GMO Science Is Not All Black and White

GMO-science-settleIt’s interesting, as of late, that journalists, most notably at the CBC, are coming under fire for conflict of interests – the most recent case being the firing of Evan Solomon.

I have no conflict of interest, because, 1. I don’t work for anyone and 2. I am not paid. I do, however, have my bias, which as always I am open about (see the title of my blog).

So this brings me to this posting, for which I might be accused of being anti-science. I can clearly state that I am not. What I am is anti-corporatization, and that’s an entirely different beast altogether.

Often times, writers, bloggers and journalists will take the lazy way out by citing unreliable sources. If you dig a little deeper, you will find big corporate money is behind the whole thing.

Case in point – an Inside Agenda blogpost by Iman Sheikh, Digital Media Producer at TVO: Chipotle’s non-GMO claims are about marketing, not health.

I don’t doubt that the title of her essay is true, but she stops the whole argument shortly after paragraph two, going on to disprove, in a rather flimsy way I might add, the anti-GMO movement altogether. She never even returns to why this is a marketing issue, and not a health issue.

So I called her out on it, even referred to her at worst a shill (A person who pretends to give an impartial endorsement of something in which they themselves have an interest) in the comment section below the article or at least just lazy. I’m not sure what her motivations are, or her own personal bias, but I believe she set out to discredit the anti-GMO movement as anti-science.

I have no idea if Sheikh has ties to the industry, but she has previously worked for two right leaning publications: The National Post and the on-line aggregator the Huffington Post.

I personally, have nothing to gain from any of this but to be skeptical of both sides of the GMO coin, with a definite tilting toward public health and safety of consumers. I also continue to be dubious of both the claims from the corporations themselves, and even Health Canada, considering that our current government has muzzled our scientists.

So for the specific purpose of addressing Ms. Sheikh, let me break it down her blog post, one section at a time:

Sheikh writes in her article:

In Canada, the scientific consensus is clear: according to Health Canada, there’s no definitive evidence GMO food is unsafe.

That’s not exactly true. Canadian Epidemiologist John McLaughlin, chief science officer for Public Health Ontario and most recently offered his expertise to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). After examining the data from peer-reviewed studies he says evidence from lab tests swayed the decision to reclassify glyphosate, the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup used for many GMOs, for the first time in 20 years.

In a CBC interview he stated, “It’s important to know that the agent may possibly, or in this situation, probably be, a cancer causing agent, at least for a cancer, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma”, also noting that there aren’t enough studies on the effects on humans.

While Health Canada did not agree with the WHO’s final report, they took it seriously enough. Health Canada proposed a Re-evaluation Decision on Glyphosate, opening it up in April of this year to public consultation.

In an article about the safety of GMOs, Patrice Sutton, MPH, a researcher with UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, states, “Many people could rightly look at the existing science and see that it’s extremely weak. However, weak science does not prove safety; it just demonstrates that the public health impacts of GMOs are uncertain. It’s an overall public health principle that in the face of scientific uncertainty to expose everybody to something is a legitimate concern that should give us pause.”

In another excerpt from Sheikh’s Inside Agenda blog post, she writes:

(Bt delta endotoxin as one example, which is derived from a natural soil bacterium and added to corn and potatoes to ward off pests. Smith [documentary filmmaker Jeffrey M. Smith]says Bt damages human cells, citing a 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, but no toxic effects have actually been detected in 70 years of its use. The pesticide is even considered acceptable for the organic food industry.

It’s true that organic farmers uses Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) toxin to kill off pests, which breaks down naturally in the environment. Bt is not harmful to mammals and according to the National Pesticide Information Centre, when eaten, Bt is confined to the gut; it does not reproduce, and the toxin is broken down like other proteins in the diet, leaving the body within 2 to 3 days. (SOURCE: National Pesticide Information Centre)

But the Bt toxin produced in GM crops is NOT the same as the naturally occurring soil bacterium Bt – the one used in organic farming. (SOURCE: GM Watch) Using genetic engineering, the Bt protein genes isolated from bacillus thuringiensis are transferred to plants (such as Bt Corn) and if the Bt protein gene isolated from bacteria is inserted into the DNA of a plant, the plant itself produces Bt toxin. (Source: GMO-Safety)

The implications that Bt endotoxins are present in the stomach are huge because Bt Toxin can change the gut flora, leading to a whole host of problems such as allergic reactions and antibiotic resistance. In a 2003 study where researches fed cows Bt Corn, the researchers found that a “remarkable amounts of Bt toxin were found in all contents of the GIT and the protein was still present in faeces”.

In another study, two researchers from Sherbrooke University in Quebec conducted a study in 2010 on maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods.

In the study, they used two groups: 30 healthy pregnant women recruited at delivery and 39 healthy fertile non-pregnant women, recruited during their tubal ligation. The researchers discovered that Cry1Ab toxin, an insecticidal protein produced by Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) was “detected in 93% and 80% of maternal and fetal blood samples, respectively and in 69% of tested blood samples from non-pregnant women.”

“There are no other studies for comparison with our results,” the researchers stated in their conclussion. “However, trace amounts of the Cry1Ab toxin were detected in the gastrointestinal contents of livestock fed on GM corn, raising concerns about this toxin in insect-resistant GM crops; (1) that these toxins may not be effectively eliminated in humans (unlike the organic use of Bt – which leaves the gut within 2-3 days) and (2) there may be a high risk of exposure through consumption of contaminated meat.”

Sheikh writes:

A 2012 study by French molecular biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini revealed rats eating Monsanto’s genetically modified corn developed large cancerous tumours. But soon after publication others in the scientific community questioned the results, and the journal was forced to retract the original study.

In Seralini’s research, 50% of the male rats and 70% of the female rats died when consuming GMO seed or drinking Roundup-laced water. Many of the rats also experienced tumors the size of golf balls that inhibited them from movement.

Sheikh cites the Genetic Literacy Project, whose director is Jon Entine, Shill #1 in the industry with ties to both Monsanto and Syngenta. (SOURCE: Jon Entine, using his position at Forbes, authored probably more articles to date attacking Séralini than any other commentator.

Ditto for Shill #2, Henry Miller at Forbes. Miller is a former Tobacco and pesticide defender and climate change denier. (Source: USRTK)

Add in shill #3, Bruce M. Chassy, is co-author of a 2010 GMO study in Food and Chemical Toxicology that was supported by Syngenta, Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and Bayer. Chassy and his pro-GMO friends, have done everything in their power to discredit the two year study by pressuring Food and Chemical Toxicology to retract the study only on the inconclusiveness of this one paper. You’ll find Chassy’s own letter speaking against the study on the Genetic Literacy Project website.

On the main page of the Food and Chemical Toxicology website you will find a letter about the Séralini study retraction that in it states:

…the Editors and Publisher wish to make clear that the normal thorough peer review process was applied to the Seraliniet al. paper. The paper was published after being objectively and anonymously peer reviewed, with a series of revisions made by the authors and the corrected paper then accepted by the Editor.

Scientists took issue with the sample size and the use of Sprague-Dawley rats, which were the same rats that Monsanto used in their own 90 day study and are recommended for chronic toxicology tests by the National Toxicology Program. Meanwhile, another group of scientists have criticised the retraction, supporting the publication as the only independent and long term study to date.

And why did they wish to discredit Séralini and his team? Because up to this time, all short term non-independent studies to date showed no adverse health risks from GMOs and Roundup. Interestingly, Jack Heinemann, professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Canterbury New Zealand, whose letter they post on the Genetic Literacy Project website, was actually against the retraction. He says:

The first publication of these results revealed some of the viciousness that can be unleashed on researchers presenting uncomfortable findings. I applaud Environmental Sciences Europe for submitting the work to yet another round of rigorous blind peer review and then bravely standing by the process and the recommendations of its reviewers, especially after witnessing the events surrounding the first publication.

This study has arguably prevailed through the most comprehensive and independent review process to which any scientific study on GMOs has ever been subjected.

The work provides important new knowledge that must be taken into account by the community that evaluates and reports upon the risks of genetically modified organisms, indeed upon all sources of pesticide in our food and feed chains. In time these findings must be verified by repetition or challenged by superior experimentation. In my view, nothing constructive for risk assessment or promotion of GM biotechnology has been achieved by attempting to expunge these data from the public record.

In a Letter to the Editor at Food and Chemical Toxicology, Marcel Roberfroid, Professor of Biochemistry and Toxicology, Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium and former member of the editorial board of Food and Chemical Toxicology writes:

I [also] feel ashamed because your decision gives support to those who argue and even claim that scientific research (especially in bio-sciences) is less and less independent and more and more subject to industry pressure. Your decision which can be interpreted as a will to eliminate scientific information that does not help supporting industrial interests is, in my view, unacceptable. If you and your colleagues of the editorial board had some questions about the conclusion of Séralini’s study, the only scientific attitude would have been to ask for additional studies. Retracting data creates questions and suspicion and it is not a scientific attitude.

With some modifications, the Environmental Sciences Europe Journal eventually republished the Séralini study, but not before the damage was already done.

In another section Sheikh’s article, she writes:

The anti-GMO camp also decries the use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, an herbicide used in many of the company’s GMO food crops. (Caffeine is 10 times more toxic than glyphosate—but that doesn’t necessarily mean people should stop drinking coffee. As is the case with glyphosate, the typical dose of caffeine is not high enough to cause toxicity.)

Sheikh again cites and lifts this pretty much verbatim from pro-GMO site the Genetic Literacy Project.

I’m not sure where the claim about caffeine being 10 times more toxic than glyphosate comes from (there’s no link on the Genetic Literary Project website), but I suspect it refers to a co-authored study by a well-regarded American Biochemist Bruce Ames. Pro-GMOs refer to it frequently, since Ames is one of the earliest defenders of pesticides including DDT, critical of the 1962 book Silent Spring by author and biologist Rachel Carson. Carson, who highlights in her book the dangers of DDT, is considered one of the earliest pioneers of the environmental movement.

It took me a while to find Ames 23 year old study, titled Rodent Carcinogens: Setting Priorities. I had a terrible time trying to see how he came to his conclusions that I actually had to consult a neuroscientist friend to help me make heads or tails of the thing. But basically what the study says is, when we separately look at individual chemicals (synthetic or naturally occurring) and do a toxicology study where we give this chemical alone in LARGE chronic doses to rodents, lots of these chemicals will cause cancer in the rodents and kill them… BUT, this doesn’t scale up easily to what the safe dosages are in humans. We isolate some of those chemicals and give them in high chronic doses to rats, they will cause cancer. That doesn’t mean drinking coffee in natural amounts causes cancer.

And what I was able to come up with on my own is that Ames is an odd guy. He is well respected in the scientific community and has won numerous awards for his research. And yet, he is in bed with big-tobacco and climate change deniers. Most recently, he was interviewed in a pro-fracking documentary, Fracknation, seeking to address the concerns surrounding the process that were highlighted in the Oscar nominated anti-fracking film Gasland.

While the risk of glyphosate alone is relatively low, another study finds that, “inert ingredients of the popular pesticide product Roundup work synergistically and have greater endocrine disrupting effects than the active ingredient, glyphosate, alone.”

Following Quebec’s lead and using a precautionary principle, the Province of Ontario banned glyphosate, one of three class 9 chemicals, and all products containing glyphosate including Roundup from cosmetic lawn care use in 2009 “because they may pose an unnecessary risk to human health, particularly children’s health”, the government website states. Other provinces are following Ontario’s lead, now considered to have one of the most comprehensive bans in all of North America. As usual, like the smoking ban in public spaces, the municipalities and provinces are well ahead of the federal governement regulators.

Environmentalists and farmers have sounded alarms about the sprouting of so-called “superweeds” that have developed resistance to Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate. A study reviewed the regarding the development of glyphosate resistant weeds. The researchers discovered that “the widespread adoption of GR crops has not only shifted weed species in these crops towards naturally resistant species, but it also resulted in evolution of GR weed biotypes. To date, a total of eight weed species have evolved resistance to glyphosate.”

The WHO states under its FAQ section of their website, while they back the safety of GMOs, that there are three areas of concern for human health with Genetically Modified Organisms: potentials to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity), gene transfer, particularly relevant if antibiotic resistance genes that are used as markers when creating GMOs were to be transferred and outcrossing, the migration of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild.

Sheikh makes creates an image of the anti-GMO camp falling into the same group as the anti-vaxxers:

According to University of Guelph professor Andreas Boecker, the answer lies in the public’s general skepticism toward science. Another example of the same phenomenon: the anti-vaccination movement.

These are not the same phenomenon, and here’s why.

In a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, the Princeton Survey Research Associates International conducted 2,002 phone interviews in all US states.

According to the survey, 57% of the general public say they believe that eating genetically modified foods is unsafe with almost half of those surveyed holding college degrees believing that GMOs are generally unsafe. Meanwhile, a whopping 67% say that scientists do NOT have a clear understanding of the health effects of genetically modified crops while this.

When the same group was asked about whether vaccines for childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) and polio should be required or left up to parental choice, the vast majority of adults, like 68%, said such vaccines should be required.

And according to a 2011 Ekos poll, “findings indicate that Canadian parents generally perceive little difficulty in making the decision to immunize their child, with 89 per cent of respondents rating the decision making process as easy – With childhood vaccines for tetanus/diphtheria/Hib/pertussis/polio, meningococcal disease, measles/mumps/rubella and pneumococcal disease in particular are seen as highly important.

So the anti-vaxxers, still largely remain in the lunatic fringe.

Sheikh’s  writes:

GMO foods might even solve health crises rather than create them. For example, Golden Rice is a genetically engineered grain designed to combat widespread human micronutrient deficiencies from lack of iron, zinc and vitamin A.

Golden Rice is always brought into the discussion when defending GMOs, like, it’s the holy grail of genetically modified foods, or something. The scare tactics used by the pro GMOs are especially disconcerting, like in the case of this intentionally provocative National Post article: Trashing rice, killing children

According to a study conducted by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois in 2002, Golden Rice 1 was found to “deliver amounts of VA (Vitamin A) that are modest, and unlikely to fulfill requirements” compared to two other interventions: wheat fortification and supplementation. “Thus, it should be viewed as a complement to existing interventions.”

It wouldn’t be until 2005 when Syngenta developed GR2 and observed “an increase in total carotenoids of up to 23-fold compared to the original Golden Rice and a preferential accumulation of beta-carotene”.

Meanwhile, the WHO states that, “Since breast milk is a natural source of vitamin A, promoting breastfeeding is the best way to protect babies from VAD.” Post breastfeeding, “the periodic supply of high-dose vitamin A in swift, simple, low-cost, high-benefit interventions has also produced remarkable results, reducing mortality by 23% overall and by up to 50% for acute measles sufferers. The WHO also suggests that for “vulnerable rural families, for instance in Africa and South-East Asia, growing fruits and vegetables in home gardens complements dietary diversification and fortification and contributes to better lifelong health.”

Nutrient rich orange sweet potatoes are high in vitamin A and grow well in drought ridden countries such as in the continent of Africa. International Development Secretary Justine Greening unveiled in 2013 a £30 million plan to develop the potato, the crops being bred without the use of genetic modifications. She said, “Ending malnutrition is the first step to ending aid dependency through jobs and growth.” Source: ‘Super potato’ could save millions from blindness

I could keep going with this, but then this blog post would be even longer, so I will leave it here. If you wish to read further, you can read an earlier article I wrote: No Label, No Problem.

Note about this blogpost: This article was originally posted on June 16, 2015 and feeling that I didn’t cover all of my points thoroughly, I have elaborated more extensively and edited the original post.