Correlation, Causation and Questions Around the Science of “GMOs”

By Robyn O’Brien

There is a lot of “he said” “she said” science around genetically engineered foods.  And a lot of bullying.  Anyone who steps in to speak on the topic, regardless of which side that they represent, gets quickly slammed and labeled which is ironic as labels are the very thing that the industry is so allergic to.

So do genetically engineered foods cause food allergies?  According to Harvard University and studies conducted on the influence that funding sources have on science, it depends on who you ask.

Back in 2006, when I first saw that the EPA was asking this question (after these foods had already been introduced into our food supply), I looked into the research and reached out to to Venu Gangur, MSU assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, who also is a faculty member in the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center. In 2006, he had made this statement: “Genetically engineered crops are created by inserting a protein from a different organism into the original crop’s genome. This is usually done to create a plant that is more resistant to insects or diseases.  The Food and Agriculture Organization within the World Health Organization has a structured approach to determining whether genetically engineered foods cause allergies. But it has a major flaw. A critical question in that process asks, ‘Does the protein cause an allergic reaction in animals?’ The problem is that there has been no good animal model available to test this.”

In other words, “no evidence of harm” is not the same as “evidence of no harm.”  We do not have the testing methods.

When I then reached out to the largest food allergy organization in the world to address this issue, they had an allergic reaction to me, prompting me to a dig a little deeper into who funded their work and that of their scientists and allergists. In 2006, I found myself in the middle of a story that I really did not want to tell: allergists working for Monsanto and Kraft funding food allergy websites.  The patents granted to the allergist never resulted in a profitable product line, but what it did do is send a red flag up that allergy research was being funded by corporate interests and incomplete at best.

What I quickly learned is that we do not have  tests that tell a parent if her child is allergic to conventional soybeans, the kind  in our food supply for generations, or if her child is allergic to the genetically engineered parts now found in soybeans that were introduced in the late 1990s.  We do not know with any certainty if someone is allergic to corn or to the genetically engineered organisms now found in it because we do not have that level of testing.

We do not have this kind of testing distinction in allergists offices, so there is not yet evidence that these crops are responsible for the increased rates of allergic conditions.

But no evidence of harm is not the same as “evidence of no harm.”  And without labels, there is no way to trace the escalating rates of allergic disease back to genetically engineered foods if it is the source.

Correlation is not causation, but the Centers for Disease Control reports a 265% increase in the rates of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions over a ten year period.

Children born outside the US had significantly lower prevalence of allergic disease (20.3%) than those born in the US (34.5%) according to Jonathan Silverberg of St Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York.

We have learned what can happen with corporate funded science from the tobacco industry, so any scientific discussion requires full disclosure of any institutional ties, research grants or patents of those involved to preserve the dialogue and the scientific integrity of the debate.

And while the industry loves to highlight the number of academic and science institutes to promote the acceptance of their products, it is critical to first look into who is funding that science and the length of those studies.

As the Union for Concerned Scientists states:

“Political interference in federal government science is weakening our nation’s ability to respond to the complex challenges we face. Because policy makers depend on impartial research to make informed decisions, we are mobilizing scientists and citizens alike to push for reforms that will enable our leaders to fully protect our health, safety, and environment.”

In a Science Magazine in 2000, a Spanish researcher named Jose L. Domingo who later went on to write a 2007 paper, “Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature,”found only seven peer reviewed papers on genetically engineered crop safety as of 2000, most of them dealing with short-term nutritional effects.

According to Dr. Charles Benbrook, who worked in Washington, D.C. on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997, served for 1.5 years as the agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at the end of the Carter Administration, and following the election of Ronald Reagan, moved to Capitol Hill in early 1981 and was the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues, what that means is that at the time that two genetically engineered products were approved for the food supply, there were no studies in the open scientific literature.

Can you imagine if a medical device or a new pharmaceutical drug were introduced with no studies in the open scientific literature for public review?  Or if a car was introduced onto the highway in the same manner?

The concern is shared by the National Academy of Sciences in the paper, Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Consequences, ”As with all other technologies for genetic modification, they also carry the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health.”

Furthermore, according to Benbook, as of 2007 and Domingo’s more recent and comprehensive review, Toxicity Studies of Genetically Modified Plants: A Review of the Published Literature, there are still no more than about ten studies assessing the toxicological impact of genetically engineered ingredients in our food supply, almost all are limited in scope (there is a review of 24 studies focusing on nutritional equivalency), and short term, with most of them dealing with genetically engineered foods other than corn and soybeans.

Which means that the bottom line is that there are few if any published, peer reviewed studies on the toxicological impacts of today’s commercial genetically engineered ingredients now found in our food supply, and almost none on older genetically engineered ingredients, that provide evidence that show that these foods are toxicologically safe.

At the conclusion of the abstract for the paper, the author himself poses the question: “where is the scientific evidence showing that GM plants/food are toxicologically safe?”

In light of the escalating rates of cancers, allergies, autism and other conditions in the health of our children who have earned the title of “Generation Rx” and the financial burden these conditions are placing on our health care system and economy, it is a critical question for any reporter to ask, along with who has funded the science.

Is correlation causation?  Not at all, but with millions of Americans beginning to wake up to the fact that we have additives in our food supply, from lean beef trimmings, to artificial growth hormones to genetically engineered ingredients, additives that were not in our foods a generation ago, we are asking for more science, integrity in science, full disclosure of the financial engineering behind the science, and for labels and the right to make an informed choice about what we are feeding our families.

We label if orange juice comes from concentrate, but not if our food is made with genetically engineered organisms designed to produce their own insecticides or withstand increasing doses of weedkillers.  Labeling the how orange juice is produced gives all Americans a choice.  So would labeling genetically engineered foods.

So while the jury is still out on the science, this really isn’t about the science.  It’s about the liberty to choose what we eat based on how it is produced.  We are told if milk is pasteurized, we should be told if our food has been genetically engineered.

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