By Laura Iu, Nutrition Student and Assistant to Laura Cipullo
Are Genetically Modified Foods Safe?
The debate over whether genetically modified foods are harmless or harmful to both our health and our food system has been ongoing. With so many vital technological advances in this field, why haven’t we been able to find a definitive answer? To date, there are very few human studies detailing the impact of genetically modified foods on human health. Although there have been some limited animal studies showing the consequences of consuming genetically modified foods, the results are still inconclusive.
What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms (crops) are plants whose DNA has been altered. Often, the DNA has been transformed so that it is more resistant to herbicides and bugs. These altered plants can destroy weeds and defend themselves from insects by producing their own poisons. When genetically modified foods were first produced, they had been created with the intention of withstanding weather fluctuations and lessening crop failure, thus increasing yield while reducing costs.
According to the World Health Organization, developing a crop resistant to insects is achieved by inserting a gene that produces toxins in an insect’s gut if it ingests that specific crop. This toxin is known as Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT). Cultivating a crop resistant to viruses is accomplished through the insertion of a gene that causes a disease in plants.
One of the main concerns about the consumption of genetically engineered foods is that they may generate allergic responses. For example, if a person is not typically allergic to corn, transferring different genes to the corn could potentially cause the crop to become an allergen. Thus, foods that commonly cause allergies are normally not genetically modified.
Are Genetically Modified Foods Harmless?
The answer to this question depends largely on whom you ask. Many big corporations and investors may argue that they offer a safe and efficient way to feed a huge population. On the other hand, critics may argue that we do not know enough about GM foods to label them as safe.
Genetically engineered foods are overseen by three federal agencies—the
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agencies review GM foods for allergens, toxicity and nutrient levels. The problem here? The data must be voluntarily submitted by companies. Yes, this means that no additional testing for GM foods is required. The government then employs a policy they call “substantial equivalence”—if a GM food is not “substantially equivalent” to the original/conventional food item, the GM food must be further tested.
The bottom line is that more extensive research should (must) be done to determine whether GM foods are actually safe. In the meantime, it is up to you, the consumer, to decide whether you wish to include such foods in your diet.
How to Avoid Genetically Modified Foods?
If you live in the United States, it’s very difficult to distinguish the difference between GM foods and non-GM foods. On the surface, GM foods don’t look different than non-GM foods. Even more troubling, there is no United States law requiring foods containing GMOs to be labeled as such. Thus, it’s a challenging process to find foods that don’t contain at least some ingredient that has been genetically modified.
If you are concerned about the impact of GM foods on your health, here’s what you can do on an immediate basis:
- Buy organic food only; look for the label clearly stating “100% Organic.” In the United States, only foods with 100% organic ingredients may carry this label. If a food is simply labeled “organic,” the product is allowed to contain up to 30% of GMOs.
- Be savvy about which foods are likely to have been genetically modified.
- Buy 100% grass-fed meat.
- Shop at your local farmers’ markets.
- Look for labels that say “Non-GMO” or “GMO-Free.”