According to Judy Carman, Ph.D., very little safety testing is done on genetically modified foods, and when it is done, biotechnology companies conduct minimal testing.
Dr. Carmen says that more extensive independent testing of GM foods is needed to ensure they are safe. Her recommendations seem prophetic in light of a recent Austrian government study that found reduced fertility in mice fed GM corn.
Dr. Carman is director of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research, Inc., a non-profit research institute based in Australia focusing on the safety of genetically modified food. She earned a doctorate degree in medicine from the University of Adelaide in the areas of metabolic regulation, nutritional biochemistry, and cancer. She has investigated outbreaks of disease for an Australian state government.
Ken Roseboro, editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, interviewed Dr. Carman during her recent visit to the United States.
Can you tell me a about your research on the health impacts of GM foods?
We are conducting one of the very few first long-term, independent animal feeding studies with GM foods. To date, most of these types of studies have been done by biotechnology companies or scientists associated with biotechnology companies.
Of the few independent studies being done, a study by the Austrian government recently made public found reduced fertility in mice fed GM corn. Another recent study done in Italy showed immune system problems in mice fed GM corn.
The studies done by biotechnology companies tend to show no health problems associated with eating GM food. The independent studies are finding adverse effects.
Do you have any comments about the Austrian study showing reduced fertility?
I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. It is interesting that (Russian scientist) Irina Ermakova had similar findings (of reduced fertility) with mice fed GM soy.
It is disturbing that the study showed a gradually worsening effect on mice that ate the GM corn. I am worried that something similar is happening in humans. If it is, it could take many years for problems to become apparent, and by then it could be too late to do anything about it.
What are the challenges of doing this type of research?
There are two major challenges. First, it is very hard to get GM seed to conduct the research. In order to buy GM seed, you have to go to a licensed seed dealer, and sign a technology licensing agreement, which states that you won’t do any research on the seed, which includes agronomic, health, and environmental research. Also, scientists who try to research health impacts of GM food get harassed and intimidated by people with vested interests in GM technology. I’ve had 10 years of abuse from such people who’ve defamed me, driven me out of a university, and tried to get me fired from jobs. With that kind of intimidation, scientists often decide not to do any research.
Vested interests have been trying to find out about research I’m doing. They filed a freedom of information request with the Western Australian government to find out. The government denied their request. It could have ended up in court. My research protocol could have been stolen.
Funding for studies looking at health effects of GM foods is difficult to find in the United States. Do you find that universities and organizations in Australia also don’t want to fund such studies?
Yes, it is very difficult to get funding. If you want to do medical research, you have to go to an organization that funds such research. In order to get funding, you need to have a proven track record in that area of research. However, in a new area of research such as GM food safety, no one has a track record, so it is difficult to get the funding. It’s a Catch-22.
We are thankful that the Western Australian government gave us funding. The research protocol was sent to 15 scientists worldwide for review and then approved by a steering committee. I wanted people to know that I was doing a thorough job with this research.
If your research finds negative health impacts caused by GM foods, are you prepared to deal with a negative onslaught from biotech proponents?
Yes, I understand what will happen. I’ve been attacked many times. GM food advocates want to make people who do this type of work frightened of losing their jobs to make them stop working on the issue. They can’t get me fired now. I work within my own organization, the Institute of Health and Environmental Research, which I established along with others who are committed to finding out if GM foods are safe to eat.
The behavior of GM food advocates makes me ask, “what are they frightened of?” If they believe GM foods are safe, they would be confident that I would not find any problems. Instead they are paranoid. What do they know that I don’t know? What are they trying to hide? It makes me more curious and determined to find out.
GM foods are widely consumed in the United States, and the US government opposes labeling GM foods. What are your thoughts about that?
The big surprise is the lack of GM food labeling here. In Australia, we hear all the time from the US that you are the land of the free. I find it amazing that Americans have no choice about eating GM foods. The most basic democratic right is being denied to you. For those who don’t want to eat GM food, it is being shoved down your throats against your will because it seems that nearly all foods have ingredients from GM corn or soy.
With every US citizen exposed to GM foods, if something goes wrong it could go very badly wrong. If one person in a thousand in the US gets sick from GM foods, that’s 300,000 people sick.
GM food advocates often claim that “no one in the US has ever gotten sick from eating GM foods.”
It’s rubbish to say that no one ever has ever gotten sick eating GM foods. The fact is that no one knows. Since GM foods have been introduced, millions of Americans have been hospitalized and millions have died, and no one has investigated to see if any of those cases have been due to eating GM foods. The HIV/AIDS epidemic went unnoticed for decades, and the relationship between smoking and lung cancer went undetected for generations.
With the current level of safety testing, if GM foods do cause human health problems, it will be very difficult to determine this, even though there may be many cases of illness.
What type of safety testing do you think should be done on GM crops?
We need long-term safety tests that are relevant to human health done by people independent of GM vested interests. The safety testing done now is woefully inadequate. Biotechnology companies often don’t even use the whole GM grain in feeding studies. Instead they tend to only use a protein extract that doesn’t even come from the GM plant. The feeding tests are also only done for few days or a few weeks.
Safety tests should involve comparing animals fed GM foods with animals fed the equivalent non-GM food. The animals should be fed long enough and involve tests that, at a minimum, measure risks of cancer and allergy and threats to reproduction and organ health.
Do you believe that scientific research will conclusively show that GM foods pose significant health risks?
You never know what will happen. Independent research is finally being done and is showing adverse affects. There’s been an avalanche of bad news for the GM industry lately.
© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report January 2009