Are GMOs Safe to Eat? Yes and No
What Is a GMO?
GMO stands for "genetically modified organisms." There are disagreements as to what is considered a GMO; most agree it is a food, whether it be a plant or an animal that has had its genetic make-up altered from its original state.
For thousands of years, humans have purposely selected seeds that were from ideal crops and replanted them over and over, ultimately changing the original plant into a more appealing fruit or vegetable. For example, the corn we eat today is not the same corn that grew three thousand years ago. Through selective planting and breeding, we now can enjoy juicy plump yellow kernels on the cob or the choicest meat. People would purposely breed the most ideal animals in order to get better meat.
In the past forty years, scientists have learned how to speed up this process by modifying the DNA of a plant or animal through the use of chemicals or radiation, then selectively choose which spawn to plant or breed. They may also use a gene from a different plant, bacteria, or virus and place it into food to get a more desired product. It is these changes that are most often thought of as GMOs.
The reason for genetically modifying a plant is to make it beneficial or more appealing to the consumer. Sometimes plants are modified to make them resistant to disease or bugs, better-adapted to colder climates, capable of maintaining ripeness for more extended periods or increasing its nutritional value. Some GMOs are packed with vitamins and minerals to boost the health benefits. Others, like potatoes, are created to bruise less easily, as well as reduce the cancer-causing chemicals from being created when turned into french fries.
Do You Believe GMOs Are Bad For Your Health?
How Are They Made?
Genetic engineering occurs when a new DNA base sequence is inserted into a chromosomal DNA of an organism. The base sequence needs to be added in just the right spot for it to make sense in the DNA sequence for it to have the intended benefit and be recognized in the gene. Or, more simply put, genetic material from one organism is transferred to the genome of another.
DNA may also be spliced together by adding a modified viral DNA to normal viral proteins to make a pseudo-virus that infects the cells and inserts the new DNA into the gene, without making a new virus. Engineers can either splice a single cell at the beginning phase of an organism or a germ cell (sperm or egg). Once it is done to one cell, as it replicates, the new DNA sequence will continue to replicate, making a new organism. This method will not necessarily pass the new altered trait to the next generation, to do that, chromosomal modifications need to occur. Soy, corn and cotton remain the most frequently modified foods in the United States according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Why Do People Think They Are Bad for You?
In the survey done by Pew Research Center in 2015, they found that more than half of United States adults believe that GMOs are harmful, even though 90 percent of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe they are "generally safe" to eat.
Yet anytime a new technology occurs, we need to not only look at the benefits to our society but also what could go wrong. Some fears that people have are that:
- Genetically engineered plants may spread to other fields of heirloom produce, causing them to lose the original.
- Genetically engineered animals mate with non-engineered animals and produce altered offspring.
- Humans contract an animal virus that is used to modify the chromosomes of an animal for certain benefits.
- Unknown allergens are added to a product that risks the lives of people with severe allergies, such as a nut trait in another vegetable.
- Modified DNA alters a person's own DNA (addressed later in the article.)
- There are too many unknowns that could arise that have not yet been tested.
Before GMOs, chemicals and radiation were used to modify food to have certain traits. Some do consider this to be a GMO food, while others disagree. Ironically, radiation and chemicals used have not had as much controversy as the idea of genetic modification occurring because people are less familiar with that method. These methods have been used on thousands of crops over the past sixty years and are still used today.
Do You Try to Avoid GMOs
Are They Bad for You?
Most scientists agree that GMOs are not bad for us. Changes in genes happen through natural means all the time. The theory behind evolution is based on this phenomenon. Therefore, even the items we eat today that are not genetically engineered are not the same foods eaten thousands of years ago. Few people question the safety of the items that have naturally changed over the years, but the purposeful changing of DNA makes people nervous.
The American Medical Association has deemed genetically modified foods as safe. They have been monitoring the health of humans as a result of GMOs for twenty years, and have seen no clear impacts found in any professional journals. Yet despite all the evidence supporting the safety of GMOs, there are still a few medical professionals and scientists who are suspicious of them and continue to study the effects on humans.
How Does the FDA Protect Us Against Harmful GMOs?
Fortunately, the FDA does monitor that what is sold in the United States is safe to eat, to some degree. They use the Plant Biotechnology Consultation Program to track foods that are being engineered and making sure that they are adequately tested. Their scientists will compare the genetically engineered food to the original to see if it is nutritionally different, genetically harmful, etc. For instance, a soybean that is enriched with a nut could cause people who are not allergic to soybeans to have a strong adverse reaction to it due to a nut allergy. They protect us against those types of errors.
The FDA also makes sure that the impact on the environment is safe through the National Environmental Policy Act. They want to assure that animals that have been genetically modified will not spread disease. Often they will make sure modified animals will not be introduced to non-modified animals. They want to assure that the animals are not accidentally bred together, which may result in unknown adverse effects. These animals are often sterile to help prevent this from happening, as well.
How Can We Make Sure Our Food Is Not Genetically Modified?
Unless the FDA has approved a GMO food, they are not allowed to be sold within the United States, which is the same as all the other food we eat. At this time, the United States does not need to label them as GMO foods, although China, Australia, and the European Union are required to, which may change soon as many states have considered passing labeling laws. Unfortunately, there is a lot of opposition. Currently, there is only voluntary labeling within the US.
Unfortunately, even if there were labeling laws, there are a lot of gray areas as to what should be considered genetically modified. The only items at this time that we can be confident have not been artificially modified are unprocessed foods labeled "certified organic" or "USDA organic." Unfortunately, this label is allowed on genes that were initially altered by chemicals or radiation.
There is a nonprofit organization called the Non-GMO Project that has found 1,900 brands that they can confidently label "non-GMO" and "GMO-free." If you want to assure that your item is not genetically modified, look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. Other companies that label are Sprouts Farmers Market, Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and The Fresh Market, all of which are grocery stores.
Can GMOs Be Good for Your Health?
The intention of GMOs is for the betterment of society, whether it be for health, sale, or other reasons. Many of the modifications made were so that they would improve the nutrition in the foods, whether by making them free of viruses, resistant to bugs so they would not need pesticides, remain riper longer, or add vitamins to them.
Even the meat we buy may have been altered to produce cows/chicken/fish/etc. that have more omega-3-fatty acids. Eating the meat will help protect you from heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers, among other diseases. Biotech companies are also increasing vitamin and mineral content in many crops to make them more nutritious and help protect against viruses, especially the antioxidant level.
Some companies are trying to reduce potential allergens, such as making gluten-free wheat, so that way, the grain does not cause an auto-immune problem to those who are sensitive.
So theoretically, GMOs could be good for your health, assuming there is no unintended health detriment that is more severe than the good it does for our body.
Can They Change Your DNA?
One of the biggest misconceptions is that by eating GMO food that you may become genetically modified yourself. Our DNA cannot be changed by what we eat. Our health can, but essentially the DNA that already exists in our body cannot be altered through eating GMO food.
Even if it could, our bodies are designed to prevent such changes, due to bacteria-fighting enzymes in our digestive system. Also, if they survived these bacteria, they would need to be enough like our own DNA and attach to just the right spot to make any impact. If that could happen, it would be just as likely to happen to the healthy foods you eat that have not been genetically modified since they too have DNA of their own that is foreign to us.
Currently, about eighty percent of the foods in the United States that are processed contain GMOs. Essentially, it is challenging to escape them. Yet, just as anytime a new technology is introduced, we need to not only look at the benefits it brings to our society but also the potential risk factors. Although I am unwilling to say they are unsafe for us, I am also reluctant to say they are entirely safe for us either, as I believe there are way too many unknowns. We should proceed with caution as this or any other new technology develops.
- Diehl, Paul. "What Exactly Is a GMO? How Do You Make One?" The Balance. Accessed April 08, 2018. https://www.thebalance.com/what-are-gmos-and-how-are-they-made-375620.
- RD, Janet Renee MS. "Benefits You Get From a GMO." LIVESTRONG.COM. October 03, 2017. Accessed April 08, 2018. https://www.livestrong.com/article/195435-benefits-you-get-from-a-gmo/.
- Siegel, Kate. "What You Need to Know About GMOs." WebMD. Accessed April 08, 2018. https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/truth-about-gmos
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2018 Angela Michelle Schultz