GMOs: Friend or Foe?

Photography by: courtesy of Shutterstock

Potential causes for concern
GMOs have only been available commercially since 1994 when the FlavrSavr tomato was introduced. It was later taken off the market (because it was too mushy), but the production of genetically engineered crops has since exploded, accounting for more than 80 percent of the corn, soybean, cotton and sugar beets grown in the U.S. On an international scale, the U.S. is by far the biggest GMO farmer, with 66.8 million hectares in 2010, 2.8 million more than in 2009. Despite its scope, many still consider genetic engineering a new science and say we should tread carefully, warning that the health concerns over the long haul are unknown. As with any new science, there’s still a lot we don’t know, and some of the evidence is at least moderately unsettling. “One of the concerns is that the overall rise in chronic disease is associated with the GMOs,” says Amy Dean, D.O., a physician specializing in internal medicine in Ann Arbor, Mich., and president-elect of the AAEM. Dean cites worries over the increasing number of cases of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis. The immune system is set up to fight off foreign materials, and the thinking is that the new proteins created by GMOs may, in effect, make the body react to itself. Yikes! Health experts seem to agree on one risk: the potential for GMO-related food allergies. In 1996, researchers inserted what turned out to be a highly allergenic protein from a Brazil nut into soybeans. The soybean never made it to market, but it did raise concerns. Some GMO critics blame these modified crops for the increase in food allergies in children, which jumped 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. Steve L. Taylor, Ph.D., co-director of the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program at the University of Nebraska, calls the increase a coincidence: “The products that are on the market today have been thoroughly assessed for allergenicity, and there’s no allergic risk,” he says. However, he does note that allergens could be created in future GMO foods. The environmental cons are more black and white. The National Research Council says that overuse of Roundup Ready crops (those designed to be tolerant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the U.S.) is resulting in resistant weeds, which forces farmers to use even more toxic herbicides. “With overuse of the more benign Roundup, farmers are forced to return to some of the less desirable herbicides used previously,” says Peggy G. Lemaux, Ph.D., a faculty member in the department of plant and microbial biology at the University of California, Berkeley. And more glyphosate is used now because of the large number of Roundup Ready GMO crops being cultivated: 88,000 tons in 2007, up from 11,000 tons in 1992. But the stat that scared me the most was this: As much as 70 percent of the processed stuff in supermarkets contains an engineered ingredient. (Think protein bars, salad dressing, crackers, cookies, bread—even some soy-based infant formulas.) And with no mandatory labeling, how would I know if I was eating GMO foods or not? Panic!

Reasons to relax
My freakout was short-lived. Turns out, I may not be eating as many GMOs as I think. Few whole foods are genetically modified. Those that are include Hawaiian papaya, green and yellow squash, zucchini and sweet corn, but only a small percentage of each. Yes, the majority of soy grown in the U.S. is GMO, but the soybeans cultivated for soymilk, tofu and edamame are not. Even the aforementioned stat on packaged foods is deceiving. By the time the GMO ingredients go through processing, there’s virtually no DNA from the introduced genetic information left. “You’re often actually not eating anything that’s chemically different from the food that was not genetically engineered,” says Greg Jaffe, biotechnology director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. The lack of mandatory testing is also misleading. “In terms of food safety testing, GMO foods are more thoroughly tested than any foods that consumers eat,” says Lemaux. Environmentally, bioengineering also comes with benefits. Yes, the use of Roundup has increased, but it’s less toxic than herbicides used previously, so farmers have to do less tilling. Less tilling means less soil erosion, less runoff (which keeps toxins out of our water supply) and fewer gas-guzzling tractors. In fact, it’s estimated that genetically engineered crops could save 306 million gallons of fuel a year. Contamination with organic crops is also a common concern, but Pamela Ronald, Ph.D., professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, makes a good point: “Organic production and genetically engineered crops have coexisted side by side for 20 years, and both types of crop production are thriving.” I also breathed a sigh of relief on the health side, namely because there are no proven health risks. “To date, there are no genetically engineered crops on the market that have been shown to cause harm to human health,” asserts Lemaux. That’s not to say that I—or you— should throw caution to the wind. “Nobody knows what will happen 20, 40, 50 years from now with anything,” says Jaffe.