Yesterday, the Food and Toxicological Journal in New York published the findings of the first-ever, long-term, toxicity study of a feeding trial that examined the effects of consuming food that has been routinely sprayed with a commonly used weedkiller and altered by genetic engineering, a technology introduced into our food supply in the last 15 years.
And it has sparked controversy.
On one side of the debate, researchers are urging precaution, using emotional images of rats bloated with tumors, and data suggesting increased mortality, and on the other side is the industry that stands to lose not only on the corn fields but also in the courtroom and boardroom should their products be proven to cause harm.
But perhaps the most alarming thing about yesterday's announcement is the fact that while the US population has been consuming these products for the last fifteen years, without having been told or informed through mandatory labeling, this is the first long-term study that examines the toxicological impact of what eating crops, hardwired for chemicals, might do to us.
Stop and think about that. For the first time, a long-term toxicity trial has been conducted on food we've been eating for 15 years.
So what did it find?
The study examined the long-term health impacts of consuming two products in particular related to this new technology, a genetically modified corn and the world's most popular weedkiller, a product used extensively in farming and agriculture.
With images that are sure to draw an emotional response, the study revealed that consumption of these two products can cause tumours, multiple organ damage and lead to premature death.
Now correlation is not causation, but we are quickly learning from organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics to the President's Cancer Panel, that environmental factors are increasingly being linked to diseases like cancer.
And with rates of cancer escalating among Americans (according to the American Cancer Society 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women are expected to get cancer in their lifetimes), as well as health care costs related to the disease and the economic burden it places on our country, productivity and growth, the controversial study quickly made headlines.
France's government on Wednesday asked the National Agency for Health Safety (ANSES) to investigate the finding after the corn was linked to cancer in order "to take all necessary measures to protect human and animal health," they said in a joint statement.
The relationship between our government and the corn industry has been long-standing, as evidenced in the image above. And currently, the USDA is part owner on a major patent technology. With the jury still out on this issue and others, like pink slime, drug use in the animals we eat and others, only time will tell if conflicts of interests will present an issue and if our government will do the same.
So what's an eater to do?
The product in question is a new type of corn, called NK603, patented at the United States Patent and Trademark Office and made by US agribusiness giant Monsanto. The corn has been engineered to withstand Monsanto's weedkiller Roundup.
Genetically engineered seeds are a profitable product for the company, not only because these new seeds have been patented for their novel technologies, enabling the company to charge licensing fees, royalty fees and trait fees to the farmers that now use them, but also because they enable an increased adoption of other chemicals and products in the companies portfolio, like RoundUp Weedkiller, building out both revenue streams while also offering hedges to any potential slumps in sales that might occur. Additionally, protected under patent law for their intellectual property, these patents prohibit research on the new patented seed variety, except if the farmer or researcher is willing to pay the patent holder.
It's a brilliant business model, and this generation of farmers is the first to experience this shift in the business model, where they now have to license the use of this new technology, paying royalty, trait and licensing fees much like an end-user has to license the use of Microsoft's software.
And while these genetically engineered crops are widely grown in the United States, they have been banned or are labeled in 50 countries around the world due to health and environmental concerns and the fact that until now, no long-term studies have been conducted.
And while the study showed premature deaths, tumor growth and organ damage, with sickness concentrated especially among females, according to Reuters, Monsanto spokesman said that "more than 300 peer-reviewed studies" had found that (this) food was safe.
In other words, it's a bit of a he said/she said debate.
So again, what's an eater to do?
This corn cannot be grown in Europe, so you could move there. But since that's not an option for most of us, as the debate continues, with the industry funding studies on one side saying one thing, while independent scientists say another, we can take a cue from Harvard University, who conducted research showing the impact that funding ties can make on the outcome of scientific studies, particularly those around food and nutrition. The study from 2007 is titled "Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles". Its conclusion?
"Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors' products, with potentially significant implications for public health."
The bottom line is that the bottom line matters when it comes to science. So we can expect to see more controversy around food studies and an increasing scrutiny of funding ties between researchers, institutions, universities and corporations, especially in light of the growing number of food safety concerns and recalls.
So ask questions. Become part of the conversation. Start a book club, a movie night. Nothing could be more important than the health of our families. And if our food is making us sick, we need to know about it. Because while there will always be controversy and criticism around the methodologies used in studies, there is in this study, specifically the pictures of rats with large tumors", reported the BBC, there will always be a He said/She said debate when profits are at stake.
But we are all stakeholders in our food supply and the health of our country. And we are increasingly cancer-ridden, with our corporations, our families and our economy weighed down by the burden of disease. Just this week it was announced that cancer has overtaken heart disease as the No. 1 killer among Hispanics in the U.S.
We have a right to independent, long-term studies that examine what the impact of these novel technologies and manufactured chemicals might have on the health of our loved ones, our pregnancies and our children, we have the right to know how our food is produced, and like 50 countries around the world, we have the right to labels on these genetically engineered ingredients, so that as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, as Americans, we can make an informed choice when it comes to feeding our loved ones.
This is not about an eaters right to choose organic food, which by law does not allow either of these ingredients to be used in the process, nor is this is about those with capital being able to choose to shop in a certain zip code while those without capital can not. This is a fundamental right to human health that should be afforded to all Americans : the right to know about the ingredients that are in our food supply and if they cause harm.
And while this study is not perfect, in the face of not a single long-term human health study until now, this is the only long-term study we've got. The only one. And we need more.
Some argue, if this study is true,"why aren't NorthAmericans dropping like flies?!". 41% of us are expected to get cancer. Cancer is now the leading cause of death by disease in American children. Correlation is not causation, but in light of these statistics, not knowing what is in our food supply and the long-term harm that these ingredients might cause is no longer an option. Because while our children may only represent 30% of the population, they are 100% of our future.
To ask the FDA to label these genetically engineered foods, placing the same value on the lives of Americans that has been placed on the lives of citizens in almost 50 other countries around the world, please join www.justlabelit.org