Got the latest edition of 'the non-toxic times' today. This was one of
Vol. 8, No. 9 - July 2007
Muddying Up the Gene Pool: Are Genetically Modified Foods Causing an
One of the more vexing medical mysteries to have surfaced in recent
years is the startling and inexplicable rise in food allergies currently
being seen in the western world. As medical offices and emergency rooms
increasingly fill with adults and children suffering reactions to common
foods, researchers are scratching their heads over the cause. Some in
the scientific community, however, believe the alarming increase in food
allergies can be traced to the public’s growing exposure to genetically
From a biological perspective, an allergic reaction is a hair-trigger
immune system overreaction to a foreign substance, typically a protein,
that the body perceives as a threat. Unlike normal immune system
responses, however, allergic reactions are characterized by a reaction
so massive that the body itself is imperiled.
Allergies develop when the body experiences repeated encounters with an
allergen. Each time it does, it produces antibodies that are
specifically designed to fight that substance. These antibodies bind to
the surface of special cells called mast cells and wait for the body’s
next encounter with the allergen. While they wait, the mast cells start
gathering chemicals, like histamines, from the bloodstream that can be
used to aid the body’s defense. The next time the allergen is
encountered, it attaches to the antibodies on the surface of the mast
cells, which triggers the release of all the chemicals those cells have
collected. Repeated exposures to the allergen result in more chemicals
being stored and then released by the mast cells. Eventually the
quantities released become so large that an allergic reaction results.
Thirty years ago, food allergies were fairly rare. But today they affect
an estimated 4.3 million U.S. children. Ninety-five percent of all
elementary schools are affected by the problem, where school nurses
report an average of ten students per school with food allergies. Rates
of peanut allergies alone doubled between 1997 and 2002. Overall, more
than 11 million Americans suffer food allergies. According to the Food
Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, such allergies are responsible for
30,000 emergency room visits a year and 150 deaths.
A growing number of researchers believe that genetically modified (GM)
foods may be causing this allergy epidemic. These foods have been
altered by technologies that insert foreign genes from other species
into the DNA of the target species. The addition of these new genes
causes the food plant or animal in question to produce new substances or
behave in certain ways that offer benefits to farmers. A GM food may
have been altered, for example, to resist a particular disease or pest,
withstand applications of an otherwise harmful pesticide, stay fresh
longer, or behave in a new way during processing.
Because the new genes in GM foods sometimes come from species to which
people are commonly allergic or cause their new hosts to produce
proteins similar to those to which many people are sensitive, scientists
have been aware that GM foods could provoke allergies. And lately the
evidence that they’re doing just that has been accumulating:
• In 1999, an annual study of food allergens in the U.K. found that soy
allergies had increased 50% over the previous year. This trend coincided
with the first imports of GM soy from the U.S., which led scientists to
strongly suspect a connection.
• In the mid 1990s, a gene from the Brazil nut was inserted into a type
of GM soybean. This new soy plant was never marketed because blood tests
of people allergic to Brazil nuts showed reactions to the new soybeans.
• Amounts of a soy allergen called trypsin inhibitor have been found to
be as much as 27% higher in raw GM soy vs. raw natural soy.
• Another study of GM soy discovered that such crops contained a unique
new protein that triggered a human antibody response.
• Mice given a diet rich in GM soy had significantly lower levels of
pancreatic enzymes, which are needed to break down proteins in the
digestive tract. When proteins last longer in the body, they’re more
likely to provoke an allergic response.
• Some types of GM corn have been bred to produce the same toxin
produced by natural Bt bacteria, a common organic pest control. This
corn is “naturally” pest resistant, but because it typically produces
3,000-5,000 times more Bt toxin than Bt bacteria, the resulting food is
also filled with Bt, which survives cooking processes. Mice fed Bt-toxin
exhibited immune responses as severe as those seen in cholera victims.
The toxin also sensitized their immune systems to formerly harmless
• A Monsanto study on Bt corn that legal action forced the company to
reveal showed that rats who ate it experienced a significant increase in
three types of immune system blood cells.
• When Australian scientists inserted a kidney bean gene that produces a
natural insecticide into pea plants, tests showed that the pea plants’
version of the compound was subtly altered. Though harmless when
consumed in kidney beans, the substance caused inflammatory responses in
mice when produced by the pea plants.
• Similarly, a type of GM potato that produced yet another natural
insecticide was found to damage rat immune systems even though the same
substance was harmless when produced by its original host plant.
Evidence like this is troubling, and even though it isn’t enough to
definitively declare that any specific GM food is harmful to human
beings, it’s our opinion that you don’t have to be a biologist to read
the handwriting on the lab room wall.
Until more is known, the Precautionary Principle clearly dictates that
concerned consumers avoid GM foods. The best and indeed only way to do
that is to eat organic foods as often as possible. By law, organic foods
cannot be genetically modified nor contain GM ingredients.
For further information about the potential of GM foods to cause food
allergies and more on the research cited above, including references,
visit http://www.thecampaign.org/forums/showthread.php?tf2 .