With GMO Foods, It’s What We Don’t Know that Matters

I thought perhaps the anti-GMO crowd was erring just a bit on the side of tree huggery.

After spending approximately 100 hours reading about GMO from all points of view, watching endless documentaries and reading dozens upon dozens of peer-reviewed studies on issues directly related to GMO, I am here to say this: I was wrong.

I now personally believe that the wholesale introduction of genetically modified foods into the human diet ranks with global warming in terms of its importance for the human race.

Before I explain, let’s start with some definitions.

“GMO” stands for “genetically modified organism.” It means genes from one species have been spliced into an entirely different species, and that’s what makes it fundamentally different from “breeding” (i.e., crossing a Golden Retriever with a poodle to get a Goldendoodle). Genetic modification is a whole other beast.

“They’re putting spider genes into goats so that their milk will have spider proteins,” explains Jeffrey Smith, founding executive director of The Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) and the maker of an acclaimed film on GMOs called Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives (IRT, 2012). “Cow genes [are being inserted into] pigs so that their hides will be more like cowhide, human genes into corn to make spermicides.” (We’ll get to the spermicide-producing corn in a minute.)

All of this doesn’t just sound worrisome—it is worrisome, and here’s why.

The Food-Gut Connection

Let’s start with the gut, the primary interface between food and the rest of your body. The gut wall is a complex system of defenses against unfamiliar, and potentially damaging, compounds. You can think of it as a tightly woven mesh fence whose openings are just large enough to allow small, friendly, recognizable breakdownproducts of digested food (like amino acids or glucose) to pass through and enter the bloodstream. Simultaneously, the gut wall is charged with preventing stuff that doesn’t belong in the bloodstream from getting in.

And this is where it gets tricky.

When the body’s defense system doesn’t recognize a molecule as a friendly citizen of the body, its very first response is inflammation.

The gut is our biggest immune system organ. When those tight junctures in the gut wall weaken and allow food particles to pass directly into the bloodstream—a condition known as increased intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut syndrome”—all hell can break loose. It’s the equivalent of unidentified flying objects getting into the Pentagon. The Pentagon assumes the unidentified invaders mean us no good and start firing full blast. This is exactly what the immune system does when it’s faced with unidentified—
and potentially toxic—molecules.

When the body’s defense system doesn’t recognize a molecule as a friendly citizen of the body, its very first response is inflammation. The more the gut wall is weakened by these inflammatory responses, the more “foreign invaders” get through its border. It’s a vicious and exhausting cycle that ultimately leaves the poor immune system overwhelmed.

Martha Grout, MD, medical director of the Arizona Center for Advanced Medicine, puts it this way: “Many of the diseases that we deal with—in fact, most of the diseases that we deal with—[begin with] inflammation. For many of them, the source of that inflammation is the gut, which, of course, is the main interface between the body and food of any kind including GMO food.”

With GMO food, you are combining genes in a manner that does not exist in nature and putting them into food where they ultimately come in contact with the gut wall. Our immune system looks at these molecules and says, “I’ve never seen this.” So, like the Pentagon, it makes a quick (and wise) decision to attack. And this creates an inflammatory response, essentially setting the stage for a host of conditions, none of them good.

In fact, numerous gut diseases have increased exponentially since GMOs were widely introduced into the food supply including ulcerative colitis, chronic constipation, gastrointestinal infections, Crohn’s disease, and gastroesophageal reflux (GERD). “But inflammation goes way beyond just gut disorders,” points out Grout. “I think we should look at allergies, autoimmune disease, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes—anything that’s related to inflammation.”

The arguments for GMO are basically economic. Advocates point out that using genetic modification can reduce pesticide use and benefit farmers. It can increase yields. It may reduce energy use and benefit the environment. And it may make it possible to feed the rapidly expanding population of our planet. Indeed, much of this might be theoretically possible. But just as nuclear energy can be used for noble purposes, it can also be used to make a bomb that can destroy the world as we know it. And while the science of genetic modification may ultimately be used for the greater good, it has mostly been used to produce crops like genetically modified Roundup Ready soybeans, which now constitute 94% of the soybeans in the United States, or the aforementioned corn, 93% of which is genetically engineered to produce its own toxic insecticides. “The very process of genetic engineering produces unpredicted side effects,” says Smith.

Roundup Ready: What Does It Mean?

The ability of glyphosate to mess with that delicate balance of bacteria so needed for optimal health is something that should be taken very seriously.

“Weed management is the number-one preoccupation of the farmers, at least in the developed world,” says Thierry Vrain, PhD, in his TEDx lecture on the future of agriculture and GMO foods. The most common way to manage weeds is with herbicides, the most popular and well known of which is Monsanto’s Roundup. When it was discovered that certain bacteria were impervious to Roundup, Monsanto took the genes from that bacteria that allowed them to survive Roundup and began inserting them into soybeans. The result was a genetically modified soybean variety known as “Roundup Ready Soybeans” that was specifically engineered to survive massive sprayings of Roundup. The main ingredient in Roundup is a broad-spectrum herbicide known as glyphosate. Glyphosate is used to control unwanted plant life—weeds, grasses, basically anything that competes with commercial crops. There’s been vigorous debate about the safety of glyphosate ever since it was first registered for use in the US in 1974.

According to studies presented by Dr. Vrain at the 2014 annual conference of the American College of Nutrition, glyphosate is an antibiotic, killing some of the best bacteria in the human microbiome, including Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus. The health of the microbiome, which contains over 1,000 different species of bacteria, is one of the hottest topics in nutritional medicine right now, and for good reason. It’s been found to influence everything from immune response to obesity to depression. (A 2014 study published in Cell showed that merely eradicating four of those types of bacteria—Lactobacillus, Allobaculum, Rikenellacae, and Candidatus Arthromitus—caused obesity in lab animals.) Stephanie Seneff, a senior researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a paper suggesting that glyphosate may explain the link between a damaged microbiome and gluten intolerance.

The health of the microbiome is the reason we’re told to eat yogurt with its rich array of beneficial bacteria called probiotics. And the ability of glyphosate to mess with that delicate balance of bacteria so needed for optimal health is something that should be taken very seriously. One alarming study, published in Current Microbiology, showed that glyphosate kills bacteria even at the incredibly tiny concentration of one part per million. And that’s not all. In a 2013 study published in Entropy, glyphosate was shown to suppress enzymes in the liver (known as the cytochrome P450 enzymes), meaning it compromises detoxification in the body. The authors of the paper demonstrating this effect said that “glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins,” adding that “negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.” They caution that the consequences of this inflammation are “most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.”

According to a 2009 study published in Toxicology, glyphosate has been shown to be an endocrine disrupter in human cells. (Translation: It screws around with your hormones.) Glyphosate changes human cell permeability, induces human breast cancer cell growth via estrogen receptors, amplifies toxicity and accelerates cell proliferation (i.e., cancer) at tiny concentrations (measured in parts per billion to parts per trillion).

In fairness, not all studies on glyphosate have been damning. One published research review in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology gave glyphosate a clean bill of health, saying that no “significant toxicity” occurred in the studies they reviewed, that there was no “convincing” evidence for DNA damage, and that glyphosate does not appear to be carcinogenic. (Keep in mind that most of the damage that’s been demonstrated in the research is subtle and slow to develop. A three-month study looking for “acute toxicity” in glyphosate might find none but might be missing the insidious, metastasizing damage that it does to critical systems in the body (like the gut wall and the microbiome) over many years.

But the studies showing that glyphosate is safe were all done on pure glyphosate, not on Roundup, the actual herbicide. Dr. Vrain notes that while glyphosate has “no acute toxicity,” the actual Roundup herbicide contains a lot more than just glyphosate. About 15% of the actual Roundup formula is an extremely toxic chemical called polyoxyethylene amine (POEA).

Roundup itself—complete with its POEA component—was tested by researchers and found to induce both cell death in the testicles of animals as well as a 35% reduction in testosterone levels at a level of one part per million.

Still other research showed that glyphosate is toxic to human placental cells in concentrations lower than those found in usual agricultural use—but worse, the effect increases with the addition of the other stuff found in Roundup (like, presumably, POEA). The researchers concluded that “endocrine and toxic effects of Roundup—not just glyphosate—can be observed in mammals,” adding that the presence of the other components in Roundup significantly increase the likelihood that this stuff will stay in your system. “Roundup is always more toxic than its active ingredient (glyphosate),” they conclude.

Getting Back to That Corn

The pro-GMO industry argues that Bt is completely harmless to humans and animals and says it only affects insects. But studies in the last few years have shown that to be far from the truth.

One of the most effective biological insecticides for corn is a soil-dwelling bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as Bt, or the Bt toxin. If you’re a farmer, you spray this stuff on corn, and boom, that’s the end of your pest problem. The Bt toxin dissolves in the gut of the insect, attacks its gut cells, punching holes in the lining (talk about leaky gut!), and causes death within a couple of days.

In the 1990s, concern started to grow about the vast amount of insecticide being sprayed on corn, so clever scientists came up with a novel idea: implanting genes from the Bt toxin into the corn itself. The corn wouldn’t require spraying since it was engineered to produce its very own Bt toxin the minute an insect bit into it. Genetically modified corn (93% of all corn produced in the US) is now regulated by the EPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

The pro-GMO industry argues that Bt is completely harmless to humans and animals and says it only affects insects. But studies in the last few years have shown that to be far from the truth.

A 2012 article in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found that far from being innocuous, the modified Bt insecticidal toxins that are produced by GMO plants are “not inert in human cells.” What’s more, the Bt proteins that are part and parcel of GMO crops are different from those naturally produced in the soil. “The effects of these modifications have not been addressed,” writes Eva Sirinathsinghji, PhD, whose degree, incidentally, is in neurogenetics.

Sirinathsinghji also points out that Bt toxin kills human kidney cells, causes infertility in rats, and, in one study published in Reproductive Toxicology, was found in the blood of 93% of pregnant women and in the umbilical cord blood of 80% of their babies. “These studies,” she says, “make it urgent that the health impact of Bt proteins in GM crops be thoroughly investigated.”

A Look At the Other Side

In an attempt to give a fair hearing to the other side of the GMO argument, I Googled “GMO foods are safe,” figuring that there must be some really good studies showing their safety or the FDA would never have permitted them into the food supply. I was extremely naive on that count. The FDA actually requires no safety studies for GMO foods and leaves it up to the companies that produce it to confirm that they’re safe. In the 1990s, the FDA established the Plant Biotechnology Consultation Program to evaluate the safety and lawfulness of GMO plant varieties, but it is voluntary for GMO plant producers to take part in. Basically, we have to rely on Monsanto’s reassurances that their studies show that these new GMO crops are safe, and that the massive spraying of our crops with Roundup—and the insect-killing toxins in genetically modified corn—pose absolutely no threat to humans. Good luck with that one.

In searching for positive research on the safety of GMO foods, I was continually referred to articles by one Jon Entine, who is a senior fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy at the University of California-Davis. In his much-discussed Forbes article, “The Debate About GMO Safety is Over, Thanks to New Trillion-Meal Study,” Entine says there are “more than 2,000 studies documenting that biotechnology does not pose an unusual threat to human health and genetically modified foods are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods.” His tone is dismissive and condescending to those who question their safety.

But here’s the thing: In the course of my career, I’ve run into more than a few of these debunkers of junk science. At first, they seem like the soul of scientific reasonableness, but when you follow the money, their claim to scientific objectivity suddenly becomes squishy. (In my book The Great Cholesterol Myth [Fair Winds Press, 2012], co-author Stephen Sinatra and I pointed out that among the original nine members of the National Cholesterol Education Program panel that was charged with making new recommendations for cholesterol levels in 2004, eight of them had financial ties to the very drug companies that would reap immediate benefits from lowered cholesterol targets.)

Vested Interest

Those of us who were around in the 1950s and 1960s remember the lengths to which the tobacco lobby went to trumpet studies showing that cigarette smoking did not cause cancer.

Remember that every major corporation with an image to manage—think oil companies, drug companies, food companies—has millions of dollars to spend on marketing, and a big part of that marketing is making sure there are scientific studies to “support” the safety and efficacy of the products they sell. The Corn Refiners Association points to studies showing high-fructose corn syrup is safe, and the dairy industry spent millions fighting labels that would identify whether or not milk contained bovine growth hormone.

Those of us who were around in the 1950s and 1960s remember the lengths to which the tobacco lobby went to trumpet studies showing that cigarette smoking did not cause cancer. (Did such studies exist? Sure. All you had to do was design a study on new smokers that lasted about three months. Almost no cancers would have shown up, and, if you were a cigarette manufacturer, you could point to the study showing that cigarettes don’t cause cancer.)
And not much has changed since then. Today, companies who by all scientific consensus are operating in a way that is clearly increasing greenhouse gases and impacting global warming in a big way all have access to scientists who will argue that global warming is a hoax, or, at the very least, that it’s not caused by man.

Back to Jon Entine. Entine is supported by The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), which describes itself as “a consumer education consortium concerned with issues related to food, nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, the environment and health.” Sounds pretty noble, right? But according to SourceWatch (sourcewatch.org), a website operated by the nonprofit The Center for Media and Democracy and dedicated to exposing front groups, industry-funded organizations and “PR spinners,” the American Council is almost wholly funded by big agri-businesses and trade groups. SourceWatch points out that over the years, ACSH has defended DDT, asbestos, Agent Orange and many common pesticides.

Further compounding the problem of getting honest, unbiased science is the phenomenon of the fox guarding the henhouse. The people regulating these things are often the same people who previously worked for the very companies they are regulating, and these folks move back and forth between government and industry with breathtaking regularity. Indeed, a cursory look at the appointees throughout the first Bush administration, the Clinton administration, the second Bush administration and the Obama administration reveal a host of appointees and FDA officials who previously worked for Monsanto. Critics of GMO point to the case of Michael Taylor, who went from being an attorney for the FDA to vice president for public policy for Monsanto and bounced back and forth between the two from 1976 to 2010. President Obama even appointed him food safety czar, a move that engendered op-ed pieces like the one in The Huffington Post entitled, “You’re Appointing Who? Please Obama, Say It’s Not So.” With foxes like this guarding the henhouse, activists can be forgiven for wondering if the playing field is in fact a level one.

So What Can You Do?

Mandatory labeling seems like it should be a no-brainer. A strong majority of Americans favor labeling of GMO foods, a practice that is already mandatory in Europe.

It’s a good question, and there aren’t easy answers. You can start by doing your own investigation, starting with some of the research quoted in this article. Read everything you can, watch the documentaries, listen to both sides and see what you think. Maybe you’ll come to a very different conclusion than I’ve come to. Maybe you’ll think that all this worry about GMO is for nothing. Or maybe you’ll become so angry that you yourself will become an activist. Personally, I’ve completely cut out soybeans and corn (unless they’re organic) and I try whenever possible to buy food that is only non-GMO certified (which is a voluntary act on the brand’s behalf and is not always easy to do). And I’ll vote for mandatory labeling anytime it makes its way to the ballot.

Mandatory labeling seems like it should be a no-brainer. A strong majority of Americans favor labeling of GMO foods, a practice that is already mandatory in Europe. “The Europeans offer a very different perspective from the one adopted by American authorities,” writes Michael Lipsky, a distinguished senior fellow at the public policy organization Demos. “The Europeans take what has been called the ‘precautionary’ approach, an approach that strongly resembles American views on licensing new drugs and medical treatments.”

Indeed, as Washington Post reporter Michael Birnbaum has written, “… US regulators tend to rely on short-term scientific studies about safety to give new technologies a green light. European regulators tend to be far more cautious, focusing more on what they might not know than on what they do know.”

Although a majority of Americans do in fact want labeling, getting a labeling bill passed is no easy task. As of this writing, 20 state assemblies have presented bills that would require GMO foods to be truthfully labeled, allowing consumers to know exactly what they’re buying. At the very least, this seems fair. Consumers would not unknowingly be purchasing GMO products and would be able to make informed decisions about what they’re feeding their families. It’s important to remember that the campaign to defeat these bills is being largely funded by one of the biggest agri-business companies in the world. In my home state of California, they blanketed the airwaves with ads that managed to convince a majority that labeling GMO foods would accomplish absolutely nothing except to make food more expensive. The bill was defeated.

Three states—Connecticut, Maine and Vermont—have passed laws for GMO labeling; however, Connecticut and Maine have provisions in their laws that prevent them from being implemented unless other northeastern states approve similar laws. Vermont’s law is set to go into effect in 2016.

The campaign to sell GMO to us is predicated on the notion that there is no real difference between “natural” (non-GMO) foods and their genetically modified counterparts. This shifts attention away from the one real reason people buy organic food.

Remember, despite efforts to convince you that non-GMO food is “no better” nutritionally than conventionally grown (GMO) food, the truth is we don’t buy organic food for what’s in it. We buy it for what’s not in it.

The basic, founding principle of medicine is, “First, do no harm.” And with the long-term effects of genetically modifying foods wholly unknown, I vote for erring on the side of caution. The research may not yet be definitive, and the “evidence” may be circumstantial, but I for one would prefer to opt out of what may well be the biggest—and perhaps most dangerous—nutritional experiment in history.

What does “Non-GMO Project Verified” mean?

The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization that offers third-party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products. If you see the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal on a food product, it means that the product has gone through an extensive verification process. The project has rigorous standards, which includes ongoing testing of all at-risk ingredients.

While some products may say “GMO-Free” on the label, that claim is not legally or scientifically defensible due to limits on testing methodology and risks of contamination. The Non-GMO Project Verified seal represents the best available guarantee that a product is truly free of GMOs. It’s not totally infallible, but it’s the best standard we currently have.

Freaky Factoid: Did you know that Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is widely used in organic farming? The organic crowd loves it because it’s a naturally occurring pesticide. Problem is, the Bt toxins produced by genetically modified plants are considerably more potent than the Bt found in nature. The Bt that’s sprayed on plants can be washed off by rain or cleaning in your sink. The Bt genetically engineered into the corn can’t be washed away and is eaten with every bite.


The Non-GMO Project lists the following crops in commercial production as “high-risk.” The percentages reflect how much of these crops contains GMO.

  • Alfalfa (no precise data)
  • Canola (90% of US crop)
  • Corn (93% of US crop)
  • Papaya (most of Hawaiian crop;
    no precise data)
  • Soy (94% of US crop)
  • Sugar beets (99% of US crop)
  • Zucchini and yellow summer squash
    (no precise data)

Common ingredients derived from GMO risk crops:

  • Amino acids
  • Aspartame
  • Ascorbic acid
  • Sodium ascorbate
  • Vitamin C
  • Citric acid
  • Sodium citrate
  • Ethanol
  • Flavorings (“natural”
    and “artificial”)
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Hydrolyzed
    vegetable protein
  • Lactic acid
  • Maltodextrins
  • Molasses
  • Monosodium glutamate
  • Sucrose
  • Textured vegetable
    protein (TVP)
  • Xanthan gum
  • Vitamins
  • Yeast products

Source: The Non-GMO Project

Corn- and Soy-Derived Foods You May Wish to Buy Organic

Foods that stem from soybeans:

  • Edamame
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Tamari
  • Soy nuts
  • Soy sauce
  • Soy flour
  • Soy protein powder
  • Veggie hot dogs
    or burgers
  • Some processed deli meats
  • Miso
  • Soy cheese
  • Soy mayonnaise
  • Soy milk

Corn-sourced products:

  • Baking powder
  • Corn meal
  • Corn syrup
  • Tortillas
  • Corn chips
  • Polenta
  • Popcorn
  • Cereal
  • Animal feed
  • Livestock feed
  • Whiskey
  • Sugar
  • Xanthan gum
  • Vanilla, pure or extract


Photo by santiago nicolau