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Response to GM Food Myths

By Roger Morton, with contributions by Rick Roush and Wayne Parrott
14 December 2000 - Updated 13 July 2001

Below you will find replies to many of the myths being circulated by anti-biotech activists.
Thanks to Roger Morton, Rick Roush and Wayne Parrot for their rebuttal.


Myth 1: GMOs are not needed to "feed the world".

People are hungry because they are poor, not because there's not enough food. And if they can't afford to buy conventional food, they'll hardly be able to afford GM food.

No. People are hungry because they cannot grow enough food to feed themselves locally. This is for a variety of reasons. For example insects devastate their crops and they cannot afford insecticides to protect the crops.

If they were to grow a GM Bt crop then they would get insecticide for free and be able to produce more food. In this way can GM food help feed the poor.

Another reason is losses during storage of the grains due to insect attack or rotting of the food in storage. This is because the poor cannot afford the expensive silos and treatments required to reduce losses of this nature. If the crops were GM they could be made to resist insect damage and spoilage. In this way GM food can help feed the poor.

Another reason is losses of food due to disease - poor farmers (and many wealthy ones) cannot afford to spray fungicides on their crops. If crops were made resistant to diseases by GM then they could produce more food locally. In this way GM food can help feed the poor.

There may be just enough food on the planet at the moment to feed everyone if it was distributed better. However, it isn't distributed better because of poverty. As indicated above GM crops could help with the food distribution problem by allowing the poor to produce more food. GM crops can provide a method for self-help to the poor. This may be more likely to succeed as a method of helping them rather than waiting until they are no longer poor.

And even if a miracle happened tonight and the food was distributed better what are we going to do to improve food production in the future when the population is larger?

a) let the excess starve to death
b) hope that population growth will stabilise and do nothing else and wait?
c) work towards stabilising the population while concurrently conducting research into ways to produce more food in a more sustainable fashion?

To me option c) is the only morally acceptable option.

GM is a method of crop improvement. It does not necessarily mean more expensive, as we have seen from the golden rice project, where the technology is about to be given away free to the poor.

I welcome the day when there is not poverty in the world. In the meantime we must improve the food production in the world to feed the poor. GM is one means to achieve this.

And if they can't afford to buy conventional food, they'll hardly be able to afford GM food.

Why do think it is a valid assumption that GM food will be more expensive? GM food is food from a crop modified using certain techniques. Nothing about these techniques means the food produced from such crops need be more expensive. In fact, if more food can be produced using such crops, the law of supply and demand will mean such food will be cheaper not more expensive.

Myth 2: GMO use will not benefit farmers.

According to the US National Academy of Sciences, genetically modified herbicide-resistant soybean is less profitable than conventionally bred varieties. Yields were found to be 6-10% lower for GM crops.

Not all GM crops are herbicide-resistant soybean. There may be many reasons why these soybeans are lower yielding. I challenge the authors to present any data on any of the other countless GM crops that show a reduced yield.

Myth: Claims that the need for herbicides will decrease with the use of herbicide-resistant crops were also found to be invalid. Instead, the use of the herbicide Roundup increased considerably -- between 2-10 times more.

At the expense of far more environmentally damaging herbicides.

The Environmental Defence fund gives glyphosate (Roundup) a "Less hazardous than most chemicals in 9 of 10 ranking systems." Check it out your self.

So if glyphosate use goes up at the expense of more damaging herbicides this is a good outcome. It would be useful to know what data is being quoted here, but Rick Roush, informs me that these figures are "just flat wrong unless you only looked at places that switched from soil-damaging tillage to minimum or no-till with Roundup Ready crops".

Ie., Herbicide use may have increased by a large factor where the only previous alternative was to use excessive cultivation. Excessive cultivation leads to soil degradation and non-sustainability -- something we all can agree is not good outcome. If excessive, soil-damaging, cultivation is replaced by a benign and completely biodegradable herbicide then this is a positive outcome for the environment.

It has become fashionable in some circles to claim glyphosate is a very dangerous chemical. If this is so then why does the Environmental Defence Fund give it a "Less hazardous than most chemicals in 9 out of 10 ranking systems" rating? Is the EDF suddenly a mouth-piece for Monsanto or are they just stating the facts in an unbiased fashion?

This paper is often quoted as evidence of the dangers of glyposate:

A Case-Control Study of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Exposure to Pesticides. Lennart Hardell Mikael Eriksson, Cancer 1999;85:1353-1360

As pointed out by Rick Roush: "the paper provides NO statistically significant links between glyphosate and cancer. By "statistically significant", I mean that there is no evidence that the results differ from what might occur from random chance. The paper itself does NOT "clearly" make claims that glyphosate is linked to cancer. For example, phenoxy herbicides and fungicides are identified in the abstract as being associated with higher cancer risks (for me, no new surprises there), but glyphosate is not even mentioned. Elsewhere in the paper: "Furthermore, due to low numbers of exposed subjects in some of the categories, definite conclusions cannot be drawn for separate chemicals, such as MCPA and glyphosate, from the multivariate analysis" (page 1358). And in the conclusions: "Glyphosate deserves further epidemiologic studies" (page 1359).

Ie, the authors of this paper, by their own admission, have not shown glyphosate causes cancer and have concluded that they should do more research on this. Check out the abstract of this paper for yourself: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/htbin-post/Entrez/query?db=m&form=6&uid=0010189142&dopt=r

Myth: In many farms, the herbicide use was 10 times larger than on many farms using integrated weed management systems. The weeds had become resistant to the herbicide glyphosate.

Reference? As far as I know there are only a few known cases of glyphosate resistant weeds and these were found in Australia. (BTW, no herbicide tolerant crops have yet been grown commercially in Australia so the appearance of glyphosate R weeds is unrelated to GM crops in this case).

Note from Rick Roush: There are also a few cases [of gylphosate resistant weeds] in Malaysia and possibly California. However, ALL such cases are unrelated to GM crops.

Myth: Scientists have speculated that the decrease in productivity may be due to genetic engineering reducing the efficiency with which plants use energy, as the energy usage associated with the inserted gene in GM plants is not regulated according to the need of the plant.

This energy misuse may be even greater in the case of GM crops incorporating the Bt toxin as an in-built pesticide -- the plant is putting a lot of energy into producing the Bt protein, 24 hours a day whether it is needed or not.

So how come no Bt crops have shown reduced yield and it is only HR soybeans that show this effect?

Myth: The promotion of GMOs will only make farmers more dependent on the giant agribusinesses. Farmers, even in the First World, work with very low profit margins (the National Farmers Federation estimates it at 2-3% in this country) but with very high overheads for inputs such as machinery, storage, processing and fertilisers.

If the farmer can get the seed for free and keep it afterwards (eg golden rice) how is she more dependent on the giant multinationals? Not all GM crops need follow the current marketing strategies of the multinational companies.

Myth: GMOs will increase farmers' input costs. The use of, say, herbicide-resistant GM crops will mean the farmer is charged more for the GM seed and is then tied to using a particular brand of herbicide, from a particular agribusiness, to control weeds. Biotech companies are even seeking to develop GM crops whose seed is infertile after one or two generations, thereby requiring expensive repurchasing of seed stock.

It is self-evident that this cannot be true. Farmers run a business. If something makes their business more expensive without a benefit then they are not going to use it, are they?

Myth 3: The techniques involved in genetic modification are not precise.

Biotech companies claim that techniques involved in genetic modification are MORE precise THAN CONVENTIONAL BREEDING. That is all they claim. It is a fact the genes introduced by GM are more precisely understood (we know what protein they make, we can test this protein in feeding trials, etc) than are the genes introduced by conventional breeding (which can number in the thousands, from wild relatives of crop plants that may be toxic to humans.)

Myth: In neither case is the biologist able to direct, or even know, where the introduced genetic material is placed in the DNA of the host.

This is only half true. It is true that with currently used technology, the biologist can not direct where the introduced genetic material is placed in the DNA of the host. But the conventional breeder can not direct where the new genetic material is placed either. Location of the introduced gene does not matter nearly as much as the characteristics of the inserted gene. If you put a toxic gene in by conventional breeding or by GM it can still be toxic no matter where in the host DNA it ends up.

The last half of the statement - that the biologist can not "know where the introduced genetic material is placed in the DNA of the host" is not true. Once a new gene is introduced into a crop by genetic engineering the biologist is able to sequence the DNA surrounding the introduced genetic material and deterimine exactly where the introduced DNA has ended up. The biologist can determine if the new gene has interupted an existing gene using this technology. In contrast, the conventional breeder can not deterimine where the genetic material she has introduced has landed because she does not know what her genes look like. The process of recombination that occurs during the sexual crossing of conventional breeding may have interupted some genes in the host but we would never know this. Again GE is MORE precise than conventional breeding.

Myth: They use antibiotic resistance genes as part of the incorporated genetic material, so that the genetically modified cell can be selected by treating the cell culture with antibiotic to kill off all the cells that don't have the genetic material incorporated into their DNA. This, however, does not mean that the cell resulting from this procedure is what's required: almost anything could have happened.

Almost anything? Such as putting a fish gene into a tomato and ending up with a fish perhaps???

Almost anything cannot happen.

Myth: Biotech giant Monsanto has released data showing that there was extra genetic material inserted into its GM soya beans. This was not reported in the original applications for release of this GM crop and puts a lie to the claims of regulation authorities, such as the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority, that their testing methods consist of a "rigorous safety assessment process".

The fact that Monsanto reported that Roundup Ready soybeans have two additional bits of DNA in fact proves how precise the technology is. That scientists can even tell that there are 322 base pairs of extra DNA in 2.4 billion base pairs of genome and that they can tell you exactly what this sequence is shows how precise the technology is. Conventional breeders have no chance of telling you what un-characterised sequences are in their new crops. So again this just shows that GM techniques are MORE PRECISE than CONVENTIONAL BREEDING.

The "extra DNA" in the roundup soybeans comes from fragments of the roundup resistance gene that the researchers put into the soybeans. It has not materialised from nowhere. Since this DNA is well characterised -- we know where it came from and what it does -- it is very unlikely that having un-characterised fragments of this DNA in the plant will cause any safety problems. This is because fragments of genes are very unlikely to function at all. It is extremely unlikely that gene fragments will produce a toxin because toxins have specific structures -- it is very difficult to make a non-toxic protein into a toxin by random changes. In contrast conventional breeding results in the introduction of many fully functioning, but un-characterised, genes into crop plants many of which could be toxins. No toxicity testing of such conventionally bred plants is mandated anywhere.

On the other hand, a crop produced by GM techniques, which has a relatively very small chance of being toxic in the first place, is subjected to toxicity testing before release "just in case". So these crops are as safe or safer than conventionally bred crops.

The following paper is interesting to consider in regards to the toxicity of plant compounds:

Beier RC (1990) Natural pesticides and bioactive components in foods. Rev Environ Contam Toxicol 113:47-137

Abstract: In this review, some common food plants and their toxic or otherwise bioactive components and mycotoxin contaminants have been considered. Crucifers contain naturally occurring components that are goitrogenic, resulting from the combined action of allyl isothiocyanate, goitrin, and thiocyanate. Although crucifers may provide some protection from cancer when taken prior to a carcinogen, when taken after a carcinogen they act as promoters of carcinogenesis. The acid-condensed mixture of indole-3-carbinol (a component of crucifers) binds to the TCDD receptor and causes responses similar to those of TCDD. Herbs contain many biologically active components, with more than 20% of the commercially prepared human drugs coming from these plants. Onion and garlic juices can help to prevent the rise of serum cholesterol. Most herbs used in treatments may have many natural constituents that act oppositely from their intended use. Some herbs like Bishop's week seed contain carcinogens, and many contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can cause cirrhosis of the liver. The general phytoalexin response in plants (including potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, celery, and sweet potatoes) induced by external stimuli can increase the concentrations of toxic chemical constituents in those plants. In potatoes, two major indigenous compounds are alpha-solanine and alpha-chaconine, which are human plasma cholinesterase inhibitors and teratogens in animals. Because of its toxicity, the potato variety Lenape was withdrawn from the market. Celery, parsley, and parsnips contain the linear furanocoumarin phytoalexins psoralen, bergapten, and xanthotoxin that can cause photosensitization and also are photomutagenic and photocarcinogenic. Celery field workers and handlers continually have photosensitization problems as a result of these indigenous celery furanocoumarins. A new celery cultivar (a result of plant breeding to produce a more pest-resistant variety) was responsible for significant incidences of phytophotodermatitis of grocery employees. Since there is no regulatory agency or body designated to oversee potential toxicological issues associated with naturally occurring toxicants, photodermatitis continues to occur from celery exposure. Sweet potatoes contain phytoalexins that can cause lung edema and are hepatotoxic to mice. At least one of these, 4-ipomeanol, can cause extensive lung clara cell necrosis and can increase the severity of pneumonia in mice. Some phytoalexins in sweet potatoes are hepatotoxic and nephrotoxic to mice. The common mushroom Agaricus bisporus contains benzyl alcohol as its most abundant volatile, and A. bisporus and Gyromitra esculenta both contain hydrazine analogues. Mycotoxins are found in corn, cottonseed, fruits, grains, grain sorghums, and nuts (especially peanuts); therefore, they also occur in apple juice, bread, peanut butter, and other products made from contaminated starting materials.

Myth 4: GMOs are not safe.

No one really knows whether GMOs are safe or not -- so little work has been done on this and even less has been released to the public. There has, however, been a lot of opinion put out, little of it substantiated.

A recent letter in Science magazine reported on a survey of published scientific databases suggested that there are very few published reports containing experimental data. A majority of the reports were just the opinion of the authors, mostly expressing their belief that GM foods are safe, without any experimental data to back up this claim.

Below is a (non-comprehensive) bibliography of 57 publications regarding the safety of GM food crops. The first 12 are published in peer-reviewed journals and I have supplied excerpts from the abstracts. These definitely report experimental data to back up their results. Eight more are meeting abstracts reporting data or are agricultural extension reports which also appear to be reporting data.

The rest of the bibliography is to show that the problem of the safety of GM foods has been considered by a large group of diverse organizations - many of which do not have a direct financial interest in GM foods. The consensus of these independent reviews of the data is that there is nothing about the making of GM crops that makes them inherently more dangerous than crops produced by conventional breeding.

The activists dismiss this list of published data with a wave of the hand and say that none of this research can be trusted because it has been done by company scientists or scientists funded by companies. Well this is a serious accusation. The activists are essentially accusing hundreds of scientists of fraud. Many of the studies below are done at independent labs with funds provided by the companies. But how else do you expect such research to be funded? Should the tax-payer pay to test the safety of this food so that the companies can make a profit from them? No. Would the activists fund the research? Would it be independent then?

The only practical way to test this is food is to use the model currently in place -- the company developing the product must pay for testing it and the data must be reviewed by an independent regulatory authority. This is the only feasible way. When asked for another feasible model the activists are suddenly silent.

Surely it is obvious that a company selling a food product will want an accurate assessment of whether it is safe or not -- especially in these highly litigatous times. A company's desire to be able to protect itself from law-suits ensures that the data collected by these animal studies is not fraudulent.

This food has been tested and it is a lie to suggest it has not. If the activists wish to say that the food has been tested but there has been a massive cover up of the negative results then let them try and sustain this claim.

Further discussion of the "Myths" document follows the bibliography.

Publications relevant to the saftey of GM foods

1. Brake, J. and D. Vlachos. 1998. Evaluation of event 176 "Bt" corn in broiler chickens. J. Poultry Sci. 77:648-653.

A 38-d feeding study evaluated whether standard broiler diets prepared with transgenic Event 176-derived "Bt" corn (maize) grain had any adverse effects on male or female broiler chickens as compared to diets prepared with nontransgenic (isogenic) control corn grain. No statistically significant differences in survival or BW were observed between birds reared on mash or pelleted diets prepared with transgenic corn and similar diets prepared using control corn.

2. Pusztai A, Grant G, Bardócz S, Alonso R, Chrispeels MJ, Schroeder HE, Tabe LM, Higgins TJV (1999) The effect of expression of bean alpha-amylase inhibitor (alpha-AI) transgene on the nutritional value of peas has been evaluated by pair- feeding rats diets containing transgenic or parent peas at 300 and 650 g/kg, respectively, and at 150 g protein/kg diet, supplemented with essential amino acids to target requirements.

3. Hammond, B., J. Vicini, G. Hartnell, M.W. Naylor, C.D. Knight, E. Robinson, R. L. Fuchs, and S.R. Padgetteet al. 1996. The feeding value of soybeans fed to rats, chickens, catfish and dairy cattle is not altered by genetic incorporation of glyphosate tolerance. J. Nutr. 126: 717-727.

Animal feeding studies were conducted with rats, broiler chickens, catfish and dairy cows as part of a safety assessment program for a soybean variety genetically modified to tolerate in-season application of glyphosate. These studies were designed to compare the feeding value (wholesomeness) of two lines of glyphosate-tolerant soybeans (GTS) to the feeding value of the parental cultivar from which they were derived.

4. Padgette, S., N. Taylor, D. Nider, et al. 1996. The composition of glyphosate-tolerant soybean seed is equivalent to that of conventional soybeans. J. Nutr. 126: 702-716.

The composition of seeds and selected processing fractions from two GTS lines, designated 40-3-2 and 61-67-1, was compared with that of the parental soybean cultivar, A5403. Nutrients measured in the soybean seeds included macronutrients by proximate analyses (protein, fat, fiber, ash, carbohydrates), amino acids and fatty acids. Antinutrients measured in either the seed or toasted meal were trypsin inhibitor, lectins, isoflavones, stachyose, raffinose and phytate. Proximate analyses were also performed on batches of defatted toasted meal, defatted nontoasted meal, protein isolate, and protein concentrate prepared from GTS and control soybean seeds. In addition, refined, bleached, deodorized oil was made, along with crude soybean lecithin, from GTS and control soybeans. The analytical results demonstrated the GTS lines are equivalent to the parental, conventional soybean cultivar

5. Sidhu, R.S., B.G. Hammond, R.L. Fuchs, J.N. Mutz, L.R. Holden, B. George and T. Olson. 2000. Glyphosate-Tolerant Corn: The Composition and Feeding Value of Grain from Glyphosate-Tolerant Corn is Equivalent to That of Conventional Corn (Zea Mays L.). J. Agric. Food Chem. 48:2305-2312.

The nutritional safety of corn line GA21 was evaluated in a poultry feeding study conducted with 2-day old, rapidly growing broiler chickens, at a dietary concentration of 50-60% w/w. Results from the poultry feeding study showed that there were no differences in growth, feed efficiency, adjusted feed efficiency, and fat pad weights between chickens fed with GA21 grain or with parental control grain.

6. Characterization of phospholipids from glyphosate-tolerant soybeans List, G. R.; Orthoefer, F.; Taylor, N.; Nelsen, T.; Abidi, S. L. (Food Quality and Safety Research, NCAUR, USDA, ARS, Peoria, IL, 61604, USA). J. Am. Oil Chem. Soc., 76(1), 57-60 1999

The phospholipids from 3 control and 2 glyphosate-tolerant soyabean cultivars were isolated by extraction of soya flakes with hexane and characterised after separation by HPLC. Several lots of commercial fluid lecithin were also analysed and the results were compared with values published in the literature. Phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine, phosphatidylinositol and phosphatidic acid were identified as major components in these cultivars and in the commercial lecithin samples. The results showed that glyphosate-tolerant soyabeans yield lecithin comparable and equivalent to conventional soyabean cultivars.

7. Compositional Analysis of Glyphosate -Tolerant Soybeans Treated with Glyphosate Taylor, Nancy B.; Fuchs, Roy L.; MacDonald, John; Shariff, Ahmed R.; Padgette, Stephen R. (Monsanto Company, St. Louis, MO, 63198, USA). J. Agric. Food Chem., 47(10), 4469-4473 1999

The composition of the seed from soybeans sprayed with glyphosate was compared to that of a nonsprayed parental control cultivar, A5403. The nutrients measured in the seed included protein, oil, ash, fiber, carbohydrates, and amino acids. The concentration of isoflavones (also referred to as phytoestrogens) was also measured as these compounds are derived from the same biochemical pathway that was engineered for glyphosate tolerance. The analytical results from these studies demonstrate that the GTS soybeans treated with glyphosate were comparable to the parental soybean cultivar, A5403, and other conventional soybean varieties

8. Harrison, L.A., M.R. Bailey, M. Naylor, J. Ream, B. Hammond, D.L. Nida, B. Burnette, T.E. Nickson, T. Mitsky, M.L. Taylor, R.L. Fuchs and S.R. Padgette. 1996. The Expressed Protein in Glyphosate-tolerance Soybean, 5-Enolpryruvyl-shikimate-3-phosphate Synthase from Agrobacterium sp. Strain CP4, is Rapidly Digested in vitro and is not Toxic to Acutely Gavaged Mice. J. Nutrition 126:728-740.

There were no deleterious effects due to the acute administration of CP4 EPSPS to mice by gavage at a high dosage of 572 mg/kg body wt, which exceeds 1000-fold tha anticipated consumption level of food products potentially containing CP4 EPSPS protein.

9. Berberich S.A., J.E. Ream, T.L. Jackson, R. Wood, R. Stipanovic, P. Harvey, S. Patzer, and R.L. Fuchs. 1996. Safety Assessment of Insect-Protected Cotton: The Composition of the Cottonseed is Equivalent to Conventional Cottonseed. J. Agric. Food Chem. 41:365-371.

A comparison was made of the nutrient and antinutrient levels in the seed both to the parental variety and to published values for other commercial cotton varieties, as part of the safety and product assessment of these lines. Compositional equivalence confirmed the appropriateness of these cotton lines (531, 757 and 1076) for use in food and feed products. The insect-protected lines and the parental control were shown to contain levels of nutrients comparable to those of other commercial varieties. The levels of the antinutrients gossypol, cyclopropenoid fatty acids and aflatoxin in the seed from the insect-protected lines were similar to or lower than the levels present in the parental variety and reported for other commercial varieties.

10. Nida, D.L., S. Patzer, P. Harvey, R. Stipanovic, R. Wood and R.L. Fuchs. 1996. Glyphosate-tolerant Cotton: The Composition of the Cottonseed is Equivalent to Conventional Cottonseed. J. Agric. Food Chem. 44:1967-1974.

The composition of the cottonseed and oil from two glyphosate-tolerant lines, 1445 and 1698, was compared to that of the untransformed Coker 312 and to published values for other commercial cotton varieties. The nutrients measured were protein, fat, fibre, carbohydrate, calories, moisture, ash, amino acids, and fatty acids. The antinutrients measured included gossypol, cyclopropenoid fatty acids, and aflatoxins. In addition, the fatty acid profile and alpha -tocopherol levels were measured in the refined oil. These analyses demonstrated that the glyphosate-tolerant cotton lines are compositionally equivalent to the parental and conventional cotton varieties commercially available.

11. Reed, A.J., K.A. Kretzmer, M.W. Naylor, R.F. Finn, K.M. Magin, B.G. Hammond, R.M. Leimgruber, S.G. Rogers and R.L. Fuchs. 1996. A Safety Assessment of 1-Aminocyclopropane-1-Carboxylic Acid Deaminase (ACCd) Protein Expressed in Delayed Ripening Tomatoes. J. Agric. Food Chem. 44:388-394.

Tomato plants with delayed fruit ripening have been produced by stable insertion of the gene encoding the 1-aminocyclopropane-1-carboxylic acid deaminase (ACCd) protein into the tomato chromosome. Two approaches were used to assess the safety of the ACCd protein for human consumption. Purified Escherichia coli-produced ACCd protein, which is chemically and functionally equivalent to the ACCd protein produced in delayed ripening tomato fruit, was used in these studies. First, the ACCd protein was readily degraded under simulated mammalian digestive conditions. Second, the ACCd protein did not have any deleterious effects when administered to mice by acute gavage at a dosage of up to 602 mg/kg of bodyweight. This dosage correlates to greater than a 5000-fold safety factor relative to the average daily consumption of tomatoes, assuming that all tomatoes consumed contain the ACCd protein. These results in conjunction with previously published data, established that ingestion of tomato fruit expressing the ACCd protein does not pose any safety concerns

12. Effect of GM and non-GM soybeans on the immune system of BN rats and B10A mice. Teshima, R.; Akiyama, H.; Okunuki, H.; Sakushima, J.; Goda, Y.; Onodera, H.; Sawada, J.; Toyoda, M. (2000). Shokuhin Eiseigaku Zasshi. Journal of the Food Hygienic Society of Japan vol. 41 (3) p.188-193

13. Ewen SW, Pusztai A (1999) Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. Lancet 354:1353-1316

Diets containing genetically modified (GM) potatoes expressing the lectin Galanthus nivalis agglutinin (GNA) had variable effects on different parts of the rat gastrointestinal tract. Some effects, such as the proliferation of the gastric mucosa, were mainly due to the expression of the GNA transgene. However, other parts of the construct or the genetic transformation (or both) could also have contributed to the overall biologic effects of the GNA-GM potatoes, particularly on the small intestine and caecum.

Accompanying commentary to this paper from the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton:

"The research letter by Ewen and Pusztai was received by the journal towards the end of 1998. Since then, it has been peer reviews by six specialist advisers - a nutritionist, a human pathologist, a veterinary pathologist, and agricultural geneticists, a plant molecular biologist and a statistician - who had several requests for clarification about the design of the study, the laboratory methods used, and the statistical tests applied. Some advised rejection; others encouraged us to go ahead and publish. The authors revised their letter three times to try to meet our reviewers' criticisms. The Royal Society's own internal review of the Pusztai data had led to the damming verdict that the study "is flawed in many aspects of design, execution, and analysis and that no conclusion should be drawn from it".

So why publish the paper? The answer lies partly in a February 1999, statement from the UK's chief scientific adviser, Robert May. While criticising the researchers' "sweeping conclusions about the unpredictability and safety of GM foods", he point to the frustration that had dogged this entire debate: "Pusztai's work has never been submitted for peer review, much less published, and so the usual evaluation of confusing claim and counter-claim effectively cannot be made". This problem was underlined by our reviewers, one of whom, while arguing that the data were "flawed" also noted that, "I would like to see [this work] published in the public domain so that fellow scientists can judge for themselves … if the paper is not published it will be claimed that there is a conspiracy to suppress information".

Publication of Ewen and Pusztai's findings is not, as some newspapers have reported, a "vindication" of Pusztai's earlier claims. On the contrary, publication of a paper after substantial review and revision provides a report that deservers further scientific attention."

14. Faust, M. 1998. Determining feeding related characteristics for Bt corn. 1998 Dairy Report. Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

15. Faust, M. and L. Miller. 1997. Study finds no Bt in milk. IC-478. Fall Special Livestock Edition. pp 6-7. Iowa State University Extension, Ames, Iowa.

16. Faust, M. 1999. Research update on Bt corn silage. Four State Applied Nutrition and Management Conference. MWPS-4SD5. 158-164.

17. Folmer, J.D., G.E. Erickson, C.T. Milton, T.J. Klopfenstein and J.F. Beck. 2000. Utilization of Bt corn residue and corn silage for growing beef steers. Abstract 271 presented at the Midwestern Section ASAS and Midwest Branch ADSA 2000 Meeting, Des Moines, IA.

18. Folmer, J.D., R.J. Grant, C.T. Milton and J.F. Beck. 2000. Effect of Bt corn silage on short-term lactational performance and ruminal fermentation in dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 83 (5):1182 Abstract 272.

19. Russell, J. and T. Peterson. 1999. Bt corn and non-Bt corn crop residues equal in grazing value. Extension News, June 30, 1999. Iowa State University Extension, Ames.

20. Russell, J.R., M.J. Hersom, A. Pugh, K. Barrett and D. Farnham. 2000. Effects of grazingcrop residues from bt-corn hybrids on the performance of gestating beef cows. Abstract244 presented at the Midwestern Section ASAS and Midwest Branch ADSA 2000 Meeting, Des Moines, IA.

21. Russell, J.R., D. Farnham, R.K. Berryman, M.J. Hersom, A. Pugh and K. Barrett. 2000. Nutritive value of the crop residues from bt-corn hybrids and their effects on performance of grazing beef cows. 2000 Beef Research Report -Iowa State University. p 56-61.

22. Assessment of the endogenous allergens in glyphosate -tolerant and commercial soybean varieties Burks, A. W.; Fuchs, R. L.. Arkansas Children's Hospital, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, AR 72202, USA.. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (1995) Vol. 96, No. 6, 1, pp. 1008-1010

23. Biotechnology and the soybean. Rogers, Stephen G. (Monsanto, Brussels, Belg.). Am. J. Clin. Nutr., 68(6, Suppl.), 1330S-1332S 1998.

24. Daenicke, R., D. Gadeken and K. Aulrich. 1999. Einsatz von Silomais herkF6mmlicher Sorten und der gentechnisch verE4nderten Bt Hybriden in der Rinderfhtterung - Mastrinder -. 12, Maiskolloquium. 40-42.

25. Aulrich, K., I. Halle and G. Flachowsky. 1998. Inhaltsstoffe und Verdaulichkeit von MaiskF6rnen der Sorte Cesar und der gentechnisch verE4nderten Bt-hybride bei Legenhennen. Proc Einfluss von Erzeugung und Verarbeitung auf die QualitE4t laudwirtschaftlicher Produkte. 465-468.

26. Halle, I., K. Aulrich and G. Flachowsky. 1998. Einsatz von MaiskF6rnen der Sorte Cesar und des gentechnisch verE4nderten Bt-Hybriden in der Broiler mast. Proc. 5. Tagung, Schweine- und GeflhgelernE4hrung, 01,-03.12.1998, Wittenberg p 265-267.

27. Assessment of the allergenic potential of foods derived from genetically engineered plants: glyphosate tolerant soybean as a case study Fuchs, R. L.; Eisenbrand, G. [EDITOR]; Aulepp, H. [EDITOR]; Dayan, A. D. [EDITOR]; Elias, P. S. [EDITOR]; Grinow, W. [EDITOR]; Ring, J. [EDITOR]; Schlatter, J. [EDITOR]. Ceregen (Monsanto Co.), 700 Chesterfield Parkway North, St. Louis, MO 63198, USA.. Meeting info.: Food allergies and intolerances: symposium. Food allergies and intolerances: symposium (1996 ) pp. 212-221. 38 ref Publisher: VCH Verlagsgesellschaft mbH. Weinheim. ISBN: 3-527-27409-X

28. Safety evaluation of glyphosate-tolerant soybeans Fuchs, R. L.; Re, D. B.; Rogers, S. G.; Hammond, B. G.; Padgette, S. R.. The Agricultural Group, Monsanto Company, St. Louis, MO 63198, USA. Meeting info.: Food safety evaluation. Proceedings of an OECD-sponsored workshop held on 12-15 September 1994, Oxford, UK. Food safety evaluation. Proceedings of an OECD-sponsored workshop held on 12-15 September 1994, Oxford, UK ( 1996 ) pp. 61-70. 32 ref Publisher: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Paris. ISBN: 92-64-14867-1

29. Herbicide tolerant soybeans: Why growers are adopting Roundup Ready varieties. Carpenter, J., Gianessi, L. AgBioForum 2(2), Spring, 1999.

30. ACNFP (Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes). 1991. Department of Health Report on Health and Social Subjects, No. 38. Guidelines on the Assessment of Novel Foods and Processes. London (HMSO).

31. ADA. 1993. Position of the American Dietetic Association Biotechnology and the Future of Food. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Vol. 93 (2) pp 189.

32. ASEAN, 1998. Primary Production Company (ed) Regulations for Agricultural Products Derived from Biotechnology. Proceedings of the ASEAN Workshop, April 1-2, 1998, Singapore.

33. Council on Scientific Affairs, American Medical Association 1991. Biotechnology and the American agricultural industry. J Amer Med Assoc 266(3):363-263.

34. FAO/WHO, 1991. Strategies for Assessing the Safety of Foods Produced by Biotechnology. Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Consultation. World Health Organization, Geneva.

35. FAO/WHO. 1996. Biotechnology and food safety. Report of a Joint JAO/WHO Consultation. FAO, Food and Nutrition Paper 61, Rome Italy. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 1992. Statement of Policy: Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties. Notice, Federal Register 57:104; 22984-23005.

36. Health Council of the Netherlands. 1992. Safety of Food Produced by New Biotechnology. Publication No. 92.03E. The Hague.

37. Health Protection Branch. 1994. Guidelines for the Safety Assessment of Novel Foods. Vol. I and II. Health Canada, Ottawa. James, C. 1998. Global Review of Commericalized Transgenic Crops: 1998. ISAAA Briefs No. 8. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY.

38. Japan Ministry of Health and Welfare (MHW). Guidelines for Foods and Food Additives Produced by the Recombinant DNA Techniques, 1996. (Japan)

39. Lavrik, P.B., Bartnicki, D.E., Feldman, J., Hammond, B.G., Keck, P.J., Love, S.L., Naylor, M.W., Rogan, G.J., Sims, S.R. and R.L. Fuchs. 1995. Safety Assessment of Potatoes Resistant to Colorado Potato Beetle. In Genetically Modified Foods, Safety Issues. K.H. Engel, G.R. Takeoka and R. Teranishi, eds. ACS, Washington, DC, pp 148-158.

40. Nordic Working Group on Food Toxicology and Risk Evaluation. 1991. Food and New Biotechnology - Novelty, Safety and Control Aspects of Foods Made by New Biotechnology. Nordic Council, Copenhagen, Nord 1991:

41. Nutritional Center for Nutrition and Dietetics (NCND) 1996. Food Biotechnology: safe, nutritious, healthful, abundant, and tasty food. Nutrition fact sheet. Chicago, Illinois USA.

42. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). 1993. Safety Evaluation of Foods Produced by Modem Biotechnology: Concepts and Principles. OECD, Paris.

43. OECD. 1996. OECD Documents: Food Safety Evaluation. OECD, Paris. Official Journal of the European Communities. January 27, 1997. Regulation (EC) No. 258/97 of The European Parliament and of the Council. No L43-1 p 7.

44. Sanders, P.R., T.C. Lee, M.E. Groth, J.D. Astwood and R.L. Fuchs. 1998. Safety Assessment of the Insect-Protected Corn. In Biotechnology and Safety Assessment, 2nd edition (Thomas, J.A., editor)

45. Taylor and Francis, pp 241-256. WHO. 1995. Application of the Principles of Substantial Equivalence to the Safety Evaluation of Foods and Food Components from Plants Derived by Modern Biotechnology. Report of a WHO Workshop. World Health Organization, Geneva. WHO/FNU/FOS/95. 1

46. Thomas R. DeGregori, Genetically Modified Nonsense (comprehensive report on biotech food safety) Institute for Economic Affairs, University of Houston http://www.iea.org.uk/env/gmo.htm

47. Kessler, D.A. The safety of foods developed by biotechnology, Science 1992 256: 1747.

48. Taylor, Michael R. ; Maryanski, James H. ; Flamm, Eric L. ; Kahl, Linda Nutrition Today June, 1991 Vol. 26 ; No. 3 ; Pg. 15; ISSN: 0029-666X20 Food safety and technology; how engineered food additives might affect food industry and production to reduce toxins found in food.

49. FDA Consumer magazine January-February 2000 Are Bioengineered Foods Safe?; by Larry Thompson OECD Reports October 1999 The Concept of Substantial Equivalence in the Safety Assessment of Novel Foods (http://www.oecd.org)

50. American Chemical Society, Washington, DC 1996 ACS Symposium Series 605 Genetically Modified Food: Safety Issues by Engel, Takeoko, Teranishi From symposium sponsored by the Division of Agriculture and Food Chemistry at the 208th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Washington, DC Aug 21-25, 1994. http://www.acs.org

51. Biotechnology and food safety FAO Food and Nutrition Paper 61 Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Consultation Rome, Italy, 20 September - 4 October 1996 http://www.fao.org

52. R&D Magazine November 1999 Beachy Speaks About the Safety of Transgenic Foods; http://www.rdmag.com/

53. Royal Society (UK) 1999 Review of data on possible toxicity of GM potatoes Source: http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/templates/statements/statementDetails.cfm?StatementID=29

54. Nutraceuticals International November 1, 1999 NFPA affirms biotech food safety to Senate US STATE DEPARTMENT ISSUES AN ELECTRONIC JOURNAL ON "BIOTECHNOLOGY: FOOD SECURITY AND SAFETY" November 2, 1999 Biotechnology: Food Security And Safety Focus, Economic Perspectives, October 1999

55. CHEMTECH. Safety consideration for food ingredients January 1998/ CHEMTECH 1998, 28(1), 40-46.

56. Canadian Newswire Oct 25, 199920 Genetically Enhanced Foods are Thoroughly Tested for Safety

57. Monsanto Company June 1998 Patricia R. Sanders, Thomas C. Lee, Mark E. Groth, Jim D. Astwood, and Roy L. Fuchs Safety-Assessment Of Insect-Protected Corn

Myth: One of the few published reports with experimental data tells of GM potatoes, modified to contain a lectin, which were found to have toxic effects on rats' organs, including the brain and the immune system. Similar tests on rats using non-modified potatoes turned up no such results.

Wrong Wrong Wrong:

The report referred to is reference # 13 above. No mention of an effect on the brain or the immune system is given in this report.

The facts: This paper looks at the structure of the gut linings of rats fed genetically modified (GM) potatoes expressing the snowdrop lectin protein (GNA) and compares this to the guts of rats fed the parent line of potatoes or the parent line spiked with the GNA protein.

The essence of data in this paper is that crypt length in the jejunum of rats fed GNA-GM potatoes was significantly greater than those in the parent line or the parent-line spiked with GNA. This difference was only seen with raw potatoes. In contrast looking at the caecal crypt lengths they found that the GNA-GM potatoes caused smaller crypt lengths than did the parent line or the parent-line spiked with GNA. But this difference was only found with boiled potatoes.

So the claim from the authors is that the transformation event or the gene construct produces one compound that is heat stable and that makes the jejunum proliferate but has no effect on the caecum. And at the same time the transformation event or the construct produces another compound that is heat activated that has an anti-proliferation effect on the caecum but no effect on the jejunum. To me this sounds a pretty extraordinary hypothesis.

Ockam's razor would suggest that all other simpler explanations should be eliminated first before accepting this complex hypothesis. Ie the principles of the scientific method would suggest that such results be repeated before any conclusions be drawn. The British Royal Society panel of scientists agree with this assessment concluding that the work "is flawed in many aspects of design, execution and analysis and that no conclusions should be drawn from it."


It may well be that the particular potato that Pusztai studied would turn out to be definitely toxic to rats if it was studied further. However, these potatoes were in no way near commercial release to the farmer or the public. Claims that there were commercial agreements in place between certain parties may be true. However, as is the case with pretty much all research these days, commercial agreements to develop a technology are usually signed very early on in the development of a project. But the existence of such an agreement does not mean these potatoes were about to be commercially released into the food chain.

These GM potatoes have not been continued with. All this data shows is that testing GM foods works. You can spot possible problems using animal tests. Even Pusztai himself admits GM-foods should be subjected to case-by-case animal testing and he does not believe all GM food is dangerous as can be seen by his statements in publication #2 above "transgenic peas expressing bean alpha-AI gene could be used in rat diets at 300 g/kg level without major harmful effects on their growth, metabolism and health".


Myth: The researcher, Dr Arpad Pusztai, lost his job after he mentioned the experiment during a television interview. His critics claim his work was never peer-reviewed -- yet the survey reported in Science also found that none of the articles published by biotechnology companies were peer-reviewed either.

Just about everything in this statement is wrong:

First, it is not correct that the Science survey found "that none of the articles published by biotechnology companies were peer-reviewed either". The survey in Science referred to, is by Domingo and he found 7 papers on GM food in peer-reviewed literature. I have a (probably non-exhaustive list) of 13 peer reviewed GM-food articles.

Some of the other publications in the above bibliography are abstracts presented to meetings -- which acts as a form of peer review.

Second, the lack of publication in a peer reviewed journal does not mean that testing has not been done. As many people will know, publishing results of experiments where there is no difference between the treatments is very difficult - mainly because there is not a Journal of Boring Results. Thus, many of the studies become fodder for meeting abstracts and never get published in peer reviewed journals. All of the boring reports are however submitted to regulatory authorities. Thus, while they are not reviewed by journal editors or reviewers they are peer reviewed by the people in the respective regulatory organisations.

Thirdly, the fact is that the potato work of Puzstai HAS been peer reviewed and it was found wanting -- but it was published anyway. As the note from the Lancet editor that accompanied the publication stated: "[one of the reviewers] while arguing that the data were "flawed" also noted that, "I would like to see [this work] published in the public domain so that fellow scientists can judge for themselves … if the paper is not published it will be claimed that there is a conspiracy to suppress information". The editor also noted "Publication of Ewen and Pustai's findings is not, as some newspapers have reported, a "vindication" of Pusztai's earlier claims".

Myth 5: It is claimed that genetic engineering poses little or no chance of gene transfer to unrelated organisms.


What is claimed is that GE crops pose no more danger of gene transfer to unrelated organisms than do conventionally produced crop varieties. What is also claimed is that the frequency of such gene transfer (from GE or non-GE crops) is very very low.

Myth: Professor Hans-Hinrich Kaatz from Institute for Bee Research at the University of Jena experimented for three years on the effects of GM rapeseed (canola) on honey bees -- and found gene transfer to the bacteria and fungi in the bees' gut.

Pollen collected from bees flying freely around the GM crop was fed to young honey bees in the laboratory. The contents of the young bees' intestines were then cultured and the micro-organisms analysed -- the GM gene that had been inserted into the rapeseed crop was found in these micro-organisms.

I don't know where the author of this document got the details from this experiment because this has never been published anywhere as far as I know. One also should note that the herbicide resistance gene in the GM rapeseed crop is actually a bacterial gene. It is a gene found in the bacterium Streptomyces hygroscopicus which is a common soil bacterium. I do not know how common this bacteria is in the guts of insects. However, a literature search tells me that Streptomyces species are found in termites and a mosquito Culex quinquefasciatus. So they are found in some insects at least.

As I understand the work of Dr. Kaatz, the PCR technique was used to amplify the Bar gene. In light of the fact that this gene exists quite commonly in natural populations of bacteria and these bacteria are found in some insects it would be very important to determine the source of the bar gene in the bees. Was it from transgenic plants or from natural bacterium? This would require a careful study with good controls. So we will have to wait and see what Dr Kaatz publishes before we can make up our minds about this.

Here is a release from the Friedrich Schiller University Media Service where Dr Kaatz works:

Indications of Gene Transfer Between Genetically Modified Plants and Micro-organisms

Jena, 23 May 1999. First indications of horizontal gene transfer between genetically modified plants and micro-organisms have been discovered by scientists at the University of Jena and the Hans Knöll Institute for Natural Substance Research in Jena. In a four-year project subsidised by the Science Ministries of the German Federation and the Bundesland Thuringia, Dr.Hans-Hinrich Kaatz and Dr. Stefan Wölfl investigated the effects of transgenic plants on the honeybee under laboratory conditions. They found that the transgenic nature of new maize and oilseed rape varieties had no adverse effects on the bees even under extreme conditions. Kaatz and Wölfl specifically criticised the misleading reports from environmental organisations and in the media. "We can more or less completely rule out any risk to bees," said Kaatz, "but this will remain an issue of concern for our project." Kaatz and Wölfl also stated that effects on human beings appeared to be very unlikely. "Investigations are being carried out into this, but not by us."

In their experiments, however, they certainly did find genetic material from the modified plant genome in intestinal microbes of honeybees. "We have suspected for a long time that these micro-organisms are able in principle to take up foreign genetic information," said Stefan Wölfl, "though this occurs only in very rare cases." The two scientists are still unable to say definitely how long the foreign genetic information would continue to exist in the micro-organisms or whether it could be effectively activated. They summed up the situation by saying: "Our results are certainly significant from a scientific point of view, but on the basis of knowledge currently available there is no reason for any anxiety about human and animal health".

Myth: Because GMOs are created by the insertion of a foreign gene into the plants' genome, rather than incorporation such as would take place through breeding, it is more likely that this foreign gene will be released into the environment due to the DNA repair and self-correcting mechanisms of cells.

This a baseless assertion. It sounds like an idea that Mae-Wan Ho from ISIS tries to promulgate. Dr Ho makes the claim that "chimeric" DNA molecules (DNA molecules made by joining two bits of DNA from different sources together) are inherently unstable. Ho claims instability of chimeric molecules is the subject of text books. The text book she refers to is Principles of Genetic Manipulation: R.W. Old and S.B. Primrose 5th edition (1994), chapter 8, page 164 - Structural Instability. I have actually taken the time to look at this text.

This text book actually refers to data about non-chimeric molecules being unstable because of repetitive sequences and has zero relevance to Ho's assertion that chimeric molecules are inherently unstable. What Old and Primrose do say is: "A common feature of these deletions is the involvement of homologous recombination between short direct repeats".

Ie, DNAs are unstable if they have repeat regions. Molecules like this are subject to recombination whether they are naturally occurring (such as in the "junk DNA" of eukaryotes - witness the variation in the length of tandem repeats of repetitive DNA used as markers for gene mapping in eukaryotes) or whether they are chimeric molecules. It is dependent on the repetition of DNA sequences not on the chimeric nature of the molecule.

Old and Primrose also talk about other situations where plasmid molecules are subject to deletions. It references Michel and Ehrlich 1986 which reports deletions in NON-CHIMERIC E.coli chromosomes. It also refers to instability due to the NATURALLY occurring transposable elements - nothing to do with chimeric molecules.

Another situation where deletions form is when attempts are made to express proteins at high levels in E.coli from chimeric plasmids. If the protein is toxic to the cell then there is high selection pressure to form mutants of the plasmid which have deletions of the chimeric plasmid. This occurs only in specific situations depending on the nature of the protein that is being expressed. It is possible because of the nature of bacterial cultures there are large numbers of cells to select from and thus rare mutants can quickly dominate a culture. It is due to the toxic nature of the gene product not to the "chimeric nature" of the DNA molecule. This has zero relevance to the situation in transgenic plants. Chimeric molecules producing non-toxic proteins are completely stable (Witness the ability of scientists to exchange plasmids with each other. Witness the ability of different sequencing labs to sequence shared clones and get 100% matches).

MW Ho's ability to back up her claims is limited so far to misquoting from a text book.

Myth 6: The promotion of genetic engineering is due to the greed and self-interest of particular transnational corporations.

The production of Golden (vitaminA) rice proves that this is not a myth. GM crops can be developed without the influence of the greed and self-interest of transnational corporations. Transnational corporations don't have a monopoly on good ideas.

The activists have tried to shift the debate over golden rice to cover whether or not the rice will actually help people with vitamin A deficiency in the developing world. But this is actually irrelevant to the claim that GM food is solely the domain of greedy transnational corporations. The fact that someone tried to produce a new plant variety that has no commercial benefits to the transnational corporations and the fact that agreements have been drawn up to distribute this plant for free proves that this technology has the potential to work for the poor. This particular application may or may not succeed but it proves the point that the technology is not solely in the domain of the rich multi-national corporations.

"Golden Rice" fulfils all the wishes the GMO opposition had earlier expressed in their criticism of the use of the technology, and it thus nullifies all the arguments against genetic engineering with plants in this specific example:

  • Golden Rice has not been developed by and for industry.
  • It fulfils an urgent need by complementing traditional interventions.
  • It presents a sustainable, cost-free solution, not requiring other resources.
  • It avoids the unfortunate negative side effects of the Green Revolution.
  • Industry does not benefit from it.
  • Those who benefit are the poor and disadvantaged.
  • It is given free of charge and restrictions to subsistence farmers.
  • It does not create any new dependencies.
  • It will be grown without any additional inputs.
  • It does not create advantages to rich landowners.
  • It can be resown every year from the saved harvest.
  • It does not reduce agricultural biodiversity.
  • It does not affect natural biodiversity.
  • There is, so far, no conceptual negative effect on the environment.
  • There is, so far, no conceivable risk to consumer health.
  • It was not possible to develop the trait with traditional methods, etc.
Myth: No matter what the regulation authorities think (or tell the public), the transnational corporations involved in GMOs will find ways to circumvent any restriction placed on them.

If this really is true, then what makes you think you can stop them by protesting?

Roger Morton

Opinions expressed in this article are the authors and should not be construed as being official opinions of my employer.