3Qs: Considering new data on genetically modified corn

An article recently pub­lished in the journal Food and Chem­ical Tox­i­cology shows the results of a two-​​year study on the health effects of a corn species pro­duced by the agri­cul­tural giant, Mon­santo. The corn is genet­i­cally mod­i­fied to resist the her­bi­cide Roundup, and per­vades the U.S. agri­cul­tural system. The paper claims that mice fed a diet con­sisting of 11 per­cent of the novel corn species were two to three times more likely to develop tumors. As the first article to present evi­dence that genet­i­cally mod­i­fied organ­isms can have inherent health effects, some critics have called the research methods into ques­tion. We asked Chris Bosso, a pro­fessor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, to explain the impact the new data will have on the growing dis­cus­sion of genet­i­cally mod­i­fied foods.

Professor Chris Bosso explains the significance of a new journal article questioning the safety of herbicide-resistant corn. Bosso’s research focuses on environmental and food policy, science and technology. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

How concerning are these findings, given both the data presented in the paper and the reach of Monsanto's maize products?

While we want to be careful about extrapolating from one study, if substantiated the findings raise profound concerns about the long-term human health effects of genetically modified food crops. Critics have long argued that Roundup-resistant variants only encourage overuse of the herbicide, with adverse chemical effects on human and animal species. However, this study’s findings suggest far graver health dangers from both the herbicide and the variants engineered to withstand it. If substantiated, such findings would have dramatic impacts on a U.S. food system heavily dominated by GM corn, wheat, and soybeans.

Should consumers expect the findings to change the market in any way?

Not anytime soon, unless consumers simply stop buying commercially prepared processed foods and decide to rely on only home-cooked meals from grains produced out of non-GM variants. That would include any meat or poultry raised on corn. That’s how deeply embedded GM variants are in the U.S. food supply. This being said, any emergence of focused consumer concerns about the long-term health effects of GM crops would shake the nation’s food safety system, not unlike what happened in Europe in the 1990s with outbreaks of mad cow disease. Again, while we want to be cautious about extrapolating from a single study, its potential to catalyze public concern about GM food cannot be overstated.

What do the findings add to the current body of public policy research regarding genetically modified foods?

The results raise warnings that force us to think hard about our standards for proof and about the role of precaution in policy decisions about risk. If history is any guide — and here I’m thinking about the battle that ensued after publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 — we may well soon be witness to a pretty nasty open fight over appropriate methodology, standards for proof, and whose findings engender greater trust. Given the billions of dollars involved, defenders of GM foods, Monsanto in particular, will debate every last point. And, as history also shows, we as consumers, and citizens, aren’t well equipped to know whose word is “right.” It may well all come down to whose word we most trust.

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