Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) aren’t exactly news. For thousands of years, humans have bred plants and animals to achieve certain desirable characteristics. (Did you know that all carrots were originally purple?) But in the last couple of decades, this process has moved from the greenhouse to the science lab. By artificially inserting new DNA, or modifying existing DNA, plants and animals can be re-programmed to exhibit new traits. Imagine apples that stay fresh long after you cut them, papayas that can resist a lethal virus, or milk that can potentially help treat sick kids.
The Top GMO Foods
Within the US, the most common genetically modified (GM) crops are soybean, cotton (for oil), corn, and canola. Other, much smaller crops include alfalfa (for animal feed), apple, papaya, potato, sugar beets (for refined sugar), summer squash, and zucchini. Even if you choose to walk past these foods in the supermarket, as many as 75 to 80 percent of processed foods contain GMOs. Basic ingredients like sugar, flour, and certain oils, and additives like aspartame, corn starch, and corn syrup, are made from GM crops, and 95 percent of livestock consumes GMO feed. If you’ve ever sipped on a soda or munched on a chip, you’ve eaten a genetically modified food. So with GMOs everywhere, a burning question emerges—is eating them doing you any harm?
Scientists Believe GMOs Are Safe
The National Academy of Sciences recently released a large report, reassuring the public that eating GMOs won’t hurt your health. Not long afterward, more than 100 Nobel laureates (thought leaders in the science world) signed a letter urging Greenpeace to end its opposition to GMOs. That’s a big, resounding yes! They’re safe to eat.
But why then, if 88 percent of scientists believe GMOs are safe, does only 37 percent of the public agree? “There’s a difference between safe and acceptable,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. “Even if it’s scientifically safe, there are other reasons to consider, like who’s controlling the food supply, who’s making the decisions, the lack of transparency, as well as religious and moral objections that can’t be dismissed.”
To help you make the best choices for you and your family, here are both sides of this hot debate.
The Greenpeace Argument: Genetic Engineering Is a Giant Experiment with Commercial Interests
It’s understandable why people might worry about GMOs. It’s the fear of the unknown, and, for some opponents, the basic belief that nature just shouldn’t be messed with. Others are concerned that eating GMOs could trigger unexpected allergies and contribute to antibiotic resistance. And then there’s the issue with large companies being allowed to patent seeds and animals—should corporations be allowed to own living things?
Nestle thinks these fears could have been avoided if the food industry had been more transparent about which foods contained GMOs. “If there’s nothing to fear, why hide it?” she asks. Food and Water Watch, a consumer rights group lobbying for food labeling, argues, “At a minimum, we should label GMOs so people can decide for themselves.” At this stage, in the US, the only way to avoid GMOs is to buy certified organic or non-GMO verified foods.
The Geneticist Argument: GMOs Could Cure Diseases and Feed the World’s Poor
Scientists involved in genetically engineering food have good intentions: For them, it’s how to grow more healthful food, more efficiently, in a changing climate.
Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist at University of California, Davis, doesn’t believe there is anything sinister about genetic modification. She engineered “scuba rice,” a rice that can withstand long periods of flooding, and will help farmers in Asia adapt to climate change. “There are all kinds of organisms made with all kinds of genetic technologies,” Ronald explains, “some controlled by big corporations (through patents), and some owned by public universities and given away for free.”
Her colleague, Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist, says, “Scientists in biotechnology are working hard to solve real-world problems. Genetic modification can have a dramatic effect on world hunger and save lives.” Van Eenennaam reviewed 29 years of public data on livestock health, representing more than 100 billion animals, before and after GM feed was introduced. She found that GM feed is safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO feed. “You have to trust the data,” says Van Eenennaam, a passionate supporter. “More than 20 years of research, and thousands of studies, show GMOs don’t cause any harm to our health or the environment.”
GMOs Are Safe, But It’s Still Your Choice
If you objectively consider the science alone, GMOs are not causing any obvious harm to your health. Yes, it’s hard to detect subtle or long-term effects, either good or bad, but they seem unlikely. In economically strong countries, where people are blessed with an abundant food supply, deciding whether or not to eat GMOs comes down to personal choice. But in the developing world, where disease-resistant potatoes and vitamin-fortified bananas could save lives, it’s another issue altogether.
Still, there’s no need to overcomplicate things when it comes to your food choices. Rather than worrying about GMOs, it’s much more important to avoid ultra-processed foods—the health risks of consuming those are backed by many years of strong science. Start by eating minimally processed foods, and when you nail that healthy-eating goal, then decide if you’d also like to avoid GMOs.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.