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?

“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.

It’s true that the database is funded by biotechnology companies. But the government often asks corporations to bear the costs of regulation, and does so in this case. The database is independently managed by an impressive panel of internationally recognized allergy experts who review and vote on allergen inclusion in a yearly process. The six sponsoring companies get to criticize and review the process, but do not have any decision-making capacity or influence beyond scientific argument. Only the experts—each of whom has published many peer-reviewed scientific articles on food allergies—decide what allergens will be included.

In Shetterly’s interview, Goodman appears to confirm Mansmann’s belief that the database is all but useless because it doesn’t track “undiscovered” [her emphasis] allergens. She quotes him as saying that no “GMO proteins” are listed in the database because there isn’t “sufficient evidence” to put them there—implying that there is some evidence that some of these approved proteins cause allergies.

So we have arrived at the heart of Shetterly’s theory: Genetic modification could introduce novel proteins into our foods that provoke an immune response among a number of people in ways we can’t predict or guard against. The idea is that consumers face unknown and unacceptable risks from new, yet-to-be-identified allergens or toxins that our government’s monitoring program, compromised by industry, is not designed to pick up. As activists see it, we are “human experiments” and the government does not have in place an appropriate sentinel system to guard against a potential health or environmental catastrophe.

In the story, Goodman is presented as being sympathetic to that view. Is that in fact what he believes?

“She totally twisted what I said,” the scientist told me. It’s difficult to know what she means when she warns of “undiscovered” allergens, he added. “Proteins can cause reactions in just a few individuals or in some cases thousands or millions of people. The database,” he said, “lists every known protein that has been shown to cause an allergy and or even might be suspected of possibly causing a reaction.”

But what about the charge that there are “unknown” allergens—perhaps a protein in GMO corn that has not yet been identified—that are not yet in the database? Aren’t activist fears valid? Shouldn’t we take proper precaution until we know for sure?

“That reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the science and of risk,” he told me. Yes, in principle, you might find a heretofore unknown reaction in some individuals to a protein not yet listed in the database. Certainly not every protein of the millions of proteins from every food or inhalation source of allergy has been tested for allergies. But those proteins occur in non-GMO sources” as well, he noted. When a new genetically modified crop is created, “only one or a few new proteins are made,” he added, “and those are evaluated specifically for potential risks of allergy.”

“The biggest risk of allergic reactions is not in creating new proteins—we test for them—but in introducing an allergen into some new food. During the development stage of a new transgenic soybean, scientists engineered genetic sequences taken from the Brazil nut to improve its nutritional quality.” Studies picked up an allergen, and the project was dropped. The person who headed up that research, Steve Taylor, is part of the Allergen Database oversight panel. The system, Goodman told me, works.

I reached out to Taylor by email, who replied, “While the process might not be as robust as many would prefer, I am not aware of any other test methods that I would recommend for use.”

“The risks from GM foods are infinitesimally small,” Goodman added. “It’s all ‘what if, what if, what if’ doomsday scenarios. It’s like worrying that we might be hit by an asteroid. If we base decisions about whether to innovate on that level of risk tolerance, we’d still be in the dark ages.” Shetterly’s concerns, “while understandable in theory, are not grounded in science, and I told Caitlin that. But that’s not what she reported. This article is just ridiculous.”

There is an irony in the fact that anti-GMO activists promote the “food allergen” scare. Novel proteins can result when any new food is created, whether through genetic modification, cross breeding, random breeding, or mutation breeding. Genetic modification is arguably safer than selective breeding or mutagenesis in which hundreds or thousands of random and potentially harmful mutations are introduced into the plant genome. In mutagenesis, crops are doused in chemicals or shot through with radiation, producing new fruits and vegetables through what is essentially a genetic slot machine. Most of the time it yields useless or harmful mutations; only rarely does it produce useful new traits. Thousands of crops, including some organic grains, fruits, and vegetables, have been subjected to this process—eliciting absolutely no concern from scientists or anti-GMO activists.

In contrast, genetic engineering techniques allow scientists to precisely add genes of known structure and function to crops. Geneticists know how genes work and what kind of protein an individual gene will make. GMO foods are subject to much more rigorous testing than food produced the old-fashioned way—which has never been natural. According to Goodman, whenever a new product is introduced, the presenter (a corporation or university, for example) must provide the FDA with information about what gene was incorporated and where in the plant’s genome order to receive approval. The agency must determine if the newly incorporated protein is similar to that of other proteins found in our foods, including checking it against the database of known allergens. If it is not, then the newly incorporated protein must be treated as a food additive before the FDA considers pre-market approval—which means it will be subjected to even more extensive studies.

Shetterly, and activists, seem obsessed by what might be called “unknown unknowns”—the subject of a thoughtful piece by Nathanael Johnson on this very controversy that ran last week in Grist. As noted sustainability author Ramez Naam pointed out in the comments section, anti-GMO activists seem unconcerned that hundreds of people have been killed by illnesses borne by organic foods but are apoplectic about the immeasurably tiny amount of risk associated with rigorously tested proteins in GM foods, even though not so much as a sniffle has been empirically linked to any approved GM food. “No safety process is perfect,” Naam concludes. “But the scale of harm has to be assessed rationally, in proportion to the scale of other food-related harms that we’re familiar with and take for granted every day.”

Shetterly also tries to sow doubt about the safety of GMO foods by decrying the lack of human clinical studies. There is good reason scientists almost never do long-term double-blind human studies involving diseases, drugs, chemicals, or food; we could end up with something like the Tuskegee fiasco, in which a control group of impoverished sharecroppers with syphilis were left untreated in the name of science in a government experiment that stretched over 40 years. Scientists don’t experiment with people’s lives. Instead, researchers now use sophisticated animal studies. Scientists have not documented any unique risks associated with the process of creating GMOs, and, specific to Shetterly’s fears, no broad-based reactions to yet unidentified or “undiscovered” proteins in corn or any approved GMO food.

Goodman is not alone in his disappointment about how his views are portrayed in the article. Shetterly also appears to have an ally in Harwood Shaffer, a professor at the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. She reports that Shaffer is scandalized that USDA does not require companies to release “results of trials that had negative outcomes,” leaving the reader with the impression that Shaffer believes, or that empirical evidence suggests, that dangerous findings are being suppressed.

“Oh, no, that’s not at all what I said or meant,” he told me. He acknowledged that there have been hundreds of tests by industry and independent scientists and not one study suggests that GMO corn can cause the kind of problems that Shetterly ascribes to it. Shaffer’s concern—one worth debating—is that the current evaluation and approval process does not require the disclosure of proprietary research, which can give the appearance that some data is being withheld. That’s a prickly question and worth its own article, but it’s a side issue in this context.

I asked Shaffer whether he believed, based on his review of the situation, that explosive data implicating GMOs as dangerous is being withheld. “It’s possible,” he said, but “based on what we’ve seen from the independent studies, I doubt it. But that doesn’t mean I think the status quo is acceptable. I support more disclosure.”

As for his views of Shetterly’s presentation of his interview? “I made a point and she misused it to support her predetermined thesis,” Shaffer said. “She improperly used what I told her.”

In her story, Shetterly also visits Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, one of the nation’s premier medical and research centers. It has a special research program investigating eosinophilic disorders. It’s headed by Marc Rothenberg, a world-renowned expert in this field. (I live in Cincinnati, so I happen to know of the program she visited and some of the people she interviewed.)

Rothenberg, she writes, proclaimed the Mansmann GMO corn disease theory “interesting,” but offered an important caveat. “[N]o one in conventional medicine will have the data to prove it,” she quotes him as saying, leaving the impression that there may be an environmental “black box” related to GMOs that we do not yet fully understand.

“That’s just not what I said,” Rothenberg told me on the phone. “I’m embarrassed my name is associated with this story.” He also sent me an email reflecting on his conversations with Shetterly. “[T]he article was ridiculous. I told her and the fact finder that there is no substantial evidence to support allergies or eosinophilic disorders arising from GMO.”

It appears that Shetterly also twisted her interview with Rothenberg’s colleague, Karl von Tiehl, who was then an assistant professor in the medical school but currently is in private practice in Los Angeles. She frames his comments as if he is sympathetic to her fear-based thesis. “There’s something scary there,” she quotes him as saying.

Are GMO’s “scary,” I asked von Tiehl, by email? His response:

“I want to begin by echoing Marc Rothenberg's upset over the tone of the article, which seems to imply that researchers at CCHMC's Allergy/Immunology Division are actively researching GMO foods or perhaps that there is something ‘scary’ or obviously wrong or concerning about GMO foods. … My voice was used inappropriately to imply that there is a scientifically substantiated link between GMO foods and eosinophilic disorders in humans, which there is not to my knowledge. I am upset that my quotations were used to lend credence to this idea. I am currently unaware of any quality medical research that establishes a valid link between genetic modifications of foods in the US food supply and adverse allergenic (or other health-related) outcomes in humans.”

Shetterly also talked with another CCHMC scientist, Simon Hogan, the lead researcher (with Rothenberg listed as co-author) of a 2005 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, that appears to back up, at least in part, some of Mansmann’s theory. Hogan claimed that GMO peas then in development might cause inflammatory reactions in mice. There was no mention of any link to humans.

As Shetterly notes, the study was trashed by almost every major research organization in the world. In a slashing critique, Nature Biotechnology, the bible of academic and independent biotech researchers, called it “mush,” pointing out its extensive methodical problems and faulty conclusion. But the damage to the innovative research on this new variety of peas was done. Hogan’s paper created such an international stir that the research project was scrapped and the pea never came to market.

The questionable Hogan study was actually repeated by independent researchers and published in PLOS ONE in 2012. The researchers confirmed previous skepticism that the modified peas presented unusual allergenic threats. “Our data demonstrate that αAI transgenic peas are not more allergenic than beans or non-transgenic peas in mice,” the scientists wrote. “This study illustrates the importance of repeat experiments in independent laboratories and the potential for unexpected cross-reactive allergic responses upon consumption of plant products in mice.”

In other words, the scare created eight years ago by Hogan’s anomalous findings—which ended up killing a promising transgenic pea—has long since been addressed and the research record corrected. Yet today, standing almost alone among mainstream scientists, he remains troubled that proteins might yet be implicated in making a “small cohort” of the population sick. “I don’t think definitive analysis has been done to answer that question,” she quotes Hogan as saying. I emailed him for a clarification but he never responded.

So what should Elle do? In the wake of the Seralini fiasco last fall, when a fringe French professor published a study purportedly linking GMO corn to cancer in rats, the science journalism community has become emboldened in its skeptical reporting on the GMO controversy. It rose up almost as one in outraged response to that particular study, as the world’s medical and science establishment dismembered what was clearly an ideologically driven attempt by a well-known anti-GMO campaigner to discredit hundreds of far more meticulous studies.

In general, media reporting on GMOs has improved since then. Science journalists were heartened by the public apology offered by influential British journalist Mark Lynas, who renounced his past demonization of GMOs as anti-science. Nathanael Johnson’s refreshingly inquisitive series at Grist has begun to restore the reputation of that magazine, long a bottom feeder on this issue. Then came the Amy Harmon tour de force, marred only by one bizarre tweet from foodie hero Michael Pollan—he lamely accused Harmon of echoing industry talking points, which sparked a torrent of criticism.

Together these developments suggest that liberal-minded mainstream journalists are finally willing to put their heads above the parapet and suffer the arrows of the anti-GMO hard left. There has been a tremendous amount of rational, clear-headed work addressing the thorny issue of crop biotechnology over the last year, which is what makes Shetterly’s piece so galling.

It represents a major setback for science journalism, and for consumers who rely on hugely popular lifestyle publications to make their way through complicated issues. Is GMO corn causing allergies or other disorders? Are GMOs a health threat? Elle perpetuates a “controversy” that just doesn’t exist in the mainstream science or medical communities. Worse, it fans the flames of doubt and distrust that fuel unilateral opposition to a sophisticated class of technology that could improve global food security. Within days of the publication of her piece, Shetterly’s “compelling” investigation made its way into London’s Daily Mail, one of the world’s largest circulation newspapers.

I called and emailed Elle’s editorial office to review the findings of my investigation but did not receive a response. Shetterly’s website directed me to her agent, who I contacted multiple times. I was told that I would hear from Shetterly if she chose to discuss my findings, but have received no response.

In an ironic twist, in the very same August issue in which the Shetterly story appeared, Editor-in-Chief Robbie Myers bragged about the magazine’s commitment to responsible journalism.* “Yes, Women’s Magazines Can Do Serious Journalism. In Fact, We’ve Been Doing It for a While,” she titled her piece.

Whoops. If Elle has the journalistic integrity that it claims for itself, Ms. Myers would withdraw the Shetterly piece and publish an article that sets the record straight.

Correction, Aug. 12, 2013: This piece originally misspelled Elle editor Robbie Myers' last name. (Return.)

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