Natural Vitality

GMO engineer turns organic devotee (true story)

Organic Connections gets an insider's view on biotech companies, the risks of GMOs, and more. 

GMO engineer turns organic devotee (true story) Guest post by Ken Roseboro, editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report. He can be reached at [email protected]

The “conversion” of for­mer anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas to GMO promoter has gar­nered huge media atten­tion, but Thierry Vrain, Ph.D., a for­mer genetic engineer who speaks out against the risks of genetically engi­neered foods, has far more credibility—and a far more impor­tant story to tell the public.

Thierry Vrain’s career has spanned the full range of agriculture—from being a proponent of “chemical” agriculture and genetic engineering to being an advo­cate for organic farming and an oppo­nent of GMOs.

A native of France, Vrain earned an under­graduate degree in plant physiology from the Université de Caen and a doc­toral degree from North Carolina State University. After mov­ing to Canada he taught plant physiol­ogy at Université du Québec in Montréal. Then he worked for 30 years as a research scientist for the Canadian government in Québec and British Columbia where he con­ducted research on genetically modified potatoes, among other projects. He was director of the biotechnology department at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland, BC.

After 35 years of research and teaching of soil and molecular biol­ogy, Vrain retired to a small farm in Courtenay, BC called Innisfree. Today, Thierry Vrain is a gardener, a teacher and a pas­sion­ate speaker about organic gardening—from soil health to GMOs.

Ken Roseboro: Tell me a lit­tle more about your background.

Thierry Vrain: I worked in three research insti­tutes in Montreal, Vancouver and Summerland. I was the head of a research group using mol­e­c­u­lar biol­ogy tools. We worked on food crops. I was genet­i­cally engi­neer­ing small fruit and pota­toes for nema­tode resis­tance using the snow­drop lectin gene.

The genet­i­cally engi­neered apple (now under regulatory review in the U.S. and Canada) orig­i­nated in our group though I wasn’t involved with the research.

KR: Did you speak pub­licly in favor of genetic engineering when you were at Agriculture Canada?  

Vrain: Yes, I just took it on as my job. I explained the safety of the tech­nol­ogy to the pub­lic and did a good amount of lec­tur­ing, edu­cat­ing small groups.

KR: What led you to change from a sup­porter of genet­i­cally mod­i­fied foods to an opponent?

Vrain: I have some difficulties with how the controversy is han­dled. If you aren’t a sci­en­tist, you don’t understand the science. If you are a sci­en­tist and dis­cover things that are of con­cern, then you are accused of doing “pseudo­science” and often viciously attacked by the industry and academics on the pay­roll. This has hap­pened many times, for exam­ple to Arpad Pusztai in England and then Ignacio Chapela, who dis­cov­ered GMO con­t­a­m­i­na­tion in native corn in Mexico. He was attacked and almost fired from his post at the University of California. A year later his find­ings were confirmed.

There are now quite a num­ber of research publications, in peer reviewed jour­nals, showing concerns from feed­ing GM corn and soy to rats. Those stud­ies are ignored and shouldn’t be. Federal agen­cies should repeat the stud­ies and must test these crops for safety.

Research scientists from the US Food & Drug Administration made it clear in the early 1990s that there could be indirect effects from eat­ing GM crops, such as tox­ins, allergens, and nutritional deficiencies. Those warn­ings were ignored. Now a good num­ber of publications are confirming the predictions of the FDA scientists.

It trou­bles me that money and the bot­tom line are at the root of the use of the technology.

KR: You say that the science behind genetic engineering is based on a mis­un­der­stand­ing. Please elaborate on this.

Vrain: When we started with genetic engi­neer­ing in the 1980s, the sci­ence was based on the the­ory that one gene pro­duces one pro­tein. But we now know, since the human genome project, that a gene can cre­ate more than one pro­tein. The inser­tion of genes in the genome through genetic engi­neer­ing inter­rupts the cod­ing sequence of the DNA, creating truncated, rogue pro­teins, which can cause unin­tended effects. It’s an inva­sive technology.

Biotech companies ignore these rogue pro­teins; they say they are back­ground noise. But we should pay atten­tion to them. It must be ver­i­fied that they pro­duce no negative effects.

A key point is that the concern about genetic engi­neer­ing should be about the pro­teins. Many plants and animals are not edi­ble because their pro­teins are toxic or poisonous. To test for the safety of Bt crops, sci­en­tists have mostly fed the pure protein to rats, and there may be no problem. But it’s dif­fer­ent if you feed rats the whole GM plant because they are getting these rogue proteins that could cause harm.

How do you explain pub­lished papers describing how rats and mice suf­fer organ dam­age from eat­ing GM corn or soy? It’s too easy to dis­miss those as pseudo­science. Rats and mice are the canary in the mine, and we should be pay­ing atten­tion to what hap­pens to them.

KR: Why don’t more peo­ple rec­og­nize the mis­un­der­stand­ing behind genetic engineering?

Vrain: The human genome project is only 10 years old. How long did it take for peo­ple to rec­og­nize that the earth is not flat?

KR: And there are many sci­en­tists that pro­mote genetic engi­neer­ing of foods.

Vrain: There are a lot of peo­ple on the pay­roll and a lot of grant money flow­ing from biotech companies to academia. I used to be employed by Agriculture Canada. I did my job, and didn’t ques­tion things too much.

KR: What are some of the other risks you see with GMOs?

Vrain: When I hear we need genetic engi­neer­ing to feed the world, I cringe. It turns out that there is no increase in yield, no decrease use of pes­ti­cides, and the process is of highly questioned safety.

Even if genetic engi­neer­ing was per­fectly safe, I still ques­tion it because of genetic pol­lu­tion. Organic crops and foods are becom­ing contaminated.

I’m also con­cerned about contamination of the environment with antibi­otic resistant genes. Every GM crop has these genes. The preliminary evidence we have is that baceria in the soil and in the human gut are capable of pick­ing those genes up. Considering the alarm I hear from medical people about losing antibiotics, I think this should be a serious concern.

KR: What about the GMO apple that may be commercialized?

Vrain: There’s no research or toxicity tests to show that it’s not toxic. I ques­tion whether it’s use­ful. It’s not different from what other biotech com­pa­nies do, which is to put out a prod­uct and make money. Apple grow­ers, con­ven­tional and organic, are very con­cerned that peo­ple will reject their prod­ucts if a GM apple is introduced.

The apple is a sym­bol of health. An engi­neered apple does not have the same health appeal, and the indus­try knows that.

KR: What led you to favor organic agriculture?

Vrain: I used to be a soil biologist and focused on fertilizers and pesticides. When I retired I started to look around and, quite frankly, the organic side of soil biology made more sense than what I had taught.

Industrial agriculture relies on inputs that are good for the chem­i­cal indus­try. Unfortunately, we have evi­dence that inputs are degrad­ing soil bio­di­ver­sity. Industrial agriculture completely ignores the ecology of the soil.

When I was a soil biologist I would look at the biodiversity of the soil. I would see a big difference between industrial farms and organic farms, which had far more species of soil micro­fauna, microscopic “animals” and nematodes, what I call biodiversity.

KR: Tell me about the work you’re doing now with Innisfree Farm.

Vrain: It’s a small farm, a demonstration garden. My wife is an herbal­ist, and we grow medicinal plants. Young stu­dents come and learn about medicinal plants and organic growing.

It’s my retirement project. I say I’m atoning for my sins.


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