GMO potato firm Simplot accuses Dr Rommens of making “defamatory” statements; Dr Rommens says it’s up to the public and scientists to find out the truth
GMO potato firm J.R. Simplot has published a statement responding to Dr Caius Rommens’s book, Pandora’s Potatoes, in which he renounced his GMO work and described the potential health and agronomic risks of the GMO potatoes he developed while working for the firm. Some of these potatoes, including the supposedly bruise-resistant Innate, have been commercialized in the USA (they're approved in Canada but are not yet being sold there, according to research by CBAN).
In its statement, Simplot calls Dr Rommens’s book “defamatory” and says it is “filled with false and misleading statements and speculation about the development and safety of our bioengineered potato varieties”. The statement focuses on smearing Dr Rommens’s reputation. It makes much of a mistake in his work that he has acknowledged and which led to his retraction of a scientific paper on which he was lead author. Simplot characterizes this mistake as “flaws” in his work that were “inexcusable”.
Simplot did not, however, properly address the technical and scientific points raised by Dr Rommens in his book. Below, Dr Rommens replies to J.R. Simplot.
All I have done is write a book about the hidden issues of the GM potatoes that I had created in the past. In my book, I never criticized the J.R. Simplot company but accepted all the blame myself. I blamed myself not for what I had done intentionally, but for failing to see what I had done unintentionally.
The Simplot agbiotech team read the book and has evidently decided to try to make it – and me – look bad, while at the same time ignoring the scientific and technical issues it raised. Instead of taking the new, important insights as constructive feedback and an opportunity to address existing and potential problems with its GMO potatoes, it has trashed the book as being filled with “defamatory” statements.
This approach will not advance scientific knowledge but on the contrary seems calculated to shut down scientific discussion and investigation, as well as public debate, through a veiled legal threat. The more constructive way forward is for public scientists who are not beholden to agbiotech corporations to study the issues I mentioned.
It would be wonderful to determine the levels of a variety of toxins that could accumulate in GM potatoes that may contain hidden bruises and symptomless infections, to determine the effect of symptomless infections on the spread of plant diseases, to (again) confirm the yield drag caused by potato transformation, and to address all the other issues described in the book, and more. Statisticians would be useful as well to examine whether the statistics used in regulatory petitions are misleading. I will support such public research efforts in any way I can.
The major part of Simplot’s statement appears intended to depict me as a rogue scientist. No more am I the man who created an independent biotech effort supported by more than sixty patents, and who created the GM crops that are now commercialized, but I am described as someone who, over the course of twelve years leading the effort, made one mistake. Simplot places much emphasis on this mistake (a sequence error in a small fragment, which helps to transfer DNA from bacteria to plants but is not transferred itself), but it affected neither the patents generated on the GMO potatoes nor the potatoes themselves.
When I left Simplot, not yet sure how to come to terms with my past work, I requested that my name would not be tarnished. We had a handshake agreement on that. The way that Simplot now depicts me is false and inaccurate and clearly represents an attempt to tarnish my name.
The last part of Simplot’s statement is an attempt to address the technical and scientific issues I brought up in my book. However, what Simplot calls the “most egregious” of my “numerous false statements about Simplot and the Innate® potato” is not even in the book. It does not contain any statement that GM potatoes will contaminate normal potatoes, even though I believe they will and have since publicly said as much. The company declares that it currently grows its small acreage of GM potatoes as a closed-loop system. But there is no mention about the future. Indeed, I cannot believe that any agbiotech firm would commit to forever maintain an expensive, closed-loop system, especially if GM crops turn into important commodities.
In the statement, the Simplot team attempts to hide behind the meaning of words. When I express my concern about toxins, the team responds that it vigorously tested for toxins and found no issues. But the team knows quite well that the toxins I am concerned about are different from the one or two toxins that were tested by the company, such as acrylamide. Indeed, my book describes toxins that the company has never mentioned in its publications, such as alpha-aminoadipate, chaconine-malonyl, tyramine, a variety of pathogen-produced toxins, and so on.
And then there is the trait stability. Studying the company’s own data, I must conclude that two traits no longer work, that there is evidence for reversion of a third trait, and that a fourth trait appears to be declining in efficiency. Furthermore, a fifth trait, a disease-resistance gene (VNT), is known to be unstable: disease-resistance genes can be broken by evolving pathogens at any time.
The team also didn’t like me talking about the illegal acquisition of VNT. But according to Article 15 of The Convention on Biological Diversity, this gene belongs to Argentina. The team licensed the gene, but a licensed gene that was acquired illegally is still acquired illegally, just like a stolen painting is still stolen after it is (legally) purchased.
According to the team, I stated that the company “designed” GM potatoes to taste like cardboard and to conceal infections and bruises and undermine the health of consumers. This is untrue. I never criticized the company about anything. I only criticized one person, and that is me. And I criticized myself not for what I did but for what I failed to see. The fact of the matter is that I designed GM potatoes without realizing that the unintended effects of my modifications caused a decline in the sensory profile of fries, the concealment of bruises and infections in tubers, and the potential accumulation of toxins.
I have laid out my view of what needs to be done to answer the questions raised in my book. These questions will not be answered through veiled legal threats and attempts to ‘shoot the messenger’. It is now up to the public and the independent scientific community to continue to address them.
Image of GMO White Russet potatoes from GMO Free USA