Genetically Modified Food: A complete and extensive guide

We have all heard about the debate on whether or not it’s better to eat genetically modified food or spend the extra money and buy organic. But what is genetically modified food and is it actually bad? How do pesticides affect our food? What are the advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified food? How is genetically modified food regulated? This article answers all your questions about genetically modified food. 

Genetically modified food
Genetically modified food

What is genetically modified food?

A GMO, also known as a genetically modified organism, is any organism whose genetic makeup and composition has been changed using genetic engineering techniques. Genetically modified organisms are used to make medications and genetically modified food (GMF) among other little things. Most genetically modified foods have been engineered to be able to withstand the application of herbicide. Some food has also been engineered to withstand the pass of time such as browning.

A little history of genetically modified food

Genetically modified food actually began before recorded history. Farmers from prehistoric times selected certain plants and animals to put in their crop- those that produced the most crop- while purposefully not selecting others. Here’s an interesting look at how animals have changed and evolved since we began eating them for food.

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In the last quarter of the 20th century, scientists began to look at the genes in food at an individual level and selected several extra-productive traits to produce more crops. That’s just the beginning. The real history began with the study of genes in the 1860s by an Austrian Monk when he began to cross different varieties of garden peas together. This monk, Gregor Mendel, is who gave us the idea of a gene as a unit of heredity. In 1868, Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) was discovered by German chemist Friedrich Miescher. In 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick found that the molecular shape of DNA has a double helix is where the door to genetic engineering really opened up. In 1994, bovine growth hormone (BGH), manufactured by genetically modified bacteria, was introduced to the dairy sector to increase milk production. By 1995, a simple 22 years ago, 67% of the cheese produced in America was made from GMOs.

After modifying plant DNA for the first time and augmenting production, scientists at the University of Washington in 1976 decided to genetically modify the genetically modified bacteria which has thin cell walls, to make plants have tough, thick cell walls. By 1983, scientists knew how to take out the harmful genes from plasmids (the genetic structure of a cell) and insert the desired gene. By 2008, 92% of the soybeans planted in the U.S. had GMO makeup, and 80% of corn was genetically modified. However, several European countries have banned the import of genetically modified food.

The process of genetically modified food

Genetic modification involves deleting genes, inserting genes, or mutating genes. This can be done by:

  • Firing small particles from a gene gun into the cell membrane.
  • Using a very small needle, physically inserting extra DNA into the nucleus (cell center) of the intended host cell.
  • Attaching the genes to a virus which are later inserted into the cell.
  • Introducing the DNA from one organism into the cell of another organism by using an electric pulse. This process is known as electroporation.

The debate on genetically modified food

The debate over genetically modified food around the world is rather polarized. What’s written on the subject is trying to get people to take sides by either saying GMOs are good or GMOs are bad. Here’s the breakdown:

  • There’s a lot at stake for using GMOs, including political power and money. Food would be cheaper, but many people object for political reasons- an objection to large, multinational corporations that have a great influence over the food supply.
  • Research mostly says that they are fine to eat. Nothing can really be proven safe to eat, it can only fail to turn up significant risk. The European Commission funded 130 research projects with more than 500 independent teams to look at the safety of genetically modified food. None of these teams found any risks due to the of genetically modified food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and dozens of review studies did something similar. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Medical Association have all backed up the use of genetically modified food.
  • 64 countries require labeling of GMOs and some 300 regions around the world don’t allow them at all.

The side for genetically modified food traditionally uses arguments such as:

  • Food prices are lower and there is more food to go around because genetically modified food yields more crop. Corn and soy have increased by 20%-30% in the last few years. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the world will need to increase food production by 70% by 2050 to keep up with the world’s growing population.
  • Increased safety, less pesticide. Farmers don’t need to use as much pesticide because the genetically modified plants’ genes can fend for themselves. This means fewer pesticides for the food, and less danger for the farmers spraying the pesticide.

The side against genetically modified food traditionally uses arguments such as:

  • Big business eats small farmer. The use of genetically modified food would be something that small-scale farmers wouldn’t probably have access to or use.
  • It’s harmful to the environment. While using pesticides, many unintended plants and animals are harmed- the monarch butterfly is one species harmed found in a study.
  • Increased food production won’t reach the underfed countries. There is already so much food waste in first world countries- why would higher food production in these countries help second and third world countries if the food doesn’t reach them anyway?

Here’s a good general review of both sides in terms of the safety and risks.

Genetically modified food
Genetically modified food

Genetically modified food and Pesticides

Pesticides are chemicals that we use on plants. The goal of pesticides is to be toxic to the insects that come near the plant- usually by targeting their nervous system. However, an insect’s nervous system is similar to our brain biochemistry. Nowadays, there are over 100 different pesticides that are known to cause negative neurological effects in humans. Organic food is known for its low levels of pesticides. More than 80% of all genetically modified foods have been engineered to withstand herbicides- this caused a huge increase in the use of pesticides such as Roundup. Genetically modified food also created with it “superbugs” and “superweeds” which can only be killed with pesticides that are actually toxic to humans, as well. For instance, 2,4-D- a major ingredient in Agent Orange.

The most commonly used pesticides are:

  • Glyphosate, also known as Monsanto’s Roundup, and is used on genetically modified corn, soy, cotton, canola, and in home gardens as well as parks. It’s been found in drinking water, air samples, and rainwater. It’s also been linked to neurological disorders, fertility issues, cancer, and birth defects.
  • Metolachlor is classified as a Category C herbicide and is a known cause of cancer according to the EPA. It’s used on trees, lawns, soy, corn, and sorghum. It can cause convulsions, breathing issues, and nausea.
  • Atrazine is used as a weed killer in the US. More than 75 million pounds of Atrazine are used annually- mostly on con in the midwest US. One EPA study looked at 26 rivers and found traces of the weed killer in each one. Because it’s an endocrine disruptor, exposure to it has been linked to cancer, infertility, and birth defects. 
  • Chlorpyrifos was used in home gardens in the 1960s but is now used on a larger scale for almonds, cotton, apples, corn, and oranges. It’s been linked to headaches, concentration issues, nausea, diarrhea, respiratory paralysis, lower IQ levels in babies, and ADHD issues.
  • Metam sodium is a pesticide used on potatoes in high concentrations (150-300 pounds per acre). It can cause vomiting, thyroid damage, nausea, breathing issues, birth defects, and hormone disruption.

A report that was done based on a review by the European Union sound that children whose mothers had signs of organophosphate metabolites, the basis that is used for many pesticides, while pregnant were more likely to have negative mental development issues by age two, attention problems by ages three to five, and a poor intellectual development by age seven. Another study claimed that about 13 million IQ points are lost every year due to pesticides in the EU. However, the report also suggested that the 13 million is an underestimation because it didn’t take into account the possible impact of pesticides of diseases like diabetes, cancer, and Parkinson’s.

Another 2015 study found that a commonly used class of pesticides is linked to chemical brain drain. The study looked at the morning urine samples from 287 French children around 6 years old. The children also had some neuropsychological testing done. It was found that the urine contained two major metabolites (cis-DBCA and 3-PBA) that are associated with poorer working memory scores and lower verbal comprehension on the WISC intelligence test. These French findings, along with some experimental evidence in other European countries, are similar to some found in Canada and the USA.

Genetically modified food and the body

It’s important to keep in mind that genetically modified food hasn’t been around long enough for many long-term studies, over multiple generations, to take place. Much of the effects studies are finding come from short-term studies that could have other causes besides GMOs. However, there are long-term studies underway.

  • Food allergies. Allergic reactions in humans happen when a normally harmless protein enters the body and creates an immune response. If the protein in the genetically modified food is something that humans haven’t consumed before, it could create that immune response. While there is no concrete evidence that genetically modified food leads to food allergies, there are some studies that believe it’s possible.
  • Heart disease and cancer. While there is no concrete evidence saying that “GMOs specifically lead to cancer” it’s known that genetically modified crops can be less nutritious containing fewer phytoestrogens, which help protect against diseases such as cancer and heart disease. One study shows that a genetically modified soybean produced fewer phytoestrogens than it’s non-modified counterpart soybean.
  • Antibiotic resistance. It’s become an alarming phenomenon in the last few years that many strains of bacteria are becoming antibiotic resistant. This resistance happens through a natural gene mutation process. The biotechnologists who are creating genetically modified foods are sometimes using antibiotic resistant genes when inserting new genes into plants- plants that we eat. This is because, in the early stages of gene-insertion, the biotechnologist doesn’t know if the target plant, let’s say a tomato, will accept and incorporate this new gene (long shelf-life, for example) into its DNA and genome. By attaching the longer shelf-life gene to an antibiotic resistant gene, the tomato can be tested by growing in a solution/mixture that contains the corresponding antibiotic. If the tomato survives this process, it means that the antibiotic resistant gene and the longer shelf-life gene were accepted and incorporated into the DNA of the tomato. There is concern that the bacteria that live in the guts of both animals and humans could pick up and incorporate this antibiotic resistant gene into our DNA from eating the tomato. While there is no concrete evidence that this happens, there is a strong concern for it.
  • Issues with metabolism
  • Inflammation
  • Reduced fertility. Most studies have also been performed on animals- not humans. However, one experiment on multiple generations of hamsters that were fed a diet of genetically modified soy found that by the third generation of hamsters, there was a declining ability to produce offspring.
  • Kidney and liver malfunction
Genetically modified food
Genetically modified food

Genetically modified food and the brain

Due to the fact that genetically modified food has only been on the market since 1994, no one really knows how much of an impact it plays on our health and our brain. The negative impacts found and studied have more to do with the use of pesticides than the use of genetically modified food.

  • Our digestive bacteria is affected negatively by pesticides used on plants. Science discovered that 90% of our body’s serotonin– the happy hormone- an over 30 different neurotransmitters are produced and found in the gut and digestive tract. If our digestive system is affected negatively by pesticides, so will the neurotransmitters going into our brains.
  • Pesticides can kill cell growth. It was found in several studies that the use of pesticides, specifically Roundup, can kill our reproduction of brain cells.

One study found that due to newfound proteins in our food that didn’t exist there before and that we have a harder time breaking down while digesting, people experienced headaches and nausea.

Benefits of genetically modified food

  • There has never been one case of illness ever attributed to genetically modified food- only non-genetically modified food has brought around cases of E-Coli, for example, which killed 53 people in Europe in 2011.
  • Healthier food. By playing with the DNA, lettuce can have more nutrients, potatoes less starch, or oils less fatty. Some studies have found that inserting some genes into tomatoes can increase their natural production of antioxidants that are thought to prevent cancer and heart disease. These diet boosters can honestly be life-changing in countries where malnutrition runs high.
  • Better taste, longer life. In 2007, a blind study found that 60% of people liked the taste of genetically modified tomatoes more than non-modified. The tomatoes also have a longer shelf-life which means that there is less environmental waste and food waste.

Disadvantages of genetically modified food

  • It’s possible that genetically modified food causes allergic reactions due to the protein and some genes in them that we aren’t used to having in our bodies but there is no solid evidence for this.
  • Harmful to the immune system, some studies tried to prove it.
  • Irreversible effects. Any disadvantages to genetically modified food are probably irreversible.
  • Toxin production is raised due to gene insertion.
  • Safety is uncertain since many studies are preliminary, inconclusive, or debatable.  

Regulation of genetically modified food

64 countries around the world, including all European Union countries, Japan, and Australia require that the genetically modified food be labeled. Throughout Asia (India and China included), governments have yet to approve genetically modified food. In Africa, several nations have refused to import genetically modified food despite lower costs and high food yield. Kenya, for example, has banned every GMO. There are also 300 other regions around the world with complete bans of genetically modified food. Before 2016, anything genetically modified in the U.S. and Canada isn’t legally required to be labeled- even though 93% of Americans think they should be labeled. Now it’s required in the U.S.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that all genetically modified foods have been approved by the government to be as safe as their traditional counterparts (a regular tomato versus a genetically modified one).

No country has plans to grow Golden Rice, a type of rice modified to have not only vitamin A, a vitamin that rice doesn’t naturally have, but have more vitamin A than spinach. Vitamin A deficiency causes more than 1 million deaths every year and about half a million cases of irreversible blindness around the world. Worldwide, only 1/10 of the cropland contains genetically modified food. 90% of that 1/10 is in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, and Brazil.

In U.S grocery stores, if the sticker on the food has:

  • 5 digits, the first one an 8, it’s genetically modified
  • 4 digits, it’s conventionally grown
  • 5 digits, the first one a 9, it’s organically grown
Genetically modified food
Genetically modified food

Examples of genetically modified food

These days, most packaged foods contain some sort of soy, corn, sugar beet, or canola- the vast majority of which contain genetically modified organisms. Other examples include molasses, hydrolyzed vegetable protein corn syrup, vitamins, yeast products, sucrose, microbes and enzymes, textured vegetable protein, different additive flavors, proteins, oils and fats, and sweeteners.

Here’s a bit more of a breakdown:

  • Sugar beet is engineered to be tolerant to herbicides. Over 90% of US sugar beet is genetically modified.
  • Papaya is engineered to resist damaging viruses. Over 70% of the US papaya is genetically modified.
  • Soybeans are engineered to resist herbicides and produce more oil
  • Squash is engineered to resist damaging viruses
  • Cotton is engineered to resist insect damage and be more tolerant of herbicides. Over 90% of US cotton is genetically modified. The incredibly toxic pesticide Roundup is used on 65% of these.
  • Potatoes are engineered to resist damaging viruses and produce a better ratio of starch
  • Canola is engineered to be tolerant to herbicides and produces more oil. Over 90% of US canola is genetically modified.
  • Corn is engineered to be tolerant to herbicides, resist insect damage, and be tolerant to drought. 85% of US corn is genetically modified. The incredibly toxic pesticide Roundup is used on 10% of these.

Animals can also be considered genetically modified food by some people because what they eat has been genetically modified. This affects our honey, seafood, milk, meat, and eggs.

What do you think about genetically modified food? Let us know in the comments below!

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