Either Simpson didn’t actually read the book or he has deliberately misrepresented it, writes Steven M. Druker
Terry Simpson, a medical doctor who professes expert knowledge about genetically engineered food, has written what purports to be a review of my book that attempts to discredit it; and his critique continues to be widely cited by biotech proponents as proof that it’s unsound. But in trying to discredit my book, Simpson has only discredited himself. His claims about the book are so inaccurate, and in several cases so preposterous, they reveal that he failed to read substantial parts of it ? or else has deliberately misrepresented a lot of what he did read. In either case, his purported review is fraudulent, and it has unfairly tarnished the book’s image in many peoples’ eyes.
Moreover, far from demonstrating the book’s infirmity, the inaccuracy ? and inanity ? of Simpson’s allegations attest its solidity, because if it were truly filled with fallacies, he could have readily refuted it without resorting to deception. Thus, he has unwittingly bolstered one of the book’s major themes: that the proponents of GE foods have been unable to defend them without employing systematic misrepresentation.
The following paragraphs expose the falsity of his main contentions.
Unfounded assertions about the book’s infirmities
Simpson proclaims that the book is “filled with logical fallacies” and “factual errors”. But despite his bold assertion, he fails to demonstrate any specific instances of fallacies or falsehoods, and, as will be shown, the only errors he puts on display are his own.
Further, this proclamation in itself raises reasonable doubt that he thoroughly read the book a number of well-credential experts have highly praised. For instance, David Schubert, a Professor and laboratory director at the prestigious Salk Institute of Biological Studies has extolled the book as “incisive, insightful, and truly outstanding” ? and as “well-reasoned and scientifically solid.” Joe Cummins, a Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Western Ontario, has called it “a landmark” that “should be required reading in every university biology course.” Belinda Martineau, a molecular biologist who co-developed the first commercialized genetically engineered whole food has described it as “thorough, logical and thought-provoking” and declared that she “strongly” recommends it. John Ikerd, a Professor Emeritus of Agricultural and Applied Economics, at the University of Missouri has called it a “great book” and stated: “The evidence is comprehensive and irrefutable; the reasoning is clear and compelling.” And Philip Regal, a Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Minnesota, has commended it as “exceptionally well-researched and well-written” and stated: “I am very impressed with the book as a whole ? and expect that a large number of other scientists will be too.” How could these experts, who were on the review team and read the book carefully chapter by chapter, have been so impressed with its scientific, factual, and logical soundness while Simpson can declare that it’s replete with inaccuracies and deserves a “Nobel Prize for logical fallacies”? The subsequent analysis of his specific allegations confirms that he has done so by neglecting to read many important sections ? or by purposely mischaracterizing their content.
Blatantly misrepresenting Pusztai’s research on GE potatoes ? and my discussion of it
Simpson has a propensity to ignore evidence the book presents while recycling arguments it has refuted, and this propensity is on glaring display in his critique of my discussion of the research on GE potatoes conducted at the UK’s Rowettt Institute under the direction of the renowned food safety expert Arpad Pusztai. Because this research not only detected significant harm to the rats that ate the GE spuds, but indicated the harm derived from some basic aspect of the GE process itself (unrelated to the specific characteristics of the foreign protein that was intentionally generated), biotech proponents have striven to discredit it. My book addresses their main arguments and refutes them with solid facts. However, although Simpson rebukes me for treating Pusztai’s research with respect, he doesn’t acknowledge the details of my refutations of Pusztai’s critics, nor does he attempt to disprove them. Instead, he proffers some of the claims I’ve debunked as if I’d never mentioned them.
For instance, he asserts: “Pusztai did not use an appropriate control group in his experiment, the control potato she [sic] used had a different history than the transgenic potatoes. . . .” He goes on to say that Pusztai “did not understand” that because the GE potatoes went through a tissue culture process involving “a callus stage” while the controls did not, and because that process causes “marked changes in the structure and the expression of genes”, any differences between the two groups were “likely” to have resulted from that crucial difference in their history.
But this allegation is flat-out false. Moreover, he should have realized its falsity, because it had previously been employed by another scientist who ardently defends GE foods (Nina Fedoroff) in an attempt to discredit Pusztai, and I had fully refuted it. Here’s the key passage of my refutation:
“In reality, Pusztai was well aware that generating plants via formation of an amorphous mass of cells known as a callus tends to induce substantial alterations, and he designed the experiment to avoid it. That’s one reason he chose potatoes, because they can naturally propagate in an asexual manner and do not require the extreme form of callus-inducing tissue culture that ordinarily must be employed to regenerate a whole plant from a single cell. Therefore, unlike most GE plants, the engineered potatoes he developed had not gone through this disruptive process. Further, he had taken additional steps to minimize any differences that might have arisen during the gentler culturing they did endure. Thus, the troubling disparities between his GE potatoes and the controls were most likely due to some aspect of the bioengineering other than tissue culture. Further, even if they were attributable to the tissue culture, that wouldn’t vindicate the bioengineering process, because tissue culture is one of its essential components (pp. 293–294). Therefore, the fact that Simpson relied on that refuted argument implies he had not bothered to read my full discussion of Pusztai’s research and mistakenly believed he could denigrate it by relying on Fedoroff’s seemingly authoritative assertion. Otherwise, he was deliberately deceiving his readers by falsely asserting that Pusztai was naïve about the effects of tissue culture and had not taken measures to minimize them ? and by creating the impression that I had not addressed the issue.”
The remainder of what Simpson has written about Pusztai’s research is also largely at odds with the facts. In his account, after Pusztai announced the results of his research on a television show, his study was published in a journal (The Lancet) through a process so questionable it provoked a review by the Royal Society ? which determined the study to be “worthless”. However, things did not happen that way.
In reality, and as recounted in my book, the Royal Society’s review occurred substantially prior to the study’s publication in The Lancet, and it was highly irregular and deeply flawed ? to the extent the reviewers didn’t even see the complete data package. Further, none of the reviewers possessed the expertise to review a nutritional feeding study, and several of their comments reveal their lack of requisite knowledge. For instance, as my book reveals: “One of the reviewers claimed that there were too few rats in each group to obtain reliable results, unaware that the number was indeed sufficient, that Pusztai had previously conducted more than 40 nutritional studies in which this number was employed, and that all those studies were published in respected journals because they had satisfied reviewers who were properly qualified.” (p. 289) My book also notes that, as Pusztai pointed out, not only did another reviewer display ignorance about nutritional research in general, he or she was woefully ignorant about the particulars of Pusztai’s study because every fact recited about it in his or her comments was wrong.
So irresponsible was the behaviour of the Royal Society that the editor of The Lancet (a prestigious journal) called it “a gesture of breathtaking impertinence” and additionally branded it a “reckless decision” that abandoned “the principle of due process.” Further, in contrast to the Royal Society’s shabby process, The Lancet’s subsequent review of the research scrutinized the fuller set of data that the Society’s panel had not seen, did not violate scientific norms, and deemed the study worthy of publication.
Thus, in his endeavour to protect the image of GE food, and damage the image of my book, Simpson presents a distorted picture in which The Lancet’s review is so defective that the Royal Society must step in and restore proper scientific standards when, in actuality, the Society’s review not only came first but sullied the standards, and a legitimate review did not occur until The Lancet conducted one. To deepen the distortion, Simpson makes several other assertions that (based on the evidence in my book) he also should have known are false, such as the claim that “too few animals were used to allow any statistical significance.”
Simpson’s disregard of what I’ve written is also evident in his allegation that I ignored the fact that Pusztai’s research has not been reproduced. However, not only did I clearly relate this fact, I pointed out that the research could not be reproduced because, after the troubling results were revealed, the UK government destroyed all the GE potatoes that had been created for the study. That foreclosed any valid attempt to reproduce those results, because each insertion of a cassette of recombinant DNA is a unique event that impacts a distinct location within the genome and induces a singular set of both local and widespread disturbances ? which entails that unless one has potatoes from the same genetically engineered lines that Pusztai used, one cannot properly replicate his experiment.
Obviously, the only legitimate way for Simpson to have discredited my discussion of Pusztai’s research would have been to refute my refutations of the arguments that have been used against it, not to simply reemploy some of those arguments as if I’d never confronted them. And the fact he was driven to do so indicates the weakness of his position.
Deceptively dealing with the toxic tryptophan disaster
Simpson also fails to confront key facts regarding the disaster caused by the first ingestible product of genetic engineering, and he again misrepresents what I wrote. That catastrophe was an epidemic of an unusual disease (called EMS) which was linked to a supplement of the essential amino acid L-tryptophan that had been produced with genetically altered bacteria. The epidemic erupted in 1989, and before it was finally contained, it killed dozens of Americans and seriously sickened between five and ten thousand.
Chapter 3 tells the story of this tragic incident, and its primary thrust is to document how the facts have been systematically obfuscated and distorted by biotech proponents in order to create the illusion that the genetic engineering did not cause the epidemic when, in reality, it may well have done so. Accordingly, the chapter is titled: “Disappearing a Disaster: How the Facts About a Deadly Epidemic Caused by a GE Food Have Been Consistently Clouded.”
However, from what Simpson writes, one would have no inkling of this; and although the chapter presents comprehensive, and irrefutable, evidence demonstrating that the facts have been systematically twisted ? to the extent that most journalists, health professionals, and even most biologists have become badly confused ? he never acknowledges a single instance of such distortion. Instead, he alleges (utilizing poor grammar): “Druker’s [sic] theorizes that the cause of EMS was from an unknown metabolite of this engineered bacteria.” He then argues that “excessive” ingestion of L-tryptophan in itself caused the epidemic, with no involvement of the genetic engineering.
These allegations are bogus.
First, I do not unequivocally state that an “unknown metabolite” was the cause of EMS, nor do I propound my own theory about the cause. Rather, I explain how, in the opinion of several experts, the genetic engineering process could have caused the malady by inducing the production of an unintended toxic metabolite. These experts include a Stanford professor who is a leading authority on L-tryptophan synthesis (and a National Medal of Science recipient) and a scientist who served as a professor of biochemistry and pharmacology at the prestigious Mayo Clinic and led a research team there that thoroughly studied the various facts related to the EMS epidemic.
Second, Simpson’s speculation about how excessive consumption of L-tryptophan (LT) might lead to EMS in some cases does not establish that it actually was the cause of that particular EMS epidemic, nor does it prove that the genetic engineering was not the cause. In fact, my chapter cites well-credentialed experts who, based on detailed knowledge of the evidence, have asserted that the epidemic was not caused by LT itself but was instead clearly caused by a toxic contaminant (or contaminants). These experts include an epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control and a medical doctor who collaborated with Dr. Naylor while he too was a professor at the Mayo Clinic. As I noted, the experts emphasized that if LT itself had caused the epidemic, the LT supplements from every manufacturer would have been harmful, whereas only those from the manufacturer that used GE bacteria were associated with the epidemic.
Further, the chapter cites a memo by the biotechnology coordinator of the US Food and Drug Administration stating that the genetic engineering process cannot be ruled out as the cause.
Nonetheless, Simpson fails to mention any of this information and instead tries to portray me as an out-of-touch outlier spinning his own bizarre theories.
To that end, he also asserts (1) that I “cannot believe” L-tryptophan would be harmful in large doses and (2) that I have actually stated such a belief. These assertions are not only unfounded but counterfactual. In reality, I do recognize that LT can be harmful at abnormal levels, my chapter says that it is (for example, on p. 70), and I have never stated otherwise.
Finally, and most remarkably, Simpson is either oblivious to, or purposely obfuscating, one of the most crucial parts of the chapter: a section near the end introducing new evidence that substantially strengthens the case for the causal role of genetic engineering. This evidence was produced by research at the Mayo Clinic to determine the chemical structure of the only contaminant within the GE-derived L-tryptophan that was associated with the EMS epidemic to a statistically significant degree. And the leaders of the research team, Drs. Stephen Naylor and Gerald Gleich, gave me permission to be the first to report on it as unpublished work.
According to Dr. Naylor, this new data reveals that (1) the contaminant is a novel metabolite of L-tryptophan, (2) it is fat soluble, in contrast to the contaminants that are not as strongly associated with the epidemic, which renders it more capable of having induced that calamity, and (3) there’s a high probability it was generated as a result of the genetic engineering process and the concomitant overproduction of L-tryptophan. Clearly, any reviewer who truly endeavoured to make a fair assessment of the chapter would have noted my discussion of this crucial new evidence. But Simpson says nothing about it, which strongly implies that he failed to read it. This implication is elevated to the point of certainty by two additional considerations.
First, when he refers to the hypothesis that a metabolite of the GE process caused the EMS, he uses the terms “unknown metabolite” and “mysterious metabolite”. But the particular metabolite I discuss is known, and its chemical structure has been identified to a high degree. So to the extent there’s any mystery, it’s the mystery of how Simpson missed knowing about it.
Second, Simpson begins his purported review with the assertion that my book “provided no new insights.” This decisively clinches the case. After all, he couldn’t have known the results of that Mayo Clinic research prior to my book’s publication, so the fact he declares it contains nothing new proves he didn’t read the section that describes those results ? thereby remaining ignorant of some of the most important evidence regarding the risks of GMOs to have emerged in the last 30 years.
The unfairness of Simpson’s denigration of my chapter on the EMS epidemic is further substantiated by considering that Stephen Naylor, who knows far more about the facts and has a much more objective attitude, praised it as “especially significant” and “the most comprehensive, evenly-balanced and accurate account that I have read.”
Distorting the realities of Séralini’s research
Simpson’s treatment of a major study conducted by a team of university researchers led by Gilles-Eric Séralini also affronts the facts. As had the EMS epidemic and Pusztai’s research, that study also posed a serious threat to the GE food venture.
It demonstrated that a variety of GE corn approved by regulators based on a medium-term, 90-day toxicological feeding study caused significant damage to the rats’ livers and kidneys when tested over the long-term (two years). Those results cast doubt on the entire venture because no regulators have required tests longer than 90 days, and several GE crops have been commercialized without any toxicological testing at all. So when the study was published in a respected journal in 2012, proponents of GE crops sought to disparage it.
But because it was a sound toxicological study, they focused their attack on the section that reported an increased rate of tumour development in the GE-fed rats, and they argued that too few animals had been used to meet the standards for a carcinogenicity study. However, they disregarded the fact that the research was not designed to meet the standards of a carcinogenicity study but that it did fulfil the standards for a toxicological study ? and that the troubling toxicological results were reliable. They also overlooked the fact that tumours are supposed to be reported when detected during a toxicological study.
Nonetheless, despite the unfairness of their attack, the incessant pressure they exerted on the journal for more than a year finally resulted in the article’s retraction. Yet, not only did the chief editor acknowledge the adequacy of the toxicological findings, the reason he advanced for rejecting the tumour-related findings was that they were “inconclusive,” which is not a valid reason for retraction. Furthermore, according to standard guidelines, even if there had been good grounds for retracting that part of the study, the valid toxicological section should have been retained.
But, although it had been retracted, the study did not stay unpublished for long. Because it had passed the peer review process twice (once to gain initial publication and a second time when the journal performed a special review which confirmed there was nothing “incorrect” in the reported results), another scientific journal republished it in 2014. My book elucidates the above facts, but Simpson belittles the research (and faults me for portraying it as important) while ignoring most of them, and he presents a substantially distorted picture. He fails to acknowledge that the research was a sound toxicological study, although I had emphasized this verity, and he instead focuses on the tumour-related issues, even though I had demonstrated the illegitimacy of critiquing the research primarily on that basis. Nonetheless, although he disregards most of my discussion and never directly refutes my assertions, he purports to have discredited my positive presentation of the study ? while creating the false impression that the presentation lacks credible evidence.
A succession of falsehoods
Simpson’s infidelity to the facts is manifest throughout his pseudo review, and in addition to the erroneous assertions documented above, he has issued many more. Several of the most remarkable are described below.
The astounding statements that nothing new is presented
In Simpson’s first paragraph he declares that “on page after page” of my book, he discovered “no new insights.” And he subsequently posted a comment on his website stating, “Druker presents nothing new, nothing noteworthy.” It’s already been shown how such declarations in themselves prove that he didn’t read an important section of the chapter on the EMS epidemic. In addition, they establish that, rather than having actually read page after page straight through all the chapters as he purports to have done, he skipped over numerous pages that convey significant new insights ? or else intentionally skipped his obligation to honour the truth.
For instance, one of the most important chapters breaks new ground by comprehensively examining genetic engineering from the perspective of software engineering; and everyone who has given me feedback on it, whether a nonscientist, life scientist, or computer scientist, has told me they gained important new insights. For instance, Thomas J. McCabe, the developer of a key analytic tool in computer programming employed throughout the world, has commended the chapter as “especially insightful.” So even in the unlikely case that Simpson already possessed detailed knowledge of software engineering ? and understood how its practitioners deal with the inescapable risks of altering the information systems that they themselves have created, it’s virtually inconceivable that he could have read the entire chapter without receiving a single new insight.
The preposterousness of Simpson’s claim is likewise illuminated by the statement from the molecular biologist Belinda Martineau that my book “exposes shenanigans employed to promote genetic engineering that will surprise even those who have followed the ag-biotech industry closely for years.” So if Simpson had thoroughly read my book and yet gained no new insight, it would mean that he already knew of all those shenanigans and yet was unperturbed by them. In particular, it would entail he knew, among many other shocking facts, those listed below.
• The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) covered up the warnings of its own scientists about the abnormal risks of GE foods and then declared it was not aware of any information showing that they differ from naturally produced ones in any “meaningful way”.
• Although the FDA’s Pathology Branch concluded that the tests on the first genetically engineered whole food (the Flavr Savr™ tomato) did not establish its safety but instead raised unresolved safety issues, administrators covered that up and falsely proclaimed that all safety issues had been resolved and that their scientists had determined the product was just as safe as conventional tomatoes.
• Although the FDA’s Division of Anti-Infective Drug Products decisively concluded it would be “a serious health hazard” if biotech companies inserted a marker gene conferring resistance to a widely used antibiotic into their genetically engineered foods, the agency falsely purported there was consensus about safety among its experts, and it granted that marker gene formal food additive approval ? and in doing so violated explicit mandates of federal law.
But Simpson seems oblivious to these unsettling facts. Not only does he express confidence that the FDA is committed to ensuring the safety of GE foods, he chides me for doubting the agency’s integrity ? thereby clearly impugning his own.
Multiple misstatements about regulatory realities
Simpson’s ignorance about my book’s well-documented instances of the FDA misbehavior is not limited to the above examples and is also exhibited in regard to the following ones.
• Simpson says that I “assume” the FDA and the other administrative agencies have been corrupted by special interests but that there is “no evidence” to support it. However, my book provides abundant evidence, including a quote from a 2001 New York Times article stating that through three consecutive administrations (Reagan, Bush, and Clinton), “What Monsanto wished for from Washington, Monsanto ? and, by extension, the biotechnology industry ? got.” It also cites a telling admission from Henry I. Miller, who dealt with biotechnology issues at the FDA between 1974 and 1994 and directed the Office of Biotechnology for five of those years, that “the U.S. government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness has asked them to do and told them to do.” [emphasis added]
• He asserts the FDA subjects GE foods to “a regulatory process”, despite irrefutable evidence in my book (including the FDA’s own admissions filed with a federal court) that the agency does not impose any regulatory requirements on these products at all.
• He declares that the FDA and the other agencies “do NOT say that all GE is generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” despite the fact my book decisively demonstrates (employing the FDA’s own words) that it has made a blanket presumption that GE foods are GRAS ? and that this presumption serves as the FDA’s sole justification for allowing these products on the market without requiring any testing. My book also demonstrates that, notwithstanding the FDA’s claims, GE foods do not satisfy the criteria for GRAS status that are delineated in its own regulations.
Falsely branding me a conspiracy theorist
Simpson alleges that I’ve tried to establish that there’s a “vast conspiracy on the part of corporations, biotechnology types, and the government to promote genetically modified foods”, and he employs the words “vast conspiracy” five times and the term “conspiracy” three additional times without that adjective. And yet the word “conspiracy” does not appear in my book even once ? nor does the word “conspire.” Although I do demonstrate that the biotech industry, a large number of scientists and scientific institutions, and several government agencies around the world have systematically misrepresented the facts in order to advance the GE food venture, I do not attempt to establish conspiratorial ties among the various actors and entities. As far as I’m concerned, establishing that the facts have been seriously misrepresented is primary ? and more than sufficient ? and it’s of far less importance to try to prove that it has occurred through an intricate web of conspiracy. Where there is obvious evidence of industry influence on government, I have reported it, but I have not focused on trying to expose most of the instances.
So by repeatedly and falsely alleging that my book attempts to prove that there’s a “vast conspiracy”, Simpson avoids acknowledging the irrefutable reality that systematic misrepresentation has indeed occurred ? and he deflects attention from it.
He also misrepresents how I assign culpability. In his telling, I accuse the corporations of having subverted science; but my book lays primary responsibility at the feet of the scientists, and it demonstrates how several of the foundational misrepresentations were issued by university-based researchers and prestigious institutions before the major multinational corporations became involved. Moreover, it’s difficult to miss this point (if one reads the relevant chapter), because the section is introduced by the heading: “The Key Deceptions Have Come from the Scientific Establishment, Not the Biotech Industry”.
Misrepresenting the history of molecular biology
Simpson alleges I “mistakenly” believe that when genetic engineering was first practiced, “scientists didn’t understand the nature of what they were dealing with.” But it’s a well-established fact that their understanding of the genome and the dynamics of gene expression was overly simplistic and in several respects inaccurate, and my book presents extensive evidence that demonstrates how deficient the initial understanding was.
Falsely accusing me of ignoring the arguments of the other side
One of Simpson’s most deplorable (and absurd) falsehoods is his accusation that I have “ignored” publications that are “contrary” to my perspective. In fact, my book repeatedly examines the arguments advanced in such publications and exposes their infirmities, and a substantial number of pages (and even an entire chapter) are devoted to this. The examination covers several of the main articles and books published by the proponents of GE food as well as four reports by the National Academy of Sciences, two by the UK’s Royal Society, two by the American Medical Association, one by the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, one by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and one by the Institute of Food Technologists ? all of which take a favorable position on the safety and benefits of GE crops.
Thus, by claiming that I have ignored publications that conflict with my perspective, Simpson has provided additional iron-clad confirmation that he has ignored large portions of mine.
Conclusion: Simpson has fraudulently defamed my book and has also assaulted science
I haven’t addressed all the misrepresentations and obfuscations in Simpson’s document, but by now it should be clear that the statements made in the first two paragraphs of this response have been solidly substantiated. His purported review of Altered Genes, Twisted Truth is fraudulent and has unjustly defamed both the book and me. It is well-nigh indisputable that he either failed to read many of the important sections or else deliberately misrepresented a lot of what he did read. And in pretending to uphold science, he has joined the ranks of the many pro-GMO scientists who have subverted it.
Frederick Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at Iowa State University, has written that if “the numerous revelations” in my book become widely known, “the arguments being used to defend genetically engineered foods will be untenable.” By deceitfully dissuading people from reading the book, and callously besmirching its reputation, Simpson has played a significant role in prolonging the suppression of important truths ? truths that, when they finally do become broadly known, will cause the GE food venture to collapse.
Source: GM Watch