We’ve called for long-term animal testing of GMOs and their associated pesticides. Industry has delayed regulation on risky products from tobacco to chemicals by endlessly calling for more testing. Does this mean GMWatch and Monsanto are finally seeing eye to eye? Claire Robinson reports
The blogger, who identifies himself only as “Russ”, accuses us of closing ranks with the “corporate testing regime” in ”mindlessly calling” for more testing. He adds, “We who reject poisonism have vastly more than enough evidence, affirmative and negative, to convince any honest, rational person to become an abolitionist.”
He refers to the “increasingly discredited notion that corporate animal testing can guarantee the human safety of products”, which he calls “a lie”. He also casts aspersions on our sincerity and commitment to the cause of banning GMOs and pesticides, suggesting that we are among those who “aren’t truly committed to abolitionism, to food sovereignty, who are not opponents of corporate control, and whose criticism of GMOs doesn’t necessarily reflect any underlying values at all”.
He also accuses us of promoting a scientific paper “put out by” a “Big Pharma front group”.
Now, we’re aware that in calling for long-term animal testing, our position is at odds with those who oppose not just GM crops and associated pesticides but any form of animal testing. But that doesn’t mean we are in bed with the GMO and pesticides industry or that we are not committed to the abolition of its slow-poison products. Nor are we guilty of promoting a paper put out by Big Pharma. Here’s why.
1. Our view of “enough evidence” isn’t that of government or regulators.
Russ is correct in that there is quite enough evidence for us personally to reject GMOs and their associated pesticides. But we are not government officials or regulators and thus have no power to ban them from the food and feed supply.
Contrary to what some may think, there are people in governments and regulatory agencies across the world who don’t believe that these products have been proven safe and want to take a stand to ban or restrict their use. But they know they cannot take a step in this direction without a few good studies tucked under their arms. And while a few brave countries have banned GMO cultivation due to ecological risks, for the most part only human health risks are considered reason enough to reject imports and cultivation of GMOs and associated pesticides. That means animal feeding studies in rodents, which are accepted as valid evidence of human health risks by regulators worldwide. It’s not considered ethical to do studies in humans without pre-existing animal studies showing safety. So when it comes to banning toxic products, feeding studies in rats or mice are, generally speaking, vital.
Lawyers know this, and that’s why animal feeding studies form the basis of litigation against GMO and pesticide companies – as in the Roundup cancer litigation in the US. Epidemiological studies in humans are also used in court cases, but because people are exposed to more than one GMO or chemical in their lives, they must be backed up by controlled laboratory studies in animals, which alone can show a causative link between a disease and any given ingredient or contaminant.
Monsanto knows this too. It’s easy to argue on the basis of the lax compositional tests done on new GMOs that they are safe. But it’s not so easy to argue away actual evidence of harm in the form of tumours or organ damage in a GMO-fed animal.
That’s why when it comes to GMOs, the company has departed from the old chemical industry delaying tactic of calling for “more testing”. On the contrary, it has fought tooth and nail to prevent any animal testing of its GMOs. And it has put huge resources into discrediting and thus ‘killing’ any animal feeding study that shows a problem with a GMO product.
The company’s terror of animal testing stretches way beyond the fate of any particular product under test in any given experiment. Documents disclosed in a court case revealed a Monsanto executive’s greatest fear over a study showing ill health effects in rats fed GM maize NK603 and very low doses of the herbicide Roundup. He warned that the study might be used to argue that long-term animal feeding studies should be required on all GM crops and/or on the complete pesticide formulations used on the crops.
Long-term animal testing of GMOs and complete pesticide formulations (which are generally more toxic than the isolated ‘active’ ingredient tested for regulatory purposes) is the last thing industry wants. That is precisely why we should demand it. If independent long-term animal tests had been required and published prior to release of the currently commercialized GMOs, these products would never have entered world markets and the entire GM food venture would have ground to a halt before it started.
2. Testing should precede release of the GMO, not come after it.
While industry has long used the “more testing needed” mantra to keep unsafe products on the market, we have advocated better testing as a pre-condition of GMO products being released. The difference is obvious.
The first is a cynical delaying tactic that results in countless more people and animals being poisoned; the second is a precautionary tactic that could prevent any people and animals at all from being poisoned.
However, GMOs are not tested for long-term effects before release. So the next best thing is independent long-term testing after release.
3. Animal tests can be independent and well-designed.
Blogger Russ is rightly dismissive of “corporate animal testing” which is “designed to incorporate various methodological frauds such as irrelevantly short durations, wrong parameters, use of tricks like ‘historical control groups’; even then the tests are often shoddily performed in such disreputable laboratories as the notorious IBT”.
He points out, again correctly, that GMWatch has helped to publicise these fraudulent and bad practices.
But what he misses is that we have never recommended more corporate-sponsored animal testing of risky products. Instead we have demanded (in common with many NGOs and now MEPs) that industry provide money for independent testing as a condition for having their product considered for regulatory approval. The money would be paid into a fund administered by a public body, which would use it to commission independent scientists to test the substance. Where possible, the scientists would be blinded to the test and control diets. All tests would be registered at the start (thus ending the cherry-picking of favourable results) and all results made public in an online database.
While industry tests have important design weaknesses, many scientists understand how to design better tests. They could use realistic doses and long-term or full lifespan feeding periods that reflect long-term human exposures. Unlike the authors of industry-commissioned studies on pesticides, any self-respecting independent scientist would not dream of using irrelevant “historical control data” to dismiss findings of ill health in animals fed the test substance.
4. Animals may not be perfect predictors of human health effects, but they’re way better than nothing.
Russ writes that animals are poor predictors of effects in humans. While this is true of the therapeutic effects of some pharmaceutical drugs, it is less true of toxic effects, including cancer. All known human carcinogens that have been tested adequately are also carcinogenic in animals and, almost without exception, share identical target sites; and nearly one-third of human carcinogens were first discovered to induce cancer in animals. As scientists from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the US put it, “virtually all animal cancer models are useful but imperfect surrogates for humans”.
Because they are imperfect models for human health, animals are not the final word on food safety. Scientists independent of the GMO industry have long argued that a green light obtained for a GMO in long-term animal feeding tests should be followed up with dose escalation trials in human volunteers. We hope and expect that Monsanto executives and employees would be first to volunteer for such experiments.
4. The ethical issue of exposing a few hundred lab animals to a potentially dangerous product must be weighed against exposing millions of people and animals with no monitoring.
Those who argue that any and all animal testing is cruel need to answer one question. If it is cruel to feed rodents with similar levels of GMOs and pesticides that you and I would be exposed to if the product were approved, isn’t it more cruel to expose millions of people and animals to those same products when no one is monitoring for harm?
If the full lifespan feeding trial model is adopted, then it is not even necessary to kill the animals at the end of the experiment – they are allowed to live out their lives before they are dissected for analysis.
Are we happy about animal testing? No. Like many people, we would prefer a world in which animal testing was simply unnecessary. We have long advocated for agroecological farming, free from GMOs and pesticides. But as long as we allow known and potential toxins to enter our food supply and environment, long-term animal testing will help form a necessary, if imperfect, buffer between us and a slow-poisoning catastrophe.
5. Using a picture from a Big Pharma-funded group doesn’t equate to promoting Big Pharma.
Russ appears to have misread our short and simple article in which we featured the abstract of the scientific paper calling for long-term animal feeding studies with GMOs.
To illustrate the article, we used a picture of a lab rat from an organisation called Understanding Animal Research (UAR). Picture use is free (helping us save valuable funds), on condition that UAR is given a photo credit – which we did. UAR is funded by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Syngenta. Russ deduced from all this that “under the right circumstances GMW[atch] and Syngenta can see eye to eye”.
But as the Monsanto executive explained above, long-term animal testing of GMOs and complete pesticide formulations is anathema to the industry. So in no way can GMWatch be accused of seeing eye to eye with the industry on this issue.
6. Big Pharma didn’t write or “put out” the scientific paper we featured.
Apparently confused by the origin of the picture of the lab rat, Russ claimed that the scientific paper that we featured was “put out by” the “Big Pharma front group” UAR. But the paper is clearly written by a group of international scientists who have no affiliation with UAR.
7. GMWatch doesn’t necessarily endorse every aspect of scientific papers we feature.
In addition, Russ is upset by a line in the abstract of the paper: “Up to the present moment, genetically modified (GM) products have enabled increased yields and reduced pesticide usage.” He writes, “GMWatch is so proud of this Abstract that they don’t shrink from reproducing this triple lie from it, which they themselves have helped debunk so many hundreds of times.”
Let’s be clear. GMWatch doesn’t feel “proud” of any of the abstracts that we reproduce for our readers. Nor should the fact that we feature a study be taken to imply that we agree with all of it. We feature some scientific papers because we think they contain points that may be of interest to our readers. In this case, those points relate to animal feeding studies and GMO food safety.
We have confidence in our readers’ ability to sort the useful points from the dubious or mistaken ones, the latter including the researchers’ claim that GM has delivered higher yields (rebutted here) and reduced pesticide use (rebutted here and here). Our confidence was justified by an email we received from a reader that pointed out this very fact.
To conclude, GMWatch has not got into bed with the GMO industry. The best evidence for this is that our views regarding animal testing are utterly discordant. The industry and its allies want to ensure that no more long-term animal feeding studies with GMOs and pesticide formulations are ever done. But we think that those of us who want to see an end to GMOs and pesticide residues in the food and feed supply are far more likely to achieve our goal if we are armed with such studies.
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3. National Research Council (US) Committee on the Use of Third Party Toxicity Research with Human Research Participants (2004). Values and limitations of animal toxicity data. In: Intentional Human Dosing Studies for EPA Regulatory Purposes: Scientific and Ethical Issues. Washington, DC: National Academies Press (US). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK215893/
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6. Heinemann JA (2013). Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 12(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14735903.2013.806408
7. Benbrook CM (2012). Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. - the first sixteen years. Environmental Sciences Europe 24:24. https://doi.org/10.1186/2190-4715-24-24
8. Douglas MR and Tooker JF (2015). Large-scale deployment of seed treatments has driven rapid increase in use of neonicotinoid insecticides and preemptive pest management in U.S. field crops. Environ Sci Technol 49(8):5088–5097. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es506141g9. Van Eenennaam A and Young AE (2014). Prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations. Journal of Animal Science 92(11):4255-78. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25184846. Author Alison Van Eenennaam is a former Monsanto scientist who lobbies for weaker GMO regulation.
Image: Understanding Animal Research