January 11, 2010

Is Genetically Modified Food Safe?

uh oh

A recent study on the safety of genetically modified food is important for two reasons:

1.  This is the first of its kind (!)
2.  This is the longest in vivo study (in animals) on the safety of this food:  90 days. (!!!)

Rats were given one of three strains of genetically modified corn, or a non-GM corn feed, and studied for 90 days.

The results were not encouraging,

Our analysis clearly reveals for the 3 GMOs new side effects linked with GM maize consumption, which were sex- and often dose-dependent. Effects were mostly associated with the kidney and liver, the dietary detoxifying organs, although different between the 3 GMOs.

For example:

mon 810.jpg
While these are not gigantic results, keep in mind that these are rats are eating at most a 33% mixture of GM corn, and it's only for 90 days.  If you want to know if they cause cancer, just check with your kids in a few decades.


It's not obvious to me how eating something with modified DNA is harmful.  When you eat DNA, you don't incorporate bits of it into yours, any more than when you eat a pie you incorporate bits of pie.

One corn (NK 603) was modified to be able to withstand the plant killer Roundup, and two others (MON 810 and 863) were modified to produce an insecticide.  When you eat this corn, therefore, you are also eating some herbicide or pesticide.  In other words, it may not be the GM corn itself that is toxic.  If the corn is grown on a farm that is sprayed with Roundup, then you're eating Roundup.  It's quite possible this study is measuring the toxicity of Roundup, not GM corn. 

Put another way: maybe they should find better ways of washing the corn?


Does washing corn-- or anything-- help remove pesticides? 


In one study, water alone was tested vs. Fit Fruit And Vegetable Washing Kit.

washing fit.JPGThree points:

1.  Study 1 fruit had been treated only with captan; Study 2 fruit was treated with a mixture of captan and methomyl. 

2. Water and Fit both wash off captan well, but water isn't as good for methomyl, probably because fruits are coated with wax after they have been treated with pesticides, locking in the deliciousness.  Water doesn't penetrate wax, but ethanol (in Fit) does-- as does rubbing the fruit.  Moral: scrub wash, then peel, then wash your fruit.  Soaking them in rum is helpful and delicious but not recommended.

3.  This is what they mean by washing: soaking the fruit in 2L of water for 30 seconds, then rinsing it four times, 30 seconds each.  Then rinsing again for 5 seconds with 2L fresh more water.


An older study found that water was as good as Fit and even washing in 1% (!) Palmolive, significantly reducing 9/12 pesticides studied. (It had no effect on 3 others, so there's that.)


What about meat?   

While many pesticides have been banned (e.g. DDT) they are still in the soil and get incorporated into the plant.  In a similar manner, current pesticides are theoretically incorporated into the fat of the farm animals that eat the sprayed plants and feed.

A study done in India found various meats (cow, goat, chicken) to be contaminated with several pesticides, including DDT.  None of the animals appeared sick prior to their slaughter.  However, and this is the point:

pesticide chicken.JPGCooking means steam (in a pot.)

I'd guess that cooking vegetables probably has the same effect.



I'm lost... are the vegetab... (Below threshold)

January 12, 2010 8:17 AM | Posted by Jbow: | Reply

I'm lost... are the vegetables narcissistic or the pesticides?

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VERY interesting. I've grav... (Below threshold)

January 12, 2010 9:48 AM | Posted by Mae: | Reply

VERY interesting. I've gravitated toward organic to avoid pesticides. I never trusted the smarmy, smiley "It's OK, we swear!" mantra of the GM food producers...mostly out of ignorance for the scientific process of genetic modification. I may be feeling smug.

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perhaps i'm missing it but ... (Below threshold)

January 12, 2010 9:49 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

perhaps i'm missing it but what does the 11% and 33% indicators mean in the tables?

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@MaeIf you look at... (Below threshold)

January 12, 2010 10:34 AM | Posted, in reply to Mae's comment, by D.T.: | Reply


If you look at the standards for what is considered organic, you'll see that pesticides make their way into organic food as well, just not as often. "Organic" just means "cleaner," it doesn't mean "pure."

A good book about this is "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan

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<a href="http://www.pnas.or... (Below threshold)

January 12, 2010 11:44 AM | Posted by Xianhang Zhang: | Reply

Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural) [PDF]

"The toxicological significance of exposures to synthetic chemicals is examined in the context of exposures to naturally occurring chemicals. We calculate that 99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. Only 52 natural pesticides have been tested in high-dose animal cancer tests, and about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present in many common foods. We conclude that natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests. We also conclude that at the low doses of most human exposures the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant."

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Your title is a little misl... (Below threshold)

January 12, 2010 1:25 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Your title is a little misleading; the paper does not ask this question. They say in their conclusion that these results shouldn't be generalized to genetic modification in general: "Patho-physiological profiles are unique for each GM crop/food, underlining the necessity for a case-by-case evaluation of their safety, as is largely admitted and agreed by regulators. It is not possible to make comments concerning any general, similar subchronic toxic effect for all GM foods."

I'm pointing that out because I'm afraid people will use studies like this to justify a belief that GM is bad in general. Studying three GM insecticidal strains of corn made by one company for one purpose, and concluding that GM food is bad for your liver is like studying three automobiles and concluding that all machines have bucket seats.

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To Anon above:That... (Below threshold)

January 12, 2010 4:07 PM | Posted by Z: | Reply

To Anon above:

That's the point. He is not making the case that the foods are more dangerous. Hell, he spends the entire article making the point that it is not GM foods that are the problem, as much as it may be pesticides.

He just worded the title the same way the media is going to word it, which is incorrectly. Can't wait for this to turn into Hippy Fuel.

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I will check that out, than... (Below threshold)

January 13, 2010 3:11 PM | Posted, in reply to D.T.'s comment, by Mae: | Reply

I will check that out, thank you for the recommendation. I'm more than a little hazy on it...I try to purchase organic where I'll be ingesting the skins, such as grapes. I figure it doesn't have to be perfectly clear of pesticides, just "better than the other option."

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The Conflict of Interests s... (Below threshold)

January 14, 2010 9:31 AM | Posted by Jack Coupal: | Reply

The Conflict of Interests segment of that paper contains the shortest and most alarming finding of any of those reported.

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It's not obvious to me ... (Below threshold)

January 18, 2010 10:00 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

It's not obvious to me how eating something with modified DNA is harmful. When you eat DNA, you don't incorporate bits of it into yours, any more than when you eat a pie you incorporate bits of pie.

OK, now I confused. Are you being disingenuous or do you know so little cellular biology? DNA is where proteins come from and protein is what food is made of. The whole purpose of changing DNA is to change the proteins of the organism being modified. That's, in fact, the point of modifying something's genes.

So by definition, a GM food is one which is constituted of chemical compounds slightly different than the non-GM food, and those altered compounds might well have unhealthful effects upon humans that ingest them. Further, imperfectly implemented processes of genetic alteration may cause additional, unintended genetic changes with who knows what results (I am a computer programmer and I promise this is true: when you make changes in source files, sometimes you make mistakes that are hard to find and undetected until something goes very wrong later in the finished app). We know tiny changes in DNA can cause dramatic changes in protein folding and chemical processes. Thus there is, as best I understand genetics and protein synthesis, every reason to be concerned that GM organisms may have proteins within them, intended or not, that are (or metabolize to be) something we really don't want to be eating.

Why is this not obvious?

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This is not obvious because... (Below threshold)

January 21, 2010 11:37 AM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Rafael K: | Reply

This is not obvious because, when you and I digest food, we break it apart into its constituents. In particular, protein gets broken down into aminoacids. All the crazy "unnatural" proteins you might find in a GM ear of corn are made up of exactly the same aminoacids you already eat every day. So, in principle, if genetic modification results only in different proteins, it shouldn't make GM food any more or less hazardous than non-GMs. Of course, there can be other results (the modifications can cause the production of toxins and other substances that do not get broken apart safely if the vegetable is uncooked, just like the toxins that already exist in many or most vegetables). Still, the burden of proof rests on those who claim that there are hazards.

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>I am a computer programmer... (Below threshold)

January 21, 2010 12:12 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by spriteless: | Reply

>I am a computer programmer and I promise this is true: when you make changes in source files, sometimes you make mistakes that are hard to find and undetected until something goes very wrong later in the finished app

The machines nature builds have a hell of a lot more failsafes than the machines we build. Knowledge of computer assembler does not well translate into knowledge of protein assembly. For instance, while errors caused by transcriptase happen, most mutations that actually result in protein change don't even effect the function.

Most of these genes are taken from natural bacteria. Certain bacteria DNA breaks into chunks to enter other cells naturally when it's too stressful for the bacteria to survive. It's not actually more dangerous than what happens in nature.

Unless, of course, they are putting in toxic pesticides on purpose, or prions by accident. That could get dangerous fast. I'd hate mad soybean disease.

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to the anonymous asker of "... (Below threshold)

January 22, 2010 7:42 PM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Lexi: | Reply

to the anonymous asker of "Why is this not obvious"?

We don't digest other plant DNA or the broken pieces of DNA that make up pie and have that DNA re-write our DNA with their code (that is what I interpreted TLP to be saying- ie that doesn't happen). And I interpret you to be saying that by virtue of ingesting something 'unnatural' it might change our DNA because it isn't natural.

But we do ingest it and it changes our bio-chemistry, which then changes the environment our brains and genes are in. So could pesticides, but we can't know because we weren't told if these corns were grown without pesticides.

Pie, if we eat a lot of it, can change how our pancreas functions (hello type II diabetes). But what part of pie is causing that? Maybe that's what you mean by cellular-biology, how the chemistry of the foods effect the cells in our body?

I.e. Newsweek recently reported that Dean Ornish published a study that showed, that in addition to other things (read here: http://www.newsweek.com/id/141984) diet changed gene expression in male patients with prostrate cancer. We don't really know which one worked best, what I assume, however, is that all of them changed the bio-chemistry of the prostate patient. Thus changing the environment the genes were in. Thus indicating to the genes different expressions were in order. But what caused it? Diet? Ex? Meditation? Connecting with people? Just like is it the corn or the pesticides?

The effects haven't been separated out. It would be nice if they redid this study without using any pesticides at all, so we could see if it is the pesticides or the GM food. And then keep drilling down until we isolate what might be a cause.

I'm under the impression that high fructose corn-syrup is bad too, because of the biochemical changes that happen in our bodies as a result of ingestion, among other things. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM&feature=player_embedded#) But it isn't the corn, or the proteins, or the DNA of the corn.

I feel like I repeated myself 3 different ways.

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Some studies indicate that ... (Below threshold)

March 13, 2010 3:51 PM | Posted, in reply to Z's comment, by Riley: | Reply

Some studies indicate that GM food actually reduces the quantity of pesticides that are used by farmers. For example, megafarms would also use pesticides, but with GM foods they are often able to use less pesticides less often.

Further, I feel that the benefits (i.e. the ability for farmers to produce food more cheaply, thus allowing them to produce greater quantities, thus providing cheaper food to a greater amount of people around the world, people that would otherwise go hungry) outweighs the health risks.

The choice to buy organic food is always an option for the "rich". The choice to go organic world wide, though, simply means more people in the world starve to death. I think the course to take is pretty clear. That is, provide poor people with food that may give them cancer at age 70, rather than let them die at age 10 from starvation. Yes?

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News flash. Everything we d... (Below threshold)

March 13, 2010 4:04 PM | Posted, in reply to Lexi's comment, by Riley: | Reply

News flash. Everything we do, Everything we eat, Everything we see, hear, touch, taste...It all changes us in some way. I could find some study out there for practically any activity we do in life that shows it has some type of affect on our body.

Life comes down to this: dying. You have to find a balance. Do what you can to slow the end result, but you have to balance that with what is practical. Living in a cleanroom might prolong your life and increase your well being, but that isn't very practical, is it. It is the same with everything in life, including food. Yes, you can spend twice as much for food that is grown without using pesticides if you are able. It costs more because it is harder to grow, the farmer can't grow as much, etc. But that isn't always practical for everyone. If you are poor, then your choice really comes down to buying the cheapest food available (GM), or starving. No choice there really.

Environmental issues are the same. If you can afford to install solar panels on your house, then go for it. But if you are poor, you are going to build the cheapest, and likely least "green", house that you can afford. If the choice is between being homeless or having an environmentally unfriendly house, you choose the house. No question.

So it seems the real solution to all these problems: make more money.

You could regulate GM foods or pesticide use. You'd make the wealthy among us healthier probably. You'd also kill a lot of poor people in third world countries. You could regulate the environment. You would improve the air quality and environment in the industrialized world. You'd also keep third world nations from being able to develop industry and a middle class, thus ensuring they always stay poor and dependent on aide from countries like ours.

It's all about balance and practicality.

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For such brainiacs I'm surp... (Below threshold)

March 14, 2010 12:19 PM | Posted by Kat: | Reply

For such brainiacs I'm surprised you didn't do more research on the price of organic food. If you are buying organic food from large corporations that only care about making money then yes, you could claim that organic food is for "the rich". But I spend about $30/week from april - october on organic vegetables, eggs, herbs, butter etc. through Community Supported Agriculture program aka buying from local farms. With that $30.00 I receive enough food for the week to happily sustain myself through delicious foods and dehydrate for half the food I need in winter. So, on average throughout the year I spend $20 on food/week. How much is your food bill per week on "non-organic" foods?

The only thing "organics" take away are processed, packaged, frozen foods that do not sustain anyone. Just because the label says kcalories, fats, carbs, and protein and when "scientifically tested" may have those things doesn't translate to your body. Your body does not care what the label reads, it cares what it breaks down to.

Get away from grocery stores and support local organic farms and you will see a change in your food bills. Get away from large corporations producing seeds. Seeds are the one natural thing we have left that mother nature gave us. They will take away all choice in this world and I don't plan on evolving into a robot. I enjoy my emotions.

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First, yes I am talking abo... (Below threshold)

March 15, 2010 1:59 PM | Posted, in reply to Kat's comment, by Riley: | Reply

First, yes I am talking about organic food you buy in a grocery store, sold by those evil, job-providing corporations. I am sure you are right that you can buy locally grown food at a pretty cheap price. That isn't available everywhere. We have a farmers market here where I live though, and the prices are higher than the local grocery stores.

Second, you make some pretty huge leaps. You go from buying grocery store food to becoming a robot without emotions.

On a side note though, I do agree that the practice of patenting seeds has some serious flaws.

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I'd also promote CSAs as a ... (Below threshold)

March 16, 2010 11:39 AM | Posted, in reply to Kat's comment, by brainchild: | Reply

I'd also promote CSAs as a good and affordable way to eat local and organic. Prices vary from city to city and farm to farm, and you do need to be able to pay up front for the season, but, for me, it costs less per week ($8.50) to take part in a CSA than it would to buy non-organic produce at the local corporate supermarket (and even the farmer's market, unless I'm buying very large quantities).

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You need a lesson in cellul... (Below threshold)

March 7, 2013 4:02 AM | Posted by Alone II: | Reply

You need a lesson in cellular biology and genetics my friend. While you restrict this to food (in your pot) I'm gonna side with Vandana Shiva on this one as far as the evil of those behind/and about GMO's overall. It's about more than the fruit you wash. http://vimeo.com/45691238?action=share

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the recent coupon codes fr... (Below threshold)

April 10, 2013 3:50 AM | Posted by Joesph: | Reply

the recent coupon codes from the protein works
protein works coupons

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Get a free bag of protein f... (Below threshold)

August 8, 2013 7:28 AM | Posted by Arthur: | Reply

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Can someone tell me why the... (Below threshold)

November 6, 2013 1:28 PM | Posted by Jungalist: | Reply

Can someone tell me why the Right People are so strongly in favor of GMOs all of a sudden? Where's this push coming from?

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Aspiration.It proj... (Below threshold)

November 6, 2013 7:48 PM | Posted, in reply to Jungalist's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply


It projects several good images at the same time. First off, it obviously means that you're wealthy enough to be able to afford the non-GMO or Organic or Free-Range markup. At least middle class. It signals that you're concerned about the environment and your health, and thus an informed consumer. It's perceived as anti-big business (most people on the anti-GMO have essentially assigned Monsanto to the role of Satan) and not only do you get to be down on Da Man, but you get to support something that you believe comes from small family farms. It's also seen as somewhat counter-cultural, in that most people think that everybody else is buying normal foods.

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No, the aspirationals latel... (Below threshold)

November 7, 2013 2:42 PM | Posted by Jugalist: | Reply

No, the aspirationals lately seem to be, unless I'm just astroturf-gazing, in favor of this.

The general patter I hear is usually about being "pro-science"- I heard a guy comparing being anti-GMO to opposing vaccination, which seems just the tiniest bit overstated.

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