Is Genetically Modified Food Dangerous?

A controversial Atlantic article called “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Food” drew 15,000 Facebook “Likes” and an inferno of flames from science bloggers, with Scientific American calling it “scare-mongering” and Slate dubbing it “paranoia.”

The timing of the article was particularly incendiary, since the FDA is currently weighing approval of fast-growing, genetically modified salmon critics call “frankenfish.”

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Can GM food harm your health?

Many scientists and doctors have raised concerns about the potential health threats of GM food. Based on animal studies, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) reports that these risks may include infertility, immune system disorders, accelerated aging, GI system changes, problems with insulin regulation, and allergies.

Now updated to correct multiple “scientific inconsistencies,” the Atlantic article offers yet another potential hazard to worry about: It cites a Chinese study showing that microscopic bits of genetic material (microRNA) from rice can survive digestion and affect liver cell function. MicroRNA has been linked to such diseases as cancer and diabetes in an earlier study.

While that may sound like the researchers were studying mutant rice created in a test tube, in reality, as the Atlantic writer now admits, the study looked at the effects of ordinary rice on mice. However, it was the first to show that microRNA from food could accumulate in the body, affecting organ functioning. The mice’s livers became less efficient at processing cholesterol, raising levels of artery-clogging fat in their blood, compared to mice fed standard lab chow.

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What’s GM food—and are you eating it?

Genetically engineered foods, also called genetically modified organisms, are created by inserting DNA from another source, often a completely different species, into a plant or animal. In one scary-sounding example, an artificial combination of genes has been created to cause corn to produce a pesticide called Bt toxin, the AAEM reports. One of the genes was derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiesis (Bt), which is also used as a conventional pesticide in farming.

Another type of GM corn, formulated by Monsanto and Devgen, switches off a gene that’s vital for energy production in corn rootworms, killing them within 12 days of ingestion, according to a 2007 report in MIT’s Technology Review.

Are you eating corn that’s laced with pesticides or a gene that’s rapidly lethal to insects? If so, there’s no way to tell, since there’s no legal requirement that GM foods be labeled as such in the US, due to intense lobbying by the agricultural industry. In December, more than 350 public interest and health groups petitioned the FDA to require mandatory labeling of GM foods, with no decision so far.

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Which foods are most likely to be genetically engineered?

Up to 85 percent of US corn is genetically engineered, according to the Center for Food Safety, as are 95 percent of sugar beets, 91 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of cotton (used for cottonseed oil in many food products). Overall, it’s been estimated that more than 70 percent of processed foods—from soda to soup and crackers—contain GM ingredients.

The most common GM ingredient is high fructose corn syrup, used in hundreds of foods, including breakfast cereal, snacks, and even baby food. Currently, there are no GM meats or fish approved for sale in the US.

Is there any safety testing?

So far, there haven’t been any human clinical trials. Monsanto, a leading producer of GM food, contends on its website that, “There is no need to test the safety of DNA introduced into GM crops. DNA (and resulting RNA) is present in almost all foods. DNA is non-toxic and the presence of DNA, in and of itself, presents no hazard.”

The company also maintains that safety tests aren’t necessary because its GM crops are “substantially equivalent” to natural varieties. It would be very difficult to conduct randomized studies, due to the challenge of finding large numbers of volunteers willing to volunteer to eat GM foods for years to see if their health is harmed. Would you sign up for that study?

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What’s the bottom line on GM foods?

Is a tomato with a peanut gene, for example, really the same as one you grew in your backyard? And would it be safe for someone with a potentially life-threatening allergy to peanuts to eat the engineered variety? What about the potential long-term effects of eating food that’s been genetically modified to kill insects, and which shares some of their DNA with humans?

Although almost of us have eaten GM foods unintentionally, until human safety tests are done, it’s impossible to say if these foods harm human health or not. The World Health Organization (WHO) wisely advises that “individual GM foods should be assessed [for safety] on case by case basis.”

However, until that’s done, if you’re concerned about frankenfoods, the best way to limit your exposure is to avoid processed foods (also a smart health move to avoid potentially health-harming additives and excessive sugar), eat locally grown produce, or go organic, since GM ingredients are banned from products labeled “organic.”

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