Asthma is a worldwide problem, afflicting more than 230 million people around the globe. It’s particularly a problem with children, sending 775,000 of them to the emergency room every year in the United States. It’s also more prevalent in industrialized countries than in developing or rural ones. Proponents of natural cures and organic products will tell you that the rates of asthma and other allergies is increasing, and the culprits are GMOs.
“‘Multiple animal studies show significant immune dysregulation,’ including increases in cytokines, which are ‘associated with asthma, allergy, and inflammation’—all on the rise in the U.S.,” writes Jeffrey Smith, who runs his vanity anti-GMO site Institute for Responsible Technology. His source? The Academy of Environmental Medicine, a fringe group that promotes anti-vaccine hysteria, natural healing and other pseudo-science views.
A number of anti-GMO activists have bunched together asthma with other disorders as a “food related allergy,” and then concluded that the diseases altogether show an increase in allergies. These comments have provided an inspiration for hundreds of other “alternative medicine” and quack website posts, including at Asthma Allergies Children, Natural Awakenings, and a slew of dedicated anti-GMO sites, such as GMO Report and the Organic & Non-GMO Report, which sponsored a “seminar” on this subject in February It’s keynote speaker? Foodie activist Robyn O-Brien. who described how she became involved in the GM food fight after her youngest daughter suffered a life-threatening allergic reaction to a food product, which she blamed–without a shred of evidence in the scientific literature — on GMOs.
Perhaps most notorious is the article “The Bad Seed,” in Elle two years ago, written by Caitlin Shetterly in which she blamed GMO corn for a litany of allergies and medical problems, which she claimed all miraculously cleared up when she eliminated products that contain them from her diet. GLP’s Jon Entine dissected the many misrepresentations in her story in a feature piece in Slate, “No, You Shouldn’t Fear GMO Corn: How Elle botched a story about genetically modified food.”
Unfortunately, many journalists in what might be called the fringe mainstream media–publications like Mother Jones that wobble between science and pseudoscience — often echo such scare stories. Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott has pointed to the “witches brew” of processed and GMO foods as a “plausible” cause of a growing brew of chronic conditions, including asthma, obesity and behavior/learning disorders–again without any hard evidence.
Real numbers on asthma
There are a number of serious logical and scientific fallacies with this argument, and asthma is a good way to call them out. Anti-GMO activists claim that genetically modified food could be responsible for apparent increases in a group of linked disorders, including hay fever, eczema and asthma, all wrapped up in a syndrome known to immunologists and anti-GMO activists alike as “Atopic March.” Atopic March syndrome is a progression from skin irritation to eczema to asthma and breathing problems that is very real: up to 70 percent of children with severe eczema eventually develop asthma.
But the evidence on these specific disorders doesn’t match the scare reports. The number of children with asthma in the United Kingdom was increasing two- to three-fold from the 1950s until the 1990s. But since then, rates have flattened and even declined somewhat. Similarly, rates for eczema among children rose by 150 percent between 1971 and 1991, but also flattened and have somewhat declined. Allergic rhinitis (“hay fever”) has shown the same pattern. In the U.S., data has shown the same flattening in the 1990s, but then an increase in the mid-1990s. So, instead of a constant increase, the changes in incidence of these disorders most linked to GMOs has shown a more complicated trajectory.
But that hasn’t stopped GMO opponents. For example, in a post in “Natural Awakenings,” chiropractor Mark Joachim lumped together a range of claims from the misleading to the bizarre:
The lungs and skin are elimination organs, and in Eastern philosophy, the skin is considered to be the third lung. Just like any other part of the body that is not functioning properly, the skin compensates when the lungs need help. Working harder, this extra effort to detoxify may be expressed as rashes, hives and eczema. Counter to what we usually attribute these symptoms to, namely environmental irritations, from a holistic perspective, these rashes, hives or eczema usually result when internal toxins are trying to leave the body.
And where are these “toxins” from? GMOs: “With this growing prevalence of modified products, an increase in food allergies and sensitivities is likely as our bodies attempt to process materials they are not equipped to handle,” Joachim wrote.
In fact, scientists have uncovered a genetic and immunological connection between skin irritations, eczema and asthma, which has nothing to do with GMOs. Joachim himself pointed to a study by Washington University, St. Louis, scientists that demonstrated that TSLP (thymic stromal lymphopoietin) is triggered by eczema, elicits a very strong immune response, and can effectively move throughout the body, including the lungs. Further studies have shown a genetic link involving the cellular messenger TGF-beta.
Which is valuable stuff. The only problem is, nobody’s made a connection between GMOs and the initially triggering of TGF-beta and TSLP. If any such triggering reactions were found, there was no significant difference between “wild type” food (such as soybeans) and the genetically modified version.
Not all allergies are the same
While the rates of asthma and eczema are going the opposition direction that anti-GMO activists would prefer to bolster their arguments, other allergic reactions are indeed on the rise. “Since 1990, admissions for anaphylaxis have increased by 700 percent, for food allergy by 500 percent, for urticaria (hives) by 100 percent, and for angioedema (sudden swelling) by 40 percent. Prescriptions issued for all types of allergy have increased since 1991,” a British study found.
And the worst thing somebody might do is decide to look for a “natural cure.” Sally Bloomfield, a professor at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine recently wrote that:
Many people believe that “man-made” chemicals are more likely to cause allergic reactions, leading to many synthetic substances in products being replaced by “natural alternatives”. However, the most common allergic reactions are to naturally occurring allergens, in foods such as eggs, milk and nuts, in common garden plants such as primroses and chrysanthemums, and things in the environment such as pollen, dust mites and pet dander. Some natural replacements for synthetic substances could actually increase the risk of allergic reactions.
In addition, many people may not even have allergies they think they have. Many tests or “natural alternatives” not only can cause harm themselves, they have made people believe they have an allergy when in fact they don’t. One study found that of 34 percent of a group of parents reporting an allergy in their children, only 5 percent of the reporting parents actually had a child with an allergy. This is making reality harder to grasp.
The reality about asthma is that — like almost all chronic or allergic disorders — it is a very tricky, complex disease. Sometimes, it’s not even an allergy. Most allergists consider the name an umbrella term for a range of disorders, all of which have difficulty breathing in common. This means that the cause of asthma also is tricky and complex. Epidemiology studies have pointed to genetics, epigenetics, environment, living in industrial cities versus other areas, and even educational levels as factors in the disease.
There is evidence that allergies have spiked to a few specific food products, such as those containing peanuts and wheat, but those are not genetically modified. Many researchers are now coalescing behind the the belief that the primary culprit for the sharp rise in many allergies is the sharp increase and overuse of antibiotics that has paralleled the reported problems.
“We don’t want to say this is a cause and effect relationship, but we do want to raise the concern,” said Dr. Cathryn Nagler, a prominent researcher. “An infectious disease specialist made the point that most kids in the U.S. receive two or three courses of antibiotics in infancy. Most of the treatments they receive are for viral infections, meaning, they’re getting a treatment that serves no purpose.”
What they’re getting instead, she said, is the alteration and elimination of the good bacteria that may keep allergens at bay. And that’s just one of the problems that are associated with the overuse of antibiotics.
The AllergenOnline database at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, independently managed by a panel of internationally recognized allergy experts who review and vote on allergen inclusion, does not list any allergens coming from GMOs. The database “lists every known protein that has been shown to cause an allergy and or even might be suspected of possibly causing a reaction,” said Richard Goodman, a food allergy research professor who runs the database at the university. Three main tests are conducted to ensure that any new proteins from GM foods do not cause allergies: in vitro test, in silico test and digestion.
Speculation that GMOs might produce new allergens has been challenged by scientists. Kevin Bonham, a Harvard immunologist, responds to one such claim by the Union of Concerned Scientists:
Before getting started, let’s go back to the statement from UCS that I find so objectionable:[GE crops] may produce new allergens and toxins
This is patently false – genetic engineering techniques allow us to precisely add genes of known structure and function to crops. It would in principle be possible to engineer corn that expresses anthrax toxin, or introduce peanut allergens into soybeans, but this would have to be by malicious intent of the scientists, not some accident. We know how genes work, and we know what kind of protein an individual gene will make.
There is simply no scientific evidence that asthma is caused by GMOs. First, increases in its prevalence began in the 1970s, well before the introduction of genetic modification in food. Second, most triggering substances are more natural and specific—pet hair or fur, dust peanuts and milk that have no GM component–or environmental irritants such as paint, smog, or industrial solvents. This is an issue for healthcare, but the increase in some allergies has not been brought about by recombinant DNA.
Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.
Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a Senior Fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter