Elle’s botched response to previously botched anti-GMO story

| August 12, 2013 |
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What should be the repercussions when a high profile, international news and information outlet that millions of readers rely upon badly mishandles a critically important news story?

The New York Times is in the unique position of employing a full time public editor whose job it is to write about editorial missteps. Two years ago, for example, Ian Urbina’s sloppy coverage of the emerging fracking controversy—he badly misrepresented the science and took advocacy positions—prompted the public editor, twice in less than a month, to dress down both Urbina and his editor. An intense and very public debate followed in the Times, which eventually led to a revamping of the paper’s shale gas coverage and Urbina’s replacement.

But what happens when the offending reporter is freelance? Who is there to take ownership? And what if the editor who oversaw the botched coverage not only refuses to constructively respond to the mishap but also continues to perpetuate the problem?

That’s the story unfolding right now at Elle, which is reeling from the GLP exposé in Slate of the lifestyle magazine’s shoddy and misleading feature on genetic modification and food. The situation took a bizarre turn last Friday when the magazine responded to the Slate article—and botched that as well.

The topic of GMOs is red hot. The mainstream science community is unified on the subject: Every major scientific and biotechnology regulatory oversight body in the world, including the National Academies of Science and the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, has concluded that genetically modified foods pose no harm not also found in conventional or organic foods. However, vocal anti-GMO activists reject the science—they contend there is large scale conspiracy between what they call “Big Ag” and “Big Government”—and maintain that there are any number of insidious dangers lurking in genetically modified foods.

The last year has witnessed a heartening turn in the coverage of this issue by science journalists, who by and large had previously kept a low profile on the GMO issue—I believe, because the opposition to GMOs largely resides with the “political left” and many journalists share ideological sympathies on other issues with anti-GMO campaigners. The quick and horrified reaction by journalists to a highly-politicized study by French activist-scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini and a speech by former anti-GMO activist journalist Mark Lynas in January renouncing his previous misguided efforts were seminal moments in the search for a more scientifically literate public discourse on the matter of crop biotechnology.

But this surge in ‘responsible reporting’ is a mere ripple against the waves of misinformation and fear-mongering that pour forth from activists and lifestyle publications and wash over the web on a daily basis. That’s why I, and so many other journalists and scientists, reacted with such disappointment when Elle—whose magazine and website are read tens of millions of people around the world each month—waded into the GMO debate so irresponsibly.

To recap, last month freelancer Caitlin Shetterly wrote an emotion-laden feature in Elle about how she had come to believe she was suffering from ‘GMO corn disease’—a heretofore undiagnosed condition that resulted, she is convinced, from exposure to genetically modified corn. (About 90 percent of America’s corn crop has been genetically modified.) A New Age allergist convinced her that she had been victimized by Monsanto, which developed the corn seed, and guided her in removing all corn from her diet. Like a cripple cured by the laying of hands, Shetterly is now forever grateful, and set out to evangelize her experience of salvation.

As I documented in Slate, from a scientific perspective, the belief that she suffered a crippling disease as a result of ingesting GM food is complete nonsense. Since GMOs were introduced into the food supply, there has not been one documented case of any health problem in humans—not even so much as a sniffle—linked to GMOs.

Nonetheless, dedicated anti-GMO crusaders—NaturalNews.com, the Organic Consumers Association, Center for Food Safety the Union of Concerned Scientists and the GMO labeling organizations among them—repeat the received conspiratorial wisdom that there must be something dangerous and unhealthy about GM foods. The governments of the world, they write, are in collusion with the global agricultural industry to treat humans as lab rats.

The specific instance is meaningless; this victimized, paranoid perspective applies equally to Monsanto’s Roundup-ready line of crops as it does to Golden Rice, which introduces Vitamin A into an otherwise vitamin-challenged staple. Shetterly, who considers herself Exhibit A in this experiment gone awry, proceeds to build a story on her real but misplaced fears. Elle is the willing, indeed eager, vessel for her mess of a story.

Shetterly’s report was not only ignorant of the basics of biotechnology, but it would fail to pass muster in Journalism 101. As she crafted the narrative, the vast majority of her sources seemed sympathetic to her plight and willing to entertain the ‘GMO corn disease’ theory. I managed to talk to or exchange emails with almost all of them.

“She totally twisted what I said,” said respected food scientist Richard Goodman, a professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. It was a typical reaction. Versions of “She misused my statements,” or “I was snowed by this woman,” and “I was lied to” came up numerous times. In my interviews, her sources consistently described the Elle article as “ridiculous” and “absurd.”

Shetterly and by extension, Elle, stoked fears by misrepresenting the true dangers of food. “The risks from GM foods are infinitesimally small,” Goodman told me. “It’s all ‘what if, what if, what if’ doomsday scenarios. It [belief that GMOs can cause allergies] is like worrying that we might be hit by an asteroid.” No such viewpoints made it into Elle‘s pages.

The Slate piece generated more than 1800 comments, 6400 acknowledgements on Facebook and lit up Twitter. “Many reporting lessons in great critique by @JonEntine,” wrote Philip Yam, managing editor of Scientific American—one of many comments from journalism professionals sharply critical of the magazine’s seismic editorial blunder in running this story.

“While there’s certainly a complex story to be told on the subject of GMOs, Elle seems to have passed right by it into conspiracy theory territory,” wrote Shaunacy Ferro in a story jointly carried by Salon and Popular Science.

Elle’s editorial faceplant is particularly ironic seeing that in the very same August issue in which the Shetterly story appeared, Editor-in-Chief Robbie Myers had written about the magazine’s commitment to responsible journalism. “Yes, Women’s Magazines Can Do Serious Journalism. In Fact, We’ve Been Doing It for a While,” she titled her piece.

I called out Elle and Ms. Myers to exercise some journalistic integrity and publicly withdraw the piece and publish an article or commission a series to address the actual science instead of stopping to hysteria mongering.

Last Friday at 5:00 PM—a time slot reserved for dumping news that you don’t really want anyone to read—Elle posted a “response” to the Slate take-down. It was not clear who wrote it—there was no byline. Elle’s response tries to justify Shetterly’s article because it was merely the author’s “point of view”—as if spreading misinformation on a highly volatile and important issue is of no consequence. The problem with the Elle piece is that Shetterly framed the ‘GMOs cause health problems’ claim as if it was a genuine scientific conundrum. The response only furthers this false balance: “[We] were committed to airing both sides of the GMO debate.”

As I noted in my piece, there is no debate among scientists or health professionals over Elle’s central premise that GMOs can cause allergies or serious autoimmune disorders. None. The American Medical Association, whose physician members would have long ago picked up on a GMO-allergy connection, definitively rejects such speculation. “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature,” it has stated.

Elle also tries to defend itself by hinting that the sources, who for the most part openly blasted Shetterly for shoddy reporting, may have shaded their remarks to me because they were fearful of being sued by “Big Ag.” “In the course of reporting the piece, Shetterly spoke with a number of researchers and medical professionals who told her they couldn’t go on the record about their doubts about GMOs because they feared being sued by a biotech or agriculture company, or losing grant money provided by the private sector,” Elle writes.

This is a tired but familiar anti-GMO allegation, obviously absorbed by Shetterly and her editors at Elle. No responsible journalistic organization would dare make such a sweeping claim without actual evidence.

The entirety of their evidence comes down to one quote from allergist Karl von Tiehl not included in the piece—“I’m afraid of being sued by big agribusiness.” Elle’s defense does not cite even one example of an actual suit or threatening encounter, but only a single speculative comment from one allergist.

As for Dr. von Tiehl, who Elle now tries to reposition as an ideological ally in the case against Big Biotech, he had a lot to say about Shetterly’s embarrassing reporting misadventure that I did not include in my Slate piece. Von Tiehl was particularly upset at Shetterly’s implication that food developed through lab research—GMO foods in Shetterly’s simplistic worldview—are somehow dangerous.

That’s not the case, von Tiehl told me, rejecting the Shetterly-Elle thesis. There are literally thousands of foods made through laboratory tinkering, including many organic grains, vegetables and fruits. Love that ruby red grapefruit? It’s actually a patented fruit, made through mutagenesis by subjecting grapefruits to ionizing radiation—yes, in a dastardly laboratory.

In Shetterly’s zeal to stigmatize GMOs, she not only misrepresented von Tiehl’s comments, the fact checker did not review them in context (another complaint voiced by the interview subjects). “When I gave the interview, I was describing a medical food (elemental formula to be specific) that is used in the standard treatment of severe eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), a disorder that has no known relationship to GMO foods,” an obviously exasperated von Tiehl wrote to me in an email. “I do not mean to appear to state that GMO foods are ‘scary.’ I fully echo Dr. Assa’ad’s comments [CCMC professor Amal Assa’ad, who was also interviewed for the story, rejected Shetterly’s anti-GMO paranoia as “magical thinking”] regarding GMO foods’ probable widespread safety.  This quotation of mine was specifically taken out of context.”

Most disconcertingly, what Elle never addresses in its feeble response is the central screw-up: Shetterly got the basic science abysmally wrong. That’s the only thing that really matters—not Shetterly’s nor Elle’s tattered reputations on this issue but the responsibility of influential information outlets to engage complicated issues in a nuanced and science-based way.

Simply said, Elle has failed journalism and its readers. Editor Robbie Myers has since had an opportunity to redress its botched effort by opening its pages to a genuine discussion of the science it smeared; instead, she chose the low road. Just to make sure that no one would even think to believe that Elle could report on this story without injecting its own anti-science biases, executive editor Amina Akhtar, bizarrely and inappropriately, retweeted the magazine’s company line on Saturday: “No more GMO’s!” Together these journalistic missteps suggest a fundamental contempt for Elle readers—and a lack of basic respect for constructive public discourse on a critically important issue.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

  • https://twitter.com/Clear_Food Clear Food

    Bravo! Now if only Elle will care somehow, because they apparently don’t. Fear sells magazines, assurances of safety don’t.

  • Alex Huszagh

    Great article and it’s amazing how twisted some of the words of anti-GE journalists are.

  • Richard Goodman

    As Jon Entine said, it is important to have a discussion of facts, review food safety from a scientific perspective. Regulatory agencies, GMO crop developers and many highly published scientists do debate the evidence. However, since I began working on the safety assessment of GMOs since 1997, I have seen no evidence that an approved GM crop has caused any increased harm to consumers. Instead there is a significant body of published scientific evidence that indicates they do not present an increased risk to human or animal health. Yes GM and Non-GM crops can both cause allergic reactions, but there has not been any demonstrated difference in allergic responses to GM varieties compared to non-GM. A very thorough process is undertaken to assure that GM food crops are as safe as non-GM food crops is followed. The new proteins in GM plants are evaluated as potential allergenic proteins and when there has been evidence of possible risk, the potential products are stopped by developers, or not allowed by regulators.

    I suggest people who are in doubt should look in scientific literature rather than “news and opinion” magazines for details of the process. I spent hours talking to Caitlin Shetterly to present the process. I sent her copies of peer reviewed scientific literature on the topic. She chose to ignore the science and not present a balanced article, instead has not presented any evidence. She has done a disservice to consumers in trying to shake consumer confidence in the food supply and discredit the regulatory system in the US.

    Where is the evidence that the current system has allowed a GM crop into the marketplace that has caused adverse reactions in consumers? I have not seen any. I have seen many allegations on websites and in magazines, but they have not been verified by scientific testing.

    In any event, I hope that readers on both sides of the “GMO issue” will stop attacking those who comment, and that those who comment will try to use facts, not general statements that are simply beliefs.
    RE Goodman, Professor, Univ. of Nebraska

    • dogctor

      Dear Dr. Goodman.

      In the absence of epidemiologic studies, the prevalence of allergies and immune mediated disorders associated with GMOs is nothing but a wild guess unflattering to anyone who claims to be a genuine scientist.

      There are at least two European regulatory bodies which rejected GMO crops’ safety in the human food supply due to concerns of allergenicity.

      1) induction of mucosal and systemic immune responses rendering cry proteins effective adjuvants for vaccines http://www.vkm.no/dav/0dea17091d.pdf

      2)http://www.bio-council.be/docs/BAC_2008_813.PDF

      http://link.springer.com/article/10.1186%2F1472-6807-2-8/fulltext.html Table 4.

      Re. item 4 on 10/15, there is a 7 amino acid window of homology between EPSPS and der p 7. A global panel of experts in the WHO determined that a window of homology of 6 amino acids should trigger sera testing. Please post a study on dust mite allergic patients’ sera responses to EPSPS as the WHO experts recommended.

      page 10> http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/en/ec_jan2001.pdf

      Also, please post links to epidemiologic studies in humans demonstrating incidence rates of eosinophilic disorders such as eosinophilic esophagitis in patients exposed to GMOs and those without exposure to GMOs. As you perhaps know the allergen testing can not test for non-igE mediated disorders such as eosinophilic esophagitis.

      Thanks very much.

    • pookietooth

      I would love to know why eosinophilic esophagitis is on the rise, and what causes it. I have it myself, despite the fact that no one in my immediate family has or had it and I can’t help wondering why. Of course there are many theories about it, but I think what makes people get excited about something like GMO corn is that they can control it — all they have to do is avoid it. With EoE, you never know when you may end up in the ER, so it’s attractive to try to find the magic bullet to put it into remission. It’s interesting too, because the BT toxin in GMO corn may be similar to the way the eosinophils are structured.

      • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

        If eosinophilic esophagitis is indeed on the increase–and I do not know if that’s true–it would have nothing to do with GMOs, as there is no evidence in the medical or scientific literature or anecdotally that the incidences of corn and soybean allergies are increasing–zero evidence. Almost allergies, and reports of increased autoimmune related issues, are related to such things as nuts (like peanuts), including organic varieties–just regular food allergies, now being more carefully reported as the medical community tracks what they never used to track. Have to find another culprit/bogeyman I think.

        • pookietooth

          Again, another person stating that they don’t believe that something as serious is on the increase (in this case eosinophilic esophagitis). Why not ask APFED, the official organization for EoE? They state that it is. http://apfed.org/drupal/drupal/what_is_eoe
          You can’t merely chalk it up to better diagnosis, because the symptoms are so severe that previous generations would not have survived without major medical interventions that did not exist at the time. As I said, not one member of my immediate family as it — if they did, there would have been a story of them dying with a piece of food lodged in their throat, as that is what would have happened.

  • First Officer

    Bravo Jon !

  • Tom

    Well I for one will not be submitting any more manuscripts to Elle (besides, Cosmo has a better impact factor).

  • Sleuth 4 Health

    Way to call out a major magazine with major influence, Jon. The anti-GMO meme of today seems to have the power to turn otherwise reliable journalistic and media outlets into gossip tabloids. Where is the accountability for the damage that is done when unsubstantiated mass hysteria is promulgated under the guise of responsible journalism?

    • First Officer

      Is it just me or does the girl on the cover look like she’s starving ?

  • Richard Goodman

    Dear Dogctor,
    Thank you for the comments. I am well aware of some of the “interesting” opinions of some regulatory agencies regarding GMOs. However, I would ask anyone to produce an epidemiological study of allergy on anything related to allergy, let alone eosinophilic esophagitis. We do not know the best approximate number of people allergic to peanuts (one of the most potent of food allergens) in most countries. In the US and some of the EU it is probably close to 0.8% of the population, but dose of elicitation and reactions range from 10 mg to 10 grams of peanut, and severity ranges from mild GI and oral allergy symptoms to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Can we predict who will be allergic before they are? No. Do we know why one of a pair of identical twins becomes allergic while the other does not? No. Do we know how long it takes to become allergic? No, some individuals seem to react following “first” known exposure, others do not react until well into adult years and following many years of consuming peanuts. Peanut is one of the few foods that is known to cause deaths in some unfortunate individuals (almost all of whom knew they were allergic but did not avoid peanut…for a variety of reasons). Do we know that an individual with Eos. Esoph. has that because of peanut allergy? No. Do we know weather a person with Eos. Esoph. has it because of milk allergy, or drinking alcohol, or eating too much late at night? No. However, some of those are risks. Does anyone known the adjuvants in peanuts that cause it to be a major allergen? No. There is speculation. Some of it more likely correct than others. But we do not know.

    Certainly many solid scientists hypothesize about what should be tested, or that factors x, y or z are the cause of the apparent increase in food allergy. The truth is that we do not know with certainty how much the prevalence of food allergy has increased in the past 10 or 20 years. Certainly there was an apparent upswing well before GMOs became common in the food supply chain. Interestingly, food allergy seems to be increasing in countries that do not accept/use GMOs. So, if GMOs are to blaime, how would one explain that?

    Is the hygiene hypothesis the cause? That is a relatively sterile life-style the cause? The avoidance of many severe communicable diseases? A lot of speculation, but no real proof. A lot of good correlations, but no real proof.

    It is pretty well accepted following a number of computer tests, as well as some studies, most of which are not published, that a 6, 7 or even 8 amino acid match to an allergy, in the absence of much greater sequence homology has absolutely no correlation with cross-reactivity. Please look at some of the computer comparisons that have been performed (search PubMed: Hileman R et al., 2002; Goodman RE, 2008; Silvanovich A et al., 2006; Ladics GS et al., 2011). Please show me one case where an 7 or 8 amino acid match has predicted IgE cross-reactivity in the absence of a >35% identity match between a new protein and a known allergen.

    It is easy to speculate in the absence of data. Food allergy and airway allergy is hard to understand. You can look at many birth cohort studies and find that is true. But you will not find the answers to why allergy (or eosinophilic esophagitis) seem to be rising in a popular magazine. It takes years of study. It takes replication of tests in controlled studies and replication of results in multiple laboratories before it should be believe. Please remember that a brilliant virologist, Peter Duesberg did not believe that HIV infection was the cause of AIDS for many years, based on speculation. The lesson? Even brilliant scientists can be wrong. He refused to believe, in the face of solid evidence that HIV was the cause of AIDS. Many people blamed human behavior and punishment from a diety as the cause.

    So the question should be, is there any direct evidence that GMOs are causing increases in allergy or eosinophilic esophagitis? If GMOs are, why is peanut allergy rising? Why is corn allergy so rare? Why are allergies to walnuts and milk and eggs rising?

    Cry 1 Ab is present at 10 ppm to 20 ppm (parts per million) in corn. It is rapidly digested in pepsin, it has no sequence identity to an allergen. So why would Caitlin Shetterly, or Dr. Finger of Starlink fame, have been sensitized to Cry 1, or Cry 9C (at 50 ppm, which had barely entered the food supply)?

    Please look at plausible explanations first. Please consider the real risks of food allergy… eating a food that contains your allergens. Many people who are allergic to peanuts have severe reactions because they eat a food that they did not know (was not labeled or someone didn’t ask or the server did not tell the truth) contained peanuts. If they are peanut allergic, that is a HUGE risk factor. So the GMO safety assessment focuses on the big risks, DO NOT TRANSFER AN ALLERGEN or Likely Cross-Reactive protein to a new source. That is easily evaluated by the source of the gene and sequence comparisons. The second risk, what if the protein is highly similar to the primary peanut allergens? The 2S albumins, the vicilins or glycinins? Then there is an increased risk of allergic cross-reactivity. That might occur if the protein is >50% identical to the peanut 2S albumin, vicilin or glycinin. Beyond that the risks are very low. The current allergenicity assessment is based on the scientific data of what we know about food allergens and risks.

    If you are interested, you can look me up at the University of Nebraska, write to me and I can send you copies of some papers that outline the allergenicity assessment and provide many references regarding why those steps were selected. Please do so, and compare the evidence to the speculation by a few other authors. See where the evidence lies. Consider what the important food allergens are and how really restricted the risks are to a few proteins/sources. I can eat peanut, so can 99% of the population of the US, Europe and the world, even though peanut may be responsible for the deaths of up to 80 or so people per year in the US. Soybean has been noted as causing possibly 5 deaths due to food allergy. Corn, probably none.

    Please be skeptical of the claims associating GMO, processed foods, vaccines and other things that “correlate” with increases in food allergy.
    Regards,
    Rick Goodman

    • dogctor

      Thanks for your long response Dr. Goodman.

      I am quite aware of how complex food allergies, atopy and immune mediated disorders are and I am well aware of the absence of epidemiological studies. By the same token, in the absence of a study examining links between GMO corn and the eosinophilic disorder the victim described in Elle suffered from, an honest scientist can not state with any degree of scientific certainty that the GMO corn was not the proximate or contributory agent to that patient’s disorder.

      Unfortunately I find your response evasive as I wasn’t interested in peanut allergies and I would appreciate if you would directly address my points.

      My question had to do with epsps and der p 7…please reread the comment.

      The testing protocol established by the WHO is clear. Homology of 6 amino acid window or >35% of the sequence, should have triggered further testing. There is a window of homology of 7 amino acids between EPSPS and der p 7, and patients with dust mite allergies are exceedingly easy to find because dust mite allergies are incredibly common.

      page 11: Typically, a screen with 25 individual serum samples with high levels of IgE to the selected group of airborne allergens and (if applicable) 25 with IgE to the selected group of food allergens would be used

      I don’t see a link to such a study on der p 7 and epsps in your response….did you forget to provide one?

  • Richard Goodman

    Sorry, Dogctor,
    If you are interested in science and you think that Caitlin and her allergist have a point, don’t you think they should have a test to demonstrate the link between GM corn and her eosinophilia? Do you think they should reintroduce corn and see if it returns?

    Apparently from her description she dramatically changed her diet in order to feel better. Marc Rothenberg is one of the leading eosinophilic disorder MD/PhD docs in the country. He didn’t seem convinced that the GM corn was the cause.

    Dr. Finger of Florida claimed Starlink corn caused his food allergies. Two years after testifying at the EPA Scientific Advisory panel he agreed to be tested by blinded food challenge. Turns out he was not allergic to non-GM corn or to StarLink corn.

    I doubt that there was a study on EPSPS and a Der p 7 link. Are you sure you are not talking about Cry1F? Pioneer Hi-Bred did do a study, with Hugh Sampson, one of the leading Pediatric Food Allergists in the world. The study was done because the Gov.t of Taiwan insisted the 7 amino acid match might mean something. I have been working on cross-reactivity and serum IgE testing for many years as well as bioinformatics. There was absolutely no reasonable hypothesis to test. The proteins, Der p 7 and Cry 1 F are completely unrelated in overall amino acid sequence, in 3D structure and there are NO shared antibody epitopes that have been identified. There have been many studies that have shown that a 7 aa match, or even an 8 amino acid match predicts allergic cross-reactivity. In any event, the test was done. You may look at the Journal of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. 2006, volume 44, issue 2, pages 136-143. Authors: Ladics GS, Bardina L, Cressman RF, Mattsson JL, Sampson HA. If you are unable to obtain a copy, please write to the corresponding author, visit the closes University Library, or write to me. You can obtain my email address at the University of Nebraska Lincoln website for the Dept. of Food Science & Technology. Or you can find my address one of the papers I have co-authored on the topics of bioinformatics, serum IgE testing or allergenicity evaluation.
    Regards,
    Rick Goodman

    • dogctor

      Thanks for the response Dr. Goodman. I appreciate the acknowledgement that the WHO regulations established by global experts in allergies are being willfully neglected by corporations who instead engage in re-writing the rules at whim through publications of studies written largely by industrial writers, who have a propensity of citing themselves.

      It is true that in order to determine to scientific certainty that the victim of the eosinophilic disorder developed painful symptoms in response to allergens in corn a blinded placebo controlled food challenge is indicated. However, if I was the patient’s physician, I dare say, I would find the suggestion to recreate the debilitating symptoms to satisfy your curiosity bordering on amoral. Aside from that, N=1 would not convince any scientist in the end, which is why the medical profession performs prospective, retrospective studies and then follows those up with meta analysis.

      I am as aware of Dr. Rothenberg’s expertise on eosinophilic disorders as I am of harassment and tremendous cost of coming out in support of the idea that GMOs are the causative agent of eosinophilic disorders. If I was in his position, I would not consider it prudent to insert myself and my employer into this contentious and controversial debate.

      If you reread my comment you might notice that cry proteins were not brought up in the context of dust mites, but in the context of studies which show that cry proteins induce systemic and mucosal immune responses via inhalation, ingestion as well as IP injection, Since you don’t know me, and seem intent on impressing your vast knowledge of the field, I feel it fair to inform you that I have a degree in biochemistry which makes it exceedingly easy for me to know the difference between the truncated cry proteins in b.t. crops and the EPSPS in RR crops. Please note, I didn’t ask for a serum test for cry proteins, which potentially present their own set of unique problems as adjuvants for other allergens in initiation or propagation of allergic and immune mediated diseases. I specifically asked for a test on EPSPS on sera of patients allergic to dust mites.

      I apologize in advance, but I am not impressed by appeals to authority nearly as much as I am by data, which you failed to provide in the form of a very simple test on the sera of 25 patients with dust mite allergies.

      Cheers,

      Dr. Ena

  • Sam A

    Hi Jon,

    Good article, and while I overall agree, I still think caution is needed when introducing new GMO varieties. Just because current modifications have yet to show any adverse side effects, it does not mean that future attempts at modification will not have side effects. The bar needs to be set high to ensure safety as we learn the implications of this technology which allows us to create breeds we would have never achieved through traditional breeding programs. History has also clearly shown that corporate interest tends to trump public safety until the damage is so great that it can no longer be ignored or whitewashed by the company. In light of that history it is not surprising that people distrust large companies, in fact it seems prudent. Monsanto and companies like them have the ability to impact the food consumed by millions and as a consumer you have little ability to opt out of their decisions. Monsanto thus has a great responsibility to country and it rests with them, not our government, to convince the public of the safety and benefits of their products. Despite the science thus far, they have done a poor job.

    -Sam

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      Sam, I appreciate the dialogue. We disagree on some key points though. The issue is whether there might be some side effects to show up on specific crops/foods. We KNOW there will be on any new conventional, organic or GM food. However, we do know that changes resulting from genetic engineering are monitored and tested, while traditional foods are not–so they are even safer. Unless you want to shut down the introduction of all new grains, fruits and vegetables–which would create a major food and agricultural crisis–then we should acknowledge the facts–GMO foods are actually as safe or safer than non-GMO varieties. In other words, the bar for GMO foods now is extremely high–unreasonably so, I believe. Considering the oversight and monitoring systems we have in place, laying fears at the feat of Monsanto is unwarranted.

      • Sam A

        Hi Jon,

        Thanks for responding, you can only grow your perspective by talking with people who have a different one. I think it’s a stretch to claim because of
        a few rat studies (these are never wrong),that it indicates that GMOs are safer than traditional foods of the same stock (ie GMO vs traditional corn…a
        comparison between GMO corn and say pufferfish doesn’t make sense). Until I see some well-designed trials with human subjects, I don’t think you can make such strong statements that one is safer than the other.

        I agree with you that the data we do have indicates that the current GMO iterations we have in
        market are likely not significantly different in risk to our traditional food. From here we diverge because you fail to acknowledge the full potential of GMO and confuse the current safety of GMO products with safety of future GMO products. While there are inherent risks in many of the foods we eat (cassava,
        cyanides in legumes, acrylamides in bread come to mind) traditional food breeding programs do not produce completely unrelated new foods from the parent stocks and thus the likelihood of a significant increase in health risk is unlikely (though you can argue, weakly, that it is not impossible) and why such
        programs producing new grains, fruits, vegetables etc do not require testing before their introduction into commerce. Furthermore, when such new products come to market…say like the pluot…it is clearly differentiated and I as a consumer can choose to either buy a pluot or continue buying plums and
        apricots.

        GMOs on the other hand introduce complete novel genetic material that is not present in potential parent stock. Currently these changes to
        introduce vitamin production, larger size (salmon), or herbicide resistance and they are perhaps minor changes with little-to-no discernible safety implications, but the power of GMO means that one day we could create corn that expresses lipitor or novel designer proteins that create new taste experiences or wheat with deadly toxins. Today Craig
        Venture designs a novel single cell organism, tomorrow it’s a completely novel crop. There is a lot of good that could come of it, but there is also a lot of
        potential mistakes and that is why the GMO bar must be different (higher) than foods produced through traditional means. Furthermore unlike the pluot, the consumer cannot visually tell the difference between a product made with GMO corn vs traditional corn and therefore cannot choose to opt out the way they could with a pluot. The fact that many companies seem intent on not providing consumers with a choice or knowledge of when they’re eating GMO products further strengthens the distrust.

        If Monsanto wants to reap the monetary rewards of the GMO market then it is more than reasonable that it shoulder and alleviate the fears of the people that will be eating its products, that is capitalism. Again their largest mistake is talking from an “expert” position and telling the people “trust us, we know what we’re doing, we have best scientist and the government looking over our shoulders”…because there are clear examples of all three: companies, government, and scientists; being wrong to the detriment of the people. If GMO proponents want to convince the general populace, then they have to stop talking down to them and this more than just “education” it requires a complete revamping of the dialog tone, terminology, and message.

        Lastly, are you really arguing that an underfunded FDA is an effective oversight and monitoring system?

        -Sam

        • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

          Hi Sam. A few responses: GMO foods have been determined to be safe based on hundreds of studies, not just a few lab rat projects. The independent and industry funded studies line up close to 100%. There are no “human studies” that are really possible, if you are aware of how science works. Plus, we have the allergy databases and extensive computer models. Every regulatory agency in the world believes they are reliable; if you do not that’s your choice but you are rejecting mainstream science. GMOs do not introduce any “novel” proteins in any way different than new conventional or organic foods–which often are allergy disasters, such as the kiwi fruit. The only difference is that GMO foods are extensively tested and conventional and organic foods are not–GMO foods are far safer for that reason. the issue of mandatory labeling is a bogus one, cooked up by anti-biotech activists–but you already know that. If we had a label that said: This product contains GMOs that the National Academy of Sciences and World Health Organization has determined are as safe or safer than conventional foods”–which is the central reality–than sure…but activists don’t want that. Short of that, voluntary labels make sense. It works for example in Kosher foods…if there is a market for it, the labels would catch on. Otherwise, it’s just creating a legal money pit for anti-NGO activists who couldn’t care about transparency, they just want to scuttle technological advances, GMOs included. As for your cynicism about the FDA and the government in general–I don’t share that. I believe that is conspiracy thinking.

          • dogctor

            Hello Jon.

            I think it is hypocritical to cite the World Health Organization as pronouncing GMOs safe, when regulations established by the WHO to test allergenicity of transgenics are being willfully ignored as evidenced by Dr. Goodman’s comments right here on your blog. Aside from that, there are not hundreds of studies demonstrating safety, although there are hundreds published during basic R & D and to assess their value on livestock production. I am not sure if you are aware of it, but chickens only live 8 wks and cattle several years, thus livestock production studies do not aim to assess GMOs effects on human health.

            There are less than ten studies on effects of GMOs in humans, one of which was done to establish whether vitamin A is absorbed and was performed on Chinese kids. It did not assess the impact of the transgenic rice on the children’s health, and it was performed without obtaining informed consent from the parents of the experimental subjects.

            The reviews I’ve read on the subject suggest that there are as many studies demonstrative of metabolic and immune system harm as there are suggesting that GMOs are safe, with the latter being predominantly published by the biotech industry.

            http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296423

            If you are aware of scientific reviews of toxicological studies that come to a different conclusion please cite them.

            Thanks

          • Sam A

            Hi Jon,

            A few responses of my own: First, as a food scientist, I am well aware of how science works, and there are plenty of human studies. I’ll refer you to the Journal of the American Medical Association, perhaps you’ve heard of them, where many human dietary trials are published that feed human group A one diet and human group B another. Feeding a group a diet of GMO corn and one traditional corn would be no less ethical than the recent study published feeding a group a “Western” diet vs a “Mediterranean” one and looking for differences in indicators of health. Secondly, why are you so against providing consumers with a choice? You allude to a Luddite streak in the anti-GMO advocates, and I agree it is there. But if consumers have the right to know
            whether a product is made in China or the USA, even though they are identical, why don’t they have the right to know about how their food is produced? I think everyone would be surprised at how many people will still buy the GMO products once they are labeled (the majority). By agreeing to labeling, the industry would take away that battle cry from the anti-GMO lobby and provide transparency that resonates with common consumers. Instead the industry’s battle to prevent labeling makes it look like its hiding something, and seeds distrust in the general public. Thirdly, while the current crop GMOs have not introduced allergenic proteins, it is naïve to argue with the level of vehemence that you bring, that this could not happen in the future. Someone may accidentally introduce a gene from a strawberry (and there a people with strawberry allergies) into wheat or some other mistak, for whatever reasonn. It is not improbable and with the history of human follies, your kiwi included, it is likely. Furthermore your argument makes it seem like you think traditional breeding programs more often than not safety disasters, but this is clearly not the case. Do you believe that only GMO foods are safe and the companies can only make safe products never bad ones? Can you not even concede that a company could make a mistake using GMO technology and that oversight is prudent with a technology that could impact so many without their choice? There are also plenty of “novel” proteins being explored with bacterial GMO’s, it is only a matter of time before these are applied to crops. If thoroughly vetted there is no reason these novel proteins won’t be beneficial, but again a rigorous bar must be set. Lastly, you must not know anyone at FDA. My cynicism is not of the people at FDA, many of my friends and colleagues work there and they are quite capable. None the less, they are underfunded and understaffed. The demands of FSMA are further straining an already self-admittedly strained department, and as GMO applicants become more frequent they will not be able to keep up with a thorough vetting of each applicant. Effective monitoring will be difficult, look how easily(whether through corporate negligence or activist sabotage) GMO wheat was released. That is not conspiracy, that is fact. Good luck with your role as GMO advocate, but I believe based on your condescending and dismissive tone in your reply, that you will not make an effective one.

            Regards,

            Sam

          • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

            Sam, Thanks for the dialogue. I think I’ve addressed all of the issues you raise in this story and elsewhere on the GLP. You appear to believe in possible doomsday scenarios specific to GMOs; scientists believe that the safety and health challenges presented by GMOs are the same or even less than presented by conventional breeding. I agree with mainstream science; you do not. That’s fine. FYI, I’m not a “GMO supporter”–I’m supporter of empirically based science and weight of evidence research. You have a different mindset, which is fine. I do not believe we should regulate based on fear. As for choice, consumers have a choice. If they want to be assured of non-GMO products–which is similar to a religious choice, like wanting Kosher products–they can buy organic foods. If there is a market for non-GMO products, then, as in the case for Kosher foods, producers will respond. Maybe Whole Foods will hit a goldmine with its announced experiment (between you and me they will never pull it off..shhhh..because there is no real demand for it.) Short of that, I feel comfortable with recommendations from the AAAS and AMA among many internationally renowned science oversight organizations that labeling foods with a specific GMO label is bad science and deceptive. If you feel differently, then lobby for your position; I’ll lobby for science.

          • Sam A

            You willfully misunderstand me to give yourself an excuse to
            be rude. The fact that you cannot even be cordial but must say things like “I’m
            supporter of empirically based science and weight of evidence research. You
            have a different mindset, which is fine” Is quite frankly insulting especially
            when reasonable people can disagree on the acceptable level of risks based on the
            same data, as a “supporter of empirically based science” you should know that. Etretinate,
            Pergolide, hioridazine, Sibutramine are not doomsday, they are not the ends of
            the worlds, they are mistakes made by scientists with good intentions. And there will be similar mistakes made with GMO applications,
            that is not fear, that is caution. Take care,
            Jon.

  • Menippus

    The nucleus of these deliberations resides in the appropriate comment:
    “Genetically modified foods pose no harm not also found in conventional or organic foods.”

  • First Officer

    Speaking of Golden Rice, A Golden Rice test field was viciously vandalized in the Phillipines.
    Don’t let vandalism stop research !
    http://www.change.org/petitions/global-scientific-community-condemns-the-recent-destruction-of-field-trials-of-golden-rice-in-the-philippines

    • dogctor

      Speaking of golden rice…where are the studies on effects of the whole golden rice on experimental animals, children and pregnant women?

      The study conducted without obtaining informed consent on the Chinese kids did not report any findings besides vitamin A absorption.

  • Miss_Ann_thrope

    Just label all products containing GMO’s and let the American people decide for themselves

  • guest

    What was particularly sickening about the Elle story was the cynical use of a woman who was genuinely ill. If she had said that she was convinced that evil spirits were causing her allergies, should we respect her point of view? Sadly, there are any number of physicians who buy into all sorts of foolish ideas; she obviously ran into one of them.

  • gent

    Sheesh,

    This piece is irresponsible. There is a huge scientific controversy. That’s the thing, the scientific community doesn’t agree on this at all…

    1) Bt causes allergic reactions:

    M.A. Noble, P.D. Riben, and G. J. Cook, “Microbiological and
    epidemiological surveillance program to monitor the health effects of
    Foray 48B BTK spray” (Vancouver, B.C.: Ministry of Forests, Province of
    British Columbi, Sep. 30, 1992).

    A. Edamura, MD, “Affidavit of the Federal Court of Canada, Trial
    Division. Dale Edwards and Citizens Against Aerial Spraying vs. Her
    Majesty the Queen, Represented by the Minister of Agriculture,” (May 6,
    1993); as reported in Carrie Swadener, “Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.),”
    Journal of Pesticide Reform, 14, no, 3 (Fall 1994).

    J. R. Samples, and H. Buettner, “Ocular infection caused by a
    biological insecticide,” J. Infectious Dis. 148, no. 3 (1983): 614; as
    reported in Carrie Swadener, “Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.)”, Journal of
    Pesticide Reform 14, no. 3 (Fall 1994)

    M. Green, et al., “Public health implications of the microbial
    pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis: An epidemiological study, Oregon,
    1985-86,” Amer. J. Public Health, 80, no. 7 (1990): 848–852.

    2) Workers exposed to GM cotton exhibit allergic and other autoimmune responses which are absent when exposed to non-GM cotton:

    Ashish Gupta et. al., “Impact of Bt Cotton on Farmers’ Health (in
    Barwani and Dhar District of Madhya Pradesh),” Investigation Report,
    Oct–Dec 2005.

    3)Bt toxin in GM plants fails WHO allergen guidelines:

    FAO-WHO, “Evaluation of Allergenicity of Genetically Modified
    Foods. Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Allergenicity of
    Foods Derived from Biotechnology,” Jan. 22–25, 2001; http://www.fao.org/es/ESN/food/pdf/allergygm.pdf

    • http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/ Jon Entine

      Controversies exist when the science is in dispute. That’s not the case with the safety of GMO foods, let alone the specific issue of allergenicity. I’ll address the specific studies you raise but more than 100 of the world’s leading science organizations have looked at the data as a whole–not one off studies–and concluded, unanimously, that GMOs are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods. Here’s a link to a summary of what the top independent organizations have concluded: http://tinyurl.com/n7hn4jr

      As for the studies and/or legal cases, they are all outdated, dating to before Bt GMOs were even released.

      As for the WHO report from 2001 it documented no problems. Moroever, WHO has since extensively re-reviewed the data and concluded: “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

      Ashish Gupta is a well known anti-science, anti-GMO activist..it’s nut a study, its a journalism screed.

      As for the dated Bt studies, they were examining the use of Bt sprays in organic agriculture, which is where it is mainly used. If Bt is harmful, we should shut down organic farming immediately. The fact is, however, the Bt is naturally occurring and has long proved safe. Moreover, the biotech version is far more targeted and has less environmental impact and zero impact on humans, because we cannot process the Bt protein.

      In summary, there is zero–NO–evidence of allergen-related problems linked to GMOs. GMOs is a PROCESS–it cannot in itself create allergens. Allergens are always possible in every food, organic, conventional or GMO. However, ONLY in GMOs is it evaluated, which is why scientists believe GMO foods are actually safer than non-GMOs as for allergenicity is concerned.

      Hope this clarifies your concerns.