North America called out of step with rest of world on GM food

Speakers list dangers at recent meeting Retired genetic scientist draws link between genetic modification and increase in autism, diabetes

The dangers of genetically modified food were examined Dec. 13 at one of the last stops on a month-long British Columbia and Alberta lecture tour organized by GE-Free BC.


Speakers Thierry Vrain, a retired genetic scientist formerly with Agriculture Canada, and Shiv Chopra, a former Health Canada scientist fired in 2004, told a Lethbridge meeting that GM food, particularly that embodied in Roundup Ready crops, are dangerous and North Americans have not been told the truth about them.


“In North America we are in a biotech bubble,” said Vrain.


“The studies that we see in North America are paid for mostly by the biotech industry, and they basically all say everything is perfectly safe, everything is normal. The research done outside of North America, mostly outside of North America, tells another story.”


Vrain cited several European studies that he said proved GM food is dangerous. Among them was the Gilles Seralini study, recently retracted by the scientific journal in which it was published, that suggested Roundup and Roundup Ready corn caused tumours and death in rats.


“It’s a very common pattern over the last 10 or 15 years,” Vrain said.


“All if not most of the scientists who have published studies showing that there is something alarming, something that should be of concern, have been also heavily criticized and vilified.”


He drew parallels between the commercialization of GM crops and rising rates of autism and diabetes in the American population, and addressed several claims by the biotechnology industry that defends GM development and use.


Among those is that plants have been evolving since the beginning of time and that genetic modification is an extension of that process.


Vrain said natural evolution occurs by vertical transfer of genes through crossbreeding and sexual reproduction. GM is done through direct gene transfer, which plants can’t do on their own.


“So if you hear that we have been modifying our plants for 10,000 years and this is nothing new, I think it’s confusing.”


He also disputed the claim that GM crops developed to withstand herbicides have reduced chemical use. Vrain said that might have been true in the early years of Roundup Ready crops and others of similar ilk, but then Roundup use “shot through the roof.”


He recounted the development of weeds that are resistant to glyphosate, which he said biotechnology and chemical companies expected.


“Of course the company knew that it was coming and they’ve had many years to create the next generation,” he said.


“We now have 2,4-D resistant corn and soy, so 2,4-D is going to replace Roundup in the next 10 to 20 years.”


Vrain said biotechnology has not increased crop yields, which has never been its purpose, so claims of its necessity in feeding a growing global population are false.


As for the claim that no one has ever been made ill from eating GM food, Vrain disagreed.


“The biotech industry tells us that millions of people have eaten trillions of meals containing GE ingredients in the last 18 years and nobody has ever been taken ill and nobody has ever been harmed,” he said.


“This is the most unscientific statement that you will ever hear. It sounds very reassuring, but there is no science to it.”


Mark Benson of Harvest Haven, an organic farm and market garden near Lethbridge, said Vrain’s remarks held no surprises.


“The evidence is just overwhelming as to the human health harm connected with GM foods, so there’s just no way that that truth can continue to be suppressed forever,” he said. 


“At some point it’s going to overcome the ignorance and the industry (sponsorship) of, really, propaganda.”


Modern farming technology and the race toward cheaper and more plentiful crops have damaged the natural biological soil systems, he added.


“We’re dealing with something so utterly complex and perfect and balanced, and then we just very presumptuously and arrogantly impose on it with our chemical inputs and now the ultimate presumption of tinkering with the building blocks of life without having any idea where its going,” he said.


“We can feed a hungry world organically, but the knowledge that’s there and the techniques for doing that are not being promoted or taught by anybody.”


Benson said consumers worried about GM technology should vote with their dollars by buying food produced using sustainable practices and fair wages and returns for workers and farmers.


“A revolution is in order. We have to reverse the false information that we’ve been given.”


In his presentation, Chopra recounted his objections to the introduction of bovine growth hormone, which has never been approved for use in Canada.


He said his “whistle blowing” on government and industry encouragement to approve the controversial drug eventually led to his termination from Health Canada.

  • Michael Robin

    Barb, I am extremely disappointed in this article. As a journalist with decades of experience, you should know better.

    The GMO issue is indeed contentious, but what you’ve provided here is simply a one-sided repetition of the same tired old conspiracy theories from the anti-GMO – and anti-science – crowd. The international scientific consensus is clear: GMOs are safe and valuable.

    Virtually every credible organization on Earth has endorsed this view, from the American Medical Association, to the Royal Society of Medicine in the UK to the European Commission. Nearly a dozen of the world’s top scientists put their names to an editorial in one of the world’s top research journals, Science, in September 2013, condemning the destruction of GMO rice trials in particular and the opposition to GM technologies in general.

    A quick Google search would have revealed this and much more to you. Granted, there is also an avalanche of anti-GMO material out there as well, some of which looks credible to the non-scientific eye. However, had you taken the time to pick up the phone and talk to agricultural researchers in this area, I’m sure they would have been happy to help you wade through this thicket and supply you with some fresh insight and quotes for a balanced story.

    Instead, we get unfiltered, unchallenged anti-GMO propaganda. What’s next? An interview from the president of the Flat Earth Society?

    The Western Producer is a much-loved and respected publication. I understand your staff won some awards for in writing and photography last October. You are capable of excellence.

    Your readers trust you, and they deserve better.

  • http://www.fabianseedfarms.com Patrick Fabian

    I read the article in the last issue of the Western Producer (Jan 2, 2014 p 60), and it is interesting to hear Shiv Chopra, Terry Vrain, and Mark Benson’s viewpoints. (Link below) http://www.producer.com/2014/01/north-america-called-out-of-step-with-rest-of-world-on-gm-food

    Here are my points of view about it.

    Vrain states that “The studies we see in North America are paid for mostly by the Biotech Industry…The research done outside of North America, mostly outside of North America, tells another story.”
    That sounds good, but what data is he sourcing to make those comments?
    In the October 2013 issue of Forbes Magazine, Jon Entine writes “Every major international science body in the world has reviewed multiple independent studies—in some cases numbering in the hundreds—in coming to the consensus conclusion that GMO crops are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods. But until now, the magnitude of the research on crop biotechnology has never been cataloged. In response to what they believed was an information gap, a team of Italian scientists summarized 1783 studies about the safety and environmental impacts of GMO foods—a staggering number.”

    This compilation of research trials(90+% which are peer reviewed) were put together by a group of scientists who aren’t even IN North America. The organic movement has created a hysteria in demonizing GMO’s as “Frankenfoods”, and it has been my personal experience that the consumer has for the most part has bought into this hysteria. This is due to their lack of investigating the truth whether these allegations are indeed factual. Over 1750 studies, and not ONE cited credible example showing that GM foods are harmful to humans or animals.

    I sell my flax product at various trade shows, and I am amazed at how the average consumer just goes on hearsay about these matters, without researching it out. From hormones in beef, to organic produce, to ‘”gluten is killing our society”, and even how the poor farmer is “forced into growing for the multinationals” with an almost religious fervor. I hear about it everywhere I go. When I start to question each of them, however about where they actually get their facts, they all admit they have done basically no research or used sources that are funded by the organic movement. They (the organic movement) have done well in furthering their cause in society. Yet, Mischa Popoff has uncovered the secret sins of the Organic Industry and exposed it for what it really is. http://www.isitorganic.ca. Here he is in a TV interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=EBSLNFFynHE

    In the Western Producer article,Terry Vrain also cited the study led by Gilles Seralini (November 2012) which “proved” conclusively that GMO’s cause tumors in rats and therefore ARE dangerous for humans. Unfortunately for Mr. Vrain, that argument is no longer valid. This study was accepted in the scientific community until it was peer reviewed. After many inconsistencies, and outright unethical research standards, as well as the refusal of additional research information by Mr. Seralini, the study was expunged from the Elselvier Journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. Below is a portion of the letter sent to Mr. Seralini:
    The panel had many concerns about the quality of the data, and ultimately recommended that the article should be withdrawn. I have been trying to get in touch with you to discuss the specific reasons behind this recommendation. If you do not agree to withdraw the article, it will be retracted, and the following statement will be published it its place:
    The journal Food and Chemical Toxicology retracts the article “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize,”1 which was published in this journal in November 2012. This retraction comes after a thorough and time-consuming analysis of the published article and the data it reports, along with an investigation into the peer-review behind the article. The Editor in-Chief deferred making any public statements regarding this article until this investigation was complete, and the authors were notified of the findings.
    Very shortly after the publication of this article, the journal received Letters to the Editor expressing concerns about the validity of the findings it described, the proper use of animals, and even allegations of fraud. Many of these letters called upon the editors of the journal to retract the paper. According to the journal’s standard practice, these letters, as well as the letters in support of the findings, were published along with a response from the authors. Due to the nature of the concerns raised about this paper, the Editor-in-Chief examined all aspects of the peer review process and requested permission from the corresponding author to review the raw data. The request to view raw data is not often made; however, it is in accordance with the journal’s policy that authors of submitted manuscripts must be willing to provide the original data if so requested. The corresponding author agreed and supplied all material that was requested by the Editor-in-Chief. The Editor-in-Chief wishes to acknowledge the co-operation of the corresponding author in this matter, and commends him for his commitment to the scientific process.
    Unequivocally, the Editor-in-Chief found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data. However, there is legitimate cause for concern regarding both the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain selected. The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer-review decision ultimately weighed that the work still had merit despite this limitation. A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups.
    Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology. The peer-review process is not perfect, but it does work. The journal is committed to a fair, thorough, and timely peer-review process; sometimes expediency might be sacrificed in order to be as thorough as possible. The time-consuming nature is, at times, required in fairness to both the authors and readers. Likewise, the Letters to the Editor, both pro and con, serve as a post-publication peer review. The back and forth between the readers and the author has a useful and valuable place in our scientific dialog.
    The Editor-in-Chief again commends the corresponding author for his willingness and openness in participating in this dialog. The retraction is only on the inconclusiveness of this one paper. The journal’s editorial policy will continue to review all manuscripts no matter how controversial they may be. The editorial board will continue to use this case as a reminder to be as diligent as possible in the peer-review process.
    Here is a link to the entire letter: http://www.gmwatch.org/files/Letter_AWHayes_GES.pdf

    Mark Lynas, an anti-GMO (and highly influential) advocate recently made a stunning retraction about his stand on GMO’s ;

    “I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops,” he said. “I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”
    Here is the link to the entirety of that statement: http://vimeo.com/56745320

    When you hear nonsense and fear mongering being dished out by the truckload from the non-GMO side, the rest of the article in the Western Producer seems to lose its validity. Especially when those who are quoted aren’t even using credible sources to back up their assertions, if using any sources at all.

    Included with these nonsensical statements in the article are:
    • “Biotechnology has not increased crop yields”. That statement alone shows the lack of understanding about GMO’s in agriculture.
    • “The evidence is just overwhelming as to the human health harm connected with GM foods, so there’s just no way that that truth can continue to be suppressed forever”. Yet over 1782 international peer reviewed studies have conclusively proven that there is not ONE documented case of a GMO food causing harm to humans.
    • “We can feed a hungry world organically, but the knowledge that’s there and the techniques for doing that are not being promoted or taught by anybody.”
Once again, his ignorance shows through as not actually understanding the simple concept of the huge yield reductions that come about by using organic methods. Typically, there is a 45-70% yield reduction when organic methods are employed when compared to modern agriculture practices which, yes include biotechnology. So using those numbers, how are we to triple our food production by the year 2050 to feed 9 billion people? I guess there are many millions acres of pristine rain forests we could start taking out and converting to agriculture. The sad part is I get this statement posed to me from the city people frequently who have been told by the organic industry that we can feed the world’s population with the landbase right around our own cities, and they quote Paris France’s ability to be self reliant in medieval times. Not sure about the correlation on that example, but it’s what they use.
    “It seems “antiGMO-ism” has become the new “it” pseudo-religion. And as it often happens with a lot of religions, logic, reasoning and in some cases respect for others have flown out the window”. –Nelson Cabrera

    We have to remember, that in the past, there were these things that kept the masses in fear; The looming Ice-Age in the 70’s, Ozone depletion of the 80’s, Global warming of the 90’s, or now GMO foods. We MUST rely on empirical data from reputable sources, and not be swayed by the emotionalism from an impassioned group who are motivated by and accuse the pro GMO side of the very thing they are so in fact guilty of (monetary greed).

    In closing, the only statement that I can agree wholeheartedly with in that article is Mark Benson’s statement, ““A revolution is in order. We have to reverse the false information that we’ve been given.”, Boy is he right… although it isn’t the same camp that I am thinking of!

    • Dayton

      Well Patrick, that was a mouthful. However most of us who grow and share Organic knowledge aren’t buying it. The general consumer has noticed an alarming rate of allergies, obesity and several health related problems in recent years. Farmers don’t farm anymore and have lost touch it’s a business.