Ask Natural Life:
What's the Problem With GMOs?
by Wendy Priesnitz
Q: What are GMOs and should I be concerned about them in my food?
A: GMOs (or “genetically modified organisms”) have been created through
the gene-splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic
engineering, or GE). This science allows DNA material from one species to be
injected into another species in a laboratory, creating combinations of
plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in Nature or
result from traditional crossbreeding methods.
Doing this provides financial benefits to biotechnology companies and
large-scale farming corporations. For instance, seeds can be engineered to
be insect resistant and/or herbicide tolerant. Produce can be developed that
has a longer shelf life or is shaped to facilitate more efficient
transportation. Scientists have even tried to introduce a cold-resisting
gene from Arctic fish into tomatoes to prevent them from freezing and thus
lengthen their growing season. Hand-in-hand with seed patenting, GE seeds
can provide agribusiness with massive profits.
Proponents claim that GE crops benefit the environment through the
reduced use of herbicides and insecticides, increase crop yields, thereby
helping farmers and solving the food crisis. And companies producing GE
seed, as well as the food processors using GMOs in their products, are
spending millions of dollars to advertise to consumers and lobby governments
in an effort to persuade us they are safe and nutritious to eat.
However, critics disagree. And we really do not know for sure what, if any,
long-term impacts eating GE foods will have on our health, although an increasing
amount of independent research suggests the dangers are many, to both human
health and the environment.
According to the
Non-GMO Project, a North
American natural product industry-based, non-profit product verification
program, a large and growing body of scientific research and on-the-ground
experience indicates that: GMOs can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious
than their natural counterparts; can disrupt the ecosystem, damage
vulnerable wild plant and animal populations, and harm biodiversity;
increase chemical inputs over the long term by encouraging insect resistance
and the creation of new, more toxic, pesticide products; deliver yields that
are no better, and often worse, than conventional crops; and cause or
exacerbate a range of social and economic problems. Once released, GMOs
cannot be recalled from the environment. That leads to the unintended spread
of GE plants or “volunteers” that contaminate organic crops.
The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) points
out that GE foods are approved for human consumption based on industry-produced science that is not peer-reviewed and cannot be accessed by the
public or independent scientists. Without peer review, the data used to
approve products cannot be assumed to be good science, or indeed science at
"We are performing a massive experiment. The results will only
be known after millions of people have been exposed to (GMO foods)
for decades…Any politician or scientist who tells you these products
are safe is either very stupid or lying. The hazards of these foods
are uncertain. In view of our enormous ignorance, the premature
application of biotechnology is downright dangerous.” ~ David
One early independent human health safety assessment of a GE food (a
potato that is not now on the market) caused scientist Arpad Pusztai of the
Rowett Research Institute in Scotland to be silenced, although his
study was eventually published in the peer-reviewed The Lancet. Pusztai
found that the genetically engineered potatoes he was testing severely
damaged the immune system and organs of rats.
In 2009, researchers linked consumption of three of Monsanto’s GE corn
varieties with organ damage in a study of the effects of GE foods on
mammalian health. All three varieties of corn were approved for consumption
in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. The data “clearly underlines adverse
impacts on kidneys and liver, the dietary detoxifying organs, as well as
different levels of damages to heart, adrenal glands, spleen, and
haematopoietic system,” reported Gilles-Eric Séralini, a molecular biologist
at France’s University of Caen in the study published in the International
Journal of Biological Sciences.
This seems consistent with most peer-reviewed studies of GE foods, which
have found that they may cause pancreatic, renal, hepatic, or reproductive
effects. Indeed, a new report reviewing nineteen studies of mammals fed with
commercialized GE soybean and maize (which represent more than eighty
percent of all GMOs grown on a large scale) indicates liver and kidney signs
of toxicity in mammals. It was published in Environmental Sciences Europe.
In the fall of 2012, another peer-reviewed study by
Séralini published online by the scientific journal Food and Chemical
Toxicology, shows the results of the first animal feeding trial
into the life-time exposure of Roundup tolerant GM corn and Roundup, the
world’s best selling weed killer. The study, which has experienced attempts to discredit it, shows that levels currently
considered safe can cause mammary tumors, kidney and liver damage in
laboratory rats. The study was supported by the independent research
organization, CRIIGEN. The researchers used 200 rats that were fed a diet
containing the Roundup tolerant GM maize, NK603, or given water containing
Roundup, at levels permitted in drinking water and GM crops in the US. It
showed that these rats developed tumors faster and died earlier than rats
fed on a standard diet.
Infants and children are particularly vulnerable to any potential health
risks from consuming GE foods. CBAN’s Lucy Sharratt wrote in a 2003 paper
for the Canadian Institute of Child Health entitled Genetically Engineered
Food and Child Health that introducing new genes into the human diet or
moving genes to new contexts can create new allergens. And children are
particularly sensitive. Sharratt quotes a 2001 report by the Royal Society
of Canada Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology, commissioned by the
Canadian government, which noted that, “The potential widespread use of GE
food products as food additives and staple foods, including use in baby
foods, may lead to earlier introduction of novel proteins to susceptible
infants either directly or via the presence of the maternally ingested
proteins in breast milk,” and result therefore in greater potential to
The United States now has one hundred and sixty-five million acres of GE
crops planted. In 2009, ninety-three percent of soy and of cotton, and
eighty-six percent of corn grown in the U.S. were GMO. It is estimated that
over ninety percent of canola grown is GE, and there are also commercially
produced GE varieties of sugar beets, squash and Hawaiian papaya. As a
result, it is estimated that GMOs are now present in more than eighty
percent of packaged products in the average U.S. or Canadian grocery store.
GMOs are banned, restricted, or labeled in many countries, including
Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union. Polls
consistently show that a significant majority of North Americans would like
to be able to tell if the food they’re purchasing contains GMOs. In fact, in
a CBS/New York Times poll, over half of consumers said they would not buy
food that had been genetically modified. The Non-GMO Project’s seal for
verified products will give the North American public an opportunity to make
an informed choice when it comes to GMOs. However, many feel that mandatory
labeling is the best answer, something that was narrowly defeated on the ballot in California
in 2012 after lobbying by Monsanto and other corporations.
Meanwhile, you can avoid GMOs by eating certified organic food, in
which GMOs are normally prohibited. Or look for the Non-GMO Project’s seal in natural food
retailers. You can also avoid eating processed foods containing corn,
canola, soy, and sugar (and be vigilant about meat and salmon, because
they’re next). Both CBAN and the Non-GMO Project have guides to buying
Check out and support the organizations that are working to stop GE
foods, and share the information with friends, family, and co-workers.
is Natural Life Magazine's editor. She has been a journalist for over 40
years and is the author of 13 books. This article was published in 2011.