By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero
A secret report from the biotech company Monsanto on their 1,139-page Mon 863 GM corn, rats fed this corn for thirteen weeks had abnormally high white cell and lymphocyte counts in the blood, which increase in cases of cancer, poisoning or infection; low reticulocyte numbers (indicative of anemia); weight loss in the kidneys (indicating problems with blood pressure); necrosis of the liver; high blood sugar levels (possibly diabetes); and other adverse symptoms.
Proponents of GM crops and foods tell us and constantly repeat that these novel products have been examined and investigated more thoroughly than any other product in history, that their potential impacts on human health and the environment have been so thoroughly investigated that they have not there must be doubt that they are healthy and safe.
Corn Mon 863
But does such a claim hold? In order to adequately address this question, let's look at two studies that came to light in 2005.
On May 22 of that year, the English newspaper The Independent reported the existence of a secret report from the biotechnology company Monsanto about its genetically modified corn Mon 863. According to the 1,139-page report, rats fed this corn for thirteen weeks had counts. abnormally high white cells and lymphocytes in the blood, which increase in cases of cancer, poisoning or infection; low reticulocyte numbers (indicative of anemia); weight loss in the kidneys (indicating problems with blood pressure); necrosis of the liver; high blood sugar levels (possibly diabetes); and other adverse symptoms. Monsanto spokespersons assured that the company would make the report public, but so far it has not done so, citing "confidentiality", and has only published an eleven-page summary.
Several specialists who consulted the newspaper agreed that the data in this summary is alarming, because the changes observed in the blood could indicate that there has been damage to the immune system and / or that there are growing tumors. Geneticist Michael Antonin of Guy's Hospital Medical School said the findings in the abstract are "highly concerning from a medical point of view."
It is important to note that this important information is public not because of Monsanto's good faith but because some good citizen with access to confidential company documents took the risk of making it public. Were it not for this anonymous hero, we would still be blissfully ignorant about the effects of Mon 863 today.
If the summary is alarming, the full report can in all probability be even scarier.
How is it possible that the regulatory authorities allow Monsanto to keep this report secret in light of what is revealed in its summary?
The most tragicomic thing about this matter is that Mon 863 corn was authorized for planting and consumption in the United States. Monsanto has fed us this corn knowing that it is potentially dangerous to humans.
And how many more reports like this are there on other GM products? Are there more products equal to or more harmful than the Mon 863 will be on the market today? We must answer both questions: We cannot doubt that there are more. But scientists who work for these companies are generally required to sign nondisclosure agreements. Spokespeople and apologists for corporations tell us that research and development of transgenic products is done with the public interest in mind, but scientific research can never be in the public interest when secrecy is involved. This secrecy is especially alarming when it comes to data that concerns human health and safety. If these products are so safe, why secrecy?
The industry tells us to trust it because companies have done thousands of studies on GM crops. But most of this agronomic research has no relevance to issues of human health or environmental impact.
In any case, the vast majority of these investigations and their results are confidential. This confidentiality can only have two explanations. One is that such studies are so poorly done that they have no chance of being published in the scientific literature or of being taken seriously by an academic institution. The other is that the results of such studies have been "inconvenient", as in the case of Mon 863 maize.
The australian pea
The other study I refer to came to light last November. In the study in question, an experimental transgenic pea developed in Australia by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization elicited a strong immunological reaction in laboratory rats. This pea had been inserted a gene taken from the pink bean, which encodes a trait that helps fight pests. The creators of this pea were looking for a way to combat what is called in English the "pea weevil", which eats up to 30% of the Australian crop, valued at $ 100 million.
A genetic cross from pink bean to pea is not as drastic as introducing genes from more distant organisms like viruses and bacteria, so scientists were not expecting any surprises.
Scientists at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in the city of Canberra subjected the transgenic pea to a battery of tests that are normally done on drugs, not food.
These tests included detailed sequencing of the transgenic protein and its corresponding gene before and after gene transfer to the pea, in addition to the MALDI-TOF spectographic test, which can detect subtle changes in protein structure.
The rats that ingested the product showed significant changes in their immune systems and lymph nodes. They also reacted in a similar way when exposed to albumin and two other substances, showing that this pea could make the subject allergic not only to pea but to other foods.
It should be emphasized that the tests that the Australians did are not required by law for GM foods in the United States. This product would have entered the US market if it had passed through the regulatory system of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Ministry of Agriculture (USDA). Therefore, it should not surprise us that transgenic products equal to or more harmful than the pea in question may be on the market right now.
Equally or more interesting than the results of the experiment is the fact that the same scientists who developed the pea and conducted the experiment did not understand the importance of what they had done. They really were convinced that tests like the ones they had run were the norm in the rest of the world.
Researcher Jeffrey Smith, author of the book "Seeds of Deception", spoke with them and challenged them to present a single case of a transgenic food crop that has undergone tests like the ones they conducted.
Pusztai's controversial potatoes
But before we go any further on the Australian pea, let's go back to the 1990s, when a scientist in the UK was equally convinced that the safety of GMOs was proven until it was his turn to read scientific reports on it. The scientist, Arpad Pusztai, is a world authority on the study of lectins, a particular type of protein that exists in plants.
Advertisers in the biotech industry have gone to extraordinary lengths to destroy their credibility and end their careers, and the misinformation they have generated has confused even people I thought were better informed. A South American colleague told me that it was not good to use Pusztai as a scientific reference because he was
But by the 1990s Pusztai had published over 270 studies and three books on the subject of lectins, two of these books he co-wrote with his wife Susan. Pusztai had worked since the 1960s at the Rowett Institute in Scotland, the most influential and prestigious institution in Europe dedicated to the study of human nutrition. Upon reaching 60 years of age, which is the retirement age at the Institute, the director of the institution, Dr.
Philip James begged him to stay, and has since won the coveted Leverhulme fellowship and gained membership in the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
In 1995 the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department commissioned a team led by Pusztai to conduct a study on the effects of transgenic foods. The other two institutions on his team were the Scottish Crop Research Institute and the Department of Biology at Durham University. Pusztai's team managed to win this contract in competition with 28 other research institutions across Europe, and their methodology was approved by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The procedures and guidelines developed by Pusztai's team in the course of their study would then be used by European regulatory agencies to evaluate GM products.
It is worth mentioning that at that time there was not a single study on the safety of GMOs in the scientific literature. The Pusztai study was the first independent study to this end.
Pusztai had access to confidential scientific reports from the biotech industry that were used to apply for approval of GM products in European markets, and what he found was the most shocking and unpleasant in his entire professional career. He found the reports so lacking and incomplete that they were of no use. According to Pusztai, they had been done in haste and for the sole purpose of gaining approval at any cost. They would never have passed the sieve of the scientific community.
Pusztai's team was assigned to examine a transgenic potato that had been inserted a gene from snowdrop that encodes the insecticidal lectin GNA. The first surprise was when analyzing the properties of potatoes. Not only
their nutrient levels were out of the ordinary - one of the specimens had 20% less protein than normal potatoes - but the abnormalities were different in each specimen. The potatoes were all of the same strain and all sisters, that is, descendants of the same ancestor, and all had undergone the same genetic modification, so they could not naturally be so different from each other. This showed that genetic engineering is not capable of producing uniform, stable and predictable results, as claimed by the industry.
Laboratory rats fed this potato suffered substantial damage to their immune systems and weight loss in several of their organs, including the brain, testes, and liver.
Some had abnormal growth in their intestinal cells, which could be a pre-cancerous symptom. The GNA lectin could not be blamed for these effects, as it is harmless to mammals.
The explanation had to be in the process of genetic insertion itself.
Instead of receiving praise, Pusztai was the target of a smear and discredit campaign in which the Rowett Institute itself participated. Dr. James denied him access to his laboratory and documents, and subjected his study to an audit, something that is done only when there is reason to believe that fraud was committed.
A gag order was also imposed on him, so he could not defend himself against the false accusations he was being subjected to. Among other falsehoods circulated to the press, a statement from the Rowett Institute said that the lectin used in the experiment was not GNA but concanavalin A (Con A). This misinformation had a terrible effect on Pusztai's credibility, as Con A is toxic to mammals, unlike the lectin GNA, which was actually used. The argument began to circulate that the results of Pusztai's experiments were not surprising since the transgenic potato studied was altered to secrete a substance that is toxic to mammals. But due to the gag order, Pusztai was unable to correct this or the other false allegations that the press was publishing.
Despite the Rowett Institute's specialty being nutrition and this controversy centered on nutrition, not a single nutritionist on the team performed the audit. The auditors analyzed three years of work in just ten hours and concluded that the study data did not justify the conclusions that Pusztai had reached.
The auditors' report was never published or subjected to the peer review process. Only ten copies were printed. According to Pusztai and his wife, who received one of those copies, the report was riddled with errors.
But several colleagues came to Pusztai's rescue by asking to see the documentation of the controversial study. The canons of scientific ethics allow scientists to share their data with colleagues, and the Rowett Institute reluctantly made the relevant documentation available.
In February 1999, 30 scientists from thirteen countries who had read the documents published an international memorandum supporting Pusztai and calling for a moratorium on the development of transgenic crops.
Later reports appeared in the European press to the effect that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had personally participated in the persecution against Pusztai, calling on Philip James to ask him to silence Pusztai. As found out by Professor Robert Orskov, who worked at the Institute for 33 years and is currently a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a consultant to the Organization of Nations.
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Monsanto called US President Bill Clinton, Clinton called Blair, and Blair called James. Until today, Blair has not been clear about his role in this scandal, but it is public knowledge that Clinton and his agriculture secretary Dan Glickman exerted a lot of pressure on Blair and other European leaders to approve the commercialization of GMOs.
Pusztai was eventually vindicated and is today an internationally recognized authority on GM products. He recently published an extensive report in which he analyzes ALL the studies in the scientific literature regarding GMOs.
But he had to pay a huge price for his integrity. Since the controversy began, he has had two heart attacks and he and his wife are on permanent high blood pressure medication.
Going back to 2005
Well now let's go back to 2005 to take up the Australian pea issue. Smith spoke to Pusztai about the Australian study, and Pusztai assured him that it is definitely new and unprecedented.
Smith also discussed the study with Gilles Eric Seralini, who has reviewed all the biotech industry submissions to European authorities, and told him that he was not aware of any transgenic plants that have undergone such detailed examinations.
Now I would like to tell you a bit about Jeffrey Smith, who is not a scientist but is still one of the best informed people on the GMO debate. He presented the manuscript of his book to a prominent German biologist, Christine von Weizsaecker, and asked for her endorsement. She replied that she would do no such thing for a book whose scientific data was not 100% correct. He read and analyzed the manuscript carefully and sent it to another biologist to ensure that none of the information in it was taken out of context. And endorsed it.
And if you want more scientific references, here is another one: "Safety Testing and Regulation of Genetically Engineered Foods", a report by William Freese and David Schubert, published in November 2004 in Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews. According to the study, the process of evaluating transgenic foods in the United States is not effective, since it is based on poorly done research and wrong premises.
In the scientific literature there is only one study on transgenic foods done with human subjects. The study in question determined that the genetic sequences of the transgenic soybean can be incorporated into the human intestinal flora. The industry and its apologists had said that such a thing was impossible, that gastric juices and intestinal enzymes dissolve the nucleic acids that make up genes.
But now we know that this is not the case.
This finding is especially concerning because many GM crops contain genes that confer immunity to antibiotics. The implications for public health are chilling, since if the gut bacteria incorporate these genes the treatment of gut infections will be dangerously complicated.
In 2001, the US Center for Disease Control reported that diet was responsible for twice as many cases of illness as seven years earlier (a period of time that coincides with the massive introduction of GM foods to the market). We are talking about 76 million annual cases of disease, of which 325,000 result in hospitalization and 5,000 deaths. Add to that the 33% increase in diabetes cases between 1990 and 1998, and the dramatic increase in obesity and cancer. Are at least some of these cases related to the consumption of GMOs? We do not know. No scientist has bothered to make the inquiry.
One final fact: Soy allergies in England rose 50% in the years GM soy was introduced to the country, according to the York Nutritional Institute.
Proponents of GMOs say that in the nine years since they were marketed, no one has been harmed by consuming them. But considering the data presented here, such claims are, at best, foolish and pseudoscientific.
Freese, William, and David Schubert. "Safety Testing and
Regulation of Genetically Engineered Foods ".
Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Reviews - Vol.
21, November 2004.
Pusztai, A. et al. (2003) "Genetically Modified Foods:
Potential Human Health Effects. "In: Food Safety:
Contaminants and Toxins (ed. JPF D’Mello) pp. 347-372.
CAB International, Wallingford Oxon, UK.
Pusztai, Arpad (2005). "Pusztai Answers His Critics"
Pusztai, Arpad (2006). "National Regulations Should
Reflect Risks of GE Crops "
Silvia Ribeiro. "The Rats of Monsanto". The Day
(Mexico), June 11, 2005.
Andrew Rowell (2003). "Don’t Worry, It’s Safe to Eat:
The True Story of GM Food. "Earthscan Books.
Smith, Jeffrey (2003). "Seeds of Deception: Exposing
industry and government lies about the safety of the
genetically engineered foods you're eating. "Yes!
Books / Chelsea Green Publishing.
Smith, Jeffrey (2005). "Genetically Modified Peas
Caused Dangerous Immune Response in Mice ".
Smith, Jeffrey (2006). "Un-Spinning the Spin Masters
on Genetically Engineered Food ".
* Carmelo Ruiz Marrero is director of the Puerto Rico Biosecurity Project. Presentation offered to the Association of Scientists of the Agricultural Experiment Station of Puerto Rico. January 27, 2006, Aguadilla, Puerto Rico "THE RISKS OF TRANSGENIC CROPS: AN ECOLOGIST SOCIAL PERSPECTIVE",