indigo rose tomato

New York Times Magazine publishes false and misleading statements in pro-GMO fairytale. Report: Claire Robinson and Jonathan Matthews

For those who wondered whatever happened to Cathie Martin's GM purple "anti-cancer" tomatoes that were hyped to the skies more than a decade ago, they're back – and taking centre stage in an article published in the New York Times Magazine, titled Learning to love GMOs and with the subhead, "Overblown fears have turned the public against genetically modified food. But the potential benefits have never been greater".

Written by Jennifer Kahn, the article is stuffed with misleading and false statements, and relies heavily on paid pro-GMO sources like Mark Lynas and Cathie Martin. Martin, based at the John Innes Centre in the UK, genetically engineered a tomato to have higher than normal levels of anthocyanins, compounds that may have anti-cancer properties.

The tomato disappeared from public view for a good few years – the last we heard about it was Martin complaining that she had to send it to Canada to be grown in greenhouses, due to what she considered to be onerous restrictions in Europe. Martin, we should remember, never bothered to subject her GM tomato to in-depth safety testing in the animal feeding trials that are required by law for GM foods in the EU.* Now this GMO has resurfaced in an article clearly designed to push for deregulation of GM foods.

And it does so, as Dr Nathan Donley has noted, by conjuring up a fairytale world that ignores much of the reality of GM crops.

Sins of omission

Donley points out, "There is only passing mention [in the article] of Monsanto and Syngenta and Dow and the horrible destruction caused by their GMO crops in the form of increased herbicide usage, seed patenting and barriers to food sovereignty." Yet these are the types of crops, unlike purple tomatoes, that are being grown on hundreds of millions of acres.

Similarly, Donley notes, there is no mention of dicamba-tolerant GMO crops. "How can you have a serious discussion about genetic engineering and ignore the livelihoods and habitats that have been irreversibly destroyed throughout the Midwest and South in the last 5 years?", he asks.

Donley’s other example of a glaring omission is "glyphosate-resistant bentgrass that ‘escaped’ from field trials and is infesting riverbanks and irrigation canals on the Oregon/Idaho border with a zero percent chance of ever being contained, threatening the Oregon seed industry."

A further omission relates to the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS)’s 2016 report on GMOs. Kahn cites the NAS panel’s conclusion that GM foods are “generally safe” to eat. But she fails to mention that the panel was rife with conflicts of interest, which were documented at length by the journalist Stephanie Strom in none other than the New York Times, as well as in the scientific literature.

Falsehoods and misleading claims

But Kahn’s New York Times Magazine article isn’t only guilty of sins of omission. The article also contains falsehoods and misleading claims. Here are a few examples with our responses.

1. Kahn reduces safety concerns about GMOs to public ignorance, stating that "our extravagant concern about GMOs reflects something more fundamental: the fact that most of us don’t really understand how genes work". This conveniently ignores the many scientists who do understand how genes work and who warn against the toxic and allergenic potential of GMOs. It also ignores the scientists who have conducted animal feeding experiments with GMOs, including many that have passed regulatory approval and are on the market, and found them to be unexpectedly toxic or allergenic. Many of these studies are summarised in the book GMO Myths and Truths.

2. Although the writer mentions that "All higher plants have a mechanism for making anthocyanins", she finds bizarre reasons to dismiss the many foods that are naturally high in anthocyanins, like blackberries and blueberries. She quotes a convenient expert as saying, "Berries always have some tragic flaw", such as rotting after picking or an inconveniently short fruiting season. But Kahn fails to mention foods other than berries also contain high levels of anthocyanins, including aubergines, red cabbage, and purple carrots. And Martin's tomatoes, just like berries, will have a limited fruiting season. They could be bottled or frozen to preserve them, but that applies to berries, too.

There’s a good reason for this illogical dismissal of existing anthocyanin-rich foods. Once it becomes clear that commonly consumed foods contain anthocyanins, the question arises of why you would need to get them in your diet via genetically engineered tomatoes.

Martin’s original solution to that problem was to claim that there was a sector of the population for whom tomatoes were one of the few fruits/vegetables they ever ate. This, of course, left aside the issue of whether a sector with such conservative tastes would be more drawn to eating a purple genetically engineered tomato than, say, a blackberry.

3. Kahn refers to a flood-tolerant "scuba rice", which she misleadingly describes as "a variety engineered to survive being submerged for up to 14 days rather than just three". Kahn cites this as an example of a successful GMO that has led environmental groups to back away from opposing GMOs.

But the problem with this argument is that the flood-tolerant rice isn't GM at all. A cursory internet search confirms that the scuba rice is the product of conventional breeding, helped along by marker assisted selection, a biotechnology that can be used to generate conventionally bred plants that express the gene of interest. It can speed up conventional breeding considerably, but no genetic engineering is involved.

And that fact hasn’t been lost on environmental groups. In fact, Kumi Naidoo, when international executive director of Greenpeace International, cited scuba rice as one example among many as to why we don’t need GM crops.

Incidentally, it's no surprise that the flood-tolerant rice isn't GM. GM is not suited to producing plants with complex traits like tolerance to flood or drought, which are the product of many genes working together.

4. Kahn cites pro-GMO scientists as claiming that gene editing is so precise that it allows you "to carry over only the gene you want”. But many scientific papers show that this is nonsense. Gene editing isn't precise but results in many unintended changes. And the gene of interest will be networked with other genes, meaning that no gene can be isolated and utilised without affecting many other genes.

5. Kahn follows pro-GMO lobbyist Mark Lynas in blaming anti-GMO activists for the failure of GMO golden rice. She quotes Lynas as saying, "Probably the angriest I’ve ever felt was when anti-GMO groups destroyed fields of Golden Rice growing in the Philippines.”

Yet this New York Times (NYT) Magazine contributor seems unaware that an NYT (pro-GM) science writer, Amy Harmon, has challenged the accuracy of Lynas's account of this protest against golden rice, pointing out that he has no reliable evidence for his claim that the protest wasn’t led by farmers.

And the anthropologist Prof Glenn Davis Stone has debunked the idea that it’s activists who have held up golden rice. Instead, basic research and development problems have plagued this GM crop. But its failure won’t make any difference to the poor and hungry that are the target consumers of golden rice, as the US FDA says it doesn't contain enough of the vitamin A precursor nutrient beta-carotene to justify a health claim – a fact of which Kahn seems unaware.

Lynas's comparison of farmers damaging a test plot of golden rice, which, as Glenn Davis Stone has pointed out, was "only one small plot out of many plots in multiple locations over many years", to the imaginary scenario of "anti-vaxxer groups invading a laboratory and destroying a million doses of a COVID vaccine" is both cynical and insanely disproportionate.

Contamination via home gardeners

Martin (predictably) cannot get any big biotech firms interested in commercialising her ultra-niche GM tomato. So, in a scheme emulating the one by which the Japanese company Sanatech is distributing its gene-edited sedative-containing tomato, she plans to make it available "first to home gardeners, who could grow it from seed as soon as next spring — well before the commercially grown tomato reaches grocery stores".

Why would home gardeners be interested in an experimental GM tomato that hasn't been properly tested for food safety? Kahn goes to some lengths to track down a home gardener who is keen to try GM seeds. She's clearly not averse to eating foods high in anthocyanins, as she says she'd be interested in growing GM "bigger blackberries". The attractant just seems to be novelty. But given that tomato seeds are easily released into the wider environment – hence tomato plants growing around sewage outlets – that seems a weak reason for risking biosafety.

Gene editing – Trojan horse for all GMOs

Just like the UK farm ministry DEFRA, the GMO industry is hoping to use gene editing as a Trojan horse to eventually deregulate all GMOs. Kahn quotes Haven Baker, founder of Pairwise, a company planning to develop gene-edited fruits and vegetables, as saying, “I don’t think we can change people’s minds about GMOs. But gene editing is a clean slate. And maybe then GMOs will be able to follow.”

In other words, it’s all about marketing – and from that point of view, Jennifer Kahn’s fairytale piece is perfect PR.


* A "pilot" feeding study on cancer-prone mice conducted by Martin and colleagues does not constitute a properly designed toxicological study, which would look at various health endpoints. There is insufficient detail in the published paper to provide any in-depth evidence of the full range of health effects.