Potential Health Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods

"This Brave New World of Frankenfoods is frightening. Today, nearly 80 percent of all processed foods containing corn, soy, or canola oil contain unlabeled genetically altered ingredients...."

(my thanks to bosela for the grain photo and hberends for the science photo, both at sxc.hu, which I have cropped and combined for this post)

Potential Health Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods

Excerpt from an article by Ronnie Cummins in a newsletter from Mercola.com

An increasing number of scientists are warning that current gene-splicing techniques are crude, inexact, and unpredictable – and therefore inherently dangerous. Yet, pro-biotech governments and regulatory agencies maintain that genetically engineered foods and crops are “substantially equivalent” to conventional foods, and therefore require neither labelling nor pre–market safety-testing.

This Brave New World of Frankenfoods is frightening. Today, nearly 80 percent of all processed foods containing corn, soy, or canola oil contain unlabeled genetically altered ingredients. This, despite a long list of potential health hazards, including:

Toxins and poisons:

GE products clearly have the potential to be toxic and a threat to human health. In 1989, a GE brand of L-tryptophan, a common dietary supplement, killed 37 Americans. More than 5,000 others were permanently disabled or afflicted with a potentially fatal and painful blood disorder, eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS), before it was recalled by the FDA.

Increased cancer risks:

In 1994, the FDA approved the sale of Monsanto’s controversial recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). This genetically engineered hormone is injected into dairy cows to force them to produce more milk.

Scientists have warned that significantly higher levels (400-500 percent or more) of a potent chemical hormone, Insulin-Like Growth Factor (igf-1), in the milk and dairy products of rBGH injected cows, could pose serious hazards such as human breast, prostate, and colon cancer. A number of studies have shown that humans with elevated levels of igf-1 in their bodies are much more likely to get cancer.

Food allergies:

The alarming rise in childhood allergies in the past two decades has been linked by scientists to the arrival of genetically engineered foods in the 1990s. In 1996, a major GE food disaster was narrowly averted when Nebraska researchers learned that a Brazil nut gene spliced into soybeans could induce potentially fatal allergies in people sensitive to Brazil nuts. Animal tests of these Brazil nut-spliced soybeans had turned up negative.

People with food allergies whose symptoms can range from mild unpleasantness to sudden death, may likely be harmed by exposure to foreign proteins spliced into common food products. Since humans have never before eaten most of the foreign proteins now being gene-spliced into foods, stringent pre-market safety-testing (including long-term animal feeding and volunteer human feeding studies) is necessary in order to prevent a future public health disaster.

Antibiotic resistance:

When gene engineers splice a foreign gene into a plant or microbe, they often link it to another gene, called an antibiotic resistance marker gene (arm), that helps determine if the first gene was successfully spliced into the host organism.

Some researchers warn that these arm genes might unexpectedly recombine with disease-causing bacteria or microbes in the environment or in the guts of animals or people who eat genetically engineered food. These new combinations may be contributing to the growing public health danger of antibiotic resistance – of infections that cannot be cured with traditional antibiotics, for example new strains of salmonella, e-coli, campylobacter, and enterococci.

Damage to food quality and nutrition:

A 1999 study by Dr. Marc Lappe published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that concentrations of the beneficial phytoestrogen compounds thought to protect against heart disease and cancer were lower in GE soybeans than in traditional strains. These and other studies, including Dr. Pusztai’s, indicate that GE food will likely result in foods lower in quality and nutrition. For example, the milk from cows injected with rBGH contains higher levels of pus, bacteria, and fat.

GE Crops and Farming Techniques Threaten the Planet

From the decimation of the planet’s critical honeybee and monarch butterfly populations, to the creation of superweeds and superinsects, to the depletion of valuable nutrient-rich farming soil, genetic engineering poses a dangerous, and potentially irreversible threat, to planet Earth.

Among the dangers of GE crops, are:

Increased Pesticide Residues:

Contrary to biotech industry propaganda, recent studies have found that US farmers growing GE crops are using just as many toxic pesticides and herbicides as conventional farmers and in some cases more. The “benefits” of these herbicide-resistant crops are that farmers can spray as much of a particular herbicide on their crops as they want – killing the weeds without damaging their crop.

Scientists estimate that herbicide-resistant crops planted around the globe will triple the amount of toxic broad-spectrum herbicides used in agriculture. These broad-spectrum herbicides are designed to literally kill everything green.

Damage to Beneficial Insects and Soil Fertility:

In 1999, Cornell University researchers made a startling discovery. They found that pollen from genetically engineered bt corn was poisonous to Monarch butterflies. The study adds to a growing body of evidence that GE crops are adversely affecting a number of beneficial insects, including ladybugs and lacewings, as well as beneficial soil microorganisms, bees, and possibly birds.

Creation of GE “Superweeds” and “Superpests”:

Crops genetically engineering  to be herbicide-resistant, or to produce their own pesticide, present dangerous problems. Pests and weeds will inevitably emerge that are pesticide or herbicide-resistant, which means that stronger, more toxic chemicals will be needed to get rid of the pests.

Herbicide resistant “superweeds” are already emerging. GE crops such as rapeseed (canola) have spread their herbicide-resistance traits to related weeds such as wild mustard plants.

Lab and field tests also indicate that common plant pests such as cotton bollworms, living under constant pressure from GE crops, are evolving into “superpests” completely immune to bt sprays and other environmentally sustainable bio-pesticides. This will present a serious danger for organic and sustainable farmers whose biological pest management practices will be unable to cope with increasing numbers of superpests and superweeds.

Genetic Pollution:

“Genetic pollution” and collateral damage from GE field crops already have begun to wreak environmental havoc. Wind, rain, birds, bees, and insect pollinators have begun carrying genetically-altered pollen into adjoining fields, polluting the DNA of crops of organic and non-GE farmers. An organic farm in Texas has been contaminated with genetic drift from GE crops grown on a nearby farm.

Because they are alive, gene-altered crops are inherently more unpredictable than chemical pollutants – they can reproduce, migrate, and mutate. Once released, it is virtually impossible to recall GE organisms back to the laboratory or the field.

Genetic “Bio-Invasion”:

By virtue of their “superior” genes, some GE plants and animals will inevitably run amok, overpowering wild species in the same way that exotic species, such as kudzu vine and Dutch elm disease have created problems when introduced in North America. What will happen to wild fish and marine species, for example, when scientists release into the environment carp, salmon, and trout that are twice as large, and eat twice as much food, as their wild counterparts?

Most Commonly-Used Herbicide Found to be Carcinogenic

As if the health hazards of genetically altered food crops weren’t bad enough, glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has also been deemed a major health hazard both to the environment, and to animal and human health. It is toxic to human cells, and according to a French research team, it is also carcinogenic. The team has studied the herbicide extensively, and published at least five articles on glysphosate’s potential for wide-ranging environmental and human harm(i). Their research shows that glyphosate:

  • Causes cell cycle dysregulation, which is a hallmark of tumor cells and human cancers
  • Inhibits DNA synthesis in certain parts of the cell cycle – the process by which cells reproduce that underlies the growth and development of all living organisms
  • Impedes the hatchings of sea urchins. (Sea urchins were used because they constitute an appropriate model for the identification of undesirable cellular and molecular targets of pollutants.) The delay was found to be dose dependent on the concentration of Roundup. The surfactant polyoxyethylene amine (POEA), another major component of Roundup, was also found to be highly toxic to the embryos when tested alone, and could therefore be a contributing factor

It doesn’t matter that the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health recently published “research” to the contrary(ii), the French team says – the world needs to know the truth about who did that “safety-finding” research. It was funded by none other than Monsanto itself! Is it any wonder they came to the conclusion that:

“[T]he available literature shows no solid evidence linking glyphosate exposure to adverse developmental or reproductive effects at environmentally realistic exposure concentrations.”

The new Monsanto-funded “safety” research actually used the French team’s original research to debunk the evidence that Roundup could have human or environmental safety issues. And that didn’t sit well with the French team, which was so angered they wrote a detailed response to Monsanto’s article, accusing the researchers of minimalizing the French group’s work and publishing misleading information.

What Lies Ahead: The Food Fight of Our Lives 

Monsanto and Food Inc.’s stranglehold over the nation’s food and farming system is being challenged in a food fight that will largely determine the future of American agriculture. Genetically engineered foods have absolutely no benefits for consumers or the environment, only hazards.

After 20 years of biotech bullying and force-feeding unlabeled and hazardous genetically engineered (GE) foods to animals and humans, a critical mass of food and health activists have decided it’s time to move beyond small skirmishes and losing battles and go on the offensive.

It’s time to move the food fight over labeling GE food from the unfavorable terrain of Washington DC and Capital Hill, where Monsanto and Food Inc. exercise near-dictatorial control, to California, the heartland of organic food and farming and anti-GMO sentiment, where 90 percent of the body politic, according to recent polls, support GMO labelling.

Monsanto and their allies understand the threat that truth-in-labelling poses for the future of genetically engineered foods. As soon as genetically engineered foods start to be labeled in the US, millions of consumers will start to read these labels and react. They’ll complain to grocery store managers and companies, they’ll talk to their family and friends. They’ll start switching to foods that are organic or at least GMO-free.

Once enough consumers start complaining about GE foods and food ingredients; stores will eventually stop selling them; and farmers will stop planting them.

About the Author 

Ronnie Cummins is the founder and Director of the Organic Consumers Association. He has been a writer and activist since the 1960s, with massive expertise in human rights, anti-war, anti-nuclear, consumer, labor, environmental, and sustainable agricultural areas. He is the author of several published articles, a children’s book series called Children of the World, and Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers.

About the Organic Consumers Association 

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) is an online and grassroots 501(c)3 public interest organization promoting health, justice, and sustainability. It prides itself as the only organization in the United States focused on promoting the views and interests of the country’s estimated 76 million organic and socially responsible consumers.

The OCA participates in the important issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children’s health, corporate accountability, Fair Trade, environmental sustainability, and other key topics. The Organic Consumers Fund, a 501(c)4, is the OCA’s grassroots action and lobbying arm.


(i) [1] Marc, J., Mulner-Lorillon, O., Boulben, S., Hureau, D., Durand, G., and Belle, R. 2002. Pesticide Roundup provokes cell division dysfunction at the level of CDK1/cyclin B activation. Chem. Res. Toxicol. 15: 326–31

[2] Marc, J., Mulner-Lorillon, O., Durand, G., and Belle, R. 2003. Embryonic cell cycle for risk assessment of pesticides at the molecular level. Environnemental. Chemistry. letters. 1: 8–12

[3] Marc, J., Belle, R., Morales, J., Cormier, P., and Mulner-Lorillon, O. 2004a. Formulated glyphosate activates the DNA-response checkpoint of the cell cycle leading to the prevention of G2/M transition. Toxicol. Sci. 82: 436–42

[4] Marc, J., Mulner-Lorillon, O., and Belle, R. 2004b. Glyphosate-based pesticides affect cell cycle regulation. Biol. Cell. 96: 245–49

[5] Marc, J., Le Breton, M., Cormier, P., Morales, J., Belle, R., and Mulner-Lorillon, O. 2005. A glyphosate-based pesticide impinges on transcription. Toxicol. Appl. Pharmacol. 203:1–8

ii Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 2012: 15(1)

In South Africa…

The campaign in South Africa to require all foods containing gene-modified ingredients to be clearly labelled, continues.

It’s not about restricting personal freedoms…it’s about having the choice to decide if you want to buy gene-manipulated food or not. And that freedom of choice can only be exercised if you know what’s in the food.

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