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Long-term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize

The authors test for long-term toxicity of Roundup Herbicide and Roundup-tolerant GM maize.

Gilles-Eric Séralini

Emilie Clair, Robin Mesnage, Steeve Gress, Nicolas Defarge, Manuela Malatesta, Didier Hennequin and Joël Spiroux de Vendômois

Background

The health effects of a Roundup-tolerant NK603 genetically modified (GM) maize (from 11% in the diet), cultivated with or without Roundup application and Roundup alone (from 0.1 ppb of the full pesticide containing glyphosate and adjuvants) in drinking water, were evaluated for 2 years in rats. This study constitutes a follow-up investigation of a 90-day feeding study conducted by Monsanto in order to obtain commercial release of this GMO, employing the same rat strain and analyzing biochemical parameters on the same number of animals per group as our investigation. Our research represents the first chronic study on these substances, in which all observations including tumors are reported chronologically. Thus, it was not designed as a carcinogenicity study. We report the major findings with 34 organs observed and 56 parameters analyzed at 11 time points for most organs.

Results

Biochemical analyses confirmed very significant chronic kidney deficiencies, for all treatments and both sexes; 76% of the altered parameters were kidney-related. In treated males, liver congestions and necrosis were 2.5 to 5.5 times higher. Marked and severe nephropathies were also generally 1.3 to 2.3 times greater. In females, all treatment groups showed a two- to threefold increase in mortality, and deaths were earlier. This difference was also evident in three male groups fed with GM maize. All results were hormone- and sex-dependent, and the pathological profiles were comparable. Females developed large mammary tumors more frequently and before controls; the pituitary was the second most disabled organ; the sex hormonal balance was modified by consumption of GM maize and Roundup treatments. Males presented up to four times more large palpable tumors starting 600 days earlier than in the control group, in which only one tumor was noted. These results may be explained by not only the non-linear endocrine-disrupting effects of Roundup but also by the overexpression of the EPSPS transgene or other mutational effects in the GM maize and their metabolic consequences.

Conclusion

Our findings imply that long-term (2 year) feeding trials need to be conducted to thoroughly evaluate the safety of GM foods and pesticides in their full commercial formulations.

Keywords

Genetically modifiedGMORoundupNK603RatGlyphosate-based herbicidesEndocrine disruption

Empirical natural and social sciences produce knowledge (in German: Wissenschaften schaffen Wissen) which should describe and explain past and present phenomena and estimate their future development. To this end quantitative methods are used. Progress in science needs controversial debates aiming at the best methods as basis for objective, reliable and valid results approximating what could be the truth. Such methodological competition is the energy needed for scientific progress. In this sense, ESEU aims to enable rational discussions dealing with the article from G.-E. Séralini et al. (Food Chem. Toxicol. 2012, 50:4221–4231) by re-publishing it. By doing so, any kind of appraisal of the paper’s content should not be connoted. The only aim is to enable scientific transparency and, based on this, a discussion which does not hide but aims to focus methodological controversies. -Winfried Schröder, Editor of the Thematic Series “Implications for GMO-cultivation and monitoring” in Environmental Sciences Europe.

1 Background

There is an ongoing international debate as to the necessary length of mammalian toxicity studies, including metabolic analyses, in relation to the consumption of genetically modified (GM) plants [1]. Currently, no regulatory authority requires mandatory chronic animal feeding studies to be performed for edible genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or even short-term studies with blood analyses for the full commercial formulations of pesticides as sold and used, but only for the declared active principle alone. However, several 90-day rat feeding trials have been conducted by the agricultural biotechnology industry. These investigations mostly concern GM soy and maize that are engineered either to be herbicide-tolerant (to Roundup (R) in 80% of cases), or to produce a modified Bt toxin insecticide, or both. As a result, these GM crops contain new pesticide residues for which new maximum residue levels (MRL) have been established in some countries.

Though the petitioners conclude in general that no major physiological changes is attributable to the consumption of the GMO in subchronic toxicity studies [2, 3, 4, 5], significant disturbances have been found and may be interpreted differently [6,7]. A detailed analysis of the data in the subchronic toxicity studies [2, 3, 4, 5] has revealed statistically significant alterations in kidney and liver function that may constitute signs of the early onset of chronic toxicity. This may be explained at least in part by pesticide residues in the GM feed [6,7]. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that R concentrations in the range of 103 times below the MRL can induce endocrine disturbances in human cells [8] and toxic effects thereafter [9]. This may explain toxic effects seen in experiments in rats in vivo [10] as well as in farm animals [11]. After several months of consumption of an R-tolerant soy, the liver and pancreas of mice were affected, as highlighted by disturbances in sub-nuclear structure [12, 13, 14]. Furthermore, this toxic effect was reproduced by the application of R herbicide directly to hepatocytes in culture [15].

More recently, long-term and multi-generational animal feeding trials have been performed, with some possibly providing evidence of safety, while others conclude on the necessity of further investigation because of metabolic modifications [16]. However, in contrast with the study we report here, none of these previous investigations have included a detailed follow-up of the animals, including multiple (up to 11) blood and urine sampling over 2 years, and none has investigated either the GM NK603 R-tolerant maize or Roundup.

Furthermore, evaluation of long-term toxicity of herbicides is generally performed on mammalian physiology employing only their active principle, rather than the complete formulations as used in agriculture. This was the case for glyphosate (G) [17], the declared active chemical constituent of R. It is important to note that G is only able to efficiently penetrate target plant organisms with the help of adjuvants present in the various commercially used R formulations [18]. Even if G has shown to interact directly with the active site of aromatase at high levels [19], at low contaminating levels, adjuvants may be better candidates than G to explain the toxicity or endocrine disruptive side effects of R on human cells [8,20] and also in vivo for acute toxicity [21]. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the far greater toxicity of full agricultural formulations compared to declared supposed active principles alone has recently been demonstrated also for six other major pesticides tested in vitro [22]. When G residues are found in tap water, food, or feed, they arise from the total herbicide formulation although little data is available as to the levels of the R adjuvants in either the environment or food chain. Indeed, adjuvants are rarely monitored in the environment, but some widely used adjuvants (surfactants) such as nonylphenol ethoxylates, another ethoxylated surfactant like POEA present in R, are widely found in rivers in England and are linked with disruption of wildlife sexual reproduction [23]. Adjuvants are found in groundwater [24]. The half-life of POEA (21 to 42 days) is even longer than for G (7 to 14 days) in aquatic environments [25]. As a result, the necessity of studying the potential toxic effects of total chemical mixtures rather than single components has been strongly emphasized [26, 27, 28]. On this basis, the regular measurement of only G or other supposed active ingredients of pesticides in the environment constitute at best markers of full formulation residues. Thus, in the study of health effects, exposure to the diluted whole formulation may be more representative of environmental pollution than exposure to G alone.

With a view to address this lack of information, we performed a 2-year detailed rat feeding study. Our study was designed as a chronic toxicity study and as a direct follow-up to a previous investigation on the same NK603 GM maize conducted by the developer company, Monsanto [3]. A detailed critical analysis of the raw data of this subchronic 90-day rat feeding study revealed statistically significant differences in multiple organ function parameters, especially pertaining to the liver and kidneys, between the GM and non-GM maize-fed group [3,7]. However, Monsanto’s authors dismissed the findings as not ‘biologically meaningful’ [3], as was also the case with another GM corn [29]. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) accepted Monsanto’s interpretation on NK603 maize [30], like in all other cases.

Our study is the first and to date the only attempt to follow up Monsanto’s investigation and to determine whether the differences found in the NK603 GM maize-fed rats, especially with respect to liver and kidney function, were not biologically meaningful, as claimed, or whether they developed into serious diseases over an extended period of time.

The Monsanto authors adapted Guideline 408 of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for their experimental design [3]. Our study design was based on that of the Monsanto investigation in order to make the two experiments comparable, but we extended the period of observation from Monsanto’s 90 days to 2 years. We also used three doses of GMOs (instead of Monsanto’s two) and Roundup to determine treatment dose response, including any possible non-linear as well as linear effects. This allowed us to follow in detail the potential health effects and their possible origins due to the direct or indirect consequences of the genetic modification itself in the NK603 GM maize, or due to the R herbicide formulation used on the GM maize (and not G alone), or both. Because of recent reviews on GM foods indicating no specific risk of cancer [2,16], but indicating signs of hepatorenal dysfunction within 3 months [1,7], we had no reason to adopt a carcinogenesis protocol using 50 rats per group. However, we prolonged to 2 years the biochemical and hematological measurements and measurements of disease status, as allowed, for example, in OECD protocols 453 (combined chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity) and 452 (chronic toxicity). Both OECD 452 and 453 specify 20 rats per sex per group but require only 50% (ten per sex per group, the same number that we used in total) to be analyzed for biochemical and hematological parameters. Thus, these protocols yield data from the same number of rats as our experiment. This remains the highest number of rats regularly measured in a standard GM diet study, as well as for a full formulated pesticide at very low environmentally relevant levels.

About the author

Gilles-Eric Séralini

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