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    An Idea Worth Spreading, A Dialogue Worth Having

    April 2, 2012 •  one comment.

     •  Blog, News

    Written by Robyn O’Brien

    As to be expected, there is a scientist in the field of genomics aggressively speaking out against one of my TEDx talks.

    It’s not the first time that my work has come under fire, nor will it be the last as the information that I present is disruptive.  To many, it creates a cognitive dissonance – a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs or values and can often elicit a strong emotional reaction.

    And it did just that over the weekend from a scientist at the University of Florida which houses the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

    So when I looked into the work of the person making the accusations, I was not surprised that he had dedicated his life to plant research and genetic engineering.  His commitment is remarkable.  I understand it, because it is that same dedication that I have to my research and work into the financial engineering and the role it can play in the integrity of science.

    That dedication, that level of commitment, is something to be honored, not slandered, as it is not without sacrifice.

    But his criticism was that of a subject that continues to raise itself as to whether or not genetically engineered crops are safe.

    The scientific debate tends to center around whether genetically engineered crops have been “thoroughly tested,” while a debate around the financial engineering of the science continues to grow.

    So let’s look at the science, because as the Union for Concerned Scientists states:

    “Political interference in federal government science is weakening our nation’s ability to respond to the complex challenges we face. Because policy makers depend on impartial research to make informed decisions, we are mobilizing scientists and citizens alike to push for reforms that will enable our leaders to fully protect our health, safety, and environment.”

    In a Science Magazine in 2000, a Spanish researcher named Jose L. Domingo who later went on to write a 2007 paper, “Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature,” found only seven peer reviewed papers on genetically engineered crop safety as of 2000, most of them dealing with short-term nutritional effects.

    According to Dr. Charles Benbrook, who worked in Washington, D.C. on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997, served for 1.5 years as the agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at the end of the Carter Administration, and following the election of Ronald Reagan, moved to Capitol Hill in early 1981 and was the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues, what that means is that at the time that two genetically engineered products were approved for the food supply, there were no studies in the open scientific literature.

    Let’s stop and think about that for a minute in the context of something that is more familiar.

    Can you imagine if a medical device or a new pharmaceutical drug were introduced with no studies in the open scientific literature for public review?  Or if a car was introduced onto the highway in the same manner?

    The concern is shared by the National Academy of Sciences in the paper, Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Consequences, ”As with all other technologies for genetic modification, they also carry the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health.”

    Furthermore, according to Benbook, as of 2007 and Domingo’s more recent and comprehensive review, aToxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature, there are still no more than about ten studies assessing the toxicological impact of genetically engineered ingredients in our food supply, almost all are limited in scope (there is a review of 24 studies focusing on nutritional equivalency), and short term, with most of them dealing with genetically engineered foods other than corn and soybeans.

    Which means that the bottom line is that there are no published, peer reviewed studies on the toxicological impacts of today’s commercial genetically engineered ingredients now found in our food supply, and almost none on older genetically engineered ingredients, that provide evidence that show that these foods are toxicologically safe.

    At the conclusion of the abstract for the paper, the author himself poses the question: “where is the scientific evidence showing that GM plants/food are toxicologically safe?”

    To me, that is a question so important that it was unequivocally an “Idea Worth Spreading,” a question worth asking, a dialogue worth having.

    Correlation is not causation but with the Centers for Disease Control now reporting that cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children under the age of fifteen, that there has been a 265% increase in the rates of hostpiatlizations related to food allergic reaction, it is worth noting that “no evidence of harm” is not the same as “evidence of no harm.”

    What we are witnessing, through 55 members of Congress that have called for the labeling of these ingredients, the over one million Americans who have sent comments to the FDA asking for the same, interest in a TEDx talk given by a former financial analyst, author and mother of four, is a movement, perhaps begun by the Spanish researcher with his ask for the scientific evidence showing that genetically engineered foods are toxicologically safe, and a call for the labeling of these foods, as they are labeled in over 40 countries around the world, until we have more science.

    It is a call for studies that might alert a pregnant woman working on a farm about the impact that her exposure to these crops and the chemicals used to produce them might have on the health of her unborn babies.

    It is a call for science and for the research that tells a mother if her child is allergic to conventional soybeans, the kind that has been in our food supply for generations, or if her child is allergic to the genetically engineered components now found in soybeans that were introduced in the late 1990s.

    It is a call for the scientific tests that would enable a father to test his child for those differences at his allergist’s office.

    It is a call for science and our right to know about the foods that we are eating and what their impact might be on the health of our families.

    Is correlation causation?  Not at all, but with millions of Americans beginning to wake up to the fact that we have additives in our food supply, from lean beef trimmings, to artificial growth hormones to genetically engineered ingredients, additives that were not in our foods a generation ago, we are asking for more science, integrity in science, full disclosure of the financial engineering behind the science, and for labels and the right to make an informed choice about what we are feeding our families.

    We have learned what can happen otherwise, from the tobacco industry to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, so I hope that the TED team will continue the conversation with consumers, genetic engineers as well as financial ones, economists and the medical community in a forum in which attendees can express their opinions and one that requires full disclosure of any institutional ties, research grants or patents of those involved to preserve the dialogue and the scientific integrity of the discussion.

    Because as Carl Sagan once said, “We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology.”

    An idea worth spreading?  A dialogue worth having? Absolutely.

    Additional Resources:

    Scientific Integrity: Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/
    Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: http://www.biosafety.ru/ftp/domingo.pdf
    Faculty Endowments:
    Kevin Folta’s Blog: http://kfolta.blogspot.com/2012/03/complete-insanity-in-theater-built-by.html
    UF Scientists Collaborate with Monsanto: http://news.ifas.ufl.edu/2011/10/14/uf-scientists-collaborate-with-monsanto-to-develop-improved-computer-model-for-corn-production/
    The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster: A Study in Organizational Ethics http://pirate.shu.edu/~mckenndo/pdfs/The%20Space%20Shuttle%20Challenger%20Disaster.pdf
    Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Consequences http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309092094

      One Response to “An Idea Worth Spreading, A Dialogue Worth Having”

      1. I’m glad that my thoughts are on your radar. It is a dialog worth having and I engage it all the time. From Vegan Chicago to Willy St. Co-op in Madison, WI to classes and debates everywhere—I’m always happy to discuss the science of this important issue.

        My primary complaint was that the TED brand should stand for science and not belief. It is not a soapbox, it is not a forum for anyone claiming to be an expert to talk about what they think is true. At least that is what I thought.

        I do think that compelling, well spoken people are dangerous when they speak from authority—without good evidence. That’s how we ended up in Iraq/Afghanistan. Someone was able to leverage substandard data and a political climate to whip people into a frenzy about something that just was not true. This is how I also feel about your TED talk.

        In your original presentation and in the April 2 AllergyKids blog entry, there are hints that the safety of transgenic crops is a debated issue. It is not among scientists. We have witnessed the advent of transgenic crops, we watched acreage rise, and now see its impacts after fifteen-plus years. We have seen a papaya industry saved, transgenic soybeans change agriculture and transgenic cotton dramatically decrease environmental insults from conventional farming. Scientists, almost universally, see the merit of transgenic technologies. We also understand its limitations and acknowledge its drawbacks.

        I’d like to address your points in the April 2, 2012 blog post on Allergy Kids. Here are some thoughts and I’d appreciate your feedback.

        Your quotations from the Union of Concerned Scientists should be tempered. As far as I am aware, this is an activist group containing some scientists, but they are not actively performing science or publishing peer-reviewed work to support their conclusions. Real evidence needs to come from top-tier sources, like PubMed. It should be peer-reviewed and reproducible by independent groups. It should open new areas of inquiry. That said, there is no reliable evidence showing links between transgenic food and human disease and/or allergy.

        The review by Domingo (2007) is fine. It appeared in a critical reviews journal. These journals tend to like interjection of opinion and development of a story. I publish in these too and we try to make them provocative. The author outlines many studies (he admits he can find few with evidence of negative effects) and then concludes that there are no long-term studies. It also is important to remember that all of the studies performed that showed some negative effect were dead ends. Nobody picked up that lead and found new science. Why are there not any long-term studies? Because scientists see no reason to do them. It is also important to note that it is hard to publish negative data—if you find that food known to be essentially equivalent, is equivalent, it is no big story and hard to publish.

        This should be a strong point in our thinking of the issue. Transgenic crops are a huge part of the food supply. If someone showed real evidence of harm, the field would explode. You’d see scientists studying the mechanisms of toxicity, integration with biology, specific ways that the transgene/product cause the problem. It would be a new area of science (and I’d like a piece of that action!). Right now we just don’t see that science grow.

        The problem is, how do you test for safety? What hypothesis do you test? To those of us that understand the EPSPS enzyme and herbicide resistance, the Bt gene, DNA, metabolism and gene function, there is no place to begin a long-term test. What could possibly be tested?

        Robyn, I also disagree with your claim that such products need not be tested or regulated to be grown and sold. Your example comes from a long time ago- it could be true, but it is not the case now. A colleague of mine spent 20 years and millions of dollars to get a transgenic plant through the EPA, the FDA and USDA. Other do go faster, but it is an arduous and expensive process. I can get details, but let it stand as evidence that there are no horticultural crops except for papaya and some squash, that are transgenic. It does not pay to make transgenic horticultural crops. Berries, fruits, vegetables just never will give a return because of the high time and money cost of regulation. Only big agronomic crops are profitable.

        Your quotation from the National Academies of Science is true- we can never know of unintended consequences that could be adverse. That is not the gist of the book you cite or its follow up, The Impact of Genetically Modified Crops on Agriculture in the USA. These texts recognize the great benefits, limitations and possible downsides, fairly and honestly. The conclusions are all quite positive. You can read these for free as PDFs at the National Academies Press website. They are dry and boring, but show no evidence of contribution to human disease or allergy.

        Next, how do you prove something is safe? How do we know that growing plants in hydroponics is safe? Grown in rich organic compost? Nobody did the studies, at least long-term ones. Certainly the gene expression changes in such growing platforms exceed those initiated from a single transgene—absolutely no doubt. Are all of these genes, not ever ‘on’ in natural soil, beneficial, harmless, safe? Nobody knows, but there is no evidence of harm. A good scientist will never say that something is safe. We only can speak from the evidence. There is no evidence of harm. That’s just honest.

        Cancers on the rise? Yes. We don’t die of heart attacks at 40 anymore. In children? The increase may be from any environmental factor. Allergies the same. You are right, causation and correlation are two different things and there is no causal link to transgenic foods. Chasing transgenic foods as a culprit takes time from legitimate pursuit of the real problems. Maybe it is transgenic food, but there is no plausible mechanism or evidence to support that hypothesis.

        If you have a legitimate call for research that is supported by Congress and millions of people, then let’s give some grants to do the studies. Or not? Should activists with no scientific basis be able to steer scientific endeavors? Should we let a Republican majority in congress reallocate money from research in general to fund research in studying how humans don’t cause climate change? Should we fund Creationism research? Should we fund a NASA mission to the moon because some people are certain we were never there? We should, but ONLY if there is some initial shred of evidence that these hypotheses are likely to be supported. And there isn’t. There is no reason to fund exhaustive long-term tests when there is no plausible mechanism that can suggest transgenic food is any different than conventionally bred food.

        Robyn, you’d probably not be surprised that we agree on more points than we disagree. We probably vote the same, worry about the environment and care about human health- be that our families or workers in the field. The difference is that I know science, I understand what the literature does/does not say. It does not support a conclusion that transgenic foods are harmful. The day it does, I’ll trumpet that news.

        My only real complaint with your posting is that you place the UF/Monsanto article right below my blog, certainly to discredit me to the anti-GMO interests with a bogus Monsanto association. That’s weak. Nobody tells me what to study, publish, test or pursue. Nobody, except NSF, USDA and the Florida Strawberry Growers that fund the studies, but I publish whatever the peer-review process will accept. Never got a dime of Big Ag money and I’m no fan of Monsanto et al. I am a big fan of science and how it can help us make better decisions. The data show that transgenic crops can help farmers and the environment. I’d like to continue to shape this dialog with you.

        A dialog worth having? Probably. My complaint is not with you—you are presenting a popular non-scientific opinon. My problem is with TED, for the reasons stated above. I handle dissenters of science generally very carefully. Nobody wins hearts and minds by banging the table. So I’m here, glad to talk and shape a dialog. Know up front that my background is science and that’s the place where all will come from.

        Thanks, and best wishes,


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