by Penni Crabtree
The San Diego Union-Tribune
February 4, 2003
Squabbling in the research community over genetically engineered foods overshadows scientific discourse
Veteran Salk Institute scientist David Schubert is the first to admit that he likes a healthy scientific debate.
But the minor firestorm he set off recently with a commentary that raised scientific concerns about genetically engineered plants, published in the well-known science journal Nature Biotechnology, had a different feel.
In the article, Schubert called for tougher testing of so-called GE plant products for long-term health risks, citing observations made in animal cells that might apply to plants and the lack of understanding of "the consequences of recombinant technology."
On any other subject, the comments by the cell biologist might have passed unremarked. But in December, 18 scientists, many of them prominent in plant research at the University of California San Diego, the Scripps Research Institute and the Salk Institute, signed a harshly worded letter to the editor rebutting Schubert's essay. "Good scientists go astray when they leave their area of expertise to offer opinion when they have not studied the literature, when they selectively ignore information, or when they let their politics and beliefs interfere with the objectivity of their science," the letter concluded.
Schubert said he was surprised by what he considered an organized, personal and often unscientific "attack."
"Scientists have academic arguments all the time, and the journals are full of them," Schubert said. "People can disagree with your data -- hopefully the data is right and they disagree with your interpretation -- but even when the data is wrong it's not just this frontal attack.
"They are trying to make this a political issue instead of a science issue -- and that's a big difference."
If Schubert was surprised by the vehemence of his critics, others were not. The heated scientific exchange is not an isolated tempest in a petri dish, but one in a string of incidents that have embroiled the academic community in the controversy over GE foods.
That controversy has long pitted the agribiotechnology and crop chemical industry against activists who oppose genetically engineered foods, but in the past few years it has also divided many in the scientific community.
In the process, squabbling sometimes overshadows scientific discourse, and accusations of scientists promoting vested interests or political agendas haunt the debate.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, science director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, noted that many of Schubert's critics, like others in earlier incidents involving GE foods, have financial ties to companies in the $1 billion market for GE foods -- creating at least the perception of a conflict of interest.
For instance, Roger Beachy, director of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and the lead signatory on the Nature Biotechnology letter to the editor, is best known for developing the world's first genetically altered food crop, a disease-resistant tomato, in collaboration with St. Louis-based Monsanto.
The Danforth center has strong industry backing. It was formed in 1998 through a partnership between various universities and Monsanto. The Monsanto Fund, the philanthropic arm of Monsanto, contributed $70 million to the center in its first four years, and continues, along with other agribiotech companies, to provide center scientists research funding for various projects.
Beachy, who helped identify other potential signatories for the letter, dismissed the notion that industry support makes scientists less objective. He said the letter was a response by responsible, objective scientists to the misinformation and "scare tactics" that have swayed the GE food debate.
"There have been so many comments made by people who know nothing of what they speak, and we are asking that they be as careful about the things they aren't expert in as those they are expert in," said Beachy. "I don't tell a cancer cell biologist that their interpretation is incorrect, because I'm not a cancer specialist.
"Whatever is said in the science community needs to be talked about by those who know the science."
Gurian-Sherman said the organized response was "unusual," and smacked of overkill.
"There have been several incidents over the last few years that, regardless what you think of the science, a strong case could be made that the vehemence of the attack goes beyond the bounds of science," said Gurian-Sherman, whose group supports GE food but has also called for a more stringent regulatory review process before new products are approved.
Last year, the academic community became embroiled in a debate over whether indigenous Mexican maize had inadvertently crossed with genetically engineered corn, despite a moratorium on commercial planting of GE crops.
In November 2001, University of California Berkeley scientists David Quist and Ignacio Chapela made the claim in a paper published in Nature, the parent magazine of Nature Biotechnology. Supporters of GE foods argued that the scientists' conclusions were based on faulty testing techniques.
Ironically, many of Quist and Chapela's critics acknowledge that the ultimate point of the paper -- that Mexican maize has been contaminated -- is probably correct, but the pair's flawed experiments didn't support the supposition.
Later, a scientific review panel found fault with the science and, in an unprecedented move, Nature published an editorial note saying publication of the Quist and Chapela paper was unjustified.
In a year-end reflection on the key science stories to emerge in 2002, Nature noted in its December issue that the bitter debate over the Quist/Chapela study shed "more heat than light," and was marred by the appearance of vested interests.
Many of the most vocal academic scientists supporting GE crops often also are the ones who receive financial backing from the agribiotech industry -- including research funding, fees for consulting and the potential for a big payoff when an agribiotech company licenses products or technologies they have developed.
Some of Quist and Chapela's opponents were fellow Berkeley scientists who'd clashed with them over a controversial deal between the university and GE crop company Syngenta. The deal, which Quist and Chapela opposed, gave the Swiss-based Syngenta privileged access to the findings of the university's plant scientists.
It also emerged that some of the Internet postings attacking Quist and Chapela had been made from computers at a public-relations firm retained by GE crop giant Monsanto.
"Clearly, this was not solely a technical debate," Nature concluded in its year-end review.
Though Schubert's commentary did not create the same heat, it stirred emotions. At the heart of his argument was the simple observation made in his research on mammalian cells: Once a gene is put into a cell, it can produce different proteins in different cell types, triggering changes that can cascade through various cell pathways, many of which can't be predicted.
Those proteins could interact with other substances in a cell, creating new molecules that are potentially toxic, he argued.
When dealing with whole organisms, plants or animals, the process becomes even more complicated. And double ditto when a gene that in nature is alien to an organism is introduced -- as when a bacteria gene is spliced into a corn plant.
Given the unknowns, Schubert argued that GE plants should be tested for long-term safety before being brought to market.
Schubert's critics countered that companies extensively test GE plants, and that the plants are screened for unintended or unexpected variations, ensuring that the foreign protein produced by the GE plant host is the one intended.
They also said that the same potential for gene mutations occurs naturally in foods created through traditional crossbreeding methods -- though only biotech foods are subjected to scrutiny.
Many agree scrutiny has become an increasingly relative term in the GE food debate.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a report issued last month, concluded the Food and Drug Administration is "ill-equipped to assure the safety of future foods that will be engineered in increasingly complex ways."
Currently, biotech companies are encouraged but not required to submit safety testing data to the FDA for review, according to the report. While acknowledging that the current crop of GE foods on the market appear to be safe, the report said a more stringent approval process for GE plants and animals needs to replace the voluntary notification process now in force.
With so much controversy, and so much at stake, the GE food debate isn't likely to cool -- or improve in civility -- anytime soon, industry observers agree.
"There are interesting scientific points raised by both sides," said Andrew Marshall, editor of Nature Biotechnology. "The problem with agribiotech is the sides are polarized, so it is difficult to have a cordial exchange of views.
"It is a very contentious area at the moment and it is clearly very high on the political agenda in may parts of the world -- and a lot is rolling on these issues."
Penni Crabtree: (619) 293-1237; firstname.lastname@example.org