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Review and open critique of Michael Shermer’s article
“Are Paleo Diets More Natural than GMOs?”
published in Scientific American magazine, March 2015
Shermer M. Are Paleo Diets More Natural than GMOs? Sci Am 2015 Mar; 312(4)
Introduction: As noted in AMA (American Medical Association) Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors, 10th edition, the practice of publishing unsigned or anonymous articles/letters provides editorialists freedom of expression and “protection from enemies.” Many peer-reviewed journals have a long history of publishing non-attributed articles, and widely read publications such as The Lancetand Scientific American commonly and currently publish anonymous articles under the pseudonym of “The Editors.” More importantly, any article should be able to stand on its own merit and not depend on support from affiliations nor buttressing from authors’ credentials. The authors of this paper wish for this information to stand on its own merit—unsupported by credentials and affiliations, and they hope that the anonymous open-access format encourages wide and free distribution. This article is offered in complete open-access format and can be reproduced freely, without citation. Importantly, because Scientific American magazine has blocked reasonable commentary on this article (noted below*; all lead authors attempted communication directly with Scientific American, to no avail), authors therefore obviously need access to alternate routes for distribution of accurate information. Readers should make use of the hyperlinks to additional information and full-text articles that are provided within the body of this article and which—along with abstracts/summaries of research—are provided in the citations at the end of the article; because of these included resources, this article also serves as a directory to additional pertinent scientific research and discussion.
Failing its readership, the public, and the scientific process: Scientific American magazine describes itself as “the leading source and authority for science, technology information and policy for a general audience”, published in 14 language editions worldwide, with a worldwide audience of more than 5 million people; “a third of Scientific American readers hold postgraduate degrees.” As such, Scientific American magazine has a social responsibility and moral obligation to provide accurate reporting at a level consistent with its educated, aspiring, and influential readership. Scientific American has a responsibility to the public via its influence on public discourse on topics of importance. Per the example below, Scientific American magazine has not simply failed to provide accurate and meaningful information, but the magazine has intentionally confused several important topics and then blocked scientific and scholarly dialog* on the topic, thereby ensuring that readers would be confused and misinformed. Corrective comments and reasonable critiques of this Scientific American article were administratively blocked.* The blockade of feedback, discussion, and correction is itself antiscientific; thus, Scientific American magazine has blocked the peer-review process which underlies the integrity of the scientific process. This critique demonstrates the paradoxical antiscience of Scientific Americanmagazine, implicating poor leadership and demonstrating irresponsible behavior toward its readership and the public. * http://www.gmwatch.org/index.
Critical analysis and effective editing: Michael Shermer starts his article “Are Paleo Diets More Natural Than GMOs?” published in March 2015 in Scientific American magazine with an irrelevant and irreverent review of his own poor judgment: “a weeklong cleansing diet of water, cayenne pepper, lemon and honey, topped off with a 150mile bicycle ride that left me puking on the side of the road.” Shermer’s personal account provides evidence of his own poor judgment (thereby undermining his credibility as a thinker) but is otherwise irrelevant to the discussion of GMO and paleology-referent nutritional science. His anecdotes and misadventures serve to create confusion, to blur the conversation, and they are uninteresting to anyone who has matured beyond their early teen years; the Editors of Scientific American should have respected their educated readership by blocking this tabloid-level article.
His description of the “Paleo diet” as “today’s popular fad” is not worthy of publication in Scientific American. The second and third/last sentences of his short second paragraph contradict his first sentence, leaving readers confused and contributing nothing to science nor the reader’s advancement. His only correct observation is that early humans consumed a diet exclusively of natural nonmanipulated foods which were obviously devoid of pesticides, and that this diet contained a wide range of macronutrient levels.
In his third paragraph, Shermer confuses his readers by intermixing the terms “genetically modifying foods” and “selective breeding.” These terms are not identical nor loosely interchangeable, and readers may surmise by this point early in the article that Shermer is nonauthoritative on these topics and/or that he is writing with the intention to confuse. His description that “today’s more engineered GMOs designed for resistance to pathogens and herbicides and for better nutrient profiles” is inconsistent with published data showing poorer—not “better”—nutrient profiles for genetically manipulated soy per the study by Bohn et al published in 2013/2014, a study that Shermer should have accessed yet failed to review/include as basic due process for the preparation of a paper on this topic: http://www.sciencedirect.com/
Food Chem. 2014 Jun 15;153:207-15. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2013.12.
Compositional differences in soybeans on the market: glyphosate accumulates in Roundup Ready GM soybeans.
Abstract: This article describes the nutrient and elemental composition, including residues of herbicides and pesticides, of 31 soybean batches from Iowa, USA. The soy samples were grouped into three different categories: (i) genetically modified, glyphosate-tolerant soy (GM-soy); (ii) unmodified soy cultivated using a conventional “chemical” cultivation regime; and (iii) unmodified soy cultivated using an organic cultivation regime. Organic soybeans showed the healthiest nutritional profile with more sugars, such as glucose, fructose, sucrose and maltose, significantly more total protein, zinc and less fibre than both conventional and GM-soy. Organic soybeans also contained less total saturated fat and total omega-6 fatty acids than both conventional and GM-soy. GM-soy contained high residues of glyphosate and AMPA (mean 3.3 and 5.7 mg/kg, respectively). Conventional and organic soybean batches contained none of these agrochemicals. Using 35 different nutritional and elemental variables to characterise each soy sample, we were able to discriminate GM, conventional and organic soybeans without exception, demonstrating “substantial non-equivalence” in compositional characteristics for ‘ready-to-market’ soybeans.
Highlights, provided by the publisher, from that article are as follows:
· “Glyphosate tolerant GM soybeans contain high residues of glyphosate and AMPA.
· Soybeans from different agricultural practices differ in nutritional quality.
· Organic soybeans showed a more healthy nutritional profile than other soybeans.
· Organic soy contained more sugars, protein and zinc, but less fibre and omega-6.
· This study rejects that GM soy is “substantially equivalent” to non-GM soybeans.”
Relatedly, Shermer failed to mention that the GMO-associated pesticide glyphosate stimulates breast cancer cell growth, a fact that would have been of interest to Scientific American‘s readership: www.sciencedirect.com/science/
Food Chem Toxicol. 2013 Sep;59:129-36. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2013.05.057. Epub 2013 Jun 10.
Glyphosate induces human breast cancer cells growth via estrogen receptors.
Abstract: Glyphosate is an active ingredient of the most widely used herbicide and it is believed to be less toxic than other pesticides. However, several recent studies showed its potential adverse health effects to humans as it may be an endocrine disruptor. … Glyphosate exerted proliferative effects only in human hormone-dependent breast cancer T47D cells,… These results indicated that low and environmentally relevant concentrations of glyphosate possessed estrogenic activity. Glyphosate-based herbicides are widely used for soybean cultivation, and our results also found that there was an additive estrogenic effect between glyphosate and genistein, a phytoestrogen in soybeans….
His conclusion that “GMOs are scientifically sound, nutritionally valuable and morally noble in helping humanity during a period of rising population” is ridiculous considering that genetically manipulated foods were only introduced in 1996 and are not necessary for sustaining humanity. In fact, the risks of destroying biodiversity and of placing humanity’s food supply in the control of a few profit-driven corporations are self-evident and/or easily explainable to anyone with a middle school education or above. Further, given that GM plants are largely designed around pesticide use, for example Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready®” seeds which are designed for use with the corresponding “Roundup®” formulations of glyphosate, and given that glyphosate and/or its complete formula “Roundup®” has shown adverse effects in various models and human studies, including DNA damage, mitochondrial damage, reproductive damage, and stimulation of breast cancer cell growth, the distribution of such chemicals to the American and Canadian population’s food, air, water, pregnant women and babies cannot be claimed to be “morally noble.”
The best attribute of this article by Shermer is its brevity. The Editors of Scientific American published this drivel at the expense of their readership and at the expense of good taste and good science, leaving the trustworthiness of the editorial review process at Scientific American not simply in doubt, but in ruin. By failing to reject tabloid-level submissions, and by failing to maintain standards of writing quality and scientific integrity, the Editors of Scientific American have demoted their magazine to one that is unreliable as a guarantor of accurate information and scholarly discourse.
“If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them that it is not… To feed the world takes political and financial will.” – Steve Smith, head of GM company Novartis Seeds UK (now Syngenta), public meeting on proposed local GM farm scale trial, Tittleshall, Norfolk, UK, 29 March 20001
In a March 17, 2015 article published online by Scientific American, Michael Shermer claimed without evidence the supposed positive morality, nutrient profiles, and safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He claimed that, if not for GMOs, “the planet could sustain only a tiny fraction of its current population.” This statement is patently false. For one, increasing food production is not the solution to solving world hunger. Populations are malnourished and starving not because of insufficient food production, but because of lack of food access due resource misuse and reckless government policies that boost production of profitable export crops at the expense of diverse and sustainable food production by local farmers. So-called “free trade agreements” have bankrupted millions of small farmers and pushed many of the rural poor from their land. In many developing countries, export crops have boomed while hunger and malnutrition have continued or increased; ongoing starvation in the same countries that produce abundant export crops clearly implicates political causes for the food scarcity.2
“Commercial GE crops have made no inroads so far into raising the intrinsic or potential yield of any crop. By contrast, traditional breeding has been spectacularly successful in this regard; it can be solely credited with the intrinsic yield increases in the United States and other parts of the world that characterized the agriculture of the twentieth century.” – Doug Gurian-Sherman, former biotech advisor to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC3
Since flooding the global food supply, GMOs have only worsened the productivity and sustainability for many small famers.4 GM seeds produce smaller yields, increased pest resistance, and more crop failures compared to non-GM seeds.5 A 2009 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists stated that GMOs do not increase crop yields overall, whereas sustainable non-GM agricultural methods used in developing countries increase crop yields by at least 79%. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report – written by more than 400 international experts from governments, universities, research institutes and private companies and supported by 58 governments – determined that GMOs fail to reduce hunger or poverty, improve nutrition, health, or rural livelihoods, or facilitate social and environmental sustainability.6 In fact, quite the opposite is true: GMOs divert resources that could be directed toward developing safer, more reliable, and more appropriate technologies; further, the overuse of toxic pesticides causes harm to humans, animals, and ecosystems.
“We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.” – Statement signed by 24 delegates from 18 African countries to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 19987
Commercial GM crops are not designed to increase yield – they are designed to be pest- and chemical-resistant. Unfortunately, GMO yields dwindle after a few years due to increased pest and weed resistance, contributing to crop failures. Shermer points to golden rice as a “morally noble” example of the use of GM crops. So-called “golden rice” is marketed a humanitarian crop; however, Shermer is premature in using this example because golden rice has not been approved for widespread use and its proposed benefits are still largely theoretical. Golden rice is genetically engineered to produce more beta-carotene, ostensibly to address vitamin A deficiency (VAD) among children in developing countries. Shermer fails to address the underlying reasons that vitamin A deficiency exists in developing countries in the first place. In India, for example, the Green Revolution initiatives of the mid-twentieth century eliminated food (and therefore nutrient) biodiversity through the widespread introduction of wheat and rice monocultures and heavy use of herbicides. The resulting lack of access to a healthy and varied diet, combined with problems of poverty, are the main causes of VAD. Opponents argue that golden rice will be environmentally destructive and will contribute to water scarcity, and that a better solution to addressing VAD – as well as other nutrient deficiencies – is to promote the consumption of a variety of locally available plants.8 Interestingly, a true Paleo diet would include a variety of nutrient-dense foods, providing the full complement of macro- and micronutrients required for optimal health – yet Shermer inaccurately discredits Paleo as a fad that has no advantages over GMO foods.
1. Monbiot G. Biotech has bamboozled us all. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/
History of this publication: This article was received, reviewed, revised, and accepted in May 2015. By request of the authors, this article is provided in complete “open access” format and can be reprinted and distributed (preferably without significant modification) in any format whatsoever, including without attributing the original source. Any article should to be able to stand on its own merit and not depend on the buttressing of credentials nor support of affiliations. The authors of this paper wish for this information to stand on its own merit, unsupported by credentials and affiliations.
Citations to peer-reviewed scientific and medical research:
 “Our genetic make-up, shaped through millions of years of evolution, determines our nutritional and activity needs. Although the human genome has remained primarily unchanged since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, our diet and lifestyle have become progressively more divergent from those of our ancient ancestors. Accumulating evidence suggests that this mismatch between our modern diet and lifestyle and our Paleolithic genome is playing a substantial role in the ongoing epidemics of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Until 500 generations ago, all humans consumed only wild and unprocessed food foraged and hunted from their environment. These circumstances provided a diet high in lean protein, polyunsaturated fats (especially omega-3 [omega-3] fatty acids), monounsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other beneficial phytochemicals. Historical and anthropological studies show hunter-gatherers generally to be healthy, fit, and largely free of the degenerative cardiovascular diseases common in modern societies. This review outlines the essence of our hunter-gatherer genetic legacy and suggests practical steps to re-align our modern milieu with our ancient genome in an effort to improve cardiovascular health.” O’Keefe JH Jr, Cordain L. Cardiovascular disease resulting from a diet and lifestyle at odds with our Paleolithic genome: how to become a 21st-century hunter-gatherer. Mayo Clin Proc. 2004 Jan;79:101-8 http://www.
See also: “There is growing awareness that the profound changes in the environment (eg, in diet and other lifestyle conditions) that began with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry approximately 10000 y ago occurred too recently on an evolutionary time scale for the human genome to adjust. In conjunction with this discordance between our ancient, genetically determined biology and the nutritional, cultural, and activity patterns of contemporary Western populations, many of the so-called diseases of civilization have emerged. In particular, food staples and food-processing procedures introduced during the Neolithic and Industrial Periods have fundamentally altered 7 crucial nutritional characteristics of ancestral hominin diets: 1) glycemic load, 2) fatty acid composition, 3) macronutrient composition, 4) micronutrient density, 5) acid-base balance, 6) sodium-potassium ratio, and 7) fiber content. The evolutionary collision of our ancient genome with the nutritional qualities of recently introduced foods may underlie many of the chronic diseases of Western civilization.” Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, O’Keefe JH, Brand-Miller J. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Feb;81(2):341-54 http://ajcn.nutrition.org/
 “We analyzed the consequences of aerial spraying with glyphosate added to a surfactant solution in the northern part of Ecuador. A total of 24 exposed and 21 unexposed control individuals were investigated using the comet assay. The results showed a higher degree of DNA damage in the exposed group (comet length = 35.5μm) compared to the control group (comet length = 25.94μm). These results suggest that in the formulation used during aerial spraying glyphosate had a genotoxic effect on the exposed individuals” .Paz-y-Miño et al. Evaluation of DNA damage in an Ecuadorian population exposed to glyphosate. Genetics and Molecular Biology 2007;30:456-460 http://www.scielo.br/scielo.
See also: Benedetti et al. Genetic damage in soybean workers exposed to pesticides: evaluation with the comet and buccal micronucleus cytome assays. Mutat Res. 2013 Apr 15;752(1-2):28-33. doi: 10.1016/j.mrgentox.2013.01.
See also: “One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself – a finding the researchers call “astonishing.” “This clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup formulations are not inert,” wrote the study authors from France’s University of Caen. “Moreover, the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels” found on Roundup-treated crops, such as soybeans, alfalfa and corn, or lawns and gardens. The research team suspects that Roundup might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.” Gammon C et al. Weed-Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells. Scientific American 2009 Jun www.scientificamerican.com/
See also: “Glyphosate (G) is the largest selling herbicide worldwide; the most common formulations (Roundup, R) contain polyoxyethyleneamine as main surfactant. Recent findings indicate that G exposure may cause DNA damage and cancer in humans. … R induced acute cytotoxic effects at concentrations > 40 mg/l after 20 min, which were due to membrane damage and impairment of mitochondrial functions. … Furthermore, an increase of nuclear aberrations that reflect DNA damage was observed. The frequencies of micronuclei and nuclear buds were elevated after 20-min exposure to 10-20 mg/l, while nucleoplasmatic bridges were only enhanced by R at the highest dose (20 mg/l). R was under all conditions more active than its [declared] active principle (G). …Since we found genotoxic effects after short exposure to concentrations that correspond to a 450-fold dilution of spraying used in agriculture, our findings indicate that inhalation may cause DNA damage in exposed individuals.” Koller et al. Cytotoxic and DNA-damaging properties of glyphosate and Roundup in human-derived buccal epithelial cells. Arch Toxicol. 2012 May;86:805-13. doi: 10.1007/s00204-012-0804-8. http://link.springer.com/
 “Roundup stimulates succinate-supported respiration twice, with simultaneous collapse of transmembrane electrical potential, while glyphosate used in the same concentrations does not induce any significant effect. Additionally, Roundup depresses state 3 respiration by about 40%, at 15 mM, whereas uncoupled respiration in the presence of FCCP is depressed by about 50%. Depression of uncoupled respiratory activity is mediated through partial inhibition of mitochondrial complexes II and III, but not of complex IV. The phosphorylative system was affected by both a direct and an indirect effect on the F0F1 ATPase activity. The addition of uncoupled concentrations of Roundup to Ca2+-loaded mitochondria treated with Ruthenium Red resulted in non-specific membrane permeabilization, as evidenced by mitochondrial swelling… Therefore, the uncoupling of oxidative phosphorylation is also related to the non-specific membrane permeabilization induced by Roundup. Glyphosate alone does not show any relevant effect on the mitochondrial bioenergetics, in opposition to Roundup formulation products. … these results question the safety of Roundup on animal health.” Peixoto F. Comparative effects of the Roundup and glyphosate on mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation. Chemosphere. 2005 Dec;61(8):1115-22 http://www.amazon.com/dp/
See also: “…observed an increase in the number of early apoptotic cells at a low cytotoxicity level (15%), and then, a decrease, in favor of late apoptotic and necrotic cell rates for more severe cytotoxicity conditions. At the same time, we showed that the glyphosate-induced mitochondrial membrane potential disruption could be a cause of apoptosis in keratinocyte cultures.” Heu et al. Glyphosate-induced epidermal cell death: involvement of mitochondrial and oxidative mechanisms. Environ Toxicol Pharmacol. 2012 Sep;34(2):144-53 http://www.sciencedirect.com/
See also: Glyphosate shows less toxicity alone than when combined with a surfactant, at which point the combination of chemicals is cytotoxic. TN-20 is a common surfactant in glyphosate herbicides. This research shows that the combination of glyphosate with the TN-20 surfactant leads to increased caspase activity (a sign of cell death via apoptosis) and reduced mitochondrial membrane potential. “The results support the possibility that mixtures of glyphosate and TN-20 aggravate mitochondrial damage and induce apoptosis and necrosis. Throughout this process, TN-20 seems to disrupt the integrity of the cellular barrier to glyphosate uptake, promoting glyphosate-mediated toxicity.” Kim et al. Mixtures of glyphosate and surfactant TN20 accelerate cell death via mitochondrial damage-induced apoptosis and necrosis. Toxicol In Vitro 2013 Feb:191-7 http://www.sciencedirect.com/
See also: Pesticides are used throughout the world as mixtures called formulations. They contain adjuvants, which are often kept confidential and are called “inerts” by the manufacturing companies, plus a declared active principle, which is usually tested alone. In this study, adjuvants were more cytotoxic than the declared active components of the pesticides/herbicides through the disruption of membrane and mitochondrial respiration. “Despite its relatively benign reputation, Roundup was among the most toxic herbicides and insecticides tested.” Mesnage et al. Major pesticides are more toxic to human cells than their declared active principles. Biomed Res Int. 2014;2014:179691 www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/
 “Glyphosate is a systemic, non-selective herbicide widely used in agriculture worldwide. … No significant differences in sperm concentration were observed; however, sperm motility and the motility period were reduced after exposure to both glyphosate concentrations during both exposure periods. The mitochondrial functionality and membrane and DNA integrity were also reduced at the highest concentration during both exposure periods. The results showed that glyphosate can induce harmful effects on reproductive parameters in D. rerio and that this change would reduce the fertility rate of these animals.” Lopes et al. Effect of glyphosate on the sperm quality of zebrafish Danio rerio. Aquat Toxicol. 2014 Oct;155:322-6. doi: 10.1016/j.aquatox.2014.07.006 http://www.sciencedirect.com/
 “Glyphosate exerted proliferative effects only in human hormone-dependent breast cancer, T47D cells, but not in hormone-independent breast cancer, MDA-MB231 cells, at 10⁻¹² to 10⁻⁶M in estrogen withdrawal condition. … These results indicated that low and environmentally relevant concentrations of glyphosate possessed estrogenic activity. Glyphosate-based herbicides are widely used for soybean cultivation, and our results also found that there was an additive estrogenic effect between glyphosate and genistein, a phytoestrogen in soybeans.” However, these additive effects of glyphosate contamination in soybeans need further animal study. Thongprakaisang et al. Glyphosate induces human breast cancer cells growth via estrogen receptors. Food Chem Toxicol. 2013 Sep;59:129-36. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2013.05.057. Epub 2013 Jun 10. http://www.sciencedirect.com/
 Majewski et al. Pesticides in Mississippi air and rain: a comparison between 1995 and 2007. Environ Toxicol Chem. 2014 Jun;33(6):1283-93. doi: 10.1002/etc.2550, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
See also: Majewski et al. Pesticides in the atmosphere of the Mississippi River Valley, Part I — Rain: http://toxics.usgs.gov/pubs/
See also: “Pesticides associated to genetically modified foods (PAGMF), are engineered to tolerate herbicides such as glyphosate (GLYP) and gluphosinate (GLUF) or insecticides such as the bacterial toxin bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). … Blood of thirty pregnant women (PW) and thirty-nine nonpregnant women (NPW) were studied. Serum GLYP and GLUF were detected in nonpregnant women and not detected in pregnant women. Serum 3-MPPA and CryAb1 toxin were detected in pregnant women, their fetuses and nonpregnant women. This is the first study to reveal the presence of circulating pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in women with and without pregnancy, …” Aris et al. Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada. Reprod Toxicol. 2011;31:528-33 http://www.sciencedirect.com/