Food Is Not Your Enemy

Genetically Modified Organisms: Are These Foods Really Safe?

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, have been in the news lately for two reasons: First, a new study has found that the regular ingestion of foods that have been genetically modified caused massive tumors in lab rats; second, on Election Day, Californians will not only be voting for president, they will also be voting on Proposition 37, which is pushing for the mandatory labeling of all foods that contain GMOs.

Foods that are often genetically modified in the U.S., such as soybeans, sugar beets, and industrial corn (the kind used for animal feed and high-fructose corn syrup), have had their DNA manipulated so that they become resistant to insects, crop diseases, herbicides, and pesticides. The widespread use of GMOs began in 1996, soon after the Food and Drug Administration designated GMOs as “generally regarded as safe,” meaning that the food industry was not compelled to conduct long-term safety studies on GMOs.

The problem with this approach is that, while to date there is no documented case of anyone having an acute reaction to GMOs, according to Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott, it is unclear what the long-term, chronic effects of eating foods not normally found in nature might have on us. Rates of such maladies as type II diabetes, obesity, food allergies, and celiac disease have been rising for decades, and it’s hard not to wonder if the way our food is grown is playing a possible role. I personally have worked with a few clients who, while suffering from digestive problems when eating “regular,” non-organic wheat products likes commercial sandwich breads and pizza, found that if they ate organic wheat products they felt just fine. Just from these few cases, I have real reservations about how we’ve come to cultivate our food.

The rat study, conducted in France, certainly adds to the growing concern. The rats fed GMO corn and/or low levels of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide (which is used on GMO corn in the fields) developed large mammary tumors as well as liver and kidney damage. Critics of the study charge that these types of rats are more prone to tumors in general, and that the study’s sample size was too small. However, the high rate of early death in these rats compared to the control group means, at the very least, that further study is warranted, and that we perhaps shouldn’t be so quick to accept the notion that GMOs are perfectly safe.

Right now, GMOs are banned in many European countries. But in the U.S., not only are they allowed, but foods containing them do not even need to be labeled as such, despite a growing call from consumers that we all have a right to know what we’re eating. This is what California’s Proposition 37 is all about–letting consumers know if a food contains GMOs so that they can choose for themselves whether to eat it or not. The food industry and big agribusiness are fighting the proposition, but polling shows that Californians are heavily in favor of the measure.

If you’re concerned about eating foods containing GMOs, the best thing to do is buy organic. This is your only guarantee that the corn in your tortilla chips or the soy in your veggie burgers has not been genetically modified. Because until further studies are done, who really knows whether this stuff is really okay to eat?