GMOs: Further Study Needed | Civil Eats

GMOs: Further Study Needed

There have indeed been studies that have indicated genetically engineered crops like corn and soy might negatively affect our health. Most of these studies conclude by saying “more study is needed” — but further study never happens because Monsanto, which owns the patents of most GMO seeds simply won’t give them to independent researchers for scientific use without onerous restrictions. The federal government has been no help because under industry pressure the EPA and the FDA ruled back in the 1990s that GMO crops are “substantially equivalent” to their conventional brethren and they have shown no interest in re-opening the GMO can of worms.

This regulatory end-around has been aided in part by the industry’s successful campaign to convince the media and our representatives that genetic engineering is just a super-duper cool version of conventional breeding. That is a lie. Genetic engineering involves inserting a new piece of DNA code into a plant’s own DNA — which sounds straightforward except you have no idea where your piece will end up and what disturbances it might cause in the plant. You just have to grow the thing and find out.

What you might get is what’s known as “insertional mutagenesis” and it can result in all sorts of bad things happening. One example might be that you engineer a plant to produce some new substance — like a herbicide, a vitamin or a even a drug — but it also produces a potent toxin to go along with it. Oops!

Insertional mutagenesis is why pretty much all of Monsanto’s promised innovations are five or ten years away and it’s also why GMOs can come with all sorts of nasty surprises. And because these are subtle changes to the genome, it shouldn’t be surprising that any health effects it would cause in creatures that eat them might be subtle, too.

All of which brings me to the news (via Tom Philpott) that there is increasing evidence that GMOs can and do cause health problems:

And now comes this study by three French university researchers. It’s a fascinating piece of work. The researchers analyzed data from tests done on rats by Monsanto and another biotech firm, Covance Laboratories, submitted to European government in 2000 and 2001. The firms conducted the tests to prove that their products were safe to eat; scrutinizing the same data, the researchers arrived at a different conclusion.

The three products in question are still quite relevant: one strain of Roundup Ready corn, engineered to withstand Monsanto’s flagship herbicide; and two strands of Bt corn, engineered to contain the insect-killing gene from the BT bacteria. Roundup Ready and Bt products are ubiquitous in the U.S. seed supply, often “stacked” into the same seed.

The researchers also found “clear negative impact” on their livers of rats fed all three kinds of GMO corn.

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They added that it’s impossible to tell, based on the data, whether the damage was caused by the specific genes introduced to the corn, or — more troubling still — if the very process of genetic modification creates a toxic effect.

Firstly, let’s be clear — industry scientists got bad results, fudged the analysis and then figured no one would notice. Well, it took almost a decade, but these enterprising French scientists did notice. And that last bit about a toxic effect of genetic modification: That’s got “insertional mutagenesis” written all over it, no? Philpott then explains why, though no one’s arguing that GMOs cause “illness” per se, this isn’t some kind of crank theory:

Nearly our entire corn and soy crops crops are genetically modified — and have been for nearly a decade. Corn and soy course through the food system like blood in a body. If GMOs caused harm, wouldn’t it be obvious by now?Moreover, most corn and soy goes into animal feed. Last I checked, pigs, chickens, and cows on factory animal farms haven’t been dropping dead en masse before their date with the executioner. Again, if GMOs were dangerous, why aren’t factory animal farmers rejecting them?

This thinking, I think, represents educated opinion on GMOs. The logic would be persuasive, if scientists were claiming that GMOs caused spectacular, virulent illnesses, the kind associated with, say, E. coli O157 or salmonella. But instead, the evidence I’m referring to suggests that GMOs cause low-level, chronic damage.

And think of the U.S. diet. People here tend to survive on refined sugars and processed food, and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals like BPA. Moreover, we have high and growing levels of chronic ailments. To me, it’s highly plausible that yet more low-level toxins could enter the food stream without causing immediately identifiable trouble.

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Yes, after the fiasco of bisphenol A — whose safety had been “proven” by industry-conducted research accepted by a gullible FDA — I think we can conceive of the possibility that GMOs, which have never even gone through a thorough environmental impact review, much less a full safety review, might, just might come with serious long-term risks attached. Maybe someone should ask the FDA what they think about GMOs now?

Originally published on Beyond Green

Tom Laskawy is a founder and executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. His writing on food politics and the environment has appeared online in Grist, The American Prospect, Slate, The New York Times, and The New Republic Read more >

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  1. I do not believe you're correctly explaining insertional mutagenesis. Yes that's a real thing, and can be causes by a transgene landing within the coding sequence (or even the promoter) of another, existing, gene. But this is a relatively easy thing to check for, and I believe such testing is required for new transgenic events.

    The known sequence of the transgene is used as a starting site to sequence parts of the genome to either side of the transgene. The results are, firstly, that researchers can see if they landed in a gene, and secondly, if they're working in a crop with a sequenced genome such as soybean or maize, they can identify the location of the insertion.

    So insertional mutagenesis can happen (it has been used to great effect in Arabidopsis to study the effects of knocking out individual genes), but it's easy to check for and discard. I'd be interested to hear an example (real or hypothetical) of how breaking a gene (even if the breakage wasn't easy caught and discarded) would result in the production of a new toxin by the plant.

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