Will those genetically modified soy beans make you sick?

Science-ish looks at the research into GMOs


Photo by Karen Eliot/Flickr

The Statement: “To date, Health Canada has not identified health risks associated with GM foods that have been approved for sale in Canada.” (Stephane Shank, Health Canada spokesperson, 07/05/2011)

Codex Alimentarius Commission—a group of the world’s food safety regulatory agencies—reached consensus last week on new guidelines that will make it easier for food makers to label products with genetically-modified ingredients. The new guidelines are voluntary, though, so don’t expect advertisements about GMOs on the box of your favourite breakfast cereal anytime soon. And part of the reason Canada has not moved to mandatory labeling of GM foods is because, as Stephane Shank put it, “To date, Health Canada has not identified health risks associated with GM foods.”

So, is GM food really safe?

We called Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, a researcher in food distribution and safety at the University of Guelph, to find out. He told Science-ish, “There is no scientific evidence out there that would suggest GM seeds or foods that contain GMOs have health risks to consumers.” Dr. Charlebois did add this note of caution: the key phrase in Shank’s statement was ‘to date.’ “GMOs have only been accessible or readily available to consumers since 1994, so that’s 17 years ago. That’s not a whole lot of time for us to fully appreciate the risks around GMOs.”

Discourse around genetically modified organisms—defined by the WHO as “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally”—has been a political and scientific battlefield. As a 2009 Nature news feature pointed out, “No one gets into research on genetically modified (GM) crops looking for a quiet life. Those who develop such crops face the wrath of anti-biotech activists who vandalize field trials and send hate mail… [Those] who suggest that biotech crops might have harmful environmental effects are learning to expect attacks of a different kind. These strikes are launched from within the scientific community and can sometimes be emotional and personal…”

There’s also the knee-jerk reaction by the public—often reflected in the media—that these food items are borderline ghoulish, unnatural, and therefore potentially harmful to human health. Just think about the coverage of the transgenic “Frankenfish” salmon. The fish was developed decades ago by AquaBounty Technologies to grow faster than naturally occurring salmon, and has been waiting for a final seal of approval from the Food and Drug Administration for years. (Just last week, House lawmakers in the U.S. voted to bar the regulatory body from okaying the Franken-salmon for mass consumption, though the bill still needs to pass through the Senate.)

Despite the political battles and the public’s wariness about these foods, Dr. Douglas Powell, a professor in food safety at Kansas State University who sat on the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC) in the early 2000s, was even less cautious than Charlebois when talking about the potential of GMOs to harm to humans. “(The CBAC) reviewed everything that was out there and there was nothing to show GMOs present a risk to health.” In fact, Dr. Powell has since moved away from researching the subject because, he says, “I got tired of talking about hypothetical risks.”

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’sThe Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at The Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at julia.belluz@medicalpost.rogers.com or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto


Will those genetically modified soy beans make you sick?

  1. What is the difference between selective breeding and genetic modification? We’ve been doing selective breeding for generations and no one seems upset about that? I don’t see the arguement?

    • With selective breeding, you are still using only the DNA native to the species. It’s not always good for the species, as some beneficial DNA often gets bred out, and other negative traits often come to the fore (e.g. hip dysplasia in some larr breeds of dogs).

      With genetic modification, you are splicing in genes that don’t belong to that species – or sometimes even that phylum. The first commercially available GM crop, for example, the FlavrSavr tomato, contained fish genes. Try getting that from selective breeding!

      The other thing about it is that the companies then patent the genes – and sue anyone who grows crops with that gene without a licence or paying royalties. Check Monsanto’s history of suing farmers who claim the genes ended up in their crops via natural cross-pollenation.

  2. “So, is GM food really safe? ……. 

    “GMOs have only been accessible or readily available to consumers since 1994, so that’s 17 years ago. That’s not a whole of time for us to fully appreciate the risks around GMOs.”

    I presume GMO has specific meaning here because humans have been genetically modifying food for a long time indeed. Surely all that matters is that food does not immediately kill people. If it has been 17 years, GMO is probably as safe as any other kind of food humans eat. 

    At the same time, I try not to eat GMO food because it freaks me out. Occasionally ignorance is bliss.  

    Levitucus 19:19: You are to keep My statutes. You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together.

    Wiki: Green Revolution refers to a series of research, development, and technology transfer initiatives, occurring between the 1940s and the late 1970s, that increased agriculture production around the world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s

    Virginia Postrel: Creating Nature

    Eden is in Western myth the unchanging and pristine paradise, lost through overreaching and lamented ever since. In the biblical story, however, Eden is more complicated. It is a living, growing place whose life depends on water and human labor. God plants the garden only after he has created man from the ground, and he charges Adam to work and keep the garden: to both improve and preserve it.

    Of course, no sooner has God created man, animals, and woman than the creator loses control of his creation. Genesis is the original Frankenstein myth. That man and nature could defy God has provoked theologians for centuries. We can leave the theological puzzles aside, however. 

    Genesis suggests truths that do not depend on a particular religious tradition: Even in Eden, humanity occupies a garden, a place between static order and wild nature, a place we both work and keep. And no creation is completely under its creator’s control. The world changes almost as soon as it is formed, and so does humanity. They change each other.

    Yet the ideal of the untouched paradise, of orderly nature undisturbed by human action, still shimmers in many imaginations. Nature is a source of moral authority for some, of security for others. It offers standards and models. It is autonomous and eternal.


  3. Humans have been eating genetically modified food for thousands of years

    ‘Natural’ food is just the latest fad, but it doesn’t actually exist.

    • According to Dr. Charlebois quoted in the article, ““GMOs have only been accessible or readily available to consumers since 1994, so that’s 17 years ago.”

      So I think I’m going to need to hear more from you on the topic of natural food (which in the context of this article means non-GM) not existing.

      • Dr Charlebois is talking about the science in genetics in general likely….but all food on the planet has been modified since the year dot.

        This is on corn


        This one on rice even reached the popular press


        We have modified all biological matter on the planet….from plants to animals….there is nothing ‘natural’….which is a good thing or we would have starved to death.

        • GM means the introduction of genetic materials from other species. We’ve been doing plenty of selective and cross-breeding for centuries but GM foods go beyond that. See my comment to Tinhut, above.

          Thee are many arguments for and against; I won’t get into the whole controversy now. I do think there should be mandatory labelling, though, so those who do not want to eat the so-called “frankenfoods” can choose not to. 

          Monsanto and the others involved in GM food production resist the labelling; they say the food is safe and they don’t want to be unfairly shut out of the market. Many opposed think they don’t want labelling in order to make it harder to trace any problems back to them, should they be wrong. They are quick to sue, but certainly don’t want to be sued.

          • No, it doesn’t, although it’s certainly possible

            Canada for example created Tritacale by crossing wheat with rye in 1954

            There aren’t any arguments ‘for and against’.  It’s the same food you’ve eaten all your life…modified.

            The reason there isn’t any mandatory labelling is because all foods are GM

          • Wheat and rye are both grains – it’s not the same as putting tomato and fish genes together.
            I am allergic to some nuts and seeds.  My sister has a major allergy to sunflower seeds – I don’t think either one of us wants to eat foods which have been cross-bred with something we are allergic to.
            Full disclosure is the only way to go as far as I’m concerned.

          • @Kay53:disqus 

            Scientists are exploring what they can do genetically, they aren’t selling you fishy tomatoes. There is no point consumer-wise to mix tomatoes and fish. LOL

            Allergy is the first thing they test for….and in all these years they’ve never produced a product that triggers allergies

            ‘Full disclosure’ is meaningless as all foods are GM

          • Tritacale is a cross-breed, not a GMO. A true GMO requires a level of manipulation that cannot happen in nature. Tritacale is akin to a mule in the animal kingdom.
            Oh, and triticale dates back to 19th century Scotland and Sweden. The first North American breeding and use of triticale as a commercial crop did begin in Manitoba (I have various sources saying 1953 or 1954).

          • @KeithBram:disqus 

            Sigh….Had you read the earlier articles you’d know we’ve been doing it since day one. It does not require a lab.

            Yes, I know about Scotland and Sweden

          • “There is no point consumer-wise to mix tomatoes and fish.”

            As I noted upthread, the very first commercially produced GM food was the FlavrSavr tomato, which did indeed contain fish genes. The genes were to allow picking before being ripe and then post-pick artificially induced ripening, to allow easier handling with less damage.

            It failed largely because of low crop yield compared to non-GM species.

            “All foods are GM”. No, most have been domesticated and cross-bred to produce various, improved strains, but that is not the true definition of GM foods. For a food to be considered GM, it requires manipulation of the genes in a way that cannot be done naturally (i.e. by careful horticulture or selective breeding). It’s something over and above what we have done in the past.

            GM foods are also patentable; something you can’t do with your average crop or animal. And they are often sterile, so farmers can’t hold back seed stock for the next year but must go back to the supplier. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crop seeds, designed to be resistant to their Roundup herbicide, are good examples.

            You’re off base on this one Emily; you are overly broad in your definition of GM. Not sure if it’s a genuine misunderstanding or a deliberate attempt to deceive.

          • @KeithBram:disqus 

            Will you stop with this?

            I said there is no point consumer wise to mix tomatoes and fish….and you come back and say yes there is….but it didn’t work!

            I said humans have been genetically modifying food since day one, and you are fussing over it being done in a lab.

            Domesticating and cross-breeding alter the genes

            Somewhere in this thread I pointed out that now we finally know the best and correct way to do it….it was more haphazard before.

            Patentable is irrelevant

            Keith…dearest….this is a chatsite, it is not a seminar, a science paper or a legal brief….so unless you want a lecture on the finer points of genetics that would bore your sox off….give it a rest

            And stop suggesting stupidities 

  4. Several of the arguments above are specious at best, deliberately misleading at worst.  Yes over thousands of years, selective breeding has transformed dramatically the food we eat.  However, selective breeding has to follow pathways established by natural variations.  It is slow, incremental and allows amble time for occasional risks to be assessed.  To state that this is equivalent to what can be achieved by modern genetic modification is simply false.  By deliberate manipulation at the gene level entirely new chemicals that would never be introduced through selective breeding can be introduced.  As a result, GM can enable biofarming of powerful and useful pharmaceuticals.  Given that, it could also be used to enable bioproduction of powerful and deadly toxins.  However, most germane to the discussion is that as more dramatic changes are intentionally introduced into food, the potential for unintended consequences dramatically increases.

    While I am in favour of the careful introduction of GM foods, downplaying the fact that the much more powerful tools available to change the makeup of our food demands more cautious oversight is simply foolish.

    • We’ve had hundreds of thousands of years of eating GM food.  Now that we know how to do it correctly….you don’t like it. LOL

    •  I think I read somewhere that varieties sometimes arise out of spontaneous sports or freak occurrences that produce desirable traits that are kept. Would that be natural or genetic modification? Mendel where are you when we need you?

      • That’s evolution.

        • Emily, you should slow down a bit, you are arguing against yourself.  Spontaneous mutations that lead to traits that are a net benefit within a specie’s environment is of course evolution.  Spontaneous mutations that are a net benefit to a farmer because it produces a higher value food could be considered a slow, quasi-natural form of genetic modification.  The key issue is whether the selection process is natural or managed.

          • No I’m not.

            Humans have modified food from the beginning. There is no ‘key issue’.

          • I’ll suggest that the key issue is actually whether or not a mutation – natural or managed – has any harmful effects, and the seriousness of those harmful effects.

  5. I’ve yet to come across an argument that convinces me why we should not insist that GMO food is labelled as such.

    • That’s because you don’t want to.

      • You could try to convince me. :-)

        • LOL well either you accept the science or you don’t

          • It is possible to accept (the) science and also be in favour of GMO labelling.

          • True…it’s just pointless.

          • Emily:

            You (obviously?) think that labelling is pointless, which is fine.

            But some folks (rightly or wrongly) are at least somewhat concerned that GMO foods are dangerous, and GMO labelling would give them the tools to avoid those foods.

            I don’t see how mandating GMO labelling will generate any serious harm to GMO companies or GMO supporters.

    •  I bet you don’t drive through Timmies either.

      • True, but how is that relevant?

  6. Label it and let consumers decide. Can’t be any worse than the intentionally chemically altered foods we already mass consume. Dyes, preservatives, fortified minerals and chemically altered flavours.
    The populace demands flavour, presentation and recently chemically reduced food. At some point perfection has to be manufactured.

  7. If we eat frankenfood, will we become Frankenstein?

  8. Health Canada needs to start reading real independent research instead of biotech public relations lies. They can start here—

    April 7, 2011
    GMOs Linked to Organ Disruption in 19 Studies


    • And to quote from your source:

      “… One of the most glaring faults in the current regulatory regime is the short duration of animals feeding studies. The industry limits trials to 90 days at most, with some less than a month. Only two studies reviewed in this new publication were over 90 days—both were non-industry research…”

      “…Short studies could easily miss many serious effects of GMOs. It is well established that some pesticides and drugs, for example, can create effects that are passed on through generations, only showing up decades later. IN the case of the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol), “induced female genital cancers among other problems in the second generation.” The authors urge regulators to require long-term multi-generational studies, to “provide evidence of carcinogenic, developmental, hormonal, neural, and reproductive potential dysfunctions, as it does for pesticides or drugs…”

      Scary stuff.

        • Time to wake up from Monsanto’s PR haze. Academic’s Review co-founder are both part of the biotech industry. Bruce M. Chassy, who served on the FDA’s food advisory council (the FDA is packed with former biotech execs) and David Tribe a biotech lecturer who was also one of the directors of the Austrailian Biotechnology Association.

          They are certainly not independent thinkers on this subject. None of their “facts” are backed up by independent research, either.

          Here’s some truth about GMOs —

          19 Studies Link GMO Foods to Organ Disruption

  9. The question of safety is only one of the issues related to GM food.  It is already having an impact on the economics of farming and legal action against farmers.  Does anyone know if there is any research on the financial impact of GM foods?

  10. The world’s population is growing and barring some unforeseen catastrophe that is not going to change soon. If you couple that with the shrinking potable water situation we are going to have big issues if something isn’t done now. What are our options?
    Organic non meat farming – not going to scratch the surface of the demand.
    Traditional farming – hold steady then drop
    Non-meat traditional farming – will increase supply but will be shortly over run after this.
    Population control – ethically and morally questionable, see China.
    Something new – seems the only way forward.
    GM engineering provides us with a way of feeding an increasing number of people using a shrinking amount of land space and resources. The recent events in N Africa and the M East were all food based. As supply has decreased, food prices went up and the average Tunisian suffered. That rise in prices was small, imagine the response if half the world literally couldn’t afford at least a meal a day.
    If you can propose a workable solution that renders the above moot have at it, but unless you want to make some monumentally huge ethical decisions regarding freedom and liberty I can’t see what that would be.

    • You left out Soylent Green…

  11. Look at the increases in infertility, chronic illness, autism, food allergies/sensitivities in the last 17 years. Almost all corn and soy is GMO and is found in much or most of the food we eat. I won’t touch it if I can avoid it. It is entirely different to actually modify the DNA of a plant or food and splice in foreign DNA that is often not even part of our food chain. i.e.: BT Corn. With so much GMO out there, organic and/or conventional farmers cannot avoid their crops being contaminated. The Institute of Responsible Technology has been trying to expose the dangers for years. The idea that we are helping the planet and feeding the hungry may end up to be a big joke, as we kill ourselves slowly instead…..

  12. @OriginalEmily1:disqus

    If there were no concerns with GMO foods, why do companies feel the need to hide it? Intentions, intentions, and intentions. Your argument lies on the premise that whether GMO’s are safe to be consumed are to be decided by a few; a few that have monetary interest; history is against you with this argument. Time and time again we know what happens when we leave it up to”them.” I thought the idea of “freedom” is what the US was about. Freedom to choose, to live, to believe, and even vice versa for those who choose not to and leave it to others. To be fair; i can somewhat understand your argument. There needs to be accountability on both sides. Ignorance is hardly an excuse for us, consumers for endorsing these products for so long. Maybe it is time for a reality check? We never want to solve problems at the root of the issue. We just patch them at the surface. We don’t want to prevent them. For me personally; I will not simply purchase GMO products because i abhor the betrayal, the obnoxiousness, and the greed. And isn’t that what you are so afraid of?