Three types of Monsanto genetically modified corn are under scrutiny in the wake of a new study published by the International Journal Of Biological Sciences which found that rats ingesting the corn were subject to statistically significant amounts of organ toxicity.
These three types -- Mon 863, insecticide-producing Mon 810, and Roundup® herbicide-absorbing NK 603 -- have been approved for consumption in the US and several countries in Europe.
The finding that corn produced by one of the world's agricultural giants could cause organ failure has been met with obvious concern by food activists and consumers alike. It's not the first bout of negative publicity for Monsanto, which has been vilified for everything from producing Agent Orange, intimidating farmers, using aggressive tactics to squeeze out competition, pressuring farmers to be dependent on their products, and strongly promoting the use of genetically modified seeds here and abroad. It has been negatively portrayed in films such as "Food, Inc." and "The World According To Monsanto".
While some groups like Change.org, see this study as a rallying cry for regulatory action and boycott, others on both sides of the GMO issue think the study results itself are not clear and shouldn't be accepted wholeheartedly. The IJBS is not a peer-reviewed journal, and the work was not an independent analysis of the effects of the GM corn on rats. Rather, it was a full interpretation of all of the samples of rats in the 90-day study that Monsanto itself sponsored. After analyzing the data, the European researchers came to the conclusion:
"Effects were mostly concentrated in kidney and liver function, the two
major diet detoxification organs, but in detail differed with each GM
type. In addition, some effects on heart, adrenal, spleen and blood
cells were also frequently noted. As there normally exists sex
differences in liver and kidney metabolism, the highly statistically
significant disturbances in the function of these organs, seen between
male and female rats, cannot be dismissed as biologically insignificant
as has been proposed by others. We therefore conclude that our data
strongly suggests that these GM maize varieties induce a state of
hepatorenal toxicity.[...] 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."
Discover notes that Greenpeace, an activist environmental group sponsored the scientists' research -- they had to sue to obtain the raw data in the first place, and that the IJBS is relatively obscure. Leading nutrition professor Dr. Marion Nestle wrote on her blog about the study, "I found the paper extremely difficult to read, in part because it is
written in exceptionally dense and opaque language, and in part because
it presents the data in especially complicated tables and figures." Monsanto claims that the study employed "non-traditional statistical methods to reassess toxicology data from studies conducted with MON 863, MON 810 and NK603 corn varieties" and that the IJBS paper reaches "unsubstantiated conclusions."
The IJBS study itself strenuously suggests more testing over two years rather than 90 days to evaluate the long-term health impacts, and by independent researchers rather than Monsanto itself. The study also points out that Monsanto conducted the study only once rather than multiple times, and only tested one species -- rats -- and emphasizes that testing on more mammals of this GM maize is needed to reach any kind of conclusion on safety. This maize is used as both animal feed and for human consumption.
According to the FDA's website, the agency concludes that genetic engineering that occurred in the maize varieties, MON 810, NK603, MON 863 was not different enough from past approved products and did not need a pre-market review. The FDA essentially takes Monsanto's word that the company had done adequate testing to ensure its safety, as shown clearly in this letter. Several countries in Europe, such as Germany and France, have recently banned GM crops, specifically MON 810 after it had been approved for consumption in the European Union.
Furthermore, there are no laws requiring companies to label if their products contain GMOs. Even food labeled "Organic" that is processed with multiple ingredients must only be 95% organic, leaving loopholes for obscure ingredients that are genetically modified to be included. HuffPost Blogger and Eco Etiquette columnist Jennifer Grayson has written a comprehensive article detailing the ways to avoid genetically modified foods in light of the fact that there are no labeling requirements in the US.
So the facts are as follows: We eat corn and corn derivatives that have been genetically modified, which has been banned for being unsafe in other countries -- the FDA has not done independent testing on the health effects of at least three types of corn that we are eating, and have instead taken Monsanto's word for the fact that they are safe. Monsanto resisted releasing their data to independent researchers -- environmental groups had to sue to get it. Once it was released and analyzed by one group of scientists, they wrote a dense study in a non-peer reviewed journal and found statistically significant amounts of organ failure in the rats in Monsanto's own study. Consumers often have no way of knowing clearly if they are eating genetically modified food.
The FDA did not return calls for comment.