Mira Shiva: Health Effects of GM Foods

by Bhavani Prakash

Dr Mira Shiva is a renowned medical doctor and public health activist from India. She was a member of the Drug Pricing Review Committee in 2001, and has been a member of various bodies such as the National Population Commission, National Human Rights Commission, Voluntary Health Association of India, Health Equity and Society, All India Drug Action Network, Doctors for Food and Biosafety and Diverse Women for Diversity.

She gave her feedback to various public hearings on the introduction of Bt Brinjal (aubergine) in India. In February 2010, the Indian Government made a decision to halt the commercial production of Bt Brinjal, the world’s first genetically modified (GM) aubergine or eggplant with insecticidal toxin protein from the soil bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis)

In this video taken at Navdanya, Dehradun, India, Dr Mira Shiva spoke to us about her feedback to various public hearings on the introduction of Bt Brinjal.

Video link here

Here are some explanations to some of the names and terms mentioned by Dr Mira Shiva in the video:

1. She refers to Arpad Pusztai at the Rowett Institute who investigated the possible health hazards of GM potatoes which had been genetically modified by a gene from snowdrop bulbs.

As summarised by Mae-Wan Ho and Lim Li Ching in their Independent Science Panel study called “GMO-Free: Exposing the Hazards of Biotechnology to Ensure the Integrity of Our Food Supply.”

The studies showed that the two transgenic lines which originated from the same transformation experiment, and were both resistant to aphid pests, were NOT substantially equivalent in composition to parent-line potatoes, nor to each other.

More importantly, the results showed that diets containing GM potatoes had, in some instances, interfered with the growth of the young rats and the development of some of their vital organs, inducing changes in gut structure and function, and reducing their immune responsiveness to injurious antigents.  In contrast, the animals fed on diets containing the parent, non-GM potatoes, or these potatoes supplemented with the gene product, had no such effects.”

Arpad Pusztai also gave an affidavit during the Bt Brinjal hearing in India last year

According to Arpad Pusztai and Susan Bardocz in “Potential Health Effects of Foods Derived from Genetically Modified Plants: What Are the Issues?”

The basic tenet of the biotechnology industry engaged in the production of genetically modified (GM) crop plants and foods is that no ‘credible’ evidence exists that GM crops damage the environment or that GM foods harm human/animal health. Accordingly, they are as safe as their ‘substantially equivalent conventional counterparts’ and need no safety testing. The general acceptance of such a view could, of course, save a great deal of money for the biotechnology industry that otherwise would have to be spent on very expensive environmental and health risk assessments of their GM products.

However, practically all recent reviews that have critically assessed the results of GM crop/food safety research data published in peer-reviewed science journals have come to the conclusion that, at best, their safety has not yet been adequately established, or at worst, that the results of risk assessment studies, particularly (but not exclusively) those carried out independently of the biotechnology industry, have raised important safety concerns which have not been properly settled.

2. Dr Mira Shiva mentions Ann Venemen to show how pro-industry some US goverment appointments have been. Ann Venemen has been profiled here.

3. Dr Mira Shiva also refers to a study by Irina Ermakova. The study has been described by Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds of Deception in his article, “ Most Offspring Died When Mother Rats Ate Genetically Engineered Soy”

” The Russian scientist planned a simple experiment to see if eating genetically modified (GM) soy might influence offspring. What she got, however, was an astounding result that may threaten a multi-billion dollar industry.

Irina Ermakova, a leading scientist at the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), added GM soy flour (5-7 grams) to the diet of female rats. Other females were fed non-GM soy or no soy at all. The experimental diet began two weeks before the rats conceived and continued through pregnancy and nursing.

Ermakova’s first surprise came when her pregnant rats started giving birth. Some pups from GM-fed mothers were quite a bit smaller. After 2 weeks, 36% of them weighed less than 20 grams compared to about 6% from the other groups (see photo below).

Photo of two rats from the Russian study, showing stunted growth – the larger rat, 19 days old, is from the control group; the smaller rat, 20 days old, is from the “GM soy” group.
But the real shock came when the rats started dying. Within three weeks, 25 of the 45 (55.6%) rats from the GM soy group died compared to only 3 of 33 (9%) from the non-GM soy group and 3 of 44 (6.8%) from the non-soy controls.

Ermakova preserved several major organs from the mother rats and offspring, drew up designs for a detailed organ analysis, created plans to repeat and expand the feeding trial, and promptly ran out of research money. The $70,000 needed was not expected to arrive for a year. Therefore, when she was invited to present her research at a symposium organized by the National Association for Genetic Security, Ermakova wrote “PRELIMINARY STUDIES” on the top of her paper. She presented it on October 10, 2005 at a session devoted to the risks of GM food.

Her findings are hardly welcome by an industry already steeped in controversy.

GM Soy’s Divisive Past

The soy she was testing was Monsanto’s Roundup Ready variety. Its DNA has bacterial genes added that allow the soy plant to survive applications of Monsanto’s “Roundup” brand herbicide. About 85% of the soy gown in the US is Roundup Ready. Since soy derivatives, including oil, flour and lecithin, are found in the majority of processed foods sold in the US, many Americans eat ingredients derived from Roundup Ready soy everyday.

The FDA does not require any safety tests on genetically modified foods. If Monsanto or other biotech companies declare their foods safe, the agency has no further questions. The rationale for this hands-off position is a sentence in the FDA’s 1992 policy that states, “The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.”[1] The statement, it turns out, was deceptive.

Documents made public from a lawsuit years later revealed that the FDA’s own experts agreed that GM foods are different and might lead to hard-to-detect allergens, toxins, new diseases or nutritional problems. They had urged their superiors to require long-term safety studies, but were ignored. The person in charge of FDA policy was, conveniently, Monsanto’s former attorney (and later their vice president). One FDA microbiologist described the GM food policy as “just a political document” without scientific basis, and warned that industry would “not do the tests that they would normally do” since the FDA didn’t require any.[2] He was correct.

There have been less than 20 published, peer-reviewed animal feeding safety studies and no human clinical trials—in spite of the fact that millions of people eat GM soy, corn, cotton, or canola daily. There are no adequate tests on “biochemistry, immunology, tissue pathology, gut function, liver function and kidney function,”[3] and animal feeding studies are too short to adequately test for cancer, reproductive problems, or effects in the next generation. This makes Ermakova’s research particularly significant. It’s the first of its kind.”

For the rest of the article by Jeffrey Smith, please click here.

Photo courtesy:

Bt Brinjal pictures from Navdanya’s campaign brochures.

Further links you may be interested in:

EWTT: Vandana Shiva: Traditional Knowledge, Biodiversity and Sustainable Living (Recent Interview with Dr Vandana Shiva at Dehradun, India on the myth of GM, growth and development and ecological agriculture)

YouTube: Health Implications of Bt Brinjal Dr. Vandana Shiva, a renowned environmentalist, discusses some of the health implications on the genetically modified eggplants that are trying to be forced into India.

Google Videos: The Dangers of Genetically Modified Food by Jeffrey Smith


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Posted by on Apr 1 2011. Filed under Biodiversity, Food, Sustainable Agriculture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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