What is the evidence that “no one has ever been harmed by GM”?
There's no doubt that GM foods have been part of the typical American diet for many years. This is hardly surprising when an estimated 70% of all foods on US supermarket shelves contain genetically modified ingredients, including most things bulked up with starches, sugar syrups, vegetable oils, 'protein' in various guises, imitation meat, and a host of additives. Over and above this 70% of processed food, the majority of animal products come from livestock given GM feed.
US consumers, we are told have a high degree of faith in the food-safety oversight carried out by their regulatory agencies (the FDA, EPA,and USDA), and are happy to accept GM, even if most of them don't know they're eating it. The oft-repeated basis for this confidence is “We can't argue with the record: no one has been made ill from eating genetically modified foods”.
The origin of this sound-byte seems to be the second edition of a booklet entitled “Biotechnology and Food”, prepared for the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) in 2000. This not-for-profits organization describes itself as a “consumer education consortium” which accepts funding from industry and private foundations “as long no strings (are) attached”. Whistleblowers Stauber and Rampton, however, describe the ACSH as an “industry front group that produces PR ammunition for the food processing and chemical industries”.
The main author of the ACSH booklet is Alan McHughen, a molecular geneticist now working in the University of California at Riverside.
Back in 2000, McHughen had a powerful motive for getting GM accepted. At the time, he was busy manufacturing a GM flax so that it could withstand soil residues of the herbicides used on previous crops in the field. Demonstrating a clear misunderstanding of the flax market, he argued that it was an ideal crop for transforming to produce industrial chemicals because it wasn't part of the food chain. He persisted in his GM flax venture despite strong opposition from flax growers, and even gave away packets of his GM seed for farmers to try out. The outcome has been “an absolute nightmare for flax growers” (Canadian NFU), the collapse of the Canadian flax seed market, and a substantial loss of money for the University of Saskatchewan where McHughen was working at the time. Global contamination of flax by McHughen's genes persists to this day, along with various versions of his ‘time-tested’ 'proof' of GM safety.
In 'Biotechnology and Food', McHughen's pseudo-scientific evidence for dismissing 'public concerns' and 'general food safety issues' of GM food is: “Three hundred million North American consumers have been eating several dozen GM foods grown on hundred of millions of acres since 1994 , with no documented adverse effects” (later in the report this statement reappears` as “there are no documented cases of harm attributable to the process by which the GM crops were bred”, which actually says something quite different).
The 'evidence' for safety surfaced again in November 2010, in a report designed to influence the Vatican's ongoing GM-unfriendly position. It was trotted out by the inventor of GM 'golden' vitamin-A rich rice who is having endless difficulties getting his 'world-saving' GM crop onto the market but has managed to get himself elected to the Vatican's science-advisory body. He said “There has not been a single documented case of harm to consumers or the environment”.
In a situation where there has been no testing on humans, there has been minimal or no testing on laboratory rodent models, no testing on livestock beyond the routine commercially-required checks on product quality (such as the weight gain achieved), no labelling and no post-market monitoring, these statements are impossible to either prove or disprove. Without relevant records, measurements and controls, the length of time which has elapsed, the number of people involved and the area of GM crops grown constitute no evidence whatsoever.
Jeffrey Smith, educator and founder of The Institute for Responsible Technology, can't fill in the scientific gaps either, but he does talk to a lot of people, especially professionals in a position to spot 'cases of harm' from eating GM. He's aware of doctors whose patients have been cured of conditions as diverse as skin reactions, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, weight problems and fatigue, after being prescribed a non-GM diet. The problem with this kind of evidence, in the absence of a scientifically controlled study, is that to avoid GM food, the people also stopped eating processed junk and started eating organic. It's impossible to tell if it's the absence of junk, the absence of GM, the introduction of organic, or all three together which brought about the cure.
However, Smith has also talked to veterinarians and farmers. Animals on farms don't have the complex and varied diet typical of humans, nor do they have much choice about what they eat: as a rule they're given a very restricted diet of maize- and soya- based animal feed. Farmers have observed that when their pigs and cows were taken off GM feed, death rates and still-born rates dropped, litter size went up, and overall health improved. One farmers was ecstatic about the huge increase in milk production in his GM-free herd. Both vets and farmers also saw differences inside GM-fed animals during autopsies or after butchering, including liver damage (a classic symptom of toxicity), stomach ulcers, discoloration, and a stench which shouldn't have been there. Again, this evidence doesn't definitively point the finger at GM feed, but because there are far fewer interfering parameters, it is at the very least worthy of further investigation.
US citizens, don't generally restrict their staple diet to a single crop plant. However, there is one instance where this was done. Since January 2003, inmates of the Illinois prison system have been fed a diet comprised largely of soy and soya protein isolate. The reason was to cut costs by replacing meat and cheese with cheap processed soya imitations. Prisoners were therefore consuming upwards of 100 grams of soya a day (this is 3-10 times what is normally consumed in Asian countries where soya is part of the traditional diet). The high-soya diet soon started to have deleterious effects on the men, including chronic and painful constipation alternating with debilitating diarrhea, vomiting after eating, sharp abdominal pains, fainting, palpitations, rashes, acne, insomnia, panic attacks, depression and symptoms of hypothyroidism (feeling cold, brain fog, fatigue, weight gain, infections, enlarged thyroid gland); many of the men have had part of their digestive tract removed. After four years of this and no action from the prison staff, the inmates began contacting the Weston A. Price Foundation (see below) to take legal action on their behalf.
The FDA lists 300 studies indicating negative health effects from soya. Most soya available in the US since 2003 has been GM and has never undergone clinical testing for safety. The prisoners were certainly eating large quantities of GM on a daily basis, and they definitely became sick. Again, without controlled scientific studies it's impossible to tell if it's the soya, the GM nature of the soya, the absence of vital animal-based nutrients, or a combination of all three which is causing the problems. However, the incident makes the view that “no one has been made ill from eating genetically modified foods” incorrect.
Comment on the implications of the evidence presented:
The most worrying aspect of the Smith conversations was that newer vets, who started practicing after GM entered the feed supply, consider the above-described problems in livestock as 'normal'. Newer doctors will fail to spot human health problems for the same reason. In a GM-fed world, animal and human health professionals could rapidly become unable to identify what constitutes 'health'.
The Weston A. Price Foundation
A non-profit organisation founded in 1999 to disseminate the research of nutrition pioneer, Dr. Weston Price. Dr. Price studied isolated non-industrialized peoples to establish the parameters of human health and to determine the optimum characteristics of human diets. His research demonstrated that humans achieve perfect physical form and perfect health generation after generation only when they consume nutrient-dense whole foods and the vital fat-soluble activators found exclusively in animal fats.
The Board Members of the Foundation stand united in the belief that modern technology should be harnessed as a servant to the wise and nurturing traditions of our ancestors rather than used as a force destructive to the environment and human health, and that science and knowledge can validate those traditions.
Check out The Weston Price Foundation for news about the Illinois prisoners' court case, and actions which US citizens can take to help the 'Soy Alert' campaign.
(This article has been adapted from an article which appeared on GM-free Scotland in January 2011. View an archived copy of that article here.)
- The Real Problem with Genetically Modified Foods, Natural Solutions, http://www.naturalsolutionsmag.com/, 1.12.03
- Alan McHughen, Biotechnology and Food, Second Edition, September 2000
- Jeffery Smith, Celebrating our National Non-GMO Movement, Institute for Responsible Technology, www.responsibletechnology.org 26.11.10
- Food Wars: Governmental Programs & Industrial Food, Nourished Kitchen, http://nourishedkitchen.com/illinois-prisoners-soy-diet/, 14.07.09
- Suffering of inmates and Update on soy lawsuit, http://www.westonaprice.org/, December 2010
- Alan McHughen, www.powerbase.info, December 2010
- Vatican scientists urge support for engineered crops, New Scientists Magazine, 30.11.10
- John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You, 1995, ISBN 1-56751-060-4