Monday, October 03, 2011

What we know -- and don't know -- about the safety of eating GMOs

As a conservationist first and foremost, I'm all in favor of agricultural advances that help stem the devastating impacts of farming and ranching on biodiversity and ecosystem services. We badly need to deploy new farming methods and crop strains that enable humanity to produce more food on less land, using much lower inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Importantly, some of the most intriguing approaches I've learned of, such as The Rodale Institute's 30-year farm system trial and The Land Institute's work toward perennial crop varieties, also boost the resilience of our agricultural system to climate change.

When it comes to genetically modified crops, however, my sense as a scientist is that we don't know enough about GMOs' long-term health or environmental impacts to know whether these things are really ready for prime time yet.

This piece by Grist's Tom Philpott sums up a bit of what worries me about GMO's:  
What we do know is that GMOs are not acutely toxic to eat. That is, we know that if you dine on a burger made from cows gorged on GM corn and soy, French fries cooked in oil from GM cottonseed, and soda laced with high-fructose syrup from GM corn, you're not likely to keel over in agony. Tens of millions of people do it every day. 
But what about more subtle, long-term effects -- problems that public-health professionals call "chronic"? Here we enter less certain territory. With our highly processed diets largely deficient in fruits and vegetables, Americans have high and rising rates of chronic diseases like obesity and heart disease. Meanwhile, food allergies, autism, and non-alcohol-related liver disease have rocketed. It's highly plausible that GMOs, which have existed in our diets for less than a generation, have emerged as another of many contributors to such long-term conditions. 
So GMOs could theoretically be unsafe to eat. What does science tell us about the matter? Unfortunately, not much. 

It seems that the body of research in this area lacks depth of credibility due to the intense secrecy of GMO makers. That is, the literature is dominated by findings of agricultural industry-funded scientists, and needs more contributions from independent scientists (who I'm sure would be glad to sign fairly worded non-disclosure agreements or "NDA's").

What is trickling out seems to indicate that there is "smoke" around this issue (and where there's smoke...):  
So where does all of this leave us? Obviously, in need of much more independent research. In April, a bit more trickled out from Quebec, Canada -- and again, the results are unsettling. The study, published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, focused on corn engineered to possess a trait from the bacteria Bt, which is toxic to a range of insects. So-called Bt corn is extremely common in the United States; according to the USDA, upwards of 60 percent of corn planted here has it. Since its introduction in the '90s, its maker, Monsanto, has insisted that Bt corn must be safe, because the toxin embedded in it cannot survive the human digestive system.   
The Quebec study (here's the abstract) casts serious doubt on that bedrock assumption. Researchers checked blood samples of 39 pregnant women and 30 non-pregnant women for the presence of the toxin. None were exposed directly to Bt, but all had conventional diets. The results: The Bt toxin showed up in 93 percent of pregnant women and 80 percent of their fetuses. It was also present in 69 percent of non-pregnant women in the study.   
So, 15 years after the introduction of GMOs, we know that they pose no threat of immediate, spectacular harm. That is, they won't kill us suddenly. Whether they're killing us slowly -- contributing to long-term, chronic maladies -- remains anyone's guess.

Well that certainly doesn't sound like a crop technology that is ready to be approved for our food supply, does it?  My wife is pregnant with our second daughter, and these kinds of findings indicate to me that our Food Safety regulatory system is dropping the ball in a big way here. Or at the very least is jumping the gun on GMO safety, likely due to intensive political pressures influenced by the Monsanto's of the world.

I hope, for the safety of our children and ourselves, that we aren't looking at a very expensive agricultural, health and environmental catastrophe in the making.

What are your thoughts on GMO safety? What's the best way to grow more food on less land, using lower inputs of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers?

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