Sunday, October 9, 2011

Alexey Surov and GM Soy - A Recurrent Tale Against GM Foods

When I'm researching for any of my posts I try to do some background research into my opposition's position so that I can best address that opinion while supporting my own hypothesis. While researching on genetically modified foods I repeatedly came across references to a single study whose references threw up many flags of suspicion. None of the sites referring to the study provided a name of the study, a journal that the study was published in, or a link to the study itself. Nearly all of them seemed to include the same quotes from one of the researchers in the study identified as Alexey V. Surov.

The Huffington Post published this account on April 20, 2010, which appears to have spread like wildfire within days to hundreds of other blogs and media outlets:

"This study was just routine," said Russian biologist Alexey V. Surov, in what could end up as the understatement of this century. Surov and his colleagues set out to discover if Monsanto's genetically modified (GM) soy, grown on 91% of US soybean fields, leads to problems in growth or reproduction. What he discovered may uproot a multi-billion dollar industry.
After feeding hamsters for two years over three generations, those on the GM diet, and especially the group on the maximum GM soy diet, showed devastating results. By the third generation, most GM soy-fed hamsters lost the ability to have babies. They also suffered slower growth, and a high mortality rate among the pups.


Surov told The Voice of Russia,
"Originally, everything went smoothly. However, we noticed quite a serious effect when we selected new pairs from their cubs and continued to feed them as before. These pairs' growth rate was slower and reached their sexual maturity slowly."
He selected new pairs from each group, which generated another 39 litters. There were 52 pups born to the control group and 78 to the non-GM soy group. In the GM soy group, however, only 40 pups were born. And of these, 25% died. This was a fivefold higher death rate than the 5% seen among the controls. Of the hamsters that ate high GM soy content, only a single female hamster gave birth. She had 16 pups; about 20% died.
Surov said "The low numbers in F2 [third generation] showed that many animals were sterile."

The story also included a few other useful details relating to the study itself. It was conducted on Campbell hamsters and the research was “jointly conducted by Surov's Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the National Association for Gene Security.”

Generally this would be sufficient information to track down a study, especially one published as recently as July 2010, so I started searching PubMed and Google Scholar for studies using combinations of the search terms “Alexey V. Surov”, “Institute of Ecology and Evolution”, “Russian Academy of Sciences”, “Campbell hamster”, “Soy”. Nothing.

A little further investigation into how the story originally broke online turned up that the story had not been broken by the Huffington Post at all, but actually by an English language version of a Russian news source, The Voice of Russia on April 16, 2010. Interestingly, this story includes a different spelling of the researcher's name, “Alexei”, and a slightly different name for the institute, “Institute of Ecological and Evolutional Problems”.

At this point it was apparent that I was searching for a Russian language study that, despite it's massive reporting amongst English language media, would not be possible track down in English. Luckily, was glad to help me track down additional information on the “Институт проблем экологии и эволюционной проблемы”, which Google Translator was kind enough to inform me was Russian for “Institute of Ecological and Evolutional Problems”. There I was able to track down a researcher by the name of “Суров Алексей Васильевич”, which matched my translation for “Alexey V. Surov”. It seemed I was quickly closing in on an actual study, and after translating the words hamster and soy into Russian (and interestingly coming across Russian translations of the same news stories published across English media) I was able to track down the original study.

The English translation of the study title is, “Changing the physiological parameters of mammals feeding genetically modified plant”.I have provided a link to the study in Russian, so you can use your favorite translation tool to translate it into the language of your choice. The images associated with the study seem to no longer be hosted on the website, but by doing a Google Image search for the file names of each of the images I was able to track down a copy of all but one of the images still stored on the Google servers.

To summarize the study, the researchers started with four groups each with five pairs of male and female hamsters. Group 1 was fed a diet of non-GM soybeans, group 2 was fed a diet of genetically modified soybeans, group 3 was fed a diet containing a different variety of genetically modified soybeans, and finally group 4 was fed a diet free of soy entirely. The researchers then bred the hamsters within their respective groups for an additional two generations and then killed the final generation at the age of 45 days to measure various biological parameters relating to their development.

The following is a translation of the results given in the paper (note F1 and F2 denotes the first and second generation of offspring from the original pair):

Group 1 did not differ significantly from group 4 (control), both in F1 and in F2. Probably food containing soybeans, does not contain components that can significantly affect-Gut on the studied parameters.

Group 2, which added to the diet of soy GM-1 differed significantly thin-Shimi figures of reproduction and development of the control group (1), which is evidence of the negative effects of food, "GM-1" on the growth and development of animals.

Group 3 differed for the worse from all the other groups, which indicates, there exists an even more about the negative impact of food containing GM-2.

While the translation is far from perfect, it is clearly indicated that the study found significant negative effects in the two groups fed the diets of genetically modified soy, while the two control groups were fairly similar. The study's conclusion lists that significant differences were found specifically in the following areas:

1) delay in somatic growth and development;
2) violation of the sex ratio in broods with an increase in the proportion of females;
3) reducing the number of young in broods;
4) The decrease in the proportion of fertile animals.

The evidence sounds pretty damning and the researchers' mistake is not at all obvious with a casual read.

Imagine for a moment, that we took 4 groups of hamsters and simply proceeded to breed them within each group for several generations. The expected outcome would be that characteristics within each small population would become much more uniform and that the different populations would genetically drift apart over a large number of generations. This first point, increasing uniformity within the group is important for this study. It means that the standard deviation of characteristics within each group will always tend to shrink while the diversity between the groups remains constant or grows over time. Without even having done anything, this will yield statistically significant differences simply by decreasing the standard deviation being used to calculate the statistical significance.

While the researchers did manage to find statistically significant differences between the groups after a few generations they did not show that the groups fed GM-soy were significantly different from groups fed non-GM soy or no soy whatsoever since they only had a sample size of one for each diet. Had the researchers wanted to conduct such a test they would have needed several groups of hamsters on each diet.

The results of this Russian study provide no evidence that the differing diets these hamsters were fed played any role in the different outcomes observed. Keep in mind that the predominant use of genetically modified soy around the world is as animal feed. Had chickens or dairy cattle started producing fewer offspring as a result of the genetically modified soy in their feed it would have long ago been recognized by the farming community. Perhaps unfortunately for the animals bound to suffer in our factory farms, there is no such sterilizing effect of genetically modified soy in their diets.


How can the tools of skepticism be used to prevent us from falling prey to a study like this in the future? Here are a few suggestions:

Make sure you can identify the title of the study in question and the journal in which it was published. Don't ever take a blog post or a news story reporting on the results as an accurate representation.

If you can't read the entire study for yourself, use the reputation and the peer review process of the journal in which the study was published to judge how thoroughly the research may have been vetted prior to publication.

Look for follow-ups or critiques to the study that may have been published. See if the research has been reproduced anywhere else or if any similar studies have obtained similar results.

Make sure the study used appropriate controls and statistical methods. Ask yourself: “If an identical study had been run with all samples/groups/etc following the control procedure, would a statistically significant result be obtained the expected percentage of the time?”

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The IRRI – Conducting Genetic Modification We Can All Support

We've all heard horror stories relating to the use of genetically modified crops. Nearly every time GMOs are brought up in a conversation you'll hear a tale about GM crops cross pollinating with crops in a neighboring field for which the owner of the neighboring field is then sued, or corporations like Monsanto using their political clout to push their Roundup Ready crops through to approval so that they can boost sales of their herbicide.

Tales like these undoubtedly tarnish many people's perceptions of GMOs. I did a quick search for “genetically modified organisms” and pulled up the first page I could find with concerns regarding genetic modification. The following comes from Environmental Commons:

Environmental Commons believes that genetic modication and engineering:

● Constrict farmer seed and variety privileges.
● Confer private ownership of otherwise commonly held life forms.
● Create unanticipated environmental effects.
● Threaten human health.
● Suppress the development and integrity of less intensive, more sustainable farming systems.
● Damage local farming economies.

Where a corporation can get away with using technology to corner the market and promote the use of their own products it will likely make business sense for them to do so, and, lacking necessary oversight, protecting human health and the environment may not be the top of their concerns either. These facts of free-market business are not unique to genetically modified crops, but they are often the face of genetic modification that many people are exposed to. I hope to use this post to give people a glimpse of one of the many ways GM technology is being used to benefit the world, and not just enrich a few individuals.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is a non-profit based in the Philippines with offices in 16 countries. Founded in 1960, the IRRI “develops new rice varieties and rice crop management techniques that help rice farmers improve the yield and quality of their rice in an environmentally sustainable way.” The IRRI mission statement describes a mission that seems to side with every objection that the Environmental Commons raised above regarding genetic modification:

Our mission
To reduce poverty and hunger, improve the health of rice farmers and consumers, and ensure environmental sustainability through collaborative research, partnerships, and the strengthening of national agricultural research and extension systems.
Our goals
● Reduce poverty through improved and diversified rice-based systems.
● Ensure that rice production is sustainable and stable, has minimal negative environmental impact, and can cope with climate change.
● Improve the nutrition and health of poor rice consumers and rice farmers.
● Provide equitable access to information and knowledge on rice and help develop the next generation of rice scientists.
● Provide rice scientists and producers with the genetic information and material they need to develop improved technologies and enhance rice production.

The IRRI has primarily used selective breeding in pursuit of these goals. One of the organization's first successes was with IR8 rice, also known as “miracle rice”.

When grown with irrigation and nitrogen-rich fertilizers, IR8 produced more grains than traditional varieties. IR8 changed the world food situation according to Tom Hargrove, a former communicator at IRRI. Indeed, the looming famines did not materialize since miracle rice was introduced, as well as other food varieties.

IR8, however, while successful at staving off famine in the Phillippines, did come at a cost of increased input and additional environmental impact. Since the original success of IR8 at increasing yield, the IRRI has increased it's emphasis on improved sustainability and minimal inputs. By breeding rice plants to out compete weeds, the IRRI has developed varieties that can thrive without herbicides even amongst fierce competition with only minimal weeding. By combining these with varieties bred for different climates, they have been able to create “drought-tolerant, salinity-tolerant, submergence-tolerant, and high-yielding varieties suitable for irrigated conditions.”

Rice developed at the IRRI is used widely around the world, and undoubtedly has increased output while reducing dependence on chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Nonetheless, as our knowledge has grown and technology has improved, the IRRI aims to move beyond results they are able to obtain through selective breeding alone. According to their guiding principles in researching GM rice:“IRRI believes that genetic modification and genetically modified rice have the potential to safely deliver unique benefits to rice farmers and consumers that cannot be achieved through other breeding methods.” While no varieties of GM rice are yet grown commercially, several have been approved for commercialization, and many more are being developed by the IRRI.

The use of genetic modification comes with a number of benefits in achieving the goals of the IRRI. Unlike conventional breeding, which requires numerous genes to be exchanged in order to transfer a desired characteristic, and comes with no guarantee a trait will even be incorporated into a given offspring, genetic modification allows a particular trait of interest to be incorporated into a new variety without having to worry about unwanted genes being incorporated as well. Genetic modification also increases the variety that the IRRI is able to achieve, by allowing them to use genes that would have otherwise been difficult or impossible to breed into their variety.

Additionally, the IRRI is using genetic modification to aid their traditional breeding programs. By incorporating or knocking out specific sections of DNA in rice, they are able to better understand the function of each of those sections and can then use that information to see if DNA associated with a desired characteristic has shown up in rice bred using traditional methods. This does not introduce any genetic material that wouldn't have been introduced through traditional breeding, but it does allow them to more quickly and confidently create a variety that can meet a given need.

Currently, the IRRI is, “researching the development and delivery of GM rice with improved
● drought, heat, and salinity tolerance;
● photosynthetic capacity to increase yield and enable it to become more efficient in using water and nitrogen fertilizer (C4 rice); and
● nutritional value of the grain, including higher pro-vitamin A (Golden Rice), improved protein quality, and higher iron.”

Developing crops that are able to better adapt to the environment, that use water and fertilizer more efficiently, and that have greater nutritional value are things everyone should support. Golden Rice in particular, which was genetically modified to produce beta carotine (a source of vitamin A) could potentially prevent hundreds of thousands of children each year from going blind or dying from vitamin A deficiency. Perhaps most importantly, Golden Rice has been licensed for humanitarian use, so that anyone earning less than $10,000 from growing this variety can use and keep the seeds without any need to pay royalties.

Genetic modification is a technology with the potential to save countless lives, and improve the quality of life for countless more, all while minimizing our impact on the environment. Next time you hear someone railing against this innovation, make sure you point out the ways it is already being used to achieve goals everyone ought to support.

For more about genetically modified foods, check out the Skeptical Vegan's post on the subject.