|Pusztai replies to Amman (27/11/2005)|
The Syngenta-backed website CheckBiotech has published an article by the well-known Swiss biotechnology supporter, Dr Klaus Ammann, as part of the Swiss debate over the moratorium.
According to CheckBiotech, Ammann, is "calling on heavy scientific ammunition" to attack those supporting the moratorium. Quite a bit of that "ammunition" is aimed at Dr Arpad Pusztai, amongst others, under headings such as "Hysteria without reason".
Here's Dr Pusztai's reply and Dr Ammann's original article. In passing, Dr Pusztai provides a vey interesting summary of the multiple health problems arising from GM crops that scientific research appears to point to.
I understand the frustration of an all-out, almost religious, believer in GM biotechnology, such as Klaus Amman, now that the Swiss have put a 5-year moratorium on growing GM crops in Switzerland. I still salute the common sense of the Swiss who, despite a huge industry-paid pro-GM campaign, came down on the side of precaution.
You do not have to be an economic genius to see that on its present showing this so-called "precise technology" cannot even predict the outcome of the gene-splicing technique used in the development of GM crops. It also does nothing for the consumer and even less for those farmers who would like to maintain the clean green image of Switzwerland and who do not want to squander this precious heritage handed down to them by their forefathers.
As far as the personal attacks on me are concerned, this is nothing new. I always find that people who run out of factual arguments sooner or later turn to trying to denigrate the scientific integrity of anyone who does not swallow hook-line-and-sinker their arguments in favour of GM crops. As far as I am concerned, I only respond to the, generally, scientifically questionable or even flawed arguments they level against me or against those scientists who prefer to read the evidence presented in peer-reviewed scientific papers than get involved in mud-slinging. I am also not going to get involved in the rights or wrongs of the Percy Schmeiser case as I am sure he can defend himself.
Dr Amman states:
"Hysteria without reason
In both of the above cases (i.e. Pusztai and Schmeiser) it would be quite disturbing (?) to examine the scientific literature, because it would soon become clear what the facts are. Between then and now the numbers of publications relating to Pusztais' statements have grown to above 400. ( as an aside: I thought we wrote papers and not statements!)
The number of major studies concerning the safety of these kinds of foods published by experts in peer-reviewed journals has grown to about 30. And they all convey the same message: genetically modified foods are harmless1".
It is interesting how quickly the 400 publications all showing how wrong we were in our GM potato studies is reduced within the next para to about 30 studies. As it so happens, I know the scientific literature reasonably well and studied in detail most of the 19 major papers published between 1996 and mid-2004 on the health aspects of GM crops/foods. Indeed, in the last six years we have written three major reviews of the potential health effects of GM crops/foods. In fact, the last one has just been published. Obviously, Dr Amman and I must have read different papers because with the exception of a few papers written by industry-funded scientists I could not find the message in them that "genetically modified foods are harmless". If he reads our reviews and has the open mind of a true scientist, he will see what I mean.
Just for a taster:
Animals fed GM food had problems with blood and liver cell formation, damaged organs, bleeding stomachs, excessive cell growth, inflammation in lung tissue, and increased death rates. A preliminary (still unpublished) study in Russia reported that most of the offspring of female rats fed GM soy died within three weeks, that at least merits a re-run of her experiments. Soon after GM soy was introduced to the UK, soy allergies skyrocketed by 50 percent, and a GM food supplement killed about 100 Americans and cased 5,000-10,000 to fall sick. The only human feeding study ever conducted on GM crops showed that foreign transgenes transferred from food into intestinal bacteria. This has possible long-term implications and raises concerns that antibiotic resistant marker genes might create super diseases.
It has also been shown that transgenic DNA not only survives digestion, but can also found in the blood, liver, spleen and kidneys. DNA can even travel via the placenta into unborn. The crops designed to create the Bt-toxin were based on the assumption that it is not bioactive in mammals but when Bt-toxin was fed to mice, they developed a powerful immune response and abnormal and excessive cell growth in their intestines. Preliminary evidence (not fully published) shows that
Philippine villagers living next to a Bt maize field developed a mysterious disease while the crop was pollinating - three seasons in a row - and blood tests also showed an immune response to Bt. The blood of farm workers exposed to Bt also developed Bt-specific antibodies. Together these suggest that Bt does react with humans, and that the assumptions used as the basis for safety claims are erroneous. Consider the implications if Bt genes, like Roundup Ready genes, were to transfer to gut bacteria. That could turn our intestinal bacteria into living pesticide factories.
If Dr Amman wants I can send him the references to all the published studies but he should also be able to get these if he takes the trouble and reads our reviews.
The impact on the environment may be even worse, since GM crops contaminate non-GM varieties and related species, and these and their genetic constructs may persist in the environment for generations. The Bt-toxin may harm beneficial insects and damage soil bacteria. The over-use of herbicides on GM crops can contaminate water and harm humans and wildlife. Foreign genes may transfer to soil bacteria and self-propagate for years. And the reliance on a few crop varieties
controlled by multinationals reduces crops diversity and leaves our food supply vulnerable.
I was very interested to learn that according to Dr Amman:
"Among nutritional science experts, the experiments done by Pusztai are being unanimously judged as inconclusive and incorrectly designed".
I am afraid, Dr Amman can by no stretch of the imagination be called a nutritional expert, so I wonder how he came across so many nutritional science experts and had the chance to question them about my nutritional expertise so as to arrive at the unanimous damning conclusion that our experiments were "inconclusive and incorrectly designed".
Dr Amman also states: "This is a paradox when one considers that Pusztai normally has an excellent reputation where publications are concerned".
Unfortunately, as I could not accept his comments damning our expertise because of his lack of nutritional know-how, I must also decline his back-handed compliments.
Finally, we come to the most important part of Dr Ammann's piece, which really shocked me coming from someone who is highly regarded in some scientific and biotechnology circles but who apparently regards "basic research" as "interesting" but "irrelevant where the effect on agriculture and nutrition is concerned":
(Full quote: "For a fair and balanced assessment of risk"
"This certainly does not imply that we should discontinue investigating security questions, rather that we should learn to distinguish between necessary applied security research and basic research, which though interesting, is irrelevant where the effect on agriculture and nutrition is concerned.)
Here I rest my case because I cannot come to any sort of agreement with someone who denigrates the role of basic research.
The plant ecologist, Klaus Ammann, is "calling on heavy scientific ammunition" with regards to the Swiss initiative that calls for a moratorium on green biotechnology.
This is his means of opposing what he considers a systematic campaign of disinformation led by certain organizations against genetically engineered crops. He makes no claim that science has absolute proof, but he refers to scientific studies showing that genetically modified foods are safe.
We still hear from the biochemist, Arpad Pusztai, who asserted that rats were harmed by genetically manipulated potatoes. We have heard him complain about how he was mobbed by the "bad" biotech industry. That he was dismissed from his last research project (after appointment as an Emeritus) certainly remains questionable. For many, this is reason enough to accept his experiments on rats and genetically modified plants, done in 1998, without criticism. The reason being that in the meantime he, like Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who is regularly promoted by Greenpeace because his rapeseed was allegedly "contaminated" by genetically modified "rapeseed", has been transformed into European and worldwide folk heroes.
Hysteria without reason
In both of the above cases it would be quite disturbing to examine the scientific literature, because it would soon become clear what the facts are. Between then and now the numbers of publications relating to Pusztais' statements have grown to above 400.
The number of major studies concerning the safety of these kinds of foods published by experts in peer-reviewed journals has grown to about 30. And they all convey the same message: genetically modified foods are harmless1.
These "doom-sayers" should finally acknowledge that several reports, based on millions of dollars of research by the World Health Organization and the European Union, all came to that same result. The source material is easily obtained through Google. The problem here is that the average European, who thoroughly rejects American politics (but not their culture), is too eager to fall for these presumptions of disaster. One prefers to remain in the realm of partial knowledge.
Among nutritional science experts, the experiments done by Pusztais are being unanimously judged as inconclusive and incorrectly designed. This is a paradox when one considers that Pusztais normally has an excellent reputation where publications are concerned.
In the case of the rapeseed farmer, Percy Schmeiser, one cannot help but notice that, according to the publicly available court transcripts, he changed his story three times. First he pleaded not guilty because the contamination was a consequence of pollen spread. Then he said he had inadvertently mixed up the bags of seeds. In the third version he was found guilty of sowing huge quantities of genetically modified rapeseed. In all proceedings he was pronounced guilty. The opponents of biotechnology do not seem to grasp this and are locked in to their world of partial knowledge because the plaintiff and the firm that was proven right is Monsanto and therefore so Schmeiser must be their innocent victim.
"Bio" and "GM" crops are healthy
All foods offered in Switzerland are healthy and harmless. This is also valid for the products of organic farming, including "Bio" milk that has come under recent scrutiny . However, further detailed research into this product has not given proof of anything negative. The announcement of the "Bio" milk study follows the same pattern. which resonates with our population that loves to think about disaster scenarios: "It just could be, that .!". This resurrected hysteria being celebrated amongst spoiled and systematically frightened consumers is causing a dramatic drop in the consumption of poultry as if the avian flu transmittable from man to man already existed.
A study by Kurt Bodenmueller (www.internutrition.ch) shows that products obtained through different farming methods in Switzerland show no systematic quality difference. This is equally true when comparing genetically modified corn and non-GMO corn, because our storage conditions are impeccable. This can not be said for several third world countries. In their case, several measurements and statistics show a correlation between certain corn-diet disease patterns, which in the case of poor storage conditions show a higher level of the dangerous carcinogen, Mycotoxin, in the non-GMO corn. (Johnny Gressel in "Crop Protection" Volume 23, Page, 661-689,2004)2.
The knowledge gap of certain Development-Aid Organizations
Even Swiss council member Sommaruga (SP) prefers to remain in the realm of partial knowledge and asserts in a presidential newsletter of Swissaid, over which she presides, that genetically engineered plants have but one purpose in developing countries, which is to secure the profits of big companies.
For her to make such reckless announcement might be the result of the encouragement of her assistant, Tina Goethe, whose pamphlets can be read in "Konkret" (7, 2005).
The fact that the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) publications and reputed scientific journals say the opposite does not seem to bother this politician and her assistant. The fact is that 86percent of green biotech projects are supported by public funding; whereas private funding accounts for about 1 percent worldwide3.
GM Free Switzerland a fairy tale
What is particularly irritating about the current moratorium initiative up for vote in Switzerland, is the resounding name: GM free initiative. It conjures up a fairy tale image of a GM free Switzerland. The fact that all imported foods are excluded from this initiative only becomes clear in reading the fine print as well as the clarifications by some of the initiatives proponents, not to mention all the genetically engineered ingredients that enter the country through the back door.
Many foods can only be produced worldwide thanks to the efficiency of genetically engineered additives. Further, in the realm of livestock feed, agricultural biotechnology can hardly be avoided. Consequently, the "purists" among the opposition to agricultural biotechnology are now demanding transparent labeling. However, transparency in labeling requires evidence, which, in the case of animals fed with genetically-engineered foodstuffs, is impossible.
Numerous studies have shown that bioengineering leaves no detectable traces in either milk or other foods. Here again, the wonderful conundrum of partial knowledge among consumers, wholesalers, and a few laboratories still prevails. Indeed, one wants to take consumers seriously, but one nonetheless insists on mandatory labeling of biotechnology despite its absurdity and impossibility.
I argue that consumers should really be taken seriously, that is, that they should be told that this will only incur higher costs due to complicated and unwieldy procedures. The label "GM free" only has a meaning for its adherents and should instead be handled like kosher foods, for example.
The hypocrisy around the notion of freedom of research
The slogan that research will not be affected by the moratorium sounds good but is unreliable. In the text of the Initiative, this is not explicitly stated and part of the initiators are strong adversaries of biotechnology - the same people - with arguments later proven wrong who strongly opposed the successful experiment with genetically modified wheat done by the ETH Zurich. One can read about the efforts to derail the experiment on the website, Swiss Federal Department for Environment, Forests and Countryside (BUWAL).
The courageous Head of Research, Christof Sauter, after fighting for years and after completing a successful experiment in the field, has given up, discouraged. For example, he was forced to conduct an individual protocol on each of the 1,600 wheat seeds, and to dig up every single seed that did not germinate. A humiliation forced upon him by the fundamentalists and the Buwal. This discouragement is experienced by many young researchers who either leaves the science of plant biotechnology or their country. Should this moratorium pass it would give yet another negative signal.
A digression from scientific knowledge
If heavy scientific ammunition is brought forth here it is only with the objective to counter the systematic campaign of disinformation advocated by some organizations, and not to advance any absolute scientific certainty. However, it is striking to see how easily one notes the lack of any scientific evidence in a situation where many serious studies would be available.
The distrust existing in the population, due to, among other things, the scandal of mad cow's disease makes it easy for many opponents to claim, endowed with a certain "trust bonus" from the public, that research, where security is concerned, is insufficiently advanced.
Further, we can add those who, in their own interest, would like to implement expensive research projects. These ecologists plead for investigations that may elicit scientific interest but that have very little to do with security in agricultural production. I suggest that the security issue be clarified based on the scientific literature that already exists in abundance (cp. Overview of the consequences of agricultural biotechnology on biodiversity in: "Trends of Biotechnology", volume 23, 8, Pages 388-3944).
The effects of genetically engineered plants on the environment and food are among the best researched security questions in science it would be about time for the opponents of genetic engineering to acknowledge this fact.
For a fair and balanced assessment of risk
This certainly does not imply that we should discontinue investigating security questions, rather that we should learn to distinguish between necessary applied security research and basic research, which though interesting, is irrelevant where the effect on agriculture and nutrition is concerned. In addition, the time has come to compare the risks with other agricultural strategies. Only then will we get a fair assessment of the risk. It would also be urgently necessary to investigate the negative effects of "organic" pest control, because in this field, proven irreversible damage has already been done: a parasite deposited on a known pest agent surprisingly jumped host, in this case to a rare, consequently now extinct, type of moth5. One can only imagine the howling and grinding of teeth by the fundamentalists if the blame could be laid on a genetically modified plant.
Dr. Klaus Amman is a plant ecologist and Director of the Botanical Garden in Bern. 1
Cohen, J.I. (2005) Poorer nations turn to publicly developed GM crops (vol 23, pg 27, 2005). Nature Biotechnology, 23, 3, p 366. http://www.botanischergarten.ch/PublicSector-Danforth-20050304/Cohen- Naturebiotech-2005.pdf
4Ammann, K. (2005) Effects of biotechnology on biodiversity: herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant GM crops. Trends in Biotechnology, 23, 8, pp 388-394.
5http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/08/0821_biocontrol.html und: Henneman, M.L. & Memmott, J. (2001) Infiltration of a Hawaiian Community by Introduced Biological Control Agents. Science, 293, 5533, pp 1314-1316