Whole Foods Magazine recently published a story alleging that there is no evidence vindicating the safety of "GMOs." How well does this claim stand up to scrutiny?
The debate over so-called “GMOs” is almost 30 years old at this point. If you follow the discussion in any capacity, you know that both sides have an established set of talking points that guide their analysis of the risks and benefits of utilizing genetic engineering in food production.
The key difference between these warring factions is that one of them usually grounds its analysis in good evidence and adapts to new technological developments; the other side, in contrast, deploys its three-decade-old assertions to attack a growing list of innovations scientists and farmers employ to mitigate an even longer list of food-production challenges.
Whole Foods Magazine published a perfect illustration of this phenomenon in a June story titled GMOs: Basics to Know. “Although GMOs have been deemed safe,” the author alleged, “GMO opponents object that there have been no credible independent long-term studies on human health or environmental safety.” This claim, ancient as it is, has never been justified; there are many thousands of studies that confirm the positive health and environmental impacts of GE, or genetically engineered, foods.  This article gives us no reason to think otherwise. Let's take a closer look at the author's specific claims, in quotes below.
“GMOS, aka Genetically Modified Organisms, are plants, animals, or microorganisms whose genetic makeup has been changed using genetic engineering.”
This describes every single food crop and animal in commercial production. Everything you eat comes from organisms improved by many generations of breeding. Different techniques are used to confer different traits, but when you get down to it, they all “genetically modify” the target organism. For example, there is a “non-GMO” plant called a “Tomtato” that produces cherry tomatoes and white potatoes. It is a “frankenfood” in the truest sense, though you've probably never heard an activist complain about the lack of long-term studies on the Tomtato because it was produced via grafting, a form asexual production widely used in agriculture.
“A newer type of genetic modification is RNA interference (RNAi), a gene-silencing method. Arctic apples and Innate potatoes have been engineered using this method.”
You know who taught us how to use RNAi? Nature. As the authors of this 2003 paper explained, “Specific gene silencing has been shown to be related to two ancient processes, cosuppression in plants and quelling in fungi.” Gene silencing evolved to serve a variety of important functions, one of the most notable being defense against viral infection. This is not a rare occurrence either. The authors went on to explain that
“Pioneering observations on … RNAi were reported in plants, but later on RNAi-related events were described in almost all eukaryotic organisms, including protozoa, flies, nematodes, insects, parasites, and mouse and human cell lines [my emphasis].”
Back to Whole Foods Magazine:
“There are also new GMOs showing up in the meat and dairy aisle. Milk, cheese, and ice cream are being made using genetically engineered microbes to manufacture 'animal-free' dairy proteins.”
This is “factual but not truthful,” as one of my favorite political commentators puts it. There are several companies engineering dairy proteins for use in products like ice cream. However, they are identical to the same protein found in cow's milk. I explained this in 'Lives Are Potentially At Risk': Organic Activists Freak Out Over 'GMO' Ice Cream. Long story short: a protein is a protein as long as it's a protein.
“Although GMOs have been deemed safe by the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences, GMO opponents object that there have been no credible independent long-term studies on human health or environmental safety.”
If that's true, on what basis did the AMA and NAS declare that GE foods pose no unique risk? Several thousand studies have investigated these claims about the safety of biotechnology. Not one of them has given us any legitimate cause for concern. About 30 of these papers have posited that biotech crops and animals carry some additional risk, though none of them has withstood careful scrutiny. Moreover, GE foods are usually subjected to greater (I would say excessive) regulatory scrutiny than their conventional and organic counterparts.
“Furthermore, there is no evidence that any GMO crops offer drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any consumer benefit.”
Incorrect. Multiple countries have recently approved drought-resistant GE wheat and soy varieties. The Philippines approved vitamin-fortified Golden Rice for commercial use last year. There are also gene-edited tomatoes that reduce the risk of high blood pressure and soybeans with a healthier fatty acid profile. There are many other enhanced products expected to hit the market in the coming years.
“Stay tuned as things continue to develop in the world of GMO foods. Consumers looking to avoid GMOs in their food can rely on the Non-GMO Project seal and USDA Organic for assurance of no GMOs.”
Bad advice on both fronts. Instead of reading Whole Foods Magazine, subscribe to our newsletter, which is full of edifying, brain-boosting content. As I said earlier, everything you eat is a “GMO” in some sense, even the pricier “organic” and “non-GMO” options. The USDA's National Organic Standards Board came to the same conclusion in a 2014 report:
“Exploring this issue has brought to the attention of the subcommittee that engineered genetic manipulation of plant breeding materials has already occurred in many of the crop varieties that are currently being used in organic farming.”
There you have it, and from the USDA's organic-certificate-dispensing bureaucracy no less. I suppose Monsanto could have gotten to the USDA and bribed officials into publishing that report. The more reasonable explanation is that this entire conversation is still pointless and we should move on to more meaningful concerns.
 Foods aren't genetically engineered, the crops and animals they're derived from are. Steak from a “GMO” cow, for example, is just beef containing predictable amounts of fat, protein and other nutrients.