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The Three Main Concerns About Genetically Modified Foods

Genetically Modified Foods: To Eat, or Not To Eat?

To eat genetically modified foods or not to eat, that is a question on the minds of many people around the world today. It has become difficult to avoid consuming these products simply because GM varieties are what farmers are planting. According to an article by TIME in April 2015, nearly 90% of acres dedicated to growing corn, soybeans and cotton were planted with genetically modified varieties of those crops.


Genetically Modified Foods: What Are We Afraid Of?

Why are people so concerned about genetically modified foods? What are they afraid of? When I have asked people why they object to GM foods, some have responded by saying they don’t want to eat foods that have been sprayed with pesticides and herbicides or foods that have been grown using certain types of fertilizer. While these may be legitimate concerns, they are not what genetic modification is about.

The World Health Organization defines genetically modified foods as “foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.”

Genetically Modified Foods: Three Areas of Concern

What are the real concerns about genetically modified crops and the foods derived from them? There are three primary areas of concern.

  1. The effect on the environment. There is the fear that certain traits of GM crops might be introduced into the wild.
  2. The effect on the human body. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are often used to mark genetically modified plant cells. Will this trait affect the good bacteria in the human digestive tract? Are genetically modified foods one of the reasons antibiotics are not as effective at fighting certain infections as they used to be?
  3. The unintended effects on the plants themselves. By adding a new protein to a plant, are we turning a nonallergenic plant into an allergenic plant which could become a health concern to consumers?

The Effect on the Environment

The issue: Certain genetic modifications of food crops may be able to spread to wild plants via cross pollination, introducing manmade character traits into nature.

An example: A 2010 National Public Radio report disclosed that canola plants in North Dakota, which are grown for canola oil, have been genetically modified to withstand the effects of herbicides. Those new genes have now been found in wild canola plants making it difficult to control their growth.

The cause for concern: Genetically modified plants grown on farms are given traits that will make them resistant to the effects of herbicides, pesticides and drought. If and when these plants cross pollinate with wild plants, the same traits may then be introduced to wild plants, i.e. weeds.


The Effect on the Human Body

The issue: Scientists make genetic modifications in certain plants. These modifications are made in individual cells of that plant. How do they know that the new plant has cells containing the modifications? The modified cells are made to be antibiotic resistant while cells that did not accept the modifications will not have antibiotic resistance. An antibiotic is then introduced among the cells. Those with resistance, which also have the desired modification, survive. The rest don’t. If no cells survive, the genetic modification failed.

An example:In the conclusion to their article in The Journal of Applied Microbiology, the authors claim that “no expert panel has ever identified significant risk, associated with the use of ARMs [antibiotic resistance markers] in plant biotechnology.”

PubMed is an online publication of the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine (NIH/NLM). They claim that “in two cases clinically important antibiotics have been used: a maize developed by Novartis contained a gene for ampicillin resistance, and a potato developed by Avebe contained a gene for amikacin resistance. A further complication with the maize is that the material was intended to be used unprocessed in animal feed and that the antibiotic resistance gene was under the control of a bacterial promoter. This led to concerns that the antibiotic resistance gene might be transferred to animal gut flora (including human pathogens), which might then acquire resistance to a clinically useful antibiotic. As a consequence, both these genetically modified crops are having difficulties gaining full regulatory approval.”

While this does not say that GM foods have actually caused antibiotic resistance in humans, it does show that such an event is theoretically possible and the authors suggest that steps should be taken to discontinue the use of antibiotic resistance markers in genetic modification of food crops.

The cause for concern: Humans consuming genetically modified plants are putting antibiotic resistant plant cells into their digestive systems. Will this have any effect on the good bacteria in their intestinal tract? Will this cause humans to be resistant to antibiotics?

A GMO Political Comedy

The Effect on the Plant Itself

The issue: Nearly all food allergies are the body’s reaction to a protein found within a particular food. Genetic modification of foods is basically the adding or removal of proteins. More correctly, genetic modification is the manipulation of the DNA and RNA of a plant food source so that it will synthesize a desired protein that otherwise would not exist in that plant. New proteins are sometimes created during genetic modification. Are these new proteins allergenic? Are allergy producing proteins being transferred from one plant into a different species of plant?

An example: Soybeans are a food source that is deficient in methionine. A protein from the Brazil-nut was introduced as a genetic modification to soybeans. Brazil-nuts contain a known allergen. The result was that the allergen of the Brazil-nut was passed on to the soybeans. Tests showed that individuals who were allergic to the Brazil-nut protein reacted to the genetically modified soybean. Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in GM soybeans.

The cause for concern: Proteins are the the substances which cause allergic reactions in some people. If allergenic proteins are introduced to a plant that was not originally allergenic, it could pose a health risk to an unsuspecting person with an allergy to that protein. New proteins which are created in the process of genetic modification could themselves be allergenic. All genetically modified foods are being tested specifically for allergenic properties.

FDA Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the US: Corn, Soybeans, Cotton

Bt=Pesticide resistant (Genetic modification) Ht=Herbicide resistant (Genetic modification)
Bt=Pesticide resistant (Genetic modification) Ht=Herbicide resistant (Genetic modification) | Source

Genetically Modified Papayas of Hawaii


Genetic Modification of Food Crops, A Grand Experiment

The age of genetically modified foods is fully upon us. There are those who attempt to avoid consuming these foods and object to the continuation of this practice. Others see genetic modification of foods as the path to better nutrition for consumers and more profit for farmers.

Ask the papaya farmers of Hawaii what they think about the genetic modification of papayas to withstand the ringspot virus. They will likely tell you it saved the industry and their own livelihood.

But the fact is, we don’t know what the long term effects of genetic modification of foods will be on the human body or the environment. All we have at present are opinions on both sides. For most of us, this is one of those issues that comes down to individual choices. But one thing is certain, and should concern all of us. Nature has taken a great deal of time to develop the varieties of food crops we have enjoyed in the past. There are built-in benefits to these plants that genetic modification will undoubtedly destroy (New York Times, Loss of Genetic Diversity Imperils Crop Advances).

Genetic modification of crops is a grand experiment, but we should not forever shut the door to returning to traditional, nonGM foods should the experiment prove to be a failure in the long term.

Nature’s Response

Nature is not static. It reacts to change and responds to stimuli. Those who are responsible for the genetic modification of food crops and those who support this technology are thinking and behaving as if nature will simply accept the change with no response. There will be a response. Adaptation is the history of all living organisms.

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