While doing research on underlying causes of respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, bronchitis, chronic cough and allergies, I also became interested in the subject of genetically engineered foods, and how they affect health. What I found was rather disturbing. I felt it imperative to pass this information along, so that you can make an informed decision as to whether or not you wish to consume genetically modified foods.
Genetic engineering is the process of inserting a gene from an outside source into a plant to achieve a supposedly better plant. Two common forms of genetic alteration of food crops have to do with pest or weed control. In the first, used frequently with soy, the plant is modified in order to be resistant to herbicides such as Roundup™, produced by food biotechnology giant, Monsanto. This way, farmers can apply the herbicide to kill weeds without killing the young soy seedling.
Prior to genetic engineering, herbicides like Roundup could not have been used on soy plants as the crop would have been killed along with the weeds. By developing a soybean resistant to the herbicide, the profitability of the chemical, as well as the soybean, is extended. Since Monsanto produces and sells the soy seeds as well as the insecticide, they make profits from the farmers with both products. In addition, the company has a patent on the seeds, and they make the buyers of the seeds promise not to use seeds from a previous crop; they must buy seeds each year from Monsanto.
I don't know about anyone else, but I see something terribly wrong with making a food-crop resistant to a poison. You could douse the soy with herbicide and the soy wouldn't die. But my concern is the people who eat the soy.
In the second type of genetic alteration, often used with corn, the plant is modified to contain within its genetic structure an insecticide called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). This is taken from a bacteria found in the soil. The insecticide produced in the corn destroys an insect's stomach cells. With Bt corn especially, there have been issues of great concern. Cornell University scientists presented preliminary evidence from laboratory studies that pollen from Bt corn could blow onto milkweed plants and kill Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Some studies since have discounted that possibility but with the widespread marketing of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's), if such a situation did happen, it may be too late to do much about it by the time we find out. Another concern is that Bt corn may be speeding up the evolution of "superbugs" - insects resistant to standard insecticides.
Dr. Joseph Cummins, Professor Emeritus in genetics from the University of West-Ontario has this to say about genetic engineering:
"Probably the greatest threat from genetically altered crops is the insertion of modified virus and insect virus genes into crops. It has been shown in the laboratory that genetic recombination will create highly virulent new viruses from such constructions."
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in 1997 Monsanto announced it had recalled "small quantities" of a genetically engineered canola seed containing an unapproved gene that had gotten into the product by mistake. "Unapproved gene?" "Mistake?" Even more frightening is that a certain Bt corn called StarLink, which was not approved for human consumption, found its way into the food supply in late 2000. Massive recalls were ordered. The recall affected many corn products like tortilla chips, corn flour, taco shells and even some beer ingredients. Several corn plants not from the StarLink seeds were found to contain the StarLink gene. This may have been caused from winds blowing pollen to other fields.
There are a number of areas of concern about genetically engineered products. One company in California tried to splice the gene from a fish into a tomato but the experiment failed (what would have constituted a success?). In one study a soybean containing genetic material from a Brazil nut caused allergies in individuals allergic to nuts. What about reactions to the insecticide produced in the corn? What happens if there is cross-pollination with "normal" plants? Could it be that the "real" plant disappears through accidental cross-pollination? What if the real plant disappears, and the "new" plant cannot survive? We could end up with a situation like the Kudzu, a grass plant which was introduced to prevent soil erosion in the 1930's then recognized as a pest less than twenty years later. It could take 20 to 50 years or more to fully see all the ramifications of an introduced organism.
There is also the possibility that genetically modified organisms can create antibiotic resistant bacteria. During the creation of a GMO, antibiotic resistance genes are put into plants as part of the process. Many bacteria have the ability to pick up genes from their surroundings and to pass these genes on to other species of bacteria, including those which cause disease. There is a danger therefore that disease-producing bacteria could become resistant to antibiotic drugs.
One of the arguments in favor of biotech food as put forth by the biotech industry is that it will help feed people across the planet who don't have enough food. This argument falls apart when it is revealed that the reason people are starving is because they don't have enough money to buy the food. The world currently has enough food to feed everyone. The ones who will benefit most from biotech foods are the companies who own the patents on the foods. These companies have invested millions of dollars in biotechnology - it is hardly likely that they will be giving it away to the poor.
Scientists have spliced a gene from an Articpout, a fish that thrives in cold waters, into the eggs of salmon to cause the growth promoter genes to stay active longer than a normal salmon. Currently, on Canada's Prince Edward Island, salmon are being spliced with these genes that make them grow two to four times faster than natural salmon. A Massachusetts company called A/F Protein is raising them with the hopes of getting approval by the FDA to start marketing the eggs to fish farms for human consumption.
However, Professor William Muir of Purdue University has found that the larger, faster-growing biotech fish are more likely to succeed in mating than natural fish. He also found that the offspring of genetically engineered fish are not as viable as natural fish. Consequently, genetically engineered fish could damage a fish population by their tendency to produce less viable young.
The FDA is reviewing an application to sell the fish, a decision that may influence the fate of scores of other biotech animal experiments. Currently there are pigs engineered to have less fat, chickens designed to resist illness-causing bacteria and cows that grow much faster on less feed being raised in research facilities around the world.
Britain's Prince Charles, a strong supporter of organic farming methods, has stated on a number of occasions that he is opposed to biotech foods and does not allow them on his table. Speaking of GMO foods he said, "The use of these techniques raises, it seems to me, crucial ethical and practical considerations. We simply do not know the long-term consequences for human health and the wider environment of releasing plants bred in this way."
Paul McCartney is also opposed to genetic engineering. He said labels for GMOs should be mandatory, "I understand people's worries. I'm worried. How do I know what I'm eating?"
Genetic engineering and other potentially dangerous technologies, like irradiation, are approved or recommended by some "Health" and "Consumer" groups. Upon investigation however, it can be found that these groups frequently receive funding from the manufacturer or industry of the technology recommended, creating an obvious conflict of interest. Such an association promotes itself as a "health organization," or "consumer advocate group" but it rarely advocates against the multi-national corporations that are funding it.
For example the American Dietetic Association has a stated purpose of "To serve the public through the promotion of optimal nutrition, health and well-being." Their position on genetic engineering is as follows: "It is the position of The American Dietetic Association that biotechnology techniques have the potential to be useful in enhancing the quality, nutritional value, and variety of food available for human consumption and in increasing the efficiency of food production, food processing, food distribution, and waste management."
It doesn't take too much investigation to find out that one of the biggest GMO companies, Monsanto donates thousands of dollars each year toward various ADA programs. Other contributors to the ADA are the National Cattleman's Beef Association, National Dairy Council, Nestle and several drug and biotech companies.
Another example is the American Council on Science and Health, which supports irradiation and genetically engineered foods. ACSH receives funding from a who's who of multi-national corporations including Monsanto, Nestle, Dow Chemical, American Meat Institute, National Dairy Council, DuPont and Union Carbide. Invariably ACSH takes the position of corporate America in any debate. The point is, if you rely on the recommendation of a "consumer" or "health" group, you might want to take into consideration who is funding them. When an "independent study" finds that a product is safe, find out who paid for the independent study.
You might ask, how can toxic foods be marketed in today's society? Aren't all foods tested before they are allowed to be sold? The answers to these questions are not very encouraging.
The tests that are done prior to approval by the FDA are somewhat questionable to begin with. Occasionally the companies, in testing their new product, overlook a sick rat here or a cancerous monkey over there. When you factor in that these tests are performed either on laboratory animals or healthy adults, you can see that there is absolutely no assurance that these products are in fact safe for consumption by children. Some of the producers of these products mentioned in this chapter might not have known that there were health issues associated with the products when they began producing them. And with regard to dairy products, the health risks associated with consumption have escalated recently due to hormones, antibiotics and pesticides from the cows being passed to the consumers. Nonetheless, there are other products which have been pushed through FDA approval in spite of the fact that the producers knew that there were health issues inherent in the products, as we shall see in the next section.
On September 25th 2000, USA TODAY published a report stating that when the FDA approves a new drug or food additive, more than half the experts hired to advise the government on its safety and effectiveness have financial relationships with the pharmaceutical companies that will be helped or hurt by their decisions. The experts are supposed to be independent, but more than 50% of the time, they have a direct financial interest in the drug or topic they are asked to evaluate. These conflicts include helping a pharmaceutical company develop a medicine, then serving on an FDA advisory committee that evaluates the drug, owning stock in the drug company, and receiving consulting fees or research grants. Although Federal law generally prohibits the FDA from using experts with financial conflicts of interest, the FDA waived that restriction more than 800 times between 1998 and 2000, according to the USA TODAY report.
One notable example that illustrates this point is the approval process for the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, rBGH. Attorney Michael R. Taylor worked as Monsanto's lawyer at the law firm of King and Spalding during the time Monsanto was developing rBGH. In 1991 he left the law firm and went to work for the FDA. At the FDA he was involved in writing the food labeling laws that governed rBGH and all future genetically engineered foods. He then went to work for the USDA for a while then back to King and Spalding. After that he became the Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto. Taylor is currently an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches public health regulation of consumer products.
Another similar example, though unrelated to what we are talking about, is the recent scandal in Washington, whereby Eli Lilly & Company, the pharmaceutical giant, mysteriously gained protection from lawsuits over a mercury-laden preservative - thimerosal - in vaccines. I say mysteriously, because, according to a November 28th, 2002, NY Times article, the provision has become law, as part of the domestic security legislation, and yet no one will admit to having slipped the language into the bill. The provision forces lawsuits into a special "vaccine court." It may result in the dismissal of thousands of cases filed by parents who contend that the mercury in thimerosal has poisoned their children, causing autism and other neurological ailments. Obviously, this issue has absolutely nothing to do with Homeland Security, yet the drug-maker has covertly managed to gain protection against having to take any responsibility for its actions, and the children that may have been harmed by its products.
Foods bought in the local supermarket can range from very healthy to very toxic, but it is difficult to tell the difference unless you are educated. Generally speaking, the more processed a food, the less nutrients are left in the food. The fresher, the better, but you still need to be concerned about the amount of pesticides. Meats you buy in the supermarkets are often loaded with hormones, antibiotics and pesticides from the animal feed.
This brings up another issue. Throughout the twentieth century, dead cattle and other animals have been ground up and used in cow feed. You may have heard of a disease called Mad Cow Disease, which developed in England in the 1980's. It was traced back to sheep with a disease called scrapie, being ground up and used in cow feed. This in turn became Mad Cow Disease in cattle, which was contagious to humans who ate the infected beef. There were eighty deaths reported in England by the year 2000, and the US and Europe banned British Beef imports. Although the FDA banned the use of animal products in cow feed in 1997, an FDA report found hundreds of feed makers were violating labeling requirements and other rules associated with the ban. In early 2001, 1000 cattle were quarantined after a feed mill disclosed it may have violated rules designed to prevent mad cow disease.
And in Europe, after dioxin (a toxin used in herbicides like Agent Orange) was found in Belgian pork, beef and poultry products, the Belgian government revealed that the dioxin entered the food chain with the introduction of mechanical oil as an animal feed fattener! According to Jeremy Rifkin, author of Beyond Beef, in addition to the oil, cement, plastic and cardboard are regularly added to feeds in the US. Quite apart from the suffering the animals must endure, the thought of eating cows fed these ingredients is unappetizing, to say the least.
As mentioned previously, natural doesn't always mean safe. Products made from natural ingredients can be called "natural." But what does that mean? Nothing, really. For example, Kraft Foods, which is owned by the tobacco company Philip Morris, markets a product called "Natural Chunk Cheese." Does this mean it is made only using milk from cows not treated with rBGH? No, it does not. They make no effort to reject milk with rBGH. Even "natural" products you buy in a health food store may contain MSG, rBGH or some other unhealthy additive. A good policy is to always read the label. Look for labels that say 'Organic,' or 'Does not contain....'
If you wish to avoid pesticides, GMO's and other potentially dangerous foods, try to purchase organic food. Organic food has traditionally been a safe alternative to pesticide-ridden, over-processed food. In 1997 the term "organic" was almost rendered useless, as the FDA released rules defining what the term "organic" meant. It caused an immediate uproar, as it allowed genetically engineered and irradiated foods, to be called 'organic.' "Public response was 275,000-plus," said Kathleen Merrigan, the administrator of US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service. "It was one of the largest in the history of federal government."
In response to the public outcry, the FDA reworked the rules and released them in December 2000. Now, to be 'certified organic,' food companies cannot use irradiation, conventional pesticides, sewage sludge fertilizers, petroleum-based fertilizers or genetic engineering. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones (including rBGH). Before a product can be labeled organic, a federally approved certifier must inspect the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following the strict requirements for USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local market or restaurant must be certified as well.
Obviously, organic is the best way to go in order to get food of acceptable quality. By buying organically produced milk, meat, poultry and eggs, you help reduce the agricultural use of antibiotics and hormones. Organic farming doesn't create the toxic runoff that pollutes water and disrupts ecosystems, and it helps preserve and improve farm soil. And, buying local organic produce from local farmers is one of the best ways you can support sustainable agriculture and open space in your area.
Being an informed consumer is an important part of becoming a healthy consumer. Now, more than ever, it is important to take control of your heath and the food you eat. Prevention is the best way to avoid serious health issues, so see your health care provider and get on a program of supplements that are right for your body. Eat right, get informed, get educated and get active!
Yours in Health
Dr. J.D. Decuypere
Disclaimer: Statements about products and health conditions have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to treat, cure or prevent any condition or disease. Check with your healthcare professional before undergoing any protocol.