GMO Food: Poisonous Fruit of Faith in Microbe-to-Man Evolution

(An Excerpt from the book GMO FOOD: BOON OR BANE?, Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation, 2013)

This information was prepared with help from a number of scientists some of whom wish to remain anonymous.  I gratefully acknowledge the help of Dr. E. Ann Clark, Associate Professor of Plant Agriculture (retired) at the University of Guelph; Dr. Dean Kenyon, Ph.D. Biophysics; Dr. Steve Schwartz, M.D., Dr. Thomas Seiler, Ph.D., Physics, and Mr. Michael Surrey.  The advice given to me by these experts was offered on their own initiative and does not necessarily reflect the official views of any institutions with which they are affiliated.

Hugh Owen, Director, Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation; Member, John Paul II Academy for Life and the Family

A) Safety of GMO Food: Pro and Con

The unanimous view of all of the contributors to the Pontifical Academy of Science (PAS) reports on GMO food is that it is safe for human consumption.  This sanguine view of GMO food safety was well articulated by Dr. Peter H. Raven who asserted confidently that:

not a single one of the hundreds of millions of people who regularly consume foods produced by GE plants has become ill as a result of eating such foods.[1]

This view was buttressed by the common faith of all of the contributors in biological evolution which in their view has evolved the bodies of human beings through millions of years of genetic transfer, mutation and natural selection.  The claim was also made repeatedly that no scientific study had ever demonstrated greater risk to man from GMO food than from “natural”—i.e. non-genetically engineered by man—varieties of plant food.

The 2009 statement on “Transgenic Plants for Food Security” states confidently:

The regulatory process in place is bureaucratic and unwarranted by science: despite rigorous investigation over more than a decade of commercial use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), no substantiated environmental or health risks have been noted. Opposition to biotechnology in agriculture is usually ideological. The huge potential of plant biotechnology to produce more, and more nutritive, food for the poor will be lost if GMO-regulation is not changed from being driven by ‘extreme precaution’ principles to being driven by ‘science-based’ principles.

No doubt this fairly represents the consensus view of the attendees at the meeting, but the claim that “no substantiated environmental or health risks have been noted” is greatly exaggerated.  Space does not permit mention of all of the studies that have been made and all of the expert testimony that has been offered pointing out the need for much more careful long-term studies of the effects of GMO food on laboratory animals.  The following is a small sample of studies raising serious questions about the safety of GMO food:

Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize Food and Chemical Toxicology (2012) Gilles-Eric Séralini a,⇑, Emilie Clair a, Robin Mesnage a, Steeve Gress a, Nicolas Defarge a, Manuela Malatesta b, Didier Hennequin c, Joël Spiroux de Vendômois

The following response to criticisms of this study was signed by well over 100 scientists: http://www.gmwatch.org/latest-listing/51-2012/14217-scientists-response-to-critics-of-seralinis-study  Of still greater importance is the recently-published reply by Seralini et. al. to their critics:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512008149[2]

de Vendômois JS, Roullier F, Cellier D, Séralini GE. A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health. Int J Biol Sci 2009; 5(7):706-726. doi:10.7150/ijbs.5.706. Available from http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.htm

Biological effects of transgenic maize NK603xMON810 fed in long term reproduction studies in mice. October 2008 par Dr. A. Velimirov, Dr. C. Binter , Univ. Prof. Dr. J. Zentek

Intestinal and peripheral immune response to MON 810 maize ingestion in weaning and old mice. Finamore A, Roselli M, Britti S, et al.. J Agric. Food Chem. 2008; 56(23):11533-11539.

Norwegian School of Veterinary Science http://sciencenordic.com/growing-fatter-gm-diet

Confronted with these studies, it is hard to understand how Peter H. Raven can assert so confidently that:

not a single one of the hundreds of millions of people who regularly consume foods produced by GE plants has become ill as a result of eating such foods.[3]

How could Dr. Raven possibly know this with certainty, especially in the light of the above-cited studies which demonstrate serious harm to laboratory animals from the consumption of GMO feed?

Nor are the above-mentioned safety studies the only cause for concern.  It is even more alarming that the short-term safety trials conducted by the producers of GMO food have been shown to be woefully inadequate.   According to one report:

Experts with the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) thoroughly reviewed many of the data packages the manufacturers submitted to the regulators and have reported they lack key information that is routinely provided in scientific research and is required to enable meaningful review by others. They stated that such research could not have qualified for publication in peer-reviewed journals and should not have been accepted by the regulators. (PHAA Written Comments to ANZFA, October 2000.) And a team of Japanese scientists who reviewed Monsanto’s tests on its “Roundup Ready” soybean (which has been approved in the EU) found so many irregularities in the safety assessment they concluded it was “inadequate and incomplete.” (The team was headed by Dr. Masaharu Kawata, an Assistant Professor in the School of Science at Nagoya University. Their report was published in the Japanese journal Technology and Human Beings, vol.11, Nov. 2000, pp. 24-33).

Contrary to the claims of Dr. Raven and other contributors to the PAS sponsored reports, even the deficient data made public by the biotech industry has often revealed potential problems that regulators have ignored—even in the less GMO-friendly European Union. The report continues:

[T]he PHAA analyzed Monsanto’s data from controlled studies on three of its GM plants (herbicide resistant maize and canola, and pesticide-producing corn) and in all three cases discovered several statistically significant differences in chemical composition (including amino acid profiles) between the GM organism and its non-GM counterpart. The PHAA report (October 2000) states that the differences in the amino acids cannot be attributed solely to the known products of the inserted genes and cautions that these plants may contain unexpected – and to date unidentified – new proteins that could be harmful to humans. Nonetheless, the EU has approved two of these plants for human consumption.

To make matters worse, it is virtually impossible to obtain funding for long-term safety studies on the effects of GMO food.  Moreover, the same companies that promote GMO feed and food crops spend huge sums of money—over 45 million US dollars in California recently—to block efforts to introduce mandatory labeling of GMO food.  In these circumstances, it is at best disingenuous and grossly misleading to claim that GMO food has never made any one ill.  In reality, there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence that GMO food products are producing allergic reactions.   For example, a recent article noted that:

The UK is one of the few countries that conducts a yearly evaluation of food allergies. In March 1999, researchers at the York Laboratory were alarmed to discover that reactions to soy had skyrocketed by 50% over the previous year. Genetically modified soy had recently entered the UK from US imports and the soy used in the study was largely GM. John Graham, spokesman for the York laboratory, said, “We believe this raises serious new questions about the safety of GM foods.”

Apologists for GMO food usually respond to warnings of this kind by arguing that these statements have no scientific value.  But this defense appears quite disingenuous on the lips of people who oppose GMO food labeling and funding for long term safety studies.  As the author of the article just cited explains:

Critics of GM foods often say that the US population is being used as guinea pigs in an experiment. But experiments have the benefit of controls and measurement. In this case, there is neither. GM food safety experts point out that even if a someone tried to collect data about allergic reactions to GM foods, they would not likely be successful. “The potential allergen is rarely identified. The number of allergy-related medical visits is not tabulated. Even repeated visits due to well-known allergens are not counted as part of any established surveillance system.”[5] Indeed, after the Canadian government announced in 2002 that they would “keep a careful eye on the health of Canadians”[6] to see if GM foods had any adverse reactions, they abandoned their plans within a year, saying that such a study was too difficult.

The author goes on to explain how genetic engineering may provoke increased allergies to soy:

The classical understanding of why a GM crop might create new allergies is that the imported genes produce a new protein, which has never before been present. The novel protein may trigger reactions. This was demonstrated in the mid 1990s when soybeans were outfitted with a gene from the Brazil nut. While the scientists had attempted to produce a healthier soybean, they ended up with a potentially deadly one. Blood tests from people who were allergic to Brazil nuts showed reactions to the beans.[7] It was fortunately never put on the market.

The GM variety that is planted in 89% of US soy acres gets its foreign gene from bacteria (with parts of virus and petunia DNA as well). We don’t know in advance if the protein produced by bacteria, which has never been part of the human food supply, will provoke a reaction. As a precaution, scientists compare this new protein with a database of proteins known to cause allergies. The database lists the proteins’ amino acid sequences that have been shown to trigger immune responses. If the new GM protein is found to contain sequences that are found in the allergen database, according to criteria recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and others, the GM  crop should either not be commercialized or additional testing should be done.  Sections of the protein produced in GM soy are identical to known allergens, but the soybean was introduced before the WHO criteria were established and the recommended additional tests were not conducted.

If this protein in GM soybeans is causing allergies, then the situation may be made much worse by something called horizontal gene transfer (HGT). That’s when genes spontaneously transfer from one species’ DNA to another. While this happens often among bacteria, it is rare in plants and mammals. But the method used to construct and insert foreign genes into GM crops eliminates many of the natural barriers that stop HGT from occurring. Indeed, the only published human feeding study on GM foods ever conducted verified that portions of the gene inserted into GM soy ended up transferring into the DNA of human gut bacteria. Furthermore, the gene was stably integrated and it appeared to be producing its potentially allergenic protein. This means that years after people stop eating GM soy, they may still be exposed to its risky protein, which is being continuously produced within their intestines.[4]

The claim is often made in the reports that bioengineering of GMO food is no different than the kind of genetic modification of plants that takes place in nature. The PAS “Multilanguage Statement” notes that:

often ignored in the public debate is that all forms of plant breeding involve genetic modification and that some examples of what is called ‘conventional’ breeding – for example mutagenesis induced by radiation – have outcomes that are intrinsically much less predictable than the application of GE technologies.[5]

This sounds reassuring, but in reality there are significant differences between traditional plant breeding such as hybridization or even “knocking out” a gene through mutagenesis and the bioengineering of traits from an unrelated plant (or animal) into a target food plant.  As a geneticist from the University of Bristol, Dr. Richard Lacey, testified in a recent court case:

Recombinant DNA technology is an inherently risky method for producing new foods. Its risks are in large part due to the complexity and interdependency of the parts of a living system, including its DNA. Wedging foreign genetic material in an essentially random manner into an organism’s genome necessarily causes some degree of disruption, and the disruption could be multi-faceted. Further, whether singular or multi-faceted, the disruptive influence could well result in the presence of unexpected toxins or allergens or in the degradation of nutritional value. Further, because of the complexity and interactivity of living systems —and because of the extent to which our understanding of them is still quite deficient—it is impossible to predict what specific problems could result in the case of any particular genetically engineered organism.”[6]

Dr. Lacey rightly points out the danger inherent in randomly reorganizing an organism’s genetic makeup and contrasts the genetic modification of food plants in the laboratory with natural methods of breeding.

The mechanics and risks of recombinant DNA technology are substantially different from those of natural methods of breeding. The latter are typically based on sexual reproduction between organisms of the same or closely related species. Normally, entire sets of genes are paired in an orderly manner that maintains a fixed sequence of genetic information. Every gene remains under the control of the organism’s intricately balanced regulatory system. The substances produced by the genes are those that have been within the species for a long stretch of biological time. (In cases where mating is between closely related species, there is generally close correspondence between the substances produced by each.) In contrast, biotechnicians take cells that are the result of normal reproduction and randomly splice a chunk of foreign genetic material into their genome. This always disturbs the function of the region of native DNA into which the material wedges. Further, the foreign genes will usually not express within their new environment without a big artificial boost, which is supplied by fusing them to promoters from viruses or pathogenic bacteria. As a result, these genes operate essentially as independent agents outside the host organism’s regulatory system, which can lead to many deleterious imbalances.[7]

Scientists like Dr. Lacey are not a lunatic fringe in the scientific community. The “Open Letter from World Scientists to All Governments Concerning Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)” http://www.i-sis.org.uk/list.php has been signed by 828 scientists from more than 70 nations. Why is it that their concerns are acknowledged but not addressed in detail by the documents prepared by the PAS?  How can the Pontifical Academy of Sciences provide an exclusive platform for the one-sided view of Dr. Peter Raven in the face of laboratory studies and common sense arguments by so many qualified experts that contradict his claims?  The studies and expert testimony cited here suggest that the confidence of the contributors to the PAS reports has far more to do with their faith in biological evolution than it does with a rigorous examination of the effects of GMO food on laboratory animals.

B. Environmental Impact of GMO food crops: Pros and Con

Besides arguing that GMO food is safe for human consumption, many of the contributors to the PAS reports claimed that GMO crops benefit the environment by reducing farmers’ dependency on pesticides and environmentally harmful practices like excessive tilling and water usage. A number of contributors argued that GMO crops are the only answer to sustainable agriculture in the face of growing populations, changing climate, and shrinking areas of land available for farming.  Only through bioengineering, they argued, can food crops be designed to thrive in the greatest possible range of environments, with the least harmful ecological impact, and with the maximum nutritional benefit. A number of contributors argued that to oppose the use of GMO food crops like “Golden Rice,” which could combat Vitamin A deficiency in developing nations, constitutes a “crime against humanity.” With regard to the ecological benefits of GMO food crops, one study document noted that:

An estimated 85 million birds and billions of insects are killed annually in the United States alone, as a result of the application of pesticides on crops. Some 130,000 people become ill in this connection each year. Genetically modified plants currently in use have already greatly reduced the use of such chemicals, with great ecological benefits. It is expected that such benefits will be significantly enhanced as research and development efforts continue.[8]

Again and again, in reading the reports, one is reminded of the proverb:

The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him. Proverbs 18:17

With regard to the beneficial effects of GMO crops on the environment, the PAS reports fail to recognize or engage with the scientific evidence that GMO crops pose a serious threat to the environment.  In a paper on the potential environmental impact of genetically modified plants, Dr. Miguel Altieri, with the Division of Insect Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, summarized the potential threats to the environment posed by transgenic crops:

The trend set forth by [agribusiness] corporations is to create broad international markets for a single product, thus creating the conditions for genetic uniformity in rural landscapes. History has repeatedly shown that a huge area planted to a single cultivar is very vulnerable to a new matching strain of a pathogen or pest;

The spread of transgenic crops threatens crop genetic diversity by simplifying cropping systems and promoting genetic erosion;

There is potential for the unintended transfer to plant relatives of the “transgenes” and the unpredictable ecological effects. The transfer of genes from herbicide resistant crops (HRCs) to wild or semidomesticated relatives can lead to the creation of super weeds;

Most probably insect pests will quickly develop resistance to crops with Bt [Bacillus Thuringiensis] toxin. Several Lepidoptera species have been reported to develop resistance to Bt toxin in both field and laboratory tests, suggesting that major resistance problems are likely to develop in Bt crops which through the continuous expression of the toxin create a strong selection pressure;

Massive use of Bt toxin in crops can unleash potential negative interactions affecting ecological processes and non-target organisms. Evidence from studies conducted in Scotland suggest that aphids were capable of sequestering the toxin from Bt crops and transferring it to its coccinellid predators, in turn affecting reproduction and longevity of the beneficial beetles;

Bt toxins can also be incorporated into the soil through leaf materials and litter, where they may persist for 2-3 months, resisting degradation by binding to soil clay particles while maintaining toxic activity, in turn negatively affecting invertebrates and nutrient cycling;

A potential risk of transgenic plants expressing viral sequences derives from the possibility of new viral genotypes being generated by recombination between the genomic RNA of infecting viruses and RNA transcribed from the transgene;

Another important environmental concern associated with the large scale cultivation of virus-resistant transgenic crops relates to the possible transfer of virus-derived transgenes into wild relatives through pollen flow.[9]

Altieri’s concerns have been substantiated by scientific research.  In 2008, Dr. E. Ann Clark, associate professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph, challenged the claim that GM crops reduce biocide use:

Do GM crops reduce biocide use? With just HT [herbicide resistance] and IR [insect resistance] to work with, it is difficult to imagine how switching to GM crops could reduce herbicide or pesticide use. Beckie et al.. (2006) cited primarily web-mounted reports and unpublished data as evidence of biocide use reductions for HT canola and soybeans. However, most such reports pertained to the first 5 years of GM field crop production and were not in the refereed literature. Beckie et al.. (2006) acknowledged that the tank mixes including other herbicides, as has been necessitated by the evolution of resistant weed biotypes in more recent years, negate this claimed benefit of GM crops. Weed resistance to GLU, which accounts for roughly a third of western canola, has not been reported. However, repeated reliance on GLY crops and widespread use of glyphosate for a variety of other applications has generated glyphosate-tolerant weed biotypes, which can now be controlled only with additional herbicides, more frequent applications, and higher herbicide application rates.

A total of 75 weed biotypes spread over 15 species are now tolerant to glyphosate, of which most were detected in soy or cotton fields starting in 2000 (www.weedscience.org). Of these, most were reported from the US, with the rest predominantly from Brazil and Argentina, paralleling global use patterns of GLY technology. In response to growing weed tolerance for glyphosate, rate of herbicide (glyphosate plus other herbicides) application to GM soy in the US increased between 1996 and 2004 at a rate of 0.07 lb a.i./ac/year (r2 = 0.87), while rate of herbicide application to non-GM soy decreased at a rate of -0.05 lb a.i./ac/year (r2 = 0.73) (calculated from Benbrook, 2004).

Almost all insecticides used on corn in Canada are for corn rootworm, but the target of the types of Bt corn commercialized to date in Canada is predominantly the European cornborer. If the intent was to reduce biocide use through GM, this type of Bt corn was a poor choice because European cornborer is sufficiently difficult to control with insecticidal sprays that very little insecticide is actually used on it. Thus, replacing non-Bt corn with Bt-corn necessarily had a negligible effect on reducing use of insecticides which are not used in the first place.

Thus, claims that GM technology reduces biocide use in Canada are increasingly difficult to justify, given the compounding effects of GLY-tolerant weed biotypes and the choice of Bt corn active against European corn borer.[10]

In a recent study published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe Benbrook studied the impact of genetically modified crops on herbicide use in the United States and concluded that:

Herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogram (527 million pound) increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011, while Bt crops have reduced insecticide applications by 56 million kilograms (123 million pounds). Overall, pesticide use increased by an estimated 183 million kgs (404 million pounds), or about 7%.

Contrary to often-repeated claims that today’s genetically-engineered crops have, and are reducing pesticide use, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied. If new genetically engineered forms of corn and soybeans tolerant of 2,4-D are approved, the volume of 2,4-D sprayed could drive herbicide usage upward by another approximate 50%. The magnitude of increases in herbicide use on herbicide-resistant hectares has dwarfed the reduction in insecticide use on Bt crops over the past 16 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.[11]

A number of peer reviewed studies of biocide-resistant GMO crops also testify to their potentially dangerous effects on animals. For example, a team of researchers in Argentina explored the effects of low doses of glyphosate on the embryological development of frogs and chickens and found that they developed various kinds of abnormalities:

Embryos injected with pure glyphosate showed very similar phenotypes. Moreover, GBH [Glyphosate-based herbicides] produced similar effects in chicken embryos, showing a gradual loss of rhombomere domains, reduction of the optic vesicles, and microcephaly. This suggests that glyphosate itself was responsible for the phenotypes observed, rather than a surfactant or other component of the commercial formulation . . . The direct effect of glyphosate on early mechanisms of morphogenesis in vertebrate embryos opens concerns about the clinical findings from human offspring in populations exposed to GBH in agricultural fields.[12]

If this were not serious enough, recent studies have confirmed that Bt-toxin has been found in the blood of pregnant women and their babies in countries that raise Bt corn.  At Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec doctors found Bt-toxin in the blood of 93% of 30 pregnant women, 80% of the umbilical blood in their babies, and in the blood of 67% of the 39 non-pregnant women.  According to the study published in the journal Reproductive Technology, doctors discovered:

the presence of circulating PAGMF [Pesticides Associated to Genetically Modified Food] in women with and without pregnancy, paving the way for a new field in reproductive toxicology including nutrition and utero-placental toxicities.[13]

In a government-funded Italian study, the same Bt toxin that was found in the blood of the Canadian women was fed to mice in the form of Monsanto’s Bt corn MON 810.  The mice showed an increase in antibodies that are associated with allergic and inflammatory responses in humans and had higher levels of cytokines which are associated with various disorders in humans, including arthritis, osteoporosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer.  The younger mice also had a greater number of T-cells, a condition associated in children with food allergies and juvenile arthritis.

If GMO crops were the only way, or even the best way, to combat weeds and to feed mankind, it would be one thing.  But they are not.  Many experts argue that integrated weed management (IWM) offers a much better solution to the problem of weeds than the use of biocide-resistant GMO plants.  In a recent study, entitled “Navigating a Critical Juncture for Sustainable Weed Management” the authors concluded that:

Integrated weed management is characterized by reliance on multiple weed management approaches that are firmly underpinned by ecological principles (Liebman et al. 2001). As its name implies, IWM integrates tactics, such as crop rotation, cover crops, competitive crop cultivars, the judicious use of tillage, and targeted herbicide application, to reduce weed populations and selection pressures that drive the evolution of resistant weeds. Under an IWM approach, a grain farmer, instead of relying exclusively on glyphosate year after year, might use mechanical practices such as rotary hoeing and inter-row cultivation, along with banded pre- and post-emergence herbicide applications in a soybean crop one year, which would then be rotated to a different crop, integrating different weed management approaches. In fact, long-term cropping-system experiments in the United States have demonstrated that cropping systems that employ an IWM approach can produce competitive yields and realize profit margins that are comparable to, if not greater than, those of systems that rely chiefly on herbicides (Pimentel et al. 2005, Liebman et a. 2008, Anderson 2009) quoted in Mortenson et al., p. 81. Author(s): David A. Mortensen, J. Franklin Egan, Bruce D. Maxwell, Matthew R. Ryan, Richard G. Smith Reviewed work(s):Source: BioScience, Vol. 62, No. 1 (January 2012), pp. 75-84Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/bio.2012.62.1.12 .

The superiority of ecologically-based solutions to food production and pest and weed management underscores the wisdom of the precautionary principle that bioengineered organisms must be tested for long-term effects on the environment for which they are engineered.  Dr. Elaine Ingham’s experience with genetically engineered Klebsiella-planticola at Oregon State University demonstrates that the unintended consequences of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment could jeopardize the entire biosphere.  She writes:

A genetically engineered Klebsiella-planticola  had devastating effects on wheat plants while in the same kind of units . . . the parent bacteria did not result in the death of the wheat plants.

Consider that the parent species of bacteria grows in the root systems of every plant that has been assessed for Klebsiella‘s presence. The bacterium also grows on and decomposes plant litter material. It is a very common soil organism. It is a fairly aggressive soil organism that lives on exudates produced by the roots of every plant that grows in soil. This bacterium was chosen for those very reasons to be engineered: aggressive growth on plant residues.

Field burning of plant residues to prevent disease is a serious cause of air pollution throughout the US. In Oregon, people have been killed because the cloud from burning fields drifted across the highways and caused massive multi-car crashes. A different way was needed to get rid of crop residues. If we had an organism that could decompose the plant material and produce alcohol from it; then we’d have a win-win situation. A sellable product and get rid of plant residues without burning. We could add it to gasoline. We could cook with it. We could drink grass wine-although whether that would taste very good is anyone’s guess. Regardless, there are many uses for alcohol.

So, genes were taken out of another bacterium, and put into Klebsiella-planticola  in the right place to result in alcohol production. Once that was done, the plan was to rake the plant residue from the fields, gather it into containers, and allow it to be decomposed by Klebsiella-planticola . But, Klebsiella would produce alcohol, which it normally does not do. The alcohol production would be performed in a bucket in the barn. But what would you do with the sludge left at the bottom of the bucket once the plant material was decomposed? Think about a wine barrel or beer barrel after the wine or beer has been produced? There is a good thick layer of sludge left at the bottom. After Klebsiella-planticola  has decomposed plant material, the sludge left at the bottom would be high in nitrogen and phosphorus and sulfur and magnesium and calcium-all of those materials that make a perfectly wonderful fertilizer. This material could be spread as a fertilizer then, and there wouldn’t be a waste product in this system at all. A win-win-win situation.

But my colleagues and I asked the question: What is the effect of the sludge when put on fields? Would it contain live Klebsiella-planticola  engineered to produce alcohol? Yes, it would. Once the sludge was spread onto fields in the form of fertilizer, would the Klebsiella-planticola  get into root systems? Would it have an effect on ecological balance; on the biological integrity of the ecosystem; or on the agricultural soil that the fertilizer would be spread on?

One of the experiments that Michael Holmes did for his Ph.D. work was to bring typical agricultural soil into the lab, sieve it so it was nice and uniform, and place it in small containers. We tested it to make sure it had not lost any of the typical soil organisms, and indeed, we found a very typical soil food web present in the soil. We divided up the soil into pint-size Mason jars, added a sterile wheat seedling in every jar, and made certain that each jar was the same as all the jars.

Into a third of the jars we just added water. Into another third of the jars, the not-engineered Klebsiella-planticola , the parent organism, was added. Into a final third of the jars, the genetically engineered microorganism was added.

The wheat plants grew quite well in the Mason jars in the laboratory incubator, until about a week after we started the experiment. We came into the laboratory one morning, opened up the incubator and went, “Oh my . . . some of the plants are dead. What’s gone wrong? What did we do wrong?” We started removing the Mason jars from the incubator.

When we were done splitting up the Mason jars, we found that every one of the genetically engineered plants in the Mason jars was dead. Wheat with the parent bacterium, the normal bacterium, was alive and growing well. Wheat plants in the water-only treatment were alive and growing well.

From that experiment, we might suspect that there’s a problem with this genetically engineered microorganism. The logical extrapolation from this experiment is to suggest that it is possible to make a genetically engineered microorganism that would kill all terrestrial plants. Since Klebsiella-planticola  is in the root system of all terrestrial plants, presumably all terrestrial plants would be at risk.

So what does Klebsiella-planticola do in root systems? The parent bacterium makes a slime layer that helps it stick to the plant’s roots. The engineered bacterium makes about 17 parts per million alcohol. What is the level of alcohol that is toxic to roots? About one part per million. The engineered bacterium makes the plants drunk, and kills them.

But I am not trying to say that all genetically engineered organisms are technological terrors. What I am saying is that we have to test each and every genetically engineered organism and make sure that it really does not have unexpected, unpredicted effects.[14]

Is it unreasonable to suppose that genetically modified food could also have unintended effects on human beings that would not be detected by the standard ninety-day trials performed by industry?  It would seem that, once again, the contributors to the PAS reports failed to invite the participation of competent experts who had reached different conclusions in regard to the safety and benefit of GMO crops and then failed to fairly represent their views in the final reports.

C. Persecution of GMO Critics in the Scientific Community

The failure of the contributors to the four reports to adequately represent or address the evidence and arguments of GMO critics is deeply disturbing.  But the failure becomes much more distressing against a consistent pattern of persecution of GMO critics within many segments of the scientific community.

Since the recently published study by Seralini et al. on the effects of GMO food on laboratory animals ignited a firestorm of criticism in the media, it is incumbent upon all of the participants in the debate over GMO agriculture to examine the way in which Dr. Seralini was attacked in the media and to evaluate the claims that have been leveled against him and his team.  To that end, the article at the following link is extremely helpful: http://independentsciencenews.org/health/seralini-and-science-nk603-rat-study-roundup/  It has been signed-on-to by well over 100 scientists from around the world and acknowledges that:

US scientists who publish studies finding adverse environmental effects are frequently vehemently attacked by other pro-GM scientists.  As a report in Nature, which discusses numerous examples, points out, “Papers suggesting that biotech crops might harm the environment attract a hail of abuse from other scientists.  Behind the attacks are scientists who are determined to prevent papers they deem to have scientific flaws from influencing policy-makers.  When a paper comes out in which they see problems, they react quickly, criticize the work in public forums, write rebuttal letters, and send them to policy-makers, funding agencies and journal editors” (pg. 27 in Waltz, E.  2009a.  Battlefield. Nature 461:  27-32). Indeed, when one of us wrote a Commentary in Nature Biotechnology ten years ago suggesting that more attention needs to be paid to the potential unintended effects associated with insertional mutagenesis, we received a flood of responses, and an administrator at the Salk Institute even said that the publication “was jeopardizing funding for his institution” (see Waltz, 2009a).  Similar attacks have greeted studies on adverse effects of Bt toxins on ladybird beetles and green lacewing larvae, which were used by German authorities to ban cultivation of Mon810, a Bt corn variety (see: Hilbeck et al.. 2012a,b , respectively). In 2009, a group of 26 public sector corn entomologists sent a letter to the US Environmental Protection Agency which stated “No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions involving these crops [because of company-imposed restrictions]” (pg. 880 in Waltz, 2009b; it was no surprise that the letter was sent anonymously as the scientists feared retribution from the companies that funded their work (Pollack, 2009).  Furthermore, industry control over what research can be conducted in the US means that adverse findings can effectively be suppressed.

In one example cited in the article, Pioneer was developing a binary Bt toxin, Cry34Ab1/Cry35Ab1, against the corn rootworm.  In 2001, Pioneer contracted with some university laboratories to test for unintended effects on a lady beetle.  The laboratories found that 100% of the lady beetles died after eight days of feeding.  Pioneer forbade the researchers from publicizing the data.  Two years later Pioneer received approval for a Bt corn variety with Cry34Ab1/Cry35Ab1 and submitted studies showing that lady beetles fed the toxin for only 7 days were not harmed.  The scientists were not allowed to redo the study after the crop was commercialized (Waltz, 2009b).  In another example, Dow AgroSciences threatened a researcher with legal action if he published information he had received from US EPA.  As the article notes, “The information concerned an insect-resistant variety of maize known as TC1507, made by Dow and Pioneer. The companies suspended sales of TC1507 in Puerto Rico after discovering in 2006 that an armyworm had developed resistance to it. Tabashnik was able to review the report the companies filed with the EPA by submitting a Freedom of Information Act request. “I encouraged an employee of the company [Dow] to publish the data and mentioned that, alternatively, I could cite the data,” says Tabashnik. “He told me that if I cited the information…I would be subject to legal action by the company,” he says. “These kinds of statements are chilling” (pg. 882 in – Waltz, E.  Under Wraps.  Nature Biotechnology 27(10):  880-882. Waltz, E.  2009b.  Under Wraps.  Nature Biotechnology 27(10):  880-882.).[15]

A second article by Dr. E.A. Clark evaluates the claims leveled against Seralini et al. and finds them wanting.  In particular, she observes that one of the criticisms of Dr. Seralini’s research concerned the use of Sprague Dawley rats which are prone to tumors.  This criticism ignores the fact that humans are also prone to tumors and that Sprague Dawley rats are used for safety studies precisely because of their similarity to humans.  The criticism also seems rather disingenuous coming from pro-GMO scientists, since the short-term safety trials conducted by Monsanto use the same kind of rat!  Finally, a subsequent piece by Matthews  http://www.scribd.com/doc/116473155/Smelling-a-corporate-rat  explains in greater depth the uneven manner in which the Seralini story was covered by the biotech sector.

It is noteworthy that a number of the contributors to the PAS reports decried EU-funded public relations campaigns against GMO food research and even acts of vandalism by protestors against GMO research projects, but none of them testified to having had their professional reputations or careers destroyed because of their support for GMO agriculture.  This stands in marked contrast to the experience of scientists critical of GMO food safety, many of whom have had their reputations, careers, and livelihood threatened after daring to publicly discuss the evidence of GMO food risks to man, to animals, and to the environment.

As a body of expert advisors to the Catholic Church, the pillar and foundation of the truth, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences would seem to have a special responsibility to insure that qualified spokesmen on both sides of important scientific controversies are given a forum where their arguments can be fairly evaluated on their merits and where advocates for opposing points of view can be protected from political or economic pressure.  It is deeply distressing to see that the PAS has not done this for scientists critical of evolutionary speculation or for scientists critical of GMO agriculture, but has instead helped to silence opposing points of view on both of these fundamental issues.

D. Africa and GMO Food Policy

In his paper “GMO Foods and Crops: Africa’s Choice,” Dr. Robert Paarlberg affirms the consensus view of the four reports by stating that

There has not yet been any documented evidence that approved GMOs have posed new risks either to human health or the environment.

Paarlberg argues that in the absence of any documented evidence of GMO risks to human health or the environment, Africa’s rejection of GMO food crops results from pressure from European markets and lobbyists.  Paarlberg’s argument lacks plausibility on the face of it, since it is virtually impossible to obtain funding for long-term safety studies like the one conducted by Seralini and his team.  As explained above, the effective lobbying of agribusiness against labeling of GMO products also makes it almost impossible to do any kind of scientific study of the short or long-term effects of eating GMO food—since it is impossible know with any degree of certainty the GMO content of non-organic food.   Indeed, we find Dr. Paarlberg’s analysis quite condescending and insulting to African scientists and civic leaders who have explained their reasons for rejecting GMOs but whose public statements are apparently deemed unworthy of serious consideration by Paalberg.  Had he consulted Africans about their reasons for rejecting GMO food, he would have found that they have studied the “documented evidence” but have come to a different conclusion.  A statement signed by African civil society leaders reflects their familiarity with current research and the uneven coverage of that research in the biotechnology sector:

During September 2012, Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, and his research team at the University of Caen in France, published the results of a two-year animal feeding study, in which rats fed with Monsanto’s herbicide tolerant GM maize, event NK603, and glyphosate residues, developed tumours and showed signs of liver and kidney damage. The peer reviewed study, published in a highly respected scientific journal has come under vicious and sustained attack from the biotechnology machinery.

Nevertheless, scientific consensus has emerged from the discourse, that the current methods used by Monsanto et al., for testing the safety of GM food are dangerously inadequate and that long term, independent and publicly conducted food safety studies are urgently needed. We also note with concern that there are no internationally agreed protocols for long term testing of GMOs.

The civil society leaders’ mention of Monsanto had a particular sting to it in light of a South African court’s finding in 2006 that Monsanto had engaged in false advertising of its GMO corn.  In language reminiscent of the PAS reports, Monsanto had claimed that

All commercially approved grain products that have been genetically modified adhere to strict food, feed and environmental safety guidelines of regulatory authorities worldwide. This is one of the most extensively tested and controlled types of food, and no negative reactions have ever been reported.

When brought before the South African Advertising Authority (ASA) to defend this claim in regard to one of their products, MON 863, Monsanto representatives claimed that MON 863 was not their product.  However, the ASA found that MON 863 was a Monsanto product, that it had been found to harm laboratory rats in independent trials, and that Monsanto had applied for the product to be released in South Africa.  The ASA then ordered Monsanto to withdraw its advertisement.  In spite of the ASA’s decision, Monsanto proceeded to publish the same advertisement with the same wording except for the added words “No substantiated medical or scientific negative reactions have ever been reported.” Mark Wells, a founder member of Farmers Legal Action Group, South Africa, who was the successful applicant in the previous incident, challenged the new advertisement. In December 2007 Judge King of the ASA ruled that despite the amended wording, the overall meaning of the advertisement remained the same. A reasonable person would interpret the claim to mean that Monsanto products had been tested and that no negative reactions had been found.  Thus, the judge found Monsanto guilty of breaching the previous ruling.

In light of Monsanto’s record of questionable practices in South Africa, the participation of Monsanto agents in a recent Academy-supported conference on GMO food seems particularly troubling.  According to a Catholic News Service story, the conference on GMO food featured:

at least four speakers who have ties to the U.S. agribusiness giant Monsanto, which created a synthetic bovine growth hormone to boost cow milk production as well as insect- and herbicide-resistant seeds.

The CNS story added that an African bishop attended the Academy meeting to speak about opposition to GMO food on the part of his fellow African bishops.

Bishop George Nkuo of Kumbo, Cameroon, attended the closed-door study week with the idea that he would talk about a warning by African bishops against claims that genetically modified crops would solve Africa’s food crises.

A working document for the Synod of Bishops for Africa released two months before the meeting in 2009 said that using modified crops risks “ruining small landholders, abolishing traditional methods of seeding and making farmers dependent on the production companies selling their genetically modified seeds.”[16]

Reading Paarlberg’s dismissal of African opposition to GMO food as an ill-informed reaction to pressure from European markets and NGOs, one wonders why he made no mention of the African bishops’ synod document, or of the serious concerns mentioned by other African leaders.  These concerns echo those of many civil society leaders in other parts of the so-called developing world who oppose the introduction of GMO crops for similar reasons.  The success of Asian farmers in finding alternatives to “Golden Rice” as a solution to Vitamin A deficiency fully justifies the determination of African farmers and civil society leaders to find such solutions in Africa.  As one reporter observed:

The sobering fact is that “nearly eighty percent of all malnourished children in the developing world in the early 1990s lived in countries that boasted food surpluses.” The Green Revolution in Asia brought about a shift toward intensive cultivation of fewer crops like wheat and rice, which are often grown for export. Traditional diverse polycultures have yielded to large monocultures.

At the same time—and at least in part due to the Green Revolution and other technology-driven change—hundreds of millions of people have migrated from rural to urban areas in Asia during the past few decades. Mostly poverty-stricken, these transplants take up residence in the ever-expanding slums around cities. Their problem is that they can’t buy the food they need. Golden rice will do them no good if they can’t afford it—and if they can afford it, then it is not clear what the new rice offers that would not be offered better by a more traditional and diverse diet.

Every green part of a plant contains beta-carotene. When Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva was asked what alternative she saw to golden rice, she cited “the 200 kinds of greens we grow on our farms.”5 Traditional cultures never subsist on rice alone. In addition to the many different types of greens grown in India, wheat, millet, and various legumes are cultivated, not to mention the wild greens gathered from the countryside. Such polycultures develop differently in each region, but all allow, as long as there is enough food, for a balanced, life-sustaining diet.

It needs recognizing that what we in the western world embrace as export-driven economic growth has contributed to the problem of hunger in developing nations.6 Golden rice can be seen in part as a one-dimensional attempt to “fix” a problem created by the Green Revolution—namely the problem of diminished crop and dietary diversity. But the fix offers no direct help to those who have been displaced by the revolution and who cannot buy the food they need.

There are alternative approaches that do more justice to the complex geographical, historical, social, political, and economic issues. In 1993, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, collaborating with nongovernmental organizations such as Helen Keller International, began a program to help poor people in Bangladesh grow a diverse array of plants to combat vitamin A deficiency.7 In areas where people have at least small plots of land, families—usually mothers become the driving force of such projects—were introduced to different carotene-rich varieties of fruits and vegetables and they learned cultivation methods. Landless families were shown how they could plant vines in pots on outside walls. They then planted beans and squashes that can grow up the vines.

When women noticed the positive health effects of their new diet, news spread by word of mouth, and now approximately 600,000 households (about three million people) participate in this project. This is, relatively speaking, a small number, but the project is promising because it can become part of cultural tradition. It empowers people instead of making them dependent on western aid.

Scientists evaluating the project found that the general health of the participants improved and that even small plots can provide sufficient vitamin A in the diet. Moreover, the more different kinds of fruits and vegetables people ate, the better the uptake of carotene—an illustration of the inherent value of natural variety in the diet.

After assessing a number of such projects, John Lupien of the Food and Agriculture Organization concludes: “A single-nutrient approach toward a nutrition-related public health problem is usually, with the exception of perhaps iodine or selenium deficiencies, neither feasible nor desirable.”[17]

The imprudence of forging ahead with GMO crops in developing countries, in the current environment, was highlighted by the recent report by a court-appointed scientific panel in India which called for a ten-year moratorium on field trials of any GMO crops. According to Science Insider:

A court-appointed scientific panel on 17 October [2012] has come down heavy on genetically modified (GM) foods. It is calling for a ten-year moratorium on field trials of any GM food crop as well as nonfood crops such as cotton equipped to produce an insect-killing toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). A decade, the panel said, “is a reasonable length of time” to strengthen India’s regulatory regime and develop “a cadre of experts in areas of relevance to food safety evaluation, environmental impact assessment etc . . . Among the panel’s recommendations are calls for more rigorous “intergeneration” animal feeding studies, a halt on trials conducted outside public institutes, and the removal of advisers with conflicts of interest from regulatory bodies.

In light of the evidence that has been presented here, it would seem that the conclusions reached by African civil society leaders are well founded and not simply a reaction to pressures from European markets and lobbyists.  This is reflected in the civil society leaders’ statement:

Recognising that millions of Africans have been consuming GM maize and other GM products without their knowledge or consent; and

Taking into account the new consensus that long term, independent food safety studies are urgently needed;

We strongly urge the government of South Africa, (as the only GM food producer on the continent) and all other African governments that import GMOs and GM products, to urgently respond to our calls for a ban.

We urge our policy makers to follow the guidance provided by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The IAASTD recommends that policy makers move away from industrial agriculture and GMOs, to food production systems that are appropriate for the millions of small-scale farmers around the world, who are primarily responsible for the global population’s sustenance.[18]

It is embarrassing to note that one of the few papers in recent PAS reports devoted to the future of GMO agriculture in Africa dismisses the well-founded concerns of African scientists and civil leaders as uninformed responses to political and economic pressures, without addressing them.  The Catholic Church should play a leading role in insuring that the legitimate concerns of African scientists and civil leaders are addressed before advocating the introduction of GMO food crops into Africa’s economy.  Indeed, far from being mere pawns of European markets and lobbyists, the scientists and civic leaders of Africa should be hailed as independent thinkers and prophetic voices, warning their wealthier cousins in the Northern Hemisphere to exercise greater prudence, lest they fill the whole world with products whose unpredictable and potentially destructive effects could do irreversible harm to man and the environment.

 

[1] Raven, P. H., Does the use of transgenic plants limit or promote biodiversity?” New Biotechnology _ Volume 27, Number 5 _ November 2010, p. 529.

[2] SERALINI, G.-E., et al. Answers to critics: Why there is a long term toxicity due to a Roundup- tolerant genetically modified maize and to a Roundup herbicide. Food Chem. Toxicol. (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2012.11.007

[3] RAVEN, P. H., “Does the use of transgenic plants limit or promote biodiversity?” New Biotechnology _ Volume 27, Number 5 _ November 2010, p. 529.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development,” p. 7. http://www.pas.va/content/accademia/en/publications/scriptavaria/transgenic.html

[6] Declaration of Dr. R. Lacey, M.D., Ph.D. United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Alliance for Bio-Integrity, et al. Plaintiffs, v. Donna Shalala, et al. Defendants. Civil Action No. 98-1300 (CKK). Emphasis added.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Study Document on the Use of Genetically Modified Food Plants to Combat Hunger in the World, page 16,  http://www.pas.va/content/accademia/en/publications/extraseries/gmo.html

[9] ALTIERI, M. A., “Modern Agriculture: Ecological impacts and the possibilities for truly sustainable farming,”  http://www.agroeco.org/doc/modern_agriculture.html  (accessed 9-7-18)

[10] CLARK, E. A., “The curious legacy of GMO agriculture,” Associate Professor, Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph, p. 5.

[11] BENBROOK, C. M., “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. — the first sixteen years” Environmental Sciences Europe 2012, 24:24 doi:10.1186/2190-4715-24-24.

[12] PAGANELLI, A., GNAZZO, A., ACOSTA, H., LOPEZ, S.E., and CARRASCO, A.E., Glyphosate-Based Herbicides Produce Teratogenic Effects on Vertebrates by Impairing Retinoic Acid Signaling,* Laboratorio de Embriología Molecular, CONICET-UBA, Facultad de Medicina, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Paraguay 2155, 3° piso (1121), Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, Argentina Chem. Res. Toxicol., 2010, 23 (10), pp 1586–1595 DOI: 10.1021/tx1001749 Publication Date (Web): August 9, 2010 http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/tx1001749

[13] ARIS, A., LEBLANC, S., Reprod Toxicol. 2011 May;31(4):528-33. doi: 10.1016/j.reprotox.2011.02.004. Epub 2011 Feb 18. Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21338670 (accessed 9-7-18)

[14] INGHAM, E., “Good Intentions and Engineering Organisms that Kill Wheat,” http://www.greens.org/s-r/18/18-14.html (accessed 9-7-18).

[15] Quoted in “Seralini and Science: An Open Letter,”
http://independentsciencenews.org/health/seralini-and-science-nk603-rat-study-roundup/  (accessed 9-7-18)

[16] GLATZ, C., “Vatican has not endorsed genetically modified food, official says,” Catholic News Service, December 1, 2012

[17] KOECHLIN, F. (2000). “Golden Rice” — A Big Illusion?

[18] “African Civil Society Calls on the African Union to Ban Genetically Modified Crops,” Biosafety Information Centre, December 27, 2012 http://www.biosafety-info.net/article.php?aid=934 (accessed 9-7-18).