Friday, May 18, 2007

Review of Genetic Roulette

Review of Jeffrey M. Smith's Genetic Roulette: The documented health risks of genetically modified foods

Yes! Books, May 2007
Available from / * and from Green Books:

* special case price available for 16 books

Reviewer: Claire Robinson

What's your response when someone comes out with a fatuous statement they've picked up from somewhere to the effect that "There's no evidence that GM food is harmful"?

If you have time and energy enough, perhaps you manage to scrabble together some bits and pieces from your memory, the web, a book or an article. But considering the number of calls that the business of living places on your time and energy, maybe you just shrug your shoulders and muse that the world is going to hell in a handbasket of Bush, Blair, and Monsanto's making and there's nothing you can do about it.

Well, now there is. Just point them in the direction of the latest book from Jeffrey Smith, Genetic Roulette: The documented health risks of genetically modified foods.

A must-read for every policy-maker, educator, and journalist, it's also invaluable for anyone who wants to sharpen up their weaponry in the battle against the imposition of GM foods. And judging by the steady stream of emails I've received over the years from students in schools, colleges, and universities asking me to explain the risks of GM food, every educational institution and public library needs to buy a copy.

Of course, those who enjoyed Smith's previous book, Seeds of Deception, should be warned that this isn't the same sort of read. 'Seeds' laid out the fraud of GM through its stories: the honest scientists who were gagged, threatened, and persecuted; the revolving door between industry and regulators that led to untested GMOs being unleashed into the food supply; the consumers who got sick and died from eating a supplement produced with GM bacteria, only to have their suffering covered up by a government that cared only to protect the interests of the industry.

While Smith's last book uncompromisingly presented the science challenging the claimed safety of GMOs, the focus was on the human. The salesmen-scientists and the whistle-blowers of the GM world were shown doing what they have to do - in the case of the first, to protect their careers, and in the case of the second, to protect public health, the planet, and their ability to sleep at night. Genetic Roulette is not a book of stories, but rather an easy-to-use reference book of scientific fact and documented findings on the risks of GM foods.

It will come as no surprise to GM Watch subscribers that contrary to what the industry would have us believe, there are a considerable number of findings that show GM causes harm. Smith uses much previously unavailable material obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and has trawled through piles of industry submissions and government documents. He extracts the scientific meat and methodically lays it out for our examination, with one finding per chapter section. One section, for example, is headed, "Mice fed Roundup Ready soy had liver cell problems". The finding is described in full, followed by possible interpretations and comments, either by the researchers themselves or other experts.

Given the worrying lack of substantial published research, Smith also draws upon unpublished studies, case studies, medical reports, media reports, and eyewitness accounts. Unlike the notorious pronouncements of supporters of the biotech industry, interpretations and statements of opinion are never misrepresented as scientific fact. Readers will always know the status of what they are reading and the basis for it. The author has gone to great lengths to maintain accuracy of reporting, having each section of the book checked by at least three scientists.

Other sections of the book highlight serious flaws and gaps in the industry's case for GM food safety. Again, each chapter section is devoted to a particular topic, such as the ability of GM disease-resistant crops to promote dangerous new viruses. Scientific evidence for this is laid out with explanations. All points are referenced in unobtrusive footnotes.

Even those who know quite a bit about the GM issue will learn lots from this book. Perhaps this is partly due to Smith's status as a non-scientist: he does not assume specialist knowledge on the part of the reader, and explains things that many of us have become used to skimming over because of our lack of such knowledge.

For example, ever wondered why a certain batch of GM crops is called an "event"? Smith explains that each batch is produced by inserting the transgene into the host plant cells either by the gene gun method or by infection with a bacterium. So random and disruptive is this process to the host cells that the results are different with each insertion. The process is neither repeatable nor reproducible. Scientists tell me, however, that repeatability and reproducibility are generally viewed as prerequisites to any process that claims to be scientific. In this light, the GM process as it is currently practiced is not scientific. Nor does it even qualify as engineering, as the engineering equivalent would be to try to build the Forth Bridge by tossing an assortment of girders, nuts and bolts in the general region of the Firth of Forth and letting a bunch of monkeys fiddle with them: an intelligence of a sort is at work, but the result is utterly unpredictable. Thus, even if government regulators had a road-to-Damascus conversion and actually started policing GM technology as they are supposed to, any safety tests performed on one "event" of a GM crop would have to be repeated on all other events before the crop could be pronounced safe. Cheap GM crops for the third world, anyone?

Another interesting snippet concerns allergies to GM Roundup Ready soy. The one comforting factor when dealing with allergies to conventional foods is that once you know your poison, you can generally avoid it, and your allergic reaction ceases. But not with Roundup Ready soy. Research has shown that a portion of the transgene from the GM soy is transferred into human gut bacteria. In addition, the gut bacteria survive doses of Roundup's active ingredient, glyphosate. This indicates that the transgene continues to produce its Roundup Ready protein from within the gut bacteria. If this is so, then long after you stop eating GM soy, you may be constantly exposed to the potentially allergenic protein. The medical consequences of ongoing allergic reactions to an ingredient widely used in processed foods have not been addressed.

Conspicuous by their absence are follow-up studies to those that show harm from GM foods. The book details the tactics that industry uses to shut down or bury inconvenient research, including ignoring it, attempting to discredit the research or its authors, and funding competing studies so poorly designed that no meaningful findings can possibly be extracted. If all else fails, industry-aligned researchers discount deaths of experimental animals or claim that statistically significant results have, magically, no significance at all.

The layout of the book is an exemplar of clarity and should serve as the model for any reference book (authors of science books, please note: fewer people would give up on science if it were this easy to digest). It is designed to make the material accessible to three levels of reader: the scanner, the casual reader, and the reader who wants all the detail. Each double-page spread is devoted to a particular problem with GM foods, with the left-hand page having the topic heading, a featured quote by a scientist or expert, and a few short bullet points, and the right-hand page giving the technical detail. Scanners can take in the left-hand page at a glance; casual readers can read the main narrative on the right-hand page; and for those who need detail, there are paragraphs of indented text giving figures and examples. You don't need a science background to understand it. While the book is not bedtime reading, all terms are defined and the boggle factor is kept low. The excellent table of contents gives a one-sentence summary of each of the risks of GM foods and enables the reader quickly to access the evidence.

Smith has to be the best science communicator alive today, and this book stands as the final word on GM health risks. It's the definitive answer to those who don't know, those who don't want to know, and those who know but don't want anyone else to know.

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