Is It Safe to Eat Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?

By Joel DeVyldere

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals that have had their DNA spliced with the genetic code from another plant or animal. Genetically modified foods are meals or snacks made with GMOs. They arrived on the scene in the United States around 1996.

Zucchini squash in the U.S. may be a GMO
Zucchini squash, photo copyright Jeremy Keith

Genetically Modified Foods in the U.S.

According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, the U.S. mainly grows just a few kinds of GMOs that are approved as “safe to eat” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • Sugar beets: 95% GMO* (about 55% of the sugar produced in the U.S. is from sugar beets [source])
  • Soybeans: 94% GMO
  • Canola: 90% GMO
  • Cotton: 90% GMO (seeds used in cottonseed oil)
  • Corn: 88% GMO
  • Hawaiian papaya: more than 50% GMO
  • Zucchini and yellow squash: over 24,000 acres GMO

* Percentages above show what percent of this crop in the U.S. is Genetically Modified.

That’s not a lot of kinds of food. In the United States, however, corn, soybeans, and canola are some of the major building blocks from which food scientists construct many processed foods. In fact, the Center for Food Safety says GMOs are in about 70% of processed foods sold in the U.S. (source). It’s sometimes hard to document exactly which ones they are, though, because foods containing GMOs are not labeled in the U.S.

Almost 50 countries including Australia, Japan, and the countries of the European Union require labels on GMOs. Many of these countries also have bans or restrictions of the production, import, or sale of GMOs in food (source).

Food Sprayed with Weed Killer

GMO corn, soybeans, and sugar beets in the United States are engineered to be resistant to a weed killer called Round Up. The weed killer is then sprayed on the GMO crops while they grow to keep the weeds down. Even though right now this practice is approved by the U.S. government, a lot of people have reservations about eating food sprayed with weed killer.

Most Corn in the U.S. is GMO
88% of corn in the U.S. is genetically modified, photo copyright USDAgov

GMOs Linked to Health Problems, Cancer

Many scientists think GMOs may be unsafe too. Thirty peer-reviewed animal studies found that GMO foods caused problems in the liver, kidneys, and blood, along with the development of abnormal immune responses and reproductive abnormalities in the animals that ate them.

More importantly, a lifetime study of rats in last month’s Food and Toxicology suggested a new side effect of GMO foods—cancer. The rats that consumed GMO foods from the Monsanto Corporation along with the herbicide normally sprayed on them (Round Up) developed large tumors in various places in their bodies.

This sounds very alarming. How could 70% of our processed food be linked to cancer and other diseases without us knowing about it?

Rats develop much faster than humans, and GMOs have not been around long enough for us to see the lifetime effects on human beings… yet. So far, this one study is the only peer-reviewed study that has run long enough to test if GMOs and Round Up cause cancer when eaten.

Most sugar beets in the U.S. are genetically modified
95% of sugar beets in the U.S. are genetically modified, photo copyright USDAgov

Steps You Can Take…

More conclusive studies need to be done before we can say whether GMO foods are safe for human consumption. In the meantime, however, you may want to start protecting yourself from the risks of eating GMOs, to avoid the risk of cancer and other diseases. Here’s what you can do:

  • Buy organic at the supermarket
    If the food you’re buying has a USDA organic label, it is legally required to have 95% organic ingredients. You can find more info on the National Organic Program website. While GMOs officially cannot be marketed as USDA organic, there is no system in place to test for GMO contamination in already certified foods.

P.S. Still curious about GMOs? Check this informative article in the Huffington Post.

Most soybeans in the U.S. are genetically modified
94% of soybeans in the U.S. are genetically modified, photo copyright USDAgov

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