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, google.ru 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.

Conclusion

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?”

33 comments:

  1. Sigh. You should do more research. Soy is not fed, at least in any quantity, to breeding animals in the US. Why? Because it affects their fertility. It costs about $400 to keep a cow for a year. Her calf will sell for about $500, depending on age, weight, market, etc. If she misses having a calf for one year, it's a tough deal for the rancher. So he doesn't feed much soy, if any, to his cow herd.

    And, no, most soy is NOT fed to animals. Soy MEAL is fed in the feedlots. That's what's left over after the oil is pressed out of the bean. Today Argentina is moving their huge cow herds into feedlots (as opposed to grass feeding) so they can plow up the pampas and plant soy. Not to feed cows,s but to feed China and vegetarians everywhere.

    I'm really disappointed with this article. I hope you can do better in the future.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, this is true for Farmers in the U.S. But be careful, humans consume a wide variety of soy products, especially vegetarians and vegans.

      Delete
    2. I do not know where you got this information on livestock feeding in the US, but I would suggest a more careful analysis of what Is fed to beef cattle, dairy cattle, and pigs in the U.S. and by those countries that import soy from the U.S. (and elsewhere). Animals have been fed different diets at different stages of live/production since long before GE crops came on the scene. I would suggest that perhaps the commenter might look at the farm animal most similar to humans, the pig, and see what they are fed - they get lots soybean meal, including Breeding animals. (I have a PhD in livestock nutrition)

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    3. All you need to do is google "soy in animal feed" to find over a hundred pages of references to the us of soy as a primary source of feed to US animals. If GMO soy made animals sterile then most US bulls would be shooting blanks by now.

      Delete
  2. Good investigative work here!

    ReplyDelete
  3. "Sigh. You should do more research. Soy is not fed, at least in any quantity, to breeding animals in the US."

    If you are going to make such a claim please provide a reference.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Why? You didn't. You just claimed soy is fed to them and you didn't cite any sources.

      PeTA, by the way, doesn't count.

      Delete
  4. Thanks for finding this study. I was wondering the same thing. What I'm really wondering is why aren't more studies being done. I know Monsanto is blocking access to their seeds, according to Scientific American magazine! This seems like very basic science, and you make a good point- have groups of hamsters instead of one per food type. So why isn't it being done?

    Apparently there are a LOT of problems with GM fed herds, including sterility- see below. Since most of the herd are slaughtered while still young and most don't reproduce, your reasoning is suspect as well, scientifically speaking.

    http://www.i-sis.org.uk/newPathogenInRoundupReadyGMCrops.php

    1. “Researcher: Glyphosate (Roundup) or Roundup Ready Crops May Cause Animal Miscarriages”, Jill Richardson, La Vida Locavore, 18 February 2011
    http://www.lavidalocavore.org/diary/4523

    2. “Researcher: Glyphosate (Roundup) or Roundup Ready Crops May Cause Animal Miscarriages”, 18 February 2011, http://farmandranchfreedom.org/gmo-miscarriages

    ReplyDelete
  5. Bob: Not great sources. The primary source they refer to seems to be an open letter written by one guy. The letter itself refers to seemingly unpublished findings by an unnamed team of scientists. The claims being made in the letter are extraordinary (e.g., a new kind of life form), but also rather vague (e.g., no substantial description of this apparent new organism).

    Based on what I've read in the letter, I'd have to suspend judgment until better information is available. I'm no fan of Monsanto but I'm also not a fan of building arguments on shaky foundations.

    ReplyDelete
  6. bob Klein, I'm sorry but you are reading very misleading sources. Dr Huber's work is not published in a peer reviewed journal nor is he making his data available for examination. His claim as Anna pointed out is quite extraordinary, a fungus the size of a virus!? To folks that know much about biology that's a bit hard to believe. Additionally Huber's claims raise suspicion for a number of other reasons. I highly suggest you do some further reading on this particular topic.

    Extraordinary claims… require extraordinary evidence. by Anastasia Bodnar
    http://www.biofortified.org/2011/02/extraordinary-claims%E2%80%A6-require-extraordinary-evidence/
    &
    http://www.biofortified.org/2011/02/does-glyphosate-restrict-crop-mineral-uptake/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That would be the same Anastasia Bodnar who uses a clearly altered (passage from the Introduction cut and paste word for word near the end) study on cows (4 chamber ruminant digestive system) to 'prove' the safety of GM maize for humans.

      Delete
  7. Thanks for putting in the hard yards tracking down the paper, skepticalvegan. As a practicing evolutionary biologist as well as an ethical vegan I sometimes feel a bit isolated/exasperated from/by both cultures, though especially the vegan and animals rights communities which i wish i could feel comfortable hanging my hat in more often

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  8. Very interesting post on soy Animal Feed. Very informative!

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  9. More criticism of the study in Russian:

    http://www.bsba.ag/BSBA/Hamsters_and_GMO/Entries/2010/4/26_Day_of_longboarding.html
    http://trv-science.ru/2010/06/22/gmo-i-xomyachki-kaplya-vody-na-raskalennyj-kamen/
    http://velta-1.livejournal.com/47134.html

    I should add that the study was not peer reviewed and was done by anti-GM association (http://www.oagb.ru/about.php?txt_id=724)

    ReplyDelete
  10. To add to your research tips: If you can't access a scientific article online, try sending a quick email to one of the authors asking for a PDF. No need to explain who you are or why you are interested, a one sentence polite request is all you need. The Pubmed abstract will typically have an email address for one of the authors.

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  11. I am a college student writing a research paper on GMOs and want to thank you for tracking down the information about this study. I personally am not a supporter of GMOs but I wanted to find the actual study to cite in my paper and could not find any articles that actually cited it. I thought it odd that none of the articles had a direct link to it which made me wonder about its credibility.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I wonder if "skeptics" might stop for just one moment and think about these factors:

    1. If you are not a credentialed scientist who customarily conducts research programs, taking data which is then statistically analyzed, falsified, and then used in forming an hypothesis, followed by peer review, then HOW DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING AT ALL ABOUT ANY OF THIS SITUATION?

    2. If your specialty is not a related biological research study, then HOW DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING MEANINGFUL ONE WAY OR THE OTHER about this issue?

    3. If you are not trained in statistics, then HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT STATISTICAL METHOD HAS BEEN USED IN *ANY* STUDY pro or con; AND HOW DO YOU KNOW A WAY TO EVALUATE THE STATISTICAL CONCLUSIONS?

    4. If you "believe" that a study made on behalf of an interest group is, by definition, invalid, then does that mean that most studies that relate cigarette smoking to cancer are invalid? Should you then believe ONLY the studies made by cigarette companies? If 'interest groups create only bogus studies favoring their point of view' then how to do FIND ANY STUDY that isn't related to an 'interest group'?

    5. Has "Vegan Skeptic" been graced with a special dispensation for knowing to a level of objective scientific certainty that you may rely on "peer review" to determine the validity of a study? (Hint: remember eugenics? Phrenology? N-rays? These were 'peer reviewed' in their day. We laugh at them now.)

    Steve W. 'skeptical of skeptics'

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I rather think the term "vegan skeptic" is an oxymoron anyway. If you're a thinker and you managed to conclude that going vegan is in any way a good idea... you're not thinking hard enough.

      Factory farm CAFO animal abuse blah blah blah. There are solutions to those problems that don't involve veganism. Who's pursuing those solutions? The meat-eaters... the vegans just sit back and rant about the oppressiveness of it all.

      Over it.

      Delete
  13. Dear Steve W.

    Statistics is no magic: you study statistics, you understand statistics.

    You cannot call yourself a skeptic by any means: attend courses, buy books, train yourself, look for the sources, carefully analyze them... so you can finally find yourself.

    That's what a REAL skeptic does, it's much harder than just trolling around criticizing other people. It's not about "believing", it' about "knowing".

    ReplyDelete
  14. http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.htm

    Have you seen this study?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The authors of that study, which did not show actual toxic effects, acknowledge that the "signs of hepatorenal toxicity [are] possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn."

      In other words, each of the GMO corn varieties fed to the test rats are assumed to contain pesticide residue (RoundUp or Bt, depending on the feed variety), which is the most significant possible agent of toxic signs mentioned in the article. Unfortunately, the amount of residual pesticides in the feedstock was not included in the experimental data.

      The best that study can say about the effects of the actual genetic modification per-se of the feedstock on the test results is that they "cannot be excluded."

      Delete
    2. The plants are genelticty modified to resist pesticides.
      Even though the pesticides are not part of the plant, they go hand and hand.
      What is the point of planting a GMO crop if it's not sprayed with chemicals?
      To exclude pesticides from the equation would be cheating reality.

      Delete
    3. Because eliminating the pesticide from the corn BEFORE feeding it is an alternative....it has nothing to do with JUST the corn.

      Delete
  15. Note that the work of Irina Ermakova (mentioned in http://trv-science.ru/2010/06/22/gmo-i-xomyachki-kaplya-vody-na-raskalennyj-kamen/ ) can be found here:

    http://www.oeko.de/oekodoc/277/2006-002-en.pdf

    http://www.science-education.ru/pdf/2009/5/2.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  16. If you "believe" that a study made on behalf of an interest group is, by definition, invalid, then does that also mean that studies that show GMOs are "safe" are also invalid? For example for the Monsanto's Roundup-ready corn there is only one study and it is conducted by ............................... surprise: Monsanto! ;)

    ReplyDelete
  17. As a general comment to the article I'd like to add, that I was trying to find the paper that cited so many times. I haven't found it (I should check the Russian sites), but I found the paper that Surov wrote. This is an article (in Dokl Biol Sci. 2010 Mar-Apr;431:117-20., PMID: 20506849) about the ectopically grown hair in oral cavilty of rodent. In discussion he mentioned that the presence of hair might be connected with GMO or pesticides. For me the conclusion is unreliable. I think the effect of chemicals on hair grown should be analysed in population of rats/mice or hamster taht lives freele in the area that is chemically devastated.
    One more comment as far we're not eating rodents this study is giving us very little info about how soya fed GMO affect fertility in livestock.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Lab animals are all identical and inbreed for many many generations, this is done to avoid any genetic differences between them when doing experiments. ALL lab hamsters, mice, rats and inbreed to begin with and are genetically absolutely identical!
    I know this as I am a scientist myself.

    ReplyDelete
  19. @Anonymous, the only way sexually reproducing animals are likely to be genetically identical is if they are identical twins or if they are clones, no matter how much inbreeding has occurred. It is theoretically possible for 2 genetically identical individuals to occur through random mating, but the odds are astronomically high against it. There is no way large numbers of genetically identical animals could be provided for experimentation except by cloning. Highly similar animals, yes, but not identical.

    ReplyDelete
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  22. This is absolutely perfect, Vegan Skeptic. This is exactly the kind of information one is looking for when getting suspicious because a study is spinning around on suspect sites. Just search Séralini or Seneff (S&S) and you get buried in spins. I one's query for serious research data a few indicators are helpful. When a study is being refered to by Jeffrey Smith of Dr. Huber, you are quite safe to suppose that something is wrong. A biologist and toxicologist myself, I was amazed about the texts from S&S, especially their vicissitudes in the scientific realm. Eventually, I developed the S&S test. If a pubilicist refers to one of them without serious reservations, he either 1. did not do his homework, 2. does not understand the studies, or 3. tries to fool the reader. Often a combination of the three. From now on the test will be named TripleS. And for the information of the staunch AntiGMs: I am an Anti myself. But not for the same reason as the believers in the TripleS data. GMOs are very much restricted in Europe and this should not change. The reason being that no sexually propagating GM crop can be contained. The risk factor of irreversible contamination by these GM traits is 1 (= 100% risk). Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Bayer and BASF still have to come forward with a mitigation plan. There is none.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I would very much like to contact Mr. Alexey Surov, either on email or telephone, if he is available and able to communicate in English. I need to learn what he studied and what he found, with regard to GM soy and the potential health and environmental hazard that might be linked to it.

    Appreciate any help in contacting him
    Thanks
    Tony Mitra

    ReplyDelete