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Scientists working inside positive pressure personnel suit at biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory of the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Frederick, Maryland. Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases / Public Domain.
Scientists working inside positive pressure personnel suit at biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory of the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Frederick, Maryland. Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases / Public Domain.
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GMO and glyphosate wars rage

Oliver Tickell

16th July 2015

Three in one: EFSA set to re-licence glyphosate based on secret industry studies; Monsanto moves against IARC verdict that glyphosate is a 'probable carcinogen'; and new science shows that FDA principle of GMO 'substantial equivalence' is bunk.

The results predict significant accumulation of formaldehyde and concomitant depletion of glutathione in the GMO, suggesting how a 'small' and single GM creates 'large' and systemic perturbations to molecular systems equilibria.

News on the GMO and glyphosate 'war' under way between citizens and scientists against regulators conspiring with corporations is coming in so fast it's hard to cover. But here's a quick attempt.

First, glyphosate. The EU's European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is shortly to decide whether to re-licence glysophate, the world's number one herbicide and the main active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup, also found in Dow's 'Enlist Duo' along with 2,4D.

Glyphosate was recently determined by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), to be a 'probable carcinogen'. Since then Monsanto has been lobbying double time to combat the global fallout and make sure that it does not lose its licence, which would cost the company a large share of its multi-billion dollar revenues.

Now it turns out, as reported in the Guardian, that a key assessment by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessments, using information drawn from unpublished agrochemical industry research documents, "has drawn contrary conclusions from the IARC's data."

It therefore appears that the EFSA will re-approve the use of glysophate - based on secret research never subjected to peer review. Documents, moreover, provided to them by the so-called Glyphosate Task Force - no independent arbiter but an industry body dedicated to the herbicide's relicensing that's closely connected to Monsanto UK - which even runs their website for them.

Based on this flimsy evidence, the German report found "very limited evidence of carcinogenicity" in mice exposed to the chemical - and even advised that the 'acceptable daily intake' should be raised from the already grossly excessive 0.3mg to 0.5 mg per kilogram of bodyweight per day.

By contrast with industry dominated European regulators, IARC has a strict rule that it reviews only published, peer-reviewed studies in forming its judgements on the carcinogenicity of a substance.

More Monsanto tricks

Hot on the heels of this disgraceful news, we hear from GMWatch that Monsanto has hired industry consultancy firm, Intertek (formerly known as Cantox), to review WHO's verdict on glyphosate as a 'probable carcinogen'.

Intertek says on its website, "We protect our customers' interests, helping them successfully meet regulatory obligations and bring products to market in a time-efficient and cost-effective manner."

In 2000 Intertek / Cantox's executive VP Ian C. Munro co-authored a reassuring paper, in collaboration with Monsanto employees, that defended the safety of glyphosate herbicides. The paper claims that "glyphosate is non-carcinogenic" and causes no birth defects or other developmental toxicity. It concludes, unsurprisingly, that "under present  and  expected conditions of use, Roundup herbicide does not pose a health risk to humans".

The paper was published in the chemical industry-sponsored journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology - one of several industry-linked organizations that were investigated by a US Congressional Committee in 2008 over their role in the FDA's decision allowing the toxic chemical bisphenol A in infant formula and other foods.

"All this would matter less if Munro and his co-authors had cited credible sources in their claims for glyphosate's reproductive and developmental safety", says GMWatch. "But they cite unpublished studies from the industry dossier submitted for glyphosate's approval. Strangely the authors fail to mention other studies from the same dossier which found that glyphosate caused malformations in lab animals.

"Monsanto claims in the article below that the process and findings of the new review will be 'independent' and 'transparent'. But that seems unlikely, since Monsanto will be paying or at least commissioning the authors to carry out the review and they will be reviewing industry studies, which thus far have been kept hidden from the public."

For more information on Cantox and its defence of glyphosate, see the Earth Open Source report 'Roundup and birth defects' (pp.20-21).

'Substantial equivalence' of GMOs under attack

Finally a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Agricultural Sciences has cast doubt on the long-established (also never substantiated and much criticised) principle employed by US regulators of 'substantial equivalence', that is, that GMO crops are (by assertion) much the same as non-GMO food and crops.

In their paper 'Do GMOs Accumulate Formaldehyde and Disrupt Molecular Systems Equilibria? Systems Biology May Provide Answers', authors V A Shiva Ayyadurai and Prabhakar Deonikar report on their 'systems biology' approach to the question, and find that a small GM alteration in soyabeans may be producing an excess of toxic formaldehyde, also a known carcinogen.

"Proponents of GMOs assert that GMOs are safe since the FDA's policy of substantial equivalence considers GMOs 'equivalent' to their non-GMO counterparts, and argue that genetic modification (GM) is simply an extension of a 'natural' process of plant breeding, a form of 'genetic modification', though done over longer time scales", they write.

"Anti-GMO activists counter that GMOs are unsafe since substantial equivalence is unscientific and outdated since it originates in the 1970s to assess safety of medical devices, which are not comparable to the complexity of biological systems, and contend that targeted GM is not plant breeding."

"Systems biology", they propose, "which aims to understand complexity of the whole organism, as a system, rather than just studying its parts in a reductionist manner, may provide a framework to determine appropriate criteria, as it recognizes that GM, small or large, may affect emergent properties of the whole system."

They use a computational ('in silico') systems biology method to investigate known perturbations on five biomolecules in the Glycine max L. (soybean) under realistic conditions.

"The results predict significant accumulation of formaldehyde and concomitant depletion of glutathione in the GMO, suggesting how a 'small' and single GM creates 'large' and systemic perturbations to molecular systems equilibria", the scientists report.

"Regulatory agencies, currently reviewing rules for GMO safety, may wish to adopt a systems biology approach using a combination of in silico, computational methods used herein, and subsequent targeted experimental in vitro and in vivo designs, to develop a systems understanding of 'equivalence' using biomarkers, such as formaldehyde and glutathione, which predict metabolic disruptions, towards modernizing the safety assessment of GMOs."

Or in ordinary language, regulators should cease to just assume that GMOs are fine, and employ a combination of computional investigation and experimental verification on GMOs before declaring them 'safe'.

 


 

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

 

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