If There’s A Toxin in the Food Supply But No Corporation to Blame, Is it Still A Problem?

Moldy corn that could have vomitoxin


Over the last few days there has been a flurry of blogging activity about a study claiming “organ-toxic effects” in mice fed with GMO corn.  The summaries of the study one sees are certainly scary, but if you read the original paper it is not nearly as clear as these commentators imply – in fact it is a really strange paper to read (seriously, have a look).  Rather than go into the many legitimate questions about this research, I will simply refer you to a very lively, but technically sharp comment stream about it.  Instead of getting into this fray I’d like to try to put this new “threat” into perspective.


It is ironic that at the same time this uproar is swirling around one bit of uncorroborated evidence for toxicity in corn, an extremely well documented toxin is occuring at unusually high levels in the 2009 US corn crop that is now entering the food supply.  Yet there is no outrage, no activism, no calls for a ban, not even a mention on a “green blog” (until now). What am I talking about?  If you had been following the specialized (but very public) press for farmers, grain traders and ethanol producers this fall and winter, you would know that there has been an exceptionally high level of contamination of the US corn crop this year with a toxic chemical called deoxynivalenol or “DON.”  This contaminant is an epoxy-sesquiterpeneoid that is a “type B trichothecene.” It is a protein synthesis  inhibitor which has the effect of increasing the brain’s uptake of tryptophan and thus to make more serotonin. It also irritates the gut.  Animals exposed to it reduce their feed intake, sometimes severely, and they develop esaughageal stomach ulcers.  It has potential chronic effects as well having been shown to be genotoxic in a chromosomal aberration assay with rat hepatocytes.  The levels of this toxin are high enough this year that it has changed the balance of truck and rail traffic in parts of the Midwest as pork producers in particular scramble to avoid the toxin by shifting feed sources (swine are particularly sensitive to the toxin).

Why The Missing Concern?

So, a question.  Why is a single bit of un-collaborated evidence published in a relatively obscure journal getting all sorts of fevered attention among activists and bloggers when unprecedented levels of an extremely well documented toxin are getting zero attention?  I propose that it is simply a function of the source.  In one case it is a corporation that people love to hate.  In the later case it is… Mother Nature.

Mother Nature: Friend and Foe?

Yes, Mother Nature.  Do a Google News Search for “vomitoxin” (the colorful and descriptive, common name for DON toxin) and you will find scores of articles describing how the unusual weather patterns this past growing season and a severely delayed corn harvest have resulted in significant incidence of this toxin that is generated by the grain mold, Giberella zea (unmodified, GMO and Organic corn are all effected).  This particular toxin issue is unusual in corn. It is usually just a periodic issue in wheat and barley.  As scary as this toxin sounds in my description above, unless you are a pig, this is actually not a big problem.  There is a 1 ppm FDA threshold for DON in human foods, and so the companies who make corn-based ingredients for the human food supply will be spending a lot of money on testing this year to say under that level. This risk will be managed even though the toxicity of DON is much more dramatic than anything that might have been detected in the GMO corn study that has attracted so much attention.

Further Perspective on Risk

By the standards of mycotoxins , DON (vomitoxin) is pretty wimpy.  It is not even classified as a carcinogen.  It’s toxic profile is nothing compared to the mycotoxin, fumonisin, which leads to neural tube defects in developing fetuses and is also tied to esophageal cancer in humans.  Fumonisin also causes leukoencephalomalacia in horses.   And fumonisin does not even begin to compare to the nastiest of all Mother Natures mycotoxins –  Aflatoxin.  That natural chemical is the most toxic carcinogen know, and it a well documented, major cause of death among poor people in Asia and Africa where the food system involves poor growing and storage practices, and yet is rarely monitored for such threats.  Just to callibrate risk, the FDA thresholds set for human foods with respect to aflatoxin are 1000 times lower than for DON, around 1 part per billion.  Yes fumonisin and aflatoxin actually occur in corn.  Aflatoxin can also be found in tree nuts and particularly in peanuts.  There are many other mycotoxins that can occur in other foods.  So when it comes to toxins and human health there are some very real risks that just happen to lack a convenient source to blame.  What do activists say about these chemicals?

Is This on the NGO Radar?

I checked the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Apparently mycotoxins are not among their concerns.  I checked the Center for Environmental Health which says they are “protecting your family and your community from toxic chemicals.” Apparently mycotoxins that actually sicken and kill people are not in the scope of that protection.  So I checked Greenpeace (involved in funding the GMO corn study in question) and the only document on their site that mentioned anything to do with mycotoxins was a 1991 critique of the environmental movement that is really interesting.  On to Friends of the Earth who’s slogan is “we champion a healthy and just world.”  A leading cause of death among the poor is not an issue they champion.  Finally I checked the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), the group that raised the risk of Alar based on flawed evidence back in 1989.  Their site had two articles saying that low levels of aflatoxin had been detected in infant formula, but no mention of the much more problematic levels of contamination that continue to occur.  None of these groups described activities to help mitigate the threat of mycotoxins.  For the developed world I suppose that could be because of their great confidence in the food industry (well, maybe not).  For the developing world I really can’t explain the absence of attention.

What Would Be An Appropriate Response?

Do I want these organizations to use their considerable emotive language skills to alarm the public about the threat of mycotoxins?  Certainly not! But perhaps they could help to educate people about the fact that there is no such thing as a zero-risk food supply.  They could help educate the public that what is needed is a way to compare relative risks and then to manage them appropriately.  They could offer the perspective that we live in a fairly toxic world (thanks Mom!!!) and yet at least for those in the parts of the world that rationally manage risk, we are doing quite well.  They could explain that, at most, this recent study suggests the need for a better designed and less agenda-driven (by either side) follow-up study.

Fighting the Solutions

That would probably be asking too much, but the real problem is not that these organizations have a double standard about the actual health threat of mycotoxins.  The problem is that these same organizations and activists aggressively campaign against some of the best ways to reduce mycotoxins in the food supply.  Plants that are protected against insect feeding by insecticide sprays or by GMO insect resistance don’t get the feeding damage that allows the mycotoxin-generating fungi to infect.  Drought-stress tolerant GMO crops (coming soon for corn) are less likely to be contaminated with aflatoxin, and this is why the Gates Foundation is funding research to bring this technology to Africa (to be offered to farmers for free).  There was a GMO trait in wheat to reduce vomitoxin that Greenpeace successfully blocked.  All of these incremental solutions to a real toxic threat are opposed by most of the groups listed above.  During its anti-GMO efforts about wheat, Greenpeace Canada listed the potential reduction of a mycotoxin in the food supply not as an “advantage of the technology,” but as a “campaigning issue.”  

If we banned any food for which there is an isolated, high-rate, rodent feeding study showing marginally statistical differences in non-lethal effects, there would be virtually no allowed foods.  Whether this particular study has any importance remains to be seen.  In the mean time, a little perspective would be helpful.

You are welcome to comment on this site or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com.

Moldy corn image from Gary Munkvold, Iowa State University

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12 thoughts on “If There’s A Toxin in the Food Supply But No Corporation to Blame, Is it Still A Problem?”

  1. Great post, Steve. That’s interesting info about the DON toxin! I had no idea. Do you know if the uptick was in all corn crops?

    While I do think it’s interesting that food activists are not reporting this issue, I don’t know that it takes away the value from their other efforts, including those fighting Monsanto. Monsanto is a huge corporation that controls a huge portion of the world’s food supply. They’re secretive about their research and proprietary about the seeds they make, and that strikes me as unequivocally dangerous, no matter how you slice it.

    There was a good post on Twilight Earth about the recent Monsanto corn issue, including a letter Adam got from Monsanto and a rebuttal by the researchers. Definitely worth a read:


    I think your post makes an excellent point. I’m pretty shocked that DON toxin didn’t get any real coverage, and that raises an interesting question. “Food” is such a huge topic…how can we do a better job keeping up with and sharing information about our food supply? It’s one I’m definitely mulling over today!

  2. Red herring, interesting, educational, food safety issue, but not relevant to activists interest in human activities in food.

  3. Darn. I was hoping you would respond the Monsanto story, as I was interested to hear your take on it.

    I agree with the previous commenter. Shocking that the mycotoxin issue goes unreported, but only peripherally related to the concerns raised by the Monsanto corn issue. And while I think people do need to understand the basic concepts of relative risk, part of the problem is that when it appears that corporations, the government, or any other entity are being secretive about the relevant information, it makes it very difficult to make personal decisions based on risk-tolerance.

  4. Nice post Steve,

    Thanks for the heads-up on mycotoxins! I would like to see another post with more info on the strategies employed by modern(rich) vs. old(poor) peoples for dealing with these problems from a food storage and agro. Perspective, if you had the time.

    I would offer up the idea that the confusion over the ‘logic’ of environmental movement campaigning is misplaced …it is not a rational ‘left-brain’ cool analysis of available evidence the way we scientists would like. I think that it is more a ‘first-principles’ position which is then rationalized onto everything else.

    That first-principle is that man makes up ideas and then forces his view of reality onto the world; instead of man letting his view of the world conform to ‘nature’ and hence living in ‘harmony’ with it.

    The reason why environmentalists seem to be at such loggerheads with just about everything is that the predominant world view (religious, while at the same time not dependant on any one religion) is that man is special and in particular his brain and hence ideas allow for the ‘re-making’ of the world around him. For this reason environmentalists are always mad, or lashing out at seemingly bizarre and small things, or their anger is misplaced (such as in this study).

    To them a piece of concrete is a ‘blasphemy’ against nature, as nature makes perfectly good stone, so why do we not use that, changing the way we build rather than changing the ‘nature’ of rock to simplify building.

    I think that when seen by this light the answer to your question is ‘the source’, but it is much deeper then ‘Corporate vs. Mother Nature’.

    The ‘Friend or Foe’ header is maybe a little too black/white …I like to think of her more like a big fat Italian Mother harsh and demanding with a wooden spoon at the ready any time anyone does something stupid, but also full of acquired knowledge willing to share it if only we would stop running around trying to steal a fist full of sugar or warm cookie all the time.

  5. Becky,
    thanks for your comment and the link. I probably won’t be able to comment on that till the weekend as I’m getting my daughter moved in for school in Boston this week.

    I don’t really think it is a red herring. The French study is also about food safety

    Before I really weigh in on that study I’m going to talk to several actual toxicologists. The interpretation of high-rate feeding studies is always tricky. I would actually like to see raw data or at least understand the statistics used.

    Very interesting comment. I guess I see this not as an argument between environmentalists and the bad guys (in their) book and more as a debate about what environmentalism is. I think there is a branch of it that tends towards anti-human. That is why I was glad to see a recent release from Greenpeace saying they might need to re-think their position on things like Golden Rice

    I like your Italian Mother analogy

  6. Shane, Thanks for your comment. On the “Thanks Mom” thing. I ran that section by my wife and she asked the same thing. I was making a reference back to the idea that Mother Nature was the manufacturer of these toxins. Obviously it didn’t work.

  7. Good article- thanks for posting. I think that ANY problem with our food supply is a problem, and should be addressed… but something that occurs spontaneously is quite different from a problem deliberately created. DON is a car crash caused by icy conditions; the problem list generated by Monsanto’s business practices is a crash caused by sabotaged brakes. Both need to be dealt with; but, yeah, from an ethics standpoint, one bothers me more than the other!

  8. Evz,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m very concerned about ethics as well. I would say we are a long way from knowing that the recent GMO corn study has surfaced an ethical problem. The Bt corn in the study has probably saved many lives by reducing aflatoxin and fumonisin in the food supply. That study does not even begin to “prove” any negative effects. I just had lunch yesterday with the world expert on the extent to which Greenpeace and the EU in general are responsible for blocking all sorts of technology for poor African farmers (not just GMO). To me that is a much bigger ethics issue

  9. I think if they’re interested in (a) behaving ethically, and (b) changing their reputation for behaving otherwise, M. needs to do change both their behavior and their method of response to criticism. They have (what appears to me) to be a well-documented history of hiding or falsifying data, to lead people to thing stuff is safe that isn’t (agent orange, dioxin, pcb’s, etc.). My hubby’s a journalist, and I’ve read numerous trade journals/ articles about M’s propensity for censorship, even attempting to pressure journalists into saying things that are actively false. They have been basically caught trying to bribe officials, in Canada; they have (according to what I’ve read and seen) actively tried to suppress scientific inquiry into whether certain of their GMO products are safe for consumption. They consistently fail to answer these concerns, except in the format of a press release. Why not be interviewed by Robert Kenner, for ‘Food Inc.’? Why not explain away the data, in ‘The World According to Monsanto?’ I am not a radical activist; consumers like me have no vested interest in viewing Monsanto or anyone else as the devil, if in fact they aren’t. But I’m also not stupid. There’s some shady stuff in Monsanto’s history, and I need a heck of a lot more than PR from them, if I’m gonna believe that they’re not still as unpleasant a company as ever. The reason this study is getting such press, I think, is because it’s part of a very consistent pattern for this company, in which safety research is inadequate or suppressed. Then the products cause health &/or environmental problems later (after the profit’s already made, and the ecosystem permanently changed in ways we don’t fully understand, and can’t fix).

    I look forward to reading ‘Tomorrow’s Table,’ which advocates a joint use of RESPONSIBLY MANAGED GM crops and organic farming, for maximum yield with minimum impact… I don’t necessarily think it has to be all one way or the other. But the way that GM technology has been handled to date has been, imo, wildly irresponsible… and that’s squarely on Monsanto. I think we’re suckers if we don’t notice and comment on that.

    Sorry to go on; it’s late, and there’s some paperwork I’m trying to avoid…

  10. Further research will awaken you to the facts that the big M has purchased most of the seed companies;modified their own so that you have to purchase from them each year;food grown from the seeds are unfit for human consumption;seventy five per cent of food on store shelves today are GMO;seeds from their crop fields blow over and contaminate others; their agents everywhere sue neigboring farmers for their property; over two hundred thousand Asian farmers have committed suicide because of them;
    and they (M) are in cahoots with all the agencies that people think are protecting them. It’s all about money,(taking it from you), control of people and the entire planet, and depopulation ( they want it down to five hundred million mico-chipped in the very near future). The good food and seeds are in the DUMBS (deep underground military bases-search youtube) some 1500 worldwide,..136 in the USA that are connected from north to south, east to west and more, also into Canada.They spray chemicals from planes almost daily worldwide; have poisoned our water supply; and now our food. There are sooo many issues that need addressed. Immediate awareness being first,followed by positive action to take our power back.

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