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What We Know - and Don't Know - About the Safety of Eating GMOs

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page, Food Safety Research Center  page, and our Health Issues page.

Are genetically modified foods safe to eat?

The conventional answer is "yes," and it's not hard to see why. Since their introduction in 1996, genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) corn and soy seeds quickly conquered U.S. farm fields. Today, upwards of 70 percent of corn and 90 percent of soy are genetically modified, and these two crops form the basis of the conventional U.S. diet. Nor are they GM technology's only pathway onto our plates. Nearly 80 percent of U.S. cotton is now genetically engineered, and cottonseed oil has emerged as a staple fat for the food industry. (USDA has figures on this.) Canola oil -- another crop that has largely succumbed to genetic modification -- is yet another common ingredient.

Given their swift path to ubiquity, wouldn't we know by now if GMOs posed some threat? Since no obvious problems have come to the fore, some scientists -- and certainly the agrichemical industry, which dominates GM seed production -- have seen fit to declare them safe. Pamela Ronald, professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, recently summed up the conventional view: "After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of two billion acres planted, GE crops have not caused a single instance of harm to human health or the environment."

Let's leave aside Ronald's claim about the environment (which is rendered suspect by the rise of herbicide-resistant "superweeds") and dig into the human-health aspect. What we do know is that GMOs are not acutely toxic to eat. That is, we know that if you dine on a burger made from cows gorged on GM corn and soy, French fries cooked in oil from GM cottonseed, and soda laced with high-fructose syrup from GM corn, you're not likely to keel over in agony. Tens of millions of people do it every day.

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