dsRNA Media Centre

August 2013

Tissue Culture
Plant propagation in a lab. CC photo by IRRI Images on Flickr
It comes as no surprise that safety assessment of the latest DNA-altered crops with 'ds-RNA' traits, is being side-stepped. These GM crops have identifiable risks, and raise many questions which are being 'answered' using assumptions and generalisations, but scant science (see RNA-MODIFIED FOOD and dsRNA:SILENCING REGULATION - July 2013).

Nor does it come as a surprise that the scientists who published safety evaluations critical of dsRNA and the dsRNA-based GM wheat now under development in Australia have come under attack. Needless to say, the studies they prepared are fully referenced, up-to-date in their science, and have passed the most rigorous peer-review process in existence.

The Science Media Centre (SMC) of New Zealand dismissed the evidence presented as “typical of the scare tactics used by these ideological opponents of GM technology, to totally ignore the fact that dsRNA is present in most food we consume and is therefore intrinsically harmless”.

Since the authors the SMC is criticising are respected scientists, and well qualified and experienced in appropriate fields, describing their concerns about GM as 'scare tactics' and 'ideological' is just plain discourteous. And, since the studies delve, in some depth, into why dsRNA isn't 'intrinsically harmless', the SMC statement might make you question what sort of scientists this organisation uses.

Lead author, New Zealand scientist Jack Heinemann, has his own views on his critics, and has made some very pointed comments about the qualifications of his two main SMC detractors, David Tribe and Peter Langridge:
“I can find no peer-reviewed work from David Tribe on dsRNA, much less human health effects of plants that produce new dsRNA molecules. I can find no peer reviewed work from Peter Langridge on human safety testing of dsRNA molecules, which is understandable given that his expertise seems to be in making dsRNA-based GM plants. So it is unclear to me what makes them or their opinions, which were not put to peer review of any kind, experts in response to our research.”
Heinemann further comments on the avoidance of scientific evidence, and on the manipulative and personal nature of the attacks:
“Importantly though, they do not report evidence that our research or findings are incorrect. They only seem to raise very vague and largely personal criticisms that appear to me to be designed to manufacture doubt rather than to protect the public.
The SMC did not use experts of standing on the topic to challenge the expertise of the authors. It did not seek opinion from any except those who wish to silence this new research and the proper assessment of the risks of dsRNA-based crops and products. Its aim appears to be not to educate the public but to manipulate public opinion.

Crucially, the SMC, in line with the usual practice of SMCs around the world, failed to declare the conflicts of interest of its 'experts'”.

The personal attack on Heinemann's Australian co-author, Judy Carman, was so outrageous that SMC Australia received a lawyer's letter from her and withdrew the publication from its website. The Centre then accused Carman of using lawyers to try to silence scientific criticism!

What Heinemann didn't mention was that Langridge is also a fellow of FSANZ (Food Standards Australian and New Zealand), the regulatory body which had already dismissed any need to assess the risk of dsRNA. Langridge works for the ACPFG (Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics) which has direct collaborations with DuPont and Monsanto both of which submit their dsRNA-modified crops to FSANZ for review. Note that the ACPFG is part of a consortium of “wheat partners” with CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) which holds a fundamental patent on the technique for expressing dsRNA in GMOs for the purpose of transmitting the dsRNA to target pests. GM Watch sums up the situation: “Langridge's statements on the safety of dsRNA-type GM crops should be taken for what they are: a sales pitch on which his career depends”.

OUR COMMENT


The Westminster plot to increase spending on education in biotech and plant science at all levels (see WESTMINSTER ROLLING OUT THE RED CARPET FOR GM - July 2013) needs to be rationalised. The last thing we need is another generation of 'scientists' like those peopling the world-wide Science Media Centres: scientists who can't afford to ask for real science be done lest their patents become worthless and their careers crumble.

How about suggesting our government spend money on teaching ethics in science instead? Or better still, encourage real science by getting rid of patents on any form of life?

You might be interested to read HOPE NOT HYPE - by Jack Heinemann (TWN ISBN 978-983-2729-81-5 also downloadable PDF).


SOURCES:
  • Jack A. Heinemann et al., 2013, A comparative evaluation of the regulation of GM crops or products containing dsRNA and suggested improvements to risk assessments, Environment International 55
  • Jack A. Heinemann, Evaluation of risks from creation of novel RNA molecules in genetically engineered wheat plants and recommendations for risk assessment, Expert opinion, 28.08.12
  • Judy A. Carman, Expert Scientific Opinion on SCIRO GM Wheat Varieties, September 2012
  • Experts on regulatory bodies' approach to GM products, SMC New Zealand, 26.03.13
  • New paper on dsRNA type GMOs - Q&A with the authors, GM Watch 22.03.13
  • Sandra Finnie, Scientists want assurances new GMO is safe, Straight Furrow, 4.04.13
  • Science Media Centre touts sales pitch as science, GM Watch 31.03.13
  • Judy Carman profile www.flinders.edu.au/people/judy.carman
  • Jack Heinemann profile www.canterbury.ac.nz

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