Molecular Biologist Jack Heinemann of the University of Canterbury in Australia answered some of our questions and directly addresses critics of his risk assessment, which states that consumption of GM wheat could lead to liver failure. He also addresses comments to our article covering the risk assessment, Proposition 37 and more.

TNI: 1. Why were you contacted by the Safe Food Institute to provide scientific opinion on GM Wheat?

JH: This is a question best for Safe Food to answer. My guess is that they were aware of my biosafety institute (INBI), my scientific work, and we have some overlapping acquaintances.

TNI: 2. What other studies have you done regarding genetically modified food? What conclusions have you come to regarding those in relation to your tests on GM Wheat?

JH: My institute has been historically a regular contributor to the FSANZ risk evaluation process and to the Norwegian Directorate for Nature Management. I am also a recent past member of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Risk Assessment and Risk Management serving the Secretariat to the Convention on Biodiversity, and I have several publications on risk assessment in the international literature.

I have never experimented with GM food, because access is restricted by the companies and there are no GM foods produced in New Zealand.

TNI: 3. What sources do you find reliable when it comes to genetic modification research and why? What do you find unreliable?

JH: This is tough! There are very few regular contributors to this debate that are not directly involved with the industry producing GMOs. While I will take a face value any scientific evidence, I recognise the conflict-of-interest in the field. I discuss this at length in my book Hope not Hype: the future of agriculture guided by the IAASTD (free download from Google Books).

TNI: 4. Where should the decision to grow genetically modified foods come from?

JH: This is a question that every society needs to ask for themselves. In New Zealand, officially the decision is made by the Regulatory Bodies under their political ministers. Unofficially, the great passion New Zealanders have about their food and environment makes this a more democratic process in New Zealand.

TNI: 5. In our comments section, people accused this as being “anti-GE methodology 101″ because they say it was not published in a scientific journal for peer review, rather, it was released directly to the media. What is your response?

JH: Yes, I’ve heard this criticism before. I have several answers. First, it was peer reviewed work. It was peer reviewed using the same or higher standards than government safety regulators use and industry studies that are supplied to safety regulators when they make their decisions. I discuss this at length here:

This work was a risk assessment, not laboratory testing of the material. (One can’t get this material unless you have a special relationship with CSIRO.) And the normal standard of review is what we practiced. Scientific journals, by and large, publish different kinds of work. What I think is important is that no (or if not zero then so close as to be effectively zero) scientific study that has been submitted to regulators to make safety decisions has ever been published through a blind review system in an international journal before the regulator makes a decision! Anyone who would criticise us for issuing a risk assessment opinion on these ground when they are eating and using products that are assessed using evidence of a lower standard is in my view just attempting to attack the messenger.

Second, even if it had not been peer reviewed, the practice would be no different from industry and profit-motivated public scientists who issue press releases about speculative benefits of what they are doing. As the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) remarked on this when the said that the CSIRO claims of the wheat’s health benefit when used in the normal human diet were also “speculative”.

Finally, I am a genetic engineer and it would be nonsense to say I was anti-GM. It is of course not the concern of those who issue such attacks whether they are speaking nonsense because instead of seeking definitive testing of the wheat they would seem to prefer to create doubt about the scientists who are concerned.

TNI: 6. Regarding GM wheat, liver failure is cited as a potential risk. When do you think we will know a real answer to the dangers?

JH: The link to liver failure was made by my colleague, Dr. Judy Carman. My analysis found that the human liver enzyme was just one of many many many potential unintended targets. We generated some 400 pages of potential targets in the human genome. But to answer your question directly: I don’t know. The reason I wrote that opinion is that the safety regulator has said that they did not consider there to be a risk at all. Hence, if we hadn’t issued our expert opinions, there was a very real possibility that no testing of this kind would ever have been done.

TNI: 7. In California, Proposition 37 is going to be voted on soon. Do you think it’s important that foods be labeled GMO or not in terms of public health? Why or why not?

I support Proposition 37 for all sorts of reasons and I think that this group of scientists put the idea very well:

In terms of human health, I don’t think that Proposition 37 will hurt. I’ve had many industry scientists, managers, economists say to me: “Well, Americans have been eating GMOs for years and they aren’t all dying. So what’s the problem?” I then ask them to tell me how many studies have been conducted on the effects of GMOs in food in America? How much are Americans eating, and how long have they been eating these amounts? I get no answers because there are zero scientific studies testing the effects of GMOs on people in the US. Most GMOs are used for animal feed rather than human food, so while they are in processed and junk food no one has ever quantified how much is eaten by the average American. And GM production in the US has only reached significant levels in the last decade, maybe less. So we have no idea when any potential adverse effects would first begin to appear.

If labeling helps answer those questions for those industry scientists, then lets have labeling!

TNI: 8. Here is a quote from another response on our blog. This straying away from the GM Wheat research.

Here is a list of over 300 studies genera/studies-for-genera/

You can use Genera to select for independent studies.

Here is Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: a literature review. pubmed/22155268

Here is A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001-2010)–pbKINA24473/

Here is the World Health Organisations answer to GM food safety questions

JH: I’ve seen this kind of response before. When people put these up they do so to imply that there has been good safety testing on all the GMOs that are in the food supply. My response is to ask them to go study by study and tell me how many of these studies were nutritional studies and how many were safety studies? Are they compositional studies or safety studies? Safety studies have a different standard, but nutritional studies are often taken up in these general reviews. These arguments by spam always overlook the breakdowns.

When you read many studies that conclude that overall they could not prove a safety problem, you find evidence within their reports of adverse effects. In the paper discussion, they make a judgment, but that is different from saying that they never find evidence of problems.

Most of these studies, nearly all I’d bet, are done by or in association with the industry that sells GMOs. You won’t find that many studies by independent researchers. And when you narrow your search to only industry-independent research doing proper safety studies, then you don’t find so much evidence of safety.

Safety cannot be concluded by one kind of study. So the safety studies must be comprehensive and the same comprehensive package must be available for each commercial kind of plant, trait etc. Very often you find only one or a few kinds of published studies on each GMO. Then you get spammers trying to use a safety study on one kind of GM soybean to extrapolate the safety of all GM soybeans.

So my response this kind of argumentation is that it is lazy and I find it unconvincing to dismiss evidence of adverse effect in general.

Humans have been eating GM foods in the millions of tons for over 16 years now with not a single verified case of it doing any harm to human health.

JH: I’ve already addressed this above.

There is no such thing as superbugs or superweeds only pests and weeds that become resistant to control measures that are not isolated to GM food production but is characteristic of all farming including organic.

JH: Wrong. It is now very clear that glyphosate resistant weeds and corn rootworm resistant to Bt are a product of the quantity and pattern of pesticide use on GM crops, period. Roundup was used for 20 years before GM, and no superweeds. In countries not using GM, no superweeds.

Farmers are not exploited, they buy their seeds from whoever they want. Find me asingle farmer that is forced to buy from a biotech corp.

JH: I can’t speak for all American farmers, but even Monsanto admits that the supply of the most advanced germplasm without one of the GM traits is shrinking. With corn, cotton and seed monopoly control, really who can farmers buy from other than Monsanto or a seed company licensed to Monsanto?

Sorry to bust another myth for you but terminator technology (sterile seed) has never been used, never ever. Instead Biotech corps chose to go for patents and agreements with farmers that buy their seed.

JH: This is also my understanding. However, pollen sterilisation has been used.

Why is it that anti GM folk who seem so passionate about the subject know precious little about it? And could it be the reason why they are against it? Yes indeed.

JH: I think this criticism cuts both ways.

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