Nutrition, Science & Controversy

There is tension between those who are discovering a simpler, more effective approach to health, and those of the "conventional" scientific community, and I find myself strangely torn between the two camps.  There are those who question big business and see something of a conspiracy to make us all sick, and there are those who defend business and insist that there is no science behind these conspiracy claims and that those making them are either simply misled, or crazy.

Having a degree in physics, and having spent most of my career involved in technology, I had always been quite skeptical toward those who I felt were ignoring science and trashing technology.  With the advent of the internet, information is much more available.  This means that I've been able to learn and study a broader range of topics (and thus my immersion in nutrition and health as well as this blog).  It also means that those with fringe ideas now have much more of a voice.  There's much more information -- both true and false out there.

There is truth spoken by those on both sides, but the passion for each side leads to overstatement and then confusion by those who are just trying to learn the right thing to do.

I'm going to examine this tension by first looking at GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).  I may have a second part post looking at things like vaccinations, another place where this controversy seems to boil.

GMOs aren't necessarily bad

Much of our food today, whether we realize it or not, comes from organisms whose genes have been modified by man.  Loosely called "gene splicing," this technology can take genes from one organism and splice them into the DNA of another organism.  The intent being to endow an organism with a unique, useful property.  This technology has created such bizarre creatures as the "GloFish" and a "see-through frog."  

On the food front, no doubt the most commercially successful products are "Roundup Ready" crops.  (See a small sampling of the different viewpoints to that part of the debate here, here, and here.)  These genetically modified plants were designed to be highly resistant to glyphosate, the active herbicide found in Monsatno's "Roundup" product.  Roundup would normally damage ordinary crops but doesn't affect these engineered plants.  In this way, farmers can use Roundup and get rid of weeds without worrying about harming their cash crop.

Genetically modifying organisms sounds somewhat futuristic to some and can be quite scary.  After all, could they be letting some dangerous, mutant life out there that could take over the planet?

One thing we have to realize, is that we've been genetically modifying crops since agriculture first started.  The simple act of choosing seeds from plants based on the favorable characteristics of those plants is a crude form of genetic modification.  (Natural selection itself is a form of genetic modification but I suppose we would say that it's, . . . well, . . . natural.)

As these techniques got better, agriculture was able to speed up the process and make it more precise and targeted, with techniques such as hybridization, cloning, and grafting.  Ultimately culminating in the genetic modification we think of today (gene splicing.)  These differ not in what they produce, but the rate at which changes can be made.  Changes brought on by the earliest plant breeding happened almost randomly and took many generations to make substantive changes.  Today, man can add traits to plants from wholly other life forms in one generation.

i don't think there's likely a huge conspiracy by big business

While I think some of the practices by the big businesses involved can be a bit shady (for example the controversy around the patenting of these GMOs and the alleged harassment of farmers whose own crops may get tainted with the genes from those GMOs), they are doing exactly what they're charged to do by the their shareholders -- maximize profits.

Their goals are to provide new products that increase harvests and ultimately the popularity of, and profit from their products.  Their goals are not to make us sick or to produce products that will intentionally harm us.  Indeed, it's true that modern agriculture has made it possible to feed more people than ever before.  (Whether that food is truly healthy is a different question altogether.)

I'm still avoiding GMOs

With all that said, when I have a choice I choose organic where I believe it makes a difference, in order to avoid GMOs, pesticides, etc.  Why do I say that, when I just argued that the only real difference between things like basic agriculture and GMOs is speed? 

The rate of change of the genes of a food does matter.  The important point to understand, in my view, is that the changes that were made, were intended to improve the profitability of these crops.  The changes were not made to enhance the health of those consuming them.  Obviously, if the taste or process-ability of the crops changed in the process, that would be an issue and would have to be considered by the businesses involved.  The statement I hear from supporters of these products is that there have been no differences in the foods detected.  Not detecting a difference doesn't mean there isn't one.  For GMOs, I don't really believe there's been enough time to fully understand all the potential unintended effects on those who consume them.  We are just now understanding the effects on health of foods from highly evolved grains -- not even GMO grains.  These grains contain proteins (e.g., Glia-Alpha 9) not even present in older breeds of grain.

Studies cannot disprove a problem.  Yes, with a large preponderance of good studies over many many years, we can gain confidence in a thing's safety.  It is very unlikely that we're there yet with GMOs,  particularly since those developing these products are only focused on improving yields.  So, since I can afford it, I'll generally choose something else.

... all "GMOs"

I believe that changing the nature of food through artificial means, even just the breeding that came with the development of agriculture, does not give humans enough time to adapt.  This has brought serious negative health ramifications.

New strains of wheat with unique proteins for example, or most any modern fruit, with highly enhanced sweetness.  We are learning that these can lead to serious health problems.

You could almost say that my whole approach to nutrition these days is to avoid all GMOs.  And by all, I mean those that man has modified by any means, even through basic agriculture.  I do recognize that it's almost impossible today, but by sticking to the concept of "eating real food," I think I can come pretty close.  I also have found that my pallet has become more sensitive to enjoying the taste of real food.

I don't want the government to tell me what I should or shouldn't eat

On the other side of this, I don't want the government to ban GMOs or otherwise tell me what I can and can't eat.  The government already tells me I can't consume raw dairy, but if I choose to take whatever risk (or seek whatever benefit) that brings, I should have the ability to do so.  I should have the freedom to choose what I want to consume, even if someone thinks it might hurt me.  The advice from government (such as the food pyramid) has proven to be so misguided anyway, that the things they would say I can and can't eat would be highly questionable to say the least.

Labeling

Being able to make an informed choice is the only place I would be OK with government involvement.  It's not very easy to tell GMO from non-GMO on the shelf.  So insisting that suppliers inform the consumer is not a bad thing.  Then again, the marketplace might be a better way to ensure this.  The Chipotle restaurant chain is a good example.  They aren't perfect, but their favoring better food quality is driving commercial success.  Let existing truth in advertising laws deal with those who would mislead the consumer.