Monday, December 22, 2014

GMO Revisited - As Well as Hormones, Soy, Phytoestrogens, and a Host of Other Food Scares

I wrote a long time ago about the nonsensical nature of GMO scare mongering ("GMO? So What?", "A Misleading 'Right to Know'" , ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe"), however I continue to see the same nonsense being pushed, and pushed-- sadly -- by supposedly conservative groups as often as by the left. Just today I got a conspiracy laced email from a Townhall.com advertiser warning me about GMOs and hormones and the risks they pose. The name of the group sponsoring this "sky is falling" newsletter? The Laissez-Faire Research Group! Of all things, tyring to tie the free market to this conspiracy theory absurdity.

Well, let us go back again and look at a few truths and see what we can make of this nonsense.

OK. Let us first look at rBST. This is a hormone farmers use to extend the milk production of a cow. But, before I begin explaining this process, perhaps I should first establish some basics. Since most of us no longer have direct contact with farms, I should probably make a few things clear. Cows, like all animals, do not "just make milk", they produce it to feed their calves. Thus, a cow will only lactate a little before giving birth and for a period afterward. Thus, farmer must keep cows impregnated, resulting in a lot of cost for insemination, and a lot of unwanted offspring they sell off for relatively little profit. So, the longer a single pregnancy can provide milk, the better. In comes the artificial hormone. These wonders allow cows to lactate for longer, and in greater quantities, thus making milk less costly to produce.

But, why should we not be scared about them? Well, the simple fact is, if we should be scared about these hormone, we should be scared of all milk. After all, the reason they allow for prolonged milking is that they reproduce the situation which produces "natural" milk. So, if we are getting an "unhealthy" dose of these hormones, then we logically must be getting an unhealthy dose of cow estrogen from all milk. Not to mention that the amount of rBST is minute compared to the "natural" estrogens and other hormone in a cow that is lactating. So, if this is comething to be worried about, then we should probably be afraid of all milk. Yet these people who fear rBST love to tout "natural" milk. In short, they seem to choke on a gnat while swallowing a camel. But that is par for the course for food faddist scare mongers, as we shall see*.

Of course, they have lots of scare information about this product, how a large dose of rBST causes cancer in rats and so on. But, that overlooks two things. First, almost anything in sufficient quantity can produce growths in rats. One study took sterile dimes and implanted them under the skin, and sure enough growth arose that some studies would call cancer. So, does money cause cancer? Or is a massive dose of anything likely to produce harmful results? Second, we are not getting massive injections of this chemical from milk. At most we get a minute amount. As I said, the "natural" milk they love gives us very little estrogen, so why would an estrogen substitute suddenly be excreted in massive quantities? Nonsense.

And finally, it also overlooks the fact that we are neither mice nor rats. While such studies may be useful first steps, they are not a replacement for human studies.After all, saccharine was banned based on rodent studies and later it was learned the ability to produce cancer was limited to female rats because of a particular physiological situation**, in humans it was harmless. Similarly, dioxin is deadly to some rodents, harmless to others. So what does that tell us about humans? No, an animal study alone, especially one done with massive doses, is no substitute for epidemiological evidence, human studies, even a simple explanation of the mechanism by which it produces harm. None of these seem to be forthcoming, however.

Of course, many of those who promote food scares will tell you that if a massive dose produces harm in rats, then a minute dose will produce a small harm in you, so why not avoid it? But the truth is, biology does not work that way. Often things that are toxic at high doses are innocuous at smaller doses, or beneficial. Oxygen, for example, is essential at certain percentages, but when you raise the percentage of oxygen high enough, it actually becomes a toxin. So, should we ban oxygen? Similarly, vitamin C is a useful antioxidant at certain doses, but at very high and very low levels it actually becomes the opposite, a harmful oxidant. Nor are these unusual cases, almost every medicine is also a poison at some dose. What are antibiotics but poisons that kill bacteria while doing us only trivial harm? But at high enough doses, most antibiotics become dangerous, for that very reason.Even radiation, at certain low levels, has been shown in studies to actually produce beneficial results. So the fact that a large dose of something, injected regularly into a rat does harm is hardly reason to fear something at much smaller doses***. To offer but one example, do you refuse lima beans because they contain cyanide? If not, then I would not worry about much more minute trace amounts of synthetic hormone in milk.

Let us move along to another topic, one I already addressed, "genetically modified organisms". And, before proceeding, let me point out that, at this moment, there is one massive GMO in your home, and that is you! And one is writing to you as well. In fact, if you look out your window you will see nothing but GMOs. The whole world is full of GMOs. And that is because everything that lives has had its genes altered from its original state. It is called evolution. Or -- setting aside evolution for the moment -- allow me to point out that you are a clone of neither your mother nor father, and thus, in that way, you are genetically modified. However, you want to look at it, nothing on earth exists which has not undergone genetic modification.

Nor has it all been accidental. That sinister intentional modification of genes by scientists that has been much denounced was previously done by farmers and called selective breeding. Which is my point. There is no difference, except speed and efficiency, in the splicing of genes by scientists and the selective breeding of farmers. Both produce never before seen species with unknown properties. Yet, thanks to too many late night monster movies scare mongers can sell us on the idea scientists will try to produce a frost free strawberry and somehow accidentally produce a massive plague. (Or maybe a man eating super berry!)

The truth is, natural selection has produced far more dangerous GMOs than any lab. Every year many varieties of influenza are created in nature, yet the number of deadly organisms created in labs -- excluding those which intended to create such -- are... well zero. In short, there is nothing about genetic modification which makes it any different from selective breeding and natural mutation, except for a tremendous increase in speed and efficiency. In short, yet again a lot of hype over a technology which has proved incredibly beneficial and entirely harmless****.

I could go on, about the absurd fears over soy and phytoestrogens, about growth control hormones such as Alar, about pesticides and so on, but I think you see the patter here. So, rather than drive this into the ground, let me just say that, whenever you hear a tale of food somehow killing us, ask yourself if the claims make a bit of sense.

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* The email I got made much of the fact most European nations had banned rBST, but I would argue that is hardly a meaningful measure. Many European nations have strong green parties that would ban quite a few things we accept as safe and useful, and the EU bureaucracy, like all bureaucracy, tends to err on the side of excessive prohibition. ("Fear Driven Enterprises", "Gun Control, The FDA and Regulating the Law Abiding", "Consumer Protection", "Adaptability and Government") Thus, the fact that a given product is banned by this government or that tells us very little. The true measure is the actual provable risk of the product.

** Large quantities of suspended proteins in their urine precipitated solids from the saccharine which scored their bladders, increasing the probability of cancerous cell multiplication. In humans there is no similar mechanism. For that matter, there is no similar mechanism in male rats.

*** I would point out that almost every foodstuff, even the most healthy and "natural" contains some amount of chemicals "known to cause cancer", roast coffee has hundreds, yet they do no harm to us despite constant intake. And that is precisely because we ingest doses much smaller than the massive ones shown to be harmful, and thus suffer no damage, or even enjoy a benefit from them.

**** Reminds me actually of the hype over nuclear energy. Yet, excepting for incredibly rare natural disasters, and one very poorly designed Soviet reactor, there have been no nuclear disasters, and even then, the two largest disasters never developed into the much feared "China Syndrome" -- where supposedly even a mild problem would result in the core melting through the earth and causing a massive cataclysm -- haven't seen that yet, have we? In other words, even considering the two worst possible outcomes they were far short of even the most mild scenarios put forth by the nuclear scare crowd. (And, if we look at body counts, they both fall short of the number of deaths yearly due to generator incidents, boiler explosions, coal mining accidents, black lung and all the other fatalities we hear nothing about while producing electricity by "safe" conventional means.)

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POSTSCRIPT

The same article mentions two misleading "facts", which I shall address very briefly:

1. The US lifespan is shorter than some European nations: I dealt with this in "Lifespan" (and also "Poverty and Lifespan"), but the short version is: (1) urban crime definitely drags this down, and we are far more urbanized than many nations to which we are compared and (2) our "infant mortality" is high (and our other numbers dragged down) because we try to save ill and premature children others would write off as stillborn, and thus not count. So we have many more "infant deaths" because their "stillborns" are either live children, or infant deaths, on our books.

2. More people are dying of heart attacks, cancer and such. And, yes, this is true, but ignores the simple fact, you are going to die of SOMETHING. All the listed diseases are those of old age and opulence. Since we don't die of smallpox or animal attacks or workplace accidents, we die of cancer and heart disease. As I said, we have to die of something, and since we live a long time, we die of degenerative diseases of old age, so of course their incidence is rising. Would he be happier if we were dying of influenza or starvation?

POSTSCRIPT II

For those who enjoyed this assay, I also recommend "Transfats?", "Technophobes and Conservatives -- The Risk of Assumptions","In Defense of White Bread", "The High Cost of Not Wasting Food", "Salt, Transfats, DDT, Bad Science and Even Worse Law", "Organic Absurdities" as well as the classic essay "False Alarm".

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