Republished from Watershed Sentinel
the late ’90s and early 2000s, genetically modified (GM) or
genetically engineered (GE) crops were a hot-button issue around the
world. They were originally developed by corporations like Monsanto
to increase yield by keeping crops insect repellent and tolerant of
herbicides. Companies spoke of crops that would feed impoverished
countries, manufacture pharmaceuticals and clean up the environment.
Critics called GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) a multi-pronged
threat to human health, the environment, and even democracy.
the National Film Board of Canada documentary, The
made in 2000, the biologist and author Arnaud Apoteker asks, “How
can we know the long-term effects when these products were only put
on the market four or five years ago? I believe a handful of
multinationals are conducting a health and epidemiological experiment
on the whole human race.”
Barely a peep from the populace.
Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, and other “Ag biotech”
companies have continued to create GM crops that flood the
marketplace. These Ag biotech companies own over 35 percent of the
international seed market. Their four largest crops, cotton, canola,
soy, and corn, take up over 99 percent of GM crop land. The
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech
Applications (ISAAA) claims that GMO crops cover over 282 million
acres worldwide. Greenpeace says 60 percent of processed foods
include some GMO.
decreased public interest, researchers have continued to look into
the effects of GMO foods on health, some with startling results. The
evidence for ill health effects caused by GM foods is limited, but so
are independent studies themselves, largely due to lack of government
funding. However, the startling evidence for GM health effects
available, from animal experiments done since the late ’90s, as
well as anecdotes from around the world, suggest that GM foods can
indeed have serious wide-ranging health effects.
Clark, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Agriculture
at Guelph University says health issues of GM crops have emerged
numerous times, starting with Arpad Pusztai in the late ’90s, who
was “crucified” for speaking out about his research on the health
effects of GM crops on animals. The regulatory bodies “just aren’t
paying any attention,” she says. Clark started researching GMOs on
her own time in the late ’90s, and has since become an outspoken
critic in Canada.
M. Smith’s book, Genetic
published in 2007, is a painstakingly-researched account of the
health effects of GM foods. Smith claims that up until 2007 there had
only been about 20 independent, peer-reviewed animal feeding studies
on the health effects of GM crops. That’s a tiny number considering
the size of the Ag biotech business and its impacts. According to
Clark and Smith, the studies Ag biotech companies conducted to gain
approval from governments are poor. They do not investigate long-term
effects, use dubious statistical methods, and fail to measure many
relevant factors, such as inflammatory reaction and organ damage to
the test animals.
his book, Smith recounts several key observations and experiments
that suggest GM foods indeed cause serious health effects.
to Bt Crops
reactions associated with GM Bt products have been found in humans
and animals. Bt is an insecticidal protein incorporated into the
genome of Bt plants by genetic engineering. In theory, Bt allows
farmers to use less insecticides on their crops. In 2004 and 2005,
cotton pickers in India suffered allergic reactions, some severe, to
Bt cotton. They did not show this response to non-Bt cotton. These
reactions have been reported in many Bt cotton workers at several
cotton factories across India. Four villages also reported a quarter
of their sheep died after grazing in Bt cotton fields. The crop’s
pollen reportedly also produced symptoms of inflammation in about 100
people in the Philippines who were living near Bt cotton fields.
These people also had antibodies to Bt-toxin in their blood.
experiments have also shown negative impacts of GM Bt crops. Rats fed
Monsanto’s MON 863 Bt corn in a 90-day trail showed significantly
increased immune cell counts and blood sugar, and significantly
decreased kidney weight, compared to the control group. A scientist
who assessed these findings for the French Commission For
Biomolecular Genetics, Gilles-Eric Séralini, said that the rats’
reactions were similar to those caused by pesticides.
Bt insecticide gene was also incorporated into potatoes. A study on
mice compared the effects of these GM potatoes with non-GM potatoes
which had Bt added to them. Results were similar between the groups,
with animals from both groups displaying abnormally high cell
proliferation in the intestines, as well as abnormality of cells in
the intestinal lining. These effects suggest that the GM Bt potatoes
may act as a carcinogen on the intestinal lining.
together, this evidence shows that Bt products may not actually
reduce the effects of pesticides on the consumer, but may be just as
harmful, causing problems from serious inflammation, to toxic organ
damage, to cancer.
and Roundup Ready Soy
feeding trials of GM soy, 12 female rats fed Roundup Ready soy, a GM
soy crop which has herbicide tolerance genes incorporated into its
genome, showed liver problems commonly associated with higher liver
function. Their livers seemed to have been working harder to detoxify
the effects of the GM soy compared to the rats who were fed non-GM
soy. These effects mostly disappeared after researchers replaced the
GM soy with non-GM soy in the rats’ diets.
another experiment, mice fed Roundup Ready soy experienced reduced
activity of their testicular cells. This result could have serious
implications on human fertility.
the dramatic results of a series of experiments, 25 of 45 rat
offspring died after their mothers were fed GM soy prior to and
during pregnancy. Compare this to three deaths out of 33 for non-GM
soy-fed rats, and three out of 44 for non-soy-fed rats. Many of the
organs of the GM-soy-fed offspring were much smaller than those of
the non-GM groups. Even the young rats themselves were much smaller.
[See “She Fed the Rats GM Soy,” WS, January-February 2006].
of other GM crops have suggested other health effects, including
infertility, allergies, and stunted growth in young animals. Farmers
in Iowa found that their pigs and cows had lower fertility coinciding
with feeding of GM corn. Upswings in fertility coincided with use of
GM developers cancelled release of their GM peas after they triggered
allergic inflammation in mice. The kidney beans that the inserted
gene had come from did not produce an inflammatory reaction. It
appears that the way the gene reacted with the pea genome and
metabolism changed the body’s reaction to the gene’s protein
rats fed a version of Calgene’s FlavrSavr tomato developed bleeding
stomachs. Many more rats that ate FlavrSavr died during the 28-day
study compared to the control group.
examples of eyewitness reports and news stories are not scientific
experiments, so they are inconclusive. However, they point to major
health effects that GM foods might cause, leading to potentially
catastrophic human health issues. At the very least Smith’s
anecdotal evidence shows that the health effects of GMOs desperately
need international attention, regulation, and further study.
writes that, in 1999, a study done on over 4000 people in the U.K.
showed humans had increased allergic response to soy after GM soy was
introduced into the food system.
a more recent experiment published in 2009, Séralini and his
colleagues compared the effects of three GM corn varieties on rat
health over 15 weeks. The animals showed signs of exposure to
toxicity in several organs, especially their livers and kidneys. The
researchers proposed these organs were reacting to the toxicity of
the pesticides the GM corn varieties had been modified to produce.
another twist, scientists are just beginning to investigate whether
GM foods can transmit their GM genes to human gut bacteria.
results from these animal experiments should be taken with a grain of
salt when applied to humans. Our bodies are similar, but not the
same, as those of rats and other lab animals. And unlike lab rats, we
control our own diets. Most people eat a large variety of foods, not
all of them containing genetically modified organisms. Increasing
numbers of us are choosing unprocessed and organic foods that
presumably don’t contain GMOs. Nevertheless, the proportion of GMOs
in the North American diet is high, especially for people who eat a
lot of processed food. And labeling of GM foods is not mandatory in
Canada, despite two private member’s bills in Canadian parliament
in 2001 and 2008 calling for GM food labeling. Both bills were
Case of LY038 Corn
Renessen, a joint venture between Monsanto and Cargill, produced a
high-lysine GM corn called LY038 for livestock feed. It was approved
in Canada in 2006, but when the European Food Safety Authority
(EFSA), the organization that recommends regulations for foods to the
EU Commission, looked deeper at Monsanto’s animal feeding trial and
asked questions in fall 2009, Monsanto withdrew their application.
including Clark, and Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian
Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), are asking why Canada did not
have the same safety concerns about Renessen’s application.
an email, EFSA told Watershed Sentinel they requested the company use
a different comparison corn variety than the ones used in the studies
– a major change in the experiment’s design that could
drastically affect results. “The panel considered that the tests
were not sufficient to conclude on safety and this issue needed
further attention,” EFSA stated..
response to why they had withdrawn the application of LY038, Monsanto
an email that they had, “Absolutely NO safety concerns whatsoever,”
over LY038 corn, and that they did not withdraw their application due
to health concerns. “There is no reason [for withdrawal], other
than Renessen’s decision not to commercialize due to decreased
says the Canadian government’s oversight of the health implications
of GMO foods is based on “an outdated and refuted view of gene
function.” She laughs that the Canadian government’s GMO
regulations treat genetics as she was taught them in school, decades
earlier, when her class made necklaces with beads to mimic DNA.
Genetics doesn’t work like that, she says, as other scientists, and
anyone who has taken an introductory genetics class, know.
now know that when you insert a gene – when you randomly throw this
thing in there, they don’t know ahead of time where it’s going to
land,” says Clark. The researchers don’t know how many copies
will be inserted, or what other genes it will affect, or will affect
it. We now know that the position of a gene is critical to how it
functions, and side effects of this are unpredictable and could be
drastic, Clark and Smith both say.
uses the words “ludicrous,” “embarrassing,” and “painful”
to describe Canada’s regulatory system, and calls it “a very
circular, very unscientific kind of reasoning.” The system relies
on companies to provide their own experiments and risk assessment. To
determine safety of a product, Health Canada uses a concept called
substantial equivalence. “If it looks like a duck and it quacks
like a duck then it’s not any different than a duck,” says Clark.
No Canadian GM submissions have ever been rejected.
is Canadian regulation transparent to the public, says Sharratt. She
says the Canadian public has no say in approval of GMOs. Independent
scientists can’t evaluate feeding studies the Ag Biotech companies
submit because they are deemed confidential. “The Canadian
regulatory system is supporting the biotechnology industry ahead of
the health and welfare of Canadian consumers and farmers,” Sharratt
does CBAN suggest Canada change? By letting the public have a say,
and by introducing mechanisms to reassess a previous approval
decision, says Sharratt.
consequences of the Canadian government’s method of dealing with
GMOs could be dire, say Sharratt and Clark. The current evidence on
the negative effects GM foods have on human and animal health signals
a grave need for the Canadian government to take a closer look at GM
foods and how they’re regulated.
Orford has a BSc in Behavioural Neuroscience from SFU, and is excited
to help change the face of journalism.
Guide to GE Foods
or Say No to GMO
typical Canadian kitchen is likely to contain many ingredients or
foods that have been genetically engineered (GE). While very few
fresh fruits and vegetables are genetically modified, and certified
organic products are GMO free, products made with corn, soy, cotton
or canola account for nearly 100 per cent of the GE crops grown in
North America. In fact, 60 per cent of our processed foods contain
some genetic modifications, but consumers in Canada would be hard
pressed to find out what is and isn’t altered.
there are many environmental risks associated with GE food, the
consequences for human health are still unknown. Even though GE food
has been in grocery stores since 1996, there have been no long-term
tests done on the impacts of GE food on human health. Advocacy groups
such as Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians argue GE foods are a
health risk and want an independent testing agency to monitor the
effects of modified foods. Mandatory labelling is law in more than 40
countries, but Canada has opted for voluntary labelling – a
practice that has yet to be adopted.
the meantime consumers can advocate for a GE ban, insist on mandatory
GE labelling, eat organic and, with the help of Greenpeace Canada’s
GE shoppers’ list, get to know their food.
the full guide, How to Avoid Genetically Engineered Food, at