I discuss how organic foods are healthier for us and critique reports on organic foods. I also include discussion on genetically modified organisms (GMO’s or GM foods), the evidence that they can harm us, and suggest how genetic modification has raised a lot of issues about these man-made and not naturally selected foods.
Comment on “A Growing Debate: How To Define ‘Organic’ Food” on All Things Considered for 03/01/11, where I discuss the problems with genetically modified foods, how they are not considered organic and should be labeled when they are GM foods. I also discuss what happens to some foods when they are genetically modified that could alter the nutritional value of the foods so created, making them possibly harmful to rely upon for the kind of nutrition that they used to provide before they were genetically modified. I include comments on the effects of GM foods on the ecology.
This report by NPR’s Dan Charles focuses on the problem of how to define “organic”. The reasons for the debate over the term stems from the arguments over whether genetically modified (GM) foods should be in our food supply. Most recently it comes to the forefront from protests raised by organic farmers over the Department of Agriculture’s decision to allow alfalfa farmers to grow GM alfalfa. The major problem with this decision is that alfalfa is predominantly used to feed dairy cows and horses. Many organic grocers argue that it renders the milk from GM alfalfa-fed cows as non-organic. Most cows are fed GM alfalfa, corn, and soy in the winter.
Organic farmers fear that what has happened already with corn may happen with alfalfa. Corn is a notorious cross-pollinator. So, it is nearly impossible to grow completely organic corn because some of it will carry genes from GM corn. Organic farmers do not want this problem to expand to other crops, even though alfalfa has less of a problem with cross-pollination than corn.
Tom Spohn, director of dairy operations for Horizon Organic, claims that he can still call his product organic because he feeds his cows organic grass and feed–he is following the organic food guidelines completely, even if a few stray non-organic genes make it into his crop. Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association, wants farmers to sue the polluters. OCA is concentrating its efforts against the alfalfa farmers because they threaten the few organic alfalfa seed producers (quite a few people want to eat organic alfalfa sprouts), and because it is the most recent “anti-organic” food decision made by the Department of Agriculture.
But some in the organic food industry fear that this rising anti-GMO activism will damage the trust their customers have in the organic food industry in this country, driving them to buy their food from Europe (which bans GM food). Others cite a recent survey which showed that 77% of consumers would stop buying organic foods if it were genetically modified.
Plant biologist Pamela Ronald takes both sides of the debate. She and her long-time organic farmer husband wrote the book Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. She reminds us that the original purpose of growing organic was to feed the poor and malnourished, to reduce or eliminate the use of insecticides, and increase the fertility of soil and plants.
One thing missing in this debate is how nutritious the GMO food is. We are told that it is safe, mainly based upon Monsanto’s say-so. Feeding experiments are mainly done on rats, which do not have a human digestive system, and have totally different evolutionary forces acting on its formation. Furthermore, those tests are extremely short-sighted. Monsanto dilutes the amount of GMO foods to make sure it does not kill anyone, or “make them sick” in the sense of directly causing a disorder ( ).
However, non-Monsanto studies coming from Europe and Russia show otherwise. Mice fed GM soy products show abnormalities in sperm and other components of the testis (Vecchio 2004). Long term studies on hamsters fed GM soy show very severe effects on growth and survival of young, resulting in complete infertility in adults, in just 3 generations (The Real Agenda), and even worse, rats died after 3 weeks of being fed the GM soy (Marshall 2009, and Ermakova 2006 and 2009).
There are many studies giving evidence that genetically modified foods have adverse effects on humans, e.g. that genetically modified corn can act as endocrine-disrupters to breast and prostate (Markaverich 2002, and papers listed on GM-Free Cymru).
KQED Forum had a discussion on “Is Organic Food Healthier”, among researchers who have done studies of pesticides in foods (Charles Benbrook 2002 and Bruce Ames, as in Gold et al 2001), in addition to the author of the study, critiqued in this blog post, Crystal Smith-Spangler (2012). Benbrook criticizes the study for excluding important evidence, citing his own reviews. Ames claims that Benbrook “cherry-picks” his data. I strongly suspect that Benbrook is very careful about which data he uses in his analyses based upon the comments I made above, that observational vs experimental, and other reasons come to the forefront, just as they obviously did for Smith-Spangler et al (2012).
No similar long-term tests in humans have been done on health effects (e.g. cancer, cardiovascular or hormonal problems or even malnutrition) caused by eating GM food compared with non-GM foods. Most researchers only consider what might be “added” to the food with gene splicing, not what has been taken away. For instance, Russet potatoes that have been genetically modified have far less boron in them than organic Russets (boron is extremely attractive to insects, and makes potatoes look a lot like the roots of weeds that are high in boron–thus removing boron makes potatoes “Roundup-ready”™).
Why is that important? Boron is the single-most important reason why we eat potatoes, not for the starch to fill up our stomachs and make us feel full, as it seems that most uninformed people assume. Boron is used extensively by connective tissue for its repair and its ability to transport important nutrients throughout the body to all tissues. We do not have capillaries next to every cell in the body, or all tissue when cooked would appear to be as brown (red when really fresh) as liver does (compare meat with gristle with bone with kidney and liver in a chicken and you can see how liver and, secondarily, kidney, have the most vascularized tissues in the body). We depend upon connective tissue to transport most nutrients to cells from where the capillaries dump them off.
Suppose we used to eat non-GM potatoes in the past in a favorite dish like potatoes au gratin. Our connective tissues got repaired fairly quickly. Now when we try to eat that same dish with GM Russets, we will tend to have less repair done in the connective tissues. This lack of repair would not necessarily be seen immediately, since our lower boron intake would not show immediate effects unless our bodies are in the middle of repairs from major trauma, like surgery. Instead over a time, this drop in boron content could lead to a greater likelihood for developing fibromyalgia, arthritis, low back pain, pulled tendons, slow repair of fractures, slower digestions, slower recovery from lung viral and bacterial infections, increased inflammation of joints, signs of greater erosion of cartilage in joints, greater risk of losing teeth, poorer ability to produce milk in new mothers. Furthermore there is a greater risk of heart disease, since boron is used most extensively in the heart for repair. (Note that the heart fails most rapidly in victims poisoned with arsenic precisely because it combines so readily with the chemical elements that boron does normally. This means that arsenic successfully competes with boron).
To offset that effect, we would have to turn to other kinds of foods to get that boron. However, much of that is also being changed to a form with far less boron content, like corn and soy, for the same reasons. Other foods with high amounts of boron are also being targeted for gene splicing: strawberries, pears, apples, peaches, apricots, beans. Is removing all GMO alfalfa allowing the camel to poke its head into the tent?
Now, all of this discussion of the effects of GM foods on the tainting of the pollen in organic foods is not just a didactic exercise, as the reporter suggests, saying that pretty much all organic foods are tainted with GM genes in about 1% of genes. Remember that all GM foods have been regulated in the past, and with the removal of regulation, they will be grown everywhere, making that 1% greatly increase, long before we have ever assessed what the long-term effects of eating GM foods are.
Finally, we have totally ignored the ecological effects of growing GM foods. We have data showing that their genes can “jump” to wild plants growing nearby. These “other” plants are critical for helping to form the habitat that makes it possible to grow any agricultural foods. They also can have strong effects on the nutrition of plants that wildlife feed upon. We also have evidence that the modified genes seem to be unstable, and change from one generation to the next, that the GM plants sent to France will have a different genetic makeup if they get sent to Germany. We need considerable research done on long-term ecological effects that could ultimately cause problems to humans.
The Problem with Non-Organics
Comment on “Why Organic Food May Not Be Healthier For You” presented on Morning Edition Sept 04, 2012, where I discuss some of the holes I see in this report, and mention how it is being discussed elsewhere. I point out that there are many studies that the authors excluded from their meta-analysis showing the dangers of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and genetic modification and that this study is not as definitive as the authors wished it to be for many reasons.
NPR reporters Alison Aubrey and Dan Charles reviewed a paper published by Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler et al 2012 in Annals of Internal Medicine where they analyzed many published, peer-reviewed, research articles which investigated the relationship between organic foods, foods with pesticide or bacterial contamination, nutrient content, and health status (allergy, bacterial infection, urinary pesticide level, biomarker and nutrient levels in serum, urine, breast milk, and semen). .
They looked at research projects listed in many data sources and performed a meta-analysis. This type of analysis combines statistical results of many studies into one and treats them as if they resulted from the same methodology applied to a single study.
Most of the publications they used as data in this analysis came from observational studies (those which were only looking for a link between some health problem and the use of toxin on food, usually epidemiological in focus), and not many were experimental (where a cause and effect relationship was examined in a controlled experiment). There are very few studies, if any, that included experiments done on humans, since such data gleaned from “accidents” cannot be from participants who were randomly assigned to treatment groups (one exposed to pesticide on foods, the other not). None of the data were on studies lasting more than 2 years, and most were derived from studies lasting far less than 2 years. Studies on children and adults were included.
The results were not significant, except for the finding that some organic foods were higher in phosphate than their non-organic counterparts. The reporters point out that even though some studies of single foods showed major differences, usually these studies were not included in this report, some by accident, probably because the methodology was so different or there were other aspects that were difficult to find equivalence to most other studies used in the analysis.
The reporters also emphasize that the variability between fruits and vegetables may be much higher than that between studies, making significant differences between organically raised and non-organically raised foods difficult to determine. The researchers conclude that you cannot use organic condition as a determinant for nutritious content. They also suggest that other reasons for buying organic may be more important, e.g. the effect the pesticides have on the environment.
Even though there is a lot of research on developing foods with more nutrient content, the bottom line is that farmers sell by the pound, and “not by the vitamin”. Aubrey and Charles suggest that an entirely new food system needs to be developed, and there are people working on that concept.
My Comment Posted on NPR
Meta-analyses are fraught with problems. By the authors simplistic categorization of research studies, they may have produced a paper not worth taking seriously. However, they are doing no more than many doctors who claim that by losing weight, the patient and reduce their risks for heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, etc, when there is no experimental evidence to support it.
Many effects of pesticides are the result of accumulation over more than 2 years–outside the scope of this article. Pesticides are known to cause changes in cell structure that sets up the body for obesity (see my blog post “Obesity and Pesticides”). I discuss these aspects of this paper and what other notable researchers are saying at my blog post “Health From Organic Foods” at https://marthalhyde.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/health-from-organic-foods.
My Extended Comments
Although Alison Aubrey should be congratulated for her observation that the studies included in the meta-analysis in this report lasted for only 2 years or less, she should have emphasized that the effects of pesticides on health often are not revealed until many years have passed after incidental exposure, and they accumulate, leading to long-term and later-developing ill-health. The researchers themselves in this report reach a conclusion, which it sounds, they had to reach, by excluding important studies and information that are readily available to all readers (reviewed by professionals, and 2 books by Jeffrey Smith, Seeds of Deception, and Genetic Roulette). [Note: Much of the work done by non-researchers, such as Jeffrey Smith, can imply more than is warranted (See Academics Review of Genetic Roulette and Academics Review of the public’s fear of GMO Foods).]
Of great importance to consumers is the fact that many of the most important health issues (diabetes, obesity, blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, infertility, and other hormone problems) are closely related to the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. I cannot begin to list all the sites that exist that have very thorough reviews of many of the concepts and articles of importance to this topic. However, I recommend a few below and in the previous section, ‘Defining “Organic”‘.
By oversimplifying the data used, Smith-Spangler et al (2012) probably ended up with results not worth examining. A clear example of this is the finding that organic chicken and pork had less incidence of antibiotic-resistance, but they conclude that this finding has an unclear clinical significance. Crystal Smith-Spangler, says in her interview and discussion on KQED Forum that the reduced incidence is insignificant. Indeed, Bruce Ames reminds us in this Forum that there was this huge problem with the salmonella-tainted organic vegetables in Germany in the past few months that shows there is just as high a likelihood of contamination of organic foods, given the 800% increase in sales of organic foods over the past few years.
As to expense, very often organic foods sold at farmers’ markets, or online in bulk (e.g. chickpeas), cost less than that of non-organically raised foods in grocery stores. There are many small family farms that organically raise cattle, pigs, chickens (and eggs), turkeys, and exotics for sale at farmers’ markets or delivered to local stores.
I will state a few of my objections to the conclusions and methodology of this research report but there are many more issues raised by Alliance for Natural Health and other sites listed under “References”. Alison Aubrey is right in saying that the 2-year studies are just not that helpful in determining health effects, but neither is the research described in this report.
This study says that pesticides don’t matter. It assumes that the level of pesticides is so low that they must not affect you (“pesticide residue”). There is a HUGE gap between no effect and death or major health problems. No one has actually tested for this or devised a test based upon a chemical analysis of these pesticides and their presence in the body in meaningful areas like the hypodermal fluids (see my blog post “What is the Hypodermis?”
Without hypodermal testing, reviews of what has been done show that pesticides may be at the root of both the obesity and diabetes problems worldwide (see my blog post “Obesity and Pesticides” and Tiwari 2011, to name just 2 of many places). In other words, these researchers used only minimal criteria to determine “healthy”. There are also issues with endocrine-disrupter chemicals associated with fungicides and pesticides (a few studies are mentioned in a report by the Alliance for Natural Health, as well as by Jeffrey Smith of the Huffington Post, and others I mentioned in a post on NPR) [add here in future change]
Most compounds get broken down to their individual chemical elements in ionic form in the body. Many of these elements by themselves could interfere with chemical processes at best and actually cause mutations/methylation of DNA at worst. By ignoring the hypodermal fluids we miss a lot of chemistry. Devising tests based upon logically deduced chemical effects has never been done. Instead, researchers expose animals to the compound in question and look in certain organs for presence of suspicious chemicals and assume that all chemicals are carried in the blood vessels. In some studies they look for obvious health problems. None of these methods takes it to the chemistry level and understanding of the effect individual chemical elements may have on cells or tissues over a long and accumulated lifetime, although some of this information is available. Thus, this report has only minimally useful information.
By choosing to do a meta-analysis, the researchers cannot control for different goals by other researchers (which will cause them to exclude assumed faulty data points). Meta-analyses equate all types of controls, experimental and observational studies, and assume no difference in financial interests of all the researchers, and thus the aims of each study. Of the 1000’s of studies published, these researchers filtered the sample down to 234, and then to 17, but did not tell us why they only chose these particular 17–perhaps because they were the most similarly conducted? To be fair, they state that there is a lot of confusion about the methods used and that some were published in trade journals, suggesting that financial interests might compromise the research.
They also left out very important studies showing very high nutritive content of specific organic foods. The authors’ justification seems to boil down to what they perceive is the best way to sound as if they are being objective. However, there is no way to be totally objective about the process of choosing which studies are “rigorous” and helpful. Anyone using meta-analysis will be accused of “cherry-picking”.
Just these observations alone tell us how much meta-analyses are compromised. Doing a Bayesian meta-analysis would have helped them to weight different studies, and forced them to state all of their biases about each study before they statistically analyzed them. By treating observational and experimental studies similarly, they are giving observational studies the power to determine cause and effect, which they don’t deserve. Two separate analyses should have been done, but it seems that the desire for a “final” word can be overwhelming. We have to stop using meta-analyses as short-cuts.
Michael Pollan says “A lot of it depends on how you manage your assumptions and statistical method”, referring to how you handle the soil, what you think is important for a meta-analysis, and how you choose the studies for the analysis. He said that the same data can make you reach different conclusions–it depends upon your goal.
By keeping their questions very simple, the researchers filtered the research reports one way. He also questions the adequacy of the EPA rules on safe levels of pesticide exposure. We have to remember that most of these rules were established during previous administrations who were bending over backward to please the agribusinesses who wanted to use a lot of pesticides. More importantly, the levels have never been established for pregnant women and children. Pollan also said that most of the studies on pesticides and health have been epidemiological, e.g. studies of organophosphates found cognitive problems in children exposed to pesticides. He cautions that no experimental study has been done yet to show cause and effect.
Bottom line: take this report with a HUGE grain of salt, and choose organic over conventionally grown foods where farmers use systemic pesticides (stoned fruits like peaches, cherries and relatives), and where fruits or vegetables lack a “peel”, and eat meat from animals raised without genetic modification by biomolecular means or fed grains grown/stored with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
Ammann, Klaus. 2009. Do GM potatoes with lectins harm rat organs in feeding experiments? Unpublished commentary on Ewen & Pusztai 1999. Open Source Document.
Baker,B.P.; Benbrook,C.M.; Groth E.3rd; Lutz Benbrook,K. 2002. Pesticide residues in conventional, integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic foods: insights from three US data sets. Food Additives and Contaminants 19(5): 427-446.
Bittencourt Brasil,Flávia; Soares,LavíNia Leal; Faria,Tatiane Silva; Boaventura,Gilson Telles; Sampaio,Francisco José Barcellos; Ramos,Cristiane Fonte. 2009. The Impact of Dietary Organic and Transgenic Soy on the Reproductive System of Female Adult Rat. Anatomical Record 292(4): 587–594.
Ewen, Stanley W.B.; Pusztai, Arpad. Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. The Lancet, Volume 354, Issue 9187, Pages 1353 – 1354, 16 October 1999.
Gold,Lois Swirsky; Slone,Thomas H.; Ames,Bruce N.; Manley,Neela B. 2001. Pesticide Residues in Food and Cancer Risk: A Critical Analysis. pp. 799-843 in Handbook of Pesticide Toxicology, 2nd Ed. Krieger,R., editor. San Diego: Academic Press, 1908 Pp.
Markaverich,Barry; Mani,Shaila; Alejandro,Mary Ann; Mitchell,Andrea; Markaverich,David; Brown,Trellis; Velez-Trippe,Claudia; Murchison,Chris; O’Malley,Bert; Faith,Robert. 2002. A novel endocrine-disrupting agent in corn with mitogenic activity in human breast and prostatic cancer cells. Environ.Health Perspect. 110(2): 169–177.
Metheny, Laura. Dangers Lurking in Your Food. The Herbal Insider.July 13, 2012.
Smith, Jeffrey M. Seeds of Deception – Chap 1 excerpt. Web. 18 Nov. 2010.
Smith-Spangler,Crystal; Brandeau,Margaret L.; Hunter,Grace E.; Bavinger,J. Clay; Pearson,Maren; Eschbach;Paul J.; Sundaram,Vandana; Liu,Hau; Schirmer,Patricia; Stave,Christopher; Olkin,Ingram; Bravata,Dena M. 2012. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Ann.Intern.Med. 157(5): 348-366.
Tiwari,Ashok Kumar. 2011. Diabetes: Time to Look Beyond Gluttony and Laziness. Indian J Community Med. 36(4): 253–258.
Velimirov, A.; Binter, C.; Zentek, J. 2008. Biological effects of transgenic maize NK603xMON810 fed in long term reproduction studies in mice. Report, Forschungsberichte der Sektion IV, Band 3. Institut für Ernährung, and Forschungsinttitut für biologischen Landbau, Vienna, Austria, November 2008.
See GM-Free-Cymru for a critical review.
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