It began as a comment about Vandana Shiva on Saturday salon 28/3. It continued on the thread for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – cultist, guru or con-artist?
The topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is very broad, but where we left it the focus had been on the safety of GM foods.
I’d expressed a need for someone knowledgeable who was both engaged and detached to explain the topic. Frankly I get concerned when people, however well-informed, seek to shove the truth down my throat. Reliable information from someone who is not trying to convince me one way or the other, is what I need.
Where we left it, GM advocate Karen mentioned Grist author Nate Johnson, so I searched and at the top of the list Google threw up this article by Jon Entine. Entine is the Executive Director of the Genetic Literacy Project, so Google gives me someone who is paid to promote GM to tell me about an author who it turns out was hired by the management of Grist to write articles explaining why GM is good as a corrective to their former anti-GM stance.
Nevertheless the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I decided to sample some of his extensive series.
I should say at the outset that what I think about GM doesn’t much matter. I did find that Johnson addresses the issues at a level of detail that I was looking for, using language understood by the lay person. I also found that he was even-handed in his orientation and approach, and that was the case in spite of the banner “Panic-free GMOs” which I take it reflects management’s intent. The main purpose of this post is to highlight some of what I found, but yes, inevitably with a comment or two.
I began, not at the beginning, but with the article What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters.
After a particularly angry conflagration on Twitter Johnson asked his wife if he could unload on her about what happened. Her response:
“No offense,” she said, “but who cares?”
He decided that she perhaps had a point. In the article Johnson tries to imagine what the world would be like if either side won the debate.
If there were no GMOs life, farming and eating would go on much as before. So far there have been no truly transformative breakthroughs. There would be more herbicides used and more tillage, but no big deal.
If GMOs were truly approved and accepted there may be more innovation at the margins, but the chances of a really significant breakthrough are slight.
I expect almost no-one will agree with him on this. His escape hatch is that he’d rather talk about specific GMOs rather than deal in the generality as he thinks the specifics are too different to lump in together.
There is also an underlying assumption that a GMO future would be benign, because GMOs are themselves benign.
As far as I can see there are three kinds of concerns in food safety testing: allergens, toxins and carcinogens. In Genetically engineered food: Allergic to regulations? Johnson looks at testing for allergens.
Companies do three types of testing: in vitro, in silico, and digestion.
With in vitro the new protein being introduced is placed in a serum in a test tube. If antibodies in the serum freak out, there’s a problem.
The in silico test, done on computers (i.e. in silicon), compares the composition of the new protein to known human allergens. If there is a similarity, there might be a problem.
With the in silico and in vitro tests, however, there’s one big catch: You are looking for something that resembles known allergens. If something causes a problem in a new way, these tests won’t pick it up.
Digestion testing may pick up unknown allergens, but it’s the “shoddiest” of the three.
There are other problems:
- The proteins tested are not taken from transgenic foods, they are created by bacterial surrogates.
- The insertion of a gene may affect other genes near the point of insertion.
- A new protein may cause other proteins to be expressed in different ways.
Johnson rounds up a variety of expert comment and viewpoints. It all looks less than satisfactory until you come to this:
It’s easy to get lost in the details when scrutinizing potential risks and miss the big picture. It’s important to remember that everything we know suggests the actual hazard here is very small.
The American Medical Association concluded:
It should be noted that absolute avoidance of all risk is not achievable. Thus the safety assessments that have been developed focus on avoiding risks that are predictable and likely to cause common allergic reactions.
The risk of something problematic slipping through is held to be real but small.
Can we rely on regulation? In The GM safety dance: What’s rule and what’s real Johnson takes a look.
This is the broad framework:
A genetic engineer has to get a permit from the USDA for field tests, and, after several years of trials, petition for deregulation of the crop. If the crop is pest-resistant, the EPA regulates it as pesticide, and demands more data. Finally, the FDA evaluates the plant for safety and nutritional content.
Much of the article is taken up discussing whether the FDA approval is mandatory. The short answer is that it is voluntary, but the FDA has the power to ban any food from distribution and so far the FDA has effectively demanded that companies volunteer.
It seems clear that the FDA does no scientific testing of its own. It audits and oversees company testing.
However, there is no transparency and no public accountability. The public does not get to know what tests have been done.
My worry is that if the FDA suffered funding cutbacks, scrutiny might lessen without the public being told.
Along the way there was mention of rats being fed proteins rather than foods, but I gather in greater concentrations than would be found in foods.
We come full circle to the notion that the GM process is basically benign. Karen linked to this infographic, courtesy of the Genetic Literacy Project:
Traditional breeding it seems changes the whole genome, at least a bit. Transgenics inserts a few new genes into a large pool.
I did read three or four other articles, but that’s as far as I got, and I won’t get much further unless I give up blogging about either climate or politics plus other sundry matters. To go back to the Grist series site, the articles there certainly do take you past the assertions of pro-GM partisans, but then you do also need to know whether the anti-GM horror stories really are dubious.
Are there in fact any horror stories from credible sources? I don’t know. Is there any third party testing?
It’s eight years since I looked at GM in any detail. As far as I’m aware there have been no disasters injurious to public health in the intervening years. I’m inclined to think that people do themselves more damage through poor dietary habits than they are likely to suffer from GM foods. Eating can be dangerous. Ironically, back on the Saturday salon thread, just before Karen’s comment on Vandana Shiva, Jumpy informed us that the science is in, almost everything we eat both causes and prevents cancer. Simple yes and no answers, without qualification, are not available. The basic problem, I think, is that as Johnson reminds us here:
Species appear to be fairly stable, but beneath the surface, we live in a churning ocean of genetic flux.
In the overall, however, I’ve always thought that GM may have the potential to assist in adapting crop production to changed climatic conditions. But it’s no magic bullet, and the path from lab to field adoption is long.
On a personal level, I do want my GM foods labelled, and I do hope the Europeans do not trade away their own approval process. At present their scrutiny provides an extra layer of protection.
Finally, I found it interesting that Doug Gurian-Sherman, one of the critics of GM food safety regulation, told Johnson that:
he is concerned about health risks from GE foods, but that’s last on his list, behind concerns about the environment, monopolies, and the direction of agriculture.
Johnson said he’d get to all of that.
I commend the Grist series to readers, but the road is long. Trust builds slowly. Johnson stated his starting position here – a critical mind seeking clarification.