Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Russian super-myth resprouts-

From AgBioView : October 27, 2005

Genetically-modified Soy Affects Posterity?
- Christopher Preston

The following story is starting to do the rounds of the anti-GM websites. The original report was published in a Russian online newspaper in mid-October, but is only now starting to do the rounds. The story can be found at a variety of places including
and on the NAGS website

On the surface, this study appears to indicate a major danger with GM soy fed to rats. There was 6-fold increase in the number of deaths and the surviving progeny were significantly smaller. The study in question was conducted by Dr. Irina Ermakova of the Institute of
Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the results released at a conference organised byNational Association for Genetic Security. Dr. Ermakova is a researcher on brain function whose speciality is in the function neurotransplants into the brain, and who has published in both Russian and English journals.

From the report, it is hard to get a good sense of how the experiments were done. There is simply not enough information given in the report. The report states that the experiment consisted of 3 groups of 3 rats, but results are reported for 15 rats. The report also indicates that the three groups of rats were condensed to 2 groups after birth. It is not clear from the report why or how this was done. We are not told crucial points such as were there true
replicates or only pseudo-replication? Why did a third of the rats in each of the control and GM soy groups not give birth? What was the source of GM and non-GM soy and how much was included in the diet?
In the absence of answers to these questions, it is difficult to analyse the data further. One question that does come to mind is why the deaths are reported as total numbers instead of as means with an idea of the variance.

This report is a stark contrast with a previously published study by Brake and Evenson on mice (A generational study of glyphosate-tolerant soybeans on mouse fetal, postnatal, pubertal and
adult testicular development. Food and Chemical Toxicology 2004 42:29-36.) This study looked at a generational study of mice fed a diet containing GM soy or non-GM soy. They reported identical litter sizes for the two groups (7.3 per female in nine replicates for both groups) and nearly identical growth rates for the mice fed transgenic feed and for their progeny, compared to mice fed non-transgenic feed. The differences, where they occurred, favoured the mice fed
transgenic feed.

There are a number of other questions about the Russian research that come to mind. Firstly: What is a neurological scientist doing conducting feeding studies on GM food? This is always a question that arises when someone conducts research outside his or her speciality.
In this case, it is quite easy to determine the motivation. A visit to Dr. Ermakova's website (the English version as I can't read Russian, provides the clues. Under the section "Publications" is a list of popular articles by Dr. Ermakova. They include an open letter to the Russian President called "Stop transgenization of the country", and "Russian roulette.

Delayed-action mine, or why generically modified organisms are so dangerous". Under the section "Ecology and Life" is a list of "new articles" described as "Important information". These include links to anti-GM articles by Mae-Wan Ho and Beatrix Tappeser from 1997,
Arpad Pusztai from 2001, the "World Scientist's Statement" from ISIS, and from bio-integrity. Clearly Dr. Ermakova has concerns about the use of GMOs, but I suggest is quite selective in the views she promulgates.

Secondly: Why report the results at a conference organised by an anti-GM NGO? This is an important question as it is a good way of ensuring that mainstream scientists will take the research less seriously. The NGO involved is called 'The National Association of Genetic Safety (NAGS)'. According to their website (the English version again: ), their mission is described as "NAGS considers its top priority to protect the interests of citizens of the Russian Federation as an integral part of the international community and to facilitate the creation of a system of biological safety of humankind and the surrounding environment." Their goals are described as "participating in the development of legislation that would cover the entire complex of biological safety issues, facilitating the development of the National Genetic Safety Concept, taking part in international projects on the issues of biological and genetic safety, spreading the ideas of protection of genetic resources of the Earth, promoting
educational initiatives in the sphere of biological safety, creating the system of public control over the market of food and food industry raw materials, and cooperating with the media, government bodies, political parties and public organizations in Russia andworldwide." However, all of their public statements that have turned up in the Western media (and internet) are on GM foods. For example, NAGS organised a letter to the Russian President in October 2004 warning of the dangers of GM foods. In the press material, GM foods were described as "dangerous in their unpredictability" and as "biogenic terrorism". In March 2005, NAGS released the findings of a study of a Moscow meat market, claiming that 50% of vendors used GM feed. While this might be true, there is significant scientific evidence that GM feedstuffs are not dangerous (see the list of 42 peer reviewed studies I collated last year at
). The claim is disingenuous and made simply to frighten people about their food.

In June 2004, NAGS released claims about the use of GM products in baby food. Their claims as reported in the Western Press where that 70% of samples contained GM materials and some mixes were 100% genetically modified. Even allowing for the problems of translation from Russian to English, this is an unequivocal statement and certainly not true. This would leave no room for any other ingredients including water. Even worse, NAGS claimed that some of
the dairy and vegetable mixes were entirely made of GMO. This claim made when no GM vegetables were commercially available, unless one counts soybeans as a vegetable. The President of NAGS, Alexander Baranov, had claimed in 2003 that 70% of people in the US were
allergic to GMOs, a claim that hardly stands any scrutiny. With this record behind them, it is difficult to give NAGS much credibility.

This brings me back to the question I asked: Why would you report results of feeding studies at a conference organised by an anti-GM NGO? Surely, if the results were that striking they would be presented to health authorities rather than to a group of anti-GM activists? These were similar questions to those I, and others, asked when Terje Traavik reported his results on Bt corn at a Third World Network sponsored conference. Indeed, this whole exercise reminds me
a lot of that episode. Now 18 months down the track from Traavik's preliminary announcement in Kuala Lumpur, we have seen no more on the issue.

The answer to my question lies in how science is being used in these episodes. It is clear in both cases that the data available would not stand regulatory scrutiny. This is why it has not been delivered through normal channels. Presenting results such as these at an anti-GM conference containing true believers is a good way of ensuring affirmation of the research. The audience will believe it because they want to believe it, whereas a more sceptical audience might ask some difficult questions about the research. Even more importantly, it ensures the ability to apply political pressure with scientific research that would not stand the rigors of normal peer

GMO Pundit comments:
For a full list of safety concerns about GMO foods go here.

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