Don't look don't see

July 2016
 

Definitions

 
Mutagenesis
 
This 'breeding technique' involves random wrecking of the genomes of a huge number of cells by exposing them to radiation or chemicals. Any of the survivors which can be coaxed to grow into plants are then tested to see if any useful random properties have emerged from the mess. Note that the technique itself doesn't involve breeding.
 
Genetic modification
 
In this 'breeding technique', artificial DNA constructs are inserted randomly into huge numbers of cells or plant embryos. A tiny proportion of the GM plants generated from these may exhibit the desired trait. Note that the technique itself doesn't involve breeding.
 
History
 
"Continuous methodical research, systematic account of natural phenomena" (Oxford English Dictionary)
 
Classical breeding
 
Plants observed to have desirable characteristics are bred together to produce offspring with more desirable characteristics.
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Commentary

In what turned out to be a sign of the spin to come, early GM-concerned consumers were asked why, when they'd been eating crops changed by random mutagenesis for years without complaint and without ill-effects, were they worried about eating precision-altered GM food?
 
The take-home message was that consumers are irrational because GM is obviously safer than mutagenesis and mutagenesis is obviously safe.
 
This spin dressed up as scientific logic was then supported by the EU. When writing Directive 2001/18 to regulate GMOs, it determined that organisms developed through mutagenesis are GMOs, but that it was not necessary to label them or to test them before commercialisation because of their history of safe use.
 
The US National Academy of Science (NAS) doesn't seem to be any more rational than consumers. In its 2004 Report on GMOs, it describes how both mutagenesis and GM techniques induce much higher levels of unintended (and possibly risky) changes than classical breeding. By the time it produced its GMO Report of 2016, it had combined classical breeding and mutagenesis under a single "conventionally-bred" umbrella.
 
So, what does the science really tell us about all these claims?
 
The short answer is 'nothing'.
 
There's no scientific basis for the suggested 'history' of safe use of foods produced by mutagenesis. There's been no 'continuous', 'methodical' or any other research into such foods: they've never been tested, never been labelled, never been monitored, and the general public have never been aware they were in the food-chain. What we do know is that all manner of chronic diseases have escalated since the introduction of mutagenised foods.
 
The products of classical (not conventional) breeding aren't necessarily safe, but we largely know from many generations of experience when they might be toxic to us, who they might be toxic to, how we should process them to make them safe, and when not to eat them.
 
One study comparing classically-bred rice, with mutagenised and GM plants found permanent genetic stress markers in the GM plants, and even more in the mutagenised ones: hardly a good indication of 'safety' [1].
 
What's worrying about this last finding, within the context of lumping together classical breeding and mutagenesis into a 'conventional' melting pot, is that the 'conventional' control crops used in scientific experiments on GM could be highly compromised due to the presence of artificial mutations. Any problems arising in the GMOs may be drowned out in a background full of problems arising from mutagenesis.
 
The suggestion that it's irrational to worry about eating GM because you didn't worry about eating something else you didn't know you were eating in the first place takes spin to new heights.
 
You might be wondering by now how the EU, with all its scientific advisers, and the NAS whose research arm enjoys a reputation as one of the elite scientific bodies in the US and which is used by Congress to give impartial advice, could arrive at scientifically baseless conclusions on GM.
 
Food and Water Watch provides the following clues.
 
The NAS research arm, the National Research Council (NRC): 
  • takes millions of dollars in funding from biotechnology companies
  • invites sponsors like Monsanto to sit on high-level boards overseeing the NRC's work
  • invites industry-aligned, pro-GMO scientists to author NRC reports
  • draws scientific conclusions based on industry science
  • operates at times as a private contractor for corporate research
 
In the case of the EU, it would probably be just too embarrassing a regulatory nightmare to have to admit at this late stage that the bulk of our food supply is genetically messed-up and may not be supporting our health. Better to play don't-look-don't-see and hope everyone else plays the same game.
 
Background
[1] STRESSED PLANTS, STRESSED PEOPLE - Doc - GMFS Archive, June 2010
 
SOURCES:
  • Under the influence: The National Research Council and GMOs, Food and Water Watch, 16.05.16
  • No, "science" has not confirmed that GMOs are safe to eat, GM Watch 20.05.16 

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