Genetically modified corn is safe according to a large meta-review

As I have written, the scientific consensus says that genetically modified crops, like corn, are safe for humans, animals, and the environment. The real science, published in real scientific journals and not anecdotes, beliefs, misinformation, and lies, tells us that genetically modified agricultural products are safe.

A large meta-review of research into genetically modified (GM) corn has supported several findings that there are no safety signals — you can consume GM corn all day long and you will suffer no ill consequences.

Genetically modified crops are one of those modern technologies that many people avoid, mainly for irrational and unscientific reasons. Of course, many people push fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about GMOs using little or no scientific evidence to support their claims.

But I’m here to provide real, published, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that contradicts that fear about GMOs – well, at least about GMO corn.

bowls or tortilla chips and fried pork rinds on a table with bottles of beers
One of my favorite uses of genetically modified corn. Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

All about GMOs

Let’s spend a few moments discussing GMOs. “Genetically modified” is one of those words that can have a variety of meanings. However, for this article, it means modifying the genome of an organism using one or more genes from another organism.

Although GMOs usually are used to describe foods, it has a broader meaning. For example, human insulin isn’t purified from humans, it is produced by bacteria that have had the human insulin gene inserted into their genome. It is the fastest and least expensive way of manufacturing sufficient human insulin for diabetics across the world. Yes, if you are diabetic, you are injecting genetically modified insulin to save your life.

Genetically modified corn usually contains genes for increased productivity, reduced levels of certain natural toxins that occur in corn, increase pesticide resistance, or other changes. Of course, we have been genetically modifying corn for 7-10 thousand years, when our ancestors domesticated an inedible wild grass, teosinte, through artificial selection.

You’re wondering how I can conflate modern genetic modifications of crops with the artificial selection that has been a staple of agriculture since the earliest days of human farming. Artificial selection, like natural selection, relies upon mutations to occur in a plant. In this case, maybe a farmer notices that some of his corn crops have larger ears more drought tolerance, pest resistance, or grow faster. The farmer, 10,000 years ago, may have taken the seeds from those plants and sowed them. Then some of those are even better at some characteristics, like drought resistance, and they sow those seeds. This has been repeated every year since the dawn of agriculture.

These mutations result from natural radiation, cosmic rays, or random mutations in genes that occur all the time in all organisms. That does not make the mutation better than transferring genes or anything else. Unless you believe in the appeal to nature logical fallacy. Of course, without these mutations, we’d be eating a type of wild grass, not a delicious ear of corn. Or getting corn oil for cooking. Or corn for food for agricultural animals.

Over the past hundreds of years, farmers learned how to induce genetic mutations to speed up the process, and they had no idea about genes, DNA, or artificial selection.

Genetic modification just speeds up artificial selection by controlling which mutations occur – in essence, scientists are creating the mutations that they want by adding or subtracting genes. There is literally no difference between “natural” mutations and genetically modified mutations, except for reducing the time for the mutation.

Let’s dismiss some other pseudoscience that’s out there about GMOs:

  1. No, these genes cannot transfer to humans. That’s laughable since if genes transferred from food to humans so easily, we would all be a huge ear of corn. Or a cow. Or an apple. Or whatever we have eaten.
  2. This DNA isn’t somehow going to get into your blood and do something terrible. The human digestive system breaks down all DNA consumed into simple nucleic acids the building blocks of all DNA in every single organism on the planet. Nucleic acids from GMO corn, a non-GMO apple, or organic, corn-fed steak are exactly the same – the human digestive system and cells that utilize the nucleic acids can’t tell the difference.
  3. GMO corn has nothing to do with glyphosate, whose dangers are vastly overstated by anti-GMO activists. The glyphosate = GMO corn strawman argument ignores all of the other benefits of genetic modification like drought resistance, pest resistance, removal of toxins, and overall productivity.
  4. Otherwise, there is no repeated, robust peer-reviewed evidence that establishes that GMO corn causes cancer, allergies, dead animals, or the extinction of sasquatch.
GMO corn

Now, the meta-review about genetically modified corn

The paper, by Elisa Pellegrino et al. and published in Nature Scientific Reports, a highly respected peer-reviewed journal, analyzed over 6000 published papers on GMO corn over the past 20 years. The researchers performed a meta-analysis on all of that research focusing on differences in productivity, toxicological, and environmental differences between GMO and non-GMO corn.

In case you were wondering, a meta-analysis (along with very similar systematic or meta-reviews) is the most powerful type of research in biomedical sciences. It is a cumulative analysis that draws from hundreds or thousands of published studies. A well-done meta-analysis gives more weight to the best studies while sorting out biased and poorly done studies. Meta-analyses form the basis of the scientific consensus, one of the most important principles in science.

So what did this study conclude?

The analysis, which used data from studies conducted worldwide, not just from the USA, showed that genetically-modified corn crops had yields 5.6 to 24.5 percent higher than non-GMO corn varieties. This contradicts the anti-GMO argument that GMO corn has not increased crop yields.

The study also showed that GMO corn crops had statistically significant lower levels of mycotoxins, a toxic metabolite from fungi that infect corn crops. They showed up to a 36.5% reduction in these mycotoxins in GMO corn crops.

Reducing mycotoxins is very important. These compounds are both toxic and carcinogenic to humans and animals (pdf). Non-GMO and organic corn often contain small, but potentially harmful, amounts of mycotoxins. GMO corn is more resistant to certain insect pests which can weaken the plant leading to fungal infections that produce mycotoxins.

The authors concluded:

The results support the cultivation of GE maize, mainly due to enhanced grain quality and reduction of human exposure to mycotoxins.

Several other studies (here, here, and here) used this data to conclude that genetically modified corn (or maize) was safe for humans, animals, and the environment. The research continues to be so consistent, so positive, and so clear, that it’s difficult to find any issue with genetically modified corn.

I know that people are going to argue non-sequiturs that “corporate farming blah blah blah,” or “Monsanto is evil,” or “it’s the glyphosate that is scary.” But I don’t care about that stuff, none of that is related to this science. The facts are that GM corn is safe for everything.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Conclusions

The researchers stated in their analysis that the study draws “unequivocal conclusions, helping to increase public confidence in food produced with genetically modified plants.” Of course, despite this study’s outstanding quality analyses, there will like still be an uproar about genetically modified corn and other plants incorporated into agriculture. I can only hope that this type of science, similar in quality to an IPCC report on climate change, which also relied upon a meta-analysis of thousands of studies, would convince at least some people to start ignoring the pseudoscientific claims about GMOs.

This GM corn study shows us that it is safer for humans. It shows us that we can produce more of it to feed an increasingly crowded world. It always bothers me that elitist individuals want to push for more expensive and less productive organic and non-GMO food which will harm poorer people living in areas where more innovative crops can feed them.

Finally, this study should also convince farmers (and yes, corporate farms) to consider the financial and safety benefits of using genetically modified corn.

Citations


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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!