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Cutting Through the Frankenfood Debate: Are Products with Genetically Modified Organisms Safe? And Should They Be Labeled? - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Health
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 06 December 2012 05:01

The Safety Question

To return to the first question of food safety, it would be accurate to say that at this point, there’s no evidence widely accepted by the scientific community that GMOs currently used in food products present health risks to humans who consume them.

As Martina Newell-McGloughlin, the director of the University of California’s Biotechnology Research & Education Program, said in response to the Séralini research: “Despite numerous studies in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and substantial experience with humans and animals around the world consuming biotech crops for over 15 years, there has not been a single substantiated case of negative outcomes or a single documented health problem.”

That might sound reassuring, and many people in the scientific community and biotech industry go even further, saying not only that there have there been no proved negative health effects, but that GMO food is unequivocally safe.

In a Scientific American blog post last year, Pamela Ronald – a plant-pathology professor at the University of California, Davis – repeated a common refrain: “There is broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat.”

The biotech industry in addition states that GE crops have been rigorously studied for safety – at least compared to selective breeding. “It’s the most-studied plant-breeding technology that we’ve ever done,” said Thomas P. Redick, a St. Louis attorney who serves as counsel to the American Soybean Association and who co-wrote the 2010 book Thwarting Consumer Choice: The Laws & Flaws of GM Labeling (which was published by the American Enterprise Institute). “Nobody has shown me anything – and I’m looking – by way of an allergy or a toxicity that you could document even under give-it-the-benefit-of-a-doubt science.”

But many people add a major caveat to those claims: GMOs used for food in the United States are not required to have human clinical trials, tests for carcinogenicity or harm to fetuses, long-term testing for human health risks, or long-term testing on animals. Typically, GMOs undergo 90-day feeding trials with rats to establish that they don’t carry risks to human health.

In other words, it would also be accurate to say that at this point, the testing of GMOs has been inadequate to allay the health concerns that many people have about them. And it might further be true that no amount of scientific research will make people fully comfortable with the idea of eating transgenic food.

This is why the Séralini research caused such a stir: Unlike most tests on GMOs used for food, it considered health effects over the full two-year lifetime of its tested rats. “What he found was by no means definitive, but he found liver abnormalities, kidney abnormalities, he found tumors ... ,” Just Label It’s Bancroft said.

The methodology and sample size of the study have been savaged in many scientific circles, but anti-GM and pro-labeling groups have seized upon the conclusions as a red flag: Given how few long-term studies have been done on the health effects of GM crops, shouldn’t this finding merit more study and trigger some regulatory precaution?

In Mother Jones, Tom Philpott acknowledged the problems with the Séralini study but concluded that “it provides a disturbing hint that all might not be right with our food – and shows beyond a doubt that further study is needed.” He added that proper studies “would require a serious commitment of resources,” and the situation “reminded me of just how little funding GMO safety studies get here in the United States, the global capital of GMO production and consumption.”

The European Network of Scientists for Social & Environmental Responsibility echoed this point: “The controversy and vitriolic attacks evoked by the study reveal one underlying aspect: The lack of appropriate and agreed methodologies for long-term studies to scientifically assess the effects of lifetime consumption of GM foods.”

To understand this situation, it’s useful to look at how the Food & Drug Administration views GMOs. In 1992, the agency established a “guidance” on “foods derived from new plant varieties.” The basic idea is that “foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and their byproducts, derived from plant varieties developed by the new methods of genetic modification are regulated within the existing framework ... identical in principle to that applied to foods developed by traditional plant breeding. The regulatory status of a food, irrespective of the method by which it is developed, is dependent upon objective characteristics of the food and the intended use of the food (or its components). ... [T]he key factors in reviewing safety concerns should be the characteristics of the food product, rather than the fact that the new methods are used.” Changes to “objective characteristics” that might trigger additional regulation include “known toxicants,” changed nutrient content, and “allergenicity,” the document states.

This is known as the “substantial equivalence” approach: In the absence of some significant compositional difference in the food product compared to a similar one developed through conventional breeding, the GMOs will be regulated in the same manner. Most GMOs for food, then, are not subject to any more stringent federal regulation than non-GMOs.

“‘We don’t need testing.’ ... That’s what’s being claimed in the substantial-equivalence argument,” said Moline chiropractor and nutritionist Dr. Curtis L. Rexroth at a November 14 Food & Water Watch event in Davenport. (Video can be found at “So no testing, except volunteer testing by the seed companies ... who hope to and do profit from this process. All we want basically is the tests; we want more science.”

“There is a very small amount [of health research], and it’s very short-term,” Bancroft said. “There are very few independent long-term studies. ... If you put an insecticide inside of a drug, it would take you five to 10 years to get it approved. If you put an insecticide within a food, in less than a year or so you can have it out on the market being consumed by Americans. We need to treat our food introductions just like we treat our drug introductions and make sure that we have science on our side.”

He also said there’s a double standard at work. Séralini was criticized for his sample size and the tumor-prone breed of rat he used, but these were “the exact same rats [Sprague-Dawley], the exact same sample size that the patent-holder submitted in the original data,” he said. “So if you don’t like the scientific methodology of the Séralini study, you probably don’t like the scientific methodology under which the original crop was approved.”

It’s not merely Séralini’s Roundup study that has provoked concern; labeling advocates have raised dozens of questions about the health impacts of food with GMO ingredients. Bancroft, for example, said crops that produce their own Bt insecticide are also potentially worrying, citing a Canadian study: “We’re finding Bt in human blood. We’re finding Bt in the umbilical cords of pregnant women.” (The study merely noted the presence of Bt rather than any negative health effects from it.)

This hits on the intuitive argument for labeling: the precautionary principle that we should label products whose long-term health effects haven’t been extensively studied. Bancroft said his organization is pro-labeling rather than anti-GE, and he did not say that GMOs in food have negative impacts on human health. “I would say we’re totally in the ‘we don’t know’ arena,” he said.

He added that biotech companies are “having it both ways”: “We have these companies, these patent-holders, that will go into Washington, go into a patent office, and they will say, ‘Hey. I have this brand-new genetically modified organism, and this is how we created it, and this is how it is substantially different from everything else out there. Please give me a patent.’ And then they walk down to the other side of Washington, DC, the FDA, and they say, ‘Look, we’ve got this genetically modified organism, and it’s the same as everything else.’”

Control of patented intellectual property is at the heart of why many people are skeptical about the safety of biotech foods: The companies that hold the patents dictate research.

“We basically feel that there haven’t been enough studies done – haven’t been enough long-term studies done,” said LeeAnn Felder, the outgoing Quad Cities field organizer for Food & Water Watch. “And that’s partly because of the seed patents that limit scientific research on these foods, and the fact that much of the research that has been done has been by the companies that sell these foods.”

“If you don’t have access to the materials, it’s very difficult to do the research,” Bancroft said. “Access to the seeds is controlled by the patent-holder.”