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.

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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.

Is Our Modern, Chemical-Laden, Twinkie-Guzzling Lifestyle Killing Us?

Burger4How often do we hear that we’re so much more unhealthy than our ancestors? That our modern chemical-laden diet is responsible for the fact that in 2010, the top three causes of death were heart disease, cancer and chronic airways disease? That if we only ate like our ancestors did (if you can’t pronounce it, it shouldn’t be in your food…) we’d have the secret to eternal life?

Let’s take a trip back to 1900 – the US contained 70 million US inhabitants, McKinley was president, and the first Hershey bar was introduced. Life was so much simpler without those pesky whipper-snapper millenials on social media and everybody lived till they were 95, passing with a smile on their face surrounded by their 17 children…or did they?

It’s a beautiful image – and an absolute fallacy. Life expectancy at birth in 1900 was 47.3 years. To put that into context, Michelle Obama, Keanu Reeves and Elle McPherson would already be dead, and Julia Roberts, Matt LeBlanc and Will Ferrell would be enjoying their final days of celebrity life. The low life expectancy was skewed by the high rates of infant mortality in 1900 – premature birth was the #11 most-common cause of death and up to 10% of infants died before their first birthday. Any child that made it past 5 years old had a pretty good chance of surviving – as long as disease didn’t set in – the top three killers in 1900 were pneumonia/flu, tuberculosis and heart disease.

Hold on… heart disease? Surely that’s a consequence of our modern, slothful, twinkie-guzzling lifestyle? Let’s move on to 1950, when most food was still organic, high-fructose corn syrup hadn’t yet been invented and the majority of beef and dairy cattle were grazed on pasture. Top three killers: heart disease, cancer, stroke.

There’s a reason why Mark Twain’s saying “lies, damned lies and statistics” gets quoted so often. In this case, the data is true. However, when we look at the statistics, i.e. the % of people killed by heart disease or cancer, those have indeed gone up. Why? Because very few people die of pneumonia, flu or TB. If we express something on a percentage basis, a decline in one factor means an increase in another. Simple 3rd-grade math. I hate to point out the obvious, but we’re all going to die – and there will always be a cause.

Many enthusiasts for the “Paleo” diet like to suggest that it must be a healthy lifestyle, because the average lifespan for our ancestors was the same as it is now – providing that they didn’t die in accidents, war or from infection. Way to go for those few ancestors who stayed in their cave and didn’t get attacked by a wildebeest! All that actually suggests is that a human body has a genetic potential for life of 75-80 years. Europeans who died from the Black Death in 1348-1350 weren’t genetically programmed to live shorter lives, they were just unlucky enough to run up against the microorganism Yersinia pestis. We can’t eliminate specific causes of death that don’t suit our theory to “show” that one lifestyle is more healthy than other – everything that we do, every single day will have some positive or negative effect on our eventual lifespan.

We’re lucky enough to live in a society where we have effective sanitation, a wide variety of nutritional choices, antibiotics, vaccines, x-rays and prenatal vitamins. In the US, nowadays only 6 babies die per 1,000 births compared to ~100 per 1,000 births in 1900. Average life expectancy is 78.1 years. If I were to follow the activist “correlation = causation” logic I could point out that in the past 114 years we’ve seen the introduction of cell phones; nuclear bombs; GMO-crops; rbST for dairy cattle; implants and antibiotics for beef cattle; and corn-fed beef… so these technologies must make us live longer!! Hooray!! Instead, I’ll just be thankful that I will be giving birth within the next week in a world where we have a safe, effective food supply and that my baby will have a far better chance of surviving than her great-grandparents did. Thank goodness for technology.

Scare Tactics – Why Do So Many “Public Health Experts” Promote Fear vs. Food?

pork chop 1How many of us are motivated by fear every single day? We’d like to think that we’re lucky enough to live in a society where we don’t feel afraid. In contrast to inhabitants of many war-torn regions we are unlikely to be shot as we drive to work; when we’re sick we have the luxury of modern medical attention (Obamacare not withstanding); and we can buy almost any food we fancy, at any time of year and feel safe in our food choices… or can we?

Food safety is an underlying assumption of dietary choice within the USA. We buy food based on three major factors: taste, price and nutrition. Safety isn’t a defining factor in choosing between the cheese quesadilla, the chef’s salad or the T-bone steak because most of us have rarely experienced significant negative health effects as a consequence of food choice (aside from the annual Thanksgiving food coma).

Yet so many food commentators, self-proclaimed experts (I read Michael Pollan therefore I am…) or bloggers appear to exist for the sole purpose of instilling consumer fear. Take this recent article in Salon – 9 reasons why we should fear eating steak – apparently it’s riddled with antibiotics, full of heavy metals and likely to give us all mad cow disease. I’m not going to turn this blog post into a thesis, so today will simply address one of the issues raised in the article, and examine the others in future posts.

I’m a scientist by training. In my career to date, I’ve learned that the more controversial the topic, the more important it is to base claims on sound data that is peer-reviewed and published in order to gain trust. If I present data that challenges perceptions, the first questions are always “Is this published in a peer-reviewed journal? Who funded it? How do I know it’s correct?” That is not to say that science is the only way to communicate – it’s not. Yet when making claims, it’s important to have science, or at least logical and biologically-feasible arguments, to back them up.

Yet, if we’re asking a question, even if it’s a loaded question that may instill fear or doubt into the reader, apparently scientific foundation is redundant. Could combining coffee and bagels in the same meal cause impotence? Is breast cancer caused by the rise in popularity of household pets sleeping on their owners’ beds? Is your tiredness really the result of too little sleep, or could it be all the chemicals that “big food” uses every single day? Hey, I’m just asking! Not making a claim, not saying that X + Y = Z, just throwing the thoughts out there. But having read them, how many of us now are thinking about our sexual performance, the potential ill-effects of Fluffy the cat, or how we really do seem to be more tired nowadays? (note that these really are examples that I have invented, I know of no scientific foundation for any of them).

Possibly the most damaging line in the Salon article contained no data. No scientific foundation. Just a question:

Could Ractopamine, added to the food supply in 1997 with little public awareness1, be contributing to skyrocketing rates of obesity and hyperactivity in children?

The FDA approved the use of Ractopamine in swine in 1999. It’s added to the diet of finishing pigs, improving feed efficiency and partitioning more feed nutrients into lean meat rather than fat (as demanded by today’s consumer). Effectively it allows us to produce more pork using fewer resources, but it has been linked to behavioral changes in pigs.

Most of us are aware that childhood obesity is a huge issue (pardon the pun). Many of us know children that have been diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So does Ractopamine cause these? It’s as likely as suggesting that eating alfalfa hay is going to make us lactate like dairy cows.

Maximum residue limits (MRLs) exist to make sure that there are no human physiological effects of veterinary drugs in meat, milk or eggs from treated animals. Regulatory bodies including CODEX assess potential human effects of a drug residue in animal products by multiplying the average residue level in food by the average intake. For example, if the residue level is 2 micrograms per 100 grams and the average person eats 300 grams of that food each day, the intake would be 6 micrograms. This intake is then compared to the acceptable daily intake (ADI) – the quantity that could be eaten every day for a lifetime without human health risk. This is usually the intake that would have a physiological effect, divided by a safety factor of one hundred. The MRL for Ractopamine in meat is 0.25 parts per million (0.00000025 grams per gram) with an ADI of 1.25 micrograms per kg of bodyweight per day.

If we examine the average pork intake for a 10 year old child in the USA (detailed calculation below) we see that they’d have to eat 13.3x more pork than the daily average to even equal the ADI – remember that’s the intake at which we would expect no physiological effect. For Ractopamine to have a physiological effect, the ADI would have to be increased one-hundred-fold. So the average 10-year old child would have to eat 1,330x more than the average child’s intake of pork, equivalent to 35 lbs of pork per day, every single day (the average adult only eats 48 lbs of pork in a year), for Ractopamine to have a health effect. My little nieces adore pork sausages, but they are pushed to eat two (approx 2 oz) in a day, let alone 35 lbs worth!

Still think that we can link Ractopamine use to obesity and ADHD? We can’t prove a negative, but it’s as tenuous a link as suggesting that we could drown in a single drop of water. So why are public health “experts” like Martha Rosenberg using fear tactics to scare us rather than extolling the positive contributions that high-quality animal proteins make to the human diet? Surely there’s no agenda there….is there?

1Note that all the data relating to this is freely-available on the internet – the “little public awareness” line is simply more fear-mongering.

Details of Ractopamine calculation

Let’s examine an average child’s intake. The average 10-year-old boy in the USA weighs 32 kg (71 lbs) and needs 34 grams of protein each day. In the USA, meat contributes about 40% of protein intake and about 21% of that comes from pork. That means, on average, a 10-year-old boy would eat about 12 g of pork per day (2.9 g protein).

If Taylor eats 12 g of pork each day at the maximum residue limit of Ractopamine (note that this would be unusually high), he’s consuming 12 g x 0.25/1,000,000 = 0.000003 g Ractopamine. His ADI = 1.25 micrograms x 32 kg bodyweight = 40 micrograms, or 0.00004 grams. That’s 13.3x higher than his intake. So a child could eat 13.3x more pork than average, every single day, and not be expected to have any physiological effects. For ingested Ractopamine to have a physiological effect he would have to eat 100 times that amount – 16 kg, or 35 lbs of pork per day. To put that into context, the average adult eats 48 lbs of pork in a year.

Putting Beef Hormones into Context (AKA “How do you Make a Hormone…?”)

No Twinkies!Disclaimer – the alternative title is the start of one of my favorite jokes – in the interests of keeping this post PG-13, I’ll post the punch line at the end.

It never ceases to amaze me how selectively paranoid we are as a society. I know I’m not alone in avoiding certain behaviors because they seem too risky – I always wear my seatbelt (even in a pick-up driving at 10 mph through a pasture), I don’t put my phone in my lap (who knows what invisible radio waves are frying my internal organs?) and I’m convinced that if I eat a Twinkie (RIP?) it’ll instantly turn me into 400 lb couch potato. Yet I also drive too fast on the interstate, drink enough coffee to keep a polar bear wired for days and have the misguided impression that I can survive on 4 hours sleep per night (thank you NCBA Cattle Industry Convention 2013 for proving me right last week). There’s no doubt that I’m more likely to come to harm from the latter set of behaviors than the former, so why the dichotomy?

It appears to comes down to two main factors:

  • The perception of relative risk – am I more likely to be injured from driving fast or from not wearing a seatbelt?
  • The extent of our knowledge about the subject – I know what risks come with caffeine consumption and I accept them in exchange for improved work productivity, but who knows how addictive Twinkies really are? There’s a reason they’re sold in multi-packs…

Thanks to the preponderance of media articles and books about food production, we’re more educated as a society than we were 10 years ago, yet we still fail to understand the concept of relative risk:

  • Environmentally, the Meatless Mondays campaigns appear to make people feel good about saving the planet even as they drive their Hummer to Whole Foods to buy quinoa and kale salad for dinner
  • Socially, reusing grocery bags reduces waste, yet appears to come with a far higher risk of contracting E. coli (thank you David Hayden)
  • Healthwise, I have lost count of the conversations I’ve had with highly educated, health-conscious women who have stopped feeding beef or milk to their kids because of the hormones used in beef or dairy production. Yet this is one area where we have a huge amount of data, we just need to put it in context.

The birth-control pill contains almost 7,000x more estrogen than a steakYes, an 8-oz steak from a steer given a hormone implant contains more estrogen than a steak from a non-implanted animal. 42% more estrogen in fact. That’s undeniable. Yet the amount of estrogen in the steak from the implanted animal is minuscule: 5.1 nanograms. One nanogram (one-billionth of a gram or one-25-billionth of an ounce) is roughly equivalent to one blade of grass on a football field.

By contrast, one birth-control pill, taken daily by over 100 million women worldwide, contains 35,000 nanograms of estrogen. That’s equivalent of eating 3,431 lbs of beef from a hormone-implanted animal, every single day. To put it another way, it’s the annual beef consumption of 59 adults. Doesn’t that put it into perspective?

If birth-control is a sensitive subject, let’s compare it to vegetables: one 8-oz serving of cabbage = 5,411 nanograms of estrogen, over 1,000 times more estrogen than the same serving size of steak from a steer given a hormone implant. Yet Huffington Post, TIME magazine et al. aren’t up in arms about the dangers posed by cabbage consumption (NB. ~4,000 cabbage producers in the USA, please don’t send me hate mail, this is just an example).

Hormones are directly or indirectly responsible for everything that we do each day, from waking up to going to sleep, from the mundane to the life-changing. Yes, they are an intrinsic part of childhood development, yet the earlier ages at maturity we’re currently seeing in children have been attributed to increased levels of body fat (i.e. childhood obesity), not to exogenous hormone consumption. I’m not downplaying the consequences that hormones have on our long-term health and survival, just asking for a little balance – after all, where’s the risk in that?

*Oh, and the punchline to the joke above… “Don’t pay her!” (Sorry….)