The Science Media Centre has attacked reports warning of risks of GMO gene silencing technology – but fails to convince, writes Claire Robinson
In 2012 Dr Judy Carman and Prof Jack Heinemann released reports on the risk assessment of the Australian research institute CSIRO's GM wheat, drawing attention to the risks to public health.
The GM wheat is developed using dsRNA gene-silencing technology, the risks of which have not been assessed by regulators anywhere in the world.
The Science Media Centres of New Zealand and Australia predictably sprang to the defence of the GM wheat in particular and GM crops in general. The SMCs issued a collection of non-peer-reviewed spoiler quotes from "experts", of the type that many GMWatch subscribers will be used to seeing emanate from the part-industry-funded UK SMC.
SMC-generated "expert" quotes typically attack inconvenient studies on the basis of no evidence or data whatsoever and try to discredit the authors. They are often from experts with no experience in, or specialist knowledge of, the areas of knowledge in question.
The SMC often gives the expert's affiliation only as their public university or institute, giving the impression that the expert is independent and unbiased. They omit significant conflicts of interest, and many journalists don't bother even to do a quick google to fill the information gap. This is in spite of the fact that such conflicts of interest have to be declared when submitting a paper to a reputable peer-reviewed journal.
The SMC's spoiler quotes dismissing Dr Carman's and Prof Heinemann's GM wheat reports included one from Professor Peter Langridge, CEO of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics at the University of Adelaide. Langridge said of Carman and Heinemann:
"Essentially we have two scientists who appear to be ideologically opposed to GM crops and who studiously ignore the majority of the scientific literature and data. They have now tried to give the appearance of credibility by writing a couple of scientifically flawed articles and rather than have these assessed through the normal process of peer review, they find someone with no real knowledge on GM crops to write a supporting statement and put this out as proper science. This is not helping an informed discussion about the technology."
Langridge offered no new scientific data to counter Carman and Heinemann's reports and, unlike them, gave no references to published scientific studies to back up his claims. Langridge's statement is simply an ad hominem (personal) attack. Nonetheless Langridge's statement was published by both the SMC Australia and the SMC New Zealand.
Dr Carman's lawyers contended the statement was defamatory and complained to both SMCs. In response, SMC Australia withdrew its publication from the web, but SMC New Zealand did not. Dr Carman lives in Australia.
Now, in the wake of the publication of the new study by Heinemann, Carman, and Agapito-Tenfen on the risks of dsRNA-type GM crops, which include CSIRO's GM wheat, the SMC New Zealand has published another defamatory statement from Langridge. In his statement, Langridge claims that Dr Carman was trying to "silence scientific criticism" through her lawyers, in challenging his previous SMC statement about her and Prof Heinemann's GM wheat reports!
Dr Carman commented: "I welcome scientific debate on the safety of GM crops. Personal attacks are the opposite of scientific debate."
The SMC New Zealand also published a spoiler quote from Dr David Tribe, Senior Lecturer in Food Biotechnology and Microbiology, Agriculture and Food Systems at the University of Melbourne. Tribe only offered an absurdly misleading and unscientific claim: "The dsRNAs that are discussed in [the paper] are in every bit of food we eat, and in perhaps every plant and animal on the planet, and have been for millennia."
This claim was so predictable that by the time Tribe uttered it, Heinemann and colleagues had already answered it! They said: "There is a difference between the sequence of novel dsRNA molecules in GM crops and those in nature, and that is why arguments about all dsRNAs being safe are dangerously flawed."
Prof Heinemann offered this further response: "It is bizarre and scientifically irresponsible in my view for these scientists to assert that all RNA is and will be safe. The molecule is being developed as a pesticide to kill animals; we know that it has the ability to cause harm in animals. In GM plants that we discuss there will be dsRNA molecules that have never been in the food supply. Moreover, our work on dsRNA risk was supported by around 100 references to the scientific literature, is up to date and passed the most rigorous peer-review process in existence, unlike the selected opinions circulated by the SMC."
As to the qualifications of the SMC 'experts' to pass judgement on Heinemann and colleagues' dsRNA paper, Prof Heinemann commented:
"I can find no peer-reviewed work from David Tribe on dsRNA, much less human health effects of plants that produce new dsRNA molecules. I can find no peer reviewed work from Peter Langridge on human safety testing of dsRNA molecules, which is understandable given that his expertise seems to be in making dsRNA-based GM plants. So it is unclear to me what makes them or their opinions, which were not put to peer review of any kind, experts in response to our research.
"Importantly though, they do not report evidence that our research or findings are incorrect. They only seem to raise very vague and largely personal criticisms that appear to me to be designed to manufacture doubt rather than to protect the public."
The SMC did not use experts of standing on the topic to challenge the expertise of the authors. It did not seek opinion from any except those who wish to silence this new research and the proper assessment of the risks of dsRNA based crops and products. Its aim appears to be not to educate the public but to manipulate public opinion.
Crucially, the SMC, in line with the usual practice of SMCs around the world, failed to declare the conflicts of interest of its "experts".
Langridge is a Fellow of FSANZ, the food regulatory agency of Australia and New Zealand which assesses GM foods for safety. FSANZ says its Fellows "provide expert advice on applications, proposals and other risk assessment activities of the agency. FSANZ Fellows, within their relevant areas of expertise, also peer review FSANZ work and provide training to FSANZ staff." Hence Langridge would be committed to defending FSANZ’s role in dismissing the need for assessing the risks of dsRNA.
Langridge's Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) has a direct collaboration with DuPont, which submits its dsRNA-based GM crops to FSANZ for review.
The Chairman of Langridge's ACPFG, Dale Barker, has a direct collaboration with Monsanto, which submits its dsRNA-based GM crops to FSANZ for review, through his company, Intergrain.
The collaboration involves wheat breeding programs.
Heinemann and Carman criticised the risk assessment of CSIRO's wheat; Langridge is associated with CSIRO through joint research, and develops dsRNA-based GM plants.
Langridge's ACPFG is part of a consortium of "wheat partners" with CSIRO under the Bioplatforms Australia initiative.
Bioplatforms Australia says its "infrastructure investments are hosted by an Australia-wide network of universities, research institutions and biotech companies".
Langridge regularly publishes with CSIRO authors, e.g. Plant Biotechnology Journal Special Issue: Next Generation Sequencing Technologies 10(6).
Langridge's ACPFG has formed a joint venture with CSIRO and the seed company Vilmorin & Cie to commercialize Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) wheat in Australia.
- and another joint venture with CSIRO.
Langridge holds a patent in creating plants that downregulate their boron transporters using dsRNA.
In sum, Langridge has many conflicts of interest that are undeclared by the SMC. This would be less serious if he or the SMC understood the difference between scientific argument and ad hominem attacks. Seemingly, though, neither grasps the distinction. So Langridge's statements on the safety of dsRNA-type GM crops should be taken for what they are: a sales pitch on which his career depends.
CSIRO and the University of Adelaide, where Langridge's Centre is based are both sponsors of the SMC Australia, as noted on the cycling 'sponsors' box on the SMC Australia's website.
Posted 31 March 2013