High oleic soya

February 2011

The first nutritionally altered, gene-altered, food is poised to arrive on your plate.

Monsanto's next-generation, MON 87705, GM soya is high in oleic fatty acid like olive oil only even more so. It's also low in saturated fatty acids like rapeseed oil only even more so.

The novel oil is “well suited for use in bottled vegetable oil, salad dressings, margarine and other similar food products for which commodity soybean oil is used”. Clearly, it's intended for widespread use in most processed foods and by caterers. It's also “well suited for industrial applications”, such as lubrication and biodiesel.

MON 87705 has been transformed with a DNA sequence to perform three novel functions. One is the customary tolerance to Roundup herbicide which comes from a bacterial gene linked to DNA to activate it in the green parts of the plant. The other two work together to cause oleic acid to accumulate. These are re-jigged soya DNA sequences which generate factors to alter the plant's fat metabolism: one of these factors blocks the enzyme which would normally channel oleic acid away from its site of production to elsewhere in the cell for further processing; the other factor suppresses the normal onward conversion of oleic acid to other fatty acids. These factors are linked to DNA which activates them in the seed. Between them, the two blocking mechanisms cause the GM soyabeans accumulate a huge and unnatural amount of oleic acid. The knock-on effect is that very little linoleic acid and very little of the saturated acids, palmitic and stearic acids, are produced. MON 87705 has, however, the usual amount of linolenic acid for soya, which is more than that found in olive oil. (Confused? See the info section below on Fatty-acids in edible oils).

In America, the introduction of MON 87705 soya is coming along nicely.

Back in May 2010, Monsanto gained a 'positive response' from the FDA indicating that, despite it's deliberately and grossly altered nutrient profile, the new soya could be considered 'generally recognised as safe' (GRAS). This status allows the crop to receive minimal regulatory attention. Eight months later, Monsanto announced the completion of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) consultation on 'MON 87705' (this 'consultation' is voluntary and is the extent of America's regulatory oversight of GM crops and food).

At the same time, an application for authorisation to place MON 87705 soyabeans on the European market has already been lodged. Although the European regulatory system is considerably more structured and thorough than the US one, industry can always be relied on to provide the minimum information it can get away with (especially when that information is inconvenient), and to use spin instead of science if it thinks no one will notice the difference.

Fatty-acids in edible oils

In case all these fatty-acids with similar-sounding names are getting confusing:

Oleic acid is the main type of fatty acid found in olive oil (hence its name). It's the most abundant fatty acid in many animal fats (including human), but doesn't need to feature especially in the diet. Oleic acid is deemed 'healthy' only if it is eaten instead of saturated fats. Note that, while the American Heart Association refers to diet as a “cornerstone” of heart health, it does not mention oleic acid anywhere in its “Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations”.

Linoleic acid is an essential fatty-acid in the human diet because we can't make it for ourselves. Deficiency adversely effects healthy growth and healing. It's considered 'healthy' because it lowers 'bad' (HDL) cholesterol in the blood. In plants, it's a normal metabolic product of oleic acid. Linoleic acid is the substrate for omega-6 fatty acids.

Linolenic acid is also an essential fatty-acid in the human diet. It's been branded 'unhealthy' because it has a tendency to react with itself at high temperatures to form trans-fats. Food manufacturers don't like linolenic acid (and to a lesser extent linoleic acid) because it's unstable and causes the oil to become rancid. Also, now that US labelling requires trans-fats to be declared, food companies don't like linolenic acid because it makes their product look unfashionably unhealthy. In plants, it's a metabolic product of linoleic acid. Linolenic acid forms the substrate for omega-3 fatty acids.

Foodies will be aware that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the correct proportions are vital for growth, vitality, and good mental state, besides having favourable effects on heart and inflammatory diseases. Wholesale removal of the precursors of these essential fatty acids from the diet may not be a healthy option

One team of scientists who certainly can tell the difference between smart words and data have submitted an assessment of the technical dossier relating to MON 87705 for the Norwegian government's evaluation of product safety and impact assessment.

Their overall conclusions highlighted a disturbing prevalence of 'evidence' based on improper assumptions, unsubstantiated claims and inappropriate extrapolations, besides gaps in important information relating to adverse effects, and inadequate study design.

For example:

Although aggressive marketing of MON 87705 oil as a substitute for established beneficial oils is certainly planned, no attempt has been made to confirm the ability of the novel oil to maintain health.

MON 87705 has a fatty-acid profile which is different from either olive oil or rapeseed oil, and other small but important differences might well remain to be identified. Also, the discrepancy between the composition of the GM oil compared with olive oil, rapeseed oil and conventional soya oil is too great and contains too many unknowns to lump it under a GRAS banner and forget about the safety testing.

If the above points seem a bit picky, consider the following science. Two separate feeding studies have been carried out using oil from a GM soya which had had its oleic acid content artificially raised by one of the same DNA tricks used in MON 87705. As would be the case if the oil was used for cooking, the oil in these experiments had been heated. One study involved pigs and the other involved chickens: in both cases the animals had reduced weight gain compared to controls. No information is available as to whether the cause was anti-nutritive or toxic, or both. Despite these findings, and despite the novel oil clearly being destined for use in cooking, no safety studies have been reported on MON 87705 oil after heating.

Warnings from science also suggest another very real danger from foods high in oleic acid. This fatty acid is implicated in the pathology of acute respiratory distress (ARD). ARD has an incidence of up to 75 per 100,000 individuals and exhibits a mortality rate of 30%. It presents with fluid accumulation in the lungs due to disturbances in membrane permeability and fluid transport. In affected individuals, oleic acid is found at abnormally high concentrations in the blood and inside the lung. Scientists studying the syndrome have found they can use applications of oleic acid to induce a simulation of the disease in animal models.

The effects of inhalation into the lungs of sensitive individuals of material high in oleic acid are unknown, but clearly can't be dismissed. Since olives and rapeseed are not processed in the same way as soya (they are not, for example, ground down into flour whose particles will hang in the air) they don't form appropriate evidence of the safety of soya. There's no scientific support for the dossier's statement that “No specific conditions or instructions are required when MON 87705 is stored, packaged, transported, used and handled in the same manner as for current commercial soybean varieties”.

The presence of Roundup herbicide absorbed by the new GM soya has not been addressed despite the evidence of harm now emerging in the scientific literature (see ROUNDUP CAUSES BIRTH DEFECTS – October 2010). And there's worse. One of the breakdown products of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is glyoxylate. This substance enters the pathway for fat metabolism in the plant. The artificially increased levels of glyoxylate due to glyphosate breakdown will certainly further disturb the plant's metabolism of fatty acids already disturbed by the inserted DNA. Combining Roundup resistance and extreme fatty-acid changes together in a food plant is a cause for extra safety-testing.

As the dossier tells us, soya is “known to elicit food allergic responses in humans” which are “considered clinically important” and are “more prevalent in children”; it also mentions that “relatively few of the specific soybean proteins involved in allergenic reactions in soybean have been uniquely identified or characterised”. The possibility of increased allergenic potential arising in allergenic plants engineered with copies of their own DNA has not been explored. Despite this recognition of the problem particularly in children and the lack of science regarding the cause(s) of the problem, studies have been limited to individuals sensitised by conventional soya, not by the nutritionally-altered GM version of soya proposed for market.

Oleic acid itself has antibacterial and anti-viral properties. Such properties could result in changes to the microbial flora on and around the soyabean plants and in the gut flora of animals and humans consuming them. Microbial alterations and imbalances at any level of the ecosphere can prove harmful (see YET MORE HEALTH RISKS FROM GM FOOD (ON TOP OF THOSE WE ALREADY KNOW ABOUT) –  August 2010).

The new soya beans were transformed using Agrobacterium to insert the DNA construct, and viral promoters have been included in the construct to make the DNA work in its novel surroundings. Both of these carry their own concerns (see GENES ON THE MOVE – News, December 2010, VIRAL DNA DANGERS – News, June 2009).

Many other risks which might be present in MON 87705 have not been addressed in the dossier, largely because they have been argued away rather than tested and proven negative:

  • The type of factors induced in MON 87705 beans are well-known for generating 'off-target' effects on other parts of the genome. This means their influence is unpredictable, especially under different environmental conditions.
  • The mutation rates of the type of factors induced in MON 87705 are higher than for protein-coding genes, also suggesting unpredictable consequences.
  • The novel factors induced in MON 87705 may produce low-levels of small peptides (mini-proteins) which could be highly biologically active
  • A new variant of linoleic acid, found in other foods but apparently unknown in non-GM soya, has been found in all soya altered using one of the DNA tricks used in MON 87705. The variant linoleic acid has not been well characterised. Inexplicable substances like this make the GRAS designation untenable.
  • Science has demonstrated that factors such as those produced by the engineered DNA in MON 87705 are able to enter insect cells and subsequently spread within the animal; experiments to examine whether this might also apply to human cells exposed to MON 87705 factors and their derivatives have not been considered
  • MON 87705 will be heavily used in animal feed. This will change the fat composition of the resulting animal produce in our food chain, not necessarily for the better.
There are all the signs that MON 87705 oil will be promoted as a 'healthy-heart' alternative not only to naturally healthy olive oil, but to a good, fresh, varied diet.

US Department of Agriculture scientists have meanwhile bred conventional soyabeans with an even higher oleic acid content than MON 87705 and with far fewer of the concerns raised by GM. There seems no reason for the development of Monsanto's GM beans other than their patent-guaranteed profit and the political clout of their makers.


There's every scientific reason to conclude that this so-called healthy GM soya oil is nothing of the sort. Remember, MON 87705 and its offspring will only be in your food if you buy it.

  • Monsanto Completes FDA Consultation Process for Low-Saturate, High-Oleic Soybeans, Paving the Way for Introduction of Vistive Gold Soybeans, Monsanto News Release, 26.01.11
  • István Vadász et al., 2005, Oleic Acid Inhibits Alveolar Fluid Reabsorption, American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine, 171
  • Application for authorization to place on the market MON 87705 soybean in the European Union, according to regulation (EC) No. 1829/2003 on genetically modified food and feed, Part II Summary
  • Jack Heinemann, Brigitta Kurenbach, and David Quist, Assessment of the technical dossier related to EFSA/GMO/NL/2010/78, 27.09.10
  • Joe Cummins, Beware Monsanto's “Vistive Soybeans”, Institute of Science in Society Report, 25.11.04
  • Jan Suszkiw, New Soybeans Bred for Oil that's More Heart-Healthy, USDA Agricultural research Service, 16.09.10
  • Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids,, February 2011
  • Penny Kris-Etherton et al., 2001, Lyon Diet Heart Study, Circulation 103
  • Bruce I. McDonald, 1991, Monounsaturated fatty acids and hearth health, Canadian Medical Association Journal, 145(5)
  • Diet and Lifestyle recommendations Revision 2006, American Heart Association

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