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.

For the Slate piece, Entine contacted the sources Shetterly quoted in her story. He found that many of these sources were uncomfortable with how they were quoted, with one saying Shetterly “totally twisted what I said.”

But there seems to be a deeper and more disturbing aspect to these after-the-fact retractions. Are those in the scientific and medical communities afraid to cast doubt on products made by the powerful biotechnology and chemical industries?

ELLE RESPONDS TO CRITICS

On Aug. 9, Elle published a rebuttal to Entine’s Slate piece. The rebuttal points out that Entine ignored passages in Shetterly’s story that cast doubt on the GMO corn allergy theory. Yet the most troubling information comes at the end of the rebuttal.

Elle’s editors write: “In the course of reporting the piece, Shetterly spoke with a number of researchers and medical professionals who told her they couldn’t go on the record about their doubts about GMOs because they feared being sued by a biotech or agriculture company, or losing grant money provided by the private sector.”

This will come as no surprise to those who see a massive conspiracy involving researchers, government and corporate America. Yet, for the rest of us this assertion raises serious concerns about a field that is viewed by many (both inside and outside of scientific research organizations) as pure and free of bias.

The Elle rebuttal also questions whether or not Entine is an independent journalist. Turns out Elle isn’t the first publication to do so.

In early 2012, Mother Jones magazine published a story by Tom Philpott called “The Making of an Agribusiness Apologist,” which examined Entine’s work defending the herbicide atrazine. The Mother Jones piece looked at Entine’s ties to atrazine maker Sygenta. According to Philpott, Sygenta provides funding to the American Council on Science and Health, which published a book by Entine titled “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health.”

Philpott wasn’t able to prove Sygenta paid for Entine’s pro-atrazine writing, but he raises legitimate concerns about Entine’s independence.

Of particular interest to the current attack on Shetterly is what Philpott found on Entine’s consulting website. While the text is no longer there, Philpott wrote that the website listed Monsanto as a “select client.” Entine explained it away, saying years ago he did work for a company created by former Monsanto executives. Monsanto is one of the largest producers of gene-altered corn.

I contacted Entine by email and asked if biotechnology companies, such as Monsanto, fund any of his work. He said “no,” but didn’t elaborate on who pays for his writing.

“I challenge you to find analyses by me that are not grounded in empirical science,” Entine said in his email.

JOURNALIST OR PR SPIN MASTER?

Whether or not his work is grounded in science isn’t enough for some media watchers.

“Jon Entine can assert that he is not funded by any biotech firms, but quite frankly there is no way for anyone to actually verify that claim,” said Lisa Graves, executive director for the Center for Media and Democracy, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit which works to expose corporate spin masquerading as legitimate journalism.

Philpott relied on a Center for Media and Democracy report on Sygenta for much of his reporting on Entine.

Graves goes on to discuss Entine’s connections to organizations including the American Council on Science and Health, the American Enterprise Institute and the STATS organization at George Mason University. She said these organizations either don’t disclose full information on funding sources or obtain funding from biotechnology companies directly or from nonprofits funded by biotech money, such as the Searle Freedom Trust.

“I think there is no way to fairly assess his assertions, given the amount of time he spends attacking anyone critical of GMOs or the amount of pesticides Americans are ingesting,” Graves said. “With the amount of time and effort he spends defending the industry, it is difficult to believe that agribusiness money is not subsidizing his work in some way. However, because he denies it, his denial must be printed, despite the reasonable doubts many have of his undocumented denials.”

HEALED BY LOCAL FOOD

As for her part, Shetterly, who is the daughter of artist Robert Shetterly and author Susan Hand Shetterly, isn’t devoting her time to worrying about Entine’s attacks. Instead she is traveling across the country tracking down additional experts who can shed light on potential connections between genetically modified corn and illness. She has a contract with Putnam to publish her findings in a book due out in 2015.

Shetterly credits Maine’s robust farming sector with allowing her to make such a significant change in what she feeds her family.

“I can’t tell you the joy I feel each time I visit my local farmers market,” Shetterly said. “Or drive around this state and see all the signs for markets in the small and large towns. Maine, I think, is ground zero for a food revolution.”

Because eating 100 percent corn-free means cooking the vast majority of your meals from scratch, Shetterly has a system for getting a corn-free dinner on the table every night. She composes her family’s meals from a foundation of cooked whole grains (quinoa, millet, rice, amaranth) and cooked beans (Jacobs cattle, kidney, lentils, black). To these basics she adds small amounts of Maine-raised chicken or grass fed beef and rounds out her meals with local vegetables and spices.

“Our food is a very emotional topic and whoever controls it is the person who will be on top,” Shetterly said. “(Food activist) Vandana Shiva has said that controlling our food is more powerful than bombs or weapons of any kind.”

In her own kitchen, Shetterly has retaken control and regained her health.

But in the end, Shetterly’s story leaves me with more questions than answers.

I now wonder how many others could find similar relief by kicking corn out of their diet? Might corn-free diets some day surpass gluten-free diets in popularity? Is there any truly GMO-free corn? How pervasive is the fear in the scientific community over voicing concerns about GMOs? Is Jon Entine a hired gun for the biotech industry? And, if so, how many more journalists-for-hire are out there? Will Shetterly’s book provoke more attacks from the scientific establishment?

Only time will tell. I can’t wait to read her book.

 

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland, where she writes about health food and still eats corn, but only if it’s grown in Maine. She can be reached at: avery.kamila@gmail.com

Twitter:AveryYaleKamila

 

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