November 6, 2013

Natural Foodie: Extolling corn-free diet draws backlash, raises questions

A Maine writer gets lots of media attention from a variety of sources.

By Avery Yale Kamila

Caitlin Shetterly of Portland no longer eats corn.

Caitlin Shetterly has adopted a corn-free lifetstyle because of her concern about the effects of derivatives of genetically modified corn on her health.

Contributed photo

We’re not just talking about the kind that comes off the cob or out of can. Shetterly doesn’t let anything touch her lips if it has been made from or with corn derivatives, which surprisingly includes everything from toothpaste and iodized salt to paper coffee cups and plastic freezer bags.

Shetterly wrote about her corn-free lifestyle in the August issue of Elle magazine. The piece, titled “The bad seed: The health risk of genetically modified corn,” tells of the years Shetterly spent suffering from an odd mix of symptoms (rashes, headaches, insomnia, pain), consulting with an endless list of doctors and trying treatment after treatment, with no relief.

But, as she writes in Elle, her primary care physician eventually referred her to allergist Paris Mansmann, M.D., in Yarmouth. His diagnosis: an allergic reaction to genetically modified corn. He tells her to avoid all corn – even organic corn – because testing shows that non-GMO corn is contaminated with trace levels of GMO genes. The acronym GMO refers to genetically modified organisms.

Shetterly takes Mansmann’s advice and eliminates corn from her diet (even though it turns out to be much harder than she expected) and soon her symptoms disappear.

Being a writer, Shetterly (who is the author of “Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home”) decided to investigate the possibility of human allergies to GMO corn. She interviewed medical and scientific experts and the lengthy result appeared this summer in the popular fashion magazine.

That’s when the firestorm erupted.

SCIENTIFIC BACKLASH

The online version of the story racked up almost 400 comments. The posts mostly read as a back and forth between those who say the science demonstrates GMOs are safe and those who say the science has been bought and paid for by the chemical companies. Interspersed between these two points of view are posts from people who report similar success eliminating health problems by avoiding corn.

Shetterly’s story was picked up by media outlets as wide ranging as the popular Daily Mail newspaper in Britain to the nonprofit news website Common Dreams in the U.S.

The scientific establishment was quick to attack the piece. At the end of July when the story showed up on newsstands and online, Discover Magazine blogger Keith Kloor called it another example of “whacky fringe elements” bad-mouthing GMOs.

Then on Aug. 7, Slate published a response to the Elle piece titled “No, you shouldn’t fear GMO corn” penned by Jon Entine. He writes Shetterly’s work “just doesn’t withstand the critical scrutiny of science.”

The Slate piece was widely shared and referenced in other online posts. Monsanto even linked to it on its Facebook page and stirred up 177 comments.

What I found curious is that Slate wasn’t the only place where Entine’s byline popped up. He also wrote similar criticisms for Forbes and the special interest groups the American Enterprise Institute and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Research & Science. Plus he attacked the piece on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, where he serves as founding director.

A former television producer and the author of several books including “Crop Chemophobia: Will Precaution Kill the Green Revolution?” Entine bills himself as a journalist who writes about science with a “skeptical eye.” However, he also runs a public relations consulting firm.

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