Is GMO Inherently Evil?

by Brian on March 20, 2014

Image by Kris

Image by Kris

“GMO” is a heavily loaded term.

Is it the savior and solution to the problem of feeding 9 billion people that marketing departments at companies like Monsanto and Pioneer portray it to be? Are unsafe and unhealthy GMO foods being released onto the unsuspecting public in a mass uncontrolled experiment?

What do we really know about genetically modified organisms (GMO).

When I first started asking health-oriented people what they knew about GMO and what their main concerns were I was struck by the sheer lack of knowledge. Most people simply have no idea how it works, but just a vague sense that something creepy and unnatural is happening to food. And these were people who are otherwise very well-informed about the latest thinking in nutrition and diet.

The creep factor is not helped by listening to scientists gleefully talk about putting spider genes into goats and getting flashbacks of watching Jeff Goldblum turn into a half-man, half-fly in the movie The Fly.

Trying to get to the bottom of the seemingly simple question, “Are GMO’s safe?” feels like digging into a never ending abyss of conflicting information. In fact, it took me a year to write this post before I felt like I could really articulate a well reasoned position on GMOs based on current evidence.

Let’s pull back the curtain and look at several issues surrounding GMO.

Coming to terms, GMO vs. Hybrids

You will often see scientists and the lay people who read those scientists’ work make some version of the argument, “but ALL foods are GMO.” Farmers have been selectively breeding crops for 10,000 years or more to bring out and enhance desired genetic traits. The entire enterprise of farming was built on the edifice of GMO from day one.

For that matter, all living things that reproduce sexually are GMO because when mama and papa get together their goal is to recombine genes into offspring with novel DNA.

To me this is a bit like people who say, “but ALL food is organic because it’s all based on carbon atoms.”

While strictly speaking they are not wrong, their arguments are missing the target. For the most part people are not running out and protesting, “how dare you only breed the biggest strawberry from your field to try and make a generation of bigger strawberries!”

“Hybrid” is a term that throws some people off when they first hear it. But when you explain that this refers to, say, trying to mate a higher yielding variety of wheat with a disease-resistant variety of wheat in order to produce an offspring variety of wheat that is both high-yield and disease-resistant, most people don’t have a problem with that either.

In other words, aside from gluten sensitivity issues, objections to mama wheat and papa wheat having baby wheat are very rare. Or in a more familiar example, people are generally okay with horses and donkeys having baby mules.

“Transgenic GMOs” are where the rubber meets the road. This is when you take a gene from one species and splice it into the genome of another, usually wholly unrelated, species. This is the Franken-world of putting spider genes into goats and insecticide producing bacteria genes into corn. These types of crosses are not possible through mating in the wild and rely on laboratory intervention.

Pro-GMO people object, “Who cares where the gene came from? It’s the result that matters.”

They have a point. But is the result good or bad?

Many people still can’t let go of what they perceive to be an arbitrary distinction between hybrids and transgenics because “they are both GMOs.” But if you want to join the debate, you have to understand where the battle lines have been drawn and play with the same terms that everyone else is using.

Are there studies that show GMOs are unhealthy?

First, I have bad news for the anti-GMO crowd. There is no evidence that GMOs are categorically unhealthy.

It gets worse. There can never be any studies proving that GMOs are categorically unhealthy.

The reason is simple. Each organism is different. We have to take them all on a case-by-case basis. There is no mysterious dark GMO energy that is uniformly transferred to organisms when you manipulate their genome in a lab.

Anti-GMO people often give some argument like the body doesn’t recognize unfamiliar compounds in new foods and treats them as toxins. If this were true the human race would have been SOL a long time ago. We have regularly encountered new foods with novel compounds in our migration across the globe. The humble blueberry is a new world food. It certainly contained compounds in novel combinations that our ancestors had never seen before, but there has been no epidemic of blueberry deaths or blueberry cancers.

On the other hand, humans that first encountered and ate poison dart frogs in Central and South America probably didn’t fare so well. Perhaps the frog might even be surprised at how effective its poison was on this creature it had never seen before.

Again, everything has to be taken on a case by case basis. Simply never having encountered a particular compound before tells us almost nothing about whether or not it will be fatally toxic to us. There might be a higher probability that a novel compound will be toxic, but the probability is not 100%.

However, basically all we’ve shown here is that you can’t make a categorical statement like, “all GMOs are bad.”

On the other hand, we can say that some GMOs are bad. In fact, many strains are thrown out by GMO companies during the testing process for that very reason.

There are many reasons for legitimate concern. Epigenetics, emergent cross-talk between genes, effects on or creation of unidentified compounds. If you’ve ever attempted to make sense of the nutrition literature, it should be clear to you that we don’t have it all down pat yet.

I also hear a record scratch every time a scientist says, “All genes do are create proteins. We just insert the gene that creates the protein we want.”

Genes don’t produce proteins on a strict 1-to-1 basis. The human genome, for instance, contains 20,000 – 25,000 genes that code for about 90,000 proteins. Some genes work together and their products influence each other. In some cases, gene order also matters.

Throwing a new gene into a genome is like throwing a new boy into a classroom. He might hang out by himself and be a lone wolf just doing his thing, or he might interact with others and change the classroom dynamic a bit. Even if he does keep to himself, just by virtue of seating him between two best friends you might affect the dynamic between those two.

At the end of the day I think you have to view genetic engineering as a tool. It’s no more inherently good or evil than a hammer. It’s what you do with it that matters.

GMO as it’s practiced today

First, let’s get a couple things straight. As of this post, there are only 8 GMO crops:

  • Alfalfa
  • Canola
  • Corn
  • Cotton
  • Papaya
  • Soy
  • Sugar Beets
  • Zucchini / Yellow Summer Squash

Note that wheat is not one of them. When your friend comes back from Europe telling you how much healthier he feels because they “don’t have GMO wheat there,” you set him straight.

Secondly, there are other GMO products than just crops. Much of the insulin that diabetics take has also been derived from bacteria with an insulin producing gene spliced in. This method results in a higher purity and lower cost product than other production methods. This is a great use of GMO in my opinion.

Some of the vitamins at your “natural” health food store are also synthesized with genetically engineered bacteria in the same way.

That out of the way, I do take exception with GMO as it’s practiced in agriculture today. I think the synergy between farm policy and the large GMO seed companies like Monsanto has turned our food system into a runaway juggernaut pointed in entirely the wrong direction.

GMO products that enhance nutrition like incorporating beta carotene into “golden rice” could be of enormous benefit.

However, that’s not the road we’ve gone down. In the name of increasing crop yield, GMO companies have predominantly arrived at solutions that allow you to either:

  • put the poison in the plant, or
  • put the poison on the plant

Not particularly appetizing. And I can’t escape the feeling that products like “Roundup Ready” seeds just seem like a way of hooking farmers on purchasing a steady supply of Roundup. Stanford study notwithstanding, there’s reason to believe that pesticide use does reduce nutrient content of produce.

In combination with US farm policy and subsidies we have vast tracts of land planting GMO corn and soybeans from “fencerow to fencerow.”

Admittedly, this is one solution to feeding 9 billion people. However, it’s one heavily skewed towards a couple relatively nutrient poor foods. A diet of corn and soy may keep us alive, but it isn’t sufficient to make us thrive.

A lot of rhetoric gets passed around that this is actually the “only” way to feed 9 billion. However, that is a myopic view. The past 50 years or so of farm policy and commercial practices have pushed us a good way down this road, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way and there’s certainly nothing to say that it’s the “best” way.

Another issue I have with GMO as it’s currently practiced is that there are no publicly transparent standards for testing them. The FDA’s position is essentially, “regulate yourselves.”

No company has ever manipulated data when a billion dollar product was on the line right? I mean… Monsanto and others that produced DDT swore up and down that it was safe for humans for 30 years, but surely they would never do something like that again.

As I currently see it, I disagree with many of the products and business practices of GMO companies as they exist today, but I cannot categorically condemn GMO. If we have the ability to someday create superfoods I don’t see any reason why not to. On the other hand, the foods we have now are already pretty darn good.

What do you think? Any points I’ve not addressed? Still not convinced by any of my arguments?

{ 0 comments }

Why NOT to do 30 Day Fitness Challenges

by Brian on March 13, 2014

First, let me say that I love 30 day challenges. If you can stick to a new habit for 30 days and see good results, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to maintain it into the future.

So why this article?

Not all 30 day challenges are created equal. Some–even those created by highly respected fitness gurus–are bad ideas for most people and can even be downright harmful. Especially when you use them as an onboarding ramp to a new fitness program with an exercise you are not used to doing.

Here are a couple really bad ones I’ve seen lately:

  • 30/30 Squat Challenge – Spend 30 minutes a day in a rock bottom squat for 30 days
  • The 300 Swings a Day, 30-Day Kettlebell Challenge

We’ll take a look at how 30 day challenges go wrong and what to do about it.

When 30 day challenges go wrong

“The best way to start a new fitness program in an exercise you are not used to is to jump in headfirst and go full tilt every day for 30 days with no rest days…” said no respected fitness expert ever.

There are two major problems with this approach:

  1. Starting a fitness program with no prep-work and a fast and furious training schedule is the quickest road to burnout and injury.
  2. Rest is necessary for adaptation. Muscles grow during rest, not during workouts.

Strength coaches universally recommend trainees start off light. If it doesn’t feel too easy for the first couple weeks, you’re doing it wrong. Distance running coaches start their trainees off with lots of easy, slow paced running. Highly demanding intervals don’t show up until a couple months into the training schedule. Yoga instructors start you off with downward dog and not a handstand press with your legs folded into a pretzel.

You get the point. Any 30 day challenge that ignores the basic rule of starting off easy and building up gradually is setting you up for failure and should be avoided.

Likewise, avoid 30 day fitness challenges that do not include rest days.

Pushing yourself beyond safe limits and not resting properly quickly leads to burnout and/or injury. I’ve heard from so many people who bombed out of the 30/30 Squat Challenge mere days into the program with a knee injury or pulled muscle.

But the damage isn’t just physical, it’s also psychological. You get demotivated and discouraged. You feel like you just don’t have what it takes and you are inferior to everyone else who is presumably still doing just fine on the challenge (in reality they aren’t and are quitting in droves just like you).

When the credibility of these types of programs is questioned, the “coaches” have a secret weapon against the newb: “It won’t hurt you, just man up and don’t be a wuss.” Thus many unsuspecting victims are falsely lulled into believing that these programs are safe for them.

Don’t buy it. If you’ve fall for this before, don’t beat yourself up. Now you know better.

How to do 30 day challenges the right way

The fundamental question you should ask yourself about any 30 day challenge is, “If this goes well, could I see myself continuing the same program for the rest of my life?”

Let’s apply this to our two challenges above:

Could I see myself doing 30 mins of squatting every day for the rest of my life?

– FAIL

Could I see myself doing 300 KB swings every day for the rest of my life?

– FAIL

Even if you manage to survive the initial 30 days, no one has any illusions that they’d be able to keep it up forever.

So how could you modify these programs to be more sensible?

Instead of 30 minutes of squatting every day, try 10 minutes of squatting 5 days a week.

Instead of 300 KB swings every day, try 100 KB swings 5 days a week.

If you’re brand new to a fitness paradigm, you might not have a sense of how much you can handle and still overestimate your abilities. That’s fine. If 2-3 days into the program you are already seriously questioning your body’s ability to continue, cut time/weight/reps in half and continue.

Your goal for the first 30 days is just to complete a program that has you working out on a regular, set schedule. During that time your objectives should be to gain familiarity and confidence with the movement. You should not be attempting to set a big PR, break any records, or prove any manhood.

When to attempt the foolish

I would argue that 30 day fitness challenges that require you workout every day with no rest days are not appropriate for anyone ever, no matter what your fitness level.

However, if you still insist on doing one anyway you should only attempt a balls-to-the-wall 30 day fitness challenge if you have already been working out that exercise for some time and have a good degree of fitness.

Do you already have good squat mobility? Do you already regularly spend time sitting in a rock bottom squat? Alright, try a 30/30 Squat Challenge if you want to.

Have you been doing 300 KB swings a day 3/days a week for a year? Is it no longer much of a challenge? Okay, then you might consider a 300 KB swings/day 30 day challenge.

But the bigger question is “why?” These types of programs aren’t healthy and certainly aren’t ideal training schedules. Probably about all they are good for is making you feel really tired.

Only you can answer if completing such a challenge will make you feel personally accomplished in some way. If it will, own it, and do what makes you happy. Personally I will pass on the boom-bust fitness cycle and stick to a more measured, but progressive workout schedule.

{ 0 comments }

How to Eat Paleo in Korea

March 3, 2014
Thumbnail image for How to Eat Paleo in Korea

I recently moved to Seoul, South Korea with the intent of being here for at least a year. This is the story of my attempt to eat Paleo here. Bringing your healthy eating habits to another country for months or even years at a time is very challenging. I’ve been to Seoul many times before […]

Read the full article →

Should You Eat Anything with a Face?

January 5, 2014

Recently there was a heated debate on intelligence squared over the topic “Don’t Eat Anything With A Face.” Normally I dismiss these debates as only so much huff and puff between ideologues making oversimplified arguments based on emotional pleas rather than some semblance of facts, but this one caught my attention because it included two […]

Read the full article →

Genealogy 101: Rediscovering Lost Family History

October 24, 2013

What country did my ancestors come from? Were there any famous people in my family tree? Was great-great-great grandma a full blooded Cherokee? Gaining deeper insight into those that came before us gives us deeper insight into ourselves. Even if much of the time you think your ancestors are just a bunch of old dead […]

Read the full article →

What Energy Do You Bring to the Party?

August 21, 2013

In freshman year of college my dorm was hosting a party. I was headed out that night because I had other plans, and on the way out I bumped into a couple of girls who asked me where Steve was (name changed to protect the innocent). Without much thought, I replied “oh, you mean the […]

Read the full article →