Among the many controversial issues that science has generated over the years, the debate over genetically modified food has been quite popular in the public, leading many to throw their hands up in disgust and fume over the topic for the rest of the day. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, only 37 percent of U.S. adults said that it’s generally safe to consume genetically modified foods as opposed to the 57 percent of U.S. adults who disagreed (Pew Research Center, “Chapter 6: Public Opinion About Food,” 07.01.2015). These opinions are inherently contradicted by the vast amounts of scientific literature which claim that GMOs are not dangerous whatsoever.
By definition, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) refer to food that comes from genetically engineered organisms (WHO, “Food, Genetically modified,” 2016). Essentially, scientists select and transfer specific genes from one organism to another to produce a plant with a desirable trait like pest resistance or higher concentrations of vitamins.
The source of the controversy comes from the belief that these “Frankenfoods” pose a threat to our health and well-being. The anti-GMO side has argued repeatedly that the foreign genetic material from bacteria and viruses that are added into the GM food could find its way into our digestive tract once we eat them (World Health Organization, “Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods,” 2016). They worry that tampering with the genetics of what we eat could potentially introduce harmful substances or even a genetic mutation into our body. It is important to note that opponents of GMOs are not just limited to health-conscious parents and eco-activists.
“I don’t want to eat those foods that have been sprayed or modified and don’t want my grandchildren to eat them either–I don’t think they’ve been proven that they’re safe [sic], and in fact, it’s been proven that they’re unsafe,” stated renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, who has been actively opposing GMOs (U.S. News & World Report, “Are GMOs Really That Harmful to Eat?” 04.29.2015).
But despite the facade of being a complex, multifaceted issue, the actual debate over these GM foods is as clear cut as it gets.
The World Health Organization states as follows: “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved” (World Health Organization).
And the World Health Organization isn’t the only scientific institution that is making this claim. The majority of credible organizations agree that genetically modified food is not dangerous or even remotely harmful. The American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all confirmed that GM foods do not pose a threat to our health (Slate, “Unhealthy Fixation,” 07.15.2015). Not only that, hundreds and hundreds of studies have all reached that same conclusion.
“[GM food] has increased farmer safety by allowing them to use less pesticide. It has raised the output of corn, cotton and soy by 20 to 30 percent, allowing some people to survive who would not have without it,” says David Zilberman, an agricultural and environmental economist at U.C. Berkeley (Scientific American, “The Truth about Genetically Modified Food,” 09.01.2013). “If it were more widely adopted around the world, the price [of food] would go lower, and fewer people would die of hunger.”
However, many people on the anti-GMO side remain unconvinced. Instead, several critics have pointed to the results of a 2012 study published in the Journal of American Science as proof of GMOs’ harmful effects. In this experiment, researchers fed rats GM corn and non- GM corn and found that the rats who ate GM corn went through lost or gained weight and experienced changes in their organs and biochemistry (U.S. News & World Report). However, what they don’t mention is that the researcher leading the study, Gilles-Éric Séralini, has been a long-time advocate against GMOs and has been accused of personal bias in his analysis (Scientific American). In fact, the lack of key details in his experiment was so questionable that the European Food Safety Authority dismissed the study’s findings entirely.
More importantly, we have been eating food containing genetically modified ingredients all our lives, and not a single case of medical illness has occurred as a result of genetic alterations (Scientific American). Ironically, all the major deaths caused by food have come from non-GM crops. In 2011, Germany experienced one of the worst E.coli outbreaks in world history thanks to organic bean sprouts that were contaminated by the bacteria (New York Times, “Germany Says Bean Sprouts Are Likely E. Coli Source,” 06.10.2011). A total of 3,517 people were infected thanks to the contamination, with more than 39 people dead and about 839 people stricken with a deadly kidney disease known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (Food Safety News, “Germany’s E.coli Outbreak: A Global Lesson,” 06.18.2011).
Yet, the anti-GMO lobby argues that adding foreign DNA to food ingredients just isn’t natural. But that isn’t true either. It’s not uncommon for viruses to inject their own DNA into crops and other organisms. Rather, it’s been a common occurrence that has persisted for millions of years. For instance, pea aphids contain genes from fungi and wheat itself is a cross-species hybrid (Scientific American).
Just recently, scientists discovered that the world’s first GMO wasn’t manufactured by humans; nature created it 8,000 years ago with sweet potatoes (NPR, “Natural GMO? Sweet Potato Genetically Modified 8,000 Years Ago,” 05.05.2015). Beforehand, sweet potatoes weren’t edible. It was because bacteria from the soil inserted their genes into the plant that sweet potatoes became the popular food item that our ancestors farmed.
“When GM critics say that genes don’t cross the species barrier in nature, that’s just simple ignorance. Mother Nature does it all the time,” states Alan McHughen, a plant molecular geneticist at U.C. Riverside (Scientific American).
So why do people hold onto their fears about GMOs? Are they worried that the industry lacks proper safety tests and regulations and that humanity’s hubris will crumble once a mutant plant causes a worldwide epidemic? Again, this is just ill-founded paranoia.
“In response to what they believed was an information gap, a team of Italian scientists summarized 1,783 studies about the safety and environmental impacts of GMO foods … The researchers couldn’t find a single credible example demonstrated that GM foods pose any harm to humans or animals,” reported Jon Entine, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy at the University of California, Davis (Forbes, “2000+ Reasons Why GMOs Are Safe To Eat And Environmentally Sustainable,” 10.14.2013).
All the science shows that genetically modified food is safe. Scientific institutions have said they are safe, the FDA has approved it and have occurred naturally over evolutionary history. At this point, fear and paranoia drives this controversy, not science.