Jeffrey Smith: ‘I know nothing about GMOs but that doesn’t stop me from promoting junk science’

Smith demonstrating “yogic flying” at Natural Law Party press conference in Springfield, Ill., Oct. 22, 1996.

Recently on the Huffington Post we came across a disturbing article – an attack by Jeffrey Smith on two respected university professors who apply a critical eye to the claims made by various advocates alleging dangers to human health linked to genetically modified organisms (GMOs.)2015-04-01-1427906926-6335062-HuffPoheadline-thumb

Smith, if you are not familiar with him, heads up a one-man band rabidly anti-GMO organization known as the Institute for Responsible Technology–he and his organization are controversial to say the least, but more on that later.

Bruce Chassy

Bruce Chassy

The subject of the attack piece was co-written by University of Illinois emeritus professor Bruce Chassy and University of Melbourne geneticist David Tribe. It appears on the website of AcademicsReview, an independent non-profit set up by the scholars to address the maelstrom of misinformation that passes for debate on the GMO issue.

In one of their most pointed and heavily circulated critiques, Chassy and Tribe examine one of Smith’s two self-published books that supposedly ‘prove’ that GMO foods are reckless and dangerous. Chassy and Tribe’s critique titled “Yogic Flying and GM Foods: The Wild Theories of Jeffrey Smith,” addressed each of the 65 major

David Tribe

David Tribe

claims Smith makes about the safety of GMOs, using peer reviewed research and fact-based evidence to refute every one.

Smith’s response in the Huffington Post defends his claims by citing the example of the FLAVR SAVR™ tomato. Let’s take a closer look at Smith’s “new” claims.

It is not clear why, in 2015, Smith would choose to mount an argument claiming dangers from “GMOs” based on an obsolete tomato variety developed more than 25 years ago that has been off the market for two decades. But Smith chose to defend his mistaken and falsified claims that the Food and Drug Administration had botched its review of the tomato and suppressed warnings from its staff about alleged dangers.2015-04-01-1427907122-2388905-tomato-thumb

The first thing to note is that three of Smith’s ten embedded links to comments by FDA officials supposedly casting doubt on the safety of the tomato or the review process don’t work. In any case, what Smith leaves out is worth noting.

The FLAVR SAVR™ tomato, developed by Calgene, was the first “bioengineered” food ever reviewed by FDA. At that time FDA had no formalized process for such reviews, so, typically, officials bent over backwards to make sure they didn’t miss anything that might be important or relevant.

Among other things, FDA scientists did not yet have a clear view of what kind of tests were needed to ensure safety and much of the back and forth among agency scientists that Smith argues is evidence of corruption and bad faith is, in context, simply and obviously, the record of folks trying to figure out how to get it right. This is evident to those who read the documents without presupposing conspiracies and evil intent. Read through the documents Smith cites yourself and see what you think. But read them all, from beginning to end; don’t short cut. The full, boring, bureaucratic context is, in fact, the essential point.

Smith refers to a selected compilation (i.e. “cherry picked”) of FDA documents he claims supports his case. The specific “smoking gun” supposedly proving the dangers of this tomato is that in a total of 39 studies involving 456 rats, 12 animals fed the tomatoes showed “erosions” in their digestive tracts. The question is whether these were caused by eating the tomatoes, or by something else, such as the feeding procedures or stress on the animals because of their confinement, both plausible explanations. Without corroborating evidence, Smith insists the tomatoes were at fault, and he cites documents long available in the public record as evidence that facts were suppressed. But the documents, in their entirety, show the opposite of what Smith claims; the FDA reviewed all of the available data and affirmed the safety of the tomato.

One of us (Val Giddings) read these documents when they first came out as he was at the time a regulator in the biotech products division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and had been peripherally involved with USDA’s review of the Calgene tomato. The documents didn’t support Smith’s conspiracy theories then and that hasn’t changed in the 22 years since.

Consider item 15 on Smith’s list (chosen entirely at random as one of his few cited links that actually worked). Smith has offered it as one of many documents showing a conspiracy to suppress findings of dangers to consumers of the tomato. What does it show? Read it in its entirety for yourself and reach your own conclusions. If you do, you will find this statement, from an FDA official summarizing for his superiors:

All I can do is state my opinion that the data does not show any real toxicity. The requirements that one should have in this data (and in data generally) for a real finding [of toxicity] are:

  1. A strong association between the alleged cause (treatment) and the effect. Here the association is weak and variable and the effect seems spurious and unlikely to be reproduced.
  2. Specificity (One should not find the effect produced by other extraneous factors. (Here we find the effect produced in the controls.)
  3. A biological gradient evidenced by a clear dose response. (This feature was not present in these studies.)
  4. Consistent data shown by positive results in repeated studies. (Here a second study is negative.
  5. A plausible biological mechanism for the treatment and the effect observed. (Here the tomatine levels were shown to be the same as in regular tomatoes and the acid in tomatoes is much weaker than stomach acid itself. No other likely treatment related cause is apparent.) On the other hand the stress-induced fasting is plausible.

At least two things stand out that are worth emphasizing: first, Smith claims the observed lesions were caused by the tomatoes, yet they were also seen, in the first experiment, in control rats that were not exposed; second, in the repeat experiment, no lesions at all were noted. This argues strongly against the tomatoes as the cause of the lesions seen in the first experiment, and suggests they were in fact an accidental result of the experimental procedures, which involved inserting a feeding tube down the throats of the rats – a technique that requires skill, and is easy to get wrong.

Bottom line: FDA evaluators considered all the data, compared observations to what would be expected if the tomatoes were in fact the cause of the lesions, and when things didn’t add up, they concluded, following well established principles of toxicology, that whatever caused the lesions it wasn’t the tomatoes. And they documented their analysis and conclusions for the record. End of story.

But Smith disputes FDA’s conclusion, despite the clear absence of any of the signs that would be expected if the tomatoes were in fact guilty, as enumerated above. Now Smith may sincerely believe FDA got it wrong, but there is nothing in the record to support his belief, and the science does not back him up.

Furthermore, Smith does more than just misunderstand and misrepresent ancient bureaucratic documents on obsolete products. He also writes:

To claim that there are no new potential health hazards from GMOs is absurd. Fran Sharples, the Director of the Board on Life Sciences at the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), told me, “The academies have issued numerous reports on assessing the risks of transgenic plants. If the academy believed there were no such potential risks, why would we have delved into these matters in these reports?”

This is intriguing. Fran Sharples has been working in this area for three decades. She has a well-deserved reputation for probity and professionalism. This comment does not sound like something she would say (if only for its clumsy phrasing). So, having known Dr. Sharples for three decades, we reached out to her and asked if Smith’s quote was accurate. Her reply:

To be perfectly honest, I have no recollection of ever talking to this guy or of making such a statement. For all I know, he made it up. It’s a mystery and a bit unsettling to find my name in print in association with something I have no memory of.

It is also worth pointing out that the words Smith attributes to Dr. Sharples make no sense to anyone familiar with how the National Academy of Sciences works. The Academy generally does not pick and choose the topics of its studies, but rather responds to requests to examine issues, most often from government agencies. The Academy enlists …the aid of the nation’s most knowledgeable scientists, engineers, health professionals, and other experts who volunteer their time to produce reports that have led to some of the most significant and lasting improvements in the health, education, and welfare of all the world’s citizens.

It is commonplace for U.S. Government Agencies under assault by parties unwilling to follow where the data leads to request an impartial third party review from the Academy, which has frequently happened on GMO related issues. But as the present case demonstrates, folks unpersuaded by data are difficult to persuade by examinations of data.

2015-04-01-1427907250-558156-smith1-thumbOne might wonder what would motivate someone to embark on a campaign of hostility toward innovations in food and agriculture that have already delivered enormous benefits around the world, particularly to small farmers in developing countries? There doesn’t appear to be anything in Smith’s previous background as an accomplished ballroom dance instructor or practitioner of yogic flying (yes, see accompanying picture) that would lead one to anticipate such an obsession.

Perhaps it is related to his membership in the Maharishi religious cult that seems to make opposition to innovation in agricultural biotechnology one of its central tenets. Whatever Smith’s motivation, the weaknesses of his claims are not repaired by his ineffective attempts in their defense.

At this point, it may be worth considering the credentials of the folks at odds here. David Tribe, a microbiology PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in microbiology, recognized around the world for his expertise in biotechnology and food safety, widely published and cited in peer-reviewed literature, and noted for his dedication to education and public service. Bruce Chassy, a biochemistry PhD, was a research chemist at the National Institutes of Health, received the Public Health Service Distinguished Service Award, served as Professor and Head of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois, and as a food safety expert on the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee.

Jeffrey Smith? His academic training and expertise in crop biotechnology is easily summarized: none. His credentials? He has self-published two books about the apocalyptic dangers of GM crops and foods and self-produced documentary narrated by the wife of Dr. Oz. He goes on Dr. Oz and other fringe science shows. And he travels around the world, addressing rabidly anti-GMO audiences with a the fervor of a religious fanatic.

One is free to choose who are the more credible commentators on biotechnology.

L. Val Giddings is a Senior Fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. He is a genetics PhD with 3 decades of global experience in the science, policy, and regulation of innovations in agricultural biotechnology.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a Senior Fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter

  • gmosavvy

    I had the dubious “opportunity” to debate this idiot on GMO labeling once, on a radio call-in talk show. He called in and ranted and raved; I couldn’t get in a word. Finally, after 3-4 minutes of raving, the talk show host said “Let’s take a station break.” She told me (off the air) that after the station break I would have a chance to respond, and Flyboy wouldn’t be able to interrupt me. I did respond.

    What I really would like to ask him, tho, is regarding this oft-published pic in the article of him hovering (hence “flyboy”). Isn’t it just a wee bit odd that NONE of the audience members is even looking at him? Wouldn’t one think it would be just a TINY bit interesting to see someone fly? Or is it jut ho-hum with his audiences? And the shadows are wrong, wrong, wrong. Bad photoshopping. Not only does he flunk the gmo science arguments, he flunks hiring someone competent to fake a good flyboy shot.

    • mikell

      • gmosavvy

        Funny video. My point about the total fakery remains. (and Milarepa did not promote this kind of fakery, by the way)

        And even if he can fly, that doesn’t give him credibility about biotech crops, of course. Big whoop.

        Jeffrey Smith is all about selling his books; in his pro-labeling rant on the radio show, about the labeling initiative that he called into the show about (I was the spokesperson for the anti-labeling side), he knew nothing about the proposal and its many flaws and inconsistencies; he just ranted about evil gmos and kept referring to his books. Pretty funny. Pretty sad. You could almost hear the spittle fly in his fury. He joined the flying spittle and bounced away.

        One caller on the show said that their college molecular biology teacher referred to Smith’s incoherent rants as the “Reefer Madness of biotechnology.” Exactly.

        Oh, and the labeling initiative was overwhelmingly defeated.

        • August Pamplona

          I doubt that’s an altered photo (other than compression, cropping and that sort of thing). The photo has merely been taken in mid-hop (just like all the other Maharishi devotee photographs which are purported to show “yogic flying”). The shadows are quite consistent with multiple light sources (and if it was fake, the first person to point it out would probably be Jeffrey Smith because it makes him look like a moron –except, of course, it’s very likely not fake and Jeffrey Smith truly believes in all that nonsense).

          The photograph was allegedly taken at a political campaign event for a James Davis who was running as a Natural Law Party candidate for the U.S. Senate. Jeffrey Smith was working as a aide in that campaign.

          A wider view of the same photograph can be seen at where one can more clearly see that it was a Natural Law Party event of some sort. This is not out of character because the Natural Law Party is (was? Are they still around?) the political arm of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi movement (Transcendental Meditation).

          By the way, as far as I can tell, the clown who is acting as a presenter of sorts and introducing the National Geographic audience to the wonders of the Maharishi effect in the video that mikell linked to is none other than John Hagelin. John Hagelin was, for a while, the perennial presidential candidate for the Natural Law Party in the United States (kind of like Pat Paulsen, except John Hagelin’s campaign was meant to be taken seriously seriously).

          John Hagelin presents the most compelling case to date for the phenomenon of alien abduction with replacement by a doppelganger because the rumor is that he used to be a serious physicist. Can anyone think of a more parsimonious explanation than replacement by a doppelganger for the transition from being a serious physicist to blathering on about the Maharishi Effect and running on that as your presidential campaign platform? I can’t!

          • gmosavvy

            I know what you say about multiple light sources, but I’ve also been a photographer; look at the hard shadow underneath him, to his right (viewer’s left). If light source was strong enough to throw that hard of a shadow, that defined, believe me, there would be the same consistency of bright / dark on his face and body. But the lighting on both his arms, and on his face, comes uniformly from the front. That’s why I think it’s fake.

            Even if he can “fly” (hop, whatever), I find it utterly curious that not one person in the room is even vaguely interested in what he is doing. Maybe they’re all Maharishi’d out or something, in the zone, woo woo. But they sure as heck aren’t paying a whit of attention to him.

            That’s why I think it’s utterly faked.

          • August Pamplona

            I know what you say about multiple light sources, but I’ve also been a
            photographer; look at the hard shadow underneath him, to his right
            (viewer’s left). If light source was strong enough to throw that hard
            of a shadow, that defined, believe me, there would be the same
            consistency of bright / dark on his face and body.

            I see that the most brightly lit areas of his face and body are consistent with that sort of lighting. You don’t see a strong contrast with other parts of his body because there’s another bright light lighting him up from the front (this is made clear by how sharply defined his shadow on the wall despite being a darker color which would wash out some of the contrast). In fact, it is clear that the lighting is probably a great deal more complicated than that because the photograph showing the wider view makes it clear that the whole room is set up with many spotlight style light sources as you can see at least two and possibly a third (the ones that are visible seem to be shielded and not covering him but one can infer that they probably set up more to cover the bouncy mat area),

            Even if he can “fly” (hop, whatever), I find it utterly curious that not
            one person in the room is even vaguely interested in what he is doing.

            I see that the seats are facing the area set up for a speaker (presumably the Senate candidate) to give some sort of presentation. I see that the area is also awkwardly set up for the “yogic fliers” to give a demonstration in such a way that the members of the audience have to look 180 degrees away from the direction that their seats are facing. I see, in the less cropped version of this photograph, that in this awkward context 5 out of 6 people are clearly looking at the “yogic flying” staging area (I’ll grant you this, #6 doesn’t seem to give a damn). Do remember that people in this awkward body position are probably not looking where their body is facing and that this is a poor quality photograph where one cannot truly know where the eyes are facing. Also remember that there may be 2 others sharing the stage in this staging area.

            I am also quite puzzled as to why someone would fake something that actually happened (I am such fakery happens, but it’s probably unusual).

          • gmosavvy

            August, I also love your info about John Hagelin and his weirdo background! Reminds me of Lyndon LaRouche, who ran for president 8 times, who among other platforms wanted to change the standard tuning for orchestras from A=440hz, to A=432hz, a lower pitch used in Verdi’s time.
            Now that shows some spunk! Run on a platform of lowering orchestra tunings! (Every violinist in the country thought he was hilarious)
            J. Smith is just as ridiculous, except he gets paid lots of money for pandering fear. And that really is not funny.
            Oh, and he gets paid for bouncing.

    • Mark Smith

      Right off with the name calling. You lost me at “idiot”

  • JoeFarmer

    Jeffy Smith hasn’t gotten any press for a long time.

    And HuffPo has been pretty much silent on GMOs for months. They haven’t given the woo-slingers like Carole Bartolotto space for almost a year. I guess AOL needed to ratchet up the page views, and what better way to do that than Smith?

    HuffPo will probably have some kind of anti-vax “article” in the near future, too. They need raise the eyeball count for the upcoming election coverage, so they can get decent click-through ad dollars.

    • Mark Smith

      farmer, do you get paid by the post or by the hour?

  • Mark Smith

    Those that do know the definition of Science know that nothing that comes out of the “Institute” nor Monsanto has anything to do with science. Science shares information instead of hiding it. Science invites scrutiny. Not buries the results. Science is collaborative. Not patented. Science is focused on information. Not profit. There are branches of science that study those things, but lets be a little honest. Monsanto and this rag have nothing to do with science or literacy.

  • Adam_T

    From reading the article, I can’t find where Jeffrey Smith actually said “I know nothing about GMOs” but if he did, that wouldn’t make him much different than the GMO scientists themselves.

    “I now believe, as a much more experienced scientist, that GMO crops still run far ahead of our understanding of their risks. In broad outline, the reasons for this belief are quite simple. I have become much more appreciative of the complexity of biological organisms and their capacity for benefits and harms. As a scientist I have become much more humble about the capacity of science to do more than scratch the surface in its understanding of the deep complexity and diversity of the natural world. To paraphrase a cliché, I more and more appreciate that as scientists we understand less and less.”

    Jonathan Latham

    I suspect you’ll have a harder time making up quotes from Jonathan Latham than from Jeffrey Smith.

    As a former economics student though I’m fully aware of how dishonest the GMO industry is: lying that GMO labeling will cost every consumer something like $100 a year when both studies and actual practice show it will cost around 0.5 cents a year per consumer.