Greenpeace goes after Australian Wheat

Update: See post a week later– Greenpeace destroys Australian wheat trials

Last week, blogs and twitter feeds were lit up by news that a group of scientists had written a letter to CSIRO, in Australia, criticizing them for proposing a nutritional trial of genetically engineered wheat. It appeared with this article, Scientists reject human trials of GM Wheat, and is part of a new thrust of transparently poor public relations. And it foreshadows more to come. An excerpt:

A group of prominent scientists and researchers from around the world has urged Australia not to go ahead with human trials of genetically modified (GM) wheat.

The CSIRO is carrying out a study of feeding GM wheat grown in the ACT to rats and pigs and could extend the trial to humans.

The modified wheat has been altered to lower its glycaemic index in an attempt to see if the grain could have health benefits such as improving blood glucose control and lowering cholesterol levels.

But eight scientists and academics from Britain, the US, India, Argentina and Australia believe not enough studies have been done on the effects of GM wheat on animals to warrant human trials.

The trials in question appeared to be of the simple kind – the wheat has been altered in a way that should affect its glycemic index, how rapidly the sugars are absorbed into the bloodstream, and that CSIRO is interested in seeing if it has the desired effect when eaten by human beings. These kinds of studies have been done before, such as on calcium-biofortified carrots as described in this post. The letter appeared to be out of place.

While news about this letter was easy to find, the actual letter itself was not, nor were the names of the “prominent” scientists who signed it. The article mentioned only two: Dave Schubert, and Michael Antoniou. I have had contact with Schubert before, so I emailed him to find out what the text of the letter was, and who signed it. He responded promptly with a draft of the letter that he signed. However, when I asked if he knew who signed it (or who to contact), he had this to say:

If i [may] ask, what is your interest?-seems like a typical pro-GM scam to me because they will feed this to people for a few days-much too short of time to see anything happen-and then claim that it is proven safe in a clinical trial!  My belief is that a much better assay is a multigenerational feeding trial in rodents with good pathology.

I explained that I want to put up the letter on our blog for people to comment, and asked again about his co-signatories. It turns out, you see, the signers of the letter did not actually write the letter – it was written by Greenpeace and they sought anti-GE individuals to sign it as part of a larger campaign. He gave me his contacts at Greenpeace, who ignored my request for information. It is strange that it is so hard to find out this information from those who put together the letter and signed it – especially when it is an open letter.

So naturally, I contacted CSIRO, and they readily forwarded me the entire letter with its signers. I will now reproduce the full text of the letter here (PDF) for everyone to see and comment on.

Open letter from scientists and doctors around the world regarding human

feeding trials of genetically modified wheat in Australia

Dear Dr. Megan Clark, Chief Executive CSIRO,

We are writing to express our unequivocal denunciation of the experiments being conducted by your colleagues that involve feeding genetically modified (GM) wheat to human subjects. We are all senior scientists/academics with a professional interest in the health and environmental effects of GMOs. We refer to the trials described on the website of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR):

• DIR 093 – Limited and controlled release of wheat and barley genetically modified for altered grain starch composition

The biological and biochemical characterisation of the GM wheat being used in these experiments is inadequately described in the publicly available literature. Much of the information required to conduct adequate pre-clinical evaluation is withheld on the basis that it is ‘confidential commercial information’.

Genetically modified products have not been shown to be distinctive, uniform and stable over time. There is a large body of evidence that shows that GM crop / food production is highly prone to inadvertent and unpredictable pleiotropic effects, which can result in health damaging effects when GM food products are fed to animals (Pusztai and Bardocz, 2006; Schubert, 2008; Dona and Arvanitoyannis, 2009).

The feeding trials, as described in the documents from the OGTR, are completely inadequate to assess these risks. Feeding trials on rats, pigs and humans are proposed for a period of 1 to 28 days. The intention of these trials is to assess the altered grain starch composition of the wheat, but not to test for any unintended results. We have seen in the independent research conducted on consumption of GM plants to date that unintended effects may appear in later generations (Velimirov et al, 2008).

The use of human subjects for these GM feeding experiments is completely unacceptable. The experiments may be used to dispense with concerns about the health impacts of consuming GM plants, but will not in fact, address the health risks GM plants raise.

The feeding trials should not be conducted until long-term impact assessments have been undertaken and appropriate information released to enable the scientific community to determine the value of such research, as against the risks.

Yours sincerely,
The undersigned signatories:

Dr Michael Antoniou
Gene expression and Therapy Group
King’s College London School of Medicine
Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics
8th Floor, Tower Wing
Guy’s Hospital
Great Maze Pond
London
SE1 9RT, UK

Dr Vandana Shiva Ph D
Navdanya
Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology
105 Rajpur Road
Dehra Dun, India

Dr George Crisp MBBS MRCGP
General Practitioner
Western Australia

Professor Andres Carrasco
Lab Molecular Embryology
School of Medicine UBA – CONICET
Argentina

Professor Carlo Leifert
Res Dev Prof of Ecological Agriculture
Newcastle University School of Agriculture,
Food and Rural Development (SAFRD)
Nafferton Farm
Stocksfield
Northumberland, NE43 7XD, UK

Professor David Schubert
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
10010 N. Torrey Pines Road,
La. Jolla, CA 92037
USA

Dr Benjamin Ticehurst BSc(Med) MBBS MPH FRACGP
General medical practitioner & senior lecturer
School of Medicine, Sydney
University of Notre Dame Australia

John B. Fagan, Ph.D.
Professor of Molecular Biology
Maharishi University of Management
(Maharishi International University 1971 to 1995)
1000 North Fourth Street
Fairfield, Iowa, 52557-10

References:

  1. Pusztai A. and Bardocz S. (2006). GMO in animal nutrition: potential benefits and risks. In: Biology of
    Nutrition in Growing Animals, eds. R. Mosenthin, J. Zentek and T. Zebrowska, Elsevier Limited, pp. 513-
    540.
  2. Schubert D.R. (2008) The problem with nutritionally enhanced plants. J Med Food. 11: 601-605.
  3. Dona A. and Arvanitoyannis I.S. (2009) Health Risks of Genetically Modified Foods. Crit Rev Food Sci
    Nutr., 49: 164–175.
  4. Velimirov, A., Binter, C., and Zentek, J. (2008) “Biological effects of transgenic maize NK603xMON810
    fed in long term reproduction studies in mice” Bundesministerium für Gesundheit, Familie und Jugend
    Report, Forschungsberichte der Sektion IV Band 3/2008, Austria

So what do you think, should the trials be halted? My first comment is that this team of prominent scientists is not only small (8), but not very prominent outside of the debate over genetic engineering. Some are not scientists (such as Shiva, Crisp, and Ticehurst). Although the original article indicated that only 8 people signed it, Schubert seemed to think that a lot of people had. Contrast this to a previous, similar letter criticizing Golden Rice, that garnered 34 signatures. (And compared Golden Rice to Nazi experiments, I might add. Also, the letter said 22 signers so math was not one of their strengths).

You will not only see some overlap in the top signers, but the top 3 references are spot-in identical, even in precise punctuation. Was that letter also written by Greenpeace, or did they just copy the references? Indeed, the wheat letter appears to be plagiarized from the Golden Rice letter. To investigate this further, I put them both in a file and color-coded the language that was identical between the two, revealing that whoever wrote this letter for Greenpeace has indeed plagiarized the Golden Rice Letter to do so. Take a look at a comparison in this PDF.

This is on top of the fact that the letter does not indicate that Greenpeace had anything to do with it – when it was their letter to begin with.

It appears they just cut and pasted what they liked about the first one, copied the references, and added another reference (that seems to be a poorly conducted experiment that lost too many control mice and was not peer reviewed). So one way to take this is that they are scraping the bottom of the barrel on trying to drum up criticism of this genetically engineered wheat experiment. The letter also expressed the same sentiment that Dave Schubert also echoed – that the research must be stopped in order to prevent its results from being mis-used by someone else. So I asked Schubert if this was a valid reason for halting the research. This is what I sent.

I did want to ask, though, as you mentioned in this email to me that you believe that a 28-day human study like this would be mis-used to prove clinical safety. It sounded to me from what little I have read about this that their interest in a human study is primarily to determine if it has the desired glycemic index effects in people as they are expecting. There have been other human eating studies published, notably one on calcium bio-fortified carrots – and the purpose of that one was clearly to determine the bioavailability of the enhanced levels of calcium. A short study period is sufficient for determining effects such as that, although I am no expert on these matters.

My question is, supposing that the purpose of this study is to test the effects of the GE wheat trait in question and not to give it an overall ‘clinical’ pass – is the idea that a short narrow study would be mis-used by someone (to say it was proven ‘clinically safe’ a valid reason to prevent the study from occurring?

I just received his response,

I was not aware of the stated reason for the short trial, but you are correct, to look at bioavailability, a short trial is all that is necessary.  In the FDA drug approval process, the phase 1 trial is something seminar, only much shorter-a few days.  That is what is odd about the 28 days, because if they only want to look at the effect on glycemic index, then one day would be sufficient.  I have not seen the details, but i would bet that they will eventually mention something about humans and safety down the line.

I asked if he still supported the letter, since he was not aware of the reason for the trial when he signed it. He responded,

I do believe that no GM crop should be fed to humans without proper safety testing in rodents-this would be unthinkable for a ‘real’ drug!  And with the advent of the new so called nutritionally enhanced plants, the distinction is not so great.

Note that he didn’t answer the question about whether his stated reasons were valid or not. But I think we can discern his opinion well enough from these comments. And in case there is any question, No, the idea that someone could misuse a study to mean something it doesn’t is NOT a valid reason for preventing the research from being done. I should also think that knowing the details of a study to be criticized should come before signatures are applied. Greenpeace only just filed a freedom of information request to find out information about it. I have to wonder if they really wanted more information about it, if there was a better way to go about it.

CSIRO has indicated that they are testing the wheat in rodents and pigs before conducting human trials, and who knows what the future holds for this particular trait. It may not work, but then again it may work really well – and we won’t know that until the results of this trial are analyzed and published. Greenpeace, however, has indicated that this is the first salvo in a war they plan to wage against genetically engineered wheat, with a particular focus on CSIRO. They have announced that they will be releasing a bombshell of a report on GE wheat on Thursday (which it will be in Australia in just a few hours), which promises to push back the tide of research on these horrible potential health-improving traits.

And this is already unraveling a bit, even before it has been published. According to The Land, (Australia), they carefully chose which reporters to give the report to in order to try to control media coverage.

Industry members have also questioned why Greenpeace sent the report, titled Australia’s wheat scandal: The biotech takeover of our daily bread, to selected reporters, suggesting they had cherry-picked “susceptible journalists” to increase the likelihood of favourable media coverage.

Rural Press journalists were not among those presented with the report.

Sounds like someone’s trying their hand at a concerted media campaign – let’s change the narrative to pointing out how Greenpeace can’t even write their own ghost-written letters. I thought they were supposed to be good at this stuff?

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.