Reader says AMA was misquoted
I am writing to respond to the Back Page, written by George L. Blackburn, M.D., entitled “Feeding 9 Billion People—A Job for Food Technologists” in the June 2001 issue of Food Technology (p. 106).
Dr. Blackburn states in the fourth paragraph of his article: “The American Medical Association recently endorsed biotechnology’s human and environmental safety.” With all due respect, I must inform you the editor, the author Dr. Blackburn, and the readers of Food Technology that this statement is incorrect. The American Medical Association (AMA) did indeed endorse many aspects of Genetically Modified Crops and Foods. However, they did not endorse its environmental effects. In fact, the AMA’s year-long investigation into Genetically Modified Crops and Foods resulted in a very powerful recommendation for a thorough investigation into the effects of Genetically Modified Crops and Foods on the environment. The AMA noted that environmental effects of Genetically Modified Crops and Foods remain largely unknown and that potentially detrimental effects could occur. This very recommendation was one of the AMA’s strongest recommendations, if not the strongest.
Below I provide excerpts from the AMA Report 10 of the Council on Scientific Affairs (I-00), Genetically Modified Crops and Foods. The entire report can be found at www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/article/2036-3604.html. A visit to the URL will quickly confirm the facts I state above, as both the Conclusions and the Recommendations—clearly stated at the outset of the report— confirm the AMA’s concern with the environmental effects of Genetically Modified Crops and Foods.
“Conclusions. Federal regulatory oversight of agricultural biotechnology should be science-based. Methods to assure the safety of foods derived from genetically modified crops should continue to be refined and improved. Although no untoward effects have been detected, the use of antibiotic markers that encode resistance to clinically important antibiotics should be avoided if possible. Genetic modification of plants could potentially lead to detrimental consequences to the environment. Therefore, a broad-based plan to study environmental issues should be instituted. There is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods, as a class, and voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education. Government, industry, and the scientific and medical communities have a responsibility to educate the public and improve the availability of unbiased information on genetically modified crops and research activities.”
“Recommendations: The AMA supports continued research into the potential consequences to the environment of genetically modified crops including the: (a) assessment of the impacts of pest-protected crops on nontarget organisms compared to impacts of standard agricultural methods, through rigorous field evaluations; (b) assessment of gene flow and its potential consequences including key factors that regulate weed populations; rates at which pest resistance genes from the crop would be likely to spread among weed and wild populations; and the impact of novel resistance traits on weed abundance; (c) implementation of resistance management practices and continued monitoring of their effectiveness; and (d) development of monitoring programs to assess ecological impacts of pest-protected crops that may not be apparent from the results of field tests.”
I hope you print my letter, as it is imperative that an organization such as the AMA not be misquoted and that their science-based recommendations be known by stakeholders in the food industry.
—Carol T. Culhane, President, International Food Focus Ltd., Toronto, Canada
Author presents AMA’s position
I appreciate the opportunity to expand on the AMA’s Council on Scientific Affairs (CSA) report on Genetically Modified Crops and Food (AMA, 2001). I highly recommend its careful and complete reading.
I have been a member of the AMA for over 30 years, and in 1998 received that organization’s Joseph Goldberger award in clinical nutrition. I have also served as a consultant and on working groups for the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs—the Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division, which regulates substances used for pest control under the jurisdiction of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA); parts of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; and the Food and Drug Administration’s working group for Food Safety.
CSA’s mission is to assure the position of AMA as the national leader in advancing the science of medicine as a primary mechanism for improving the quality of patient care, enhancing medical progress, and enhancing the health of the public. Recommendations of CSA have been approved by the House of Delegates of AMA, and are the official Policy of AMA.
AMA recognizes that the government, industry, and scientific and medical communities have a responsibility to educate the public and improve the availability of unbiased information on genetically modified crops and research activities.
CSA defined its mission in its response to the House of Delegates’ request: “That the American Medical Association study the issue of genetically modified foods and issue a report back to the House of Delegates.” In brief, Council members reviewed the technology used to produce transgenic crops, and examined issues relevant to the utilization of transgenic crops and genetically modified foods, including the current regulatory framework, possible human health effects, potential environmental impacts, and other consumer-related issues.
Largely because increased efforts by activists have aroused consumer concern about genetically modified (GM) foods and the possibility of international trade disputes, several scientific and governmental bodies have issued reports on selected aspects of GM crops and foods in the last two years (Haslberger, 2000; NRC, 2000; Royal Society, 1999; WHO/FAO, 2000; OECD, 2000; Royal Society et al., 2000; IFST, 1999; EMBO, 2000; Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 1999; BMA, 1999; U.S. House of Representatives, 2000). This report considers their findings and conclusions in explaining the processes for introducing transgenes into plants and the regulation of transgenic crops and GM foods in the United States, and in discussing potential risks and benefits of these with respect to human health and the environment. Key issues related to consumer choice, food labeling, and global food production were also examined.
Eleven reports issued over the last two years by various scientific and governmental bodies on selected aspects of GM crops were reviewed. Additionally, literature searches were conducted in the MEDLINE database and Lexis/Nexis GenMed library for articles between 1990 and September 2000 using the terms “genetic engineering” combined with “food microbiology,” “food technology,” “agriculture,” “plants, edible,” “food,” and “crops, agricultural.” A secondary search was conducted for articles between 1995 and September 2000 using the search term “plants, transgenic.” References containing information relevant to the safety, regulation, and environmental impact of transgenic crops and foods were examined further. Additional references were culled from the bibliographies of these pertinent references. The World Wide Web was searched for information using the search terms “genetically modified foods” or “genetically modified crops,” revealing several links to additional scientific and regulatory sites.
More than 40 transgenic crop varieties with enhanced agronomic and/or nutritional characteristics or one or more features of pest protection (insect and viruses) and tolerance to herbicides have been cleared through the federal review process. The most widely used transgenic, pest-protected plants express insecticidal proteins derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Crops and foods produced using recombinant DNA techniques have been available for fewer than 10 years, and no long-term effects have been detected to date. These foods are substantially equivalent to their conventional counterparts. Genetic engineering is capable of introducing allergens into recipient plants, but the overall risks of introducing an allergen into the food supply are believed to be similar to or less than that associated with conventional breeding methods. The risk of horizontal gene transfer from plants to environmental bacteria or from plant products consumed as food to gut microorganisms or human cells is generally acknowledged to be negligible, but one that cannot be completely discounted. Pest-resistance due to exposure to Bt-containing plants has not occurred to date, and harmful effects on nontarget organisms, which have been detected in the laboratory, have not been observed in the field. Nevertheless, these and other possible environmental effects remain areas of concern.
The following statements, recommended by CSA, were adopted as AMA Policy at the 2000 Interim AMA Meeting:
“1. The AMA recognizes the continuing validity of the three major conclusions contained in the 1987 National Academy of Sciences white paper, ‘Introduction of Recombinant DNA-Engineered Organisms into the Environment.’
“2. Federal regulatory oversight of agricultural biotechnology should continue to be science-based and guided by the characteristics of the plant, its intended use, and the environment into which it is to be introduced—not by the method used to produce it—in order to facilitate comprehensive, efficient regulatory review of new genetically modified crops and foods.
“3. The AMA believes (as of December 2000) that there is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods, as a class, and that voluntary labeling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education.
“4. The AMA supports efforts for the systematic safety assessment of genetically modified foods and encourages: (a) development and validation of additional techniques for the detection and/or assessment of unintended effects; (b) continued use of methods to detect substantive changes in nutrient or toxicant levels in genetically modified foods as part of a substantial equivalence evaluation; (c) development and use of alternative transformation technologies to avoid utilization of antibiotic resistance markers that code for clinically relevant antibiotics, where feasible; and (d) that priority should be given to basic research in food allergenicity to support the development of improved methods for identifying potential allergens.
“5. The AMA supports continued research into the potential consequences to the environment of genetically modified crops, including the: (a) assessment of the impacts of pest-protected crops on nontarget organisms compared to impacts of standard agricultural methods through rigorous field evaluations; (b) assessment of gene flow and its potential consequences including key factors that regulate weed populations; rates at which pest resistance genes from the crop would be likely to spread among weed and wild populations; and the impact of novel resistance traits on weed abundance; (c) implementation of resistance management practices and continued monitoring of their effectiveness; and (d) development of monitoring programs to assess ecological impacts of pest-protected crops that may not be apparent from the results of field tests.
“6. The AMA recognizes the many potential benefits offered by genetically modified crops and foods, does not support a moratorium on planting genetically modified crops, and encourages ongoing research developments in food biotechnology.”
I think we can assume that the report endorses all the statements equally. With regard to the safety of GM crops and the environment, the report states:
“Since 1987, more than 25,000 field trials of GM plants have been carried out in 45 countries without adverse environmental consequences. The relevance of environmental data obtained from small field trials to large-scale sowing on several million acres of land has been questioned; however, it has been estimated that in 1999, 200 million acres of land have been planted worldwide with transgenic crops with no adverse environmental consequences (James, 2000). Major concerns relate to the potential for pest resistance, outcrossing with weedy relatives, and reduced biodiversity.”
Statement 5 indicates that AMA believes that these environmental effects are only hypothetical at this time. AMA finds no reason to stop planting biotech crops. Similar statements are reported by the Human Development Report 2001, commissioned by the United Nation’s Development Program (UNDP, 2001). The report concludes that many developing countries might reap great benefits from GM foods, crops, and other organisms. While acknowledging that there are environmental and health risks that need to be addressed, the report stresses the unique potential of GM techniques for creating virus-resistant, drought-tolerant, and nutrient-enhanced crops. Any risks that are discovered would not be expected to be unusual for agriculture, since traditional methods have posed risks. Biotech crops could significantly reduce malnutrition, which still affects more than 800 million people worldwide, and would be especially valuable for poor farmers working marginal lands in sub-Saharan Africa, an area facing another pending threat of drought and famine (Rader, 2001).
I repeat my call for food technologists to join the challenge to develop new solutions aimed at feeding the world’s growing population.
—George L. Blackburn M.D, Division of Nutrition, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass.
Give credit where due
I read the articles on mycoprotein in the July 2001 issue of Food Technology (pp. 36–50) with considerable interest since I was involved in research in this field in the 1960s and 1970s and am familiar with the ICI-RHM development work that led to the creation of the Marlow Foods venture. Although a flow sheet of the process was given in the article by Graham Rodger, no mention or reference was made in either the Rodger or the David Wilson articles of the extensive development work conducted by Dr. Gerald Solomons and his associates at RHM making this process and product commercially possible. This work is adequately documented in the scientific and patent literature (see Solomons, G.L. 1985. Production of biomass by filamentous fungi. In “Comprehensive Biotechnology,” Vol. 3, ed. H.W. Blanch, S. Drew, and D.I.C.Wang, pp. 483-505, Pergamon Press, Oxford and New York; Solomons, G.L.and G.A. LeGrys. 1981. U.S. patent 4,256,839; Solomons, G.L.and Scammell, G.W. 1976. U.S. patent 3,937,654).
Later, on p. 84 of the July issue, a news item entitled “Food science students create prize winning carrot candy” does not give the names of the two graduate students at Ohio State, Cavit Bircan and Oya Sipahioglu, who worked very hard on developing this product for the award. Not mentioning their names is certainly a serious omission.
I urge that the editorial staff give special attention to submissions to make certain that the scientists and technologists involved in developments get proper recognition in IFT’s technological journal.
—John H. Litchfield, 1991–92 IFT President, Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, Ohio
Author Rodger’s response: All who are, or have been, associated with the development of mycoprotein as a food ingredient are aware of the tremendous contribution of Gerald Solomons and his colleagues to the area, especially the fermentation process involved. This contribution is tacitly recognized in the section of the article by David Wilson (p. 48) entitled “The Beginning,” where the role of RHM and its research team in the original activity is acknowledged, but because of the nature of the articles submitted, making reference to all of the published work relating to the development of mycoprotein was not feasible. It should also be considered that bringing a new food to market involves a lot of input from a wide range of disciplines over a long period of time. In review articles of the type we submitted to Food Technology, listing all personal contributions really becomes impossible.
Editor’s response: Dr. Litchfield is absolutely right in saying that credit should be given where due. Regarding the Ohio State students, their names were inadvertently omitted from the news item on p. 84, and we apologize to Cavit Bircan and Oya Sipahioglu and our readers for that.
Antioxidant article appreciated
Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed—and learned from—Donald Pszczola’s antioxidant piece in the June issue (“Antioxidants: From Preserving Food Quality to Quality of Life,” p. 51). I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that the things humans have been eating for millennia are chock full of beneficial substances and life-sustaining properties. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here in the first place!
Naturally we’re most grateful for the mention of blueberries in your piece, especially the reference to the antioxidant muffin. The enormity of the material you obviously had to sift through and evaluate for such an article is, I’m sure, staggering, and so we are doubly appreciative. On behalf of the North American Blueberry Council, thanks so much.
—Jeannette Ferrary, Thomas J. Payne Market Development, San Mateo, Calif.
Several readers have called to say that they were not able to contact David Wilson, author of the article, “Marketing Mycoprotein: The Quorn Foods Story” (July, p. 48), at the address given for him in Greenwich, Conn. The company is actually located in Riverside, Conn., a section of Greenwich. The phone number is 203-698-2529.
AMA. 2001. Genetically modified crops and foods. Am. Med. Assn. www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/article/2036-4030.html, last updated 4/23/01.
BMA. 1999. The impact of genetic modification on agriculture, food and health. Brit. Med. Assn. British Medical Journal Publishing Group, London.
EMBO. 2000. Statement on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the public. European Molecular Biology Org., Heidelberg, Germany.
Haslberger A.G. 2000. Policy forum: Genetic technologies: Monitoring and labeling for genetically modified products. Science 287: 431-432.
IFST. 1999. Genetic modification and food. Inst. of Food Science & Technology, London.
James, C. 2000. Global review of commercialized transgenic crops: 1999. www.isaaa.org/Global%20Review%201999/briefs12cj.htm, accessed 11/7/00.
NRC. 2000. “Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants: Science and Regulation.” Natl. Res. Council. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
Nuffield Council on Bioethics. 1999. Genetically modified crops: The ethical and social issues. Nuffield Council on Bioethics, London.
OECD. 2000. GM food safety: Facts, uncertainties, and assessment. Org. for Economic Cooperation and Development, Meckenheim, Germany.
Rader, C.M. 2001. A report on genetically engineered crops. http://members.tripod.com/c_rader0/gemod.htm, accessed 7/30/01.
Royal Society. 1999. GMOs and the environment. The Royal Society, London.
Royal Society, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Brazilian Academy of Sciences, et al. 2000. “Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture.” National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
UNDP. 2001. Making new technologies work for human development. Human development report 2001. United Nations Development Programme. Oxford University Press, pp. 65-78. www.undp.org/hdr2001/chapterthree.pdf, accessed 7/27/01.
U.S. House of Representatives. 2000. Seeds of opportunity: An assessment of the benefits, safety, and oversight of plant genomics and agricultural biotechnology. Washington, D.C.
WHO/FAO. 2000. Safety aspects of genetically modified foods of plant origin. World Health Org. and Food and Agriculture Org., Geneva, Switzerland.