GM Maize: The American Way of Ill Health and Misery?
A remarkable article has just appeared in the glossy lifestyle magazine Elle. The story is certainly a compelling one but it is also remarkable that the fashion focused Elle should publish such a story of ill-health and misery.
It is also a story about the links between a range of illnesses which are affecting large numbers of Americans and genetically engineered maize (corn).
Links which are denied by the GM and food industry, by the US food safety regulators and by most of the medical profession but which many people – included researchers and doctors – are beginning to believe exist and should be investigated and dealt with.
A reaction to GMO corn
Wife and mother Caitlin Shetterly had been ill for three and a half years but hadn’t really told her friends or extended family how ill she was “because I didn’t have any way to explain what was wrong. I had no diagnosis, just a collection of weird symptoms: tight, achy pain that radiated through my body and caused me to hobble around.”
She had, “burning rashes that splashed across my cheeks and around my mouth like pizza sauce; exhaustion; headaches; hands that froze into claws while I slept and hurt to uncurl in the morning; a constant head cold; nausea; and, on top of all that, severe insomnia—my body just could not, would not, turn off and rest.”
Caitlin saw doctor after doctor “and tried everything they threw at me” including antidepressants; painkillers; elimination diets, herbal supplements; iodine pills; steroid shots; hormone treatments etc.etc; “you name it, I did it. Nothing worked.”
Every test she had done came back normal until in 2010 her GP referred her to allergist Paris Mansmann, MD who read all her files, listened to what she had to say, asked a few questions before offering the unexpected theory that she “had developed a reaction to genetically modified corn.”
Immune system overload
Caitlin, like everyone, had heard of GMO corn but, like most people, didn’t know what it actually was. In her Elle article she describes Mansmann’s view that the genetically engineered corn contains “small changes in the DNA of the corn are expressed by the plant as proteins.”
“It’s those proteins, Mansmann believes, that can act as allergens, provoking a multisystemic disorder marked by the overproduction of a type of white blood cell called an eosinophil.”
“He swabbed inside my nose with a Q-tip, then placed the results under a microscope. “Take a look,” Mansmann said. “See all those pink cells? Those are eosinophils.” My nose, it seemed, was chock-full of them.”
“When the immune system is working properly, eosinophils swarm certain invading substances, be they parasites or viruses, and work to eliminate them. Sometimes, however, an allergenic protein may prompt the immune system to release eosinophils. Then, it’s as if a faucet gets turned on but can’t be turned off—eosinophils just keep coming.”
“ Eventually they begin to leave the bloodstream and may infiltrate and damage the GI tract, esophagus, mucous membranes, lungs, the fascial system (the layer of connective tissue that surrounds the muscles, blood vessels, and nerves), and the skin—hence, the avalanche of symptoms.”
Mansmann’s recommendation was to completely avoid all corn or corn based products – even, because of the likelihood of contamination in the US, organic.
He estimated that it would take up to four months before the eosinophils were out of Caitlin’s body and up to a year before she’d feel completely well.
The incredible job of avoiding GMO corn in the US
But avoiding corn products in the US is far easier said than done.
As she outlines in her article corn is everywhere; “in tea bags, juice, and cheese culture; it lined my “to go” coffee cups and plastic bags of frozen vegetables; it coated my store-bought apples and was on the bottom of restaurant pizza—almost everything my family used, no matter how piously natural and organic, had corn in it.”
“It came under the guise of dozens of names like “xanthan gum,” “natural flavours,” “free-flowing agents,” “vitamin E,” “ascorbic acid,” “citric acid,” and “cellulose,” to name a few. Almost daily, I’d find a new culprit. “Damn, this toothpaste is full of corn!” Then: “Wait, our dish soap is made from corn!” Or: “Oh my God, iodized salt has dextrose in it!”
“Not to mention the corn that is fed to animals whose meat and eggs I ate, whose milk I drank. I had to restrict my diet, Mansmann said, to vegetables, grains other than corn, grass-fed beef and dairy, wild fish, and game”
“My husband and I threw ourselves into the corn-free diet with gusto: We began baking all our bread, we learned how to make our own flour tortillas and sweet treats like muffins and cakes. By luck, we met an intrepid farmer raising corn-free chickens (harder than you might guess, because chickens have literally been bred to get fat fast on corn).”
“We eschewed anything premade and began gathering foods from local sources we could trust. I stopped taking every medicine or supplement with corn in it (which was most of them). Wherever I went, I took my own stainless-steel coffee cup.”
But the effort paid off. The first thing Caitlin noticed was “that my skin rashes began to dissipate. Then, slowly, my body stopped aching, and I could walk or even jog easily, for the first time in years. I started to have more energy, and I slept better at night. The head cold went away—poof—and I wasn’t going through a box of tissues a day.”
“My hands became less stiff. I realized, in retrospect, that my frozen hands had been the hardest symptom to tolerate: I could barely button my son’s small shirts or apply a Band-Aid, which made me feel useless as a mother.”
“Almost four months later, in late May, I felt pretty much like my old self. I was so startled by my physical well-being that I didn’t know how to enjoy it. Each night I’d go to bed preparing myself for the possibility that I might wake up sick again the next morning.”
You can’t deny that something is wrong with health in the US
So now Caitlin began to ask whether GMO corn which is so commonplace in the American diet could be at the root of so much ill health and misery.
She decided to try to find out and the Elle article catalogues her findings.
“While I quickly discovered that blaming GMO foods for any kind of health problem is controversial in the medical and biotech worlds, 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 of allergies.”
“ As for the latter, the National Health Interview Survey found, for instance, that since 1999, the number of children with food allergies has jumped by 50 percent, and those with skin allergies by 69 percent (and the increase isn’t merely a by-product of fuller reporting by parents, experts say).”
However, allergenic eosinophilic disorders, which is what Paris Mansmann identified as the cause of Caitlin’s problems, are not included in the survey.
“They were first identified about 20 years ago, according to a pioneer in the field, Marc Rothenberg, MD, PhD, a professor at University of Cincinnati medical school and director of an affiliated centre for eosinophilic disorders.”
According to him “We’re in the midst of an allergy and autoimmune epidemic,” He found Mansmann’s GMO theory was “interesting,” but said that “no one in conventional medicine will have the data” to prove it.”
Research is not independent or transparent
Caitlin visited Rothenberg and his colleagues and met “people whose views represented a microcosm of the worldwide debate over the safety of GMOs.”
She found that like her many people suffer from allergenic eosinophils and that “their lives are severely compromised”.
Major dietary changes do work but that the evidence against GMOs is unclear.
This in part might be because the research simply is not done and the regulatory system is less than robust.
For example Caitlin discovered United States allergen database is compiled at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, whose objectivity is questioned by some because its facilities are funded by the six major biotech companies: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, Dupont Pioneer, Bayer, and BASF.
There are no GMO proteins are on the database, “but that’s for lack of “sufficient evidence” to put them there, says Richard Goodman, PhD, a UNL research professor and former Monsanto employee.”
“ He does add, however, that much of the existing data regarding the allergenic potential of GMO foods simply examines them for amino acid sequences similar to those in known allergens—like peanuts or milk—which limits the usefulness of the whole enterprise to people like Mansmann.”
According to Caitlin, “They think GMOs may be carrying heretofore undiscovered allergens. (If you’re thinking, Well, what do the clinical trials with humans show? The answer is: They’re nonexistent because, the biotech firms say, they are impractical, and, again, GMO foods are basically presumed safe and thus don’t undergo near the level of scrutiny as new drugs.)”
Caitlin discovered; “that hardly any of the research is independent; the biotech firms either conduct or pay for the studies forwarded to the government, and they also pick and choose which ones to submit.”
“The scandal is that the USDA does not force the companies to give results of trials that had negative outcomes,” says Harwood Schaffer, PhD, a research assistant professor at the University of Tennessee’s Agricul-tural Policy Analysis Center. “We’ve seen this in medicine: You only get the data that the [industry] wants you to see.”
“Schaffer also points out that the biotech firms consider their research proprietary, so there’s no record for the public to inspect: “Maybe the GMO companies aren’t hiding anything, but the question is: Does the public have the right to know?”
Call a halt until we know more
Caitlin also visited immunologist Simon Hogan, PhD, who was the lead author of one of the few independently funded GMO-food studies.
“He was surprised by the results: Mice given the GMO peas had inflammatory reactions such as “mucus hypersecretion,” “pulmonary eosinophilia” (eosinophils in the lungs), and airway hyperresponsiveness (“the lungs were twitchy,” says Hogan). Most important, the peas may have “perturbed” a tolerance mechanism in the mice, leading to enhanced immunreactivity.”
The study was published in 2005 in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, to “a deluge of media coverage both lauding and decrying it” and the project was abruptly canceled.
Hogan believes that “Good science requires multiple studies before conclusions can be drawn.”
His response to Caitlin’s observation that;
“While most people seem to tolerate GMO corn, I asked Hogan if he thought it could be making a small cohort of the population sick, as his peas did the mice. “I don’t think definitive analysis has been done to answer that question, and because you don’t know definitely what these [GMO] proteins could do…that’s sufficient for me to say ‘halt’ until we know more.”
The American Way of Ill health
Calling halt to GMOs seem to many people to be the sensible thing to do but it is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
In the meantime Caitlin Shetterley and people like her can be helped by clear and honest labelling.
When by accident or design she has let her non-GMO corn diet lapse “I’ve awoken the next morning with a frozen left hand, a sore hip, and a facial rash.”
“I’ve had to slow down and think about my food—how it was grown, what’s in it, and which trade-offs were made in the journey from a seed to my plate.”
She has found a way to manage her allergies by avoiding the products a technology whose proponents want to spread into more types of foods, more crops, in more places in the world.
We have no idea how many millions of people suffer the same or similar problems as Caitlin.
If we allow the untested, unregulated, unlabelled GM technology to be the American and global way of food and farming; we may also be opening up the way to global ill-health and misery.