Claire Robinson examines Jones’ inaccurate claims and strategic omissions
Jonathan Jones‘s talk at City, University of London about the prospects for GMO crops in the UK post-Brexit was remarkable for its inaccurate claims and strategic omissions. These are understandable, if not excusable, in light of Jones’s vested interests in the commercial success of GM. But those interests were not made clear to the audience and there was little opportunity to correct his misleading statements. Much of what he said came straight from industry’s playbook, without any consideration of contradictory facts or alternative points of view.
Jones is the GMO scientist head of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the UK’s John Innes Centre. He was speaking on 15 February as part of the Food Research Collaboration’s “Food Thinkers” series of lectures. The audience included City students as well as a few scientists and academics, a man from the UK government’s Science and Technology Committee, some NGO representatives, and members of the public.
Here’s what the City, University of London students and the rest of the audience need to know about Jones’s claims.
Jones wants the UK to follow the US in GMO de-regulation
Jones used his speaking slot to attack Europe’s GMO regulations, which he sees as overly-strict. While lamenting the UK’s loss of European science funding that will result from Brexit, he sees a “silver lining” in the possibility that the UK can follow the US in establishing what he calls “a science-based, fit-for-purpose regulatory framework” for GM crops and the new generation of gene-edited plants and animals.
Jones is the only European I’ve known to openly promote the embarrassingly inadequate US GMO de-regulatory system as an example to follow. He anticipates that under President Trump, the US system will be further relaxed, a possibility that he welcomes.
Jones fails to acknowledge complexity of gene behaviour
It’s hard to believe that someone in Jones’s line of work could fail to appreciate the complexities of gene organization and control, and avoid placing the technology in the context of a modern knowledge of molecular genetics. But that, according to scientists who attended his talk, is exactly what he did.
Our contemporary understanding of molecular genetics is that genes are organized and regulated in an intricate network. No gene or its products (RNA or protein) work in isolation. Thus gene function must be viewed holistically, within a “systems biology” context. Introducing a foreign gene, as in the generation of transgenic GM crops or the alteration in the function of a plant host gene using a genome editing approach, is placing the gene into a new context. In addition to any intended change, this will likely cause disturbances in host gene function and biochemistry, leading to unpredictable and undesirable outcomes.
Jones totally failed to place either old-style transgenic or genome editing techniques within this complex system. He merely stated that technically speaking, there were no issues with the process of generating GM crops and that all we need to do is to analyze the end product in order to convince ourselves that there is nothing wrong with it. Thus he avoided confronting the disruptive and unpredictable aspects of the technology and effectively denied the existence of any research at all showing harm from GM foods and crops. He said that with regard to GMOs, there are “no hazards to regulate” and that any hazards are “purely hypothetical”. He also claimed that “There are no unknown unknowns” regarding GM technology.
He seemed completely unaware that feeding trials with old-style GM crops have produced unexpected toxic or allergenic effects in laboratory and farm animals.
Jones ignores off-target effects of genome editing
In a discussion of genome editing, a suite of genetic engineering techniques that GMO promoters hope will escape GMO regulation and labelling, Jones repeatedly described the methods as “precise”. However, he omitted the fact that just like old-style transgenic GM methods, gene editing methods can create off-target effects that can disrupt gene function in unintended ways. In addition, just as with old-style transgenic GMOs, the tissue culture phase of developing gene-edited plants can create mutations (damage to DNA).
We simply do not know whether gene-edited crops will produce similar surprises to the old-style GM crops. Jones showed no evidence that the genome editing process produces only the intended effect and no unintended or potentially harmful effects. And yet he implied that the products from very different types of genetic transformation would be completely safe.
One scientist told me after the talk, “It’s not possible that Jones doesn’t know about all the uncertainties inherent in these methods. That only leaves one possibility – that he does know, but he’s hiding it from the public.”
If Jones’s gene-edited organisms do end up in the food supply, don’t expect him to do his best to ensure they are not toxic or allergenic prior to release. In contrast with scientists who have called for long-term safety testing of GM foods, Jones made it super-clear that he sees no point in even the 90-day animal feeding trial required by EU regulations and wants to see such mandatory testing abolished.
Jones’s recommended book admits huge uncertainties with GM
Given Jones’s blanket denial of any risks attached to GM, it is decidedly odd that he recommended that the audience read the book, “First Fruit”, by Dr Belinda Martineau. Martineau is a developer of the first commercialized GM food, the Flavr Savr tomato. Jones’s intention in referencing her book seemed to be to express his own nostalgic enthusiasm for this failed GM product. He seemed not to know that the Flavr Savr caused a huge controversy when commercial documents released in a lawsuit revealed that rats fed the GM tomatoes developed stomach lesions and died without explanation.
And Jones made no reference to the fact that Martineau herself has made the journey from devout GMO believer to skeptic, even giving public talks to warn people about the “uncertainties” involved in the technology. Martineau writes about this journey at length in her book. How did Jones miss it?
Maybe he hasn’t read Martineau’s book properly, just as he doesn’t appear to have read the news story revealing that the author of another of his recommended books on GM, Calestous Juma, “wrote a widely disseminated policy paper… in support of genetically modified organisms at the behest of seed giant Monsanto, without disclosing his connection”.
Jones also didn’t mention that the World Health Organization’s cancer agency IARC has classified glyphosate, used on 85% of GM crops worldwide, as a probable carcinogen. In the section of his talk on herbicide-tolerant GM crops, his only reference to health risks was to state that the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup “replaces nastier herbicides”. Such an unqualified claim is only possible if we ignore the past two decades of scientific research on glyphosate-based herbicides, which point to numerous harmful effects. Likewise, Jones didn’t mention the recent study showing that Roundup causes fatty liver disease in rats at doses over 1000 times lower than the general population is exposed to.
On the problematic topic of GM Bt insecticidal crops, Jones claimed that they had “reduced” insecticides, ignoring the resistant pest problems that have led farmers to abandon the crops and Texas A&M agriculture specialists to declare that the era of Bt crops “seems to be ending”.
GMO industry myths
Other GMO industry myths promoted by Jones in his talk are listed below, along with the facts that he forgot to mention.
1. We have genetically modifying crops for a long time.
In reality, GM is a laboratory method that is radically different from conventional breeding and entails different risks. It is clearly defined in law and international agreements. As the founder of a company that holds over 20 patents on GM technology, Jones will know that in Europe at least, such patents are granted on the basis that GM involves an “inventive step”, making it fundamentally different from conventional breeding.
2. People who eat sweet potatoes are eating a “naturally GM” food, as genes from the soil bacterium Agrobacterium have been found in a non-GM variety of sweet potato.
The conceptual flaws in Jones’s argument are cavernous. Scientists have known for decades that horizontal gene transfer can happen in nature, as with this sweet potato. But what Jones missed is the vital difference between this “natural genetic engineering” and what happens in the lab. The former happens over evolutionary time and the latter happens with commercially-driven speed. Any harmful mutations that occur as a result of a “natural” horizontal gene transfer event – for example, those resulting in a toxic plant – will be selected out over the long process of co-evolution of humans and their food crops.
That is not to say that this process was benign. People may have suffered or died from eating toxic sweet potatoes. All we know is that we are descended from the survivors, and the sweet potatoes that we still cultivate are descended from the ones that didn’t kill or sicken our ancestors. Genetic engineering in the lab, along with large-scale rollout of commercialized GM crops, does not allow us the luxury of time to work out which changes are beneficial and which ones we want to keep.
3. GM saved the papaya from a deadly virus in Hawaii.
A report by Greenpeace concluded, “The ringspot virus-resistant genetically engineered (GE) papaya introduced in Hawaii in 1998 has been a commercial failure that has propelled the Islands' papaya industry towards collapse.”
And Hawaiian farmer and anti-GMO campaigner Melanie Bondera says that common-sense virus management methods were ignored while the GM “solution” was aggressively pursued – with the result of massive market losses for Hawaiian papaya farmers.
4. Bt brinjal is a success in Bangladesh that has saved farmers from spraying toxic insecticides.
Following lines promoted by the US-based Cornell Alliance for Science and the British pro-GMO campaigner Mark Lynas, Jones presented Bt brinjal in Bangladesh as an unqualified success. He ignored well documented reports from within Bangladesh itself, generated by journalists and the research organization UBINIG, which conclude that Bt brinjal suffered widespread failure, even after heavy doses of toxic insecticides were used on the crop.
5. GM blight-resistant potatoes will save the potato crop.
Jones presented the unproven GM blight-resistant potato as the sole solution to the problem of late blight in the crop. About the Sarpo lines of non-GM blight-resistant potatoes, which provided Jones and his colleagues with the blight-resistance genes he is engineering into the GM potato, all he could say is that they were not popular.
But given the fact that Sarpos have done well in taste and cooking tests, we can only assume that the reason they are not in supermarkets is more to do with the priorities of Big Retail than the best interests of consumers. Apparently one reason supermarkets have rejected Sarpo potatoes is because they are too knobbly. Let’s see how shoppers respond to a GM label on Jones’s potato – if it succeeds in resisting blight, that is.
6. All learned societies conclude that the GM method is safe and on balance benign.
Numerous learned societies have called for mandatory GMO labelling and/or have cautioned about the health risks of GM foods. And the statements of organizations that GMO proponents characterize as saying that GMOs are safe are frequently misrepresented or emanate from organizations with conflicts of interest with the GMO industry. None of these organizations has actually canvassed their membership to ascertain a majority opinion.
But the bottom line is that “expert” pronouncements on GMO safety are only as reliable as the evidence on which they are – or should be – based. None of these organizations have actually carried out research to produce hard evidence of GMO safety. And regarding the state of that evidence, over 300 qualified scientists have published a peer-reviewed article titled, “No scientific consensus on GMO safety”. The article concluded, “The scarcity and contradictory nature of the scientific evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims of safety, or of lack of safety, of GMOs. Claims of consensus on the safety of GMOs are not supported by an objective analysis of the refereed literature.”
Jones also failed to mention the findings of the most authoritative report on the future of food and farming: the IAASTD report, published in 2008 and sponsored by the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which concluded that GM crops did not have a major contribution to make to farming and food security. The authors cited “variable” yields of GM crops, lingering doubts over GMO safety, and intellectual property rights, which could exclude third world countries from accessing seeds. They concluded that agroecology offered the best prospect for ensuring a healthy and abundant food supply.
7. The British public’s attitude towards GM is getting more positive.
Jones referred to a 10-year-old opinion poll to claim that the British public’s attitude to GM is softening. While Jones didn’t mention who conducted or funded the poll, he clearly prefers its results to those of a more up-to-date (2014) poll by Yougov, which found that 4 out of 10 British adults hold negative views of GM food, with 41% negative to only 17% positive.
As Brexit looms nearer, we can expect the messages in Jones’s talk to be repeated and amplified throughout the UK – if not by Jones himself, then by other GMO enthusiasts using the same industry talking points. Universities considering lending such people a platform should include experts who can present opposing and alternative views at the same event, so that misinformation can be rapidly corrected. And they should ensure that the commercial interests of speakers like Jones are made clear.