Oregon prepares to count votes this Tuesday on what I hope will make it the first State to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). As I write on October 30, the GMO behemoths – Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, et al. – have spent about $17 million to save Oregonians from making this terrible mistake, which will raise unwarranted questions in the minds of consumers about the safety of these pristine, better-than-God-made foods.
They are, of course, better than God (or Nature) made because they can absorb substantial amounts of synthetic poisons and not only live but keep on growing, while all around them, everything else dies.
Apparently activists here, and elsewhere, have made the tactical decision not to raise questions about the safety of foods containing GMOs, because there is no definitive scientific proof that consuming them hurts humans, and the behemoths have a field day criticizing those misguided humans who have performed experiments suggesting that they might do so. So Oregonrighttoknow.com, for example, argues only that we don’t know the long-term health effects of genetically engineered food and we can’t trust chemical corporations to tell us whether the food we’re eating is safe.
True enough, of course, but with respect – as a newcomer to this debate – I think that’s a mistake, partly because the behemoths in their massive advertising campaign claim labeling will cost average consumers hundreds of dollars (although Consumers Union estimated the typical cost at $2.30, per year). This leaves disinformed voters to weigh their right to know what’s in their food – which may or may not be harmful – against their ability to afford to eat.
Meanwhile, although there may not at the moment be definitive proof that GMOs harm humans, there is a truckload of evidence that people might want to be aware of before deciding whether to eat, or feed their families, GM foods.
For starters, according to a statement signed by nearly 300 scientists and legal experts in late 2013, no epidemiological studies in human populations have been carried out to establish whether there are any health effects associated with GM food consumption. The statement, posted here, affirmed that there was no scientific consensus on GM food safety.
Furthermore, short of definitive proof of harm, there is considerable evidence of possible harm that a person might reasonably consider in deciding whether to eat GMO foods. A 330-page report, “GMO Myths and Truths” (herein, “the Report”), reviews a great many studies raising questions about GMO safety. The Report is available for download here.
The Report summarizes feeding studies on laboratory and farm animals in which a GM diet was fed to one group of animals and a non-GM diet was fed to a control group. The studies found “signs of toxicity or actual toxic effects in the GM-fed animals, meaning that the GM foods tested were more toxic or allergenic than the non-GM foods.” (Report, page 129)
Some examples: Mice fed GM Bt maize showed “a marked disturbance in immune system cells and in biochemical activity.” Mice fed for five consecutive generations with GM herbicide-tolerant triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid) developed enlarged lymph nodes and immune disturbances, in comparison with controls. Mice fed GM soy showed “disturbed liver, pancreas and testes function.” A review of 19 studies on mammals fed commercialized GM soy and maize found “consistent signs of toxicity in the liver and kidneys.” (Report, pages 131-133)
To GM proponents’ claim that such effects are not “biologically relevant” or “adverse,” the authors of the Report, two genetic engineers and a researcher, reply that these terms have never been properly defined in the context of animal feeding trials with GMOs, and are “scientifically meaningless.” (Page 128)
So who are these authors, anyway? Well, one is Dr. Michael Antoniou of King’s College London School of Medicine in the UK. Dr. Antoniou uses genetic engineering for medical applications, but he warns against its use in developing crops for human food and animal feed.
Another is Dr. John Fagan, a former genetic engineer who in 1994 gave back to the National Institutes of Health $614,000 in grant money, due to concerns about the safety and ethics of the technology. Dr. Fagan points out that the biotech industry uses its influence to block independent research “and uses its powerful PR machine to discredit independent scientists whose findings challenge [the utility and safety of GM crops].”
So, if you haven’t previously heard of “GMO Myths and Truths,” that could be why. See here for more from and about its authors.
The Report concludes, “What is needed are long-term and multi-generational studies on GMOs to see if the changes found in short- and medium-term studies, which are suggestive of harmful health effects, develop into serious disease, premature death, or reproductive or developmental effects.” (Page 144)
According to the Report, the few published studies that have directly tested GM food safety for human consumption “found potential problems but were never followed up.” (Pages 172-173)
Additional questions are raised by human exposure to the herbicides applied to GM foods. Roundup Ready soy is engineered to tolerate Roundup. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, remains in the plant eaten by people and animals. Additional ingredients are added to Roundup, and the Report notes the combination is more toxic than glyphosate alone.
Toxic effects include “disruption of hormonal systems and beneficial gut bacteria, damage to DNA, developmental and reproductive toxicity, birth defects, cancer, and neurotoxicity.” (Page 205) A laboratory study in human cells found that “very low” levels of glyphosate “mimicked the hormone estrogen and stimulated the growth of breast cancer cells.” (Page 221)
Of course, higher levels of crop contamination with Roundup are going to occur with increasing use of GM Roundup Ready crops. (Page 128)
A non-peer-reviewed report by Argentine doctors and scientists, based on clinical data, is irrelevant if we insist on scientific certainty. But the group found health effects in people associated with increased cultivation of GM soy and exposure to the spraying of glyphosate herbicides. These included “increased incidence of birth defects (including in young mothers), miscarriages, and cancers,” genetic damage, and other effects. (Page 213)
Dr. Jeff Ritterman, M.D., retired chief of cardiology at Kaiser Richmond in California, recently reported linkages between Roundup and cancer, in an article posted here.
Dr. Ritterman observes that Roundup is heavily sprayed in an area of Latin America larger than the state of California now devoted to GM soy production, and that doctors serving these areas have documented an alarming increase in cancers. He quotes Dr. Medardo Avila Vazquez, a pediatrician specializing in environmental health:
“The change in how agriculture is produced has brought, frankly, a change in the profile of diseases. We’ve gone from a pretty healthy population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects and illnesses seldom seen before….Cancer cases are multiplying as never before in areas with massive use of pesticides.”
Dr. Avila Vazquez blamed the biotech agricultural corporations for placing their profits over the public’s health:
“The tobacco companies denied the link between smoking and cancer, and took decades to recognize the truth. The biotech and agrochemical corporations are the same as the tobacco industry; they lie and favor business over the health of the population.”
Dr. Damian Verzeñassi, professor of social and environmental health from the National University at Rosario, in 2010 began a house-to-house epidemiological study of 65,000 people in Santa Fe, also in Argentina’s soy region, and found cancer rates two to four times higher than the national average, with increases in breast, prostate and lung cancers.
Dr. Ritterman stops short of concluding that Roundup causes cancer, but cites a highly regarded statistics textbook for the proposition that, if an illness is four times as likely among people exposed to a possible cause as it is for those who are not exposed, the association is considered “strong.” And he notes that most glyphosate exposure experiments and epidemiological observations show a doubling of cancer risk.
Dr. Ritterman admits that this leaves room for doubt, but asks: Who, given this information, would want to expose their loved ones to Roundup?
It doesn’t get much more serious, folks. We have a right to know what is in the foods we eat, and feed our families. And we can’t have freedom of choice unless foods are labeled. But neither can we make informed choices without considering the available evidence.
Robert Roth, a retired public interest lawyer, lives in Oregon and blogs at www.healingjustice.wordpress.com.