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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  • plebnumber1234567@yahoo.co.uk

    I'm still not convinced GE is anything but a front for the poisons that seem to be never to far away from the alleged crop itself.

    Is there any evidence to suggest that genes from one species can actually be accepted from a totally different species?

    Glyphosate attacks the reproductive systems of mammals while it also makes large area's of the land mass unusable......anyone else see the elephant in the room?

    This could be the biggest lie ever just to get control of the food supply.

    so just run that past me again, no one can identify a GE crop themselves unless its tested by who again? Can anyone actually say they have seen a GE crop that wasn't explained to be one first?

    Thought not.

    Round-Up anyone?

  • atimoshenko

    Seems the argument is that GMOs are more RISKY than organisms that are not genetically modified, rather than being more (unintentionally) HARMFUL (terminator seeds are a feature, not a bug for the people who design them).

    Of course, everything new and complex is more risky than old and well-tested alternatives. Plenty of people worried about the safety of cars relative to the safety of horses too (indeed, the case can easily be made that much more people die in car accidents than ever died in horse accidents). This is not sufficient reason to judge a technology as WORSE than the alternative however – to be worse, a given technology's cost-benefit tradeoff must be worse than that of the alternative.

  • Viva La Evolucion

    True, but you didn't factor in long term environmental consequences into your cost benefit equation.  Your example of horse and cars is a good example.  Cars cause a lot of pollution, especially now that millions of cars are on the roads burning gasoline. Similar to how growing Round-up resistant GMO corn causes millions of acres of land to be soaked in Roundup.  I am all for cars that have a minimal environmental impact on the environment, just as I am all for drought resistant GMO crops.  But, I believe low mpg cars and RoundUP resistant corn are two forms of technology that are bad for the environment .  Unfortunately, many people don't even consider the long term environmental consequences of new technology and only consider cost-benefit.  That is why there are a few industries, like farming, energy, and transportation that I believe the government should have regulations in place to make sure people use new technology in an environmentally friendly manner.  Labeling GMO's is not a big deal at all and will probably increase the cost of packaging by a few cents.  But more importantly  it gives people an ability to choose if they want to eat the brand pf corn flakes that has been soaked in RoundUp, or not.  

  • VasyaPupkinsan

    Humans are also part of the nature, and for the crops they serve as a natural selection environment. The same enviroment that provides background radiation for spontaneous gene mutations.

    Therefore it is meaningless to single out food chain on the basis that it is suddently good for the current generation of humans.

  • FarmGrrl

    And let's not forget something left out of the article, the "terminator" technology that some GMO companies wish to introduce. The intent is that farmers cannot save seed and plant next season. However, unlike newer hybrids, which do not germinate true to varietal in a second generation, these seeds would not germinate at all. Do we really want this introduced INTO THE GLOBAL FOOD SUPPLY?

  • christine

    WOW, this article is wonderful...thank You.  I think if more and more people knew about GMO's they wouldn't stand for it.  Sheesh, grateful I live in Europe where GMO's are a big no-no. 

  • WnSomeLsSome

    Also, some big questions about GMO foods revolve around how they effect humans and health via the digestive tract.  It seems that GMO foods may: present different protein sets for the digestive system to digest that it is not used to, contribute to increased allergenicity, and introduce different bacterial and fungal, or newly resistant, microbes into the intestinal tract resulting in altered gut microbial ecology (not being understood as an extremely important influencer of health).

  • Ashlindzw

     Present Situation: Thanks for the share, great information. Eating GMO is basically allowing scientist to experiment on you with methods that have not been proven. The real question that people have to ask is do you really want something unproven in your body. Messing with Mother Nature is a dangerous feat and should be heavily regulated. There could possibly be many benefits to perfecting GMO but honestly we are miles away from that point. Future Situation: It is my belief that the next frontier for mankind is outer-space and GMO will assist in the colonization of other planets. The only question is how you get there safely without destroying the present.

  • Grant

    The statement you make is flawed if you then dont look at the political structure and this involves monsanto and how the merry go round works. If you havent worked for monsanto then you dont work for the EPA and or the USDA and then your political machine doesnt get funded. Follow the money trail, dont persecute the independaent farmer or scientist, they are only doing their job.