On GM Soy. Ubiquitous so Surely Safe?

Soy is a food we give little thought to. Yes, soy sauce is a must for our pot of fried rice and we’ll dash some on the Chinese take-away but in the Caribbean soy itself is hardly a traditional food. Pigeon peas and lentils can be found bubbling in our pots but how many of us cook soybeans?

Still, lots of our babies drink soy milk formula and many women consider switching to, or adding soy milk to their diet as they approach age 50, in the hope of reducing breast cancer risk.*

Soy is the main ingredient in meat alternatives on the market for vegetarians locally. But burger and sausage meat packaged as chicken, beef or pork as well as many snack foods also contain soy by-products.

Soybean oil is no longer considered a healthy option but it continues to be widely used due to cost considerations. You may have noticed it mixed in with less expensive versions of ‘olive oil’ – if you take time to read labels at the grocery!

While the food industry continues to make wide use of soy, production and supply of genetically modified (GM) soybeans has expanded. First introduced in the 1990’s, more than 80% of soy produced in the USA now is GM-soy. Argentina now uses more than 50% of farm land for GM soybean cultivation.

Much of this GM soy is then fed to livestock all over the world.

UHealth Digest April-June 2013

UHealth Digest April-June 2013

Though you may be barely aware of it, GM soy has been in the food chain for more than 15 years.

Different types of GM soy are developed to bring different benefits for the industry. The type grown in the USA and Argentina withstands a powerful herbicide known as Roundup. How? The Roundup Ready Soy crop can detoxify the herbicide when it enters the plant cells, so the weeds are exterminated and the crop survives.

Could This Process Pose Risks?

The bio-technology industry predicted less weedicide would be needed with the introduction of Round Up Ready Soy. In the first few years this proved true – till the weeds developed resistance. Now this GM crop needs nearly twice as much weedicide as the conventional crop.

Of course use of chemical sprays is a standard process for many modern farmers. Yet a closer look at Roundup does raise some concerns.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has been found in Denmark’s drinking water at five times allowable levels. However, industry experts had expected glyphosate would be fully broken down by soil bacteria. Was there too much glyphosate for the bacteria to breakdown?

Though glyphosate is highly toxic to human cells exposed directly in the lab, its use pre-dates the Roundup formula by about two decades. Residue limits were established, as for other pesticides, to protect the public from high exposures.

Interestingly, the introduction of Roundup Ready crops meant that regulators in the US needed to increase the allowable residue limits by 3 times so the new system would not breach the limits!

How much is too much?

The non-active ingredients of Roundup make it more toxic than glyphosate alone. Roundup is at least twice as toxic as glyphosate to placental cells, even at concentrations 90% below those found in agriculture! (The placenta is the medical term for the afterbirth. Do note that these tests are done on living cells in a laboratory and not on live pregnant women!)

In an animal cell study, Roundup but not the active ingredient glyphosate, disrupted the cell cycle. The cell cycle is the routine of cell division used routinely by many types of body tissue for regeneration. Such findings lead to critics’ concerns that Roundup residues may add to cancer risk.

Roundup, unlike glyphosate, can penetrate leaves. Of course Roundup Ready crops are able to detoxify most of the herbicide within their leaves. But the ingredient which allows this penetration has been explained as the culprit that allows Roundup to penetrate human cells in the labs.

But are Caribbean consumers at risk? After all, though we don’t have tight regulation on pesticide use, we cultivate neither Roundup Ready soy nor canola.

Could there be Roundup Ready residues in the processed soy products we and our livestock consume? What about other Roundup Ready crops like canola or corn or beetroot? Are all residues washed off? As for the absorbed Roundup, do plants detoxify every toxic molecule in their cells?

Assuming Roundup is Safe, Aren’t GM soybeans and By-products Safe?

GM foods are classified as GRAS in the USA, Generally Recognized As Safe. The industry says adequate research has been done to assure us that GM food equals conventionally grown food in nutrient balance, allergy risks and safety.

Large scale trials involving human subjects are not required for GM foods to be approved in most countries and little industry research is available to the general public or even the independent scientific community.

So is the Anti-GM lobby just paranoid? Actually, the fears expressed are not mere speculation.

Early alarm bells were sounded by scientists not a paranoid public. Prior to 1999, allergy researchers in the UK found that soy allergies affected 10% of the public. After the introduction of Round Up Ready soy, that figure jumped to 15%. Later research showed that GM soy and natural soy had different protein profiles after all. Allergy to GM soy specifically (but not natural soy) was demonstrated by a real patient using skin prick testing.

One allergen was found to be 27% higher in Roundup Ready soy than in natural soy and heating did not breakdown the allergen.

If you and your loved ones are not prone to allergies you might shrug that off.

But what if you knew that mice fed Roundup Ready soy had abnormalities to their liver cells which indicated both increased cellular activity and increased activation of cell genes? These changes were reversible on switching the mice to non-GM soy feeds. (Phew!)

Russian studies from 2005 are also worrying. In three repeated experiments rat pups whose mothers were fed Roundup Ready soy before conception, during pregnancy and nursing and who were then weaned onto Roundup Ready soy, had a death rate five times higher than those fed non-GM soy. 221 rat pups were studied in these experiments.

Vital organs were smaller and body weight averaged 13% less for rat pups exposed to the GM-soy. Both pups and their mothers from the GM-fed group showed anxious and aggressive behaviour. The pups that survived were sterile (unable to conceive) till the females were mated with males who had been fed a non-GM diet.

Animal studies are typically done to look for red flags that could suggest human risk. It is unethical to perform such research on human subjects unless animal studies strongly suggest the safety of experimental products.

But until GM foods are required to go through both rigorous and independent studies we can only hope that we are faring better than the Russian rats.

*Whether soy added to the diet reduces or increases breast cancer risk is unclear as research findings have not been consistent. Though some women do switch to soy milk hoping to benefit this observation is not a recommendation. Nonetheless, soymilks labelled as ‘not from GM soybeans’ or ‘organic’ are available.


The frontiers of genetically modified soya in Argentina. Posession rights and new forms of land control and land governance.1

12-10-2012  Lucía Goldfarb

International Development Studies (IDS-LANDAC), Utrecht University – Transnational Institute (TNI)


Genetic Roulette The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods by Jeffrey M. Smith

Anders Legarth Schmidt, “Poisonous Spray on a Course Towards Drinking Water,” Politiken, May 10, 2003

Caroline Cox, “Herbicide Fact Sheet: Glyphosate,” Journal of Pesticide Reform 24, no.4 (Winter 2004)

Benbrook, “Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Nine Years,” October 2004

Caroline Cox and Michael Surgan, “Unidentified Inert Ingredients in Pesticides: Implications,” Environmental Health Perspectives Aug 18 2006

Sophie Richard et al, “Differential Effects of Glyphosate and Roundup on Human Placental Cells and Aromatase.”

Julie Marc, et al., “Pesticide Roundup Provokes Cell Division Dysfunction at the level of the CDK1/ Cyclin B Activation,” Chemical Research in Technology, 15, no.3 (Mar 2002): 326-31

EPA Rule, “Pesticide Tolerances and Food and Feed Additive Regulations for Glyphosate: Final Rule,” Federal Register 57 (1992): 42700

Mark Townsend, “Why soya is a hidden destroyer,” Daily Express, March 12, 1999

Hye-Yung Yum, Soo-Young Lee, Kyung-Eun Lee, Myung-Hyun Sohn, Kyu-Earn Kim, “Genetically Modified and Wild Soybeans: An immunological comparison,” Allergy and Asthma Proceedings 26, no.3 (May-June 2005):210-216(7)

Arpad Pusztai, PhD, personal communication with Jeffrey M. Smith

  1. Malatesta et al, “Ultrastructural Morphometrical and Immunocytochemical Analyses of Hepatocyte Nuclei from Mice Fed on Genetically Modified Soybean,” Cell Struct Funct. 27 (2002):173-180
  2. Malatesta et al, “Reversibility of Hepatocyte Nuclear Modifications in Mice Fed on Genetically Modified Soybeans,” Eur J Histochem, 49 (2005):237-242

I.V. Ermakova, “Diet with the Soya Modified by Gene EPSPS CP4 Leads to Anxiety and Aggression in Rats,” 14th European Congress of Psychiatry. Nice, France, March 4-8, 2006

Irina Ermakova, “Genetically modified soy leads to the decrease of weight and high mortality in rat pups of the first generation. Preliminary studies,” Ecosiniform 1 (2006):4-9

I.V. Ermakova, “Genetically Modified Organisms and Biological Risks,” Proceedings of International Disaster Reduction Conference (IDRC) Davos, Switzerland August 27th– September 1st, 2006:168-172

This article was first published in UHealth Digest April-June 2013, issue 21. It appears re-published on this blog in its originally submitted form.


Should Genetically Modified Food Be Labelled?

Article Published in UHealth Digest April-June 2012 issue

Article Published in UHealth Digest April-June 2012 issue

Should genetically modified food be labelled? That’s a question the Just Label It activists of Vermont, California and 16 other US states hope legislators will answer with a “Yes!” very soon.
Here in the Caribbean, if asked for an opinion on genetically modified (GM) food labelling, most of us would frown, take a deep breath – then confess we don’t know enough about GM foods to really say.
Now consider that we’ve all been eating unlabelled genetically modified foods since the late nineties. These foods are generally unlabelled in the United States. So do we really need to worry?
After all soy protein, soy sauce, high fructose corn syrup (often labelled as corn syrup) find their way into almost all our processed foods. Sausages, burgers and deli meats often include soy or corn by-products. Think, too, about the widespread use of soy and corn oil in margarines, pastries, cookies, snacks and sauces! Today, 93% of soy and 86% of corn produced in the US are from genetically modified crops.

Could GM food just be a merger of human brilliance and technology?

Such a relaxed and optimistic perspective is not shared by consumers around the globe.

The European Union updated its labelling law in 2003, requiring foods with more than 0.9% GM ingredients to be labelled.

This year Hungary destroyed 1000 acres of GM corn. GM seeds are in fact illegal in Hungary!
Similarly, France is seeking to have the European Union ban the only authorized GM crop in Europe, MON810, a modified variety of corn.

The 2010 Eurobarometer poll shows that 65% of Europeans are not in favour of the continued development of GM foods. Some surveys tell us 87% of Americans want GM foods labelled.
Sentiment against GM foods is also strong in nations as diverse as Peru, Japan and Germany.
Is the distrust mere paranoia and fear of change – or is it founded on solid ground?
Often, lack of understanding of the GM issue is fuelled by a sense that it’s all too complex for the average person to understand.

So let’s simplify things, because any issue that affects our health and the ecology of our planet needs to be very clear.

Here are three key things we need to know about GM foods:

1) GM foods or organisms are created when genetic material from one species (such as a bacterium) is inserted into another species (often a seed) to create new properties in the receiving species. The industry has used this technology in an attempt to create superior crops. Drought resistance, pest resistance, longer shelf lives, etc., are sought in the laboratory.

2) The GM industry has been able to get their foods classified in the US as GRAS or Generally Recognized as Safe. They’ve also secured legislation which allows their scientists to decide whether their products are safe or not, relieving the FDA of the responsibility to investigate new GM food products independently.

3) When a gene is experimentally inserted into a new species, scientists eventually get the effect they are looking for. However, other random and unpredictable changes to the original species have been known to occur.

The argument of the GM food industry is that the changes are minor, insignificant and have no impact on health, thus the new food can be classified as GRAS, Generally Recognized as Safe. They argue, too, that with climate change and the expected strain on the planet’s resources, GM bio-technology will better enable us to feed the world’s population.
Yet experts from outside the world of GM bio-technology have raised several alarms.

They protest that the research coming from the world of GM bio-technology has not been peer reviewed by independent scientists. Moreover, leaked internal documents show that the industry is fully aware of health risks which have emerged from initial animal studies, but deliberately masks or hides them.

Such research, as well as some independent studies, is presented very convincingly in Genetic Roulette, The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods by Jeffrey M. Smith. This book is written in such a way that the non-scientist can understand it. Yet it’s full of facts and reliable references. The academic credentials of the scientists and authorities often quoted in Genetic Roulette are presented in the appendix. This is critical as their position is sometimes at odds with that of various regulatory bodies.

None other than Michael Meacher, former UK Government Environmental Minister, writes in the forword to Genetic Roulette, “The case presented is absolutely a smoking shotgun that should stop in its tracks any dabbling with GM foods, whether by individual families, food companies or indeed nations.”

Many experts are also alarmed by the potentially irreversible damage already sustained to the environment, small scale agriculture and organic crop development. They point out that the benefits that the GM industry claimed would result from introduction of its products have never materialized.

Indeed, dairy farmers in the US were made to feel that their businesses would cease to be competitive if they did not adopt BGH or bovine growth hormone to boost milk production. (BGH is sometimes also known as BST). Instead, the cost of dairy farming and the amount of antibiotics administered to cows has taken a leap, as cows experience side effects like infected udders and reduced fertility!
So the Just Label It movement in the US States of Vermont, California and others was born of concerns about health, the environment, and ethics. Championing “the right to know what we are eating,” is a rallying cry of the movement.

If California succeeds in passing this legislation, then the impact is likely to be felt throughout the United States and naturally, here in the neighbouring Caribbean.
On March 12th 2012 the UK’s The Guardian put it like this: “If approved by voters, the California proposition would have a national ripple effect, just as the state’s air rules have influenced the cars that get made in Detroit. The sheer size of the California market likely would prevent most food companies from segmenting products sold in the Golden State from those sold elsewhere; food producers would probably have to put the labels on all their products sold nationwide.”
Nonetheless, while a 2003 poll showed that more than 90% of Americans want GM foods labelled, only 54% said the labels would affect their buying decisions.

However, labelling paves the way for health researchers to be able to trace the effects of this great food experiment in much the same way they do with other additives when health concerns are raised.

Opponents of the GM bio-tech industry hope that labelling will be the first stage in an outright ban of the progress and presence of all or most GM foods and organisms.

In the US, supporters of the industry argue that labelling is unnecessary on the grounds that GM foods are safe. They warn that food manufacturers will be forced to find new sources for ingredients, turning agriculture and the food industry upside down. All costs, they argue, will be passed onto the consumers.

As usual, health, economics, agriculture and public policy are all knotted together.

Which perspective will win over the lawmakers? Follow The Just Label It campaign on Facebook to find out.

Back home in the Caribbean, your local politicians, farmers and grocers will only care about this issue as much as you do.

Further recommended reading:

http://www.organicconsumers.org and Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey M. Smith

– Dr. Amanda Jones, Wellness Educator.










Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey M. Smith

Genetic Roulette, the Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods by Jeffrey M. Smith




This article was first submitted to and published by UHealth Digest in the April-June 2012 issue.