Rhetoric of paranoia pervades discourse around GMOs

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.

2 Comments

  1. Steven, You are uninformed about many aspects of this issue.

    First, there are no crops that have been genetical engineered to contain higher concentrations of vitamins, or any other aspect of enhanced nutrition.

    Second, the federal safety evaluations you cite consider ONLY short-term studies conducted by the self-interested corporations that stand to make billions of dollars each year from selling the product they seek approval for. This bears no resemblance to independent evaluation of risks or impacts. Many, if not most, of the scientists who publicly advocate GMOs are, in fact, public relations shills paid by Monsanto. Here’s the front page report on the New York Times, which I guess you missed: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/us/food-industry-enlisted-academics-in-gmo-lobbying-war-emails-show.html?_r=1
    You wrote that anti-GMO scientists’ studies should be automatically discredited as biased. So, why shouldn’t pro-GMO scientists’ studies also be automatically dismissed?

    Third, Seralini’s study was removed from publication after extremely heavy pressure from Monsanto on the publishers. Seralini won his law suit to have it reinstated.

    Fourth, GMOs have NOT reduced that amount of pesticides used on crops. Herbicide tolerant traits are engineered for the purpose of applying a specific herbicide to the crop. In fact, GMO crops have increased the amount of herbicide used. Here’s the USGS data: http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/pnsp/usage/maps/show_map.php?year=2012&map=GLYPHOSATE&hilo=L
    As for insecticide, GMOs have merely moved the location of insecticide application. Instead of spraying, the insecticide is inside every cell of the GE insecticide-expressing crops. For reasons that make no sense, somehow this counts officially as reducing insecticide use, but that is inaccurate. The crops is infused with insecticide even more than had been prior to GMOs.

    Fifth, while GMOs and their accompanying herbicides and insecticides may not kill a person quickly like a poison, there is no question that incidence of many diet-related chronic illnesses, including some that are fatal, have increased at the same rate and at the same time as the increased presence of GMO foods in the American diet. Please consider this, by a Tufts University professor:
    http://foodtank.com/news/2015/02/the-war-on-genetically-modified-food-critics-et-tu-national-geographic
    and this: http://gmwatch.org/news/latest-news/16375-gene-expression-analysis-confirms-roundup-causes-liver-and-kidney-damage-at-very-low-doses

    Sixth, you seem to be under the impression that GMO crops provide food. But the fact is that at least 20% of corn grown is used to make ethanol, which uses more energy to make than it provides as a fuel. About another quarter is exported. Most of the remainder is used for livestock feed (mixed with GMO soy, pharmaceuticals and fillers such as shredded cardboard and stale chewing gum still in its wrapper), with the sliver remaining used to make over-processed unhealthy convenience food additives. Most of the soy crop is livestock feed. Cotton is, obviously, partly grown for fiber and processed for oil additives.

    There are other very serious concerns about GMO agriculture systems beyond human health, including implications of patented seeds owned by a transnational corporation, environmental impacts, and corporate corruption of democracy. If you want to learn more about these, let me know.

    It is important to remember that GE crops layer one trait (or two, in the case of corn and cotton) over the grand myriad of genetic traits in a seed that have been selected and cultivated by farmers over the eons. Some of these traits developed by traditional hybridization include flavor, drought tolerance, shade or blight tolerance, etc. Their presence in a GMO plant is incidental to the genetic engineering. Yet, the biotech corporation patents the entire seed.

    There’s much more to refute, but for now I’ll just suggest that you read GMO Myths and Truths, Third Edition, Condensed and Updated. Two of the three authors are geneticists, and each chapter is substantiated with footnotes. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0993436706/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0993436706&linkCode=as2&tag=gmwatchorg-20&linkId=47YUPEAHJ2CWWCZP

  2. Vaccines cultured on egg or animal material that is likely to be from conventional farm animals whose feed probably causes mutations because feed contains the residues allowed and regulated by the Untied Nations, and World Trade Org.

    Residues of RoundUp’s Glyphosate can be incorporated in place of glycines in proteins of the animal material, and so taken up in the growing virus of the vaccine – but in unpredictable, untested ways. Glyphosate is an antibiotic, but not “toxic” – in other words, it mutates bacteria or proteins: https://www.google.com/patents/US7771736

    Public links show animal fodder allows one hundred times the residues permitted in food for direct human consumption. http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/standards/pestres/pesticide-detail/en/?p_id=158

    Logic and science have been derailed by lawyers and politicians and I believe further study will promptly show the consequences of Monsanto’s manipulation have caused the epidemic of autism and allergies, among other effects that could bankrupt medical insurance.

Leave a Reply to Phoebe Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *