The GM debate?

Blog by Lucca Rossi
Date17 Sep 2013

Being cautious and trying to apply the saying “you are what you eat” today can perhaps be trickier than simply checking the nutritional information about the levels of sugar, fat and vitamins that the food you are buying contains. Indeed, last year about 170 million hectares of genetically modified (GM) crops were cultivated in 28 countries and although none of them are being grown commercially in the UK, imported GM commodities, especially soya, are being used here, mainly for animal feed.

In June the controversy about the subject was once again reopened after the Environment Secretary told the BBC that “GM has significant benefits for farmers, consumers and the environment.” Opponents of GM, including some scientists and activists, say the opposite.

Anti-GM researchers and food campaigners gathered to discuss the implications GM has for our food system at a public meeting in the Senate House of the London University on September 4th. At the centre of the debate was the often cited, by both sides of this issue, 2012 study co-authored by the Professor of Molecular Biology from the University of Caen, Gilles-Eric Séralini, which links GM and the Monsanto pesticide Roundup to organ damage and increased risk of tumours in rats. Due to medical conditions Mr Séralini was not able to attend the event in person and was instead represented by Dr Michael Antoniou from King’s College London School of Medicine who is co-author of the study “GMO Myths and Truths”.

In a series of parliamentary and public meetings held at the beginning of the month in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff, Professor Séralini has challenged UK politicians and safety authorities to review the way safety is assessed on the issue. “The British scientific authorities are deliberately misleading their government and are recklessly endangering public health in ignoring the findings of our research,” he told the Guardian.

Professor Séralini structured his analysis on the basis of a Monsanto study but modified it extensively to broaden its scope in a number of different ways such as: feeding the animals with three different doses of the GM crop; separating them in groups and feeding the first one just with GM maize alone, the second with the GM crop that had been sprayed with Roundup and the third with Roundup alone. Above all, Séralini extended the analyses to two years, against the 90 days of Monsanto’s original study, to see if the signs of toxicity escalated after the three first months. What he found was that the longer exposure caused serious kidney and liver damage and an increased and earlier development of tumours, leading to an increased rate of mortality. “When Professor Séralini conducted the study in effect he was doing something that the regulators should have demanded of industry to do. He was really doing the regulators job,” Dr Antoniou has said.

The 2012 report has, however, elicited serious criticism both academically and elsewhere.

A spokesperson from the UK Food Standards Agency told the Guardian: “In relation to the claimed link between GM maize and cancer, the study used a strain of rats that is particularly prone to tumours. It is therefore not surprising that tumours were seen both in the GM-fed animals and in the non-GM fed controls. However, the number of animals used in the study was too small to determine whether there were significant differences between the two groups.” Similarly, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also argued that Séralini’s (et al) report is “of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment” and has repeated asked the authors to share the data on which their conclusion is based, a basic aspect of scientific research. Whilst Professor Séralini has criticised Monsanto for not releasing their data in a similar fashion, the EFSA has allowed Séralini access to data they used to evaluate GM maize safety.

Monsanto themselves have also responded to his research by saying that Professor Séralini’s “study does not meet minimum acceptable standards for this type of scientific research, the findings are not supported by the data presented, and the conclusions are not relevant for the purpose of safety assessment.

Séralini’s co-authored article ‘Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize’ is available here as are the letters to the editor that are critical on numerous scientific grounds of the article.

The EFSA provides a detailed FAQ on the study, available here.

Topics: GM