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Who Dares Question the Mighty Oz?

Yesterday, Dr. Mehmet Oz launched his “counter attack” on several doctors who sent a letter last week to the dean of Columbia University’s medical department complaining about controversial positions and advice that Oz has offered on his show. Oz, who holds faculty and administrative positions at Columbia, exclaimed that he “will not be silenced” by his critics, casting the issue as an attack on his freedom of speech. In an article for Time magazine, Oz stated:

The dean politely reinforced that the academic tradition of all institutions protects freedom of speech for their faculty, and I assumed the matter was over…. I know I have irritated some potential allies. No matter our disagreements, freedom of speech is the most fundamental right we have as Americans. We will not be silenced. We’re not going anywhere.

Yet no one is trying to deprive Oz of his right to free speech. The doctors listed on the letter are simply exercising their own right to free speech—and that includes speaking truth to the powerful Oz. They shined a light on Oz’s often questionable, TV-publicized, health advice for good reasons, as many others have done so here, here, here, here, here, here, here… and the list could go on and on.

And apparently, shining a light on Oz’s questionable approaches did some good. It prompted eight of Dr. Oz’s colleagues from Columbia University to speak out as well in a USA Today commentary. These doctors note:

We are members of the Columbia faculty who recognize that the Dr. Oz Show performs a public service by bringing alternative therapies which are generally under-researched and under-regulated into the public forum. However, a 2014 report in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) reported that less than half of the recommendations on his show are based on at least somewhat believable evidence. This report raises concerns that Dr. Oz's presentations of anecdotal therapies as "miracle cures" occur in the absence of what we see as obligatory discussions of conflicts of interest, possible side-effects and evidence-based medicine (or lack thereof). Many of us are spending a significant amount of our clinical time debunking Ozisms regarding metabolism game changers. Irrespective of the underlying motives, this unsubstantiated medicine sullies the reputation of Columbia University and undermines the trust that is essential to physician-patient relationships.

And last spring, members of Congress also attempted to rein in Oz when they invited him to testify on Capitol Hill about his claims related to “miracle” weight loss supplements. And apparently, it worked to some degree. On his show yesterday, Oz says that he’s backed away from making claims about miracle supplements. In addition, after the rebuke by his Columbia colleagues, he’s even said he regrets comments he has made about such supplements. That’s progress, but there’s more to do.

While Oz thanked his colleagues at Columbia for speaking up, he attacked the doctors on the first letter because he says they have an “agenda.” And rather than address their arguments, he attacked them personally on his show. Apparently, it’s inconceivable to Oz and his crew that people can disagree with them based on informed, moral personal views.  

In particular, he focused on the work of CEI friend and scholar Dr. Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution. Dr. Miller’s writings and research on the topic of genetically engineered food are among the most informed and scholarly in the world (he was also the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology), and his positions are humanitarian. Rather than attack, it’s time for Oz to take a closer look at this issue and reconsider his position, as he has with supplements.

Genetic engineering allows researchers to precisely modify plant genes in a process that is far more precise and safer than cross-breeding plants. Using GM, researchers have been able to add vitamin A to rice to reduce vitamin-A deficiency, a major cause of blindness and death, particularly among children, in parts of the world were rice is the staple of the diet, although anti-GM activists have fought this “golden rice.” Scientists also use genetic engineering to make food production easier and more affordable, which is essential to feeding a growing world population.

Dr. Oz says he’s ambivalent about such foods, although his shows are laced with fear-generating suggestions about these technologies, and his “experts” are mostly anti-biotechnology activists. He did, however, allow one biotech apple farmer to appear on his show last week to offer a little balance in that one segment. 

In any case, Oz’s real attack on agricultural biotechnology comes from his demand and advocacy for labeling of all genetically engineered foods. As journalist Melissa Dahl points out in New York magazine: “On the surface, the pro-labeling argument seems like a rational request,” yet such labeling generates fear about perfectly safe food, causes consumers and food manufacturers to abandon such foods and technologies. She explains:

A version of this played out already in Europe in the late 1990s, when, bending to public concern, the E.U. mandated labels marking food containing genetically modified organisms. Many food manufacturers who feared losing customers stopped using GMOs in their products; now, foods containing GMOs are very hard to come by in most European grocery stores. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s not just that there’s a lack of evidence on the health hazards from GMOs; there’s also promise of the potential benefits it can bring, particularly for the environment.

Indeed, contrary to what Dr. Oz says, genetic engineering reduces pesticide use and increases agricultural productivity. Many humanitarian minded individuals, such as Dr. Miller, advocate biotech food not because someone paid them to, but because this technology provides critically important public health benefits. 

That is why the late biologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug advocated for biotech crops. A great humanitarian, Borlaug is credited for having saved hundreds of millions of lives for his work developing and promoting high-yield agricultural technologies to fight starvation. In 2000, he explained to food scientists in Kenya, “There is no evidence to indicate that biotechnology is dangerous.  After all, Mother Nature has been doing this kind of thing for God knows how long … The so called GMOs can play a very vital role in peoples' lives. However, this must be accompanied by political goodwill because technology alone cannot survive without decisive support.”

Because of foolish opposition to such important technologies, Malcolm Elliot of the Norman Borlaug Institute for Global Food Security says in The Telegraph that Borlaug was forced to spend his dying years campaigning to protect agricultural innovations like GM from being derailed by activists who opposed all genetic engineering for ideological reasons, or were simply against modern biotechnology on principle.” In 2004, Elliot notes, Borlaug warned, “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”

It is ironic and sad that the mighty and powerful Oz has spent so much time marketing “miracle” cures to expanding waistlines in the western world, while advocating policies that will undermine technologies designed to feed hungry people elsewhere. At the same time, he plays victim exclaiming he won’t be “silenced” all while he’s the one behind the curtain holding the microphone.