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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lena Suhaila

Genetically Modified Foods and Your Health

When I’ve given talks on genetically modified (GM) foods in the community, usually I've start out by asking the audience “How many people here try and avoid eating GM foods?" Everyone’s hand goes up. Then I ask “How many people know which foods have genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in them?” The number of hands that go up is significantly less. We want to avoid GM foods but we don’t know which foods are GM.

I want to sharing a story I think is pretty compelling. It is a story I first read is Jeffrey Smith's book Seeds of Deception. Jeffrey Smith is an expert on GMOs and he leads the movement to eliminate GM foods from the US.

The story is about a scientist named is Dr. Arpad Pusztai (pronounced poot-sie). He has published more than 300 articles, contributed to more than 20 books and at the time, he was the world’s top expert in his field. Dr. Pusztai was awarded a multi million dollar grant by the British government to design the system for safety testing of GM foods. He worked for the top nutritional research lab and had a large team of 20 scientists working for him at 3 different facilities.

Dr. Pusztai’s experiment was simple. He took 3 groups of genetically identical rats and fed them 3 different kinds of potato.

  • The first group was fed potatoes that had been genetically modified with a pesticide.

  • The second groups of rats were fed natural potatoes.

  • The third group of rats was fed natural potatoes that were topically sprayed with the pesticide group one potatoes were genetically modified with.

Within just 10 days, only the rats fed GM potatoes developed strange tumors, their brains shrunk, so did their testicles and livers. Their immune systems also became damaged. Dr. Pusztai was shocked he saw that the problem was not related to the pesticide itself but the actual process of the genetic engineering that made the genetically modified potato.

Being a conscientious scientist, he worried that the GM foods on the market might have the similar effects on humans. He informed his director of the study results and went on television to give an interview expressing his concerns about GM foods. Two days later her was silenced by the pro-GMO Prime Minister, Toni Blair. Then he was fired, his research was confiscated and a smear campaign was launched to destroy his career.

The biotech industry says that millions of people have been eating genetically modified foods without harmful effect. This is misleading because no one monitors the human health impacts of GM foods. If GM foods are creating health problems in people, it might take years or even decades before we identified the cause.

A genetically modified organism is the created in the lab by taking genes from one species, like an animal and inserting them into another species like a plant in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic. For example, anti-freeze genes from arctic fish have been spliced into tomatoes so tomatoes don’t freeze.

Nature in her infinite wisdom has set up barriers to prevent different species from breeding for example the if you breed a horse with a donkey the result – a mule – is sterile. Genetic engineering breeches the barriers set up by nature. How is genetic engineering different from traditional breeding? Growers have been grafting trees, breeding animals, and hybridizing seeds for years. In traditional breeding it is possible to mate a pig with another pig to get a new variety of pig, but is not possible to mate a pig with a potato or a mouse. With the advent of genetic engineering, scientist are able to introduce genes from animals into plants; the results are plants (or animals) with traits that would be virtually impossible to obtain with natural processes, such as crossbreeding or grafting.

Scientists have worked on some interesting combinations:

  • Arctic fish genes inserted into tomatoes and strawberries tolerance to frost.

  • Potatoes infected with genes from fluorescent jellyfish that glow in the dark when they needed watering.

  • Cow genes turned pigskins into cowhides.

What are the major genetically engineered crops in the U.S.?

  • Soy (91%)

  • Sugar beets (90%)

  • Cotton (88%)

  • Canola (88%)

  • Corn (85%)

  • Hawaiian papaya (more than 50%)

Eighty percent of the foods we eating from the in the supermarket contain derivatives of soy, corn, canola, cotton. Meaning 80% of foods in conventional supermarkets contains GMOs none of which is labeled. Even meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals can be GM if they have eaten GM feed (and the majority of feed used is GM corn and soy).

Eighty percent of GE on crops is performed so crops won’t die not when sprayed with Roundup herbicide. Twenty percent of GE is performed by inserting an insecticide gene from bacteria into a plant so the plants will make their own pesticide.

Besides potentially smaller brains and testicles like in Dr. Pusztai found in his GM potato fed rats, what are some of the health risks? In March 2001, the CDC reported that food is responsible for twice the number of illnesses in the U.S. compared to estimates just seven years earlier. This increase roughly corresponds to the period when Americans have been eating GM food. Soon after GE soy was introduced soy allergies increased by 50%.

If you plan on having kids, you may make think again about what you put in your mouth. A study where female rats were fed GM soy for 15 months showed significant changes in their uterus and reproductive cycle, compared to rats fed organic soy or those raised without soy.

GM soybeans are called Roundup Ready. They are inserted with a bacterial gene that allows the plants to survive a normally deadly dose of Roundup herbicide. The spray doesn't kill the plant, but its active ingredient called glyphosate accumulates in the soybeans.

Glyphosate was found to kill human placental cells at concentrations way below that recommended for agricultural use. Herbicide has already been linked with spontaneous abortions, Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma in humans. Glyphosate is the world's top selling herbicide, and Monsanto's formulation Roundup is used with more than 80% of all GM crops grown globally. Glyphosate throws off the delicate hormonal balance that governs the whole reproductive cycle. It's an endocrine disruptor. It has detrimental ramifications that include the production of breast, uterine and prostate cancer.

Another serious health risk comes from milk from cows treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). It contains an increased amount of the hormone insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which is a high risk factor associated with breast and prostate cancer.

Many of you have heard about Frankenfish. The “product” that the FDA is currently evaluating which was created by combining a gene from the largest salmon (Chinook salmon) and splicing it with the DNA of Atlantic salmon. The result is a variety of salmon that produces growth hormone under a broader range of conditions. According to the evidence, these salmon might also have higher levels of the cancer promoting hormone IGF-1 and contain more antibiotics, and more potentially life-threatening allergens.

There are several issues surrounding the controversy of the approval process of this super salmon. For starters, the FDA basing its decision to approve this using research that was performed or funded by the company who makes this GMO salmon. This obviously leaves much to be desired.

How can foods that cause so many ill effects in laboratory animals make it past the FDA and regulatory agencies, when they are supposed to keep the food and drug supply safe? The FDA currently has no safety test requirements for GE foods and FDA has a conflict of interest when it comes to GMOs.

Michael Taylor is the FDA’s current Food Safety Commissioner. Before this he worked for Monsanto, the company that makes Round up. He was their attorney and later one of their Vice Presidents – And now he is our food safety czar…. conflict of interest? He helped to create the policy that states, “The FDA isn’t aware of any information showing foods created by GE methods are any different than non GE foods." The FDA also states the companies themselves can determine if GM these foods are safe. These companies do not even have to tell the FDA if they are introducing a GM food into the market.

In 2007, 44,000 FDA documents made public from a lawsuit. These documents revealed overwhelming evidence that consensus among FDA's own top scientists was that GM foods were inherently dangerous and could create hard to detect, allergens, toxins, new diseases and nutritional problems. These concerned FDA scientists had urged their superiors to perform more in-depth, long-term studies but were ignored.

So Michael Taylor, the Food Safety Commissioner, the person who lied about the safety of GMOs to push them on the market now sits above the folks that are looking at GE Salmon. This is not a comforting thought.

There have been surveys where they have gone out and asked thousands of Americans if they have ever eaten a GM food in their life, 60% say no, 15% say I don’t know.

What can you do?

  • Educate yourselves and others. Education is power. Write to your congress people and tell them to find healthier alternatives to Roundup.

  • Avoid eating GM foods - soy, corn cotton and canola are the main ones. Avoiding just these 4 GM foods can make a huge difference as it has in Europe.

  • Buy organic.

  • Buy products that say NON GMO or are on the NON GMO shopping guides downloaded at

Food really is our best medicine. Diet and lifestyle are the number one things I council patients about. GM foods not only introduce serious health issues and cross contamination with non-GM plants, there is also a consolidation of corporate control over basic and essential elements of life.

But we can make a difference, we can avoid GM foods and really make an impact.

Going back to Dr. Pusztai, in 1999 the gag order on his research was lifted when he was asked to testify in front of the British Parliament. Finally his research was made public. The public was outraged and within just 10 weeks, GMOs were off the market in every major label because GMO had become a marketing liability. The same thing can and will happen here. The question is when.


1) Arbuckle TE, Lin Z, Mery LS. 2001. An exploratory analysis of the effect of pesticide exposure on the risk of spontaneous abortion in an Ontario farm population. Environ Health Perspect 109:851-57.

2) Benachour N, Seralini G-E. 2009. Glyphosate formulations induce apoptosis and necrosis in human

Umbilical, embryonic, and placental cells. Chem Res Toxicol 22:97-105.

4) Ewen SW, Pusztai A. Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. Lancet. 1999;354(9187):1353-1354.

4) Dallegrave E, Mantese FD, Oliveira RT, Andrade AJM, Dalsenter PR, Langeloh A. 2007. Pre- and postnatal toxicity of the commercial glyphosate formulation in Wistar rats. Arch Toxicol 81:665-73.

5) Savitz DA, Arbuckle T, Kaczor D, Curtis KM. 1997.Male pesticide exposure and pregnancy outcome. Am J Epidemiol 146(12):1025-36.

6) Smith, Jeffrey M. Seeds of Deception 2003 White River Junction, VT. Chelsea Green Publishing.

7) Yousef MI. 1995. Toxic effects of carbofuran and glyphosate on semen characteristics in rabbits. J Environ Sci Health B 30(4):513-34.3)

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