a GMO a day keeps the doctor confused.
January 18, 2015 5:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm a medical student and a few of my patients have come in with questions about the safety of GMO / transgenic foods. I have no background in food sciences, and it's been difficult to figure out the current state of research. A lot of what's easily accessible out there seems less than rigorous and highly editorial in one direction or the other. What are some well-respected, well-designed studies and/or books on the subject that I could start with?
posted by saturday_morning to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly as a concerned mother who's peer group is very concerned about what we feed our kids, organic food etc, when I looked into it I couldn't find any good information that wasn't from biased blogs. I hope you find conclusive evidence one way or the other but the water seemed very murky to me.
posted by saradarlin at 6:00 PM on January 18, 2015

As saradarlin says it can be hard to find unbiased information. Genera is a database of peer reviewed original studies, reviews, and meta-analyses of the relative risks of GMO crops. The database is independently funded mostly from individual donors. You can search that for studies that are themselves not funded by companies.

Here (pdf) is an example. At least the authors don't disclose any conflict of interest.
posted by sevenless at 6:12 PM on January 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not an expert on this topic but I found this Slate article and this NY Times story compelling.
posted by kat518 at 6:24 PM on January 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Okay, as a biologist: You cannot make an all encompassing pronouncement about the safety of GMO foods. You seriously can't. And that's because the specifics of what, exactly, have been modified in an individual strain matter. Inserting a gene to produce vitamin A into rice, for example, is not going to hurt you any. It's not going to have any environmental impacts. Worst thing that happens if that gene spreads into wild rice strains is that now local wild rice varieties make some extra vitamin A. On the other hand, personally I am not a huge fan of modifying food crops to increase herbicide or pesticide resistance so that farmers can spray more of those on the crops and increase the yield. This stuff really and truly has to be taken on a case by case basis. Anyone who tells you otherwise is seriously and woefully misinformed.

In general, the GMO strains that are approved to produce food have to undergo rigorous safety testing to make sure that there are no possible side effects of consuming the altered food. (Generally these are animal feeding trials.) This is true even if whatever is being modified is something incredibly unlikely to modify the actual consumed food extracted from the plant, like a hypothetical tomato plant that expresses a slightly different pigment in the leaves but not the fruit. They test that shit like you would not believe, partly because a lot of people are freaked out by the concept of GMOs. My experience is that a lot of the anti-GMO commentary about safetyI see is bullshit fearmongering.

The anti-GMO commentary about ethics, and sometimes the commentary about modified genes escaping into the ecosystem--that has some more weight to it. And certainly companies like Monsanto are capable of using this technology to really fuck with farmers and the economy of food. There's no question about that. But regarding safety, honestly, anything you're going to find in a grocery store is fine. I would happily eat GMO food, and I've eaten cloned beef, too. There's nothing wrong with it.
posted by sciatrix at 6:47 PM on January 18, 2015 [62 favorites]

Your school should have a medical librarian to help with the literature. GL!
posted by cestmoi15 at 7:03 PM on January 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

And Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food

(Sorry for two posts. Hope that helps!)
posted by thesnowyslaps at 7:26 PM on January 18, 2015

I listened to a decent debate recently on the NPR Intelligence Squared podcast-- here's the link.

TLDR: GMO's are fine-- but need to be managed correctly in the farming process to help their positives shine.
posted by Static Vagabond at 7:34 PM on January 18, 2015

Link to a 330-page book, co-authored by genetic engineers Dr John Fagan and Dr Michael Antoniou and researcher Claire Robinson, which you, and/or your patients themselves, can read online or download for free:

GMO Myths and Truths Report
posted by tenderly at 9:30 PM on January 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Good on you for looking for the literature, but don't forget to ask your preceptor/professor/any PCP you have access to on the faculty or at the hospital where you're rotating. If you've had a critical mass of patients asking you, then the doctors you work with definitely have and may be able to help you with the science as well as the best way to communicate it to patients.
posted by telegraph at 4:00 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a PhD in pharmacology (not the same as pharmacy) and I 100% agree with everything sciatrix said.
posted by corn_bread at 5:49 AM on January 19, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. Sounds like I'm far from the only one who feels this way.
posted by saturday_morning at 5:18 PM on January 19, 2015

Response by poster: sciatrix, do you have a source I could read/cite to support what you said about food GMO strains having to undergo rigorous safety testing? Perhaps a summary of those animal feeding trials, or at least what journal(s) they are usually published in?
posted by saturday_morning at 5:20 PM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sure. This page from the FDA's site may be a good place to start. Here is the list of things that the company which made the GMO strain must know about the strain before the FDA will conclude its investigation and approve the strain for human or animal consumption. Here is a list of pieces discussing the sort of information the FDA wants to see from the biotech corporation before it approves a GMO strain; in particular I recommend this set of guidelines for industry if you want to know what the government is demanding specifically.

Here is a sample study of a particular strain of plants that were modified to incorporate a specific chemical that made them resistant to glyphosphate (Roundup). Researchers focused on showing that the compound wasn't getting produced in an unusual way by the plant as well as being nontoxic to mice in vivo at concentrations much higher than would be found in the actual GMO plant. You'll note that the onus is on the corporation to conduct the studies or research from the literature demonstrating that the modifications to the plants are safe for human consumption--that's something people usually complain about, but generally speaking the FDA will also read and critique the methodology, and someone falsifying that data outright (or massaging it) would run into fairly nasty penalties if they were caught. This is about twenty years old, but the approximate methodology shouldn't have changed much.

Did that help? Let me know if you'd like me to search more--this stuff is all pretty tangential to the kind of biology I work with, but it's pretty interesting to know more about the nitty gritty behind the process. And I'm happy to help you look if you'd like to know more about how transgenics are made and how geneticists can control the production of compounds in pretty interesting ways.
posted by sciatrix at 8:55 PM on January 19, 2015

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