Is Genetically Modified Food Safe?

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |07/25/16

Genetically Modified (GM) Food is a major breakthrough, but, like many discoveries, it has created controversy.

All living things, whether plants or animals, face many challenges to their survival: climate, predators, competition for food etc. Genes that give an organism a survival advantage are passed on to future generations.

There are many examples. Some plants develop their own natural insect repellent. Birds and fish have different colors to attract mates or to hide from predators. Bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics.

Science has now developed laboratory techniques to insert new genes into the DNA of some plants and animals. The goal is to make the food supply more productive. Plants can be changed to be more resistant to drought, heat, and insects. Farm animals can be bred to grow with less feed, water etc.

These biologically engineered animals are termed “Genetically Modified Organisms” or GMOs. You may see foods labeled as “GM” (or GMO) -free”. That means that the plant or animal has not been genetically modified by laboratory techniques.

What are the advantages of GM foods?
With climate change and expansion of the world population, many experts feel that we will need more efficient ways to grow food. Extremes of weather, and shortages of fertile land and water could all contribute to a food shortage. If we can genetically modify plants and animals to adapt to these challenges, the food supply may still thrive.

What are the risks of GM foods? So far, GM foods have proven very safe. One reason is that they must undergo safety tests before they can be introduced into the food chain. The food must be proven safe for human consumption and the plants and animals must not disrupt the environment. One common concern, especially for plants, is whether the new version can cause allergic reactions.

Can the new genes in the plant or animals be transmitted to humans? Eating a food product does not transmit genes. Every food has billions of genes that have no biologic way to mingle with our own genes. However, to artificially change a plant of animal gene, viruses are used to transmit the new DNA. . Some have argued that such viruses might linger in the food and infect humans. This theory has not been proven after decades of research. However, even if that were true, viruses have produced natural genetic changes in plants and animals for millions of years.. So far, humans have suffered so ill effects.

What are the dangers to the environment?
The GM organism could be so successful that it alters the natural balances in the environment. The organism may crowd out competitors or breed with them. We have seen this happen naturally when animals or plants from other continents have reached the US. With no competitors in their new land , these foreign organisms can spread rapidly. Examples include the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes and the Japanese beetle – found in almost every state. So far, no significant “outbreak” has happened with GM organisms.

Based on current information, these are the “take-home” messages about GM food:

• GM technology has improved food production, making food more affordable and available. With increasing pressure on the food supply, it is likely that more GM food will be developed.

• Most countries, including the US, regulate these products carefully, as they do other sources of food.

• The safety record of these GM foods has remained excellent , but the experience has only been over a few decades. Careful surveillance should continue.

• Before GMOs, we made serious mistakes in our food supply. Examples include applying harmful pesticides, and feeding animals growth-enhancing antibiotics that cause the life-threatening infections in food.

• The lesson is that we should always pay close attention to the safety of our food supply. GMOs are no exception. They have many benefits and minimal, if any risks to our health. Whether GMOs will threaten other organisms and the environment remains unknown.

You can learn more about GMOs from the Scientific American and the World Health Organization.

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