Zachary Decoteau, Sustainable Horticulture
Charles “Chip” Pinder, Sustainable Food & Farms
Julie F. Webb, Environmental Science
Genetically modified (GM) foods are part of a growing industry that is clouded by controversy, fear and suspicion. Do genetically modified foods pose a threat to human health as many believe? Are they safe to eat? Or do they promote health and provide nutritional benefits, as supporters claim? With so much uncertainty, this new science must be evaluated to accurately determine the relationship between GM foods and human health.
Modern GMOs began to appear around the 1970’s. In 1970, Monsanto altered glyphosate, a chemical used by the military, into an herbicide called Roundup. However, they had not yet created a crop that was highly resistant to the herbicide. It was not until 1983 that Monsanto successfully created the first genetically modified plant. By 1988, scientists had developed one of the most common GMO’s today, glyphosate-tolerant soybeans. These were the first “Roundup-ready” seeds ever created. As of today, this glyphosate-tolerance has been incorporated into many other cash crops, such as potatoes, cotton, rice and sugar (Bushak, 2015). These chemical resistant GMOs are currently the ones most widely used and researched. While not directly related to improving food sources, they are extremely valuable to the current agricultural industry. It is important to understand what effects these GMOs do or do not have on human health in order to determine the safety of future GMOs.
Many people question the use of GMOs merely for the sake of chemical resistance. Some feel that decreasing the use of herbicides and pesticides would allow us to stop using GMOs completely. But there are many other uses for genetic modification that we cannot easily give up. GMOs have the potential to solve many hunger and health problems across the earth. Lack of food due to our growing population size is one issue that can be reduced by GMO use. As the population is increasing, we are struggling to keep up with the demand for food. For now, we are still expanding agriculture into new areas, but this has lead to a problem with finding new land. If we have no more land to use, then we need to find a way to grow more food on the same amount of land. GMOs make this a possibility; they allow us to grow taller, more productive, and more resistant crops, meaning we yield more food per crop (Bennett, 2014).
GMOs can also improve the ability of plants to survive in harsh environments. This is useful in allowing agricultural practices to expand into areas that were once impossible to grow in. Drought resistant crops can be developed for dry environments and thrive rather than wilt away (Biello, 2011). Conversely, in areas of flooding, plants can be designed to withstand their roots being fully drowned in water (Ornstein, 2009). These are traits that can be extremely valuable in our efforts to supply the massive amount of food required to feed the world.
Not all GMO crops are designed to increase survival traits like drought resistance or flood resistance. There are GMO foods that are designed to have health benefits. Golden Rice is an example of this. In Africa and Asia, childhood blindness is a common side effect of Vitamin A Deficiency-Related Disorders, which causes lifelong illness and death. According to Potrykus (2016), each year 250,000 to 500,000 Vitamin A-deficient children go blind and half of them die within a year. The goal of the Golden Rice Project was to develop rice with higher levels of vitamin A. This crop was very successful in reducing the rates of childhood blindness (Tang, et al. 2012). It was also required to go through a checklist to satisfy the requirements of GMO opposition and Greenpeace. These requirements were met, including “It presents a sustainable, cost-free solution, not requiring other resources” (Potrykus, 2016), and “there is, so far, no conceivable risk to consumer health” (Potrykus, 2016).
GMOs may also be used to assist in cleaning up toxic waste sites. Phytoremediation is the process of using plants to absorb contaminants from polluted sites. This process is proving to be far more eco-friendly and cost effective than traditional remediation methods (Parkash, 2016. Lecture 1). The plants capable of remediation are not always abundant or large enough. In order for phytoremediation to become a practical solution, scientists genetically alter plants like Crambe brassicaceae. Plants such as these are easier to grow, heartier and larger. The result is faster and safer remediation of polluted sites. (Parkash, 2016, Lectures 3 and 4).
Because of their many potential benefits, GMOs are already widely used in food crops. It is potentially the new industry standard for growing desired traits in crops, so it will be used more and more in the coming years. In the year 2000, several major crops in the United States – soybeans, cotton, and corn- were not yet commonly using GM varieties. Only 25% of corn and just over 50% of soybeans and cotton were produced from GM crops. By 2010, these numbers had risen to roughly 90% for all three crops and will continue to increase. If they are not safe to eat, people need to know before they become the only option. If safe, this new industry should be embraced as a way to grow more productive crops with increasingly less resources.
As genetically modified foods (GMOs) become more widely used, there has been an obvious negative response from a significant portion of the population. Many people don’t trust GMOs and believe they are dangerous. The very nature of GMOs – altering the genetic code of plants and animals – can sound unnatural to the general public. As a result, the public is afraid that this scientific innovation will come back to haunt them.
There are arguments claiming GMOs are unproven and therefore consumers should not be exposed to them. This is not entirely unreasonable, as most progressive science warns against using new methods with unknown consequences. According to the Institute for Responsible Technology “FDA scientists had repeatedly warned that GM foods can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems” (n.d.).
While scientists have conducted numerous short term studies on rats to observe the health effects of GMOS, it is not enough evidence to convince most people whether or not GMOs are safe to use. Some say that rats and mice are inadequate for human comparison. This is a fair point to consider, as Capaldo (2014) states that “drugs intended to reduce inflammation in critically ill patients, previously tested in mice, failed in nearly 150 human critical trials according to a 2013 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”. This suggests a gap between observations in animals and how they relate to humans. Due to this gap, we feel that human testing will provide the most accurate data needed to determine the safety of GMOs.
In order to address the current fears around GMOs and human health, it is important to immediately begin clinical trials on humans to accurately determine the potential health impacts of GM foods. This is the most effective way to convince those who remain skeptical of GMOs. Whatever the results may be, human studies are a definitive way to show the effects on humans.
The idea of testing in humans is also seen with fear by many people. Human testing is often felt to be dangerous and possibly unethical. However, we are simply proposing clinical trials consisting of ordinary health checks. All of the participants will be fully informed and will not be involved without giving consent. To determine if there is any acute danger, short term tests would be performed first, such as 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days. Long term studies lasting a year or more will be the most useful in showing whether eating GMOs can be harmful over a person’s lifetime. Because GMO foods are already widely used, participants will have to record and report their regular eating habits for a period of time in order to roughly group them according to the overall GM content of their diets. The participants in the trial may be called in annually to measure overall health, including records of any diseases such as cancers.
It is important to note that there are currently no signs that GM foods pose a health risk. Although not conclusive, the studies with rats have shown no danger of eating GMOs. In many studies there were only minor differences observed between control diets and GMO diets. Appenzeller et al., (2009), Arjo et al., (2012), He et al., (2016), Liu et al., (2012), Song et al., (2014), Zhu et al., (2013), and Zou et al., (2015) all found that the differences between test groups were: “not statistically or biologically meaningful” and represented no risk.
Based on current data, there is no apparent correlation between GMO foods and the health problems they are rumored to cause. According to Johnson, Strom, & Grillo (2008) from 2001 to 2006, the yield of biotechnology-derived crops increased from 3.79 billion pounds to 7.78 billions pounds (p.4 Table 1), and as stated earlier this has meant a rise to around 90% of our major crops containing GMOs. This has not correlated with the incidence of major diseases. For example, heart disease in males and females has decreased, while heart cancers have remained stable.
Overall, human health effects from GM foods still have not been studied and this unknown creates fear in the public. But there is good reason to believe they are not a health risk. While it is true that there is no direct evidence to say they are safe to eat, it is important to keep in mind that there is equally little evidence that they are dangerous.
For now, at least, there is no reason to fear genetic modification in human health. We are already regularly exposed to it, and there is no evidence we can presently see that suggests that we are in any danger. However, as we continue to expand our use of GMOs in modern agriculture, it is necessary to carefully observe GMOs to fully determine their impacts on health and help the public accept this new science.
Appenzeller, L. M., Munley, S. M., Hoban, D., Sykes, G. P., Malley, L. A., & Delaney, B. (2009). Subchronic feeding study of
grain from herbicide-tolerant maize DP-O9814O-6 in sprague-dawley rats. Food and Chemical Toxicology : An International Journal Published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 47(9), 2269-2280. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2009.06.014
Arjo, G., Capell, T., Matias-Guiu, X., Zhu, C., Christou, P., & Pinol, C. (2012). Mice fed on a diet enriched with genetically engineered multivitamin corn show no sub-acute toxic effects and no sub-chronic toxicity. Plant Biotechnology Journal, 10(9), 1026-1034. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7652.2012.00730.x
Bennett, D. (2014). GMO crops increase yields, benefit the environment. Retrieved from https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/11/19/gmo-crops-increase-yields-benefit-the-environment/
Biello, D. (2011). Coming to a cornfield near you: Genetically induced drought-resistance. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/corn-genetically-modified-to-tolerate-drought/
Bushak, L. (2015). A brief history of GMOs. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/brief-history-genetically-modified-organisms-prehistoric-breeding-modern-344076
Capaldo, T. (2014). Animal Data Is Not Reliable for Human Health Research (Op-Ed). Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/46147-animal-data-unreliable-for-humans.html
He, X., de Brum, Paulo A R, Chukwudebe, A., Privalle, L., Reed, A., Wang, Y., . . . Lipscomb, E. A. (2016). Rat and poultry feeding studies with soybean meal produced from imidazolinone-tolerant (CV127) soybeans. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 88, 48-56. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2015.12.012
Institute for Responsible Technology. (n. d.). The GE Process. Retrieved from http://responsibletechnology.org/the-ge-process/
Johnson, S. R., Strom, S., & Grillo, K. (2008). Executive Summary. In Quantification of the Impacts on US Agriculture of Biotechnology-Derived Crops Planted in 2006. Retrieved from http://www.ncfap.org./documents/2007biotech_report/Quantification_of_the_Impacts_on_US_Agriculture_of_Biotechnology_Executive_Summary.pdf
Liu, P., He, X., Chen, D., Luo, Y., Cao, S., Song, H., . . . Xu, W. (2012). A 90-day subchronic feeding study of genetically modified maize expressing Cry1Ac-M protein in sprague-dawley rats. Food and Chemical Toxicology : An International Journal Published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 50(9), 3215-3221. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2012.06.009
Ornstein, P. (2009). Fighting hunger with flood-tolerant rice. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/science/01/29/waterproof.rice/index.html?_s=PM:TECH
Parkash, O. M. (2016). Lecture 1. UMass Amherst: Parkash, Om.
Parkash, O. (2016). Lecture 3 & 4 site characterization and natural hyperaccumulator. Umass Amherst: Parkash, Om.
Potrykus, I. (2016) The Golden Rice Tale. The Golden Rice Project. Retrieved from www.goldenrice.org/PDFs/The_GR_Tale.pdf.
Song, H., He, X., Zou, S., Zhang, T., Luo, Y., . . . Xu, W. (2014). A 90-Day subchronic feeding study of genetically modified rice expressing CRY1AB protein in Sprague-Dawley rats. Transgenic Research, 24(2), 295-308. doi:10.1007/s11248-014- 9844-6
Tang, G., Hu, Y., Yin, S., Wang, Y., Dallal, G., Grusak, M. & Russell, R. (2012). B-carotene in golden rice is as good as b-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children1–4 doi:10.3945/ajcn.111.030775
Zhu, Y., He, X., Luo, Y., Zou, S., Zhou, X., Huang, K., & Xu, W. (2013). A 90-day feeding study of glyphosate-tolerant maize with the G2-aroA gene in sprague-dawley rats. Food and Chemical Toxicology : An International Journal Published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 51, 280-287. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2012.09.008
Zou, S., Tang, M., He, X., Cao, Y., Zhao, J., Xu, W., . . . Huang, K. (2015). A 90-day subchronic study of rats fed lean pork from genetically modified pigs with muscle-specific expression of recombinant follistatin. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology : RTP, 73(2), 620-628. doi:10.1016/j.yrtph.2015.09.009