Are GMOs Good or Bad for Your Health?

Genetically modified foods (GMOs) are highly controversial. With so many people debating the pros and cons, it’s hard to know what to think. So i’d like to offer a few thoughts on the subject.

Despite the debate, GMOs are found in all sorts of food products — often without labels. And therein lies a big problem. If so many people are concerned about GMOs, it’s important to know what foods or products actually contain them.

What is a Genetically Modified (GMO) Food?

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.”

Generally speaking, the term is reserved for foods whose genes have been changed using biotechnology.

Here are some examples of genetically modified (GMO) foods:

  • Herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans: Corn and Soybeans were modified to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate, found in Roundup. This allows farmers to spray their fields with powerful herbicides to kill off weeds.
  • Virus-resistant papaya: In Hawaii, papaya was genetically modified to be able to withstand the ringspot virus.
  • Golden rice: Swiss scientists developed golden rice, a type of yellow rice that produces beta-carotene, an antioxidant that the body can turn into vitamin A.

Other crops that are often genetically modified include rapeseeds (used to make canola oil) and cottonseeds.

The general idea is that scientists are able to produce new varieties of plants with certain qualities, such as being more resistant to viruses or pesticides. And contrary to popular belief, these scientists are actually trying to help rather than harm.

For example… Vitamin A deficiency causes up to 500 thousand cases of blindness in children every year. And that’s why humanitarian and plant scientist Ingo Potrykus, co-invented genetically modified rice known as “Golden Rice”.

This GMO rice is designed to produce beta carotene in its seeds, thanks to genetic instructions that scientists added to the rice from a daffodil, pea, bacterium and virus.

Unfortunately, even though Potrykus finished his project about 15  years ago and made the seeds available for free to subsistence farmers around the world, malnourished children still can’t get golden rice.

So here we have a cheap, nutritious crop. Seven years of extensive scientific research. An invention that could completely eliminate an unnecessary epidemic. And that simple invention can’t reach the people who need it.

But GMOs are Evil…

I know. I get it. There is absolutely something wrong with fish mated with cantaloupe! Rice with eyeballs! Wheat that makes you grow a tail! Frankenfoods! Island of Dr. Moreau!

Monsanto is out to get us!!!

The whole issue has become synonymous with unchecked power, unethical tinkering, Monsanto corp, pesticides, contamination, and greed.

I really do get it. Nobody loves giant evil conspiracies (except for super villains).  But this is real life. There are no superheroes and super villains. The truth, as usual, is much more complex. And less diabolical.

When it comes to GMOs, scientists — who are just highly educated regular folks, by the way, and rarely malevolent geniuses — are mostly working toward innovations in genetics that:

  • fight disease;
  • fight hunger and malnutrition;
  • improve animal and crop breeding practices; and
  • potentially even save lives.

Of course, scientists haven’t been all that great at explaining this to the average person. (That’s what happens when you’re sequestered all day at a fluorescent-lit lab bench trying to splice DNA from fungi or whatever, along with writing grant proposals.).

If GMOs creep you out, you’re not alone!

A growing team of anti-GMO activists — including hundreds of reputable advocacy groups, state legislators, and big-name chains like Chipotle, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s — are questioning the safety of GMOs.

They say GM foods could cause major health problems like tumors, liver toxicity, allergic reactions, and death.

So it’s no surprise that over half of the U.S. public said genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat in a recent survey from Pew Research Center. One-quarter of those surveyed said they check product labels for GMOs every single time they shop.

GMOs sound scary and evil.

But do people really even know what they are? Or how they work?

First… You’ve Been Eating GMOs for a Long Time

The amount of GMO food on the market is increasing worldwide.

However, the exact amount of GMOs you may be eating is difficult to estimate. This is because these foods are not always labeled as such.

In the US, GMO foods do not need to be labeled. Conversely, the European Union requires all GMOs to be labeled.

There are actually far fewer GMO foods available in Europe. These foods are much more readily available in US markets.

About 70–90% of GMO crops are used to feed livestock, and more than 95% of all food-producing animals in the US consume GMO feed.

If you eat soybeans, especially processed soy products, it is likely that they come from a GMO crop. More than 90% of all soybeans are genetically modified.

Keep in mind that soy, corn and canola are incredibly common in processed foods in the US. If you eat processed food, then you are almost definitely eating some genetically modified ingredients.

Here’s a list of 20 GMO foods you’ve been ingesting:

  • Aspartame
  • Corn
  • Sugar Beets
  • HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup)
  • Soy (lecithin)
  • Corn Startch
  • Tomatoes
  • Sausage
  • Ice Cream
  • Non Organic or Synthetic Vitamins
  • Infant Formula
  • Beef (fed alfalfa, corn and soy)
  • Milk
  • Alfalfa
  • Vegetable Oil
  • Canola Oil
  • Margarine or Shortening
  • Hawaiian Papaya
  • Squash
  • Flax

Second… The Majority of GMOs are not Foods

The vast majority of GMOs aren’t crops like corn and soy, but rather mice, bacteria, and viruses used to investigate diseases and cures in labs all over the world.

As a molecular biologist, I’ve worked with hundreds of GM bacteria, hundreds of GM yeasts and one GM mouse. They’ve helped me understand how nerves fire, how damaged nerves fix themselves, and, from there, how we might develop treatments for various neurological conditions.

Genetically modifying microorganisms has led to some of the most revolutionary, life-saving medicines of our time:

  • If you have type 1 diabetes, GM bacteria made your insulin cheap, safe, and accessible.
  • If you’ve suffered from a genetic growth disorder such as Turner’s syndrome or short bowel syndrome, GM bacteria made the Human Growth Hormone injections that help regulate your growth.
  • If you’re a hemophiliac, I’m sure you feel much safer with your treatment coming from GMO rather than from blood donations. Cells in a lab dish made recombinant human factor VIII.
  • If you ever suffer a stroke or heart attack, you might be treated with medication made by tissue plasminogen activator, a cellular GMO.
  • If you have multiple sclerosis, you’re perhaps thankful for interferon, also made by a cellular GMO.
  • If you have cystic fibrosis, the enzyme you take, Dornase alfa, is made by a GMO.
  • Undergoing chemotherapy for cancer? Two GMO drugs that help your bone marrow and blood counts are Erythropoietin (EPO — yes, that EPO) and granulocyte-colony stimulating factor (G-CSF or GCSF).
  • Lactose intolerant and taken lactase? It comes from GMOs thanks to genes from either a fungus or a yeast.
  • If (heaven forbid) you ever contract Ebola, you’ll be beyond grateful forZMap, a collection of antibodies grown from GM tobacco infected by GM viruses.

In the end, it’s kind of a shame that the debate over GM crops has led the general public to brand everything “genetically modified” as bad. Because GM crops only represent a teeny, tiny percent of what’s happening in the GM universe, most of which is geared toward helping people and saving lives.

This is why everything needs to be taken into context with everything else. The worst kind of decision, is an absolute decision.

Third… There is Little Evidence Suggesting GMOs Cause Harm in Humans

GMO foods cannot be generalized as either healthy or unhealthy.

It depends entirely on individual genetically modified crops, which should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Some people have pointed out that transferring a gene from an allergenic food crop, such as peanuts, could make the GMO food allergenic as well. While this is a possibility, safety testing should prevent such products from going on the market.

That being said, the risks associated with GMO foods are considered to be very low. They are no greater than those arising from traditional genetic manipulation through selective breeding.

To date, there is no evidence suggesting that GMOs cause harm in humans and there are over 1500 scientific studies demonstrating safety. In fact, GMO crops are the most studied crops in history and approx 5% of the safety studies show adverse effects.

Yet, despite the general lack of evidence against GMO foods, there is considerable public opposition to them and the debate continues.

This may be partly due to general distrust of biotech companies. There is also a potential conflict of interest in many scientific studies.

Because here’s reality: While most scientists believe GM foods are probably safe, science will never prove it 100 percent unequivocally. 

The answer is much more complicated than “yes or no,” “pro- or anti-.” 

We need to get beyond that, to stop throwing studies at each other.

Nothing can be proved to be absolutely unequivocally safe. Pick anything, and somebody has died from it.

So let’s explore the grown-up questions and gray areas, and think about what trade-offs we’re willing to make, in a scientifically informed and literate way.

For instance:

  • What aspects of GM technology could be really good for the world? Why?
  • Which aspects should we be cautious about? Why?
  • What do we know to be true (or is probably true), and what is speculation? What’s the evidence?
  • How much is our discomfort with the unfamiliar driving the fears?
  • Are we correctly assessing risk and reward?
  • What’s an acceptable level of risk to get the benefits?

As a scientist, I would love people to embrace science, evidence, and the joy of discovery. Scientists grapple with some very difficult and complex questions. And most of them just want to make the world a better place.

Fourth… The Herbicide Glyphosate (Roundup) May Cause Harm

Even though there is no good evidence showing that GMO foods themselves are unsafe, there are some other factors to consider.

A few animal studies suggest that herbicide-resistant crops sprayed with glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide) may cause adverse effects.

A notable study from 2012 showed that GMO corn that had been sprayed with glyphosate promoted the formation of cancerous tumors in rats.

The authors suggested that the tumors were a result of the toxic effects of glyphosate and/or the genetic modification itself.

The results of the study were controversial and heavily debated. In fact, the original paper was retracted, but published in a different journal later the same year.

A few other animal studies and test-tube experiments have found signs of adverse effects when testing GMO corn and soybeans sprayed with glyphosate.

These studies suggest that trace amounts of the herbicide may be causing harm, rather than the genetic modification itself.

While GMO foods themselves cannot be classified as unhealthy, other related factors may cause adverse effects. The herbicide glyphosate (Roundup), which is sprayed on some GMO crops, may be harmful to health.)



Take Home Message & What to Do

The available evidence indicates that GMO food is not harmful to human health.

However, the health effects of spraying GMO crops with the herbicide glyphosate is still a matter of debate.

Nonetheless, there is no good evidence that genetic modification itself causes foods to become unhealthy or toxic.

Short of going back to school for a Ph.D. in biology, what can you do right now?

1. Elevate your thinking game.

Almost no scientific question is about good versus evil. Even spacetime bends occasionally. Recognize that issues are complex and there is rarely a black or white answer.

2. Be a critical consumer, learner, and listener.

Contrary to what the mainstream media might lead you to believe, the biggest threats posed by GMO crops on the market today are not to your individual health, and they’re not even specific to GMOs.

Picking a side — and assuming the other side is unreasonable — makes real communication impossible. Scientific findings presented as the “final word” are probably being misinterpreted; be wary of anyone who tells you something is “100 percent true” about GMOs.

Even as sciencey folks ourselves, we’re not going to give you The Big Definitive Answer either. Because there isn’t one.

3. Address specific issues. Don’t mix them up.

With GMOs and other food safety and regulatory issues, it’s important to think critically about our concerns.

Are you against pesticides? Great! But that’s different from being against GMOs, and to focus on GMOs here is to ask the wrong questions.

Want GM foods to be labeled as such? Great! But the importance of food labeling goes way beyond GMOs.

Worried about large companies controlling our food? I get that. Be against Big Food, not GMOs.
Both conventional farming and GMOs use herbicides and pesticides, narrow the genetics pool, and increase the risk of catastrophic loss of crops. Conflating these issues means change will never happen.

4. Focus on the big picture and real-life priorities.

The fourth-largest cause of death in the United States is accidents. Wearing your seat belt will lower your risk of early death much more than worrying about GMOs. (And quit texting and driving. You know who you are.)

Other leading causes of death are largely due to the toxic combination of sedentary lifestyles, stress, and poor nutrition. Never mind GM vegetables — people aren’t eating vegetables, period.

So start with the key behaviors that will really make a difference.

5. Keep things sane and sensible.

The world, in general, can feel scary. Things we don’t understand can feel even more so.
Control what you can control, as best you can.

Make the best choices as consistently as possible, as well as possible.