GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are one of the most contentious topics in the world today. We should however, consider the following questions: What do we really know about them? Are these concerns justified? People are so passionate about this issue that some misguided individuals have actually rioted and vandalized crops in Oregon, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Philippines. This mob behavior is similar to the burning of women at the stake for committing imaginary crimes like witchcraft.
Unfortunately, public opinion oftentimes has absolutely nothing to do with scientific fact. A Gallup poll showed that 48% of respondents actually believe that foods produced using biotechnology pose a serious health hazard, compared to 36% who think that they do not.
GMO labeling is a hot issue. Currently, laws are being passed around the country requiring labels on all GMOs with Vermont being the first state to enact such a law.
What is a GMO?
Basically, scientists extract DNA from an organism, modify the DNA, and then incorporate it into the genome of the same species or a different one. This transfer of modified DNA can be accomplished by using a “gene gun” to inject DNA-coated metal pellets into the plant cells, or by just using bacteria for delivery.
Another type of GMO is created by turning off a gene that is normally expressed without introducing a new gene.
Cisgenic GMOs are achieved by introducing genes from closely related species, and transgenic GMOs are the result of genes from distant species crossing over to other kingdoms of life. For example, taking a gene from a bacteria and inserting it into a plant will produce a transgenic GMO.
Both of these types of genetic modifications actually occur in nature on a regular basis, so they are nothing new and completely “natural.”
GMOs are truly one of science’s greatest achievements that have yielded many benefits to humans other than food. Two very important achievements include insulin that diabetics inject themselves with to regulate blood sugar to keep them alive and growth hormone that is used for kids with rare genetic disorders that prevent them from growing normally. Both of these hormones are produced from GM bacteria.
How long have GMOs been around?
Did you know that genetically modified foods have been around for the last 10,000 years and that most of the foods you have eaten throughout your life are genetically modified? The food you eat today bears little resemblance to what our ancestors ate thousands of years ago.
Apples are a perfect example of genetic modification through breeding practices for millennia. Have you ever wondered why there are so many different types of apples such as Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Macintosh, etc? These are all genetically modified for various reasons such as taste, size, and resilience to climate change.
All bananas used to have seeds until they were bred out, and carrots used to be yellow and purple until the Dutch bred them to be orange in the 17th century.
Genetically engineered plants became a commercial product in 1994, but they have been around for the last thirty years. Since these plants were developed, more than 1,700 scientific studies have been conducted to determine whether they are safe for human health and the environment. The overall conclusion of these studies is that GMOs are completely safe for human health and the environment.
Why are people so afraid of GMOs?
The paranoia surrounding GMOs actually comes from the false idea that things that are “natural” are more wholesome and safe than those that are man-made or artificial. This is known as a “logical fallacy,” because it is not based on valid information. Farmers throughout history have always tried to create the best possible crop yield by breeding and “unnatural” cultivation methods.
If you were a farmer, you would pick seeds from the healthiest and most robust crops and cast aside those that couldn’t survive well in harsh climate conditions for example. Or, perhaps you would want larger tomatoes to help feed your big family, so you would start the process of creating bigger tomatoes by breeding the largest tomatoes. This was, of course, a slower process, but it was still genetic modification and “unnatural.”
Creating a farm of any type can be considered “unnatural.” For thousands of years, human beings did not have farms; they merely ate what was growing around them in the wild.
The agricultural revolution, which started approximately 10,000 years ago, can be viewed as a turning point from “natural” to “unnatural.” If you buy into the “natural” logical fallacy, then at this point in time, you would not be eating anything other than what you can find yourself out in the wild. Good luck with that.
What about eating “mutant genes” and “Frankenfoods”?
Newsflash: all genes are mutants whether they are the genes in your body or the genes in the foods you are eating. The only reason you are alive and able to be reading this article is because of genetic mutations in yourself and your ancestors. When you eat chicken (free-range or not), you are eating mutated genes. When you eat broccoli, you are eating mutated genes. All genes are constantly mutating based on our environment, food intake, stress levels, etc. This type of hysteria is bred from simple ignorance about genetics. If you really want a clear understanding of this concept, talk to a geneticist or evolutionary biologist to learn how ridiculous these claims have become.
Are anti-GMO fanatics making kids blind?
Fifteen years ago, the Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus invented “Golden Rice.” This rice is a genetically modified organism that is enriched with vitamin A. Every year, approximately half a million children go blind due to vitamin A deficiency, and about half of them die within one year of going blind.
Dr. Potrykus, a humanitarian trying to make the world a better place, wanted to supply Golden Rice free of charge. Unfortunately, his product is not getting to children in need because of the unfounded opposition to GMOs by misguided fanatics. It is hard to believe that so many children are going blind and dying because of mass ignorance.
How will we feed the world in the future?
Many opponents of GMOs have the delusional belief that if we all just grew our own food in fairytale-like organic gardens, then everyone would have plenty to eat. The fact of the matter is, our planet cannot sustain the current population growth which will add an additional two billion people by 2050. Currently, almost one billion people do not have enough food to eat, so what is the solution for the extra two billion on the horizon? GMOs will not completely solve this problem, but they most certainly will help provide more food for those in need.
Are people and companies that produce GMOs evil?
This is debatable but I would like to focus on the individuals and scientists who work for these companies. These people are just like you and me; they wake up every morning trying to live a good life and make a difference in the world. Imagine what it must have felt like to be the biologists who discovered how to improve a crop yield by making foods more resilient to insects and requiring fewer pesticides. These scientists are following their dreams to make the world a better place through science and innovation.
You may ask, “But aren’t all these companies just big corporations trying to dominate the world?” Actually, hundreds of safety studies on GMOs are published by independent researchers who have no ties to any of these corporations and receive no funding from them. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and about a dozen independent scientific groups have all published safety studies concluding that GMOs are completely safe for human consumption.
The focus of this article is on the health safety of GMOs so I’ll leave the big corporation debate for another day.
Do GMOs cause health problems?
A recent study out of the University of Perugia in Italy reviewed 1,783 studies on GMO safety, of which 770 looked specifically at human health. The researchers concluded that there is absolutely no evidence that GMOs are harmful to human health.
In 2012, the American Association for the Advancement of Science concluded the following: “…Contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply. There are occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals cause aberrations ranging from digestive disorders to sterility, tumors, and premature death. Although such claims are often sensationalized and receive a great deal of media attention, none have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. Indeed, a recent review of a dozen well-designed long-term animal feeding studies comparing GM and non-GM potatoes, soy, rice, corn, and triticale found that the GM and their non-GM counterparts are nutritionally equivalent.”
The National Academy of Sciences National Research Council states: “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.”
The World Health Organization also states: “GM foods currently traded on the international market have passed risk assessments in several countries and are not likely, nor have been shown, to present risks for human health.”
The European Union which has not been all that favorable to GMOs for political reasons has even stated in their 2010 research review: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”
The amount of rigorous scientific analysis of GMOs far exceeds anything that has ever been done for non-GMO foods that we have been happily eating for years. In fact, some molecular biologists who are much smarter than me have argued that GMOs are safer than our current conventional non-GMO crops simply because there is more data to support their safety.
In fact, it takes twelve years of rigorous scientific analysis and testing before any GMO is approved for commercial use.
What about the overuse of herbicides and pesticides on GMO crops?
Actually, organic farmers use the same active ingredient in their pesticides as conventional farmers use on their GMO crops. This active ingredient is the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which express a protein that is toxic to specific insects. Use of this technique has significantly reduced the amount of chemical insecticides required because the plant is doing the work for us when it is eaten by the insect larva.
The second technique revolves around the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) which is twenty-five times less toxic than the caffeine in your morning cup of coffee. This technique makes crops more resilient to glyphosate so only weeds are killed rather than the crops.
Are there any legitimate concerns about GMOs?
There are always concerns about anything that impacts the entire planet, but regarding GMOs, we have to think about herbicide-resistance and gene exclusion.
Basically, if the weeds become too resistant to our herbicides, then we do have a problem. However, we can not put all the blame on GMOs. Herbicide-resistance was happening before GMOs, and it is still happening with non-GMOs.
Genetic exclusion basically becomes a problem when we lose diversity in the gene pool of different crops. Each GMO is required to be the exact same DNA before market so there is no variation. This requirement allows good control of the crops. However, if a particular insect or weed targets this DNA at a massive level, then we run the risk of losing all of the crops.
What are some of the main GMOs today?
Corn is not necessarily at the top of the list of healthy foods anyway. The fatty acid profile of corn is not the best, so its consumption should be in moderation anyway. I only eat some corn when it is in season so my body gets a major break from it the rest of the year.
Cottonseed oil also has a very poor fatty acid composition, and I am always sure to avoid it whenever possible. It is one of the lowest-quality oils on the market used in some salad dressings and processed foods. Again, you should avoid processed foods and low-quality salad dressings anyway.
Rapeseed is the GM crop used to make canola oil. Canola is another low-quality oil found only in processed foods that I recommend avoiding.
Soy is mostly GM these days and is not a healthy food in its processed form. It is low in sulfur-containing amino acids, and it contains estrogen. I do not recommend consuming processed soy products on a regular basis such as soy dogs, soy milk, soy burgers, etc. Choose fermented soy, in moderation, such as miso soup or tempeh.
Papaya and squash are both commonly GM, but since there are no safety concerns about these healthy foods, just eat them in moderation like anything else.
Sugar beets are mainly GM, but they are used to make refined sugar. I do not need to add anything additional here because everyone knows to significantly limit their sugar intake anyway.
So as you can see, most of the GMO crops out there should be avoided or significantly limited anyway in everyone’s healthy diet.
What is the best approach to GMOs based on this information?
If you are really that concerned about GMOs and would prefer to use the precautionary principle, simply do not go out of your way to buy GMOs. As outlined above, if you are eating a healthy diet, your intake of GMOs will be inherently very low.
There certainly is no reason to stress about GMOs if you are concerned about your health because the scientific evidence is as clear as can be that they are safe. Remember, you have already been eating large amounts of GMOs your entire life.
This information is by no means the end-all, be-all of information we have about GMOs, but nothing is ever 100% definitive in these types of scientific inquiries. Be skeptical of everything and use your best critical thinking skills to come to the best answer for you. But, please use logic and reason rather than following popular opinion and media hype.
The media has latched onto GMOs like they do everything else that stirs up mass emotions. Unfortunately, as in most instances of health-related topics, the media sensationalizes and misrepresents information. Part of this is due to misinterpretation and a lack of understanding of scientific information, and the other part is the desire to sell as many papers as possible.
People fear what they don’t understand, so I hope this review has provided some insight into an extremely controversial and hot topic. We all have a lot of work to do and many stressors to deal with, so enjoy your life and stop worrying so much about GMOs.
November 2016 GMO Update
Scientists are still nearly unanimous that GM foods are safe and furthermore required to feed the world’s growing population. At the time of this writing, 121 Nobel Prize Winners have signed a letter supporting GM foods. This was in response to misguided opposition to GM foods by the organization Greenpeace. Greenpeace has been inappropriately scaring people into thinking that GM foods are harmful to human health despite a complete and total lack of scientific evidence.
Dr. Richard Roberts who won the Nobel Prize in 1993 started the effort. You can see a list of the Nobel Prize winners who have signed in support of GM foods here ==> Support Precision Agriculture.
You can read more about the science of GMOs as well as those who have changed their minds about GM foods at the link above to Support Precision Agriculture.
I have chosen to sign as well as a Science Professional in full support of GM foods. If at any point there is enough scientific evidence to prove they are unsafe, I will remove my support.