What’s the deal with GMOs? Are they ACTUALLY unsafe?


Down with Monsanto!

These days, it’s quite popular to hate on Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs for short. From genetically modified crops to genetically modified animals, mentioning the term GMO is like discussing the intricacies of Soylent Green or a dystopian future in which everything sucks and we’re ruled by robots.

Like aspartame, GMOs have been widely banned and labeled as dangerous and unhealthy. This stuff is all over the news lately:

However, with us being both fans of the Paleo philosophy AND skeptics at Team Nerd Fitness, I too questioned my own personal anti-GMO bias and wondered: am I just falling in line with public opinion? What does the science actually say? Are we part of a marketing campaign, or is there truth to what’s happening?

If we’re going to question EVERYTHING, as the Rebellion Rules say, can we question scientific advancement as well?

Let’s don our sleuthing caps, Sherlock, and find the truth!

Quick note: I’m not a doctor or scientist, just a nerd dedicated to helping people find out what works for them. I have zero connection to ANY companies mentioned in this article. This post is GMO-free.

What does GMO actually mean?

GMO Protest

You’ve probably only started hearing about GMO foods in the past few years, but we’ve technically been modifying our food for as long as we’ve been domesticating plants and animals (i.e., the agricultural revolution 10,000+ years ago).

Anything from picking the strongest or fattest animals to breed, to planting seeds from the best plants, to cross breeding dogs to get cuter versions of our four legged friends, we are genetically modifying (“artificially selecting”) an organism to best suit our needs.

This happens WAY more often than you’d realize. Now, rather than type out a confusing explanation, I want you instead to watch this video from Neil Degrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, host of the amazing COSMOS miniseries, and professional nerd.

Practically everything we eat or interact with has been genetically modified at some point in the past 10,000 years:

Now, what you’re probably thinking is: “Steve, that’s not what I’m talking about – I know we pick better fruits to plant and try to breed the best animals! I’m talking about the evil scientists creating modified things in a lab.”

That’s explained here in this handy dandy chart from the FDA:


Ultimately, it means that you’re changing the DNA of an organism to hopefully make it genetically superior, resistant to something that could harm it, or allow it to grow bigger/stronger/faster/etc. Back in the day, this meant picking the crops that survived a drought and planting them over many seasons, or cross-breeding certain animals over many generations.

Today, the process is sped up: a.k.a. artificial genetic engineering, which is the direct manipulation of genes using biotechnology. There are many types of plants that have been artificially genetically modified and available for widespread sale:

  • Alfalfa
  • Canola
  • Corn
  • Cotton
  • Papaya
  • Soybean
  • Sugar beets
  • Summer squash
  • Zucchini

Each of these plants have been modified in some way to make them stronger, pesticide resistant, or yield greater amounts of food.

“93% of corn grown in the U.S. in 2014 was genetically modified. This includes 76% of corn that is both herbicide resistant and pesticide producing, with the remainder engineered for only one of those traits. 94% of the soy grown in the U.S. in 2014 was engineered for glyphosate resistance.”

If GMOs concern you, if you’re eating processed foods then you’re almost certainly eating GMOs: “Experts said 60 to 70 percent of processed foods on U.S. grocery store shelves have genetically modified ingredients.”

Now, obviously if you’re a Paleo diehard, then you’re already not consuming Corn or Soy, but you still might be consuming genetically modified Zucchini, Alfalfa, or Summer squash.

So, now that you know what GMOs are, let’s find out if they’re evil.

What the science actually says


It’s easy to make a leap from genetically modifying plants and wondering “where does it end?” How far will companies go in the face of profit?

We imagine evil scientists in a laboratory messing with nature and creating new products, all in the name of a bigger yield, more food, and more profit. And yes, as fans of the Paleo Diet, we like to see people eating more real foods and less artificial, processed ones.

As pointed out in this phenomenal answer on Quora, fact and fiction are quite different when it comes to history and companies like Monsanto: “People are lazy and people want history to be easy, approachable and quick. They want our good guys to be all good and our bad guys to be all bad.”

We take something incredibly complex like GMOs and slap a one-sentence truth to it that is easy (they’re evil), and any viewpoint that states an alternative is viewed as “idiotic, dangerous, or wrong.” In reality, like ANY company or any product, Monsanto (and others) are neither good nor evil, and not all GMOs are created equal.

When I looked into this question, I quickly came across a recent Pew poll had the following results on “Are GMOs generally safe to consume?”:

Scientists from the American Association for the Advance of Science: 88% say it’s safe.

US Adults: Only 37% say its safe, while 57% say it’s unsafe.

So, my next question was, what do scientists know that the general public doesn’t? As pointed out in this LA Times piece:

In 2003, the International Council for Science, a nongovernmental body representing more than 100 national science academies and dozens of international scientific unions, reviewed 50 independent and authoritative studies. It concluded that the GMOs Chipotle banned this week “are safe to eat.”

In this EU document with a decade of funded research on GMOs, the following is presented: 

The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.

Finally, in one of the most comprehensive studies of GMOs ever conducted, with nearly 30 years of data representing more than 100 billion animals, found that GMO feed was nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO feed on animal health. 

But, we can’t swing too far in the other direction either. With all of the seemingly comprehensive evidence above, and numerous GMO objections, what’s a nerd supposed to do?

What we think

Microscope science

Just as we look to see the reason behind the fear-mongering or decisions being made, here are MY thoughts at Nerd Fitness on GMOs.

When it comes to Pepsi removing aspartame from their Diet Pepsi and Chipotle removing GMOs from their food, we are being targeted with these buzzwords to sell more products.

This is the same mentality behind a lot of the products that are sold to us:

  • Sour Patch Kids candies are labeled as “a fat-free food” as if it’s a healthy benefit.
  • Lucky Charms are labeled as being “made with heart-healthy whole grains.”
  • “Organic” cookies are still cookies loaded with sugar that can expand our waistline.
  • Items like muffins/pancakes/pasta/pizza being made gluten-free does not necessarily make them healthier.
  • A 1500-calorie burrito from Chipotle without GMOs isn’t automatically healthier than a 1500-calorie burrito with some GMO ingredients.

I’m sure Pepsi will laud its new non-aspartame formula as healthier despite studies saying it’s no different: they’ll switch to a different artificial sweetener that doesn’t have the stigma attached to it that aspartame does.

If I was a stockholder in Chipotle, I would applaud Chipotle’s decision to move away from all GMO ingredients. They have positioned themselves as being a healthy brand, and 2/3rds of the general public views GMOs as unhealthy…these changes can only help their business and further distance them from “unhealthy” alternatives.

Even Kraft Foods recently caved to popular pressure, certainly not for health concerns, but because they noticed a significant decrease in their sales and needed a new buzzword to change things up. So did Pizza Hut and Taco Bell: recently saying they’re getting rid of artificial ingredients.

So, what’s the bottom line, and what do we do?

Right now GMOs are a little bit like organic cookies; more about the fad (and fears) than legitimate health concern. However, this is a hugely complex topic, and there’s a lot more to think about than health, such as environmental concerns, intellectual property, international development, biodiversity, and more. Plus, current studies don’t tell us much about future developments.

There are places to find a negative view on GMOs (like here and here at Mark’s Daily Apple, a great Paleo resource), but even they point out “To date, it’s true that there exists no conclusive hard evidence that GM foods are dangerous to people.”

Is it possible that future genetically modified organism might create health or environmental issues down the road? Absolutely – we don’t have a crystal ball and only time can tell. All we can do is look at the foods and science we have now.

The bottom line is: Use your noggin, question everything, and look at the big picture.

Think for yourself

magnifying glass

After all, it’s pretty obvious that one can scare the crap out of anybody about anything with the correctly crafted marketing campaign.

Don’t believe me? Let me warn you about the dangers of water:


Obviously this is poking fun at the fear-mongering that is all too commonplace these days, but what’s one to do? We need to think for ourselves, and understand that what we’re being taught and sold are decisions almost certainly made with the bottom line in mind, not altruism.

Science and research has shown that GMOs aren’t quite the villain they’ve been made out to be (and could potentially help solve major world hunger and nutrition crises).

We understand that so many people think GMOs are unsafe, even when most scientists in this area have achieved a consensus. But, one of the Nerd Fitness Rules of the Rebellion is to question everything (and that includes us!).

So, no matter what YOU believe – make sure you don’t allow yourself to be sold a particular point of view without checking it out for yourself.

At the end of the day, we want you to be happy and healthy, and it starts with not being deluded into making decisions based on marketing.

Campaigning against GMO corn in the name of health, while stuffing your face with unhealthy (but GMO-free) food is missing the point. If you’re interested in changing your health and/or losing weight, it starts with consuming fewer calories, and consuming more real food (vegetables and solid protein sources).

Keep your attention on these big wins, not gluten-free food (unless you have an allergy) or GMO-free food.

I have a hunch this is going to result in a LOT of discussion, and I’m sure a few emails that call me a GMO-apologist, science noob, dangerous, or just calling me mean names (not that anybody would ever do that on the internet), so let’s try to keep things civil in the comments:

What are your thoughts on GMOs? Like many others, before I started this article I was opposed to them, simply because everybody else was. I now feel more educated, and have shifted my stance a bit – there are more important healthy changes for me that I am concerned with for myself and my fellow Rebels.

[dons flame-retardant kevlar suit]

I’d love to hear your thoughts!


photo source: Donna Cleveland: Monsanto Sign, Daniel Arauz: Greens, Miljopartiet De Gronne: GMO Protest, University of Liverpool: Microscope, Nic McPhee: Magnifying Glass

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  • Morgan

    Best comment section ever!

  • Rod Herman

    How about 240 science organizations that have endorsed the safety of GMOs? Are they all in on the conspiracy?


  • Wow. This long post is just informative and it helped me open up to new things about GMO. Great post, btw! Before I started reading this post, I am not a fan of GMO’s and always perceived them as harmful. But now that I’ve read the other side of GMO, I can say that it’s not really that bad, it also has its own bright side. Now, the question lies with, “what do you want to do with GMO?” I asked this myself and came up with an answer. If I am losing weight, then GMO is bad for my health. Buti if I want to propagate more resistant organisms (like the crops or new breed of gods you mentioned) then I will most likely love the idea of GMO.

    At the end you’re right. All the decision lies with us. Thank you for this very informative article and for educating a lot of us.

  • Paul Black

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned. The FDA chart compares traditional genetic crossovers with genetic engineering. However, traditional development only involves organisms of the same or similar species. SOME genetic engineering moves genes between very different species. As an extreme example, Turkish scientists injected genes for fluorescent protein from jellyfish into rabbit embryos yielding healthy, glowing bunnies. I’m not too worried about putting genes from, say peas, into the corn I eat. But I can see good reason to be cautious about introducing genes, and proteins they produce, into very different biological systems.

  • no search papers?

  • Rod Herman

    There are over 2000 peer-reviewed publications on the safety of GMOs. If you are unfamiliar with how to find the ones that pertain to a particular subject, I would be glad to help if you can be specific as to what you are looking for.

  • We would be most interested in peer reviewed research that establishes the negative health consequences of continuous inclusion of GMO products in a dietary regime. We would be expecially interested if you referred us to papers on GMO yellow corn.

  • Rod Herman

    There is not a single documented case of an adverse health effect from any commercialized GMO. I cannot provide a link to a scientific paper that establishes a falsehood.

  • Rod Herman

    You mean like what happened to sweet potatoes 8000 years ago?


  • Rod Herman

    Half of these chemicals found in food have been proven to cause cancer in actual rodent tests. These are the ones that scare me.


  • That has been our understanding on GMO’s as well – genetic modification has not been shown to create an unsafe food supply. Part of our food business is in corn flour and corn meals that are being used in batter mixes [fish and potato products predominately]. We run head long into the GMO issue with commercial customers at times and can only respond as you just did that there is no definitive research to establish that genetic modificaiton is a potential health problem. As you are no doubt aware our entire corn supply has been genetically modified so we are especially sensitive to the research on this subject and try to keep close tabs on the related science as it is published.

  • Rod Herman
  • Thanks……I will review.

  • Rod Herman

    GMOs are not ingredients. Ingredients are made of matter and composed of chemicals. What is the chemical structure of GMO? Is it related to the chemical structure of organic or kosher?

  • Great read. Here is my thoughts, as I don’t “know”, I can only come to some logical conclusions…

    There is a difference between “safe to eat” as they won’t cause harm in any way…but are GMO’s our best option? Or even a good option?

    While working with population in fitness and nutrition, and even with myself in my own experiments, there is an ever increasing digestion and disease issue. We rely mostly on medicine and pharmaceuticals to help/cure us. But when so much our health and immunity comes from the health of our gut, is there a place for discussion where these foods are potentially causing issue?

    I am not overly alarmed by GMOs…yet. But I am aware. And I know that for myself and many that I work with, dropping GMO foods as well as any food that aids in any inflammation (intestinally or bodily), it has profound positive effects.

    I can see where the fact that GMOs exist have allowed us to feed more people in the world as the food supply is in high enough demand to fight any famine threat. But when thinking of how we have changed the way food is grown and how our bodies may not adapt 100% to these changes, it may be worth asking the question…GMOs may be “safe”, but are they our best choice?

  • Many thanks for the articles. This is similar to the literature we have on hand and continues to substantiate our investment in our corn products program. We like the way they framed the study conclusion which was, “We have illustrated here that the insertional effects associated with genetic engineering are similar to the genetic changes that occur in conventionally bred plants. Based on this similarity, insertional effects should present a similar level of risk as genetic changes associated with conventional breeding. In light of this conclusion, it is reasonable to re-evaluate the information required for the pre-market assessment of genetically engineered plants, foods and feeds. In doing so, it will be important to maintain consistency with international guidelines, such as Codex Alimentarius (2003)”.

  • Destiney Marsh Fischer

    https://www.facebook.com/DavidAvocadoWolfe/videos/10152737126541512/?fref=nf I love this video it shows the difference of a family’s lab work after 2 weeks of eating Organic food.

  • Destiney Marsh Fischer

    Bill Nye still doesn’t support planting a ton of Gmo crops do to unintended and unforeseen consequences but doesn’t believe they are inherently bad. From what I understand he would be ok with them if they weren’t released into our ecosystem, which is a change from what he stated before. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/11/bill-nye-gmos-changed-mind_n_7245092.html here’s an interview with him.

  • Destiney Marsh Fischer

    Thank you lol hybrids and Gmo’s are very different. GMOs involve gene splicing, I mean you’re Inserting a single gene from a completely different source.

  • Destiney Marsh Fischer

    I would like to see long term studies … 10 plus years? I mean I guess we’re kind of the study aren’t we.

  • explosive_donut
  • Vince

    Greed is the problem and the winner of the day. As with any business, profit is number 1. For some companies, no matter how big they are, it’s always number 1 instead of the customer. That’s what annoys me. Good article though

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  • kitttykatz

    Monsanto absolutely does sue farmers for patent infringement. They say they don’t sue over drift because they argue that drift doesn’t happen, that any instance of their plants in a farmer’s field is due to intentional planting.


  • kitttykatz

    Honeycrisp and Sweetango are not patented. The names are trademarked, and the trademark holders only allow a small number of farmers to use that trademark. Trademarks are about brand development, so once people know they like one brand of apple, they won’t buy a differently named apple… even if it’s the exact same strain.

    Planet Money did a piece on this very topic a couple of weeks ago.

  • Michael McCarthy

    “Honeycrisp and Sweetango are not patented.”
    The names are the trademark, yes, but the cultivars Minneiska (Sweetango) and Honeycrisp are patented (well, Honeycrisp patent expired in 2008) as property of the University of Minnesota. Here’s the patent on Minnieska, just for your reference


  • I knew GMO weren’t good but this is quite eye opening. Great images as well.

  • AldivosTarril

    3% of AAAS scientists (mostly working in the GMO industry) were polled and 88% of them said it was “generally safe” to eat GMOs. Rod reports this as 88% of all scientists on the planet saying “GMOs are safe”.

    It’s denial and lies all the way for Rod the Desperate GMO Shill.

    Note that Rod the GMO Shill hides his Disqus comment history in order to hide his lies.

  • AldivosTarril

    3% of AAAS scientists (mostly working in the GMO industry) were
    polled and 88% of them said it was “generally safe” to eat GMOs.

    Rod the GMO Shill turns this in to ‘88% of all scientists on the planet say GMOs are safe’. It’s lies all the way for the GMO shill.

  • Ches

    Hey Steve!

    It is one of my favorite topics and I spend a lot of time researching it. So what I know about GMO is pretty much the same as the summary from the EU study (25 years, just a reminder for some who wants long term research): GMO are no worse than any other food we have now. The main reasons when compared to selection foods are:
    1. They are checked. I mean if I just create a new type of potato – no one will bother to check if it’s good, right? So I breed one and it’s poisonous. And people die. And that has happened – http://boingboing.net/2013/03/25/the-case-of-the-poison-potato.html
    So imagine I make a new potato using GMO – I will have to pass hundreds of test to get it to the market (and that is a good thing, imo). Despite everything – if it is GMO, it is FDA approved.
    2. Here we come to getting new qualities of the product (let it be potato). How do we get useful qualities the old trusted, organic way? Well, the evolution theory tells us that there is only one way – mutation. So we can plant potatoes for a decades to find the ones with qualities we like and breed them. Who in their right mind going to spend decades on that? No one. So let’s speed up the process. Usually there are two choices – mutagens (toxic, cancerogenic stuuf) that warps DNA to create mutants, or we can use all-time favorite – radiation, which does pretty much the same. So me break the DNA of our poor potato apart creating absolutely unpredictable and unknown changes. Then we investigate the mutants that managed to grow and choose the ones with the qualities we like. So how do we know that the mutants don’t have some pretty lethal qualities? We don’t. And see (1): we don’t even check if they have any. Not bad for 100% organic. huh?
    Let’s have a look at the GMO technology (I don’t claim that Monsanto or others do the same, but I believe FDA regulations that force them). We find the exact place we want to make the change: Say bigger potatoes, or tastier, or whatever. We make the change we want in the place we want. We check that the change was made where it was supposed. Then we double check that the potato didn’t obtain any other unwanted qualities. Yep, this is how “harmful” GMO is being made. The best illustration I could come up with is: Brain surgery for GMO vs bashing with bat for selection. The choice is yours =)
    3. This one going to be a short one. Some people are worried about “genes from other species”. The fun fact is – there is no such thing. Genes are just instructions to produce proteins. Think of it as a function from a code: You want a feature another program has – you borrow the code. After all humans are about 60% bananas (https://www.genome.gov/DNADay/q.cfm?aid=785&year=2010).

    P.S. There is couple of things that off-the-shelf GMO foods lack compared to 100% organic: There is no hormones or antibiotics used in organic as well as better nutrition for animals. It makes organic healthier and tastier.If there were GMO antibiotics/hormones free food – I would buy only that.

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  • Angie

    Monsanto did sue a farmers market. Losing weight doesn’t have to take long. If you’re looking for something that works to lose weight quickly and keep it off, I recently discovered The 3 Week Diet online (go to venusfactro.com/try ) on our local news and it really helped me. I went from 195 pounds all the way to 145, so I’m glad I made the change to a healthier lifestyle. If I can do it, you can too! Get up off your butt and do something about your health and fitness! Three weeks from now you’ll wish you have started today… good luck and you can do this! I promise 🙂Text me if you need some help staying motivated! (706) 968-7729 – I might be a little slow at replying but I’ll do my best to be your free personal trainer. We can be here for each other 🙂xo,Angie

  • coffeetablescience

    Good article Steve. Even though companies like Monsanto have been around for a while, GMO’s are still new technology and we should evaluate each development on a case by case basis, rather than imposing Blanket bans, like the EU did recently.

    A recent study at University of York uses GM plant to clear up TNT from the soil. We wrote about this on our blog. Here’s the link, http://www.coffeetablescience.com/2015/09/genetically-modified-plant-can-help.html

    Now, if you oppose GM out and out, then you end up opposing developments like these as well.Would any body in the world want to oppose such a development?

  • Moonerys

    Finally someone who is gravitating towards what I have thought all along: “GMO or no GMO?” seems just a pointless question – like you say, they are not created equal! Corn producing their own pesticide is of course naughty, naughty. But, like – if you have a bunch of letters, you can use them to write poetry – or swear words. Everyone understands that. You don’t go around lobbying the ban of letters! GM is the TOOL, people. A vague one at that. Ban the particular results that turn out bad, not the tool itself. Saying “GMOs are bad.” is just like saying, let’s say, “Wine is bad.” Without asking “What kind? How much? How was it made? Who made it? Where was it made?” etc.

    There’s something fishy about all the smearing campaigns, too … don’t know how to explain it without sounding too tin foil =)

  • Arun Kethar

    As of the December 2015, GMOs are only taught to be environmentally
    wonderful because people think that they will save planet Earth, but that is
    not always the case. The life of GMOs start with toxins and herbicides, in
    which it will be transformed into an artificial crop. These chemicals can be injurious
    to health in many ways. A survey was completed last year, in which doctors all
    over the country had reported that 15 million people fell sick due to toxined
    and processed foods. Most of the processed foods include Phytate, Bisphenol, and
    Hexane, which leads to sickness. The most dangerous illnesses include
    infertility, immunity issues, accelerated aging, and faulty insulin. It is also
    widely acknowledged by agriculturists that GMO’s pollute the surrounding
    environment because when one GMO crop is introduced to the soil, the nearby
    crops will also catch on to its chemicals and will eventually carry on the same
    traits. This then leads to unsustainability and reduced biodiversity. Animals are also affected by this
    because in 2014, their habitats decreased by fifty percent. I would seriously consider the negative aspects before making a decision. Don’t environment should NOT die quickly like an ink in a pen!

  • ThePetey

    My only thing against GMO’s from a health point of view is more related to the fact that nutritional science is relatively unsure of things. Eating a carrot with beta carotene is good! Taking a beta carotene pill is pretty much useless. I just don’t think we can predict that genetically engineering a carrot for a trait won’t somehow disrupt a cofactor rendering the beta carotene useless, like a pill.
    Also – the idea of my food producing it’s own pesticide sort of squibs me out. I am sure there is no way to tell WHAT modifications have been done to a certain food so would have no idea how to avoid those.
    I tend to buy organic which avoids Genetically engineered foods but that is also to reduce exposure to (both me and the soil) pesticides and other chemicals in produce production.
    While my purchasing tends to be more organic, I don’t fuss too much. I am not going to grill a server in a restaurant about the GMO/Organic nature of the produce – I’m going to order and eat the salad.

  • idk