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New study reignites debate over GMO safety

by Chris Hinyub, published

Chinese researchers at Nanjing University have found small segments of rice ribonucleic acid (called microRNA or miRNA for its tiny size) in the blood and organs of people who eat conventional rice. The study does not address how the assimilation of plant RNA into human bodies could affect the debate over the next generation of genetically modified food crops, but the revelation that miRNA can likely survive digestion and take up residence in human cells certainly will provide ammunition for the anti-GMO camp, the most liberal of whom have been calling for toxicological and safety testing of patented plants since the inception of the biotech industry over a decade ago.

In the Chinese study, rice genetic material influenced the uptake of cholesterol from the blood by binding itself to receptor cells in the human liver. If confirmed, this would be the first time scientists have witnessed ingested plant miRNA that actually alters human physiology by regulating cell functions in this way, says AlterNet contributer Ari LeVaux in a recent piece. What's more, it calls into question the doctrine of “substantial equivalence” – a dogma the biotech industry has clung to since 1991.

Under substantial equivalence, companies such as Monsanto Co. have built a body of case law that shields GMOs from the same rigorous safety testing that patented drugs must undergo. The reason: GMOs are assumed to be essentially the same as their whole-food counterparts. This reasoning works well enough where products such as Bt-corn are concerned. This is because GM corn and alfalfa are spliced with specific herbicide resistant genes from bacteria that are themselves assumed to be safe and natural in their isolated form.

“There is no need for, or value in testing the safety of GM foods in humans,” declares Monsanto's website. “DNA (and resulting RNA) is present in almost all foods. DNA is non-toxic and the presence of DNA, in and of itself, presents no hazard.” Interestingly, this reasoning seems to undermine the legitimacy of plant patenting if nothing “novel” is being created, but that's a whole other can of worms.

However, substantial equivalence might not sit so well with consumers faced with a new generation of GMOs that use miRNA sequences to shut down or turn down a targeted gene in an insect predator. The difference now, and this miRNA study supplies the evidence, is that our genetically-altered food could very well be genetically altering us.

The argument for the safety testing of GMOs can now go something like this: because humans and insects share some very similar proteins that process miRNAs (source), the small RNAs from GMO plants could adversely regulate genes in humans.

Proponents of little to no regulation of biotechnology agree that safety testing would only encumber the shared utopian dream of producing as much food as cheaply as possible for a booming world population. If that's the case, anti-GMOers are going about this “crusade” all wrong. Maybe a more effective tactic would be to scrutinize more closely the real world performance of GM crops.

Monsanto is now the largest seed company in the world. Pointing out that their business model is antithetical to time-tested agricultural practices developed over thousands of years of human history, namely the ability of farmers to save seeds and breed new heirloom varieties to keep genetic diversity at optimal levels, might also bolster the naturalist case. Indeed, there is research to suggest that a path to bounty for the food-insecure populations of the world won't come through new agricultural products or methods, but a revival of pre-industrial farming practices.

That's not to say there isn't a happy medium where scientists can be scientists without having to alienate large groups of agriculturalists and consumers. Critics argue this can't occur until geneticists attach a higher ethical value to the business of natural plant breeding than setting the stage for a fully-patented biosphere.

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