Coming Soon: Major GMO Study (Shhh, It Will Be Done in Secret by Russians)

So here's what happens when Americans don't spend enough time or money testing the safety of our food: Russians say they will do it for us.
12/18/2014 10:57 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

So here's what happens when Americans don't spend enough time or money testing the safety of our food: Russians say they will do it for us.

A group of Russian and European donors recently announced they are raising a whopping $25 million to pay for a major study of the safety of genetically modified food (GMOs) and the ubiquitous herbicide glyphosate, most commonly used as Monsanto's product Roundup.

The research project, dubbed "Factor GMO," is being billed as "the world's largest international study on GMO safety." It will examine four primary questions: Is genetically modified food (or the herbicides it is sprayed with) toxic to organ systems over the long-term? Does this food (or its herbicides) cause cancer? Does it reduce fertility or cause birth defects? And is Roundup, as a chemical compound, more or less toxic than its most well-known single ingredient, glyphosate?

These are important questions. Since the introduction of genetically engineered seeds in the mid-1990s, the amount of glyphosate used on crops in the US has increased from 27 million pounds to more than 250 million pounds. Some 90 percent of corn and soybeans are grown from genetically engineered seeds, and then sprayed most commonly with glyphosate, which is designed to kill all plants other than the corn or soy.

GMO crops -- and their attendant herbicides -- are ubiquitous at the very foundation of the American food system: corn and soy are used to make everything from cereal to ketchup, and are also fed to tens of billions of farm animals each year. In other words, their impact on human and environmental health is enormous.

In addition, vast swaths of wheat -- which is not itself grown from genetically modified seeds -- are sprayed with Roundup just before harvest. The herbicide is used as a "dessicant"; by killing the wheat plants, it causes the release of seeds, thus making harvesting more efficient. But the process also exposes the crop to a toxic herbicide right before the wheat is harvested for food processing.

Monsanto, which makes Roundup, claims that since its discovery in the early 1970's, glyphosate has become the world's most widely used herbicide "because it is efficacious, economical and environmentally benign."

But some scientists have long suspected a wide range of environmental and health problems associated with the glyphosate, including the rapid evolution and spread of Roundup-resistant "superweeds"; a variety of gastro-intestinal disorders; and human hormone disruption. Some scientists and public health advocates are also beginning to ask whether the country's widespread "gluten intolerance" may in fact be "glyphosate intolerance."

Given the global controversy over GMOs and the herbicides they depend on, the Factor study's designers will not even disclose where the research will take place.

"The exact locations of the study must be kept confidential for security reasons as Factor GMO wants to avoid any outside interference that could compromise the day-to-day running of the experiments and/or the final results," a press release announcing the study says. And while funding sources for the study have not yet been made public, it is being organized by The Russian National Association for Genetic Safety, a non-governmental, non-profit organization based in Moscow.

"Comprehensive scientific safety studies on GMOs and their related pesticides are long overdue," Elena Sharoykina, director and co-founder of NAGS said in a statement. Previous studies "caused controversy for various reasons: choice of animal, insufficient statistics, duration of tests, research parameters, and researchers' connections to the anti-GMO movement or the biotech industry. Factor GMO is intended to remedy the situation."

The study will to adhere to or exceed guidelines set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international research body that works with governments on economic and environmental policy, according to Bruce Blumberg, a professor of developmental and cell biology at the University of California at Irvine, who will serve on the study's scientific oversight board.

"Most of what we know about the safety of glyphosate is based on studies Monsanto did back in the 1970s and 1980s," Blumberg told me. "We remain reliant for what we know -- about a chemical sprayed on hundreds of millions of acres of food crops -- on studies performed by the company that produces and sells it."

Blumberg does not study genetic engineering per se; his work has focused on the effect on human health caused by hormone-disrupting chemicals. "I'm not someone who has a horse in this race, if you will," Blumberg said. "My job is to make sure the study is designed as well as it can be. The goal is to see if we can test the safety of one of the world's most widely used chemicals. As a human being who inhabits this planet, I'm very interested in seeing this done well. I want to see the results."