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GMOs - are they safe for human consumption?

by Doris Penner

Most Canadians realize that a wholesome diet plays a significant role in health. They are fully aware that fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat meats and milk products are part of a healthy eating plan. However, within these parameters controversies rage about subjects like the dangers of ingesting trans fats, avoiding wheat and other gluten-containing foods, whether a high sugar diet leads to diabetes and if organic foods are healthier than their counterparts. Over the last decade another issue has reared its head, and it is proving just as controversial as any of the above: are genetically modified foods safe to eat and as nutritious as conventional crops? This week (Sept. 22-26) has been declared Organic Week by Canadian Organic Growers and Canadian Health Food Association (among other affiliates) and it is an appropriate time to look at the question of GM foods since these organizations would be the first to raise red flags about these products. Do they have a valid point?

Genetically modified foods arrived on the scene 20 years ago after years of research by scientists. Basically GM foods are produced through genetic engineering—that is, changes have been introduced into the plant’s DNA that allows it to acquire traits such as resistance to pathogens as well as herbicides, better nutritional profiles and the ability to produce larger yields. The first GM food to be marketed was the tomato, followed quickly by corn, soybeans, canola and cottonseed—all cash crops in high demand.

Green revolution

So far this sounds like the “magic bullet”–a discovery poised to solve any future food shortages. Indeed, it was hailed as another “green revolution” by growers and food scientists alike, and while no long-term studies have been possible to ensure that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe for human health, GM seed developers, many research scientists and commentators claim GM crops are as safe and nutritious as their respective counterparts.

And they may be, but what the protest is about is that studies on GM food safety to human health thus far have been nuanced and far from conclusive. Whether to continue to expand the introduction of GM foods into the marketplace (and animal food supply) and whether identified risks—and there are several—are worth the risk are issues that demand rigorous, transparent, well-designed studies, sufficiently diversified to compensate for bias.

One problem with some of the research that reports highly positive results (GM foods are safe and nutritious) has been conducted by biotechnology companies responsible for commercializing these plants. Indeed, there appears to be a correlation between outcomes of studies and funding provided by companies with an interest in selling the product. Independent studies with no “hidden” agenda, but rather with the focus solely on health and welfare of citizens would be the answer; however, this research is very costly because an authentic study would demand on-going monitoring to arrive at conclusions of long-term effects of GM food consumption.

Thus independent studies are rare—but the few that have been conducted on animals fed GM food reveal effects that should raise concerns. Lack of scientific consensus on the safety of GM foods and crops are one of the reasons European Union and French government are formulating regulations to keep GMOs out of their countries, dependent on further long-term research.

Science is not exact

One area of concern that has been raised with genetically modifying foods is the science is not exact. The genome of any living organism is very complex and the resulting DNA in a plant when foreign genes are introduced is not always as anticipated. One example is in proteins—engineered plants have what is called “rogue proteins”–in other words proteins that are truncated, quite different than expected. These types of differences and their effects on the human body have not been investigated.

Another area of concern is the fact that genetically engineered crops are typically more contaminated with glyphosates than conventional crops since GM crops have been engineered to withstand very high levels of herbicides such as Roundup where glyphosates are the predominant ingredient. Glyphosates sprayed on a plant become systemic and thus will be ingested, landing in the gut and causing imbalance in the bacteria (good and bad). This not only causes inflammation, but also leads the body to reject certain foods which we call allergies or intolerances. No one would deny the increase in the incidence of food allergies over the last few decades, and it would not be farfetched to conclude that GMOs may play a part in this.

Another effect of ingesting glyphosates is the production of ammonia as the body metabolizes it. High levels of ammonia have been linked to disruptions in brain functions and inflammation (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease and autism).

You may or may not wish to avoid foods that have been genetically engineered, but it is almost impossible to do so since currently genetic modification does not have to be stated on the label. Organically raised food would be your best bet although because of herbicide drift and seed contamination, this is not a certainty.