Were they the "right rats?" The controversial study by Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen, on the toxicity of genetically modified NK603 corn and the weed killer Roundup, has raised a host of questions concerning the type of rodent used in the experiment.
Is the Sprague-Dawley rat appropriate for two-year feeding experiments, when this kind of rat already tends to develop breast cancers past a certain age? The GMO (genetically-modified organism) companies used the same rats for their own tests, but only fed them for 90 days.
But the Seralini controversy has also highlighted what many see as the limits of current methods of using lab animals to evaluate toxic risks. Indeed, a growing number of researchers are advocating toxicogenomics instead. This new science has emerged from recent progress in genetics and biotechnology, and allows scientists to evaluate the effects caused by a particular substance on human cells in vitro.
One major advantage is that lab animals are not needed, but even more importantly, it ensures that results are valid when dealing with humans. "No animal model is valid for another species," says biochemist Claude Reiss, president of Antidote-Europe, an organization that promotes "efficient and safe biomedical research" and former research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). "We are not 70-kilo (150-pound) rats!"
Toxicologist Thomas Hartung is a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he leads the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT). As an illustration of the problem, he cites the example of aspirin: "With the current protocols, which were developed between the 1920s and the 1960s and have scarcely changed since, aspirin would never have been approved for use," he explains. "The molecule produces malformations in the embryos of rats, mice, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs... and if you expose a rat to the doses of aspirin used in human patients, you have a 50% chance of killing it."
On the other hand, thalidomide, which was prescribed to pregnant women with morning sickness during the 1950s, was tested on rats and no teratogenicity was found (those which cause malformations of the embryo or fetus). Thalidomide use in humans ended after a widespread scandal: about 15,000 babies were born with severe malformations.
"There are well-known techniques to influence the currently required tests," says Reiss, one of the first Europeans to advocate toxicogenomics. "For example, to artificially minimize the risk of cancer, you can test a product using C57BL mice, which are known to be up to 100 times less sensitive to carcinogens than the C3H mice."
In theory, the experts from the health authorities, who evaluate industrial studies, are on the lookout for this kind of thing. But in real life, they do not always notice. In 2005, in a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, University of Missouri biologist Frederick vom Saal showed that companies had evaluated the toxicity of bisphenol A (BPA) using Sprague-Dawley rats, which are known to be 25,000 to 100,000 times less sensitive to hormonal disturbance due to BPA than CF-1 mice, which are often used in university labs. As a consequence, some health authorities are still convinced that BPA is harmless.
In vivo vs in vitro
Would toxicogenomics do better? "You take human cells-- neurons, liver cells, or cells from other tissues-- and put them into contact in vitro with different concentrations of the substance you are studying," Reiss explains. "The cells will react against any damage by activating certain genes." Each type of aggression has its own identifiable genetic signature.
However, the science of toxicogenomics is not yet a stable one, and can produce results that have diverse interpretations. Some even doubt that it can ever completely replace in vivo (live or animal) testing. Moreover, signatures of the various kinds of attacks that cells can endure are not at all well documented yet.
In a 2007 report, the American Academy of Sciences called for research to be done rapidly to map the entire human "toxome" -- that is, all the possible biochemical ways by which substances can be toxic to humans. Several projects are working toward this ambitious goal. Tox21, developed by the American EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), is already partly operational. In particular, it has been used since 2010 for rapid evaluation of the toxicity of dispersants used after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
At Johns Hopkins, Hartung has also begun a Human Toxome Project at the CAAT. It obtained funding in 2011 and now aims to coordinate research on the subject on the international level. "The project is as ambitious as the Human Genome Project, and will not be finished for 10 to 15 years," says Hartung. "But we must not wait till it is finished to begin to take advantage of toxicogenomics."
To explain the gap between scientific promises and regulatory practice, François Busquet, European coordinator for the CAAT, suggests that regulatory agencies are naturally conservative. "Those who evaluate risks are used to working with the classic tests, and are often uneasy faced with this new science," he says.
But the value of toxicogenomics is being noticed. The Human Toxicology Project Consortium has just been created. It brings together giant industrial companies like Dupont, Dow, L'Oréal, ExxonMobil, and Johnson & Johnson. The reason is that the cost of toxicology testing, in both time and money, is high. "Testing costs about $3 billion a year worldwide," says Hartung. Toxicogenomics would allow better results, “100 times faster and 100 times less expensive," says Reiss.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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