Saturday, December 7, 2013
By MICHAEL BENDZELA
GORHAM - A recent column by Avery Yale Kamila, "Another good reason to choose organic sweet corn" (Natural Foodie, July 4), contains so many omissions, errors and outright falsehoods that one has to wonder if there is a vetting process at the Press Herald.
Kamila's fantastic, frightening claims appear repeatedly in discussions of organic farming. Its advocates often appear to be ideologues who are not embarrassed to repeat the worst sort of dishonesty and debunked nonsense to advance their message that any farming outside of organic is dangerous to your health.
The writer describes Bt corn this way: "Chemical companies such as Monsanto are now inserting patented strains of the toxins produced by Bt directly into the DNA of various plants. Bt sweet corn is the latest example."
No "toxins" are "inserted" into plant DNA. A stretch of DNA that codes for a crystalline protein called Cry1Ab is first isolated from a strain of the organism Bacillus thuringiensis. That piece of information is then incorporated into the DNA of a strain of sweet corn so that the foliage produces the protein, which is then ingested by the larvae of a key insect pest. The toxic properties of the protein are activated by specific enzymes in the insect's gut.
In the very next paragraph, Kamila commits a howler: "Two recent studies illustrate the potential harm posed by these genetically modified Bt crops, which have never been independently tested for safety." How does one cite two studies to show such studies have "never" been done?
Agricultural scientist Steve Savage has pointed me toward a major review of 24 long-term, independent studies that appears in Food and Chemical Toxicology. The conclusion: "Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed." How can Kamila make such an omission, and why does the Press Herald let her get away with it?
The two papers she cites have been not only widely debunked but ridiculed by scientists for their poor design and faulty conclusions.
Kamila fails to mention that the first study, which purports to show that Bt toxin can "break open and destroy human cells," is the Greenpeace-funded work of Gilles-Eric Seralini. Greenpeace, to its shame, is the virulently anti-genetic-engineering group that advocates vandalizing field trials of genetically engineered crops.
Bruce M. Chassy, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois, has written that Seralini's work is "irrelevant." According to Chassy, "Numerous peer-reviewed scientific articles have (already) established that Bt proteins are non-toxic to animals or humans."
Worse, Seralini just dropped the toxin on human kidney cells growing on a petri dish, thus killing them, which doesn't come close to real world conditions. You can achieve the same effect with table salt.
The other study Kamila cites, which claims to have "detected genetically modified strains of Bt toxins in the blood" of pregnant women and unborn babies, comes close to being an outright fraud. Savage calls it "completely bogus."
First, the experimenters did not even bother to check whether their subjects had eaten any corn, let alone genetically modified varieties. They even say so:
"Our study did not quantify the exact levels of (pesticides-associated genetically modified foods) in a market-basket study. However, given the widespread use of GM foods in the local daily diet ... it is conceivable that the majority of the population is exposed through their daily diet."
For all they know, the women had eaten organic corn, or no corn at all. This means there cannot be even a semblance of controls in the study.
Worse, they used the wrong test to look for the Cry1Ab protein, and they have been excoriated in the scientific press for it.
Applied geneticist David Tribe calls the study "nonsense," going on to say: "The assertion that the protein Cry1Ab pesticide (is) absorbed in the blood of pregnant and non-pregnant women, probably due to intake and the passage of GM foods, is not based on immunological reliable results."
I have no dog in this fight. I am neither an organic farmer nor one who grows Monsanto's Bt corn. A group of us simply grow food on one acre for several subscribers (often called Community Supported Agriculture).
I do know that farming in Maine is difficult -- it is a cold, dank, stony, fungal place -- and our plight is not helped by propagandists like Kamila, who paints the majority of us in the worst light possible every chance she gets.
Michael Bendzela teaches writing and critical thinking at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham and helps operate a small farm in Standish. Sources are available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.