The secrecy surrounding GMOs

October 2012

When a team of scientists in France carried out the first long-term feeding trial of a GM maize, 'NK603', and Roundup herbicide, it highlighted a whole stack of flaws in the approach to assessing the safety of GM food (see GM MAIZE IS NOT SAFE TO EAT and EFSA STATEMENT ON UNSAFE MAIZE - October 2012). The most serious problems stem from the level of secrecy that has come to be part and parcel of every stage of GM development.

Biotech industry labs are forging ahead with the development of GM products, but little of their science ever reaches the journals to be disseminated in the normal way. It doesn't, therefore, reach the peer reviewers who would check the quality of the work, nor the governments entrusted with ensuring the safety of the product, nor the public who will be putting the novel materials into their bodies. In the case of the GM maize used in the French experiment, Monsanto did publish a 13-week “safety assurance study” on rats fed NK603, but not until some four years after Canadian regulators had approved the GM crop for human consumption. Note that, since no problems were recorded during the long-term study until after the 13th week, Monsanto's published science was too little and far too late.

When a GMO is ready for commercialisation, confidential industry-acquired safety-data are submitted to a regulatory body (such as the EU's European Food Safety Authority) charged with protecting the public. The subsequent approval process based on that data proceeds not only out of public view but beyond the reach of independent professional scrutiny. The Royal Society of Canada's Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology said in 2001 “there is no means of independent evaluation of either the quality of the data or the statistical validity of the experimental design used to collect those data”.

Ownership and sale of a GMO is controlled by patents. These allow the biotech industry to vet the scientists or farmers allowed to carry out testing, and to place restrictions on what tests can be done. In practice, this has meant that independent scientists wishing to safety-test GM food or feed have to rely on commercially available supplies: since these are a random mixture of different crops for which no truly comparable controls exist, they are of limited scientific validity. The scientists who carried out the long-term NK603 maize and Roundup feeding study only managed to obtain acceptable test and control maize because it had already been approved for cultivation in Canada: the crop had therefore been in the food chain for several years before safety testing could even be started.

The French team were forced to keep their work top secret until it was published. This was necessary because “the power of Monsanto and its allies is such that a leak would have destroyed any hope of completing the study” (MEP Corinne Lepage). Even when publication was imminent, its content was kept under wraps right up until the last possible moment. As the BBC reported:
“In a move regarded as unusual by the media, the French research group refused to provide copies of the the journal paper to reporters in advance of its publication, unless they signed non-disclosure agreements.” 
To understand why all this secrecy was necessary, we need look no further than Scotland: Arpad Pusztai's summary dismissal and abrupt closure of his laboratory preventing his work continuing, and the subsequent “aggressive” personal threats made by the Royal Society to the Editor of the Lancet when he decided to publish Pusztai's research say it all (and this was only the first of many such cases).

Just to prove how right the authors were to impose a news blackout which, as the BBC commented “... would have prevented the journalists from approaching third-party researchers for comment”, is clear from what unfolded as soon as the story broke. The industry-funded Science Media Centre (SMC), that “well-oiled PR machine”, immediately set about trying to “shut down and shape the media coverage” of the publication (Joanna Blythman). Several television news programmes obediently rejected the story after reading the hastily assembled quotes from SMC's rent-a-GM-scientist network. And as GM Watch point out, that impact was achieved even with the non-pre-publication-disclosure policy in place. How much of a hearing would the research have got without it?

In the course of the experiment, some of the analyses of the rats fed NK603 and Roundup were carried out by different laboratories in France and Italy. These have asked to remain anonymous for fear of a deliberate attack on their reputation.

Once the GM product hits the shelves, few consumers in any country have the right to know if the meat and dairy they are consuming comes from animals fed on (or possibly poisoned by) GM feed or Roundup. That's kept secret.

In America, the country where the most biotech crops are grown, sold, and eaten, the people have no way of knowing if their food is GM, and their health safety watchdogs have no way of linking any disease they record to GM food. The presence of GM is a really well-kept secret.

As the Representative of Connecticut who tried to introduce a GM labelling bill in his state said:
“When people start to hide stuff, the reason is never good”.

OUR COMMENT

If you think all this secrecy suggests the biotech industry knows something about its GM products it doesn't want us to know, and that the health effects seen in the rats fed NK603 or Roundup weren't actually news to it ...

TAKE ACTION
Write to your MP and MEP (and copy your letter to a newspaper or two):
  • stress that in light of the latest long-term feeding safety study you are concerned for your health
  • ask him/her to press for a moratorium on all Roundup Ready crops and the use of Roundup on food and feed crops
  • add any other points you think are important.
If you want more information, or help with the contents of your letter or how to contact your MP and MEP, check out GM Freeze Action Alert: Demand better safety testing for GMOs at www.gmfreeze.org/actions/28

SOURCES:
  • Corinne Lepage, GMOs: A review and historical approach, Hiffington Post, 24.09.12
  • FAQ - from CRIIGEN research team, www.criigen.org, September 2012
  • Gilles-Eric Séralini et al., 2012, Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize, Food and Chemical Toxicology, on-line August 2012
  • To the Point, The Organic & Non-GMO Report, Issue 19, December/January 2012
  • Séralini et a. GM corn safety study in context: Introduction and basic comparison, Canadian Biotechnology action Network, 27.09.12
  • Why did Séralini block pre-publication acces to his paper? GM Watch, 9.10.12

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