Pro-GMO group claims to champion science but promotes corporate talking points, writes Claire Robinson
The pro-GMO lobby group Biology Fortified, Inc. – generally known as Biofortified – has published a response to my comments on their press release about its database of GM studies. The author of Biofortified's response is the group's co-founder and co-executive editor Dr Anastasia Bodnar.
I'd like to make the following points about Biofortified's response.
1. Biofortified says the author of the article I wrote is not identified, even though I'm clearly identified as the author at the head of the article.
2. Biofortified correctly cites my view that there is a need for a comprehensive list of GMO studies. But the group's actions to date demonstrate the problems around how highly partisan compilers of such a list may represent its content.
The GENERA database is, in fact, being presented and promoted by two organisations that are extreme in their support for GMOs.
Biofortified has been described by Dr Jonathan Latham, the executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, as posing "as pro-science but what they really offer is uncritical parroting of corporate talking points. They also deploy classic PR tactics."
The founding executive director of the other organization involved in presenting the material in the database, the Genetic Literacy Project, is Jon Entine. Entine's clients have included Monsanto's PR people and he's been linked to a vicious campaign of denigration against Tyrone Hayes, a scientist whose work is problematic for Syngenta. Indeed, Entine has been termed an "agribusiness apologist" because of his habit of defending highly controversial agrochemicals as aggressively as he does GMOs.
3. In its response to me, Biofortified says press releases don't contain citations. But press releases for which I am responsible, as here and here, typically do have citations. This is because experience has shown me that no media outlet will print or cite critical material on GMOs unless it is directly backed up by evidence. And many press releases contain hotlinks to sources, if not full references. Biofortified could have provided these in its press release but did not.
4. Biofortified says we issue reports without citations but the major reports that I've co-authored are exhaustively referenced.
5. Biofortified says: "GM Watch claims that the Diels' review study already found that half of the research was independent, however, that is not the case. They found that 39% of the 94 studies they examined were independent by their classification system, which is not half." However, that is far from the full story. I qualified my statement with this explanation: "47% of the studies had at least one author with a professional or financial affiliation to the GMO industry or an organisation tied to it. The rest of the studies' authors either had no such conflict of interest (39%) or gave insufficient information about funding sources to judge (14%)." In other words, somewhere between 39% and 53% (just over half) of GMO studies were independent at the time of Diels' investigation.
And as I also pointed out in my original article, what is important is NOT the proportion of studies affiliated with the GMO industry, but what they tell us. Diels' review shows that a professional affiliation with industry is overwhelmingly associated with a conclusion that the GMO under test is safe. That is worrying, not least because GM foods generally receive regulatory approval solely on the basis of industry studies.
6. Biofortified accuses me of "cherry-picking" data points from the Kilic et al study, which found mixed results. Some parameters suggested toxicity of the GMO; others found no effect. Biofortified claims that one parameter, liver weight, could be interpreted to mean that the non-GMO corn is “toxic” to female rats. While that is a possibility, there is no doubt that the granular degeneration in the liver, seen at its "maximum" in the GM-fed group, was a toxic effect. Doubts and uncertainties about whether an effect is toxic or not can only be resolved by further research. But while such doubts are unresolved, it is not responsible to allow the suspect GMO into the food supply.
7. Biofortified approvingly cites Nina Fedoroff's article denigrating Arpad Pusztai's research, which found toxic effects in rats fed GM potatoes. However, the mistakes and incorrect assumptions in Fedoroff's article have been corrected by Pusztai himself.
Biofortified implies that Pusztai's findings might be interpreted in ways that do not suggest the GMO was toxic. What a pity they apparently didn't witness Pusztai's co-author, pathologist Stanley Ewen, explaining why the proliferation of the gut cells in the GM-fed rats was a potentially pre-cancerous condition. I look forward to Biofortified's empirical data showing that this interpretation is wrong and that gut cell proliferation is fine and dandy (of course, they have no such data).
Again, it is not responsible or scientifically justified to argue away pathological symptoms on the basis of no evidence.
Fedoroff also makes the fatal mistake of criticising the methodology of Pusztai's experiments when its methodology received high-level acclaim and support (prior to the inconvenient results, of course). The study design won a government grant from the Scottish Office over 28 other experimental designs and (according to Pusztai) was passed by the BBSRC, the UK's main public science funding body.
Interestingly, Pusztai also co-authored a study on GM peas with exactly the same methodology – which was not criticised by Fedoroff or anyone else. The difference between this study and Pusztai’s GM potato study was the result: the pea study had concluded that the GM peas were as safe as non-GM peas, whereas the potato study had found that the GM potatoes were unsafe.
Biofortified's criticism of Pusztai's GM potato study is yet another example of the GMO lobby using unscientific double standards. Studies finding that the GMO is safe are taken at face value, whereas studies finding the GMO is toxic are denigrated and dismissed as unreliable.
8. Biofortified in its response makes use of an infographic prepared from its database by Jon Entine's Genetic Literacy Project (GLP). The chart is intended to show that proportionally there are plenty of independent studies showing "GMO safety for human consumption". We're told the chart is based on 197 studies "out of 400 randomly selected", but no further information is given about the questions these studies addressed or which methodologies they used.
Obviously the selection criteria for the studies in the chart are critically important. Here are the types of questions that Biofortified/GLP should have asked themselves before compiling their chart:
- What are the criteria for the studies to be included?
- Do they include compositional studies looking at the amount of protein/fat in animals rather than health effects?
- Were any of the studies opinion pieces or reviews? In other words, do they provide actual hard data about what happens to an animal's health when it is fed a GM food?
- Do they include animal production studies, looking at parameters such as milk yield or feed consumption, which do not look at health effects in detail?
- Do they include studies with too few animals to achieve statistical significance?
- Do they include studies on animals (e.g. fish and birds) that have very different metabolisms and digestive systems from humans and are thus considered irrelevant by regulators and industry alike for judging human health risks?
- Do they include studies with fatal methodological errors, such as removing animals from the experiment and replacing them with new animals? Believe it or not, such a study was included in the review of supposedly long-term animal feeding studies on GMOs by Snell and colleagues, which unsurprisingly concluded that the findings show that GMOs are safe (see "The Snell review" at this link). I say "supposedly long-term" because in fact many of the studies included in the review were not long-term at all, but only ran for a small fraction of the animal's natural lifespan.
- Did any of the studies of GM herbicide-tolerant crops fail to spray the crop, i.e. fail to test the form of the crop in which it would normally be consumed?
- Did the researchers ensure that the control animals were fed non-GM feed?
- Did the studies run for long enough to show up chronic health effects? 90 days in a rat is equivalent to only about 7 years in a human. Many GMO safety studies are even shorter than this. Yet humans can be expected to eat a GM food for their entire lifetime and effects like tumours and serious organ damage can take many years to show up.
- Since Biofortified is claiming that the studies show safety for human consumption, what is the relevance of each study to evaluating human health risks? For example, some animal responses do not extrapolate easily to human health effects, whereas others are considered to be more reliable.
This is where the Biofortified/GLP numbers game breaks down. Saying most of these randomly selected studies support safety is meaningless if we're given no details of the criteria for the studies' inclusion in the database, or of the individual study methodologies, or of the specific data points that are claimed to support safety. Biofortified should also identify each GMO for which they are claiming safety, since GMOs are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and a finding that one GMO is toxic or safe cannot be assumed to apply to any other GMO.
In the current climate of pro-GMO hype, demanding such information may sound unduly pernickety. But in fact these requirements are nothing more than basic academic standards. It is unlikely that Biofortified's claims and chart would survive an objective peer review unless this information were provided.
While it's important to know a study's funding sources and author affiliations so that we can form a judgement on bias, it is just as important to know what the study was looking for and how it was done. A few hundred studies that don't find anything but weren't really looking don't tell us anything worthwhile about GMO safety, whether they were done by Monsanto or publicly funded academics, whereas even one study that really was looking and found something is vitally important.
In short, the way Biofortified is promoting its database tends to confirm the verdict of Dr Latham that this is an organisation that strikes a pro-science stance while deploying PR tactics to promote corporate talking points.