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Science says GMO foods are safe


When I was writing the articles about organic foods, I noticed that GMO foods are not safe according to the organic food lobby. Of course, there seems to be an incredible amount of pseudoscientific claims about GMO food safety, so I thought that I needed to put together an article that shows the science of GMO foods, and the scientific consensus is that they are safe.

I know that many of my progressive friends are going to dispute this fact, but it’s time to let science speak on this matter.

GMO vs non-GMO food
Genetically modifying corn

10,000 years of genetically modifying food

Ten thousand years ago, when humans first started agriculture by domesticating crops and livestock, they probably observed some wild foods were tastier, larger, or easier to grow. Without foreknowledge of artificial selection, they selected the better subtypes of wild foods. And maybe after many years of growing some grain, a random mutation made it larger. Or the fruiting body is more delicious.

If you look at the photo above, you would probably not know that the top grain is an early strain of corn called teosinte. Through selective breeding, that grain was eventually genetically modified becoming the corn we have today. Yes, the ancient Mesoamericans understood that if they selected the plants with mutations that created larger and larger corn kernels and combined them with other plants with larger corn kernel mutations, they would get the next generation with those large kernels. And after several generations of genetic modification through artificial selection of mutations, we went from a barely edible plant to the corn that we have today.

Another example is wild wheat, which dropped its seeds nearby to start the next generation of the plant. But early farmers noticed that some mutations (without knowing what a mutation was) made larger wheat. Or ones where the seeds stayed on the plant, making harvesting much easier. And the farmers then replanted seeds from the mutated plants, “selecting” for the traits that they wanted.

In other words, these early farmers were constantly looking for traits that appeared randomly but made the food better. These mutations may or may not show up for generations – these farmers had no way to make the mutations appear faster, so they just kind of waited for generation after generation of plants (and also animals).

Now, some may dispute the fact that waiting for a “natural” mutation is the same as a modern genetic modification. Using the naturalistic fallacy, they’ll claim that all foods “ought to be” developed in some arbitrary “natural” manner.

But what is the difference between how our ancestors genetically modified crops, waiting for generation after generation for the right mutation to appear, and modern biotechnology, which genetically modified crops quickly and easily? Not that much, unless, and I can’t stress this enough, you think that “nature” has some supernatural power. Genetic modification does nothing more than speed up the process of getting beneficial mutations to appear in plants.

Let’s say we want corn that resists some disease. We could grow thousands of different strains of corn, looking for resistance to that pathogen. We can then wait for generations of corn to develop a mutation that causes disease resistance to that pathogen. This could take decades, and cost boatloads of cash. Or it might not happen at all.

There are several methods to speed up the mutation rate, like radiation exposure, but it’s still random. Maybe getting the right mutation is a one-in-a-million chance, or it may never show up.

On the other hand, maybe some other species or organisms are resistant to that disease. It could be a closely related plant, like wheat. Or it could be a wholly unrelated organism, maybe a fish, that has the right gene, and it can be inserted into the plant genome, conferring resistance to the pathogen.

You’re not going to get an ear of corn that tastes like fish. It’s not going to swim. It’s not going to grow gills and fins. It’s one gene out of the millions in a fish. Instead of waiting for that mutation, we found it in another organism. And to just go along with the logical fallacies, that gene is “natural” too.

Unless you want to confer some special status to the genes that randomly appear in crops because they occur “naturally,” (and let’s be clear, that makes you an evolution denier), then humans have been doing genetic modifications for 10,000 years. It’s just today, we’re smarter and faster about it.

I cannot emphasize this enough – the basic chemistry of all genes in all organisms is the same — there are no fundamental differences in DNA chemistry between organisms. And there are no biologically plausible mechanisms that would convince a scientist that there is some difference, except how it was developed, between artificial selection that waits for a random mutation or artificial selection that speeds up the process with genetic modification.

Let me repeat myself — putting a fish (or bacteria or yeast) gene into a corn plant to confer resistance to a blight of some sort does not mean that the corn plant becomes a fish or bacteria or yeast. We are just speeding up the mutation process, instead of waiting for hundreds of years for the gene we want to suddenly come into being as a result of a mutation caused by a random cosmic burst from the sun.

three yellow corn cobs bell pepper cucumbers and chili peppers
Photo by Adonyi Gábor on Pexels.com

Science says GMO foods are safe

A paper, by Elisa Pellegrino et al. 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 of 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, but it’s not the most important point that this article makes.

For example, the study also showed that GMO corn crops had statistically significantly 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. Not only are GMO corn crops fundamentally safe, they may also be safer than “conventional” corn.

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) provided the world with solid evidence 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.

aerial shot of green milling tractor
Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

GMO foods are not going to change your DNA

When you bite into that ear of corn or genetically modified salmon, you are eating complex food made up of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and, yes, DNA. But I’ve noticed something when I read the pseudoscience websites – there’s this belief that when you eat any food, a magical process causes the whole protein, carbohydrate, or DNA to move from your gut to your blood without any transformation. Nothing could be further from science.

Based on our knowledge of the digestive process, fats, DNA, carbohydrates, and proteins are broken down into their simplest components, and specialized transport systems move these simple components across the barrier between the digestive tract and blood. They have evolved to not transport full-size molecules, partially because the blood is incapable of carrying large foreign molecules (and could induce an immune response).

Moreover, small constituent molecules, like amino acids instead of the whole protein, or glucose instead of a long-chain carbohydrate, are more easily transported to locations in the body to be then used as fuel or building blocks for new proteins and DNA. We just have not seen a mechanism in the digestive tract that can move large molecules, like gene-length DNA fragments, into the bloodstream.

In case you’re wondering, micronutrients, like certain vitamins, are very small and there are specific mechanisms to move those from the food you have consumed into the bloodstream. 

So when you gobble down an ear of corn, it doesn’t mean that corn DNA or DNA from a modified gene is going to somehow become incorporated into your genetic code. Nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) in that ear of corn are digested in the small intestine with the help of both pancreatic enzymes and enzymes produced by the small intestine itself. Pancreatic enzymes called ribonuclease and deoxyribonuclease break down RNA and DNA, respectively, into smaller nucleic acids. These, in turn, are further broken down into nitrogen bases and sugars (ribose) by small intestine enzymes called nucleases. Then they are absorbed. Whatever genetic message was in that DNA in your corn is long gone.

I hope this is clear, because if you don’t understand this, then nothing else will make sense.

The Monsanto gambit

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.

Using the Monsanto gambit, that somehow they are poisoning us or controlling world agriculture, is a lame strawman argument to instill fear of genetically modified crops. We’re just talking science here, not the tinfoil hat beliefs of conspiracists – irrespective of Monsanto’s motives, GMOs are safe, and probably necessary for the survival of humans.

A lot of the Monsanto gambit tries to conflate GMOs with glyphosate, which is logically twisted. GMO foods are safe irrespective of glyphosate, even though there is plenty of evidence that glyphosate is not an evil chemical pushed by certain people. If you’re going to drop a comment that “Monsanto glyphosate blah blah blah GMO corn blah blah blah,” no one is going to listen.

GMO foods are safe

The science is clear, and it’s that GMO foods are safe for you, safe for the environment, and safe for animals. The fear of GMOs is based on bad science, or worse yet, no science. GMO foods are safe because we’ve been genetically modifying foods since the dawn of agriculture. GMO foods are safe because the DNA is not going to get into your bloodstream and cause you to grow gills, though that would be cool. GMO foods are safe because the overwhelming scientific consensus says that they are safe and necessary to grow enough food for the planet.

Foods that can be genetically modified are often less expensive than non-GMO organic foods. And more expensive for precisely zero benefits. So we are creating a class of foods for the privileged class without creating benefits for those who need cheaper food.

And because of the anti-GMO (and anti-science) beliefs, important foods like Golden Rice, which could save thousands of lives, are being blocked by environmental groups. They push this because of their non-existent science. It’s frustrating.

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Michael Simpson
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