How Long is Long-Term? Are We in Danger of Sacrificing Food Security to Satisfy GMO Paranoia?

FrankenfoodsMy Twitter feed is being taken over by two things: 1) arguments and 2) comments that are going to cause arguments. Almost every tweet appears to draw a contrary comment – I’m tempted to post “Elephants have four legs and one trunk” just to see how many people reply “No, there’s an elephant in South Africa called Minnie who only has three legs but has two trunks…”

The latest discussions (debates? arguments? long drawn-out 140-character battles?) have related to the safety of GMOs. Without exception, the argument from the nay-sayers comes down to “We don’t know what the long-term effects are, so we should ban them until we can conclude that they’re safe.”

In other words, we’re trying to prove a negative – show me that there’s no adverse effects whatsoever and I’ll believe it’s ok. Utterly impossible. Can you be absolutely sure that the screen you’re reading this on isn’t causing constant, minute but irreparable damage to your eyes? Water, that essential nutrient without which humans, animals and plants would die, can kill through drowning or intoxication. Even oxygen, without which brain cells are irretrievably damaged in just 10 minutes,  causes seizures and death when inhaled at high pressures. Should we ban these, just in case?

Perhaps we should take a long-term approach to all new technologies. iPhones were only introduced seven years ago, yet many of us spend considerable amounts of time typing on them, or holding them to our ears when they’re not in our pockets – what health-damaging consequences could these shiny new toys confer? What about the now-ubiquitous hand sanitizer? Once only the province of hospitals and germophobes, it’s now sloshed around by the gallon. Touted to kill 99.9% of harmful bacteria – what harm could those chemicals be doing to our fragile physiology?

I’ve yet to meet anybody who, when scheduled for quadruple bypass surgery, demanded that the surgeon only used techniques developed in 1964; or a type I diabetes sufferer who would only use insulin produced from pigs, as it was originally in 1923. When I was treated for breast cancer, I jumped at the chance to be part of a clinical trial involving a new monoclonal antibody treatment, regardless of the very slight risk of heart damage. In medicine, we seem happy to trust that science has the answers – not surprisingly, we prefer to survive today and take our changes with side-effects tomorrow.

With regards to food however, the opposite appears to be the case. The first commercial GMO (the Flavr Savr tomato) was introduced in 1994, GM corn and soy were commercialized in 1996, and not one death or disease has been attributed to any of these crops. Yet the “what are the long-term effects?” concern still persists. So how long-term is long enough? 10 years? 20? 50? Should we keep researching and testing these crops for another 80+ years before allowing them onto the market around the year 2100?

If your answer is yes, just pause for a moment and ask your parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents what life was like during the Great Depression in the USA, or World War II in Europe. Consider what life was like when food was scarce or rationed, when, for example, a British adult was only allowed to buy 4 oz of bacon, 8 oz ground beef, 2 oz each of butter and cheese, 1 fresh egg and 3 pints of milk per week. Those quantities of meat and cheese would only be enough to make two modern bacon cheeseburgers.

By 2050, the global population is predicted to be over 9 billion people. I don’t relish the idea of explaining to my grandchildren that they live with food scarcity, civil unrest (food shortages are one of the major causes of conflict) and malnutrition because public paranoia regarding GMOs meant that a major tool for helping us to improve food production was removed from use. In the developed world we have the luxury of choosing between conventional, natural, local, organic and many other production systems. However, we’re in danger of forgetting that not everybody has the same economic, physical or political freedom to choose. If you gave a basket of food to a family in sub-Saharan Africa subsisting on the equivalent of $30 per week, would they refuse it on the basis that the quinoa wasn’t from Whole Foods, the meat wasn’t organic and the tofu wasn’t labeled GMO-free?

When we have sufficient food being supplied to everybody in the world to allow them to be healthy and productive, we can then start refining the food system. Until then, the emphasis should be on finding solutions to world hunger, not forcing food system paranoia onto those who don’t have a choice.

Correlation vs. Causation – The Gluten-Free Example

My gluten-free tweetI’ve just been involved in that most pointless of activities – a Twitter argument. Entirely without value as neither side will admit defeat (or even concede ground) and it’s difficult to make rational, lucid points using words like “hereafter” and “whither” when the 140 character limit turns scientific discussion into a sea of “u r misinformed re: assoc w/glutfree diet” gobbledegook.

This debate was caused by me posting the photo to the left relating to the use of  “gluten-free” as a marketing term associated with supposedly healthier food. However, in the tweet below, the arguer (arguee?) demonstrated the commonly confused correlation vs. causation which appears to be the poster child for populist bandwagon-jumping science.

Coeliac tweetTheir follow-up tweet cited this website, which claims that 55 diseases can be caused by eating gluten, and there’s a link to a peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine paper to prove it. Excellent use of scientific literature to support the adoption of a gluten-free diet.

55 diseasesJust one tiny problem… the 55 diseases* listed in the table to the left are indeed associated with cœliac** disease in that people who are cœliac (0.3-0.8% of the population) often also suffer from a range of other conditions. However, this does not mean that anybody suffering from short stature, diarrhea, rheumatoid arthritis or congenital heart disease will have their symptoms relieved by adopting a gluten-free diet. Heck, if it did, we’d all be 6 feet tall and heart-healthy, right?

To put it another way, all penguins are black and white. Does that mean that all black and white objects are penguins? I have utmost sympathy for sufferers of cœliac disease as it must be a very difficult and painful condition. However, when a gluten-free diet is not only promoted being more healthy for the general population, but backed by willful misinterpretation of peer-reviewed data, it’s just another indication that we need better scientific education. Correlation not causation – rinse and repeat.

*Note that these are not all diseases per se, but that was how they were defined by the website 
** An autoimmune disease in which the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten, leading to difficulty in digesting food. As a Brit, I’m using the English spelling as I find it too grammatically painful to omit the ligature (œ) 

Breast is Best…But My Baby and I Are Eternally Grateful for “Udder” Alternatives

BreastisbestJust over 11 months ago my life changed forever. As a breast cancer survivor who underwent 6 years of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, monoclonal antibodies and hormone treatment, I’d resigned myself to that fact that my chance of having children was less than 4%. As a fiercely independent traveler, I was ok with that (sort of…), diverting my attention to work and celebrating the fact that with no ties, I could go to bed at 3am, attend any social event or fly overseas at a moments notice.

Then I found I was pregnant. The most unexpected, amazing, literally mind-blowing event of my entire life. I become “that” pregnant woman, giving up soft cheeses, beef jerky, champagne, ibuprofen and horse-riding overnight and doing absolutely everything I could to nourish the baby growing inside me. In January my baby girl was born, and (to quote my sister-in-law) every single day since then has been like waking up on Christmas morning. I could never have wished for such a beautiful and perfect gift.

When I saw this PETA video starring Emily Deschanel I absolutely sympathized with her opening statement – nothing compares to the joy of raising my child. Yet, as the video progressed and Ms Deschanel described the atrocities that allegedly occur on dairy farms, accompanied by emotive video footage, I became more and more concerned. At the end of the clip Ms Deschanel suggested that the only way forwards was to end the cruelty on factory farms and go vegan. That’s when I almost lost it.

I’ve always supported the dairy industry – I think I may actually be clinically addicted to cheese and my yogurt consumption could be considered an extreme sport; but now I have an even better reason to celebrate dairy farmers – they ensure that I have a happy, healthy baby girl.

There’s no doubt that the “breast is best” slogan is right – babies are mammals, they thrive on mammalian milk – indeed milk is the most highly digestible food available for their little stomachs. However, because of my cancer treatment, I can’t produce enough milk to nourish my baby; so she’s fed both breast-milk and formula.  Until now, I’d never thought about where formula comes from – I’d rather assumed it was a synthetic mix of amino acids produced in a test-tube. In reality, it’s a combination of nonfat cows’ milk*, lactose, and whey protein concentrate (both of the latter ingredients also from cows’ milk); combined with other ingredients to provide the energy, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids that my little girl needs to grow and be healthy.

I would do anything for my little girl – I can’t even imagine what it would be like to try and care for her if formula didn’t exist and I could only provide her with half the nutrients she needed through breast-feeding. Alarmingly, the third result on Google for “vegan baby formula” is a recipe for home-made formula based on coconut water and raw almonds. The mind would boggle if I weren’t just terribly worried that somewhere, a mother thinks that this is the right choice for her child. To raise a baby as vegan because of parental ideology would seem irresponsible, if not dangerous – after all, surely breast-feeding is non-vegan?

Got milkSo THANK YOU dairy farmers, for the nutrients that I get from my diet and can pass on to my baby, and for the milk that goes into formula to help her grow and thrive. You guys are the best!

 *Soy-based formulas are also available for babies who are allergic to cow’s milk, I’m lucky that my little girl thrives on dairy products! 

Thanks to @DairyCarrie and @AgProudRyan for showing me the PETA video, and to @JodiOleen for reminding me that I’d intended to blog about it.