I’ve Looked At Plants From Both Sides Now: GMO Foods

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on Feb 2nd, 2012)

There is a lot of conflict over genetically modified organisms/foods (GMOs) and it is difficult to understand both sides let alone pick one. Let me take a little of your time to explore the idea with you this week. I feel that I have a fairly unique perspective on this situation that I would like to share.

When I was at Queen’s University doing my undergraduate in biology I was a staunch defender of GMOs. They were minute changes to the cellular structure of the plant that would make them more resistant to the environment they were planted in. This was providing more stable forms of food for third world countries and would have a much greater yield than other crops. They were being engineered to breakdown into more efficient sources of ethanol and methane for alternative fuels. GMOs were saving the world and people who thought they were bad news had just read too much science fiction or were fear mongers. And to be completely honest, I was also hoping someday we could find a way to turn me into Wolverine.

At that point they were still so new that there was no evidence of them having any different effects on the human body and what was one little protein difference in the food. Doesn’t that mean we are just going to break it down and ingest the components?

Well, I now know the power of one single protein, especially a protein that is not normally found in our diets. Due to this potential impact on our lives there are many claims that GMOs are causing any number of health issues and it is hard not to get caught up or lost in the immensity of these claims. When I was in Chicago studying to become a chiropractor I got caught in the anti-GMO rhetoric and the disastrous health claims and was strictly against GMOs. This is what I was originally going to write this blog about. That changed this week.

After skimming over a sampling of the research out there I feel comfortable making the statement that there is very little scientific evidence of risk (without getting into political conspiracy theorizing)1, 2, 3, 4. The investigatory methods are constantly being refined and updated and have been found effective and efficient1, 2, 5. But this does not mean that all GMOs are safe, just the ones that have been tested. So caution is still necessary.

I’ve been shaping a theory of what is truly behind this conflict that I would like to share. Most of the people behind GMOs don’t have an in-depth grasp of the human and the amazing complexity it contains. They see it as a mouth, a bum, and a simple processing factory in between that takes the good and gets rid of the bad with no questions asked. On the other hand, the majority of the anti-GMO crowd do not have a true grasp of the biology of GMOs. They see Frankenstein’s monster lumbering down the street destroying everything due to its very nature. Neither side can objectively see the other. This is not to say that I am all knowing on this topic. I’m just a guy who’s lived in both camps.

But I still don’t think that we should be eating GMOs. My problem now is that most GMOs have been designed to be resistant to specific pesticides and herbicides. This pretty much guarantees that these products are going to be used on the crops and this is something that we definitely should avoid. There is no question about the health impacts of these chemicals. The pesti-/herbicides linger in the flesh of the crops and enter the water run-off and poison both us and the environment. This is not something we want.

So really it breaks down to this, GMOs are great for impoverished (putting aside unethical and downright horrific commercial practices of some companies) and in need countries where people go hungry every day and food supply is a major issue. In this way, they are exactly what is needed. In developed countries where product yield is not an issue but health is, they should be avoided due to their association with known toxic sprays. Knowing what we are putting in our bodies helps us make informed choices.

Thanks for reading,
Dr. Ben

For anyone who is interested the regulation and food labelling laws in Canada regarding GMOs the official document is linked here.

References

  1. Zhou C, Wang JW, Huang KL, He X, Chen XP, Sun H, Yu T, and Che HL. A 90-day safety study in Sprague-Dawley rats fed milk powder containing recombinant human lactoferrin (rhLF) derived from transgenic cloned cattle. Drug and Chemical Toxicology. 2011 34(4):359-68
  2. Cao S, Xu W, Luo Y, He X, Yuan Y, Ran W, Liang L, and Huang K. Metabonomics study of transgenic Bacillus thuringiensis rice (T2A-1) meal in a 90-day dietary toxicity study in rats. Molecular bioSystems. 2011 7(7):2304-10.
  3. Yuan Y, Xu W, Luo Y, Liu H, Lu J, Su C, and Huang K. Effects of genetically modified T2A-1 rice on faecal microflora of rats during 90 day supplementation. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 2011 91(11):2066-72.
  4. Paarlberg R. GMO foods and crops: Africa’s choice. New Biotechnology. 2010 27(5):609-13.
  5. Chassy BM. Can –omics inform a food safety assessment? Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. 22010 58(3 Suppl):S62-70.
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