Just as the “witches” of old Salem were accused, tried and executed without solid evidence, some of today’s breakthrough scientific advances – such as genetically engineered (GE) food – are being shunned by an increasingly frightened public.

Using half-truths and “junk science,” groups like Greenpeace can whip up public hysteria over new technology before peer-reviewed oversight and scientific consensus can set the record straight. But by then, the die has been cast, the public alarmed, and the “witches” of scientific progress burned at the stake.

This summer, anti-GE activists intentionally misrepresented the findings of the now infamous “monarch butterfly” study in which 11 butterfly caterpillars died after eating milkweed dusted with GE corn. But the activists intentionally hid the facts that:

  1. Monarch butterfly caterpillars would not eat dusted leaves in the wild; they were force-fed.
  2. The corn was genetically engineered to produce a naturally occurring pesticide that is toxic to caterpillars. In other words, it worked.
  3. The researchers themselves cautioned “It would be inappropriate to draw any conclusions about the risk to monarch populations in the field based on these initial results.”

Does Anyone Smell a Rat?
They’re back at it again, with a study of the effect of GE potatoes on rats.

Last year, British researcher Dr. Arpad Pusztai electrified Europe when he proclaimed that rats fed GE potatoes experienced stunted organ growth and immune system problems. His employer, the Rowett Research Institute of Scotland, retired him immediately after the incident, but not before the seeds of another GE food panic were sown.

According to a scathing peer review of Pusztai’s work by The Royal Society, Britain’s top scientific oversight body, the panic was groundless because the study was “flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis and that no conclusions should be drawn from it.” Specifically, they found:

  1. “For reasons unexplained, the GE potatoes used in the study”contained almost 20% less protein than unmodified potatoes” which means “the observed effects could have been caused by the diet… being inadequate or incomplete.”
  2. “The measurements were not conducted ‘blind’ as is normal practice for trials of this kind.”
  3. “The data reviewed provide no reliable or convincing evidence of adverse… effects” from the GE potatoes.

Nonetheless, last month a prominent British medical journal, the Lancet, published the flawed study, which gives Pusztai’s research “a certain scientific credibility,” according to Greenpeace’s Charles Margulis. “It’s going to increase concern here in the United States.”

Dr. John Gatehouse, a scientist at Durham University who co-invented the gene used in Pusztai’s experiment, said Pusztai is conducting “a piece of ambulance-chasing research that is coming in on the coattails of the GE controversy… It is the attitude of the medieval witchcraft trials.”

Congressional Reaction
The media firestorm surrounding the butterfly and rat studies has prompted some loony reactions from Congress. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has introduced legislation that would require warning labels on all boxes, cans, jars, wrappers, crates and containers with even a small portion of genetically modified food inside.

Says Kucinich: “The implications of the Cornell University study go far beyond monarch butterflies and point to the need for a revamping of our regulatory framework on biotechnology… It is shocking that more extensive studies like the one performed at Cornell were not done before the crop was approved.”

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) elaborated. “[T]hese butterflies are essential to our future. After being impacted by this pollen, 40 percent of them died. Forty percent! This a profound result.”

Senator Bob Kerrey (D-NE) captured the sentiment of many on Capitol Hill when, having been reminded that international law dictates decisions on biotech products must be based on science, said:

“If you tell me to make a science-based decision,
I may tell you to go to hell.”