Is This Why They Call It Frankenfood?

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Photo: juvetson / flickr

Photo: juvetson / flickr

Heading out to a meeting I knew would start way later than announced, I grabbed the March 30 issue of the New Yorker to keep my mind occupied and my prefrontal cortex from getting angry while I waited. [Note: The reference to the site of anger in the brain is an egregious oversimplification. Don’t use it to answer an exam question if you’re beyond the third grade.]

The ad on the inside front cover said, “9 billion people to feed. A changing climate. Now what?…The world’s farmers will need to double food production by 2050. Biotechnology can help.”

Monsanto, the biotech company that brings you Frankenfoods by the trainload, paid for the ad.

Full disclosure: I don’t buy giant strawberries because I know what normal ones look like and, although there’s no label to tell me they’re genetically modified, there’s none to tell me they aren’t. I don’t cotton to the idea of someone going into a plant’s DNA and swapping out some of its genes. I’m not sure this is entirely safe for those who consume the resulting fruit. My mother used to say, “When in doubt, don’t.” So I don’t.

Now comes an article in the International Journal of Biological Sciences that raises the likelihood that three varieties of Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) corn seeds cause adverse side effects in laboratory rats. Researchers found problems in the liver and kidneys, the body’s organs charged with defending against poisons. The heart, adrenal glands, spleen, and the system that makes blood were also found to be affected, and not for the better.

We’re talking organ damage here. Male rats were more likely to have kidney trouble, females liver dysfunction. The more they ate of the GM corn, the more damage they were likely to have. This is not good news for Monsanto (although you can be sure they’ll fight like rabid cats to counteract reaction to this study); for farmers who grow corn (80%-90% of whom use GM seeds); or for the developing world, where people may be so desperate for food that they’ll take their chances.

The study looked at three Monsanto corn varieties: Mon 863 and Mon 810, which produce their own bacterial insecticides; and NK 603 which resists the effects of Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup® and its generic equivalent, glyphosate. Farmers can spray NK 603 corn with glyphosate to their hearts’ content, killing weeds, but not the corn.

Why should we care what happens to laboratory rats that eat GM corn? Two reasons: First, rats are closer, physiologically, to human beings than we (or, for all we know, they) would like to admit. This is not to say that just because something happens to a rat, it will happen to a human being given a proportional dose of the substance being studied. But it’s safer to guess that it will than that it won’t.

Second, rat studies are instructive because they rule out genetic variations. Lab rats are bred to have specific characteristics and to lack others. Scientists ordering rats for their studies can specify which traits they want and which they don’t want. You can’t standardize human beings that way. If factor X causes effect Y in the preponderance of rats in the laboratory, you’d think that not even Monsanto could dismiss the result by saying it was skewed by genetic variations. But, actually, they did, by throwing out results in their own research that differed between males and females, even though it is known that sex differences exist in the way the liver and kidneys process what comes their way.

Earlier, Monsanto had done a 90-day trial of their own and (surprise!) announced that the GM corn led to no chronic health problems. This was apparently the so-called science on which the US and Europe based their their stamp of approval. But by definition, a condition is not considered chronic until it has gone on unabated for more than three months. So the fact that the rats didn’t show problems on Day 1 of the trial and thus could not be termed chronic on Day 90 doesn’t mean there were no chronic problems that existed for 90 days. But we’ll never know, because lab animals are considered expendable when their trial period is over, so they don’t hang around long enough to prove the researchers wrong.

In calling for a two-year study of the GM corn, the researchers wrote,

These substances have never before been an integral part of the human or animal diet and therefore their health consequences for those who consume them, especially over long time periods are currently unknown.

As my mother said, “When in doubt, don’t.”

Meanwhile, two other factors have put Monsanto and its genetically modified seeds under two more clouds.

One is a study by the National Research Council, an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences which provides advice to the government under a Congressional charte. It  found that the Roundup®-ready GM corn produces a list of benefits to farmers and the environment. The New York Times reported,

The report found that the crops allowed farmers to either reduce chemical spraying or to use less harmful chemicals. The crops also had lower production costs, higher output or extra convenience, benefits that generally outweighed the higher costs of the engineered seeds.

But David E. Ervin, chairman of the committee that wrote the report and a professor of environmental management and economics at Portland State University in Oregon, warned that by planting too many Roundup-ready crops, farmers were overusing glyphosate and weeds were starting to become resistant to it, a situation akin to antibiotic resistance.

The result, Dr. Ervin warned, may be that farmers have to start using even more toxic chemicals than Roundup.

Arguably, if that happens it wipes out the advantage of at least that class of GM seed corn.

But the punch line comes in the other factor, a growing suspicion, expressed on the blog Food Freedom.

Ninety-nine percent of GMO crops either tolerate or produce insecticide. This may be the reason we see bee colony collapse disorder and massive butterfly deaths. If GMOs are wiping out Earth’s pollinators, they are far more disastrous than the threat they pose to humans and other mammals.

Mother knew best. When in doubt, don’t.

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