Genetically modified (GM) peas under development created immune responses in mice, suggesting that they may also create serious allergic reactions in people. The peas had been inserted with a gene from kidney beans, which creates a protein that acts as a pesticide. When this protein is produced naturally in beans, it does not elicit a response from mice. When produced in the GM peas, however, it did cause a reaction. Using sensitive testing methods, scientists discovered subtle differences between the bean and the GM proteins - the added sugar chains were slightly different. They speculate that this difference caused the immune reactions. Based on the results of the study, the Australian developers abandoned their 10-year, $2 million project.
This study reveals serious and potentially deadly flaws in the regulations and assessments used to approve GM foods. GM crops on the market, like corn and soybeans, were never tested for immune responses using animals and never subjected to a similar analysis of their proteins. Thus, the transgenic proteins in GM foods may have subtle undetected differences that are causing health problems. It is sobering to note that if the GM peas were tested with only the methods used on soy and corn, it likely would have been approved as well.
The approvals of genetically modified (GM) food are largely based on four pillars. The first is the reliance on a long list of assumptions about food safety. Unfortunately, these assumptions are principally based on what was known about genetics 40 years ago, and many have been overturned.
The second pillar is that safety research on GM foods is primarily controlled by industry. Much of it is secret, and the few studies that have been made public are largely superficial—designed not to contradict the assumptions.
The third pillar is an ineffective regulatory system, often hijacked by people with close ties to industry. They accept unscientific assumptions and poor research, and ignore adverse findings.
The fourth pillar is spin - merciless, relentless, in-your-face spin - that magically flips facts to proclaim their opposite. Examples are forthcoming.
On November 17, those pillars took a considerable beating. GM peas under development were evaluated by tests normally applied to medicine—not to GM food. The peas created a dangerous immune response in mice which, if found in humans, might be life threatening. The 10-year pea project, costing over $2 million dollars (US), was abandoned. If those same peas had been evaluated with tests used for other GM crops, however, they could have sailed through the approval process anywhere in the world.
The peas were developed by Australian scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) to assist the country’s $100 million pea harvest. They targeted the pea weevil, a pest that takes a hefty bite—up to 30%—out of yields. But if weevil larvae were to bite a GM pea plant, they would starve to death. That’s because the pea contains a protein called alpha-amylase inhibitor, an anti-nutrient that interferes with the bugs’ digestion. That protein is produced from a gene normally found in "common" (kidney) beans and when fully cooked is safe for humans. Scientists spliced the gene into peas, figuring it would be safe there as well.