Feature

The GM Guru

A chat with Gilles-Eric Séralini, a world-leading expert on the effects of eating genetically modified foods, brings up emotional debate about why we’re treating our bodies and the environment like garbage cans.

The GM Guru

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Séralini comes across as a no-fuss Frenchman with a thick accent, and a scientist with a professional demeanour. But beneath the suave exterior lies a fiery passion for discovering more about life and human health.

This drive led Séralini into gene technologies and later into cancer research. Now he heads up CRIIGEN, (Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering), based at the University of Caen in France. His most recent research, published in 2011, was the reassessment of 19 edible agricultural genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and was consulted by more than 43,000 scientists.

When questioned why he enjoys working with genes, Séralini says, “because it’s fascinating first to discover how life functions and then to try to protect human health... I think that most of the knowledge we have for gene function and for drug discovery comes from modified organisms today, in the lab”.

“But we have contaminated life like it never has been in the history of Earth,” he adds. Séralini explains how this contamination is so great that most forms of life contain pesticides, heavy metals and residues from plastics or burnt oil. “We have treated health and human, animal and plant bodies as if they were garbage cans.”

“When I worked on cancer, I discovered that most of the original causes of the disease were due to contamination by pollutants of our food, the water or the air – when that enters our body it acts on our cells to promote environmental diseases like cancer, and immune and hormone diseases.”

Séralini’s research has been crucial in four successful court cases against multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto or its lobbies. Also, CRIIGEN won a case against the French Ministry of Agriculture. While this could have made Séralini unpopular with the government, he has since received the French Order of Merit for his scientific work.

Séralini is adamant that he is not against genetic modification (GM); indeed, being a gene scientist, it would be hypocritical. “I must underline that I’m not against GM or the technology in general because I think it brings a lot of knowledge and medical drugs – when it’s built in confined areas and enclosed laboratories. But it’s another story when it reaches the plates of consumers and the environment. And you need long term assessments to be sure of what you’re doing to health and the environment.”

“The problem is the industry has only tested these edible plants for 90 days on rats before giving them to billions of people around the world to eat. And it is not even transparent, so that means access to the data is not possible without going to court.” A safer amount of time to test GMOs would be “at least two years for lab animals”, but this doesn’t happen “because the food agencies don’t request it”.

“Humans are modifying at industrial speed the four main vegetables or cereals that we are eating: soy, corn, cotton and canola... In Australia there are about 600,000 hectares of Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis] cotton and 130,000 hectares of Roundup Ready canola, and most of the imported corn and soy is modified.” It’s not well known that cotton is an edible crop, but Séralini says, “in some cases cotton is used to create consumable oil and may be consumed by stock like cattle.” There are also trials of GM wheat growing now in northern NSW.

In Australia, it’s a legal requirement to label foods containing more than one per cent of genetically modified ingredients. But Séralini says he’s worried about the transparency of the industry overall, because “even if signs of toxicity show up in the statistics, a company like Monsanto will admit there are side effects. But they say they’re not biologically relevant, because it’s not the same in males and females; if breast or prostate cancer was the same in males and females, that would be stupid! Also, they say it’s not proportional to the dose, which is never the case in hormonal diseases”.

“The other silly thing is that for the last 15 years, the industry has kept saying that GM would reduce pesticides, by using plants that could absorb their own pesticides. In fact it reduces use of the pesticides of the competitors, but not of their own.”

Séralini and his team at CRIIGEN have shown through lab experiments that Roundup is toxic and hormone-disturbing to human cells, even at doses 100 times less than the residual doses found in genetically modified plants that people are eating. These findings have been published in seven peer-reviewed international scientific journals since 2005. Yet agricultural GMOs continue to be approved without independent testing.

“As long as you make edible plants designed to contain pesticides, you are playing with the health of humans. Edible agricultural GMOs are not good for this reason, and also because they promote non-sustainable industrial agriculture with a lot of pesticides.”

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To learn more about GM foods in Australia, visit www.foodstandards.gov.au and www.greenpeace.org.au.