Are GMOs Even Worth Worrying About?

Although time has allowed for technological advancements, genetic modification of food has taken place for thousands of years

One of the most popular, nutrition-based fears among health-conscious consumers surrounds genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered foods. This sounds like a reasonable concern, right? Eating an ear of corn that has had its genetics "modified" by technology seems terrifyingly unnatural to most people. After all, 38 countries prohibit cultivation of genetically engineered crops!. But America is not one of them.

GMOs are often created by inserting genetic material from one species into another with the help of laboratory techniques. Again, that can sound a little suspect to the average person.

But are GMOs really worth worrying about? Let's find out.

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One of the most popular, nutrition-based fears among health-conscious consumers surrounds genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered foods. This sounds like a reasonable concern, right? Eating an ear of corn that has had its genetics "modified" by technology seems terrifyingly unnatural to most people. After all, 38 countries prohibit cultivation of genetically engineered crops!. But America is not one of them.

GMOs are often created by inserting genetic material from one species into another with the help of laboratory techniques. Again, that can sound a little suspect to the average person.

But are GMOs really worth worrying about? Let's find out.

The History of GMOs

First, let's hop into a GMO time machine: Humans have been modifying plants and crops for thousands of years. In fact, the genetic modification of sweet potatoes begin roughly 8,000 years ago.

So although time has allowed for technological advancements, genetic modification has taken place for thousands of years, well before anyone reading this article was around.

Flash forward to the mid-1900s. Genetically engineered food is now commercialized and has become publicly available for purchase. Our current technology allows for very careful transfer of DNA from one species to another species, rather than using the traditional process of non-human intervention. The latter "may produce a greater range of non-controllable modifications" [1]. Really, that's at heart of why GMOs have become a modern necessity in our food supply.

Humans are taking over the earth, and they're coming in quick, and coming in hungry. Unfortunately, providing enough food to feed mankind is a massive challenge, and losing crops to herbicides and insects doesn't help one bit.

This is where GMOs are a huge help. Careful genetic modification of food helps crop and yield production go up, partially by increasing herbicide tolerance and decreasing destruction by pesky insects. As added bonuses, GMOs often increase nutritional value and reduce toxin content that is carcinogenic to humans and animals.

The result: a given area can now provide 3,000 times more food than it could 10,000 years ago. The total area used to grow genetically engineered crops increased from 1.7 million hectare (one square kilometer) in 1997 to 185.1 million hectares in 2016.

Popular GMO foods on the market include Corn, Soybeans, Wheat, Potatoes, Squash, Apples, Alfalfa and Salmon. GMOs aren't just in foods, either. Many antibiotics (such as insulin as well as many common treatments for cancer) are genetically modified. GMOs are used to make many of our clothes and cleaning supplies.

So, are you actually avoiding genetic modification? Probably not. And this begs a bigger question.

Are GMOs Safe for Humans?

I feel confident answering yes to this question. To date, there are no human studies that have demonstrated negative health effects that can be directly linked to the consumption of genetically engineered food.

From a 2018 New York Times article on the topic:

Although about 90 percent of scientists believe G.M.O.s are safe — a view endorsed by the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization—only slightly more than a third of consumers share this belief....It is not possible to prove a food is safe, only to say that no hazard has been shown to exist.

Here is an excerpt from a statement by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published in 2018: "Evidence from primary human studies did not reveal any clear association between adverse human effects and human consumption of either plant or animal foods produced using engineering technologies."

This leads to another question: why are GMOs portrayed in such a negative light?

Again, the idea of our food being "genetically modified" freaks a lot of people out. Add in a few studies that elicited massive attention due to sensationalistic media coverage, and you have a modern society where many people believe GMO might as well be a four-letter word. This is why you're suddenly seeing so many companies use "Non-GMO" as a marketing buzzword when you never heard the term a decade ago, despite the fact GMOs have been a major part of our food supply for a long, long time.

The vast majority of studies that have found significant negative outcomes as a result of GMO consumption in animals have been: retracted or re-analyzed using statistical applications to correct for data analysis flaws resulting in insignificant findings of negative outcomes. In other words, the studies that initially painted GMOs in a negative light now contribute to the massive (yet continuing to grow) body of evidence that GMOs are safe for consumption.

There is a massive gap between the consensus on genetically modified foods within the scientific community and the general public. Any negative finding (which is not always substantiated or portrayed accurately) mongers fear into individuals, and that fear often turns into a long-lasting or permanent belief that's unsubstantiated by scientific evidence.

As it stands, plenty of research supports the safety and benefit of genetically engineered food. Could that eventually change? It's not out of the realm of possibility, but I feel confident siding with the current knowledge of the scientific community. If you choose to avoid GMOs, that is certainly your right to do so. However, if you stress over GMO consumption yet are still making major nutrition mistakes such as consuming too much added sugar, too few vegetables and too little fiber, it might be worth reconsidering your priorities.

Photo Credit: bruev/iStock

References:

1. Azevedo, J. L., & Araujo, W. L. (2003). "Genetically modified crops: environmental and human health concerns." Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research, 544(2–3), 223–233. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mrrev.2003.07.002

2. Domingo, J. L. (2016). "Safety assessment of GM plants: An updated review of the scientific literature." Food and Chemical Toxicology, 95, 12–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2016.06.013

3. Edge, M. S., Kunkel, M. E., Schmidt, J., & Papoutsakis, C. (2018). "2015 Evidence Analysis Library Systematic Review on Advanced Technology in Food Production." Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 118(6), 1106-1127.e9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2017.08.005

4. Panchin, A. Y., & Tuzhikov, A. I. (2017). "Published GMO studies find no evidence of harm when corrected for multiple comparisons." Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, 37(2), 213–217. https://doi.org/10.3109/07388551.2015.1130684

5. Pellegrino, E., Bedini, S., Nuti, M., & Ercoli, L. (2018). "Impact of genetically engineered maize on agronomic, environmental and toxicological traits: a meta-analysis of 21 years of field data." Scientific Reports, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-21284-2

6. Raman, R. (2017). "The impact of Genetically Modified (GM) crops in modern agriculture: A review." GM Crops & Food, 8(4), 195–208. https://doi.org/10.1080/21645698.2017.1413522

7. Séralini, G.-E., Clair, E., Mesnage, R., Gress, S., Defarge, N., Malatesta, M., … de Vendômois, J. S. (2012). "RETRACTED: Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize". Food and Chemical Toxicology, 50(11), 4221–4231. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2012.08.005

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Topics: FOODS