Are They Safe?
Many critics think of the DNA in GMO-based foods as if it's toxic, a bad thing, says Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, cooperative extension specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology at the University of California, Davis. As unappetizing as it may sound, "DNA has always been part of our diet, and it's digested in your stomach along with the rest of your food," she says. "There is not some evil trace of poison."
We got ruby red grapefruits through natural mutation, yet "few are questioning the safety of all the random genetic changes that went into their development," says Kevin Klatt, a PhD student in the molecular nutrition program at Cornell University. What seems to make people uncomfortable is when those changes happen deliberately in a lab.
A group of scientists did an extensive review of research on the safety of crops from GMOs over the past 10 years. They found no significant harm directly tied to genetic engineering.
And the American Medical Association thinks genetically modified foods are OK. Part of an official statement notes that in almost 20 years, no clear impacts on human health have been reported or confirmed in professional journals.
The World Health Organization agrees. They, along with the FAO, maintain a set of science-based standards, guidelines, and practices called the Codex Alimentarius to promote good, safe food for everyone. It includes biotechnology and genetic engineering, too. Many governments draw from the Codex to write their regulations and recommendations.
But there are still big differences of opinion, even among some scientists and doctors.
Stephen MacDonald, PhD, a biotechnology and business strategy consultant, agrees that all foods -- at the most basic level -- are made of the same stuff. Even so, he doesn't dish up GMO-based foods for dinner because he's not convinced they have the same exact nutritional value. "I don't think they are dangerous per se, but I don't trust the data that says they are entirely safe either," he says.
"But," Klatt says, "there is no evidence that exposing foods to chemicals or radiation is 'safer' than methods of genetic engineering." Over the last 60 years, these approaches to causing genetic changes in seeds has given us around 3,000 altered crops. Why isn't there as much fuss over them? "The public might be less familiar with traditional breeding techniques and therefore less concerned," he says.