Genetically Modified Foods, Nothing To Fear

Genetically modified crops (GMOs or genetically modified organisms) have existed for thousands of years, but now that we know how to splice genes in the laboratory, there is concern over food safety. Much of that concern is unwarranted. Nevertheless, there are campaigns to require product labeling when some foodstuffs contain GMOs. (See a story about such a campaign in Tucson here.) The food industry is generally against that requirement for two reasons: 1) it implies that the produce is somehow inferior to non-modified foods, and 2) costs; it could require companies to have separate processing lines for GMO and non-GMO foods.

Humans have been genetically modifying food crops for a long time. Ever hear of teosinte? It is a grass that grows in Mexico and Central America. Many thousands of years ago, farmers began selecting the seeds from certain individual teosinte plants that favored larger seeds or kernels and planted theses larger seeds to encourage the trait. This process is known as selective breeding or artificial selection. Eventually the plant became known as maize (corn). The maize or corn cob looks nothing like the original plant but, according to the University of Utah,  “at the DNA level, the two are surprisingly alike. They have the same number of chromosomes and a remarkably similar arrangement of genes. In fact, teosinte can cross-breed with modern maize varieties to form maize-teosinte hybrids that can go on to reproduce naturally.”

Beginning in the 1950s, Norman Borlaug, so-called father of the Green Revolution, took selective breeding to new heights. His work helped save millions of lives. An article in Forbes Magazine recounts the story:

“First, he and his colleagues laboriously crossbred thousands of wheat varieties from around the world to produce some new ones with resistance to rust, a destructive plant pest; this raised yields 20% to 40%.

“Second, he crafted so-called dwarf wheat varieties, which were smaller than the old shoulder-high varieties that bent in the wind and touched the ground (thereby becoming unharvestable); the new waist or knee-high dwarfs stayed erect and held up huge loads of grain. The yields were boosted even further.

“Third, he devised an ingenious technique called “shuttle breeding”– growing two successive plantings each year, instead of the usual one, in different regions of Mexico. The availability of two test generations of wheat each year cut by half the years required for breeding new varieties. Moreover, because the two regions possessed distinctly different climatic conditions, the resulting new early-maturing, rust-resistant varieties were broadly adapted to many latitudes, altitudes and soil types. This wide adaptability, which flew in the face of agricultural orthodoxy, proved invaluable, and Mexican wheat yields skyrocketed.”

As a result, Mexico became an exporter of wheat and India and Pakistan doubled their production.

Borlaug’s work also led to the development of high-yield rice, including vitamin-A-rich “golden rice” in Asia.

Advances in molecular biology allow gene splicing to produce GMOs faster than the older method of selective breeding. Is this unnatural? I suppose that strictly speaking it is, but it just continues a process that we have been using for thousands of years. Modern gene splicing makes it easier to create crops with desirable characteristics and also easier to make sure undesirable traits are prevented or eliminated.

GMOs have been a controversial topic in the European Union. Last year, however, the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor said “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are no riskier than their conventionally farmed equivalents…There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that’s pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food.”

Professor Alan McHughen, a plant molecular geneticist at UC Riverside wrote a book called “Pandora’s Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods” in which he reviews the fears and facts surrounding GMOs.. McHughen is generally in favor of GMOs. In a recent article he claims: “GMO technologies have been around since the early 1970s and have given us many useful products, from human insulin to safer crops grown with fewer pesticides. Moreover, in over 30 years of experience, according to authoritative sources such as the U.S. National Academies and the American Medical Association, there is not one documented case of harm to humans, animals or the environment from GM products.”

McHughen does note that “Recently, French scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini and his team published a peer-reviewed paper that claimed harm to test animals after they were fed GM corn for two years.”

Andrew Revkin of the New York Times writes of that study here. The study claimed to find big impacts on longevity and cancer rates in rats fed Roundup-ready corn. Revkin notes some red-flags in the study: “One issue is that, while the experiments ran for two years, far longer than most rat studies of food safety, the chosen rat breed commonly develops tumors after two years. Combined with small sample size (the different test groups had 20 animals each), this has led even some advocates for GMO. labeling to question the results….Another red flag was that tumor rates didn’t increase in line with the dose of GMOs fed to animals, as scientists would expect to see if the genetically engineered corn were to blame…”

A study reported in , April, 2012, examined 12 long-term projects and 12 multi-generational studies of the effects of diets containing GM maize, potato, soybean, rice, or triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) on animal health. ” Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed.”
These are just some examples of the many studies of GMO foods. As far as I can tell, there are no health safety issues associated with GMO foods. Calls for labeling such as the one reported recently in the Arizona Daily Star seem to be based on ignorance and fear rather than evidence.

For more information see an article by molecular biologist Michael Eisen “How Bt Corn And Roundup Ready Soy Work – And Why They Should Not Scare You.” He writes: “Approximately 90% of soybeans, maize, cotton and sugar beets grown in the US are have been genetically modified to produce a protein that kills common insect pests or to make them highly tolerant of an herbicide used to control weeds, or in some cases both. To make a rational judgment about whether these specific GMOs are good or bad, it’s important to understand exactly what they are and how they work.” He also notes that use of GMOs has greatly reduced the need for pesticides. See the rest of his article here.

Copyrighted by Jonathan DuHamel. Reprint is permitted provided that credit of authorship is provided and linked back to the source.

 

13 Comments

  1. What complete garbage. Let’s just leave out the French study that proved GMOs cause tumors for a moment.

    GMOs have not been around for thousands of years. For many centuries farmers have naturally enhanced their crops, but that has nothing to do with the gene modifications that are going on today.

    This “journalist” has taken the term moron to a whole new level.

  2. @pookie that’s some myopic, narrow-minded logic there. If you want a GMO labeling, you are singling out a technology. Why not label all of them? Organic still uses hybrid seed and their own approved pesticides.

  3. @Albert so I take it you get your science from 10 year old boys. Maybe don’t do that going forward.

  4. @juan I guess if you don’t want to bother learning science just make glib, disingenuous comparisos, right?

    • So, you believe that the earth is not warming, the icecaps are not melting, and extreme high tides are not affecting south Fl, right?
      I know better, living in south FL for the past 64 years, I know first hand that flooding due to higher tides do happen every year for the past 3-4 years.
      Maybe you should pay attention to what is actually happening vs what your “researched science” says?

  5. The earth is not warming, the polar icecaps are not melting, and the flooding high tides in Ft. Lauderdale and Miami are “fake news”.
    Pull your head out, Johnnie!

  6. WHO labels it a “possible carcinogen?” CA has labeled cinnamon as a carcinogen.It’s no wonder people fear global warming. It is agenda driven.

    Guilt usually works the best.

  7. The real issue doesn’t show up until the last paragraph. Genetically modifying plants to make them “herbicide tolerant” allows some negative things to happen: 1) Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, kills plants. It is now found in much of the food we eat and even in most tampons. An ongoing agricultural study in Iowa and North Carolina shows elevated rates of non-Hodgkins lymphoma — blood cancer — among farmers and their families exposed to glyphosate. The World Health Organization has labeled glyphosate a “probable carcinogen” and added ingredients, “adjuvants,” are known to disrupt the endocrine system. A recent study links the herbicide to fatty liver disease. The science is there for the looking.

    2) By killing non-resistant “weeds” (i.e. everything except the GM crop) several things happen. A) Weeds now become resistant to the poison so more of it or stronger doses are needed, and B) Food sources for pollinators like the monarch butterfly are killed. Glyphosate kills milkweed, the food of the monarch caterpillar, and has been found to be the leading cause of the dramatic decline in the monarch butterfly population.

    It is curious that Monsanto’s representative, at the District 3 public meeting over their Avra Valley GMO factory, offered to create a monarch butterfly sanctuary as an incentive to get support for their tax breaks.

    Whatever the outcome of the debate on the good or bad of GM by itself, there is no escaping the fact that GM crops deliver poisons into the human body. As a 10-year-old boy said at that Monsanto meeting, if the GMO crops kill insects that try to eat the plants, what are they doing to humans who eat them?

  8. How does the genitally modified proteins that kills common insects affect the beneficial bacteria and other microbes that reside in our gut? The microbes that assist our digestive system. Has there been any studies (other than cancer)that determine if there are any long term health risks due to protein modification of our food? Natural selection is a lot different than changing the biological make up in a lab. Could the rate at which these GMO changes (quickly as apposed to slowly over time) have unknown consequences to our digestive system and our health? I know a lot of attention has been given to cancer studies, however what about autoimmune diseases? I only ask these questions because I’m not sure the article covers them. Based on my experience there are always unintended consequences and things like this usually take decades not years to figure out.

  9. If it’s so harmless, what’s the big woop to label as such, why does the honest truth seem to bother these Monsantoish conglomerates.

    And the pathetic excuse as to not labeling ain’t parking this hunting dog.

    I ain’t buying the lame excuse.

    I want the choice to buy either one.

    Take your garbage to some third world country.

    Nothing personal to the author though.

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