Nutrition Myth: GMOs Cause Cancer (Or a Variety of Other Horrible, Scary Things)

Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are probably one of the most controversial, not-actually-controversial-at-all topics out there when it comes to food and food safety. It’s not uncommon to see websites or articles touting the claim that GMOs are inherently bad, unsafe, or unhealthy and that science has proved they aren’t fit for consumption. Many brands have started labeling themselves as “non-GMO,” and some states have considered passing laws that would require foods to label whether or not they contained GMOs.

So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that this is a hotly debated issue. But the truth is, every major scientific organization has officially stated that research has conclusively shown genetically modified food poses no significant health risk to humans. In other words, the anti-GMO movement is about as scientifically credible as anti-vaxxers. (Hint: Not even a little bit credible.)

Let’s start by talking about what genetic modification actually is. In short, it is a process by which genes from one type of food are combined with genes from another type of food in order to create a more genetically desirable crop. In some cases this may mean inserting genes from one type of corn into another type of corn, but it could also mean inserting genes from a type of corn into a type of tomato. Ultimately, regardless of the origin of each set of genes, the goal is to produce a crop that is somehow better than the original version; for example, rice that is more resistant to flooding so that weeds can be drowned out with water, as opposed to pesticides, without harming the rice crop.

Although the latest science has certainly expanded this capability quite a bit, humans have been selectively breeding crops for a very long time (the corn you see today looks substantially different from the corn that grew 500 years ago) and genetic modification is really not that different. Except that with conventional breeding, there is a lot more guesswork involved and therefore a lot more wasted crops in comparison to modern genetic modification. And genetic modification is also significantly more regulated.

So why is this even a discussion? Honestly, it shouldn’t be. But anti-GMO groups will often point to “science” that has proven there are risks to consuming GMOs or animals that have been fed GMOs. And I put the word science in quotes for a reason – nearly all of these studies were either done with questionable scientific methods, have been misinterpreted, or aren’t really studies at all. In fact the most frequently quoted study, which showed that GMO feeding led to cancerous tumors in rats, was retracted by the author because the quality of the science was so poor.

Ultimately, a review of 29 years of GMO studies which amounted to over three trillion meals of GMO crops to livestock concluded that no reputable study has ever shown a significant health risk posed to humans or the animals we eat by genetically modified food.

So we can stop talking about this now. GMOs do not cause cancer, and the health food industry has way bigger fish to fry.


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