Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

GMOs – Safe or Unsafe?

Genetically modified organisms remain part of the national debate. Are they safe? Are they not? What’s the truth? Unfortunately, a lot of the answers are not yet knowable because the long-term consequences of genetic manipulation of foodstuffs cannot be learned until enough time has passed and not enough time has passed to allow us to definitively say whether we’re harming ourselves by consuming such products.

However, we do know a few things.

For example, the range of GMOs has increased dramatically over the past decade. We’re no longer altering goats, for example, with genes that come from other goats or even other cows to obtain better milk. We’re now altering goats with genes from spiders so that goats can deliver milk that makes silk.

We want tomatoes that resist frost burn and apples that don’t bruise and corn that won’t succumb to disease. Fine. But how are we achieving those ends? We’re not just using tomatoes that show greater resistance to frost and selectively breeding them. We’re not just using corn that withstands a greater range of insects or pests. We’re creating Frankenfoods by inserting bacteria and genes that alter the original species far more than simple interbreeding did in the past.

For example, 90 percent of agricultural corn, cotton, soy, canola and sugar beets have been genetically engineered. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), when used to modify crops, helps those plants resist insect pests, thus reducing the need for insecticides.

That seems to be a good thing. However, some studies have shown that GMOs cause toxins and tumors and allergic reactions in lab animals. This seems likely due to the extreme modification of crops and farm animals by genetic material that is so dissimilar to what these species started with.

Most developed nations consider GMOs to be unsafe while the American Association for the Advancement of Science says that crop improvement by modern molecular biotechnology is safe. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Unfortunately, we don’t really know for sure. Both sides have made outrageous claims.

And new technology – like CRISPR, which works on the immune systems of plants or animals – means that the kind of genetic engineering done in the past may become obsolete in the near future. But for now, there’s a lot we don’t know.

Monsanto, for example, says the studies showing toxicity in rat livers and kidneys as a result of eating GMO corn are flawed. They said there was no real difference between the group getting GMOs and the control group with respect to toxicity and tumors. However, what they don’t admit is that the control groups in most of those studies was fed corn that had been contaminated with Roundup, GMOs and other toxins, so of course the control groups also got tumors and toxins.

More accurate studies by researchers like G.E. Seralini show that GMO foods can be a serious problem. Professor Seralini made certain his control group had non-GMO corn and the difference he found was astronomical. Up to 80 percent of his GMO-corn-eating rats got tumors – four times as many as the control group.

If these results are duplicated in other studies and if the results translate to people (and not just rats), we could be talking about massive sickness and death from GMO products. Of course, Monsanto and its allies attacked Seralini’s research, but all they really produced was a lot of noise. He even won a defamation case, and his chief critic was convicted of forgery in his efforts to discredit Seralini’s work.

On the other side, the anti-GMO people have also spread misinformation, like stating that the Zika virus was caused by GMO mosquitoes when in fact the Zika virus was discovered in Africa in 1947 and has been around a long time. It may be evolving into something more dangerous but the blame cannot be placed entirely on GMO mosquitoes.

So what’s the takeaway?

We need more time to study this and we need scientists other than researchers at Monsanto and in the fertilizer industry to do the testing. We need GMO foods to be labeled so that people have a choice about what to put into their bodies. If GMOs are safe, what’s the problem with putting a label on foods explaining which ones contain GMOs? Why, it’s money, of course. Big companies are afraid we won’t buy their products if they tell us our corn flakes are made with GMO corn.

They don’t say that, of course. Instead they claim that the labels will confuse us, that we won’t understand the complexities of the situation. And they may be right because we know they don’t understand the complexities of the situation. They don’t care. All they want is to get rich and they want us to not get in the way.


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