Thanks to Sky McCain for this
COMMENTARY: SEARCHING FOR A FAIR RESOLUTION CONCERNING CONTROVERSIAL STORY ON POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF KLEBSIELLA P ON THE ENVIRONMENT
A.V. Krebs Editor\Publisher
The AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER Issue #119
June 11, 2001
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness From a Public Interest Perspective
One of life's great lessons as one gets older and hopefully more wiser is not to stick your nose into an area of expertise you know little or nothing about and make judgments on the conduct of individuals in such subject areas. The lesson is a tough one for journalists as --- or at least they should be ---- by nature, curiosity seekers in the context of what is news and what news should be laid before the public for its information and enlightenment. Often, however, they find themselves up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
Such was the case in THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER's recent report concerning the possible effects of Klebsiella.p in the environment. (Issue #116). No sooner was the story winging its way to you than we began to get mail defending and disputing the details of the story. Efforts to fashion a subsequent apology for possibly misleading our readers on the facts of the story only exacerbated the controversy (Issue #117).
This editor as a lifelong journalist has never made any pretense about being "objective," an almost unachievable goal when one is dealing with the complexity of the news of the day, but he has sought to make accuracy and fairness a hallmark of his work. It is for that reason that presented below is the original story, a rebuttal by Francis Wevers Executive Director, Biotenz/NZ Life Sciences Network (Inc), Wellington, New Zealand and a letter to THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER from Dr Elaine Ingham, Associate Professor from Oregon State University upon whose work much of the original story was based.
Readers can thus make their own judgment as to the veracity of this story.
At the same time THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER wishes to thank those readers who took time to share their thoughtful (and some not so thoughtful) observations about this story. Perhaps the most succinct comment we received came from Dr.John Ikerd, a retired professor from the Sustainable Agriculture Systems Program at the University of Missouri and we have reprinted it below as a final comment on this matter.
ECOLOGICAL DISASTER AVERTED???? U.S ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY; TREATING THE WORLD'S SOIL LIKE DIRT
"In 1992 the Environmental Protection Agency was only a few weeks away from ending life on the planet as we know it," so writes George Lawton in the April, 2001 issue of Acres USA ("A Voice For Eco-Agriculture").
Lawton reports that the EPA, although only having done limited tests at that time on a variety of genetically engineered microbes, all of which had been approved for release into the atmosphere, were prepared to approve the release of a GE variant of Klepbsiella planticola (KP), one of the most common bacteria on the planet
"This particular variety of KP," he writes, "had the unique ability to convert dead plant matter into alcohol. It was hoped that this would provide a way for farmers to transform their unused stalks, leaves and other types of compost material into alcohol, which could be used for washing, running vehicles, etc.
"The EPA had done a variety of tests on this organism, all of which indicated that it would not be toxic to humans or animals. They were only a few weeks away from releasing these bacteria into the wild, when Michael Holmes, a graduate student at the University of Oregon, came looking for an interesting thing to study for his doctoral thesis."
Under the direction of his academic advisor, Elaine Ingham, Holmes elected to do his thesis on the effects of this genetically engineered KP on plants, something which had not occurred to the EPA, as it was not required for the release of new genetically modified organisms, Lawton notes in his Acres USA expose.
Holmes study revealed, after testing samples of plants growing in sterile soil, soil with regular KP and soil with genetically engineered KP, that no plants in the latter soil were growing as the alcohol produced by the bacteria had killed them all.
At the time, Lawton notes, the EPA was envisioning that farmers would use these bacteria in a kind of fermenting process to convert plant material into a mixture of 17% alcohol and 83% mineral sludge, which could be poured off into the soil and reused.
"If that had occurred, the genetically engineered KP could have colonized the entire planet over the course of several years, turning all of the soil where it grew into barren dirt."
Ingham said that problem was and still is that the EPA only looks at the immediate impact of new genetically modified organisms on animals, and does not take into account the larger impact on the ecosystem as a whole. That approach can work to a limited extent when working with chemicals, which can break down and dissipate over time. But living organisms have the ability to procreate and overwhelm the natural ecosystem.
After the Holmes research, Ingham claims, the EPA didn't accept their findings. Further, she said that she received considerable flack from the EPA, which also objected to Holmes' graduation because they thought his research was flawed. The EPA repeated the experiment but never released the results to the general public.
Ingham believes that the EPA was trying to hide the results because they were under pressure from chemical, seed, and biotech companies. She feared, Holmes says, "If we had not done that testing, the EPA would have allowed its field use in two weeks. We just happened to be working on that for academic interest. What would have happened if we had not done that work? What kind of unexpected effects are already out there? Hopefully nothing as devastating as this organism, but we don't know because they have not been tested."
The EPA applied the rules mandated by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act, and found no problems with the microbe, so it was approved for field testing.
Ingham explained, "Clearly the current regulatory methods are totally inappropriate. The work we were doing was not normal work for engineered organisms. The regulatory testing is appropriate for chemicals, but not appropriate for biological things that reproduce. If we were going to do appropriate testing, we should use the system developed by the Edmonds Institute in Edmonds, Washington. They publish a biosafety handbook which goes through all of the testing that should be required to assess the potential effects of genetically engineered organisms.
"This was the first organism capable of surviving in the soil. KP is found in the root systems of all the plants we have looked at, and it exists in decomposing plant material everywhere in the world. It is one of the few organisms that is everywhere," she adds.
As Lawton points out, "the problem with any organism and particularly with bacteria is that there is no surefire way to recall them once they have been released. Even plants pose a problem, despite the possibility of mechanical control. Imagine how hard it would be to selectively kill something that cannot even be seen with the naked eye" and Ingham observes, "We have never been good at recapturing any organisms we have released into the world."
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: VICTIMS OF A CRUEL ACADEMIC DECEIT ???
Late last week I received copies of an article you published in the Agribusiness Examiner, "Ecological Disaster averted???? U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; treating the world's soil like dirt." This article was published in Issue #116 dated 16 May, 2001.
Unfortunately George Lawton, whom you quote extensively, has been the victim of a cruel deceit. He has had the misfortune to pen a story in the April issue of Acres USA which relies heavily on information supplied by the now discredited former Associate Professor from Oregon State University, Dr Elaine Ingham.
This is the same Elaine Ingham who had to withdraw the exact same assertions she makes in Lawton's article when she proffered them to the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. Not only had she to agree her original assertions about the effects of Klebsiella.p in the environment were not supported by the evidence she cited in support (including falsified references to non existent publications) but she had to concede the allegations she made against the EPA could not be independently substantiated either. The EPA has specifically rejected all her assertions.
The New Zealand Green Party made the mistake of relying on Ingham's evidence to try to establish their argument that there should be no field trials involving GMOs.
Because Ingham's assertions were scientifically rebutted before the Royal Commission by three senior New Zealand and Australian scientists the Green Party was left with the humiliating responsibility of apologizing in writing for misleading the Royal Commission.
I attach links to the relevant documentation.
Evidence from three senior scientists rebutting Ingham's assertions http://www.lifesciencenz.com/repository/media_releases/0215_ingham_rebuttal.pdf
Dr Ingham apologizes to Royal Commission http://www.lifesciencenz.com/repository/media_releases/ingham_apology.pdf
Green Party amends evidence and apologizes http://www.lifesciencenz.com/repository/media_releases/green_apology.pdf
Dr Ingham has subsequently been subjected to professional review by Oregon State University.
Both New Scientist and Nature Biotechnology published articles about the Ingham matter during March.
You may like to publish a piece in the next edition of Agribusiness Examiner which corrects the record.
Francis Wevers Executive Director Biotenz/NZ Life Sciences Network (Inc) PO Box 715, Wellington, New Zealand
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: INGHAM DEFENDS POSITION "ENGINEERED BACTERIUM COULD HAVE SERIOUS IMPLICATION FOR HUMAN LIFE ON EARTH"
I have not been "discredited" by any group of my peers, as least as far as anyone in scientific arena has informed me. Further, I have not been subject to any academic censure.
Francis Wevers, in a typically virulent letter using tactics designed to obfuscate the truth, made it sound as if review by my University is a terrible thing. But let me point out that most professors are reviewed each year - it's called an annual review. I believe most people are familiar with the concept. My University reviewed my position, but I was not censured, I have not lost stature at my University.
I reported to the New Zealand Royal Commission on the work that a graduate student performed. That information has been published for a number of years. A clarification was submitted to the Royal Commission basically to point out the incorrect reference for the scientific paper. Typographical errors happen. While regrettable, a typographical error does not change the fact that the scientific data are published and in the scientific record.
I was very clear in my testimony to the Commission that I had been told by individuals in the USEPA that the work done by Dr. Michael Holmes had been repeated. Dr. Michael Holmes, Dr. Lydia Watrud, and Lynn Rogers, a technician at the EPA at the time, also told me that information. Dr. Holmes heard me repeat his information a number of times. I gave that information to the Commission by saying that I understood that the USEPA had repeated the work.
Regardless of whether the EPA did or did not repeat the work, addition of genetically engineered Klebsiella planticola to soil has been shown to result in death of wheat plants in laboratory units. This information, published in Applied Soil Ecology, was the work of Dr. Holmes' Ph.D thesis. It was his work that I spoke about to the Royal Commission.
I was very careful to say that if you extrapolate the results of the laboratory work to the field, based on the facts that most terrestrial plants cannot tolerate alcohol production in the root system, that this bacterium was engineered to produce alcohol, that this bacterium typically grows in the roots systems of all plants, then there is a clear risk if this bacterium were to be released into the natural environment. This bacterium was being considered for release, and my understanding was that release was mere weeks away when the results of Dr. Holmes' work was given to the EPA.
Dr. Holmes has said that he cannot repeat his Ph.D. research. Why? Because he no longer has the engineered organism in his possession. Does this suggest that his Ph.D. work was inaccurate or poorly done? Does his inability to repeat the work now suggest his Ph.D. is somehow tainted? Not in any way. If he still had the engineered bacterium, he could repeat the work.
I did not say in my testimony, or at any other time, that release of genetically engineered Klebsiella planticola would end life on earth. That was a fabrication by a newspaper reporter. That this engineered bacterium could have serious implications for human life on earth is something that I would say, however. But it would not end life on earth. After all, the bacterium would survive and happily continue to make alcohol. Other bacteria would happily consume that alcohol, and so on. The web of life could be altered, but would not come to an end.
I do not believe that either George Lawton or Acres have suffered because of the publication of the information about Klebsiella planticola. I think that's probably wishful thinking by people who don't want others to consider the implications of putting something that makes alcohol, using the root's own exudates, into the root systems of alcohol-intolerant terrestrial plants. Certainly, neither George or any editor from Acres have said anything to me about any negativity. A few rather outrageous blips have appeared that have flamed me, but most people can see through the rhetoric to the facts.
Confused about what is what? Read the scientific paper. Halfway through the abstract, read the line that says: "When SDF20 was added to the soil with plants, the numbers of bacterial and fungal feeding nematodes increased significantly, coinciding with death of the plants." The plants died when the engineered bacterium was added to the soil. The plants did not die when the parent, not-engineered bacterium was added.
Why isn't there a title on the paper that screams "addition of GE bacterium kills plants"? Because it is a scientific paper reporting on a series of experiments, not sensationalistic journalism. Klebsiella planticola is merely an example that human beings can engineer organisms that can cause serious problems. This engineered bacterium has never been released into the natural environment, and hopefully, never will be.
You want the facts about the potential Klebsiella planticola has? Read the paper. Check the line on page 73, "However, at the end of the experiment, plants in soil inoculated with with SDF20 were chlorotic and wilting, while plants in the uninoculated soil and soil with SDF15 were flowering." SDF20 is the engineered bacterium, and SDF15 is the parent, not-engineered bacterium. Chlorotic and wilting means the plants had no color, and were, mostly, lying dead on the surface of the soil.
Make your own decision about whether this engineered bacterium is something that could cause significant impacts on terrestrial systems. Ignore the rhetoric, read the facts, decide for yourself.
The paper? Holmes, M.T., E.R. Ingham, J.D. Doyle and C.W. Hendricks. 1999. Effects of Klebsiella planticola SDF20 on soil biota and wheat growth in sandy soil. Applied Soil Ecology 11: 67-78.
President, Director of Research, Soil Foodweb Inc., Corvallis,
President, Soil Foodweb Institute Pty. Ltd.,
President, Sustainable Studies Institute,
Director of Research, Soil Foodweb New York Inc,
Partner, Unisun Communications, Inc., www.unisun.org
Treasurer, Illinois Tilth
Board Member, OSALT, Canby, OR www.osalt.org
Associate Professor, Courtesy, Research, Oregon State University
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: IKERD REMINDS US THAT THERE IS NO WAY WE CAN POSSIBLY DETERMINE SAFETY OF GMOS USING CURRENT SCIENTIFIC METHODS
If I were you, I wouldn't be "too" apologetic about the Elaine Ingham story. Certainly, by her own admission she made some significant mistakes. The most damaging professionally was that she cited an article that she apparently knew had not been published. Even the appearance of professional dishonesty destroys credibility. She also should have check the facts concerning approval of release the organism --- particularly when including such a statement in official testimony. In her defense, it is impossible to check everything we hear or read --- we have to take some things of faith.
Finally, as she admitted, her speculation on the implications of releasing the organism in the environment went well beyond her limited scientific observations. However, this sort of thing happens all of the time -- yes, throughout the scientific community. Scientists at virtually every scientific institution in the country have made statements, something to the effect of: "genetically modified organisms have been thoroughly tested by sound scientific methods and found to be safe for human consumption and for release into the environment."
If not these exact words, this is clearly the message they have meant to convey to the general public. Such statements are clearly false -- no more true that were similar statements made in the 1950s and 1960s regarding pesticides that have since been banned by the same agencies that initially approved them. The scientists are simply speculating well beyond anything that they can logically infer from their limited scientific observations.
However, since many scientists are willing to make inferences that GMOs are safe, we are supposed to accept their safety as a scientifically proven fact. Why would so many scientists be willing to speculate beyond the limitations of their data in one particular direction?
The answer is clear, because of the enormous influence of the biotech industry on the scientific community. No one who has worked with a major university or government agency over the past decade can deny the tremendous influence that the biotech issue has had on the scientific community. Those whose "science" supports the claims of the biotech industry are richly rewarded --- economically and professionally.
Those whose "science" refutes the claims of the biotech industry are harshly penalized --- economically and professionally. You can bet that the scientists who went on the attack to refute Dr. Ingham will be richly rewarded for their efforts, by their peers as well as by the biotech industry. How can "good science" possibly be carried out in such a biased institutional environment?
I don't know whether GMOs are safe for human consumption or for release into the natural environment, but neither does anyone else --- including the most knowledgeable and wise within the scientific community. There is no way we can possibly determine the safety of biotechnology using current scientific methods. We need scientists who are willing to admit the limits of our current scientific methods in addressing issues of such great complexity, and who will search for better ways of knowing, rather than sell their "scientific souls" for fame and fortune.
It's very unfortunate, from both a personal and professional standpoint, that Dr. Ingham made errors in judgment, to which she admits, in her professional testimony. But, we all make mistakes, and some have lasting impacts. Let's admit the mistakes, as she has done, but let's not be bullied by the self-righteousness of those whose mistakes, though different in nature, may be even greater.