When Is GMO Not GMO?
Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney
I’m probably going to get lots of hate mail for this week’s “Health Tips from the Professor” because I’m finally going to tackle the GMO controversy.
You see, the GMO controversy is very much like Washington politics. On one side of the aisle, you have the people who are absolutely convinced that anything GMO is terrible. On the other side of the aisle, you have people who are absolutely convinced that there are no problems with GMO foods. And both sides are convinced that their opponents have absolutely nothing of intelligence to say on the topic.
So almost anything I say about GMO is bound to offend somebody. But nobody ever accused me of being timid, so let’s get started.
What Are The Health Risks Of Genetically Modified Foods?
I’m going to start with the supposed health risks of GMO foods because that’s my area of greatest expertise, and I’m going to evaluate those health risks from the viewpoint of a card-carrying biochemist. I’ve seen the scary pictures and alarming statements posted on many anti-GMO web sites, but objective evidence that genetically modified foods are harmful to humans is underwhelming at present.
Modifications to DNA And Health Risks
Let’s start at the beginning. Genetic modification occurs in the DNA, and on that basis GMO foods have some potential, but yet unproven, risks. Let me give you an example:
- Some genetically modified foods carry genes for naturally occurring pesticides so that if bugs try to eat the leaves of those plants they will die.
- When we eat foods occasionally small pieces of their DNA will find their way into our intestinal track.
- We have bacteria in our intestinal tracts that excel at picking up small pieces of DNA and inserting them into their genome.
- So it is theoretically possible that those bacteria might start producing in our intestines the same pesticides produced by the genetically modified foods we ate.
It is an interesting idea, but to my knowledge one that has not yet been shown to have actually occurred in a human being.
Modifications to Proteins And Health Risks
A more likely risk comes from the proteins contained in genetically modified foods:
- Genetic modifications in the DNA result in the production of modified proteins, so GMO foods, GMO protein powders and foods made from GMO protein sources can be a source of unsuspected food allergies.
- Unfortunately, food allergies, especially those from genetically modified protein sources, are very difficult to quantify, so we have no good data on how big a problem this actually is.
However, it would be very surprising if there weren’t some individuals with food allergies to genetically modified proteins.
When Is GMO Not GMO?
Many of the GMO opponents take it one step further and want to label as GMO any food or supplement that contains any ingredient made from a genetically modified food. This is where the science is clearly on the other side of the aisle. With respect to purified sugars, purified oils, vitamins and other purified nutrients obtained from foods there is no difference between GMO and non-GMO because these purified nutrients contain neither DNA nor protein.
Should GMO Labeling Be Required For All Food Ingredients?
For the most part, it isn’t even possible for most manufacturers to produce foods or supplements with all non-GMO ingredients. When the whole GMO issue first entered public awareness the food industry was guided by the science. It made good business sense for them to create a capacity, a pipeline if you will, to make sure that non-GMO protein sources were available to meet the market demand for companies that wanted to make non-GMO protein products for this new GMO-adverse market.
But, nobody anticipated the emotional demand for non-GMO sugars, oils and the like. There was no scientific basis for that demand, so none of the suppliers created the capacity to meet that demand. Currently there is only enough of those kinds of non-GMO ingredients to meet the needs of the bit players in the market. There simply aren’t enough of those ingredients to satisfy the requirements of any manufacturer who deals in the mass market. That, for example, is the reason big players in the market lobbied against the recent California and Washington State propositions that would have required a food product to be labeled GMO if any ingredient in the food was GMO.
Genetically Modified Foods And The Environment
Now that I have managed to alienate almost everyone, I should point out that there are some non-health issues around GMO foods.
- The biggest issue is that many of the genetically modified foods contain modifications that make them resistant to herbicides, and that encourages overuse of those herbicides with the resultant pollution of air, soil, and water.
- Another concern is that the increasing reliance on genetically modified food crops is leading to a decrease in the genetic diversity of those crops, which could make them more susceptible to a new virus or pest in the future. This is a theoretical concern, but there is historical precedence for believing that it could happen.
- Finally, laws that prevent subsistent farmers from saving their own seed for next season’s planting is a major concern in Third World countries. But, that is more an issue of corporate greed than it is of genetic modification.
The Bottom Line:
What is the take-home lesson for you?
From a health perspective:
- Genetically modified proteins are likely to be a food allergy risk for some people, but we have no good data on how many people are affected by this kind of food allergy
- Genetically modified DNA is a theoretical concern because of the ability of intestinal bacteria to pick up pieces of DNA, but we have no evidence at present that this has actually ever caused a problem in people.
- With respect to sugars, oils, and other nutrients extracted from foods it makes no difference whether the food was GMO or non-GMO
From an environmental perspective:
- Genetic modifications leading to herbicide resistance are a significant environmental concern because it encourages overuse of herbicides.
- Lack of genetic diversity from the overuse of GMO food crops is a theoretical concern, but one with historical precedence.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.