The European Food Safety Authority has rejected a controversial study by French scientists linking GM corn to cancer. Many in Europe are already calling for stricter controls on GMOs, as farmers weigh the lucrative crops against health concerns.
In September, French scientists from the University of Caen released a study claiming that rats fed on a diet containing NK603 – a corn seed variety made tolerant to amounts of Monsanto's Roundup weed-killer – or given water mixed with the product at levels permitted in the United States died earlier than those on a standard diet.
The study elicited calls for stricter controls on already unpopular genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe. France had already issued a temporary ban on another Monsanto corn seed (MON810) in May due to a similar study.
However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) claimed the study lacked enough specific information on Friday, and asked the scientists who conducted it to provide more details on their testing methods. The move adds to the constant back and forth in the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The "design, reporting and analysis of the study … are inadequate," the EFSA said in its review, concluding that it could not "regard the authors' conclusions as scientifically sound."
The EFSA took issue with the type of rat used in the study, specifically the albino Sprague-Dawley strain of rat. Sprague-Dawley rats have a tendency to develop cancers naturally over the course of their two-year life span, which was also the duration of the study.
"This means the observed frequency of tumors is influenced by the natural incidence of tumors typical of this strain, regardless of any treatment. This is neither taken into account nor discussed by the authors," the EFSA said.
Gilles-Eric Seralini, the French researcher who conducted the study with his colleagues and published the results in the journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology in London was incredulous at the EFSA’s decision, and stated that he would not release any more information to the EFSA unless it provided justification for its conclusion.
"It is absolutely scandalous that [the EFSA] keeps secret the information on which they based their evaluation [of NK603],” he said.
"In any event, we will not give them anything. We will put the information in the public domain when they do," Seralini said in an AFP report.
The French study caused waves of alarm across Europe, and even prompted a ban on the NK603 corn in Russia. A group of Russian scientists who oppose GMOs are hoping to conduct their own rat experiment, set to begin in March of 2013. They expect that their year-long experiment will show whether the controversial cultivation process has effects as dangerous as the French study claims.
In an effort to conduct their study as publicly as possible, Russian researchers from the National Association for Genetic Safety (NAGS) came up with the idea of web cameras installed in cages with the test rats, which will broadcast all stages of the experiment online. The unique reality show will be available on the internet 24/7 worldwide.
“This is a unique experiment,” project author Elena Sharoykina told RT. “There hasn’t been anything like it before – open, public research by opponents and supporters of GMO.”
Many GM crops are banned or controversial throughout Europe. France has strict regulations of GM crops, while GMOs are completely banned in Germany, Greece, Austria, Luxembourg, Hungary, and the UK over health concerns. GM crops are altered to be resistant to pesticides, a development which has caused an increase in the use of chemicals that have been linked to cancer and birth defects.
Still, the crops are attractive to farmers, Arkady Zlochevsky, president of the Russian Grain Union, told RT. For example, the Monsanto GMO NK603 corn in question has been modified to be resistant to Monsanto's “Roundup” weed-killer, making the product easier and cheaper to grow with delivering better yields.
“The seed may be more expensive, but the development is significantly cheaper,” he said, stating that European GMO farmers find a 20 per cent increase in profit combined with a highly-marketable, top-quality product.
The EFSA’s criticism of the French study echoed that of numerous other experts across Europe that refuted the results. But as more and more studies emerge on both sides of the issue, the harder it becomes to identity where fact meets fiction.
Zlochevsky told RT that “There is no reliable proof of the ills of GMO; so far there have only been attempts to prove it.”
Monsanto’s study published in 2002 on corn strain NK603 concluded that “NK603 is as safe and nutritious as conventional corn currently being marketed,” and the specific proteins in the corn genetically altered to make the corn pesticide resistant “are not toxic to non-target organisms, including humans, animals and beneficial insects.”
But a study published recently in the UK by a genetic engineer from London’s King’s College of Medicine signaled that GM foods pose a more serious threat than advocates of research would have the public believe.
“GM crops are promoted on the basis of ambitious claims – that they are safe to eat, environmentally beneficial, increase yields, reduce reliance on pesticides and can help solve world hunger," said Dr. Michael Antoniou, author of the report, which claims that research into GM crops is incomplete and tests on the effect of their consumption are not comprehensive enough.
Regulatory industries worldwide rely on companies selling GM products rather than independent testing, stipulates the paper.
Director of corporate communications for Monsanto, Phil Angell, summed up his company’s take on the issue in a report by food author Michael Pollan for New York Times Magazine in 1998: "Monsanto should not have to vouch for the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job."