Are GMO Foods Really Harmful?

With so much misinformation out there, you probably know just how difficult it is to find accurate and useful information about genetic modification. The debate over GMOs is enormously controversial, with many mothers and grassroots organizers arguing against the pro-GMO rhetoric used by companies like Monsanto. Consumers argue that GMOs don’t have an excellent safety record, while GMO producers argue that we’ve been using this technology for over 20 years without ill effect. So who can we trust amid all of this chaos?

Unfortunately, much of the pro-GMO information that’s out there is propagated by the same corporations that create GMOs and profit from their sale. And whether intentionally or otherwise, these corporations overlook the possible connection between the use of GMOs and the rise of chronic illness over the past 20 years. Since GMOs first hit the market in the 1990s, we’ve seen an explosion in the rates of autoimmune disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases in our country. That’s not something to take lightly!

Even if we didn’t see evidence that human health is rapidly deteriorating, there haven’t been any long-term studies that have definitively proven GMOs to be safe. Even if such a study were undertaken, there’s no way that we could test all of the possible effects of every type of GMO over a sufficiently large population to say with certainty that they are harmless. It seems that the only long-term experiment that’s going to be done will be on us, and the results may not be pretty. To better understand the potentially harmful effects of GMOs, let’s take a look at the five main ways that GMOs impact our health…

1) Increased Allergenicity

Genetic modification can make a food more likely to cause an allergic reaction. Though almost any food can trigger an allergy, genetic modification allows the genes from one plant to be inserted into the genome of another. This makes it more likely you will unwittingly ingest a food that you are allergic to. Additionally, it’s the plant’s proteins that are commonly altered through genetic modification, and proteins are usually what trigger an allergic reaction.

The risks go up when GMOs that are not approved for human consumption inadvertently make their way into our food supply. One prime example of this phenomenon occurred in September of 2000, when a type of GMO corn (“StarLink”) was found in over 300 food products, though it was only approved for animal feed at the time. Before contaminated food products were removed from the market, StarLink corn caused more than 50 documented cases of allergic reaction triggered by the corn’s unique modified proteins. Even though StarLink corn was recalled, it has since reappeared in Saudia Arabia’s food supply as recently as 2013.

2) Gene Transfer

Though an incident would be rare, it is theoretically possible for antibiotic-resistant GMOs to transfer their genes to bacteria in your gut. This is frightening because it raises the possibility that a disease-causing bacteria could potentially “pick up” genes for antibiotic resistance and pass them on to other bacteria. If this were to happen – however rare it might be – we could have a life-threatening “superbug” on our hands with no known cure.

So, what are genes for antibiotic resistance doing in our food?

In a laboratory setting, these genes are used as markers to help scientists determine whether they’ve successfully transferred genes from one organism to another. They’re simply inserted because they’re easy to see, making it simple to determine whether a project has been a success. These genes have no useful purpose outside the lab. Because researchers now recognize that these genes are inherently risky, many labs have replaced them with other, more benign “markers” so that they can continue their work. But, because GMO research is largely unregulated, many scientists continue to use unsafe genes in their research.

3) Increased Use of Toxic Herbicides

If you’ve heard anything about GMO crops, you’ve probably heard about “Roundup Ready” crops that are engineered to survive the application of Monsanto’s toxic herbicide. These crops are marketed to farmers because they’re easy to grow and harvest, but come with one major downside: they must be sprayed with large volumes of Roundup to achieve a successful harvest. When farmers apply Roundup, the chemicals are so potent that they kill literally everything in sight – except for the crops that have been engineered to survive.

The prevalent use of Roundup isn’t something to be taken lightly, either. In one particularly frightening study, researchers showed that Roundup can be toxic to human cells, even at concentrations lower than used in commercial agriculture (Richard et al., 2005). Another study suggested that glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) is a “xenoestrogen” that can mimic real estrogen, thus contributing to a variety of human health problems including breast cancer (Thongprakaisang et al., 2013). The 2005 study also concluded that the toxic effects of Roundup cannot be attributed to glyphosate alone – other “inert” ingredients enhance glyphosate’s bioavailability, making it even more toxic than it would be on its own.

4) Toxicity of Pesticide-Producing Bt Corn

If this situation wasn’t bad enough, many new crops are being engineered to produce pesticides themselves. That’s right – some of our crops don’t need to be sprayed with pesticides because they leach pesticides from the moment they begin to grow. For example, Bt corn is engineered with a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (hence, the name “Bt”), a bacteria that kills insects by paralyzing their digestive system and forming holes in the lining of the gut. When an insect eats Bt corn, it loses its ability to eat or digest food, and eventually starves to death.

Though fatal for insects, you may think that these toxins won’t affect humans. That’s what GMO companies claim, at least. However, one recent study was able to show that the same bacterial proteins that kill insects may also be harmful to human health (Mesnage et al., 2012). This study showed that Bt toxins can cause a variety of scary side effects, especially when consumed in combination with toxic herbicides like Roundup. Another study, conducted one year prior, showed that Bt toxins can be found in the bloodstream of women (including pregnant women) at higher levels than health authorities consider safe (Aris et al., 2011). When evaluated together, the results of these two studies are especially concerning because they tell us not only that Bt crops are toxic, but also that we’re being exposed to Bt toxins at almost unbelievably high levels.

5) Other Unknown Consequences

The long-term effects of consuming GMOs are largely unknown. Because these foods have only been a part of our food supply for the past 20 years, we don’t yet know how they’ll affect future generations. We do know, however, that chronic illnesses are on the rise – whether due to the increased use of GMOs, the use of pesticides and herbicides, or other factors. Today, 133 million Americans (45% of the population) have at least one chronic disease, and researchers estimate that this number will rise to 164 million by 2025 (Anderson, 2010). With all of this going on, we know that something has gone terribly wrong, and that GMOs could well be contributing to the problem.


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