Are GMO Foods Safe to Eat?
ARE GMO Foods Safe To Eat?
Many people don't even know what a "GMO food" is, much
less whether or not such food is safe to eat. GMO stand for "Genetically
Modified Organism," and the truth is that you are almost certainly already
eating GMO foods without knowing it because there are no label requirements for
manufacturers and growers to list GMO's in food. Since these foods are already
in our daily food supply, shouldn't we understand something about the "pros" and
"cons" of their use? Let's take a look at what "GMO" is all about.
Genetically Modified Organisms are plants or animals
that have been "genetically engineered" to contain genes from an entirely
different plant or animal. The resulting organism is called transgenic or GMO
(genetically modified organism). Genetic engineering is different than
traditional cross breeding, where genes can only be exchanged between two
closely-related species. In genetic engineering, genes from completely different
species are inserted into each other. For example, scientists in Taiwan have
inserted jellyfish genes into pigs in order to make them glow in the dark.(1) My
pondering: why do we need "glow in the dark" pigs?
The Extent of GMO Foods in the U.S. Food Supply
It is legal for farmers in the U.S. and a very few other
countries such as Argentina to produce and sell GMO foods for human and animal
consumption without making mention of this on the label. In other places
including Europe and Japan, GMO foods are banned until adequate testing confirms
that they are safe for human consumption and for the environment. Currently,
approximately 70% of all processed foods in American supermarkets contain GMO
ingredients.(2) Genetically engineered foods that have been approved for
consumption and are already in current use include alfalfa, cherry tomatoes,
chicory, corn, cotton, flax, papaya, potato, rapeseed (canola), rice, soybeans,
squash, sugar beets, and tomatoes.(3)
Why Manufacturers Favor GMO Foods
On the "pro" side of the GMO question, manufacturers
argue that genetically modified crops can be bred to resist disease or damage
from chemicals, thus making harvests more stable. Most genetically engineered
crops grown today are bred to be resistant to herbicides
and /or pesticides so they can withstand the rigors of weed killer without being
killed. Proponents claim that genetically engineered crops use fewer pesticides,
but in reality GE plants often require more chemicals than non-GE
crops.(4) The reason this occurs is because weeds grow resistant to pesticides,
requiring higher levels of weed killer to subdue them. Because the GMO
food-crops are resistant to higher doses of herbicides, the higher doses acan
safely be used without killing the food plants. Naturally, this exposes the food
crops to higher levels of chemicals, but because the GMO crops are resistant,
they are not killed. Instead, they wind up in the grocery store, often
containing significantly higher levels of the chemical toxins they have been
bred to withstand.(5)
This resistance of GMO plants to chemical toxins works so well that some GMO
crops are actually classified as pesticides. For example, the New Leaf Potato
was genetically engineered to produce Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin in order
to kill any pests that attempted to eat it. This potato was designated as a
pesticide and as such was regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA), not the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) which regulates food. Safety
testing for these potatoes was not as strict as with food because EPA
regulations had never anticipated that people would intentionally consume
pesticides as food. These GMO "not intended as food" potatoes did in fact make
it into grocery stores (they have since been taken off grocery store shelves),
but this case underscores how GMO foods whose safety is unknown can make it into
our "protected" food supply. (6) Most of the GMO produce is approved for human
consumption, even without your knowledge of what it is or that you are eating
Potential Dangers of GMO Foods
One of the biggest concerns over GMO foods is simply
that their safety has not been tested. The science of genetic engineering is
relatively new, and we simply do not know what effects can result from putting
DNA of one species into another species. The practice might prove to be safe. On
the other hand, we may be creating incredibly dangerous "Franken Foods" and
"Franken animals," the long-range effects of which are entirely unknown and
little-studied at this point. Opponents to genetic engineering state that GE
foods must be proven safe before they are sold to the public because their
safety has not yet been proven, and I must agree. Potential problems that could
arise with genetic engineering include:
- Allergic reactions. There are two main
concerns regarding allergic reactions. The first is with known allergens. For
example, if genes from peanuts were inserted into another commonly consumed
food such as tomatoes, and considering that these GMO modifications are not
required to be labeled, a person with a known peanut allergy could no longer
deliberately avoid peanut-containing foods. Some people have such severe
reactions to particular foods that the allergy can be life-threatening.
The second concern is the possibility of creating new
allergies. The new combinations of genes and traits have the potential to
create allergic reactions that have never existed before.
- Antibiotic resistance. Most GMO food contains
antibiotic resistant "marker genes" that help producers track the transfer of
genetic material to the host plant or animal. We already know that many GMO
foods can be bred to be resistant to toxic chemicals, bacteria and viruses.
Will genetically engineered foods which are bacteria-resistant increase human
resistance to antibiotics when consumed? We don't know, but having seen the
rise of "Super Bugs" (bacteria which are resistant to all known antibiotics
because of the overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics) gives us serious
cause for concern.
- Nutritional degradation. Genetic engineering
can change the nutritional value of food, and this has not been studied as to
whether such changes may improve nutrition or seriously degrade the
nutritional composition of foods.(7)
- Environmental damage. Insects, birds and wind
can carry genetically altered pollen to far away locations, pollinating plants
and randomly creating new species that would carry on the genetic
modifications. Until more is known, we could be creating a "Pandora's box" of
genetic mutations. (I'm feeling the plot of a seriously scary movie in here
- Super-weeds. GE crops can cross-pollinate with
weeds, potentially creating super weeds that could become difficult if not
impossible to control.
- Irreversible Gene mutations. Scientists don't
yet know if the forced insertion of one gene into another gene could
destabilize the entire organism, and encourage mutations and abnormalities.
Likewise, no one knows if or how eating mutated food could affect people’s own
Genetic pollution cannot simply be "cleaned up."
Unlike chemical or nuclear contamination that can be removed from the
environment, genetically engineered organisms cannot simply be "recalled" or
"cleaned" by a SuperFund.
How to Avoid GMO Foods
Until more is known --- or until ANYTHING is known ---
about the safety of GMO foods, those who want to steer clear of GMO-containing
foods can do so by following these steps:
- Look for foods labeled GMO-free. Today, almost all
major brands have GMO ingredients. Foods that are GMO-free go out of their way
to say so on the label.
www.truefoodnow.org features a shoppers guide to brands that are GMO-free.
- Buy organic foods. USDA regulations governing organic
food do not permit genetically-modified fruits and vegetables, and organic
meats cannot come from animals that were fed GMO crops. Eating organic is a
much surer way to avoid GMO foods. Better yet, buying local organic foods
further reduces the likelihood of GMO contamination.
- Grow your own! Raise a portion of your vegetables at
home. You can grow 10 vegetables in a 4'x4' plot using the easy
micro garden system that I talked about last week. Sprouts are easy to
grow indoors. Consider raising a few chickens (a simple "chicken tractor"
allows even city-folk to harvest their own eggs, and chickens make a great
"bio-organic composting machine." "Pigs with wings," we call them).
- 4 countries have 99% of the world’s GE acreage, they
include: US (68%), Argentina (22%), Canada (6%), China (3%) (8)
- Over 75% of US-grown soybeans in 2003 were
- Herbicide tolerant GE crops have created weed
resistance, causing pesticide use to increase by 70 million pounds between
1996 and 2003.(10)
My Ten Cents Worth on GMO Foods
The unsuspecting public (that's you and I, folks!) are
continually acting as guinea pigs for everything from foods and drugs to
environmental chemicals and cosmetics. AND SO FAR, THE TRACK RECORDS OF THE
SAFETY OF THESE ITEMS DOES NOT FAVOR THE PUBLIC. Personally, I don't like being
forced to "test" the safety of every new chemical, drug and "technique" that Big
Industry dreams up without my consent. Isn't this what, ostensibly, the FDA, the
USDA, the EPA and other government-acronymed groups (GAG's) are
supposed to be protecting us from? Yet you and I are still exposed to hazardous
chemicals and techniques that are "approved" before their safety is truly
verified. I don't know about you, but I'm not happy about this.
I take good care of myself. Why should I let the
government use me as a test subject for so many potentially dangerous chemicals
and now (perhaps even worse), gene-splicing experiments? Until I have proof that
me, the honeybees (11) and the environment are safe from GMO crops, I'm going to
stay as far away from them as I can. I believe we should be more circumspect
about what we are creating, and the safety of same, before we unleash
genetically modified organisms on an unsuspecting public.
1.) Hogg, Chris, “Taiwan breeds green-glowing pigs.” BBC News, January 12, 2006.
2.) California Department of Food and Agriculture. “A Food Foresight Analysis of
Agricultural Biotechnology: A Report to the Legislature,” January 1, 2003.
3.) Center for Food Safety, “The Hidden Health Hazards of Genetically Engineered
Foods.” Food Safety Review, Spring 2000.
4.) Benbrook, Charles M., “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide
Use in the United States: The First Eight Years,” BioTech InfoNet, November
6.) U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Biotechnology Consultation, Note to the
File, BNF No. 000033, March 25th, 1996.
7.) Center for Food Safety, “The Hidden Health Hazards of Genetically Engineered
Foods.” Food Safety Review, Spring 2000.
8.) Union of Concerned Scientists. “Genetically Engineered Foods Allowed on the
Market” February 16, 2006 (accessed August 1, 2006).
9.) California Department of Food and Agriculture. A Food Foresight Analysis of
Agricultural Biotechnology: A Report to the Legislature. January 1, 2003.
the H#!l are The HoneyBees? HealthBeat News, 03/29/07.