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The GMO Primer: GMOs and how they affect your health, explained

(Photo: Foodrenegade.com)

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are complicated and controversial, and for the average person, separating good science from industry promotion in a meaningful way is nearly impossible. It’s also incredibly important.

So we poured through the research and talked to scientists to find to out what you need to know about the controversial crops and how they may affect your health.

Here’s what we learned.

What are GMOs?

GMOs are created by inserting a piece of DNA from the cells of one plant or animal into the cells of another. This reprograms the cells’ genetic blueprint, giving it new properties. Most commercial GMOs are created to withstand herbicides or produce insecticides. For example, one of the most common, Roundup Ready Soybeans, was engineered so that farmers can spray their crops with the herbicide Roundup to kill weeds without also killing the soybean plants.

What are GMOs in?

In the United States, GMOs are estimated to be present in about 80 percent of processed foods. Ninety-five percent of soy and close to 90 percent of corn crops contain GMOs, and they are barely tested or regulated and not required to be labeled.

How GMOs affect your body and health

“There’s a growing body of scientific literature around the health risks of GMOs, and the papers that are showing the risks are deep and systematic science,” says Dr. John Fagan, a genetic engineer and expert who founded Earth Open Source and is an anti-GMO advocate. Because the genetic interference disrupts the plant’s functioning, it may also, in turn, disrupt your body’s, he explains.

Non GMO ProjectSome of the health risks that have been suggested in numerous animal studies include kidney and liver problems, reproductive issues, and increased risk of cancer. Studies have also shown that GMOs may be allergenic, and may reduce the nutritional value of foods. For example, one study showed that genetically-modified soy had less healthy isoflavones.

The biggest long-term study to date, published last fall in the journal Food and Toxicology, showed a marked increase in tumors and premature death among rats fed genetically-modified corn. But while the study made waves, it was also met with intense criticism from many scientists, who cited major flaws in its design. And some studies have shown little to no health risks, including this literature review of recent research published in the same journal last year.

Side effect: More exposure to chemicals

Another concern, aside from the effects of the GMOs themselves, is that as foods are engineered to withstand herbicides, more of the toxic substances are sprayed on the plants, increasing herbicide residues found in foods. (Since farmers don’t have to worry about killing the plants, they end up spraying the herbicide much more liberally.)

“When Roundup Ready Soy was first approved for use in Europe, the government increased the threshold of Roundup that could be found in the soy,” Dr. Fagan notes. So your tofu may come with an extra serving of Roundup, which has been linked to cancer, birth defects, neurological disorders, and other health issues.

The controversy

Conflicting research is tricky enough to sort out, but it’s even worse when larger forces are at play. Much of the research that’s cited as proving GMOs are safe (but not all) is done by the companies that create them (yes, seriously). Also alarming: these studies tend to be done over 90 days or less, so as not to expose possible long-term health risks.

And anti-GMO advocates say that companies such as Monsanto (manufacturers of RoundUp Ready soy, corn, herbicides, and more) engage in campaigns to control the research that’s being done and discredit studies that show risks.

“Much of what they’re doing is attacking the scientists. They’re not bringing up counter-science, they’re just throwing the kitchen sink at these guys,” says Dr. Fagan. “In addition to that, they have done everything they can do to control whether research can be published.”

In the end, it seems like the debate over the safety of GMOs in our food supply is only just beginning, and hopefully, skilled, independent scientists will put even more muscle into providing us with concrete answers. —Lisa Elaine Held

More Reading

Wellness Trend: “Non-GMO” is the new “organic”
Why you should care about a California proposition to label GMOs
Beauty products go non-GMO

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9 Comments | ADD YOURS

  1. February 28th, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    This article is misleading. Although 90% of corn may be GMO, it is not consumable cornyou will buy in the produce section. It is the corn that is used to feed animals and corn used to create HFCS that is GMO. There is no GMO produce outside of some yellow hookneck squash, some zuccinni, some papaya. Most GMO is going to be used to be processed like Soy, Corn, cotton etc

  2. February 5th, 2015 at 9:09 am

    First, what the animals eat that are then eaten by people matters. Second, beyond the health risks of GMO, there is the “ownership” of the GMO seeds. Monsanto has sued farmers for having GMO plants growing on their property. EVEN if it is clear that the GMO seeds were blown in by a neighboring farm, not planted by the farmer. They also don’t allow farmers to “re-seed” their crops from the plants they have grown. Companies owning the patents on plants is disturbing and gives them too much control of our food sources. Third, these Round up resistant plants are taking their toll on the ecosystem and has been linked to the major decline of honey bees and other insects needed for natural pollination and soil recovery. There are MANY reasons to be question the benefit of GMOs.

  3. February 5th, 2015 at 9:47 am

    And your comment is misleading…yes you are safe in the produce department right now, although that may change as more and more foods are approved for GMO gene splicing. However, the current estimates are that 75% to 90% of the prepared and packaged foods on the store shelves contain GMO’S. Read your labels, folks, they almost ALL have corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, or soy lecithin. Think about how many of these foods you buy; Mac n cheese and cereal for your kids, crackers, salad dressings, any kind of desserts from cookies to candy bars to cakes, pancake syrup, chips fried in corn oil or soybean oil.lBasically as I mentioned before, almost every packaged

  4. February 5th, 2015 at 10:11 am

    And your comment is misleading…yes you are safe in the produce department right now, although that may change as more and more foods are approved for GMO gene splicing. However, the current estimates are that 75% to 90% of the prepared and packaged foods on the store shelves contain GMO’S. Read your labels, folks, they almost ALL have corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil,soy lecithin, or canola oil. These are the genetically modified ingredients that pervade our grocery store shelves. Think about how many of these foods you buy; Mac n cheese and cereal for your kids, crackers, salad dressings, any kind of desserts from cookies to candy bars to cakes, pancake syrup, chips fried in corn oil or soybean oil. Basically as I mentioned before, almost every packaged food in the store has GMO’S. So we are almost all eating them, unless you are extremely careful or eat 100% organic. And the ironic part of this whole situation is that these big companies like Kraft make non GMO products to sell overseas to countries that have banned or label GMO’S. Watch “The Future of Food”, an Excellent video by Deborah K. Garcia. Google Jeffery Smith who is an expert on the subject and goes all over the world teaching people about the dangers. Why haven’t you heard about the dangers of GMO’S if they are so bad? Because Monsanto spends millions of dollars to keep the truth from the people. March and fight for labeling laws. We have the right to know what is in our foods. And when we have a choice we will choose more wisely.

  5. February 5th, 2015 at 10:15 am

    If you need answers in regards to GMO crops, please use this website that uses research and studies to back up their findings. It also encourages asking questions, whether skeptic or accepting of using GMOs to feed our growing population.

    http://gmoanswers.com/

  6. February 5th, 2015 at 10:16 am

    My two comments above were for the first commenter. Please disregard my first comment. The second one is the complete comment.

  7. February 5th, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Referencing sources for information provided would lend more credibility to controversial topics and provide a reader with some comfort that the information provided isn’t made up. You might consider doing so in the future.

  8. February 5th, 2015 at 10:45 am

    If the corn or ANY of the GMO products are fed to livestock- and we know that it IS- then it STILL ends up on our plates. Not cool!

  9. February 5th, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    Cool story bro. Way to imply that our food system isn’t safe, even though we have the safest food system in the world. Also, way to cite the Seralini study. Too bad it was withdrawn by it’s original publication because there were questions as to the accuracy of the data collected. It was republished by a non-peer reviewed and activist online only publication.

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