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Monsanto GM study fallout: Experts react as France calls for ban

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By Nathan Gray+

20-Sep-2012
Last updated on 21-Sep-2012 at 07:08 GMT

Friends of the Earth and the French Government have called for ‘immediate action’ against genetically modified crops as finer details of the widely reported Monsanto GM study are scrutinized among experts. 

The controversial study – explored in more detail by FoodNavigator here – reports a significant increase in the number of tumours experienced by rats fed a diet containing relatively low and ‘safe’ levels of foods that contain Roundup (the world’s best-selling weedkiller) and a genetically modified maize resistant to it.

The study resulted in the French government immediately asking the country's health watchdog to investigate the findings further, whilst calling on European authorities to "take all necessary measures to protect human health", including an ‘emergency suspension’ of imports of the maize variety in Europe.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth Europe called for immediate action by the EU to protect public health citing strong concerns about the safety of GM crops and the herbicides used on them.

Reacting to the calls, European Commission spokesman on health and consumer issues, Frédéric Vincent said the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) would examine the new study in detail:

“If it will be ascertained that the study indeed has scientific groudings, the Commission will draw the consequences,” he said.

Monsanto told FoodNavigator it would ‘thoroughly’ review the study findings of the research “as we do all studies that relate to our products and technologies.”

Speaking with us, Mark Buckingham of Monsanto Europe noted that similar claims made by the same author in the past have been systematically refuted by peer-reviewed scientific papers as well as by EFSA.

Refuted

“Biotech crops are among the most extensively tested foods in the history of food safety,” said Buckingham. “In 2011, the European Commission released a compendium of 50 research projects on the safety of GMOs over the last decade.”

He noted that the European Commission has funded research from 130 research project involving 500 independent research groups over 25 years. These groups conclude that “There is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

Professor Mark Tester of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics at the University of Adelaide questioned why other data has not shown such effects:"The first thing that leaps to my mind is why has nothing emerged from epidemiological studies in the countries where so much GM has been in the food chain for so long?”

“If the effects are as big as purported, and if the work really is relevant to humans, why aren’t the North Americans dropping like flies?! GM has been in the food chain for over a decade over there – and longevity continues to increase inexorably!” said Tester.

‘Inadequate’ methods?

A number of well-established experts not involved in the study have reacted to the findings with scepticism, with many questioning the validity of the findings due to poor statistical analysis and underpowered control groups.

Professor Anthony Trewavas from the University of Edinburgh, UK, commented that the control group size of 10 is ‘inadequate’ to make any deduction.

“Only 10 rodents so far as I can see and some of these develop tumour,” he said. “Until you know the degree of variation in 90 or 180 (divided into groups of ten) control rodents these results are of no value.”

This view was echoed by many, with Professor David Spiegelhalter from the University of Cambridge, UK, adding that the methods, stats and reporting of results “are all well below the standard I would expect in a rigorous study.”

“To be honest I am surprised it was accepted for publication,” said Spiegelhalter, who added that he would be “unwilling to accept these results unless they were replicated properly."

Professor Tom Sanders of King’s College London added that the strain of rat used in the study “is very prone to mammary tumours particularly when food intake is not restricted,” while also suggesting the French researchers may have been on a "statistical fishing trip" due to their use of non-standard statistical analysis.

“For a paper with such potentially important findings, it would have been more satisfying to have seen something with a more conventional statistical analysis,” echoed Professor Maurice Moloney, Institute Director and Chief Executive of Rothamsted Research.

What do you think of the research? Are there too many questions over the study quality, or do you think the research could be the beginning of the end for GM? Let us know below!

3 comments (Comments are now closed)

US people are lab rats

Look at the dramatic increase in food allergies, as well as many other diseases. Obesity, diabetes, various cancers, GERD, etc. How does anyone know that GMOs are not to blame. There are no safety tests, no tracking for adverse effects and no labeling of them.

And remember, if corn is fed to food animals to fatten them up before slaughter, what is corn doing to people.

I'm allergic to corn and have to avoid it, and so do many other people. Corn allergy has really been on the increase, although TPTB try to ignore us and deny that corn is an allergen. Perhaps, we are fortunate that we can't eat corn.

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Posted by Donnie
20 September 2012 | 20h03

No surprise ...

...for insiders.

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Posted by Dr. Michael Helm
20 September 2012 | 20h01

This research must not be swept under the carpet

The implications of this study are deeply concerning and far reaching. This research raises important questions about the effectiveness of the current regulatory process for evaluating the health risks of GM foods; but critically indicates that there might well be significant problems with the genetic engineering process itself.

Of course one study - however dramatic the results seem - is not conclusive and must be kept in perspective but neither should it be dismissed out of hand, swept under the carpet or be the target of obfuscating criticism designed to undermine its importance. The scientists quoted in the article seem to belong to "rent a quote" - actually the quotes look to have been lifted from the website of the industry lobby body, the Science Media Centre - and the briefest glance at Anthony Trewavas' history gives some credence to that impression.

The facts they ignore are that; this research was published in a well regarded, peer reviewed journal and one which certainly does not publish sub-standard research – which is more than can be said for most of the GM studies that inform the regulatory process; the strain of laboratory rat is one that is commonly used in these kind of studies; the numbers and group sizes are consistent with OECD guidelines and in keeping with studies accepted by the European Food Standards Authority; the study’s statistical method is one of the most modern developed for use with a large number of variables and is appropriate for toxicity studies.

Of course no single piece of research or statistical treatment should be allowed immunity from justified criticism and this one is not perfect. It would have been helpful to have supplementary data available for scrutiny for example. And it is necessary for others to repeat this work.

But there is more than enough in this research for it to be taken seriously and followed up with some urgency; no tumours were present in the rats at 90 days which is the point at which current regulations allow safety assessments to stop; tumours began appearing at 120 days in the treated groups and in such numbers that demand further study; health problems were associated with non-glyphosate treated maize indicating an effect from the genetic engineering event itself – this is of such significance for our use of the technology that follow up work is essential.

Finally, the comment that this research cannot be valid because North Americans are not dropping like flies even though they have been eating GM food for decades is fatuous. How does Prof Tester keep his job when he comes out with such unscientific nonsense? In fact, nutritionally related diseases have dramatically increased in the US since unlabelled GM foods began to be marketed there but it would be unscientific to claim the two things are connected.

Although you can't blame people for wondering. And certainly citizens will be demanding that this research is taken seriously by the regulatory authorities and repeated.

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Posted by Lawrence Woodward
20 September 2012 | 16h50

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