The Real Risks of GMOs

Awesome Photo: Mike Wiley

The news regarding the Grocery Manufacturers Association's attempt to get the FDA to approve an all-encompassing -- and, by the way, pretty worthless -- national label for GMOs has been slow-moving. The possibility of such a move was leaked a few weeks ago, but only today are big news agencies picking up on the report. And every one of them, perhaps in an effort to "give equal time" to both anti- and pro-GMO efforts, includes a flippant phrase like this somewhere buried in the copy:

There's very little science that says genetically engineered foods are unsafe.

And, well, that's just wrong. More to the point, it's dangerous.

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A statement like that, purposefully or not, makes it seem as if those who take residence on the anti-GMO side of the argument are scientific Luddites, to be tucked away in the same corner as creationists, climate change deniers, and folks who still think autism is created by vaccinations. And that, frankly, isn't accurate. The case for GMO foods is no slam dunk.

The American Academy of Environmental Sciences -- a Kansas-based collection of physicians and professionals interested in "the clinical aspects of ecological and environmental illnesses" that have been around since 1965 -- made some news back in 2009 when they called called for a moratorium on GM foods until more studies prove them viable. Among the reasons they gave were the mysterious case of thousands of sheep, buffalo and goats in India dying after grazing on GM cotton plants, and rats that have been fed GMOs developing changes in their kidneys, liver, and spleen, which in turn led to kidney failures, hemorrhaging, and altered brain functions.

(In addition, a few more studies were revealed after the AAES published their opinion, showing that GMOs caused sterility and infant mortality in hamsters, and rats eating GMOs ended up with a whole bunch of tumors. This latter study became a point of great contention -- par for the course in the current landscape of GMO studies -- after it was withdrawn from the journal by the editor-in-chief despite the research group sticking by their results; it should be noted the journal had also recently appointed a biologist who'd worked for Monsanto to an editorial position.)

But the AAES's main argument, one that you'd be hard-pressed to poke a hole in, is this one:

Natural breeding processes have been safely utilized for the past several thousand years. In contrast, "GE crop technology abrogates natural reproductive processes, selection occurs at the single cell level, the procedure is highly mutagenic and routinely breeches genera barriers, and the technique has only been used commercially for 10 years."

In other words: If you want to change our food, you better conduct some worthwhile studies. And, as of today, it hasn't happened.

Unlike the wide variety of safety trials that manufacturers of prescription drugs have to go through, there has yet to be any human trials to test the dangers of GMOs. And that's not a fact Monsanto's even trying to hide. So, no, maybe there's not reliable science that GMOs are harmful, but a possible reason is that there hasn't yet been reliable science on GMOs at all. The onus shouldn't be on the anti-GMO contingent to prove they're harmful, it should be on the GMO companies to prove they're safe. So far, they haven't.

Another aspect to consider is the possible leakage of GMO products into the natural world. Unapproved GMO wheat was found on an Oregon farm last year, and no one knows how it got there. A GMO fungus leaked out of a New Zealand university last year and no one's sure how far it's spread. With the production of GMO salmon on its way to being approved in Canada, there's plenty of worry that the new man-created species will escape into the wild, breed, overpopulate, and push the old fashioned nature-created salmon population into extinction. So, even if studies show GMOs are not harmful to humans, it doesn't take a wild imagination to extrapolate that, maybe, just maybe, they can be harmful to the rest of the world.

Which is all to say: This issue is not one to casually suggest those skeptical of GMOs are big dummies. Skepticism is a healthy concept to have, especially here, seeing as it has to do with entirely changing our food supply.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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