Health risks posed by genetically modified foods

There is an ongoing controversy regarding whether the consumption of genetically modified food is associated with health risks. Concerns have been raised, among others, that food which contains or is produced by means of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) might prove to be more toxic, more carcinogenic or more allergenic than traditionally manufactured food. In addition to such general health hazards, specific risks which could result from the production process of GMOs are also discussed. Thus it is feared that resistance genes against certain antibiotics, which are introduced as selectable markers in many GMOs together with the genes for the desired properties, may disseminate via horizontal gene transfer, thereby ultimately increasing the occurrence of pathogens resistant to these antibiotics.

In view of the particular political sensitivity of the use of genetic engineering in the food production, not only many studies have been conducted investigating the probability of specific health risks for particular GMOs, but also several statements have been issued by academic organisations trying to assess the general hazards associated with the use of genetically modified food. For instance, the Department of Food Safety of the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded in a review article on modern food biotechnology from 2005 that “GM foods currently available on the international market have undergone risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health any more than their conventional counterparts” (p. 24). A study conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) came to a similar conclusion; it emphasizes the need for a continued risk-assessment.

World Health Organization, Food Safety Department (2005): Modern food biotechnology, human health and development: An evidence-based study. Online Version

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2016): Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Online Version

A memorandum which has been published in 2006 by a commission on green biotechnology of the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities comes to a very similar result. It points out that GMO food underlies strict legal regulations and that it is being tested more comprehensively than conventional food. Because of these tests the risk of GMO food causing allergies could be regarded as even lower than that of conventional products (p. 3).

Union of the German Academies of Science and Humanities, “Kommission Grüne Gentechnik” (2006): Gibt es Risiken für den Verbraucher beim Verzehr von Nahrungsprodukten aus gentechnisch veränderten Pflanzen? Online Version (German)

Over time, various expert reports at the EU level found genetically modified food to be generally safe. A recent report which sums up the findings of EU funded research projects in this field comes to the following conclusion: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and 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.”

European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Biotechnologies, Agriculture, Food (2010): A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001–2010). Online Version

Apart from the committees cited here, several scientific professional associations such as the Royal Society, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science or the World Health Organization, confirm that there is no reason for treating genetically modified food, whose safety has been established by common risk assessment procedures, with more suspicion than conventionally produced food items.

The Royal Society (2014): GM Science Update. A report to the Council for Science and Technology. Online Version

The Council on Science and Public Health (The American Medical Association) (2012): Labeling of Bioengineered Foods. Online Version

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (2012): On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods. Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors. Online Version

World Health Organization (2014): FAQs on genetically modified foods. Online Version

However, there are also voices who object to this apparent scientific consensus. For instance, until the end of October 2013 almost 300 scientists, who are concerned with the study of scientific, legal and social aspects of GMOs use, subscribed to a statement of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) whose central thesis is that in spite of the quoted expert opinions  there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs.

European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) (2015): No scientific consensus on GMO safety. In: Environmental Sciences Europe 27:4. Online Version

Further information:

Lee, T. H. / Ho, H. K.  / Leung, T. F. (2017): Genetically modified foods and allergy. In: Hong Kong Medical Journal 23(3), 291–295. Online Version

Tsatsakis, A. M. / Nawaz, M. A. / Tutelyan, V. / Golokhvasr, K. S. / Kalantzi, O.-I. / Chung, D. H. / Kang, S. J. / Coleman, M. D. / Tyshko, N. / Yang, S. H. / Chung, G. (2017): Impact on environment, ecosystem, diversity and health from culturing and using GMOs as feed and food. In: Food and Chemical Toxicology 107(Pt A), 108–121. Online Version

De Santis, B. / Stockhofe N. / Wal, J.-M. / Weesendorp, E. / Lallès, J.-P. / van Dijk, J. / Kok, E. / De Giacomo, M. / Einspanier, R. / Onori, R. / Brera, C. / Bikker, P. / van der Meulen, J. / Kleter, G. (2018): Case studies on genetically modified organisms (GMOs): Potential risk scenarios and associated health indicators. In: Food and Chemical Toxicology 117, 36–65. Online Version

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