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    Safe to Eat? Insights into the Controversy of Genetically Engineered Foods

    February 9, 2012 •  2 comments.

     •  Blog, News

    Written by Bonnie Y. Modugno, MS, RD, a speaker, writer and clinician for AllergyKids

    Food safety is inherently a controversial and emotionally charged topic. Genetically engineered (GE) foods garner a good amount of attention for good reason. Scientists and advocates for genetically modified organisms (GMO) and GE foods would like all of us to believe that we know enough to determine these foods are safe. We don’t.

    Proponents of genetically engineered foods are quick to point to a scientific void regarding foods we generally regard as safe. Over thousands of years, cultural norms and traditions taught future generations what to eat. Not science.

    Cultures include a wide variety of foods, mostly influenced by climate and geology. These conditions influenced what a people considered safe to eat. Over thousands of years, trading and migration increased the variety and range of foods for many cultures.

    In the last 100 years, science has introduced ingredients and foodstuffs that are not found in nature. More conventional chemistry produced trans fat (partially hydrogenated vegetable oils) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). These ingredients are extremely controversial, and many question their FDA GRAS status (Generally Regarded as Safe). It is no wonder that the world looks at genetically engineered foods with a great deal of skepticism, even fear.


    In 1906 Congress passed the original Safe Food and Drug Act. In 1958, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. These laws gave grandfather status to many foods and additives that were generally regarded as safe. The thinking among many scientists underscored the value of traditional foods.

    During the past 60 years much has changed in our food supply. There are ever more sophisticated means of cross breeding and creating new cultivars with a basic premise supporting the science known as substantial equivalence. The thinking is that if the new concoction is basically the same as something we already eat, it is probably ok. Even in the wake of genetic modification, scientists rely heavily on the notion of substantial equivalence.

    Substantial equivalence is a relative test of safety. Even strong proponents of genetic engineering recognize that determining substantial equivalence is a starting point—not the end point of determining what is safe to eat. How much scientific discourse regarding the safety of GMO and GE foods is limited to the issue of substantial equivalence?


    The challenge in all of this is that testing food for safety is basically impossible. There has never been a way to prove a food is 100% safe. Food safety information gathered via a scientific method can only tell us when a product is not safe. Scientists and spokespersons abuse this truth so regularly, that the general public may easily presume our food supply is 100% safe.

    In the arena of genetically engineered food, substantial equivalence often relies on a 90 day rodent test. There are scientists who believe the tests are adequate. Authors of a review published in 2011 vehemently disagree. I tend to agree with the later. A ninety day test is inadequate. This time table is inadequate to determine risk of chronic disease (including allergies), as well as reproductive health and the consequence for future generations.

    In one report pest management scientists acknowledge that pests are becoming resistant to GE crops. Internationally farmers are using multiple times the amount of conventional pesticides on pesticide resistant crops. With no attention to bioaccumulation and total body burden, a 90 day trial looking at the impact of feeding one GE food crop in isolation is exceedingly shortsighted.

    Inherent in the argument for safety is a belief that as long as the GE practices can be determined to be safe for animals and humans, there is no harm. This is reductionist thinking at its worst. A preoccupation with risk to animals and man means there is little attention to biodiversity, soil ecology and the entire ecosystem. Social and economic consequences are utterly ignored.


    I am disturbed by reports of growing pesticide resistance, farmer dependence on GMO seeds, as well as lawsuits and bankruptcies associated with use of patented seeds. The science used to support the safety of GE and GMO foods seems inadequate.

    At least consumers should be able to vote with their dollars. GE and GMO foods are required to be labeled in Europe. They are not labeled in the US, although currently many states, including California are mounting efforts to demand GE and GMO foods be labeled.

    Food is not inherently safe to eat. The challenge of eating safe food is left in the hands of everyone who touches it, from the farmer and rancher to every person or piece of equipment that handles food on its journey from farm to plate. For highly processed foods many people and places are involved. At my local farmer’s market I get to talk to the person growing, harvesting and selling me what I eat. The huge disparity between a local and more mechanized food system highlights an ever-widening disparity in the food supply. The presence of GE and GMO foods significantly increases the divide.

    Bonnie Y. Modugno, MS, RD, is a speaker, writer and clinician. Bonnie sees private clients at her nutrition consulting practice in Santa Monica, California. As a grateful consumer and mother, she celebrates food’s rightful place.

    Website www.muchmorethanfood.com Blog http://muchmorethanfood.com/wordpress/

    Twitter http://twitter.com/morethanfoodinc Facebook http://www.facebook.com/bonniemodugno

      2 Responses to “Safe to Eat? Insights into the Controversy of Genetically Engineered Foods”

      1. Hello Ms. Modugno,
        I read your blogpost concerning GE and GMO foods and would like to point out the other “foods” we as human beings should not be eating. Dairy is a highly inflammatory food and not meant for human consumption; Meat is also a very difficult protein for humans to metabolize properly. While the cognescenti organic populace continues to rail against this technology we vilify a very important aspect of our food system moving into a very unstable environment for growing crops. Please understand that a Rice plant that is engineered to be flood resistant and also has a high omega-3 built into it is going to be extremely important in our new climate growing regions. A corn or wheat that is drought-resistant, no till and has pest resistance built in is also a very important crop to have in the near future. I agree that the industry has it’s “villains” as does any industry but to take the whole industry and trash it is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

        • Hi Jeff,

          Thanks for your comments. I actually didn’t attempt to “trash” an entire industry. My point is to underscore the limited science behind the practice. In addition, I believe every consumer has a right to vote with their dollars.

          In regards to inflammation, I’m not so sure the problem is dairy or animal meat. I suspect there is a problem with the skewed balance of omega three and omega six fatty acids in grain fed animals and products from grain fed animals. Greater omega three and less omega six fatty acids in grass fed animals and dairy products is a good thing.

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