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GMO Safety: Physicians Take on the Biotech Industry

Medical experts are challenging the claim that GMO safety is widely accepted by the scientific community.

(Photo: GMO via Shutterstock)

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Ever since the rise of the Tea Party, the Republican Party has developed an allergy to science – especially any science related to climate or environmental protection. They have been called the “Anti-Science Party” and “Luddites,” even by prominent members of their own party. Lately, they have even trumpeted that “they are not scientists,” apparently in a tortured attempt to glorify their ignorance.

Rivaling their allergy to science is their disdain for federal agencies that use science to make rules they don’t like, based on science – the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the US Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bureau of Land Management – and just about anything that represents “big government.” So the rise of a Republican campaign that represents the exact opposite of their professed ideology is worth taking note of.

Whether or not GMOs are safe is strictly a scientific issue, but labeling is much more than that.

The “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” (which should win an award for irony in naming) would bring the federal hammer down on states to prevent them from requiring labels identifying food that contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Chief sponsor of the bill Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) states on his website that the federal government’s primary role is “to get the heck out of way [sic] and let the citizens of this great nation prosper with individual and economic freedoms.” Just where is the “federal government getting out of the way” part of this legislation? Where is this bill’s deference to individual freedom, like the freedom to know what you are putting in your mouth?

Pompeo suggests on his congressional education page, “No one knows what’s best for your children better than you – as a parent – do.” Except when it comes to GMOs – then suddenly Pompeo, the federal government and Monsanto all know better than parents and citizens.

GMO proponents in Congress never get tired of claiming that the scientific community is united in declaring GMOs safe. Since when did Republicans start caring about what scientists say? Now all of sudden they do? Even some Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill (Missouri) have mocked GMO opponents, belittling them for what she sees as a double standard in those that accept climate science, but not the safety of GMOs. Count me and a growing number of medical scientists as proud subscribers to that “double standard.” Pay attention, Senator McCaskill.

Prima facie evidence of supposed scientific support for GMOs is a 2012 statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The AAAS presents itself as a preeminent, strictly scientific organization, dripping wet with integrity and independence, not an advocacy group like the Union of Concerned Scientists, Consumers Union or the Environmental Working Group. Yet a great deal of suspicion about the integrity of the statement is warranted, starting with the title, “Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors on Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods.” Whether or not GMOs are safe is strictly a scientific issue, but labeling is much more than that. It is an issue equally imbued with politics, economics, citizens’ rights, sociology and psychology – all far removed from the strict scientific sphere of GMO safety. Telling is the conclusion of the AAAS statement: “[M]andating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.” There is no science whatsoever that allows the AAAS to jump to the conclusion that consumers will be misled and falsely alarmed, as opposed to say, merely informed.

Other reasons for suspicion are the timing of the statement, published in 2012, just two weeks before voters in California went to the polls on Proposition 37, which would have required GMO labeling. Many of the talking points of the statement paralleled, almost word for word, those of the Monsanto-led fight to defeat Proposition 37.

The biotech industry almost never mentions the darker twin sister of GMOs – the pesticides that are paired with them.

The statement came from the AAAS board of directors, whose chair, Nina Federoff, is the scientific face of GMO advocacy. Her expertise is in plant DNA and “jumping genes.” Federoff was the first to clone plant DNA. She knows how to create GMOs. Good for her. But she is not a physician any more than Monsanto is your family doctor, and apparently she does not have the expertise to weigh in on whether or not those GMOs actually harm human health. In fact, you could say that she has a distinct conflict of interest in defending her career. Her advocacy is reminiscent of the nuclear physicist Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb. He certainly knew how to build not just a bomb, but the most horrific death and destruction device ever built. He knew nothing, or chose to know nothing, or cared not, about the health consequences of nuclear radiation.

In a Wall Street Journal article in which Federoff debated Andrew Kimbrell from the Center for Food Safety regarding labeling GMOs, she made several arguments defending GMOs (many of them dubious or outright false), but made no effort to state that GMOs are safe in the gastrointestinal tract of humans.

Of her numerous published articles, I couldn’t find a single one that actually addressed whether or not GMOs, like those that contain the Bt toxin, are actually safe – not only for human tissue, but equally important, for the bacteria that reside in the human gut that are critical to food absorption and good health.

As recently as July 2015, well after the World Health Organization declared glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup, the primary herbicide paired with GMOs – a probable human carcinogen, Federoff dismissed the WHO’s assessment as much ado about nothing. Clearly, Federoff has stepped out of the confines of her genetics expertise, and feels empowered to cheerlead not just for GMOs, but also for pesticides. Not having the humility to acknowledge the limits of one’s scientific expertise speaks volumes about how much credibility should be afforded one’s conclusions.

But Federoff and the supposed scientific sanctification of GMOs took a giant step backward recently with a front-page editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. The journal is hardly run by Greenpeace, Dr. Oz or the Food Babe. It is the world’s oldest and most prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal, published continuously for over 200 years.

Written by two eminent scientists and researchers – Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., and Charles Benbrook, Ph.D. – the editorial is probably the 12 best paragraphs written on the issue to date. But the fact that the journal’s board obviously approved its publishing implies they are comfortable with its credibility. The authors write:

Two recent developments are dramatically changing the GMO landscape. First, there have been sharp increases in the amounts and numbers of chemical herbicides applied to GM crops, and still further increases are scheduled to occur in the next few years. Second, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (an arm of the WHO) has classified glyphosate, the herbicide most widely used on GM crops, as a “probable human carcinogen” and classified a second herbicide, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), as a “possible human carcinogen.”

The biotech industry is now launching a new generation of GMOs that can withstand 2,4-D, long suspected of being even more toxic than glyphosate. So you can look forward to even more toxic pesticides contaminating your food in the near future. The authors continue:

The National Academy of Sciences has twice reviewed the safety of GM crops – in 2000 and 2004. Those reviews, which focused almost entirely on the genetic aspects of biotechnology, concluded that GM crops pose no unique hazards to human health. They noted that genetic transformation has the potential to produce unanticipated allergens or toxins and might alter the nutritional quality of food. Both reports recommended development of new risk-assessment tools and postmarketing surveillance. Those recommendations have largely gone unheeded.

The authors touch on what is undoubtedly a deliberate massaging of the issue by the biotech industry. It is always eager to talk about nutritional content equivalency and the safety of plants with altered DNA, but the industry almost never mentions the even darker twin sister of GMOs – the pesticides that are paired with GMOs. Biotech companies want the public to think that GMO technology is creating wonderful new plants that don’t require water, produce greater yields, feed a starving world and cure baldness. All of that would be terrific, but as the authors point out, “Herbicide resistance is the main characteristic that the biotechnology industry has chosen to introduce into plants.” And that means GMO crops are sprayed with more herbicides, or have the pesticides inserted into the genes of the plant itself. Either internally within the plant, or externally applied, with GMOs you are eating more pesticides. And let’s not mince words – pesticides are poisons to living organisms including human cells.

And what should be the clincher in the argument, the authors point out that studies claiming to exonerate currently used pesticides, “predated current knowledge of low-dose, endocrine-mediated, and epigenetic effects [on human health] and were not designed to detect them.” In addition to cancer, pesticides (which include herbicides and insecticides) have now been linked to a wide range of adverse health effects, including diabetes, obesity, impaired cognition, neurodegenerative diseases, behavioral disorders, autism, poor fetal development, pregnancy complications and compromised reproductive outcomes, kidney toxicity and chromosomal damage that can be passed on to subsequent generations.

Other dire consequences warned of by the GMO opposition decades ago have certainly come to pass. Outside the direct sphere of human health, the concomitant pairing of GMOs and their sister pesticides are responsible for the emergence of “superweeds,” resistant to a growing number of herbicides, and there is mounting evidence that pesticides are the primary cause of collapse of pollinator populations and other beneficial insects and microorganisms throughout the world.

Biotech scientists were never really qualified to pronounce the safety of GMOs for human consumption, something made all the more obvious now by the emergence of the medical community in the dispute. The Republican-controlled Congress, rather than acting as handmaidens for the biotech empire, should heed the scientific advice of the real experts on GMO safety – health-care professionals – before they decide to enforce consumer ignorance.

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