The truth about genetically modified foods (or GMOs): Are they safe?

There have been controversies surrounding the safety of genetically modified foods, with some authorities saying they are generally safe for consumption. But are they? Read on to find out.

Image showing a woman holding tomatoes, red bell pepper and broccoli

Key takeaways:

  • GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, result from genetic engineering aimed at enhancing certain traits in plants, and they offer potential benefits like increased crop yield, reduced need for pesticides, and improved resistance to diseases.
  • Biotech companies employ various techniques to modify plant genetics, including gene splicing and CRISPR-Cas9.
  • Although various food and health authorities consider them safe, GMOs, like genetically modified foods, may not be completely safe, as they are associated with health risks like allergic reactions, antibiotic resistance, and toxicity.

Genetic engineering of plants dates back to the 1970s, when scientists were able to make changes that were almost the same as the original crop in a more specific way and in a shorter timeframe.

In 1973, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen developed genetic engineering by inserting DNA (the molecule that carries genetic information) from one bacterium into another. By 1982, the FDA approved the first consumer GMO (genetically modified organism) product resulting from genetic engineering. This was human insulin, used for the treatment of diabetes.

Scientific experiments conducted in the past involved modifying the genetic material of organisms. These early experiments laid the foundation for developing new and advanced techniques in the biotechnology field. Some of the biotechnological methods that have emerged as a result of advancements in genetic modification include:

RNAi: A biological process where RNA molecules inhibit gene expression or translation, leading to the suppression of specific genes.

Trans-grafting: A technique where tissues or organs from one organism are grafted onto another organism of the same or different species.

Cisgenesis/intragenesis: Here, genes are transferred between organisms that can sexually cross-breed, typically without introducing genes from unrelated species.

 Other advanced techniques include Zinc finger and CRISPR/Cas9. These involve the precise modification of the DNA within the genome of an organism.

What does GMO mean?

GMO is an acronym that stands for Genetically Modified Organism(s). These are plants, animals, or microorganisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified or changed in a manner that does not naturally occur through mating or natural recombination.

The technology by which this is achieved is called genetic engineering, gene technology, recombinant DNA technology, or modern biotechnology. Foods that are produced via this technology are known as genetically modified foods.

What are genetically modified foods?

As mentioned earlier, genetically modified foods are foods produced from genetically modified organisms. They are typically crops like corn, soybeans, and cotton. These foods are made through a process that involves the insertion of genetic materials from other species into their DNA.

GM foods have a lot of benefits, such as disease control and allergen elimination through DNA modification. These foods grow faster and have low production expenses due to inherent pest resistance, thereby reducing their reliance on pesticides.

Some genetically modified foods may contain more nutrients, like minerals and vitamins, and they also tend to have a better taste. Their extended shelf life reduces concerns about food spoilage, making them a popular choice among consumers.

Are GMO foods approved in Nigeria?

Yes, genetically modified crops have gained approval for commercial planting in Nigeria. Nigeria has become the second country in Africa to adopt biotechnology crops, South Africa being the first.

In December 2019, the Nigerian government approved pest-resistant cowpea; it was the first GM crop to be approved. The cowpea was created through a collaboration between Nigeria's Institute for Agricultural Research at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria and researchers from the United States and Australia.

According to a report by the USDA, Nigeria has also approved biotech corn for commercial cultivation, signaling its acceptance of genetically modified foods as a viable agricultural solution. This was in January 2024, when Nigeria approved four Tela maize varieties. These varieties have been genetically engineered to enhance their resistance to insects and tolerance to drought.

Are genetically modified foods safe?

Indeed, there has been no report or evidence of the toxicity or adverse health effects of GM foods, but several concerns have been raised about their potential risks.

According to a review done on the safety, risks, and public concerns of GM foods, the potential risks include concerns about health risks for consumers and altering natural processes since the genetic materials of these GM foods have already been modified.

Also, there were issues such as the development of resistant pests and weeds, ecological disruptions, and the transfer of traits to related species. Notably, the benefits of GM foods appear to outweigh the risks. 

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the approved genetically modified foods are safe, and ongoing monitoring is conducted to ensure their safety.[6] The World Health Organization (WHO) has also verified that no adverse effects on human health have been reported from the consumption of GM foods by the general populace in countries where they have received approval.

While organizations like FAO and WHO have found no significant proof of toxicity or side effects from consuming GM foods, further studies are necessary to ascertain the long-term effects.

Health risks associated with GMO products

There are some concerns about the potential health risks associated with GMO products. Even though there has not been strong evidence supporting these risks, a lot of people are still concerned about the effects they may have on the body in the long run. Some of the potential health risks include:

1. Toxicity

According to a review by Dona and Arvanitoyannis, Animal toxicity studies with GM foods have suggested some toxic effects on the liver, pancreas, kidney, and reproductive systems, which may change those animals' hematological, biochemical, and immunological parameters.

2. Allergic reactions

Genetic engineering can introduce new proteins or allergens into foods. "Starlink" maize, which is genetically modified to resist insects by adding genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, is an example of how genetically modified (GM) foods can cause allergies. 

The added gene produces a protein called Cry9c that can trigger strong allergic reactions in people who eat it. Also, changing the natural parts of plants or animals can worsen allergies for those already sensitive.

3. Cancer

The FDA approved genetically engineered recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in 1993 to increase milk production in dairy cows.

However, studies have shown that rBGH-treated cows produced dairy with elevated levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), linked to breast, prostate, and colon cancer growth. Still, there is no good evidence that GM is implicated in the causation of cancer in humans.

4. Antibiotic resistance

Genetically engineered foods may increase antibiotic resistance in disease-causing bacteria, heightening infection risks. Many contain "antibiotic resistance markers" to confirm genetic transfers, potentially rendering crucial antibiotics ineffective.

How to tell that a food produce is genetically modified

When you are at the grocery store and you are trying to figure out if a food product is genetically modified, look for labels that say "non-GMO" or "GMO-free." These labels are like little assurances that the food has not been genetically altered. 

Sometimes, it is not that straightforward, especially if the labeling is not required. In those cases, you might need to do a bit of detective work.

You can check online or even reach out to the company to ask about their ingredients. It is like putting on your investigative hat to make sure you are making the best choices based on what you want for yourself and your family.

Tips to help you and your family make the right food choice

If you are wary of consuming genetically modified food products, there are steps you can take to help you stay away from them:

  1. Read labels. Take a moment to read food labels carefully. Look for products labeled as "non-GMO" or "GMO-free" to avoid genetically modified ingredients.
  2. Choose organic foods. Organic foods are less likely to contain GMOs, as they are produced without synthetic pesticides or genetically modified organisms.
  3. Stay informed. Stay up-to-date on the latest research and developments in the field of genetically modified foods. This knowledge will empower you to make informed decisions about the foods you purchase and consume.
  4. Shop locally. Consider shopping at farmers' markets or directly from local producers. These sources often offer a greater variety of non-GMO options and allow you to ask questions about how the food is grown and produced.
  5. Cook from scratch. Whenever possible, prepare meals from scratch using whole, unprocessed ingredients. This gives you greater control over what goes into your food and reduces the likelihood of consuming GMOs.

By following these tips, you can help ensure that you and your family make healthier and more sustainable food choices.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Are GMOs good or bad?

GMO is not particularly bad because of its benefits in agriculture. Also, there has not been strong evidence of its toxicity. However, there are concerns about the effects it may have in the long run.

Can GMO foods cause cancer? 

As explained in the article, there is no conclusive evidence that links GMO consumption to cancer, but ongoing research aims to assess any potential risks associated with long-term exposure.

Is GMO the same as genetic modification? 

GMO refers specifically to organisms that have undergone genetic modification, whereas genetic modification encompasses various techniques used to alter genetic material.

Is genetically modified food the solution to world hunger?

While GMOs offer potential benefits in addressing food security challenges, factors beyond agricultural productivity, such as distribution and access, also play crucial roles in combating hunger globally.