Are GMOs Really That Harmful to Eat?

Anna Medaris Miller

Jane Goodall started eating organic food long before organic food was in. It comes as no surprise that the 81-year-old British primatologist -- known best for her work with chimpanzees -- does so in large part to pay tribute to animals.

"People do beastly things to animals," Goodall said at an event at the National Press Club Tuesday, referencing animals such as mice, cows and pigs that have experienced adverse effects -- ranging from diarrhea to tumors -- from eating genetically modified feed. "At least if the animals have suffered in this way, let's listen to what they're telling us. Let's take heed," she said.

Goodall, who has written books that include chapters on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, was promoting Steven Druker's new book, "Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public," for which she wrote the foreword.

At the event, Druker, a public interest attorney, argued that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has misrepresented the safety of genetically modified foods and violated federal food safety law by allowing them onto the market. Until they're proven safe with testing, as the law requires, Americans should steer clear of eating them, he and Goodall said.

"The entire venture to reconfigure the genetic core of the world's food supply has been chronically and crucially reliant on deception," says Druker, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Bio-Integrity, who filed a lawsuit against the FDA in 1998. Although the judge ultimately ruled in favor of the FDA, the case forced the administration to divulge files that revealed some of its own scientists were concerned about GMOs. For example, Edwin Mathews of the FDA's toxicology group wrote that genetically modified plants could "contain unexpected high concentrations or plant toxicants," while the director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine at the time, Gerald Guest, wrote that "animal feeds derived from genetically modified plants present unique animal and food safety concerns."

The safety of GM foods has not been "based on sound science, as its proponents would have us believe, but is actually based on the systematic subversion of science," Druker says. "If there were a full and honest airing of the facts, of the evidence, it would collapse."

Scientific Conflict

Genetically modified foods -- also called genetically engineered foods -- contain DNA that scientists have modified in an unnatural way, such as by adding a gene from a different organism, according to the World Health Organization. Proponents, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, say GM foods represent scientific advances and have been shown to be safe. For example, a study last year in the Journal of Animal Science that reviewed nearly 30 years of data on livestock -- both before and after animals consumed GE feed -- found GE feed wasn't linked to any "disturbing trends in animal performance or health indicators," the authors write.

"It's simply the use of the most modern technology available and our absolutely fabulous increase in knowledge over the last 40 years or so to improve [plants] in many different ways," says Nina Fedoroff, a professor of biology and life science at Pennsylvania State University who served as chair of AAAS's board of directors when it released its statement on GMO labeling in October 2012.

Advocates say GM crops don't pose a health threat and can help feed the world's population since many are bred to resist insects that carry diseases and to tolerate herbicides targeted at weeds. "If the entire world went to organic tomorrow, we could probably feed half of our current population," Federoff said in a TED talk last year.

But opponents, including Druker and Goodall, worry that GM foods could harm human health and say support for GMOs is based on misinformation. "[The FDA] has given the consumers basically a false vision of reality and said, 'These foods are safe, they're OK and we can put them on the market without any testing,'" Druker says.

For foods introduced after 1958 to be "generally recognized as safe," and therefore allowed to forgo additional testing, they must be considered safe by an overwhelming consensus of experts and that consensus must be based on scientific procedures like peer-reviewed journals, according to the Food Additives Amendment of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

But Druker argues there's no consensus, citing studies like a 2015 article in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe signed by over 300 scientists called "No scientific consensus on GMO Safety." "The mere fact that there's scientific conflict when there shouldn't be is good reason not to be eating these foods," Druker says. What's more, he and Goodall say animal studies and farmers' observations have linked genetically modified feed with health problems in animals. A 2012 study in the Journal of American Science, for example, found rats fed GM corn lost or gained weight, or experienced other changes in their organs or biochemistry compared to rats fed non-GM corn. "This indicates potential adverse health/toxic effects of GM corn and further investigations still needed," the authors write.

Still, the FDA holds that "foods derived from genetically engineered plants must meet the same requirements, including safety standards, as foods from traditionally bred plants," FDA spokeswoman Juli Putnam wrote in a statement to U.S. News. "The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods from genetically engineered plants on the market differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, such foods present different or greater safety concerns than their non-genetically engineered counterparts."

What's a Consumer to Do?

Druker compares the case for GMOs to the case for smoking in the 1950s: Just because there's no clear link that GMOs cause harm in humans doesn't mean they're safe. What's more, consumers can't wait for epidemiological studies to show GMOs are harmful -- the way such studies have shown smoking can lead to cancer -- since there's no way to identify who has and hasn't eaten GM foods (most aren't labeled) or to isolate their effects.

Instead, "we have to pay close attention to those studies that have shown harm to the unfortunate rodents who have been dining on these foods -- and there are enough of those to raise a red flag."

While the fact that the FDA has approved genetically modified foods should mean they're safe, that's a false assumption since the administration skirted its own rules, Druker says. "Our law was set up to be precautionary, so that you and your families are not subjected to new foods with questionable additives until those additives have been demonstrated safe to a reasonable certainty of no harm," he says. "There's not a single genetic re-engineered food that has met those criteria -- that's not a correct situation."

To err on the side of caution, Druker suggests avoiding processed foods -- up to 90 percent of which is estimated to contain genetically modified corn or soy -- and looking for foods that are labeled "certified organic" or "non-GMO-verified" if you buy packaged products. That label provides "the highest level of assurance" that you're not buying packaged food with GMOs, he says.

Others like Federoff say avoiding GMOs is near impossible and fruitless. Druker's book, she says, "is just one more effort to sell books by vilifying a technology that has, in fact, harmed no one and has had quite substantial benefits for people and the environment."

As for Jane Goodall, the answer is to eat organic -- and pray. "I don't want to eat those foods that have been sprayed or modified and don't want my grandchildren to eat them either -- I don't think they've been proven that they're safe, and in fact, it's been proven that they're unsafe," she says. "I pray that these foods will be taken off the market."