding GM events, are still warranted. It suggests the necessity of labelling GM food so that consumers can make their own choice.
... Following a previous focus on bioethical aspects (Martinelli et al., 2013b), in the remainder of this chapter we will first review and discuss the limits of the reorienting strategies, and then we will review and discuss the problems of risk assessment protocols. In the third section, the variety of concerns proceeding from ethical studies and social sciences contributions will be reviewed. ...
... On the other hand, this strategy has not been successful either in handling and overcoming the growing concerns surrounding the overall transgenics endeavor. In fact, the variety and complexity of concerns associated with transgenics keep growing, but risk assessment procedures keep addressing only the perceived risks related to human intervention in nature as well as to the hybridity and genetic barrier "crawl" in GM crops, in particular when genes transferred between species are of unrelated origins (Martinelli, 2010;Martinelli et al., 2013b). In relation to agro-food applications, a recent systematic review analysis of the literature showed that risk perceptions are greater in Europe than in North America and Asia, being the reverse for benefit perceptions, while moral concerns are higher in North America and Asia and in general plant-related applications are more acceptable than animal-related ones. ...
... Conflicts of interest due to the involvement of biotechnology companies responsible for commercializing the GM plants used in these safety studies has been pointed out to question, if not discredit, the reassuring results reported by the majority of the scientific literature (Domingo and Giné Bordonaba, 2011). Clearly, concerns about health are strongly intermingled with concerns about trust (Martinelli et al., 2013b). ...
Chapter
The adoption of regulations concerning transgenic food is expected to ensure consumers that authorized products have been deemed safe. The majority of scientists agree on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs); however, contradictory reports on health risks associated with GMOs have appeared in the scientific literature, supporting the conclusion that risk assessment is a science of uncertainty that requires more than just scientific knowledge. To build trust and solve the controversy between the intrinsic uncertainty of science and the demand for safety coming from the citizens-consumers, the scientific community together with industry and policymakers should set up an open, self-reflexive, and multidisciplinary process of technology assessment in which scientific knowledge is integrated by societal knowledge proceeding from different social actors. The scientific community, in particular, should also openly acknowledge the existence of uncertainties and risks and ensure that research on GMO safety is not dependent on the positions of large corporations. In a way, institutions deputed to the advancement of scientific knowledge should promote themselves as a new agora and become central meeting points where all can engage in science innovations, learn, and share expertise and experience. The final goal is to enable citizens to acquire the necessary tools for building up the democratic possibility to choose among present and future options enabled by biology innovations and become active actors of the society of knowledge.
... In the COST action "Bio-objects and their boundaries" 2 , for instance, the products of biology innovations were analyzed as bio-objects sharing peculiar features at the intersection of society, politics and science: they promise a better quality of human life whilst rising controversy, undermine the boundaries between living/non-living and natural/un-natural/artificial, may result as "out of place" entities and require specific regulations and communication. In particular, I focused on contested products of biobanking such as HeLa cells (Svalastog and Martinelli 2013), animal de-extinction (Marti-nelli et al 2014), gene transfer (Martinelli et al. 2013b;Pavone and Martinelli 2015), and assisted reproduction technologies such as preserved human eggs and human embryos (Piciocchi and Martinelli 2016). ...
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In this contribution we explore novel, different ways of promoting public engagement in biomedical research using biobanks. Starting from a discussion about the limits of traditional formal procedures of engaging participants in biobanking activities, the contribution proposes two approaches to public involvement that use the Science Museum as an agora for communicating and representing the complex scientific, societal and ethical issues involved in contemporary biomedical research. The role of museum exhibitions, metaphors and languages of art and theater, as well as other forms of dialogues, are discussed as a way of shaping popular imaginaries about scientific research, in order to complement mechanisms of public engagement with novel forms of stimulating public understanding of scientific research using tissues and genomic data.
... In the COST action "Bio-objects and their boundaries" 2 , for instance, the products of biology innovations were analyzed as bio-objects sharing peculiar features at the intersection of society, politics and science: they promise a better quality of human life whilst rising controversy, undermine the boundaries between living/non-living and natural/un-natural/artificial, may result as "out of place" entities and require specific regulations and communication. In particular, I focused on contested products of biobanking such as HeLa cells (Svalastog and Martinelli 2013), animal de-extinction (Marti-nelli et al 2014), gene transfer (Martinelli et al. 2013b;Pavone and Martinelli 2015), and assisted reproduction technologies such as preserved human eggs and human embryos (Piciocchi and Martinelli 2016). ...
... In contrast, Cotta et al. (2014) showed that significant changes occurred in the abundances of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria as a result of the maize host being genetically-modified. T-RFLP analyses for the nifH gene revealed bands differing between the parental and transgenic tomato lines (Ikeda et al. 2006). Typically, it is believed that GM crops should be assessed on a case-by-case basis (Andow and Hilbeck 2004, Gong and Wang 2013, Martinelli et al. 2013, and our results showed no evidence of an impact on the rhizosphere nitrogen-fixing and ammonia-oxidizing bacteria by the planting of transgenic soybean cv. ZD91. ...
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Transgenic plants may induce shifts in the microbial community composition that in turn alter microbially-mediated nutrient cycling in soil. Studies of how specific microbial groups respond to genetically modified (GM) planting help predict potential impacts upon processes performed by these groups. This study investigated the effect of transgenic high-methionine soybean cv. ZD91 on nitrogen-fixing and ammonia-oxidizing bacterial populations. A difference in nitrogen-fixing or ammonia-oxidizing bacteria community composition was not found, suggesting that cv. ZD91 does not alter the bacterial populations in rhizosphere soil. This study increases our understanding of the potential effect of transgenic soybean on microbial functional groups within soil by suggesting that nitrogen-transforming bacteria may be useful for future investigations on the GM crops impact in the soil ecosystem.
... En el diálogo hay que considerar que en el debate intervienen aspectos científicos y sociales, por lo que debería haber un debate a nivel social y científico, y un monitoreo o supervisión social sobre los riesgos y sus efectos. Para el consumidor es importante que los datos sobre seguridad de los productos transgénicos sean transparentes y veraces para que se cree una relación de confianza, por lo que se hace necesario especificar los valores y presupuestos que se hallan detrás de la evaluación de riesgos (Martinelli, Karbarz y Siipi, 2013). ...
... Controversies regarding risk evaluation are still common within the scientific community. This makes lay people, in their safety considerations, dependent on interpretations and explanations provided by scientists and the media (Martinelli et al. 2013). The consumers complain that uncertainties regarding possible risks are not taken seriously enough in decision-making concerning GMO and in risk communication with the public. ...
... However, Cheeke et al. [43] found a reduction in AMF colonization in multiple Bt maize lines. There is general agreement that GM crops should be assessed on a case-bycase basis [2,58,59]. In this study, the Shannon (H) index showed no significant differences in AMF species diversity between ZD and ZD91 within the same growth stage in 2012 and 2013 ( Table 2). ...
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The use of transgenic plants in agriculture provides many economic benefits, but it also raises concerns over the potential impact of transgenic plants on the environment. We here examined the impact of transgenic high-methionine soybean ZD91 on the arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungal community structure in rhizosphere soil. Our investigations based on clone libraries were conducted in field trials at four growth stages of the crops each year from 2012 to 2013. A total of 155 operational taxonomic units (OTUs) of AM fungi were identified based on the sequences of small subunit ribosomal RNA (SSU rRNA) genes. There were no significant differences found in AM fungal diversity in rhizosphere soil during the same growth stage between transgenic soybean ZD91 and its non-transgenic parental soybean ZD. In addition, plant growth stage and year had the strongest effect on the AM fungal community structure while the genetically modified (GM) trait studied was the least explanatory factor. In conclusion, we found no indication that transgenic soybean ZD91 cultivation poses a risk for AM fungal communities in agricultural soils.
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