Guest post by Ken Roseboro, editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report. He can be reached at [email protected]
The “conversion” of forÂmer anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas to GMO promoter has garÂnered huge media attenÂtion, but Thierry Vrain, Ph.D., a forÂmer genetic engineer who speaks out against the risks of genetically engiÂneered foods, has far more credibility—and a far more imporÂtant 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 advoÂcate for organic farming and an oppoÂnent of GMOs.
A native of France, Vrain earned an underÂgraduate degree in plant physiology from the UniversitÃ© de Caen and a docÂtoral degree from North Carolina State University. After movÂing to Canada he taught plant physiolÂogy at UniversitÃ© du QuÃ©bec in MontrÃ©al. Then he worked for 30 years as a research scientist for the Canadian government in QuÃ©bec and British Columbia where he conÂducted 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 biolÂogy, Vrain retired to a small farm in Courtenay, BC called Innisfree. Today, Thierry Vrain is a gardener, a teacher and a pasÂsionÂate speaker about organic gardening—from soil health to GMOs.
Ken Roseboro: Tell me a litÂtle more about your background.
Thierry Vrain: I worked in three research instiÂtutes in Montreal, Vancouver and Summerland. I was the head of a research group using molÂeÂcÂuÂlar biolÂogy tools. We worked on food crops. I was genetÂiÂcally engiÂneerÂing small fruit and potaÂtoes for nemaÂtode resisÂtance using the snowÂdrop lectin gene.
The genetÂiÂcally engiÂneered apple (now under regulatory review in the U.S. and Canada) origÂiÂnated in our group though I wasn’t involved with the research.
KR: Did you speak pubÂlicly 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 techÂnolÂogy to the pubÂlic and did a good amount of lecÂturÂing, eduÂcatÂing small groups.
KR: What led you to change from a supÂporter of genetÂiÂcally modÂiÂfied foods to an opponent?
Vrain: I have some difficulties with how the controversy is hanÂdled. If you aren’t a sciÂenÂtist, you don’t understand the science. If you are a sciÂenÂtist and disÂcover things that are of conÂcern, then you are accused of doing “pseudoÂscience” and often viciously attacked by the industry and academics on the payÂroll. This has hapÂpened many times, for examÂple to Arpad Pusztai in England and then Ignacio Chapela, who disÂcovÂered GMO conÂtÂaÂmÂiÂnaÂtion in native corn in Mexico. He was attacked and almost fired from his post at the University of California. A year later his findÂings were confirmed.
There are now quite a numÂber of research publications, in peer reviewed jourÂnals, showing concerns from feedÂing GM corn and soy to rats. Those studÂies are ignored and shouldn’t be. Federal agenÂcies should repeat the studÂies 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 eatÂing GM crops, such as toxÂins, allergens, and nutritional deficiencies. Those warnÂings were ignored. Now a good numÂber of publications are confirming the predictions of the FDA scientists.
It trouÂbles me that money and the botÂtom line are at the root of the use of the technology.
KR: You say that the science behind genetic engineering is based on a misÂunÂderÂstandÂing. Please elaborate on this.
Vrain: When we started with genetic engiÂneerÂing in the 1980s, the sciÂence was based on the theÂory that one gene proÂduces one proÂtein. But we now know, since the human genome project, that a gene can creÂate more than one proÂtein. The inserÂtion of genes in the genome through genetic engiÂneerÂing interÂrupts the codÂing sequence of the DNA, creating truncated, rogue proÂteins, which can cause uninÂtended effects. It’s an invaÂsive technology.
Biotech companies ignore these rogue proÂteins; they say they are backÂground noise. But we should pay attenÂtion to them. It must be verÂiÂfied that they proÂduce no negative effects.
A key point is that the concern about genetic engiÂneerÂing should be about the proÂteins. Many plants and animals are not ediÂble because their proÂteins are toxic or poisonous. To test for the safety of Bt crops, sciÂenÂtists have mostly fed the pure protein to rats, and there may be no problem. But it’s difÂferÂent if you feed rats the whole GM plant because they are getting these rogue proteins that could cause harm.
How do you explain pubÂlished papers describing how rats and mice sufÂfer organ damÂage from eatÂing GM corn or soy? It’s too easy to disÂmiss those as pseudoÂscience. Rats and mice are the canary in the mine, and we should be payÂing attenÂtion to what hapÂpens to them.
KR: Why don’t more peoÂple recÂogÂnize the misÂunÂderÂstandÂing behind genetic engineering?
Vrain: The human genome project is only 10 years old. How long did it take for peoÂple to recÂogÂnize that the earth is not flat?
KR: And there are many sciÂenÂtists that proÂmote genetic engiÂneerÂing of foods.
Vrain: There are a lot of peoÂple on the payÂroll and a lot of grant money flowÂing from biotech companies to academia. I used to be employed by Agriculture Canada. I did my job, and didn’t quesÂtion things too much.
KR: What are some of the other risks you see with GMOs?
Vrain: When I hear we need genetic engiÂneerÂing to feed the world, I cringe. It turns out that there is no increase in yield, no decrease use of pesÂtiÂcides, and the process is of highly questioned safety.
Even if genetic engiÂneerÂing was perÂfectly safe, I still quesÂtion it because of genetic polÂluÂtion. Organic crops and foods are becomÂing contaminated.
I’m also conÂcerned about contamination of the environment with antibiÂotic 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 pickÂing 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 quesÂtion whether it’s useÂful. It’s not different from what other biotech comÂpaÂnies do, which is to put out a prodÂuct and make money. Apple growÂers, conÂvenÂtional and organic, are very conÂcerned that peoÂple will reject their prodÂucts if a GM apple is introduced.
The apple is a symÂbol of health. An engiÂneered apple does not have the same health appeal, and the indusÂtry 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 chemÂiÂcal indusÂtry. Unfortunately, we have eviÂdence that inputs are degradÂing soil bioÂdiÂverÂsity. 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 microÂfauna, 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 herbalÂist, and we grow medicinal plants. Young stuÂdents come and learn about medicinal plants and organic growing.
It’s my retirement project. I say I’m atoning for my sins.