Historic posts are reprinted verbatim from their original source.
This response to Dr. Morton by Arpad Pusztai was part of an ongoing dialogue in 1999 or 2000 over published papers on the risks posed by genetically engineered foods.
Dear Dr Morton,
We now seem to be playing silly games with numbers and other unfortunate deviations from what we really ought to be focusing on. So let’s first call an end to the numbers’ game.
There were 56 so-called references in your initial piece, 5 of which were in fact duplicates or triplicates. So, in the new list there should have been 51. It took me half an hour to establish how 56 – 5 came to equal 53. It appears that our J. Nutrition paper has been added to the list and a previously listed paper, which lacked a reference no. in the original list, has now acquired one. However, otherwise the references were still the same as in the original list (although numbered differently), despite my rather commonsense criticisms.
For a moment I thought that our Lancet paper might have now been included in the new list, as one of these two extras. Alas, it was not to be because it was deemed to be “irrelevant to the discussion as to whether the GM food on the market is safe or not”. Clearly, even though this article and a few others in Domingo’s list in Science were most definitely peer-reviewed papers, they obviously did not come up to the pro-GM scientists’ standards, as exemplified by the 41 non peer-reviewed references in the original and in the amended list.
I am afraid, even now I and, I guess, a lot of other scientists would regard the contents of these 41 “references” as little more than opinions. I pick out a few glaring examples at random. How could articles such as that published in the FDA Consumer magazine (no. 45), the R&D Magazine (no. 48), or Canadian Newswire Oct 25 (no. 52), etc be regarded as superior to the peer-reviewed papers in Domingo’s references in Science?
This, I am sure, would require an explanation for most unbiased people. Even abstracts given at scientific meetings are not much use because they very seldom contain much hard data and information and are of limited circulation. In fact, regarding them as peer-reviewed publications places Dr Morton on very dangerous ground because most of our GM potato work has also been presented at scientific meetings and their abstracts were published in the proceedings prior to my talking about it during the TV interview. Therefore, the original charge against us, i.e. that I prematurely gave details of our work without their having been first peer-reviewed, seems to lose its validity.
While reading the Morton “Response” I realised why it is so difficult to find common ground between the pro-GM believers and those scientists who take a more sceptical view of the soundness of the GM science and technology. I would recommend that people should read the original piece posted on the AGBIOVIEW website at the beginning of December as it clearly describes a novel idea of refereeing:
“Look at the bibliography above and you will see the vast majority of the  publications mentioned are full peer-reviewed publications in journals. Some reports submitted to FDA, EPA etc are not peer-reviewed by journal editors but you can be sure they are peer-reviewed by the people at FDA and EPA.”
Most scientists regard publishing their results in peer-reviewed journals as a difficult, sometimes painful and laborious job. However, they still do this because we have not come up yet with a better and more responsible system for the dissemination of new results, ideas and concepts, so that other scientists could use them for their own work. This is the way science has progressed through the ages. True, it is not foolproof but it is the best we have for the time being.
Personally, I would be extremely grateful if the biotechnology companies could prevail on their scientists to properly publish their work instead of using these bits of communications, articles etc, as typified by 41 references on the list. Currently they are preventing other scientists from incorporating the data in their own research and checking it.
It would also be useful because then we would not have to play this silly numbers game. I am sure, Dr Morton knows perfectly well that I am right. Let us all hope that science will win out at the end.
Incidentally, it is rather revealing that, in line with what has been maintained by the GM biotechnology industry, pro-GM scientists apparently do not expect to find any differences between GM and non-GM crops under any conditions in their research. Otherwise the following passage in the Morton piece which states that “publishing the results of experiments where there is no difference between the treatments is very difficult – because there is not a Journal of Boring Results”, would be meaningless.
There is a second essential point about the perspective of pro-GM enthusiasts which needs to be understood. In Dr Morton’s list, with the addition of our J. Nutrition paper there are now 5 peer-reviewed publications describing animal feeding studies done with diets containing GM crops. Although one may not agree with some of the findings described in these papers and even criticise them, these are now part of the scientific debate on GM foods and I welcome that. However, it appears that the GM enthusiasts cannot embrace the idea of reciprocity or that there are usually two sides to any debate. Indeed, the word “to debate” in the pro-GM scientist’s vocabulary apparently means “to agree” with the pro-GM point of view. Dr Morton’s piece has demonstrated this, if it has demonstarted nothing else, by leaving out the more sceptical references (including the Lancet paper and some others) from the list.
Moreover, as I mentioned previously, the direct relevance of the 7 peer-reviewed compositional studies to the safety of GM food is somewhat debatable and the sooner this is realized by the pro-GM lobby the better it will be all round. It needs to be understood that establishing compositional equivalence of macronutrients between GM and conventional crops, though important, is of rather limited value.
As the present technology of genetic crop transformation cannot deliver GM crops which are predictably safe and have no unintended effects, some sceptics, quite rightly in my opinion, regard the use of the word “technology” as a misnomer. Provision of tonnes of analytical data will not make up for the uncertainty as to whether the GM product is safe or not.
A distinguished French scientist and regulator who was invited to give an official contribution at the OECD Conference in Edinburgh (incidentally he is not included in the “list” either) gave a brilliant example of the basic fallacy of “substantial equivalence” in macronutrient composition. He said that although a BSE cow is substantially equivalent to a healthy one nobody would be happy to eat it. Before scientific work had revealed the reason for the difference between the two animals nobody knew what to look for. Having identified that, when scientists try to identify which cow is infected with BSE they do not measure the macronutrient content of the cow but will look for the appropriate prion proteins (0.0000….% of the cow’s weight) that makes the cow potentially lethal for herself and the humans eating it.
The message is that you must first establish whether there is a difference between the GM crop and its conventional counterpart by short- and long-term laboratory animal testing and then, if there is, look for what chemical component(s) is/are responsible for this difference. From there on, just like with the prions, it is relatively plain sailing: scientists will determine the changes in the content of this component(s) in the various lines of GM crops and then physiologists/nutritionists/toxicologists will establish whether predictions based on the content of these (toxic, antinutritive, antihormonal, etc) components will be borne out by animal tests. This is how science has worked in the past and I need to be persuaded by logical and factual arguments why this should not apply to GM crops.
I am glad to say that at least in one respect Morton’s views and mine are similar. No true scientist can (or will) ever say that a food is 100% safe regardless of whether its a GM or non-GM variety although we have in the past two years been bombarded by politicians telling us that, based on the best scientific advice, it is inconceivable that GM foods are not safe.
Unfortunately, it is the food processing industry’s (and the regulators’) cutting corners which is responsible for not properly testing novel foods and processes before allowing them onto the market. However, as we know well, two wrongs do not make a right. Again we come back to BSE. Why were those re-processed animal remnants not properly tested before feeding them to cows? Or, why for that matter were the tryptophan supplements not properly tested before they poisoned and maimed so many people? It is immaterial whether this effect was due to genetic modification or cutting corners with the purification of the product or both. A novel production method was introduced without testing the outcome. Incidentally, the newly produced tryptophan was also “substantially equivalent” to the non-toxic tryptophan produced by all other manufacturers (99% or better).
At this point we must also confront this business about how, by demanding independent verification of GM safety, the “activists” imply that the industry-financed “laboratories are fraudulently producing results showing the food is safe when in fact it is unsafe”. In such a light Sir John Krebs’ and the OECD Edinburgh Conference’s final motto of “openness, transparency and inclusiveness” can also be regarded as questioning the GM industry’s credibility.
The fact is that when one buys a second hand car one does not exclusively rely on the seller’s assurance but, if one has any sense, also asks for an independent opinion. Obviously, the industry does test their products but that also leaves room for independent testing. The idea that there is a terrible quandry as to who is going to pay for this, because the public will not, rings rather hollow in the wake of the Cry9 Taco shell disaster because it was testing by a public NGO and not Aventis’ scientists which alerted everyone to the problem of contamination.
Perhaps the industry ought to set up a fund from which money could be used to support independent scientific investigations. It would not only be in the interest of public safety but the GM companies would also clearly benefit if independent research workers found that their products presented no unacceptable health or environmental safety risks. Industry could only gain by such an endorsement, which inevitably leads one to ponder why there is so much difficulty about achieving such “openness, transparency and inclusiveness”. Are the companies, in reality, afraid that the independent research scientists might find something negative about their GM products? Certainly I (and I am told many others) had a great deal of difficulties in the past when we tried to obtain bona fide samples of GM and parent line crops from biotech companies for our testing. And we did not even ask for their money, just for the samples.
In the Morton “Responses” there was a return to our GM pea paper. It was quite revealing that, apparently, it was envisaged that there could be no possible detrimental effects of these peas on the rats. Thus, there was a plea that the paper’s title should have said that the GM peas had “NO DETRIMENTAL EFFECT” rather than minimal detrimental effect.
First of all, I should point out that the title was coined by T.J. Higgins and seconded by Maarten Chrispeels, neither of whom are known to be rabid anti-GM scientists. Of course, they were right because although Dr Morton may think that the differences found could not be regarded as potentially detrimental, some more cautious scientists might regard the changes as potentially harmful. Now there are two peer-reviewed papers, in addition to the FDA’s own FLAVR SAVR tomato study, in which gut lesions have been found with GM foodstuffs in three different labs. In this light, even though in the GM pea study there was no histology, the significant weight and compositional differences in the caecum (large intestine) and the increased weight (not significant) of the small intestine should have at least cautioned anyone against claiming no detrimental effects and suggested doing further and more relevant (histological, immunological, etc) studies to investigate whether these differences had any physiological significance.
This is of particular importance when one takes into account that in practically all biological testing of GM crops the scientists use SPF and fully healthy rats or other animals. No tests have ever been performed with animals which had problems with their digestive system, despite the fact that a very sizeable proportion of the human population has diseases of the alimentary tract, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, intestinal and pancreatic tumours of all kinds, H. pylory and other bacterial infections, and a compromised immune system, etc. Can anyone from the GM fraternity assure these people that they will suffer no ill effects when animal studies have already indicated the possibility of such? I do not want to appear to be pedantic but we all must be reminded of the fact that once a GM crop is released we lose all control over it. If the Taco shell disaster proved nothing else, it showed that neither the industry, nor the EPA or FDA are equipped to deal with a recall. This places extra responsibility on scientists to be ultra cautious and not to claim that something has no detrimental effects just because their experiences are not wide enough to see possible problems.
In the “Response” document, in addition to an interpretation of the word “commercialization”, there were again references to our potato study. As I previously dealt with this point, I have nothing further to add apart from asking a question as to who would have done a “proper safety assessment including animal feeding studies” (on these GM potatoes) in the UK. After all, ACNFP, our regulatory authority, have no labs of their own and only ask for the companies to submit the results of their own testing. Incidentally, even this level of regulation is more rigorous than that in the USA where there is self-regulation and the FDA would not have required any such documentation, just a notification of the impending release of a new GM food crop.
There was also some query at the end of the “Response” document about the comments I have reportedly made about the CaMV 35 s promoter. According to (as it is claimed in the document) some unidentified activists (who keep popping up), I claimed that the transgenic potatoes behaved differently to non-transgenic potatoes spiked with the transgene product because of the 35 s promoter.
I am now going to quote from our Lancet paper: “The possibility that a plant vector in common use in some GM plants can affect the mucosa of the gastrointestinal tract and exert powerful biological effects may also apply to GM plants containing similar constructs, particularly those containing lectins…” Or as in the Abstract: “Other parts of the construct or the genetic transformation (or both) could have also contributed to the overall biological effects…”. Perhaps, after all it may have been useful to include the Lancet paper in the list and quote its Abstract to prevent any misunderstandings. One thing is, however, crystal clear that any mentioning of the 35 s promoter was conspicuously absent from the paper even though that construct would have, of course, contained the promoter too. However, a scientist can only refer to facts revealed by his/her studies and not, as it is often found nowadays, to his/her opinions.
Finally, as referred to above, I do not necessarily agree with the view that we found no potentially detrimental effects with our GM peas. We are back to the old claim by the GM protagonists that as there is no proof that human health is affected by GM food, it must be safe! According to this line of argument, the only thing the GM biotech industry needs to do in future is not do any testing as then the myth of the safety of GM food will be maintained for eternity. I am sure, to judge by present standards, that they are well on their way to achieving this.