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GMOs: To Eat or Not to Eat

By Dr. Scott E. Rosenthal

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have been modified through the scientific process of genetic engineering. Typically, it’s the process of taking some genetic information from one living thing and inserting into another. The use of genetic engineering (GE) produces desired effects such as making more resistant crops that produce greater yields. This may actually sound good considering the rising cost of food and the problem of hunger worldwide. But are genetically engineered foods safe to eat? What is the impact on your health? It’s a subject of great debate and more than a little spin.

To explore the questions at hand, we must look at the research. According to the journal Nature, “People are positively swimming in information about GM technologies. Much of it is wrong—on both sides of the debate. But a lot of this incorrect information is sophisticated, backed by legitimate-sounding research and written with certitude. (With GM crops, a good gauge of a statement’s fallacy is the conviction with which it is delivered.)” (1)

The journal Science and Engineering Ethics also discusses the ensuing debate and sheds light on a threat posed by GM foods beyond the controversies arising from introducing foods with unnatural gene modifications to our food supply. It states: “There is a debate on the direct threat of genes used in the preparation of these new foods on human health, as they are not detectable in the body, but the real danger may come from PAGMF [pesticides associated with genetically modified foods].”

Is it possible that we are debating the wrong way GM foods impact our health? As stated above, the real harm may not be from the modified food itself, but the amount of chemicals used in the farming of it. The majority of genetically engineered crops are designed for pesticide resistance. Should we be concerned that the top five biotech companies are also chemical companies who produce pesticides? (2)

It’s a complex issue that can’t be fully addressed in a single article. Therefore, I’ll look specifically at two questions that focus on food safety. First, does consuming pesticides have health risks? And second, do GM foods increase those risks?

According to a study published in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology: “There is a huge body of evidence on the relation between exposure to pesticides and elevated rate of chronic diseases such as different types of cancers, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson, Alzheimer, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), birth defects, and reproductive disorders.” (3) This study was based on those living in farming communities subject to far greater exposure to pesticides than the average consumer. And in studies of people not living in areas where pesticides are sprayed heavily, increased risks of certain conditions such as a birth defect of the penis, ADHD and cancer were still found. (4)

Industry studies have been performed looking at the safety of a pesticide’s single active ingredient. But when looking at the complete mixture of substances contained in actual products used on the fields, greater levels of toxicity are revealed. It’s like saying cake is healthy for diabetics because eggs were found to be a nonissue. Once sugar, flour and other ingredients are factored in, a far different conclusion is made.

Still, how does all of this play into evaluating the safety of GMO foods? Let’s look at one of the biggest GMO crops to answer. GMO soybeans have been found to have an equivalent composition to conventional non-GMO soybeans. Since soy products find their way into many of the foods you eat (soybean oil, soy lecithin and soy protein), this is good news. However, since most GMO crops are genetically modified to resist pesticides, GMO soybeans have substantially higher levels of pesticide residue than non-GMO soybeans. (5)

There is one caveat to sharing this information with you. If eating organic produce is not possible and you avoid eating more fruits and vegetables due to a fear of pesticide residues, greater risk factors come into play. Lack of fruits and vegetables in the American diet kills and sickens more people than pesticides ever could. Yes, this gets confusing! To make it simple:

  • Eat organically grown foods whenever possible.
  • If not available, still eat your fruits and vegetables!

The answer to the question whether GMOs are either to eat or not to eat would depend on who you ask, how you ask and what you ask! By seeing GMO crops as less of an issue regarding the scientific bending of nature and more as one that involves amplifying the impact of pesticide use on health, the best answer for your health may be clearer. Until they can genetically modify humans to resist pesticides in a similar manner, the smartest precaution may be avoidance.

  1. Nature, Vol. 497, 2 May 2013
  2. Science and Engineering Ethics (2005) 11. 137-149
  3. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 268 (2013). 157-177