Genetically Modifying Science
The credentials of the two-dozen scientists from seven countries, who launched themselves as an Independent Science Panel (ISP) on GM at a public conference - attended by UK's then environment minister Michael Meacher and 200 other participants, in London on 10 May 2003 - could not be more impeccable. Many are prominent scientists of international repute, with a string of peer-reviewed scientific publications to their name. They span the relevant disciplines of agroecology, agronomy, biomathematics, biophysics, botany, chemical medicine, ecology, histopathology, microbial ecology, molecular genetics, nutritional biochemistry, physiology, toxicology and virology.
It was an act of rebellion by scientists frustrated at the lack of open debate and discussion on a range of critical scientific evidence, and outraged at the concerted campaign by the corporate establishment to suppress and misinform. I never thought it would be easy. And sure enough, attempts were made to discredit the scientists right from the start, but then this is the fate of everyone who speaks out on this issue, as Michael Meacher himself was soon to discover.
On the eve of the launching conference, I received an e-mail message from a reporter of the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) - *the* newsprint for university academics - threatening to write a report based on malicious slander about my scientific credentials, which has been circulating on the internet. I had, some weeks earlier, lodged a complaint against a total fabrication by a Syngenta scientist, formerly employed by the USDA; but decided to ignore insinuations about deficiencies of my publication record from Roger Morton, a regular and often eccentric contributor to the industry-linked AgBioWorld website.
As I have not had to apply for a job for some years, that leaves my curriculum vitae rather out of date. But for the sake of the ISP, I could not afford to let the THES trash my scientific credentials. So I spent the entire evening updating my publication list, while I had three guests staying the night. It was 1:30 am the next morning when I finally e-mailed the publication list to the reporter, together with a press pack for the ISP launch, saying it would surely be much more appropriate and important for him to come to the launch and hear what scientists like Dr Arpad Pusztai and others had to say.
The reporter didn't turn up for the conference, as his intended story has evaporated. I complained to the editor of the THES afterwards about the harassment. But this incident only underlines the need for the ISP.
Our ISP report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World, was published 15 June on a newly created website, www.indsp.org, which also carries the complete list of ISP members with their specialty and affiliations. This long-awaited, authoritative report is a comprehensive dossier of scientific and other evidence, based on more than 200 primary and secondary sources, documenting the problems and hazards of GM crops and the many health, environmental and social benefits of sustainable agriculture. It created quite a stir around the world.
In no time at all, a 'rebuttal' concocted of further lies and misrepresentations, appeared on the AgBioWorld website, notorious for perpetrating misinformation and for its hate attacks on scientists and others critical of GM. Following the September 11 tragedy, it even posted a claim that I and Dr Vandana Shiva had blood on our hands.
The AgBioWorld statement begins, typically, by dismissing the ISP as "a group of anti-biotech organic food activists". Its "point by point refutation", equally typically, fails to confront any of the evidence presented in the report. The "refutations", presented as "FACTS", turn out to be nothing but bland statements, unsupported by any reference to published scientific literature.
The only substantial report cited is that from the International Council for Science (ICSU), whose members consist of the national academies of just over 100 countries around the world, including Britain's Royal Society, the French Academy of Sciences and the National Academies of Sciences in United States. According to the ICSU report, current GM foods are safe.
This sounds very authoritative but the report is not actually written by members of the ICSU, but by G. J. Persley, one of the directors of the Doyle Foundation. The other two directors have direct links to the biotech industry. Simon Best is a Board member of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO), former CEO of Zeneca Plant Sciences (which eventually merged with Novartis to become Syngenta), and founder and CEO of Ardana Bioscience. He was also responsible for introducing GM tomatoes into Europe in 1996. Andrew Bennett, formerly with the UK Department for International Development is now Director of the Syngenta Foundation. The ICSU report is not based on any peer-reviewed scientific paper, but on 'opinion' pieces and reports of the national academies claiming GM foods are safe.
Michael Meacher, UK environment minister who lost his job in the recent cabinet reshuffle, took the trouble to attend the launch of the ISP. Despite his many years as the heart of the UK's political establishment, he has faced a similar pattern of misrepresentation and attack since writing an article in the Independent on Sunday, 22 June, accusing the Blair government of burying scientific evidence damaging to the industry and of not taking science seriously enough. He reminds the government of the well-known risks of genetic engineering: the random insertion of foreign genes out of context with the host genome, horizontal transfer of inserted genes that often come from disease-causing viruses and bacteria.
The only Government-sponsored work ever carried on the health impacts of GMOs was Dr Pusztai's work on rats and GM potatoes, Meacher said, "and then, when it found negative effects, it was widely rubbished in government circles, even though his paper had been peer-reviewed six times before publication."
Meacher points out that the UK Royal Society had said in its reports last year, that the potential health effects of GM foods should be rigorously investigated before allowing them into baby food or to be marketed to pregnant or breast-feeding women, elderly people, and those with chronic disease. This was because GM "could lead to unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods". The Royal Society, of course, is hardly a model of scientific independence. It has been severely criticised for its pro-GM stance, and for its persistent efforts to discredit the work of Arpad Pusztai and colleagues. It also draws funding from the biotechnology industry as do a number of the Fellows most prominent in shaping its position on GM.
Meacher further drew attention to "the only human GM trial, commissioned ironically by the Food Standards Agency", which found that GM DNA did in fact transfer to bacteria in the human gut. "Previously many scientists had denied that this was possible." Meacher said, "But instead of this finding being regarded as a serious discovery which should be checked and re-checked, the spin was that this was nothing new and did not involve any health risk - a Nelsonian putting the telescope to the blind eye if ever there was one."
Three cheers to Meacher for voicing many of the concerns of the Independent Science Panel and exposing the unpalatable truths about GM foods.
But immediately, the corporate machine set to work on damage limitation. The new Environment Minister, Elliot Morley, interviewed on BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Monday, 23 June, and asked whether any other human studies had shown GM is safe, said: "There have been very many studies", and there has "never been any indication of the slightest risk to health." It turns out his source is the same ICSU report that, the Daily Mail says, is "academic and theoretical", "involves no new research", and "concludes GM foods, such as soya, are "safe" because various governments have said so."
On Tuesday, 24 June, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) issued a statement saying that the study showing GM DNA had transferred to bacterium in the human gut was dismissed largely because it was a small study carried out on people who already had unrelated health problems. Does that mean only people with perfect health should eat GM food?
The FSA said, "Although small fragments of GM DNA survived in the upper regions of the gut of some participants in the study, no GM material survived the passage through the entire human digestive tract, and no intact transgenes from GM food were incorporated into the gut microflora of the human volunteers."
This passage contains outright falsehood, and also gives false assurance. First, intact transgenes coding for herbicide tolerance were found transferred to bacteria in the gut contents isolated from colostomy bags of subjects that have undergone ileotomy. Microbes in the digested food that had passed through the small intestine were cultured through 6 passages in broth containing glyphosate, so only bacteria that had taken up the intact transgene coding for herbicide tolerance could survive and multiply. Bacteria grew to a density of 108/ml in each sub-culturing. In each sub-culture derived from samples taken from 3 subjects at 180, 240 and 300 min after eating, the transgene was found.
Second, GM DNA that did not pass through the entire human gut could have gone into cells of the intestine, or through the intestinal wall into the blood stream. No monitoring for transgenic DNA in the bloodstream of volunteers was carried out, even though published research has shown that GM DNA can pass through the bloodstream and into the blood cells and cells of other tissues.
Third, as I have pointed out more than once to the Food Standards Agency and its scientific advisors on the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) and Advisory Committee on Novel Food and Processes (ACNFP), the probe for GM DNA covers only a small section of it, and hence almost certainly greatly underestimates both the survival of GM DNA and horizontal transfer of GM DNA to gut bacteria.
The FSA goes on to state, "The fact that fragments of GM DNA survived in the upper regions of the gut is entirely consistent with existing scientific knowledge, which is that fragments of DNA from food eaten by humans can survive in the gut. Such fragments of DNA cannot change the genetic make-up of the body."
The first sentence is correct; the second, however, is misleading if not false. Fragments of GM DNA can be large or small, can be a gene or a promoter. And even fragments, such as a promoter or parts of a promoter can become incorporated into the genome, and can have biological effects. Parts of promoters less than10bp long for example, are binding sites for factors that boost gene expression.
The FSA then cites the report published by the Royal Society in February 2002, which noted that a normal diet for humans and animals comprises large amounts of DNA, and added, "indeed digestion of DNA in the gastrointestinal tract may make a significant contribution to nutrition. Given the very long history of DNA consumption from a wide variety of sources, it is likely that such consumption poses no significant risk to human health, and that additional ingestion of GM DNA has no effect."
The difference between transgenic DNA and non-transgenic DNA is at issue here. There are many reasons to believe transgenic DNA is more prone to horizontal gene transfer and recombination, and may be more invasive than non-transgenic DNA. There is also indirect evidence that bears this out. However, no follow-up experiment has ever been carried out. Such experiments appear to have been avoided altogether, as detailed in the ISP report.
"All GM foods approved to date in the EU have undergone a rigorous safety assessment," the FSA claims. But how is it possible to have a "rigorous safety assessment" when there is so little relevant scientific evidence available; when what there is already gives cause for concerns; and most of all, when the overwhelming effort and resources of the corporate scientific establishment have been dedicated to mislead and misinform, rather than address those concerns?
The FSA then went on to cite a long passage from the Royal Society report, the gist of which is to dismiss the possibility that transgenic DNA could get into mammalian cells and jump into the genome, even though some of the papers cited raised this distinct possibility. So it cannot help but conclude, "This suggests that DNA present in food can find its way into mammalian cells at some low frequency."
But then follows the totally unsupported assertion, "In the unlikely event that the DNA is recombined into a host chromosome, the probability that it will exert any biological effect on that cell is very low. The likelihood of any biological consequence for the whole organism is even more remote." The Royal Society should be reminded of the recent cancer cases from gene therapy, which is nothing but genetic modification of human cells, using GM DNA very similar in construction to those used in genetic modification of animals and plants.
As in the horizontal transfer of GM DNA, we are faced with circumstantial evidence that GM DNA may be more prone to transfer into genomes and to have biological effects, but the necessary follow-up experiments have simply not been done. We have listed some of these experiments in the ISP report.
On Wednesday, 25 June, Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society issued a strong statement attacking Michael Meacher for "ideological opposition" to GM crops, and to have cited the Royal Society's report selectively.
"The report pointed out that genetic modification may be used in future to improve the quality of food, which . Mr Meacher appears unwilling to acknowledge. Such foods could, however, also have unintended adverse impacts on nutrition. As babies are particularly vulnerable to changes in the nutritional content of their food, UK and EU laws should ensure rigorous tests are carried out if GM ingredients are ever considered for use in infant formula."
Nevertheless, Meacher "conspicuously fails to mention its principal conclusion that there is no scientific reason to doubt the safety of foods made from GM ingredients that are currently available, nor to believe that genetic modification makes GM foods inherently less safe than their conventional counterparts." This conclusion is at odds with the statement above, drawing attention to "unintended adverse impacts" that could make them unsafe for babies. Meacher is accused of attempting "to play up the uncertainties surrounding the techniques of genetic modification". May goes on, "A balanced account would also have pointed out that each act of conventional cross-breeding leads to the shuffling of far greater numbers of genes in an uncontrolled way." But the genes shuffled in ordinary cross-breeding are not new, they have not been introduced from strange non-food species such as bacteria and viruses, and made to over-express with viral promoters in many cases.
The ISP report has contested every single statement made by Lord May. May ends, ironically by observing, "It is perhaps helpful that Mr Meacher has now made his ideological stance so explicit, so that the public can judge for themselves his statements on GM science."
But it is precisely the debatable GM science that has been hidden from the public by a systematic campaign of suppression, misrepresentation and disinformation, in which the Royal Society has played a major role. Now that Meacher has let the cat out of the bag, will the Royal Society and other scientists of the corporate establishment dare to debate the scientific evidence in public, in terms that the public can understand?
Independent Science Panel Report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World www.indsp.org
"Scientists rebelling with a cause" Science in Society 2003, Spring, 18, 5.
"Biotech Food Myths, Misconceptions and Misnformation [sic] - A Response
to False Activist Claims"
GM WATCH daily, 24 June 2003, http://www.ngin.org.uk
"Modifying the truth" by Claire Robinson, BBC Wildlife Magazine 21, July 2003, Letters.
"Are GM crops safe? Who can say? Not Blair" by Michael Meacher,
Independent on Sunday, 22 June 2003
Robinson C. Royal society under fire. Science in Society Spring 2003, 18, 20-21.
"Minister's GM evidence 'flawed'" Farmers Weekly 24 June 2003,
"Unhealthy humans 'taint' GM test" by Tom Allen-Stevens Farmers Weekly 24 June 2003, http://www.fwi.co.uk/article.asp?con=10833&sec=18&hier=2
"Former environment minister has distorted GM facts, says Lord May" Press release, 25 June 2003
PINNING DOWN THE PR LIES - COMPREHENSIVE, READABLE, REVELATORY
Aaron deGrassis's "Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence" Download the full report:
Read the press release:
For the section on the biotech industry's PR use of Africa: