December 18, 2009

GMOs - Still Not Safe
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.

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.

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?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I frequently get shocked expressions when I mention to people that there are things going into the gene besides just the "pesticide resistance." Most people don't realize viruses, retroviruses and pathogenic bacteria are required for most genetic modification to "take."

There's just so much wrong with GMOs it's hard to know where to start protesting.

Anonymous FLNeurosci said...

Are you attacking a tool (gene therapy) or a result of using that tool? It is naive and foolish to attack genetic modification. Every day, viruses re-write portions of people's genome. Dr. Richard Smeyne, of St. Jude Children's Hospital, has shown how avian flu (H5N1) permanently changes genes in the brain. Gene therapy is done in humans in clinical trials in lots of diseases. Rewriting genomes is coming. Get used to it. Don't be like my parents eschewing computers and cell phones. How we regulate the things we create in this way is the real question. Stop writing Luddite-esque posts that warn against genetic modification as a technique and change your tone to warn against the failure of a world-wide protocol for coordinated regulation of GM organisms.

Blogger tlaskawy said...

Look, it's clear that I'm attacking the use of the genetic engineering techniques I describe in food plant breeding because scientists can't really control the manipulations they're causing.

I'm talking about modifications to plants we then eat -- these products are in the wild after very little testing of either they're health or environmental effects.

Corporations like Monsanto have and are taking advantage of regulatory failures to release products that simply are not proven to be safe.

I *would* like to ban these products if I could. But not because I "oppose" genetic modification as a biological function, which is of course ludicrous. I want to ban them because I think the evidence is clear that GMO crops are unsafe. I don't agree that we just have to "deal" with GMO crops -- do we just have to "deal" with DDT, PCBs, Dioxin, BPA and all the rest, too?

Blogger Matt DiLeo said...

In regard to the French study,

It sounds like they got ahold of some of Monsanto's raw data and re-ran it with "proper" statistical methods. I can't really judge whether this was neccessary without seeing the data (and without a background in how toxicity studies are supposed to be done), but their statistical quibbles seem logical.

The important thing to keep in mind with statistics is it's really a subjective science and it's super easy to make your results come out as either significant/nonsignificant based on the specific methods you employ.

Aside from the nitty gritty of statistics, I'd like to point out two things.

First, glyphosate (Roundup) is less toxic to humans than either caffeine or aspirin. So it's a little silly to worry about trace residues of glyphosate on your veggies if you don't worry about drinking a dozen cups of coffee/tea/soda/chocolate every week.

Second, Bt toxin is routinely sprayed on organic crops as an organic pesticide, and I've never heard any suggestion that this is dangerous.

Knowing these two things, I'm inclined to attribute these results to the authors pushing a little too hard on their statistical tests. And if it's true that the sample sized used IS too small, than no amount of statistical monkeying is going to give a reliable answer.

I'm not personally worried about these GM products because, while no technology is 100.000% safe 100.000% of the time, they are replacing really dangerous pesticides such as atrazine and organophosphates.

If the environmental toxicity scientific community has a problem with the methods used in this study, then the whole experiment should be re-run. If the study was conducted according to proven methods, then I don't see a problem.

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