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GMO Foods: A Layman’s Discourse on Safety

Are GMO foods safe? It seems that no topic in recorded history is as devisive as the subject of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), particularly in our food. With over 2,000 scientific studies on the subject (Entine), GMO foods are one of the most (if not the most) studied subjects in history. There are terabytes of data on the subject – literally millions of pages. Some say that GMO foods are inherently unsafe and cause damage to the environment, our bodies, our unborn children, and even our genetic material itself. Others argue that GMO foods are safe for the environment and human consumption. With so much information, it can be difficult to sift through it all and find the truth of the matter.

GMO foods have become increasingly common in the marketplace since the introduction of the “Flavr Savr” tomato in 1994. In 1996, Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready soybeans and went on to create Roundup Ready corn in 1998 (“The Roundup Ready Controversy”). Since the premiere of these plants, GMO foods have become increasingly commonplace, to the point of becoming ubiquitous in the diet of Americans. High Fructose Corn Syrup made from Round Up ready corn, for example, is in an astounding array of products. So many, in fact, that almost everyone is guaranteed to have eaten something containing it. Since almost all corn produced in the United States is genetically modified (Pantsios), it is safe to say that everyone has eaten at least one meal containing this corn. In fact, there are many more GMO foods that you are guaranteed to have encountered in the marketplace – soy, corn, canola oil, cotton, milk, sugar, zucchini, yellow squash and papaya (Keenan).

Based on their prevalence in the American diet and approval by the FDA, it would seem safe to assume that these engineered organisms are harmless. However, there are those who do not agree with this assertion. They say that GMO foods have not been studied well enough to ascertain their safety yet, and their voices are rather strident on the subject. Charles Benbrook, an organic researcher for Washington State University said, “The science just hasn’t been done.” David Schubert from the Salk Institute of Biological Studies stated, “There is no credible evidence that GMO foods are safe to eat.” And Tom Philpott of Mother Jones said, “research is scant… Whether they’re killing us slowly – contributing to long-term, chronic maladies – remains anyone’s guess,” (Entine and Wentzel). It’s unclear why people believe this is true as there is overwhelming research on the subject.

Jonathan R. Latham, PhD., a plant biologist and opponent of GMO foods states, “Many GMO plants are engineered to contain their own insecticides. These GMOs, which include maize, cotton and soybeans, are called BT plants.” BT plants are transgenic, meaning they have at least one gene from another species inserted into their genetic code. In case of BT plants, they contain one or more genes from the bacillus thuringiensis bacterium. These genes allow the plants to produce the same toxins that bacillus thuringiensis produces on its own, giving the plants a natural insecticide. Latham states that bacillus thuringiensis is almost indistinguishable from the anthrax bacterium. However, the external structure of the bacterium have no bearing on the excretions of the bacteria in question. Bacillus thuringiensis produces a completely different type of toxin than anthrax (Radnedge).

Many, many sources claim that there are studies showing that the BT toxin has been found in the blood stream of unborn human babies. None of these sources seem to have a citation for this “fact,” however. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is true. We are forced to ask ourselves the following question – “So what?” In a more refined form, the important question would be, “What are the effects of the BT toxin on human biology?” Research has been done on this very question. While no damage was found to be the result of the presence of the BT toxin, the opponents of GMO foods claim that there is much that we don’t yet know about the effects of BT toxin on the human body and genome.

While the arguments against GMO foods are convincing on the surface, this can be deceiving. Opponents of GMO foods will often take a reputable source and use it out of context, misquote it, or make leaps of logic from the data that have little to do with source material. Latham states that “All this [genetic manipulation of our food] is doubly troubling because some Cry [BT toxin] proteins are toxic towards isolated human cells.” Since this is the truth, this is a troubling development. However, Latham was intentionally misleading in his writing. The paper that he cited tells a different story. It states, “[The selected BT toxins] were highly cytocidal against leukaemia T cells and other human cancer cells, showing different toxicity spectra and varied activity levels. Furthermore, the proteins from 84-HS-1-11 and 89-T-26-17 were able to discriminate between leukaemia and normal T cells, specifically killing the former cells. These findings may lead to the use of B. thuringiensis inclusion proteins for medical purposes” (Mizuki). Latham, while technically accurate, tells a story that misrepresents the facts of BT toxin’s effects on the human body. In the lab, BT toxin did, in fact, target specific human cells – cancer cells. Since BT toxin effectively ignored normal human cells, there are possible uses for it in the medical field. Latham used truthful statements, cherry picked data, and misrepresented that data to reinforce his narrative. Latham used technicalities and misleading statements to make a compelling argument against GMO foods – all without lying.

Additionally, the argument against bacillus thuringiensis as a pesticide is a bit paradoxical. Most, if not all, of the opponents of GMO foods advocate the use of organic produce. While expressing a concern about bacillus thuringiensis and BT toxins in food, these people are largely ignorant of the organic farming process. Bacillus thuringiensis has been used as a pesticide since the 1920’s. It is allowed in organic farming because bacillus thuringiensis is natural, non-pathogenic, and already occurs in the soil. The BT toxin produced by these transgenic plants is indistinguishable on a molecular level from that produced by bacillus thuringiensis in nature. In short, no matter your food source, the BT toxin is present.

What other issues are there with GMO foods? Opponents argue that the percentage of Americans diagnosed with three or more chronic illnesses has risen since the introduction of GMO foods in 1994. They point out that reproductive disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, digestive problems and food allergies have all shown a marked increase. These GMO opponents state that mixing genes from unrelated species can produce a number of dangerous side effects – including new toxins, allergens and carcinogens (Smith).

In spite of all these concerns, there has been no reliable, scientific evidence that GMO foods are unsafe. On the contrary, there is an overwhelming mountain of evidence that contradicts these claims. According to the Genetic Literacy Project, the scientific community has reached a consensus on the topic. As with many other topics, however, a scientific consensus has little to do with the public perception. Topics such as the danger of vaccines, the link between vaccines and autism, the flat earth theory, and the “moon landing hoax” will always draw the interest of those who do not understand science and have an inherent mistrust of it.

However, a review of a decade’s worth of studies on the subject found, conclusively, that GMO foods are safe. The meta-study (a study that correlates, organizes and analyzes the results of other studies) stated that “the safety of GMO crops is required for its wide spread adoption and acceptance.” The scientists felt it necessary to mention the staggering amount of research on the topic and the fact that this work was often ignored in the forum of public debate and opinion. They applied the same level of scrutiny to the sources they chose that they would to any other subject and built a database of information with which to examine the topic. Their work managed to distill the data down to a scientific consensus. The conclusion is that GMO foods are safe (Alessandro).

Of particular importance are the “Gene Flow” and “Environmental Impact” studies performed on the subject. These studies set out to track the level of contamination by GMO plants via cross-pollination to non-GMO crops. They found that this contamination does, indeed, exist. However, it is not as problematic as opponents would have you believe. The studies found that, while this “contamination” happens, it is not as extensive as GMO opponents have portrayed. Additionally, this process has been happening naturally for the millennia that we have been farming our own food (Entine).

The biggest nail in the coffin for anti-GMO arguments came when the National Academies Press released “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects.” This book took an interesting approach to the subject. In most cases, researchers choose one element to focus their experiments on. This allows for complete control of the variables involved, making the experiments manageable and precise. However, the National Academies process was incredibly novel and broad in its scope. The committees involved in the project examined the concerns presented by GMO opponents and addressed them – all of them – and tested them against the available data. The results were astoundingly conclusive – GMO foods are safe for human consumption.

The preface to the report says, “efforts are made to solicit input from individuals who have been directly involved in, or who have special knowledge of, the problem under consideration” and that a “report should show that the committee has considered all credible views on the topics it addresses, whether or not those views agree with the committee’s final positions. Sources must not be used selectively to justify a preferred outcome.” Simply put, the National Academies took all claims about GMO foods and gave them consideration in their study. They invited Greenpeace to air their concerns. They gave Giles-Eric Seralini, a French molecular biologist and anti-GMO activist, time to speak about the dangers of GMO foods. Jeffery Smith, lead researcher for the Institute For Responsible Technology, was given 20 minutes to give his normal presentation on GMO foods. They also took over 700 comments and documents from all quarters into consideration while compiling the points that they would be researching. (Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects.)

The results of the report were absolutely conclusive. It can be said, without hyperbole, that the debate is over – or rather, it should be. Each of the GMO detractor’s claims were inspected, dissected, and investigated in turn. Each of their claims were tested against the data, using the proper scientific method, with controls, experiments and sources, and was found to be baseless. The argument that GMO foods cause cancer was demolished. The study found that the United Kingdom generally doesn’t allow GMO food products, yet the rates of cancer incidence over time are virtually identical between the United States and the United Kingdom. GMO foods cause obesity and diabetes according to GMO opponents. The report found no evidence to support this hypothesis. Rates of autism, celiac disease, and allergies were nearly identical in the USA and UK over the time being reported on. In short, “ No major difference” was found between the USA and UK in any aspect examined by the report. If GMO foods cause the manifold problems that are proposed by GMO opponents, then the rates of cancer, obesity, diabetes, autism, celiac disease, and allergies would be higher in the United States, where GMO foods are common, versus the rates in the United Kingdom, where GMO foods are virtually unknown. However, this was not the case. Incidence rates for all metrics tested were virtually identical.

In a rational world, this report would be all it takes for everyone to rest easy. Instead, this data flies in the face of convention. It contradicts the world view of the average person. 12% of scientists fall feel GMO foods are unsafe, but for the previously stated spurious reasons. The other 88% of scientists feel that GMO foods are safe, but only 37% of Americans believe them. That is a gap of 51%. Unfortunately, that is the status quo. But why?

The problem is that the language of science is alien to the average person. It requires a mode of rational, reasoned thought that most people are not familiar with and cannot wrap their minds around. If science was the norm; if most people could approach the world with the scientific method, then this report would be the end of the matter. However, science requires specific language and a mode of thought that is foreign to most people, and they do not trust it. The same can be said for lawyers and the law, doctors and medicine, and artists and their art – any topic that requires expertise and years of training requires a basis of technical knowledge to even begin to discuss. The average person is not possessed of the basic knowledge of science, and as such, when information is scientific in nature, they are unable to comprehend more than the most general of scientific information.

When scientific concepts are presented by a layman – someone without the technical background in science, speaking in the generalities of “everyday” speech – the average person will automatically latch onto the information they present as gospel. So, in any debate about a scientific topic, the person that is speaking the common language will be the one who the average person trusts – regardless of their expertise or actual, factual knowledge on the subject. Science is incredibly technical and draws on a well of information that defies uncomplicated explanation – therefore it is mistrusted as it defies simple language. There is a saying – “To understand a topic, one must understand the level below it.” To understand genetically modified organisms, one must understand molecular biology. To understand molecular biology, one must understand biology. To understand biology, one must understand chemistry. Since most people do not have a working understanding of these topics, the concepts behind genetic engineering are esoteric beyond their ken. The concepts behind genetic engineering require a basic understanding of all these topics that the layman just does not possess. They also defy simple explanation, as the techniques and data required for the tasks in question are incredibly technical. Scientists could dumb it down and use metaphors to express the ideas, but they would be too simple to actually be accurate. Since science is, by its very nature, requires precision and accuracy, most scientists are unwilling to compromise their ideals with imprecise language. Without the ability and willingness to compromise this precision of language, the average person will never accept the scientific evidence as truth. After all, as Jeffery Smith said, “I’m not a scientist” (“The Return of a Simplot Conspiracy”). So, to state it conclusively, in layman’s terms: GMO foods are, indeed, safe.

 

Works Cited

Alessandro , Nicolia et al. “An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research.” Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, 13 Sept. 2013.

Entine, Jon, and JoAnna Wendel. “With 2000+ Global Studies Affirming Safety, GM Foods Among Most Analyzed Subjects In Science | Genetic Literacy Project.” Genetic Literacy Project, 2017, geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/08/with-2000-global-studies-confirming-safety-gm-foods-among-most-analyzed-subject-in-science/.

“Genetically Engineered Crops: experiences and prospects.” Washington, DC, National Academies Press, 2016.

Keenan, Chris. “Top 10 Most Common GMO Foods – Cornucopia Institute.” Cornucopia Institute, 2017, www.cornucopia.org/2013/06/top-10-most-common-gmo-foods/.
Latham, Jonathan R. “GMO Dangers: Facts You Need to Know.” Center for Nutrition Studies, 23 Dec. 2016, nutritionstudies.org/gmo-dangers-facts-you-need-to-know/. Accessed 16 Sept. 2017.

Mizuki, et al, E, et al. “Unique activity associated with non-Insecticidal Bacillus thuringiensis parasporal inclusions: in vitro cell-Killing action on human cancer cells.” Journal of Applied Microbiology., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 1999, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10196753. Accessed 16 Sept. 2017.
Pantsios, Anastasia. “Scientists Find High Fructose Corn Syrup Is As Bad For You As You Might Think.” Ecowatch, 2017, www.ecowatch.com/scientists-find-high-fructose-corn-syrup-is-as-bad-for-you-as-you-migh-1882000552.html.

Radnedge, L. et al. “Genome Differences That Distinguish Bacillus Anthracis From Bacillus Cereus And Bacillus Thuringiensis.” Applied And Environmental Microbiology, vol 69, no. 5, 2003, pp. 2755-2764. American Society For Microbiology, doi:10.1128/aem.69.5.2755-2764.2003. Academic Search Complete. Accessed 12 Oct. 2017.
Smith, Jeffrey. “10 Reasons To Avoid Gmos – Institute For Responsible Technology.” Institute For Responsible Technology, 2017, responsibletechnology.org/10-reasons-to-avoid-gmos/.

“Return Of The Simplot Conspiracy.” 2015, www.cc.com/video-clips/ixxwbt/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-the-return-of-a-simplot-conspiracy.

“The Roundup Ready Controversy.” Web.Mit.Edu, 2017, web.mit.edu/demoscience/Monsanto/players.html.
Yang, Sarah. “Can Organic Crops Compete With Industrial Agriculture?.” Berkeley News, 2017, news.berkeley.edu/2014/12/09/organic-conventional-farming-yield-gap/.