Is Genetically-Modified Food Safe… Or Not?


When I was a boy a schoolteacher told me “you are what you eat.” I don’t remember most of the stuff I learned from schoolteachers. But that little nugget stayed with me. I think because it made eating things like broccoli more fun. I imagined I was challenging my body with those tiny green trees, “Good luck turning this into a fingernail.”

Old sayings like “you are what you eat” help us make sense of life. Yet most of those old sayings also have their opposite. “Look before you leap,” is contradicted by, “He who hesitates is lost.” I guess the old wisdom is true about half the time. Not a bad average. The simple view of life the old sayings provide often helps us when we grapple with important life questions, like:

If you are what you eat… is genetically-modified food safe to eat?

Obviously you can read because you’re reading this, so you must know there’s a heated debate about GM-food. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration is currently deciding whether they’ll introduce GM-meat into our diet. Until now, it’s only been GM-produce and other GM-food products but not genetically modified animals. That may soon change. There’s a new GM-salmon engineered to constantly produce growth hormone. Day or night, asleep or awake, the fish is always growing. If the FDA decides it’s safe, you might soon serve this wonder-fish at your summer barbecue.

Some people think eating a salmon with DNA flipped-on to make it always grow isn’t really a good idea. While others think the naysayers sound like hippie alarmists who left their commune just long enough to visit an internet café and update their blog. For the hippies, the defenders of the GM-salmon are obviously corporate hacks. Which leaves the rest of us in the middle. The Great Undecided Masses stuck holding the ever-growing salmon, unsure if it’s safe to eat.

We need answers. Lucky for you, I’m unburdened with any knowledge of the subject. I’m unfamiliar with the facts, studies or controversies surrounding GM-food. Since I don’t know anything it means I can’t confuse you with the facts. You can trust my ignorance. I have no vested interest other than your health. After a coin flip, I decided to prove GM-food is totally safe. It could’ve been heads and I would’ve said it’s unsafe, but I’m glad it was tails, because I like to believe GM-food is healthy. I like the future and I want to see us get there. To make my case, I’ll approach this like any other modern person. I don’t have time for a ton of research. Thanks to the internet, that doesn’t matter, because the answers are all online.

Let’s start with the health effects since your health is your wealth.

Pigs will eat just about anything. That’s why in movies desperate criminals use starving hogs to make unwanted bodies disappear. But I read on some blog, even hungry pigs won’t eat GM-corn if given another option. I also read some stories about how pigs fed GM-corn gave birth to bags of water. If that’s true, that’s just horrible. That’s bad for everyone, farmer and consumer. You can’t eat a bag of water. Stores can’t sell it like it’s pork-flavored water. Which makes me question the blogger. I don’t think he understands the free market. Farmers can’t waste time growing bags of water. That’s just economic nonsense.

…Okay, I looked that one up. Apparently, it’s true.

“In the US, about two dozen farmers reported thousands of pigs became sterile after consuming certain GM-corn varieties. Some had false pregnancies; others gave birth to bags of water. Cows and bulls also became infertile when fed the same corn.”

That’s the story according to some guy named Jeffrey M. Smith. He purports to be the world’s leading expert on the subject of GM-food. His bio reads:

“Jeffrey M. Smith, Executive Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, is the leading spokesperson on the health dangers of GMOs. His first book, Seeds of Deception is the world’s bestselling book on the subject.”

One man can’t prove GM-food is unsafe. Those bags of water could be a freak occurrence. Besides, we don’t eat the same stuff pigs and cows eat. Maybe if we were eating the same GM-modified corn, we’d have something to worry…

…Sorry, some curious schoolchild interrupted me. The little boy asked what I was writing. After I told him, he said we do eat what the pigs and cows eat if we eat the pigs and cows. And he’s right. Guess the saying should be, “You are what you eat… and whatever it eats.”

But I stumped the kid when I said to him, “Perhaps, the side effects only affect pigs and cows and lab rats. GM-food must be safe for human consumption because if it isn’t safe how could it be on the market? Corporations can’t sell unsafe products.”

The kid was skeptical of my logic. But then he and his mother left the coffee shop. So… I googled it. Damn if the kid wasn’t right again. Apparently, corporations can sell stuff that isn’t good for us.

Companies sell products that give us rare bone diseases, skin conditions, premature baldness, stomach cancer… you name it. Doesn’t even matter if the product is for babies. It’s one thing to trick full-grown adults into buying your faulty products, but a baby can’t even read the fine print. That’s kinda messed-up. I guess when profit and loss are your only measures of success you look at things like babies a little differently. Plus, we can’t fully understand a corporation’s thinking because we have different values.

There’s a book by Dr. E Marla Felcher, It’s No Accident: How Corporations Sell Dangerous Baby Products.  I didn’t read it. But I read an online review of the book. It was on the site The book reviewer said:

“Dr Felcher makes the case in the introduction “the issue is how a regulatory system allowed more than a dozen children to be killed by a… cradle (chapter 1), 66 children to die in bath seats (chapter 2), and six children to die in a… portable crib (chapter 3)… Manufacturers who failed to adequately test their products and a government agency that has been stripped of the authority and budget it needs were responsible for these deaths. The deaths were not accidents. And… (without action) these tragedies will occur again and again and again.

I didn’t read the book because, apparently, it’s well documented that corporations don’t always protect us from unsafe products. And regulators don’t always have the money they need to do their job. I still believe the USDA and the FDA regulators work hard to ensure we have a safe food and drug supply. Just because corporations occasionally sell products unsafe and unfit for human consumption, it doesn’t necessarily mean GM-food is unsafe.

If GM-food is unsafe, wouldn’t governments around the world inform the public about the dangers, or at least mandate labeling?

Okay… I checked the “Genetically Modified Food Controversies” page on Wikipedia. Turns out, lots of nations have laws for informing the public about the dangers. According to Wikipedia:

“The European Union, Australia, New Zealand, China, India and other countries require GMO labeling, while others make GMO labeling voluntary or have plans to introduce labeling.”

So modern nations like China inform the public. And America doesn’t. That’s fine. China does things differently. Back in 2008, a scandal emerged when Chinese dairy products like milk, baby formula and chocolate were found to contain melamine. It’s a chemical used to make laminate flooring. After 11 nations stopped importing Chinese dairy products, Chinese regulators cleared the shelves and held a hearing to determine who was at fault. Two people were executed.

In America, we don’t execute guilty white-collar criminals. Instead, we have freedom. Occasionally, innocent consumers die from food poisonings, disease or infection. Those are consequences of their freedom of choice. They decided. No one forced them to enjoy the e. coli-tainted spinach that killed them.

Okay, this should make you feel better. I just read on Wikipedia the American Medical Association’s opinion on labeling GM-food. Here’s what American doctors have to say:

”The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) oppose mandatory labeling of GM-food because there is no scientific evidence of harm. The AMA believes that even voluntary labeling is misleading unless accompanied by focused consumer education. The AAAS argues that mandatory labeling “can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.”

See? They don’t want you freaking out. Right now, we don’t know if GM-food is killing you. Maybe in ten or twenty years we’ll know. For right now… it’s best if you don’t freak out. You’ll know you’re in trouble once we hit the iceberg and the ship is sinking. Until then it’s all darkness from sea to sky. We lack the trustworthy vision of any scientific consensus.

…Whoa! Just looked that one up. According to the world’s leading critic of GM-food, Jeffery M. Smith, there is unreported scientific consensus:

“Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had warned about all these problems even in the early 1990s. According to documents released from a lawsuit, the scientific consensus at the agency was that GM foods were inherently dangerous, and might create hard-to-detect allergies, poisons, gene transfer to gut bacteria, new diseases, and nutritional problems. They urged their superiors to require rigorous long-term tests. But the White House had ordered the agency to promote biotechnology and the FDA responded by recruiting Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney, to head up the formation of GMO policy. That policy, which is in effect today, denies knowledge of scientists’ concerns and declares that no safety studies on GMOs are required. It is up to Monsanto and the other biotech companies to determine if their foods are safe. Mr. Taylor later became Monsanto’s vice president.”

You know what? Forget science. Science isn’t perfect. Science will prove anything! Basically, if you have enough money there is a team of scientists out there who will prove you’re the sexiest person alive.

We’re going at this backwards. Let’s look at the positive effects. Companies like Monsanto make GM-modified rice and wheat engineered to contain extra vitamins. That’s awesome! Vitamin-enriched rice means poor people enjoy better diets. Agri-business may have turned their family farms into a thing of the past, but that’s progress. Think of it like the future gives with one hand and takes with the other. In this case it’s Monsanto that’s giving and taking. “We took your farm, but here’s some vitamin-enriched rice.”

GM-food is the future. Food science isn’t just rearranging molecules. They’re getting down in there and engineering the DNA so an organism rearranges its own molecules as it develops. The food science industry needs to be free to create new foods to help us enjoy a better future. And they’d like to make a few billion dollars. Everyone wins.

From my cursory analysis, it seems… no one, officially, knows if GM-food is good or bad. There’s evidence GM-food is bad for making piglets and babies and other living things. But then, there’s the vitamin rice. You take the good with the bad.

And one should remember Mother Nature’s been doing her thing for billions of years. She’s figured stuff out. Modern food science is just getting started. They’ll make mistakes. Don’t focus on today. Look to tomorrow. Trust that companies like Monsanto… will only get better. GM-food is the future. And the future isn’t your problem because you live in the present. Now go and focus on today, but ignore GM-food, that’s for tomorrow. The key is don’t freak out.

So there you go… problem solved. Good night. And God bless America.

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image – Martin Pettite