Wednesday, September 5, 2012

patronizing scientists - part 1

Recombinant DNA, by Tinastella, via Wikimedia Commons
Recombinant DNA, by Tinastella, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the things that pisses me off about all this opposition to proposition 37 is the notion that real scientists are opposed to GMO labeling because regular people don't understand about genetically-modified organisms. Basically, we shouldn't label because people are too stupid to judge for themselves whether they want to eat GMO foods.

I took a course in recombinant DNA in graduate school, so I have actually made GMOs. I understand it just fine.

There's some awesome applications people rarely hear about. For example, Factor VIII, the protein that hemophiliacs don't make, is produced by GMOs. This is awesome for hemophiliacs because they don't have to risk blood transfusions.

Regular insulin, which is exactly the same amino acid sequence as human insulin, is also made by GMOs. This is awesome for diabetics who had allergies to beef or pork insulin, which is all that was available at one time.

So I'm writing as someone who thinks GMOs can be awesome!

But there is a BIG difference in these products versus agricultural GMOs. They are grown in big vats of bacteria who have been genetically-modified to produce the particular protein we want them to, the protein is harvested, during which the bacteria are killed. The purified protein is the product and is the only thing that leaves the factory.

There re folks even opposed to this type of recombinant DNA technology, on the theory that these bacteria might escape into the wild accidentally. And that is certainly a real risk when you build factory GMOs.

However, in the case of GMO food, the product is INTENDED to escape the factory! And the genetically-modified organism is the product.

This freaks me out, not because I don't understand GMOs, but because I do.

Science can be VERY wrong.

Because one of the things scientists usually understand is that we don't know hardly anything about anything. It's freaky, you go off to college, thinking you'll learn all this kewl stuff, and time and time again, you ask a professor an interesting question and discover... we don't know.

The stuff we don't know is, frankly, MOST of it. All the knowledge in all the journals in the world don't cover the half of it.

Science is about the progression of knowledge, which generally occurs by discovering what we were wrong about before. Given that we didn't know we were wrong before, we have no idea what we're wrong about now. See references that follow for details.

We haven't finished figuring out biochemistry.
A few of the hormones discovered since I was in graduate school:
  • leptin was discovered in 1994
  • thrombopoietin was discovered in 1994
  • ghrelin was discovered in 1999
  • obestatin was discovered in 2005
  • adiponectin was discovered in 2007
  • irisin was discovered in 2011
We haven't finished identifying micronutrients or what is actually essential to our health.
  • Though vitamins K1 and K2 were discovered in the 30s, we didn't know K2 had different functionality until 1978 and it didn't become understood amongst vitamin K scientists until 1997.
  • We didn't know that beta-carotene doesn't convert to vitamin A as assumed by our IU until 1974 when we replaced it with RE. Then in 2001, we understood that was inaccurate too and replaced it with REA. But by then we already knew absorption of beta-carotene to vitamin A is dependent on both the food matrix and oil consumed with it and that conversion to vitamin At is slowed by hypothyroidism, that groups of both men and women convert differently and that a particular gene can make you a bad converter. Thus none of our unit systems makes a lot of sense, especially when used to calculate how much anyone needs to eat.
  • We cured rickets with vitamin D2, but discovered in 2004 that vitamin D3 works WAY better than vitamin D2.
  • A high intake of beta-carotene fruits & vegetables protects against cancer but beta-carotene supplements seem to increase cancer. Apparently, among the things we do not know is how to make pills!
We've been wrong about what is toxic and what is not again and again.
  • thalidomide
    Grünenthal has tried to reproduce phocomelia in rats, mice, and rabbits and has failed, In Keil the drug was fed to hens and the chicks were normal. Taussig, Journal of the American Medical Association, 180: 1106–14.

    We chose a dose of thalidomide close to the estimated amount required to produce human anomalies. This dose had no detectable toxic effects in the monkey... Science 1963; 139:1294-95.

    Numerous attempts to reproduce the malformations which occurred in human babies from Thalidomide-treated mothers have met with only limited success. Although many representatives of aves [birds] and mammalian experimental species have been investigated for this purpose, the results fall short of paralleling the effect of the drug on the human foetus. Hendrickx, Axelrod, Clayborn, Nature, 210:958-959.
  • BPA
    No evidence of embryo/fetal toxicity or teratogenicity was observed at any dose level.

    However, considering the dosages and routes of administration and the modest response of estrogen-sensitive target organs, the authors conclude that the short-term risk of estrogenic effects from treatments using bisphenol A-based resins is insignificant.

    The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)'s recent conclusion that controversial chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is safe at current levels is flawed, the agency's own Science Board has warned.

    FDA said on 15 January that it had 'some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behaviour and prostate gland in foetuses, infants and young children.' In expressing the concerns the agency is giving more credence to 'recent results from novel toxicological approaches that look at subtle effects,' it said.

    Today, WHO's review shows BPA is known to be correlated with cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, increased gestational diabetes and diabetes incidence in children, increased white adipose versus brown adipose, liver-enzyme disorder, reduced glutathione production, in addition to it's role as an endocrine disrupter.

  • Phthalates - see my post.
And we've been particularly wrong about environmental effects time and again...
  • We thought feeding leftover scraps to cows was a good recycling idea - until Mad Cow Disease.
  • We thought raising cows and chickens indoors was efficient - until we discovered widespread vitamin D deficiency in ourselves.
  • We thought antibiotics were the kewlest thing since sliced bread, until we grew superbugs like MSRA and killed off our own healthy flora resulting in Candida infection (when we're lucky) and Clostridium difficile (when we're unlucky).
  • We've introduced scores of plants and animals to solve various problems, resulting in upsetting native flora and fauna. There's scores of these stories, but just a few... kudzu was intended for erosion control, but outcompetes all other crops, garlic mustard was introduced as a culinary herb and has become the dominant under-story species in woodland and flood plain environments, the amphibian Ambystoma tigrinum was intended as bait, but has been wiping out local salamanders in California, Pomacea canaliculata was intended as an escargot crop and has instead decimated rice crops in Asia and taro in Hawaii, and the list goes on and on...

Don't get me wrong, I freaking LOVE science. I was not a Beatles groupie, but I WAS a Linus Pauling groupie. Science gets me wet! But science isn't omniscient; if it were, we'd be done with it; we'd have no science, only history.

And the science is irrelevant anwyays, cause we haven't done much.

There's been almost no science on GMO foods.

Instead, we had some sort of hand-waving that said we think these are largely the same as ordinary agriculture. We call this unproven hypothesis "substantial equivalence."

Our previous horticultural science involved hybridizing plants, taking the pollen from one plant to fertilize the seed of another. This results in seeds that are only good one time, as you have to make hybrids again and again from the two parents, they do not breed true. This is why many of us gardeners prefer heirloom seeds that do reproduce true. However, whether you like or dislike hybrid seeds, the fact is that plants have to be very closely related in order to hybridize them. You can't just stick a fish gene in a tomato.

We also have a long history of doing plant tissue grafts, taking the yummy apple branch and attaching it to the strongest apple root. Again, some gardeners eschew even this technology, preferring "antique" fruit trees, but at least grafted apples still go brown when they rot.

These technologies have never prevented anyone from making alternative choices, they allow those who choose to grow heirloom or antique varieties to continue doing so. Thus the genetic diversity in our crops are protected by the outliers who make alternative choices.

Unfortunately, GMO plants do interfere with normal cultivars. To me, this environmental effect is the primary concern; that they are so pervasive means GMO genes are contaminating organic crops.

According to the Center for Food Safety:

Currently, up to 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered as are 91 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of cotton (cottonseed oil is often used in food products). According to industry, up to 95% of sugar beets are now GE. It has been estimated that upwards of 70 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves–from soda to soup, crackers to condiments–contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Our customary horticultural practices have evolved over time, and their products are subject to evolution, both in terms of the seeds and trees people choose to plant, and the normal Darwinian forces. This process is shortcircuited by GMO foods. We've no idea what they will do to the environment or to us.

My concern had always been primarily environmental, I didn't really believe it was likely that GMO foods would impact our health. Turns out, I was wrong about that.

health effects of GMO foods

Genetically modified crops safety assessments: present limits and possible improvements is a scientific review of the current research on GMOs published by the journal Environmental Sciences Europe.

Several convergent data appear to indicate liver and kidney problems as end points of GMO diet effects in the above-mentioned experiments. This was confirmed by our meta-analysis of all the in vivo studies published, which revealed that the kidneys were particularly affected, concentrating 43.5% of all disrupted parameters in males, whereas the liver was more specifically disrupted in females (30.8% of all disrupted parameters).
I recommend that you read the entire article; it's eye-opening.

Alternatively, a good laymen's summary of the health effects has been put together by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine in their article Genetically Modified Foods, a heavily referenced paper, states in part:

However, several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.

There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects. There is causation as defined by Hill's Criteria in the areas of strength of association, consistency, specificity, biological gradient, and biological plausibility. The strength of association and consistency between GM foods and disease is confirmed in several animal studies.

Specificity of the association of GM foods and specific disease processes is also supported. Multiple animal studies show significant immune dysregulation, including upregulation of cytokines associated with asthma, allergy, and inflammation. Animal studies also show altered structure and function of the liver, including altered lipid and carbohydrate metabolism as well as cellular changes that could lead to accelerated aging and possibly lead to the accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Changes in the kidney, pancreas and spleen have also been documented. A recent 2008 study links GM corn with infertility, showing a significant decrease in offspring over time and significantly lower litter weight in mice fed GM corn. This study also found that over 400 genes were found to be expressed differently in the mice fed GM corn. These are genes known to control protein synthesis and modification, cell signaling, cholesterol synthesis, and insulin regulation. Studies also show intestinal damage in animals fed GM foods, including proliferative cell growth9 and disruption of the intestinal immune system.

concerns of GMO scientists

Having taken a single course in recombinant DNA does not make me a genetic engineer, but those who have worked in the industry have serious concerns as well. Why genetically engineered food is dangerous: New report by genetic engineers is a highly referenced review of GMO food with the following conclusions:

  1. Genetic engineering as used in crop development is not precise or predictable and has not been shown to be safe. The technique can result in the unexpected production of toxins or allergens in food that are unlikely to be spotted in current regulatory checks.
  2. GM crops, including some that are already in our food and animal feed supply, have shown clear signs of toxicity in animal feeding trials – notably disturbances in liver and kidney function and immune responses.
  3. GM proponents have dismissed these statistically significant findings as “not biologically relevant/significant”, based on scientifically indefensible arguments.
  4. Certain EU-commissioned animal feeding trials with GM foods and crops are often claimed by GM proponents to show they are safe. In fact, examination of these studies shows significant differences between the GM-fed and control animals that give cause for concern.
  5. GM foods have not been properly tested in humans, but the few studies that have been carried out in humans give cause for concern.
  6. The US FDA does not require mandatory safety testing of GM crops, and does not even assess the safety of GM crops but only “deregulates” them, based on assurances from biotech companies that they are “substantially equivalent” to their non-GM counterparts. This is like claiming that a cow with BSE is substantially equivalent to a cow that does not have BSE and is thus safe to eat! Claims of substantial equivalence cannot be justified on scientific grounds.
  7. The regulatory regime for GM foods is weakest in the US, where GM foods do not even have to be assessed for safety or labeled in the marketplace, but in most regions of the world regulations are inadequate to protect people’s health from the potential adverse effects of GM foods.
  8. In the EU, where the regulatory system is often claimed to be strict, minimal pre-market testing is required for a GMO and the tests are commissioned by the same companies that stand to profit from the GMO if it is approved – a clear conflict of interest.
  9. No long-term toxicological testing of GMOs on animals or testing on humans is required by any regulatory agency in the world.
  10. Biotech companies have used patent claims and intellectual property protection laws to restrict access of independent researchers to GM crops for research purposes. As a result, limited research has been conducted on GM foods and crops by scientists who are independent of the GM industry. Scientists whose work has raised concerns about the safety of GMOs have been attacked and discredited in orchestrated campaigns by GM crop promoters.
  11. Most GM crops (over 75%) are engineered to tolerate applications of herbicides. Where such GM crops have been adopted, they have led to massive increases in herbicide use.
  12. Roundup, the herbicide that over 50% of all GM crops are engineered to tolerate, is not safe or benign as has been claimed but has been found to cause malformations (birth defects), reproductive problems, DNA damage, and cancer in test animals. Human epidemiological studies have found an association between Roundup exposure and miscarriage, birth defects, neurological development problems, DNA damage, and certain types of cancer.
  13. A public health crisis has erupted in GM soy-producing regions of South America, where people exposed to spraying with Roundup and other agrochemicals sprayed on the crop report escalating rates of birth defects and cancer.
  14. A large number of studies indicate that Roundup is associated with increased crop diseases, especially infection with Fusarium, a fungus that causes wilt disease in soy and can have toxic effects on humans and livestock.
  15. Bt insecticidal GM crops do not sustainably reduce pesticide use but change the way in which pesticides are used: from sprayed on, to built in.
  16. Bt technology is proving unsustainable as pests evolve resistance to the toxin and secondary pest infestations are becoming common.
  17. GM proponents claim that the Bt toxin engineered into GM plants is safe because the natural form of Bt, long used as a spray by conventional and organic farmers, has a history of safe use. But the GM forms of Bt toxins are different from the natural forms and could have different toxic and allergenic effects.
  18. GM Bt toxin is not limited in its toxicity to insect pests. GM Bt crops have been found to have toxic effects on laboratory animals in feeding trials.
  19. GM Bt crops have been found to have toxic effects on non-target organisms in the environment.
  20. Bt toxin is not fully broken down in digestion and has been found circulating in the blood of pregnant women in Canada and in the blood supply to their foetuses.
  21. The no-till method of farming promoted with GM herbicide-tolerant crops, which avoids ploughing and uses herbicides to control weeds, is not more climate-friendly than ploughing. No-till fields do not store more carbon in the soil than ploughed fields when deeper levels of soil are measured.
  22. No-till increases the negative environmental impacts of soy cultivation, because of the herbicides used.
  23. Golden Rice, a beta-carotene-enriched rice, is promoted as a GM crop that could help malnourished people overcome vitamin A deficiency. But Golden Rice has not been tested for toxicological safety, has been plagued by basic development problems, and, after more than 12 years and millions of dollars of research funding, is still not ready for the market. Meanwhile, inexpensive and effective solutions to vitamin A deficiency are available but under-used due to lack of funding.
  24. GM crops are often promoted as a “vital tool in the toolbox” to feed the world’s growing population, but many experts question the contribution they could make, as they do not offer higher yields or cope better with drought than non-GM crops. Most GM crops are engineered to tolerate herbicides or to contain a pesticide – traits that are irrelevant to feeding the hungry.
  25. High adoption of GM crops among farmers is not a sign that the GM crop is superior to non-GM varieties, as once GM companies gain control of the seed market, they withdraw non-GM seed varieties from the market. The notion of “farmer choice” does not apply in this situation.
  26. GM contamination of non-GM and organic crops has resulted in massive financial losses by the food and feed industry, involving product recalls, lawsuits, and lost markets.
  27. When many people read about high-yielding, pest- and disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, and nutritionally improved super-crops, they think of GM. In fact, these are all products of conventional breeding, which continues to outstrip GM in producing such crops. The report contains a long list of these conventional crop breeding successes.
  28. Certain “supercrops” have been claimed to be GM successes when in fact they are products of conventional breeding, in some cases assisted by the non-GM biotechnology of marker assisted selection.
  29. Conventional plant breeding, with the help of non-GM biotechnologies such as marker assisted selection, is a safer and more powerful method than GM to produce new crop varieties required to meet current and future needs of food production, especially in the face of rapid climate change.
  30. Conventionally bred, locally adapted crops, used in combination with agroecological farming practices, offer a proven, sustainable approach to ensuring global food security.

new science may shed light on new problems

The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods by Ari LeVaux published in the Atlantic, sheds light on a brand new potential problem. Research shows that small pieces of rice RNA survive digestion and bind to receptors in our liver cells, reducing cholesterol uptake from blood.

That plant genes can raise our serum cholesterol is a tad disturbing, these genes ought not be "aimed" at us like that as far as we understand genetics.

Given that we have just learned that ordinary plants can use their genetic material to do strange things to us, we've no idea what GMO foods might do.

This is a new question today. We don't know what new questions will be raised tomorrow.

Science marches on... and by definition, as it does so, we will discover more things we are wrong about as well as questions we never even thought to ask before.

One can understand the science quite well and still want GMO foods labeled.