Will those genetically modified soy beans make you sick?

Science-ish looks at the research into GMOs
Photo by Karen Eliot/Flickr

The Statement: “To date, Health Canada has not identified health risks associated with GM foods that have been approved for sale in Canada.” (Stephane Shank, Health Canada spokesperson, 07/05/2011)

Codex Alimentarius Commission—a group of the world’s food safety regulatory agencies—reached consensus last week on new guidelines that will make it easier for food makers to label products with genetically-modified ingredients. The new guidelines are voluntary, though, so don’t expect advertisements about GMOs on the box of your favourite breakfast cereal anytime soon. And part of the reason Canada has not moved to mandatory labeling of GM foods is because, as Stephane Shank put it, “To date, Health Canada has not identified health risks associated with GM foods.”

So, is GM food really safe?

We called Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, a researcher in food distribution and safety at the University of Guelph, to find out. He told Science-ish, “There is no scientific evidence out there that would suggest GM seeds or foods that contain GMOs have health risks to consumers.” Dr. Charlebois did add this note of caution: the key phrase in Shank’s statement was ‘to date.’ “GMOs have only been accessible or readily available to consumers since 1994, so that’s 17 years ago. That’s not a whole lot of time for us to fully appreciate the risks around GMOs.”

Discourse around genetically modified organisms—defined by the WHO as “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally”—has been a political and scientific battlefield. As a 2009 Nature news feature pointed out, “No one gets into research on genetically modified (GM) crops looking for a quiet life. Those who develop such crops face the wrath of anti-biotech activists who vandalize field trials and send hate mail… [Those] who suggest that biotech crops might have harmful environmental effects are learning to expect attacks of a different kind. These strikes are launched from within the scientific community and can sometimes be emotional and personal…”

There’s also the knee-jerk reaction by the public—often reflected in the media—that these food items are borderline ghoulish, unnatural, and therefore potentially harmful to human health. Just think about the coverage of the transgenic “Frankenfish” salmon. The fish was developed decades ago by AquaBounty Technologies to grow faster than naturally occurring salmon, and has been waiting for a final seal of approval from the Food and Drug Administration for years. (Just last week, House lawmakers in the U.S. voted to bar the regulatory body from okaying the Franken-salmon for mass consumption, though the bill still needs to pass through the Senate.)

Despite the political battles and the public’s wariness about these foods, Dr. Douglas Powell, a professor in food safety at Kansas State University who sat on the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC) in the early 2000s, was even less cautious than Charlebois when talking about the potential of GMOs to harm to humans. “(The CBAC) reviewed everything that was out there and there was nothing to show GMOs present a risk to health.” In fact, Dr. Powell has since moved away from researching the subject because, he says, “I got tired of talking about hypothetical risks.”

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’sThe Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at The Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at [email protected] or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto