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Are GMOs dangerous?

While GE crops’ reliance on chemical pesticides make them harmful to people and the environment (just like other conventional fruits and vegetables), it’s the changes to the plants’ DNA sequences that cause GMOs to be of special concern to some experts. Animal studies have linked GMOs to health problems, says the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), an international association of physicians that focuses on the interaction between humans and the environment. Mice fed genetically modified corn for a period of 30 to 90 days developed intestinal inflammation in a 2008 Italian study, while rats that ate GE corn in a 2004 French study showed changes in their blood cells, livers, and kidneys, which researchers believe could indicate the onset of disease. AAEM urges physicians to recommend GMO-free diets to their patients.

But there are plenty of people and organizations who aren’t convinced, including: the Food and Drug Administration, which doesn’t require labeling to show whether a food is genetically modified; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which continues to approve the planting of GMOs; and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which doesn’t have a stance on whether parents should avoid feeding GE foods to their children. “There are individuals in the scientific community who claim great dangers and harm based on a small study,” says Nina Fedoroff, Ph.D., a professor at Penn State University who is also a molecular biologist and geneticist. “The overwhelming weight of the scientific evidence is that GE crops are no different from crops modified by older techniques.”

It’s true—results based on mice don’t necessarily translate to humans, and plenty of research indicates that GMOs don’t harm people. But “the majority of the scientific evidence [supporting GMOs] has been generated by the biotech industry, which has restricted the independent, peer-reviewed research,” says Megan Westgate, Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit that works to preserve and build sources of non-GMO products. “So while the safety statement isn’t necessarily untrue, it’s because there’s more independent research still needed.” What’s more, it would be nearly impossible to truly measure how GMOs affect people, since genetically modified foods are eaten by almost everyone, almost every day. “Foods with GMOs make up the vast majority of what’s available to consumers, so there’s no non-GMO eating group we can compare against,” says Ali Carine, M.D., an integrative pediatrician in Columbus, Ohio. “It’s an uncontrolled experiment,” says Martha Herbert, M.D., a pediatric neurologist and former board member of the Council for Responsible Genetics. “We have no evolutionary history with this, so we don’t really know what we might trigger.”

Fueled by consumer concerns like these, 30 countries—including Japan, Australia, and England—have taken measures to restrict the sale of GE foods. Since 2001, products containing more than 1 percent genetically engineered ingredients require a label in the European Union where, not coincidentally, much of the independent research on GMOs has taken place. So why isn’t the U.S. doing more?

The answer boils down to big business: Corn and soy—two of the biggest GM crops—play an enormous role in the United States agriculture industry (much less so in Europe); farmers planted nearly 87 million acres of corn and nearly 76 million acres of soy during the 2009-2010 season alone. So it made sense for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to back the development of GMOs during the early and mid 1990s in an attempt to boost crop yields. “It would be profoundly disruptive to U.S. agriculture and our food system if evidence emerged that these crops posed some new and novel health risk,” says Benbrook. In other words, the country’s biggest food and agriculture companies would lose big money.

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