Skip to main content

The Three Main Concerns About Genetically Modified Foods

Science, nature and the environment, with regard to human impact, are subjects to which Chris applies his passions for research and writing.

Genetically modified varieties of crops such as corn have become increasingly common over the past few decades.

Genetically modified varieties of crops such as corn have become increasingly common over the past few decades.

Genetically Modified Foods: To Eat, or Not To Eat?

To eat genetically modified foods or not to eat? That is a question on the minds of many people around the world today.

It has become difficult to avoid consuming these products simply because GM varieties are what farmers are planting. According to an article by TIME in April 2015, nearly 90% of acres dedicated to growing corn, soybeans, and cotton were planted with genetically modified varieties of those crops.

Genetically Modified Foods: What Are We Afraid Of?

Why are people so concerned about genetically modified foods? What are they afraid of? When I have asked people why they object to GM foods, some have responded by saying they don’t want to eat foods that have been sprayed with pesticides and herbicides or foods that have been grown using certain types of fertilizer. While these may be legitimate concerns, they are not what genetic modification is about.

The World Health Organization defines genetically modified foods as “foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.”

Genetically Modified Foods: Three Areas of Concern

What are the real concerns about genetically modified crops and the foods derived from them? There are three primary areas of concern.

  1. The effect on the environment. There is the fear that certain traits of GM crops might be introduced into the wild.
  2. The effect on the human body. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are often used to mark genetically modified plant cells. Will this trait affect the good bacteria in the human digestive tract? Are genetically modified foods one of the reasons antibiotics are not as effective at fighting certain infections as they used to be?
  3. The unintended effects on the plants themselves. By adding a new protein to a plant, are we turning a nonallergenic plant into an allergenic plant which could become a health concern to consumers?

The Effect on the Environment

The issue: Certain genetic modifications of food crops may be able to spread to wild plants via cross pollination, introducing manmade character traits into nature.

An example: A 2010 National Public Radio report disclosed that canola plants in North Dakota, which are grown for canola oil, have been genetically modified to withstand the effects of herbicides. Those new genes have now been found in wild canola plants making it difficult to control their growth.

The cause for concern: Genetically modified plants grown on farms are given traits that will make them resistant to the effects of herbicides, pesticides, and drought. If and when these plants cross-pollinate with wild plants, the same traits may then be introduced to wild plants, i.e. weeds.

The Effect on the Human Body

The issue: Scientists make genetic modifications in certain plants. These modifications are made in individual cells of that plant. How do they know that the new plant has cells containing the modifications? The modified cells are made to be antibiotic-resistant while cells that did not accept the modifications will not have antibiotic resistance. An antibiotic is then introduced among the cells. Those with resistance, which also have the desired modification, survive. The rest don’t. If no cells survive, the genetic modification failed.

An example: In the conclusion to their article in The Journal of Applied Microbiology, the authors claim that “no expert panel has ever identified significant risk, associated with the use of ARMs [antibiotic resistance markers] in plant biotechnology.”

PubMed is an online publication of the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine (NIH/NLM). They claim that “in two cases clinically important antibiotics have been used: a maize developed by Novartis contained a gene for ampicillin resistance, and a potato developed by Avebe contained a gene for amikacin resistance. A further complication with the maize is that the material was intended to be used unprocessed in animal feed and that the antibiotic resistance gene was under the control of a bacterial promoter. This led to concerns that the antibiotic resistance gene might be transferred to animal gut flora (including human pathogens), which might then acquire resistance to a clinically useful antibiotic. As a consequence, both these genetically modified crops are having difficulties gaining full regulatory approval.”

While this does not say that GM foods have actually caused antibiotic resistance in humans, it does show that such an event is theoretically possible and the authors suggest that steps should be taken to discontinue the use of antibiotic resistance markers in genetic modification of food crops.

The cause for concern: Humans consuming genetically modified plants are putting antibiotic-resistant plant cells into their digestive systems. Will this have any effect on the good bacteria in their intestinal tract? Will this cause humans to be resistant to antibiotics?

The Effect on the Plant Itself

The issue: Nearly all food allergies are the body’s reaction to a protein found within a particular food. Genetic modification of foods is basically the adding or removal of proteins. More correctly, genetic modification is the manipulation of the DNA and RNA of a plant food source so that it will synthesize a desired protein that otherwise would not exist in that plant. New proteins are sometimes created during genetic modification. Are these new proteins allergenic? Are allergy-producing proteins being transferred from one plant into a different species of plant?

An example: Soybeans are a food source that is deficient in methionine. A protein from the Brazil nut was introduced as a genetic modification to soybeans. Brazil nuts contain a known allergen. The result was that the allergen of the Brazil nut was passed on to the soybeans. Tests showed that individuals who were allergic to the Brazil-nut protein reacted to the genetically modified soybean. Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in GM soybeans.

The cause for concern: Proteins are the substances that cause allergic reactions in some people. If allergenic proteins are introduced to a plant that was not originally allergenic, it could pose a health risk to an unsuspecting person with an allergy to that protein. New proteins which are created in the process of genetic modification could themselves be allergenic. All genetically modified foods are being tested specifically for allergenic properties.

FDA Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the US:  Corn, Soybeans, Cotton. Bt=Pesticide resistant (Genetic modification) Ht=Herbicide resistant (Genetic modification)

FDA Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the US: Corn, Soybeans, Cotton. Bt=Pesticide resistant (Genetic modification) Ht=Herbicide resistant (Genetic modification)

Genetically modified papayas of Hawaii.

Genetically modified papayas of Hawaii.

Genetic Modification of Food Crops, A Grand Experiment

The age of genetically modified foods is fully upon us. There are those who attempt to avoid consuming these foods and object to the continuation of this practice. Others see genetic modification of foods as the path to better nutrition for consumers and more profit for farmers.

Ask the papaya farmers of Hawaii what they think about the genetic modification of papayas to withstand the ringspot virus. They will likely tell you it saved the industry and their own livelihood.

But the fact is, we don't know what the long-term effects of genetic modification of foods will be on the human body or the environment. All we have at present are opinions on both sides. For most of us, this is one of those issues that comes down to individual choices. But one thing is certain and should concern all of us: Nature has taken a great deal of time to develop the varieties of food crops we have enjoyed in the past. There are built-in benefits to these plants that genetic modification will undoubtedly destroy (New York Times, Loss of Genetic Diversity Imperils Crop Advances).

Genetic modification of crops is a grand experiment, but we should not forever shut the door to returning to traditional, non-GMO foods should the experiment prove to be a failure in the long term.

Nature's Response

Nature is not static. It reacts to change and responds to stimuli. Those who are responsible for the genetic modification of food crops and those who support this technology are thinking and behaving as if nature will simply accept the change with no response. There will be a response. Adaptation is the history of all living organisms.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Ann Carr from SW England on February 27, 2016:

My great concern is that mankind is so good at messing up nature! They carry on 'experimenting' regardless with no concrete knowledge about their undertakings. If it was proven to be advantageous all round, then maybe, but I think nature generally modifies, evolves, adapts and deals with problems quite well by itself. It has done so since the universe began. We are not all-knowing, all-seeing 'gods' but we act as though we were all too often.

The other problem is that, despite those who don't want to use GM, they don't usually have a choice because so much spreads over the boundaries and so much is present when we don't even realise it.

This is a great presentation of the facts, reasons and arguments for and against but my fundamental concern remains.

Well written hub, Chris.


Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on January 31, 2016:

Kylyssa, Nice to see you here reading my hub today. While you begin your comment saying you have now problem with genetically engineering our food crops, you go on to show that you are not thoughtless about the issue. You raise very valid questions. This is what is needed, the willingness to question what is going on. Some, like yourself, may accept some things, but not others. Many people will accept no GM of any food crop. Still others will accept anything that is GM. Let's keep the questions rolling out. Keep the pressure on so that at least the people who are controlling the GM of our food begin to consider more than just the financial bottom line.

Kylyssa Shay from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on January 31, 2016:

I have zero objection to genetically modifying the organisms we eat. I do object to some of the modifications that are being made because they seem illogical or ill-considered.

For instance, instead of modifying plants to survive intense saturation with herbicides, why not modify them to be more vigorous or to present a physical barrier to weed incursion, such as a woody layer of near-surface roots or something? Modifying plants to produce pesticides designed to harm pollinating insects is also questionable, in my book. Again, why not modify them to be physically resistant to pests or to produce something like nootkatone, which repels a wide variety of insects, instead of causing them to produce toxins intended to specifically affect butterflies?

I also have a concern about gene flow from the butterfly-killing corn to normal corn that could eventually contaminate the gene pool of regular corn, causing it to also produce pollen toxic to butterflies and bees.

I'm also quite disappointed that genetic modification hasn't focused more on improving things like nutritional values, water use, and topsoil enrichment. Why aren't we seeing things like protein-rich corn that helps the soil by fixing nitrogen? Why aren't we seeing new grains rich in antioxidants and vitamins or vegetables bearing complete proteins?

christinemariezzz on December 24, 2015:

Thank you for bringing this subject forward. I am passionate about the purity of nourishing the human body; pardon me if my comment sort of topples together here.

The short of it:

You've brought good things to your audience; and your commenter Buildreps has contributed a valuable part; my six children (small farmers to one extent or another) work quietly the good work of food. It is they who brought GMO to my attention. Your hub is written to sup with your readers.

The long of it:

Chris, a great hub subject, and you've taken it on very well! You've given a good menu choices on the subject; and stirred in good flavor: I like the spice of comedy you've added with the video.

Your three bullet points are "right on!"

The viability of a seed is determined by the intricate rules followed to bring good fruit. A tiny rose seed, designed for beauty and fragrance works patiently to scent. Seeds for vegetation, food, nourishment are no different; such rules when toyed with create a psychic life unfit for growth. The simplicity of such knowledge can be found in pseudopod is of amoeba; a simple drop of pond water.

As previously stated the comedy video is a perfect balance to your text: The "Goofy-Making-Options" (GMO's) for "food" are intolerable as far as I'm concerned. I have had the opportunity to spend over two decades teaching my young children about food, food eating, ways contrary to my own ways of thinking about it. Our curricullum was a living one! I now am healthier, happier, and my grown children have good minds about food.

In conclusion:

Your article here is refreshing, just as refreshing as when one enters a kitchen and smells the flavor of a good chili. There is no hesitation to dish-up. Not so when some uneducated moron plays with the pot, dulls the flavor, and everyone has to politely slurp a "form of chili" that fails to rock the palate.

Your article makes clear, that when it comes to genetically modified foods one can sit at the table and refuse!

Good job!


Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on December 20, 2015:

I have chosen to be GMO free, and won't get into the details, other than to tell you that I am a chemist and a biologist. But I will tell you that tobacco in its pure form is non-addictive. It doesn't mean that it is good for you.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on December 20, 2015:

I had no idea that GMO foods were being treated to this extent. This article is so well researched and presented; it certainly gives us pause, and reason to give voice in opposition to this process. What are they thinking? The use of antibiotics as well. Call me crazy, but for years, I haven't been able to eat or cook Perdue chicken; there is a smell and taste to the poultry that I find nauseating, and is not present with other brands. Perhaps is it the chicken feed -- who knows? I understand they have since stop using antibiotics.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 17, 2015:

Micaela, please look back at the the definition I used in the article. We are discussing genetic modification that would not have happened naturally. You are talking about natural, cross pollination of tomatoes. This is a natural process. Many early tomatoes were poisonous, but not all by any means. Tomatoes have been eaten since as early as 500 BC.

I appreciate you reading the article and thank you for your input.

Michaela from USA on December 17, 2015:

If you all are against GMO's, then you better stop eating tomatoes, broccoli, and potatoes - because without genetic modification these vegetables wouldn't even exist in an edible form.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 17, 2015:

MsDora, Nature has taken care of us for a long time. I'm sure there are good things technology has done and could do to enhance nature's gifts, but manipulating the very structure of a plant's genetic makeup is not one of them. Thanks for reading my article and for your input.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 17, 2015:

If we really care about our health, we would all rule against GMO foods. Keeping everybody fed with poison does not see like a good alternative. Thanks for making us aware of what is at stake.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 17, 2015:

Larry, I'm glad you found the article enlightening. Thanks for stopping by.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on December 17, 2015:

Enlightening article.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 17, 2015:

Shauna, as people respond to the GMO takeover of our food sources, I am hoping that locally grown, organic foods become more available. Also, I hope that more people begin to try raising some of their own food. It will probably become more difficult to find what we want in grocery stores, but maybe even they will continue to provide non-GMO products if the profit is there. Thanks for your input.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 17, 2015:

Eric, changing the DNA and RNA of plants is something nature seems to have been doing for a long time, but that's the point, isn't it. Nature is doing what it knows is best. Man will force these changes out of very poor motivations, like profit. Good to hear from you.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 17, 2015:

Buildreps, I failed to mention a lot of things in the article, but thanks for bringing up the reliance of farmers on companies like Monsanto. Thanks for reading and giving your valuable input.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 17, 2015:

John, I can appreciate what you are doing because I see my son doing it on the property I'm selling him back home. Very quickly the one acre lot is producing an amazing amount of food. I love the principles you and others use to avoid pesticides and herbicides. I think a lot of people got to the point where they believed they couldn't really grow their own food. There is so much information available now, anyone can grow something, even if they have no yard space. Thanks for your input. Good luck with your farming.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on December 17, 2015:

Bill, I had a feeling you were dead set against GMO foods because of the excellent, organic garden you and your wife have. Thanks for reading and speaking up for real food. :)

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on December 17, 2015:

Chris, one of the genetic modifications scientists are making to the crops - and the first three you mention rate the highest in GMO foods - is to inject the seeds with pesticides in order to make the crops resistant to pests. That means we are consuming poison. For this reason alone, I do not eat GMO derived foods. A while back billybuc posted a list of the food manufacturers in the U.S. that use GMO seeds in their products or ingredients that contain them. I keep this list in my purse and refer to it when I go to the grocery store. Unless the item is marked "non-GMO" or has 94 preceding the numbers on the produce labels (94 indicates certified organic) I don't buy it.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on December 17, 2015:

Thank you for a very well done piece on this important issue. I wonder if there is anyone who really would chose a GMO product over one that is not if all things were equal. Maybe there are but I would think only out of ignorance. We do real well avoiding GMO stuff but I am sure we get some as it is becoming all pervasive. It just makes me queezy to think of altering food like that.

Buildreps from Europe on December 17, 2015:

We don't know one iota about the long-term effects of GMOs on nature and humans. That's why it's completely irrational to eat them.

What you forget to mention in your article, or perhaps failed to research is that the farmers become completely dependent of the GMO company, that has a whole range of products from seeds, herbicides and pesticides, up the harvest techniques. Is that good or bad? The answer is not so difficult. In the end the farmer has nothing to say about what he wants to grow, since he's managed by one of the few monopolists. Is that good or bad? I believe everyone has the answer to that.

Furthermore I'd like to quote Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the IMechE: "Our recent studies show that between 30% to 50% of all food produced in the world never makes it to our plates, because the products are not harvested due to their failure to meet retailers' exacting standards on physical appearance." This is official research:

Why do we need GMO food for if they are meant to 'fight the hunger in the world' if such a staggering amount of food just isn't harvested?

People in the US should be VERY worried about the immense increase of GMO in the last 20 years.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on December 16, 2015:

Like Bill, I am 100% against GMO's. I garden organically, using companion planting and Permaculture principles so avoid the use of pesticides completely. Fighting world hunger is the main reasoning they use to promote it but in reality it has done little to help in that regard. Just a little research into the evils perpetrated by Monsanto against humanity will open one's eyes to the truth. Thanks for this well written hub Cam.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 16, 2015:

I'm a traditionalist and an environmentalist, Chris, so it should be obvious which side of the debate I'm on. :) I am dead set against GMO foods. Nice presentation here.