Science in Society Archive

PR Posing as Science in Crop Biotechnology

Prof. Joe Cummins and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho expose the corruption of traditional standards in science reporting of GM crops

The emergence of genetically modified (GM) foods and crops has profoundly impacted scientific reporting not only in the popular media but also in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Public relations (pr) statements, once confined to the promotion of commercial products, now frequent the pages of scientific journals.

Science was built on the foundations of full and truthful reporting of observations and findings; not anymore. If anything, scientific reports that expose the propaganda of corporations, government and academic promoters of GM crops are either rejected for publication outright, or gratuitously attacked when they appear in print; and the scientist(s) involved mercilessly prosecuted and victimized, as in the case of Dr. Arpad Pusztai and his co-workers in the UK, who lost their jobs in 1998 or soon after; and Prof. Ignacio Chapela, researcher from the University of Berkeley, California, currently fighting to regain his tenure (,7843,1392979,00.html).

In contrast, GM proponents are given free license to make pr statements posing as science.

No Bt resistance?

In the January issue of Nature Biotechnology, Sarah Bates and coworkers observe that transgenic plants expressing insecticidal proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) were first commercialized in 1996 "amid concern from some scientists, regulators and environmentalists that the widespread use of Bt crops would inevitably lead to resistance and the loss of a ‘public good,’ specifically, the susceptibility of insect pests to Bt proteins." But, they continue with apparent self-satisfaction, "Eight years later, Bt corn and cotton have been grown on a cumulative area >80 million ha worldwide. Despite dire predictions to the contrary, resistance to a Bt crop has yet to be documented, suggesting that resistance management strategies have been effective thus far."

The resistance management strategies include planting non-GM acreage as refuge to slow down the evolution of resistant insect pests and the use of high toxin dosage along with pyramiding more than one toxin genes in a crop.

In reality, however, the main reason that insect resistance has not been detected in the United States - not mentioned in the article - is that the US Environment Protection Agency has allowed the GM crop and refuge to be sprayed with chemical insecticides (see "No Bt resistance?" ISIS Report, Spraying with chemical insecticides protects the crops from pest damage in the refuge, and also kills off any insects resistant to the GM crops.

The authors also failed to mention other factors that might affect the evolution of resistance - the use of synthetic toxin genes that differ in amino acid sequence from the natural toxin in commercial GM crops, and the variation in toxin production among different GM crops - although these factors are probably not as significant as spraying chemical insecticides in the refuge. Nevertheless, they could lead to underestimating the evolution of resistance by failing to detect resistant insects. Tests for insect resistance are frequently carried out using the toxin proteins isolated from bacteria and not the actual toxin produced in the GM crop.

In Canada, chemical insecticides have not been allowed in the refuge of Bt crops until the upcoming growing season, but there does not appear to have been any effort to screen for resistance in that country.

That paper is just the latest in a string of misleading reports that have been deliberately selective and incomplete in order to serve pr purposes.

PR by misrepresentation, permissive substitution and surrogate testing

Advocates have persistently maintained that GM crops are a simple extension of plant breeding and selection carried on for thousands of years. That fiction ignores the basic fact that GM crops are produced in the laboratory by illegitimate recombination – a process whereby pieces of foreign DNA break the host genome to insert themselves at unpredictable places - while traditional plant breeding and selection depending largely on homologous (legitimate) recombination during reproduction.

What is seldom stated is that GM crops are produced using synthetic approximations of natural bacterial genes, whether it is in conferring resistance to herbicides or to insect pests.

The synthetic approximations of natural genes are used because the bacterial genes function poorly in plants, which use different codes for the same amino acids. Hence, synthetic genes could be 60% homologous with the bacterial genes in DNA sequence and yet produce proteins that have the same amino acid sequence as the bacterial proteins. But amino acid sequences are also frequently altered in the GM plants to increase solubility. C-terminal amino acids (at the end of the protein chain), too, have been changed on the assumption, without any proof, that the changes do not affect biological activity.

Also concealed from the public is that "safety" assessment of GM crops has been performed using protein products and genes from the bacteria rather than the crops. The regulators have apparently agreed that the expense of purifying the products from GM crops need not be incurred as the products can be recovered at little expense from liquid bacterial cultures. So none of the safety tests have been done with the proteins and genes in GM crops!

The regulators argued that so long as the crop proteins had active sites and epitopes characteristic of the bacterial protein, they must be "equivalent". In this way, they have allowed millions of human being to be exposed to products that are untested and unknown with regard to safety. As the GM foods are not labeled, there is no way that their health impacts on the population can be identified after they are released.

The regulators seem to presume that the synthetic DNA and RNA produced are biologically inactive except for making the protein. That is a specious belief. It is well known, for instance, that DNA with excess of CpG activates innate immunity and induces inflammation. Similarly, the regulatory role of small RNA species is becoming increasingly evident (see "RNA subverting the genetic text" SiS 24 There are numerous examples of DNA and RNA sequences that have major regulatory roles apart from coding for proteins. Even freshman students would recognize the importance of testing the actual synthetic genes and proteins present in GM crops rather than the surrogates produced in bacteria.

Finally, the synthetic genes and gene products that have been assessed as "safe" purely by bureaucracy are new to our food chain and the ecosystem and to the entire evolutionary history of the earth.

The scientific journals that should have played the leading role in safeguarding the traditional standards of good science and the public good have been co-opted into performing the most insidious kind of pr for unscrupulous corporations and scientists pushing the corporate agenda. They are no longer to be trusted.

Article first published 25/01/05


  1. Bates SL, Zhao JZ, Roush RT & Shelton AM. Insect resistance management in GM crops: past, present and future. Nature Biotechnology 2005, 23, 57-62/

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