Monday, November 17, 2014
81% of reviewed GM crops were approved without any scientific safety studies, researchers find
Nearly all genetically modified (GM) crops approved by governments worldwide received that approval in spite of a complete lack of published, peer-reviewed research supporting their safety, according to a new study published in the risk-assessment journal Environment International.
The researchers looked at GM crops engineered either for tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) or to produce pesticides in their tissues due to the expression of cry1Ab or cry3Bb1 genes. These are by far the most common traits present in commercial GM crops.
A total of 47 GM crop varieties meeting these conditions have received approval from a food safety regulatory body somewhere in the world. The study researchers conducted a literature search for studies on the safety of these varieties -- but only studies that were published before the crops received approval. This allowed them to determine how much safety regulators were relying on published, vs. secret, research.
Approval based only on biased industry data
The researchers were able to find only 18 peer-reviewed studies assessing the safety of any of the 47 crop varieties that had been published before the crops in question received regulatory approval. These studies were conducted for only 9 of the 47 crop varieties, meaning that the remaining 38 GMO varieties were approved with zero credible scientific evidence of their safety. Furthermore, many of the 18 studies suffered from critical flaws limiting their scientific validity, including failure to describe the methodology used, or a lack of other basic information including, in some cases, the results themselves!
This means that, in approving GM crops, safety regulators have relied almost exclusively on studies conducted by the GMO companies themselves. This research was never submitted to review by independent scientists, making government-appointed regulators the sole arbiters of whether industry studies were reliable or not.
The new study did suffer from one major limitation, in that it looked only for published studies involving feeding rats the GM crop in question and then monitoring them for health effects. However, although other forms of safety study are possible, this is the standard model for food safety testing. In addition, it is known that GM crop companies regularly conduct this exact type of study on their products in order to submit that data to regulators -- raising the question of why so few of the studies conducted were published and submitted to peer review by independent scientists.
Even if some of the studies were published after the crops in question received approval, the long delay in publication raises questions about the reliability of the data eventually published.
Systemic change needed
The failure of safety regulators to follow rigorous scientific procedure is not just a problem in the area of GM crops. A 2014 study in the journal BioScience found that the pesticide-approval process suffers from many of the same problems.
A major problem with current safety approval procedures is that companies are expected to test their own products, the researchers noted.
"[R]isk assessment is compromised when relatively few studies are used to determine impacts, particularly if most of the data used in an assessment are produced by a pesticide's manufacturer, which constitutes a conflict of interest," the researchers wrote.
The authors called for the burden of safety research to be shifted to independent institutions with no financial ties to manufacturers.
"Although manufacturers who directly profit from chemical sales should continue to bear the costs of testing, this can be accomplished without [conflicts of interest] by an independent party with no potential for financial gain from the outcome and with no direct ties to the manufacturer," they wrote.