Do GMOs, pesticides cause cancer? The Amish would say ‘no’

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The Amish have been an insular people in the United States for nearly 200 years, ever since they arrived from Switzerland and other parts of Europe to avoid religious persecution. Many non-Amish assume that since they avoid such modern technologies as telephones, automobile, and even zippers, the Amish must also eschew genetically modified crops and pesticides.

These assumptions came out in a blog that appeared in the anti-GMO website Natural News and other sources, claiming that a study showing low cancer rates among Amish in Ohio meant that the people’s simple living practices, including using organic (and non-GMO) farming, were making them healthier.

Natural News extrapolated the cancer study:

Another important factor not specifically examined in the study is the fact that the Amish grow and raise all their own food. They employ time-tested, organic methods that provide them with healthy fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, and other untainted foods that most Americans never get. Rich in living enzymes, vitamins, and nutrients Amish food is grown and raised the way it should be, resulting in improved health. While some may ridicule their secluded lifestyle, the Amish commitment to simple, productive lives and clean, local food is benefiting their health in ways that the rest of America can only dream about. When compared to a life of sitting in office buildings all day, eating processed and genetically-modified junk food, and popping prescription medications, it becomes clear which lifestyle is truly deserving of contempt.

Contempt aside, Natural News did get one thing right: the Amish indeed do have lower cancer rates than do other Americans. And they mostly followed the researchers’ conclusions on what may be leading to these rates: more exercise, less reliance on labor-saving devices, avoidance of tobacco.

But here’s where Natural News is wrong: the Amish use pesticides, and they use genetically modified crops in their fields. Enthusiastically.

This BBC video shows an interview with an Amish farmer, who, with his back against the camera due to Amish rules about being photographed, discusses the advantages of Bt corn in his fields. Another Amish farmer from Pennsylvania talked to Wired about his use of genetically modified tobacco, engineered to prevent the biosynthesis of nicotine. “Amish law doesn’t say anything about growing genetically modified tobacco,” farmer Dan Diener said.

While many Amish farmers are starting to adopt organic practices, due to the higher price premiums and increased consumer demands, there have been obstacles. Some of these obstacles are true for all organic farmers; the higher overall cost of inputs, the three-year period before they can sell certified organic food. Another challenge is ironic; Amish farmers see organic as a new technology, and some are reluctant to adapt to it.

About that cancer study

Back in 2010, researchers from Ohio State University conducted the first attempt at cancer epidemiology among the Amish. They found that 191 cancer cases had been recorded among Ohio Amish between 1996 and 2003.

One hundred and ninety one cases is not “cancer free.” But cancer rates among the Amish were much lower than among non-Amish. Adjusted for age, overall cancer rates among the Amish were 60 percent of rates among non-Amish Ohioans. Tobacco related cancers were just 37 percent of rates among non-Amish, and non-tobacco-related cancers came in at 72 percent compared to non-Amish.

The reasons for this? Avoidance of tobacco might help contribute. Also, few Amish go through cancer screenings, deeming them unnecessary, so some figures might be artificially low. But a bigger reason might be endogamy.

Being a cultural isolate, the Amish intermarry. And like many groups that intermarry, they suffer from rare genetic diseases more than other, “out-married” populations. The Amish have very high rates of certain diseases almost unheard of in other populations, such as SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency disorder), at rates of one in four, compared to one in 40,000 in the general population, and “Maple Syrup Urine” disorder, a recessive and potentially fatal metabolic disease. Since they arrived from Switzerland in the early to mid-1800s, they have been an isolated population, and carry mutations for these diseases due to a “founder effect,” which happens when a group is created by very few individuals. Intermarriage then furthers a number of deleterious genes through generations. But not all genes and traits furthered through endogamy are bad.

Among these groups, such as Ashkenazi Jews and certain Arab populations, some rare disorders and mutations may protect against certain cancers. Certain mutations may run lower or higher in certain populations, leading ultimately to lower (or, as in the case of Ashkenazi Jews and breast cancer, higher) rates of cancer. Sometimes these mutations may provide some advantage of survival, either by protecting against rare diseases, or perhaps by proffering more indirect benefits, such as breast cancer mutations among Ashkenazi Jews that appear related to higher production of dendrites in the brain, and overall higher IQs.

But whatever the cause, it’s not “no cancer,” it’s “less cancer.” And the reasons may have more to do with not smoking, and a genetic compromise that reduced cancer but increased the risk of rare disorders.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer and editor, and has worked with numerous academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @AMPorterfield

  • Martin Greenleaf

    I am a modern farmer in Pennsylvania. I live in the middle of the largest Amish settlement in the USA, Lancaster , PA. Almost every Amish neighbor uses pesticides to a large degree. They spray on windy days and on an open cart pulled by horses. They wear no protective gear whatsoever. I would say, as the only accurate part of the original report, that they have huge gardens and grow much (not all, I see them shopping in grocery stores too) of their own food. Some do raise organic crops also, not because of the belief in it, but to supply a market demand that they will get paid more for as it usually requires much more labor to produce and they have large families that are put to work. ( Their kids aren’t sitting around the house playing video games) If they truly believed in growing only healthful things, their main cash crop wouldn’t be tobacco. (and lots of them smoke). Anyway, their lower cancer rate is NOT from lower pesticide exposure. I have frequently had a neighbor go away from pesticides for a year, (to save expenses) only to go right back after experiencing very poor crops. (pigweed higher than the corn ! )

    • Andrew Porterfield

      Thanks, Martin! The Ohio State team did mention lower smoking rates (but didn’t provide any data on that), and finally concluded that smoking didn’t explain the cancer rates they found.

  • vm0303

    wow, there’s a tobacco that’s modified to be nicotine free? A little
    googling says that it probably exists but i’m not sure if it made it out
    of the lab into commercial sales

  • Farmer with a Dell

    OK, I’m not doubting The Ohio State University actually consulted CDC statistics for cancer incidence but I seriously doubt they did their due diligence in surveying personal behaviors among the Amish. I suspect OSU just went with prevailing stereotypes shored up with a hefty dose of wishful thinking. The Amish I am acquainted with sport the full complement of vices (in private, of course, as we all do). Smoking is popular enough and there is no aversion to actually using technology when they have access to it and can be reasonably discrete about it. I’ve also noticed an Amishman and family will eat absolutely anything set in front of them and they will go back for seconds and thirds and clean their plates, too. Some of the raciest jokes and some of the most nefarious “horse trades” I’ve ever heard of are from Amish I’ve gotten to know. You want to be paying close attention when doing business with ’em. Surprisingly fun bunch of relatively harmless sinners, actually, the Amish. One thing to consider though, Amish seem to expose themselves to a much more wide-ranging sentimental set of life-threatening risks and exposures than most of the rest of us do. They aren’t renowned for extreme longevity, and lots of things bring them down – injuries, infectious disease, physical wear and tear that leads to heart and kidney disease – just a lot of reasons to be dead before cancer can get ’em. The rest of us lead long, long lives sheltered from everyday harm until finally cancer gets around to each of us. These days we’re just a cancer statistic waiting to happen.

  • Alokin

    Exercise and eat a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. How boring. Better to promote the next greatest fad or fear, which winds up making fresh fruits and vegetable less affordable, especially for those who are already eating an unhealthy diet.

    • Seth A. Yellin

      According to emissions, what the body strives for, overpopulation, etc. the U.N. (not the greatest to begin with, Zion owned, etc.), scientists, Olympic winning athletes, etc. have shown this information to be true of over consumption of the world’s resources. It takes far more gas, vegetables, fruits, etc. to maintain animals that others have to usually season to eat, then feel sluggish, and in America mainly, pop “medicine”. Instead of people worrying about how much water is used for arguably the best medicine, cannabis, in Cali., why not just have a society not worried about how much of a glutton they can be? Cheers. (:

    • Seth A. Yellin

      Also to the mere facts that I forgot to note:

      1. Here, America, about 40% of food is wasted. Much of it being perfectly good food.

      2. Americans make up 5% of the world’s population, yet, this country uses over 70% of the drugs.

      -PBS, CNN, etc.

    • Seth A. Yellin

      Then to also note what I forgot to note (which includes various health issues, one or more issue[s] backed by Harvard):

      GMO fed rats have shown to become more obese simply from Monsanto’s self regulated and heavily protected chemicals. They even contained gulf sized tumors.

      While also pig stomachs are shown to be destroyed via GMO’s.

      The FDA approves artificial sweeteners, which were known to eat away at the body, and now are known to actually increase insulin. They are known as pest control.

      Cigarettes were once, for a while, allowed in hospitals.

      Hospitals didn’t require any people to wash their hands at one point.

      Sodium fluoride rots teeth, and more and more professionals are noting this, to even more here in America. Calcium fluoride is fine in moderation but sodium fluoride is human made. It is actually 96% or so of rat poisons and will burn holes in concrete when concentrated enough. It actually destroys I.Q., according to Harvard University, and other sources say so too. It is being filtered out of many countries while our government dumps it. We rank 32nd in education, when we used to rank 26th recently, when we used to be for sometime 1st, which was with F.D.R., to sometime after him. Schools teach people to satisfy the status quo, not so much to think, but not helping to actually think, and more and more programs for arts and even P.E. get cut.

      Cheers mate!¡ (; Bless. Namaste. Fibonacci.

      • Alokin

        Great job packing such a large load of BS in such a small space. Believing Seralini’s conclusions will do that to a person. Crazy anti-fluoridation misinformation was the tinfoil hat capper.

  • Valerie Loveless

    Amish don’t eat processed foods, they sell that corn not eat it. They are eating what is in their gardens not their feilds. So this article is not making the point that gmos and pesticides are ok.

    • Farmer with a Dell

      The amish feed GE crops to their livestock, products from which their families eat, as do mine.

      • Seth A. Yellin

        Unfortunately, if so. So I’ll give a thumbs up as what you may say be true.

  • chad

    The Amish I know also love sugar which is a potential cancer agent. I think common sense of general healthy eating, get your eggs in the morning butcher your own chickens grow your own vegables and work very hard and maybe decrease in stress?