More and more of my patients are asking for my opinion on GMOs, the acronym for genetically modified organisms. Are these foods harmful, and, if so, how bad are they?
Those are very good questions, so let’s take a look at the issue…
GMO foods have been on the market for nearly 20 years, since 1996. During those years, most of us have eaten GMOs in many foods, from soybeans, beef, dairy products, corn, beets, sugar, cottonseed, and rapeseed, which is used to make canola oil.
The USDA reports that about 94 percent of all soy and 75 percent of all corn grown in this country is genetically modified. Meanwhile, experts estimate that as much as 75 percent of the processed foods sold in this country contain GMO ingredients.
What Is a Genetically Modified Food?
The process of genetic modification involves inserting a gene from bacteria or a virus (or a gene that helps plants survive the application of highly toxic pesticides) into an organism where it would normally not be found. The purpose is to alter the genetic code in plants and animals to make them more productive or resistant to pests or farming techniques, like being doused with chemicals that would ordinarily kill them.
Soybeans that have been genetically modified, for example, can survive applications of herbicides that would destroy an organic soybean plant. Similarly, you might have read headlines recently about the controversy over genetically modified salmon. In this case, fish genes are tweaked with a growth hormone that causes the fish to double in size far more quickly than it usually would, so fish farmers can increase their profits. So far the GMO fish have not been approved for our food supply, but I cannot say with any confidence that it will never happen.
What’s the Problem?
Strengthening soybeans and fattening fish might not seem controversial on the surface, but there are some very real concerns here. Understand that the issue of GMOs is quite complicated. I’ve created the chart below to help clarify some of the pros and cons:
Growing GMO plants is supposed to allow farmers to:
- Spend less money producing more food.
- Use fewer pesticides and herbicides.
- Do less tilling to remove weeds, thereby protecting the soil.
The downsides of farming with GMOs include:
- Creating “super weeds” that have evolved a resistance to glyphosate, a common herbicide in GMO food production.
- Plants that produce their own insecticide, a bacterial toxin Bacillus thuringiensis (BT), which has led to BT-resistant bugs.
- A human population that is unwittingly consuming BT, too, since the insecticide is part of GMO plants.
- Disappointing crop yields and doubt over the environmental benefits of reduced tilling.
Often, GMO advocates claim that, since many plants already have the ability to produce their own pest repellents, GMO plants, which can be engineered to produce their own pesticides, are no different. Wrong! Yes, Mother Nature did give plants an ability to defend themselves from natural enemies, but we’ve been eating these plants for a very long time, so our bodies recognize these substances and are accustomed to dealing with them.
The pesticides from GMO plants are new to humans, and, right now, we don’t know how our bodies will handle them. However, we definitely do know that pesticides (a term that includes herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides) are linked to cancer, neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s, and a number of other very serious health concerns. They have also been shown to cause cancer in children.
Another problem with GMO crops was discovered earlier this year, when an Oregon farmer found GMO wheat growing in fields where he had not planted it. Although that story is still developing, it appears that other GMO plants have also escaped into the nation’s farmland. If this cross-contamination continues, the consequences could affect the entire food supply, making us all unwilling guinea pigs in a massive and very dangerous experiment.
Common Foods Likely To Contain GMOs
When I buy any of these foods I shop for organic versions, or varieties bearing a “Non GMO” label.
- Non-organic dairy products
- Soy in any form (oil, tofu, protein powder, meat substitutes, etc.)
- Vegetable oil
- Salad dressings
- Granola bars
- Chicken nuggets
- Yellow squash
- Anything containing high fructose corn syrup
- Bread and crackers
Are GMO Foods Safe?
To put it bluntly, no one can really answer that question. Monsanto, the corporation that owns patents on many GMO seeds, assures us that these foods are harmless and points to studies – many of which the company has conducted itself – demonstrating that. These studies, however, have been widely criticized for their obvious bias, and I agree with those assessments. The Monsanto studies only prove that data can be manipulated, not that the products are safe. So, without high-quality, objective information, the debate quickly turns into a he said/she said standoff, leaving us with more questions than answers.
Meanwhile, although these foods are being sold in the U.S., GMO foods are either banned or severely limited throughout much of Europe, including the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, France, and Germany. And a long list of other countries are following suit, including Japan, China and Brazil. In fact, Monsanto has virtually stopped lobbying for GMO planting in Europe due to low demand by farmers and consumers.
Here is another concern: Monsanto has spent millions of dollars defeating legislation in states like California that would have required foods containing GMOs to be labeled. In addition, a recently passed Farm Assurance law, commonly referred to as the “Monsanto Protection Act”, essentially grandfathers farmers’ rights to utilize existing planting of GMO seeds and plants, even if we learn at a later date that these products have serious health consequences.
The company’s unwillingness to allow labeling and the fact that the Monsanto Protection Act has become law – in spite of a tremendous number of consumers who petitioned the government to veto the bill – certainly does not give me confidence that these foods are safe to consume. In fact, it suggests the company has something to hide. And Monsanto’s apparent “profits before people” attitude shows the reckless disregard the company has for consumers.
Meanwhile, the shocking outcome of a European study with lab animals has created even more questions. Rats in the study that were fed a popular GM corn developed horrifically oversized tumors and organ damage. That study has been widely criticized. But so have studies done by the industry showing that GMOs are safe.
The fact remains that there are no long-term studies demonstrating that GMO foods are healthy – or unhealthy. But given the results of studies I’ve seen, I avoid GMO products whenever possible for myself and my family, and I recommend that you do the same.
What Does the Latest Research Show?
Today, most people carry a heavy burden of toxins, ranging from plastics to heavy metals to compounds found in drugs and – nowadays – food and beverages. One of my major concerns about GMOs is that they could easily increase our toxic load, leading to even more cancer diagnoses.
And now, it turns out that even supposedly “safe” levels of one substance can cause cancer when combined with a “safe” level of another chemical. A new study from Texas Tech found that when low levels of estrogen are combined with small amounts of arsenic, lab animals were nearly twice as likely to develop prostate cancer as animals that were not exposed to estrogen and arsenic.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a choice about exposure to these substances. We are continually exposed to estrogen through the plastic products we use every day, as well as the lining of canned foods. Even small amounts of arsenic are very common in the environment.
New studies on the toxicity of various chemicals used to produce GMO products are not reassuring, either. One recent clinical trial, for example, found that glyphosate, a common herbicide ingredient used to grow GMO plants, caused human breast cancer cells to grow due to its estrogen-like qualities. This is significant because glyphosate was supposedly a safe ingredient with low toxicity.
No wonder so many people are confused and anxious about GMO foods. This is an extremely important issue that raises questions no one can answer with any surety right now.
But, since the answer affects the health of nearly everyone in the nation, here’s the advice I give my patients:
Eat organic produce, grass-fed beef, free-range poultry, and wild-caught fish whenever possible.
Yes, organic food, which has been grown without chemicals or growth hormones, does tend to cost a little more. But you can either pay a few cents more for organic produce, or you can pay a lot more for doctor visits, prescription medication, and hospital stays. Personally, I prefer to pay a bit extra for the peace of mind that comes with knowing my food is GMO free.
The debate over GMOs will likely continue for years. In the meantime, I hope we can develop national labeling standards that will make it easier to determine which foods have been modified and which have not, so at least we can all make informed choices.