Ethics in Medicine

Precautionary Principle and Genetically Modified Food

Kristen Sparrow • December 07, 2011

Over the last few days, I’ve been discussing Munger’s model of avoiding that which is bad for healthier or more successful outcomes. I’ve made the point that in Medicine, also, that is part of the way to be healthy, to avoid the unhealthy. Simplistic, but in a way profound.
When it comes to cancer, the Emperor of All Maladies, how do we avoid what is negative? We know the obvious, tobacco and asbestos, nuclear fall out, maybe full body scans at the airport. But what else? What else to we avoid? I was bedside a few times a week with a friend in her final months of battling thyroid cancer, and it inspired me to become a vegan, since there is some data to suggest a plant based diet can improve your immunity and help your own system to fight cancer. But what else can we avoid?
Cue this Op-Ed by Eric Schlosser and Gary Hirshberg. You might want to read the whole thing, but I’ll feature a few highlights. More on my practice here.

The right to know what you are eating

An unprecedented agricultural experiment is being conducted at America’s dinner tables. While none of the processed food we ate 20 years ago contained genetically engineered ingredients, now 75 percent of it does – even though the long-term human health and environmental impacts are unknown. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require labeling of genetically engineered foods. But as the current drive to get labeling on the ballot in California confirms, consumers want to know whether our food contains these revolutionary new things

Biotech companies have fought labeling, claiming genetically engineered crops are “substantially the same” and produce larger yields – both unproven claims. But genetically engineered crops have led to the increased use of pesticides, often sold by the same companies that make genetically engineered seeds…Almost all the research on the safety of genetically engineered foods has been conducted by the companies that sell them. ..A study of pregnant women found genetically engineered corn toxins in 93 percent of the women and 80 percent of their unborn children. All of their umbilical cords had glyphosate residues. Biotech companies say genetically engineered crops aren’t different – but defend their patent rights by arguing they’re unique and that anybody who grows them without permission should be prosecuted. These companies want it both ways...

A recent poll found 93 percent of Americans think genetically engineered foods should be labeled. This month, 384,000 people signed a Just Label It ( petition urging the FDA to mandate genetically engineered food labeling nationally. ..
The FDA doesn’t let pharmaceutical companies test new drugs on people without their informed consent…

So, in a nutshell, the companies that produce the Genetically Modified Food, run their own studies, tell us not to worry, all is well and they’re exactly the same as all the other foods, but no, you can’t know if you’re eating them or not. What if they turn out to be implicated in cancer rates? Those of us who are not so trusting of these big conglomerates and their in-house studies ought to have the right to know what we’re eating, so we can at least “first do no harm.”