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[SANET-MG] neural tube defects and folate
Two articles below deal with folate and neural tube birth defects (spina
bifida). The first article says in Canada (New Foundland) supplements of
folate costing about $0.01 per kilo of wheat or corn reduced incidence
of spina bifida about 80%.. The second article is about how the
mycotoxin Fumonisin may cause birth defects by reducing folate in the
diet of those who eat corn as a main food source. The lawyers want to
require that Bt corn be planted in the belief that the BT corn will
eliminate fungal infection and mycotoxin production. Even though the
peer reviewed publications from Europe suggest that Bt corn is
erratically effective in reducing fungal infection the cost of the
patent license for Bt corn seems to be about $0.10 to $0.20 per kilogram
I guess the lesson is that lawyers can always be depended upon to try to
force government to impose the costly and ineffective remedy!
Food fortification cuts cases of spina bifida in Canada
The fortification of a nation’s food with folic acid has led to a
78% reduction in the incidence of spina bifida and other neural
tube defects among babies. This benefit occurs without masking
vitamin B-12 deficiency in elderly people, a theoretical risk of
adding folic acid to food.These were the findings of Canadian
researchers who studied the
population in Newfoundland,
an area with historically high rates of neural tube defects
(BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2004;4:20).White flour, pasta, and cornmeal
have been fortified with folic acid in Canada at a level of
0.15 mg per 100 g of flour since 1998. But larger amounts of folic
acid can remove the haematological signs of vitamin B-12 deficiency and
and treatment.To investigate this concern Dr Catherine McCourt of the
Population and Public Health Branch of Health Canada,Ottawa, Ontario,
looked at the impact of fortification on women aged 19-44 years and
people aged over 65
from November 1997 to March 1998 and from November 2000 to March 2001.
The proportion of neural tube defects during this time fell from an
average of 4.36 in
every 1000 births before fortification to 0.96 in 1000 births after
And despite significant increases of folate in elderly people the
researchers found no
evidence of masking haematological manifestations of vitamin B-12
Robert Short London
28 Oct 2004 Bt corn reduces serious birth defects
Wednesday, October 27, 2004
By Bruce Chassy and Drew Kershen
In the early 1990s, Hispanic women in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas
gave birth to babies with neural tube defects (NTDs) at a rate of 33
per 10,000 live births, approximately six times the U.S. national
average for non-Hispanic women. Neural tube defects include spina
bifida, hydrocephalus, and anencephaly.
Most unborn children affected by NTDs do not even survive to birth,
and those who do are usually severely disabled. One hundred
eighty-four Mexican-American women and their babies suffered these
devastating conditions during the early 1990s.
The precise cause for the increased rate of NTDs in Texas remained a
mystery until recent research shed light on a surprising cause.
Studies from China, Guatemala, South Africa, and the United States
show that a clear link exists between diets containing unprocessed
corn (known as maize in most of the world) and NTDs.
Unprocessed corn is found in tortillas and other products that contain
whole ground corn. Research (Acevedo, 2004) in Guatemala showed that
in four rural departments the children of women who ate unprocessed
corn as a significant part of their diet had a rate of NTDs (34.29 per
10,0000 live births) at least six times the world rate.
What connection could exist between unprocessed corn in the diet and
children being born with NTDs? Fumonisin, a deadly mycotoxin found in
unprocessed corn is the likely culprit according to research published
in the Journal of Nutrition (Marasas, April 2004). At the time that
the Hispanic women of the Rio Grande valley suffered the high rate of
NTDs in their babies, the fumonisin level in corn in the Rio Grande
Valley was two to three times the normal level. These women also
reported much higher dietary consumption of homemade tortillas
prepared from unprocessed corn.
Mycotoxins such as fumonisin are highly toxic chemicals that are
produced by molds and fungi. When corn is attacked by insects a mold
called Fusarium can grow at the site of insect damage and produce
fumonisin. Poor storage conditions can promote post-harvest growth of
molds on grain as well.
Blocks folic acid
The April 2004 research also made another important connection.
Researchers learned that fumonisin interferes with the cellular uptake
of folic acid. Folic acid in the diet, provided either directly from
the foods eaten or through food fortification and dietary supplements,
is known to reduce the incidence of NTDs in developing fetuses.
Because fumonisin prevents the folic acid from being absorbed by
cells, women eating a diet of unprocessed corn contaminated with
fumonisin are at higher risk of giving birth to babies with NTDs even
when their diet contains the adequate amount of folic acid.
It turns out that there is a way to limit toxic mold infestation in
corn. Researchers in Argentina, France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, and the
United States have clearly established that planting corn seeds
genetically engineered to be resistant to corn borers and similar
insect pests results in the harvesting of corn with much lower levels
of fumonisin. The insect protected corn varieties contain a protein
that is found in a common soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis
. In nature, this bacteria kills certain insect larvae but is harmless
to all other insect species, as well as humans and animals. Bt
preparations have been safely used for years in agriculture and are
one of few insect control methods used in organic agriculture.
Using this knowledge, scientists engineered corn that could produce
the protein in the hopes of making insect-protected corn plants. This
genetically improved corn, dubbed Bt corn, usually has drastically
lower levels of fumonisin. It is not unusual for Bt corn to have
one-tenth to one-twentieth the amount of fumonisin that is found on
organic and conventional corn varieties.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the UK Food Safety Agency
have established guidance levels for recommended maximum fumonisin
levels in food and feed products made from corn. Even before the
connection of fumonisin with NTDs, food safety agencies recognized
fumonisin as a highly toxic carcinogen. Although highly processed
cornstarch and corn oil are unlikely to be contaminated with
fumonisin, unprocessed corn or lightly processed corn (e.g., cornmeal)
can have fumonisin levels that exceed recommended levels.
The UK Food Safety Agency tested six organic cornmeal products and 20
conventional cornmeal products for fumonisin contamination in
September 2003. The six organic cornmeals had fumonisin levels nine to
40 times the recommended levels for human health. All six organic
cornmeal products were voluntarily withdrawn from grocery stores.
Genetically improved Bt corn kernels are less often damaged by
insects, greatly reducing the chance of fumonisin contamination and
its harmful effect. This health benefit adds to the benefits that Bt
corn has already brought to farmers and consumers. Farmers have found
that Bt corn improves yields and lowers their labor costs. Bt corn
also reduces pesticide use. Improved yields and reduced costs mean
grain prices are kept low.
Require Bt corn?
Perhaps faced with results like these, government regulators around
the world should require farmers to plant Bt corn. Unfortunately,
farmers are often discouraged from planting Bt corn. It is no secret
that opponents of agricultural biotechnology have slandered transgenic
crops. These crops have passed rigorous safety reviews by government
regulatory agencies in many nations, including the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the
Department of Agriculture experts say transgenic crops are safe but
opponents ignore the scientific facts and place scare stories in the
media here and abroad.
Understandably, some consumers respond to these scary, inaccurate
claims by avoiding foods containing transgenic crops like Bt corn.
Some politicians respond by placing inappropriate barriers to the
adoption of these crops. The problem with these fright reactions is
that by diverting attention from the real risks in our food supply
(such as fumonisin in corn), our society suffers real damage and
losses that could and should be avoided. Women of child-bearing years
may be hoping to eat a healthier diet by selecting organic corn when
in fact, the transgenic Bt corn would be a healthier and less
expensive choice, assuming they are allowed the choice.
Women of child-bearing years should not be forced by opponents of Bt
corn into a higher risk of bearing a child with an NTD. As Izelle
Theunissen of the Medical Research Council of South Africa has
written, "So despite the current discussions surrounding GM foods, it
appears that Bt maize hybrids could play a major role in lowering
fumonisin levels in maize products, which should ultimately enhance
the quality and safety of maize for animal and human consumption,
particularly in the African context."
Ignoring major risks
While opponents of transgenic crops force our attention and our
research dollars to over-regulate transgenic crops, are we ignoring
the major risks associated with food? We know that major risks
associated with food in the United States are obesity, poor
nutritional quality of our diets, the possible presence of organisms
that could cause illness, and the unrecognized presence of natural
toxins such as fumonisin.
While many are convinced that organic food is healthier, it is no more
nutritious than conventional food. As shown by the recall of
fumonisin-contaminated organic corn meals, organic food, at times, may
be less safe. Organic food is not the answer to known food risks.
Perhaps one recourse for harm done by irresponsible opposition to
transgenic crops will be a lawsuit against producers and manufacturers
of fumonisin-laden corn products. Will our courtrooms be the place
that distinguishes the Bt corn science fiction from fact?
(Bruce Chassy is professor of Food Microbiology and Nutritional
Sciences and executive associate director of the Biotechnology Center,
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; Drew Kershen is Earl Sneed
Centennial professor of law, University of Oklahoma College of Law,
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