By Dr. Dan
Many people raise some good questions about food safety, ones well worthy of discussion. One prime topic is food safety.
Monsanto has legal, ethical and moral responsibility for its products. The problem with all moral precepts, however, comes when the proverbial rubber meets the road–how does one implement one’s moral responsibilities and, given that one can always consider doing more, how does one know when one has been sufficiently diligent?
But here’s a mindblower. Food is not absolutely safe–it never was and it never will be. We KNOW that food consumption has consequences for long term cardiovascular health, diabetes, etc. Some foods may even have acute health effects–everything from glutin enteropathy (Celiac disease) to food allergies. To date, there is no evidence that GM technology has injured anyone. Peanuts kill about 70 Americans every year, and we know that early introduction of peanuts in the diet increases risks of sensitization.
Dr. Ames, creator of the Ames test for cancer causing chemicals, has himself pointed out that most of the cancer-causing chemicals in foods are natural. Despite this, I am not aware of a single food that has ever had long term human or even animal SAFETY testing. (I emphasize safety testing – people have tried to study food intake for certain beneficial effects – but these are not safety assessment studies.)
By the way–I eat peanut butter, and I feed my kids peanut butter!
Given that we cannot ever demonstrate absolute safety, how do we know, in the real practical world, when we have done enough? How do we know when we have demonstrated that our products are, at a minimum, AS SAFE AS existing foodstuffs? This is the regulatory standard, and I believe our moral one as well. If we can actually make food SAFER that is great–and I would argue that this may be possible–but we should be held to the same standard as any other purveyor of foods.
- We DO look very specifically for toxicity in acute (single high dose) and subacute (28 day) studies at maximally tolerated doses (you can only feed so much corn to rat) to look for toxicity.
- Scientific research finds no such relationship exists.
On the issue of testing for unknown toxins, some of the blog readers have asked for chemical analysis–but how would this be done? There is no test for everything. To look for something you have to know what you are looking for, and to quantify it you need an analytical standard for comparison. You cannot test analytically for the complete unknown. What CAN be done is to look for unanticipated toxins NON-analytically–give the food to animals at a high dose and look for toxic effects. Instead of looking for the toxin, look for the toxicity–and this is EXACTLY what we do.
The issue of long term human testing for health effects is complex. In the laboratory or supervised settings, how would this be done?
Take 100 people and make 50 of them eat, as a large part of their diet, only GM corn or GM soybeans, and keep the rest of their diet standardized so that the groups were comparable. Do this for 30 years, 70 years.
Realistically, this type of human testing cannot be done for any kind of product. Epidemiologically, if you compare Europe and the U.S., you will find many differences in diet (and in fact the European diet includes GM–they do not grow much, but they import a lot) and many differences in the rates of various diseases and conditions.
This is all well and good, but how do you actually attribute cause and effect in such a study? This has been done in some cases looking for specific benefits (omega-3 fats and heart disease)), but how do you gain an understanding when you want to look for everything? You will find thousands of dietary differences and thousands of differences in health and wellbeing, but how do you know what CAUSES what?
I am afraid that what we are confronted with is not corporate ineptitude or lack of interest, but the fundamental epistemological limits to human knowledge. It is disturbing to confront this as a human, and even more so as a parent. I do not say any of this to excuse us from doing our job–only to point out that we confront the same limits to knowability as the rest of humanity. Given that virtually no other food is tested, and given what we know about our products, we endeavor to do a thorough battery of testing.
Dan is the Director of Medical Sciences and Outreach at Monsanto. He is a pediatrician, medical toxicologist, and clinical pharmacologist by training, and for the past 10 years his role at Monsanto has been devoted on human safety and health, with a focus on communications with the general public and with physicians, nutritionists, and other scientists both in the US and around the world. Dan received his undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology from the University of Wisconsin in 1976 and my MD degree from Johns Hopkins in 1981, followed by a residency in Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins and a fellowship in Clinical Pharmacology and Medical Toxicology at the University of Toronto. He is board certified by the American Boards of Pediatrics, Medical Toxicology, and Clinical Pharmacology, and by the Royal College of Physicians of Canada (Pediatrics).
Prior to Monsanto, Dan spent 10 years in private practice in Denver, Colorado, providing consultation in the area of Clinical, Occupational, Environmental and Forensic Toxicology. He joined Monsanto’s Medical Department in 1998, was appointed a Senior Science Fellow in 2002, and currently serves as Director of Medical Sciences and Outreach within Regulatory Affairs. Dr. Dan has been extensively involved in plant biotechnology, pesticide, and children’s environmental health issues, and served on the U.S. EPA’s Child Health Protection Advisory Committee, as a member of the EPA Science Advisory Board regarding the cancer risk assessment from early-life exposure to carcinogens, as an advisor to the NAFTA Commission for Environmental Cooperation regarding the development of international child health indicators, and as well as Board member for the American College of Medical Toxicology.
Dan is married, with four children, and lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to personal interests in carpentry and other do-it-yourself activities, digital photography, and collecting apothecary glass, he is currently writing a compendium of apothecary and pharmaceutical terminology spanning the time frame from colonial America through to the era of modern therapeutics circa 1930.