From ‘I smell a rat’ to ‘when pigs fly’, bad science makes its rounds

pigs flyFrom ‘I smell a rat‘ to ‘when pigs fly’, bad science has been making the rounds of late. The multi-authored article A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet” reports that pigs fed a diet of only genetically modified grain show a markedly higher incidence of stomach inflammation than pigs that ate conventional feed.

This paper is fresh off the press and ready for ravenous consumption by anti-GMO enthusiasts. However, it seems that – post-publication – the paper and its evidence fail the independent peer-review process on many fronts:

The Evidence: David Tribe reviews the paper here: He says, “It’s what some call a fishing expedition in search of a finding, and a known pitfall of animal feeding trials on whole foods…” Tribe points out (among other things) that some of the study’s observations might be attributed to compositional differences in the variety of soybeans or corn fed to the pigs “..there is relatively little information in the paper about nutritional formulation, methods used for producing the pig diets, storage time for the grain and which particular varieties of grain were used in the diets.”

Update – June 14th – – – Anastasia Bodnar expands upon this further in her post in Biofortified Lack of care when choosing grains invalidates pig feeding study: “The authors aimed to do a real world study, with pig feed that can be found in real life. It intuitively seems right to just go get some grain from some farms. After all, that is what pigs eat, right? Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple…To hone in on any differences that may be caused by the GM traits, they would have to use feed with one or more GM traits and feed that doesn’t have the GM traits but that is otherwise as similar as possible. If the feeds aren’t very similar, then we can’t know if any differences in the animals is due to the GM traits or due to something else.”

Update June 14th – – – Dr. Robert Friendship (via Terry Daynard) – swine expert from the University of Guelph – points to methodological problems with “visual scoring” and assessment of ‘inflammation’: “…it was incorrect for the researchers to conclude that one group had more stomach inflammation than the other group because the researchers did not examine stomach inflammation. They did a visual scoring of the colour of the lining of the stomach of pigs at the abattoir and misinterpreted redness to indicate evidence of inflammation. It does not. They would have had to take a tissue sample and prepare histological slides and examine these samples for evidence of inflammatory response such as white blood cell infiltration and other changes to determine if there was inflammation.”

Andrew Kniss clearly demonstrates the failings of the statistical analysis, poking holes in the study’s evidence. He states, “If I were to have analyzed these data, using the statistical techniques that I was taught were appropriate for the type of data, I would have concluded there was no statistical difference in stomach inflammation between the pigs fed the two different diets. To analyze these data the way the authors did makes it seem like they’re trying to find a difference, where none really exist.”

Another matter worth mentioning: in the experiment, half of the pigs died of pneumonia. [update: 50% of the pigs did NOT die but, rather, were ‘sick’ with pneumonia – my error] This is an indication of bad stewardship. In events such as this, it is only appropriate to throw away the results – maybe a ‘do-over’ (next time using a better methodological approach (and take better care of the pigs)).

Credibility: This was the first time I had ever heard of The Journal of Organic Systems. As Mark Lynas observes (in GMO pigs study: more junk science), “The journal does not appear in PubMed, suggesting it is not taken very seriously in the scientific community.” In the world of science, publishing a good, sound piece of science in a good journal is an indicator of quality and credibility. I mean, think about it… if this study was a ground-breaking piece of ‘all that,’ wouldn’t it have been published by Nature or Science? At the very least, the paper would have been picked up by a journal within the study’s subject area.

Bias: You only need glance at the acknowledgement list at the end of the paper to see that it is a ‘who’s who’ of the anti-GMO world.  This kind of makes the statement “The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest” pretty much ‘moot.’  One author – Howard Vlieger – is the President of Verity Farms, Iowa, an organization that markets itself as non-GM.  Judy Carman (lead author) is widely known as a long-time anti-biotech campaigner. She even has a website called ‘GMOJudyCarman‘ (launched in late May – timely, no?)

Other interesting bits? In an April 2008 interview, Dr. Carman stated that her work received funding from Jeffrey Smith and the Institute for Responsible Technology. Jon Fagan, listed in the acknowledgements, is the head of Genetic-ID. Genetic-ID is the company that conducted the DNA analysis for the study confirming that the GM corn used contained a combination of NK603, MON863 and MON810 genes (page 40). Genetic-ID is based in Fairfield, Iowa and has satellites the world over. Genetic-ID is a GMO testing company and part of a convoluted network of actors with vested anti-GM interests, weird politics and Vedic-scienc-y stuff, and a long list of celebrities (see here).

It would seem that Carman et al have taken some pages from Seralini’s ‘playbook’ – but there are no ‘silver linings’ here.  This is just another exercise to “prove” that GMOs are dangerous rather than to objectively investigate them. Given the conflict of interests of the authors and affiliates involved, what other conclusion could they come to? The science, however, doesn’t pass the sniff-test. It’s a case of faulty methodology and poorly interpreted data magically making it through the peer review process.  Throw in some colorful (scary) pictures of pig uteri for good measure, add to that a bit of bias and credibility issues and you have the makings for some really ‘shoddy science’.

– – –

  • Check out Fourat Janabi’s post @Fouratj: “Pigs, GMOs and Bullshit Fourat provides a point by point critique of the Carman et al article – Easy-to-consume with none of the BS. :O)
  • Then there is this post from Julee @sleuth4health who quips, “At this point, anybody who’s ever judged a High School Science Fair has got to be thinking “F.”” 
  • Catalyzing Illinois writes Something Smells and its not the Pigs“We are not dealing with “disinterested and objective science” here.”
  • Contrary to Popular Belief: Latest anti-GMO study: more bullshit

GM-resistant corn rootworm: getting the facts straight

guest blog

by Robert Wager

The segment GM-Resistant Rootworms and the Future of Farming was aired on May 29th on CBC’s The Current. The program reviewed a particular type of genetically modified crop – Bt corn – and how it has performed over time. The program had several guest speakers with differing points of view.  It was an interesting program overall, but there were a few keys facts missing:

  1. GM-resistant corn rootworms have been found in less than 1% of US corn fields so the context/scale of the problem was not made clear on the program (for more on this see the Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division (BPPD) IRM team’s review of Monsanto’s Cry3Bb1 resistance monitoring data (EPA-HQ-OPP-2011-0922-0037) (2010), Table 2).
  2. Integrated pest management (IPM) can include organic production methods if they are deemed best for a given farming situation. The suggestion that IPM is separate from organic farming is simply not true.
  3. The suggestion that only organic farming practices enhance soil ecology is blatantly false.  The National Academy of Science 2010 report, Impact of GE crops on farm Sustainability in the US stated farmers who have adopted GE crop technology have seen “substantial economic and environmental benefits.”  The organic farmer spokesperson on the program ignores this fact.  A good example is the well documented soil enhancements that are made possible with reduced/no tillage farming that Roundup Ready crops permit.  Tilling for weeds (the organic option) is quite destructive to soil structure.
  4. Organic agriculture is not chemical free. They use a different set of chemicals (coppers, sulfates). The environmental impact quotient (EIQ) for some of the organic alternatives is far higher (more negative impact on the environment) than conventional or biotechnology counterparts.
  5. The significant yield drag for organic agriculture is not mentioned by the organic production advocate.  On average decades of research show a 15-30% yield reduction for organic crop production (see Alex Avery’s book The Truth About Organic Foods (2006)).  This would have a very significant impact on food prices and farmer incomes.
  6. There was no mention that organic agriculture use the same Bt that was the main topic of the show. Organic crop advocates often vilify Bt in GM crops and then use the very same Bt in their own agricultural practices.  Where was that fact in the discussion?
rootworm damage NDSU

Source: North Dakota State U http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/

Having outlined a few shortcomings of the show’s content, I would like to congratulate the panel on the The Current’s program for shedding light on the need for better IPM practices in farming.  No one system of agriculture will solve all of the problems inherent in food production.  The world will need to double food production by 2050 and for that we require many systems of agricultural production in order to address the challenge.

Robert Wager
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo BC
robert.wager@viu.ca

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rob wager 1

Robert Wager has been a faculty member of the Biology Dept at Vancouver Island University for the past 18 years.  He has a BSc. in Microbiology and a Masters in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  Rob has been interested in Genetically Modified (GM) crops and food with emphasis on public education and public policy.  He has written dozens of mainstream articles for the general public that help explain different aspects of the technology.  You can follow Rob on Twitter @RobetWager1 or review his work at: http://web.viu.ca/wager

“10 ‘reasoned’ responses” to “10 reasons we don’t need #GMOs”

You may have run across this article “10 Reasons We Don’t Need GM Foods” on the FoodConsumer website.  It’s been making its rounds on social media (Facebook and Twitter). I would like to address some of the inaccuracies in this article – point by point:

1. GM foods won’t solve the food crisis

Well, surprisingly enough, I agree with this one.  Or at least with the statement: GM foods ALONE won’t solve the food crisis. GM foods and genetically engineered (GE) crops aren’t a silver bullet in resolving problems with food security.  I refer to Mark Lynas (former Greenpeace activist and author) who said in a recent talk he gave at Cornell University:

“[GE/GM] cannot build better roads or chase away corrupt officials. But surely seeds which deliver higher levels of nutrition, which protect the resulting plant against pests without the need for expensive chemical inputs, and which have greater yield resilience in drought years are least worth a try?” Mark Lynas (April 2013)

Hey, I’d say so.  It is important to note that the introduction of GE crops (in particular) has enabled wider adoption of “no-till” farming (see a farmer’s perspective on this).  No-till is a system which conserves soil moisture, prevents erosion, dramatically reduces nutrient and pesticide movement to streams and rivers, and reduces fuel use.  All good, in my opinion.

Did you know that if we still farmed using the inputs and techniques that we did in the 1950s, we would need millions (maybe even billions) more hectares available to produce what we produce today? Advances in plant breeding techniques, introduction of no-till practices, integrated pest management and adoption of genetically engineered crop varieties account for this rise in production.  This translates into higher productivity on less land.  We all win.   

2. GM crops do not increase yield potential

Seriously?! Hmmm.  Well, research suggests differently. The results of meta-analysis (that means a study that analyzed the results from MANY MANY other studies) published in a peer reviewed science journal in 2012 found that organic yields of individual crops were on average 25% percent lower than that of conventional yields.   Productivity in GM crops are purported to be anywhere from 7 – 20% higher than conventional varieties.  And, of course, context matters.  Different soil conditions in different parts of the world may be more or less conducive to a variety of production methods. Again, GE technology and GM crops are not a silver bullet by any means. But genetically engineered crops are an important technology in the food production toolbox. So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, OK?

3. GM crops increase pesticide use

If that’s the case, then how do you explain this interesting fact? Cotton farmers in India spray heavily to control for pests that damage production. Did you know that the application of pesticides to cotton in India is done by hand? With farmers walking through their small cotton fields using backpack sprayers? The adoption of GM cotton in India has reduced the number of pesticide applications per season by 50%. It is estimated that more than 2 million fewer cases of pesticide poisoning are occurring on an annual basis which saves the Indian government US$14 million (Smyth 2013, Herring 2009).

Want a first world perspective on the whole GM and pesticide use issue? Check out Applied Mythology‘s “The Muddled Debate on Pesticides and GM Crops.” Pesticide use is lower. Combine that with other economic and environmental benefits (refer to #1 and #2)… it’s a good thing.

4. There are better ways to feed the world

Let’s re-phrase this so that it’s a bit more accurate: “There are “many” ways to feed the world”

Absolutely.  A million of them.  Food security is a complex problem that requires a multi-faceted approach in resolving the political and economic issues that come with feeding a growing world population.  Again, GE and GM crops are very important technologies in the food production toolbox…

I mentioned the “baby” and the “bathwater” already, didn’t I?

5. Other farm technologies are more successful

Farming is complex. I don’t know ANY farmer who is not up against making a hundred decisions in a given day.  Just ask a producer (grain, livestock, organic, conventional): Ryan Goodman, Brian Scott, Emily Zweber, Carrie Mess… Again, this is not an all or nothing scenario. Many factors go into the strategic management at the farm level.  And its never as simple as saying that GMO is ‘bad’ and organic is ‘good’ or vice versa. It’s more than just picking a production method.

6. GM foods have not been shown to be safe to eat

I hear this a lot and I have to remind everyone that nothing is 100% safe. Nothing. NO food. You can test organic, conventional and GM for the next 500 years and there will never ever be “absolute proof” that a food produced a certain way is 100% safe. That’s not how things roll here in the ‘real world’. The food value chain is long and involves lots of actors.  Lots can happen. Take for example the Maple Leaf Foods listeria crisis in 2008 (23 confirmed deaths). Then there was the XL Foods e.coli incident in 2012 where 18+ people were taken ill when they ingested tainted meat. And the anti-GM folks get a bit hot under the collar when I mention this one:  almost 4000 people were affected and 53 died from a rare strain of e.coli in sprouts that were produced on an organic farm in Germany in 2011.

There have been some food-related tragedies.  But there is no documented evidence of harm to human health or deaths from consumption of GM foods since they were introduced to the market two decades ago. None. Here are TWO studies (US and EU – and there are more) that attest to the safety of GM foods (NRC 2004, EC 2010, more here (scroll down)). GE crops or GMOs have been the most heavily tested food products in the history of our regulatory system.

7. People don’t want GM foods – so they’re hidden in animal feed

I wonder who thought this little gem up.  GM foods aren’t “hidden.” And they are certainly not “hidden” in animal feed.  Livestock producers use corn and soybean as a base for animal feed, all over the world (including the the European Union where GE soybeans are exported from the US and Brazil for animal consumption). As of 2012, there has been a 100-fold increase in the planting of biotech crops since 1996.  In the US alone, between 67% and 94% of all acreage attributed to corn, soybean, cotton and canola are genetically engineered. Nothing is “hidden” here… genetically engineered crops are ‘front and centre’ in world agriculture production.  Biotechnology is the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture (James 2012).

8. GM crops are a long-term economic disaster for farmers

Wow. That sounds scary.  Yes, GM seed prices are higher than that of conventional seeds.  But farmers that utilize the technology do so because they get higher yields and extract higher margins.  Just ask Brian Scott: “I can get a premium price for the soybeans we grow to be used as seed by other farmers next year.” If you ask Brian, he is neither “dependent” on the technology nor is he a “slave to ‘big ag'”.   Rather he (and other producers like him) are making economic decisions at the farm level based on input costs and projected market outcomes.  And don’t kid yourself. These folks don’t make these decisions at the expense of the land.  They *care* about the environment (environmental benefits: see #1).  They are not about to willfully destroy land that has been farmed by them and their ancestors – and potentially their children and children’s children – for generations.

9. GM and non-GM cannot co-exist

There’s that word again – – – “contamination”.  It’s an ugly word with ugly connotations.  Did you know that we already operate in a segregated agriculture and food system?  If you want, you can choose to eat organic.  It’s all labeled in your grocery store.  Organics standards were adopted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2009 in Canada.  These standards are enforced by organic inspectors through accredited certification bodies all over the country. Contamination? Organic farm and crop certification is based on the production methods used, NOT on the purity of the end product. So, nothing would happen to an organic grower or his produce if (in the highly unlikely event that) trace amounts of some other variety were found (BTW – there is no testing in organic crops). Organic growers will never lose their organic certification (unless, of course, they are shown to be intentionally growing ‘non-organic’ produce or crops and sending them to market as ‘organic’).

10. We can’t trust GM companies

Don’t believe everything you read. Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, Monsanto and other ‘big ag’ companies are just that – companies. They are profit-motivated and generate revenues to cover the costs of doing business and to provide a return for their shareholders. These companies, and others like Apple or MicroSoft, make no secret of that. And isn’t that the tenet of any business – big or small? Companies step into the space where the public sector can’t and won’t – they bring the products downstream to the market. Did you know that the time that it takes to put a product through the regulatory system has almost tripled in the last 20 years (13 years and $140 million US)? And just to clarify, the regulatory system is no more robust than it ever was. But the political pressures that have been placed on governments by interest groups have forced a ‘slow down’ in the regulatory process. This means more costs. And, right now the only companies that have the resources to navigate the costly and complex regulatory processes are big ag.

The whole “David and Goliath” thing (small defenseless farmer vs big ag company) gets wayyyy overblown in the anti-GM rhetoric.  Like I said before, don’t believe everything you read.  Like ’em or not, ‘big ag’ companies are the only ones that can take these technologies to the marketplace where society can extract value from them.  Who else? Universities and public research institutes? I don’t think so.  At least, that’s not where I want *my* tax dollar going. These multinational ag businesses invest the dollars in the research and product development and they have a right to protect that investment for a limited period of time. It’s how our patent system works – for EVERYONE.

Want to know more about patents and plants? Check here.

– – – –

We live in a privileged world; one where food is plentiful and varied and one that affords us this seemingly ‘aesthetic’ relationship with what and how we consume. We have turned our backs on the functionality of food and entered into this realm of ‘food snobbery’ where the ‘food police or elites‘ (as Jayson Lusk refers to them) seem to rule the world.

On a final note: For every 10 reasons cited suggesting that we don’t need GMOs, I can list 100 or more of why we *do* need genetically engineered crops and GM food.

rant/off

Mythbusting 101: “Don’t say it – spray it”

In my bio, I claim to be a ‘mythbuster’ of sorts.  I like to clear up misconceptions about agriculture and food production. It amazes me what kind of nonsensical information gets circulated and how readily some people believe it.

Today is the first in my series entitled “Mythbusting 101.” I was inspired by a discussion on Facebook that centred around one particular photo.  Brian Scott (The Farmer’s Life) circulated the photo with the comment: “I hate out-of-context garbage like this. Especially when I see how many people *like* and *share* these things. There is absolutely no context given as to what is going on here.”

I couldn’t agree more.

392869_234790246646018_1396286088_n

Mythbusting 101: When you see pictures and words combined like this, channel your inner skeptic. This photo is grossly misleading (and this is just one example of many that are out there).

Although we can’t find the original source of the photo (it was posted on FB through Anti-Media), we are certain that this guy is not spraying water. He is spraying a pesticide. Labels on pesticides provide instructions on how to SAFELY apply these products (including ORGANIC approved pesticide products as they are toxic too). This ‘gear’ is standard protocol when administering any pesticides to crops (organic or otherwise). And… this photo has NOTHING to do with GMO foods, or labeling for that matter. In fact, this man appears to be spraying flowers or nursery stock of some kind.

A photo with the accompanying text like this is an example of what I call ‘misinformation in action’. Someone (a ‘myth-monger’ as I refer to them) is intentionally (sometimes unintentionally) misleading people.

We need to think critically about how food makes it from the field to our plate. Food is a very personal thing. That means that we need to also think critically about what we see and read about ag and food production. We should ensure that we are interpreting the information correctly and that the information *we* share with others is accurate.

If you are not sure, ask someone. Ask a farmer. Ask Brian. And make sure to check out the comments below. I was delighted to have others weigh in with their opinions on this matter.  I like to call this ‘crowd-sourced mythbusting.’ :O)

GMOs Toxins and unborn babies… a deeper examination of the study.

May 20, 2011

“GM food toxins found in the blood of 93% of unborn babies” (see: http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/parenting/toxic-pesticides-from-gm-food-crops-found-in-unborn-babies-2652995.html)

These headlines (or a version of it) are making their rounds in the media these days.  They refer to a study done in Quebec. Aziz Aris and Samuel Leblanc claim to have detected herbicides and/or the insecticidal protein Cry1Ab in the blood of Canadian women, pregnant or not pregnant, and in umbilical cords.  Their study / results were recently  published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology (TITLE: “Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to Genetically Modified Foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada”).

In April, I received an anonymous email from someone who challenged me on the results of this study (amongst other things…)

“While I can see the potential benefits of GMOs, I am uncomfortable with how readily pro-GMO scientists dismiss the gathering evidence of potential harmful impacts (such as the very recent study finding the BT toxin in mother’s breast milk).”

My response was as follows – and points to problems with the methodological approach…

“I think that you are referring to the article by Aris etal and their study on the sera (blood) (as opposed to breast milk) that was published in a recent issue of Reproductive Technology (2011).  I read the article and, quite frankly, have some questions regarding the methodology.  First, there seems to be a lack of controls in the experimental approach.  What are the serum levels of female organic farmers who spray Bt vs those conventional female farmers who plant Bt soy, corn and cotton? Bt is one of the most effective pesticides used in the organic industry and, generally, the number of applications is even higher in organic crops than in conventional/GE.   What are serum levels of women who eat no corn or soy products and do not buy organic (having no exposure)?  The lack of controls in this study is alarming and can account for false positives in results (I refer you to the paper in the J. Agric. Food Chem. 2005, 53, 1453-1456:  “To avoid misinterpretation, samples tested positive for Cry1Ab protein by ELISA should be reassessed by another technique”).  In my opinion, the Aris etal study is only moderately interesting and very, very incomplete.” 

As far as I can tell, there is a real problem with ‘credibility’ here.  I question the peer review process. This is echoed in another response to this publication…

http://www.marcel-kuntz-ogm.fr/article-aris-72793155.html

So, how do we accomplish a balance between “expedited publication” (which, after the long-term, laborious research process, the researcher desires – it’s the “reward”) and “thorough, competent review”? (I cover this a bit further in my blog entry “Peer Review, Peer Rejected”)

Peer review, improperly executed, leads to devastating results.  Take for example, the fallout from an article published in The Lancet in 1998 (later retracted) that claimed a connection between the MMR vaccine and Autism.  These claims (based on a study that was improperly reviewed) rippled through media causing an uproar (fuelled by the celeb-fluence of Jenny McCarthy, I might add) which, ultimately, led to the reduction in numbers of childhood vaccinations (bringing with it a whole other set of problems).

Science is a good thing.  But key to good science is a set of checks and balances that monitors and challenges results and ensures accountability in the process.

The peer review process…  Maybe it needs to be ‘peer reviewed’?

Transgenic Flax research and trials being carried out in EU

January 13, 2011

Several months ago, as colleague Viktoriya G and I were developing our Flax Breeders paper, I came across some interesting information in the Deliberate releases and placing on the EU market of Genetically Modified Organisms database.  This database is under the umbrella of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre/Institute for Health and Consumer Protection.

What information, you ask?  Well, listed therein are three summary notifications of submissions made under Directive 2001/18/EC outlining the experimental release of transgenic flax varieties in the EU.  

The first was submitted by Plant Science Sweden AB for the release of linseed lines genetically modified for altered oil composition in seed (using the variety “Flanders” – a noted CDC variety (circa 1989).  This experimental release was intended to span the years from 2005-2009. The GM event here involved the enhancement of oils in the flax.  http://gmoinfo.jrc.ec.europa.eu/gmp_report.aspx?CurNot=B/SE/04/8254

The second submission was made by The Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology ,University of Wroclaw, Poland.  This submission, made in 2006, with a proposed period of release of 2006 – 2010 used the breeding lines Nike and Linola.  The GM event in this case involved the improvement of fibres quality and the increase of antioxidant capacity in the varieties. http://gmoinfo.jrc.ec.europa.eu/gmp_report.aspx?CurNot=B/PL/04/02-02

Third, was a submission in 2007 made by a company in the Czech Republic, AgriTec Research, Breeding and Services Ltd, for the Evaluation of genetic modifications for use in flax breeding.  The period of release, in this case, is quite a bit longer – 2007 to 2016.  Presumably, it is still in progress.  Cultivars are not identified. The GM events listed are enhanced herbicide tolerance, fungal and insect tolerance and enhanced capacity to absorb heavy metal pollutants. http://gmoinfo.jrc.ec.europa.eu/gmp_report.aspx?CurNot=B/CZ/07/03

These flax-based submissions/experimental releases represent only three out of a list of almost 3000 notifications of transgenic crops (in various other varieties and for release in many other countries). So, even though there is strong opposition to GMOs, it appears that research in transgenics in the EU is prevalent.  The total amount of field trial area for the experimental transgenic flax is minuscule, comparatively speaking.  Nevertheless, if Canada should, in any way, move away from research in flax transgenics, do we would stand to lose important markets, a potentially competitive edge and key knowledge as a result?   

(see http://doccami.posterous.com/iprs-and-flax-breeding-agchat-agnerd-ag-flax for more information and a link to the Galushko/Ryan paper on flax breeding, IPRs and FTO)

What is genetic modification – everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask…

What is genetic modification, really?

Mail & Guardian (South Africa)

by Steven Hussey
December 20, 2010

http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/mandelarhodesscholars/2010/12/20/what-is-genetic-modification-really/

If you think you’ve managed to stay clean of them GMOs (genetically modified organisms) by going “organic”, chances are you’ve unknowingly been eating them or wearing them. But don’t worry. After more than three decades of experimentation there’s still no convincing evidence that GMOs are harmful. It’s the paranoia of groups like Woolworths, who explicitly state  this lack of evidence, yet choose to rid their fresh produce of the stuff because of concerned customers. Most people don’t know that genetic engineering is usually applied as an investigative tool in genetics to figure out what genes do rather than to make food. And most people would welcome GMOs that we don’t eat, such as the improved trees that may produce our future biofuels. Fear of new technologies is simply a lack of understanding about the unknown. Hell, people were afraid to install electricity in their homes once upon a time, out of concern that it might jump out of the walls and fry them to a crisp! But safety aside, many people are fundamentally anti-GMO because they think it undermines God (especially if you’re the current Pope) or because they don’t have a clue about what it is.

Genetic modification is the introduction of one or more genes into an organism to improve a certain trait, or to produce a certain product. Sometimes the gene(s) come from a different species (sometimes even human genes are introduced into bacteria  –  this has made human insulin production possible for diabetics). Alternatively, a gene(s) from the same organism is isolated, improved, and re-introduced into the organism. There is nothing unusual about genes from one organism (such as bacteria) being transferred to a very distant relative, say, a plant. Indeed, some bacteria actually “mate” with plants. Agrobacterium is one such bacterial anomaly: it integrates its own genes into the DNA of plants, forcing them to produce cancers, which it then feeds off. In fact, genetic engineers have hijacked Agrobacterium to do the work for them. They’ve taken out the cancer-causing genes, replaced it with whatever gene they want to introduce into a plant, and Agrobacterium will without complaint carry out the task.

Every molecular tool that we use for genetic modification comes from nature. We can cut up DNA precisely to engineer almost whatever we want. But we need enzymes to do this: naturally occurring molecular machines that recognise defined DNA sequences and cut them into pieces like scissors. There are thousands of types available in nature. Similarly, we can also make as many copies of a gene as we need, a central technique that makes genetic modification possible. Again, the enzyme we use comes from a bacterium that thrives in near-boiling waters, and can duplicate DNA at the high temperatures needed to create a chain reaction of replicating DNA molecules. A visit to any molecular biology lab will reveal that genetic engineering requires modest equipment, nothing like what CSI may suggest. And that’s because we use nature’s molecular tools for almost everything.

Almost without exception, when a gene is prepared for genetic modification, it is introduced into E. coli bacteria to preserve it intact, much like keeping a backup of important files. It is almost trivial how easy it is to introduce DNA into E. coli. Is it unnatural? Not in the slightest. Bacteria are the most genetically promiscuous organisms known on earth, the whores of the molecular world. This is because bacteria can literally absorb whatever pieces of DNA they come across (such as DNA from dead organisms), incorporate it into their own genomes, and thereby acquire a diverse genetic repertoire.

I’m dismayed why selective breeding, which has been practised since the age of agriculture more than 10 000 years ago, is seen as inherently safe. What we call maize today is not found in nature, but was instead developed from a pitiful relative called teosinte. It was bred into its current status over thousands of years. Similarly, you will not find modern cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower or broccoli in nature, because they were bred from one species, Brassica oleracea. Mankind has for millennia manipulated (albeit slowly) the animals and plants he found useful, from wolves (today, a kaleidoscope of dog breeds) to cows to potatoes. But this breeding, although using a natural process, suffers from complete blindness on the breeder’s part. To illustrate, when developing disease-resistant crops, breeders usually “breed in” a resistant gene from wild relatives of domesticated varieties by cross-breeding them. However, hundreds if not thousands of other genes accompany the desired gene and inevitably get incorporated into the target crop. The breeder usually has no clue what these genes are or what their effects are. These crops are only tested for disease resistance but are generally regarded as safe for consumption.

Conversely, genetic modification is a meticulous science: the genetic engineer knows precisely which gene(s) is being introduced, and only the desired gene(s) is introduced into the host organism. The engineer also has a thorough understanding of what the gene(s) does. It does not suffer from the blindness of conventional breeding. Shockingly, there is one process not classified as genetic modification that is widely practised: that of arbitrarily mutating crop plants and selecting for mutants with desired traits. Usually, the nature of the mutation is unknown. It is also highly likely that these crops will carry mutations in non-target genes with completely unknown effects. And it is fully accepted in classical plant breeding.

I argue that GMO technology, in itself, is a concise and predictable science, much less influenced by uncontrolled factors as is the case in conventional breeding. Genetic engineers harness the tools of nature to perform it, and it is in principle no more artificial than conventional breeding. The potential that GMO technology yields are considerable: it is thought that the only way we could possibly produce enough vaccines for the world is by using plants to make them for us cheaply and abundantly. But as with all technologies, one can practice it in ethical and unethical ways. One can drive a car ethically or unethically, and indeed, cars kill thousands every year while it is still to be shown that someone died of a GMO. Yet you will not find lobbyists trying to get cars off the road despite their obvious danger. I find it almost humorous that the good-willed mothers that vehemently avoid GMO food on their grocery list also apply a synthetic factory of chemicals to their faces every morning. To oppose GMO technology because of its unknown long-term effects, then, is simply a double standard.