Ask Us Anything About GMOs!

Q:
Is there a comprehensive rebuttal of the book Genetic Roulette?
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A:Expert Answer

Answer at a Glance:

Dr. Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus of food safety and nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, provides an introduction to his review of Genetic Roulette in this response. The full response is posted below. Here are a few key points:
 

  • Genetic Roulette incorrectly asserts that people will be exposed to more viral components through GM crops than through virus-infected crops. This is simply not true, and arguments based on this assertion cannot be supported. Food safety experts believe that disease-protected crops are as safe as, or are safer than, conventional crops.

 

  • There is no evidence to support the wild speculations advanced in Genetic Roulette about accidental activation of harmful genes. The promoter referred to by Smith as the 35S does not activate genes nearby the site of its insertion (El Ouakfaoui and Miki 2005). The fact that Smith has refrained from alerting the reader to key studies in this area should, in fact, alert the reader to his scientific dishonesty.

 

  • Smith cites papers that show that various types of antibodies can be formed against Bt. He does not bother to tell the reader that when almost any protein is injected under our skin or in our veins, our immune system will develop antibodies to it. This is a normal process.

 

  • Genetic Roulette reminds the reader that children suffer more allergies than adults and that their smaller, rapidly developing bodies may be more sensitive to nutritional imbalances, hormones and toxins. What is missing from all of the discussion is any evidence that transgenic crops have a negative impact on children or that they contain anything that might cause an adverse impact in children.

I understand that claims made by Jeffrey Smith, the movie’s director and author of the self-published book, Genetic Roulette, are alarming and could cause great concern. It’s important to understand Mr. Smith’s background. He is not a doctor or researcher, and he has never conducted a scientific study or published a peer-reviewed scientific paper. Please read his biography at his website to confirm this. He is an energetic, articulate and persuasive layperson who has made himself into one of the leading outspoken opponents of GM crops—but he is no expert on the science.

Despite the numerous claims made by Mr. Smith about all sorts of adverse effects caused by GM crops, none of these has ever actually occurred in real life. The scientific facts and evidence undermine Smith’s claims.  

As one review of the movie reads: “. . . his evidence is anecdotal and not the result of rigorous scientific investigations. His experts, for the most part, are not scientists at all but drawn from parents, activists, pseudo-scientists and members of the alternative-medicine community.”

I have studied Mr. Smith’s work extensively and reviewed his self-published book by the same title on my blog.

A few highlights from my blog on this topic are included below:

“Speculation is not science. Science is about evidence. Disease-protected crops are thoroughly evaluated for safety before they enter the market. Advancing arguments against GM crops that are based on speculation that is unsupported by evidence or proof can lead to scary predictions. Genetic Roulette incorrectly asserts that people will be exposed to more viral components through GM crops than through virus-infected crops. This is simply not true, and arguments based on this assertion cannot be supported. Food safety experts believe that disease-protected crops are as safe as, or are safer than, conventional crops.”

It’s also important to recognize that plant viruses don’t infect people in the first place. We literally eat trillions of them in our food, but not a single adverse incident in humans has ever been attributed to a plant virus.

“There is no evidence to support the wild speculations advanced in Genetic Roulette about accidental activation of harmful genes. The promoter referred to by Smith as the 35S does not activate genesnearby the site of its insertion (El Ouakfaoui and Miki 2005). The fact that Smith has refrained from alerting the reader to key studies in this area should, in fact, alert the reader to his scientific dishonesty. Smith’s hypothetical argument describes a scenario of plant transgene promoters turning on genes that encode toxins or carcinogens, which has never been reported to happen. In fact, it is extremely unlikely to ever happen at all. Most important, if genes are expressed that have an adverse effect on the plant, or that change the composition, that would be detected in safety analyses of genetically engineered crops. Safety assessment is rigorously applied to all genetically engineered crops grown for animal feed or for food. There are at least 250 scientific papers published that investigate the safety of genetically modified food and document its safety (Tribe 2009).”

“Smith cites papers that show that various types of antibodies can be formed against Bt. He does not bother to tell the reader that when almost any protein is injected under our skin or in our veins, our immune system will develop antibodies to it. This is a normal process. We also have antibodies to many different environmental and food proteins circulating in our bloodstreams, where they do absolutely no harm. The antibodies associated with allergy are called IgE antibodies. IgE antibodies to Bt have never been reported to have occurred as a result of consuming Bt-containing products. There are scientific articles showing this that Smith fails to cite (Siegel 2001; Betz et al. 2000).”

Genetic Roulette reminds the reader that children suffer more allergies than adults and that their smaller, rapidly developing bodies may be more sensitive to nutritional imbalances, hormones and toxins. What is missing from all of the discussion is any evidence that transgenic crops have a negative impact on children or that they contain anything that might cause an adverse impact in children.

  • Insect protected Bt corn is, in fact, safer for the unborn child, safer for children and safer for adults in terms of birth defects and cancer risks posed by moldy corn. Smith makes no mention of this well-established health benefit to the fetus and children from genetic modification.
  • Contrary to Smith’s unsubstantiated claims, the safety assessment that is conducted prior to the approval of transgenic crops focuses carefully on the impact of these crops on rapidly growing animals, and on other at-risk groups such as pregnant females, in order to ensure that they will have no negative effects. Paradoxically, similar safety studies are not conducted on conventional crops that pose a greater risk of unintended adverse effects. Genetic Roulettemakes claim after claim that we have shown are based on faulty evidence and logic and that ignore published studies that discredit the claims. In this section, Smith reasserts the same discredited claims he made in earlier sections and adds that these non-existent maladies would be worse in children than they would be in adults. Of course they would if they occurred, but they do not occur and are not real risks.”
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