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Points to Consider: Biotech Improved Herbicide Tolerant Crops Have Improved Yields and Sustainability

Farm

Professional opponents of agricultural innovations have failed utterly to make their case that seeds improved through biotechnology impose novel risks.  Massive data and vast experience have refuted such claims in the eyes of all but the most fervent true believers.  Opponents have therefore lately tried to construct dubious linkages with time honored scapegoats of pesticides and herbicides.  A popular target is the world’s most widely used herbicide, glyphosate, which has ushered in a new area of improved sustainability for conventional farmers. We take a closer look at one of the recent misfires against glyphosate from a cadre of hard core biotech opponents.

ORIGINAL PAPER:   Bøhna, T.,  M. Cuhraa, T. Traavika, M. Sandenc, J. Fagan, & R. Primiceriob.  Compositional differences in soybeans on the market: Glyphosate accumulates in Roundup Ready GM soybeans. Food Chemistry Volume 153, 15 June 2014, Pages 207– 215. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814613019201

PRIMARY CLAIMS OF THE ORIGINAL PAPER:

  • RoundupReady soybeans contain elevated residues of glyphosate and its breakdown product AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid).
  • Organic soybeans have a healthier nutritional profile than other soybeans.

SALIENT FACTS & CONTEXT:  

  • The experimental design, sampling and analytical methods, and literature citations described in this paper depart from best scientific practices to such an extent that the claimed results are unreliable and fail to support the conclusions drawn.
  • Even if the conclusions drawn were correct, they would describe nothing that would be problematic or surprising.
  • It is well known and affirmed without controversy in the scientific literature that soybean varieties with different genetic backgrounds, and even the same varieties grown under different conditions can vary widely in protein/carbohydrate/lipid composition.  The study fails to control for these variables, which alone are more than enough to account for all variances reported.
  • The authors fail to disclose their conflicts of interest, through which they are strongly aligned with opponents of agricultural biotechnology with a well-deserved reputation for making negative claims unsupported or contradicted by data.

ANALYSIS OF SPECIFIC CLAIMS IN THE PAPER: 

  • “Research… has found residues of glyphosate (and its breakdown product AMPA) in high concentrations in GM soybeans, but not in conventional or organic soybeans. “
    • Both glyphosate and AMPA residues are thoroughly evaluated by EPA & FDA prior to registration of any new use to confirm that detected levels fall within the allowed tolerances.
    • The suggestion is that there are safety concerns associated with the reported levels.  This insinuation is demonstrably false, as shown  by a wide variety  of undisputed data.
    • Tolerance levels for glyphosate and its metabolites are established according to the Code of Federal Regulations , Title 40, Section 180. This requires that measurable residue levels must be at or below 100 ppm for soybean forage; 200 ppm for soybean hay; 120 ppm for soybean hulls; and 20 ppm for soybean seed.  The results from Bøhn et al. clearly show the reported glyphosate and AMPA residues are within the allowed tolerances. This is completely expected, normal, and presents no cause for concern.
    • In the absence of analysis, Bøhn et al. insinuate that the permissible residue levels they report lead to negative health consequences. They do this by citing a narrow selection of discredited papers while ignoring the vast body of contradictory literature. They cite, for example, Paganelli et al. (2010)   which reported that glyphosate increased retinoic acid activity in frog embryos, disrupting early development. Reviewing this publication, the European Commission concluded that it “had been performed under highly artificial conditions, extremely different from what can be expected in agricultural circumstances, and that it is hardly possible to predict adverse effect on mammals on this basis.” Other studies cited involved unrealistically high concentrations and routes of exposure tested in experiments with frog and chicken embryos. Such experiments are not predictive of birth defects or any other effects in humans or wildlife, and are not supported by extensive worldwide human health, safety and environmental databases on glyphosate impacts.
  • “…little attention has been given to the residues of herbicides and their metabolites that can potentially accumulate in the final product… (There has been increasing research demonstrating the potential health impacts of glyphosate.) “
    • This claim is absurd, and robustly contradicted by numerous sources, including the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection and Office of Pesticide Programs.  It is significant that the claim of “research demonstrating the potential health impacts of glyphosate” is supported by a citation of the retracted work of Seralini, which was so indefensible as to lead one commenter to coin the “Seralini Rule”: “If you favorably cite the 2012 Séralini rats fed on Roundup ready maize study, you just lost the argument.”
  • The authors suggest that the increased use of glyphosate on Roundup Ready soybeans in the US, which has contributed to the selection of glyphosate-tolerant weeds, and resulted in a response of increased doses and/or more applications used per season, may explain the plant tissue accumulation of glyphosate.
    • This claim is speculative, and not supported by the citations provided. Even if it were true, it is a well-known phenomenon (not limited to biotech traits) that extended reliance on a single pest/weed control measure will accelerate the evolution of resistance in target populations.  This is why standard use protocols stipulate that Roundup or any herbicide be used in the course of recommended rotations.  Farmers who have followed such recommended practices have generally not seen the emergence of the types of resistance alleged.
  • “In sum, the data demonstrated that different agricultural practices lead to markedly different end products, i.e. there is no substantial equivalence between the three management systems of herbicide resistant GM, conventional and organic agriculture.”
    • These claims fail on several grounds. The reported differences in soybean composition are small, and well within the ranges reported in the literature for varieties with different genetic backgrounds grown under different conditions (for none of which variables the authors controlled).  This alone makes all the authors claims invalid.
    • Compositional differences of the magnitude reported are so small as to be of negligible biological significance, and likely to result not from any biotech modification but rather from selection over time for increased yields.
    • The principle of Substantial Equivalence is misunderstood and severely abused by the authors, as is usual among biotech opponents.  SE requires that the only difference between two varieties being evaluated stem from a novel biotech derived trait. In the materials and methods section of this paper the authors state that “All samples were collected in Iowa (USA) within a 200 km radius. There were examples of GM-soy and organic soy samples collected within the same town/village (the smallest distance between farms was 5 km). Nine out of ten samples from the conventional soy were sampled in a town or village where most of the GM-soy samples (six out of ten) were also collected. Organic soy and conventional soy samples were not from the same town/village.” In other words, they controlled for none of the known variables responsible for significant differences in composition, and thus are unable to make any claims on these topics.

PUBLISHED ANALYSIS/REBUTTAL:

“A Critical Review…” from THE GMO Skepti-Forum:
http://www.gmosf.org/critical-review-soybean-compositional-differences/

“This paper does not meet minimal scientific standards in design, writing, or proper citations. To begin, a customary introduction should be full of credible references in order to set the stage for the study, however, there are no citations until the fifth paragraph. By that time, we have seen at least 12 statements that the authors do not give any citations for; most are statistics on GM-soy and glyphosate. The authors do not state the sources of this information, thus we cannot know if what they are claiming is supported by evidence…

“This type of experiment has no proper controls for varietal, soil type, grower regime, etc. To be more succinct: the lack of controls presented in this paper, the unreasonably low number of samples per group, and the lack of data on sample variables lead me to believe that their conclusions cannot have any statistical merit…

“The authors claim that there are no pesticide monitoring programs in Canada, the EU, and the USA. This is a blatantly false statement, at least for the USA. There has been a pesticide food-monitoring program run by the FDA and in cooperation with the EPA and the USDA for decades now. The authors then criticize the USA, Canada and the EU for not having these (existing) programs;…

“The authors do not provide any data on date of harvest, nor what was planted in previous years. They state no efforts to standardize sample collection within a field, nor time of collection post pesticide spray. None of these data are provided in the paper. What about flood plain status for the farms? What is the soil composition? What was planted the year before? CRP? Corn? Beets? All this information is crucial to the nutritional content of the crop grown and will affect the quality of the product…  the experimental design is deeply flawed and any data collected will be statistically useless.

“The final nail in the coffin is that this paper cites Serlini et al. Any paper that uses a retracted article needs to immediately come under greater scrutiny. Addiitonally, the Monsanto, 1999 citation is nothing but a broken link to an “internet communication” and not an actual study. As evidence that the authors have failed to state their conflicts of interest, the author J. Fagan has ties to the organization Open Earth Source, which is staunchly anti-GMO. GenØk has been the subject of accusations of lies, fraud, and false information from Klaus Ammann, the respected Chairman EFB Section on Biodiversity from the University of Bern in Bern, Switzerland. The cited paper Benbrook, 2012 is by author Charles Benbrook, who is not a research scientist and whose own studies have come under significant fire for not holding up to basic experimental design. Overall, the authors are not independent scientists, but prove to have agendas that are reflected in their other work and with ties to biased organizations.

In conclusion, this is lazy science, shoddy writing, and a truly deplorable attempt to compare the nutritional quality of organic, conventional, and GM-soy. This study has the feel of a group of people who wanted a certain outcome and designed their experiment in such a way that a handpicked combination of variables would give them the results they were looking for.

 

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About the author

L. Val Giddings is a senior fellow at ITIF with three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He is also president and CEO of PrometheusAB, Inc., providing consulting services on biotechnology issues to governments, multilateral organizations, and industry clients. Before founding PrometheusAB, he served eight years as vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization and a decade as a regulatory official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Giddings received his Ph.D. in genetics and evolutionary biology from the University of Hawaii in 1980.