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Genetically Modifying Genes and Scientific Evidence

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Altered
Genes, Twisted Truth, by Steven M. Druker

Institute of Science in Society    June 22, 2015

Review of Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, by Steven M. Druker,  Clear River Press, Salt Lake City UT, 2015. ISBN 978-0-9856169-1-5 (hardcover), 978-0-9856169-0-8 (softcover).

Prof Peter Saunders

According to the advocates of genetic engineering, GMOs have been proven by countless rigorous trials to be safe, no humans or even animals have ever been harmed by them, genetic modification is no different from the natural and artificial breeding that has been going on for millennia, it has produced crops with all sorts of desirable properties such as drought resistance, we cannot hope to feed the world without it, and so on.

These statements are all false. And in Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, Steven Druker, a lawyer, shows them to be false exactly as if he were in a courtroom. He has collected a vast amount of documentary evidence: scientific papers and also internal reports and memos. He has interviewed many of the people who were involved and he explains the science so that lay readers can follow the arguments.

The book is a surprisingly good read, considering how long it is and the amount of detail it contains, but it is also a valuable reference text. When the GMO lobby confidently state that genetic engineering is the same as ordinary breeding, this is where you can learn why it is not. When they describe the work of Arpad Pusztai or of Gilles-Eric Séralini as ‘discredited’, you can find out what actually happened, and why neither result has ever been properly challenged, let alone refuted.

It’s not just a matter of one person’s word against another. Unlike the GM lobby, Druker presents solid evidence for what he claims. It’s there in detail and it is fully referenced; you are welcome to check it for yourself.

To give you a flavour of the book, here are brief outlines of two of the early chapters, one on Asilomar and one on tryptophan. Both stories are very important in the history of genetic engineering, but they are seldom mentioned today. When they are, the usual spin is that a few scientists raised their concerns at a meeting but soon accepted that these were unwarranted, and that the tryptophan incident had nothing to do with GM. In both cases, the truth is quite different.

Asilomar

Forty years ago, when transferring genes from one organism to another was first becoming a standard research technique, scientists naturally began to worry about its potential hazards. The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) appointed a commission to look into the issues, and this led to a letter to the journal Science [1] and then, in February 1975, a meeting of over a hundred scientists at the Asilomar Conference Center in Monterey, California. The outcome was a statement [2] with a list of safety guidelines, including the requirement that research should be carried out using only disabled bacteria that could not survive outside the laboratory. Just the sort of thing you would expect when there is a possibility of danger. Chemists, after all, work in specially designed laboratories, not out in the open, and they have to make special arrangements to dispose of the waste from their experiments; they are not allowed to pour it down the sink and into the public sewers.

The Asilomar guidelines were, however, soon abandoned. They are seldom mentioned today, and if you have heard of them at all you’ve probably been told that while they were an understandable reaction to a new technology, they were soon shown to be unnecessary because it was conclusively demonstrated that the techniques pose no significant hazards.

Druker, who has looked carefully through the published records and interviewed many of those who were around at the time, tells a very different story. One of his key points is that the claim that genetic engineering was safe was largely based on research involving only one bacterium, E. coli K-12. But K-12 had been used in laboratories for many years and was relatively weak, i.e. it would be unlikely to survive outside the laboratory. So while the release of a genetically modified K-12 into the environment might not be dangerous, that would be reassuring only if all future research were confined to K-12. Even then, there would remain the risk that the transferred gene would pass into another, stronger organism.

Yet molecular biologists used, and continue to use, this evidence to justify their claim that genetic engineering involves no special risks and that GM organisms require no more testing than those that have been conventionally bred; they are, in the words of the US Food Additive Amendment of 1958, “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) and consequently exempted from testing.

It’s easy to understand why so many molecular biologists, rushing to push ahead in what they saw as an important and exciting new area, allowed their enthusiasm to cloud their judgement. They could also see the prospect of turning their research into profit, and that made them even less anxious to think about the dangers. Crucially, they managed to convince the Reagan administration that there was money to be made and jobs to be created and that the US must not be left behind. That, combined with the Reagan-Thatcher policy of relaxing all regulation – in banks as well as in molecular biology – made support for genetic engineering a part of government policy. The US government has consistently backed the GM industry and has used its strength to pressure other countries into accepting GM crops. The Asilomar guidelines and the concerns that led to them have been totally forgotten.

Druker gives many examples of how scientists working for regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were pointing out the dangers of GM but to their great frustration, only to have their concerns dismissed by their bosses. They were right to be frustrated, but they should not have been so surprised. Once a government has decided on a policy, it expects all its employees – scientists as much as anyone else — to support it; In the words of a policy adviser to the President of the European Commission, from that point on “scientific evidence is less up for debate.”  ([3], [4]  Politically Correct Science for the Masses, SiS 61).

The chief role of a regulator is to ensure a level playing field among producers by preventing anyone gaining an advantage by doing something that the consensus within the industry agrees is unsafe. Whether that consensus is right or not is a different matter altogether. Governments and industry are always trying to assure us that the regulators are there to protect the public but this is true only in a limited sense.

Tryptophan

In 1989, physicians in the US began to report a new disease that typically involved severe muscle and joint pain and swelling of the legs and arms, sometimes with more serious symptom as well. It was soon found that all the victims had been taking an amino acid, L-tryptophan (LT) as a supplement, and while a number of companies were producing it, all the people suffering from this new disease had been taking LT supplied by one manufacturer, Showa Denko KK. And Showa Denko was the only manufacturer using genetically modified bacteria in the production process.

Like the Asilomar guidelines, the story of tryptophan is seldom mentioned today. If it is, we are assured that problem with LT was nothing to do with genetic engineering. The batch had become contaminated during processing; the fact that it had been produced by GM bacteria was irrelevant.

Druker describes, and refutes, in detail the many arguments used by the FDA in an attempt to rule out GM as a cause. And it was the FDA – which we expect to be striving to protect public safety – that was working so hard to defend genetic engineering. Showa Denko were not really interested in arguing about what had gone wrong because they were going to have to pay compensation whatever the cause turned out to be.

To give just one example of the efforts made to cloud the issue, the GM lobby has always claimed that while the epidemic occurred only after the GM bacteria known as Strain V were introduced, there were in fact some cases of EMS that occurred before that. That might seem to rule out genetic modification as a cause, except that – as the name suggests but the FDA somehow omitted to mention – there were four earlier strains of the bacteria and all but the first were GM. Contrary to what the FDA claimed, all the LT supplied by Showa Denko had been produced using GM bacteria.

In the light of all the evidence that Druker so meticulously documents, it is hard to reach any conclusion other than that it was the use of GM bacteria that caused the EMS outbreak. But that’s not the story that we are told today.

More examples

The rest of the book is no more edifying than these early chapters. Druker shows in detail how regulatory agencies all over the world have misused the evidence and twisted the truth to allow GM crops to be grown without restriction. For the most part they have not carried out their own research but relied on assurances from the industry.  He describes how two scientists, Arpad Pusztai and Gilles-Eric Séralini, who had the courage to report what they had found, were attacked by the biotech industry and its friends in the science academies. Those scientists who have been so ready to jump on the pro-GM bandwagon would do well to read Druker’s book, and find out what it is they have committed themselves to. They could begin by reading the papers by Pusztai [5] and Séralini [6], which most of them clearly have not done. (That explains why so many of them criticise Séralini for not following the OECD protocol for experiments on cancer when in fact his research was concerned with toxicity, for which the protocol is different. You only have to read the title of the paper to discover that.)

Altered Genes, Twisted Truth was published early in 2015, but there are already at least two more examples that could have been added. They are about glyphosate, and are relevant to GMOs because one of the most profitable applications of genetic engineering has been to produce varieties of maize, soya and cotton that are tolerant of glyphosate, the active ingredient of many herbicides including Monsanto’s Roundup.

It was recently announced that an EU study [7] has concluded that glyphosate is safe. The announcement explained that the European Commission had delegated the work to Germany as “Rapporteur Member State.” What it did not explain was that the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment had delegated it to a body called the Glyphosate Task Force, which according to its web site is a consortium of chemical and biotech companies “joining resources and efforts in order to renew the European glyphosate registration with a joint submission.” ([8], [9] Scandal of Glyphosate Re-assessment in Europe, SiS 64)  It’s like asking the fox to advise on the security of the henhouse.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has recently published a report in which a panel of 17 experts from 11 countries and chaired by Aaron Blair, formerly the top scientist on pesticides and cancer at the US National Cancer institute, unanimously agreed to reclassify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. ([10], [11] Glyphosate ‘Probably Carcinogenic to Humans’ Latest WHO Assessment, SiS 66)

Monsanto immediately demanded that the report be retracted; this seems to have become their standard response to any scientific result they do not like.  But the IARC is part of the WHO, and the WHO refused to be bullied. The report remains a WHO document and it is already starting to have an effect. At the time of writing, Colombia has stopped spraying glyphosate to destroy coca crops, Bermuda and Sri Lanka have banned the import of glyphosate products, and consumer protection ministers in Germany have called for a ban on their use by private individuals (see [12] Fallout from WHO Classification of Glyphosate as Probable Carcinogen, SiS 67).

To conclude

Altered Genes, Twisted Truth makes some demand on the reader, but little in the way of previous scientific knowledge. Anyone who reads Science in Society will have no difficulty with it and will learn a great deal, whether they are scientists or not. Druker’s primary target is the decision makers.

If they are in favour of GMOs, as many of them are, that is because they have been advised by experts but failed to take into account that experts have their own agendas. If you have built up a career in some branch of science, and even more so if you have a financial stake in it, it is only to be expected that you will be very optimistic about its potentialities and be inclined to play down its drawbacks, especially its dangers. Druker is not asking the decision makers to believe him instead of their advisers. He is inviting them to read the evidence for themselves and make up their own minds. That, after all, is what decision makers are there for.

References

1. Berg P, Baltimore D, Boyer HW, Cohen SN, Davis RW, Hogness DS, Nathans D, Roblin R, Watson JD, Weissman S and Zinder ND (19740. Potential biohazards of recombinant DNA molecules.” Science 185, 303.

2. Berg P, Baltimore D, Brenner S, Roblin RO and Singer M (1975). Summary Statement of the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 72, 1981-1984.

3. Schmitt D. The great divide. The Scientist, 1 December 2013. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/38364/title/The-Great-Divide/  20/1/14.

4. Saunders PT (2014). Politically correct science for the masses. Science in Society 61, 2-3.

5. Ewen SW and Pusztai A (1999). Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine”. Lancet 354, 1353–4. doi:

6. Séralini GE, Clair E, Mesnage R, Gress S, Defarge N, Malatest M, Hennequin and Spiroux de Vendômois J (2014). Republished study: long-term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Environmental Sciences Europe 26:14. doi:10.1186/s12302-014-0014-5

7. Bundesinstitut für Risikobwertung (2014). Renewal Assessment Report on Glyphosate. Vol. 1.

8. Glyphosate Task Force (2013). The European Glyphosate Task Force. http://www.glyphosatetaskforce.org/

9. Ho MW and Swanson N. Scandal of glyphosate reassessment in Europe.      Science in Society 63, 8-9, 2014.

10. Guyton KZ, Loomis D, Grosse Y, El Ghissassi F, Benbrahim-Talaa L, Guha N, Scocciant C, Mattock and Straif K (2015). Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate. Lancet Oncology 16, 490-491.

11. Ho MW and Swanson N. Glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans”: Latest WHO assessment. Science in Society 66 16-23, 2015.

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