Are genetically modified (GMO) foods safe?

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I’m gonna say it right here and now: genetically modified crops are safe to eat, and the hoopla surrounding it isn’t much more than a bunch of conspiracy theorists getting people riled up. I’m sure you’ve heard of Monsanto. While Monsanto has gotten themselves in hot water in the past, it was not because their product was making anyone sick. If you want to hate them, make sure it’s for the right reason.

So, let’s get to busting the myth surrounding GMO foods. We have this from the National Institutes of Health:

GM crops are tightly regulated by several government bodies. The European Food Safety Authority and each individual member state have detailed the requirements for a full risk assessment of GM plants and derived food and feed. In the USA, the Food and Drug Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are all involved in the regulatory process for GM crop approval. Consequently, GM plants undergo extensive safety testing prior to commercialization.

Foods derived from GM crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than 15 years, with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health), despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries, the USA.

And from the European Commission:

Extensive  research  on  GMOs,  co-funded  by  the  European  Commission over the last two decades, has significantly contributed to being able to identify and characterize possible risks associated with foods/feed derived from GMOs… These activities provide at least equal assurance of the safety of these foods compared to conventional counterparts, provided these GM products have been approved by the EU and the national food safety evaluation procedures.  Moreover,  in  support  of  the  EU legal  requirements, sensitive and specific detection methods for GMOs have been developed, enabling the traceability of GMO derived products and the enforcement of established threshold levels throughout the whole food chain.

And from the World Health Organization:

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. Continuous application of safety assessments based on the Codex Alimentarius principles and, where appropriate, adequate post market monitoring, should form the basis for ensuring the safety of GM foods.

Some of the world’s biggest governing bodies regarding food safety have spoken about GMO foods, but that’s not going to convince you. Let’s talk about the science.

What does the safety testing involve? Safety testing is always alive, always ongoing because the same crops used for human consumption are also used for livestock consumption. In the years since 1996, when genetically modified crops began going into production, there have been no significant hazards indicated by the data. If there had been any signs that GMO crops were having a negative effect, they would have shown up in regulatory reports since sick livestock cannot be approved for consumption.

The book Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects describes the means by which the safety of GMO foods are determined.  Take a look at the chart:

GMO food safety flowchart

There are three questions that must be asked in the evaluation of a GMO food product:

  • What differences exist between this product and the naturally occurring, non-modified version?
  • If there are any differences, do they have any impact on human health?
  • If there are any differences that have unintended effects, will there be people who consume little of this product who are affected, and will there be people who consume of lot of this product who will be affected?

I’m not going to say that there are never unintended results of genetic engineering in food. But testing procedures and standards have been suggested, and implemented, to weed out genetic lines that that introduce toxins, allergens or other dangers to human health. And they have been successful; over two thousand studies have shown that GMO food products are no less inherently safe that their non-GMO counterparts. Whether or not GMO food products are safe to eat is NOT a matter of opinion.

Another thing that is not a matter of opinion is what GMO foods have given us. We have been able to create plants that are more resistant to weeds, pests and diseases. We have bigger yields for harvest. Less need for pesticides. We’ve gotten foods that taste better and have more nutritional value, and that have a longer shelf life.  We have crops that are more resilient–they can grow in less-than-ideal conditions. These are traits that are needed especially now, with famine, drought and poverty ever-present and ever-increasing. If we are serious about solving the world’s food shortage crises, then we need to grow up and let science do its work.

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