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 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.
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.
The soy she tested 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. Since Ermakova’s unique study was small and not yet peer-reviewed, we cannot fairly draw any conclusions as to if or how Roundup Ready soy influences offspring. From what we do know about GM soy, however, there are several ways in which it might influence the health of the next generation.
Past Studies Provide Clues
The health of newborns can be affected by toxins, allergens or anti-nutrients in the mother’s diet. These may pass through the placenta and impact the development of the fetus. Even the DNA in the mother’s food may be a factor. German scientists found fragments of DNA fed to pregnant mice in the brains of their newborn.
The entire field of study about how a mother’s diet might influence her offspring was blown open recently by remarkable studies in epigenetics. In a cover story on the August 1, 2003 issue of Molecular and Cellular Biology, “scientists showed they could change the coat color of baby mice simply by feeding their mothers four common nutritional supplements before and during pregnancy and lactation.” The diet actually changed the gene expression of the offspring. The nutritional supplements also “lowered the offspring’s susceptibility to obesity, diabetes and cancer.”  Certainly an altered diet could have the opposite effect.
This raises the risk for pregnant mothers eating GM foods, since the process of creating a genetically engineered crop can create unpredicted toxins, allergens and anti-nutrients. The plant’s natural genes can be deleted, scrambled, turned off, permanently turned on, reversed, duplicated, or moved, and the expression levels of hundreds of genes can be altered . These changes have never been properly evaluated in the GM crops on the market.
With Roundup Ready soy, years after it was marketed, scientists discovered a section of natural soy DNA that had been scrambled during the gene insertion process . There were also two additional fragments of the foreign gene that had gotten into the DNA, but had escaped Monsanto’s detection. At least one of these fragments becomes transcribed into RNA and may be creating unknown proteins with unpredictable effects .
When mice were fed GM soy, they developed misshapen nuclei in their liver cells, as well as other cellular anomalies . The liver is the body’s major de-toxifier. The changes indicated increased metabolic activity, probably resulting from a major insult to that organ. Mice fed GM soy also showed changes in the pancreas, including a huge drop in the production of a major enzyme (alpha-amylase) , which could inhibit digestion. Cooked GM soy contains about twice the amount of soy lectin, which can also block nutrient assimilation . And one study showed that GM soy has 12-14% less isoflavones, which are touted as cancer fighting .
An animal feeding study published by Monsanto showed no apparent problems with GM soy , but their research has been severely criticized as rigged to avoid finding problems . Monsanto used mature animals instead of young, more sensitive ones, diluted their GM soy up to 12-fold, used too much protein, never weighed the organs, and had huge variations in starting weights. The study’s nutrient comparison between GM and non-GM soy revealed significant differences in the ash, fat, and carbohydrate content, lower levels of protein, a fatty acid, and phenylalanine. Monsanto researchers had actually omitted the most incriminating nutritional differences, which were later discovered and made public. For example, the published paper showed a 27% increase in a known allergen, trypsin inhibitor, while the recovered data raised that to a 3-fold or 7-fold increase, after the soy was cooked. In addition to promoting allergies, trypsin inhibitor is an anti-nutrient that may impair protein digestion.
The only human feeding trial ever conducted confirmed that the gene inserted into GM soybeans transfers into the DNA of gut bacteria and may continue to produce its novel protein long after the person stops eating soy . In animal studies, fragments of genetically modified DNA were also found in the blood, spleen, liver and kidneys of piglets that were fed GM corn . It was not clear if these transgenes were integrated into the animal’s own DNA. If they were, it might impact the animal’s health, or even the health of those who consume the meat. Moreover, if the transgenes were to integrate into the animal’s sex organ cells, that might impact the offspring.
A common feature of GM research is that when incriminating evidence surfaces, it is not followed up. The biotech industry controls most of the research money and has been able to make excuses for the adverse findings. Ermakova’s research, however, will likely change that. That’s because her study is easy to repeat and its results are so extreme. A 55.6% mortality rate is enormous and very worrisome. Repeating the study is the only reasonable option.
American Academy of Environmental Medicine Urges NIH to Follow-up Study
I presented Dr. Ermakova’s findings, with her permission, at the annual conference of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) in Tucson on October 27, 2005. In response, the AAEM board passed a resolution asking the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to sponsor an immediate, independent follow-up of the study . Dr. Jim Willoughby, the Academy’s president, said, “Genetically modified soy, corn, canola, and cottonseed oil are being consumed daily by a significant proportion of our population. We need rigorous, independent and long-term studies to evaluate if these foods put the population at risk.”
Unfortunately, there is a feature about GM crops that may make follow-up studies unreliable. In 2003, a French laboratory analyzed the inserted genes in five GM varieties, including Roundup Ready soybeans . In each case, the genetic sequence was different than that which had been described by the biotech companies years earlier. Had all the companies made a mistake? That’s unlikely. Rather, the inserted genes probably rearranged over time. A Brussels lab confirmed that the genetic sequences were different than what was originally listed. But the sequences discovered in Brussels didn’t all match those found by the French . This suggests that the inserted genes are unstable and can change in different ways. It also means that they are creating new proteins—ones that were never intended or tested. The Roundup Ready soybeans used in the Russian test may therefore be quite different from the Roundup Ready soybeans used in follow-up studies.
Unstable genes may also explain some of the many GM-related problems I reported in last month’s issue of the Ecologist. The sterile pigs, dead cows, or mysterious disease in the Philippines, may have resulted from GM crops that had “gone bad” due to genetic rearrangements. In fact, even GM plants with identical gene sequences might act differently .
If regulators officially acknowledged that GM crops were unstable, that would likely cause the foods to be withdrawn from the market. But so far, regulatory agencies have largely ignored the growing body of adverse findings and not dared to threaten the billions of dollars invested by the biotech industry. It may take some dramatic, indisputable and life-threatening discovery. That is why Ermakova’s study is so important. If the results do hold up, it may topple the GM food industry.
I urge governments and foundations around the world to immediately conduct rigorous, independent follow-up studies. This is not the time to wait. There is too much at stake.
Jeffrey M. Smith is working with a team of international scientists to catalog all known health risks of GM foods. He is the author of Seeds of Deception, the world’s bestselling book on GM food, and the producer of the video, Hidden Dangers in Kids’ Meals.
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This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2005.