3Qs: Considering new data on genetically modified corn

October 3, 2012 by Angela Herring
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. Credit: Brooks Canaday

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. Northeastern University news office 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.

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 of genet­i­cally mod­i­fied . Critics have long argued that Roundup-​​resistant vari­ants only encourage overuse of the her­bi­cide, with adverse chem­ical effects on human and . 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. 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 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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