Genetically modified (GM) foods: are they safe or harmful? While regulatory authorities have approved GM food that is on the market, some people are concerned that there is a risk of harm. Many foods we eat may contain ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If you live in Europe, avoiding GM foods is easier, since laws require labeling. In the U.S. and Canada, however, food manufacturers are not required to label their food as genetically modified or not. Here are some guidelines for steering clear of GM foods in your diet, if that is your choice.
1) Become familiar with the most common applications of genetic modification. These are the products (and their derivatives) that are most likely to be genetically modified:
- Soybeans — Gene taken from bacteria (Agrobacterium sp. strain CP4) and inserted into soybeans to make them more resistant to herbicides. See How to Live With a Soy Allergy for more information on avoiding soy products.
- Corn — There are two main varieties of GE corn. One has a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis inserted to produce the Bt toxin, which poisons Lepidoteran pests (moths and butterflies). There are also several things that are resistant to various herbicides present in high fructose corn syrup and glucose/fructose, prevalent in a wide variety of foods in America.
- Rapeseed/Canola — Gene added/transferred to make the crop more resistant to herbicide.
- Sugar beets — Gene added/transferred to make crop more resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.
- Cotton — engineered to produce Bt toxin. The seeds are pressed into cottonseed oil, a common ingredient in vegetable oil and margarine.
- Dairy — Cows injected with GE hormone rBGH/rBST; possibly fed GM grains and hay.
- Sugar. In 2012, the FDA approved the sale of GMO beet sugars under the name “SUGAR.” So now, when we go to buy “All Natural” Breyers ice cream, we can’t even know for sure that we are actually eating regular, natural cane sugar. If you see “CANE SUGAR,” there’s a good chance it’s not GMO. This is one of the biggest frustrations with labeling, as sugar is in so many things, and we might think we’re avoiding food that POSSIBLY has GMO sugar, but we’re really not.
- Corn sold directly to the consumer at roadside stands/markets. Buy only organic corn, popcorn, and corn chips.
- Baked goods often have one or more of the common GM ingredients. Why do we need corn or soy in our bread, snacks, and desserts? It’s hard to find mixes to use as well. Some brands avoid GMOs; find those you like and try to stick with them. Organic is one option; learning how to cook brownies, etc., from scratch with your own organic oils is another.
2) Buy food labeled 100% organic. The U.S. and Canadian governments do not allow manufacturers to label something 100% organic if that food has been genetically modified or been fed genetically modified feed. You may find that organic food is more expensive and different in appearance from conventional products.
- Also, just because something says “organic,” it does not mean that it doesn’t contain GMOs. In fact, it can still contain up to 30% GMOs, so be sure the label says 100% organic.
3) Trusted Organic Certification institutions include QAI, Oregon Tilth, and CCOF. Look for their mark of approval on the label of the product. USDA Organic standards pale in comparison. Do not consider a product 100% organic if it is only USDA Organic Certified.
- This applies to eggs as well. Eggs labeled “free-range,” “natural,” or “cage-free” are not necessarily GE-free; look for eggs that are 100% organic.
4) Recognize fruit and vegetable label numbers.
- If it is a 4-digit number, the food is conventionally produced.
- If it is a 5-digit number beginning with an 8, it is GM. However, do not trust that GE foods will have a PLU identifying it as such, because PLU labeling is optional.
- If it is a 5-digit number beginning with a 9, it is organic.
5) Purchase beef that is 100% grass-fed. Most cattle in the U.S. are grass-fed but spend the last portion of their lives in feedlots in which they may be given GM corn, the purpose of which is to increase intramuscular fat and marbling. If you’re looking to stay away from GMOs, make sure the cattle were 100% grass-fed or pasture-fed (sometimes referred to as grass-finished or pasture-finished).
- The same applies to meat from other herbivores, such as sheep.
- There is also the slight possibility that the animals were fed GM alfalfa, although this is less likely if you buy meat locally.
- With nonruminants like pigs and poultry that cannot be 100% grass-fed, it’s better to look for meat that is 100% organic.
6) Seek products that are specifically labeled as non-GMO or GMO-free. It was once rare to find products labeled as such, but thanks to organizations such as the Non-GMO Project they are becoming more common. You can also research websites that list companies and foods that do not use genetically modified foods,but be aware that some information is often incomplete, and conflicting interests may not be declared.
7) Shop locally. Although more than half of all GM foods are produced in the U.S., most of it comes from large industrial farms. By shopping at farmers’ markets, signing up for a subscription from a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, or patronizing a local co-op, you may be able to avoid GM products and possibly save money at the same time.
- More and more small farms are offering grains and meat directly to customers, in addition to the usual fare (vegetables, fruit, herbs, etc.).
- Shopping locally may also give you the opportunity to speak to the farmer and find out how he or she feels about GMOs and whether or not they use them in their own operation.
8) Buy whole foods. Favor foods that you can cook and prepare yourself, rather than foods that are processed or prepared (e.g., anything that comes in a box or a bag, including fast food). What you lose in convenience, you may recover in money saved and satisfaction gained, as well as increased peace of mind. Try cooking a meal from scratch once or twice a week; you may enjoy it and decide to do it more often.
9) Grow your own food. This way, you know exactly what was grown and what went into growing it.
- Don’t be fooled by “natural” or “all natural.” This is simply clever marketing and has no significance. Studies show that a consumer would prefer the “natural” label over organic! Consumers often think it means organic, but it means nothing insofar as quality or health is concerned.
- Producers who label their food GMO-free don’t make any health claims regarding the product.
- QCS is another organic certifying agency of merit.
- At chain and non-chain restaurants, you can ask which, if any, of their foods contain GMOs, but the waiters/waitresses and kitchen staff are not likely to know. Ask them to find out what oils they cook with. It is usually one of the big four: corn, soy, canola, or cottonseed. You may request butter to be used instead, though these are often products from cows fed GM corn feed; it is a secondary product.
- If you are growing your own plants from seed, make sure the company has taken the “safe seed pledge.”
The health benefits of eating organic and non-GMO
Whether you think buying food produced without chemicals intuitively makes more sense, or you rely on the federal government’s regulation to ensure the safety of food, a simple grocery store trip can turn into a paralyzing maze of label reading and product comparison.
Numerous studies document the damaging effects of petroleum-based fertilizers, artificial ingredients, insecticides, hormones, unnatural diets for livestock, and Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs. However raucous the rhetoric sounds on both sides of the organic versus better-farming-through-chemistry debate, some areas of organic food production show clear benefits for individuals and the environment.
AGA certified grass-fed beef
AGA certified grass-fed beef comes from cows never fed grain, corn, soybeans, or animal by-products, or given antibiotics or hormones during their lifetime. Standard grass-fed beef is different in that the commitment to not using antibiotics or hormones is voluntary, and the beef can still be sent to feedlots at the end of their lives and confined to eating only grain to “bulk up” before slaughter.
However, according to the Mayo Clinic website, both types of grass-fed beef have “less total fat, more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and more antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin E” than conventional or organic beef. The website also notes that it carries “more conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat that’s thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks.”
Conventional dairy cows are given recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rBST) in order to boost milk production. This hormone leads to increased levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) in cows that then shows up in milk. According to Rick North, former CEO of the Oregon division of the American Cancer Society, IGF-1 doesn’t break down in the human digestive tract and is linked to breast, prostate, and colon cancers. For that reason, rBGH and rBST are banned for use in nearly all industrialized countries except the United States.
Buying milk labeled rBGH-free, rBST-free, or organic ensures consumers don’t ingest IGF-1 caused by added hormones or antibiotics in their milk.
The FDA currently allows nutritive sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup in conventional dairy products, and in February 2013, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation asked the FDA to allow them to add artificial sweeteners such as aspartame to milk products without labeling them. According to Yale researcher Dana Small in an interview with CBC News, aspartame not only interferes with brain chemistry and hormones involved in measuring appetite, it also “changes metabolic responses, increase[s] risks for things like Type 2 diabetes and also increase[s] risk for obesity.”
Currently, buying organic dairy products will ensure that unlabeled aspartame and other artificial sweeteners- and the effects caused by them- will not affect your health.
Organic fruits and vegetables
Conflicting research exists over the nutritional superiority of organic fruits and vegetables over conventional fruits and vegetables. A variety of studies have been conducted on the safety of the pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, and fungicides used in growing conventional produce. Animals in many of the studies have developed harmful side effects from these synthetic controls.
For example, atrazine is a widely used herbicide. In 2010 researchers in Berkeley, California discovered that male frogs grew female reproductive organs when exposed to water with levels of atrazine even lower than those currently allowed by the FDA. Some of the males simply acted more like their female counterparts, but other males were able to bear functional young. The FDA considers 3 parts per billion of atrazine in human drinking water acceptable. The frogs changed sex in 2.5 parts per billion contaminated water.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup (the most popular herbicide used on crops worldwide) has, as recently as April 2013, been found to “enhance the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and environmental toxins.” The authors of the research, Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff, say the negative impact develops over time, with inflammation slowly damaging cellular systems throughout the body. According to the authors, glyphosate in the human system leads to “most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, [such as] gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Although buying organic is a good way to reduce exposure to synthetic chemicals, the USDA does allow naturally derived pesticides to be used on organic crops. Some of those compounds, especially those containing copper compounds used as fungicides, have environmentalists and scientists worried.
Jeff Gilman, professor of nursery management at the University of Minnesota, says the best way to minimize exposure is to buy local produce at a local farmers market.
It seems that the benefit of buying organic is more about what isn’t in the food than what is.
Genetically Modified Organisms differ from traditional plant breeding of the past because in this biotechnology, genes from totally different species are mixed together. For example, Monsanto’s GMO corn is made by taking genes from the bacterium Bt and combining it with the corn’s own genes. A plant resistant to application of the Roundup herbicide emerges from this genetically modified seed.
GMO corn is used in many non-organic processed items and is also used to make high fructose corn syrup. Many in the international and scientific community wonder about the safety of GMOs.
A 2012 French study published in the international journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, the only study to examine the long term effects of GMOs, found that rats fed a diet of Monsanto’s GMO corn developed enormous tumors and suffered organ damage. The effects were particularly bad for the female rats.
GMO use, while banned in other countries, continues to rise in the United States. In 1999, McDonald’s tried to bring a GMO potato to its stores, but consumer backlash led them to reconsider and eventually decide not to move forward with the GMO potato idea. However, McDonald’s is now revisiting that decision. Simplot, makers of the potato, has requested “unregulated approval” from the USDA. The public has only a month to post comments to regulations.gov to register their opinion on the granting of this approval request.
More research needed
The 2008-2009 Annual Report of the President’s Cancer Panel criticized the federal government for their reactionary approach to regulating toxic contaminants used for agriculture and other industries. It stated that, “Instead of taking preventative action when uncertainty exists about the potential harm a chemical or other environmental contaminant may cause, a hazard must be incontrovertibly demonstrated before action to ameliorate it is initiated.”
For consumers wanting to take a “better safe than sorry” approach, buying local and organic promises the most health benefits.
10 Reasons to Avoid GMOs
1. GMOs are unhealthy.
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) urges doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for all patients. They cite animal studies showing organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, accelerated aging, and infertility. Human studies show how genetically modified (GM) food can leave material behind inside us, possibly causing long-term problems. Genes inserted into GM soy, for example, can transfer into the DNA of bacteria living inside us, and that the toxic insecticide produced by GM corn was found in the blood of pregnant women and their unborn fetuses.
Numerous health problems increased after GMOs were introduced in 1996. The percentage of Americans with three or more chronic illnesses jumped from 7% to 13% in just 9 years; food allergies skyrocketed, and disorders such as autism, reproductive disorders, digestive problems, and others are on the rise. Although there is not sufficient research to confirm that GMOs are a contributing factor, doctors groups such as the AAEM tell us not to wait before we start protecting ourselves, and especially our children who are most at risk.
The American Public Health Association and American Nurses Association are among many medical groups that condemn the use of GM bovine growth hormone, because the milk from treated cows has more of the hormone IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1)―which is linked to cancer.
2. GMOs contaminate―forever.
GMOs cross pollinate and their seeds can travel. It is impossible to fully clean up our contaminated gene pool. Self-propagating GMO pollution will outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste. The potential impact is huge, threatening the health of future generations. GMO contamination has also caused economic losses for organic and non-GMO farmers who often struggle to keep their crops pure.
3. GMOs increase herbicide use.
Most GM crops are engineered to be “herbicide tolerant”―they deadly weed killer. Monsanto, for example, sells Roundup Ready crops, designed to survive applications of their Roundup herbicide.
Between 1996 and 2008, US farmers sprayed an extra 383 million pounds of herbicide on GMOs. Overuse of Roundup results in “superweeds,” resistant to the herbicide. This is causing farmers to use even more toxic herbicides every year. Not only does this create environmental harm, GM foods contain higher residues of toxic herbicides. Roundup, for example, is linked with sterility, hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer.
4. Genetic engineering creates dangerous side effects.
By mixing genes from totally unrelated species, genetic engineering unleashes a host of unpredictable side effects. Moreover, irrespective of the type of genes that are inserted, the very process of creating a GM plant can result in massive collateral damage that produces new toxins, allergens, carcinogens, and nutritional deficiencies.
5. Government oversight is dangerously lax.
Most of the health and environmental risks of GMOs are ignored by governments’ superficial regulations and safety assessments. The reason for this tragedy is largely political. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for example, doesn’t require a single safety study, does not mandate labeling of GMOs, and allows companies to put their GM foods onto the market without even notifying the agency. Their justification was the claim that they had no information showing that GM foods were substantially different. But this was a lie. Secret agency memos made public by a lawsuit show that the overwhelming consensus even among the FDA’s own scientists was that GMOs can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects. They urged long-term safety studies. But the White House had instructed the FDA to promote biotechnology, and the agency official in charge of policy was Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney, later their vice president. He’s now the US Food Safety Czar.
6. The biotech industry uses “tobacco science” to claim product safety.
Biotech companies like Monsanto told us that Agent Orange, PCBs, and DDT were safe. They are now using the same type of superficial, rigged research to try and convince us that GMOs are safe. Independent scientists, however, have caught the spin-masters red-handed, demonstrating without doubt how industry-funded research is designed to avoid finding problems, and how adverse findings are distorted or denied.
7. Independent research and reporting is attacked and suppressed.
Scientists who discover problems with GMOs have been attacked, gagged, fired, threatened, and denied funding. The journal Nature acknowledged that a “large block of scientists . . . denigrate research by other legitimate scientists in a knee-jerk, partisan, emotional way that is not helpful in advancing knowledge.” Attempts by media to expose problems are also often censored.
8. GMOs harm the environment.
GM crops and their associated herbicides can harm birds, insects, amphibians, marine ecosystems, and soil organisms. They reduce bio-diversity, pollute water resources, and are unsustainable. For example, GM crops are eliminating habitat for monarch butterflies, whose populations are down 50% in the US. Roundup herbicide has been shown to cause birth defects in amphibians, embryonic deaths and endocrine disruptions, and organ damage in animals even at very low doses. GM canola has been found growing wild in North Dakota and California, threatening to pass on its herbicide tolerant genes on to weeds.
9. GMOs do not increase yields, and work against feeding a hungry world.
Whereas sustainable non-GMO agricultural methods used in developing countries have conclusively resulted in yield increases of 79% and higher, GMOs do not, on average, increase yields at all. This was evident in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2009 report Failure to Yield―the definitive study to date on GM crops and yield.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report, authored by more than 400 scientists and backed by 58 governments, stated that GM crop yields were “highly variable” and in some cases, “yields declined.” The report noted, “Assessment of the technology lags behind its development, information is anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty about possible benefits and damage is unavoidable.” They determined that the current GMOs have nothing to offer the goals of reducing hunger and poverty, improving nutrition, health and rural livelihoods, and facilitating social and environmental sustainability.
On the contrary, GMOs divert money and resources that would otherwise be spent on more safe, reliable, and appropriate technologies.
10. By avoiding GMOs, you contribute to the coming tipping point of consumer rejection, forcing them out of our food supply.
Because GMOs give no consumer benefits, if even a small percentage of us start rejecting brands that contain them, GM ingredients will become a marketing liability. Food companies will kick them out. In Europe, for example, the tipping point was achieved in 1999, just after a high profile GMO safety scandal hit the papers and alerted citizens to the potential dangers. In the US, a consumer rebellion against GM bovine growth hormone has also reached a tipping point, kicked the cow drug out of dairy products by Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Dannon, Yoplait, and most of America’s dairies.
The Campaign for Healthier Eating in America is designed to achieve a tipping point against GMOs in the US. The number of non-GMO shoppers needed is probably just 5% of the population. The key is to educate consumers about the documented health dangers and provide a Non-GMO Shopping Guide to make avoiding GMOs much easier.