Lack of Scientific Credibility of GM Food Safety Tests

By Ann Clark
Associate Professor of Plant Agriculture, Guelph University, Canada
Mar 12, 2001

Until recently, people tended to identify most of the concern about genetically modified (GM) agriculture with groups such as the Council of Canadians, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Industry proponents wasted little time in painting these people as misinformed, hysterical greenies. But thanks to those groups, informed citizen opposition has slowed adoption of GM crops to a crawl, providing much-needed breathing space for senior scientists, lawyers, and physicians to reflect upon the issues and begin to speak out.

Proponent efforts to paint the opposition as ill-informed malcontents and luddites sound increasingly silly in the face of the significant doubts now reaching the public media from prestigious scientific analysts.

One common criticism in many such studies is the near absence of credible scientific evidence upon which to assess environmental and food safety risks. Last June, the prestigious journal Science reported a detailed database search by Jose Domingo, who could find a grand total of just eight refereed journal articles dealing with any aspect of the safety of GM foods. The eight included only four actual feeding trials, of which three were from Monsanto teams.

The final report of the elite, hand-picked EU-U.S. Biotechnology Consultative Forum, which came out in December, 2000, stated, “There is a lack of substantial scientific data and evidence, often (presented) more as personal interpretations disguised as scientifically validated statements.” The full report is available at

The Royal Society of Canada just came out with a new report entitled The Future of Food Biotechnology. Elements of Precaution: Recommendations for the Future of Food Biotechnology in Canada. This group of distinguished senior scientists identified numerous critical failings in the Canadian GM regulatory process, and were particularly critical of the pivotal role accorded the unscientific concept of “substantial equivalence.” The report is available at

In another recent issue of Science, U.S. government scientists LaReesa Wolfenbarger and Paul Phifer noted that “key experiments on both the environmental risks and benefits are lacking.” They identified numerous critical deficiencies whether GM crops are indeed safe for the environment. Each of these studies calls for substantially increased research to figure out whether any risk exists, let alone how to test for such risk or to do about it.

In effect, governments have authorized the commercial release of almost 50 GM crops, which were sown over 100 million acres in 1999 (71 per cent in the U.S., 17 per cent in Argentina, and 10 per cent in Canada), and yet we still don’t know enough even to identify the food safety and environmental risks, let alone tests for them.

In a nutshell, we don’t know enough about basic gene function, the complexity of metabolic pathways, and the ecological implications of even modest genetic modifications to be doing what we are doing, commercially. As stated colloquially by Craig Venter, head of the Celera team that recently decoded the human genome, “We don’t know s–t about biology.”

With a virtual absence of refereed support for heir beliefs, industry proponents insist there is still ample evidence of the safety of GM crops, pointing to voluminous internal industry and government reports. But how credible are these reports if they are not of a sufficient caliber to be published in a refereed journal?

The requirement for publishing in a refereed journal is universally accepted in the scientific community. Authors are required to submit their work to review and critical comment from peers in the field to ensure the quality and integrity of the research. This is neither academic trivia nor overblown rhetoric, but is deadly earnest. Careers have been destroyed by this very issue, strange though it may seem.

Two years ago, Arpad Pusztai, a world-renowned authority on plant proteins and nutrition, with nearly 300 refereed publications to his credit was fired and treated disgracefully by his own colleagues for committing the unforgivable sin of speaking publicly about his concerns about GM food safety prior to publishing his findings in a refereed journal. Pusztai had conducted meticulous studies that found organ size and intestinal integrity were hurt in rats fed potatoes that had been genetically modified to include genes from snowdrop lectin. Worse yet, rats fed plain potatoes sprinkled with snowdrop lectin did not show these effects. The study suggested that the problem related to the transgenic process, not the product.

Does it seem odd to fire a scientist for expressing his concerns? Incomprehensible? Bizzare? There’s more.

The same Canadian proponents who just two years ago loudly affirmed Pusztai’s firing because he had not published his work in a refereed journal are now loudly proclaiming the legitimacy of unpublished internal documents promoting GM safety. You can’t have it both ways. Either research must be published in refereed journals to have scientific credibility, as was Pusztai’s eventually, or not.

And if not, if unpublished internal reports are to be accepted as credible and authoritative scientific information, one must conclude that the shameless destruction of Pusztai’s career and he termination of his entire research program had little to do with refereed journal publishing, and everything to do with what he found.

articles post