Genetically Modified (GM) Foods

July 25, 2020

Genetically modified (GM) foods have made a huge splash in the media recently. Prominent campaigners and public interest groups in India and all around the world are actively protesting against the use of GM foods and are trying to bring the issue of genetic engineering to the forefront of the public consciousness.

But what are GM foods?

The term GM foods is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques. A genetically modified organism (GMO)  is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using modern methods. These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired properties such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. This is done by tweaking the genetics of that particular crop plant.

For example, a plant gene which has shown best results for drought tolerance is isolated and inserted into a different plant in order to make it drought tolerant. 

Now, not only can genes be transferred from one plant to another, but genes from non-plant organisms (bacteria, algae, etc.) also can be used. The best known example of this is the use of B.t. genes in corn and other crops. B.t., or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a naturally occurring bacteria that produces proteins that are lethal to insect larvae. B.t. crystal protein genes have been transferred into corn, enabling the corn to produce its own pesticides against insects.

GM crop plants in the Indian market

Besides cotton, genetic engineering experiments are being conducted on maize, mustard, sugarcane, sorghum, groundnut, chickpea, rice, tomato, brinjal, potato, banana, papaya, cabbage, cauliflower, oilseeds, castor, soyabean and medicinal plants.

Experiments are also underway on several species of fish. In fact, such is the  desperation that scientists are trying to insert Bt gene into any crop they can lay their hands on, without knowing whether that would be desirable or not.

Before you think of having GM foods, it is very important to consider the advantages and disadvantages especially with respect to its safety. Though researchers and the manufacturers make sure that there are various advantages of consuming these foods, a fair bit of the population is entirely against them.

The so called ‘benefits’ of GM foods

GM foods promise to be advantageous because of the following traits:

  1. Pest resistance

Growing GM foods can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost

of bringing a crop to market.

  1. Herbicide tolerance

Crop plants genetically-engineered to be resistant to herbicide can help prevent environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed.

  1. Food security

With the ever rising world population and decreasing cultivable land, there is an uncertainty regarding food security. As GM crops have shown to tolerate harsh environmental and terrestrial conditions, bulk growth can be ensured. 

  1. Disease resistance

There are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases and genetically modified plants are resistant to these diseases.

  1. Cold tolerance

Unexpected frost can destroy sensitive crops. An antifreeze gene from cold water fish has been introduced into plants in order to make them tolerate cold temperatures.

  1. Drought tolerance/ Salinity tolerance

GM plants can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater.

  1. Nutrition

Some genetically engineered foods are reported to be high in nutrients and contain more

minerals and vitamins than those found in traditionally grown. 

These crops have also been reported to possess improved shelf life thereby eliminating storage issues. They are also considered to be remunerative for the farmers.

Cons, risks and controversies of GM foods

Numerous concerns have been raised against the use of GM foods with respect to their potential hazards and regulatory oversight. The disadvantages of using these modified varieties fall into the following 3 categories-

  • Environmental hazards
  • Health risks (food safety, health problems-antibiotic resistance and allergies )
  • Economic concerns

Environmental hazards

Use of GM foods is not  yet  proven  to  be  completely  safe  for the environment. The early warnings of environmentalists about the negative impacts of genetically modified (GM) plants are being proven correct. We are now observing the following serious problems:

Increased Herbicide Use: The widespread cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant crops has pushed up the use of herbicides such as glyphosate. Ingestion of this herbicide can cause increased saliva, burns in the mouth and throat, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Moreover, scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the WHO evaluated fewer studies and reported that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic.

Superweeds: The use of specific herbicides with GM herbicide-tolerant crops has led to the evolution and spread of ‘superweeds’ or weeds that can no longer be killed by those herbicides. In the past 20 years, 37 weed species have developed resistance to the herbicide glyphosate.

Superpests: Some insects have developed resistance to the toxins in GM insect-resistant crops.

Contamination: Contamination from GM plants has serious ecological, economic and social impacts.

Biodiversity Loss: The use of some GM crops can have negative impacts on non-target organisms and on soil and water ecosystems. For example, the expansion of GM herbicide-tolerant corn and soy has destroyed much of the habitat of the monarch butterfly in North America.

Gene  Spilling:  There  could  be  dramatic effects  of  the  release  of  pollens  from  the genetically altered plant into the wild varieties.

Cross-Pollination:  There  is  a  difficulty  in distinguishing the difference between GM and non  GM,  because in cross-pollination  the pollens  travel a  long  distance  and can  easily contaminate an organic field.

There is also a strong  risk of  the  loss  of  Biodiversity. As, when we remove a pest, we also  remove a potential source of food for another organism; thus disturbing the whole food chain.

Health risks

The biggest threat caused by GM foods is that they can have harmful effects on the human body. It is believed that consumption of these genetically engineered foods can cause problems due to the following reasons:

  • GM foods can be unsafe

There are many reasons which show that the GM plants can cause unique dangers. GM foods are prepared by alteration of genes which cause mutations. The genetic material in soybean that makes them herbicide tolerant is transformed into the human gut bacteria and continues the function. This shows that eating GM crops can cause foreign GM proteins to express inside our gut.

  • GM diet can cause a cancer causing reaction in the digestive tract

The 1st crop submitted to FDA (food and drug administration)- tomato shows evidence of toxin. Out of 20 female rats that were fed GM tomato, seven developed stomach lesions. 

  • GM food can cause liver damage

Rats fed on GM potatoes had smaller and partially atrophic liver. Rats show liver lesions and other indications of toxicity when they were fed by GM corn.

  • GM food can cause animal death and organ damage

The mice fed with roundup ready soy had produced significantly less digestive enzymes and cancer. In rats fed with GM potato enlarged pancreases were seen. GM-fed animals show lesions, toxicity, altered enzymes production or inflammation.

  • GM crops can cause an immune reaction and allergies

Allergic reactions are produced when any foreign particle is detected and interpreted by the immune system. All the GM foods according to their definition have foreign particles that are inserted into the genome. So they provoke allergic reactions when they enter the body. 

GM peas provoked an inflammatory response in mice showing that it may cause a deadly allergic reaction in people. The B.t. toxins produced by GM crops (B.t. maize and cotton) are showing more dangerous toxic reactions than natural varieties.

Besides, as these foods are new inventions, not much is known about their long term effects on human beings. As the health effects are unknown, many people prefer to stay away from these foods. Manufacturers do not mention on the label that foods are developed by genetic manipulation because they think that this would affect their business, which is not a good practice. Many religious and cultural communities are against such foods because they see it as an unnatural way of producing foods. Many people are also not comfortable with the idea of transferring animal genes into plants and vice versa.

Genetically modified food safety has been a controversial issue for a long time. Safety and potential risks, as well as ethical concerns associated with GM food are still debated.

Economic concerns

It is a costly and lengthy process to  bring the  GM foods in  the normal market chain. The large  capital  required  for  the  GM foods  can result in the consolidation of wealth in the hands of few rich industrialists, thus creating a social gap. Higher tariffs are implemented by the authorities over GM food in many cases. The developer of the technology also wants a suitable royalty for  these products,  so  ultimately it is not economically viable for the small farmers to purchase these seeds.

Since we are at a stage of rapid advances in science and technology, it may be worthwhile discussing their impact on food and nutrition security and all the other aspects. It is an utter myth that GM crops will feed the world and that GM crops have consistently increased yields, farmer incomes and reduced pesticide use. Evidence shows that across the globe, genetic engineering has not increased the yield of a single crop.

The World Health Organization cautions that “Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.”

The high-level push to get GM food crops planted in India is bypassing proper processes and procedures in what is a case of “unremitting regulatory delinquency.” Moreover, four high-level reports advising against the adoption of these crops in India are being sidelined:

The ‘”Jairam Ramesh Report: of February 2010, imposing an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal;

The “Sopory Committee Report” [August 2012];

The “Parliamentary Standing Committee” [PSC] Report on GM crops [August 2012]; and

The “Technical Expert Committee [TEC] Final Report” [June-July 2013]).

There are many challenges ahead for governments, especially in the areas of safety testing, regulation, international policy and food labeling with regards to the use of these novel foods.

We at ThriveFNC would advise you to give a wide berth to GM food to avoid causing unintended harm to your health and the environment. The big agriculture’s enthusiasm for this powerful technology doesn’t mean that it’s in the best interest of your health. There really is no need for us to consume GM foods when other options exist.


Ria Jain
Functional Nutritionist

Ria has a Master’s in Nutrition and Dietetics and is in a permanent research mode and keeps the rest of us at iThrive (Previously ThriveFNC) updated with her latest findings in the field of Nutrition. Her articles on iThrive's blog are an expression of her research findings. We really don’t know what we’d do without her support and her focus.

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