Are GMO Foods Safe? A Personal Perspective
This November, Oregonians will vote on a ballot initiative requiring labeling of genetically engineered (GE or GMO) foods. The campaign’s main message is that we have a right to know what’s in our food. I fully support the measure.
There are a variety of reasons consumers cite for wanting labeling, and one of the most common is the question of GMO food safety.
Here’s my personal story:
I’m neither a scientist nor physician, although I’ve worked in health, scientific and environmental fields for nearly 40 years. From 2003 to 2011, I was project director for the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Campaign for Safe Food, logging literally thousands of hours studying GMO foods. For topics beyond my knowledge, I had the privilege of working with numerous highly-regarded scientists and physicians all over the country for technical advice.
I concluded that GMO’s were not demonstrated safe for human health. Numerous quality peer-reviewed scientific studies, especially significant animal research, showed harm. This didn’t mean that all GMO foods were proven harmful to humans. But lacking adequate pre-market safety testing, it did mean they couldn’t be determined safe beyond a reasonable doubt.
In 2004, Oregon PSR assumed a nationwide leadership role on recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST). This drug, developed by Monsanto, is injected into cows to induce them to produce more milk. In 1993, it was the FDA’s first approval of a genetically engineered food.
We had three major reasons to oppose rBGH. The first was animal cruelty. The package label itself listed 15 harmful conditions increased by the hormone. Second, one of the illnesses was mastitis, a painful infection of the udder, which dairy farmers typically treat with antibiotics. Resistant bacteria ended up in the milk, air, soil and water, which couldn’t help but increase antibiotic resistance in humans, a serious public health problem.
The third issue was cancer. When rBGH is injected into a cow, it elevates levels of another powerful hormone, IGF-1, which is present in both cows and humans. IGF-1 is necessary, but in excessive amounts has been linked in hundreds of studies to an increase in breast, prostate, colon, lung and other cancers. Several studies indicated IGF-1 in milk survives human digestion and enters the bloodstream.
Was there 100% proof that rBGH was increasing cancer rates in humans? No. But there was substantial scientific evidence showing that it could. We felt strongly that rBGH was an unnecessary risk and should never have been approved. Better safe than sorry.
The FDA’s final conclusion? You can see it on milk labels: There is “No significant difference” between rBGH and non-rBGH milk. Obviously, significance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
For more information, including documentation, see the Oregon PSR brochure at http://phsj.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/rBGH-Brochure.pdf. Science is only half the story of rBGH. The other is politics.
The FDA had hired several individuals connected with Monsanto for high-ranking positions shortly before reviewing rBGH. One, Michael Taylor, was instrumental in the approval. Taylor, the epitome of Washington’s revolving door, returned to Monsanto in 1998 and is now back at the FDA.
Several FDA scientists decried Monsanto’s undue influence. Toxicology Division director Alexander Apostolou said that Monsanto “improperly influence(d) the agency’s scientific analysis.” Another, Richard Burroughs, said officials “suppressed and manipulated data.” Other outraged FDA employees complained to Congress but it took no action. Congressmen George Brown, David Obey and (now Senator) Bernie Sanders wrote in 1994 that “The entire FDA review of rBGH seemingly has been characterized by misinformation and questionable actions on the part of both FDA and the Monsanto Company officials.”
For their whistle-blowing, Apostolou was forced to leave the FDA and Burroughs was fired. The same pattern has played out numerous times since – undue corporate influence, legitimate science ignored or suppressed, and scientists opposing GMO’s attacked with a vehemence far exceeding typical scholarly debate. It’s been an ongoing revelation for me that no science is “pure.” Like anyone else, scientists aren’t immune to their own biases, egos and susceptibility to peer and financial pressure.
Many people don’t realize the FDA doesn’t do its own GMO safety testing. Nor does it require any independent analysis. The only testing done is by the biotech corporations themselves. For a crop they want approved, they tell the FDA it’s safe, and the FDA virtually always acknowledges their assurances. Monsanto calls this a “strong regulatory framework.” Most people would call it, at best, a conflict of interest, and at worst, the fox being in charge of the henhouse.
I sympathize with anyone trying to evaluate the charges and counter-charges of advocates on both sides of this issue. One side’s “sound science” is the other side’s “junk science.” It’s a major debate (see (http://www.ensser.org/increasing-public-information/no-scientific-consensus-on-gmo-safety/).
The Precautionary Principle (see https://www.thelundreport.org/content/misguided-insistence-certainty) recommends taking precautionary action in the face of threats to human health or the environment. Instead, the biotech industry and the FDA, driving GMO approvals, have their feet on the accelerator.
I have no wish to be a guinea pig. I favor the brakes. Or, at the very least, a middle ground of labeling so that all of us, no matter where we stand on GMO safety, can make more informed decisions.