Eco Etiquette: Is Genetically Modified Food Linked To Kids' Food Allergies?

The federal government has no problem slapping graphic warning labels on a pack of cigarettes; yet when it comes to something that affects all of us -- the food we eat every day -- we're left playing Russian roulette.
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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

My daughter has eczema and was recently diagnosed with a milk allergy. I've been hearing about so many kids now with food allergies, and I'm terrified that my daughter will end up with more allergies, or worse -- even a life-threatening one. I'm willing to do anything to help her. Would eating organically or changing the way I buy food help? Please advise.


I feel for you, Wendy. As a parent myself, one of my worst fears is that I might inadvertently cause my child irreparable harm. That an innocuous-seeming meal could become a loaded weapon is both terrifying and paralyzing.

Yet that's now the reality for millions of American families. The latest research regarding children's food allergies came out earlier this week, and it's a jaw-dropper: Food-related allergies are now twice as common as was once thought, with 1 in 12 American children possibly affected.

Of those with allergies, 40 percent have had reactions severe enough to land them in the hospital, or worse. Prescriptions for the life-saving EpiPen increased 36 percent from 2004 to 2007 alone; that number is likely to be higher in light of the latest study.

Excuse my language, but what the hell is going on? A number of theories are floating around, including the idea that the over-cleanliness of modern life is weakening our immune systems (aka the hygiene hypothesis). People have also pointed the finger at the increasing prevalence of industrial chemicals, increased vaccinations -- even breastfeeding.

Curiously, one thing that may indeed be responsible for the increase in food-related allergies is not getting a lot of press: food itself.

Robyn O'Brien, author and founder of the AllergyKids Foundation, in her eye-opening new book, The Unhealthy Truth, reveals that the food we're eating today is markedly different from the food our parents ate, or even the food that many of us enjoyed as children.

It began in 1994, when our food changed at the molecular level. That's when the first genetically engineered tomato was approved for human consumption by the US government.

The tomato, dubbed the FlavrSavr, wasn't popular with consumers; its tasteless flesh and mealy texture left much to be desired. But the genetic engineering marched on, forever changing American agriculture.

Corn. Canola. Soy. Sugar beets. It's estimated that close to 75 percent of products on grocery store shelves now contain at least one genetically modified ingredient.

Genetic engineering is achieved by changing the protein sequence in a gene to give a crop a specific trait; some varieties of GM corn, for instance, have been altered to produce pesticides in plant tissues so that the crop itself doesn't have to be sprayed.

But as O'Brien explains, the body of a child with food allergies may recognize these foreign proteins as "invaders," launching an inflammatory attack that manifests as an allergic -- sometimes deadly anaphylactic -- reaction.

O'Brien calls herself an unlikely crusader for the anti-GM movement. A Twinkie-loving Texas native, she was focused on being a mother of four until her youngest child's face swelled alarmingly one morning after a breakfast of blue yogurt and eggs.

In her quest to find out why, she began to uncover some mind-blowing statistics: Since the introduction of genetically engineered foods in the mid 1990s, there has been a 265 percent increase in the rates of hospitalizations due to food-related allergic reactions. That same CDC study from 2007 found that food allergies overall had increased 18 percent. But those data were based on a figure of 3 million children; the newer research published in Pediatrics earlier this week puts that number closer to 6 million.

So, could eating organic foods be the answer? It certainly couldn't hurt, since by law any organic food -- whether it's 100 percent organic or labeled "made with organic ingredients" -- must be produced without bioengineering. (Note: I am NOT advising eating an organic version of a food for which your child has already developed a severe or life-threatening allergy; please follow the advice of your doctor. However, avoiding foreign proteins in other foods may prove to be key in protecting your child's immune system from further onslaught.)

Yet here's where it gets tricky: With so much of our food supply in the US now genetically modified (91 percent of all soy; 85 percent of all corn), it's virtually impossible to avoid these potential allergens, especially when you consider that even the animals we eat are fed these tainted crops.

What's more, with the recent decision by the Obama administration to allow the planting of genetically modified alfalfa, the actual integrity of organic food is now itself being threatened. (Cows graze on alfalfa, so if GM alfalfa is allowed to be planted, it will likely spread and contaminate other farmers' fields -- including farmers who raise organic dairy cows.)

What we actually should be focusing on here are the larger issues: Why aren't genetically modified foods labeled? As American consumers, why aren't we given the power to decide for ourselves whether or not we want to expose our children to the possible risks of these untested, foreign proteins?

As we learned this week, the federal government has no problem slapping graphic warning labels on a pack of cigarettes; yet when it comes to something that affects all of us -- the food we eat every day -- we're left playing Russian roulette. Every other developed nation in the world has either banned genetically modified foods or mandated their labeling; it's time for us to do the same.

Wendy, if you are sincerely willing to do anything you can to help your daughter, your most effective move would be to pick up the phone and call your congressman.

You can also sign the US Senate petition that Robyn O'Brien -- with the help of actress and mother-to-be Alyssa Milano -- has started by clicking here.

In an earlier version of this column, "wheat" appeared instead of "canola" in the sentence regarding GM crops. This was an error, as there is currently no GM wheat being grown anywhere in the world. However, a trial for an anti-aphid GM wheat is currently pending in the UK.

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