‘Genetic Roulette the movie’: a review

JeffreySmith genetic roulete
Jeffrey Smith in “Genetic Roulette”

Genetic Roulette” is activist Jeffrey Smith’s film version of the arguments he puts forward in his eponymous self-published book. Smith has no scientific training and he relies on a number of “experts” to make his case that GM foods are somehow bad for you.

“Americas are getting sicker, and one reason may be GMOs.”

This is as close to causality as the film ever reaches:  his evidence is anecdotal and not the result of rigorous scientific investigations. His experts for the most part are not scientists at all, but drawn from parents, activists, pseudo-scientists and members of the alternative medicine community.

We hear from the owner of Dr Bronner’s Magic Soaps, osteopath Arden Anderson, lawyer and Maharishi University faculty member Steven Druker, Lawrence Plumlee, MD, an alternative medicine specialist, Garry Gordon, an osteopath, Robyn O’Brien, the author of a nonscientific alarmist book we have already reviewed, Bob Street, MS, an agronomy consultant, Dan Skow, DVM who represents the discredited Albrecht and Reams school of agricultural theory, Michael W Fox, DVM who dabbles in homeopathy and acupuncture, Shiv Chopra who was fired from Health Canada for his unsupported views on bovine growth hormone, Analiese Behling ND, Michelle Perro, MD a specialist in complimentary and integrative medicine, Doris Rapp, a homeopath, Michael Visconti, ND, William Cowden, MD, a homeopath who was reprimanded twice in Texas and Russell Maur, ND.

Smith claims that “chronic illnesses are now epidemic,” and would like to connect this assertion with consumption of GMO foods. However, it is well known that the causes are the aging of the population, poor access to affordable care, and increases in diabetes associated with excess caloric intake. For example, recent surveys suggest that fewer than half of U.S. patients with hypertension, depression, diabetes, and asthma are receiving appropriate treatment.

Smith also claims that transgenic plant breeding amounts to genes being randomly forced into DNA. In fact insertion of transgenes is less disruptive than conventional plant breeding, as shown in papers by Di Carli, and by Catchpole.

He also claims a significant increase in digestive disorders but is unable to make any actual connection to consumption of GM foods. In fact, digestive disorders are mostly associated primarily with poor dietary practices.

His claim that there is an increase in “leaky gut syndrome” is particularly specious, since this is not a recognized diagnosis. And his attempts to tie this diagnosis to autism spectrum disorder are ridiculous, since this entire theory was put forth by the discredited Andrew Wakefield and has been retracted.

And a statement suggesting that autism spectrum disorder “may be” increasing because of GMOs, but “we can’t say for sure,” is simply irresponsible. Further, the Center for Disease Control has noted that while there has been an increase in the reporting of autism spectrum disorders, it is not entirely clear whether there has been an actual increase in the disorder itself.

Anecdotal evidence versus peer-reviewed research

Nearly all of the “evidence” put forward in this alarmist film is in the form of anecdotal evidence: one farmer or parent telling a story about how GM crops hurt their farm animals or children. But there is simply no peer-reviewed research to support any of these findings. There are no carefully measured feedings or double blind studies to support their anecdotes.

Alleged dangers of Bt crops

Much of the focus of this film has to do with corn and other crops that contain a gene that causes generation of Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) insecticide. The thesis of these segments it that this bacterium, toxic only to lepidoptera, is dangerous to humans and to livestock.

However, Bt has been sprayed on crops for over 50 years, and is preferentially used by organic farmers. If there were human reactions or effects on livestock, nearly every farmer would be reporting them In fact, there are just about no research papers at all reporting any such problems.

In fact, Siegel reviewed a large number of papers on Bt products in 2001, finding that they have an excellent safety record in labs and in the field.

Exceptions are the papers of French bio-activist Giles-Eric Seralini, who claimed to find tumors in rats fed with Bt treated feed. One of these is briefly flashed on the screen The only trouble was that he used Sprague Dawley rats that develop tumors in later about 71% of the time. And guess what: Seralini’s rats developed tumors about 72% of the time. His work was debunked by Campbell and by Chassy and Miller. It’s also worth noting that Seralini is hardly unbiased, as he is the principal scientist  of the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, which exists to oppose the use of GM crops. And his work is funded by Greenpeace, which also takes an anti-GMO stance.

The film also briefly flashes a paper by Aris and LeBlanc alleging maternal and fetal exposure to Bt from GMO corn, but the paper actually reports possible detection of the Cry1Ab protein. But the Food Standards Institute points out that the detection method has not been validated for this protein, and the Cry1Ab protein could also come from spraying of crops with Bt pesticides. And the paper does not in fact imply that there is any human safety issue here. Tribe has similar observations.

On the other hand, an extensive review of animal feeding studies by the European food Safety Authority found that the GM crops were comparable to traditional crops.

In another segment, the film asserts that Indian farms develop allergies after working in Bt fields, that thousands of animals got sick and that buffalo died after grazing on Bt cotton plants. There are no published claims or research confirming these stories, nor is there any medical evidence confirming these claims. Again, if there were such serious effects, they would be reported world-wide rather than in one or two farms in India. It is more likely that the feed was contaminated.

Numerous safety studies have confirmed the safety of Bt cotton, (see Brookes and Barfoot)  and it now comprises more than half of all cotton grown world wide.  Academicsreview.org notes that many of these claims

come from a self-proclaimed anti-GM activist organization, however, they do label their report as preliminary and note that it is only based on interviews with a very small number of people. Smith is more bold in his claims than self-admitted opponents of the technology.

Genetically modified soy is safe for animals

 The movie suggests that feeding animal GM soy products causes rat testicular changes, causes a fertility decline and is nutrient deficient. However, dozens of published peer-reviewed studies such as Flachowsky (2005) and Flachowsky, Aulrich, Bohme and Hall (2007) have concluded that there are “no significant differences in safety or nutritional value between Gm feeds and conventional feeds.”  And findings reported in the press but never published by Ermakova have been studied and found to “defy logic.”

Don Huber’s strange organism

One of the few actual scientists represented in this film is Emeritus Professor of Plant Pathology (Purdue) Don Huber. Huber had an extensive career in 1980s and 1990s, but has published nothing since 2005. In fact, we find a total of only 4 papers of his in all of PubMed. Huber’s expertise is/was in the manganese uptake in plants and its relation to glyphosate (Roundup).

However, within this film he is more concerned with his “discovery” of an “electron microscopic pathogen… new to science.” This pathogen is apparently found in plants treated with Roundup, or perhaps in the Roundup resistance gene. Other than his letter to the USDA expressing his concern, there is no research, no paper and, it would seem, no science whatever. While, this certainly could be possible, the proof remains with Dr Huber, who has provided no evidence for this extraordinary claim. His claims have been seriously questioned by Anastasia on Biofortified.org.

Huber also claims that Roundup weakens plants by preventing their uptake of manganese and other minerals. He has published a number of articles as part of fertilizer advertisements suggesting addition of the missing minerals may be beneficial. However, a team of Iowa state agronomists studied all the available literature in this area and concluded that it was possible that some Roundup Ready (RR) varieties are somewhat less effective in taking up manganese compared to non RR varieties, but that it was just as likely that some other difference between the plant varieties give rise to this observation.

In other words, there is little or no evidence that RR crops take up minerals less efficiently than non-RR varieties. And there is no evidence of a mysterious new organism!

rBST Milk is just the same as any other milk

The treatment of cows with rBST bovine growth hormone to increase milk production has been the subject of more misinformation than any other issue. The propaganda against rBST in the press as well as in Smith’s movie and books is so intense, that a group of scientists got together to debunk all of these bizarre claims.

To summarize:

  • Milk from rBST treated cows contains no more IGF-1 than conventional milk.
  • All milk contains hormones, and rBST treated milk contains no more than conventional milk.
  • rBST milk is just as nutritious as conventional milk.
  • rBST milk does not contain antibiotics
  • Regulators were not bribed to approve rBST milk
  • rBST allows for more efficient production and is thus better for the environment.

 

Roundup is one of the safest herbicides ever developed

Roundup is the trade name for the chemical glyphosate, brought to market in the 1970s. Its patent expired in 2000 and it is available from a number of suppliers. A review by Duke in Powles in 2008 summarized the research on glyphosate, noting that it has become the dominant herbicide worldwide, and was in wide use long before glyphosate-resistant (Roundup Ready) crops were developed.

It is one of the least toxic pesticides to animals, being less toxic than salt or aspirin. It is environmentally benign since it binds tightly to the soil and does not move in soil groundwater. It also has a short environmental half-life since it breaks down by microbial degradation in the soil. It does not cause mutations. This is confirmed in the latest EPA registration materials.

Like all herbicides, there is always danger of weeds developing glyphosate resistance, and the above review describes strategies for avoiding this.

 

Smith does not understand basic chemistry

The preponderance of sugar beets grown in the US are genetically modified and Roundup Ready. However, there is no evidence whatever that such sugar beets are harmful. Moreover, the final product is pure sugar (sucrose) much as it is from sugar cane. Since sugar is a pure compound, the source of that sugar is irrelevant, and making health claims about one source of pure sugar over another is simply ridiculous.

Along the same lines, the artificial sweetener aspartame is not a genetically modified food in any way. However, aspartame is created from aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and the phenylalanine may be made using genetically modified E-coli bacteria. Regardless of how it is made, aspartame is still a pure compound and its ancestry is irrelevant!

This is not a grass roots movement

Jeffrey Smith is the sole employee of the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), located at his home in Fairfield, Iowa. This institute provides funding for much of the anti-biotechnology movement, such as, for example, GMO Free Connecticut and other similar state groups. The IRT, in turn, is pretty much entirely supported by the organic food industry, acknowledging support from Eden, Organic Valley, Frey Vineyards, Nutiva, Nature’s Path, Sun Ridge Farms, Mercola.com, Beanitos, Earth Balance, Whole Soy Co., Earth’s Best, New Chapter Organics, Rudi’s Organic Bakery, Natural News, and Kamut-Khorasan. It is thus an Astro-turf organization.

The idea that GM foods are in any way dangerous is what Paul Krugman calls a “zombie idea,” an idea that has been thoroughly disproven but still won’t die. Not only have over three trillion meals been served over 15 years without any reported effects, but prominent former GM opponent Mark Lynas has reversed himself, calling GM opposition an “anti-science movement.” He noted that

 You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.

Final review

About one hour of the film presents various alleged problems with GM crops and about half an hour is devoted to anti-transgenic evangelism. In fact, it attempts to scare you with these terrible examples. You can rent or buy the film from Smith and the anti-GMO campaigns are scheduling showings of the film in every state where their campaign is attempting to force GMO labeling laws.

Overall, the film is misleading and untruthful and best watched with a very skeptical eye or simply avoided. Sadly, the Greenwich Audubon Society ihosted a showing of this movie. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Acknowledgements

Many of the references in this article are taken from the helpful site academicsreview.org, where working professional biologists have used peer-reviewed science to debunk every single claim in Smith’s book Genetic Roulette. We also want to acknowledge helpful discussions with Professor Bruce Chassey.

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