You can’t eat GM wheat

 

You can’t eat genetically modified wheat because it’s not commercially available. Contrary to a rumour circulating on social media, gluten intolerance is not on the rise because we are eating genetically modified wheat. Amy Harmon clarifies:

gmo

“To be clear, wheat has been genetically modified. Monsanto Co. has field-tested wheat that was altered to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate. A British research institute field-tested modified wheat to repel insects. (It didn’t work.) In 2014, Chinese researchers modified wheat to resist a destructive disease called powdery mildew, but just to see if they could. And Spanish researchers are testing wheat engineered to contain, yes, significantly less gluten. But none of it is on store shelves ( Globe and Mail , July 15, 2016).”

Just the mention of the words “genetically modified’ is enough to strike fear and loathing in the hearts of consumers with the spectre of frankenfoods poisoning our food supply and dooming future generations.

In fact, three-quarters of the foods now on grocery store shelves are genetically modified or contain ingredients that are; foods such as soy, canola, corn, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya; ingredients such as Vitamin C, Citric Acid, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Lactic Acid, Molasses, Xanthan Gum, Vitamins, Yeast Products.

Consumers have been pushing for labelling that reveals genetic modification. I favour such labelling –not because GM foods are necessarily dangerous but because good science has nothing to hide.

However, labelling may not bring the clarity that consumers seek because the designation means many things. Labelling alone will not reveal that Hawaiian papaya has been genetically modified by inoculated it against a virus that threatened to destroy the crop, and that inoculation was done with the very virus that threatened it.

That’s not quite the same as the modification in soy lecithin, found in ice cream, which made it resistant to weed-killer.

Confusingly, some foods that have been modified genetically might not be designated as genetically modified. Let me explain. Okanagan Specialty Fruits has developed an apple that doesn’t brown by removing the enzyme. Removal of a gene is not genetic modification according to some regulators –only the addition of genes is considered so. The same is true for a mushroom in which a gene section that causes browning has been precisely removed.

Should canola oil be labelled as GM when the oil itself is not? Most canola grown is Canada has been modified to resist herbicides. The modification is to the plant, and all plant proteins are removed in the processing. The canola oil produced is exactly the same regardless of the source.

Genetic modification includes foods engineered to be healthier. The so-called golden rice has had genes from corn and common soil bacteria added to provide beta carotene which the human body uses to make vitamin A.

If labelling comes to Canada, consumers should educate themselves as to just what the GM designation means. Given the general level of public awareness of science, I suspect that they will not. I predict that a niche market will open for non-GM foods but most consumers will continue buy GM foods without much concern. I know I will.

Lies, damn lies, and category 1 carcinogens

The World Health Organization recently placed processed meat in category 1 of carcinogens, along with radioactive elements and asbestos. That’s the list of agents “carcinogenic to humans.” They also placed red meat in 2A which includes Glyphosate (Roundup) and lead compounds which are merely “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

bacon

Is eating bacon more likely to cause cancer than exposure to an herbicide? No. Agents aren’t listed according to risk. The criterion used is: do they or do they not cause cancer. The categories are grouped by experts according to certainty from the most evident all the way down to category 4, “Probably not carcinogenic to humans” of which there is one item, Caprolactam (used to make nylon).

Risk is determined by how much you are exposed to the carcinogen. André Picard, public health reporter for the Globe and Mail explains:

“The expert group does hazard identification, not risk assessment. Practically, that means they determine, yes or no, whether something may cause cancer, but not how potent it is at a causing cancer,” and adds, “It’s important to remember, however, that not every exposure to a potential carcinogen will cause cancer: Frequency, intensity and potency matter.”

All agents in a category don’t carry the same risk. If they did, people would be dropping like flies from eating meat. Compared to other items, they are not.

Eating processed meat and smoking tobacco, both in category 1, don’t have the same mortality rate. Processed meats result in 34,000 deaths worldwide annually whereas smoking causes about one million cancer deaths. Also in category 1, asbestos kills more than 100,000 and alcohol causes 600,000 cancer deaths a year.

Also misleading is the way percentages are used to translate statistics. For example, two slices of bacon are reported to increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent. Eating a 4 ounce steak will result in a similar increase. But when risks of colorectal cancer are low to begin with, a small percentage increase of a small risk is still a small risk. The actual numbers expose this fallacy, explains Pickard:

“Based on these estimates, about 66 in every 1,000 people who eat a lot of red meat or processed meat will develop colorectal cancer in their lifetime; by comparison, 56 of every 1,000 who eat very little meat, processed or otherwise, will develop colorectal cancer.”

In other words, the increased risk is 10 out of 1,000. If you are one of those 10 persons who acquire cancer from eating meat, it’s tragic but as a risk assessment it’s not that bad.

Risk assessment is complicated by the toxicity of the agent, the amount of the agent you are exposed to, the length of time exposed to it, the way you are exposed (inhaled, ingested, topically applied), and your genetics.

The categories are useful in determining what to avoid, if possible. But some things are almost unavoidable. Like living: walking in the sun (ultraviolet rays), working (painter, hairdressers and shift-workers), eating (barbequing at high temperatures), camping (wood smoke), and travelling (cosmic rays from flying in a plane, breathing vehicle exhaust).

Unavoidable, like being alive: the naturally produced hormone estrogen has been linked with cancer, especially when combined with the artificial hormone progestin.