Words and photo by Matt Kelly
Editor's note: This is part two in a weeklong series about GMO Labeling in NYS. You can read part one here.
Now that we've covered a bit about what GMO Labeling means—who's in the opposition camp?
“Overwhelming scientific evidence has proven that foods produced with genetic engineering are nutritionally equivalent to those produced with conventional methods and pose no health risk.”
This is a bold statement; it certainly implies that the body of research is absolute and complete on the matter. [While writing this story, there was no way to know what specific scientific evidence NYFB was referring to; the organization did not follow through on multiple requests for an interview and no references were found on the NYFB website or in the NYFB 2016 Policy Book.
A common paper that opponents of labeling often refer to is a 2013 literature review by Nicola, Manzo, Veronesi, and Roselini. The Italian researchers looked at more than 1,700 studies published between 2002 and 2012 and outlined four focus concerns that emerge from the literature about human consumption of GM foods:
· Substantial equivalence: Is the nutritional content of a GM crop the same as a genetically similar variety that hasn’t been modified?
· Safety of the inserted transgenic information: Does the inserted genetic information transfer from a GM crop to other crops or organisms like people?
· Safety of the proteins: Are the proteins produced by the transgenic DNA known toxins or allergens?
· Unintended changes in the crop: Are there any unplanned or unpredicted changes that happen with genetically modified crops?
The researchers reviewed 1,783 studies, but only 312 of these studies actually focused on the consumption of GM crops as food. Of these, only 12 studies overtly focused on detecting unplanned or unpredicted effects of genetic modifications. And even more importantly: seven out of those 12 studies found unintended changes occurring due to genetic modification or environmental factors.
So while the Italian researchers conclude “the scientific research so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops,” this should not be interpreted by anyone as a declaration that GM foods are completely safe to eat. The data in this review shows almost no time and effort has been spent on studying the unintended consequences of consuming GM foods. And the researchers acknowledge in the review that an understanding of GM crops as food “would have benefited from a higher number of publications considering their high impact on… food/feed risk assessment.”
Another oft-cited study is a 2011 literature review by Snell, Bernheim, Bergé, Kuntz, Pascal, Paris, and Ricroch. This group of researchers from France and the UK focused on 32 animal feeding trails that lasted 90 days or longer. While the researchers conclude the “studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can safely be used in food and feed,” they also bring up some extremely interesting points about their own review:
· “The studies reviewed here are often linked to an inadequate experimental design that has detrimental effects on statistical analysis…”
· “As shown [in the review], very few studies for a given plant line have been reproduced using the same animal model. Moreover, studies using the same animal models were performed with different parameters, which lead to the fact that no trials have been carried out twice in the same conditions by different research teams.”
· “No long-term rodent studies are available for GM maize.”
According to the researchers, the studies in their review often had design flaws; the parameters of assessment were all over the place and none of them were consistent between studies; there was no replication of any of the conditions and results; and not a single study was available regarding the long-term consumption of GM corn (the most pervasive GM crop in our food system). Other than the fact that GM crops are nutritionally the same as their non-GM counterparts, the research cannot – and does not – draw any definitive conclusions about the safety of eating GM foods.
Based on these two papers, the evidence that genetically engineered foods pose no health risk appears blatantly underwhelming. This is not to say the thousands of studies that have been done are inaccurate or indicate time and effort misspent.
But the body of available research to date is narrow in focus and has not yet covered all the bases necessary to establish the safety of GM foods beyond a reasonable doubt.
Of course, Monsanto and other companies do perform pre-market safety assessments on their products. However, like the studies in the literature review by Nicola and colleagues, the focus of these assessments are limited.
According to Monsanto, the assessment process is based entirely on a “comparative approach, i.e. the food and feed are compared with their non-GM counterparts.” The assessment starts by determining whether or not the nutritional content of a GM crop is the same as a genetically similar non-GM variety. The company then looks at the safety of the proteins produced within the GM crop in a variety of ways:
· Bioinfomatic analysis, which is essentially comparing the proteins produced with a list of known toxins and allergens.
· The stability of the proteins in various temperatures and pH levels.
· In vitro testing to determine the allergenic and absorption potentials for the proteins.
· Short-term in vivo animal trials on a case-by-case basis.
What Monsanto does not look for is unintended or long-term impacts. And unfortunately, neither does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – the government agency responsible for protecting the public health by assuring that foods are “safe, wholesome, sanitary and properly labeled."
By its own admission, the FDA maintains only an “informal process by which firms can inform the Agency that they have completed a food or feed safety assessment.” In other words: food growers, manufacturers, and distributors are solely responsible for taking the voluntary steps to ensure their GM products are safe for people to eat. The FDA “does not conduct a comprehensive scientific review of data generated by the developer.” Therefore, consumers simply have to trust that the companies manufacturing and selling GM crops are performing their due diligence. And acting in our best interest.
The lack of independent oversight into the science of GM foods is frightening. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that research funded by drug and food companies produces results favorable to those companies far more often than independently funded research.
What’s more, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention describes epidemiology – the study of patterns connected to the incidence and distribution of diseases and other factors related to health – as “the basic science of public health.”
And yet, in the 20 years that GM foods have been commercially available, not a single epidemiological study has been done on them. Zero.
When it comes to the safety of eating GM foods, claims of “overwhelming scientific evidence” are disingenuous, at best. In fact, the science is incomplete—and no one is watching to make sure all the bases are being covered.