Friday, 11 May 2012

Genetic Roulette

Book Review
Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods - by Jeffrey M. Smith

 I came across this book totally by chance - it was on display at the end of a row of shelves in our local library.  I picked it up, read the blurb on the back and decided it was something I really wanted to know more about.  Not knowing who Jeffrey M. Smith was, the fact that the foreword was written by Dr Rosemary Stanton, who I've grown up seeing promoting good nutrition, had some influence on my decision.
This is the Australian Edition, other editions are introduced by well known and respected people in their markets where they are sold.

This is not a light-weight book, it is full of scientific analysis, but it has been designed so that it can also be read by people who do not need all the technical data, and there are tips for the "quick scanner" and the "casual reader" on how to read it in the 'About the Author' section.  For example: "Part 1 (two-page spreads): Quick scanners can stick with the executive summary on the left page only.  Casual readers will have to pick and choose among the explanations on the right, since they vary considerably in their level of technical detail."

I came in under the heading 'those wanting it all' - i.e. I read virtually every word.  Partly because I can't help myself and partly because I decided fairly early on that this book was worth reviewing. Consequently it took me about 4 months to read.  Sometimes I went for a few days without reading any, sometimes I only read a few pages.  If you were to read it at the level of the quick scanner it would probably take only a couple of days to get what you want out of it.  This is one of the great things about it - it is accessible to all.

Now, molecular biology is not my field, and I struggle to get my head around genes, DNA, cells, chromosomes, proteins etc, but I do understand scientific method and the design of experiments, and this helped in understanding the details in the points made (i.e. the right hand side of the two-page spreads).  So many of the studies done by the GM developers are poorly designed, or analysed, yet have been used to justify approval for commercial propagation.

To give you some idea of the content - and the main points of the book (all backed by evidence and a 40 page small font list of references) - I will list the section titles from Part 1.

Section 1: Evidence of reactions in animals and humans
Section 2 : Gene insertion disrupts the DNA
Section 3: The protein produced by the inserted gene may create problems
Section 4: The foreign protein may be different than what is intended
Section 5: Transfer of genes to gut bacteria, internal organs, or viruses
Section 6: GM crops may increase environmental toxins and bioaccumulate toxins in the food chain
Section 7: Other types of GM foods carry risks
Section 8: Risks are greater for children and newborns
Connecting the dots: looking for patterns and causes

Trying to think of a few things that will definitely stick in my mind.

  1. Gene insertion is not exact.  It is not like a surgeon inserting a stent into the exact artery of the heart that needs expanding.  It is more like a novice shooting to break in a game of pool, you are unlikely to be able to predict exactly where you are going to hit, or where all the balls are going to end up.  The gene you are trying to insert may get broken up, or it may land in the middle of other gene sequences, disrupting their operation.
  2. Even if the inserted gene sequence remains intact it may produce different proteins to that desired, or the desired protein differently folded, and this can change the effect.
  3. The new proteins will be produced in every cell of the organism, so they can't be avoided by only using one part.  For example "Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacterium that produces a pesticide" (Section 3.3 p95). "Bt spray is applied in organic agriculture only during high insect infestation emergencies. It is applied on the plant's surface and the concentration of the toxin quickly dissipates. .... it is broken down within a few days to two weeks upon exposure to UV light from the sun. "It is also degraded rapidly by high temperatures and substances on plants' leaves.  It is also washed from leaves into the soil by rainfall" or can be washed off by consumers" (Section 3.4 p97).  "A Bt crop, however, makes the toxin in every cell on a continuous basis.  The concentration does not dissipate by the weather and it cannot be washed off." (Section 3.4p97)
  4. Most genetically modified crops have an antibiotic resistant marker (used to determine if the gene has been successfully inserted).  Should this transfer across to gut bacteria during digestion, and evidence suggests that the genes can, though it is uncommon, it could convey antibiotic resistance to them, giving them a survival advantage and resulting in severe infections.  The more GM food eaten the greater the chance that this will occur.
  5. GM crops have been given a survival advantage and can easily become weeds.
  6. Even if a GM crop is not intended for human consumption, should it be fed to animals it can still get through into our food.
  7. GM crops have contaminated other crops.  It is extremely difficult to then get rid of.
  8. GM crops are patented and the farmers are not permitted to seed-save (even assuming they crops bred true-to-type), they have to buy new seed each year.
  9. 'Round-up Ready' and similar herbicide resistant crops are designed to survive spraying by the accompanying chemical, while everything else is killed.  This actually results in more herbicide being used.  Some of the weeds are consequently already developing resistance to the herbicide as well and new generation GM crops are being developed which can survive yet stronger herbicides - all this going into our soil, water, air and food supply (and creating super-weeds).
  10. GM food will not 'solve the problem of world hunger'. We already produce more than enough food to feed the world, the problem is that many people can not afford it.  Vitamin A enriched GM rice (golden rice, one of the very few crops being developed for a nutritional benefit, though more likely it is purely a public relations exercise) will not solve the problems of Vitamin A deficiency in the areas where it is a problem.  A 2yo child would need to eat over 3kgs of rice a day to get enough Vitamin A this way.  In addition the body cannot convert beta-carotene to Vitamin A when severely malnourished.  Much cheaper, simpler & healthier alternatives exist.  Michael Pollan (In Defence of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma) suggests, in his New York Times Magazine article, The Great Yellow Hype, teaching "people how to grow green vegetables [that are rich in vitamin A and other nutrients] on the margins of their rice fields, and maybe even give them the seeds to do so".  Another alternative, already being done, is to hand out high potency Vitamin A tablets, strong enough that only 2 are required per year to prevent blindness, at a cost of 5 cents a tablet.
  11. I am far from a conspiracy theorist - but how much influence do Monsanto, Syngenta and the like have over our regulatory bodies, politicians and scientific community?  There are many examples in this book of scientists being bullied, losing their jobs or funding, or being prevented from studying the organisms in question.  When reading this type of thing I always ask myself "What does this person / organisation have to gain by promoting their side of the argument?"  And the GM companies have everything to gain (up to the possibility of control of a large portion of the world's food supply and never-ending and increasing sales of their herbicides), while the scientists putting the alternative research have nothing of major significance to gain.  I have great difficulty understanding people who put profit and their own benefit above the long term survival of our community.  For me it is like trying to understand why someone would break a bottle on the rocks at the beach where they have just enjoyed a picnic, or at the extreme end, Martin Bryant and the Port Arthur Massacre.  How can they think like that?  What is wrong with the wiring of their brains?  (Of course they might think exactly the same of me "Why should she care?")
Is that enough do you think?  The evidence presented is certainly enough to convince me to start avoiding GM food.  I am thinking of proposing that our school tuckshop endeavour to go GM free too (and doing the research to help them achieve it).  In Australia we have a much lower proportion of GM food than in the US, but probably more than the EU, and it is hard to be sure about any imported food, seeing as labelling is not required here.  As of the publication date of this book (2007) 89% of soy, 75% of canola and 60% of corn grown in the USA was estimated to be genetically modified.

In the Appendix there are sections about how to stay up-to-date in the risks of GM food (try the Genetic Roulette site and, How to avoid eating genetically modified foods (two ideas, go Organic or use shopping guides, an Australian one can be found at, A list of GM crops, Food enzymes from GM organisms and a special alert on aspartame (e.g. Nutrasweet, Equal etc).

If you believe that GM foods are a bad idea, and that crops shouldn't be grown in this country, there are many ways you can have an influence, starting by trying to only buy products you know are GM free. Campaigning for compulsory labelling of GM content in food would be good too.  Then there is encouraging your local members, environment and agriculture ministers to learn about it, and get them to campaign so that our food regulatory body FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) demands proper research and full disclosure before approving crops, or imports, and that all test crops are grown in sealed greenhouses so no contamination can occur.  It would also be good if legislation were enacted such that the GM companies were held responsible every time contamination of other crops did occur.  The list could go on...and more ideas for creating a 'tipping point' can be found at the Institute for Responsible Technology, including an Action Tool Kit!

Anyway - if you want to know more read the book.  It is well written and you don't have to read every word like I did to get a lot of benefit.

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