Are GMO Crops Causing Disease Epidemics?

13-Feb-2012 17:41 | Categories:

This petition circulating among some of my friends on Facebook contains a questionable assertion:


"As early as the 1991, a body of scientific research began to form which now includes articles in over 600 journals. As a whole, these offer scientific evidence that GM foods, hormones, and related pesticides are the root cause for the increase of many serious diseases in the U.S. Since GM foods were introduced, diagnosis of multiple chronic illnesses in the U.S. has skyrocketed. These illnesses include changes in major organs and in hormonal, immune, digestive, and reproductive systems. These modifications to foods and food production may also be contributors to colon, breast, lymphatic, and prostate cancers. "


I oppose appointing the ex-Monsanto official who is the subject of the petition to the FDA, but it isn't because of a fear of diseases from GMOs. Primarily I'm concerned with the corruption of government by industry and don't believe that Michael Taylor will be an impartial commissioner.


The statement about epidemics in the petition is very broad and vague. It alludes to scientific proof, but doesn't cite any of it. I don't know for certain that there has been an actual increase in serious diseases, or that it has happened as a result of GMO crops. For one thing, modern diagnostics are getting better. We're identifying more cases of disease that people just lived with in the past, as best they could. Nor does correlation prove causation, even if the actual occurrence of disease is increasing.


I'm opposed to most GMO crops on the market today. Monocultures aren't sustainable. Most GMOs allow us to mitigate the problems with monocropping in the short-term, and thereby delay the needed systemic changes at ever greater cost to soil and water health. Some GMO approaches may actually support a permaculture approach, and with thorough testing I'd support them.


The direct harm to human health that is attributed to GMOs hasn't yet been proven to my knowledge. I suspect that its unlikely that the genes themselves in most GMO crops are going to directly cause new diseases. Our bodies break down the proteins and carbohydrates that make up our food without particular care for what is encoded in its DNA (beyond the characteristics in the phenotype that the genotype creates).


So for example, rBGH makes cows produce more milk. The gene used to alter E. Coli to produced the bovine growth hormone is unlikely to directly affect human health. The hormone, on the other hand, could very well have detrimental effects. Where the treatment succeeds in making cows lactate more than usual, they create secondary problems like mastitis that lead to infections which are then treated with antibiotics. So rBGH can lead to milk that has both hormones and antibiotics in it, and may cause harm to people who drink it as a result.


But both these problems could also be caused without genetic engineering. Cows may still be given non-GMO hormones and antibiotics that make it into our food. So there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the GMO technique here, beyond the obvious and intended effect of causing cows to overproduce milk beyond what their udders can sustain. The real problem here is with the entire system of commercial milk production. Insofar as GMO techniques prop up and excacerbate what is inherently unsustainable, I'm opposed to them. So far that includes almost all the products on the market.


I do not care for making arguments that sound good in order to sway impressionable minds, when those arguments aren't backed up by actual science. We know the harm from hormones and antibiotics. We don't need to conflate them with imagined harm from the recombined genes that nature has never seen before. The known harms are enough.


There was a time when I considered genetic engineering to be a terrible threat to the future of life on earth. I believed every bad thing about it that I heard, and discounted every good thing that I heard. This is called the horns effect, which is a complement of the halo effect. These two often go together hand in hand: everything to do with GMO must be evil, and everything to do with organic agriculture must be good. The reality of both is a little more nuanced than our cognitive biases usually allow us to see.


I think I have a more balanced view today than I used to. I don't believe that GMO is going to destroy the world outright, but I don't think it's going to save the world either as some believe. So when I hear claims, I'm conscious of the source as I evaluate them. Those coming from GMO advocates about the merits of GMOs deserve extra skepticism. Those coming from opponents about the evils likewise deserve extra skepticism. 


Some opponents say that "Humans are foolish and mix genes that would never be mixed in nature. We're meddling with nature's perfect designs". I used to be swayed by this line of thought. I believed in a sentient Earth deity who manifested us out of Her being. We can find plenty of examples of unintelligent design in nature. Why don't we have our own fur, but are forced to skin other animals to keep ourselves warm? Why do we get sun burns and skin cancers when other animals have thicker skin and don't suffer the same? Evolution doesn't always pick the best solution, just the one that works good enough.


I've learned too much about biology, chemistry, geology and physics to think in terms of a sentient Earth diety making perfect designs. Bacteria and viruses have been moving genes around pell-mell for almost all of life's history from what we can tell. Endogenous retroviruses don't just infect your cells to make more copies of themselves, they actually infect your DNA itself. Sometimes they get stuck there, unable to replicate any longer. Much of our DNA is the gift of those viruses who performed genetic engineering tricks we have yet to master. Other times, the endogenous retrovirus that infects your DNA reproduces itself successfully, but takes part of your DNA along with it, out into the world.


That's not to say there aren't unintended consequences of GMO technologies. There are, and we are probably too hubristic for our own good in general.


One disease that has been blamed on GMO crops is Celiac disease. For example, see this blog, GMOs cause Gluten Disorders, Auto-immune and Neurological Diseases. Other people blame the rise on the use of infant formulas and decline in breastfeeding. We know that Celiac Disease was first documented in 1888 so a GMO origin is impossible (see also this history).


It seems that infant formulas were first manufactured in the decades leading up to the first documented case of Celiac Disease, so that's a plausible theory. Gut bacteria imbalances may also be linked to Celiac Disease.


Morgellon's Disease is another condition that is blamed on GMO foods. I don't generally like to link articles at because of the amount of bad information they publish, and only do so here because I think this is a good example of their bad information. The CDC recently released the results of a two-year study on Morgellon's Disease that concludes: "No common underlying medical condition or infectious source was identified, similar to more commonly recognized conditions such as delusional infestation".


Finally, this PDF entitled GMO Disease Epidemics represents the worst of the worst writing I could find on the topic. It's an illuminating example of the kitchen-sink approach to anti-GMO activism: take every disease you can think of and blame it on GMOs. Such propaganda damages the cause of science-based activism. This sentence exemplifies the mindset of the horns effect: "Don’t try to tell me that Vioxx may not have been genetically engineered.  It had to be." 


I do however give the PDF author credit for leading with the Tryptophan food supplement poisoning. That was a case where a batch of Tryptophan made with a genetically engineered bacteria actually caused deaths, probably because of the way it was made. The FDA's response was horrible, saying effectively that it proves nutritional supplements need to be regulated, while at the same time dismissing the need for any extra scrutiny of GMO techniques. That attitude is a big problem, and is clear evidence of a bias in the agency. This brings me back to the petition which I've not been able to bring myself to sign because of the egregious propaganda about epidemics. I want to oppose the appointment of Taylor, but I don't want to associate with the unproven claims of epidemics. 


Exaggerations and outright lies about the damage that GMOs cause may sway some who are undecided and uneducated, but it will turn off many like myself who are better educated and who still have valid concerns. In the long run, if we can't win on the truth, we don't deserve to win at all.


See this article by the Union of Concerned Scientists for what I think are the best arguments against GMOs developed by Monsanto. As their sidebar notes, other companies are implicated, but Monsanto stands above them in terms of its widespread reach in agriculture and lobbying efforts of government.


Mike Lewinski

Stanley, Virginia

February 13, 2013

This was originally published as a note on Facebook here.