If it scares, it leads

By Eric Crampton 14/11/2013 31


I can’t really blame the journalists. They’re effectively in the infotainment business. And if punters are more likely to buy newspapers with scary stories about genetically modified crops than newspapers taking the consensus of scientists that the GMOs that have made it through the regulatory approval processes have had a far more thorough going-over than ones that have used other mutagenic techniques, well, we can’t really blame them too much.

It can screw up policy though. There’s a pretty serious externality through the political system where bogus scare stories whip up demand for regulatory regimes. Politicians cater to those demands.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time at Offsetting hitting on this kind of theme around bogus studies of the social costs of alcohol that do much to inflame public sentiment against consumption but little to inform.

Today’s edition: GMOs. A paper in Cell Research last year suggested that bits of microRNA from food could migrate into people and so GMO bits could be dangerous. Canterbury biologist Jack Heinemann then put out a paper arguing, as I understand things, that if the Cell Research paper were right, then GMO wheat could also affect gene expression in people via the same mechanism. Most scientists working in the area thought this nonsense; the Science Media Centre put out a few rebuttals.

Paul Gorman at the Christchurch Press covered the controversy, highlighting all the scary bits.

The Heinemann paper and the reporting on it have yielded some pressure on the government to take action.
The latest issue of Nature Biotechnology features a replication of the Zhang et al paper in Cell Research on which Heinemann’s results built. The Zhang paper didn’t replicate. From the accompanying Nature Biotechnology editorial:
In contrast to these findings, the report on p. 965 finds no evidence for uptake of plant miRNA168a in the plasma and liver of mice fed a rice diet. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay data from the current study also contradict western blots from the Zhang paper that suggested miR168a directly suppressed levels of low-density lipoprotein receptor adapter protein 1 (LDLRAP1) in mice. Finally, the miRagen study suggests differences in diet composition, rather than miRNA-mediated cross-kingdom gene regulation, likely account for alterations in low-density lipoprotein in mouse plasma.
But why put the paper in Nature Biotechnology rather than Cell Research, where the original report was published? In fact, the miRagen investigators did submit their paper to that journal but were told that “it is a bit hard to publish a paper of which the results are largely negative.”
We differ with this assessment and believe the paper is worthy of publication precisely because it is a negative result throwing light on a key research question.
The original finding from Zhang and colleagues that plant miRNAs are capable of cross-kingdom gene regulation was an extraordinary claim. It went against a large body of research in which the systemic administration of double-stranded RNAs was shown incapable of triggering the RNA interference pathway in humans (and mice). It also raised concerns that plant miRNAs could pose health risks to humans. Indeed, last March, an article published in Environment International (5543552013) went so far as to claim that gene modification of plants using gene silencing mechanisms raises concerns for human health and that these concerns are not adequately considered in food safety assessments. This prompted the regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand to undertake an assessment of the scientific literature on the issue and to publish a position statement on the regulation of genetically modified crops developed using gene silencing.

Bottom line seems to be that FSANZ and the Science Media Centre were right, the Greens (again) were latching on to fringe findings that supported their priors, and the media ran a scare campaign.

The whole Nature Biotechnology editorial is worth reading. They worry a lot about publication incentives and replication work.

Forbes comments on it here:

A great illustration of the challenge of controlling ‘metastasizing misinformation’ has emerged with the publication of a fascinating and important article in Nature Biotechnology that sharply challenges a study that had made controversial claims that dramatically raised the fear factor about GMOs.
The backstory provides an intriguing look at how the anti-GMO industry and sycophant journalists work—and the consequences of flogging single studies to score ideological points.
Since the publication of the original Zhang et al. study, similar research has appeared and the paper itself has been scrutinized—and the results are devastating. In May, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Bostonfound that healthy athletes did not carry detectable levels of plant miRNAs in their blood after eating fruit filled with these molecules, and struck out in finding traces in mice or bees. “We conclude,” wrote the authors, “that horizontal delivery of microRNAs via typical dietary ingestion is neither a robust nor a frequent mechanism.”
Then in June, a research team from Johns Hopkins University writing in RNA Biology reported that the results were likely a false positive that resulted from the technique his group used, bolstering the case of skeptics who argued that genetic material from food would have little chance of surviving the digestive system, much less crossing the intestinal lining to enter the bloodstream.
The knockout blow came last week with the release of a replication study published in Nature Biotechnology. A team of scientists led by research scientist Brent Dickinson, using proper controls, could not detect the same microRNA reported by Zhang et al. Bottom line, there was almost none of the original culprit, miR168a, identified (one found in every million miRNAs).  Moreover, they repeated the rice feeding experiment, saw the decrease in LDL that Zhang et al. had found and the changes in LDL did not depend on the availability of miR168a. Instead, the authors added another treatment that corrected an energy/protein imbalance caused by the all-rice diet and the LDL effect went away. In turns out that the LDL effect was a nutrition effect. Mystery solved.”
Ignoring the basic science—few scientists embraced the original Zhang et al. study as it contradicted the logic of previous findings—professional antis will no doubt criticize the replication study as an industry apologia. “Many will dismiss this study because it was done with cooperation from Monsanto,”Folta wrote in his analysis of the newly released paper.  On the other hand, the other cooperator was miRagen [Therapuetics], a company interested in small RNAs for therapies.  They have a vested interest in identifying mechanisms to orally administer miRNA and detect physiological outcomes. If they repeated Zhang et al.’s work it would have been a positive finding for their company, as I’m sure they get plenty of criticism for the viability of their potential therapies.”
Don’t hold your breath for rollbacks of their disgraceful journalism and public comments by LeVeaux, Laskway, Gurian-Sherman, Hansen and others whose statements have ranged from credulous to intellectually dishonest to fraudulent manipulation and misrepresentation of results. Expect chief GMO demonizer Jeffrey Smith—who is a charlatan—to continue to hype this unproven danger in his “analysis” of the “dangers” of GMOs. They are single study syndrome sycophants. As a group—and this includes a sizable cadre of web activists, organic extremists, foodie journalists and campaigning scientists—they cherry pick the handful of papers that support their point of view and ignore the vast majority of research that disagrees. Some might call them professional fear mongerers.

I continue to see no scientific basis for demands that GMO foods be labelled. It just feeds the panic. And I continue to update my priors on those who take the GMO fearmongering seriously. There are real social costs to feeding this kind of nonsense. Jenny McCarthy has much for which to answer; so too do the GMO-worriers.


31 Responses to “If it scares, it leads”

  • Yes, many may regard the Monsanto study with scepticism [droll]. I wonder why miRagen teamed with Monsanto on this one? – I’d think Monsanto would be overly desperate for a negative, given its current dsRNAi crops and regulatory situation.

    No Monsanto finding could fix the bias of the Science Centre nor the ongoing incompetence of FSANZ GM commentary, both of which are independent of any particular study findings.

    FYI: A “consensus of scientists that the GMOs that have made it through the regulatory approval processes have had a far more thorough going-over than ones that have used other mutagenic techniques” isn’t a consensus on the human food safety of GMO’s (which doesn’t exist), nor a consensus of the comparative food safety of GMO’s compared with crops lines developed using mutagenic techniques (which also doesn’t exist) – and by the way, various techniques of mutagenesis can also be used in GMO development – cumulative risk.

  • Eric
    A few misleading statements to correct.
    1. “Canterbury biologist Jack Heinemann then put out a paper arguing, as I understand things, that if the Cell Research paper were right, then GMO wheat could also affect gene expression in people via the same mechanism.” and “The latest issue of Nature Biotechnology features a replication of the Zhang et al paper in Cell Research on which Heinemann’s results built.”

    This is wrong. Along with colleagues, I published a long research paper in one of the top scientific risk assessment journals called Environment International. That blind peer-reviewed paper comprehensively covered both environmental and human health risk assessment of dsRNA. It was not dependent upon or limited to a single finding, ie, the Cell Research paper. Your characterisation of it is wholly misleading and ignores the substantial environmental evidence that is also relevant to risk assessments.

    I also prepared a report separately on the risk assessment of the CSIRO wheat. The risk assessment done by the Australian Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (and not FSANZ nor commented on by FSANZ) did not include any consideration of either environmental or human health exposure or potential harm pathways.

    Our Environment International paper remains the top download for the journal for 6 months now. It has received critical praise beyond the already impressive standard of being passed by 6 expert and anonymous referees on the scientific topic. Importantly, another blind peer-reviewed paper by other authors appeared shortly after ours and independently came to the same conclusions as ours. This paper was produced by USDA scientists (and oddly not promoted by sciblogs despite their being aware of it) http://www.aibs.org/bioscience-press-releases/resources/Lundgren.pdf. Their paper was more focused on environmental risk assessment procedures but also briefly covered human health. Why have you ignored their findings?

    2. “The Zhang paper didn’t replicate…Bottom line seems to be that FSANZ and the Science Media Centre were right, the Greens (again) were latching on to fringe findings that supported their priors, and the media ran a scare campaign.”

    The first extraordinary thing you imply is that there are only two papers, the one by lead author Zhang and the other by lead author Dickinson. The second extraordinary implication is that the Zhang paper must be wrong.

    If indeed there were only two papers on this topic, then both would suffer from the same number of failures to replicate their own results. Based on this small sample, which one is wrong? The Zhang paper because of the power of the absence of findings from Dickinson, or the Dickinson paper based on the power of positive detections of Zhang?

    And importantly the Zhang paper is not the only to report detection of small dsRNAs of dietary or other exogenous sources in mammals/humans. In addition to the ones we cite in our paper:
    Lam, E. (2012). Edible transgenic plants as oral delivery vehicles for RNA-based therapeutics. WO 2012135820 A2, http://www.google.com/patents/WO2012135820A2.
    Wang, K., Li, H., Yuan, Y., Etheridge, A., Zhou, Y., Huang, D., Wilmes, P., and Galas, D. (2012). The complex exogenous RNA spectra in human plasma: an interface with human gut biota? PLoS ONE 7, e51009.
    Witwer, K.W., McAlexander, M.A., Queen, S.E., and Adams, R.J. (2013). Real-time quantitative PCR and droplet digital PCR for plant miRNAs in mammalian blood provide little evidence for general uptake of dietary miRNAs. RNA Biol 10, 1-7.

    Only in the case of the Witwer paper did the authors question the reliability of their findings. But even Witwer was careful to point out that he could not exclude positive detections.

    There is a growing and credible research literature indicating that exogenous dsRNA can be taken up into the mammalian/human circulatory system and be delivered to deeper tissues. There remains uncertainty about it having a physiological effect. However, by attacking the message on exposure you slow any attempt by the public sector to ask these relevant questions that people deserve answers to.

    The techniques in this field are still being developed; practitioners are working at the limits of their techniques. If/when these detections are confirmed it will not be surprising that there were negative findings along the way. That has been the historical pattern in just about all areas of research. There have been other famous ‘negative’ results that if they had been left as definitive would have resulted in a very different world. For example, at the beginning of this Century and based on very little knowledge about the biochemistry of dsRNA, it was considered settled science that dsRNA did not selectively silence genes in humans! That was because attempts to replicate the effects seen in almost all other forms of life failed when the experiments were tried on human cells (http://www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/35078175). Now we know that these attempts failed because of an experimental detail and all along humans were no different in ability to respond to dsRNA. Think of all the science that we would not have now if that negative result went as unchallenged as the one you champion.

    Your blog also misses some important other issues. For example, diet is not the only relevant exposure pathway. The flour produced from these plants is easily breathed in. The nasal passage and lungs may very well be even better entry pathways for dsRNA and some new dsRNA-based drugs are being designed for this kind of delivery. Another important issue you ignore is that GM plants are not the only technology being developed to deliver dsRNAs. Pesticidal sprays and other topically applied agents are in the pipeline or on the market. These chemical vehicles are intended to cross epidermal/skin/cell boundaries and enter into organisms and cells. The potential effects of such technologies on both insects/wildlife and humans cannot be dismissed using a research report that fails to detect dietary dsRNAs in mice.

    3. “Most scientists working in the area thought this nonsense; the Science Media Centre put out a few rebuttals.”
    Interesting to see the data for your survey that determines the number of scientists that think our analysis was nonsense. Also would be interesting to see a survey on the number of experimental findings that initially were subscribed to by a minority but then came to be accepted, e.g., that genes were made of DNA or that the sun was the centre of the solar system and other strange ideas! Or is this just ad hominem attack in the absence of any actual data?

    Read the Gorman stories you cite. You will see that that Science Media Centre selected critical statements and suppressed supporting statements (http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/8545976/Scientists-fall-out-over-GM-research), which some scientists directly also reported to me. Among the ‘science’ comments, almost none were on the science but were ad hominem and the most prominent commentator had industry conflicts of interest. You continue the pattern of selective use of other people’s web-based statements.

    Other than selectively parroting what other people have said, what is the point of your blog? Almost none of your blog was about what you said were the key issues behind writing it: labeling and the impact of scientists’ concerns about the potential effects of some new technologies. The blog appears to me to be an opportunistic attack on scientists working in an area of science that you have demonstrated no specific knowledge of, or taken the time to become familiar with. However, it is interesting to me that you invoke Food Standards Australia New Zealand in the blog. This regulator has confirmed our research findings by saying that it does not require any evidence that novel dsRNAs in products intended to be food can cause no physiological or genetic effect on humans. In contrast, the scientists of the US Patent Office are convinced of the evidence that dietary dsRNA can cause significant physiological effects when delivered through food. The Lam reference above is to a patent based on that evidence. So are the scientists of the US Patent OPffice worse scientists than those at Food Standards Australia New Zealand?

    For other perspectives, readers could try these resources:
    http://theconversation.com/securing-the-safety-of-genetic-modification-13102
    http://www.inbi.canterbury.ac.nz/Documents/Press releases/media-statement-on-FSANZ-response.shtml
    http://www.inbi.canterbury.ac.nz/Documents/Reports and others/Reply-to-Tiffany-Stecker-blog-on-dsRNA.pdf
    http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2013/14699
    http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2013/14703

  • As an economist, my understanding of the technical scientific literature is probably no stronger than Eric’s.

    However we should all be able to tell the difference between an absence of evidence (eg Jack’s account of the turn of the century position on gene silencing) and evidence of absence. which in these matters amounts to evidence of safety.

    Given the huge stakes in this field, it seems quite reckless to start denouncing people who dare to be interested in careful scientific risk assessments. Especially if you’re a non-specialist yourself.

  • I gather Eric, as an economist, is just playing with a sort rhetoric formed for GM proponents, so I won’t go further with it.

    The whole Nature Biotechnology response was interesting. The published the miRagen/Monsanto response (Dickinson et al) as a letter, also giving authors of the L Zhang paper a right of reply (Chen et al). The Chen response mostly pointed to points in the Dickinson methods that may have led to their failure to detect. But they also pointed to other positive detections in humans and mice. The Lam patent that Jack referred to in his post above is very explicit about their success in transferring dsRNA constructs in GM tomatoes through to blood and organs in mice.
    Given this the Nature Biotech commentary “Receptive to replication” is very surprising. It’s almost as though the comment was made without actually reading the Chen response published in their own paper. Someone should be taking NB on over this.

    I also wondered about the apparent refusal of Cell Research to publish the miRagen/Monsanto findings. A negative finding on a single positive of great purport would be relevant. But of course the Zhang paper was not a single positive. I wonder if they already had the reply from Chen and saw no point in publishing a possible inadequate negative in the case of multiple positives. I wonder if Nature Biotech decided to use the issue for a public statement for other purposes.

    The dsRNA is something that needs to be regulated. It’s beginning to take on the appearance of an adaptive essential nutrient type that really needs serious analysis.

  • Is there science in there somewhere, or is an exception made for anti-anti-GM rants?

    Did the editors of Cell Research write “it is a bit hard to publish a paper of which the results are largely negative”, or was this from the authors of the paper? It is not clear from the excerpt.

    In any case:
    Publication bias? I’m shocked, shocked! Actually, publication bias against “negative” results has been noted for decades. But it typically favours the biomedical industry and those who claim genetic associations with everything from obesity to voting behaviour. Maybe that’s why it only now appears to be a problem.

  • John Small is entirely correct that I have zero expertise in the topic. My assessment of the state of the field could be entirely wrong. I would love to see a proper survey of biological scientists working in the area. I know there are a few petitions that have gone round with “xxx scientists opposing GMOs”, but I’ve seen the same petitions on “xxx scientists say global warming’s a myth”.

    I do not, and will not, attack scientists for working in this area. That would be daft. But Jack, on the basis of your study, there were a ton of calls for further bans and regulations on GM foods. That moves from “sorting out what the science is” to “sorting out what policy should be”. John, the scope of my denunciation, if you want to call it that, is on the policy side.

    John notes the difference between absence of evidence and evidence of absence. My default position is that in the absence of broadly accepted evidence of harms, things like GM should not be banned. So even if the absence of evidence of safety isn’t the evidence of absence of harm, the threshold for banning things hasn’t been hit. The alternative position is that things should not be allowed until they’re proven safe – the precautionary principle. My read has been that there’s sufficient pre-release testing that it’s unlikely that we get sufficiently dangerous irreversibilities, so the current default is likely right.

  • “things like GM should not be banned”
    Eric
    You are the one invoking ‘bans’. Whatever you may think of labeling, it is not the equivalent of a ban. And neither a ban nor labeling were ever the topics of any of my papers/reports. So your conflation of the two looks to me to be contrived to just disparage and discredit from afar.
    Expert opinion and peer reviewed science, of the type you criticise in your blog, is how the science of risk assessment advances. You seem to place faith in certain actors and not in others and, as you say, based on no particular knowledge of the science being discussed (or attempt to look at all the literature and responses to various blogs). Yet you bombast those who do the same, just making different choices than you have. So what have you contributed to the debate? You’ve only chosen between sides as you have created them, but not helped to inform by providing new technical details behind the debate or given insight into how we progress out of a he said/she said dynamic.
    Furthermore, the precautionary principle does not require proof of safety. It is a standard for invoking regulatory interference when the potential for harm is significant and the demonstration of confidence in safety, or risk mitigation, is low. When there are obvious scientific issues to address, and they can be tested as we documented in our peer reviewed paper, then there is no excuse to ignore such testing. In doing so, the price may be that the public demands labeling!

    • I must have misread the Greens then when they wanted a moratorium on a bunch of further GM approvals, based on your critique, until it had been fully assessed and until it could be proven safe.

      If Wakefield had wanted mandatory autism labels on vaccines based on his peer-reviewed published work, such labels would have done harm by causing people to worry about vaccination more than the scientific literature warranted.

      Specify consensus on harms ranges over the unit interval, with zero specifying that nobody respectable thinks there’s any harm and 1 meaning everybody knows it’s poison. At some level less than 1, we can justify a ban on use in food: no plausible benefit can outweigh the harm. At some level less than that, we can justify a mandatory labeling regime to warn consumers of potential harm: tobacco. At some level less than that, voluntary “we don’t have X” labeling can help: organic food. At some level less than that, voluntary “we don’t have X” labeling can do harm because it does more to scare people about X than the science warrants – you could then imagine bans on such voluntary labeling being efficient (though I’d oppose such bans for reasons other than efficiency).

      The point of this post, and the prior one specifically on labeling, is that the strength of the argument for mandatory labeling is less than we’d have thought if we thought Zhang’s study and those building on it were correct.

  • Eric, Forgetting the science on this ‘sciblogs’ then and responding to your concern. My children and those of others don’t exist on this planet to be the victims of harm to prove a case that a corporate interest shouldn’t have been allowed to profit from a prematurely released product. This “release until the victims appear” mentality is anti-community, anti-human to me and it’s incomprehensible. As for smoking, asbestos, thalidomide, infant formula where not indicated, PCBs, DDT, dioxins, we might see decades of harm including death and mutation before recall. For incredible inventions that benefit the globe and the communities on it we might decide to carry the risk – we generally do so in the case of vaccination though our child may be the one that dies. The current GM crops do not fit that criteria, particularly since most of us are unable to limit our risks due to an absence of complete labelling, rampant contamination, and their associated anti-community economic and sovereignty concerns relating to monopoly and control and food.

  • A couple of comments on Eric’s latest:
    – “there’s sufficient pre-release testing that it’s unlikely that we get sufficiently dangerous irreversibilities”: this is a scientific as well as a policy (including values) judgement.
    – You have actually been talking about labelling, and this judgement is even more problematic when applied to labelling. Why should your judgement be imposed on others? Let people make their own decisions about whether pre-release testing has been adequate, what constitutes “sufficiently dangerous” outcomes, and what kind and degree of risk is worth taking for whatever advantages, if any, GM foods offer.

    • Every time we add a mandatory label saying “This product contains X”, we’re not just saying that the product contains X, we’re also saying that “The government deems X sufficiently dangerous that you should be warned about it.” This is categorically different from nutritional labeling – it’s more like mandatory labeling of plastics containing BPA when there are plenty of labeled “BPA-Free” products available for those who wish to make that choice, or switching from voluntary organic labeling to mandatory labeling of particular pesticides’ having been used.

  • Putting a clarifier on my own “though our child may be the one that dies”… I suspect that most of us are unaware that we enter into this risk, or are in denial about the risks.
    The final “and” should be “of”.

  • “You will see that that Science Media Centre selected critical statements and suppressed supporting statements”. Jack, we never did anything of the sort.

    You asked your friends and colleagues around the world to send us comments.

    We didn’t solicit them, we didn’t publish them. We’ve never had anything previously to do with the people who emailed us from around the world. We are not in the business of running anything anyone sends to us. They were free to publish their own commentary – and they did – The Press carried their comments.

    We went to the experts in our database at short notice for reaction to a front page story in The Press suggesting the public was being put at grave risk due to inadequate food safety regulations. We did the best we could at very short notice and we gave you the chance to comment when the FSANZ review was published.

    The question now is whether the resulting FSANZ review of the science and subsequent papers such as the one in Nature Biotechnology give us any more clarity on the issue that sparked that front page story.

    The commentary we are seeing from overseas suggests these papers could undermine the claims originally made. More papers and trials will ultimately yield the answers we are all seeking. But until they do, we need to be responsible in how we all communicate the risk or lack thereof of this type of GM technology. In other words – is a front page scare story on an issue that is still widely disputed among scientists, really helping the public get to grips with the issue?

  • Eric: no. It is saying “the government recognises that this is something that you, consumers and citizens, want to know about the products you buy (and, especially, eat)”. If the government wants to signal dangerousness, then it calls it a warning (“Warning: The Surgeon General has determined…”). Country-of-origin labelling is not intended to signal dangerousness; it is telling consumers something they want to know (and letting them draw their own conclusions). As for labelling the pesticides used in the production of a product, what a great idea. It’s something I weigh up when buying produce, but I have to guess. It’s one of the many areas where alleged consumer sovereignty (and “markets”) might be able to effect some change for the better if adequate information were available.

  • Eric, The issue of labelling under this headline seems to be an off-topic distraction. This article has the look of your voice being used so that the science voices don’t have to risk their credibility on the weak case. But Australia (& NZ?) just went through a labelling review and GM labelling (though not yet complete on ‘refined’ and animal products) is staying.
    Peter, you seem to place a very strange priority on facilitating the right of corporations to profit from novel products of no discernible social benefit and acknowledged all-round of being an undetermined risk. The techniques for even detecting and quantifying dsRNA are just being developed, let alone knowing its range of pathways and functions. I understand that there are ideologies like this out there (neoliberal/neoconservative?) but I’d like to see a proof that such ideologies are not evidence of a collective sociopathic isolation or madness.

  • @Madeleine – your response would appear to reveal more about your own ideology than anything – “evidence of a collective sociopathic isolation or madness”?! Ookaaay…

  • Madeline, it is a follow-up to a post specifically on labeling from the prior week.
    https://sciblogs.co.nz/thedismalscience/2013/11/03/informative-labelling/

    The ingredient labeling in NZ/Australia isn’t the same kind of scare-alert labeling that was proposed in some US states, and that also forms part of the context.

    “No discernible social benefit”.
    Hmm
    http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2011/09/21/21greenwire-crop-savior-blazes-biotech-trail-but-few-scien-88379.html?pagewanted=all
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3417220/

  • “You asked your friends and colleagues around the world to send us comments.”

    Peter, you make it sound like these scientists wrote to you because they were my friends rather than being informed scientists who thought that the SMC ran a highly biased and unfair attack on a piece of peer reviewed research. http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/8466949/Lax-GM-rules-may-bite-back-scientists
    We are talking about the SMC articles run in response to a front page article in “The Press” of Christchurch on 25 March 2013. They ran the article because they thought their readers would be interested. We made them aware of the story by posting a press release 3 days before (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/SC1303/S00039/new-gm-plants-not-being-assessed-for-safety.htm). You too could have contacted us and others and attempted to put forward a balanced piece if you so wanted to.
    Instead you got quotes from 2 Australian scientists (not locals) that you would know from your network of SMCs and other places, and from your history you already knew had an axe to grind. You should have known that at least one of them is funded by a major multinational that produces dsRNA plants. But that conflict of interest was never addressed. Better that conflict of interest than seeking comment from the authors Peter? And why? Was it because you wanted to punish me because a newspaper thought my science would be relevant to people?
    Then you posted personal ad homenim attacks and no substantive science rebuttal. You drew upon your network of SMCs in Australia and probably the UK and perhaps elsewhere to farm negative comments, but then suggest that somehow letters in support of our work must have been biased just because I might know these people.
    Meanwhile scientists I know wrote to you and to me hoping to balance your coverage. You sent them packing. These are only the ones I know about. Maybe there were more. Later, the Press published some quotes from them. But this was after you sent them away. Refusing to publish their quotes when they were sent was not because they were already in The Press. That came later and I don’t see how you couldn’t have known that they would be published there. And it wasn’t because you were finished with the story. You published other letters later.
    Now yes you did give me the chance to comment when FSANZ replied, but never the natural justice to comment when you originally went public with personal attacks. You also have steadfastly promoted papers that draw doubt on detection and never cover the papers that produce strong evidence, or papers such as Lundgren’s that independently come to the same conclusions we do. And I did appreciate being asked to comment when the Witwer paper came out. I thought respectfulness was returning to our relationship. On this topic, though, I believe that the SMC has taken a point of view. It does not appear to me to be a neutral source of information for the media.

  • There is a lot of history here that I am not familiar with, and that might be obscuring the most important issue.

    I’m going to assume that everyone above is a truth seeker and suggest that there might be two things on which we could agree.

    1. The science on dsRNA is not settled. I don’t read either Jack or Peter as claiming it is. Quite the contrary in fact.

    2. The actual safety effects of dsRNA are very important – if they do silence human genes, then sensible public policy settings will be very different compared to if they don’t.

    If I’m right up to this point, then maybe we should discuss what would be suitable policy settings during this stage where we are unsure of the effects?

    My own view is that the precautionary principle is very appropriate in this case: keep dsRNA tightly controlled until the science is settled.

  • There’s definitely respect on my part Jack, and I’m glad you acknowledge the fact we’ve come to you several times for comment on papers related to your field. We’ve also run several guest spots from you here on Sciblogs.

    The release you published on Scoop about your paper in March was published on a Saturday – the story ran on the front page of The Press on the Monday. We didn’t receive the release directly, so had no chance to see it ahead of time – or to approach you before you were extensively quoted on the front page of The Press alleging “systematic neglect” by FSANZ. No other New Zealand media ran a story at that point, only The Press.

    We went to seven scientists in New Zealand and Australia who have done research in the area of genetic modification and/or bioinformatics for reaction to your paper.

    There are very few experts in NZ/Australia looking specifically at dsRNA human health effects, but many who are genetic researchers, familiar with the literature and with GM regulations in the two countries. We published all of the comments that came back, as soon as they came back.

    What we didn’t do is published unsolicited comments that subsequently came in from people around the world we had never dealt with before.

    If you had given us a heads-up that the paper was due to be published we could have done a more fulsome treatment of it, but we were scrambling to respond to a front page story in a daily metropolitan newspaper alleging a serious threat to public health. We’ve learned a lot from that episode – I just hope that you have too.

  • @Peter I take it you are not disagreeing with my assessment of your views that people should carry unquantified risk field with little social benefit for the sake of furthering corporate profits. If this is not correct please let me know. That I hold views that people have rights over and above the profits of corporations should already have been quite clear.

  • @John thanks for your efforts to clarify the issues.

    I think point 2 you make is the important one. If they do silence human genes, yes, it could necessitate very different policy settings. But what if they don’t? Or what if the risk of them doing so is actually very, very low?

    Then it may not necessitate any policy change at all. According to the food regulators that is where we currently stand on the issue and the latest scientific literature would appear only to reinforce their view.

    • The bigger point is why we wouldn’t be trusting FSANZ to be making this call. All of the activism has been saying that FSANZ has got this wrong because of dsRNA stuff and that people should be really scared. I expect that FSANZ knows way more about this than I do and haven’t seen any particular evidence that they screw this stuff up. On what basis does John think that FSANZ, who know way more than either of us about it, has messed this up?

      I’m not averse to thinking that agencies screw things up. I think MoH has largely messed things up around alcohol, and especially their dismissals of the alcohol J-curve. But when I’ve given them heck about it, it’s after I’ve read a lot of the underlying papers, understood those papers because they use the same metrics techniques that we use, and can see the mechanism in MoH that leads to the screw ups.

      My position is far less “dsRNA is all safe” because I don’t know jack about it. My position is rather “lots of scientists working in the area say it’s all fine, a few say it isn’t, and FSANZ has made a call that I’ve no reason to argue against.” Further, the anti-GMO activism based around dsRNA has partnered up with a whole pile of generalised anti-GMO “all GMOs are scary” activism. The kind of stuff that fuels Greenpeace activists that go and rip out crop trials and lead scientists to put up pleading YouTube videos begging the antis not to wreck their field trials.

  • @Peter In acknowledging that there are “very few experts in NZ/Australia looking specifically at dsRNA human health effects” it seems you realise that there was an imperative for you to go further abroad for the expert comment the subject required. You also seem to be acknowledging that you instead settled for comment from people who were not only non-expert but who according to Jack’s comment above carried professional conflict. I take it thus that the article was not as informed as it could have been, and may have been misleading.

    Am I right in deducing that for the sake of a small amount of background research you decided not to publish comments from scientists who did have expertise in dsRNA human health effects? If so am I right in understanding that, perhaps as a consequence of being unwilling to do this background research, you decided to call these people “friends” in your posting above rather than expert scientists in the field?

    It is a deep shame that there are not more nearby scientists paid to study human health effects in the dsRNA field but this would make me pay far more attention to the small amount of advice that is on offer.

  • I find the premise for this article illogical and unscientific. First, the label of scaremongers is placed on those who point out risks of GM crops, while the reality is that GM crops are promoted to the public on the basis of non-evidence-based scare stories (“We won’t have enough food without GM! The pests will devour our crops without GM! Millions of children in the third world will go blind unless we accept GM rice! (the latter neglecting the proven and already available solutions to vitamin A deficiency that just need modest funding to roll out universally).

    As for Peter Griffin of the Science Media Centre’s accusation in the comments thread to Jack Heinemann, “You asked your friends and colleagues around the world to send us comments” in support of Heinemann et al’s papers, well, that is really the pot calling the kettle black.

    Asking selected scientists to send in comments is EXACTLY what the SMCs do, ensuring always that the selected scientists are “safe pairs of hands” who will push the line that GMOs are safe, whatever inconvenient research findings come up.

    Because of this consistent behaviour, the SMCs are not seen by critical observers as sources of balanced and objective scientific information, but as sources of corporate-friendly messages. I would urge people to read Powerbase.info’s analysis of the Science Media Centre UK, here:
    http://powerbase.info/index.php/Science_Media_Centre

    And perhaps Eric Crampton and others who share his terror of GMO labelling would explain the process of logic by which he sees a GMO label as a statement that a product is harmful. All the food products in my kitchen carry labels with a huge amount of information — that the product contains this amount of carbs, that amount of protein, is organic, comes from the USA, etc etc. On no occasion did I decide not to buy the product because I interpreted the label as meaning the product is harmful. Why do GM proponents see a GMO label as telling consumers the product is harmful? To me this attitude speaks volumes. It’s as if they know something we aren’t allowed to know.

    I find Crampton’s invocation of Wakefield and vaccines the most illogical aspect of his entire input on this page. Vaccines are medical products and since the post-Nazi era, people (in most countries at least) are able to choose if they accept a medical treatment along with any risks that attach to the treatment. They do so having been informed (we hope) of the risks, in anticipation of a greater benefit. This is NOT the case with GM foods. Because of lack of labelling in the US, Americans do not give their informed consent when they eat a GM food. Nor are they told about the risks by the marketers of such foods.

    So, much as GM enthusiasts like to draw parallels between people who want GM foods labeled and people who refuse vaccines, I’m afraid this argument also is unscientific and devoid of reason.

    • Lise, when people can buy products labeled “GMO-Free”, and where customers can sue those producers if the labeling is false, I have a hard time seeing the added point of mandatory GMO labeling. Again, this is far less like nutritional labeling than like mandatory “This product was treated with pesticide” labels where people can readily buy organic alternatives.