Don’t Believe Elle’s Scary Story About Genetically Modified Corn

The state of the universe.
Aug. 7 2013 2:45 PM

No, You Shouldn’t Fear GMO Corn

How Elle botched a story about genetically modified food.

A sheaf of corn remains after the harvest in a field, September 2007 in Innenheim, eastern France.
Most science says fear of GMO foods is overblown.

Photo by Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, Amy Harmon, a respected science journalist at the New York Times, turned her attention to the GMO debate, writing a masterfully textured story about the plight of the Florida orange and the role biotechnology might play in rescuing it from a potentially deadly disease. It was widely praised by independent journalists for its even-handed analysis of the costs and benefits associated with adopting new technologies, like genetic modification, to food.

As influential as the Times may be among the chattering classes, don’t expect this story to alter the trajectory of the debate over GMO foods. While every major scientific regulatory oversight body in the world, including the National Academies of Science and the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, has concluded that genetically modified foods pose no harm not also found in conventional or organic foods, the public remains deeply suspicious of them. A survey published in the same newspaper the day before Harmon’s piece ran found that 37 percent of those interviewed worried about GMOs, saying they feared that such foods cause cancer or allergies.

August 2013 cover of Elle Magazine.
August 2013 cover of Elle.

Those fear-based views are regularly reinforced by popular lifestyle magazines and the echo chamber of the Web. In the past two weeks alone, Details and Elle have run pieces that credulously stoke conspiratorial fears that the government is covering up evidence that GMO foods can damage the public health.

Caitlin Shetterly’s long feature, “The Bad Seed: The Health Risks of Genetically Modified Corn,” in Elle—a magazine with more than 1.1 million monthly readers—was particularly appalling.

Shetterly is the protagonist of her article, and the plight she faced that spurred her to write this story is truly sad. She was plagued for years by a variety of debilitating symptoms from headaches to fatigue to hands frozen into claws by pain. She went from one doctor to another, but no cause was identified and no cure found.

On the recommendation of her physician, she went to see Maine allergist Paris Mansmann. Shetterly showed symptoms, he concluded, of eosinophilic disorder—a multisystemic condition in which white blood cells overproduce in response to allergens. These abundant cells release enzymes that break down proteins, which in turn damage the esophagus, airways, or other organs. But what was causing the reaction? Mansmann opined that Shetterly’s condition could be the result of eating genetically modified (GMO) corn.

It was an unusual diagnosis. Although the article does not specify what tests Mansmann may have conducted to reach this diagnosis, there is no empirical evidence to support the belief that GMOs can be linked to unusual incidences of allergies and the condition is not listed in federal government’s National Notifiable Diseases list. I contacted Dr. Mansmann at his home and office requesting his perspective but did not receive a response.

According to Shetterly, the Maine physician suggested she strip all corn from her diet. Within months, she writes, her symptoms had subsided. Amazed and gratified at her recovery, she decided to write an article about her experience. She interviewed a range of scientists who appear to confirm her greatest fear: that Monsanto and the biotechnology industry are foisting untested lab-created foods on Americans and their children, leading to unprecedented health problems.

Shetterly’s narrative is emotionally compelling, but only that; it just doesn’t withstand the critical scrutiny of science. Let’s start with her central premise: Genetically modified foods, or more specifically genetic modified corn, can cause allergic reactions. Is that even possible? Can the process of genetic modification create allergies?

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“Not likely,” said Pamela Ronald, an internationally respected plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis and a pioneer in developing sustainable agricultural solutions. “After 16 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no documented adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.”

Mansmann’s belief that GMOs may cause allergic reactions and autoimmune disorders is a familiar trope in the anti-crop-biotechnology literature, from sources ranging from naturalnews.com to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Such tracts often gleefully point out that the rise in reported food allergies in the U.S. over the past 16 years coincides with the advent of our consumption of genetically modified crops.

Where you won’t find such claims is in the established scientific literature. “There has not been one study that links the genetically engineered corn or any approved genetically modified food on the market to allergies,” Ronald told me. “The author, and apparently this doctor, is under the mistaken belief that the process of genetic modification can in itself create unique allergens that are not otherwise found in nature or are not easily identified and evaluated. That’s just not accurate.”

Biology Fortified, a website devoted to plant genetics and sustainable agriculture, has posted more than 600 studies on its GENERA database—more than one-third of which were conducted by independent scientists who receive no funding from the industry—and none of the studies links GM corn to allergies.

Shetterly’s journalistic trick—a tactic often employed by anti-GMO activists—was to frame a settled issue in the science community as a mystery or controversy.

“While I quickly discovered that blaming GMO foods for any kind of health problem is controversial in the medical and biotech worlds,” she writes, “what’s beyond debate is the increase in the incidence of autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes, lupus, and celiac disease, as well as allergies.”

Since GMOs were introduced into the food supply almost 20 years ago, there has not been one documented case of any health problem in humans—not even so much as a sniffle—linked to GMOs. The American Medical Association, whose physician members would have long ago picked up on a GMO-allergy connection, definitively rejects such speculation. “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature,” it has stated. That scientific consensus has been endorsed by every major science oversight body in the world.

But what about the undeniable fact that the rise in autoimmune disorders tracks GMO consumption? The rise in such problems, including allergies, started long before GMOs were introduced. Incidences of these same conditions across U.K., Europe and in other countries where there is no consumption of GM foods match U.S. trends. To put this claim in perspective, the upward slope also tracks with the cumulative wins of the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick, the GDP of China, and indeed the increased consumption of organic foods over a similar period of time. In other words, the alarming connection that Shetterly alludes to in her piece is completely random.

Then there’s the question of whether Shetterly’s quoted sources stand by their quotes. Let’s put ourselves in her shoes as she set out to make sense of her illness and recovery. She could have presented a broad range of opinions. She could have carefully portrayed the measured views of physicians and scientists whose research in this field has been vetted by the medical community. But that’s not what happened.

Shetterly quotes a few experts who assert that genetically modified foods are safe, but the majority of her sources seem sympathetic to her plight and Mansmann’s GMO-corn allergy theory. I talked to or exchanged emails with almost all of them. The feedback was consistent: Her article was variously described as “ridiculous” and “absurd.” To a person, the sources I reached complained that Shetterly had misused their statements.

Let’s deconstruct the piece. Shetterly raises questions about the integrity of government assessments and regulation of GMOs. She interviewed Richard Goodman, who runs the AllergenOnline database at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, which is used by GM developers, much of the food industry, and numerous regulatory agencies for evaluating the potential allergenicity and allergenic cross-reactivity of novel proteins and GMOs. Citing GMO critics, Shetterly questions the “objectivity” of the AllergenOnline database. It’s a fair question, considering that it is funded by six major biotechnology developers. But, rather than examining the issue in context, she provides no context, which just fuels suspicions.

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