Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Genetically Modified Food

This post does not purport to tell you what to think about genetically-modified crops (although I have come to some of my own conclusions about the subject, some of which you might detect as you read on).

The reason this post will not tell you what to think about genetically-modified crops (in addition to the fact that this blog does not try to tell you what to think about anything but rather invites you to consider evidence about certain important issues) is that the subject of this blog is the intersection of geology, astronomy, archaeology, and ancient civilizations: the evidence that our most basic geological models may be fundamentally flawed, the evidence which supports a very different geological theory to explain the evidence in the world around us, the way that very different geological theory can shed considerable light on a lot of other evidence (archaeological, numerical, mythological, and astronomical) which suggests that ancient human history unfolded very differently from the timeline that is taught in school from the primary grades through the university level, and the importance of examining the evidence with an open mind in order to reach a conclusion (rather than simply accepting the conventional explanation without critical examination of the other possible explanations for the evidence).

In the investment world, the importance of examining the evidence oneself with an open mind and a healthy dose of skepticism is known as "due diligence." If you were tasked with investing a few million dollars (for yourself, or for someone else who was paying you to invest it), it would behoove you to conduct your own due diligence on every single investment security that you considered as a potential investment, rather than simply taking someone else's word for it and plunking down millions of dollars into something that you had not investigated yourself with a level of due diligence appropriate to the situation. If you ignored the need for due diligence, very bad things could happen.

Although we may not think about it, the food that we decide to put into our mouths for the sustenance and actual incorporation into the cells of our bodies turns out to be a fairly significant investment as well. It may be that failing to perform some due diligence in this area could lead to "very bad things" as well.

Thus, while this blog post does not purport to tell you what you should decide about the question of genetically modified foods (also known as GM foods, falling into the broader category of genetically-modified organisms or GMOs, sometimes called "transgenics" to signify the introduction of genetic material from other organisms), it does seem that every individual should conduct a proper level of due diligence on this important subject, especially since GM foods are amazingly prevalent in our food supply.

It would also appear that we are not being invited to conduct due diligence on this subject, and that in fact we are generally discouraged from doing so. In fact, although I may not have been paying much attention and therefore might have missed it, I do not recall being urged to consider this important subject at all when the first GM foods were introduced into the food supply in the 1990s. Now, as the number of crops containing genetically-engineered traits authorized to be grown for human consumption expands, I do not see widespread due diligence taking place either.

Thus, the purpose of this post is not to argue one side or the other of this question (which admittedly falls somewhat outside of the general subject matter normally examined in this blog and in the related book), but to argue for due diligence in this area. In that sense, this subject is exactly in line with the main theme discussed in the Mathisen Corollary book and this blog, which is the importance of conducting due diligence on some widely-accepted but potentially flawed beliefs about human history and the planet we live on, and the fact that failure to conduct proper due diligence can blind us to serious potential dangers (dangers we might avoid if we had done better analysis and obtained a more accurate vision of the real situation).

One individual who is fighting a spirited campaign against the use of genetically modified crops in our food supply (and in the food supply of animals which later enter the food supply) is Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette.

In the video below, which is from 2009, Mr. Smith unloads a startling array of arguments which appear to cast some doubt on the safety of the introduction of transgenic traits into widely-used human food crops.

Everything You HAVE TO KNOW about Dangerous Genetically Modified Foods from Jeffrey Smith on Vimeo.

Some of the concerns include the potential for unexpected side effects, including the possibility that crops engineered to produce pest-killing or pest-resistant traits could cause harm to humans or harm to the beneficial bacteria that live in our gut and whose crucial role in human health is widely acknowledged by the scientific community, even if their role is not always fully appreciated or even completely understood.

There is also the chilling possibility that some of the genetic material introduced into the plants (genetic material originally found in bacteria) could transfer to the bacteria in the human gut, causing it to change and begin to manufacture the pesticide-traits that the genetically-engineered plants are designed to manufacture.

Other concerns include the increase in allergic reactions which may be linked to the introduction of genetically-modified crops, the potential for the creation of unpredictable or hard-to-detect side effects (side effects which may manifest as a lingering problem but remain "below the radar" of physicians because the symptoms go unreported, or unreported in large enough numbers for anyone to "connect the dots"), and the fact that GM crops, once introduced, can cross-pollinate and infiltrate other crops with their modified DNA, remaining in the food supply forever with little chance of ever being completely "recalled" if something harmful is discovered later on down the line.

It is also fairly difficult to argue with the idea that crops that are genetically-engineered specifically to be resistant to various herbicides will be doused with lots of herbicides, probably with more herbicides than they would have been exposed to if those plants had not been engineered to survive that assault. With new herbicide-resistant traits engineered into the crops, the entire acreage can be sprayed with herbicides (weed-killers), killing off the weeds and leaving the GM crops. The potential for increased consumption of chemicals by the end user seems to be something that should at least be carefully considered.

We must also consider the possibility that, even if various herbicides, pesticides, or genetically-modified pesticide-manufacturing food crops are not specifically harmful to humans, they might be harmful to our gut bacteria which come in contact with these foods or chemicals.

Of course, there are those who criticize Jeffrey Smith, and argue that he is nothing but a scare-monger using non-peer-reviewed studies to dupe a gullible public. The website "GMO pundit," written by Dr. David Tribe, a lecturer in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who has degrees in chemistry and biochemistry and a PhD in molecular genetics, calls Mr. Smith's claims "misleading and inaccurate" and labels them "scare tactics."

You can read his arguments against Mr. Smith's concerns in this post, for example, in which he raises some serious reasons to doubt the Russian study by Irina Ermakova cited by Mr. Smith in the above video and in his book, and dismisses Mr. Smith's other concerns by saying that sheep who died after eating GM crops might well have died for many other reasons, and that a substance that Mr. Smith warns about as a byproduct of one genetically-modified corn brand (NAG or N-acetyl-L-glufosinate) has been deemed to be "unlikely to present a public health concern" by the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues.

Elsewhere, there is this website called "Academics Review," which also argues that Jeffrey Smith's claims are unsupported by science and which contains a point-by-point refutation of his arguments (the site's purpose appears to be to refute Jeffrey Smith, as its home page declares: " launches with point-by-point analysis of Jeffrey Smith’s claims against GM foods and genetic engineering, holding each up to peer-reviewed, international science"). On that website, this page contains a lengthy list of rebuttals which should be carefully considered.

As it turns out, Dr. Tribe is listed as one of the founders and primary authors of that site as well. This fact, as well as the fact that the site attempts to discredit Smith by noting that he once taught swing-dancing lessons and that he "enjoyed longtime ties to Fairfield’s Maharishi religious group and the state’s Natural Law political party," should raise something of a red flag, as ad hominem attacks on Smith have nothing to do with the actual safety of transgenic traits in food crops (presumably, the authors of the site realize that Fairfield is a city in Iowa and not a state, and presumably they know that the state of Iowa grows an awful lot of corn).

That, and the fact that these websites contain several articles arguing that GM crops can be better for humans and for the environment than non-genetically-modified crops that have been around for thousands of years casts some doubt on the impartiality of those two sites by Dr. Tribe. One article implies that, since white rice can lead to diabetes, "GM rice can be healthier than non-GM rice." This is a very flawed argument -- the real conclusion should be that whole-grain rice is better than white rice, not that GM rice is better than non-GM rice (especially given the possibility of side effects listed above -- if only one of those is claims is proven to be correct, it would be a reason to avoid GM rice).

Towards the end of his video, Mr. Smith notes that most of his critics refuse to seriously consider the most threatening potential problems with GM foods. "They dismiss, they attack, but they don't debate," he says. In other words, they dismiss his claims or ignore his claims rather than addressing all the evidence or all the potential dangers, and they attack him personally rather than dealing with the actual subject. Dr. Tribe seems to be an exception, in that he does actually offer point-by-point rebuttals of Mr. Smith, although some of these rebuttals might be categorized more as "dismissals," some of them seem to be too willing to accept a declaration from a possibly-biased source stating that some GM byproduct is "unlikely to present a public health concern," and some of them could clearly fall into the category of ad hominem attacks on Mr. Smith rather than actual rebuttals.

One example of a fairly disturbing "dismissal" is this rebuttal from the site, which declares that farm animals which experienced reproductive failure after eating feed made from corn engineered to manufacture the Bt delta endotoxin (via the introduction of genetic material from a commonly-occurring soil bacteria) could not have experienced reproductive failure due to the endotoxin in the corn but probably developed those problems because of other mycotoxins that must have contaminated the feed -- although there is no evidence to support this conjecture, and although researchers from Iowa State who proposed that speculative theory were unable to find any evidence retroactively (and the link provided to support this tenuous argument leads to a "dead link" page on the Iowa State website).

The reader should assess the arguments presented, as well as those presented on Mr. Smith's own website (especially on this page of his site, where he presents his arguments and invites debate point by point) and those found in other sources, and decide for himself or herself.

Meanwhile, the use of GM products continues to expand, both geographically and into new food crops. This article from earlier this month indicates that GM corn is being tested for introduction in Europe despite widespread opposition (there is generally a much higher level of awareness of the GM issue in Europe and Japan than in the US, according to most literature on the subject). The CEO of one of the largest French seed companies is quoted as saying, "Europe will not be able to avoid the use of GM crops one day. They will become indispensable to achieve competitive production."

This attitude would seem to imply that due diligence is not required, and that popular resistance is futile: the widespread introduction of GM crops is inevitable. Indeed, in the US it is already extremely difficult (but not impossible) to avoid consumption of GM foods. This website contains free downloadable guides to identifying the most likely GM foods and for avoiding GM products if you choose to do so. Currently, GM foods in the US are not required to carry a label advising consumers that they have been genetically modified.

The eight GM food crops authorized in the US currently include corn (a huge percentage of which is now GM in the US, as well as all the varied corn products made from GM corn, including corn syrups, corn starches, corn oils, etc), soy, cottonseed (consumed by humans as cottonseed oil), canola, sugarbeets (and therefore most sugar and foods containing sugar as an ingredient, unless it specifically says "cane sugar"), more than half of Hawaiian papaya, and a small percentage of zucchini and yellow (crookneck) squash. Alfalfa fed to animals is also widely transgenic. For further details, check out the brochures linked at the site above.

This would appear to be yet another area in which individual due diligence is required. Rather than taking anyone else's word on this subject (mine, Jeffrey Smith's, David Tribe's, or anyone else's), individuals should conduct their own examination of the arguments for and against being concerned about the high levels of GM food already present in the food supply and the ongoing entrance of new GM food into the food supply, and make up their own minds.

I would argue that this is a parallel for the due diligence that individuals should also conduct about the general storyline of history that they have been taught. There is extensive evidence (much of it discussed in this blog, as well as in my book and in books by others) that the rosy picture of human history most of us absorb during our schooling, one in which there is a generally unbroken upward slope of "progress," may be completely false. It is possible that an ancient civilization or civilizations possessed remarkably sophisticated levels of knowledge and technology, before collapsing into relative barbarism.

If this alternative view of history is true, we might want to ask "why" and "how" (although we will probably never ask those questions if we don't even know that it ever happened) -- not least so that we can prevent it from happening to our own civilization. While it might not apply to the causes of that ancient civilizational collapse, we might want to consider the possibility that irrevocably contaminating the food supply might threaten our own civilizational health and well-being.