Do GMOs accumulate formaldehyde?

Soybeans or edamame

We recently came across this paper by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai and P. Deonikar titled “Do GMOs Acuumulate Formadehyde and Disrupt Molecular Systems Equilibria? Systems Biology May Provide Answers.” We decided that checking the credibility of this paper might make an interesting tutorial in scientific skepticism. To start with, we are only dealing with the evidence presented by the paper, and not any public claims the author has since made.

So let’s take a look at this paper’s claims and pedigree and see how we can decide how seriously to take it. It’s worth undertaking this little exercise, because it seems to indicate the genetically modified plants (in this case soybeans) produce significant levels of formaldehyde, which is at some level toxic, and frankly this seems quite unlikely to have just been discovered now.

Let’s start with some simple questions.

  1. Where was the paper published? In Agricultural Sciences, 2015, 6, 630-662.
  2. Is this a real journal? Let’s see if it is indexed in PubMed. Go to PubMed and click on Journals in the NCBI Databases. Search for “Agricultural Sciences.” Oops, it’s not there.
  3. Does the journal exist? Yes, you can go to Agricultural Sciences web site and find that there are papers published in it. You have to pay a publication fee of $1000.
  4. Does the journal have an impact factor? Impact factor is a measure of the number of citations this journal receives in other journals. This scheme was developed by the Institute for Scientific Information. On such tabulator is CiteFactor, who does not list this journal. The journal’s web site gives a “Google Impact Factor” of 0.77, whichwe are unable verify.
  5. Who is the publisher? Is it a predatory publisher? The publisher is Scientific Research, registered in the state of Delaware, but with a business address in East Lake High-Tech Development Zone, Wuhan 430223, Hubei Province, China. Uh-oh.

To find out if this is a predatory publisher who just collects fees and has little intellectual credibility, check Beall’s list, maintained by librarian Jeffrey Beall at the University of Colorado/Denver. And sure enough, he lists Scientific Research among those predatory publishers.

So we’ve found out a lot about the paper’s standing and credibility without even reading it, except to learn from the title that the author is claiming that “GMOs” contain formaldehyde.

Reading the Paper

The paper is over 30 pages, and few non-experts would plow through the entire thing (we did), but there are some things you can look for pretty quickly. The opening sentence of the introduction gives us a clue to the author’s mindset:

“The safety assessment of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a particularly contentious subject.”

First of all, this is simply not true. After thousands of papers and many thousands of studies, the overall scientific consensus is that crops created using biotechnology are as safe as conventional crops. And the real red flag is the term “GMOs.” No biologist uses this misleading term, because it does not distinguish between the many types of plants that have been created using biotechnology: herbicide resistant, those containing genes to create insecticides (Bt) and those resistant to viruses (like the Rainbow Papaya), and those that resist browning. Further any cross between two plant varieties creates a new plant variety that is genetically modified from the originals.

The author also completely and intentionally confuses the doctrine of “substantial equivalence,” which the OECD clearly says means that if a conventional crop and a GM crop are substantially equivalent, it means that that is the starting point for further testing.

The author’s thesis for this paper is also stated in the introduction:

“However, in the GMO case of soybean, or RRS, there is a significant accumulation of formaldehyde and a concomitant depletion of glutathione…”

We should note that your body always contains some formaldehyde (2-3 µg/ml); it is produced as a normal part of our metabolism. A pear contains 38-60 mg/kg, so finding some in plants is not uncommon. Okay, good, let’s thumb through paper for the data. His Figure 10 shows a curve of formaldehyde increasing in “GMO soybeans” over about 9 days. And the figure caption says

Simulation results of GM of soybean stress on formaldehyde concentration in C1 metabolism model.

Uh-oh, again. This is a simulation of what his computer program believes will happen.  Where’s the data? (quickly thumbing through the remaining pages). There is no data. The author has based his somewhat worrisome health claim on simulations using a computer program he devised. He has done no measurements.

So what’s our conclusion? This is not a very important claim, because the author has not carried out the experiments.  And why hasn’t he? He says on the third page (632) that “it is difficult to acquire source material in an objective and independent manner while maintaining compliance with existing legal constraints on the use of such GMO source material.” This is patently untrue. Every major university has a research license with the major seed companies to carry out this research. And even if the author’s small think tank (International Center for Integrative Systems) does not have such a license, there is nothing to keep him from buying some GM soybeans from any farmer, as long as he doesn’t replant them. And incidentally, there are many, many types of GM soybeans. Which ones is he referring to? He skips over that.

So with this simple evaluation, you can see how to check the credibility of a paper whenever you hear some unlikely claim.

About Shiva Ayyadurai

Well, we got through the paper analysis without discussing the author, who has managed to become the Donald Trump (or maybe Ben Carson) of wild claims. Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai also claims to be the inventor of E-mail, although from his photos he must have aged awfully well to have done that. What he actually did was develop an electronic mail system for the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey when he was a 14-year old student volunteer. This was a really clever piece of work for the time and for his age, and he copyrighted the term “EMAIL” after he did it.  These claims were deconstructed by Gizmodo, who pointed out the Ray Tomlinson was generally given credit for sending the first text message (on Arpanet) in 1971. Boston Magazine also published a skeptical article about this claim.

In order to get even more attention Ayyadurai has challenged Monsanto to “prove GMOs are safe,” offering them a $10 million building in Cambridge as a reward. Actual scientists know that you cannot prove anything safe. You can only look at the accumulating evidence and conclude that there is precious little evidence (actually none) that “GMOs” are harmful. This is just a stunt. And where did he get this building? Perhaps his recent marriage to actress and crackpot  Fran Drescher made this property available? He hasn’t said. However, Amanda Zaluckyj (the Farmer’s Daughter) deconstructed this nonsense pretty well, as did the Genetic Literacy Project.

This last gossip may be entertaining, but the criticism of the paper stands without it. It makes no sense whatever, and you can do this same sort of analysis on any crazy paper you come across.



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