GMOs Decoded is Tufts Professor Sheldon Krimsky’s latest skeptical discussion on the virtues of plant biotechnology. Unlike his previous book, The GMO Deception, Krimsky here appears at first to take a more nuanced approach, by taking about eight of his fourteen chapters to explain the details of various biotechnology issues.
The book opens with a Foreword by nutritionist Marion Nestle, which you can read here in her column. Nestle has never been a fan of biotechnology so her comments are fairly anodyne.
Then, in the Introduction, gives away the game by noting that “there is a strong scientific consensus among elites over GMOs.” He goes on to say that “Although some scientists have declared the debate…over,” referencing Jon Entine’s Forbes article which references von Eenennaam and Young’s trillion animal feed study, This major study in the Journal of Animal Science studies feed records for over 100 billion animals fed either GE or non-GE foods, and found no unfavorable effects on the animals.
Then Krimsky notes that “other scientists declare with equal confidence that there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety.” His reference is to a paper in the trivial non-journal Environmental Sciences Europe, by prominent GMO disinformationists: Nicholas DeFarge, Michael Antoniou from Seralini’s group, and Indian pseudo-science mystic Vandana Shiva, among others. The paper presents no research but merely a report on a petition signed by “300 scientists worldwide.” (I have that list and most of the signatories are not scientists.)
The Seralini problem
Critiques of biotechnology, or colloquially “GMOs,” really was heightened by Giles-Eric Seralini’s 2012 paper in Food and Chemical Toxicology featuring tumor-laden Sprague-Dawley rats: Long-term toxicity of Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically-modified maize.” Even the title made the objective confusing. Wayne Parrott’s criticism describes the paper’s problems clearly.
The paper had so many problems from animal husbandry to poor experimental design that protests and a re-review caused the journal to withdraw the paper. It was eventually reprinted (without review) in Environmental Sciences Europe where you can find it now.
Seralini’s group has continued to publish papers critical of biotechnology, all of questionable validity, and many very difficult to follow. His co-workers and colleagues have been publishing these papers ever since, and Brazeau has dubbed them the “Seralini pseudo-science syndicate.” And none of his lab’s papers have been replicated be others.
You can learn a great deal about a book’s approach by scanning the footnotes, which occupy pages 156-181 in Krimsky’s book. It doesn’t take long to discover that the footnotes are larded with 15 references to Seralini’s disinformation machine.
Charles Benbrook who was for a few years at Washington State University, but whose salary was paid by the Organic Center and has close ties anti-GMO activists, appears in 5 footnotes, and his paper (published in a predatory pay-to-play journal) claiming negative impacts of GM crops has been roundly debunked by Brookes, Carpenter and McHughen.
Jonathan Latham, publisher and author of the anti-biotech Independent Science News appears twice arguing that transgenic plants can sometimes mutate dangerously. He has been severely criticized by Katiree.
There are, however, many footnotes to well-regarded sources such as Brown and Federoff’s Mendel in the Kitchen and papers by legitimate scientists like Wayne Parrott and Alessandro Nicolia, for example.
The book starts out soberly as an outline of various genetic breeding techniques: traditional, molecular and their differences. Chapter 4 details difficulty in producing the Flavr-Savr tomato and FrostBan bacteria. Chapter 5 covers herbicide resistant crops and brings up no-till farming, which can improve soil health. However, it suggests that herbicide resistant weeds may require tilling. However, this has obvious solutions in crop rotation. The chapter also brings up Benbrook’s discredited paper claiming increases in herbicide use that are significantly overstated. This chapter also brings up the IARCs discredited claim that glyphosate can cause cancer.
Chapter 6 fairly and accurately covers disease resistant crops, but in Chapter 7 covering insect resistant crops, Krimsky goes afield in his summary of Starlink Corn, spending several pages scaring us, only to finally report that there was no evidence that Starlink corn caused any illnesses. Krimsky then cites Antoniou and Robinson from Seralini’s stable to claim GM-fed rats suffered liver and kidney damage in a 3-generation study that you can safely ignore.
Chapter 8 on GMO Risk Assessment makes claims that “scientists differ,” but suffers from a dearth of supporting footnotes on who and what these differences are. There is a lot of “some groups” but “other groups” but little supporting explanation.
Chapter 9 on Contested Viewpoints argues that trans-genes may be placed differently and could result in plants having different properties, including varying toxicity, but cites Latham twice and actual scientists in Kuiper et. al. You have to actually check the papers to see that there is little to be concerned about here. He also raises the question of whether pre-market testing is actually done, as if this is not a requirement for approval. Krimsky also gets “substantial equivalence” wrong, but Kuiper explains it clearly.
- Substantial Equivalence is a starting point for a safety assessment
- Make a comparison between the GM organism and its closes traditional counterpart.
- Identify intended or unintended difference on which further safety assessment should be focused.
By contrast, Krimsky says that a transgenic crop and its conventional counterpart about which toxicology information is known are compared. “When extensively analyzed, if the transgenic crop exhibits no changes …compared to its parent strain it can be treated as substantially equivalent to that strain. After that determination is made, further safety or nutritional concerns are expected to be insignificant.”
This is just not the same idea at all!
The chapter also mentions a 13-week pilot study on the effect of Roundup on the gut microbiome of rats in a study performed by the Ramazzini institute in Italy. While they did claim to find some changes in the microbiome, the Ramazzini institute seems to have a spotty reputation, having been criticized for poor reliability in another recent study on aspartame, and in the glyphosate case, Brazeau criticizes them for finding “results that match their priors but not anyone else’s research.” (They also did a questionable report on cell phone radiation.)
Much of the rest of the chapter deals with worries that have never been found to be an actual problem.
Chapter 10 rehashes all the arguments for labeling GMOs and some of the issues various states have encountered, closing with the fact that Congress passed a “labeling law” that amounts to a QR code you can scan with your phone, and is thus pretty harmless.
Chapter 11 deals with the 2016 National Academies Study on Genetically Engineered Crops. Krimsky admits that the evidence of the report reinforces the fact that GM crops are safe to eat and do not pose any risks. However he carefully picks advantageous quotes to suggest that biotechnology does not improve yields. One would wonder why famers are then willing to pay more for them. If you read through the report or its summary you will find a number of carefully written conclusions suggesting that it is mostly difficult to measure the effects of yield because it is difficult to find identical cropland to compare GM and non-GM crops, and whether the GM and non-GM varieties were true isolines to be comparable. The report also discusses the strategy for preventing evolution of herbicide reisistant weeds and Bt resistant insects.
In fact, the report suggests that in the U.S. and in China, insect-pest populations “are reduced regionally and that this benefits both adopters and nonadopters of Bt crops.” And it is important to note that Bt brinjal (eggplant, or aubergine) has significantly improved farmers’ lives in both Bangladesh and India.
Krimsky also spends 3 pages defending Seralini’s disgraced paper, claiming that was “not a carcinogenicity study” to defend the small number of rats used. In fact, critics have said that Seralini’s paper had no particular objective in advance and he let the S-D rats grow until they naturally developed tumors and published their pictures.
Finally, Krimsky attacks the integrity of the NASEM panel itself, pointing to a reference that claims 6 out of 20 members had conflicting financial interests. Of course that paper is by Krimksy himself.
Chapter 13 discusses conflict among scientists regarding GMOs as if it actually existed. The overwhelming worldwide consensus, including every major national scientific association, is that GM crops pose no harm. He mentions “uncertain risks,” and the “GMO divide” which he himself has tried to manufacture. He recycles the canard that “farmers do no own their own seeds” as if hybrid seeds had never before existed, and of course mentions international crackpot Vandana Shiva who questions patenting living organisms. Oh, and don’t forget “corporate hegemonic control.”
Chapter 14 presents Krimsky’s completely expected, but erroneous summation. He attacks the values of science and “trans-scientific concepts,” (whatever they are!). He suggests that “it’s an evolving story in India,” despite the overwhelming success of Bt brinjal, and questions whether yields actually improve. Of course he trots out Robin Mesnage, one of Seralini’s henchmen to argue that corn (maize) sprayed with Roundup produces different metabolites, and claims farmers have untold economic losses because of unexpected GM contamination.
Krimsky starts out soberly enough trying to explain the various techniques that have been developed and some of their successes. But he can’t help himself, and by Chapter 5 he is back beating the same poor old horse, and gradually slipping more misinformation into each succeeding chapter. Nothing really new here, unfortunately.