09/24/2012 06:25 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Are We Playing Russian Roulette With Every Meal?

New research suggests that eating genetically modified (GM) maize -- and drinking water containing permitted levels of Roundup herbicide -- may cause tumors, premature death and other serious health problems.

Published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal, the peer-reviewed study is the first to examine the potential long-term effects of exposure to GM food and the world's best-selling herbicide, Roundup. Researchers at the University of Caen fed groups of male and female rats a diet of Monsanto's GM maize and water containing glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide) at levels permitted in the U.S. water supply over a two-year period. The researchers found that rats fed a GM diet, and exposed to Roundup in their water, developed tumors and damage to their livers and kidneys and died much earlier than those fed a normal diet. The rats were fed Roundup resistant GM maize (from 11 percent in the diet), cultivated with or without Roundup, and Roundup alone (from 0.1 ppb in their water). According to the research, around 50 percent of males and 70 percent of females exposed to GM maize and Roundup died prematurely, compared with only 30 percent and 20 percent in the control group.

It is important to note that the length of this trial -- over two years -- is far longer than any previous research undertaken in this area. As the authors note, several studies consisting of 90-day rat feeding trials have been conducted by the biotech industry and these have formed the basis of the regulatory approval of GM crops for human consumption. But as rats can live for two years or more (700-plus days), some scientists have long highlighted the limitations of these short-term trials, as well as the lack of any truly independent research. As a result, these latest findings raise serious questions about the efficacy of regulatory process for approving GM crops for human consumption, as well as the long-term health effects from exposure to pesticide residues on our food and in our water.

It's interesting to see that some commentators have been quick to denounce the lead author of the research -- Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini -- as "anti-GM" on the basis that he has previously published work which raises safety concerns about GM. This new research has been published in a peer-reviewed journal and it should not be swept under the carpet or dismissed out of hand. With 85 percent of all maize sown in the U.S. being GM, and 70 percent of all the processed foods on the supermarket shelves containing unlabeled GM ingredients, we'd better all take it very seriously indeed.

I am not someone who advocates turning our backs on science, nor returning to some Dark Age of farming. Science has a crucial role to play as society progresses and has a vital role to play in helping us to find ways to sustainably feed an ever-growing global population where climate change and scarce natural resources are the stark reality -- and arguably the unintended consequences of our previous blunders and lack of foresight. This new research further exposes the lack of sufficient oversight, caution and vigilance when science and business intersect, and where Big Ag profit surpasses all other concerns -- including our health and well-being.

We urgently need truly independent scientific analysis of the environmental and food safety impacts of GM crops, paid for using truly independent funds. The fact is that most parents have no easy way to protect their children from this potential new risk -- perceived or otherwise. Without any form of GM labeling on our food there is no way to choose whether or not we actually eat this stuff. We are already playing roulette with our health -- and it would appear the stakes might have just got a lot higher.