Are GMOs Safe?

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You’ve heard the term “GMO”. Maybe you’ve seen the “Verified non-GMO” labels on certain products in the grocery store. Your neighbor told you that GMOs are killing children, but your cousin said that the anti-GMO is the biggest farce since the low-fat craze. But what exactly does GMO mean? Is it bad?

Definition:

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” This basically means that a group of scientists took the DNA of a plant or animal and changed it in some way.

What the H— Does That Mean? Is It Like Breeding Dogs?

For millennia we have been changing gene expression through selective breeding. When people breed dogs to create new breeds, they are essentially “genetically modifying” the subsequent generations of dogs. We don’t usually refer to breeding as genetically modifying however, because scientists aren’t altering the DNA on a microscopic level; they are simply counting on nature to mix genes in a certain way if they force Dog A to breed with Dog B. This is usually called “hybridization” and is generally accepted by most people. Pluots are an example of a hybridized fruit – they are a cross between a plum and an apricot. Grapefruits are also hybrids, resulting from a pummelo (a type of citrus) being crossed with a sweet orange.

So what makes a GMO different from a hybrid? Well, basically, GMOs are created in a laboratory. Instead of breeding two existing things, scientists manually go on and turn genes on or off OR they add or remove bits of DNA from an organism. When this organism reproduces, its offspring will carry on the modified genes. A popular example of a GMO crop is Round-Up ready corn. This corn had a gene introduced to make it tolerant to glyphosate (the active component of the herbicide Round-Up). Another example is Golden Rice, which is rice that is engineered to contain more Vitamin A than normal rice (not yet available on the market).

Pro-GMO VS. Anti-GMO

Listed below are some common arguments made by both those who are pro-GMO and those who are anti-GMO.

Pro-GMO Anti-GMO
We are using science to innovate – how is that a bad thing? It’s ethically wrong to modify genes – that is disturbing what is “natural”
We can engineer crops to make them more resistant to drought, pests, and other stuff, thereby increasing yields GMO crops haven’t been adequately studied in humans, and some animal research shows that they might be harmful.
We can make crops more nutritious (i.e. Golden Rice increasing Vitamin A) GMOs could lead to super-bugs and super- weeds that are resistant to known methods of bug and weed control.
GMOs that are resistant to pests have led to less pesticide use. GMOs could affect the human microbiome by introducing or feeding different strains of bacteria than historical crops
There’s no conclusive evidence to show that GMOs are harmful to human health GMOs that are resistant to herbicides have led to more herbicide use.
  Loss of biodiversity – monocrops cause loss of the wide variety of crops that can be grown, limiting other animals/bugs as well.

Both sides are wrong. In my opinion.

My Questions for the World

Shouldn’t the type of GMO matter? I’m pretty sure that GMOs that make crops produce antibiotics are a TERRIBLE idea (thankfully, these aren’t on the market yet, though the idea has been proposed). So are GMOs that encourage excessive spraying of herbicides (i.e. Round-Up Ready Corn). But I’m not so quick to dismiss the idea of more nutritious versions of rice or drought-resistant plants.

Shouldn’t we ALWAYS have testing? The fact that some GMOs were approved with very little independent testing is a travesty, because we should always test things that people are going to eat. Everybody should agree on that.

Shouldn’t we try to improve things with science? I don’t really have a problem with the idea of genetically modifying stuff. Experimentation is good, and innovation is good.

Shouldn’t we handle GMOs on a case-by-case basis? It doesn’t make sense to me to lump them all under the same umbrella – each genetic modification is unique. Some may be harmful, while others may be beneficial. That’s like saying “berries are poisonous.” Sure, some berries are poisonous, but other berries are delicious.

With that in mind, let’s examine the currently available GMO crops:

Currently Available GMO Crops

THERE ARE ONLY 11 GMO CROPS ON THE MARKET.

Yes, 11. Ten if you count “sweet corn” and “field corn” as the same crops.

So when you see “non-GMO flour” or “non-GMO canned beans” you should laugh, and you definitely shouldn’t pay more money for the product. Because there’s no such thing as commercially available GMO flour or GMO beans – at least not yet.

Below is a list of currently available GMO crops, what they have been engineered to do, and the pros and cons of the engineering.

Alfalfa

Trait: Herbicide tolerant. This means that alfalfa fields can be sprayed extensively with herbicides (specifically glyphosate) without being affected by the glyphosate. Therefore, they are sprayed with lots of glyphosate.

Company/Brand: Monsanto/Bayer (owns “Round-Up” herbicide).

Identification: Pretty much all alfalfa grown in the US is GMO unless otherwise specified

Pros: Spraying lots of herbicides makes farming easier and mono-crops with high yields possible. Glyphosate is also less hazardous to human health than some of the herbicides used before the advent of GMOs.

Cons: More herbicides, particularly glyphosate, which research shows causes cancer and other health problems. Glyphosate also has a damaging effect on beneficial bacteria and earthworms in the soil and pollutes both soil and water. I’ll probably do a full post on glyphosate at some point because there’s a lot of controversy and misinformation on both sides, and the jury is still out on exactly what glyphosate does to human health. However, one thing is clear: it’s not good for the environment, and there seems to be a particular risk to the farmers (and groundskeepers) who have to handle the stuff – far more so than the risk to consumers.

Jess’s Verdict: Since I am anti-glyphosate (MUCH more information to come in a future post), I am going to avoid this GMO. 

But I’m not avoiding it because it’s genetically modified; I’m avoiding it because it encourages heavy herbicide use.

Apples (Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Fuji. The company is working developing Gala and other fruits).

A photo of the wide variety of apples at my market.
My grocery store doesn’t carry Arctic apples, but Arctic does make many of these varieties.

Trait: Non-Browning. When you slice these apples, they don’t turn brown the way regular apples do. This is done by making the apples produce less polyphenols (plant enzyme) than conventional apples. The scientists insert a gene that ‘turns off’ the gene that makes the polyphenols. No other aspect of the fruit is affected.

Company/Brand: Arctic, owned by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, a small biotech company based on Canada.

Identification: The Arctic company has pledged to make their apples easily identifiable, so if you don’t see the Arctic label, you are not eating an Arctic apple.

Pros: The apples don’t bruise easily, which makes transportation easier and prevents food waste, and can stay pretty when cut up, which might make them more appealing to kids.

Cons: Polyphenols are really good for you, and are potent antioxidants. By turning off production of these, Arctic’s engineers MAY be making the apples slightly less nutritious.

Jess’s Verdict: Meh? I see nothing wrong with these apples, from a health standpoint…but I don’t need apples that don’t bruise/brown. I don’t CARE if my apples go brown after I cut them, and I get most of them locally so transportation isn’t really an issue for me. This seems like a dumb GMO, but not an inherently problematic one.

Canola

A large jug of canola oil - yuck!
A big jug of canola oil – ICK!

Trait: Herbicide tolerant (see ‘Alfalfa’)

Company/Brand: Monsanto/Bayer (owns “Round-Up” herbicide).

Identification: Pretty much all canola grown in the US is GMO unless otherwise specified

Pros & Cons: See ‘Alfalfa’

Jess’s Verdict: I don’t eat canola anyway because canola oil is terrible for you, but if I did, I would avoid this one, for reasons I already specified.

Corn, Field

A container of cheap cornmeal.
Some cornmeal that is probably GMO.

Trait: Herbicide tolerant (See ‘Alfalfa’)

Trait: Insect resistant. Known as Bt corn, this GMO produces the Bt toxin, which kills caterpillar larva. The Bt toxin works by binding to the gut wall of the larva after ingestion. It breaks down the gut wall, and the insect dies. This toxin is considered safe for humans, mammals, and bees. However, animal studies have shown that it may be an allergen and possible contributor to autoimmune disease in some people. This hasn’t been tested in humans though, and I wouldn’t consider the animal studies conclusive – we need a LOT more research for me to take a stance one way or the other. It’s also important to note that farmers commonly spray their crops with Bt toxin in the form of pesticides, so if the Bt toxin is a health problem, then both GMO and non-GMO conventionally grown products could be contributing to it.

Trait: Drought resistant. This is done by inserting a gene from a particular bacteria into the corn. Introduced in 2013, it is a relatively new thing, and I couldn’t find much information about it. It looks like it is more expensive than regular corn and ONLY provides a benefit in drought conditions – so if the crops are irrigated or well watered (i.e. most corn in America), it wouldn’t have an effect. It could be super useful in other countries though.

Company/Brand: Monsanto/Bayer for all of the above traits/types of GMO corn. Some other companies have developed drought resistant corn, but those companies don’t have products in the US.

Identification: 90% of field corn grown in the US is GMO. Field corn is used for animal feed, processed corn products (like corn oil and high fructose corn syrup), and alcohol.

Pros: Drought resistant and Bt corn can both help increase crop yields. Bt corn can lessen spraying of pesticides.

Cons: Cons for herbicide tolerant corn same as all the other herbicide tolerant ones. See “alfalfa”.

Some scientists question the safety of Bt corn, especially due to the prevalence of corn in the American diet and it’s presence in fetal tissue. Some also say that it can be an allergen, and that it is worse than spraying pesticides because it can’t be washed off of the produce. I can’t find enough peer-reviewed research to make a conclusive decision on Bt-corn, but I would err on the side of caution and avoid it until they can address some of hte concerns.

Jess’s Verdict: Avoid. I am definitely going to choose to avoid herbicide tolerant corn (when possible), for the reasons listed above. Since it’s impossible to tell WHICH GMO corn you are buying, that means avoiding all GMO corn. I would not have a problem with drought resistant corn (unless somebody can show me science to convince me otherwise). I would like to see more studies on Bt corn before I approve it, but if it is truly harmless to bees and animals, then I would actually support this. If it’s an allergen, then I wouldn’t. Needs more research!

Corn, Sweet

Same properties as Field Corn, except the ‘drought resistant’ variety is not available.

Cotton

Trait: Insect resistant. (see “Field Corn”)

Trait: Herbicide tolerant. (see “Alfalfa”)

Identification: Most non-organic cotton is GMO cotton. In fact, cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in existence.

Jess’s Verdict: Avoid.

Papaya, Rainbow

Sad looking papayas at my grocery store.
These are some sad looking papayas, and they aren’t GMO, but it’s all my grocery store carries. I “avoid” GMO papayas because I cant find them! Or any decent papayas for that matter……

Trait: Disease resistant. Scientists inserted a gene that codes for a specific protein into the papaya. The protein “coats” the papaya ring-spot virus, making it harmless to the papaya.

Company/Brand: Unknown. Developed by the University of Hawaii in conjunction with Cornell University.

Identification: Pretty much all Hawaii-grown papayas, particularly the Rainbow, Sunup, and Sunrise varieties

Pros: This GMO cropped saved the Hawaiian papaya industry. It allows for a lot more production and less wasted, disease-ridden crops. There are no negative health outcomes, and looking at the mechanism used, I find it HIGHLY UNLIKELY that there is anything hazardous about this GMO. Pro-GMO advocates point to the amount of papayas lost to the virus before the invention of the GMO papaya.

Cons: This strain of seed is very virulent, and has contaminated organic (non-GMO) papaya crops, as well as other strains of papaya. This is not a good sign for biodiversity, and sparks some environmental concerns. Anti-GMO proponents say that with proper soil amendments and sustainable farming techniques, the ring-spot virus isn’t a problem.

Jess’s Verdict: Eat it!This is not a GMO crop that I am worried about. I like biodiversity and I like the idea of looking for ways to preserve heirloom papayas and practicing more sustainable farming practices, but I don’t see any reason this crop is harmful to human health. Plus, I think it’s GREAT that we have lots of papayas available in stores due to the disease-resistant crops.

Potato

A bin of russet potatoes.
These are russet potatoes. They aren’t a GMO variety, but the GMO varieties look very similar.

Trait: Non-browning. This is done the same way that apples are produced to be non-browning

Trait: Low acrylamide. By decreasing the production of the amino acid asparagine, scientists also decrease the production of acrylamide. Acrylamide is a carcinogen that forms (in small quantities) when potatoes are fried.

Traits: Blight resistant. These potatoes are engineered to contain a gene from wild South American potatoes that makes them resistant to late-blight, a common potato disease.

Company/Brand: J.R. Simplot

Identification: “White Russett”, “Russett Burbank,” “Ranger Russett,” and “Atlantic” varieties of Innate brand potatoes.

Pros: Non-browning traits prevent food waste. Acrylamide is a carcinogen that forms when potatoes are fried in hot oil, so lowering acrylamide reduces carcinogens in product like French Frys. Blight resistance helps improve crop yields and prevent the spraying of fungicides on crops.

Cons: I would say none from the surface research, except that the scientist who invented these potatoes wrote a book, (Pandora’s Potatoes, on why GMO crops are terrible and nobody should eat GMO potatoes. He claims that the gene they “turn off” to create the GMO potato causes the accumulation of toxins within the potato. He also raises concerns that the edited genes can affect bees. Read an interview with him here  and an article by him here.
Additionally, anti-GMO advocates point out that some varieties of non-GMO potatoes are equally as blight resistant as the GMO ones.

Jess’s Verdict: Honestly? I don’t know. The fact that the guy who invented these potatoes is advocating against this makes me nervous. However, blight resistance is a really great trait to have definitely want to see more research on this, but when the guy who invented it starts advocating against it…I’m concerned. I’d like to see studies addressing his concerns, and I’d like to read his book. If we can prove that GMO potatoes are safe, then I am fine with them

Soy

Soy milk
Soy milk – Eeeew. Don’t forget that soy is also used as a filler in many processed foods.

Traits: Herbicide Tolerant & Insect resistant (see “field corn”)

Company: Monsanto, Dupont, and various other chemical companies

Jess’s Verdict: Avoid.

Sugar Beet

Can of sugar
Sugar – the most popular way people consume GMOs!

Traits: Herbicide Tolerant (see other crops).

Verdict: Avoid

Summer Squash

A shelf of zucchini at my local grocery store.
Some zucchini squash at my local grocery store. I have no idea if it is GMO or not – it is not labeled one way or the other.

Trait: Disease resistant. Yellow summer squash and zucchini squash have been engineered to be resistant to the cucumber mosaic virus, yellow mosaic virus, and watermelon mottle virus 2. This uses the same mechanism as the disease-resistant papaya – “coat proteins” that neutralize the virus.

Company: Asgrow Seed Company

Identification: GMO squash is not grown by very many farmers, but it is not obvious what is GMO and what is not.

Pros: Disease resistance is good because it can improve crop yields and prevent farmers from needing to use chemicals to treat the disease.

Cons: If a squash plant gets one virus, it typically gets a whole bunch of viruses. This means that the GMO squash plants aren’t very useful – a farmer will probably have to treat viruses anyway, making the higher cost of GMO seed pointless. This is why GMO squash is relatively uncommon. Additionally, some scientists are concerned that the disease resistant traits will spread to wild squash plants, creating super weeds, or lead to the rise of super-viruses.

Jess’s Verdict: Eat it! I’m not concerned about this plant from a human-health standpoint, so I am not concerned about consuming it. However, it may be cost prohibitive to the farmer, since it only protects against three of many squash viruses. The benefits and risks of growing this GMO seed is something the farmer will have to consider and decide upon.

In Summary

Notice how most of these crops are basically engineered so more herbicides can be sprayed on them? I would avoid GMO corn, soy, cotton, sugar beets (sugar), alfalfa, and canola for this reason (I don’t eat canola anyway, but still). Unsurprisingly, these GMOs were all developed and owned by the chemical companies who manufacture herbicides.

I’m willing to consider GMOs raised for other purposes. However, of what is currently available, only the papaya and summer squash seem to have been well-tested and fully acceptable. The potatoes have potential, but I’d like to address the concerns expressed by the potato developer before I agree to eat them.

Current Labeling Practices

The non-GMO project label above verifies that the product is non-GMO. In this case, the label is redundant, since the product also contains the USDA organic label. By definition, an organic product CANNOT be GMO.

GMO labeling is increasing, and organic food, by definition, cannot be GMO. This makes it relatively easy (albeit expensive) to avoid GMOs if you want to.

However, it is worth noting that there are only 11 GMOs on the market and most of these GMOs are plants that are mostly used for animal feed and fillers in processed food. If you’re not eating processed food, you’re probably not eating that many GMOs anyway.

Don’t pay an inflated price for a product that is non-GMO if the product wouldn’t contain GMOs anyway!

What About Animal Feed?

Many of the common GMO crops – particularly alfalfa, soy, and corn – are primarily used as animal feed. Does this affect the animal products?

Theoretically, any trace of the modified genes would be broken down in the animal’s digestive tract and would not affect humans eating the animal’s meat or other products. Nutritionally, GMO-fed and non-GMO-fed meat is identical and animals experience similar growth rates on GMO and non-GMO feed.

However, studies have shown that this is not exactly the case in regards to Bt crops, where Bt toxin has been found in animal tissues. Some studies have shown other physiological changes as a result of eating GMO feed. However, it is unclear whether or not this is a human health concern because some scientists say that the fragments found in the meat are too small to have any impact on consumers.

Additionally, a lot of the concern with Round-Up Ready GMOs is the affect on the environment and on the health of the farmers who spray Round-Up, not the person eating the food. These issues are the same whether the crops are used for animal or human feed.

Do I Avoid GMOs?

Nope.

But I do try to avoid Round-up Ready crops, which happens to be most of the GMOs currently on the market. I don’t go postal if I eat a GMO though – a little GMO sugar won’t kill me, I just would prefer to avoid it for the sake the environment and general public health.

Oh, and I also avoid things that are potentially harmful to human health and under investigation – i.e. Bt corn.

And I’m not going to pay extra for apples that don’t turn brown, because that’s dumb.

And I grow most of my own summer squash, and don’t buy GMO squash seeds because they are only available to commercial growers.

I don’t remember the last time I bought a papaya…

So I guess I do avoid GMOs…but not specifically because they are GMOs.

My point? I’m not going to avoid something JUST BECAUSE scientists tried to make innovations using genetic engineering. That’s short-sighted.

I AM going to avoid something if it’s engineered to do something bad, or if research suggests it might be harmful. That’s just common sense.

You will have to decide for yourself which GMO products you are okay with, if any, but I urge you to exercise common sense and look at each product individually.

Please don’t just lump everything into blanket categories and scream “GMOS ARE SCIENCE AND ARE ALWAYS AMAZING” or “GMOS ARE EVIL AND KILL PEOPLE!” Because both of those statements are silly. Do the research and make an educated decision.

There’s a whole bunch of GMOs under production that haven’t hit US markets yet, including rice, salmon, tomatoes, and more. I haven’t investigated these yet because…well, they aren’t available, so what’s the point? But if/when they come out, I’ll let you know what I think of them. 🙂

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