This is Part II of a series. Read Part I here.
Don’t worry your little heads over the gene-spliced foods on your plates. Just trust companies like Monsanto when they tell you their genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are perfectly safe.
That’s the upshot of a new website created on behalf of the biotech industry by GMO advocates Bruce Chassy and David Tribe. While they attempt to discredit the scientific evidence in my book Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, instead they offer priceless examples of distortion, denial, and spin. Their site is yet another example of why we can’t trust GMOs, Monsanto, or the so-called scientists who support them.
In a series of rebuttals, I expose this charade and show why healthy eating starts with no GMOs. (To find out how to avoid GMOs, go to NonGMOShoppingGuide.com.)
In Part 1, I recounted the story of scientist-turned-whistleblower Dr. Arpad Pusztai. Here, I provide a point by point refutation of Chassy and Tribe’s unwarranted attack on Dr. Pusztai and their distortion of his findings.
Exposing the Spin on Spuds
1. Experts say no scientific conclusion can be made from the work. Two separate expert panels reviewed this research and concluded that both the experimental design and conduct of the experiments were fatally flawed, and that no scientific conclusion should be drawn from the work. (Royal Society 1999; Fedoroff and Brown 2004)
Dr. Pusztai’s research design had already been used in over 50 peer-reviewed published studies conducted at the Rowett Institute, the most prestigious nutritional institute in the UK. Furthermore, the design was explicitly approved in advance by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)—the UK government’s main funding body for the biological sciences.
The validity of the work was also confirmed by an independent team of 23 top scientists from around the world who reviewed the research, as well as The Lancet, that published it.
But Chassy and Tribe instead reference their partners-in-spin from the Royal Society. As indicated in Part 1, at the Society there are plenty of scientists with close ties to the biotech industry who came in quite handy during the Pusztai affair. They staged a so-called peer-review—the first in the Society’s 350-year history—but it was more of a hatchet job. The reviewers didn’t even bother to look at all the research data. Dr. Pusztai told me he had offered to provide the complete findings and to meet with them to answer questions, but they refused.
The editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, denounced the Royal Society’s unprecedented condemnation of Dr. Pusztai as “a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication of their work.” He called it a “reckless decision” that abandoned “the principles of due process”.
The team that the Royal Society assembled to do the review was telling. They had publicly announced that anyone who had previously commented on the Pusztai situation would be excluded to avoid bias, but then went ahead and included four people who had previously co-signed a letter condemning Dr. Pusztai. In addition, several members had financial ties to biotech companies, and four were co-producers of the Royal Society’s controversial 1998 pro-GMO report that called for the rapid introduction of GM foods. The Royal Society also abandoned the normal protocols of choosing a review team with specific scientific qualifications to evaluate the study in question. Their members clearly did not have the relevant experience to review such a nutritional study.
It came as no surprise that the Royal Society’s partial review denounced the findings. Furthermore, it made sweeping claims that actually contradicted the study’s design and data.
The coordinator of the review, Rebecca Bowden, later headed the Royal Society’s science policy division, which, according to The Guardian, “is to mould scientific and public opinion with a pro-biotech line,” and to “counter opposing scientists and environmental groups.”
Chassy and Tribe also name Fedoroff and Brown as the second so-called expert panel. They weren’t a panel at all; they wrote a book, Mendel in the Kitchen, a devotional ode to biotech. According to a review in Nature, “It is the things they choose not to include, and the inclusion of some sweeping generalizations, that give the book its decidedly pro-genetic-engineering slant. . . . Although the authors state in their introductory chapter, ‘Which view will seem right to you depends on what you consider conventional, and on how you define the ways of nature,’ the rest of the book attempts to convince readers that only one view is right.”
In addition, a critique of an article by Fedoroff about the Pusztai affair illustrates how many of her statements and conclusions were not based on the research and were clearly false.
2. No differences were seen between the groups of animals. Experts who reviewed the data stated that there were no meaningful differences between control and experimental groups, that the same cellular differences could be seen in all groups—GMO-fed or not—and that too few animals were used to allow statistical significance to be achieved. (Royal Society 1999)
Again, Chassy and Tribe turn to their friends in the Royal Society for support, but as you can see in the photos, the cellular differences in the lining of the stomach and intestines were substantial. This potentially precancerous cell growth was seen in all the GMO-fed groups, but not the controls.
Chassy and Tribe chose not to cite Federoff on this point, probably because she correctly acknowledges, “The results showed that rats fed the transgenic potatoes had significantly lower organ weights. . . . Lymphocyte responsiveness was depressed in the animals fed the transgenic potatoes expressing GNA.”
As for statistical significance, only two statisticians have done an analysis with access to all the raw data: a member of Pusztai’s research team and a member of The Lancet review team. Both determined that the results were statistically significant.
3.The diets were protein-deficient
By this time, Dr. Pusztai had designed and published 270 studies. The diet parameters for this study were consistent with other animal tests and practices. There was sufficient protein for the animals to grow, and the vast majority of the protein in the rats’ diets came from the potatoes—which is the preferred way to expose potato-related problems.
More importantly, the rats fed the normal potatoes did not suffer from the maladies of those that ate the GMOs. Thus, the protein levels, which were consistent among all groups, were clearly not the cause.
By contrast, in safety studies funded by the biotech industry, they often use too much protein. According to a 2003 paper (PDF) in Nutrition and Health that analyzed all peer-reviewed feeding studies on GM foods, the percentage of protein used in Monsanto’s study on Roundup Ready soybeans was “artificially too high.” This “would almost certainly mask, or at least effectively reduce, any possible effect of the [GM soy].” They concluded, “It is therefore highly likely that all GM effects would have been diluted out.” This was the primary study that Monsanto used to claim its GM soybeans were safe for human consumption.
4. Different groups of rats received different diets.
Chassy and Tribe may be referring to false accusations by Sir Aaron Klug, who attacked The Lancet editor for his decision to publish Pusztai’s paper. Klug claimed that the design was fatally flawed because the rats received different protein content. It appears that Sir Aaron, as well as Chassy and Tribe, failed to actually read Pusztai’s published study, which states that all diets had the same protein and energy content. Furthermore, the animals were pair-fed, meaning they were given the same amount of food. In contrast, biotech industry studies usually allow animals to eat as much as they want—which can also mask effects.
Dr. Pusztai did vary the diets in ways that helped to isolate the cause of problems. In different experiments he fed raw, baked, and boiled potatoes. In all his experiments he used an additional control group: non-GMO potatoes (actually the parents of the GMOs) that were spiked with the GNA lectin. According to experts, Dr. Pusztai’s variations made it superior to the design of other GMO safety studies. The 2003 Nutrition and Health analysis hailed it as unique and “remarkable in that the experimental conditions were varied and several ways were found by which to demonstrate possible health effects of GM foods.”
5. Some rats were fed raw potatoes—raw potatoes are toxic to rats and might cause disturbances to gastrointestinal cells.
This feeble argument was also attempted in 1998 to distort the findings, but the studies design rules out this assertion. In trials where raw GM potatoes were fed to rats, the raw parent non-GMO potato was also fed to other groups of rats (either with our without added GNA lectin). Those fed the non-GMO raw potatoes did not suffer the fate of those fed the GMOs. If raw potatoes were at fault, all the rats would have been similarly damaged.
6. Three different varieties of potatoes were fed to the three different groups of rats (Royal Society 1999).
Here again, the details don’t support the accusation, but rather show how the advocates spin facts to confuse.
The study did use three different potatoes. There was a parent non-GMO potato, and two GM potato lines created from the parent. The two lines were produced at the same time, under the same conditions, using the same GNA lectin transgene. But because of the unique and unpredicted effects of the GMO transformation process mentioned in Part 1, the two GM potatoes were not identical. One had the same protein content as the parent, but its “twin” had less.
In the animal feeding studies, however, they always compared one non-GM potato (the parent) to just one of the GM “offspring.” And whenever they used the GM line that had less protein, they compensated by adding lactalbumin (a superior quality milk protein) so that the overall protein content was equal between all groups.
7. The Lancet published the paper by Ewen and Pusztai over the objections of reviewers.
The Lancet actually tripled their normal number of reviewers to six. Chassy and Tribe falsely claim that multiple reviewers objected; in fact it was only one–GMO advocate John Pickett. The other five wanted the paper to be published.
But Chassy and Tribe use the phrase, “objections of reviewers,” falsely implying that multiple reviewers sought to stop the publication. According to Claire Robinson of GM Watch,
“You may think that Tribe and Chassy are unaware of this, but you’d be wrong. David Tribe has published on his own blog the criticism of Pusztai’s work by Nina Fedoroff, contained in her book Mendel in the Kitchen, where she concedes that The Lancet‘s ‘editor, Richard Horton, stood by the publication [of Pusztai’s paper]. Five of 6 reviewers had favored publication and he believed that it was appropriate for the information to be available in the public domain.'”
8. When The Lancet published the work, editors there published a critical analysis in the same issue.
Indeed, the key point of that critical analysis is that more studies were needed to isolate the cause of the profound damage to the rats. Bravo. Of course more studies were needed. But Dr. Pusztai was turned down in his request for follow-up funds. In fact, no one has yet applied his advanced safety testing protocols to the GM foods already on the market to see if they cause the same damage in rats or humans.
Furthermore, the analysis in The Lancet states, “Particular attention must be given to the detection and characterization of unintended effects of genetic modification.” The authors specifically recommend the use of new technologies that can analyze holistic changes in gene expression, protein production, and metabolites. They insist that “Inferences about such [side] effects can no longer be based solely on chemical analysis of single macronutrients and micronutrients and known crop specific antinutrients or toxins.”
That was published 11 years ago. But biotech companies still refuse to employ these modern holistic detection techniques to see if there might be new allergens, toxins, carcinogens, or anti-nutrients in the GMOs that millions of people eat everyday.
Advanced Studies Confirm New Allergen and Dangers in GMOs
In 2007, independent scientists finally published a holistic protein analysis of one GM crop, Monsanto’s Mon 810 Bt corn, which had been fed to consumers for the previous 10 years. Sure enough, due to “the insertion of a single gene into a [corn] genome,” 43 proteins were significantly increased or decreased. “Moreover, transgenic plants reacted differentially to the same environmental conditions, . . . supporting the hypothesis that they had a strongly rearranged genome after particle bombardment” by a gene gun. The authors acknowledged that gene gun insertion can cause “deletion and extensive scrambling of inserted and chromosomal DNA.”
One of the changed proteins in the GM corn was gamma zein, “a well-known allergenic protein.” That allergen was not found in the natural corn, however. The gene that produces gamma zein is normally shut off in corn. But somehow it was switched on in Monsanto’s variety. That means that some people who are not normally allergic to corn might react to GM corn (which, of course, is unlabeled in North America).
The authors of the study were far less worried about their discovery of this new allergen, compared to the fact that a number of proteins “exhibited truncated forms having molecular masses significantly lower than the native ones.” Such alterations, which they describe “as a major concern,” may transform harmless proteins into a dangerous ones. Furthermore, their presence in GM corn means that truly massive unexpected side effects have taken place in the plants’ biochemistry.
9. “Perhaps in some misguided sense of fairness or balance, some journals have published unsound papers that make claims about the safety of GM crops. . . . Peer-review is not always a guarantee that researchers’ conclusions are sound.”
On this point I totally agree. An excellent example is Monsanto’s 1996 feeding study in the Journal of Nutrition, which claimed that their Roundup Ready soybeans were substantially equivalent to natural soybeans.
In addition to showing that Monsanto used too much protein, mentioned above, the 2003 paper in Nutrition and Health (PDF said, the “level of the GM soy was too low and would probably ensure that any possible undesirable GM effects did not occur.” In one of the trials, for example, researchers substituted only one tenth of the natural protein with GM soy protein. In two others, they diluted their GM soy six- and twelve-fold.
According to Dr. Pusztai, who had published several studies in that same nutrition journal, the Monsanto paper was “not really up to the normal journal standards.” He told the authors of Trust Us, We’re Experts, “It was obvious that the study had been designed to avoid finding any problems. Everybody in our consortium knew this.”
More examples of how Monsanto rigged their study:
- Using older animals: Monsanto researchers tested the GM soy on mature animals, not young ones. “With a nutritional study on mature animals,” says Pusztai, “you would never see any difference in organ weights even if the food turned out to be anti-nutritional. The animals would have to be emaciated or poisoned to show anything.”
- Never weighing organs: But even if there were organ development problems, the study wouldn’t have picked it up. That’s because the researchers didn’t even weigh the organs, “they just looked at them, what they call ‘eyeballing,'” says Pusztai. “I must have done thousands of postmortems, so I know that even if there is a difference in organ weights of as much as 25 percent, you wouldn’t see it.”
- Omitting data: In fact, according to Nutrition and Health, “No data were given for most of the parameters.” The paper didn’t even describe the exact feed composition used in the trials—normally a journal requirement.
- Obscuring findings: When Monsanto analyzed the composition of GM versus non-GM soy, instead of comparing test plots grown side-by-side, Monsanto pooled data from many sites and climates. This makes it extremely difficult to achieve statistically significant differences, due to the high variability.
- Hiding incriminating evidence: Although the paper referred to one side-by-side test plot, for some reason the data from that study was not in the article. Years later, medical writer Barbara Keeler discovered the missing data from the journal archives and found out why it had been kept hidden. The omitted evidence not only demonstrated that Monsanto’s GM soy had significantly lower levels of protein, a fatty acid, and an essential amino acid, their toasted GM soy meal contained nearly twice the amount of a soy lectin, which can interfere with the body’s ability to assimilate nutrients. Furthermore, a known soy allergen called trypsin inhibitor was as much as 7 times higher in the toasted GM soy, compared to non-GMO soy! According to Keeler’s opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Times, the study had several red flags and “should have prompted researchers and the FDA to call for more testing.” But the FDA never got the data.
It’s no wonder why GMO expert Dr. Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union, the organization that publishes Consumer Reports, concluded that Dr. Pusztai’s potato research is “a much better-designed study than the industry-sponsored feeding studies I have seen in peer-reviewed literature that deal with Round-Up Ready soybeans or Bt corn.”
10. Even if his study were correct, it would only prove that those specific potatoes were unsafe, and not that all GM crops are unsafe.
Dr. Pusztai’s research showed that the unpredicted side effects from the process of genetic engineering were the likely cause of the damage to his rats. This has been the big sore spot for the biotech industry, which produces its GMOs using the same process.
Even on David Tribe’s own blog, Nina Federoff is quoted as saying:
“the very process through which the plants are put during the introduction of the transgene . . . can cause marked changes in both the structure and expression of genes.”
She is referring to the process of “tissue culture,” where a gene-spliced cell is cloned into a plant. Both the insertion of the gene and the subsequent cloning can cause significant, unpredictable changes. Of the two, the cloning creates more DNA mutations. That is probably why Federoff says, “The likeliest source of the variation he [Pusztai] detected . . . was the culture procedure itself.”
The mutations are unique to each GM plant line, but even massive disruptions do not necessarily mean that a particular GMO is unsafe. It could even be healthier. It’s a genetic roulette. Therefore, Chassy and Tribe are technically correct: even though the GMO transformation process is unpredictable and inherently risky, not every GM crop is necessarily hazardous. As Federoff says, “new materials and new varieties derived using culturing techniques must be evaluated for both their growth and their food properties.”
The trouble is, the superficial studies conducted on GMOs miss most of the potential problems. The lax standards were originally the fault of the Food and Drug Administration. Their own scientists’ calls for in-depth, long-term safety studies, but they were overruled by the political appointee in charge—Monsanto’s former attorney and later their vice president. (Now the US Food Safety Czar.)
The editor of The Lancet wrote,
“It is astounding that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not changed their stance on genetically modified food adopted in 1992,” which states that they do not believe it is “necessary to conduct comprehensive scientific reviews of foods derived from bioengineered plants. . . .This stance is taken despite good reasons to believe that specific risks may exist. . . . Governments should never have allowed these products into the food chain without insisting on rigorous testing for effects on health. The companies should have paid greater attention to the possible risks to health.”
11. For the record, the potatoes in question were a research project; they were never submitted to regulators and they were never commercialized.
True, they never went to market. But if by using the term “research project,” Chassy and Tribe, like others before them, are implying that the potatoes were never intended to be introduced, that is false. The Rowett Institute and the company Cambridge Genetics were planning to commercialize the GNA potato and had contracts specifying how the royalties were to be divided. (The company was to reap the advantage of getting free safety studies.)
What’s quite telling is that if these same hazardous potatoes had been evaluated in the same superficial manner that biotech companies normally test their GMOs, the spuds would have easily landed on supermarket shelves. This was made apparent to Dr. Pusztai about two years into his research. He was asked to review several confidential industry studies that were used to get GM soy, corn and tomatoes approved in the UK. Reading those studies, he says, was one of the greatest shocks of his life. The studies were so superficial, so poorly done, he realized what he was doing and what industry was doing were diametrically opposed. “I was doing safety studies,” he said. “They were doing as little as possible to get their foods on the market as quickly as possible.”
A few weeks later, when he Dr. Pusztai confirmed that his GM potato caused considerable health problems in rats, he realized that his dangerous potatoes could have sailed through industry ‘safety’ studies, which don’t assess the immune system, organ damage, gut lining, hormonal system, cancer development, reproduction, etc.
12. Scientists are expected to submit their findings to peer-review and publication in scientific journals.
Yes, and Dr. Pusztai’s study was published. But the safety research conducted by the biotech industry is almost never published. It is usually submitted in secret to regulatory authorities and neither peer-reviewed nor available for public inspection.
This double standard was pointed out by a Member of the UK Parliament, Dr. Williams, during testimony related to the Pusztai case.
“As I understand, all of the evidence taken by the advisory committee [that approves GM foods for human consumption] comes from the commercial companies, all of that is unpublished. This is not democratic, is it? . . .
“So we leave it completely to the advisory committee and its good members to take all of these decisions on our behalf, where all of the evidence comes, simply, in good faith, from the commercial companies? There is a hollow democratic deficit here, is there not? . . .”
“How is the general public out there to decide on the safety of GM foods when nothing is published on the safety of GM foods?”
Science in the Corporate Interest
“We must not underestimate the financial and political clout of the GM biotechnology industry. Most of our politicians are committed to the successful introduction of GM foods. We must therefore use all means at our disposal to show people the shallowness of these claims by the industry and the lack of credible science behind them, and then trust to people’s good sense, just as in 1998, to see through the falseness of the claims for the safety of untested GM foods.”
The bastardization of science is not unique to GMOs. It’s pervasive. Consider these numbers. One third of the 500 UK scientists surveyed had been asked to change their research conclusions by their sponsoring customer. And these folks worked in government or recently privatized institutes. “A study of major research centers in the field of engineering,” according to The Atlantic, “found that 35 percent would allow corporate sponsors to delete information from papers prior to publication.” And a Tufts University study of 800 scientific papers showed that “more than a third of the authors had a significant [undisclosed] financial interest in their reports.”
We have seen how corporatized research of drugs has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and disease. But hazards in our food supply, especially those that persist in the environment generation after generation, may dwarf the other problems we’ve seen. Exposing the truth about GMOs is absolutely urgent. Again in Dr. Pusztai’s words:
“The problems with GM foods may be irreversible and the true effects may only be seen well in the future. The situation is like the tobacco industry. They knew about it but they suppressed that information. They created misleading evidence that showed that the problem wasn’t so serious. And all the time they knew how bad it was. Tobacco is bad enough. But genetic modification, if it is going to be problematic, if it is going to cause us real health problems, then tobacco will be nothing in comparison with this.”