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Toxicity and GM Food

Genetically modified food was declared too safe to label years ago. Greenpeace has been fighting to have Monsanto’s original data released. Their RoundUp resistant crops (“RoundUp Ready” in adspeak) and Bt corn are a large majority of GM crops worldwide. Monsanto lost some legal cases, the data finally became available, and have now been reanalyzed. (Via Slashdot)

The bottom line? You don’t have to stop eating, but it is time to get really, really, really mad.

(Background info for those who’d like it: Monsanto produces RoundUp, a glyphosate-based herbicide. That interferes with plant growth via a pathway not present in animals, although some of the significant molecules in the pathway are also vital in animals. Monsanto also produces the patented crop seeds that resist the herbicide. Then farmers can use more RoundUp to get rid of the increasingly resistant weeds without also killing their crop. In some places, resistant weeds make it unprofitable to grow anything except the patented seeds. RoundUp is widely used on corn and soybeans. Bt corn enables the plant itself to produce a substance toxic to many insect larvae by an insect-specific pathway that doesn’t affect mammals.)

Way back in another lifetime (the 1990s feel like ancient history for some reason) there was widespread concern about the rapid proliferation of GM food. Frankenfoods they were called. In the tabloid concept, these mutant monsters would infect us with extra heads or glowing green tumors. Those concerns were easy to laugh at, and they were. It was gently pointed out that humans are not plants. Dissidents, including me, have said for a while that there are real concerns, but the money was all on the other side. Oddly enough for such an open and shut case, Monsanto was adamant that nobody could see the data that proved how safe it all was.

Now that data is out there. The most charitable view is that they were so convinced of the safety they didn’t feel the need to make sure of it. The uncharitable view is that they cherrypicked the facts to reach the foregone conclusion. I’ll let the article speak for itself. (Numbers in square brackets refer to their references, which are linked in the original article.)

The three animal feeding studies were conducted in two different laboratories and at two different dates; at Monsanto (Missouri, USA) for NK 603 and MON 810 (June 7, 2000) and at Covance Laboratories Inc. (Virginia, USA) for MON 863 (March 14, 2001) on behalf of Monsanto. … Only 10 rats were measured per group for blood and urine parameters and served as the basis for the major statistical analyses conducted. … We note that these unrelated, different non-GM maize types [in the control groups] were not shown to be substantially equivalent to the GMOs. The quantity of some sugars, ions, salts, and pesticide residues, do in fact differ from line to line, for example in the non-GM reference groups. [I.e. the controls did not provide a stable reference point, but varied in ways that could affect the results. –Ed.] This not only introduced unnecessary sources of variability but also increased considerably the number of rats fed a normal non-GM diet (320) compared to the GM-fed groups (80) per transformation event, which considerably unbalances the experimental design. …

The most fundamental point to bear in mind from the outset is that a sample size of 10 for biochemical parameters measured two times in 90 days is largely insufficient to ensure an acceptable degree of power to the statistical analysis performed and presented by Monsanto. … This is exemplified when Monsanto performed one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) calculations at 5% with a sample size of 10 animals for 10 groups. In this case the probability of not detecting a medium size effect [3] (0.5 SD for a t test for instance) is about 70% (power of the test 30%). However, the fact is that within 90 days, a chronic toxicity has a maximum chance of giving rise to a medium rather than large size effects. [I. e. chronic effects would be expected in the long term, but the design looked for acute effects in the short term. –Ed.] …

In summary, the tendency for physiological disturbance is characteristic of almost all rats of all GM-fed treatment groups, and physio-pathological profiles differ according to dose or sex. …

If a “sign of toxicity” may only provoke a reaction, pathology or a poisoning, a so-called “toxic effect” is without doubt deleterious on a short or a long term. Clearly, the statistically significant effects observed here for all three GM maize varieties investigated are signs of toxicity rather than proofs of toxicity [because there isn’t enough data for proof]. …

The first observation that we were able to make was that there is a good general concordance between our data and the results of Monsanto as presented in their original confidential reports, in particular on the proportion of statistically significant observations. However, the methodology we employed revealed different effects, which completely changed the interpretation of the experimental results. For instance, the sex differences are fully taken into account in our study, which contrasts with the first published comments of these data [18, 26, 27]. …

We have previously demonstrated that glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup are highly toxic at very low concentrations to human embryonic kidney cells [36], inducing a decrease in viability, noticeably via inhibition of mitochondrial succinate dehydrogenase. …

Patho-physiological profiles are unique for each GM crop/food, underlining the necessity for a case-by-case evaluation of their safety, as is largely admitted and agreed by regulators. It is not possible to make comments concerning any general, similar subchronic toxic effect for all GM foods. However, in the three GM maize varieties that formed the basis of this investigation, new side effects linked to the consumption of these cereals were revealed, which were sex- and often dose-dependent. Effects were mostly concentrated in kidney and liver function, the two major diet detoxification organs, but in detail differed with each GM type. … This [hepatorenal toxicity] can be due to the new pesticides (herbicide or insecticide) present specifically in each type of GM maize, although unintended metabolic effects due to the mutagenic properties of the GM transformation process cannot be excluded [42]. … In conclusion, our data presented here strongly recommend that additional long-term (up to 2 years) animal feeding studies be performed in at least three species, preferably also multi-generational, to provide true scientifically valid data on the acute and chronic toxic effects of GM crops, feed and foods. Our analysis highlights that the kidneys and liver as particularly important on which to focus such research as there was a clear negative impact on the function of these organs in rats consuming GM maize varieties for just 90 days.

The good news is that since males are affected more than females, something may be done about this. The bad news is that the known effects so far don’t include ED, so maybe nothing will be done.

Seriously, though, this is an unbelievable mess. You don’t have to stop eating because these are all chronic effects, and it’s not likely to make a big difference if one consumes GMOs for a few more years until we know for sure whether there’s a problem or not. But that’s all the “good” news there is. Regulators in the US bamboozled us and then the rest of the world into not so much as labelling for genetic modification. Now it’s everywhere, and crops are dependent on it. If further research shows chronic toxicity and the RoundUp resistant and Bt products have to be pulled, crop failures will make prices shoot skyward. In the rich countries, that’s an annoyance. In the poor countries, that can mean famine. We are, in short, screwed. For Monsanto’s chance to make a few billion, we’re going to be paying hundreds of billions. (I just saw that line somewhere else before ….)

For me, there are several morals to this story, in addition to cleaning up the mess we already have. It shows what we have to do to prevent this crap in the future:

–Always insist on clear labelling.

–Always insist on full publication of all backup data before regulatory approval.

–And, I think, have penalties, such as jail time, for regulators who rubberstamp studies with such bad methodology. When somebody with one year of statistics can see a problem instantly (“A sample size of ten?”), the regulators have zero excuse.

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18 Responses

  1. That is scary cr@p.
    Class action.
    Hm, I bet Monsanto is part of the tort-reform lobby.

  2. Great post. Topics like this are exactly why I spend a huge chunk of my family budget on shopping at Whole Foods, for organic only foods (GM foods can’t be labeled organic). I don’t trust the US govt. at all to keep our food and water safe. Now, don’t get me started on the mercury in the sea (and inside my damn fillings…)

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    • Thanks so much for the link. I’ve bookmarked the page so I can donate again later. I was really impressed with the pie chart illustrating that 95.9% of donations go to the causes for which they are intended. A mere 4.1% goes to administration and fund raising.

  4. Yeesh. I’ve seen qualitative dissertations with bigger sample sizes.

    And the stupid thing is that this will affect a greater proportion of poor people so Whole Foods Nation will probably ignore it. After all, they make enough money to buy organic.

  5. Thanks, quixote, this is important information for us to have.

  6. This is interesting. Just printed a copy of the PDF of the article from the International Journal of Biological Sciences. I am going to be pretty skeptical until I get a handle on the numbers, methodology and the results. I have a feeling that Monsato did do some shoddy science but I am going to get a copy of the Journal issue and do some research on the scientists as well. These days everybody has an agenda. Another thing to think about is that research with laboratory animals is unreliable, especially animals that have been genetically altered. It is the best methodology we have but it isn’t perfect.

  7. Thanks so much for writing this. It is a conversation we all need to have. And spread the word!! Monsato is as detrimental to our society as WalMart.

    Where to begin? There’s so much to say about this topic, such as the studies they have found that the GM plants that are modified to create toxins within the plants that are supposed to be “safe” are in fact creating poison factories within the human digestive system. A great podcast for those who are interested, besides the numerous documentaries such as Food, Inc. that madazhel mentioned, is from Our Natural life where they interview the author of Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette. If you are interested in knowing more on this subject it is worth a listen.


    After hearing it, you might want to RUN from all soy products, corn, cottonseed oil, and canola oil, the big GM crops though more are on the way. It’s no coincidence that all the advertising has been pushing these items as “healthy alternatives” to traditional foods. It’s big bucks.

    Also, very important is the impact agribusiness is having around the world. 125,000–that’s right 125 thousand–farmers in India have committed suicide because the GM crops that big business promised them would have higher yields and would be disease resistant failed. So these farmers, in debt up to their eyeballs to mega-corporations, drink insecticide.


    It is yet another horror story of profits before people. In Europe, because of public outcry, and because socialist countries generally have a higher regard for public health and safety and oversee nutrition as part of health (they will not accept many US food imports including our meat) , GM foods are losing ground in the marketplace. So the picture isn’t entirely grim. But I hate to say the answer isn’t Whole Foods, which is in fact just another large corporation that has found a niche market charging high prices to Scuppies. It is in shopping locally, understanding where your food comes from, having relationships with the person who grows it (sounds odd but is highly possible and I live in a major urban center) or growing your own. It isn’t just hippie anymore, it’s a matter of health and our ability to control it.

    • Yes, I believe that Americans are fatter than Europeans or Canadians because of the quality of American meat. And not because they are lazier.

      The terrible thing about GM products is that it is the farmers who are on the frontline, whose families and kids imbibe the poisons first. There were horror stories about farmers’ children being born with genetic defects because of pesticides.

      And why are these things being rubber stamped in the US? I can only blame corruption, and immorality.

  8. Not up on all of the particulars, but I know Monsanto is a bad actor. I try to keep my food consumption local, but admit to taking the easy way now and then. I maintain a garden during the growing season in my area, but it doesn’t cover the whole year. Thanks for this post, Quixote – keeps me informed and on my toes.

    Outis, thanks for your information too. While I’d rather be lazy and purchase food from near and far, I’d much rather know that I’m eating healthy stuff. Tofu seems all healthy, but is it? Really?

    • It’s soy-you’d have to control if no gm soy is used, and decide if the controls they use are adequate.

      If you have a garden you can grow your own soy beans. They are really easy to grow. A friend of mine back in the 70s used to make tofu and sell it to local organic stores. It’s easy to make too.

  9. Oh great. Now I feel really lazy. Ha. I admit to having not checked out tofu making in my own home. I’ve raised goats and learned how to milk them. Tasty milk. I also explored different ways of preserving food. But, I do feel somewhat lazy these days. Older now and less inclined to store up for the future. I do what I can. I’ll definitely check out tofu making though. Good stuff.

    • I’m so jealous, I would love to have goats and fresh milk! But they wouldn’t fit on my balcony.

      It would be cool to have collectives for preserving food like they did in the old days. I just canned some of my own vegetables and always make extras for friends and family as making a little more is easier. Now, if I could find people that want to trade what they’re making, I’d be in heaven! I’ve never been a homemaker type of person, but I was so freaked out by how contaminated our food supply is, I try to control what I consume as much as possible.

      I started to notice something was wrong when I went to an event and every adult was grossly overweight. Then you saw the children, and not just fat, but with “diseases of civilization” such as diabetes. It became very obvious when I went to the vet and saw pets were getting the same diseases. As Laurie said, it isn’t just the fat, lazy American, gorging themselves on junkfood and sitting in front of the television. That’s not the whole story. When I saw an old game show from the late 70s, one of the questions was: how many times a week do you exercise? Every single person looked confused. Exercise? And all of these people were thin, skinny, every one.

      The more I read about nutrition, the more it started to make sense that our idea of not eating nutritionally dense foods in favor of agribusiness’ junk carbohydrates and soy frankenfoods is causing people to gorge themselves in their bodies search for nutrition.

      There was a nutritionist on Johnny Carson a long time ago, and he asked what was the one most important thing people should know about good nutrition. She answered, A good rule is don’t buy anything that is advertised. That means they are spending more on marketing than the food inside the box. Unfortunately, this statement was cut.

      • Makes a lot of sense.

      • I grew up in the suburbs of L.A. I so wanted to be self-sufficient – like my ancestors. I just hated the thought of depending on the kindness of strangers. Anyway, moved to the country and got a little piece of land and a couple of goats. I was in heaven. I know, it sounds so corny. I found a few informative books and my doe and I eventually came to an understanding. Ha. There were many spoiled buckets of milk before I got the hang of things. The whole process was fun and rewarding.

        The exploration of other kinds of economies and ways of living = very worthwhile.

        I remember a Johnny Carson guest who said she ate directly from her garden – like sitting in the lettuce patch with a salt shaker. Ha.

  10. This is an excellent post Thanks for sharing this information. Monsanto counts on the fact that the average person doesn’t get this info

  11. Great post. Monsanto’s, Cargill’s and other big agricorp long tentacles reach everywhere. Laws and regulations that supposedly make our food ‘safer’ actually work to kill the little guy. LIke… me.

    My partner and I run a CSA, I’m currently up after spending all night finalizing the last of our seed purchases. None come from a Monsanto type company. But how much longer under they have that all locked up and we can’t buy seed?

    My goats need to eat too. We buy hay, but now they are letting GM hay be raised. I don’t want my goats eating it, but how to stop it? We can’t raise enough on our farm to feed them year round.

    And remember a lot of these companies own not only the food that makes you sick, but the drugs that are supposed to make you better! This is especially the case with animals.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. I feel despair when I look at the future. I’m glad I won’t live to see another 50 or 60 years.

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