Are genetically modified foods safe to eat?

By Emily Journey / Contributor

Much has been researched and written about the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food. And the findings and opinions are fervently divided.

Are genetically modified foods safe to eat?

By Emily Journey / Contributor

Much has been researched and written about the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food. And the findings and opinions are fervently divided.

All of our discussions on this blog have inspired deep thoughts and intense conversations around important GMO issues: GMO labeling, GMO banning, if GMOs are bad for the environment and whether organic foods are also GMO-free. All of these debates and discussions lead us to the ultimate question: Are genetically modified foods safe to eat?

I’ve done a lot of research and have concluded there are different answers from two different camps. One camp says genetically modified foods are safe to eat, and the other camp that says they are not.

Genetically Modified Foods are Safe to Eat — The Yes Camp

In May of 2016, the National Academy of Sciences released a comprehensive 606-page report entitled, “Genetically Engineered Crops Experiences and Prospects.” In it, researchers took a good hard look at the environmental and social impacts of GMOs, whether they reduce pesticide use, and if they are safe to eat.

A National Geographic article said the report determined that “no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health and safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts.” That means no increase in food allergies, no effects on the GI tract, no spikes in autism, obesity, cancer or kidney disease were found.

They did cite a few small disclosures, however: There ARE limits to what we can know, and any new food — whether genetically engineered or not — could elicit health effects over time, even if nothing is detected after careful scrutiny upfront.

So basically, they are as sure as they can be that GMOs are safe.

The American Medical Association agrees. Dr. Patrice Harris, AMA board member, said the AMA-adopted policy supporting GMOs recognized “that there currently is no evidence that there are material differences or safety concerns in available bioengineered foods.” 

They further state that in all of the studies published in professional journals over the last 20 years, no significant harm has been directly tied to genetic engineering. That being said, the AMA understands the public’s safety concerns, and supports preventative FDA systemic safety assessments to ensure public health.

The World Health Organization says that general safety statements about GMOs are not possible to make, and that each food should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. However, “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.” They add that in countries where GMOs are approved, no effects on human health have been shown.

I’ve got one more for you: The American Association for the Advancement of Science also describes GMOs as safe. In October of 2012, the AAAS Board of Directors issued the following statement: “Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” 

These are some big, respected names that stand behind the safety of GMOs. Why is it then, that despite the fact that 90 percent of scientists believe GMOs are safe, do roughly two thirds of consumers disagree? Why do some individuals and organizations speak out against GMOs if so many reputable agencies have determined they are as safe as anything else out there?

Meet the No camp.

Genetically Modified Foods are NOT Safe to Eat — The No Camp

One of the leaders of the no camp is the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), who in a two part blog series goes into great detail about “The Great GMO Cover-up.”  

The blog contains claims that the glyphosate-based herbicide Monsanto uses in Roundup blocks mineral absorption, is a probable human carcinogen and has been linked to birth defects. They claim that animal testing has revealed “cancer, organ damage, signs of aging, immune system problems, hormone imbalance, reproductive and development problems and premature death.” They state that the research from companies like Monsanto distorts or denies any adverse findings. The blog goes on and on. You can read it here and learn more about the many alleged problems associated with GMOs, and the alleged cover-ups by companies and government.

U.S. Right to Know is not quite as forceful as the IRT, but says that “genetically engineered foods may someday provide benefits to consumers; however, at this time, the overwhelming majority do not.”

Their website states that the large volumes of herbicides used on corn, soybeans and other crops raises concerns about human health.

Stacy Malkan, media director of U.S. Right To Know, says corporations that benefit from biotechnology largely control the scientific agreement that GMO foods are safe. She cites a study signed by 300 scientists, physicians and scholars in January of 2015 that there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. The statement does not claim GMOs as safe or unsafe, but that the contradicting scientific evidence prevents a conclusive statement.

The Non-GMO Project also cautions against blanket GMO safety statements. They cite a study that found there are just as many research groups raising concerns about GMOs as groups finding them as safe and nutritious as other foods.  The study says that biotechnology companies conducted the groups that found GMOs to be safe. 

GMWatch published a blog on their website that challenges the assumptions the National Geographic article and others made about the “Genetically engineered crops: Experience and prospects” report by the National Academy of Sciences.  

GMWatch’s blog is entitled “No, ‘science’ has not confirmed that GMOs are safe to eat,” and points out that the 22-member committee that conducted the study was composed of at least 12 individuals either employed by global biotech firms or from organizations funded by them.

GMWatch, like IRT, cites many of the same health problems with rats that have been exposed to GMOs— liver and kidney toxicity, intestinal abnormalities, stomach lesions and more. They say the fact that no studies have shown adverse health effects from GMOs in humans is because no epidemiological studies have been carried out properly. Since GM meals aren’t even labeled in the U.S. (yet) a link between the GM crop and an illness cannot be made unless the effect was immediate, acute and obvious. So it would be difficult to blame a GM food for a slow growing illness, such as liver and kidney damage, cancer or allergies. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the cause.

Are genetically modified foods safe to eat? Who do you believe?

So it seems the no camp feels the yes camp’s position poses a conflict of interest. Five of the no camp members above imply the results of the yes camp are skewed based on who is writing the report, study or article.

What does the yes camp have to say?

GMO Answers says misinformation pays. They say that there are some groups that directly benefit from spreading negative information about GMOs, because they can sell their own goods or services as an earth-friendly or healthier alternative to GMOs.

Sounds pretty manipulative. But to it’s point, the IRT sells education materials, books and DVDs on its website. The U.S. Right to Know solicits donations. The Non-GMO Project developed its own fee-based product verification program with an annual renewal fee. GMWatch solicits donations, sells a book and receives funding from many organizations including IRT.

But keep in mind that GMO Answers is funded and supported by individuals employed by some of the big biotech firms. This is the same point that IRT and others make about a conflict of interest in GMO-supportive studies and statements.

Both sides accuse each other of having something to gain. Who do you think is right? Who do you think is spreading the misinformation? And most important of all, what is your answer to our infamous question: Are genetically modified foods safe to eat? Will you consume genetically modified foods yourself or prepare and serve them to your family? Let’s get the discussion started!

The report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is available for free:

Download PDF of report