GMOs: Safe for Consumption?

We’ve examined the arguments for and against GMOs in the past. Indeed, there are reasonable and valid points to be made on both sides of the issue. Nonetheless, we concluded that there are just too many red flags to support the industry’s direction in GM technology. Not only do GMOs drive the use of naturally occurring and regionally suited seed varieties into the ground, they lock farmers (including those in developing countries) into a legal deal with the devil – one that often comes back to haunt them. Their rampant subsidization further encourages farmers to raise the same garbage grains and other “staple” crops that undermine our public health. And then there are the nagging, unsettling questions about our physiological response to these organisms. What happens exactly when you eat plants grown from seeds that are synthesized with everything from bacteria to fish to herbicides? What happens when you eat the animals that ate these crops? How much do we really know about these GM crops? With that in mind, a good reader sent this recently published study my way. See what you think.

Researchers from the Committee of Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN) and the Universities of Caen and Rouen in France collaborated on a full interpretation and assessment of Monsanto’s company research on three of its GM corn products: Mon 863, Mon 810 (both of which contain a Bacillus thuringiensis [Bt] protein for insecticide purposes) and NK 603 (which is engineered to protect the crop itself from the damage following the use of the company’s Roundup herbicide). Their conclusions, which suggest organ damage associated with hepatorenal toxicity among other negative effects, were published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences. The researchers, it’s important to note, didn’t conduct their own experiment. (More on this point later!) Instead, they fought a court battle that finally forced Monsanto to turn over the raw data from the company’s own research used to prove to government health organizations that their products were safe for human consumption.

What??? How could the same data return different results? That’s the problem with statistics. It’s all how – and how much – you break it down. You can probably guess what Monsanto found in their interpretation of the data. Yes, their products show no adverse health effects in the group of lab rats used. As for the CRIIGEN analysis, their assessment wasn’t so positive. From their own extended statistical comparisons, they concluded that the three GM corn products resulted in statistically significant damage, focused mostly in the liver and kidneys but also evident in the “heart, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system.” In their analysis, the CRIIGEN researchers criticize Monsanto’s research design and execution, saying they “did not apply in any case their chosen and described statistical methods.”  The CRIIGEN group also claims that the company “introduced unnecessary sources of variability” and restricted the proportion of rats fed a GM diet (80 compared to the non-GM-fed 320). Additionally, they say the Monsanto researchers frequently modified their “biological interpretation of statistically significant,” including their observation of sex specific findings. The study modifications and inconsistencies, the CRIIGEN researchers suggest, “increases noticeably the risks of false negative results.”

Monsanto, for its part, has fired back that the CRIIGEN researchers received assistance from the Greenpeace organization in their court battle for research documents and in their research assessment relied on “a variety of non-standard statistical approaches.” (PDF) The CRIIGEN group, Monsanto claims, dissected the data into so many statistical comparisons that they drastically inflated the probability of producing statistically significant findings. Monsanto also counters the CRIIGEN critique of the sex-based differences, saying the researchers found no biologically meaningful patterns. The company argues the CRIIGEN researchers made baseless assumptions about gender susceptibility, assumptions that skewed their analysis of sex-associated data.

A number of international organizations have called the CRIIGEN assessment into question. Others have used it as fodder for a continuing attack on Monsanto. In truth, I think there’s enough to criticize on both sides when it comes to this research. Monsanto blew it big and put together a real piece of crap, but CRIIGEN’s nitpicking, while suggestive of the many holes in Monsanto’s research, doesn’t – and can’t – do enough to prove anything definitively.

That brings us back to the CRIIGEN assessment of Monsanto’s study. This part, I think, is the real story. Of all the CRIIGEN group’s criticisms, the most damning centered on the research scope. (Remember, these company study results were presented – and in many countries accepted – as justification for widespread use of these crops.) Monsanto’s researchers tested the products on only one species of rat. The CRIIGEN group, in their commentary, suggested a minimum of three different mammals should have been used to presume human safety. But the duration of the study provoked the group’s biggest rebuke – and stern call for further study. Ready? Monsanto’s research into the potential health effects of these GM products lasted a mere three months.

Three months. Let that sink in for a moment….

This disclosure, I believe, is the true significance – and maybe even the real point of the CRIIGEN assessment study. Consumers, even in the U.S. are skeptical of GM products. How many of them know that all it takes for GM approval is a three month long study of a few hundred lab rats – only 80 of which are actually fed the GM food? I swear, it’s enough to make me burst a blood vessel.

As the researchers note, long term health effects have no chance of showing up during a three-month study. Even medium term impact observation is questionable in such a short duration. Although the group acknowledges that their assessment is only enough to suggest toxicity, they argue the evidence is more than enough to justify further research. With this evidence and the original data limitations in mind, they call for a two-year study on the same GM products to adequately observe potential longer term conditions like “cancer, nervous and immune system diseases, and … reproductive disorders.” Further study, they say, is also necessary to determine whether any negative health effects are the result of the herbicides/pesticides that are synthesized into the seed or whether the effects are instead/additionally “direct or indirect metabolic consequences of the genetic modification.”

When it comes to GMOs, we’re dealing with bizarrely hybridized organisms that the world – and the human stomach – have never before seen. The industry likes to paint themselves as modern day Gregor Mendels. The fact is, we’re way beyond pea plants. It’s not about cultivating hearty hybrids from natural plant varieties. The vast majority of GM products (70%+) are modified with herbicide and/or pesticide components. That’s right. No way to wash off those residues.

Research not sponsored by the corporations is virtually non-existent, and there’s a very disturbing reason why. Big Agra companies invoke intellectual property law to restrict independent researcher’s use (and study) of their products. Twenty-six scientists scientists from public research institutions presented a statement to the EPA last year describing their concern with current industry limitations on outside study of GMO products:

Technology/stewardship agreements required for the purchase of genetically modified seed explicitly prohibit research. These agreements inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry. As a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology, its performance, its management implications, IRM, and its interactions with insect biology. Consequently, data flowing to an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel from the public sector is unduly limited.

Different countries have different regulations for GMO products. The U.S. is one of the most permissive. This is likely of little surprise, given that GMO technology is such a huge part of agribusiness (and its political lobbying power) in this country. Many European countries accept some products and reject others. In a dramatic move, Ireland last year elected to outlaw all GMO cultivation within its borders. Another part of the country’s new policy creates a new GMO labeling model to encourage the purchase of non-GMO products.

In the U.S., GM food products aren’t required to be labeled. (This, despite the fact that the EU, Japan, China, Korea, Australia and New Zealand all have label laws and despite the fact that 87% of American consumers want GM products to be labeled.) But there are steps you can take as an individual consumer to avoid GMOs. The biggest assurance? Eat Primal. The biggest GM food crops are corn, soy and canola (rapeseed). If you avoid these and the processed foods that contain the various fillers made with them, you are well ahead of the game. Eating pastured meats will allow consumers to avoid the potential negative health impacts of meat from GMO-fed livestock. Choosing organic, particularly USDA or Oregon Tilth certifications, can help you further avoid most GMO ingredients. Finally, check out the new Non-GMO Shopping Guide.

So, I’ve offered my two cents and then some. Let me know what you think – of the study and the GMO controversy as a whole. I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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