Don’t Fear That GMO Ear (of corn)

Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy. – Paracelsus

I had a conversation on Twitter a while ago about genetically engineered crops. One of the last tweets said, “It’s not the genetically modified food that worries me … it’s the poisoning of crops.”

The zeitgeist on genetic engineering

This comes up frequently in discussions on Twitter, on this blog, on the radio, in the media, and with people in conversation. The tweet on the right shows this general feeling.

Science doesn’t just show that most genetically engineered food is safe, it shows that all genetically engineered food currently grown for the public is as safe as (and in some cases, safer than) non-GE food equivalents (that is, an apple to apple comparison). The National Research Council says, “Genetic engineering is one of the newer technologies available to produce desirable traits in plants and animals used for food, but it [GE] poses no unique health risks that cannot also arise from conventional breeding and other genetic alteration methods.” [my emphasis]

Herbicides in Food

Let’s look at the first worry listed in the tweet on the right side of the page: Herbicides introduced into foods.

There aren’t any.

No herbicides have been placed in any plant via genetic engineering. None. Zip. Nada. No GE plant has an herbicide inside it. But if an herbicide had been, that would not affect animals, such as you and me. We are not plants.

Plant scientists have made certain crops resistant to certain herbicides. Herbicide resistance is sometimes shortened to simply HR (or RR for RoundUp Ready). HR is not the same as placing herbicide in a plant.

Resistance is Natural

As any farmer will tell you, resistance to any herbicide, insecticide, fungicide, etc., occurs over time as some targeted pests will survive. Those survivors will be able to pass along their genes to their offspring

There are HR crops in the market that have been developed by standard breeding or genetic engineering techniques. Just because the plant is herbicide resistant does not mean it was genetically engineered.

The upshot is that glyphosate is a separate topic from HR crops altogether.

The most common herbicide resistance is to Monsanto’s RoundUp (active ingredient: glyphosate) which is now off patent and manufactured by several companies. Certain plants can have natural resistance to glyphosate. Conifers are not at all bothered by glyphosate. One of Monsanto’s early sales pitches was to foresters. RoundUp was much more benign than 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T.

To speed up the process, plant scientists found a glyphosate-resistant gene in another plant and put it into a plant they desired to have the glyphosate-resistant trait. The most common HR trait for crops on the market is to glyphosate-based herbicides, e.g., RoundUp, so-called RoundUp Ready (RR) crops.

So resistance to pesticides (herbicide is a pesticide) is a natural occurrence. It was possible that the crops could have been sprayed with herbicides and those plants showing some resistance to the spray could have been selected and bred to produce HR plants.

Insecticides in our Food

Bt Corn, Bt soy, Bt Sugar Beets, Bt Potatoes, and Bt Canola

When insecticide inside our food is mentioned (not counting the 99.99% which is produced naturally by the plant), Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis is what is meant.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacterium that forms spores during the stationary phase of its growth cycle. The spores contain crystals, predominantly comprising one or more Cry and/or Cyt proteins that have potent and specific insecticidal activity. Different strains of Bt produce different types of toxin, each of which affects a narrow taxonomic group of insects. (Sanahuja, et. al. 2011)

According to Ric Bessin, Extension Entomologist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, when the target insect eats a part of the plant that contains the Bt protein, “the protein binds to the gut wall and the insect stops feeding. Within hours, the gut wall breaks down and normal gut bacteria invade the body cavity. The insect dies of septicaemia as bacteria multiply in the blood.” This protein targets specific insects. Bessin points out that, “Even among Lepidoptera larvae, species differ in sensitivity to the Bt protein.”

The level of risk of these gene products to consumers and those involved in food production can be and is evaluated by standard toxicological methods. The toxicology testing for the Bt endotoxins typifies this approach and has been described in detail by the U.S. EPA (1998, U.S. EPA (2001). The safety of most Bt toxins is assured by their easy digestibility as well as by their lack of intrinsic activity in mammalian systems (Betz et al., 2000; Kuiper et al., 2001; Siegel, 2001). In this case, the good understanding of the mechanism of action of Bt toxins, and the selective nature of their biochemical effects on insect systems, increases the degree of certainty of the safety evaluations….The toxic properties of Bt endotoxins to both target and nontarget species of many kinds are well known (Betz et al., 2000). They show a narrow range of toxicity limited to specific groups of insects, primarily Lepidoptera, Coleoptera, or Diptera, depending on the Bt strain. Nevertheless, Bt-producing plants have been tested broadly to determine whether any alteration in this limited spectrum of toxicity has occurred, without the discovery of any unexpected results (see Gatehouse et al., 2002; Lozzia et al., 1998; Orr and Landis, 1997; and Pilcher et al., 1997 for examples of such studies). Exotoxins and enterotoxins, which are much more broadly toxic than the endotoxins, are also produced by some Bt strains, but these are not present in the transformed plant, because their genes are not transferred into the crop. (Toxicological Sciences. 2003) [Emphasis added]

The toxic properties of the Cry and/or Cyt proteins produced “show a narrow range of toxicity limited to specific groups of insects, primarily Lepidoptera, Coleoptera, or Diptera” and even this toxicity to those species is further limited by the Bt strain.

That boils down to the Bt proteins are just proteins to your gut and will be used as any other protein is by your body.

References

Bt-Corn: What It Is and How It Works | Entomology.” 2016. Accessed April 28. https://entomology.ca.uky.edu/ef130.

Sanahuja, Georgina, Raviraj Banakar, Richard M Twyman, Teresa Capell, and Paul Christou. 2011. “Bacillus Thuringiensis: A Century of Research, Development and Commercial Applications.” Plant Biotechnology Journal 9 (3): 283–300. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7652.2011.00595.x.

Toxicological Sciences . 2003. “The Safety of Genetically Modified Foods Produced through Biotechnology” 71 (1 ): 2–8. doi:10.1093/toxsci/71.1.2 .

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EWG (Yawn) Trots Out Their Decades-Old List

From a media release by the Alliance for Food and Farming

As they have done for the last 20 years, today the Environmental Working Group (EWG) issued its annual  so-called “dirty dozen” list concerning pesticide residues and produce. In an attempt to re-spark interest in its list, EWG debuted a new fruit in the number one position this year.  In response, the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) issues its annual call for reporters and bloggers to read the actual United States Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program report that EWG states it uses to develop its list before covering the “dirty dozen” release.  This USDA report states that the findings show “residues do not pose a safety concern.”

“We aren’t surprised that EWG has a new number one this year.  We even predicted it since media coverage of the “dirty dozen” list has fallen dramatically in the last five years and reached an all time low last year,” says Marilyn Dolan, AFF executive director. “We also predicted that the new number one would be a popular fruit that is a favorite among children because this is an EWG prerequisite for a number one placement.”

One of the main reasons for declining coverage of the “dirty dozen” is not only are more reporters and bloggers reading the actual USDA report, but EWG’s “list” has been discredited by the scientific community.  A peer reviewed analysis of the “dirty dozen” list found EWG uses no established scientific procedures to develop the list.  This analysis also found that EWG’s recommendation to substitute organic forms of produce for conventional forms does not result in a decrease in risk because residue levels are so minute, if present at all, on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.

Further an analysis by a toxicologist with the University of California’s Personal Chemical Exposure Program found that a child could literally eat hundreds to thousands of servings of a fruit or vegetable in a day and still not have any effects from pesticide residues.  “For strawberries, a child could eat 1,508 servings of strawberries in a day and still not have any effects from pesticide residues which shows how low residues are, if present at all,” Dolan says.

“The concern we have with misleading consumers and the type of misinformation presented by EWG is that it may be undermining efforts by health officials everywhere to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables,” Dolan says.  Dolan cites a peer reviewed study conducted by the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future that found conflicting messaging on food safety and nutrition may be having a detrimental impact on the dietary choices of consumers, especially those with lower incomes.

“The one consistent message that health experts agree upon and that is confirmed with decades of nutrition research is that a diet rich in fruits and veggies whether conventional or organic leads to better health and a longer life,” Dolan says.  “This is the message we should all be promoting to consumers.”

One example of that type of research comes from a peer reviewed paper published in the journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology which found that if half of Americans increased their consumption of a fruit and veggie by a single serving per day, 20,000 cancer cases could be prevented annually.

Consumers who want more information on the safety of organic and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables can visit the safefruitsandveggies website.  This website was developed by experts in food safety, toxicology, nutrition, risk analysis and farming. The AFF launched the safefruitsandveggies.com website in 2010 to provide science-based information about the safety of organic and conventional produce.  “Consumers deserve truthful, credible information about the safety of their foods so they can make the right shopping choices for their families,” Dolan says.

For consumers who may still be concerned about pesticide residues, they should simply wash their fruits and vegetables. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, you can reduce and often eliminate residues, if they are present at all, on fresh fruits and vegetables simply by washing.

 

For more information:

Consumer exposure to pesticide residue far below levels of health concern
http://acsh.org/news/2015/07/16/consumer-exposure-to-pesticide-residue-far-below-levels-of-health-concern/

Chronic dietary exposure to pesticide residues in the United States
“Chronic dietary exposure to pesticides in the diet, according to results of the FDA’s 2004–2005 TDS, continue to be at levels far below those of health concern. Consumers should be encouraged to eat fruits, vegetables, and grains and should not fear the low levels of pesticide residues found in such foods.” http://foodcontaminationjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40550-015-0018-y

Pesticide Residues in Food No Danger to Consumers
http://www.realclearscience.com/journal_club/2015/07/11/pesticide_residues_in_food_no_danger_to_consumers_109305.html

A discussion of EWG’s methodology and methods:
Dietary Exposure to Pesticide Residues from Commodities Alleged to Contain the Highest Contamination Levels http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3135239/

California Tests Show Low or No Pesticide Levels in Many Fruits and Vegetables http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/pressrls/2015/151014.htm

2010 – 2011 USDA Pilot Study Pesticide Residue Testing of Organic Produce
“These results indicate that while pesticide residues are less common in organic produce than in conventional produce, detection of pesticide residues in organic produce is still common.” https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Pesticide%20Residue%20Testing_Org%20Produce_2010-11PilotStudy.pdf

A (Half) Dozen Reasons to Ignore the Dirty Dozen
http://www.foodinsight.org/dirty-dozen-pesticides-2016-list-problems-facts

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Q & A with Maureen Ogle, Author of “In Meat We Trust”

I have the perfect gift for the foodie in your life: “In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America,” written by Maureen Ogle, it traces the origins of our food system and its meat-centric bias. “The moment European settlers arrived in North America,” Ogle says, “they began transforming the land into a meat-eater’s paradise.” Today, we Americans consume about the same amount as the colonists, an astounding 250 pounds a year per man, woman, and child in this country.

This book traces our food system from its colonial origins to today. It is a fascinating journey through crowded and noisy streets filled with pigs, sheep, and cattle, and slick and redolent with animal urine, feces and blood to today’s highly efficient system that is hidden from most of us.

You may want to dismiss her book as merely history, but if you ignore the real story she tells, the history, you allow storytellers to fabricate a mythical past that never was and preach “solutions” that will never be. As Ms. Ogle told me in an e-mail interview:

“Much of the discussion about our ‘broken’ food system is simplistic. Too simplistic, in that simplifying causes can (and in this case does) lead to simplistic and impractical solutions. I believe (and hope!) that if all of us take time to understand how and why we got to where we are—the actual complex history of that how/why—we can have a more informed, substantive conversation about agriculture’s future.

“An example of ‘simple’ is that mythology about agriculture in American history. Our myth revolves around the sturdy yeoman farmer, living off the land in perfect harmony with nature, etc. Many well-meaning critics of today’s food and ag systems want to return to that imagined past. But that past is just that: imagined and mythological. It can’t and won’t address the complex problems of feeding not just an urban nation, but large parts of the world, too.”

What was the impetus to write a book on meat in America?

“What links my four seemingly disparate books (plumbing, Key West, beer, meat) is my [historian’s] desire to understand what it means to be an American. In that respect, meat was a perfect vehicle to further my quest for understanding: as the cliché says, food and diet tell us much about a people. I believed that if I dug into our meat culture, I would learn more about the American character. And, hooray, I did!”

Many, such as food writer Michael Pollan and chef and organic advocate Alice Waters, believe that organically grown food would be much lower impact. What leads you to disagree?

“Pollan and company tend to regard ‘organic’ as a kind of silver bullet that will repair our (allegedly) broken food system. That’s both a misleading and overly simplistic way to view the situation. I’ve got nothing against organic, in the field or on the table. What I object to is the notion that switching to organic farming is a practical alternative to meeting demands. Organic farmers will tell you that it’s a hard field to till: the bugs and pests and blights are all out there and they’re gonna attack whether you want them to or not.

“If we can figure out how to create an intensive organic agricultural system using the same amount of land and labor that we use now, well, go for it. But the reality is: we can’t. It seems to me that organic is more a smokescreen than a practical alternative; by offering up organic as the solution, critics can avoid dealing with hard questions.”

What was your biggest “aha!” discovery about our food system?

“Frankly, just how complex it is. I suspect that I’m like most Americans: I take food for granted. It’s everywhere I want to be and then some. But I’d never thought about the logistics of feeding a big nation, or the complexities involved when the majority of a society is urban and farmers are few in number. And that despite having lived in an agricultural state (Iowa) my entire life. So my ‘aha!’ moment was: Wow. This. Is. Complicated.”

* * *

Maureen Ogle, author of In Meat We Trust

To sum up, this book, “In Meat We Trust” tells the true story of our food system. Our system evolved for rational reasons that still apply today. “We may not agree with the decisions that led to that state of affairs,” Ms. Ogle says, “and there’s good reason to abhor the consequences, but on one point we can surely agree: real people made real choices based on what was best for themselves and their families.” That is a real American story.

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