How Safe are Genetically Modified Foods?

As with anything new, GM foods too have generated more than their share of controversy – from conspiracy theories to realistic concerns, we have seen the gamut of reactions against foods that are modified genetically. How safe are these foods for human consumption – this is the question that is uppermost on people’s minds. However, how many people know that 60 to 70 percent of the processed foods on US grocery shelves contain genetically modified ingredients? With soy, maize, cotton and rapeseed oil being the most common GM foods, almost all or most of the foods made with corn or with high fructose corn syrup contain genetically modified ingredients. This includes most breakfast cereals, sodas, and processed snacks that you wouldn’t think twice about buying off a supermarket shelf.

The safety aspect rears its head in four ways:

  • Toxicity: Is the resultant genetic structure toxic to human health when consumed or when it comes into contact with human beings? With regular foods, we know by now which parts are toxic (like the seeds of some fruits) and which are not. With GM foods, it is hard to tell because there haven’t been many tests conducted on even animals, leave alone human beings.
  • Allergenicity: Do these foods induce allergies in people, and would the allergic reactions be fatal? Many people are allergic to normal foods like peanuts, gluten, and even dairy. They know they must avoid these foods because they could become severely ill, suffer serious respiratory problems, or even die due to anaphylactic shock. However, with GM foods, it is hard to know whether they’re going to trigger existing allergies and/or cause new ones. And if the boxes are not labeled (they are not in the USA), then there is practically no way of knowing what brought on the allergic reaction.
  • Gene transfer: What happens if the new gene transfers from the food into the human body? Will it cause antibiotics to function less effectively? There is a distinct probability of this, especially if the gene that is used to modify food hasn’t been tested properly in the human system.
  • Outcrossing: What happens when the gene crosses over from one kind of food to another either in the fields or during transportation or storage? There was an incident where GM maize which had been approved for animal consumption contaminated regular maize crops which were intended for human consumption. This could severely affect food safety and security on a massive scale.

In spite of all these drawbacks and negative aspects of GM foods, why do organizations persist with it? There are many reasons being cited for this, including the fact that GM foods are more resistant to pests and so don’t need the use of harmful and toxic pesticides and herbicides. Also, GM foods can be the answer to combating food shortages during times of crop loss and damage because of inclement weather and other calamities, natural or manmade. However, the bottom line is money and power – with patents being provided for GM foods, there is a beeline to jump on this bandwagon, and I’m sure most in the line are not doing it just for altruistic reasons.