MADGE on allergies

April 2011

Australia's Mothers Are Demystifying Genetic Engineering (MADGE) has been busy gathering information on possible links between GM in the food chain and the incidence of severe allergic reactions in the population.

The MADGE investigation kicked off with the Australian research which found that peas (with no history of being allergenic) transformed with a gene from a bean (with no history of being allergenic) caused the peas to produce a bean protein as intended (with no history of being allergenic) and also created a GM pea which not only induced allergic reactions to the pea itself, but also induced allergic reactions to proteins in other foods.

MADGE was further concerned to learn that there is no certain way to test GM foods for allergens. The tests carried out on the GM peas are not routinely done. Assessment of allergenicity usually involves looking at the history of safe use of the organisms involved, and comparing the chemical structure of the novel protein with known allergens. As the peas with the bean gene proved, these assessments are not nearly enough.

Moreover, even if warning signs are seen during the assessment of the transgenic product, there is no guarantee that regulators will take action. For example, a gene commonly inserted in approved herbicide-tolerant crops to prevent the applied weed-killer accumulating in the plant has been recognised as potentially cross-reactive with a common allergen, red shell-fish (prawns, shrimp, lobster).

In light of these findings, MADGE undertook a collation of historical statistics on the incidence of adverse reactions to food worldwide. The findings are disturbing:
  • Since the mid-1990s when GM started to creep into our diet, allergy rates have steadily increased across all age-groups. The fact that allergies are increasing in the entire population disproves other hypotheses linking the rise to changes in modern child-care such as increased hygiene, reduced breast-feeding, immunisation etc.
  • One set of data shows how allergy incidence started to increase in 1996-7 coincidentally with the entry of GM into the food chain. It then remained steady for five years coincidentally with precautionary restrictions on GM imports, but increased year on year once the restrictions were lifted.
  • Severe reactions to food among 0-4 year-olds in Norway, which has very restrictive policies on GM, has been as little as one ninth of those recorded in Australia.

GM post-market monitoring based on counting the bodies in hospital waiting rooms, or in the morgue, is one way to do it, but not even these checks are being done.

(This article is adapted from an article which first appeared on GM-free Scotland in October 2008. The article is archived here.)

  • MADGE is a network of individuals across Australia interested in how our food is grown and the effects it has on our health. It is concerned about the lack of adequate labelling and testing of GM foods.
  • Vanessa E. Prescott et al., Transgenic Expression of Bean α-Amylase Inhibitor in Peas Results in Altered Structure and Immunogenicity, Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, 53(23), 2005
  • No to GM Oilseed Rape GT73, Institute of Science in Society Press Release 22.09.04

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