When I hear people defend the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods (or GMOs, as they’re often called), I can’t help but feel my blood pressure rise.
Like everything, GMO foods have their pros and cons. Being able to reliably grow more food throughout the world is certainly a benefit. But as a doctor, I’m vigilant about the unintended consequences of tinkering with Mother Nature.
That’s why I was happy to read an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine called “GMOs, Herbicides and Public Health.” Its authors, Philip J. Landrigan, MD, of the Department of Preventative Medicine at Icahn School of Medicine (NY), and Charles Benbrook, PhD, of the Department of Crops and Soil Services at Washington State University, get it. They point out an indisputable danger of GMO crops that not enough people are talking about—the use of more and increasingly potent pesticides.
Landrigan and Benbook acknowledge that reviews by the National Academy of Sciences, in 2000 and 2004, showed GM foods pose no unique hazards to human health. However, they go on to point out that those reviews focused almost entirely on the genetic aspects of biotechnology—and then rightfully observe that “the argument that there is nothing new about genetic rearrangement misses the point that GM crops are now the agricultural products most heavily treated with herbicides and that two of these herbicides may pose risk of cancer.”
GMO Crop Pesticides Linked to Cancer
If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know that I believe pesticides are the top environmental threat to health. Multiple cancers, as well as Parkinson’s disease, asthma, and birth defects, have been associated with exposure to these chemicals.
In fact, two of the pesticides often used on GMO foods have been identified as dangerous by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC):
- Glycophosphate, the herbicide most commonly applied, has been classified as a “probable human carcinogen”
- 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D)—a component of the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange—has been labeled a “possible human carcinogen”
Considering how ubiquitous GMO foods are, this alone should be alarming. But the story Landrigan and Benbook tell gets darker.
Frankenfoods Beget Frankenchemicals
Many GMO crops were created to be more tolerant of pesticides (specifically, glyphosate or Roundup); that is, they can withstand the use of more pesticides, more frequently. As a result, the use of glyphosate in the United States increased from 0.4 million kg in 1974 to 113 million kg in 2014.
Not only does this mean much of our food supply is being sprayed with a chemical the IARC says probably causes cancer, but such heavy use has caused one of those unintended consequences I mentioned earlier. Landrigan and Benbrook report that we’ve become overly dependent on glyphosate, and the pesticide is becoming less effective. Glyphosate-resistant weeds now exist on nearly 100 million acres in 36 states.
You see, Mother Nature is nothing if not adaptable. The more we use the chemicals available to us, the more resistant to them weeds and insects become.
We haven’t gotten any smarter, though; our response has simply been to add more pesticides. As Landrigan and Benbrook note, crops that were once treated with only glyphosate are now treated with both glyphosate and 2,4-D! In an almost unbelievable move, the Environmental Protection Agency has approved a combination pesticide combining glyphosate and 2,4-D, called Enlist Duo. Talk about doubling down on cancer risk.
Folks, this is a health crisis waiting to explode. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Agent Orange on my dinner table.
How to Stay Clear of Pesticide Dangers
What can you do to minimize the health dangers posed by this pesticide storm?
The most obvious option is to avoid GMO foods altogether. But between the fact that more than 90 percent of corn, soybeans, and cotton are now genetically engineered, and the fact that food manufacturers in the United States are not required to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients, a zero-tolerance approach may not be realistic.
A more practical recommendation is to take the approach I call “mindful avoidance”—doing what you can, when you can, to avoid GMO foods and the toxins that come with them.
To start, go organic as much as you can, especially with produce. Organically grown foods are not exposed to the pesticides that conventionally farmed crops are, making them healthier overall. If you can’t buy organic, make sure you’re familiar with the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List. It includes the 12 produce items found to have the highest levels of pesticide contamination.
I also recommend that you eat whole, unprocessed foods. Or in other words, stay away from foods in cans, bottles, jars, and boxes. You’ll be less likely to inadvertently consume unlabeled GMO ingredients.
Other Ways to Reduce Your Body’s Toxic Load
Being mindful about what you put into your body is, I believe, the best way to avoid the harmful effects of pesticides. But because none of us can avoid these toxins all the time, it’s also important to support the body’s natural ways of detoxifying itself.
Here are my four top suggestions—
Work up a sweat.
When we sweat, the toxins—including pesticide residues—stored in subcutaneous fat are released through the pores in our skin. This is another great reason to exercise regularly. It’s good for the heart, and it helps your body rid itself of the poisons it’s absorbed.
If you find exercise difficult or painful, another way to work up a sweat is in a sauna. I especially like far infrared saunas. Far infrared rays penetrate more deeply than near infrared rays, resulting in better cleansing and healing. Start off with a low temperature and duration of exposure, and work your way up to increase sweating. Remember to drink plenty of water with electrolytes before and after the sauna to mobilize toxins and prevent dehydration.
Eat more fiber.
Fiber helps keep you regular, and regularity is vital for detoxification. The longer it takes for waste to travel through the bowel, the more likely it becomes that toxins will be reabsorbed into the body. Aim for a minimum of 30 grams of fiber daily, from fruits, steamed vegetables, and legumes, to keep your colon moving. Ideally, I recommend upping your intake to 40–50 grams. I like to get 10 of those extra grams from flax muffins I buy at my Whole Foods store that are non-GMO and gluten free. They make a great breakfast, midday snack, or even dessert. (Even better yet, flax is loaded with healthy omega-3 fatty acids.)
Up your intake of cruciferous vegetables.
In addition to providing fiber to keep you regular, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and other cruciferous vegetables deliver the raw materials your body needs to make glutathione. Glutathione works in the liver, where it functions like a magnet for toxins. The toxins stick to the glutathione molecules, which are then pushed into the bile and the colon for excretion.
The greater your exposure to toxins, the greater your need for glutathione—so make cruciferous vegetables part of your daily meal planning.
There is no supplement you can call a “detox pill,” but I do recommend three that can support the natural detox systems your body already has in place. The first is a daily probiotic, to support colon health. The other two are N-acetyl-cysteine and alpha lipoic acid, both amino acids that also are required for the production of glutathione.
Remember, even though there may be no escape from the toxins in our environment—or the madness of GMO foods—we can do our best to avoid them. Put “mindful avoidance” to work for you, and whenever possible, just say no to GMOs.
- Center for Food Safety. “About Genetically Engineered Foods.” http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/311/ge-foods/about-ge-foods Accessed April 27, 2016.
- Environmental Working Group. (2016). “Dirty Dozen.” EWG’s 2016 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty_dozen_list.php. Accessed April 27, 2016.
- International Agency for Research on Cancer. (2015). “IARC Monographs Volume 112: Evaluation of Five Organophosphate Insecticides and Herbicides.” http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf. Accessed April 27, 2016.
- Loomis D, Guyton K, Grosse Y, et al. (2015). “Carcinogenicity of Lindane, DDT, and 2,4-diclorophenoxyacetic acid.” Lancet Oncol (e-pub ahead of print).
- National Research Council, Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. (2004). National Academies Press.
- Landrigan and C. Benbrook (2015). “GMOs, Herbicides, and Public Health.” New England Journal of Medicine. 373;8:693–695.
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