The Furor Over Frankenfoods – Do You Worry About Eating Genetically Modified Foods?

by Charlotte on December 12, 2012 · 33 comments

Do you like scary movies? Whether it is due to a bad experience with The Changeling (not the Angelina Jolie version but the really old 80′s one) or just an overactive imagination (seriously, we watched it for an 8th grade birthday party and the front door blew open the exact same moment the front door in the movie slammed open – clearly ghosts be afoot, not mischevious middle schoolers!!), I normally stay as far away from the scary stuff as possible. The other night however, I found myself parked in front of my computer glued to the scariest movie I’ve seen in the past decade. It had all the makings of a horror flick: wickedly powerful bad guys, gruesome deaths, a citizenry unaware of the disaster just around the corner and just a handful of helpless good guys standing between us and them. The movie that’s been haunting my dreams? The Future of Food.

I know, it sounds like one of those 1950′s film reels that they used to punish us in elementary school on rainy days and yet I’m telling you this was seriously frightening stuff. It was all about what “GM” – genetically modified – foods are doing to humanity and our critical food supply. If this subject interests you, I certainly recommend watching the whole documentary – you can even see it for free on Hulu – but I’m warning you: you will never look at your food the same way again.

This was actually my second go-round with the movie that first demonized corporate food giant Monsanto (doesn’t the name just sound evil??) and I was re-watching the 2007 flick because of this e-mail my mom sent me: (She’s a nurse and has to take continuing education classes to keep up her mad skillz.)

“Here are some indisputable facts:

  • About 50% of the world’s population, 3.5 billion people, obtain most of their carbohydrate from rice every day.
  • White rice contains little more than carbohydrate, and no pro-vitamin A carotenoid.
  • Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of childhood blindness, affecting half a million children every year.
  • VAD is responsible for at least 2 million preventable deaths each year.
  • Genetically modified (GM) rice, also known as Golden Rice, was invented more than a decade ago and can prevent VAD. But its introduction and planting, though cost-free to growers, continues to face opposition from those who believe GM foods pose an ecological threat.

Guest author, Adrian Dubock. Ph.D., Advisory Board Member, the Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies, School of Life Sciences and School of Soft Matter Research, Albert-Ludwigs-Universitat, Freiburg, and Executive Secretary of the not-for-profit Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, presents the case for GM in Genetically Modified Foods: Scientific Perspective and Controversies..

If you want to stop a food fight, it might help to find out if you agree with Dr. Dubock or if you think the evidence against GM is stronger.

This activity has been approved for 1.0 AMA PRA Category 1 CreditTM”

I’m not sure which I found most interesting: the fact that this is a class being recommended to medical professionals (didn’t say it was bad, just interesting) or the fact that someone is actually sticking up for genetically modified foods. How terribly un-cool of them!

Anyone who knows me knows that few things have caused me more consistent grief than food. While I’m doing so so much better these days in the past I’ve worried about everything from food combining to food timing to food in general – until I became full-on look-at-the-crazy-lady-on-TV sick. Strangely, in all of my worrying about food it had never before occurred to me to spend much energy worrying about the genetics of my food.

But now not only do we have to worry about whether our food is healthy (nutrition) and if it was grown in a healthy sustainable way (organic), we have to worry about whether or not it was monkeyed with by scientists and if that monkeying will monkey with my own monkey-ed DNA. My current obsession has been with organic vs. local food. Everyone from Jillian Michaels on down says that pesticides and food additives wreck your metabolism and harm your general health. But the other thing everyone tells you to do is to eat locally – it saves the environment and supports local farmers. The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to do both exclusively as one generally precludes the other. Especially in Minnesota where the only food that grows on trees is sno cones. The organic-local debate was wiped clean from mind though after hearing what scientists are saying about all of our genetically modified foods. Who cares if there is pesticides on the outside of your peach if the very genes that make it up are dooming you personally and society as a whole?

But is all the furor over frankenfoods legitimate or just hysteria? The e-mail makes a compelling point, frankly. Basically what we’re talking about are plants that have been altered at the genetic level to provide some benefit, i.e. drought tolerance, higher crop yeilds, resistance to pests and so forth. The potential benefits are immense – in addition to the “Golden Rice” referenced in the e-mail, you may have heard of the “miracle” rice that is touted as Africa’s salvation or the GM wheat that sparked the green revolution in the 1950′s and saved millions in developing nations from starvation and helped make America into the powerhouse it is today.

The problem however, is that nature didn’t create the plants that way and even though we think we are making them better, humans are notoriously short-sighted when it comes to “better” food. For example, the negative effects of the Green Revolution are just beginning to emerge in hard-hit areas like India. The saving wheat turned out to be heavily reliant on nitrogen-based fertilizers which in turn have wrecked the soil, destroying large percentages of previously arable land. GM foods also introduce other significant economic problems such as patent rights for seeds and all the attendant problems that come with single-source and single-strain farming. Not to mention all the anecdotal evidence out there. (The movie summarizes all these arguments quite well.)

It’s basically Science vs. Science. I hate it when that happens.

Unsurprisingly most of the research into GM foods has been conducted by the massive food conglomerates, such as Monsanto and Cargill, that are most heavily invested in them. The FDA (Federal Drug Administration) and the WHO (World Health Organization) have also done some studies. One WHO report states: “Foodstuffs made of genetically modified crops that are currently available (mainly maize, soybean, and oilseed rape) have been judged safe to eat, and the methods used to test them have been deemed appropriate.” The author cautions, “However, the lack of evidence of negative effects does not mean that new genetically modified foods are without risk.”

Unfortunately the discussion may be moot. The problem with worrying about GM food is that right now they are so prevalent in our food supply, mostly in the form of GM corn and soy, that it would be nearly impossible to avoid them completely. Also, while a few places such as the European Union have introduced legislation requiring labeling of GM foods, most places including America do not. Buying organic doesn’t mean it wasn’t genetically modified or engineered. Even going so far as to buy your own seeds, plant them and grow your own food won’t necessarily help because most conventional seeds come from the same few seed banks which use GM seeds. And even if you were to splurge on heirloom seeds, chances are yours would get cross-contaminated with the GM seeds that your neighbors are using.

You’d think that the inevitability of it all would give me a free pass to stop worrying about it but somehow it makes it weigh heavier on my mind. In the end, it just doesn’t seem natural. Of course neither is mascara and I use that all the time. Before I twist myself into mental knots, tell me – Where do you fall in this debate? Does it matter to you if your food is genetically modified? Do you take any steps to avoid it? Is it even possible to completely avoid it?

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Aurora December 12, 2012 at 9:46 am

GM foods are not the devil. They’re not going to kill you, or give you cancer, or whatever people are saying.

This is a scare tactic that rode on the coattails of the organic foods movement and so on. Non-perfectly-natural foods are Scary! Science is Complex and Frightening! We can’t trust what we can’t understand! Except we’ve been genetically engineering food through agriculture for millennia. Sure, it’s now more complicated and we can do more strange things with it, but at the core, we’re just making plants evolve really quickly.

The economic problems, I’m not touching with a ten foot pole, though. Patented corn is an abomination and is horribly screwing over farmers. But that’s not Science’s fault, or genetic engineering’s fault.


Jess December 12, 2012 at 10:07 am

Hmm.. this is a hard one for me. While I agree that genetically modifying anything seems like a bad idea… and I don’t trust the FDA as far as I can throw it… there is something to be said about certain genetic modifications. I mean, haven’t farmers been crossbreeding certain types of crops every since the dawn of agriculture? Is this not the same thing? I suppose it is branded the same way – instead being referred to as “hybrid” crops, but that still changes the genetic make-up of the fruit, veggie, grain, etc.

I know for me, in my Get Healthy mission, I’m mostly focusing on trying to consistently exercise and not eat fast food all the time in order to drop the 30 lbs of extra weight I’m carrying around. And although GM foods scare me, I do sometimes wonder if ALL GM foods should scare me – but mostly right now I just can’t add another health thing to my plate to worry about! When I can consistently get my 5 fruits/veggies in for the day – then maybe I can start worrying about whether or not they’re genetically modified. LOL


Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 10:32 pm

” When I can consistently get my 5 fruits/veggies in for the day – then maybe I can start worrying about whether or not they’re genetically modified. ” I think you just explained how most of us feel! Love it.


Nicky December 12, 2012 at 10:37 am

In my part of the world (Canadian prairies), we have Round-up Ready Canola–canola that is resistant to the herbicide Round-up so that farmers can pour as much of the chemical on their fields as they want. The seed is patented and, a number of years ago, a farmer was sued for “growing” it illegally because some of the seed had blown into his field from a neighbour’s property and taken root. Many farmers are forced into buying the more expensive seed to remain competitive and meet crop quotas. All this, to me, is bad. I generally avoid GMO products because, in North America, most GMO crops have been developed to allow farmers to use more pesticides and to line the pockets of companies like Monsanto. I’m on the fence about GMO crops to provide more nutritious food to people in Africa or Asia. The benefits are undeniable but once it’s out there, you can’t get it back and there may be unforeseen consequences.


Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Yes! That exact story is in the film! It’s outrageous that the company could get away with that lawsuit. And this: “The benefits are undeniable but once it’s out there, you can’t get it back and there may be unforeseen consequences.” is what scares me the most…


Kaelin December 12, 2012 at 11:42 am

I agree, that it just seems unnatural. I am all over the organic food debate. If it says organic, I get it. This frankenfood stuff does weigh on my mind, and the worst part? My husband’s family farms corn and soybean crops. He is a huge proponent of Monsanto and Cargill. We have 180* opinions on the matter and rarely discuss it, because we would rather smash our fingers in car doors than fight over food. I do like getting more information from both sides, and I appreciate your efforts to explain the pro’s and con’s of GM food. I will have to watch the documentary and see if its worth sharing with my husband.

I also agree with Nicky, once its out there we can get it back. And humans are short-sighted.


Kaelin December 12, 2012 at 11:42 am



Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Haha – my husband and I have topics like that too. Not GMO food but yeah, sometimes fingers-in-car-doors does seem preferable! And, given what you said, your husband would haaate that movie:) Monsanto is basically the great Satan.


Alyssa (azusmom) December 12, 2012 at 12:26 pm

I think, like anything else, there are (at least) 2 sides. I generally prefer locally-grown, organic food, but it can get pricey to feed a family of 4 (or more). And if the technology can help people, such as with golden rice, it’s not all bad.
Which is basically a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think either side is 100% right or wrong.


Alyssa (azusmom) December 12, 2012 at 12:28 pm

BTW, in college I was watching”The Omen” at a friend’s house at 2 AM, and during one of those ominously-quiet-something-really-bad-is-about-to-happen moments, her cat jumped onto the window I was sitting next to, from outside. I don’t think I’ve ever screamed that loud. Brought her entire family running.


Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm

I would have peed all over the couch. Yeah, even in college. I like to blame my kids for my leaky bladder but in truth I’ve always peed when I’m scared;)


Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Wait, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing?! There goes my entire life philosophy;) Seriously though, thanks for the reminder – I tend to see everything as black or white.


Aine December 12, 2012 at 2:41 pm

As a molecular biologist, genetic modification is my forte. Of course that makes me perhaps a bit biased, but it all comes with a great deal of scientific knowledge and experience.
And I say: Don’t worry about it.
For thousands of years human beings have been genetically modifying their food. Want a bigger cow? Mate two big cows together! Disease kills off all your crops except for a few hardy plants? Cross pollinate those suckers and grow a stronger variety!
We just happen to do it a bit more efficiently now, in the laboratory. Many of the proteins we exchange from one organism to another are not harmful, and a lot of the things that are added to our food through GM are beneficial nutrients and allow us to produce enough food to feed our enormous population. And of course, most governments strictly scrutinize everything, in order to save the public from any chance at harm.
A lot of the sources of outcry against GM comes from very biased sources; people trying to sell the next big thing, to create some sort of diet, to have some sort of political or financial influence. The science they claim to promote is often the same level of science that comes from “scientists” who say that global warming is a myth; studies with poor sample sizes, lack of proper controls, done by groups who already believe that GM is bad before they even begin their experiments. Few legitimate scientists give their claims any credit.
So in short, my opinion is… if you are going to avoid something in your diet, it should be pesticides and BPA.


Aurora December 12, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Thanks so much for weighing in as someone who is actually working in the field. I’m an engineer on the metals-and-electricity side of things, not the living-things side, so I don’t feel as qualified to comment…good to have you here.


Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Thanks Aine! It’s always good to hear from a scientist involved in this type of research. You definitely have a more informed opinion than most! I appreciate the reassurance.


irene December 12, 2012 at 6:59 pm

I’m wrapping up my PhD in biochemistry and have also done quite a bit of genetically modifying organisms and I couldn’t agree more with you Aine. I would just add 1. A lot of the debate of genetically modified food isn’t actually over “is it safe/beneficial/risky to eat modified food”as much as it is over “do we want to develop a massive monoculture of each crop that encourages mega farming” which is a completely separate issue in my opinion. 2. When people react out of fear about an issue they don’t understand well such as this one, I think they are generally saying that they are happy with their status quo and the don’t want it threatened by something they don’t understand enough to have a good idea of whether it could be harmful or not. Which is fine for anyone to decide for themselves personally, but I take issue with it when it becomes applied to a lot of people for whom the status quo is NOT so good, like those the golden rice etc is intended to help.


Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 10:39 pm

Thank you for making that distinction Irene! I agree that the technology and the farming culture are two different problems with two different sets of arguments. And I’m loving hearing from all these scientists today!! Love this: “Which is fine for anyone to decide for themselves personally, but I take issue with it when it becomes applied to a lot of people for whom the status quo is NOT so good, like those the golden rice etc is intended to help.”


Katie December 12, 2012 at 9:59 pm

I was about to start typing up this exact comment.

I teach Biology of Food and Agriculture and not only am I shocked at all the misinformation that the students come into the class with about GMOs, but also their resistance to look at it from a different perspective. Genetic modification is artificial selection in a lab setting; it’s like breeding the perfect dog without having to go through trial and error (or go through much less of it). It is far more efficient in terms of developing an organism with the desired traits.

Not to get all soap boxy, but I am starting to think more and more that with the growing population (don’t get me started on that one…) there is no way we can sustainably feed everyone without using this kind of technology. Sad, yes, but true.

And this coming from a professor at a tiny hippie college! ;)


Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Oh I think that bridge has been crossed. I think if we learned anything the wheat of the 1950′s it’s that this technology is life-saving and has become in the years since, life-sustaining. And I’m so glad you chimed in – I actually thought of you when I was writing this! I don’t understand so much of the technical stuff behind it that I’m afraid my opinions are informed too much by other people’s opinions;)


Redhead December 13, 2012 at 7:45 am

My concerns with gM food are largely the long-term consequences of growing it, but also somewhat the long-term health effects-namely, if we develop super foods, what does that do to variation in our diets and how does that affect us, given that there’s still a lot we don’t know about how our bodies work? If we start giving rice nutrients x, y and z, and people start eating less or no foods x, y and z, what will the effect be? I became a vegetarian as a kid and at first everyone focused on getting enough protein. As time went on, doctors became more aware of the need for iron as well, and then b12. Will GM foods set us up for that kind of situation on a large scale? I guess I’m curious if you scientist folks who know more about this than me have thoughts on that.
And of course, these are my ramblings from someone in the US who is able to debate the benefits of eating local and organic, etc. worrying about deficiencies of one or two nutrients when you’re facing starvation is a whole different issue.


Sue December 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm

I’m very lucky to live in Europe, where GMOs are mostly banned or at least labeled. I guess that’s the safer bet until we know more about the long-term effects on humans. Generally, I try to buy mostly local (EU) and organic foods, but I can’t always afford it.


Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Yeah, some companies here voluntarily label (of course it’s always the non-GMO products that label it) but it does make a difference to me when I’m shopping.


Julie December 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Its interesting to me that most people don’t know what foods are most likely to use GM seeds. You only have to worry about corn, soybeans, canola oil, and then papaya and zucchini. Its really hard to avoid GMO foods if you buy anything processed.
I TRY to avoid them, but I’m not perfect. I decided to do this more for political reasons, I don’t want to support the giant food/chemical corporation. Also, I am not as worried about the seeds, but the fact that they spray roundup on the crops, to kill the weeds around them.


Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 10:51 pm

Yes, the pesticides are a whole other issue – and one I worry about too:)


deb roby December 12, 2012 at 6:06 pm

I avoid GMO foods (which is relatively easy when you don’t eat grains and use only coconut oil and olive oil on your foods). And I don’t eat papayas.

I used to think that GMO foods weren’t bad for us, that they only do what the manufacturers say. BUT… in the 20 some years they’ve been using these, food allergies and weird childhood problems like ADHD and autism have SOARED. Things I never heard of as a child of the 50s are almost commonplace today. And it’s not just that they can diagnose things better.

When they put the new gene into the item, the shoot it in and hopes it get close to the exact place they want it. It might be off. So they are NOT just injecting a new gene in there, they are damaging current genes.

Yes, we have bred new animals and vegetables over the past several million years. But mankind cannot place a fish gene in corn, or a corn gene in fish without using the laboratory. Standard breeding and genetic selection is vastly different than introducing genes of other species.

Would you be OK if someone said “let’s inject a salmon gene into your embrionic child?” I think not. Yet feeding them food that has had this done is supposed to be OK?


Charlotte December 12, 2012 at 10:43 pm

This: “But mankind cannot place a fish gene in corn, or a corn gene in fish without using the laboratory. Standard breeding and genetic selection is vastly different than introducing genes of other species.” brings up a really interesting distinction. It does seem like the long-term consequences to this sort of experiment are awfully hard to measure or predict…


Matt December 12, 2012 at 10:35 pm

I remember eating seedless watermelon as a kid and I’m pretty sure that qualifies as a franken food. What’s more I’m pretty sure I’m even a franken human being. I’m the genetic combination of my two parents who are the genetic combination of their parents.

I guess I’m doomed to be a freak for the rest of my life. Plus there’s that whole evolution thing that’s constantly genetically modifying plants and animals. Yea, I know, that’s nature and we humans have nothing to do with mother nature as we have been sent here to corrupt this poor little planet. (*sarcasm*)


Karen December 12, 2012 at 11:02 pm

In our Biology class, we’ve recently discussed about the negative response of some people on GMOs. I don’t know for others but for me, nothing’s wrong with it. It may not be natural but it still contains nutrients that we can get from other “normal” plants.


kathleen December 13, 2012 at 12:10 am

Buying organic DOES actually mean it doesn’t contain GMOs. Food that has the certified organic label is not allowed to contain them. From the USDA website on organic standards: “The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.” It is possible to avoid GMOs by buying organic.


Redhead December 13, 2012 at 7:23 am

I do usually buy local and organic produce because I think it tastes better.
But that aside… I had a conversation with my dad the other day about different ailments that are popping up as he gets older, and he said his doctor had told him that pretty much they’re things that everybody gets eventually if they live long enough-it’s just that some people get them earlier than others, and some die from other things first. But as medicine advances and cures or even prevents so many things and people live longer, more people get these things than they used to. (he’s also commented before that nowadays everyone hates artificial preservatives, but when they first came out they had a lot of positive benefits for people because they kept food from spoiling.
On a certain level, GM foods still seem wrong to me-and I do wonder what the consequences will be in 100 years. But every step forward for humanity has consequences. In a lot of ways, the industrial revolution was the precursor for a lot of the reasons we’re having environmental issues and global warming today. Does that mean we should go back to a fuedal era with no factories or cars or trains? Or should we just keep progressing? (I know I’m oversimplifying the issue). I don’t know, on the fence about this one. But I do think that, as much as we hate in factory farms, traditional farming tends to get romanticized a lot. There’s a reason some of those practices were invented-to produce more food to feed more people (not just your family and ten other local families). Could they be improved on, of course. But I think people tend to overlook how much goes into non-factory farming


Barefoot Rose December 13, 2012 at 9:23 am

The other day I was in Jewel selecting an organic avacado for lunch. The sign above me said “Pesticide Free” , “Chemical Free” plus a few other claims. This is 100% misleading. The National Organic Program has a list of allowed and prohibited substances. Some of the uses are as a pesticide. and some as a fertilizer. Terms need to be used carefully and it infuriates me that there is a misleading marketing campaign for Organic Farming. It isn’t RoundUp but organic doesn’t guarantee chemical free. I work for a company that produces synthetic chemicals approved in organic farming.

Here is an excerpt from The National Organic Program website that you can find at
The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances identifies substances that may and may not be used in organic crop and livestock production. It also lists the substances that may be used in or on processed organic products. In general, synthetic substances are prohibited unless specifically allowed and non-synthetic substances are allowed unless specifically prohibited. For example, a vaccine used to prevent pinkeye in livestock is an allowed synthetic substance and arsenic is an example of a prohibited natural substance. Some substances on the National List may only be used in specific situations, e.g. only for certain crops or up to a maximum amount.

I will commend Organic Farmers . The ones I have met or listened to at conferences are really trying to do what is best for the earth and sustainable farming. I fully support that GM foods should be labelled but I doubt that it will matter to a majority of the population just like no one cares about climate warming when it is 70 degrees in December in Chicago.


jennifer December 13, 2012 at 6:00 pm

This is a tough argument, and I never really thought about organic “GMO” foods! I mean, surely it can be pesticide free, but also a frankenfood, right?
I think eating fruits and veggies is better than not eating fruits and veggies at all; but it does get pretty scary when everything starts becoming “enriched.” I see that word on labels and cringe!


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