Playing with nature can be risky, but genetic engineering is not some trendy new concept. So why are genetically modified munchies getting such a bad rap now?

Are Genetically Modified Foods Dangerous?

From breakfast cereal to beef jerky, 80 percent of processed foods are made with ingredients from genetically modified crops, or plants whose gene composition has been altered with the addition of foreign DNA. What's so great about changing what nature gave us?

These genetically-modified “franken foods” are meant to make the whole process of moving food from seed to store easier. Crops can be made resistant to insects, herbicides that are meant to kill weeds, drought, and disease, helping eliminate farmers' worry about these factors destroying their livelihoods. Aside from making crops stronger, nutrition can be altered by adding assets like vitamins, minerals, and proteins. Or maybe it's just about consumer experience — offering juicier, faster-ripening, or more intensely flavored and colorful foods The promoter of the cereal VERNALIZATION1 gene is sufficient for transcriptional induction by prolonged cold. Alonso-Peral, M.M., Oliver, S.N., Casao, M.C., et al. Division of Plant Industry, The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia PLoS One, 2011;6(12):e29456. Metabolic engineering of the omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid biosynthetic pathway into transgenic plants Ruiz-López, N., Sayanova, O., Napier, J.A., et al. Department of Biological Chemistry, Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, UK. Journal of Experimental Botany, 2012 Jan 30. Drought tolerance through biotechnology: improving translation from the laboratory to farmers' fields. Deikman, J., Petracek, M., Heard, .JE. Monsanto Company, Davis CA, United States. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 2012 Apr;23(2):243-50. Genetic engineering for increasing fungal and bacterial disease resistance in crop plants. Wally, O., Punja, Z.K. Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada. GM Crops, 2010 Jul-Sep;1(4):199-206. .

Fiddling With Food — Why It Matters

Fruit Bowl Photo by Kristine Lockwood Weeds and pests are always a problem with plants, but in un-modified crop fields, weed killer is sprayed only on the actual weeds to avoid killing the crops themselves (clearly farmers are not in the business of killing their own plants) Quantifying vapor drift of dicamba herbicides applied to soybean. Egan, J.F., Mortensen, D.A. Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania USA. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2012 Feb 23. . But with genetically modified plants, farmers can blanket entire fields in herbicides, easily knocking out every stray weed in sight without any risk to the big money-makers. Yep, it's quicker and easier, but what's left are herbicide-coated plants ready to hop on dinner tables everywhere The impact of altered herbicide residues in transgenic herbicide-resistant crops on standard setting for herbicide residues. Kleter, G.A, Unsworth, J.B, Harris, C.A. RIKILT-Institute of Food Safety, Wageningen University and Research Centre, Wageningen, Holland. Pest Management Science, 2011 Oct;67(10):1193-210 . The result? A delicious looking bowl of genetically modified, perfectly juicy, ripe, and tasty fruit… covered in weed killer. And weed killer isn't just a bad guy to weeds — studies suggest ingesting such compounds can be associated with gastrointestinal, neurological, and cardiovascular problems (depending on factors ranging from age of the consumer to levels of exposure) Acute human Glufosinate-containing herbicide poisoning. Mao, Y.C., Hung, D.Z., Wu, M.L., et al. Division of Clinical Toxicology, Department of Medicine, Taipei Veterans General Hospital , Taipei , Taiwan. Clinical Toxicology, 2012 Apr 5. . Plus, studies on both rats and fish have shown that ingesting weed killer causes cell and tissue damage in the kidneys, liver, heart, and adrenal glands Roundup causes oxidative stress in liver and inhibits acetylcholinesterase in muscle and brain of the fish Prochilodus lineatus. Modesto, K.A, Martinez, C.B. Departamento de Ciências Fisiológicas, Universidade Estadual de Londrina,Paraná, Brazil. Chemosphere, 2010 Jan;78(3):294-9. Roundup effects on oxidative stress parameters and recovery pattern of Rhamdia quelen. de Menezes, C.C., da Fonseca, M.B., Loro, V.L., et al. Programa de Pós, Graduação em Bioquímica Toxicológica, Laboratório de Toxicologia de Pesticidas em Peixes, Universidade Federal de Santa Maria, Santa Maria, Brasil. Archives of Environmental Contamination Toxicology, 2011 May;60(4):665-71. A comparison of the effects of three GM corn varieties on mammalian health. de Vendômois, J.S., Roullier, F., Cellier, D., et al. CRIIGEN, Paris, France. International Journal of Biological Sciences, 2009 Dec 10;5(7):706-26. . Research also suggests some of the active ingredients in these "weed killers" can cause birth defects in embryos of the animals they were tested on — so the same may be possible in humans European eel (Anguilla Anguilla) genotoxic and pro-oxidant responses following short-term exposure to Roundup—a glyphosphate-based herbicide. Guilherme, S., Gaivao, I., Santos, M.A., et al. Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies and Department of Biology, Campus Universitario de Santiago, Aveiro University, Portugal. Mutagenesis, 2010 Sep;25(5):523-30. Birth defects, season of conception, and sex of children born to presticide applicators living in the Red River Valley of Minnesota, USA. Garry, V.F., Harkins, M.E., Erickson, L.L., et al. Environmental Medicine and Pathology Laboratory, University of Minesota, Minneapolis, MN. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2002 Jun;110 Suppl 3:441-9. . Maybe the organic apple is a better choiceSounds great! But when science attempts \to modify nature, there are often unintended consequences. The debate over whether or not the actual genetic modifications are safe is rampant. The arguments range from fear that pieces of the added DNA can alter biological processes in humans to worries that the changes to one species' DNA may be accidentally transferred to other items Exogenous plant MIR168a specifically targets mammalian LDLRAP1: evidence of cross-kingdom regulation by microRNA. Zhang, L., Hou, D., Chen, X., et al. Jiangsu Engineering Research Center for microRNA Biology and Biotechnology, State Key Laboratory of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, School of Life Sciences, Nanjing University, China. Cell Research, 2012 Jan;22(1):107-26. . Some scientists also worry that transplanted DNA or genes from one plant species into another food may cause unintended consequences like deadly allergic reactions. Say what?! Yep, so peanut allergy sufferers beware: One ongoing study is experimenting with using a protein from peanuts to extend the shelf life of vegetables. Another study on soy beans enhanced with a protein from Brazil nuts found that the allergen from the nut transferred to the soy beans Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans. Nordlee, J.A., Taylor, S.L., Townsend, J.A., et al. Department of Food Science and Technology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln. New England Journal of Medicine, 1996 Mar 14;334(11):688-92. ! But this big debate aside, what's been suggested as one of the most direct threats and downsides to the process is that a higher level of pesticides and herbicides end up on much of the food on produce shelves.

Side Effects of Science — The Answer/Debate

The good news is that all genetically modified foods are examined and studied by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for toxicity and allergens to get the stamp of approval before they make it to grocery store shelves.

Since the 1990’s, when genetically modified foods hit the scene, they have gotten the A-Okay from the EPA, USDA, and FDA, and many studies suggest no adverse side effects, and no studies have explicitly shown that genetically modified foods are less safe than their conventional equivalents High throughput sequence-based analysis of the intestinal microbiota of weanling pigs fed genetically modified Bt MON810 maize for 31 days. Buzoianu, S.G., Walsh, M.C., Rea, M.C., et al. Teagasc, Pig Development Department, Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation Centre, Moorepark, Fermony, Co. Cork, Ireland. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 2012 March 30. . Another concern may be that there are no long term studies on the effects of genetically-modified foods, so it’s possible that the gene mix-n-match strategy can have negative consequences ranging from allergic reactions to antibiotic resistance Potential adverse health effects of genetically modified crops. Bakshi, A. Biology Department, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, USA. Journal Toxicology and Environmental Health Part B Critical Rev, 2003 May-Jun;6(3):211-25. .

A simple solution would be to avoid genetically-modified foods, but they aren’t required to be labeled, so it’s difficult to determine which products contain genetically-altered ingredients, or which items on the produce stand are doused in potentially dangerous herbicide residue A comparison of the effects of three GM corn varieties on mammalian health. de Vendômois, J.S., Roullier, F., Cellier, D., et al. CRIIGEN, Paris, France. International Journal of Biological Sciences, 2009 Dec 10;5(7):706-26. . However, more and more GMO-free foods are being labeled as such. The easiest way to steer clear of GMOs? Buy organic, since organic foods are bioengineering-free.

  • Genetically modifying can make crops resistant to insects, herbicides that are meant to kill weeds, drought, and disease; can alter nutrition by adding vitamins, minerals, and proteins; and can be made juicier, tastier, and more colorful.
  • Arguments over the safety of GMOs range from fear that added DNA can alter biological processes in humans, to worries that the changes to one species' DNA may be accidentally transferred to other items.
  • Others fear that potentially dangerous pesticides and herbicides get sprayed all over the foods that then end up on our produce shelves. Consumption of these chemicals has been associated with gastrointestinal, neurological, and cardiovascular problems, and birth defects.
  • Many studies suggest no adverse side effects, and no studies have explicitly shown that genetically modified foods are less safe than their conventional equivalents.

What do you think about GMOs in our grocery stores? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below!

This article has been approved by Greatist experts Dr. Doug Kalman and Aaron Mauck.

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