Genetically Misunderstood Organisms: The Debate Rages On... (Part 1)

Iris McCluskey gets very worked up about GMOs.

Iris is a well-known beautician in North San Diego County. Her passion for many years was baking (her Devil's food and German Chocolate mini-cupcakes are to die for) but now her main pastime is gardening. Not for ornamentation but because she believes growing her own fruits and vegetables is the only way to ensure that her family is not ingesting Genetically Modified Organisms. "GMOs are in so many foods that we buy, even things that are called 'natural.' And since the labeling law in California failed, we have no idea what's in the package. I decided to grow my own crops so that I will know, " McCluskey explained as she showed off her green thumb.

Growing your own may be a viable solution to this issue in Southern California, but what about those who live in the Northeast or Midwest? They need their veggies all year long, not just during the thaw. What's a mother to do?

Iris McCluskey grows her own food to ensure her family is not ingesting Genetically Modified Organisms.

GMO is the acronym for Genetically Modified Organism. When people talk about GMOs, they're referring to food products made from genetically modified crops, like most corn and soy -- or they're talking about GM produce, like some zucchinis and papayas. Genetic engineering is also a common way to refer to the process of altering these crops.

What's the difference between produce and crops? Produce generally refers to freshly harvested fruits, veggies, and other goods, like zucchini or corn on the cob or fresh herbs, which are delivered to the consumer in their "as harvested" state. Crop is a more general term for farm-grown food and raw materials for other products, such as soy or cotton.

GMOs have become a hot button for debate and misinformation. Foods that are considered GMOs are altered with chemicals, through insertion of genetic material (or growing techniques) that do not occur naturally in the plant. On the surface, this strikes an immediate chord of "not okay." However, and this is important: There is no scientific proof that GMOs are harmful to humans when consumed in normal quantities as part of our food supply. There are reasons to prefer "natural" and "organic" but GMOs may well become increasingly important if we hope to feed everyone on the planet.

An Ohio farm grows this Supreme Ex® brand corn hybrid. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Eyink from San Francisco, CA.

"This technique [farming using GMOs] has been a big success in areas it has been introduced to, including Hawaii where the papaya made a great comeback, as well as India and other countries," said Robert Paarlberg, an adjunct professor at Harvard who is a noted food safety and GMO expert. "A common thread among significant studies from the British Medical Association, the German Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Science and Medicine and other academics is agreement that there is no scientific evidence that GMOs are dangerous."

So then why are critics up in arms about GMOs? Let's try to clear up some of the confusion.

What does "modification" and "engineering" really mean -- and how is it different from what farmers already do? Human intervention in growing food crops is really part of our history. For hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, we have modified and improved crop varieties to meet our ever-evolving tastes and needs.

As The New York Times points out, each of these methods comes with its own set of risks, and "even conventional crossbreeding [grafting or fusing two parent plants together] has occasionally produced toxic varieties of some vegetables." Other forms of food crop manipulation have included human migration (introducing foreign crops to a new area), human selection (favoring some varieties over others), and even DNA disruption (subjecting seeds to radiation to accelerate evolution).

For those of us who don't have degrees in cellular biology, this concept can be hard to follow. Genetic engineering involves passing DNA from one species into another. This new DNA not only adds the associated trait (for example, an evolved herbicide tolerance) but also "turns off" the DNA it replaces (such as the softening gene in tomatoes). Unlike conventional genetic merging, or crossbreeding, genetic engineering takes place in a lab and involves a DNA exchange between species that are related. This means that technically speaking, oranges can be modified with DNA from spinach -- or even from pigs.


An orange with pig DNA? Not particularly appetizing. This concept is what freaks people out about GMOs: They sound kind of creepy. Perhaps you've seen the "Frankenfood" mock-ups that depict things like a fish tail coming out of a tomato -- or worse.
"Frankenfood" mock-ups have a humorous take on GMO fears. Photo courtesy of

The Great Scientific Debate

Three major concerns surrounding the safety of GMOs for human health are allergic reactions; resistance to antibiotics; and outcrossing, or the crossing of GMOs to conventional crops or species. But when faced with the question of overall safety, the truth is, we don't really know.

Jeffrey Smith, noted food biologist and author of several books and a documentary on GMOs, has been translating his scientific findings into laymen's terms since 1996.

"In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine peer-reviewed data on GMOs, which included examples of lab animals with major health issues and concluded that all doctors should prescribe non-GMO diets. Rats and mice in the studies showed serious GMO disorders. Here's another example: a patient diagnosed with Crohn's Disease in Chicago for over 30 years was prescribed a GMO-free diet, and all of his symptoms disappeared within three days."

Almost two decades following the introduction of GMOs into the marketplace, uncertainty regarding their health risks remains. Major scientific authorities such as The World Health Organization and the American Medical Association have concluded that eating GM foods is "no riskier" than eating their conventional counterparts. According to the WHO, "GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health." However, in Europe, the EU Parliament has supported member states' ability to restrict or ban genetically modified crops, due to the widely-held view that more data is needed to rightfully determine the long-term genetic impact on humans and wildlife.

A literature review of the health impacts of GM plant diets, published in 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicology, also gives GMOs the green light: "The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed." Kind of reminds me of what my husband says about his protein shakes vs. eating white meat chicken and steak after lifting weights: "Protein is protein, the body cannot discern the real kind from the chemically created kind." Perhaps he is right, but, sorry honey, I still prefer the real deal.

In sum, we can't conclusively say that GM food is harmful to our health. Europe and other countries opt to take a precautionary approach to GMO health risks, meantime the US continues to move full-speed ahead. While the long-term health effects, like many modern mainstream food products, remain unknown, that doesn't end the discussion. Also at play are issues around the labeling of GMO foods, GMO seeds and seed ownership. In Part 2 of this article, we'll take a closer look at these points.

Read more from Jennifer Schwab on her Inner Green.