Ah-Tchoo! Do Genetically Modified Foods Cause Allergies?

By Vartan, Starre | E Magazine, November-December 2006 | Go to article overview

Ah-Tchoo! Do Genetically Modified Foods Cause Allergies?


Vartan, Starre, E Magazine


Allergies are big news and big business in the new millennium. A hundred years ago, people would likely have been shocked that modern humans are plagued with illnesses that range from annoying to deadly due to allergic reactions. In recent years, allergy sufferers have spent billions to avoid itchy noses and bleary-eyed suffering, and anxious parents have demanded that schools and airplanes ban nuts. With all the angst over peanut dust and pollen, the potential allergy-causing properties of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been quietly overlooked.

Genetically modified food has genes from other plants or animals inserted into its genetic structure. Scientists and environmental and health advocates have long been concerned that this practice could stimulate allergies in humans. The argument goes like this: If you are allergic to fish, and you eat a GMO tomato that includes genes from a fish, might you have an allergic reaction if you eat the tomato? A 2002 Journal of Anatomy article denies it: "No direct evidence that [GMO] food may represent a possible danger for health has been reported so far; however, the scientific literature in this field is quite poor." Only a few GMO crops (soy, corn and canola) have been widely planted and truly infiltrated the American food supply, and there have not been any widespread documented allergies to those foods.

Unpredictable Genes

However, some scientists say that gene modification isn't as predictable as GMO advocates claim it is. "When inserted, genes can get disrupted, fused, mutated, or altered in unknown ways," says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the Institute for Food Safety. Critics of GMOs say that allergic responses to an occasional dose of GMOs might not be noticeable in humans or might be attributed to another food exposure.

A 1999 study of farmworkers who worked with bioengineered corn found elevated levels of proteins that were related to known allergens in their blood. These and other exposed farmworkers have shown higher than normal skin irritation, asthma and "rhinitus" (runny noses)--all classic allergic reactions. Studies were never repeated on those subjects to prove that the allergies were due to the GMOs or some other factor. Tests on mice that have ingested genetically modified corn found increased immune responses when compared to traditional corn.

In a 2005 study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Australian government's scientific research arm, it was found that a gene from a bean that was inserted into pea plants (to make them resistant to the pea weevil) caused an immune response in mice. For an unknown reason, once the bean gene was in the pea plant, it not only repelled the weevil, but also produced a protein that caused an allergic response in mice--and could potentially cause allergies in humans. The million-dollar pea plant trial was discontinued shortly after this information came to light. "In the U.S., the tests [that found the allergen] would never have been performed since they are not required by regulatory agencies," says Gurian-Sherman.

Testing GMOs?

The unknown allergy-causing potential of GMO foods is one reason the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a nonprofit that works on public health and environmental issues, has been petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 2000 for pre-market testing of GMO food for allergens. The Center also wants to see GMO foods labeled and wants an environmental review before bioengineered crops are planted. …

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