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Genetically Modified or Genetically Enhanced? It’s a Thorny Question

June 26, 2010 •  13 comments.

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Contributed by April Harris of The 21st Century Housewife’s Kitchen June 26, 2010

As you probably already know, a GMO is a genetically modified organism. Basically, you take an ordinary garden-variety product – say a tomato – and add new genetic material to it in order to make it taste better, increase crop yields, be resistant to pests without the use of pesticides or perhaps even make it ripen more quickly. It all sounds fairly innocent, but then words like cross pollination, “mutant” plants and even more frightening ones like “terminator technology” start to creep in and we all get very nervous indeed. There are serious concerns that genetically modified crops could threaten biodiversity and even our health.

In the United Kingdom where I live most people are pretty wary of foods that have been genetically modified and have been from the very beginning. GM foods are considered not only bad for you, but unethical as well. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have all agreed to make themselves GM free zones, with Dublin declaring the Republic of Ireland wish to do the same thing. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in London are hedging their bets, saying they prefer “to assess each application for GM crops on its merits without blanket approval or rejection” and European Union regulations require that any genetically modified product marketed for sale must be judged “not to present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers and not to be of less nutritional value than the foods they are intended to replace”. One good thing though, if a product here contains anything genetically modified, it has to be labeled as such.

Up until recently, world opinion was pretty divided on GM crops. The media have played a huge role in this, so much so that where you lived could really influence your opinion.

I spent a lot of time in the North America between 2004 and 2007 looking after my parents in the last years of their lives. I travelled back and forth to Canada at least five or six times a year and in addition there were regular trips to the US. I shopped and cooked in both countries and the question of looking to avoid GM foods never really arose. It would have been impossible as there was no labeling and to be honest, at that point I not only had other things on my mind, but frankly I couldn’t see why properly managed, genetic modification might not be a very good thing indeed. Interestingly enough, at that time you rarely saw the words “genetically modified” in the North American press – instead you saw the words “genetically enhanced”. My goodness that sounded better. Enhanced is a good thing, isn’t it? Don’t we all want things to be enhanced and improved? Would I not prefer my family eat foods that have less pesticides on them? Do I not want food that both tastes and keeps better? No wonder the majority of public opinion was totally different there, and as someone who likes to look on the bright side, no wonder I was influenced it by it.

Thankfully things have changed a lot in the years since then. Opinions in North America are more divided and so is mine. Monsanto’s huge mistake of researching and developing seed that does not actually bear more seed for planting (often referred to as “suicide seed”) raised everyone’s hackles worldwide. Then it was discovered that monarch butterfly caterpillars that ate pollen from genetically modified crops were dying in large numbers. Not long after that, millions of honeybees began to disappear without explanation. It made a lot of people, including me, wonder if messing with the food chain was really such a good thing. While there is not any proof genetically modified crops caused the disappearance of the bees, there is no way yet of proving it doesn’t contribute to it either. And if GM crops are killing insects, maybe we ought to look at what they might be doing to us, not to mention what would happen to our food chain if we lose our honeybees, the main source of crop pollination worldwide.

Chances are that many of us have eaten and are eating more genetically modified products than we imagine. Two of the main genetically modified crops grown are corn and soybeans. Animal feed used to nourish the animals we eat can contain both of these products – which we also eat both as an end products in themselves, in vegetable oils and as part of more foodstuffs that you would imagine. If you look at the ingredients list on virtually any package of prepared food, chances are you are going to find some soy or corn derivative. Plus there is a risk that if genetically modified crops are grown close enough to regular or organic crops, that pollen may be transferred from the GM crops to the other crops unintentionally. The only limit is how far the wind can blow – and that is a pretty scary thought.

It is definitely time for labeling of GM products and products containing them like we have in the UK worldwide – and for that matter, labeling here could still be made clearer. But what else can one do on an individual scale? I’m hardly an eco-warrior, but I do care deeply about food, the environment and what and how my family – and my readers – eat. So I do everything I can to make it unnecessary for me to buy things that are genetically modified. I try to choose organic vegetables, fruit and meat wherever possible, always buy free range eggs, refuse to buy intensively farmed meat or fish, grow some of my own vegetables in the summer and never use pesticides of any kind in my garden (flowers or vegetables). I also make a concerted effort to buy only what I need and campaign for and advocate better, clearer labeling on packaged products. Most of all though, I try to stay informed and open-minded.

Until we know the true environmental, economic and human cost of genetically engineering our crops, we need to proceed with caution both individually and collectively. If genetic modification can help us to feed the world, reduce pesticide use, improve nutrition and grow foods in inhospitable environments without damaging the world’s eco-structure, human health or fledgling economies, then it could be a wonderful thing indeed. The question is, is that really possible? Sadly, I’m afraid the answer to that thorny question is probably no.

Graffiti and Grub

June 23, 2010 •  no comments.

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Just when you thought you couldn’t handle another depressing headline, out comes some inspiration from a rapper and his brother (phew!).

A health and wellness enthusiast named B-Boy Super Inlight reached out to D-Nick The Microphone Misfit to compose a song, for the opening of Graffiti and Grub, a natural foods store on the Chicago’s South Side.

They use Hip Hop culture, as a way of inspiring different types of people to eat healthy. The result was this song, “Abnormality” which takes its chorus from the definition of the word healthy. The video is shot entirely in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago in the heart of the city and features people from that area who share a passion for healthy living.

The words are powerful (and the tune is catchy) especially when they sing: “You wouldn’t give your mama artificial love so why are you feasting on artificial grub?”

Good question and great inspiration. Thanks, Graffiti and Grub!

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

June 21, 2010 •  no comments.

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According to the Wall Street Journal, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto Corporation on Monday and struck down a 2007 restriction that barred farmers from planting Monsanto Co.’s Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. The ruling allows the interim planting of Monsanto’s product, RoundUp Ready alfalfa, pending USDA approval as the federal government completes a study of whether the seed’s use would have an environmental impact.

Monsanto, the corporation who owns the patent on RoundUp Ready alfalfa, celebrated the decision in support their product’s advancement in the marketplace in a statement to the press and shareholders:

“This Supreme Court ruling is important for every American farmer, not just alfalfa growers. All growers can rely on the expertise of USDA, and trust that future challenges to biotech approvals must now be based on scientific facts, not speculation.”
— David F. Snively, Monsanto senior vice president and general counsel

“This is exceptionally good news received in time for the next planting season. Farmers have been waiting to hear this for quite some time. We have Roundup Ready alfalfa seed ready to deliver and await USDA guidance on its release. Our goal is to have everything in place for growers to plant in fall 2010.
— Steve Welker, Monsanto alfalfa business lead

According to Business Week and the USDA, alfalfa is “the fourth-most-planted U.S. crop behind corn, soybeans and wheat, is worth $9 billion a year, with annual seed sales valued at $63 million, according to a USDA study. Dairy cows are the primary consumers of alfalfa hay”.

The decision is significant because it gives the USDA the ability to partially deregulate genetically engineered crops.

According to the USDA, “U.S. farmers have adopted genetically engineered (GE) crops widely since their introduction in 1996, notwithstanding uncertainty about consumer acceptance, economic and environmental impacts” and the fact that allergenicity testing is not yet available for the novel proteins and allergens created in the genetic engineering process.

Debates over the allergenicity of genetically engineered crops have continued since an August 13, 2002 meeting of the Food Biotechnology Subcommittee of the Food Advisory Committee a multiagency committee that included representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Center or Food Safety and applied Nutrition, a division of the FDA, at which the committee’s acting chair, Edward N. Brandt, Jr. MD, PhD, stated in response to a discussion on the safety of genetically engineered foods,

“Of course, we haven’t worked into this some kind of test for allergenicity, per se….”

In part, because, as Dean Metcalfe, who served as the head of the National Institutes of Health’s Laboratory for Allergic Diseases at the time, explained that although you could test genetically engineered crops for known proteins it was the unintended creation of new proteins that made it difficiutl to test GM crops for allergenicity.

Despite the fact that a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, “Food Allergy Among US Children Trends in Prevalence and Hospitalizations, shows a 265% increase in the rate of food allergic hospitalizations, these novel food proteins have been considered innocent until proven guilty.

While Monsanto appears to benefit from the Supreme Court ruling which will allow for the introduction of its licensed and patented product into the US food supply, pending USDA approval by the office that oversees biotech crops, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), (which leaves the door open to some sort of preliminary approval for the alfalfa seed), perhaps as we move forward we should call on the USDA to not only conduct an Environmental Impact Sudy, but also an Children’s Impact Survey.

Given that in today’s ruling, the Supreme Court “has also now ruled for the very first time that “environmental harm” includes economic effects such as reduced agricultural yield or loss of market due to genetic contamination, as well as the concept of what biologists refer to as “gene flow” (in practice, the idea that genetically engineered material may get into conventional plants through cross-pollination), the Supreme Court has now accepted that this phenomenon in and of itself is harmful and illegal under current environment protections.

While we may not all be shareholders in the profits to be derived from Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa patent and its licensing agreement, we are all stakeholders in the environment and in our food supply. And as we proceed with caution, it could be argued that those who stand to gain or lose the most, given the environmental and health implications of genetically engineered alfalfa, are our children.

If you fly on airlines, read this…

June 14, 2010 •  6 comments.

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Originally submitted to the AllergyKids Foundation by Nancy Myrick June 13 2010

We learned early on that our son Sinclair had a severe peanut allergy. In his earliest childhood he went to the hospital several times with hives and at times even labored breathing. He went through testing and his allergist explained to us that we must remove all peanut products from our home and always have and epi pen with us.

During the summer of 2006 (Sinclair was 6) I learned more about the awful realities of Sinclair’s peanut allergy. Sinclair was flying back to California with a grandparent following a visit with them. Somewhere between Monroe, LA and Dallas, TX, he either ingested a peanut, inhaled peanut dust or had contact with peanut products. We don’t know which or where but the fact that he was in a very small plane trapped on the tarmac for 4 hours before leaving Monroe could well have been the reason. When he reached Dallas he was taken by ambulance out of DFW airport to Baylor Hospital. He was treated at the hospital where he remained for several hours and then allowed to fly home. Knowing what I know now, I would have never allowed that flight. Soon after his return Sinclair had two more reactions from the same peanut that included two more emergency room visits, the last causing anaphylaxis in which his face became so distorted he was nearly unrecognizable. Sinclair almost died that night. His allergy had a grip on the entire family.

When we fly I have learned to accept that I will likely be met with skepticism and have to jump through hoops to be able to have some reasonable comfort about avoiding anaphylactic shock at 30,000 feet. It can be exhausting, both physically and mentally. I have often thought to myself how reassuring it would be to have a clearly stated airline policy, any policy, on what they would like me to do – what they expect of me and what I can expect of them. Most gate agents and flight attendants are well intended but you really never know when you are going to encounter someone on a bad day, or someone who doesn’t believe there is even such a thing as a life threatening food allergy. There seems to be little institutional awareness or training and so each individual airline employee seems to present another potential level of screening or someone who may need to be persuaded. And you do all this in the presence of your child not sure of what psychological burden your imposing on him by suggesting his life may be in the balance.

To summarize the events of November 29, 2009 on a flight returning to San Francisco, ordeal, we were abruptly told we had to leave the plane; and unceremoniously marched off the plane after suggesting that we’d like to be seated somewhere where person next to us was willing to refrain from eating peanuts. While my son cried, we were taken off the plane and made to stand in the jet way for 20 minutes without anyone from AA even speaking to us to indicate what was going on or whether we were being booted from the flight. Finally the gate agent asked me, “do you have an epi pen” which seemed like a good question, if only asked an hour before. They finally put us back on the plane after calling a woman who never introduced herself and who never asked us any questions but made comments like, “most of the time people just take their medicine before getting on the plane”.

After reaching out to my Congresswoman’s office and several allergy agencies, I was told to look at the Air Carrier Access Act. After reading it I felt completely confident that what had happened to my son and I had been wrong and I filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”) on January 15, 2010 and received a response from the DOT General Counsel stating that no rule was violated by American Airlines since at the end of the day, we were in fact transported back to San Francisco. Anything goes if we get you home. The DOT went on to say:

“. . . at this time carriers are not required to make any accommodations requested by, or on the behalf of, passengers with severe allergies to peanuts based on past guidance provided to the Department by Congress.

So the reality of flight on a domestic carrier is that while any given flight attendant may agree to a dispensation or accommodation, there are no formal procedures or policies except that a passenger should be responsible for managing an exposure.

The Department of Transportation is proposing to improve the air travel environment for consumers in several areas including individuals with peanut allergies. They are asking for comments to be filed in order to obtain information to support the protections originally intended in the Air Carrier Access Act for passengers with severe allergies. Some of the options they are considering are:

“ (1) Banning the serving of peanuts and all peanut products by both U.S. and foreign carriers on flights covered by DOT’s disability rule; (2) banning the serving of peanuts and all peanut products on all such flights where a passenger with a peanut allergy is on board and has requested a peanut-free flight in advance; or (3) requiring a peanut-free buffer zone in the immediate area of a passenger with a medically-documented severe allergy to peanuts if passenger has requested a peanut-free flight in advance. We seek comment on these approaches as well as the question of whether it would be preferable to maintain the current practice of not prescribing carrier practices concerning the serving of peanuts”

DOT is going to be writing rules and providing guidance re rights of passengers with severe peanut allergies. Here is the opportunity for all to provide comments about what those rules should look like. You can make comments until August 9, 2010, and there are several ways to do so, the easiest of which is to go to www.regulationroom.com and register, sign in and make a comment about what you think. Or use the Federal eRulemaking Portal which can be found by clicking here.

Please make your comments. Your support can make a difference. Simply visit the Federal eRulemaking Portal which can be found by clicking here and together, we can affect remarkable change.

Peanut Allergy Has a Purpose…and a Deeper Meaning

June 11, 2010 •  30 comments.

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Submitted by Heather Fraser June 10, 2010 www.peanutallergyepidemic.com

When we discovered that my one year old son had a life threatening allergy to peanuts/tree nuts, we seemed to be something of an anomaly in 1995. Today I understand that we were part of the first wave of food allergic kids to emerge from an event which accelerated the prevalence of allergy starting in 1988.

Since then, I have come to believe that allergy is not a dysfunction. Before reading Margie Profet’s “The Function of Allergy” (1991) it had not occurred to me that this frightening condition could have a purpose. Allergy is an evolved immune response, a defense against acute toxicity. With allergy, acute toxicity occurs when a protein manages to enter and persist in the bloodstream long enough for IgE, the “allergy antibodies” to form against it. When the body next encounters this protein, the defense against it can be violent. The swelling, itching and coughing are emergency measures designed to eject the toxic proteins from the body as fast as possible and the drop in blood pressure to prevent it from circulating to vital organs. All mammals have these antibodies and can develop alalergies. But there are only five ways that toxins can access the bloodstream: ingestion; inhalation; through the skin; and by injection.

With this novel understanding, the story of how my son had become allergic to peanuts took shape. I scoured the historical medical literature and found other epidemics and outbreaks of allergy to foods and drugs. The first outbreak of peanut allergy was at the close of WWII in a study of children and penicillin. The penicillin was made with Romansky’s formula, a thick buttery mix of beeswax and peanut oil. It was difficult to inject and resulted in peanut allergy in many of the children. With this lesson learned and improved refining processes in place, peanut oil became a common ingredient in medicines and vaccines. Starting in 1964, Merck began to use a novel peanut oil adjuvant that promised to increase the effectiveness of all vaccines. Coincidentally, allergy to peanut began to rise.

How had peanut proteins entered and persisted in my toddler’s blood stream when he had never eaten peanut before? Was it from vaccination? By 2000, when I realized that the allergy had become common, that those affected in this wave were small children only in certain countries, that there was a sudden acceleration of the allergy in late 1980s (supported by ER records, cohort studies and eye witness accounts) there seemed only one mechanism that could have created it on this scale. In the US, an average of 100,000 kids every year between 1997 and 2001 became peanut allergic.

While all of this played on my mind, my son struggled with eczema, allergies, and asthma. In desperation, we turned to the holistic treatments and found ways to detoxify, chelate, realign and understand that the body is both biology and energy. He has grown to 15 now and is intellectually gifted, amazingly funny, speaks Japanese, plays guitar and has turned to acting. His symptoms of asthma, eczema and some lesser food allergies have diminished greatly but his RAST IgE score to peanut is still off the chart.

This year he decided to take a cracker offered to him by a friend at school. He had a reaction the likes of which we have not seen since 1995. Without the emergency services at the hospital, he might not be here. Another very frightening lesson learned.

But what does our peanut allergy mean to the larger society? If the tendency to develop allergy is inversely related to the body’s ability to detoxify, we have created in our children a level of toxicity never before seen in human history. In epidemic proportions, we have unleashed an evolutionarily programmed response designed only for emergency failure of all other lines of defense. The peanut allergy epidemic is a man-made phenomenon. And being so, there should be no question that we have the power to end it.

Heather Fraser, MA, BA, B.Ed is a Toronto-based writer, historian and the mother of a peanut-allergic child.