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GE Crop Risk Assessment Challenges: An Overview

Opinion

There have been dramatic changes in the transgenic composition of GE corn and soybeans over the last five years, coupled with a substantial increase in reliance on pesticides and Bt toxins. Compared to the first five years of commercial use (1996-2000), today’s GE corn and soybeans in the U.S. require:

  • About twice as much herbicide per acre, with glyphosate/Roundup accounting for essentially all the growth;
  • In corn, two to six Bt toxins to deal with European corn borer and the corn rootworm complex;
  • Delayed release, systemic seed treatments including at least two insecticides and two fungicides, one of which is a nicotinyl implicated in honey bee Colony Collapse Disorder;
  • A return to corn soil insecticide use as a component of Bt-gene, resistance-management programs (eroding a portion of the reduction in insecticide use brought about by Bt corn);
  • Significant and historically unprecedented increases in fungicide use on corn (11 percent of crop acres were treated in latest USDA pesticide use survey [2010], no more than 1 percent was treated previously); and
  • Approval and commercial planting in the U.S. of the first GE crop that will be consumed in significant quantities by humans in a largely unprocessed form – Bt and RR sweetcorn.

The move to stacked varieties expressing multiple traits, coupled with the above changes in the intensity of chemical use required to bring GE crops to harvest, raises new questions about new routes of exposure and about cumulative levels of exposure to GE proteins, potential allergens and pesticides, especially via drinking water, certain foods made from corn or soybeans, and, for infants, breast milk, cow’s milk, soymilk, and formula. It also raises new testing challenges arising from the likely presence of multiple transgenes, DNA fragments, promoters, regulatory sequences and chemicals from pesticides (active ingredients, metabolites, surfactants, adjuvants, etc).

These changes pose serious risk assessment challenges that are, for the most part, being ignored by the industry and regulatory authorities. New information is essential to convince regulators that they must invest substantially more public resources in the independent testing of GE crop safety. The two core goals for a new testing initiative should be to (a) resolve lingering uncertainty over the safety of the GE traits currently on the market, and (b) develop advanced testing methods and protocols for application in the testing of future GE food traits.

At a minimum, the following steps should be taken to explore key questions about today’s GE crops:

1. Quantification of the levels of pesticides and their metabolites/breakdown products associated with GE crops in key foods and human fluids (blood and urine), encompassing initially glyphosate, AMPA, nicotinyl seed treatments and Bt proteins. Top priority foods to test include whole wheat grain and flour, whole wheat bread, and soy-derived ingredients and foods. Essential liquids to test include cow’s milk, breast milk, soymilk and infant formula.

2. Development of methods to accurately quantify GE protein exposure levels in tissues and organs of concern in evaluating human health risks. The research would also be designed to track the breakdown products formed as GE proteins move through the digestive system. Methods would be developed to identify the form of novel proteins or other phytochemicals from GE foods, as well as the quantities passing from the GI tract into the bloodstream, from the blood to the kidneys and liver, and in the case of pregnant women, across the blood-brain barrier.

3. Methods must be developed to assess the impacts on fetal development following pre-natal exposure to GE proteins via maternal blood flows. Focus should be on epigenetic patterns of gene expression and the frequency of auto-immune diseases including food allergies, asthma and behavioral problems.

4. In light of novel combinations of exposures, including combinations of glyphosate, AMPA, a nicotinyl insecticide and Bt proteins, short-term cell assays should be used to test for toxic potential of each of these singly and in various combinations. The results can be used to target subsequent, long-term testing.

5. An appropriate, government agency or international organization should fund long-term toxicology and cancer feeding studies in at least two species of laboratory animals on a cross-section of the major traits now in GE varieties. Trials should cover the most widely planted Bt endotoxins alone, the EPSPS gene conferring resistance to glyphosate alone and these two traits in combination. At the conclusion of a first round of testing, the research team should issue recommendations for the design and conduct of future cancer feeding trials applied to GE food traits and render judgments regarding the need for additional testing.

© Food Safety News
  • Katy Esquivel

    What is the likelihood of these recommendations being implemented? It seems like no one will do anything until its too late…

    • Oginikwe

      It’s already too late.

  • http://twitter.com/JaneLaTrace Jane La Trace

    All of these tests should be concluded BEFORE the food is sold and served!! Our world is scary. Know your farmer know your food…. or else.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyacox Tim Cox

    I believe in the science, however I firmly agree that this type of testing needs to be done and it needs to be done now. It would either prove these products safe or the opposite in which case the Government would have to stop allowing these products to be produced. Without GMO products it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to feed the growing population of the world as there simply is not enough arable land to farm in a more natural way. On the other hand if these products are in fact poisoning the population they have to go.

    • http://twitter.com/MADGEAustralia MADGE Australia Inc

      “I believe in the science.” Science is a method of inquiry not a belief system. The science of genetics has surpassed GM technology. It is not one gene one protein, one gene can make many proteins or many genes can be involved in the production of one protein. The only way to ‘feed the world” is agroecological agriculture – working intelligently with natural systems. For example the System of Rice Intensification that provides the best environment for rice to grow (spacing the plants, changing when planted out, less water, hand weeding, compost etc) has doubled yields. This is far more sensible than messing with genetics (which we by no means fully understand). Read the wonderful reports by Olivier de Schutter on food and farming and agroecology. GM is a failed technology that is only good for profiting the patent holders.

    • Lenny

      Tim, research shows that GE crops are only more productive during the first few years, after that time frame, GE crops consistently need increased herbicides/pesticides applications (which the article mentions) and the “save the world, feed all the people” is basically just a great sounding lie the chemical companies uses to convince people we “need” Genetically Engineered crops. Mother Earth produces enough food for all, however, there are tremendous inequities in distribution…. not sure how to solve that? Also, GE crops consistently fail in drought conditions while organic crops have much better resistance.

    • Poe

      The problem with scientific testing is how testing is funded both above board and below board….when money is involved corporations will do whatever they can to influence results. File Drawer effects etc etc…

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    What a bizarre and incorrect melange of unrelated and unscientific claims and approaches. Your highest GE priority is testing wheat products (item 1)? Since there is no GMO wheat, that’s quite an odd priority.

    And the overall emphasis on genetic engineering is strange. In Europe–where their concerns about the neonics are so prominent, there’s very little GE. So fixating on testing GE is pretty misplaced.

    Can you please provide a scientific source for this proposed problem of the blood-brain barrier in pregnant women (in item 2)? I am unfamiliar with a mechanism that makes their blood-brain barrier a special issue.

    I’m not sure where you were taught science, but where I was taught we didn’t go in starting with an expectation–like autoimmune and allergy problems result from foods–before you design your study (item 3).

    I’m all for more science, but why would you exempt any organic pesticides, adjuvants, or new plant compounds from conventional breeding in your testing scheme? In all combinations, of course.

    Since every laboratory animal in the US in the last decade has been eating GE foods in large quantities for many generations, and animal colonies haven’t been collapsing–I would imagine your mouse and rat full employment act for long term studies would be a pretty good gig for a lab animal. But I see no reason to exclude all new conventional and organic foods, as well as back-filling for all the ones we haven’t tested in the past. Good luck getting a grant for that.

    • srosfeld

      @mem_somerville Please travel the country and preach your word! I could not have said it any better myself. Dr. Benbrook is for Organic food so everything he says it this article makes sense!

    • FoodRetro

      Hi Mem, with regards to the section you’re talking about “Quantification of the
      levels of pesticides and their metabolites/breakdown products
      associated with GE crops in key foods and human fluids (blood and
      urine), encompassing initially glyphosate, AMPA, nicotinyl seed
      treatments and Bt proteins” (item 1) you are about half right about GMO wheat. Despite the recent news regarding GMO wheat contamination, a good percentage of wheat is not GMO.

      I believe that there is one piece of information that you are unaware of that does make wheat testing a priority. Glyphosate, which is also the active ingredient in RoundUp, is not just sprayed liberally on RoundUp-ready GE crops. It is also sprayed on non-GE wheat and other cereal grains by farmers to “dry down” the product for earlier harvest. In fact, the hull items of these grains, like wheat bran, contain significantly higher amounts of glyphosate on them due to late spraying than the processed GE RoundUp ready crops themselves. This means you could have many times the amount of glyphosate in your non-GE whole wheat bread than you could in an ear of RoundUp-ready corn or a glass of soy milk made with RoundUp-ready soybeans.

  • Ralph

    The Biotech companies that sell the GM seed and collect BILLIONS of dollars per year in technology fees should be required to fund the safety testing BEFORE ANY GM crop is dergulated and approved for sale in the US. There is NO reason for the tax payers to fund the safety testing when the GM industry companies are swimming in profits from tech fees.

    • beccadoggie10

      The public cannot fund safety testing because Monsanto and other biotech-pesticide companies will not allow their patented seeds be independently tested. This was reported in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

      But the full information on this is at:

      http://www.purefood.org/gefood/fdasued.cfm#I.