January 17, 2016
Scientific misconduct and fraud: most of us have no concept of how they influence our food. Jonathan Latham, a scientist with a master’s degree in crop and a Ph.D. in plant virology, sheds much-needed light on this issue.
Together with his wife, Allison Wilson, who is also a scientist, he founded the Bioscience Resource Project, an organization with a mission “to provide the highest quality scientific information and analysis to enable a healthy food system and a healthy world.”
He’s also the editor of Independent Science News.
Part of his career was spent doing medical research in the genetics department at the University of Wisconsin. He also worked in the U.K., where many of his coworkers were proposing ambitious research projects designed to alter soil microbiology and cure plant viruses using novel transgenic techniques.
As explained by Latham in the video, when you make a transgene, you take different parts of genes from different organisms, and you put them together to (hopefully) get them to do what you want them to do.
Once a transgene performs according to expectation, it is used to develop commercial transgenic plants carrying that particular feature. However, Latham noticed that the end results were frequently potentially very dangerous, both to plants and people, which made him question the purpose of it all.
“There were people proposing ideas in molecular genetics and genetic engineering that were incredibly ambitious and interesting to think about from an intellectual perspective, but really quite scary if you thought about what would happen in the real world,” he says.
U.S. Regulatory System Allows Unsafe Products to Be Brought to Market
Eventually he became quite concerned about the potential implications the commercialization of genetically engineered plants might engender.
“I saw these ideas people were having, which had potentially major implications for human health or for the soil, and were risky in my opinion.
I didn’t worry about them too much because I imagined no serious person would take up these ideas, and the regulatory system would work as advertised …
But when I moved to the genetics department, I started looking at the regulatory system in the United States.
I came to realize that the regulatory system was intellectually bankrupt and also corrupt. It wasn’t asking questions that it should’ve been asking. And they were perfectly happy with answers they shouldn’t have been happy with …
Between people making products that I was really unhappy with, and the risk assessment process that wasn’t functioning intellectually … it didn’t take me long to realize that you can put 2 and 2 together here and see that bad products are going to come on the market.
Scientific Profession Is Ruled by Secret Culture of Fear
It’s not uncommon for people to be fired from their academic positions or blackballed in the scientific community when disagreeing with the status quo, but fortunately that did not happen in Dr. Latham’s case.
He decided to resign instead, in the late 1990s, after becoming dispirited with the scientific profession. He did see it happen to another virologist however.
“He published a couple of papers, skeptical of the idea that you can put virus genes into transgenic plants and expect nothing to go wrong. He was hounded out of his position and had to take a position in a completely different branch of science to still get grants.
This is a real thing that scientists are facing: professional intimidation, harassment, and personal effects.
Sometimes they lose their jobs over these issues. So there’s a culture of fear in the scientific community. Scientists don’t like to discuss it because it implies all sorts of things about academic freedom and so on. But it’s a real thing.”
After quitting his job with the Genetics department at the University of Wisconsin, he and his wife worked on an organic farm in England and raised a child. Still people would ask him to get involved in GMO issues, asking him to give talks and explain various issues to laypeople.
He eventually got drawn back in when the British government was setting up field trials under false pretenses.
“They were trying to bamboozle people with scientific information that, in my opinion, was incorrect,” he says.
“They were trying to convince the legal system, the media, and the rest of the public that these projects were perfectly well-understood scientific experiments, and that there was nothing to worry about — most of which I disagreed with, so I ended up getting drawn back into all these issues.”
Genetic Engineering Is an Imprecise Science
Latham and Wilson,ended up writing a scientific paper,1 published in 2006, which reviews what happens when you put a transgenic DNA into the genome of a plant.
Prior to that, no one had ever collected the data to show whether or not the biotech industry was correct in saying that the process of genetic engineering was precise.
“They wanted to argue that this is much more precise than conventional plant breeding, in which you don’t know what’s going on because you’re just crossing plants together. They wanted to argue that their methodology was very precise. We wanted to test that thesis,” he says.
Together with Wilson, he collected a vast amount of data showing the process of plant transformation through genetic engineering was making a mess of plant genomes.2 The process caused:
- Unexpected gene mutations
- Movement and activation of transposons
- DNA damage
Moreover, most genetically engineered (GE) plants contain more than one transgene: some of the plants they evaluated had as many as 40 different transgenes in them.
They even discovered that some of the now commercially available GE plants had transgene insertions that were so complicated the companies themselves had actually given up trying to get to the bottom of how much damage had been done to the plant’s DNA. It was simply too difficult to do so.
“The more complex and damaging the DNA effects are, the more difficult it is to do the research. We published this in the peer-reviewed literature. It was very important in our view because the whole risk assessment process, and the whole of the reassurance process for the public, depends on the idea that we know what we’re doing, and that what we’re doing is precise. None of those things were true,” he says.