French researcher refuses to release findings for EU verification, but the Russians are worried enough to put brakes on Monsanto’s GM crop NK603

Russia yesterday suspended the import and sale of Monsanto’s genetically modified NK603 corn while  it reviews the latest research information on the product’s safety. Scientists at Russia’s Institute of Nutrition have been asked to review in particular a recent French study which raised questions about the long-term effect of NK 603 corn on rats.

A week ago, the French  study showed that rats fed on the corn strain suffered mammary tumors, and severe liver and kidney damage at double the rate of rats in a matched sample fed natural corn – 50% of males and 70% of females died prematurely, compared to 30% and 20% in the control group. Although the study is tainted by the person in charge – Gilles-Eric Seralini – being violently anti-Monsanto, the data would seem at first sight to be compelling: either Gilles-Eric has engaged in wholesale fiddling of the results, or there is a serious potential problem with NK603.

However, one East European and one French source suggested to me last night that there were only ten rats in the control group. If true, then that’s a near homoaeopathic sample size. But we must wait to see the raw data in full: it wouldn’t be the first time that Monsanto had planted black disinformation such as this into the blogosphere.

The Russians aren’t renowned for being good on the detail of safety. Chernobyl stands as a memorial to that obvious fact, and the cavalier attitude of its culture remains intact to this day. The extremely dodgy and fractious joint venture between ExxonMobil and Rosneft to exploit oil reserves under the Arctic sea was given a gung-ho-go-ahead earlier this week to crack on with the project, deftly sidestepping environmental groups who had called for a clean-up prior to exploration of the area. The site – in the Kara Sea off Russia’s northern coast – was for many years the dustbin of choice for a USSR using its navy to dump ageing, leaky nuclear reactors, and a staggering 17,000 drums of radioactive waste.

But now, this huge country – dependent on grain for survival and exports – has abruptly pulled the plug on the use of a biochemical GM product that could solve many of its problems. My commonsense reaction is, therefore, that they too think there might be a whopping NK603 problem too.

They’re not alone. Although the Canadian government airily gave the strain a clean bill of health eleven years ago, Europeans are not so sure: last Thursday, Austrian agriculture minister Niki Berlakovich called on the European Commission to review its approval process for GM food.

However, as ever when there are potential consequences to be assessed, the motherlovers on Wall Street are keen as mustard to dismiss any and all tentative frontal-lobe thinking – in favour of Goforit: Goldman Sachs’ response to the evidence of rat-organ damage was to upgrade Monsanto shares, a move that saw the company’s stock price power ahead by 2.8% on the day (September 19th). “Monsanto’s doing a lot of things right,” OptionMonster’s Jon Najarian told CNBC  the same afternoon. Perhaps not if you’re a rat, Jonny baby.

What’s the real issue here?

GM crops represent a subject not unlike the case for and against ‘man-made’ global warming. On one side sits an axis of the usual fluffy suspects – from Prince Charles to organically unmodified vegans – suggesting that the development of genetically mutated grains is dangerous and reckless for any number of ecological and health reasons; on the other stands a Top Ten Forbes company weilding enormous power, and attracting the best political support that money can buy. In the middle are the remaining 94% called The Rest of Us – who are anything from sceptical to bored.

Monsanto wasn’t the first to genetically modify a plant cell, but it was the first outfit to bring into agriculture the now standard biotechnology industry business model. Under this, Big M has forced through long-term patents, and dismissed the customary practices of farmers to save, reuse, share and develop plant varieties as backstops against catastrophic strain death, unprecedented bug attacks and so forth. Monsanto’s unremittingly aggressive approach to litigation, its seed commercialisation practices, and its history as a chemical company, have made it widely hated. This isn’t entirely Greenpeace nuttery: lest we forget, these are the beautiful people who gave us DDT, Agent Orange, and of course Roundup.

So I became concerned when I noted at the weekend that the collateral marketing materials from Monsanto were branding NK603 as ‘Roundup Ready’: that’s to say, mutated to ensure complete resistance to the weedkiller. You can kind of discern a double sales-bonus for Monsanto in all this; you can also be assured that NK603 (already casting doubts throughout the international farming community) will itself be pounded with Roundup throughout its growing season. Let’s hope those washing products employed by cereal manufacturers are effective. (For all I know, they’re made by Monsanto too).

I can’t tell you much about Roundup beyond the fact that if you have pets, it would be sound policy to keep them indoors while applying the product to those pesky weeds. Even agro-retailers look frightened when you suggest indiscriminate use of Roundup with little terriers running free and sampling everything in the garden.

In short, the summation here is that ensuring continuity of reasonable grains for the human race, and health concerns in relation to chemical fertilisers being sprayed with abandon onto a potentially carcinogenic GM mutation, are at least worth a temporary production halt while further investigations can get under way.

What’s the broader issue?

Not being scientific myself (beyond a keen layman interest in physics and neuroscience), the only two parts of the GM debate that cause me occasional anxiety are first, the statistics on whether we actually need to use GM in the first place; and second, the track record of the Men from Monsanto. Neither inspire me to believe that the risk here is worth taking until we have seen some considerably more categorical evidence.

I’d like in the near future to return to those subjects in more detail. For today, I merely register, as an objective observer, is that this whole episode has an air of “never mind those big doubts, feel that bottom line” about it.

Earlier at The Slog: The mind-boggling hypocrisy of Shell