Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Genetically Modified Organisms (part 2) - Monsanto's Misfits

As you may have realized from my last post, I try to avoid eating Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) because, among other things, they scare me. We are altering our food without adequate or rigorous testing. The companies that develop, patent, and sell GMO seeds have assured the public (and the FDA) over and over that these foods are safe. Unfortunately, this may not be the case. Once you realize the paucity of decent research done to establish their safety, you might just be afraid to eat them too.

Research Shows that Monsanto’s Research is Wrong

New research out of University College in Cork, Ireland reexamines the original Monsanto studies that “demonstrated” that these 3 varieties of GM corn are “safe”. Unfortunately, there are a number of serious problems with Monsanto’s studies and conclusions.

The first and most obvious problem is that Monsanto’s original research was conducted only on rats and only over the course of 90 days. Shockingly this is the longest single study of its kind to establish the safety of GMOs on animals (that includes humans).

Why only 90 days?

As you might imagine, 90 days may be a long enough study to detect serious short term problems like acute allergic reactions, heart attacks, or something equally precipitous. However, 90 days is far too short to detect any GMO related problems that may take longer than 90 days to develop. The kinds of problems that MAY NOT SHOW UP within 90 days include just about all chronic illnesses including diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune diseases, osteoarthritis, cancer and/or even organ damage (e.g. liver, spleen, GI tract, bladder or brain damage). Any disease or disorder that naturally develops over many years would simply be missed and never accounted for in a 90 day study.

Monsanto's studies prove that GMOs
are safe for people using rats.
Rats = People?

Since when did we decide that testing done on rats alone is enough to establish what happens in people? Rats and humans share a very similar physiology, but at the end of the day, there are significant differences. Things that are safe for rats are not necessarily safe for humans. No studies, to date, have followed humans eating GMOs and the effects they have on the human body. To really determine the safety of GMOs, research studies done to establish their safety should have been done on humans and run for a minimum of two years, if not a whole lot longer!  

Males = Females?

The next major problem discovered by the investigators at University College at Cork is that a crucial piece of data was overlooked (or simply ignored) by Monsanto --- that is, gender comparisons. The major finding of this reexamination of Monsanto’s work is that these GMO crops affect males and females in drastically different ways. Monsanto’s researchers simply lumped together the two sexes (male and female) and analyzed them as simply “rats”, which can, and did indeed,  skew the results considerably. A proper analysis would look for differences between the two sexes and note the differences as potential side effects of the GM food.

Other “missing” data and omissions:

Without any explanation, Monsanto left out some important pieces of data. In GMO studies, at least 3 sets of measurements should be taken to be able to accurately be able to tell what changes happen over time. Monsanto only took 2 sets of measurements of the rats, leaving a lot of confusion about what actually happened to them, but not one of the major regulatory agencies (FDA, EPA, etc.) bothered to question this blatant omission. The studies were simply accepted as “proof” that GMOs are safe.

Other questionable omissions from the original studies seem to suggest that unfavorable evidence was simply not reported. Cholesterol and triglyceride levels were measured during the MON-836 trials, but not for the other two (MON-810 and NK-603). Levels of sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen, etc.), pituitary hormones (oxytocin, growth hormone, etc.), and Cytochrome P450 (responsible for metabolism) were not measured for any of the 3 trials with no explanation. Another odd omission, gamma glutamyl transferase levels (a test of liver function) were only measured at 90 days, but not the other measurement time period as with all the other measurements. Why these variables were not taken into account, or simply left out of the published study, is not known, but it is entirely possible that the values simply did not show Monsanto’s products to be favorable or particularly safe, so they were deliberately left out of the results. This tactic is common among big corporations and safety testing.

What They Found in Detail:

Besides the unexplained omissions of certain pieces and types of data, the major finding of this reexamination of Monsanto’s work is that these varieties of GM corn affect males and females in drastically different ways. Monsanto did not compare the different effects on males vs females, possibly in an attempt to make their products appear safer than they are. In the Monsanto study, two different levels of GM corn (11% and 33% of total diet) were fed to rats with a variety of measurements taken of the rats physiology after 5 and 14 weeks of feeding.

NK-603 - “Roundup Ready” Corn

This genetically modified strain of corn strain of Monsanto corn, NK-603, is genetically modified to be able to resist the herbicide marketed as Roundup. Roundup happens to be a chemical herbicide (plant killer) that Monsanto makes and sells to kill weeds. Roundup’s main ingredient (gyphosate), though orginially touted as completely safe by Monsanto, is under increasing scrutiny as its long list of ill effects on humans and other animals is becoming more clear.
This particular genetic modification appears to cause more negative effects to males than to females.

Females showed a significant increase in levels of Phosphorus in their urine and Potassium in their bloodstream. Other than that, nothing really appeared different from the control group, fed no GMOs).

Males, on the other hand, showed significant changes to their physiology. The livers and hearts of the male rats shrunk by 5% and 11% respectively relative to control rats. In addition, Creatinine drastically increased in urine and decreased proportionally in the bloodstream, meaning that they were clearing more creatinine out of their bodies for some reason (this may be related to the heart or liver changes). Blood urea nitrogen levels showed a marked decrease (which could be related to kidney changes). In a strange twist, eosinophil counts (measuring a type of white blood cell that tracks allergic and immunological changes) increased dramatically versus control rats when GM corn levels were 11% of total diet, but dropped significantly below the levels of the control rats when GM corn was fed at 33% of total diet. These changes in eosinophil counts could be potentially explained by an initial elevated allergic/immunological reaction to the 11% diet followed by actual immunologic suppression at the 33% level. Immunological suppression occurs in serious disorder like AIDS and may lead to life threatening infections.

MON-810 - Bt Corn

The effects of this variety on females outweighs its effects on males, but both are affected in significant ways.

Males showed some minor effects on their liver. Albumin levels decreased and the albumin/globulin ratio increased markedly, indicating an effect on the liver.

Females, showed frightening effects on their bone marrow and kidneys. White blood cell counts, lymphocytes (absolute), and basophils all decreased quite dramatically (these two types of white cells generally protect us against viruses and bacteria). Spleen weight increased considerably. Blood urea nitrogen, related to the kidneys, increased as well.

MON-863 - Bt Corn

Of the three varieties, the effects of MON-863 were distributed between males and females fairly evenly. However, there were no common effects between the two sexes.

Females increased in weight and showed higher blood sugar levels and triglyceride levels (two of the risk factors for heart disease and diabetes), likely related to each other. Along with these changes, liver mass increased, along with creatinine, blood urea nitrogen, and urea chloride excretion. Albumin and globulin levels, however, decreased.

Males showed very different effects from eating GM corn, all notably different from the effects on their female counterparts. Males decreased in overall body weight, with a decrease in kidney weight and “noticeable” chronic nephropathy (damage and dysfunction of the liver and/or kidney). Similar changes in liver function tests occurred in males as in females (albumin and globulin levels decreasing) with the addition of alanine aminotransferase levels decreasing. In addition, levels of potassium in urine decreased, and more so over time, whereas in control rats, it increased over time.

Unreported effects:

Why Monsanto’s study neglected to mention these many effects on physiology in a study specifically investigating it I cannot understand. Opponents of GMOs see this as “business as usual” at Monsanto. After all, Monsanto has been caught distorting studies, leaving out unfavorable results, bribing elected officials to allow unsafe products (known dangerous pesticides) to be used, and outright blatantly lying to consumers and regulators for decades. Furthermore, the only reason independent researchers were finally able to do a reanalysis of Monsanto’s study data is because several countries in the European Union made publicly available the raw data specifically for review and evaluation. Monsanto has been consistently unwilling to provide this data to independent researchers for years under the “trade secrets” protection.

Things need to change...

Why are companies allowed to continue to perform all of the required research on the safety of their own products and to keep the raw data from this research secret? Time and again, allegedly “safe” products (pesticides especially) have been found to actually be unsafe, but only after decades of use and negatively affecting the health of millions of people. Monsanto, especially, has been found guilty of extremely dubious practices regarding their safety practices around the world. Obviously, it’s not reasonable to single out one company and require them to perform additional or independent testing, but why aren’t all companies involved in this kind of research subject to stronger regulation?

Monsanto says their GM corn is safe... just like their other
"safe" products, DDT and Agent Orange.
GMOs already affect billions of people world wide, with the potential to affect just about every living creature on earth. Is it really conceivable that a 90 day study on rats is adequate to prove that they are safe for people forever? In my opinion, agribusiness companies should not be allowed to submit their own in-house testing as “proof” of safety, especially considering their motivation to get a product to market as quickly as possible. We don’t know what long term effects these products will have, yet already in the United States, upwards of 70 percent of corn and 90 percent of soy that are grown are genetically modified varieties.

Monsanto and other GMO developing companies are responsible for making money and keeping their shareholders happy. Who is responsible for keeping us safe from products they call “safe” now, but may turn out to be disasters a decade or two from now. DDT and Agent Orange were two “safe” products made by Monsanto just a few decades ago.

Perhaps Monsanto’s own director of corporate communications said it best, "Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of bio-tech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is FDA's job." So why is the FDA using Monsanto’s internal testing to determine safety of their GMOs?

Monsanto would have us believe that their products are safe for humans. The sad truth is that their own study that is supposed to “prove” it, can’t even show that GMO corn is safe... for rats.

Precautionary Principle

The results of these pivotal studies are now, at the very least, questionable. With no additional research, should we really be growing these GM crops on farms where, once out in the open, they can spread to every farm in the world? The cat is out of the proverbial bag already, so the question may be somewhat moot; it is too late to fully apply the precautionary principle. However, with these disturbing results, there is reason for concern and I believe that the FDA should realize their mistake and place a moratorium on the sale of GMOs until proper serious and in depth testing is done by independent researchers so that the facts about the safety of GMOs can be properly established.

What can I do?

Unless you live in a country that prohibits the growing or sale of GMOs or who have requirements for labeling GMOs, the only way to protect yourself and your family is to purchase and eat only 100% organic and or biodynamic food. Organic and biodynamic food, by definition, are not allowed to use genetically modified plants or seeds.

The U.S. has, so far, been very accepting of GMOs, but it is clear that more and more people simply want to know what is and what is not a GMO when they go shopping for food. Fortunately, groups like EWG are forming a campaign that calls for the FDA to label GMOs so that consumers can have educated choices. In the last week, there was a rally in Texas calling for government to label GMO foods so that consumers can at least make informed choices.  No matter what side of the argument you are on, people should at least be allowed to know what it is that they are buying and eating. Hopefully, regulators and law-makers will take note and we can have honest choices between clearly labelled products.

Unfortunately, it may be too late. It is only a matter of time before the genes from GMOs spread to normal plants and we are left without a choice.

To continue on this topic, you may want to read the first part of this post: Genetically Modified Organisms - What's For Dinner?

Source: A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health

Other information on GMOs:

Seeds of Deception - by Jeffrey M. Smith
Institute for Responsible Technology

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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