by Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist atￂﾠPesticide Action Network
Very big news exploded across the papers yesterday: Eating genetically engineered (GE) corn has been strongly linked to serious health effects--including mammary tumors and kidney and liver damage. A team of European scientists released the first-ever long-term animal feeding study of the health effects of eating GE foods in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. How and why we can find ourselves 15 years into the commercialization of GE crops without a single long-term, animal health impact study until now is the story beneath this story. I'll get to that in a minute.
Meanwhile, news of the study has gained global currency, and already France has called for a probe that could lead to European Union intervention, including emergency suspension of imports of the GE corn in question, a Monsanto product. Back at home, the findings take on particular relevance as California voters consider the Proposition 37 Right to Know initiative to label GE foods and U.S. Department of Agriculture considers approving a new wave of GE crops, starting with 2,4-D corn.
What the study says
- Two to three times more large tumors than the control group;
- The females developed mammary and pituitary gland tumors, and suffered pituitary gland abnormalities and hormone disruption;
- Male rats also developed tumors, but in particular experienced serious kidney and liver damage;
- 50 percent of males and 70 percent of females died prematurely, compared to 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in the control groups.
No single study can be definitive, but what Sￃﾩralini's work points to is the need to take very seriously, and more rigorously understand, the risks to human health posed by GE crops and foods.
Unfortunately, independent research into the health effects of GE foods before they are released into our food supply has been virtually impossible in the U.S. The "Big 6" pesticide and biotech companies that manufacture and tightly control patents on GE products have suppressed and restricted research into the efficacy and health impacts of their products. Licensing agreements expressly forbid research unless it has been approved by the patent holders, and they retain and exercise the right to prevent publication when results are not as desired. Scientists have been complaining about this state of affairs since at least 1999. More recently in 2010, a Scientific American editorial again noted both the lack of access and the suppression of research.
Industry players repeatedly insist that their GE products are safe, but they do so on the basis of studies that have never been repeated and ones that independent scientists have criticized as being deeply flawed. Repeating a talking point is not the same thing as repeating a study.
Meanwhile, contrary to popular belief, U.S. regulators at the Food and Drug Administration do not require independent studies verifying safety before approving the release of these products into our food supply.
The Sￃﾩralini study will draw predictable opposition from Dow and Monsanto as these companies rush new GE crops like 2,4-D-resistant corn to market. And who knows how long this particular news cycle will take to play out.
I can only hope that the shockwaves generated by this study will wake up the regulators in our public agencies who have been willfully asleep at the switch for 15 years now. In the meantime (since said regulators seem to be clinging fast to their pillows), it appears to be up to Americans to assert our right to know what's in our food and to choose for ourselves whether to eat genetically engineered products or not. This fundamental right to know will be at the ballot box in November when Californians have the opportunity to vote for Proposition 37 and demand labeling of genetically engineered foods.
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman is a senior scientist and director of the Sustainable Food Systems Program atￂﾠPesticide Action Network (PAN). Marcia holds a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University. She has written extensively on the ecological, social, and political dimensions of food and agriculture, and was a lead author of the UN-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development.
For more from Maria Rodale, go to www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com