A study found the same type of omega-3 oils that are engineered into new GM crops make butterflies grow up deformed. Attempts to discredit the study are a mixture of bad science, ‘straw man’ arguments, and outright falsehoods, writes Claire Robinson
The pro-GMO campaigner Mark Lynas has attacked a scientific study that casts doubt on the ecological safety of new GM crops.
The study found that cabbage white butterflies that ate the types of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (called EPA and DHA for short) that are produced in new GM oilseed crops developed deformed wings.
Lynas also smears our article on the study and a scientist who provided us with a comment on the study.
However, Lynas resorts to false statements, half-truths, and ‘smoke-and-mirrors’ statements in what appears to be a desperate attempt to limit the damage from the study’s findings.
More worryingly, Rothamsted Research, the UK institute that is conducting open-air trials of a GM camelina that produces long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, also appears to be misleading the public over the study. And yes, that would be the very same public that pays the Rothamsted scientists’ salaries and bankrolls their GMO experiments.
Here’s a rundown of Lynas’s arguments, with my responses.
1. False statement: “Cabbage whites don’t eat brassica seeds”
Lynas says: “Rothamsted scientists have confirmed that there is no EPA and DHA expressed in the camelina leaves at all, because its expression is controlled by a seed-specific promoter. Cabbage whites don’t eat brassica seeds, so the whole experiment is rather pointless.”
Rothamsted’s own statement says, “Cabbage white butterflies do not feed on seeds in their native environment.”
But according to scientific studies, cabbage white butterflies do eat the “leaves, branches, pods and the seeds” of brassica plants. And a book on biofuels production by Bharat P. Singh, professor of agronomy at Fort Valley State University, confirms that cabbage whites feed on “green [seed] pods” as well as leaves.
If, as I suspect, Lynas has trouble reading scientific papers and books (though there’s no excuse for the Rothamsted researchers), here’s a helpful picture of cabbage white caterpillars demolishing the “leaves, seed pods and newly emerging flower heads” of a plant closely related to brassicas and classed by some as a brassica (see image, right).
To make things even more complicated, one study unexpectedly found that the cabbage white caterpillar prefers to feed on flowers rather than leaves of some brassica plants. So as part of their biosafety studies, the Rothamsted scientists will need to investigate the flowers – as well as the leaves and seeds – of their GM camelina for presence of the problematic EPA and DHA fatty acids.
History of deception*
This is not the first time that GMO proponents have been caught playing fast and loose with the facts in order to deny GMO risks to non-target organisms.
In the 1990s and 2000s, laboratory studies were published that found toxic effects from Bt insecticidal toxins fed to lacewings and ladybirds – insects that are helpful to farmers. The studies, carried out by teams led by Dr Angelika Hilbeck, caused problems for the GMO industry. Based on one of Hilbeck’s studies and over 30 others, Germany banned MON810 maize, a GM crop engineered to contain one of the Bt toxins found to be harmful.
Other teams of researchers carried out ‘rebuttal studies’, apparently to disprove the findings of Hilbeck’s teams and undermine the scientific basis of the German ban. The ‘rebuttal studies’ found no harm to lacewings and ladybirds from Bt toxins. However, subsequent studies by Hilbeck’s teams found that changes in the test methods were the reasons for the failure to find harmful effects.
For example, in one followup study, Hilbeck’s team showed that the lacewings in the rebuttal study could not have eaten the Bt toxins in the form provided by the researchers, as their mouths are formed in such a way as to make ingestion impossible. This is equivalent to testing an orally administered drug for side-effects by applying it to the skin, ensuring that none of the human subjects actually swallows the drug.
In a second followup study on ladybirds, Hilbeck’s team found that the water in the sugar solution in which the Bt toxin had been fed in a rebuttal study completely evaporated after a few hours. That made it unlikely that the larvae in the rebuttal study had (contrary to what was claimed) even ingested the Bt toxin.
In a commentary on the controversy, Hilbeck and colleagues criticized the confrontational tone, unscientific elements, and “concerted nature” of the rebuttal studies that attacked the initial findings of harm to non-target insects from Bt toxins. Hilbeck’s team, who had been accused by their opponents of “pseudoscience” and of using “poor study design and procedures”, noted that the “dogmatic ‘refutations’” and “deliberate counter studies” that routinely appear in response to peer-reviewed results on potential harm from GMOs were also a feature of the debate on risks of tobacco and asbestos.
A similar combination of poor science and dogmatic yet false assertions appears to be emerging in the responses by Lynas and Rothamsted to the cabbage white butterfly study.
2. Unproven claim: GM camelina leaves don’t contain the problematic fatty acids
Let’s for a moment humour Lynas and Rothamsted in their false claim that cabbage whites don’t eat seeds, but only leaves. Lynas writes that GM camelina leaves don’t contain any of the problematic fatty acids, EPA and DHA. His source? “Unpublished data” that is supposedly in Rothamsted’s possession.
I’m reminded of GMO biosafety researcher Dr Arpad Pusztai’s comment: “In science, if it isn't published, it doesn't exist."
Because Rothamsted is already growing GM omega-3-producing crops in open field trials, we can’t afford to wait for the evidence to appear in a peer-reviewed journal. Rothamsted should publish it on the Internet. In the meantime, it must cease relying on anecdotal claims on important biosafety issues.
3. ‘Smoke-and-mirrors’ implication: Cabbage whites are pests and not worth worrying about
Even if we accept Lynas’s dismissal of harm to cabbage whites on the grounds that they are pests, other butterfly caterpillars – which will undoubtedly include beneficial pollinators and ‘iconic’ butterflies loved by the public – also eat seeds and seed pods. A simple guide to butterflies for the public says, "Almost all caterpillars eat plant materials. Most eat leaves, but some eat seeds, seed pods, or flowers.”
Based on the new study’s findings, these butterfly caterpillars might be harmed by the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids expressed by GM camelina and similar GM oilseed crops.
Other living creatures, such as insects and birds, feed on seeds, too. As our article pointed out, biosafety experiments should be conducted in which the new GM crops are fed to these creatures – prior to the release of the crops in the open environment.
4. Straw man 1: Making up a definition
Lynas attacks us, the scientist quoted in our article, and the butterfly study researchers on the grounds that we generated “public alarm” by saying that the EPA and DHA fatty acids that caused the deformities are “novel” in terrestrial systems, being generally found in fish oils and algae. Lynas quotes Johnathan Napier, lead scientist on the GMO camelina research, as saying that the butterfly study researchers’ “overall rationale” was that these fatty acids are “not produced in terrestrial ecosystems”, but that this is “not always the case”.
Actually, the butterfly study researchers didn’t say that these fatty acids “not produced in terrestrial ecosystems”. They said they are “largely novel” and “for the most part, not produced by terrestrial plants”. That’s different – and it’s pretty much what Napier himself ends up saying, as we’ll see below.
Back to Lynas. He argues: “Actually it turns out EPA and DHA aren’t so novel at all” in terrestrial systems. He quotes Napier as giving an example of a moss, from which Rothamsted took a gene to produce EPA in its GM camelina.
The problem with this argument is that Lynas and Napier either don’t understand the meaning of the word “novel” or are deliberately inventing their own definition to fit their agenda.
“Novel” doesn’t mean “never found” or “completely absent”. According to the dictionary definition, it means new, unusual, or unfamiliar.
So what the butterfly researchers – and we – are saying is that in the context of terrestrial systems, EPA and DHA are novel, in that they are unusual. Napier himself appears to admit this, perhaps inadvertently, with his single example of the moss. And according to Napier’s own scientific reference, the moss doesn’t even appear to produce DHA, but only EPA. So his example reinforces the idea that these compounds are unusual on land, and even more unusual in combination.
If you think you smell something fishy in Lynas’s and Napier’s semantic arguments about how “novel” these fatty acids are on land, you’d be right. If these compounds really were not novel in terrestrial systems, that would undermine the entire rationale of Napier and colleagues’ work in genetically engineering them into plants that normally do not contain them. And Rothamsted’s patent on the GM omega-3-producing camelina, on which Napier holds inventor status, states clearly, “this novel Camelina oil represents a new and valuable terrestrial source” (my emphasis) of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that are “normally found in aquatic environments”.
So is the GM omega-3-producing camelina novel in terrestrial environments, as Rothamsted’s own patent claims, or not really that novel after all, as Lynas and Napier seem to suggest in Lynas’s article? As is usual with GMO promoters, it depends on whether they are talking to the patent office or the public. For the patent office, it’s novel. For the public, it’s not really that novel after all: “Nothing unusual here, move on.”
In light of such doublespeak, is there any wonder that we don’t trust the GMO industry?
5. Failure to grasp the nature of ecological risks
Semantic arguments about the meanings of words such as “novel” can be tedious. But this one is crucial to understanding the threat that GMO ventures like the camelina trial pose to living systems. That’s because in assessing ecological risks, context is vital. Something can be harmless or beneficial in its proper context but harmful when forced into another context.
As an example, in some areas of the UK, arsenic is found in the earth’s crust. As long as it remains there, it’s not a problem. But if it leaches out into our drinking water, it becomes a problem. The novel context is all-important. We have not evolved to be able to cope with significant amounts of arsenic in our drinking water.
Similarly the cabbage white butterfly – and other organisms – have not co-evolved with significant amounts of DHA and EPA in their food sources. To the butterfly and other terrestrial species, these compounds are novel. There is no history of safe use in this new context.
In dismissing the findings of the new butterfly study, Lynas makes the monumental mistake of ignoring context. It’s an unusual failing in someone who claims environmentalist credentials. Perhaps it can only be explained by looking to his employer, the Cornell Alliance for Science, which, if it isn’t actually feeding Lynas his lines, at the very least is not correcting his errors and falsehoods.
6. Straw man 2: The researchers failed to use actual GM crops
Lynas criticizes the butterfly study on the basis that the researchers didn’t feed actual GM omega-3-producing crops to the butterflies, but an artificial diet designed to approximate a diet containing the crops.
That much is acknowledged by the researchers. But Lynas’s criticism is misplaced. GMO regulations worldwide recognize that it is the job of the developer to do basic biosafety research to find out how its GM crops affect non-target organisms before unleashing them into the environment and the food supply. It is not the job of public scientists to police the GMO industry. The butterfly researchers ask for such studies to be carried out with the actual GM plants. Their conclusion is reasonable and proportionate. They should not be sneered at for their efforts, but thanked.
Even if Lynas fails to grasp this point, it’s gratifying that Rothamsted appears to have belatedly recognized its responsibility to the public and the environment: “Rothamsted Research scientists have discussed with [the authors of the butterfly study] the development of collaborative projects to design research experiments to address the above questions.”
Errors and deceptions
Lynas’s apparent inability to do basic research, to accurately represent a scientific argument, and to understand ecological risks disqualify him from commenting on GMO risks. It’s disappointing to see the Rothamsted researchers accompanying him in his errors and deceptions.
* The arguments in this section took place in studies published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. However, for efficiency’s sake, I have only referenced an online section of the book, GMO Myths and Truths, which covers this history in detail and contains all references to the individual studies. Buy an updated version of the book here.