A scientist’s journey from devout GMO believer to skeptic

By Ken Roseboro
Published: February 28, 2014
Category: Food Health Risks

Belinda Martineau, Ph.D.

Belinda Martineau, Ph.D.

“There are many imprecise aspects of genetic engineering, many related to our very incomplete knowledge about genetics and genomics. That is why regulation of every product of this technology should be required and why they should be labeled.”

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GM tomato developer is now skeptical about the promises of GM foods

Belinda Martineau, Ph.D. was a genetic engineer who helped develop the world’s first commercially available genetically engineered whole food, the Flavr Savr™ tomato. But during the development of that tomato, she says “was transformed from a devout believer in the promise of agricultural biotechnology into a skeptic wary of its uncertainties.”

Belinda now works in academic research. She wrote a book about the Flavr Savr and her personal transformation, First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr™ Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food, and occasionally gives talks to promote discussion of the technology, “warts and all,” as she puts it. She also publishes a blog, Biotech Salon (www.biotechsalon.com), where she aims to “clear the entire situation” about the science supporting genetic engineering.

Tell me about your involvement in developing the Flavr Savr genetically modified tomato.

Belinda Martineau: I carried out experiments and library research and coordinated outside researchers the company hired to carry out additional studies, and helped write the documents Calgene, Inc. submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration to demonstrate the safety of the Flavr Savr tomato.

What led the Flavr Savr team to promote and label the tomato as GM?

Martineau: I give credit for Calgene’s transparency, and the decision to label Flavr Savr tomatoes as “Grown from Genetically Modified Seeds” specifically to the company’s CEO at the time, Roger Salquist. We had nothing to hide, and Roger thought consumers would be more accepting of the product if we were completely above board about it.

What caused the failure of the Flavr Savr tomato in the marketplace?

Martineau: The GM trait, meant to keep tomatoes firmer while they ripened naturally on the vine, didn’t keep them sufficiently firm to allow trucking them to market on a large scale; Calgene spent more money getting the tomatoes to market in good shape than it charged for them in the grocery store.

What led you to become skeptical about GM foods?

Martineau: The major incident was when the FDA asked us whether we were sure that only the DNA we intended to insert into the tomato’s DNA was actually inserted. After we answered “yes” they asked us to carry out the experiments that would demonstrate that that was indeed the case. In fact, the experiments showed that in 30% of the tomato plants, sometimes more, much more DNA—DNA that was not well characterized and usually contained an additional antibiotic resistance gene—was inserted into our plants.

The Calgene scientists weren’t aware how this added DNA got into the tomatoes?

Martineau: We did not expect the additional DNA to be inserted and, as far as I know, scientists still haven’t figured out how to avoid this from happening.

There has been one case of a GM crop plant, called Bt10, which contained such extra DNA, including a gene conferring resistance to the antibiotic ampicillin. Fortunately, the crop developer pulled the product from the market.

What are other risks do you see with genetic engineering of foods?

Martineau: There can be risks associated with the genes being inserted. For example, the gene inserted into StarLink corn failed multiple tests designed to determine whether it could be a human allergen. The FDA and Center for Disease Control were worried enough about StarLink corn’s possible allergenicity that the US corn crop was monitored for the presence of that GM corn for seven years after it was taken off the market. The gene in another GM corn crop, Bt176, was found to present a much higher risk to Monarch butterfly larvae than other Bt corn crops.

There are also risks associated with the fact that genetic engineers have no control over where in a plant’s DNA their gene will land and they often land in another gene, mutating that gene. Unexpected changes can occur in GM plants as a result of such unintended insertions–and other possible mutations.

John Vandermeer, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, has said that genetic engineering is based on “dramatically incomplete knowledge of the genome,” which he compares to a complex ecosystem. Do you agree with that perspective?

Martineau: I agree with Dr. Vandermeer. Genetic engineering is based on the reductionist belief that taking a gene out of its context in one organism and inserting it—essentially randomly—into another organism’s genome comprises a “precise” process that requires minimal regulatory oversight before being sold in grocery stores for human food.

I heard a plant scientist claim that “we know exactly what we’re doing” with genetic engineering and then ask audience members to support grants for plant science because “there’s a lot we still don’t know about plant genomes.” It might be laughable if this situation wasn’t affecting the food system in the US and worldwide.

There are many imprecise aspects of genetic engineering, many related to our very incomplete knowledge about genetics and genomics. That is why regulation of every product of this technology should be required and why they should be labeled.

What was your reaction to Professor Seralini’s study, which found harm to rats fed GM corn, being retracted by the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology?

Martineau: I realize that there are issues with the number and strain of rat used and whether Seralini’s results are test article-related. But I still think that the best way to resolve the controversy is to repeat the experiments using many more, and, perhaps a different strain of, rats.

To retract a paper for being inconclusive is highly unusual and this entire incident “represents a dangerous erosion of the underpinnings of the peer-review process....” to quote an editorial in the current issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

What are your thoughts about labeling GM foods?

Martineau: This is America. In this capitalist society we have a right to know what we’re buying in grocery stores to feed our families. And in this democracy we have a right to vote for or against a technology with our pocketbooks. These products are labeled in some 60 other countries; they should be labeled in the United States as well.

Calgene’s tomato, the only example of a GM food that has been labeled in this country, was well received by consumers. This may have been because the company was transparent and up front with consumers.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association recently formed a “Coalition for Safe Affordable Food” comprising food and agriculture industry groups to lobby the government for voluntary labeling standards and to pre-empt state labeling laws. What are your thoughts about this?

Martineau: This is just a move to undermine the labeling laws being put in place in individual states around the United States. There is no need for a federal volunteer labeling law; developers of GM foods can already voluntarily label their products just as we did at Calgene. Most Americans want GM foods labeled, they’ve indicated as much for decades now, and the FDA has failed us in this regard.

Shame on our government if it gives in to the GMA, especially after what they did (to defeat GMO labeling) in the recent Washington state election.

With the polarized debate over GMO foods do you think there is room for middle ground? Martineau: I feel I’m on the middle ground. I’m not against the use of the technology; but when science moves out of the lab and onto the plates of consumers we must be more cautious about it. We scientists must explain what is imprecise and could pose potential problems as well as what is precise about the technology so that society as a whole can make informed decisions about how to use and regulate such a technology.

There is not enough transparency about genetic engineering technology right now and that contributes to consumer wariness about it.


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