Science, Not Politics, Should Drive Trade and Regulatory Decisions

04/30/2015 05:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

The Obama administration issued a stinging rebuke of the European Union's decision this week to allow countries in Europe to "opt-out" of U.S. imports of genetically modified (GM) foods and feed. The U.S. Trade Representative said that such a rule "ignore[s] science-based safety and environmental determinations" that modifying crops in laboratories is no more harmful than traditional cross-breeding crops in the fields. Yet, in today's hyper-politicized culture, the regulatory process in the United States is also often hijacked by special interest groups that subvert science in favor of their own emotional "narratives" that can be deeply misleading.

Modern advances in food science, both in how we produce and deliver food, have become key battlegrounds in the science versus fear-mongering debate. On the production side, GM foods can offer a much-needed path to feeding the world's population. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have carefully studied GM foods and found them safe. The lack of any scientifically valid concerns, though, has not stopped special interest groups from seeking federal and state laws requiring that GM foods be labeled. Also, as much as the federal government may want to cast aspersions, the USDA has held up approval of modified salmon despite clear science that such fish are safe.

The politicization of the federal regulatory process takes on a whole new level, though, when one federal agency funds special interest studies that undermine another agency's scientific conclusions key to federal regulations. This has been happening with bisphenol-A (BPA), which has been used since the 1960s to coat metal food cans to stop germs from growing in the cans that can be harmful to consumers. It has long been well understood that BPA molecules can migrate from the packaging to the food, and the FDA regulates BPA as an indirect food additive.

Here, the global community is united. The FDA, along with the European Food Safety Authority, Health Canada, and the World Health Organization, has studied BPA extensively and found its use in food containers to be safe. These groups have grounded their decisions in science. In short, they have found that humans rapidly metabolize BPA and that any BPA ingested is excreted in urine. Since 2000, though, National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded $172 million in research of BPA. Many grants have gone to scientists supported by the same groups that oppose GM foods regardless of science -- Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council, and others. Not surprisingly, these scientists produce studies critical of BPA.

In response to alarmist reports, a subcommittee of the FDA's science board recommended in 2008 that the agency re-examine the scientific basis for approving BPA. Last year, the FDA completed a four-year review of more than 300 scientific studies and once again found no evidence that BPA is harmful to humans when used in food containers and packaging. The broader scientific community found the studies critical of BPA to be fundamentally flawed. At this point, NIH must stop funding scientifically questionable studies or it will risk harming the American government's credibility to be stewards over important scientific issues.

The tactic of trying to influence regulations by undermining science is not unique to food science or any political party or cause. Several years ago, reproductive rights groups rightly called foul when the FDA, under pressure from conservative activists, held up the Plan B over-the-counter pill despite science proving the drug's safety and effectiveness. We saw what happened with the measles outbreak last year when libertarians across the political spectrum refused to follow regulations based on sound science that children be immunized from certain diseases, including the measles.

Progressives who believe in a strong regulatory regime should follow the U.S. Trade Representative's sentiment and oppose the use of junk science to undermine the credibility of federal regulations. Since Vice President Gore's Reinventing Government efforts in the 1990s, progressives have grabbed the pragmatic position in the debate over appropriate levels of government regulation. Federal agencies should get smart on an issue, develop targeted regulations, and effectively facilitate commerce while assuring appropriate protections.

As technology advancements continually push against our political and moral boundaries and regulatory agencies grow their footprints, it becomes increasingly important that science, not politics drive regulatory decisions. Especially when it comes to life's basics needs, such as finding ways to make food more plentiful and less expensive, if scientific facts become undermined for political expediency, the most vulnerable people among us will lose.