Dr. Irina Ermakova
Dr. Irina Ermakova of the Russian Academy of Sciences recently released a study reporting higher mortality rates and lower body weight among young rats whose mothers were fed a diet of herbicide resistant, genetically modified soybeans. According to experts at the British Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, a serious review of the study is not possible until more experimental data is made available. In addition, the study’s findings go against reviewed scientific studies that have refuted negative health effects.
At a conference for the Russian National Association for Genetic Security (NAGS) in October 2005, a Russian research team shared preliminary results on the effect of genetically modified soybeans on rats and their offspring. The team led by Dr. Irina Ermakova at the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology of the Russian Academy of Sciences found that the mortality rate of the offspring of rats fed genetically modified soy flour was six times higher than that of rats raised with feed from conventional soy. In addition, the surviving offspring of rats fed GM soy had significantly lower bodyweight compared to control groups. Dr. Ermakova claims her findings raise serious concerns regarding possible health risks to humans.
The media propagated Ermakova’s claims. The Russian newspaper Pravda predicted sinking life expectancy for consumers because of genetically modified soy. The Daily Mail in Great Britain warned of dangers for unborn babies.
There is no question that such findings merit close attention. Dr. Ermakova’s research looked at a genetically modified soybean cultivar from Monsanto that has been grown commercially in the United States since 1996 and is now also grown in Brazil and Argentina. It is used to produce ingredients and additives found in many processed food products. Approximately 60 percent of the world’s soybean production is genetically modified.
An adequate assessment of the study and its implicated negative effects on consumers is only possible if details on methodology and results are made available. For this reason, a comprehensive review of Dr. Ermakova’s findings has not yet been possible.
According to Dr. Ermakova, the smaller rat's mother was fed GM soy. The larger rat was purportedly born at the same time, except its mother was fed conventional soy. As of now, no details on the study have been made available.
The study has not yet been published in a recognised scientific journal and has therefore not been subjected to review from other scientists. The peer-reviewing process is considered essential for ensuring that published scientific findings are based on sound methodology and reliable experimental design.
The Australian scientist Dr. Christopher Preston (University of Adelaide) addressed Dr. Ermakova’s research in an article in AgBioWorld (October 2005). According to Dr. Preston, the data released on the experiment could not withstand a scientific review. He also criticised Ermakova’s approach to communicating her findings. She presented her research at an anti-GMO conference with a strong media presence. By doing this, she publicised her results and avoided subjecting her findings to assessment by the scientific community.
The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP), which is responsible for GMO safety evaluation in Great Britain, also questioned Dr. Ermakova’s findings. They considered the results sketchy and inadequately supported. For example, there is no information about the composition of the rats' diets. Therefore, the possibility of faulty methodology cannot be refuted. The ACNFP issued a statement mentioning a number of possible explanations for Ermakova’s findings having nothing to do with genetically modified soy. One of the possible reasons could be that the test group was given feed containing higher levels of mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are toxic by-products of fungal diseases that sometimes affect soybeans. The ACNFP will consider further details if they can be obtained.
The European Commission asked the European Food Safety Administration (EFSA) to comment on Dr. Ermakova's findings. Like the ACNFP, EFSA's GMO Panel searched for all available information on the study, but could not conclude on the research due to a lack of experimental details.
According to the ACNFP, Dr. Ermakova's findings are inconsistent with a recognised, published research report. At South Dakota State University in the United States, Denise Brake and Dr. Donald Evenson conducted similar feeding studies on mice with GM soybean and published their results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal in 2004. Test animals were fed a diet containing 21% GM soy over the course of four generations. Along with number of offspring, mortality, and bodyweight, test animals were checked for changes in testicle morphology, which is a sensitive indicator of food toxicity. Brake and Evenson’s studies found no negative effects.