One of the popular slogans of anti-GMO protesters has been that there is a “cover-up” going on by GMO seed companies about the actual harm of GMO crops, just like the kind of cover-up that Big Tobacco carried out for 40 years on the dangers of smoking. You will hear this sort of talk from Dave Murphy from Food Democracy Now, who can sound pretty extreme in print (see this article in the Huffington Post) but when interviewed on MSNBC sounds somewhat more reasonable, even while talking through his hat. (Recently the Huffington Post was rated the worst anti-science web site by Skeptoid.)
However, in that interview, he does mention that the GMO companies are engaged in “cigarette science,” and not telling the “real truth.” The trope that a science cover-up on GMO crops is going on just like Big Tobacco carried out is common in anti-GMO protest signs and literature.
We went back and looked at some of the history of the science on tobacco smoking and lung and heart disease. Surprisingly, the research goes back to at least 1950, where the authors found that smokers were substantially more likely to develop lung carcinoma. This was one of only two papers on this subject in PubMed in 1950, but the number grew in subsequent years to hundreds and then thousands of papers per year, all pointing to the same conclusions.
So, in fact, the carcinogenicity of cigarettes was well known over 60 years ago, while it may have been discounted publicly by tobacco companies, there was no cover-up at that time.
However, when people began to ask questions about the dangers of second hand smoke (“passive smoking”), tobacco companies took an aggressive approach to neutralize the impact of this research. While Schmidt indicated that the carcinogens in passive smoke were a serious problem, Grandjean et. al. suggested that there was unlikely to be a problem, but by 1981 researchers were pointing towards benzo(a)pyrene as a prime culprit in tobacco smoke.
In 1998, as part of the resolution of a lawsuit by various attorneys-general against tobacco companies, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement resulted in significant funds being transferred to the states and the tobacco companies ceasing various marketing practices. At the time, the entire archives of the Tobacco Institute and related front organizations became available to researchers.
Because of these documents and the many papers that have been published about them, we now know that the tobacco companies conspired to cover up the harm they knew was being caused by second hand smoke. They also used their law firms and advertising agencies to recruit apparently unbiased scientists to tout their points of view expressing skepticism about the dangers of second hand smoke.
In 2000, Ong and Glanz described the tobacco industry’s efforts to discredit second hand smoke studies, and Drope and Chapman described how this was done by reviewing tobacco industry documents. And the tobacco companies’ law firms and agencies constructed the term “junk science” to try to refute some of these studies as Ong and Glanz noted in 2001.
Perhaps most disturbing was the industry’s attempts to recruit (and pay) independent scientists to repeat industry talking points. The scientists’ papers would still indicate that they were being supported by tobacco industry groups, but as Bero, Glanz and Hong revealed, this wasn’t that hard to get around, as they show by detailing payments to one scientist who published such papers.
A complete history of the tobacco industry’s second hand smoke cove-up was published online by PR Watch.
Development of GM Crops
There are two major types of GM crops in wide use in the US and other countries: Bt maize (corn), cotton, potatoes and tobacco and Roundup resistant soy, corn, sorghum, canola, squash, alfalfa and sugar beets. Roundup-resistant wheat has been developed and found to be safe, but is not being marketed.
In addition, there are ringspot-resistant GM papayas, non-browning Arctic apples and the non-browning Simplot potato, as well as Golden Rice with Vitamin A bred into the plant to combat blindness in vulnerable populations.
The bacillus we now know as Bacillus thuringiensis was, according to a review by Je et. al. discovered originally in Japan in 1901 by Ishiwati and rediscovered in Germany by Berliner in 1911, when he isolated it from flour moths.
Bt was found to be toxic to various Lepidoptera that were known to be crop pests and it began to be used in France in 1938, and interest in its use as an insecticide more broadly was due primarily to Steinhaus. There are now a large number of varieties of the Bt, specific to a number of different insect pests. It was found by Angus that during sporulation, it forms a crystalline protein that creates the toxicity.
The important breakthrough in Bt research was when Gonzalez reported that the genes that coded for the crystal proteins were located on separate cell sections called plasmids, paving the way for the cloning of these genes and eventually for insertion of these genes into plant material. The first genes isolated coded Bt toxic to the tobacco hornworm, and soon several groups began creating transgenic plants with various Cry genes inserted. The first to reach the market was Bt cotton.
Koziel and a dozen coworkers from Ciba-Geigy described the field performance of transgenic maize in 1993, and commercial Bt corn followed soon after the cotton.
Once the Cry genes which coded for various strains of Bt were inserted into foodstuffs, concern was expressed regarding their safety. Numerous independent short and long term studies have shown these foods to be completely safe, however.
Roundup or glyphosate herbicide was discovered and patented by Monsanto chemist John E Franz in 1970. It’s effectively made by combination of glycine and phosphonic acid, hence the name shortened from glycine phosphonate. It is a contact herbicide, used to kill emerging weeds and is not used as a pre-emergent weed killer. Duke and Powles, in a mini-review have called it a “once in a lifetime herbicide.” Franz received the National Medal of Technology (1987) and the Perkin Medal (1990) for this work.
Even before the development of Roundup resistant plants, Roundup was used by farmers to clear the fields before planting, obviating the necessity of tilling. Glyphosate is of extremely low human toxicity, comparable to aspirin or baking soda, and binds to the soil while it decomposes, so water supplies are not at risk. All the commercial patents have now expired, and it is made by a large number of companies.
Steinrucken and Amrhein reported in 1980 that glyphosate killed plants by inhibiting synthesis of the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase, (ESPS) which is critical for the synthesis of the aromatic amino acids, phenylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan. If researchers could interfere with this process, they could create plants that could resist glyphosate.
After several years of experimentation in a number of groups, Klee, Muskopf and Gasser at Monsanto reported the creation of a glyphosate resistant petunia. This technique resulted in a general method for creating glyphosate resistant plants by cloning a gene that encodes ESPS and inserting it to various plants. Patents on this were filed in 1990 by Shah, Rogers, Horsch and Fraley. Fraley recently received the World Food Prize for leading this work.
Related approaches continued for some years and the first glyphosate tolerant soybeans were introduced to the market in 1996.
Research on Safety of Transgenic Plants
Substantial research on the safety of each of the genetically modified plants has been conducted and published by research groups inside and outside the various seed companies. A complete list of nearly 6oo peer-reviewed papers attesting to the safety of transgenic crops has been compiled and published by the Biofortified web site.
All of these papers are published in major peer-reviewed journals and thus as an aggregate represent the best scientific knowledge on these systems. Among these hundreds of papers representing thousands of experiments, there are really only two papers reporting health problems from genetically modified crops.
One of these, the paper by Giles-Eric Seralini is the paper most frequently referenced in this regard. While Seralini and coworkers claimed to find that rats fed transgenic maize developed tumors, the Sprague-Dawley rats they used all develop tumors at the same rate as they observed. The paper has been denounced by dozens of scientists for poor experimental design and statistics. The European Food Safety Authority published a final assessment, calling the study of “insufficient scientific quality for a safety assessment.”
Forbes contributor and molecular biologist Henry Miller and biochemist Bruce Chassey published a critical article of Seralini’s work as well.
The other recent paper purporting to find dangers in feeding transgenic crops to animals was published by Judy Carman, et. al. Published in a low level on-line journal supported by the Organic Federation of Australia, and not even indexed in PubMed, it is of little scientific validity, and was immediately criticized by scores of scientists.
Carman’s study fed pigs either transgenic or conventional maize for 23 months and then examined their stomachs after slaughter. They claimed that GM-fed pigs had more inflammation, but their own tables show the opposite. Critics also noted the visual inspection of stomachs is not the same as an actual histology study, and probably was meaningless. But most significant, FSANZ, the Food Standards Agency of Australia and New Zealand concluded that the data “are not convincing of adverse effects due to the GM diet and provide no grounds for revising FSANZ’s conclusions.”
Comparison with Tobacco Cover-ups
In the case of tobacco companies, the cover-up was clear, because independent research had established and continued to establish the dangers of smoking and of second hand smoke, while at the same time, tobacco sponsored research was attempting to suggest alternate explanations for the observed diseases associated with such smoke.
By contrast, there are not really any credible studies from any source showing any damage to animals (or people) from any current transgenic crop. There is no sign of any coverup of evidence or papers adopting alternate hypotheses, because no negative results have been found. Nor are there conflicting conclusions presented by independent studies versus industry funded studies.
Consequently, there is no analogy between the near-criminal behavior of the tobacco companies and the relatively open research environment in which transgenic crops have been developed. There just doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a conspiracy.
The only evidence we find of mendacity and conspiracy is in Seralini’s and Carman’s papers, which have been found to be wanting of solid, believable science. And strangely enough, the web site gmoseralini.org and gmojudycarman.org have an identical design and style. And as Byrne and Miller noted, the organic industry is spending upwards of $2.5 billion opposing transgenic crops.