Science versus fear mongering at Hofstra GMO debate

Kevin Folta discusses scientific consensus, left: Michael Hansen

As part of Hofstra University’s Pride and Purpose Debates, last night they presented a formal debate titled “Should the US Enact Stronger Regulations against Genetically Modified Crops?”

Speaking for the affirmative were Michael Hansen, Ph.D., the chief staff scientist of Consumer’s Union, and Bhavani Jaroff, a chef and green foods activist, and speaking in opposition were Professor Kevin Folta, the interim chair of the Department of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, and Gregory Dolin, Associate Professor of Law and Co-director of the Center for Medicine and Law at the University of Baltimore. The debate was moderated by Phillip Dalton, Chair of the Department of Rhetoric at Hofstra.

The debate allowed each speaker 8 minutes, plus a chance for others to ask a few questions at the end of each speech, followed by 4 minute rebuttals by each side. You can watch the whole debate here on YouTube.

Here’s my summary of the event.

Hansen began with an historical outline from 1985 when he said the USDA developed the Coordinated Framework, deciding that GM crops did not need new regulations, but that they could be dealt with by existing regulation.

In fact, the policies, developed during the Reagan administration were that US policy would focus on the product of genetic manipulation, not the process, and that only regulation grounded in verifiable scientific risks would be tolerated.

Hansen emphasized that if a new genetically engineer product didn’t “fit into their regulatory scheme, they didn’t regulate,” citing the genetically engineered GloFish as an example that was not regulated, but not mentioning that it is neither a food nor a drug.

Hansen also emphasized repeatedly that there really is no regulation of new transgenic crops, as cooperation between seed companies and the FDA is purely voluntary and that the US “does not do any safety consultations.”

He emphasized that the American Medical Association has adopted a resolution supporting mandatory pre-market assessments. (They have also stated that no GMO crop has been found to be harmful and that they do not support labeling of GMO foods.) He also implied that the WHO’s Codex Alimentarius has regulations on GMOs that all UN signatories should follow. They do not.

Hansen asserted that companies repeated stymie scientists seeking to do research by refusing permission to test their seeds.

He also asserted that there was research in 2001 on a Pioneer corn seed incorporating Cry34Ab1 and Cry35Ab1, and that an independent consultant had found that a corn plant extract killed lady beetles in 8 days, so Pioneer’s safety filing asserted that the crop was safe for 7 days. W can find no verification of this statement except in a rather paranoid article in the less than reliable Independent Science News.

In the question period, Folta asked Hansen if he was familiar with the Academic Research License. If he wasn’t, he’d send Hansen a copy of one. And that you can have a GM crop made for you at the University of Missouri, University of Nebraska or UC Davis.

He questioned Hansen’s assertion that work by Stotzky found Cry proteins streaming from the roots of corn plants, by asking if he remembered the final sentences of the abstract. The relevant sentences were:

…it is not clear whether the presence of the Cry1Ab protein in the tissues of some plants under field condition and in carrot in sterile hydroponic culture was the result of the uptake of the protein by the plants or of the accuracy and sensitivity of the different commercial kits used. More detailed studies with additional techniques are obviously needed to confirm the uptake of Cry proteins from soil by plants subsequently planted after a Bt crop.

In Folta’s presentation, he noted that he was an independent public scientist and no one could tell him what research he could not do or what plant he could not sequence. He also said that if someone needed a seed or plant sequenced, they should send it to him and he’d have it done in a week.

His view was that regulations needed to be different as current regulations are preventing the release of valuable new plant varieties, since it can take up to 10 years to satisfy the FDA. He noted that we have been consuming GM foods for 17 years now, and there is no one confirmed case of any harm from any GM food.

He noted the environmental benefits: corn and cotton now use half the insecticides they used to require, and GM crops are planted in 90% of US farmland. He pointed out that farmers are smart people, and that companies do not tell than what to plant.

Resistance to GM crops, he said, is based on fear. “This is science,” he said, “not gremlins or magic.”

“GM crops are elegant and effective, and it works,” he noted. “All scientists will tell you that biotech poses no more risk than conventional breeding. In fact, less, since we know exactly what genes have been inserted into the plants.

“We have the ability to carry out intricate, sensitive assays on these plants. And any person who actually finds harm from a GM crop will have his picture on Science and Nature. And he will win a Nobel Prize.”

Folta noted that these charges are based on fear, and that none of them have been proven. It is strange, he said, that seeds treated with irradiation or chemicals are acceptable to organic growers, but if we change one gene they are not.

These current restrictions stop emerging science, he argued. For example, in the lab next to his, they have developed tomatoes with a higher folate level, but they have not been commercialized because of regulatory hurdles. Without these hurdles, more nutrient enriched foods are possible. And, he emphasize, no one wants to develop products that hurt people.

Folta specifically rebutted Hansen’s assertion that the FDA doesn’t require testing, noting that they do not have a hard and fast protocol so that they can adjust their requirements for each new case. And their procedure is to look at the product testing they are given and if it is insufficient, they require more experiments. It is “not a rubber stamp, but a stringent process.”

He closed his arguments by noting that excess regulations harm the industry and these irrational fears lead to crop such as tomatoes and orange juice being attacked when there are in fact no GM oranges or tomatoes at this time.

Hansen’s rebuttal question period was such a list of fragmentary assertions that it could be characterized as a “Gish gallop.” This is a debating technique where the opponent is flooded with so many concepts that it is impossible to refute most of them. He did mention the possible allergenicity of Monsanto’s MON810 corn, asserting that there are 43 proteins known to be allergenic. However, if you look at last year’s paper by Fonseca et al, it identifies 14 such allergens in MON810 which are in fact unchanged from the conventional counterpart.

Bhavania Jaroff is a chef and blogger, running the I Eat Green site. However, she did not seem to be well versed in actual science and many of her talking points were simply incorrect. She said that there have not been too many independent studies (there are 126 on the Biofortified web site alone.)

She echoed the common complaint that FDA commissioner Michael Taylor quashes any objections to GMO crops, and that he was a former Monsanto vice-President. Both assertions are completely untrue, and the actual facts are laid out in this article.

She claimed that discredited potato researcher Arpad Pusztai was fired from the Rowett Institute at the request of Tony Blair after he went on television to describe his experiments that feeding these potatoes to rats caused tumors and organ irregularities. However, as has described this case, Pusztai’s experiments were “fatally flawed,” and even if he did discover tumors and the like, the potatoes he used were not from any approved line, but some experimental potatoes from that laboratory.

Jaroff also asserted some very confused things about genetically engineered crops.

1. Genes are spliced with a pesticide called Roundup

2. Pesticides are injected into genes and thus are made continuously by the plant.

Both of these assertions are pretty much nonsense. Roundup is an herbicide. Bt is the pesticide she was thinking of.

Then she made it worse by saying that this pesticide regeneration continues inside our body. Even if this were true (it is not) Bt is only toxic to Lepidoptera because of their highly alkaline gut (the human gut is quite acidic with a pH about 1.2).

She went on with the standard anti talking points that the health of our country has deteriorated, with allergies skyrocketing, although there is no direct proof this is caused by GM crops. (This confuses correlation with causation, of course.)

She noted that a number of food manufacturers tout that their European versions of various foods are GM free as a service to consumers. Of course, their food supplies in Europe are more likely GM free, so this is not so hard to accomplish, and is based on zero science.

She made the outrageous claim that the Seralini rat tumor study was retracted because of a complaint by Monsanto, even though there is no evidence for this preposterous claim and the University of Nebraska scientist Richard Goodman was added to the an editorial position at Elsevier and that he used to work for Monsanto (10 years ago). Goodman debunked this nonsense here.

Finally, she referred indirectly to the Aris and Leblanc paper which purported to find traces of glyphosate in maternal and fetal tissue. However, as Folta pointed out, the amount was at or below instrumental detection limits. This has also been debunked by Cami Ryan here.

Hansen interjected during the question period that the American Academy of Environmental Medicine as raised questions about GM safety as well. This is a shell organization, not certified by the AMA and is listed on Quackwatch.

Greg Dolan spoke as an attorney and law professor and again suggested that the opposition to GM crops was being driven by fear, and discusses a number of court cases where GM issues were relevant. He cited Chakrabarty v Diamond which established the right to patent GM organisms.

He noted that the idea that scientists cannot conduct studies is completely false. You can buy a GM crop from a farmer and once it is in your hands the law says you can do with it whatever you wish, to satisfy intellectual curiosity. While the farmer cannot sell you his original seeds, he can and will sell you his crop and you can do any tests on it you wish.

He also noted that there is “big money on the other side,” and that the reason that Europe as banned GM crops is entirely financial as they can’t compete on price.

He again emphasized confusing correlation with causation and that no study has shown any harm from GM crops. He also cited Bowman v Monsanto, in which a farmer replanted with seed from grain elevators that was most likely to be GM and grew a crop without paying a license fee. He lost this case in the Supreme Court.

In rebuttal, Folta noted that the assumptions of the proponents was that there is a “vast conspiracy,” when none exists. And while there are 144 papers available from independent authors, there are many hundreds more sponsored by biotech companies. This is because this is where the testing is done that the FDA requires. It would not be reasonable for this to be done with tax money.

Finally, he noted that Pusztai’s work has never been repeated, suggesting that it is not repeatable.

Hansen’s final rebuttal repeated his earlier assertions that the FDA does not require testing and that the US does not meet some (unspecified) global standard. He also asserted that we already produce plenty of food and we simply have a food distribution problem. This, of course, does not allow for the fact that GM products like Golden Rice will provide needed Vitamin A to poor children in Africa and help prevent their blindness.

The rest of his talk was just another Gish Gallop of partial assertions.

Folta closed noting that companies do indeed meet with the FDA before beginning testing, and do additional testing as required.

In response to discussion of the doctrine of “substantial equivalence” being the starting point for testing and approval of new crops, Hansen noted that even a very small change in a gene can be devastating, such as in the case of sickle cell anemia. Of course, it is exactly the effects of those changes that testing looks for.

Originally published at

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I have a PhD in organic chemistry from Ohio State University and worked for years at IBM Research, mostly in computer science. I am now a full time writer, writing articles for on food and food science, and working on several books.