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Genetic Engineers Explain Why Genetically Modified Food Is Dangerous

When the scientists who know best are worried, it’s time to start paying attention.

In the debate over genetically modified food, it often seems that one side is painted as pro-science (the GMO advocates), while the other side is portrayed as being scared of beneficial technology that could help us all.

But the lines aren’t so clearly drawn, as a new report from Earth Open Source suggests. The report, entitled "GMO Myths and Truths," might seem like just another anti-GMO screed—until you see that it’s written by genetic engineers.

The authors include John Fagan, a former genetic engineer who gave back his National Institutes of Health grant money because of safety and ethical concerns (he now runs a GMO testing company); Michael Antoniou, the head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King’s College London School of Medicine in London; and Claire Robinson, research director of Earth Open Source.

What are these scientists worried about?

  • Genetic engineering is not, as proponents claim, an extension of natural plant breeding. While natural breeding takes place only between related kinds of life, genetic engineering happens in a lab, where tissue cultured plant cells undergo a GM gene insertion process that couldn’t happen in nature. This is not in and of itself a bad thing.
  • One of the problems, say the researchers, is that genetic engineering is imprecise and the results are unpredictable, with mutations changing the nutritional content of food, crop performance, and toxic effects, among other things. Every generation of GMO crops interacts with more organisms, creating more opportunities for unwanted side effects.
  • GMO technology is becoming more precise, but the authors contend that accidents will always happen and, in any case, plant biotechnologists don’t really know much at all about crop genomes—so inserting genes at a supposedly safe area could still lead to all sorts of side effects.
  • GMO crops can be toxic in three ways: The genetically modified gene itself (i.e. Bt toxin in insecticidal crops); mutagenic or gene regulatory effects created by the GMO transformation process; and toxic residues created by farming practices (i.e. from the Roundup herbicide used on GMO Roundup Ready crops).
  • GMO food regulation varies widely by country. In the U.S., the FDA doesn’t have a required GMO food safety assessment process—just a voluntary program for review of GMO foods before they go on the market (not all commercialized GMO food crops have done this).
  • Independent GMO crop risk research is hard to come by because, as the report explains, "independent research on GM crop risks is not supported financially—and because industry uses its patent-based control of GM crops to restrict independent research. Research that has been suppressed includes assessments of health and environmental safety and agronomic performance of GM crops." A 2010 licensing agreement between Monsanto and USDA scientists should make it easier to conduct research—but the report explains that it’s still restrictive.

This report by no means ends the GMO crop debate—there is still much to be said for the crops’ potential usefulness, especially in developing countries that could use stronger, hardier versions of staple crops. But when genetic engineers are wringing their hands in a report like this, it’s wise to pay attention.

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