Genetically Modified Food

Last updated: April 11, 2023

Daniel Mališ
Daniel Mališ

One of the most dangerous types of food is genetically modified food. Not just for your health, but also the whole ecosystem. I’ll explain.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, let me reiterate the general principle: unhealthy food is any food that is not natural. It’s that simple.

In the Introduction to Unhealthy Food, I explained the main reason behind this principle – the human body had almost no evolutionary time to adapt to unnatural substances, nor is it well designed to adapt to them in general (unlike adapting to natural substances).

Unnatural food contains unnatural proteins and other chemicals not found in nature. Our bodies are not good at eliminating them, so the unnatural substances remain inside our bodies, where they cause chronic inflammation, the common denominator of most chronic diseases.

What makes food unnatural? There are many ways to “achieve” that, ultra-processing food being one of them. But the worst and most dangerous way is trying to change nature itself, directly tinkering with the genetic code of the organisms that we eat. Basically playing God, thinking we know better. We don’t.

Directly altering genes of higher organisms has almost unlimited potential for risks. Scientific hubris and lack of ethical constraints aren’t good guides.

What Exactly Is Genetically Modified Food?

Genetically modified food, or GM food for short, is food produced from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

What are genetically modified organisms then?

Let’s start with the easier part – “organisms” are individual forms of life, such as plants, fungi, animals and bacteria. They all have genes made from a molecule called DNA, which is present in virtually all cells.

You can imagine the genes as a library of programs designed mainly for synthesizing proteins, typically enzymes. However, these programs are not independent, but rather closely interconnected, as they are collectively responsible for the end result – a fully functioning living organism.

Everything in DNA is closely interconnected. However “precisely” you change one sequence, it changes the whole system, often with many unintended consequences.

Who puts the programs encoded in the DNA on or off? The cell environment does – we call this process the epigenetic control (“epi” means “above” in Greek). That’s why every cell has many receptors – typically on its surface, but also inside the cell. The receptors “sense” the environment, either directly or through various “messenger” molecules.

Certain species, subspecies, varieties or breeds of organisms react to the environment more efficiently than others, or have other traits that people consider desirable. For example, some plants are more resistant to drought or give higher yields than others. Or you may find that certain horses are stronger or faster than others.

If you want to ensure that future generations of organisms have the desired traits, you engage in various breeding techniques.

With plants, a traditional breeding method is a selection (selective breeding), where you select and propagate seeds of the plants with the desired traits.

A more modern technique is called hybridization, where you combine two or more different varieties to produce a new variety with the desired traits of its predecessors.

During mutation breeding, plant seeds are subjected to a harsh environment (such as chemicals or radiation) with the aim of inducing genetic mutations in their DNA that will lead to desirable traits of the plants. Obviously, you need a lot of attempts to produce something useful this way, but modern screening methods at the molecular level make this method more viable.

Plant breeding is becoming increasingly sophisticated, which carries a risk of deviating from natural processes.

The equivalents of selection and hybridization are also used in animal breeding, except that the term crossbreeding is used instead of hybridization. In crossbreeding, different breeds of the same animal species are genetically crossed. The term hybrid is reserved for offspring of two different (though related) animal species – for example, the mule is a hybrid between a male donkey and a female horse.

There are more breeding techniques than I described above, in particular when it comes to plants. They don’t lead to genetically modified organisms, although not all of them can be considered natural.

Where’s the line between natural and unnatural breeding techniques? Again, it’s best to perceive things on a spectrum, rather than polar opposites, but we can ask the following question:

Could we reasonably expect the process induced by the breeding technique to occur in nature, even though over a much longer period of time?

If the answer is yes, the breeding technique can be considered just an expedited natural process. If the answer is no, it’s an unnatural breeding technique that typically leads to unnatural proteins, such as highly antigenic glutens in modern wheat varieties.

Modern wheat varieties are a result of unnatural breeding techniques – that’s why gluten intolerance is on a continuous rise.

Now back to GMOs. Genetically modified organisms do not result from breeding techniques, whether natural or unnatural, but from genetic engineering techniques. These techniques directly alter the DNA of the target organism using two main methods:

  • Gene transfer – taking DNA from one organism (typically bacteria) and forcing it into the DNA of other organisms, usually completely unrelated ones (plants, fungi and animals)
  • Gene editing – directly changing the DNA of the target organisms by modifying the gene sequences at will, using gene-editing tools such as CRISPR.

To say that genetic engineering techniques are unnatural would be an understatement. The more fitting description is that they are unnatural “on steroids.”

If you eat any of the GMOs, such as plants and animals, you’re unfortunately pretty much guaranteed to eat the unnatural proteins they contain, along with other chemicals these organisms are sprayed on or fed with.

Examples of Genetically Modified Organisms

Genetically modified plants that end up as food are mostly soy, corn, rapeseed (canola) and sugar beets.Why were they genetically modified, you ask? What is the “favorable” trait they gained?

For the most part, it’s the ability to tolerate the toxicity of herbicides, such as glyphosate, the main ingredient of Roundup.

Yes, that’s right. The idea is that glyphosate would kill the weeds but not the genetically modified crops.

Except that it works like that only initially, until the weeds gradually become resistant to glyphosate. That leads to the vicious cycle of spraying even more glyphosate onto the fields or producing new herbicides and engineering new crops that are resistant to them.

A crop duster spraying toxic glyphosate on genetically modified corn. Clearly, anything natural is being eliminated from “modern” agriculture.

But why just have plants that tolerate the toxins sprayed on them? Why not engineer plants that produce the toxins themselves? And since we have herbicides covered by Roundup, what about producing insecticides?

Welcome to the world of Bt crops, such as Bt corn and Bt cotton. They were inserted a gene from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (that’s where the “Bt” abbreviation comes from). This bacterium produces a toxin, unsurprisingly called a Bt toxin, that kills certain insects by creating holes in their digestive tracts.

Bt corn was genetically modified to produce a bacterial insecticide.

The idea is that since the insects affect the natural varieties of corn and cotton, the Bt crops will not have to be sprayed by insecticides.

The problem is that the Bt toxin produced by Bt crops is way more toxic than its natural equivalent, and it also affects many more species, also killing bees, butterflies, aquatic organisms and beneficial soil organisms. The whole ecosystem suffers.

In addition, the target insects gradually become more tolerant to the Bt toxins, which eventually leads to the Bt crops being sprayed with more insecticides than the natural varieties.

The beautiful swallowtail butterfly is one of the species in the ecosystem harmed by Bt toxin produced by genetically modified corn and cotton.

Another example of GMOs is non-browning apples and potatoes. The “favorable” trait here is that when sliced up, these apples and potatoes can sit on a shelf for days without the usual brown color revealing their age. Better sales are guaranteed!

This marketing trick is achieved by introducing genes to the apples and tomatoes that make them produce double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) that shuts off the genes responsible for browning.

The problem is that, unlike most RNAs, dsRNA is very stable, so it can randomly switch off genes in other organisms that eat the non-browning apples and potatoes, such as insects, affecting the whole ecosystem. All that just because of the non-browning effect.

Health Risks of Genetically Modified Food

As always, it’s important to understand the principles. We’ve already covered the main issue – unnatural food, GM food being a prime example, contains unnatural proteins which our bodies are not adjusted to.

Sooner or later, this invariably leads to chronic inflammation, the common denominator of most chronic diseases. Allergies, autoimmune disorders, ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular diseases, liver and kidney damage, cancer, infertility, you name it.

Another issue is associated with glyphosate and other herbicides that GM crops are engineered to tolerate. Obviously, these herbicides are absorbed into the plants, so while eating them, you’re also absorbing the very toxins those plants were genetically modified to survive.

These toxins (again mostly proteins) directly damage your tissues as well as create chronic inflammation. In your gut, glyphosate also kills the beneficial bacteria and other essential microorganisms that help you digest food and regulate your immunity.

Roundup for dinner, anyone?

Similar logic applies to the Bt toxin mentioned above. It’s not going to kill you like the insects, but it can harm you (and your microbiome) like other toxins. And since the Bt toxin is a “specialist” in drilling holes in digestive tracts, it is suspected to contribute to a leaky gut in humans as well.

There are other GMO-related health risks, such as the dsRNA in non-browning apples and potatoes potentially switching off some human genes, too. But I hope by now you already fully understand that GMOs are best to be avoided.

If you’re still on the fence, I recommend taking just 3 minutes to watch the trailer below to see some real-life examples of what GMOs can do to human health.

How To Avoid Genetically Modified Food

It’s unfortunately not so easy to avoid GM food, especially when you live in a country like the US where there’s no mandatory labeling of GM foods – or where the labeling laws actually make it easier to cover up genetically modified ingredients in food. But there are ways to achieve it.

The best way to avoid GMOs is to buy organic food. Unfortunately, that’s not always a viable option, either because organic food is more expensive or because it’s simply not always available.

An alternative is to look for food specifically labeled as non-GMO, such as the Non-GMO Project Verified products in North America. This approach automatically eliminates also meat, eggs and dairy products from animals that have been fed with GMOs.

Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal on the products you buy if you live in the US or Canada. It’s worth it.

Avoiding highly processed food is also a very good strategy since this type of “food” is often loaded with ingredients that are made of GMOs, such as canola oil, corn flour, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), hydrogenated starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, soy flour, soy protein etc.

Avoiding any food that has anything to do with soy, corn and canola is another good tip, in particular in the US, where these plants are predominantly from GMO seeds. And by predominantly, I mean over 90 or 95 %.

Last but not least, growing your own food is also a great way, although that requires some space, time and effort. But it’s worth it!

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