What follows is a examination of some of the misconceptions we are presented with via the Mega bio-companies that proliferate this information in self interest, and the facts that help to tear down these non-truths.
What you will find (as most already suspect) is an industry that is self-centered, arrogant, and greedy beyond comprehension, in-spite of the immense dangers their products force on us all. Corruption and nepotism rein supreme in all aspects of this industry to the extreme detriment of humanity and the global biosphere.
When you intentionally conceal the facts under the guise of corporate privilege, abuse independent research that disputes you claims and research and proliferate products known to inflict harm (even fatal in some aspects), then it is in fact your humanity that is in question …
Muddying the waters with imprecise terms
GM proponents often use the terminology relating to genetic modification incorrectly to blur the line between genetic modification and conventional breeding.
For example, the claim that conventional plant breeders have been “genetically modifying” crops for centuries by selective breeding and that GM crops are no different is incorrect. The term “genetic modification” is recognized in common usage and in national and international laws to refer to the use of recombinant DNA techniques to transfer genetic material between organisms in a way that would not take place naturally, bringing about alterations in genetic makeup and properties.
The term “genetic modification” is sometimes wrongly used to describe marker-assisted selection (MAS). MAS is a largely uncontroversial branch of biotechnology that can speed up conventional breeding by identifying genes linked to important traits. MAS does not involve the risks and uncertainties of genetic modification and is supported by organic and sustainable agriculture groups worldwide.
Similarly, the term “genetic modification” is sometimes wrongly used to describe tissue culture, a method that is used to select desirable traits or to reproduce whole plants from plant cells in the laboratory. In fact, while genetic modification of plants as carried out today is dependent on the use of tissue culture, tissue culture is not dependent on GM. Tissue culture can be used for many purposes, independent of GM.
Using the term “biotechnology” to mean genetic modification is inaccurate. Biotechnology is an umbrella term that includes a variety of processes in which biological functions are harnessed for various purposes. For instance, fermentation, as used in wine-making and baking, marker assisted selection (MAS), and tissue culture, as well as genetic modification, are all bio-technologies. Agriculture itself is a biotechnology, as are commonly used agricultural methods such as the production of compost and silage.
GM proponents’ misleading use of language may be due to unfamiliarity with the field – or may represent deliberate attempts to blur the lines between controversial and uncontroversial technologies in order to win public acceptance of GM.
Myth: Genetic engineering is precise and the results are predictable
Truth: Genetic engineering is crude and imprecise, and the results are unpredictable
GM proponents claim that GM is a precise technique that allows genes coding for the desired trait to be inserted into the host plant with no unexpected effects.
The first step in genetically engineering plants, the process of cutting and splicing genes in the test tube, is precise, but subsequent steps are not. In particular, the process of inserting a genetically modified gene into the DNA of a plant cell is crude, uncontrolled, and imprecise, and causes mutations – heritable changes – in the plant’s DNA blueprint.These mutations can alter the functioning of the natural genes of the plant in unpredictable and potentially harmful ways.Other procedures associated with producing GM crops, including tissue culture, also produce mutations.
In addition to the unintended effects of mutations, there is another way in which the GM process generates unintended effects. Promoters of GM crops paint a picture of GM technology that is based on a naive and outdated understanding of how genes work. They propagate the simplistic idea that they can insert a single gene with laser-like precision and insertion of that gene will have a single, predictable effect on the organism and its environment.
But manipulating one or two genes does not just produce one or two desired traits. Instead, just a single change at the level of the DNA can give rise to multiple changes within the organism.These changes are known as pleiotropic effects. They occur because genes do not act as isolated units but interact with one another, and the functions and structures that the engineered genes confer on the organism interact with other functional units of the organism.
Because of these diverse interactions, and because even the simplest organism is extremely complex, it is impossible to predict the impacts of even a single GM gene on the organism. It is even more impossible to predict the impact of the GMO on its environment – the complexity of living systems is too great.
In short, unintended, uncontrolled mutations occur during the GM process and complex interactions occur at multiple levels within the organism as a result of the insertion of even a single new gene. For these reasons, a seemingly simple genetic modification can give rise to many unexpected changes in the resulting crop and the foods produced from it. The unintended changes could include alterations in the nutritional content of the food, toxic and allergenic effects, poor crop performance, and generation of characteristics that harm the environment.
These unexpected changes are especially dangerous because they are irreversible. Even the worst chemical pollution diminishes over time as the pollutant is degraded by physical and biological mechanisms. But GMOs are living organisms. Once released into the ecosystem, they do not degrade and cannot be recalled, but multiply in the environment and pass on their GM genes to future generations. Each new generation creates more opportunities to interact with other organisms and the environment, generating even more unintended and unpredictable side-effects.
How can these unintended, unexpected and potentially complex effects of genetic engineering be predicted and controlled? Promoters of GM crops paint a simplistic picture of what is needed for assessing the health and environmental safety of a GMO. But the diversity and complexity of the effects, as well as their unpredictable nature, create a situation where even a detailed safety assessment could miss important harmful effects.
Myth: GM foods are strictly regulated for safety
Truth: GM food regulation in most countries varies from non-existent to weak
The regulatory regime for GM crops and foods is too weak to protect consumers from the hazards posed by the technology. Regulation is weakest in the US, but is inadequate in most regions of the world, including Europe.
The US regime assumes that GM crops are safe if certain basic constituents of the GM crop are “substantially equivalent” to those of their non-GM counterparts – a term that has not been legally or scientifically defined. The European regime applies the same concept but terms it “comparative safety assessment”. However, when systematic scientific comparisons of a GM crop and its non-GM counterpart are undertaken, the assumption of substantial equivalence is often shown to be false.
Pro-GM lobbyists have weakened the regulatory process for GM crops, including through the industry-funded group ILSI. No long-term rigorous safety testing of GMOs is required and regulatory assessments are based on data provided by the company that is applying to commercialize the crop.
The GM industry restricts access to its products by independent researchers, so effects on health and the environment cannot be properly investigated.
Independent researchers who have published papers containing data that is not supportive of GMOs have been attacked by pro-GM industry groups and individuals (the “shoot the messenger” tactic).
GM foods were first commercialized in the US in the early 1990s. The US food regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), allowed the first GM foods onto world markets in spite of its own scientists warnings that genetic engineering is different from conventional breeding and poses special risks, including the production of new toxins or allergens.The FDA overruled its scientists in line with a US government decision to “foster” the growth of the GM industry.The FDA formed a policy for GM foods that did not require any safety tests or labeling.
The creation of this policy was overseen by Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner of policy – a position created especially for Taylor. Taylor was a former attorney for the GM giant Monsanto and later became its vice president for public policy.
Contrary to popular belief, the FDA does not have a mandatory GM food safety assessment process and has never approved a GM food as safe. It does not carry out or commission safety tests on GM foods. Instead, the FDA operates a voluntary program for pre-market review of GM foods. All GM food crops commercialized to date have gone through this review process, but there is no legal requirement for them to do so. Companies that develop GM crops are allowed to put any GMO (genetically modified organism) on the market that they wish, though they can be held liable for any harm to consumers that results from it.
The outcome of the FDA’s voluntary assessment is not a conclusion, underwritten by the FDA, that the GMO is safe. Instead, the FDA sends the company a letter to the effect that:
- The FDA acknowledges that the company has provided a summary of research that it has conducted assessing the GM crop’s safety
- The FDA states that, based on the results of the research done by the company, the company has concluded that the GMO is safe
- The FDA states that it has no further questions
- The FDA reminds the company that it is responsible for placing only safe foods in the market
- The FDA reminds the company that, if a product is found to be unsafe, the company may be held liable.
Clearly, this process does not guarantee – or even attempt to investigate – the safety of GM foods.
While it does not protect the public, it may protect the FDA from legal liability in the event that harm is caused by a GM food.
The sham of substantial equivalence
“The concept of substantial equivalence has never been properly defined; the degree of difference between a natural food and its GM alternative before its ‘substance’ ceases to be acceptably ‘equivalent’ is not defined anywhere, nor has an exact definition been agreed by legislators. It is exactly this vagueness that makes the concept useful to industry but unacceptable to the consumer…
“Substantial equivalence is a pseudo-scientific concept because it is a commercial and political judgment masquerading as if it were scientific. It is, moreover, inherently anti-scientific because it was created primarily to provide an excuse for not requiring biochemical or toxicological tests.”– Millstone E, Brunner E, Mayer S. Beyond “substantial equivalence”. Nature. 1999; 401(6753): 525–526.
The US FDA’s approach to assessing the safety of GM crops and foods is based on the concept of substantial equivalence, which was first put forward by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a body dedicated not to protecting public health but to facilitating international trade.
Substantial equivalence assumes that if a GMO contains similar amounts of a few basic components such as protein, fat, and carbohydrate as its non-GM counterpart, then the GMO is substantially equivalent to the non-GMO and no compulsory safety testing is required.
Claims of substantial equivalence for GM foods are widely criticized as unscientific by independent researchers. A useful analogy is that of a BSE-infected cow and a healthy cow. They are substantially equivalent to one another, in that their chemical composition is the same. The only difference is in the shape of a minor component of a protein (prion), a difference that would not be picked up by a substantial equivalence assessment. Yet few would claim that eating a BSE-infected cow is as safe as eating a healthy cow.
When claims of substantial equivalence have been independently tested, they have been found to be untrue. Using the latest molecular analytical methods, GM crops have been shown to have a different composition to their non-GM counterparts. This is true even when the two crops are grown under the same conditions, at the same time and in the same location – meaning that the changes are not due to different environmental factors but to the genetic modification.
- GM soy had 12–14% lower amounts of cancer-fighting isoflavones than non-GM soy.
- Canola (oilseed rape) engineered to contain vitamin A in its oil had much reduced vitamin E and an altered oil-fat composition, compared with non-GM canola.
- Experimental GM rice varieties had unintended major nutritional disturbances compared with non-GM counterparts, although they were grown side-by-side in the same conditions. The structure and texture of the GM rice grain was affected and its nutritional content and value were dramatically altered. The authors said that their findings “provided alarming information with regard to the nutritional value of transgenic rice” and showed that the GM rice was not substantially equivalent to non-GM.
- Experimental GM insecticidal rice was found to contain higher levels of certain components (notably sucrose, mannitol, and glutamic acid) than the non-GM counterpart. These differences were shown to have resulted from the genetic manipulation rather than environmental factors.
- Commercialized MON810 GM maize had a markedly different profile in the types of proteins it contained compared with the non-GM counterpart when grown under the same conditions.
GM crops also have different effects from their non-GM counterparts when fed to animals.
The US government is not impartial regarding GM crops
The US government is not an impartial authority on GM crops. In fact, it has a policy of actively promoting them.Through its embassies and agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the US government pressures national governments around the world to accept GM crops. This has been made clear in a series of diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks, which reveal that:
- The US embassy in Paris recommended that the US government launch a retaliation strategy against the EU that “causes some pain” as punishment for Europe’s reluctance to adopt GM crops.
- The US embassy in Spain suggested that the US government and Spain should draw up a joint strategy to help boost the development of GM crops in Europe.
- The US State Department is trying to steer African countries towards acceptance of GM crops.
This strategy of exerting diplomatic pressure on national governments to adopt GM crops is undemocratic as it interferes with their ability to represent the wishes of their citizens. It is also inappropriate to use US taxpayers’ money to promote products owned by individual corporations.
GM foods would not pass an objective comparative safety assessment
The comparative safety assessment is a weak test of safety. Yet if it were applied objectively, GM crops and foods would not pass even this stage of the risk assessment. This is because as is explained above (2.1.2), many studies on GM crops show that they are not substantially equivalent to the non-GM counterparts from which they are derived. There are often significant differences in the levels of certain nutrients and types of proteins, as well as unexpected toxins or allergens.
GM proponents have sidestepped this problem by widening the range of comparison. Adopting a method originally used by Monsanto in an analysis of its GM soy,50,51 they no longer restrict the comparator to the GM plant and the genetically similar (isogenic) non-GM line, but recommend as comparators a range of non-isogenic varieties that are grown at different times and in different locations. Some of this “historical” data even dates back to before World War II.
ILSI has created a database of such published data, including data on unusual varieties that have untypically high or low levels of certain components. EFSA experts use this industry database to compare the composition of the GM plant with its non-GM counterparts in GMO risk assessments.
If, on the basis of this “comparative safety assessment”, EFSA experts judge the GM crop to be equivalent to its non-GM counterpart, it is assumed to be as safe as the non-GM variety.
Further rigorous testing is not required, so unexpected changes in the GM crop are unlikely to be identified. Also, testing for interactions between the genome of the GM crop and the environment is not required.
However, the degree of similarity that a GM plant needs to have to non-GM counterparts in order to pass this comparative safety assessment has never been defined. A comparative assessment of a GM plant often reveals significant differences in its composition that are outside the ranges of other non-GM varieties, including historical varieties. But even in these extreme cases, according to scientists who have served on regulatory bodies, the differences are often dismissed as “biologically irrelevant”.
Independent scientists have heavily criticized substantial equivalence and comparative safety assessment as the basis of safety assessments of GM crops.
GM corporations and the US government have designed the GMO regulatory process around the world
The agricultural biotechnology corporations have lobbied long and hard on every continent to ensure that weak assessment models are the norm. Often working through the US government or nonprofit groups, they have provided biosafety workshops and training courses to smaller countries that are attempting to grapple with regulatory issues surrounding GM crops. The result, according to critics, has been models for safety assessment that favour easy approval of GMOs without rigorous assessment of health or environmental risks.
For example, a report by the African Center for Bio-safety (ACB) described how the Syngenta Foundation, a nonprofit organization set up by the agricultural biotechnology corporation Syngenta, worked on “a three-year project for capacity building in bio-safety in sub-Saharan Africa”. The Syngenta Foundation’s partner in this enterprise was the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), a group headed by people with ties to Monsanto and the US government.
The ACB identified the Syngenta Foundation/FARA project as part of an “Africa-wide harmonization of bio-safety policies and procedures” that will “create an enabling environment for the proliferation of GMOs on the continent, with few bio-safety checks and balances”.
In India, the US Department of Agriculture led a “capacity building project on bio-safety” to train state officials in the “efficient management of field trials of GM crops”the first step towards full-scale commercialization. And in 2010, a scandal erupted when a report from India’s national science academies recommending release of GM Bt brinjal (eggplant/aubergine) for cultivation was found to contain 60 lines of text copy-pasted almost word for word from a biotechnology advocacy newsletter – which itself contained lines extracted from a GM industry-supported publication.
Independent research on GM foods is suppressed
“Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers… Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering… It would be chilling enough if any other type of company were able to prevent independent researchers from testing its wares and reporting what they find… But when scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation’s food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country’s agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous.” – Editorial, Scientific American
The problem of basing the regulatory process for GM crops on industry studies could be solved by considering independent (non-industry-affiliated) science in the risk assessment. But independent studies on GM foods and crops are rare, because independent research on GM crop risks is not supported financially – and because industry uses its patent-based control of GM crops to restrict independent research. Research that has been suppressed includes assessments of health and environmental safety and agronomic performance of GM crops.Permission to study GM crops is withheld or made so difficult to obtain that research is effectively blocked. For example, researchers are often denied access to commercialized GM seed and the non-GM isogenic lines.
Even if permission to carry out research is given, GM companies typically retain the right to block publication.63,64 The industry and its allies also use a range of public relations strategies to discredit and silence scientists who publish research that is critical of GM crops.
In 2009, 26 scientists took the unusual step of making a formal complaint to the US Environmental Protection Agency. They wrote, “No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions involving these crops.”An editorial in Scientific American reported, “Only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering.”
In response, a new licensing agreement for researchers on GM crops was reached between US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists and Monsanto in 2010. However, this agreement is still restrictive, which is not surprising given that the US Department of Agriculture has a policy of supporting GM crops and the companies that produce them. Whether this new policy will make a real difference remains to be seen.
The limited amount of independent research that is conducted on GM foods and crops is often ignored or dismissed by regulatory agencies. In addition, findings of harm, whether in independent or industry studies, are explained away as not “biologically relevant”.
Researchers who publish studies that find harm from GM crops are attacked
There is a well-documented history of orchestrated attacks by GM proponents on researchers whose findings show problems with GM crops and foods. The GM proponents adopt a variety of tactics, including criticizing the research as “bad science”, finding any small flaws or limitations (which almost all studies have) and claiming that this invalidates the findings, and using personal (ad hominem) attacks against the researcher.
Scientific debate is nothing new and is to be welcomed: it is the way that science progresses. A researcher publishes a study; another researcher thinks that certain aspects could have been done better and repeats it with the desired modifications; these findings in turn are added to the database of knowledge for future researchers to build on. But the trend of attempting to silence or discredit research that finds problems with GMOs is unprecedented and has grown in parallel with the commercialization of GM crops.
Unlike in traditional scientific debate, too often the criticism does not consist of conducting and publishing further research that could confirm or refute the study in question. Instead, the critics try to “shout down” the study on the basis of claims that are spurious or not scientifically validated. There are numerous cases of this pattern.
The regulatory regime for GM crops and foods is weakest in the US, the origin of most such crops, but is inadequate in most regions of the world, including Europe. The US regime assumes that GM crops are safe if certain basic constituents of the GM crop are “substantially equivalent” to those of their non-GM counterparts – a term that has not been legally or scientifically defined. The European regime applies the same concept but terms it “comparative safety assessment”. But often, when a scientific comparison of a GM crop and its non-GM counterpart is undertaken, the assumption of substantial equivalence is shown to be false, as unexpected differences are found.
No regulatory regime anywhere in the world requires long-term or rigorous safety testing of GM crops and foods. Regulatory assessments are based on data provided by the company that is applying to commercialize the crop – the same company that will profit from a positive assessment of its safety.
The regulatory procedure for GM crops is not independent or objective. The GM crop industry, notably through the industry-funded group, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), has heavily influenced the way in which its products are assessed for safety. ILSI has successfully promoted ideas such as the comparative safety assessment, which maximize the chances of a GMO avoiding rigorous safety testing and greatly reduce industry’s costs for GMO authorizations.
The GM crop industry restricts access to its products by independent researchers, so their effects on human and animal health and the environment cannot be properly investigated. Independent researchers who have published papers containing data that is not supportive of GMOs have been attacked by the industry and pro-GMO groups and individuals. This has had a chilling effect on the debate about GM crops and has compromised scientific progress in understanding their effects.