Can a rose catch your cold? Threat of 'killer' viral plant gene is latest anti-GMO rant

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  • GMOs are a process that pose no known dangers to humans. @JonEntine

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  • This ‘sky is falling’ claim is a familiar trope among anti-science “progressive” organizations and websites. @JonEntine

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  • “Gene VI is unsafe for humans and unsafe for the ecosystem.” Nothing in that statement is accurate writes @JonEntine

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  • The only virus on the loose is the truth virus. @JonEntine

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As the Genetic Literacy Project’s Jon Entine reports, genetic science deniers like the Organic Consumers Association, the Institute for Responsible Technology and many organizations that describe themselves as ‘progressive’ are again loudly ringing the anti-genetically modified organism fear-and-panic bell.

The latest ‘greatest danger to ever face humanity’ emerged with the publication last month of an obscure, technical study in GM Crops & Foods, a prominent biotech journal. The article, ungainly titled “Possible consequences of the overlap between the CaMV 35S promoter regions in plant transformation vectors used and the viral gene VI in transgenic plants,” by scientists Nancy Podevin and Patrick du Jardin, has set off a feeding frenzy among the scientifically unwashed.

The hysteria traces to “Independent Science News” (ISN) an Ithaca-New York based Orwellian-named two-year old anti-technology advocacy disguised as a news site, and treated by many activists who carry its stories as such. The saga began when two ISN “journalists” posted an article, Regulators Discover a Hidden Viral Gene in Commercial GMO Crops.

“[T]he European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) [charged with overseeing GM crops throughout the European Union] has belatedly discovered that the most common genetic regulatory sequence in commercial GMOs also encodes a significant fragment of a viral gene,” wrote the ISN reporters. The journalists claimed—erroneously—that the “discovery” could pose a serious hazard to human health.

Within hours of its posting on the ISN site, the article was replicated or reported upon by almost every oddball anti-GMO organization and website, led by the notoriously anti-science OCA and the IRT. Headlines like “Could Viral DNA Spawn a Massive GMO Food Recall” sprouted like weeds on sites like Activist Post.

Enquiring readers want to know. I’ll make it easy for them and the chattering classes: “No.”

Déjà vu all over again

This ‘sky is falling’ claim is a familiar trope among anti-science “progressive” organizations and websites. But the tactic appears to be wearing thin with both the public and increasingly with mainstream journalists who only recently have begun challenging the junk journalism that still prevails in reporting about GM crops, foods and animals, and genetic research in general, including in humans.

It’s been a tough few months for the anti-technology hysteriacs. First came Le Affair Séralini in which a brazenly anti-technology French scientist appears to have cooked the research books to propagandize that GM soy products were likely to twist human guts into a cancer-wrenched pretzel. Scientists savaged the study and even anti-GMO academicians distanced themselves from its blatantly poor level of scholarship. Many journalists who had stood on the sidelines as anti-GMO fanatics, fashioning themselves as progressives, propagandized on the issue finally said ‘enough is enough’. Suddenly, biotech activists started to look a lot like the Democrat’s version of global warning deniers.

The Séralini fiasco helped erode the wide but soft support for California Proposition 37, which would have imposed labeling of GMOs—a step the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association and most respectable science organizations opposed as deceptive and counterproductive, as GMOs is a process that poses no known dangers to humans.

The year ended particularly badly for activists when the White House reversed its political opposition to approving the first animal genetically modified for human consumption, a GM slamon that scientists at the Food and Drug Administration had determined was perfectly safe and nutritious. The White House’s turnaround came after a well-publicized investigative article by the Genetic Literacy Project in Slate, and later picked up by scientists and journalists around the world.

Mark Lynas, a British journalist and longtime anti-GMO campaigner who is credited (or blamed, depending upon your perspective) by some with coining the word Frankenfood, delivered a public and articulate denouncement of himself—or rather his former belief that GM crops and foods were a public health and environmental scourge.

“This was … an explicitly anti-science movement,” Lynas told a stunned audience at the annual Oxford Farming Conference, of his past fellow travelers. “I … assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”

These series of events have stunned anti-GMO activists. Perhaps, it’s little surprise that the “anti forces” are trying to regroup, attempting to re-corral the anti-technology herd.

The only virus on the loose is the ‘truth virus’

Activists are propagating a stark and scary. “The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the EU regulatory agency that provides advice on the health and safety of foods, has unwittingly discovered that a majority of the genetic material used in the GMO foods that we see on supermarket shelves today contains the large portion of a viral gene, called simply “Gene VI,’ wrote activist-journalist Marsea Truan earlier this week in Rosebud in an article making the rounds at progressive sites. “Gene VI is arguably unsafe for human consumption and even more unsafe for the ecosystem.”

Literally nothing in that statement is accurate. One of the viral gene journal authors, Nancy Podevin, works for the EFSA. But she didn’t “unwittingly” discover anything as the anti-GMO conspiracy theorists are suggesting. Any journalist remotely familiar with GM research would know that the use of the CaMV promoter in genetic modification has been standard practice since the 1980s. There is no news here.

“Contrary to recent claims, the data published in the paper by Podevin and du Jardin do not represent a new discovery of a viral gene nor do they indicate safety concerns in previously evaluated GMOs,” noted Professor Joe Perry, Chair of the EFSA GMO Panel. who oversees Podevin’s work.

One of the editors of the journal that published the article suggested this was much to do about nothing. “It looks to me to be a bit run of the mill [study],” Vivian Moses, professor at the Division of Nutritional Sciences at London’s King’s College, emailed me.

Certainly, the Organic Consumers Association, which has featured and promoted the scare story going on three weeks, knew that this story is both old news and has no teeth. The faux controversy echoes a similar brouhaha that erupted in 1999 after the publication of a paper co-authored by no other than Joe Cummins, OCA founder. Cauliflower Mosaic Viral Promoter – A Recipe for Disaster?  promoted the Cummins thesis that a plant gene virus could somehow harm humans. That claim—roughly akin to saying you shouldn’t sneeze around your favorite plant because it might catch your cold—was widely disseminated via a web post by one of his co-authors, Mae-Won Ho.

Then and now, Cummins suggested that that the DNA coding from which this promoter was derived closely resembles the hepatitis B virus. That’s stretching the science and no study, anywhere, has made a connection. It’s silly, say  mainstream scientists. “

“[T]he virus concerned is a plant virus, not a human virus, with no documented adverse effect on human health,” reaffirmed Joe Perry, Joe Perry, chairman of the EFSA GMO panel. On the contrary, he said, the virus has “a history of safe use in food; it infects many plants with no recorded health effects on humans.” We eat [the plant virus] all the time in brassica vegetables” such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and the like,” Moses noted in his email. Vegetables with these characteristics are actually known to protect us from cancer.

Rather then being surprised by the publication of this paper, as activists are claiming, the EFSA helped facilitate its publication. It has responded online to the unexpected hysteria activists are propagating.

The viral gene (Gene VI) belongs to a plant virus (Cauliflower Mosaic virus) that cannot infect animals or humans and therefore presents no threat to human or animal health. This virus naturally infects many plants with no recorded health effects.

In contrast to the allegation that European regulators have ignored the “threat” of this harmless plant virus, as required by regulations, all GM plant applications assessed by EFSA since its creation in 2002 that contain the inserted fragment of the viral gene in question have included a detailed analysis of the inserted sequence. These data requirements include an extensive compositional analysis and agronomic data.

No safety concerns have been identified in relation to the sequence of the inserted fragment of the viral gene and its potential for unintended effects.

Scare story goes viral and mainstream (sort of)

Brazen activism disguised as reporting is all too common across the web. It’s the nature of “news” in an echo chamber filled with minds that are mercurial as well as moronic. More disturbing, however, is how distressingly quickly “mainstream” journalists run with this garbage when it comes to “controversial” issues like GMOs.

The UK’s Daily Mail (ok, maybe it’s not good an example of the reputable mainstream press), was the worst offender, running a sizable feature by its “consumer affairs editor” headlined, “Uncovered: the ‘toxic’ gene hiding in GM crops.”

While assessing how to respond to the anti-GM movement’s latest embarrassing outburst, I had a fascinating email exchange with Peter Loring Borst, a beekeeper turned noted Cornell University’s Cohen Laboratory genomics researcher.

There is just “nothing here,” Borst wrote me. “[A]lmost all living organisms resemble each other over vast regions of the genome. This is one of the most solid pieces of evidence confirming our common ancestry and the truth of evolution.”

He noted that thirteen years ago, in his 1999 screed, OCA’s Cummins recommended withdrawing all transgenic products with this virus, which would have meant practically all transgenic crops. That was not done, of course, and as Borst sardonically noted, “the disaster that they predicted from Cauliflower Virus never occurred. Yet, the specter is being raised again.

Borst referred me to a 2005 article in the prestigious publication Nature Biotechnology, which addressed the so-called ‘GM viral gene threat’.

DNA from plant viruses [are] used as promoters/terminators or other functional elements, or in nonfunctional form to suppress viral genes. Viral DNA sequences by themselves do not appear to pose a hazard, and many have become incorporated into the genomes of plants.

It has been estimated that about 14–25% of oilseed rape in the field is infected with cauliflower mosaic virus in the United Kingdom; similar numbers have been estimated for cauliflower and cabbage.

Historically, humans have been consuming cauliflower mosaic virus and its 35S promoter at much higher levels than those in uninfected transgenic plants. Unsupported claims that the 35S promoter is unstable, prone to transfer and insertion into the DNA of other cells, thereby causing cancer in humans, have been extensively rebutted by the scientific community and are without merit.

Given the extensive exposure of humans to plant viruses and their DNA in most foods, there is no justification for using the presence of small segments of viral DNA resulting from genetic engineering as the basis for [condemning] all transgenic plants containing them.

Borst, once an opponent of GMOs, went through a Lynas-like conversion of his own. “Personally, I was very skeptical of genetic engineering up till about 2005, when I began to realize that most of the objections to it were based on lack of understanding, and knee jerk reactions to modern science and technology,” Borst added in his note.

Fact is, most people don’t have the faintest idea of the extent to which modern advanced science permeates our lives. People harken back to some golden age before the industrial revolution, oblivious to the fact that people died from things like tuberculosis (Henry David Thoreau) and tetanus (his brother). Even up till 1955, people lived in fear of polio (I caught it that very year, the year the vaccine was made public—too late for me).

So, I have followed both sides of the argument for many years. The anti-GMO faction is a branch of the organic farming movement, the roots of which can be traced back to Rudolf Steiner (a certified lunatic), et al. Mae-Wan Ho and Joe Cummins are just the latest in a series of people who are convinced that genetic modification is evil, and they build their case around that concept.

Late in my life, I was hired by a lab at Cornell University as support staff doing research into the molecular components of meiosis, using transgenic mice. I maintain many transgenic lines, do the genotyping and am involved in immuno-histochemistry and high magnification imaging using immuno-fluorescence. I handle genetically modified organisms on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, I see no real solution to the problem of people being afraid of and condemning that which they know nothing about. When the information is provided that would help to inform them, they are suspicious of the presentation and look to see where the funding came from. If it came from industry or government, the research is summarily dismissed as tainted.

There are two kinds of ignorance, unintentional and intentional. The former is cured by education; the latter is a terminal illness.

Jon Entine, founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is senior fellow at the Center for Risk & Health Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service)

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