The illusion of safer substitution

July 2016
Plant biologist, Jonathan Latham, recounts how, as a "very young" scientist, he was busy creating GM plants as research tools, hardly imagining that they would ever come to be grown or eaten. Gradually it became clear, however, that commercial interests had other ideas.

Now much more experienced, Latham appreciates just how much all the knowledge and understanding available to scientists is dwarfed by the complexities of biological and natural systems.
After wide reading of the chemical and GM risk assessments used to 'prove' safety*, he has concluded the assessments provide nothing more than a false certainty, a carefully crafted, complex illusion of protection.

What else would you expect when the assessments themselves are performed by those seeking to profit from finding their product safe? 
Illusion is easily achieved: just ask (and answer) extensive but trivial questions; just avoid the whole spectrum of real-world exposure levels and routes; just ignore delayed effects, different life-stages, dietary interactions and gender; and just choose a limited number of usefully insensitive end-points (such as death and weight) from which to extrapolate a conclusion of universal safety; just ignore a "universe of unmeasured end-points". 

Latham notes, for example, that it's common for multinational corporations, whose labs have the latest equipment, to use outdated methodologies. This allows them to keep quiet about the limitations of their antiquated methods if the tests show what they want to show, but if they find themselves with inconvenient data, they can blame the tests.

All the above can only lead to questions about the trustworthiness of the applicants and, equally, of the regulators: risk assessments "are impossible to reconcile with a functional regulatory system capable of protecting".

Such a clearly biased process continues unchecked because the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) both writes and enforces its own regulations.

Intense industry and political pressures ensure that sufficient loopholes are written into the regulations so that virtually no GMO or chemical is ever declined. As if this wasn't bad enough, it also ensures that the standards imposed for removing a product from the market are so high, such an event nearly never happens.

Latham describes how this system drives an ever-turning hamster-wheel of agri-chemical substitutions whose net effect is to ensure business-as-usual. Any new pesticide approved as safe after the routine but inadequate risk assessment will appear safer than an older one whose harmful effects have finally became too obvious to ignore. Industry jumps to market this 'safer' pesticide until it, too, turns out to be not-so-safe-after-all, when another 'safer', less-studied, substitute will be ready to replace it.

In this way, the lead-arsenate insecticide of yore was replaced by DDT which was replaced by organo-phosphates which is now being replaced by Bt proteins in GM crops. What Bt will be replaced with when the real-life consequences of its similarities to the infamous plant toxin, ricin, or its close resemblance to anthrax, or its full gut-destroying potential, become too obvious to ignore, who knows.

Many years before its use escalated due to GM herbicide-tolerant crops, Roundup herbicide was already being heavily promoted. This was a consequence of the emergency suspension of 2,4,5-T (a major component of Agent Orange defoliant used for chemical warfare) for which Roundup was a safer alternative. 

Roundup's active ingredient, glyphosate, was approved on the basis of industry-commissioned tests carried out by the largest testing laboratory in America, Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories (IBT). In the 1980s it emerged that 99 percent of the long-term studies performed by IBT were invalid. At the same time, serious deficiencies were found in 25 out of 82 other testing facilities while the routine destruction of reports in another 22 laboratories made them impossible to audit.

This scandalous system-wide failure of commercial testing should have made the EPA get its house in order. Instead, it led to the creation of a "Byzantine system of external reporting and corporate summarising" resulting in a bureaucratic maze which served to ensure that no EPA employee ever set eyes on original experimental data, and any formal possibility of whistle-blowing by Federal employees or Freedom of Information requests by outsiders were rendered impossible.

The IBT scandal also led to an agreed set of laboratory management and reliability protocols which define 'good laboratory practice' (GLP). These standards have since been routinely applied in the industrial labs for which they were intended. They don't, however, define good science, and have little relevance to universities and other research institutions which rarely use them. Despite this, GLP has been corrupted into a regulatory excuse to exclude from consideration any evidence or data not produced using industry GLP. Data from cutting-edge techniques used by universities, the ones which most easily demonstrate harm, are thus edited out of the risk assessment.

Conflicts of interest are not limited to the US EPA, but have been evident in the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). "The regulatory systems are not just broken, they are unfixable."

As Latham shows, there's clearly no point in waging a campaign against a single chemical, such as glyphosate or Bt, because industry will have an equally bad substitute up its sleeve to slip into the market in its place.

So how do we escape from the hamster-wheel?

A recent report by the International panel of experts on sustainable food systems (IPES-Food) has concluded the solution is to diversify agriculture and re-orient it around ecological practices.
We need to ditch our dependence on agri-chemicals, intensification, global markets, and dominance of our food supply by a handful of corporations. What we will gain is carbon in the ground instead of in the air, biodiversity around us - fertile soil in the fields, sustainable yields from our crops, secure farm livelihoods, a diverse diet, and improved health.


As Jonathan Latham says "knowledge is power". Spread the knowledge.

*The bases of GMO risk assessment are the novel gene and the novel gene product. Effectively, this treats GM crops if they are natural plants with two added chemicals.
  • Jonathan Latham, Unsafe at any dose?  Diagnosing chemical safety failure, from Roundup to BPA, GM Watch 23.05.16, reprinted form The Ecologist and Independent Science News
  • Arthur Neslen, UN-WHO panel in conflict of interest row over glyphosate cancer risk, Guardian, 17.05.16
  • Jonathan Latham, Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs, Biotechnology, 31.08.15
  • John Vidal, A switch to ecological farming will benefit health and environment, Guardian, 2.06.16
  • Carol Van Strum, A Bitter Fog, 1983, ISBN 0-87156-329-0

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