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

Monsanto Sign

BOOOO GMOs!

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:

traditional_breeding_vs_genetic_engineering

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

greens

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:

CCK_EibWMAEbFI5

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!

-Steve

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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