Delving into the questions raised by ‘GMO OMG’

While scientists debate studies examining health effects of GMOs, film director argues for awareness, community-building

Jeremy Siefert at a GMO corn field
Photo by Rod Hassler

Genetically modified corn could contribute to cancer in test rats, according to a controversial two-year study currently dividing scientists, media and politicians as they try to determine what that could mean to the genetically engineered food industry and public safety.

“Most people are eating GMOs [genetically modified organisms] every day and most people don’t even know what it is,” says Jeremy Seifert, co-director of the documentary film GMO OMG. “And I think there’s something at the very core of our being that’s disturbing about that, that we’ve been kept in the dark or duped. When you find out the backstory of that, that there’s no special testing or labeling, and that there’s government collusion in those decisions, I think that’s why this film is important.”

GMO OMG, which falls somewhere between investigative journalism and a quirky children’s bedtime story, takes a critical approach to GMOs and the global food system through the lenses of Seifert’s children, congressmen and scientific studies that have just begun to scratch the surface of the effects of GMOs on human health. In many ways, the film opens up more questions than answers regarding GMOs, but awareness and the ability to make people ask questions about GMOs are what Seifert and the film’s producer, Joshua Kunau, set out to accomplish.

The lack of public awareness is clear, as the two filmmakers take to the streets, Jay Walking style, to ask dumbfounded strangers if they know what GMOs are, and to highlight the amount of money corporations are spending to misinform the public during state proposition elections. In California, for example, Monsanto made $8,112,867 in contributions against that state’s GMO labeling proposition last year, according to campaign finance tracker

There has been ongoing research by both corporations like Monsanto and non-partisan organizations regarding the health consequences of GMOs. But how honest is GMO OMG in using that research?

A study cited in the film that found rats fed with Monsanto’s GMO corn developed more tumors and died earlier than rats in a control group has received heavy criticism from journalists and the scientific community. Led by Gilles-Eric Séralini and published in Food and Chemical Toxicology last year, the study also found that rats developed tumors when their drinking water was spiked with glyphosate, the basis for the Round Up herbicide often used with the GM maize. Across much of the media, Seifert has been more or less discredited for including Séralini’s findings in his film.

Declan Butler of Nature criticizes Séralini’s study because it used sample sizes of 10 rats each for controls and treated rats, which allows for no significant difference or statistical value between the groups. Another complication is that the type of rats used in the study are already highly susceptible to tumors.

As a result, the national academies of agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, sciences, technology and veterinary studies in France issued a joint statement denouncing Séralini’s study.

“Given the numerous gaps in methods and interpretation, the data presented in this article cannot challenge previous studies which have concluded that NK603 corn is harmless from the health point of view,” said the academies’ joint statement.

Seifert brushes off criticism for including Séralini’s study in GMO OMG.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “In the film we say, ‘Hey, there might be problems with Séralini’s studies and real criticisms.’ But, should it just be hastily dismissed? This guy’s a fraud, this guy’s an idiot? It was published in an renowned international peer-reviewed journal. So we need to pause and understand the only way to scientifically disprove that [study] is to repeat it and find different results.”

Serelini’s study was in response to an equally controversial study Monsanto published in Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal in 2004. Monsanto also studied the effects of Round Up ready GMO corn consumption in rats. Monsanto’s study used twice the number (20) of the same rats as Séralini’s study, but only looked at a very short timeframe of 13 weeks, rather than two years. Monsanto’s study found no negative impact from its rats eating its GMO corn during this period.

“What’s amazing about [Serelini’s] study, is he took Monsanto’s three-month study and added to it,” says Kunau. “He replicated it for two years — for the entire life of the rat — and everyone attacked him for it. People attack us for using it in the film for showing that, and all we say in the film is ‘What if he’s just partly right? Isn’t that cause enough to go, whoa, there could be a problem?’”

The European Union has put forward a call and $3 million worth of grants for researchers willing to attempt to replicate and improve upon the two-year study of the toxicity of GMO corn. Perhaps as results from this future study come in over the next several years, more light may be shed on the issue.

Seifert says people need to become more aware and build a community to act on that awareness.

“We all have different gifts and skills and talents, and we need to wake up and take our steps and do what we feel is right, and keep pushing and pushing. And [we] aren’t just isolated individuals, … We are connected in community,” says Seifert. “It’s awareness first, then having the community to act.”