GMO spokesman turned GMO whistleblower
interview by Tsiporah Grignon
Dr. Thierry Vrain, a former soil biologist and genetic scientist, worked for Agriculture Canada for 30 years. He was the designated spokesperson to assure the public of the safety of GMO crops. Since retiring 10 years ago, after taking into account scientific evidence ignored by most of the bio-tech industry promoters and government regulators, Dr. Vrain has reversed that position and now warns of the dangers from GMOs.
Tsiporah Grignon: Was there a pivotal event when you reversed your position on GMOs?
Dr. Thierry Vrain: As a scientist working for the government, I didn't question the status quo or dogma. I just did my work and was the person designated from the institute to reassure the public, so I was very busy. When I retired, my wife and I began an organic farm where I started to discover new things about soil biology never taught in graduate school. Not being on the payroll anymore, I had the freedom to read different sources and look at genetic engineering from new perspectives. That is how I first became aware of the possibility that GMOs were not all rosy and perfect.
Q: It is astounding that people don’t question the very idea of altering DNA. When Monsanto or others claim a genetically modified organism is “substantially equivalent” to the conventional plant, it’s illogical to me because when DNA is altered, the plant is altered. It’s not the same and it’s certainly not natural.
A: That depends on your view of the world. As a scientist, when you add a bacteria gene to a plant, or a plant gene to a fish, or a human gene to corn, or 10,000 acres of corn growing insulin – they consider it progress. So if a tomato plant has a bacterial gene, it still looks very much like a tomato plant. You couldn’t tell very much from the taste of the tomato so there is something easy about believing in “substantial equivalence.”
Q: What do you think of Big Biotech claims that they have the answer to feeding the world, increasing crop yields, decreasing use of pesticides and herbicides, and lowering costs?
A: Charles Benbrook, head of the Union of Concerned Scientists from California, who put together the statistics from the USDA to see if there was an increase in yield, discovered that there is no increase in yield, and, in fact, there is a slight decrease, that some of the engineered crops are not as good as the conventional crops. Herbicide use is actually increasing. People are really concerned because there are now Super Weeds resistant to this technology. The GE herbicide is basically useless when the weeds become resistant. This was predicted 25 years ago. Same thing happened with insect resistance. It builds up, so if there is a saving of insecticide today, it will disappear in the next few years. Farmers are now encouraged to spray insecticide on the Bt crops so the insects don’t become resistant to the particular genetically engineered technology… it’s madness!
Q: As a soil biologist, what are the effects of GMO crops on the soil?
A: Roundup (Monsanto’s herbicide) is a chelator; it holds manganese, magnesium and a few other minerals. It holds the minerals and doesn’t let go so basically it starves the plant. It probably also starves many other creatures in the soil, but I don’t think that is documented.
Q: Have you read Prof. Huber’s research on glyphosate, a main active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide?
A: Don Huber studied the effect of Roundup on the decrease of nutrients in the plant. I spent time with him two years ago so I am reasonably familiar with what he has written. There is something interesting about your question about the GMO plant’s effect on the soil. The GMO plant is a plant with a new gene that has been inserted somewhere and usually with a gene that makes for the trait, e.g. a bacterial gene that would make a protein that could kill caterpillars. But when you engineer a plant, it is a random process. You need a way to select for the cells to be engineered because not every cell is engineered. And until very recently, the way to do that was to insert another gene (at least the gene you want), an antibiotic resistant gene, usually bacterial genes. And that antibiotic resistance gene is in the genome; it’s in the roots, it can go into the soil, so that can be picked up by the bacteria in the soil. There is a publication out of China, from the University of Szechuan, where researchers have shown that every river in the sample contained antibiotic resistance gene that, in all probability, came from the local transgenic plants.
Q: What did The Human Genome Project discover?
A: In the cells of every living organism are three major kinds of molecules: carbohydrates made by plant photosynthesis from sunlight and lipids and proteins. The carbs and lipids don’t move; they just sit there. The proteins do the work because they move. Every molecule of protein can twitch, make a movement, and that twitch can do something. That molecule can twitch another molecule and affect something in the cell and that’s what proteins do. Proteins are what make life because life is movement. So when you want to engineer a plant what you are actually doing is engineering a protein in the plant so that the protein will do something new in the plant, such as herbicide or insect resistance.
The Human Genome Project was finished in 2002. It took 10 years to sequence the whole genome of a person. The whole genome was deciphered. That was a very important point because the human body functions with about 100,000 proteins. It’s been well known since the late 1940s that DNA calls for proteins and the hypothesis of the 1940s was the “one gene, one protein hypothesis.” The dogma of molecular biology for the last 70 years was that each gene calls for a protein. So they believed if you have 100,000 proteins in your body, you will have 100,000 genes or more. Except when the Human Genome Project was completed we realized we only have 20,000 genes in our body. So 20,000 genes can make (causes the creation of) 100,000 proteins? The math does not add up and that’s what I am referring to. In fact, in 2002, the dogma of the one gene one protein hypothesis became null and void; it just doesn’t work that way.
What we discovered was that the genome of any living organism is a much more complex eco-system where 95% of the DNA is actually regulating the other 5% of that code for proteins. OK, you have a new DNA, about 5% of the DNA that is actually coding for protein in the genes. The rest is all kinds of DNA we have no idea how it works. When I was in graduate school, and later as a genetic engineer, it was called Junk DNA [laughter]. When you engineer a plant, you put a gene in the plant. That gene is going to make a protein. And that gene can go anywhere in the plant because you have no control. It goes anywhere in the genome, anywhere in the chromosome. And that gene is now under a regulatory sequence that it was not naturally regulated by before.
There are a good number of studies now showing that engineered plants have proteins that are quite different than the proteins that are expected, so-called rogue proteins. These proteins are truncated; they are different. They might function as a protein to kill caterpillars, for example. Or they might not. But they are different and that difference has not been investigated. Basically, the dogma is you put in a gene and you get the protein you want. So much so that the regulatory agencies, when they want to test for the safety of genetically engineered crops, all they need to show is that the protein that was inserted into the plant is safe, but they don’t go and test the new protein actually created in the plant.
Q: So unintended consequences are not even looked at, never mind ignored.
Q: So how can they get away with calling GMOs safe?
A: Before the Human Genome Project, there was the one gene, one protein theory. Scientists simply thought you take a gene from a bacteria and put it in another bacteria, that you will get the protein you want and the effect you want. So it’s considered substantially equivalent.
Q: Have they ignored the results of the Human Genome Project?
A: I think that the consequences of the Human Genome Project are conveniently ignored. As soon as you start questioning that, and you say, OK, there may be more than one protein in the plant other than the protein intended, you bring in the regulations from the FDA and they are very clear: that if you are putting something on the market that is not substantially equivalent, something that is a little bit different, something that has a new protein or proteins are a little bit different, or the nutrients are a little bit different, then automatically they must do testing. Since 1996, they have completely waived responsibility, saying it’s completely substantially equivalent, claiming there are no differences, therefore companies don’t even need to look at them or do any substantial testing for safety!
Q: The 2008 film The World According to Monsanto exposed the revolving door between the bio-tech industry and government.
A: I read that Dr. Shiv Chopra was offered a million dollars to close his eyes and sign off on the RBGH incident but he refused and was fired because he just wouldn’t shut up. [Editor’s Note: Drs. Shiv Chopra, Margaret Haydon and Gérard Lambert are former Health Canada scientists who were dismissed for “insubordination” in 2004 after publicly expressing serious reservations about the approval of products they believed would harm the food chain and ultimately threaten the well-being of Canadians. A cross Canada public speaking tour, starting in BC, with Dr. Chopra and Dr. Vrain, is in the planning stage for the second half of November.]
Q: Are you still in touch with some of your GE colleagues and are they aware of your turnabout?
A: No. You can now see how it is possible for scientists to ignore major sources of information.
Q: How can scientists operate independently when their paycheque depends on supporting a specific point of view?
A: When I started 30 years ago, I was given a lab, a technical assistant and a small budget and basically the game was play in the lab and make sure you publish and the more you publish, the better. So it was called ‘publish or perish.’ But something happened 25 years ago; the game changed. When I started, corporate sponsors were not allowed. I could not go to Monsanto and say, “Are you interested in me doing some work in my lab and for a small grant I could do research for you.” But 25 years ago, it became allowed and then it became very strongly encouraged to seek corporate funding. The more Industry was interested in your project, the more outside money you could have. That was a sign that you were doing good work because you were getting extra funding so the government didn’t have to give you money for your lab. So more and more that became the thing of the day, and, of course, there was lots of money for molecular biology. Others complained that all the money went to molecular biology in the late 80s and early 90s. Not only that, if you were successful and hit on a really good project, you could patent. So from ‘publish or perish’ we went to ‘patent and get rich.’
Now a lot of scientists get grants from biotech companies. When you get a half a million dollar grant, you have five graduate students, three post docs and a big lab and now you’re professor so and so because you have a big lab with lots of money flowing. But if you publish results that are not acceptable to companies such as Monsanto, your corporate grant is going to dry up.
Q: I read in Seeds of Deception about the random insertion of the genes, that there is no way it can be precise, which you have confirmed. So why do scientists claim precision when genetically altering nature?
A: It is about the money. Again, it becomes very important for the biotech companies to push aside the studies that are not confirming the corporate line or questioning safety. But it’s simpler. Most investors in the biotech companies just want to make money… it’s the bottom line. They may think if they can get away with selling it then why not?
Q: Are they still getting away with it?
A: They are getting away with it. You may be questioning it; you may be avoiding GMOs and I certainly am and we may be kicking the giants. But, really, quite frankly, they (have no shame) buying the courts, the governments and the Senate.
Q: But they didn’t fully buy everybody in Europe … there’s enough resistance in Europe.
A: No they didn’t buy everyone in Europe, but they sure tried. There are basically about five countries in the world that grow GMO crops… India, Argentina, Canada, the US and a couple of others and there’s some 20 countries that actually do not require labeling or have no restrictions. All over Europe there is labeling and as soon as you have labeling, there are no more GMOs because people don’t want them.
Q: In Canada we are battling to stop GMO alfalfa and the non-browning apple.
A: The non-browning apple began in my lab in Summerland, BC. Somebody got the bright idea of how can we make money. Well, we were in apple country, so what about the technology out of Australia to silence the gene that browns the apple, and therefore have an apple that never goes brown? But the growers are against it and the organic growers are up in arms.
Q: You referred to a 120-page study GMO Myths and Truths released in June of 2012.
A: It’s a document put together by genetic engineers Dr. Michael Antoniou and Dr. John Fagan with Claire Robinson, an investigative journalist. It’s a compilation of articles and government reports, most of them questioning the safety of GMOs. It was published in June so the Seralini study wasn’t in there. It represents a lot of work, mostly from independent labs in Europe and it shows GM crops don’t yield more. It does go into what I call genetic pollution: that engineered crops are releasing their pollen so the genes are released in the environment, whether it’s bacteria or other plants.
Q: If you have terminator genes, do they pollinate?
A: Terminator genes are an interference technology where the seed or pollen becomes infertile.
Q: So it’s possible to pass on infertility?
A: Yes, it is. That’s why so many people are concerned about it. Imagine if you had a field of corn with a gene for infertility and the gene spread around to the whole agricultural area and was picked up from other crops.
Q: So, in other words, pollen from a terminator plant can turn another plant into another terminator plant… That could be the end of all life on Earth as we know it?
A: That’s why Monsanto was stopped in 1995. They wanted to test and commercialize it. You see, the engineered crops are patented; corporations don’t want people to keep [their own] seed because if farmers keep seeds, the patent holder loses money. You have to buy seeds every year from them. By making the seeds infertile, then nobody would keep the seeds. We are talking famine here … insanity. But Monsanto did acquire the terminator technology and they might try bringing it out again.
Q: As somebody interested in quality food and how it is grown, are you hopeful?
A: My wife is a herbalist and works with our chef at the farm because we believe a healthy diet is incredibly important. We need that connection between what we eat and who we are. If you just go to the store and buy the cheapest food full of calories and very little nutrition, you’re going to get sick.
This conversation with a GMO whistleblower was sobering. We now know uncomfortable truths about GMOs and the biotech companies that profit from them. In this interview, we learned from a former insider how genetic engineering is an imprecise technology, lacks safety tests, that GMO crops contaminate other crops, and how the scientific method gets abused for money. Dr. Thierry Vrain changed and is now an organic farmer. He realized that the way to feed the world is to create and support sustainable farms working with nature.
It is our duty to stop biotech crime against nature. You can make a difference. Learn more and get involved. We are not alone. Participate with millions of people taking part in the Global Day of Action Against GMOs in more than 600 cities world-wide on Saturday, October 12. It is the biggest single event ever to take place opposing a Biotech Company. See more at http://www.march-against-monsanto.com/
GE Free BC and Greenpeace Vancouver are excited to announce "Genetically Engineered Foods and Human Health," a Canadian Speaker's Tour to spread awareness, educate and share concerns about genetically engineered foods. The cross-Canada tour features Dr. Thierry Vrain, a former genetic scientist for Agriculture Canada for 30 years and Dr. Shiv Chopra, a scientist who worked at Health Canada for 35 years, and a tireless protector of the food supply worldwide.
Special event co-sponsored by Common Ground
Drs. Thierry Vrain and Shiv Chopra give a talk, Tuesday Nov. 19, 7PM, Canadian Memorial United Church in the Sanctuary. The church is next to the Centre for Peace, corner of 15th & Burrard. Free street parking. Bus Route 033. This is a by-donation event.
This article appeared in the OCTOBER 2013 print edition © Common Ground magazine
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