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Medical News & Perspectives
October 03, 2016

Nobel Laureates Pick Food Fight With GMO Foes

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Copyright 2016 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.

JAMA. Published online October 3, 2016. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.11571

As we know from a certain singing amphibian, it’s not easy being green.

But if you’re Greenpeace, it’s getting that much harder. Not even Kermit has ever been censured by 110 Nobel Prize winners.

The public reproach of Greenpeace by 44% of living Nobelists dates to late June, when an open letter signed by the laureates exhorted the environmental group to drop its campaign against genetically modified (GM) foods, particularly Golden Rice. This widely ballyhooed strain of GM rice has been touted as the solution to rampant vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, which is responsible for more than a million deaths per year and is “the leading cause of childhood blindness affecting 250 000-500 000 children each year” according to the Nobel letter.

Isagani Serrano/IRRI

The letter criticized Greenpeace for having “spearheaded” opposition to Golden Rice and other GM crops, in spite of the fact that “scientific and regulatory agencies around the world” have found biotech foods to be safe for human and animal consumption. It concluded: “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a crime against humanity?”

Although Greenpeace insiders say they were deeply affronted by the accusation that they are perpetrating an atrocity, the group issued a measured response that called Golden Rice a “failed” solution that after 20 years of study has yet to be approved for sale. “We are talking about something [Golden Rice] that doesn’t even exist,” a spokesman said, adding that, “Corporations are overhyping Golden Rice to pave the way for global approval of other, more profitable genetically engineered crops.”

Long-standing Controversy

If this “he said–she said” exchange sounds familiar, it should. The debate over the safety of GM crops and foods has been bubbling away since the technology emerged from the laboratory a generation ago. The battle has now extended to Washington, DC, where in July, President Obama signed into law a compromise bill to identify GM foods on packaging. Environmentalists have nicknamed the new law “the DARK Act” for Denying Americans the Right to Know, because, they say, it doesn’t provide consumers with adequate information. Instead of demanding forthright labels, it allows manufacturers to use a QR code that consumers must scan to learn whether the corn in their corn flakes is engineered, or include an 800 number to call for more information.

Why is it so hard to settle the safety issue? Neutral observers say that passionate stakeholders on all sides have made conducting credible, open-minded research a minefield. Many scientists have become hypercritical toward colleagues’ work due to fears that anti-GM findings, particularly those that ultimately fail to be replicated, will be used to set policy. These fears stem in part from a widely publicized study from 1999 that found GM corn to be lethal to Monarch butterflies—findings that were later refuted but only after they set off heated campaigns by Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The possibility of drawing withering criticism from overly harsh peers has made some investigators gun-shy. They point to a Loyola University Chicago ecologist who was pilloried in 2007 for suggesting that maize outfitted with an insecticidal gene might harm fly larvae in nearby streams. Her research article had its flaws, eg, the abstract overstated the findings, and larvae tested in the laboratory were allowed to eat as much of the GM sample as they wished, instead of being subjected to the dose-response method used in most toxicology studies. But there are those in the scientific community who thought the article made a valuable contribution and did not deserve to be savaged.

On the other side are critics ready to pounce on anything favorable to the GM cause. Greenpeace China was instrumental in forcing the 2015 retraction of an article by Tufts University researchers who fed Golden Rice to Chinese children and found it to be a good source of vitamin A. The critics alleged ethical violations, including whether parents gave fully informed consent. The protocol reportedly had been approved by Tufts, the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, and US governmental agencies, but questions were later raised about the execution of the protocol, which Greenpeace called “a scandal of international proportions.”

Whatever one may think of these individual studies, the field has become so fraught, that many qualified investigators are giving the research a pass. As the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) observed in a 2013 statement, intimidation likely “stifles legitimate crucial voices that are needed for both advancing science and informing sound policy decisions.”

Box Section Ref ID

Former GMO Foes Who Have Changed Their Minds

  • Stewart Brand: His book The Whole Earth Catalogue helped start the environmental movement in 1968. In a major reversal on GM foods, he wrote this in his 2009 book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto: “I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about.”

  • Stephen Tindale: Renouncing his earlier views, the former head of Greenpeace UK has this to say now: “The overwhelming majority of scientists think [GM food] is safe. It is, in my view, morally unacceptable to stand out against these new technologies.”

  • Bill Nye: “The Science Guy” was anti-GM until he visited Monsanto and came away a believer. “GMOs are not inherently bad,” he told the Huffington Post last year. “We are able to feed 7.2 billion people [when 150 years ago] we could barely feed 1.5 billion.”

  • Mark Lynas: Activist who helped vandalize GMO field trials in the 1990s, now says: “You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.”

Duking It Out

The spat between the Nobelists and Greenpeace basically pits two Brits against each other, Sir Richard Roberts, a 1993 laureate and the driving force behind the letter, and Paul Johnston, principal scientist and founder of the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter.

Roberts, the chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs who won the Nobel for his work on gene splicing, said the Nobelists were motivated by Greenpeace’s longstanding view that GM foods may be unsafe. “That has been scientifically shown to be nonsense,” he said, citing a number of recent reports, including one released in May by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which concluded that “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”

However, the complete report is more nuanced than it is unequivocal. It carefully articulates its own limitations: “There remain sizable gaps in our ability to identify compositional changes that result from genetic modification of organisms intended for food; to determine the biological relevance of such changes to human health; and to devise appropriate scientific methods to predict and assess unintended adverse effects on human health.” In other words, all the returns aren’t in yet.

Roberts had little patience for nuance, though. “What we’d like to see happen is for Greenpeace to simply admit it made a mistake on GMOs and say they are indeed safe,” he said. “Our objection as laureates is that they are misrepresenting the science [that supports GMO safety] and it’s having a devastating effect on the developing world.”

Roberts confided that he used to belong to Greenpeace, adding, “I quit about 10 years ago when I became aware of what they are doing.”

Asked what he meant, Roberts replied, “Going for the money.” He explained that he thinks Greenpeace’s position is contrived to tease donations from the environmentally concerned. “It’s the best fundraising tactic ever for them and it’s gotten them a lot of political power in Europe.”

Meanwhile, Johnston expressed his suspicions that some laureates who signed the letter criticizing Greenpeace had a financial interest in advancing GMOs. “Many on that list have a stake in biotech,” he said. “A declaration of everyone’s full interest would be useful.”

Roberts replied, “Nobody who signed that letter has a direct financial interest in whether GMOs are banned or not. Our concerns are strictly humanitarian.”

Persistent Fears

Of most importance to Greenpeace, Johnston said, are its persistent fears that the introduction of novel genes into plants in the wild might have dire and irreversible consequences if they spread through the ecosystem. But he noted that the “jury is still out” on human health issues as well.

“Very little systematic research has been done. People say we’ve been using GM foods in the US for quite a few years now and there’s been no problem. But what are the end points? Who is overseeing any epidemiological effects? The answer is basically no one. It’s a huge uncontrolled experiment.”

The battle between gray matter and green mantra is likely to continue. Roberts says he has further plans to bring pressure on Greenpeace. But he’s not tipping his hand

“We’re not anxious to let them know what we’re doing,” he says.

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