Do you buy based on hype and hysteria? Or what the science actually suggests?
Of course, we prefer not to eat pesticides. There is nothing beneficial they can do for your body, only adverse side effects are possible.
But what is the possibility of those side effects happening, if almost no pesticides are left by the time your food arrives at the grocery store?
The half-life for many of the pesticides used on conventional food is just a few days (1):
After each half-life has passed, 50% of the chemical has been broken down. So the fresher the produce, the potentially more dangerous it is. As time goes by, less remains.
And when they’re carting tomatoes in from Mexico to Michigan, you can bet they were green when they were picked. A lot of time has passed before they end up in your salad.
If the half-life of a given pesticide was 3 days, then after 5 half-lives (5 x 3 days = 15 days total) only 3% of the pesticide would be remaining.
Short half-lives are why a lot organic food is a ripoff versus conventional. Not always for grains though, since they use a lot of glyphosate (Roundup), including the unique act of spraying grains right before harvest to accelerate their drying. For fresh produce though, it’s often a scam relative to how much more expensive the organic versions are.
Short half-lives of antioxidants, vitamins, and other phytonutrients are also the reason why frozen blueberries are way healthier than fresh. Look at how little anthocyanin content is left in fresh blueberries after just 3 days has passed.
While freezing stops the degradation process of nutrients (a good thing), it does the same for pesticides (a bad thing). That’s why it actually should be a higher priority to buy organic frozen foods. With fresh, it should be off a lesser concern.
However the biggest reason that USDA certified organic seal is way overvalued is because there may be bigger dangers lurking in your diet than conventionally grown crops.
Why are so many people concerned about pesticides – even the non-carcinogenic ones – when there are certain cooking methods which actually create suspected carcinogenic compounds such as acrylamide and other advanced glycation end products?
A lot of people don’t seem to care about that fact. Instead, they would rather obsess over whether their grilled panini is made using that bad GMO wheat or meat from cage-free chickens.
Never mind the fact that the grilling itself places chicken among the highest dietary sources of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” per the US government’s Report on Carcinogens.
Grilled chicken breasts test out at 14,000 ng of HCAs per 100g. A well-done beef hamburger is only 130 ngs for that same amount. That means the chicken was over 100x higher.
Is GMO wheat bad for you? Is it causing gluten intolerance?
The answer to both of these questions is a definitive no. This is because there is actually no GMO wheat flour or bread in existence. None is grown commercially in the USA, at least not yet.
So wheat is safe, but what might not be is the acrylamide from burnt wheat and other carbs like potatoes. It’s a Group 2A probable carcinogen according to the World Health Organization.
That’s the exact same cancer risk ranking as the most widely used pesticide, glyphosate (2). So why does the acrylamide get a free pass in your diet, but the glyphosate does not?
Those browned and grilled markings on your organic bread are chock full of acrylamide. Are Panera sandwiches healthy?
These other things should be of much greater concern than the potential disadvantages of GMO vs. organic. Among the types of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are found in food, benzo(a)pyrene is a Group 1 carcinogen, which is the absolute highest/worst ranking.
Unwashed plants can have it from their environmental exposure, but with meats, you actually create it with certain cooking methods, often times those involving blackening and charring over an open flame (3):
The World Health Organization’s Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Selected Pollutants reports the following:
“For the average American diet, the intake of carcinogenic PAHs was estimated to be 1–5 µg/day, with unprocessed grains and cooked meats the greatest sources of the compounds.”
The unprocessed grains is a rather easy fix though:
“However, the PAH load on leafy vegetables and grains can be removed by washing.”
That’s because the plants themselves don’t naturally have PAHs, they just get it from pollution. But with certain cooking methods of meats, you are actually creating PAHs in them.
What do GMOs do to your body, if anything, is unknown. We do know though what a Group 1 carcinogen can do! You may be eating a lot of benzo(a)pyrene daily when you don’t have to be. That should warrant greater concern, but the masses don’t think that way. They follow the hype, without studying the science.
Are non-GMO foods better? The masses will tell you they are, but you are about to discover why they might be worse for you than the same grains which are genetically modified.
Yes, that sounds totally crazy, but in a moment it will make complete sense to you.
Are non-GMO and organic the same?
The USDA does not allow genetically engineered food to qualify as being organic. For that reason, organic will always be non-GMO. However, non-GMO does not have to be organic.
In fact, often times it’s not organic.
You will often see many processed “health” brands slap an oversized Non-GMO Project Verified seal on the front of their packaging, to draw attention to that advantage, so you don’t notice the disadvantage of it being non-organic.
But that’s not the reason they may be less healthy for you. To understand the pros and cons of GMO vs. non-GMO and organic, you need to think like a farmer as to their motive for using these frankencrops. That will help you see the potential human health risks involved with each method of farming.
Advantages of GMO
Depending on the crop, it will be engineered to have greater resistance to insects, mold, and/or viruses. However, herbicide tolerance is the number one most sought after GM trait (4).
Yes, that’s right. By making a crop tolerant to a specific herbicide, the farmer can spray even more of it! The herbicide kills the weeds, but not the GM crop.
Sold under the brand name Roundup, glyphosate is a broad spectrum herbicide which Monsanto has been peddling since 1974. Over 40 years later, by a landslide glyphosate is still the most popular pesticide in the US (5).
Like two peas in a pod, Monsanto sells their “Roundup Ready” brand of genetically modified seeds for farmers to use with their Roundup pesticide.
But just because the plant can now withstand the chemical better, does that mean more is being used on them?
Setting aside for a moment the potential dangers of glyphosate (we will get to that in a moment) the advantage of a GMO crop is that not only is it resistant to the herbicide, but less has to be sprayed if it’s also engineered to be resistant to parasites.
It’s been recommended to spray (6):
- Non-GMO soybeans
- Non-GMO canola
- Sugar cane
- Dry beans
Did you catch that? They recommend it for non-GMO soy!
Many of the engineered soybeans already have good resistance and hence, less Roundup/glyphosate is needed.
So you would think that farmers would spray more on Roundup Ready crops, but it turns out they actually need less.
The big non-GMO disadvantage
Since these plants have not been designed to be more resistant to insects, mold, fungus, and viruses, often times farmers have to spray them even more!
That means you can eat GM foods with less chemicals, or non-GM with more chemicals.
Quite the quandary, right? Both options sound like they are bad for you, but which is worse?
For many, the answer is largely subjective, based on which of those you perceive to be less healthy or more dangerous.
Really though, the answer should be based on what’s safe to eat, or should we say safer.
Option 1: non-GMO with more glyphosate
In the US, 94% of soybeans and 93% or corn have had their genomes tinkered with (7).
That means only 6% of soy and 7% of corn is non GMO. Out of that, only a fraction will be certified organic.
Before even getting into the health concerns, you may have financial concerns when it comes to buying foods made with these two crops, since they will inevitably be more expensive.
True, tortilla chips are only marginally higher – like a buck a bag. The cost difference with soy milk is negligible too, but very few beans are used to make that drink.
When it comes to fresh produce, it’s a different story. With corn on the cob or raw edamame, the difference in price can easily be 200% or even 300% higher for the natural varieties.
What about wheat and oats? We already mentioned how all wheat on the market today is natural and non GMO oatmeal brands will be all of them, because oats haven’t been tinkered with yet, either.
So when a box of plain oats or 100% durum wheat pasta has the Project Verified seal, you shouldn’t be impressed by that. Of course oatmeal is non GMO!
Glyphosate = “probably carcinogenic”
Did you know that in 2015, the World Health Organization slapped a 2A rating on glyphosate, which corresponds to “probably carcinogenic in humans.”
In May 2016 they did try backpedaling from that a bit, in a joint meeting with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the two said it “is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure” (8).
Not exactly a ringing endorsement considering the 2A classification is in effect and you’re not hearing talk of downgrading that.
Plus, the joint WHO/FAO meeting notes were specifically about glyphosate. It was not in reference to the glyphosate-containing formulations which exist, some of those are especially scrutinized for possibly being causes of cancer.
What is the half-life of glyphosate?
Up to 197 days in the soil, but the typical field half-life has been suggested as being 47 days. In the water, it can range from a few days all the way up to 91 days (9).
This is a lot longer than the average seen with those other herbicides profiled above. That means glyphosate – and the crops which use more of it like grains – deserve extra scrutiny.
So how long is glyphosate on food? The half-life on food is what matters and the answer to that question is shocking:
“Glyphosate was not included in compounds tested for by the Food and Drug Adminstration’s (FDA) Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program (PRMP), nor in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP).”
Cancer risk aside, it’s worth noting…
- Fish develop celiac disease like symptoms when exposed to glyphosate (10).
- Cows fed Roundup Ready feed experienced “severe depletion” of manganese, an essential mineral. The researchers noted the potential impact manganese might have on neuropathologies like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression, and autism (11).
- Kidney malfunction causing hyperkalemia (excess potassium) associated with glyphosate potassium poisoning (12).
- In a 2 year study where rats were exposed to a chronic “ultra-low dose” of glyphosate-based herbicides, liver and kidney damage resulted (13).
- Chronic kidney disease has been linked to well water contaminated with it (14).
That list is just a small sampling of disturbing research which has recently been published.
That sums up your first option… no genetic tinkering, but possibly lots of this nasty chemical. Which do you prefer?
Option 2: GMO with less glyphosate (or none)
“Best” may not be the most appropriate word choice here, but the best GMOs have a high resilience against disease and infection. This means a lot less spraying is needed, which is part of the reason why farmers are willing to pay up big bucks for the specialty seeds… it saves them money on sprays.
Higher nutritional value
Some plants are modified for boosting a specific nutrient or aspect of taste.
For example, GM canola cooking oil has higher laurate. Better known as lauric acid, that’s why coconut oil is considered a superfood.
Unlike the long chains (LCTs), a medium chain fatty acid (MCT) is metabolized almost immediately, similar to a carb. That makes it great for energy, unlike a slow digesting long chain, which might not be metabolized until many hours after eating it.
With 42% content, coconut is among the highest lauric acid foods. The modified canola oil is a 10 to 40% concentration (15).
Setting aside the other potential bad stuff, the actual lauric acid created is identical molecularly to natural sources. There’s literally no difference. This fat is a very basic and simple structure, consisting of a 12-carbon atom chain. There’s zero genetic information encoded in it.
Are genetically modified foods bad for health is something you can only link to other potential disadvantages. However you cannot dispute whether a nutrient they create as a result – like lauric acid – is unhealthy or bad relative to the naturally occurring. It’s an advantage, at least on its own before other considerations of the tweaked plant.
Likewise, some GM soybeans produce more oleic acid (16). That’s an unsaturated omega 9 fatty acid which is a main component of olive oil.
Not classified as carcinogenic
Notice we said not classified as such.
Does GMO corn cause cancer? The research to date does not support that, nor does it for soy. In fact, there’s not evidence to suggest any GM seed, grain, vegetable, or fruit is a carcinogen (17).
It may very well be possible that in the future, they could be found to be cancer causing agents. But there’s no proof to support or even suggest that today.
You may have heard GMOs cause cancer in rats. Known as the “Séralini affair” it was a highly flawed study (18):
- Too few rats were used.
- Control group did not use a comparable diet.
- Sprague Dawley were used, a type of albino lab rat which already has a higher rate of cancer.
This is why that study was retracted afterward.
That study was years and and to this very day, you still hear many health blogs claiming epic rates of “huge growing tumors” gone “out of control” in rats based on that retracted study.
Without any others, it means there’s no proof of cancer from GMO foods in rats, humans, or any other animals.
Even the World Health Organization, the same body who slapped the “probably carcinogenic to humans” label on glyphosate, currently says this (19):
“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”
Could this change in the future? Absolutely. But the bottom line is that based on the studies as of today, you should be much more concerned about the glyphosate rather than the possibility of GMO food causing cancer. In fact, the latter may actually be safer and less likely to cause cancer if their engineering allows for less glyphosate to be used.
Even more than both of those concerns, we would recommend you consider the studies about the possibility of mobile phones and wifi causing cancer (the 2016 study is alarming).
Other side effects
If you want to make the argument that GMO food is unsafe, you should hinge your argument on the potential for non-cancer side effects.
You saw the statement above from WHO that genetically modified is safe, but we all have to be humble enough to admit we don’t know what we don’t know.
That holds true for everything in life, but especially when we are playing God by essentially creating new plant species with the introduction of foreign DNA that would not and could not occur in nature.
Likewise with GMO animals. The AquAdvantage salmon is created using a hormone-regulating gene from a fish it would not propagate with in nature.
They might actually be 100% safe, but how can we know with a high level of certainty, when we don’t even understand the causes of most diseases and other basic things in life?
For that reason, it’s worth veering on the side of caution and that is the bigger argument for not buying or eating GM. In terms of potential side effects in humans, the body of evidence to support those is quite limited right now.
They are safe according to 88% of AAAS scientists members (American Association for the Advancement of Science). That statistic is from a Pew Research poll (20).
After a decade long EU funding of GMO research, spanning from 2001 through 2010, the commission said (21):
“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”
But if you get more granular in the risks, there are some which have a lot more compelling evidence.
GMO allergies are not a myth
Modification can be used to remove protein allergens, or it can be used to introduce them.
In the 90’s, the company Pioneer Hi-Bred sought to boost the nutritional value of soybeans by using a gene from the Brazil nut. Based on allergy testing, they found the newly created soy was indeed a trigger in those who had tree nut allergies (22).
in 2005, the Australians modified a pea which later was found to cause an allergic reaction in mice (23).
Both of those disasters were discontinued, but you can’t always close the door on Pandora’s box.
Dangers of genetically modified food for animals
The Cry9C protein is found in GMO corn which is only approved for animals, but it has shown up in human food sources.
Only StarLink maize contains Cry9C and it’s only approved by the EPA for use in animal feed. Yet, Kraft Foods had to recall their Taco Bell-branded shells (sold at the grocery store) because they contained it. This scandal in the year 2000 led to a $60 million settlement to Taco Bell franchisees (for damage of the brand). Mission Foods as well as Kellogg’s had to temporarily shut down factories as precautionary measures, too (24).
Among the medical complaints filed by consumers after this scandal, the CDC determined up to 28 may have been related to the StarLink consumption. With the evidence literally eaten and time having passed, if StarLink was that cause it could not be proven or dis-proven.
Two very disturbing questions
- Crop pollen travels for miles through the air. What’s stopping a GM crop that’s only deemed acceptable for animals, like StarLink, from having it pollen blow and contaminate human consumed crops?
- The potential for new food allergies is very real when genes are being transferred from one species to another, as proven by the soybean/Brazil nut debacle.
Both options are unappealing to say the least, but you need to weigh the pros and cons choose the lesser of the evils. Are GMO foods bad if and when they involve using less glyphosate? No, at least on a relative basis because glyphosate is the biggest danger.
For that reason, conventional GMO crops may actually be healthier, since less glyphosate may be used on them. It may not be comfortable to admit, but it’s the truth… this is a potential health advantage that the frankencrops have going for them.
If that dubious chemical ever jumps from the current Group 2A to the Group 1 (meaning it would be considered definitely a cause of cancer), that might mean eating GMOs are safe to eat even more so than their natural counterparts.
Make no mistake about it, we are not pro-GMO. But the disadvantages with them are more macro in nature, unrelated to your individual health risk, at least for now.
Because as of today, the issues of animal crop contamination and food allergies caused by GMOs are still rare occurances. And to be perfectly blunt, we may be screwed no matter what in those regards.
Why? Because the beast has already been let loose. Even if every single person stopped eating GMs, they’re still used for animal feed. Even if that was stopped, guess what? The seeds and their DNA are already out there in the environment. You can’t close this door after opening it.
Though stopping further development of new crops remains a good idea.
Rather than be used for the entire world’s food supply, GM crops and animals should be studied in limited populations (with their consent, of course) before they are deemed safe for everyone.
Not just for 10 or 20 years, either.
God’s creative processes took place over exponentially longer periods of time than us humans have even been around. Yet the FDA approved GMO salmon for sale to the general public, merely 5 years after the application.
Even though there isn’t proof that GMO is unsafe, like good ol’ Rummy Rumsfeld might say, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
He may have lied about Iraq, but at least that famous phrase was truthful. Why are we lying to ourselves about these unknown unknowns?
As stated above, even though buying organic should be a low priority for many foods, it’s still a priority or preferred option nonetheless. Grains above others because of their higher glyphosate usage. For veggies you will cook and berries you can de-thaw, try the organic frozen since they are more nutritious and less expensive.
But whether it’s grains, veggies, or meats, rather than worry about organic vs. GMO, you should probably be focusing more on advanced glycation end products created during cooking. Why people continue to obsess of parts per million of pesticides, while turning a blind eye to this other dietary risk which has more evidence behind it, is truly mind boggling. Especially since avoiding it is basically free, unlike the expense of buying organic.
Maybe it’s ignored because grilled and fried foods taste so good, so people just don’t want to hear it. The barbecue is as American as the 4th of July and eating apple pie. To propose anything else is heretical in the eyes of many.
The vegans are guilty, too. Here in Los Angeles, it seems like every plant-based restaurant has a high amount of grilled items on their menu.
Or maybe this risk is ignored because “genetically modified” sounds scarier and therefore generates more headlines?
If you buy organic, it will be non-GMO and not intentionally sprayed with glyphosate.
Though both of those things remain a problem regardless – there is still GM pollen in the air and pesticide contamination from nearby fields – which means even your USDA certified organic grains, fruits, and vegetables are not as safe and pure as you thought.