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Columns: Health Yourself

Do we really need or want genetically modified foods?

By Victor Katch

While the terms “biotechnology” and “genetic modification” or “genetic engineering” often are used interchangeably, they represent quite different processes and outcomes.

Biotechnology is the general term that refers to using organisms or their components, such as enzymes, to make products that include wine, cheese, beer, and yogurt. Genetic modification (GM), on the other hand, represents a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of animals, plants, or bacteria that would not take place naturally, bringing about alterations in genetic makeup and properties. Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be “genetically modified,” “genetically engineered,” or “transgenic.” GM products include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers.

Most people welcome GM products in the health and medicine field where genetically altered materials produce life-saving drugs. Not so when it involves our food.

Consuming GM foods constitutes the largest uncontrolled human nutrition experiment ever performed.

Introduction of GM foods into the world’s food supply at unprecedented levels constitutes one of the largest human nutrition experiments ever performed. Foods are being distributed that have not been adequately tested for long-term human safety or consequences, without a control group, without approval by those participating in the experiment (it’s virtually impossible to know if you are eating GM foods since labeling is not required in the U.S.), and without adequate oversight or a way to stop the experiment if something were to be proven wrong (as is the case in all human experiments).

Genetic engineering: Promises and findings

Since introduction of GM foods, proponents argue they have the potential to enhance taste and quality; reduce maturation time and hence time-to-market; increase nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance; improve resistance to disease, pests, and herbicides; and produce “new” products and growing techniques. While many of these promises have been achieved, not everything is so rosy.

A growing body of evidence connects GMs with various health problems, environmental damage, and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.

In nearly 50 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GM food.

The process of inserting a genetically modified gene into the DNA of a plant cell is crude, uncontrolled, and imprecise, and causes mutations in the plant’s DNA blueprint. These mutations can alter functioning of the natural genes of the plant in unpredictable and potentially harmful ways. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine 2009, after reviewing numerous studies on GM foods, recommended that physicians advise patients to avoid them when possible (

Before the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) allowed GMs into food without labeling, FDA scientists had repeatedly warned that GM foods could create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems. They urged long-term safety studies, but were ignored.

Since then, different research findings on GM foods have revealed the following:

  • Thousands of sheep, buffalo, and goats in India died after grazing on GM cotton plants.
  • Mice eating GM corn for the long term had fewer, and smaller, babies.
  • More than half the babies of mother rats fed GM soy died within three weeks, and were smaller.
  • Testicle cells of mice and rats on a GM soy diet changed significantly.
  • By the third generation, most GM soy-fed hamsters lost the ability to have babies.
  • Rodents fed GM corn and soy showed immune system responses and signs of toxicity.
  • Soy allergies skyrocketed by 50 percent in the U.K. soon after GM soy was introduced.

Most importantly, unintended, uncontrolled mutations occur during the GM process, resulting in unexpected changes in the crop and foods produced from it. These unexpected changes can create more opportunities to interact with other organisms and the environment, generating even more unintended and unpredictable side effects.

How to avoid GM foods
Non-GMO label

  1. Buy Organic. Organic producers cannot intentionally use GMOs.
  2. Look for “Non-GMO Project Verified” seals.
  3. Avoid at-risk ingredients. If it’s not labeled organic, or doesn’t have a Non-GMO Project Verified seal, then avoid food products made with the following crops since they are mostly genetically modified in the U.S.: • Corn (corn flour, meal, oil, starch, gluten, and syrups; sweeteners such as fructose, dextrose, and glucose; and modified food starch)• Soy (soy flour, lecithin, protein, isolate, and isoflavone)• Canola (canola oil, also called rapeseed oil)• Cottonseed oilSugar (avoid anything not listed as 100 percent cane sugar)• Aspartame (the artificial sweetener also known as NutraSweet and Equal, which is derived from GM microorganisms)
  4. Avoid hidden GM products, including baking powder, caramel color, lecithin, malt sugar, soy milk, soy sauce, tempeh, whey, whey powder, and sorbitol.

Coming soon to your local fish market?

The next chapter in the unfolding drama of genetically engineered food is the private development of genetically engineered fish raised under industrial aquaculture conditions. The FDA, entrusted with oversight of GM animals, is currently considering whether to approve a GM salmon (referred to as the “AquAdvantage” salmon) engineered to grow faster and produce more and better meat.

The transgenic AquAdvantage salmon is an Atlantic salmon that has had its DNA spliced with a growth hormone gene from the unrelated Chinook salmon and anti-freeze DNA from an Arctic eelpout that stimulates year-round growth, thus creating a fish that its developer claims can grow up to twice as fast as conventionally raised Atlantic salmon. If approved, the AquAdvantage salmon would be the first-ever GM animal approved for human consumption.

GM salmon food safety concerns

The FDA has yet to require or conduct any studies to assess possible long-term health impacts of eating GM animals; however, several independent studies have produced findings that leave cause for serious concern. For instance, the routine use of antibiotics to control disease in factory farm operations (like the AquAdvantage salmon conditions) may adversely impact human health. Research suggests transgenic fish may be even more susceptible to diseases than conventionally farmed fish.

Increased disease susceptibility could mean transgenic fish may then require more antibiotics. Human health also could be jeopardized as a result of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and exposure to certain classes of antibiotics that may cause allergic reactions.

Genetically engineered salmon lack many of the beneficial qualities that non-GM salmon boast, specifically, wild salmon have 189 percent higher levels of beneficial omega fats than GM salmon.

In another study, concerns were expressed that both toxins and growth hormones had a high potential to end up in consumers’ bodies. Also, it has been shown that genetically engineered salmon possess 40 percent higher levels of the hormone called IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), which has been shown to increase the risk of certain cancers.

The graphic below shows an example of comparisons between the AquAdvantage “Frankenfish” and non-GM salmon, based on the best available evidence to date.

Frankenfish Graphic.

Do we really need such fish?

Antoniou M., et al. (2012) “GMO Myths and Truths: An Evidence-based Examination of the Claims Made for the Safety and Efficacy of Genetically Modified Crops.” Earth Open Source.
Centre for Aquaculture and Environmental Research (2009) “Ecological Risk Assessment of Transgenic Salmon.” Study commissioned by the European Union, the Swedish Research Council Fromas, and the University of Gothenburg. Vancouver, Canada.
Genetically Engineered Salmon: The Next Generation of Industrial Aquaculture. Food Safety Review: A Publication of the Center For Food Safety
Ian Phillips, et al. (2003) “Does the Use of Antibiotics in Food Animals Pose a Risk to Human Health? A Critical Review of Published Data.” Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. vol. 53, 28–52.DOI: 10.1093/jac/dkg483.
Moschos, S. (2002) “The Role of the IGF System in Cancer: From Basic to Clinical Studies and Clinical Applications.” Oncology, vol. 63(4).
Non GMO Project• U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine, Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee. “Briefing Packet: AquAdvantage Salmon.” Sept. 20, 2010.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine. “Draft Environmental Assessment: AquAdvantage Salmon.” May 4, 2012 (published Dec. 26, 2012), p. 86.
Yu H. and T. Rohan. (2000) “Role of the Insulin-Like Growth Factor Family in Cancer Development and Progression.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute, vol. 92(18).

Victor Katch

Victor Katch

VICTOR KATCH has been active in the exercise, nutrition, and weight control arena for more than 40 years at the University of Michigan. He earned his undergraduate degrees in international relations (political science) and physical education (kinesiology) from California State University at Northridge. He also did undergraduate work in international relations at the prestigious University of Uppsala in Sweden. Katch's graduate degrees are from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a professor in movement science in the School of Kinesiology. He has three children and five grandchildren, and is an avid exerciser who enjoys year-round walking and jogging with his wife, Heather, and playing golf whenever possible, weather permitting.