"Alternative nutrition" takes the life of a baby

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgThings are crazy now for me, both at home and at work. I mean really, really crazy. So crazy that even I, one of the most verbose bloggers out there, am forced to take two or three days off from my little addiction--I mean habit. Consequently, having foreseen that this time would come around these dates, I, Orac, your benevolent (and, above all verbose) blogger have thought of you, my readers. I realize the cries and lamentations that the lack of fresh material inevitably causes. That, I cannot completely obviate. However, I can ease the pain somewhat, and I can do this by continuing my longstanding project of migrating old "classic" (depending upon your definition of the word) posts from the old blog over to the new blog. These are all at least two years old, and thus the vast majority of my readers are unlikely to have seen them. Only the longest-standing readers will recognize these, and it is sincerely hoped that they will enjoy seeing them again. (This particular post first appeared on October 24, 2005.) Truly, Orac is a benevolent blogger, his arrogance, long-windedness, and cantakerousness notwithstanding.

I don't have a problem with vegans, although I tend to view veganism as more cultish than anything else. Certainly it's possible for an adult to remain reasonably healthy on a strictly vegan diet, but it's difficult (and, for me, it would be quite unsatisfying). Other than for strictly religious or moral reasons, I could never understand why vegans will not eat dairy products, which will more easily supply certain needed proteins and fats, or even eggs, which, because they are unfertilized, are not the same as killing animals for food. However, live and let live, I usually say. The only people harmed or helped by vegan diets are those who follow them. Given that, such diets are usually personal choices and none of my business. (If only vegans considered my choice to include meats and seafood in my diet in similar terms.)

My understanding and tolerance end, however, when such diets are imposed on children, whose nutritional needs are different from those of adults. For these and other personal reasons (people who know me will know what those reasons are), stories like this just burn me up. It tells the tale of Woyah Andressohn, a 6-month old who died of starvation because the parents were raw food vegans who insisted on subjecting their children to their nutritional choices:

MIAMI (Court TV) -- A 6-month-old infant seemed more like a newborn when paramedics found her gasping for air on the floor of her parents' home, an emergency responder testified Tuesday in the manslaughter trial of the child's parents.

Paramedic Fernando Castano told jurors in the case against Joseph and Lamoy Andressohn that he mistook their 7-pound, 22-inch child for a newborn as he attempted to revive her.

Woyah died about 45 minutes later from what a medical examiner later diagnosed as "accidental malnutrition," according to Castano.

By their own admission to police, the couple kept their five children on a strict diet of uncooked organic foods and juices made from wheatgrass, almonds and coconuts.

During a lunch break in Miami-Dade Criminal Court, the couple snacked on nuts and grains wrapped in leaves of kale, with an apple on the side.

The couple faces 50 years in prison on manslaughter and child endangerment charges if convicted.


The Andressohns are also standing trial on counts related to Woyah's four older siblings, who, like her, were found to be smaller than 99 percent of other children their ages, Walker said.

According to other reports, the parents also administered enemas to their children on a regular basis and would whip the older children if they ate the wrong foods. Moreover, they apparently ignored obvious signs of malnutrition. This baby was half the weight she should have been and, according to the paramedics who responded to the call when she was unresponsive, Woyah was "rail thin" with a distended belly, looking "like something you might see in a National Geographic magazine, in an African country or a Third World country." Any pediatrician who saw the child would have instantly recognized that something was seriously wrong.

I truly can't understand something like this. Leaving aside the question of whether it's possible to raise a healthy child on a vegan diet (many vegans will claim it is), there's an obvious answer for vegan parents who want to raise their children as vegans in the first year of life: breast milk! It's the perfect food for human infants, providing all the nutrition a child needs, as well as immunoglobulins that aid the child in fighting off disease. It's the best diet for the first several months of life, bar none, and then can be used to supplement the baby's diet as solid foods are slowly added. Why on earth couldn't Woyah have been fed with breast milk, if the parents objected to dairy or meat products? Indeed, pro-vegan websites advocate this very strategy, and, once the child is eating solid food, to supplement with breast milk for as long as feasible and to provide various oils in the diet to make up for the lack of fats in a vegan diet. And, if the mother can't produce enough milk, there are soy-based formulas that can be used. As some vegans who have commented on the issue have said, to stay healthy eating a raw food vegan diet requires that you really know what you're doing, particularly with children. It is apparent that the Andressohns did not. It also requires that the child be monitored closely by a pediatrician to make sure that the child is appropriately gaining weight.

People like the Andressohns seem to think that this sort of uncooked vegan diet is somehow more "natural," but in reality it probably is not. Humans are and have been omnivores for a very long time, and the earliest humans were hunter-gatherers, who lived by scavenging dead animals, hunting, and gathering fruits and vegetables. We have evolved over millions of years to get a certain proportion of our calories from meat, a high energy, high protein source of food (exactly what proportion is a subject of debate, of course). Also, raw vegan diets require quite a bit of First World sanitation to be healthy. In the absence of such sanitation and very clean conditions, they can be a vector for food-borne illnesses. That does not mean a vegan diet is not healthy, but it is probably not any more "natural" than a mixture of meat, fruits, and vegetables, the claims of its adherents notwithstanding.

Not surprisingly, the parents are crying persecution and oppression. The defense is also claiming that the child in actuality died of DiGeorge Syndrome, not starvation, based on the finding of no thymus during the autopsy. While I do not dismiss the possibility that this child had DiGeorge Syndrome, the claim sounds unconvincing because the child did not have the other abnormalities that go along with the syndrome, such as congenital heart defects (such as Tetralogy of Fallot or ventricular septal defect), cleft palate, or facial abnormalities. Also, the pathology report demonstrated the presence of T cells, meaning a thymus must have been present, and prosecutors have pointed out that malnutrition can cause the thymus to shrink greatly. In any case, whether or not the defense has a point can be easily shown by a simple genetic test. If Woyah in fact had DiGeorge Syndrome, a simple fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) should detect the characteristic microdeletion of chromosome 22 (specifically, del 22q11.2). If the deletion is not there, the child did not have DiGeorge Syndrome. Even if the child did have DiGeorge Syndrome, that would not get the parents off the hook, because this syndrome is not associated with malnutrition and the child would not have been "doomed from birth," as Ellis Rubin, a lawyer for Lamoy Andressohn has claimed.

Also countering this claim of "persecution" is the rather interesting fact that Miami-Dade County Assistant State Prosecutor Herbert Walker is himself a raw food vegan, who is not buying this defense: "A growing child such as baby Woyah needs nutrients to grow. At the end of her life, and a painful life it was, the child had practically lost all her subcutaneous fat and her body was going through auto-cannibalism because she was not getting enough nutrients." He continued: "The question is, did the parents provide the care necessary for the well-being of their five children?"

I think the answer is obvious.

More like this

As someone who's spent a lot of time in a University setting, one of the thing that often shocks me is the number of vegans that are out there. Why is it shocking? Because you need meat for proper nutrition. Now, I thought this was common knowledge, that humans are omnivores and that eating other…
Student guest post by Molly Stafne Nothing could be worse than watching your seven-year-old lying in a hospital bed fighting for his life after being diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome. Unfortunately, Mary McGonigle-Martin experienced it first hand as her son, Chris, fought for his life after…
In perusing my Folder of Woo, which is becoming every more crammed with potential targets begging for the tender mercies of Orac in their very own Your Friday Dose of Woo installments, I was wondering which one to pick. After all, it's an embarrassment of riches (if you can call it "riches") in…
The Washington Post's Jane Black gives us a heads-up about the forthcoming update to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Every five years, USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion issues new dietary guidelines based on analysis by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a group of…

I have a couple of vegan friends. The issue with dairy products, eggs, and honey is that the animals are exploited. We don't have a right, in their view, to make use of other life forms for our benefit. I have pointed out that plants are also alive, so they are just arbitrarily deciding which life forms are ok to kill. This results in some fast-talking mumbo-jumbo to change the issue from "life" to consciousness and sentience.

@ Rugosa:

I too have noticed the fast-talking and issue-changing among hardcore vegans. It seems that they have managed to deal with a substantial amount of cognitive dissonance in their decisions. For example, there's the conscious life/ nonconscious life issue that you point out. They want to eat "naturally," but ignore the millions of years of natural evolution in which our ancestors ate animal tissue. It's not OK for us to eat or otherwise exploit anything with consciousness, but it's OK for nonhuman predators and omnivores to eat. They simultaneously want humans to be part of nature, and not part of it.

Our ancestors' brains started to get bigger only when they started making stone tools to exploit scraps of meat and marrow from (probably) scavenged carcasses. This evolutionary heritage is part of the reason I eat meat: it's more appropriate for my physiology.

But some vegans will also expect me to rise above my physiology (not part of nature, after all) and provide a moral argument in favor of eating meat. What gives me the right to eat meat is that I'm made of it.

Of course, you can also ask your vegan friends why, if it's not okay to kill animals, they're willing to eat food which was grown organically on land ripped away from perfectly innocent wild animals -- often in ways which result directly in animal deaths. (Awful hard to plow a field, even a small one farmed by organic methods, without slicing up a few mouse nests.)

It was ignorance that killed this kid, and this isn't the only case like this that I've heard about. There are vegans who do know what they're doing, and have chosen the vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons. Others have chosen it because of some mumbo-jumbo about food which is raw and natural being totally incapable of causing harm. The way to tell if food is good for you? Well, see if it's raw, composed of plant matter, and "natural". Unprocessed is better too. Some actually know what "processed" means and will only eat foods which haven't been cut smaller than bite-sized. This is all because of a weird belief that the goodness somehow falls out if you cut it up too small. I really don't understand that, personally.

At any rate, it's idiocy like this that leads to totally unnecessary malnutrition. Even if breast milk (the only animal product which can definitively be obtained with the full consent of the animal) is out of the question, it's absurd to eschew soy-based formula. Isomil even comes in an organic version. Of course, it's neither raw nor unprocessed, so perhaps that's why they object. Which brings us back to breast milk.

These people are most certainly not qualified to care for children. I very rarely will make that judgement, but if they insist on rejecting all of the information there is on nutrition *and* the evidence of their own eyes to see their children starving, then this is a case where they should not be allowed to raise children.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 19 Jan 2008 #permalink

OK, I just had to search for updates ... This has obviously fallen out of the news in the last two + years, but it appears that:
*The Andressohns were convicted of felony child endangerment, but acquitted on manslaughter charges.
*Their other children were removed from their custody and placed in the custody of their aunt, but have since been returned to their parents.
*They continue to maintain the position that their daughter died from a congenital birth defect, and follow a raw-food vegan diet for themselves and their children.
*As far as I can tell, they haven't produced any more babies.

By Scott Simmons (not verified) on 19 Jan 2008 #permalink

then this is a case where they should not be allowed to raise children.

Are you then willing to prevent them from having children, or just society bear the burden of caring for the reproductive output of these individuals?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 19 Jan 2008 #permalink

This is one of the reasons I got my biochem teacher to donate an old edition of a nutrition text book to my vegetarian dining co-op at college. I don't have a problem with any diet a person might have, heck, I don't care if they don't have a rational consistent philosophy as to why they eat lobster but not crabs or chicken but not turkey; its their body, they can eat whatever they like. But they should at least try not to be stupid about it.

My pet peeve about vegetarians that eat dairy and eggs is the hypocrisy. Chickens live about 5-7 years if raised (no predators, stable food supply, etc.) yet only produce eggs for about 18 months. So what do you do with that 3 year old chicken, raise it as a pet? Same is true with cows, they live about 10-12 years but stop lactating after 6-8 years. Other than "Cow and Boy," do you see much interaction between humans and cows? No farm is going to raise non-productive animals. So vegan lifestyle, as self selecting and limiting as it is, is at least free of that blatant double standard.
Me? I eat everything. I worked a farm as a boy, originally went to an Ag school, and lived overseas for years. As I tell my friends who blanch when they see me eat sweetbreads, menudo, brains, and other offal - I didn't raise that animal just to eat the choicest parts. (And no, I don't raise animals anymore but you get the idea.) I also have eaten bugs, pickled parts, and things I couldn't quite determine origin (but it sure tasted good!) so I am truly indiscriminate. I'll try anything, once. Don't know that I don't like it if I haven't eaten it, that's how I got past the smell of kimchee.

There are a whole lot of Hindus living on a vegetarian diet, and a bunch of Jains that are living on an even stricter diet than most American vegans (they'll eat fruit that has dropped from a tree, but no root vegetables that have been torn from the ground). India doesn't seem to be having a population deficit.

The problem with these folks was orthorexia, not veganism.

(Oh, and you might want to rethink that "raw vegan diets require quite a bit of First World sanitation to be healthy" comment. Bugs in the rice are a nice source of protein and vitamin B.)

As a librarian, it was too tempting. I too went searching for updates. They had a baby during the trial case, the baby was born when they were sentenced. They She was immediately removed from their custody. They were acquitted of manslaughter but were convicted of child neglect in the case of their 4 older children. They were given 5 years suspended sentence and each received 15 years probation. They had to complete parenting classes etc. to obtain custody of their children. They also have to feed their children a diet prescribed by a state nutritionist.


There are vegan and raw food groups out there with detailed updates. But they were generating too much eye rolling for me to continue to read. They wanted to contend that the children were just "a bit underweight" and if their children fall in the low end of the spectrum the 'govmint will come and take our kidz.' I saw a couple of articles refer to reports that all of the children were showing signs of malnutrition and a couple were developmentally delayed. The articles indicated that the developmental delays may have been caused by lack of nutrition. I understand when you are a minority (in this case raw vegan eaters and a minority religion that advocated the diet as well> you don't want your life to be judged by the negative actions of another. But -- don't deny someone is in the wrong just because they are in your tribe! ::::grumble:::::

If you are what you eat then I'm a vegan... Mmm cow...

"My pet peeve about vegetarians that eat dairy and eggs is the hypocrisy."

No, it depends on the reason for their vegetarianism. Many people adopt vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diets for environmental or health reasons.

I understand that certain types or cuts of meat are not very healthy, but it seems like very few people (vegan or not) have looked into the health complications of the common vegetable protein sources like wheat and soy. There are relatively high rates of negative immune responses and enteropathy, and concentrating these proteins can only add to the problem.

Not to mention soy and certain other products contain hormone like substances that aggravate certain female reproductive disorders.

I am a vegetarian, for environmental reasons. I can understand why people would be vegans for animal rights reasons. A lot of industrial dairy production isn't exactly easy on the animals involved.

It should be a personal choice, with people free to "make their case" to others if it is welcomed, but in the end I believe the only diet issue here that is unethical is judging people based on what they will or won't eat, one way or another.

By Paradiggm (not verified) on 19 Jan 2008 #permalink

Paradiggm wrote:
"I am a vegetarian, for environmental reasons."

There is no coherent environmental reason to eliminate all meat from your diet.

"I can understand why people would be vegans for animal rights reasons."

Animals don't have rights. The production of vegetables kills plenty of animals. Whether the animals are eaten after death is morally irrelevant.

"A lot of industrial dairy production isn't exactly easy on the animals involved."

Then don't eat dairy produced that way. That's still not a logical reason to eliminate ALL dairy from your diet.

Your position suffers from the same logical flaw as that of a racist arguing that he avoids interacting with ALL African-Americans because SOME African-Americans committed a crime against him.

John wrote:
"There is no coherent environmental reason to eliminate all meat from your diet."

Surely you don't overlook the inefficiency of converting plant matter into animal matter through raising meat? Eating lower on the food chain is very arguably better for the environment. That doesn't necessitate removing ALL meat from the diet, of course.

You may be interested in:

There is no coherent environmental reason to eliminate all meat from your diet.

Oh? What's wrong with the reasoning that the food and water requirements for an animal could have been used to produce food directly for a human being with greater efficiency?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 19 Jan 2008 #permalink

Oh? What's wrong with the reasoning that the food and water requirements for an animal could have been used to produce food directly for a human being with greater efficiency?

A lot of land used for producing livestock is not suitable for growing crops.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 19 Jan 2008 #permalink

"No human foragers have been recorded as living without cooking, and people who choose a 'raw-foodist' life-style experience low energy and impaired reproductive function."


"Thus among women on 100% raw-food diets, approximately 50% of women were completely amenorrheic, while a further proportion (not reported) suffered irregular and/or incompetent menstrual cycles." (this was in Germany)

Even when you do your "hunting and gathering" at a supermarket, a raw diet doesn't supply enough calories to sustain good health.

The mother probabably couldn't lactate on such a poor diet.

A lot of land used for producing livestock is not suitable for growing crops.

With the shift towards factory farming, this is no longer true. In fact, lots of crops are fed directly to the animals.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 19 Jan 2008 #permalink

It takes a lot more land to grow "organic" food than food using fertilizer and other chemicals. If you are concerned about the environment, you shouldn't eat so called "organic" food.

The only way humans in the future are going to be able to sustain the expected population with everyone having a decent lifestyle is with massive genetic engineering of plants for food and other products.

It takes a lot more land to grow "organic" food than food using fertilizer and other chemicals. If you are concerned about the environment, you shouldn't eat so called "organic" food.

Um... no. Intensive production yields a much greater harvest than modern farming methods, and pesticides alone needed to make those methods work are extremely bad for the environment. So are the fertilizer runoffs.

The only way humans in the future are going to have a decent lifestyle is to massively reduce the expected population.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 19 Jan 2008 #permalink

No, it depends on the reason for their vegetarianism. Many people adopt vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diets for environmental or health reasons.

And then there are people like me, who simply gag on the fibrous texture of meat and lose their appetites rapidly when they think too much about blood vessels and nerves and such.

The next time anyone tries to defend parents who endanger their children by forcing their convictions on those children on the basis of religious freedom and tolerance, ask them if "religious freedom" extends to the right to butcher and burn their offspring as human sacrifices, and if not, what the difference is (IE, why should negligence leading to death be overlooked on religious grounds, but not premeditated homicide). And don't let them evade the issue.

The mother probabably couldn't lactate on such a poor diet.

Sounds likely.

However, that she didn't notice this decidedly unusual condition and tell a doctor or apparently anyone is inexcusable.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 20 Jan 2008 #permalink

Not to forget, a breastfed baby will only be completely nourished if the mother has enough nutrients to pass on. There was a case where the first two breastfed children were healthy, but by the time baby three came around the mother was herself so depleted of B vitamins from following her "natural" nutrition plan, that the baby suffered from B vitamin deficiency. This resulted in permanent neurological damage.

Our ancestors' brains started to get bigger only when they started making stone tools to exploit scraps of meat and marrow from (probably) scavenged carcasses.

Evolutionary science quibble time. The actual evidence points more to small game and termites. I'm sure that our ealiest ancestors would have been opportunistic, but there's no reason to think that scavenging was a lifestyle.

Clear cutting more wildlife habitat to make fields to grow "organic" crops is a lot worse "environmental impact" (in my opinion) than fertilizer run off from conventionally grown fields.

I am not ignoring the effects of fertilizer run off. It can and should be minimized. But wildlife needs wildlife habitat and no farm how ever managed is as good for wildlife as is wilderness. The only way to maximize wildlife habitat is by minimizing cultivated land. That can only be done by maximizing yields on the land that is cultivated. That means fertilizer, pesticides, and GM crops. I see GM crops as the best of the 3 alternatives and GM techniques can be used to minimize the other two. I think it is very unfortunate and shortsighted that there is such a misguided anti-GM mentality among people who consider themselves environmentalists.

Where wilderness is clear cut and then cultivated, its capacity as wildlife habitat is effectively destroyed.

My hope is that GM crops will be produced that can grow on seawater and will be grown in large floating farms in the open ocean along the equator. I see that as the only possible solution to when fossil fuels run out (other than war/famine/disease that brings the human population down to what can be sustained otherwise).

If these people were vegans for health reasons, they are too stupid or ignorant to be vegans. People can be healthy on such an unnatural diet only if they know what they are doing and are diligent about getting enough protien B vitamans etc.

If they are vegans for ethical reasons, their abuse of their children (starving them on principal, whipping them for eating the wrong foods) shows them to be total hypocrits.

By Freddy the Pig (not verified) on 20 Jan 2008 #permalink

Clear cutting more wildlife habitat to make fields to grow "organic" crops is a lot worse "environmental impact" (in my opinion) than fertilizer run off from conventionally grown fields.

Shame you didn't think of the before clearcutting the conventional fields in the first place.

And since we're currently growing far more food than we need, feeding most of the crop to livestock, I'm a little confused as to why we'd need to clear more fields in the first place. That's assuming we accept your assertion about it requiring more space, of course.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 20 Jan 2008 #permalink

This is such a heartbreaking story. I consider myself a reasonably educated person, and I still sought advice everywhere I could about how to best care for my children. I have one right now who gets ice cream anytime she wants it to gain weight (yes, she's under medical supervision). This family could have asked other vegans about child nutrition. Something is seriously wrong when a general concern over farm animals trumps concern for your own children's health.

The only reason land is under cultivation is so that crops grown on it can be sold. If there was no market for those crops, the land would not be farmed. If land is not farmed, it reverts to wilderness.

Which is better for the environment? 500 acres intensively farmed and 500 acres of wilderness or 1000 acres non-intensively farmed and zero acres of wilderness?

I am not ignoring the effects of fertilizer run off.... minimizing cultivated land... means fertilizer, pesticides, and GM crops.... I think it is very unfortunate and shortsighted that there is such a misguided anti-GM mentality among people who consider themselves environmentalists.

GM crops need more testing. We don't know how they'll interact with other plants. For instance, if some GM plant replaces most of the wild types of the same species, and then succumbs to some bug, we will be in trouble. I think there is a great potential for genetic engineering to safely increase crop yields, but we need to be very careful about what we release into the wild.

As for fertilizer and pesticides, I think we need to look at each particular chemical and its impacts, so I won't make any blanket statements here. I hope science will bring us more environmentally friendly fertilizers and pesticides in the future.

For the record, I do consider myself an environmentalist.

By fullerenedream (not verified) on 20 Jan 2008 #permalink

As a vegan, I was pretty offended by the news coverage on this, but not b/c I support the parents - they were negligent to the point of manslaughter and I hope they are penalized to the fullest extent of the law. My primary protest is that these parents were expressing somewhat bizarre and outlandish practices that separate them from vegans. First and foremost, there is no ethical or moral reason I have ever become aware of to preclude breastfeeding, and most dietary resources targeting both vegans and vegetarians encourage it. Secondly, the phenomena of "raw" foodism is a separate movement from, and distinct from, veganism. Raw foodists tend to be associate with anti-toxin, pro-homeopathic, "multiple chemical sensitivity" type woo. This is probably why they weren't in sufficient contact with MDs that would've noticed the problem. Let's just be clear that this was not a typical vegan household, but rather a tragic case of fringe, woo-driven child neglect, abuse, and murder.

By Matthew Skinta (not verified) on 20 Jan 2008 #permalink

There is an issue with GM food:

Theyre crossing rice with wheat, unless I forgot how to read. Thus screwing the celiac population out of not just, like, rice, but also pasta, bread, cookies, and anything else baked that can be made with fake flour.

Other allergens, no idea. But that is a personal concern.

Re: the raw food thing, I find it sad. Kids need FAT. The brains, they need it. It's so duh it makes my eyes bleed to read of people NOT knowing it.

Kassiane -

I suspect that 'Crossing Rice with Wheat' is a bit of an exaggeration - taking a few genes from Wheat may be more truthful. I don't see why you'd include gluten in this, so I suspect that the whole celiac thing is a misnomer. But feel free to link to the actual research.

Although there are potentially legitimate concerns with GM food - preventing farmers from re-using seed being the biggest - there is also a hell of a lot of basic scaremongering. Nature has a habit of chopping and changing genomes, including cross species transfers, to the extent that even defining species can be problematic.

In my opinion, we should use GM technology to move towards the eventual goal of making all of our food in factories - with sufficient control that the end product(s) are optimal for human health (sounds tasty?). This would effectively transform most of the surface of the planet back into wilderness, or at least parkland. It would also end farming, at least on a mass scale, and make even current Veganism look cruel.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 20 Jan 2008 #permalink

As madder says, cognitive dissonance. My vegan friends have to put themselves through a lot of mental contortions to maintain their dietary purity. Suspicion of "western" science leads them to believe a lot of new-agey nonsense about what is "natural," "organic," etc. I suspect that the parents who starved their baby convinced themselves that a congenital defect killed the child because, otherwise, they'd have to confront the truth that their dietary ideas have no basis in reality.

fullerenedream, in Europe the latest GM contraversies are about GM maize and GM potatoes. Both of those are new world plants which have no near wild relatives in Europe.

The notion that GM maize or GM potatoes would cross breed with wild plants in Europe is complete nonsense.

Plants have ~50,000 genes. Why one gene introduced via GM techniques should be so problematic has never been explained to me.

Kassiane makes a good point about antigens, but that is a seperate (but important) issue. The issues with GM plants in Europe are not about antigens they are about an irrational fear of all things GM.

Thanks Daedalus, I didn't know the situation in Europe, but I'm not talking about Europe exclusively. I don't think that means that GM corn couldn't mix with or replace non-GM corn in places where corn is already growing, e.g. North America.

I strongly support the development of genetically engineered crops. I just think they need to be thoroughly tested in greenhouse labs before being grown out in the open where they can mix and spread among everything else. Can anyone show me evidence that these GM foods are well tested for environmental impacts?

Also, does anyone know if there are any real risks involved with eating GM foods? I haven't seen anything convincing, but I admittedly didn't look very hard.

By fullerenedream (not verified) on 21 Jan 2008 #permalink

Part of the GM scare (excluding, for the moment, the genuine woo-woo) is surely about trust. At the moment the people telling us Europeans that GM crops are safe and effective are almost exclusively employed either by the transnational corporations who developed said GMOs or by the regulatory entities of the United States of America, where the GMOs in question were developed.

To traditional environmentalists ears, such reassurances ring rather hollow. Transnat shills are regarded with all the trust usually displayed towards creationists and tenured fellows of the American Enterprise Institute (for a number of very good reasons, I might add), while American regulatory entities are viewed as being only a small step up from their Chinese counterparts in terms of independence, rigour and the burden of proof put on the corporation to show that its product is safe and effective.

While the latter bias is certainly not as justified as the former, it is true that the European laws governing the sale and use of chemicals and GMOs place a substantially greater emphasis on proof of long-term safety than their American counterparts. And it is not entirely unjustified to think that American regulatory entities are - shall we say - not as independent from the corporations that they are supposed to be regulating as one might wish. Sad to say, when many European progressives think of American regulatory oversight, the associations most likely to pop into their heads are 'sad joke,' 'subprime mortgage,' 'Savings and Loan' and 'Enron.' And since progressives form the cadre of the various European environmentalist groups,* it should not surprise anyone that there are severe trust issues vis-a-vis GMOs, because most of that distrust is entirely justified.

If I'm right about that, the opposition to GMOs will decrease if and when reputable, independent European universities and regulatory entities begin to conclude that GMOs are indeed safe and effective. Of course that will take a lot more time than it would have if those same universities and regulatory entities had been in the loop in the first place - suspicion of GMOs is now deeply entrenched and the not-invented-here effect does not help either (not to mention the fact that there is a stong neo-merchantilist streak to both the US and EU agricultural policies - that foreign GMOs get hung up on public mistrust is quite convenient from that perspective...).

*Again for good reasons: The right wing is decidedly a bunch of Johnny-come-lates to the whole environmental thing, and most of the right-wing 'environmentalists' still suffer from the delusion that The Market Is Magic and will Miraculously Solve Everything.

- JS

Although there are potentially legitimate concerns with GM food - preventing farmers from re-using seed being the biggest

Farmers already can't save seeds from hybrids.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 22 Jan 2008 #permalink

fullerenedream, GM is a technique. What matters in terms of what you eat is the composition of what it is you are eating, not the technique by which that organism originated.

GM techniques could be used to make toxic plants, so can conventional breeding techniques, so can natural evolution. Most plants are in fact not edible and many are quite toxic.

In virtually all of North America maize is grown from seed purchased from seed producers. All hybrid seed must be specially produced because it is a cross of two different strains.

Maize as is grown virtually everywhere is fully domesticated. It is completely unable to reproduce without human intervention. There is no "wild" maize (except in parts of Mexico where it really isn't maize anyway and wouldn't really be recognized as such).

The problem with waiting until academics decide GM food is safe is that it isn't something they can actually determine. An analogy would be the printing press. When the printing press was developed, there were some who said that books printed by a press instead of written by hand were the work of the Devil.


Could academics demonstrate that all printed books were ok and not evil? No, because what makes a book "evil" is the content, not whether it is printed or hand copied. The arguments of the Church were disengenuous (duh) because they wanted to prevent the use of the printing press for reasons of their own unrelated to any "inherent" evil associated with printing per se. I see the exact same thing happening with GM.

What makes a plant harmful to eat is not how it originated but by its chemical and genetic makeup.

Awww, all the talk about Organic and Conventional farming, and people skip the best method for the Environment.


You reduce water usage, and heavily reduce pesticide use. You're also able to grow 24x7x365.

We can have a lot more "heritage" vegetables, and take up a lot less space to grow them in. Diversity is a wonderful thing (yes I realize it can be tricky to reproduce the mineral content in the water solution for different regions to bring about same taste/texture, but its worth doing.)

By Evinfuilt (not verified) on 22 Jan 2008 #permalink

The problem with hydroponics is that plants are a lot more than just water + stock nutrients + carbon dioxide. The average nutritional value of food grown in the US has fallen over the past 5 decades, largely because of the use of chemical fertilizers. We still don't understand nutrition well enough to do it artificially.

The real best method for the environment has been used in the Amazon basin for some time now. No, not slash-and-burn. A slash-and-char method that produces a soil called "terra preta", or "coal earth". Charcoal earth, to be precise. Not only are patches of terra preta created 4,000 years ago still used to sustain farmers, but they glom onto nutrients like you wouldn't believe and also function as a carbon sink equal to a dense forest.

Glazius, you are completely wrong. The only things that plants utilize are minerals, water, CO2 and light. Plants don't utilize complex organic fertilzers other than after they have been converted into simple soluble mineral forms, ammonia and nitrate.

Terra preta is very good technology.


However it likely isn't as simple as just carbon. Much of the terra preta has bone char in it which supplies phosphate. Soils in tropical rain forests are highly leached. Nutrients that have been leached out or nutrients that have been harvested out can only be restored by external sources. That would be fertilizer.

When supplying phosphate to soil that doesn't have enough, one can supply one years worth as a soluble phosphate, or many years worth as insoluble phosphates (such as bone char). The quantities required (and so the cost) are very different.

The problem with attempting hydroponics 24/7 is the cost of the light. Photosynthesis is inefficient as an energy conversion technique.

Cool, I didn't know that domestic corn couldn't reproduce on its own. I wonder if all the current GM crops are like that.

I understand that GM is a technique, and that it's the chemical composition of my food that affects me.

I admit I had a somewhat foggy idea of what the problems with GM foods might be. A quick google search brought up the World Health Organization:


Question 5, "What are the main issues of concern for human health?" describes what I was wondering about, plus the allergenicity thing, which I wasn't aware of. Here's a quote:

"Outcrossing. The movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild (referred to as "outcrossing"), as well as the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with those grown using GM crops, may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security. This risk is real, as was shown when traces of a maize type which was only approved for feed use appeared in maize products for human consumption in the United States of America."

I think that's the issue that I was trying to talk about, with my semi-understanding of the situation.

I also found this article, which is somewhat comforting:

Any thoughts?

By fullerenedream (not verified) on 23 Jan 2008 #permalink

Oh sorry, the WHO site also has interesting stuff under Question 7, "What are the issues of concern for the environment?" ... And yes I know, GM crops don't all fall under one blanket of "safe" or "not safe". Safety has to be determined organism by organism. That means testing. And if outcrossing is a real issue, or if some of these plants can reproduce without human help (I suspect some can, plenty of long-domesticated garden plants do so), that testing should be done in greenhouses, not open fields.

Is there any effort to contain GM crops that are still in the testing stages? I'd love to take a tour of a GM crop lab/farm. I'm sure a lot of what they're doing is wonderful.

By fullerenedream (not verified) on 23 Jan 2008 #permalink

The average nutritional value of food grown in the US has fallen over the past 5 decades, largely because of the use of chemical fertilizers. We still don't understand nutrition well enough to do it artificially.

Glazius, are you talking about this?

Today's Food Lack Yesterday's Nutrition

I could have sworn I found out this was some kind of myth or bad reporting, but I can't find it on Snopes. Anyone else know anything about this?

By fullerenedream (not verified) on 23 Jan 2008 #permalink

Fullerenedream -

On one hand, this is an ongoing problem - farmers get paid primarily by mass yield, so they tend to breed plants that grow big and fast without regard to micronutrients. However, the only health effects I've ever heard of documented are to do with selenium deficency in some areas of China causing immune suppression. This is one of those things that tends to get blown up out of all proportion..

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 24 Jan 2008 #permalink

Maize can't reproduce on its own because the seeds are enclosed by the husk and unless the husk is removed and the seeds dispersed (by humans), the ear will simply rot. Without human intervention maize would go extinct in a few years. There is no "wild" maize. There is no wild maize to become "contaminated" by GM maize.

The "problem" of outcrossing is a "problem" with every non-native, non-wild plant that is ever planted. There is nothing unique about GM plants in this regard. The people who claim it is a problem are confusing being able to detect something with something being a problem. I see this as simple irrational hysteria about things that are GM.

The "contamination" of human maize products with maize only approved for animal consumption likely resulted from the large difference in price of the two commodities which could only be told apart by a lab test.

GM soybeans that are resistant to RoundUp are regulated. Non-GM soybeans that are resistant to RoundUp are not. The genetic composition of those two strains may be identical, but simply because one is GM and one is not, they are regulated differently.

The nonsense of "fewer nutrients" is just that, nonsense. Crops are sold on a weight basis. The bulk nutrients, starch, sugars, proteins, fats form the bulk of the agricultural product and the bulk of what is eaten and the bulk of what humans require in their diets. The bulk nutrients are storage mechanisms to nourish the new plant that could grow from the seed if the seed were to be planted.

daedalus: teosinte. Wild maize still exists.

On a separate note, would you email me at luna_northcat "at" yahoo.co.uk? You said something interesting in our last exchange (which I now can't find again) and I wanted to follow that up, about NO, hormones and migraine.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 24 Jan 2008 #permalink

I'd disagree, Daedalus - the problem of outcrossing from GM plans is not quite the same as that which occurs from non-native to native plants, specifically b/c of the risks posed by so-called "terminator" genes. The GM corporations are wanting to market their designer crops with built-in kill-switches. The possibility of those genes outcrossing should make all of us pause.

By Matthew Skinta (not verified) on 26 Jan 2008 #permalink