ABC Recipient: Audience & Consumer Affairs
I am writing this letter on behalf of the Safe Food Foundation (SFF) to formally complain about the last Background Briefing show titled «Curse of the Frankenfoods ».
Your reporter, Ian Walker contacted me to prepare the show and I was quickly very concerned at the tenor of pro-GM comments he made, especially during a phone call on 15/08 where he said there is no evidence of harm from GMOs and that we should all accept the view that GM is ok. I raised my concerns in an email sent on 18/08 (Appendix 1). Chris Bullock, Excecutive Producer, answered on his behalf on 21/08 (Appendix 2) stating that Ian disputed my interpretation of our conversation. I asked Chris to identify Ian’s disputes on 27/08 (Appendix 3). My question stayed unanswered.
As I feared, the show broadcasted on 15/09 was outrageous. From the title of the show to the presenters apparent conversion from being anti-GM, to the choice of people as experts who are not qualified to assess safety or otherwise, the bias was clear.
In the show Ian Walker, presented himself as formerly against GM food but ready to set this aside in order to investigate. He based his views on opinions from Mark Lynas, a blogger renowned for his conversion from anti-GM activist to GM advocate. Mark Lynas has no background in science but his views are expressed without scrutiny. Ian Walker was fully aware that Mark Lynas is a very questionable character when he decided to interview him. Once she heard Ian Walker was planning an interview with Mark Lynas, Claire Robinson from GM watch warned him by email on the 01/08 (Appendix 4). She sent him a series of articles from GM Watch on Mark Lynas, as well as an open letter from leading environmentalists in the UK dismissing his claims to have been a significant player in the anti-GM movement.
The other specialist was John Entine, a Forbes journalist (who only holds a degree in philosophy), and he was also presented with a defintive say. Forbes magazine named Monsanto Company of the year in January 2010.
The only pro-GM scientist interviewed was James Dale who is the director of the Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities at Queensland University of Technology, which incorporates the Syngenta Centre for Sugarcane Biofuels Development.
On the other side both independent researchers, Prof Gilles-Eric Seralini and Dr Judy Carman were critisised with unsubtantiated claims, even though their studies are peer-reviewed (ironically, Dr Judy Carman was the only scientist interviewed in the show with an expertise on animal feeding studies). Ian Walker chose to ignore my advice to invite Professor of genetics and molecular biology Jack Heinemann to respond to these criticisms. Prof Heinemann’s inputs would have been very valuable as he is a risk assessment researcher as well. Ian Walker also claims that « on the issue of whether genetically modified organisms or GMOs are really safe there is an overwhelming scientific consensus » but he simply ignored the material I sent him about the particular risks posed by GM crops from RNA interference (RNAi) on 15/08 (Appendix 5). This branch of science is still the source of many surprises to researchers, including recent discoveries that certain types of RNAs can be taken up into the bodies of animals.
Please find below a list of the unsupported or even false statements in the show along with the explaination of our views :
08:11 – Ian Walker: « And the papaya, in our hypothetical, is from Hawaii, where all papayas are genetically modified to save them dying from a blight ».
It is a false claim that all papayas in Hawaii are genetically engineered. According to the last available figures from the US Department of Agriculture, in 2009, GM Rainbow papaya accounted for 77 of the acreage grown in the State of Hawaii. ‘Other’ varieties represented 5 percent of the acreage grown (Non GM Sunrise and GM Sunup are combined in ‘other’).
14:22 – Ian Walker (about the Greenpeace action) « CSIRO counters that the trial was strictly for R&D and they were nowhere near the commercialisation phase »
This is a lie. The damaged crops were subject to a licence DIR092. The information sheet on DIR092 available on on CSIRO’s website states that « If field and feeding trials are approved, and their outcomes are positive, commercial varieties of these GM wheat plants will be available in 2019, or later».
16:44 – Mark Lynas « The GM debate is over, it is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it’s safe. Over a decade in a half, with 3 million, 3 trillion rather, GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm»
It is ungrounded and misleading to argue that GM food must be harmless to health on the grounds that people have been consuming them for years and no visible damage has been observed. There is no monitoring. Independent studies on the wholesomeness of GM crops for either animals or humans are severely lacking from scientific literature 1 2 3 4. We simply do not know if GM crops are safe for animal or human consumption and this is reflected by the ongoing controversy surrounding their safety assessment. There is scientific agreement that the potential for such risks does exist and in many countries regulations are in place to examine the safety of GM foods.
18:16 – Ian Walker « The Lynas conversion was a revelation for Jon Entine who wrote up the story for Forbes magazine ».
For the record, Forbes magazine named Monsanto Company of the year in January 2010.
19:44 – Mark Lynas « I don’t think I realised that DNA is this universal code, it is just a sequence of 4 letters basically, it’s how you interpret it and you can chop and change it between different species with actually very little impact »
Obviously Mark Lynas doesn’t have a scientific background (he holds a degree in History and Politics) and he poorly understands genetic science. It is now known that genomes of plants and animals are controlled by a complex regulatory network that controls gene expression. Genetic engineering does not take account of this. The inserted GM genes operate outside this regulatory network, but because the exact nature of this network is poorly understood, it is not possible to predict the interaction of the inserted genes with the plant’s own genome when the genes are being expressed (e.g. producing proteins). In addition, the insertion of DNA can cause additional fragments to be inserted and also deletions and rearrangements of the plant’s own DNA. Unexpected and unknown fragments of genetic material have been found in commercial GM crops (e.g. Roundup Ready soya). As a consequence, GE crops have the potential to produce unintended novel proteins, or altered plant proteins.
20 :32 – Ian Walker : « On the issue of whether genetically modified organisms or GMOs are really safe there is an overwhelming scientific consensus »
There is no scientific consensus on GMOs. The debate is far from over as this open letter signed by 828 scientists from 84 different countries shows, calling for « the immediate suspension of all environemental releases of GM crops and products »
20:52 – Jon Entine « A crop that you are tinkering with cannot in itself cause an allergy or health problem »
Jon Entine is an American journalist who holds a degree in philosophy. He is not a geneticist. GM crops have the potential to cause allergenic reactions, more so than conventional breeding5 6. In Australia, for example, GM peas were found to cause allergenic reactions in mice7. Eating the GE peas also made the mice more sensitive to other food allergies.
22:19 – Jon Entine (about Prof GE Seralini’s study) « That study was reviewed by the European Food Safety Authority and remember we are in Europe and Europe is very septical of GMOs and the EFSA, a very independant body, just tore apart the study ».
In July, EFSA has issued guidelines for two-year whole food feeding studies to assess the risk of long-term toxicity from GM foods. Ironically, this document largely validates the methodology and choices of Prof Seralini in his 2012 study.
22:46 – Jon Entine “Seralini is a dedicated anti GMO activist but he was aware that people were not looking for science”
Gilles-Eric Se?ralini is a professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen in France where he leads a research team associated with CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) and INRA (French National Institute for Agricultural Research). Seralini’s team has been the most published in the world in scientific peer reviewed journals on the effect of GMOs authorised in agriculture and pesticides used in association with GMOs on health, animals and humans.
25:49 – Mark Lynas (about Dr Judy Carman’s study) « that pig health study was about as junk as junk science get »
Again, Mark Lynus doesn’t have any scientific background and Judy’s work is peer reviewed. We dispute your view that because it was published in an organic journal it is does not have any value.
27: 55 – Ian Walker: « The case involves organic farmer Steve Marsh from Kojonup in the South of the State who is suing his neigbour, Micheal Baxter. The claim is for damages over alleged negligence and nuisance, which allowed pollen from GM canola to blow across a large section of Marsh’s property in 2010. »
In an email sent to Ian Walker on the 28th of August, Scott Kinnear raised the fact that there was a factual mistake in the script that needed correction. The case is not about “pollen” blowing on to Steve Marsh’s farm, but canola plants themselves containing seed just before harvest. Ian Walker chose to ignore it and chose to communicate wrong information.
28:44 – Ian Walker« The Safe Food Foundation, an organic food industry and anti-GM lobby group »
Ian Walker chose to present the Safe Food Foundation in a bias way. SFF is a not for profit, campaigning and advocacy organisation that works to promote awareness surrounding our food production and consumption. It is not an organic food industry group.
30:18 – Ian Walker « On the website the Safe Food Foundation is building the case as David versus Goliath, the organic farmer who could lose a lot (…) of Monsanto, who by the way are not part of the proccedings.
The Safe Food Foundation presented the case as « David vs Goliath » because, even though Monsanto is not part of the proceedings, the GM canola that contaminated Steve’s farm is patented by them and Monsanto has no liability in case of contamination, putting the burden on farmers instead. Ian Walker was well aware of that (an email was sent from Rachel Dujardin on the 30th of August) but chose not to talk about it.
34:45 – Professor James Dale « The GM crops that are commercialised now are very much industrial crops with industrial-type traits, herbicide resistance, insect resistance, etc. and they’ve had tremendous benefits (…) I think that’s fabulous (…)The next generation of GM crops are going to be I think of much greater benefits to humanity than round one. »
Professor James Dale is not exactly an independent researcher. He leads a $5 million Grand Challenges in Global Health Project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop biofortified bananas for East Africa (Bill Gates owns 500,000 shares of Monsanto). He also leads an initiative from the Syngenta Centre for Sugarcane Biofuels Development with the objective of developing economically competitive cellulosic ethanol using genetically modified sugarcane. Prof Dale owns 17 patents as well.
Mark Lynas – In Uganda, « I heard stories from MPs who have had activists going into their constituencies telling people, these are Muslim constituencies, that the scientists are putting pig genes into bananas (so these will be the bio-fortified bananas and also the bacteria-resistant ones), pig genes and therefore you can’t eat it as a Muslim, and literally people have been going crazy about this, and there’s almost been violence breaking out. So, the anti-GM activists have stooped as low as trying to cause religious violence in order to stop this technology. And that kind of thing…because they’ve got a lot of money, they’ve got big cars, they drive around the capital, they have access to the President and the President’s brother, they’ve got millions of dollars, they hold big conferences, you know, they’re very well-funded, and that kind of thing is very, very difficult to combat because it plays well in the media, of course. »
Could you please provide references for these very strong accusations ? There is no mention of anti-GM activits trying to cause religious violence in order to stop GM food anywhere on Internet, and it is very hard to believe anti-GM activists are better funded by the biotechnology industry.
Please consider taking these facts into account to make sure that as a national public broadcaster you are expressing the views of all concerned and not just a few. We would be more than happy to be involved in a more balanced show, with a different reporter, in the near future.
Director of the Safe Food Foundation
The appendices and references are available on request as they could not be added to the ABC complaint form.