GMO: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

What's all the Fuss?

With all the controversy surrounding GMO foods lately, I thought I'd bring to light some of the science behind the Pros and Cons. There are a lot of opinions, but science is probably a good place to start. Genetic engineering of food involves laboratory manipulation of genes to create new varieties of plants and organisms with more favored characteristics. Think every banana in the USA today. Also think corn - the most obvious example. The Dust Bowl was a turning point for GMO corn. Why? The Dust Bowl involved droughts and giant dust storms that destroyed everyone's crops. At this point, a hybrid corn was genetically engineered that would grow in dry dirt with no nutrients, very little water, and amidst environmental chaos. The intentions were good. However, this led to a corn that contained very little nutritional value, since it wasn't getting the nutrients it needed from the soil, water, and sun. Most processed foods in the US contain genetically engineered ingredients, due to the fact that 88% of corn and 93% of soybeans grown domestically (as of 2012) were genetically engineered, specifically to withstand pesticides and produce a higher yield.(1) Currently, these GE foods are legally required to be labeled in 60 countries around the world.(1)

Yay or Nay?

The benefits and risks to consumption of genetically engineered foods are very controversial, and very strongly pivot around politics and financial gain. Big Food met Government, got married and they currently sleep in the same bed. Much of the disagreement comes down to whether people prefer “proof of safety” or “proof of harm” approaches to regulatory policy for GE foods.”(2) That is, do you care that this has not been proven safe yet? Should you be worried? OR - since there's no proof of harm, are we good to go? As far as the case for or against, there are way too many opinions, and not enough science. 

While many of the benefits have been mentioned from a social, political and financial standpoint, none of those benefits include a higher quality of nutrition.  In fact, one major proposed risk of the consumption of GE foods is adverse nutritional changes. What are adverse nutritional changes? They're changes in the nutritional composition of the food i.e. key nutrients or production of compounds that prevent your body from absorbing them properly.(2) Cue IBS and gluten intolerance. In fact, the refining and manipulation of wheat today changes the molecular make-up in such a way that our intestines just can't take it anymore. Screening for these changes can be analyzed using genomic technology and biochemical assays.(2) There have been contradictory results for evaluating genetically engineered food products for anti-nutritional properties. While some results show no safety differences between GE and non-GE varieties, some results of certain herbicide tolerant soybeans and GE corn have showed toxic effects on liver, kidneys and pancreas. Please - put down the processed foods! As my professor once said, "If it comes in a box, bag or can, or made by man - Don't eat it!" However, on the flip side, these trials have been debated among scientists because of the natural variation in biochemistry of the foods that may be at play.(2)

What now?

While the US population has been consuming GMO foods for almost 20 years now, it will be interesting to see how the scientific evidence behind the nutrition (or anti-nutrition) develops. After all, the same enthusiasm and beneficial arguments were made for the microwavable TV dinners (not completely analogous, but hopefully you see my point!).  The resounding conclusion is that we need more research and more testing, preferably from an unbiased party. Basically, at this point there is no right or wrong answer, there's just not enough evidence. My suggestion? Make the decision that's right for you.

I will leave you with one last image before letting you make up your own mind. This is a photo illustrating the difference between wild vs genetically engineered salmon at the same age. 

 Image courtesy of  Aquabounty Technologies. 

Image courtesy of Aquabounty Technologies. 

1.  Senauer B. Considering the mandatory labeling of genetically-engineered (ge) foods in the U.S. [Internet]. University of Minnesota: College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences; 2013 Aug [cited 2014 Nov 6]. Available from: http://www.foodpolicy.umn.edu/policy-summaries-and-analyses/labeling-ge-foods/

2. Kuzma J, Haase R. Safety assessment of genetically engineered foods: US policy & current science. [Internet]. University of Minnesota: Humphrey School of Public Affairs; 2012 Oct [cited 2014 Nov 6] Available from: http://www.foodpolicy.umn.edu/policy-summaries-and-analyses/genetically-engineered-foods/index.htm

3. Textbook of FM p 386.