Monday, March 24, 2014

Review of "GMO Myths and Truths" - Part 1

During a recent twitter exchange, I was sent a document entitled "GMO Myths and Truths: An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops". The document was sent to me as evidence that many scientists are opposed to GMOs. I will be reviewing this 123 page document in its current version (1.3b), in several parts.

My delicious Urban Rabbit lunch salad
The document has three authors. The first author has a PhD in Molecular Genetics, is well published, and works on developing human gene therapies. The second author is an editor at GM Watch and a research director at Earth Open Source (who put together the document). The third author, has a PhD in molecular genetics, and is also the founder and CSO at a GMO testing and certification company. He is also the co-founder of Earth Open Source. Earth Open Source is an anti-GMO organization, whose website's main page includes the infamous "lumpy rat" pictures from Seralini's now-retracted article (for my views on the retraction of the study, please see here). I highlight the background of the authors to note that there are only 2 scientists, one of whom benefits financially from anti-GMO sentiments.

The first section of the document outlines that although proponents of GMOs state that the genetic engineering process is just an extension of natural breeding, is safer than mutagenesis, and more precise than traditional cross-hybridization, it actually isn't. They admit that the genetic engineering process has become better and more precise, but you can still cause unintended consequences. They list a whole slew of unintended consequences that could happen. The word "could" is key in this section.

Well, we've gotten better at a lot of different things over the past few decades. As mentioned, the authors admit that we've gotten better at creating transgenic crop, but they omit that we've gotten astronomically better at detecting unintended consequences. Technologies such as whole genome sequencing and microarrays are used because of the whole "we don't know what we don't know" phenomenon. These technologies will allow you to analyze RNA and DNA so that you can identify mutations that you didn't intend to make or RNA hybrids that you were unaware of. In a recent Q&A with the Arctic Apple company on GMO Skepti-Forum, Arctic Apple's staff mentioned that they had the genome of their apple sequenced (for a review of the Arctic Apple, please see here). All 750 million bases of it. And their conclusion was that there were no unintended mutations. So it's not surprising that in an online search, I was able to find out that companies such as Monsanto and Dow Agro use these technologies as well to study GMOs.

As I understand it, you make many different transgenic lines in the process of making a GMO and you test them to find out which ones are expressing the gene you're interested in at the level you desire and in an appropriate location. Yes, the authors of the document provide information on the many ways things could go wrong, but that's why a transgenic plant isn't made in a single shot. I sort of feel that this section in the document is like making a giant list of all the parts in your car that could break down and then concluding that you shouldn't drive your car... (Spouse, I'm reminded that my car is making a weird humming sound. Could you check it out?)

There are a few segments on mutagenesis and cis-genesis in the document, and I've previously reviewed this topic here (briefly, cis-genesis is taking a gene from the same species and modifying it. Mutagenesis is using chemicals/radioactivity to modify a trait within a species. Plants derived through mutagenesis are not considered GMOs, but are lumped under "conventionally bred organisms"). The authors are of the opinion that these technologies are just as risky as transgenesis, and should be regulated and tested. My personal opinion on this topic is that the technology used to generate the trait shouldn't matter, and that the degree of regulation/testing should depend on the trait itself.

Section 1 of the document boils down to a difference of opinion between these two authors and many other scientists. The authors conclude the first section stating that using genetic engineering to create new strains is unnecessary, because conventional breeding can meet crop breeding needs. Well, I'm not sure that's accurate, unless you discard transgenesis altogether, and I think that many scientists would disagree with this point of view. I feel that this whole section was like a side-by-side comparison of using a knife vs using a food processor, and then concluding that you don't need a food processor because the knife can do the same thing, but stressing all the additional risks when you use the food processor such as the possibility of getting electrocuted, shocked, etc. The document skipped over the benefits of the food processor and its strengths, and failed to highlight the drawbacks of a knife.

Section 2 questions the idea of "substantial equivalence". I have to read all the papers that they're citing, so I'll leave that for another day. For now, Baby Boy is being weaned off his pacifier and he's not happy about it, so I've gotta boot.

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