Meaningless prohibitions

October 2014

Photo of an anti GMO protester wearing a yellow biohazard suit
Anti-GMO protester
So far, America has single-handedly contaminated the world rice market with an experimental GM variety (herbicide-tolerant LL62, illegal at the time but legalised in a hurry by the US administration), permanently contaminated its own commodity maize supply with a GM variety (insect-resistant StarLink, legally grown for a short time and since banned on safety grounds), and is grappling with two inexplicable contamination-incidents involving two different GM wheat varieties (both herbicide-tolerant, one in Oregon and one in Montana, neither legal anywhere).

Are these real-world warnings being taken to heart?
After recurrent contamination problems from experimental trials of GM pharmaceutical plants APHIS* was stirred into action.

*Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture

Biotech company, Prodigene, was fined a modest $3,500 for the infringements, but the Company and its “successors in interest” were also prohibited from carrying out any future GM releases.

Real-world data on Glyphosate

October 2014
picture of a pig looking through a wire fence
A healthy pig. CC photo by thornypup on Flickr.
When new antiviral drugs came on the markets, many governments thought it prudent to stock-pile them in case of any major new viral epidemic.

Accordingly, the UK government forked out £500 million and the US government $1.3 billion largely on the Roche version of antiviral sold as 'Tamiflu'.

The Cochrane Foundation, a global not-for-profit organisation whose aim is “to produce accessible health information free from commercial sponsorship and other commercial interest”, conducted their own review of 46 pharmaceutical company-sponsored Randomised Control Trials* on the effectiveness of Tamiflu. Such Trials are carried out routinely as part of the drug's licensing procedure. Its conclusion was that the benefits of this class of drug had been exaggerated. In short, the money paid to pharmaceutical companies for such flu-treatments had been largely wasted and could have been much better spent on other health measures.

*Randomised Control Trials are considered the gold standard for assessing drug efficacy. They involve a random selection of subjects half of whom are given the test drug and half of whom are given a placebo. Neither the subjects nor the researchers know who has been given what until the data on the drug's effects have been collected.

Roche, governments, health-workers and scientists swiftly responded that Tamiflu is effective in alleviating symptoms and saving lives.

A counter-review was then produced by Roche: this wasn't based on scientific investigation, but on observational evidence from 78 studies of patients admitted to hospital. The Company claims that these “real-world” data are more relevant to judging the efficacy of a drug than Randomised Control Trials.

So, what happens if you apply Roche's emphasis on real-world data to GM?

Enslaved seeds

October 2014

picture of different varieties of rice seed in glass containers
Different varieties of rice seed. CC photo by IRRI photos on Flickr
There is a huge natural genetic diversity in all seeds, which has evolved over millions of years.Only this complex whole has the ability and the reserves to change in harmony with its ever-changing environment.
This is a resource we can't afford to waste, destroy, or compromise.
Without it, we will starve.
Realising our dependence on seed quality, and the profits that can attach to dependency, business has been grabbing control of seeds: wild seeds, commercial seeds, national and global seed markets, and the farmers who use them.

Laws have long been in place in the developed world to ensure that large-scale supplies of seed are of good quality.

However, this system hasn't worked to maintain diversity or farmer choice: it has promoted consolidation of the seed market, dependence on agri-chemicals, and high seed prices.

More inconclusive data on GM safety

October 2014

The French scientists whose long-term GM feeding experiment suggested harm to health, have voiced concerns about another study accepted by the same journal which published, then retracted, their own study [1,2]. This newly-published paper described a short-term GM feeding study carried out by a team of scientists from biotech company, DuPont Pioneer.

Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) withdrew the French paper last year due to the 'inconclusive' nature of some of the data (a novel ground for rejection apparently invented by the journal editors). The French team pointed out that the DuPont Pioneer study used feed compromised by an unassayed GM content which could have masked significant differences between the feeds, and ironically made the results 'inconclusive'.

Controversial crusades

October 2014
Vandana Shiva
A recent, lengthy, article in the New Yorker Magazine described Vandana Shiva's “controversial crusade against GM crops”.

Vandava Shiva is, indeed, well known for her articulate and “fiery opposition to globalization and the use of genetically modified crops”.

Responding to the New Yorker article, Seeds of Doubt, Dr. Shiva has posted how own article, Seeds of Truth, on the Institute of Science in Society website. In it, she calls the New Yorker piece simply “poor journalism” and wonders why the author “a journalist who has been Bureau Chief in Moscow for The New York Times, and bureau Chief in New York for the Washington Post, and clearly an experienced reporter, would submit such a misleading piece. Or why The New Yorker would allow it to be published as honest reporting, with so many fraudulent assertions and deliberate attempts to skew reality.”

Anyone interested can read Seeds of Doubt for themselves. It repeats all the well-known pro-GM mis-information, such as the confusion between conventional breeding and direct artificial manipulation of DNA, and the discredited propaganda that Mark Lynas was a major anti-GM campaigner before he became enlightened [1], and that GM safety has been proved by the trillions of GM meals which have been eaten without a single documented case of anyone becoming ill [2], and that the “prohibition” of GM golden rice everywhere is due to a decade of opposition [3], etc., etc., etc.

However one novel piece of propaganda stood out.

Unstitching the media stitch-up

October 2014
Anti-GM campaigner holds a sign which says the world doesn't want your GMOs
2013 March against Monsanto, Washington DC, USA. CC photo by Stephen Melkisethlan
The GM-media stitch-up which became evident when our previous Environment Minister was strutting his stuff on the pro-GM stage [1,2] seems to be part of an orchestrated, world-wide GM-good-news-only drive (see below for examples).

Given what has been reaching the news lately, you might be getting the impression that 'the GM debate is over' and that GM-concern campaigning is dead in the water.

No so.

Genetically edited

October 2014
CC photo by Antoine.Couturier on Flickr
The first use of 20th century technology to re-jig living organisms to conform to human specifications was mutagenesis. 
Mutagenesis involves a scatter-gun induction of random DNA modification using chemicals or radiation. Survivors of the onslaught are screened for commercially useful new characteristics. The desired mutation is purified of the collateral genomic wreckage around it by repeated breeding with healthy mates.
It seems that mutagenesis was considered no more than an accelerated version of natural Darwinian random mutation followed by selection of a human-defined 'fittest'. No one told consumers what was being done to their food, and no safety-testing was ever considered (See below).
The second wave of organism-fixing technology stemmed from the discovery of how to engineer DNA and insert it into living cells.

Synthetic biology coming soon. Is it 'natural'?

October 2014
'Synbio' vanillin could soon be in ice cream and cakes.
CC photo by St0rmz on Flickr
When 'Synthia' first popped into the headlines, it referred to cells containing entire, simplified, man-made chromosomes [1].
Since then, “synthetic biology” has been used to mean so many different technical tricks, it “defies easy definition”. The only common factor seems to be the use of “a tool-box of well-defined genetic parts to build new functions” to create a novel organism. 'Synthetic biology' seems to cover anything from good old-fashioned insertion of chunks of DNA, to the products of any genome re-configuration, to whole genome assembly, and anything else which makes the end-genome different.
'Synthia' has popped into the headlines again because a new version of it could creep into our food chain if we don't watch out.
A Swiss company, describing itself as a “pioneer and global leader in sustainable, fermentation-based approaches to ingredients for health, wellness and nutrition” is busy “address(ing) an increasing consumer demand for high-quality, trustworthy and affordable products that are considered 'natural'”.
What could possibly be ominous about this?