June 25, 1999
We are writing in regard to the article, "Experts take Biotech Critic to Task over Soybean Study," by Robert Steyer. The American Soybean Association (ASA) is going to lengths to make sure the soybean continues to achieve its status of miracle food. The soybean has been making headlines because it contains estrogen-like substances (phytoestrogens) thought to protect against breast cancer, osteoporosis, and heart disease. Of particular concern to our organization is that the soybean is being genetically altered to contain genes it otherwise would never contain, allowing the bean to withstand the overspray of Roundup herbicide. The beans we researched were Monsanto isogenically matched Roundup Ready varieties.
We thought it important for an independent organization to test Monsanto genetically altered soybeans for a few reasons. First of all, the studies submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for demonstrating the safety of genetically altered, Roundup Ready soybeans were conducted by Monsanto scientists and by direct association could lead to a conflict of interest. Secondly, we discovered that the tests they conducted on phytoestrogen levels were on unsprayed soybeans. In other words, the genetically engineered beans were not those typically found on supermarket shelves. The point of engineering soybeans to resist Roundup is that they are typically sprayed at least twice in a season with high doses of Roundup. As an organization critiquing the conversion and introduction of bioengineered byproducts into our food system, we found it ethically important to independently study and test the sprayed Roundup Ready varieties.
The results of our peer-reviewed research, "Alterations in Clinically Important Phytoestrogens in Genetically Modified Herbicide-Tolerant Soybeans", to be published in the Journal of Medicinal Foods (Vol. 1, No. 4 in press), found a significant reduction in phytoestrogen levels of 12-14% in the genetically altered soybean strains. Significant sample to sample variability in two key biologically active components, genistin and daidzin, was evident in the two genetically altered Roundup Ready soybeans while the conventional varieties did not display as wide a variation.
While we shared our data months ago with Monsanto, its scientists prepared a paper for a potential simultaneous publication date. Monsanto's study to be published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (in press) claims the levels of isoflavones treated with glyphosate are "comparable to the parental soybean cultivar, and other conventional soybeans." We understand Monsanto found widely varying levels of isoflavones. We are also cognizant of the possibility that Monsanto's scientists used methods of extraction which are outdated. We understand the older methods of extraction have been replaced by newer methods which militate against the vast variations found in previous studies. The soybean's phytoestrogens used in our research were extracted using the new methods.
The American Soybean Association's website quotes many leading experts including Dr. Clare Hasler and Dr. Don Bullock. They state the levels of variation are well within the limits expected between soybean varieties. Dr. Hasler says, "isoflavone amounts in soybeans can vary as much as 300 percent or more." Dr. Bullock adds that soybeans vary in levels of phytoestrogens because of environmental factors, "such as weather during the growing season and even the slope of the field where the soybeans are grown". But the soybeans we tested were marketed as identical with the exception of an additional gene making it resist Roundup. The soybeans used in our research were grown in similar soil temperatures and climates.
While our independent tests found varying levels of phytoestrogens Monsanto scientists and other experts have been finding for years, we also discovered the ASA and others have been touting a product which according to them contains significantly unstable levels of plant estrogens. This point in and of itself warrants intensive investigation and research to assure that consumers do not receive products with widely varying levels of phytoestrogens. We are further concerned that the ASA and others find it perfectly suitable to push the Food and Drug Administration to allow the addition of health claims on soy products asserting protections against life threatening diseases while having full knowledge of the varying phytoestrogen levels present in soy and its products.
We have always believed in transparency of our work and were disappointed Monsanto scientists did not share their results with us. We believe the work we have conducted is an "initial" study and we would like to do more testing. Unfortunately, we are no longer privy to obtaining Monsanto's seeds. We were directly told by Hartz seed company (a wholly owned subsidiary of Monsanto) representative who graciously supplied us with seed for our initial study, that he was told he could no longer provide us with seed samples. Even if we were to obtain seeds the chances of finding isogenically matched varieties is becoming increasingly more difficult. When we contacted Hartz a few months ago, we were told there were 23 varieties of Roundup Ready soybeans and only 8 varieties of conventional. Even if we wanted to move beyond our 2 variety- triplicate testing, we would not be able to expand our research beyond the levels of seed available.
The FDA has allowed for the commercialization of Roundup Ready soybeans under the assumption that genetically altered soybeans were not significantly different than conventional counterparts. We found significant differences. At a minimum there should be disclosures of the origins and isoflavone composition of soy products, as well as further independent research to establish expected baselines of phytoestrogens in transgenic and conventional soy products and byproducts.
Instead of recognizing the critical importance of uncovering the basis of this extraordinary variability in the soybean, the ASA has apparently gone to extreme lengths to challenge our findings.
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Last Updated on 6/26/99
By Karen Lutz