The Very Real Paranoia Over Genetically Modified Foods

Health and medicine explained.
Jan. 17 2012 1:23 PM

The Very Real Paranoia Over Genetically Modified Foods

Can your body "absorb information" from lab-engineered fruits and vegetables?

Could eating this tomato pollute your body with microRNAs?”
Could eating this tomato pollute your body with microRNAs?”

Morningarage/iStockphoto.

Were you among the thousands who saw last week's Atlantic piece on “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods”? Food writer Ari LeVaux sought to use recent research findings on the biology of digesting plant materials to argue for an overhaul of regulations for genetically modified (GM) food in the United States. The scientific missteps in his article and nonexistent link between the study he cites and any specific danger from GM foods led a number of science writers to crack knuckles and get to rebutting.

Unfortunately, by the time these correctives had circulated, the Atlantic's readers had shared the original piece 11,000 times on Facebook alone. A danger that was not “very real” at all had morphed into an alleged GM time bomb, one that LeVaux asserted would “blast a major hole” in arguments for maintaining the regulatory status quo. A more careful look at the science in question instead provides an argument for having the three federal agencies with GM food oversight—the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Agriculture—retain the flexible, evidence-based framework already in place.

The bomb components came from a Cell Research paper reporting identification of tiny plant molecules in human blood. We harbor plenty of human versions of these molecules, called microRNAs or miRNAs for short, which regulate protein production. No one had ever reported finding plant miRNAs in people, until Lin Zhang and colleagues at Nanjing University looked carefully at people who had consumed ordinary cooked rice and other plant foods. According to their study, molecules specific to some of these plant foods ended up in human blood and tissues. And the plant miRNAs weren't sitting there doing nothing: In other tests, one of the types they found was shown to inhibit production of a protein that normally removes “bad” cholesterol, or LDL, from the blood.

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The rice results, simply stated, show an effect of one miRNA from one non-GM plant on one protein in live mice and in cultured human liver cancer cells. The findings still require confirmation but open the door to interesting questions about the effects of natural dietary miRNAs on human health. Stirring in the complexities and emotions associated with GM foods, however, ignited a social-media chain reaction, and corrections couldn’t outpace the light-speed transmission of misinformation. LeVaux rewrote the piece with some fixes in place, and the new version now appears on AlterNet and at the Atlantic. (You can read the original here.)

Too bad the rapid-acting, social-media fix wasn’t more effective. LeVaux’ second try addressed some of the errors in how he described miRNAs and added some caveats about confirming results, but he retained much of his initial argument, maintaining that his critics had shot wide. As one of those critics, I demurred. In addition to stressing scientific inaccuracies, the critiques highlighted how off-target LeVaux was in trying to link the Zhang results to GM plant foods in particular, instead of all plant foods. No one has altered miRNAs in existing GM plants, so in that respect, at least, they're no different from non-GM plants.

Yet his rewrite still argues this link and still shoots wide of the study’s real implications. LeVaux focuses on “substantial equivalence,” the risk assessment tenet that if testing indicates a GM food has the same essential features as a non-GM food—the same protein profile and nutritional content, for example—then it should fall under standard food regulations. The corollary, of course, is that non-equivalence requires more testing.

LeVaux says the miRNA findings compel a framework overhaul, asserting that they reveal a way that GM foods could influence human health. This work does not show that, as it involved non-GM foods and a class of molecule that hasn’t been altered in existing GM foods. Either way, dispensing with substantial equivalence would be a mistake. Biotech innovation seems to move almost as quickly as social-media misinformation, and substantial equivalence remains a flexible framework for this breakneck pace. A creaky, detailed series of federal regulations would undoubtedly lag behind the science.

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