Former GMO Engineer Drops Biotech and Goes Organic
2013-06-24 0:00

By Ken Roseboro | Organic Connections

The “con­ver­sion” of for­mer anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas to GMO pro­moter has gar­nered huge media atten­tion, but Thierry Vrain, Ph.D., a for­mer genetic engi­neer who speaks out against the risks of genet­i­cally engi­neered foods, has far more credibility—and a far more impor­tant story to tell the public.

Thierry Vrain’s career has spanned the full range of agriculture—from being a pro­po­nent of “chem­i­cal” agri­cul­ture and genetic engi­neer­ing to being an advo­cate for organic farm­ing and an oppo­nent of GMOs. [Vrain, left, and Chanchal Cabrera]

A native of France, Vrain earned an under­grad­u­ate degree in plant phys­i­ol­ogy from the Université de Caen and a doc­toral degree from North Carolina State University. After mov­ing to Canada he taught plant phys­i­ol­ogy at Université du Québec in Montréal. Then he worked for 30 years as a research sci­en­tist for the Canadian gov­ern­ment in Québec and British Columbia where he con­ducted research on genet­i­cally mod­i­fied pota­toes, among other projects. He was direc­tor of the biotech­nol­ogy depart­ment at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland, BC.

After 35 years of research and teach­ing of soil and mol­e­c­u­lar biol­ogy, Vrain retired to a small farm in Courtenay, BC called Innisfree. Today, Thierry Vrain is a gar­dener, a teacher, and a pas­sion­ate speaker about organic gardening—from soil health to GMOs.

Ken Roseboro: Tell me a lit­tle more about your background.

Thierry Vrain: I worked in three research insti­tutes in Montreal, Vancouver, and Summerland. I was the head of a research group using mol­e­c­u­lar biol­ogy tools. We worked on food crops. I was genet­i­cally engi­neer­ing small fruit and pota­toes for nema­tode resis­tance using the snow­drop lectin gene.

The genet­i­cally engi­neered apple (now under reg­u­la­tory review in the US and Canada) orig­i­nated in our group though I wasn’t involved with the research.

KR: Did you speak pub­licly in favor of genetic engi­neer­ing when you were at Agriculture Canada?

Vrain: Yes, I just took it on as my job. I explained the safety of the tech­nol­ogy to the pub­lic and did a good amount of lec­tur­ing, edu­cat­ing small groups.

KR: What led you to change from a sup­porter of genet­i­cally mod­i­fied foods to an opponent?

Vrain: I have some dif­fi­cul­ties with how the con­tro­versy is han­dled. If you aren’t a sci­en­tist you don’t under­stand the sci­ence. If you are a sci­en­tist and dis­cover things that are of con­cern, then you are accused of doing “pseu­do­science” and often viciously attacked by the indus­try and aca­d­e­mics on the pay­roll. This has hap­pened many times, for exam­ple to Arpad Pusztai in England and then Ignacio Chapela, who dis­cov­ered GMO con­t­a­m­i­na­tion in native corn in Mexico. He was attacked and almost fired from his post at the University of California. A year later his find­ings were confirmed.

There are now quite a num­ber of research pub­li­ca­tions, in peer reviewed jour­nals, show­ing con­cerns from feed­ing GM corn and soy to rats. Those stud­ies are ignored and shouldn’t be. Federal agen­cies should repeat the stud­ies and must test these crops for safety.

Research sci­en­tists from the US Food & Drug Administration made it clear in the early 1990s that there could be indi­rect effects from eat­ing GM crops, such as tox­ins, aller­gens, and nutri­tional defi­cien­cies. Those warn­ings were ignored. Now a good num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions are con­firm­ing the pre­dic­tions of the FDA scientists.

It trou­bles me that money and the bot­tom line are at the root of the use of the technology.

KR: You say that the sci­ence behind genetic engi­neer­ing is based on a mis­un­der­stand­ing. Please elab­o­rate on this.

Vrain: When we started with genetic engi­neer­ing in the 1980s, the sci­ence was based on the the­ory that one gene pro­duces one pro­tein. But we now know, since the human genome project, that a gene can cre­ate more than one pro­tein. The inser­tion of genes in the genome through genetic engi­neer­ing inter­rupts the cod­ing sequence of the DNA, cre­at­ing trun­cated, rogue pro­teins, which can cause unin­tended effects. It’s an inva­sive technology.

Biotech com­pa­nies ignore these rogue pro­teins; they say they are back­ground noise. But we should pay atten­tion to them. It must be ver­i­fied that they pro­duce no neg­a­tive effects.

A key point is that the con­cern about genetic engi­neer­ing should be about the pro­teins. Many plants and ani­mals are not edi­ble because their pro­teins are toxic or poi­so­nous. To test for the safety of Bt crops, sci­en­tists have mostly fed the pure pro­tein to rats, and there may be no prob­lem. But it’s dif­fer­ent if you feed rats the whole GM plant because they are get­ting these rogue pro­teins that could cause harm.


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