TRNN Debate: Are GMOs Safe to Eat?

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  May 21, 2015

TRNN Debate: Are GMOs Safe to Eat?

Dr. Thierry Vrain and Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam discuss the science behind genetically engineered crops and the significance of GMO restrictions in more than 60 countries
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Dr. Thierry Vrain was a soil biologist and a genetic engineer with Agriculture Canada for 30 years. He joined the Canadian Department of Agriculture Research Centre in St Jean, Quebec (1977-1978), and in Vancouver (1978-1996). He was the director of the Biotechnology department at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland, BC (1996 - 2002). In 1990 he was appointed to the Governing Board of the European Society of Nematology (ESN). In 1993 he was elected by the Board to represent the ESN in negotiations to create a global federation of Nematology Societies. In 1997 he was elected the first Vice President of the International Federation of Nematology Societies. Between 1978 and 1997 Dr. Vrain served and chaired several Committees of the Society of Nematologists (SON). In 1992 he organized the Local Arrangements for the SON annual conference in Vancouver, Canada. In 1997 he was elected Vice President of the SON, and served as President Elect, President and Past President (1997-2001). He was Program chair of the Fourth International Congress of Nematology (Tenerife, June 2002) and President of the International Federation of Nematology Societies until 2003 when he retired.

Dr. Vrain received his undergraduate training in Plant Physiology from the Universite de Caen, France in 1970. He was a technical advisor in Germany for Boeringher Manheim and a lecturer at Universite du Quebec in Montreal until 1973. He trained in Nematology with Professor Kenneth Barker and Joseph Sasser and received a PhD from North Carolina State University in 1977.

Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam is a genomics and biotechnology researcher and Cooperative Extension Specialist in the Department of Animal Science at University of California, Davis and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. She received a Bachelor of Agricultural Science from the University of Melbourne in Australia, and both an MS in Animal Science, and a PhD in Genetics from UC Davis. The mission of her extension program is "to provide research and education on the use of animal genomics and biotechnology in livestock production systems". Her outreach program focuses on the development of science-based educational materials including the controversial biotechnologies of genetic engineering (GE) and cloning. Dr. Van Eenennaam was the recipient of the 2014 Borlaug Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) Communication Award.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs, have been at the center of a big debate in America. Are they safe to eat? Should there be mandatory labeling of genetically engineered crops? At the center of the debate is the science behind their creation. For those of you who don't know, GMO seeds are created in a laboratory where plant cells are inserted with a gene from an unrelated species in order for them to take on a specific characteristic, like a resistance to droughts, or insects. There is a growing movement from Indiana to Indianapolis against GMOs, with millions expected at this weekend's worldwide march against Monsanto, which is the most high-profile of the biotech firms involved in developing GMOs.

In more than 60 countries around the world, the entire European Union included, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs. But in the United States they have been in our food supply for almost 20 years.

With us to discuss the science of GMOs and help us get some answers about the safety of GMOs are our two guests. Joining us from Davis, California is Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam. She is a biotechnology specialist and public sector animal scientist at the University of California, Davis. And joining us from Vancouver is Dr. Thierry Vrain. He was a soil biologist and a genetic engineer with Agriculture Canada for 30 years.

Thank you both for joining us.

PANELISTS: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: So Alison, let's start off with you. You are saying that GMOs are safe for consumption. Can you just lay out some independent studies that prove that they are fine to consume.

VAN EENENNAAM: Right. Well I, I guess I'd like to just frame it as, you have to look at each GMO independently, because there's a protein and a plant or animal combination. And so I think that what the data shows of the currently commercialized products, so in other words the proteins that have been approved for sale, there are many independent studies that have been done by scientists throughout the world. There's a recent review paper where they summarized data from 1,700 different studies, and about half of those are publicly funded. And basically the results of those studies have been that there haven't been any unique risks or hazards associated with the use of this breeding method in the production of crops.

DESVARIEUX: Thierry--let's get Thierry in on this. She just cited there are studies, publicly funded studies. Are they credible?

VRAIN: I think so. There's lots of studies that show that GMOs are safe. Lots of feeding studies, even long-term feeding studies that show that GMOs are safe. The interesting thing is that when you read those studies, you kind of wonder where the feed comes from, because there's no mention of the residues of the herbicide that is applied on GMO crops. And so you wonder what those studies are about, because really the herbicide is not mentioned anywhere in those studies.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Alison, what's your response?

VAN EENENNAAM: Well, we just kind of instantly got conflated between genetic engineering as a breeding method and herbicide residues. So for example, the disease-resistant papaya from Hawaii doesn't involve any use of herbicides. It's just virus-resistant and it was able to basically save the papaya crop there from a virus. And similarly, insect-resistant crops have dramatically reduced the use of insecticides because they protect the crops from insects. And so I think you, what we're talking about here, and we're talking about herbicide residues and bring that into it, is talking about uniquely the herbicide-resistant crops.

And so that's a different issue to genetic engineering, which can be used for many different purposes, as you mentioned in your introduction. Drought resistance. Virus resistance. And they don't involve the use of herbicides in any way.

DESVARIEUX: But let's talk specifically about these herbicide-resistant crops. Can I eat them and feel fine that I will not have any negative consequences happen to my health due to consuming them? Can I say that with certainty?

VAN EENENNAAM: The question, if you're asking is the Roundup-ready gene in those crops dangerous, no. But if your question is about herbicide use, then that's a different question altogether. Because herbicides are used in conventional crops that aren't genetically engineered, as well. And so you have to look at the safety of the herbicides in all of the different crops. It's not a unique thing associated with genetic engineering.

DESVARIEUX: Let me as Thierry about that. So is it--Thierry, do you agree with that, then? It's not dangerous to consume herbicide-resistant crops.

VRAIN: I agree with everything Alison has just said. Except you have to appreciate, and I'm sure Alison will agree, that over 90 percent of all GMOs today in agriculture are Roundup-ready crops. And so therefore the topic of the residues of the herbicide in GMO food, in GMO crops, is of importance.

DESVARIEUX: And why is that?

VRAIN: Because the herbicide--the active ingredient of the herbicide was not invented to be a herbicide. The active ingredient of the herbicide was invented and patented to be a de-scaling agent, a chelator. A chemical, a molecule that binds to metals. And the binding to metals inhibits an enzyme in bacteria and plants, killing the plants and the bacteria. That's how it works. And so therefore the herbicide is deemed to be completely safe because it kills bacteria and plants, and therefore there's absolutely--it does not touch animals and all humans.

But we have discovered in the last 50 years since Roundup was registered that actually the bacteria in the microbiome of humans, the gut of humans, is absolutely of extreme importance to our health. This is where the problem is. We can talk about GMOs, I don't mind talking about GMOs, and mostly I will agree with what Alison says, they're probably all safe. We have all kinds of benefits from them, [insulin] and drought resistance and all kinds of things. But the point is here, is that we have over 90 percent of all GMO organisms on the planet are Roundup-ready, they are engineered to be sprayed with that chemical. This is where the question lies.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Alison, what's your response?

VAN EENENNAAM: Well again, I think we've rapidly moved into discussing Roundup, which is certainly something we can do. Although as a geneticist I'm really much more expert on genetic engineering. And I guess I would disagree that if you look at the plantings of genetically engineered crops in developing countries, India and China particularly, the only approved crops there are insect-resistant, and there's over 16.5 million farmers growing those insect-resistant crops that don't involve the use of herbicides in any way, and in fact have dramatically reduced the use of insecticides in those countries. And that's had very good environmental benefits.

And so you have to look at the application you're talking about in order to make these statements. As it relates to the safety of glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Roundup, I guess there I have to go and look at what the scientific literature says about the safe use of that product over the last 50 years. And if I look at the herbicides that Roundup-ready crops, the herbicides that we used on those crops before Roundup was used, I think that those herbicides were actually more toxic and persistent than the toxicity attributes associated with Roundup. And so I think that's been a change for the better. And if you were tomorrow to ban Roundup, we'd actually go back to more toxic, more persistent herbicides in order to obtain weed control.

So I think that you have to look at what the context of the agricultural system is that you're using these products in, and what was being done before the products were introduced? Because it's all relative, the pros and cons and gives and takes with all different production systems.

DESVARIEUX: Thierry, you're originally from France, and I know that GMOs have been restricted in Europe. Can you just speak to why they were restricted in the first place?

VRAIN: There is quite a bit of literature published, and peer reviewed, of course, that indicates that there are serious problems with glyphosate with mice and rats. The mice and rats get sick, and as I explained, glyphosate is patented as an antibiotic. It kills the microbiome. You can expect all kinds of symptoms from that, because the microbiome is basically in charge of your [all] health, of the human health. This is recent, this is something that the medical establishment, the research establishment, is discovering over the last five to ten years. This is something absolutely huge, it's like we now have the microbiome human project like we had the genome project 20 years ago.

So Alison is correct in everything she said, but in terms of specific toxicity of the molecule glyphosate, which has very little acute toxicity. As it is advertised, it is safer than table salt. But in terms of chronic toxicity over time, over weeks and months, it will damage the microbiome and induce all kinds, all kinds of symptoms. In mice, and probably in humans.

DESVARIEUX: Alison, speak to that study specifically. Are you familiar with it?

VAN EENENNAAM: I'm not sure which particular study you're speaking about.

DESVARIEUX: It's about the mice that Thierry referred to. The chronic toxicity with exposure to glyphosine?

VAN EENENNAAM: Glyphosate.

DESVARIEUX: Glyphosate, I'm sorry.

VAN EENENNAAM: I'm assuming you're not talking about the Seralini rat study, are you?

VRAIN: I am talking about easily two dozen studies done in France, in Germany, in Japan, in Thailand, in all kinds of--in Russia, of course. In England. This is not the Seralini studies, which was retracted by Richard Goodman. I'm not talking about that. I could discuss that if you want. But there's all kinds of literature out there that has been published and peer reviewed. Why do you think so many governments are, as our host has said in the introduction, there are 60 countries in the world that are now restricting the technology. Why are those governments paying attention and listening to their scientists?

DESVARIEUX: That's a very good question. Alison, do you have a response?

VAN EENENNAAM: Well, I mean, I don't think that the lack of adoption in Europe is based on scientific information. I think a lot of that is politically-based. And they do actually grow genetically engineered crops in Europe, 30 percent of the corn in Spain is genetically engineered. And of course, they import huge amounts of genetically engineered feed for their livestock populations.

But I guess, going back to your point about the safety of Roundup, which is not, again, my area of expertise as a geneticist, but I do have to look at what the peer reviewed literature says. And I think there's several very comprehensive meta-analyses that have been done recently that show there are no unique toxological or [carcinicity] effects associated with the use of Roundup. There was the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment just reviewed hundreds of toxological studies and nearly a thousand published reports, and concluded that the data showed neither carcinogenic or mutagentic properties of glyphosate, nor that glyphosate is toxic to fertility, reproduction, and or embryonic fetal development in lab animals.

So I think the scientific literature, if you look at the vast weight of evidence, doesn't suggest that there are these concerns that you're saying there. Certainly there's probably one or two cherry-picked studies, but that's not what the weight of evidence says, and that's not what the regulatory agencies have decided throughout the world. And I wouldn't call Germany necessarily a country where you would expect them to be doing a risk assessment that wasn't really looking at what the data's saying.

DESVARIEUX: Thierry, your response?

VRAIN: I think there's a lot more countries than just in Europe that are restricting the technology, or banning it altogether. And--.

VAN EENENNAAM: Are we talking about glyphosate? Or are we talking about genetic engineering? Just to be clear.

VRAIN: We are talking about Roundup-ready crops. I'm not discussing--I agree with you, Alison, that GMOs are not necessarily toxic, et cetera, et cetera. There's all kinds of benefits, it's a very powerful technology. Used properly, it's probably very beneficial to humanity. In terms of the application today, over 90 percent of all engineered crops and plants in agriculture today are sprayed with Roundup. Because they were engineered to be Roundup-ready, to be sprayed with the herbicide. And this is the crux, this is not about China or India growing some cotton for insect resistance. This is about the food supply in the USA and Canada. Which I'm--that I'm concerned about. We are having parts per million of a molecule that is extremely toxic, chronically speaking, because it is a powerful antibiotic, patented as such by Monsanto.

DESVARIEUX: Okay, all right. Let's wrap this up. I'm going to let you both get a final word in. Alison, what concept do you think is the most misunderstood about GMOs? Your final word?

VAN EENENNAAM: I think the most misunderstood thing is it's a breeding method that can be used to introduce all sorts of crop traits into crops and animals, and we always seem to get discussing the one particular application rather than looking at how it could be used to address many different problems that are associated with agriculture, including things like drought tolerance, disease resistance, biofortification of crops. None of which have anything to do with herbicides. So I think that the power of the technology is being thwarted by these kind of conflating the use of this technology with other issues associated with herbicides or multinational corporations.

DESVARIEUX: Thierry, your final word?

VRAIN: I agree with practically everything Alison just said. Except there is that one application which is the Roundup-ready technology, which means that the crops, the food, has been sprayed repeatedly with a chemical that is actually very toxic and very antibiotic, with huge consequences to the human microbiome.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Thierry and Alison, thank you both for joining us.

PANELISTS: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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