Are Genetically Engineered Foods Safe for Human Consumption?

Are Genetically Engineered Foods Safe for Human Consumption?

Over one billion and 10.7% of the world population suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition, respectively, despite increased food production in recent years[1]. Studies speculate that this population will increase in the next few years with the breakneck pace expansion of the human population and the growing climate change[2]. This challenge threatens to exacerbate chronic hunger and malnutrition, which have exponentially increased over the past decade[3].  These predicaments have prompted governments, profits, and non-profits organizations to invest in research to fight chronic hunger and malnutrition and improve food security to cater to the bulging human population through sustained production of quality food. Despite attracting numerous controversies, genetically modified food (GMF) is among the sustainable methods contemporarily viewed as the most viable strategy of solving the current global food crisis, which is a significant threat to the human race[4]. GMF has high nutritional values, contains essential minerals, and has a longer shelf life than conventional foods, making them necessary and safe for human consumption.

Genetic modification of foods entails the artificial transfer of selected genes to food crops and animals to produced desired characteristics[5]. Discovered in the 1940s, gene transfer among organisms is primarily a natural phenomenon existing since antiquity[6]. It is, in fact, an effective mechanism through which bacteria develop antibiotic resistance mechanisms over time[7]. Extensive research studies have enabled scientists to discover several gene transfer mechanisms[8], enabling them to manipulate organisms’ genes to suppress or eliminate undesired traits and produce the desired characteristics, especially in agriculture[9].  Genetic modification of food began in the early 1990s with the production of transgenic flavor tomato, approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA[10]. Since then, genetic modification of food crops to improve food production, nutritional value, adaptation to specific climatic conditions, and resistance to pests, herbicides, and pesticides, has increased[11]. Much of the food consumed in the contemporary world comprises genetically altered elements, although without consumer awareness.

GMFs are primarily recognized for their potential to enhance global food security and nutrition, especially among small-scale farmers in developing countries rural areas.  Proposals suggest that GMF plays a crucial role in improving food quality, safety, and shelf-life, thus emerging as the most sustainable and cost-effective method for farmers and consumers[12]. Besides being environmentally friendly, studies argue that GMFs have numerous benefits to human health and have a high potential of enhancing the quality and quantity of production[13]. GMFs are primarily considered a viable method of improving food production, human nutrition, and food security to cater to the bulging human population[14].  Despite the perceived benefits of genetic engineering in agriculture, GMF’s production and consumption have attracted controversies concerning their safety and consumption consequences in human beings.

As GMFs’ and their derivatives” prevalence continues to increase, there are growing concerns and public interests for reliable information regarding their safety. Most of these concerns generally focus on GMF’s potential effect on the environment and public health[15]. A specific matter is the possible adverse effects on human health upon consumption. These effects may originate from disparities in their nutritional qualities, allergic reactions, or adverse negative effects like organ damage and failure, toxicity, or horizontal gene transfer[16]. With limited studies to address these concerns, many stereotypic perceptions regarding GMF have sprouted, primarily based on religious and cultural beliefs, resulting in misguided and incompetent conclusions on GMFs. Such decisions impede the world’s ability to enhance nutrition and food security to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) on Zero Hunger by 2030[17]. Thus, it is critical to review the available literature to assess and establish GMF’s safety for human consumption to enable the public to make informed decisions based on evidence-based research.

A prominent human health concern cited by antagonists to GMF is that transgenic crops and their food derivatives potentially increase allergens, toxins, and other harmful compounds. However, research studies show that methods and procedures used to determine the contemporary GMFs’ human health safety are appropriate and universally accepted[18]. These conclusions build on the consensus of the scientific evidence-based research survey conducted by the ICSU in 2003. These consensuses are also consistent with the guidelines established by the WHO, 2002. GMFs are fundamentally assessed on increased risks to human health by various national regulatory authorities, including China, Argentina, the USA, and the UK.

Furthermore, foods are classified as GMF if they contain biotechnologically modified DNA. Traditional breeding and mutagens result in changes in the resulting organism genetic makeup, resulting in the crops’ genetic alterations[19]. Conventional or biotechnological introduction of genes to an organism allows it to encode specific proteins[20]. Although some are allergens, proteins are rarely toxic or carcinogenic, thus refuting the claim that GMF potentially increases toxins and harmful compounds in an individual[21]. Surveys show that since the commercial application of genetic engineering in agriculture in the early 1990s, there is a lack of verifiable reports on toxins or nutritionally harmful consequences associated with GMF’s consumption globally[22].  Therefore, the lack of reliable data accentuating the adverse effects related to the consumption of GMFs ascertains these foods’ safety

Through various scientific studies, scientists have demonstrated that GMF is not toxic to animals upon consumption. For instance, to refute the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) claims that GMF potatoes adversely affect rats’ organs, scientists at the National Institute of Toxicological Research in Seoul, Korea, set up an experiment to feed rats with food diet containing GMO potato or non-GMO potato. The histopathological results showed no significant differences between vital organs of rats fed on GMF and non-GMF potatoes[23].  In another research, scientists demonstrated no significant difference in vitality or health of animals eating GMF or non-GMF, even at the microscopic level[24]. Through time testing, scientists have established that GMFs do not result in a buildup of inheritance toxicity effects in any generation, even after multiple generations[25]. Since years of scientific research have demonstrated that rodents are standard models for human health research, these results indeed establish that GMF is not associated with adverse health effects on humans upon consumption[26]. Therefore, GMF is safe for human consumption.

Concerns have also centered around the perception that biotechnologically modified DNA is potentially unstable, resulting in unintentional mutations and subsequently adverse effects on modified crops and the consumers. Gene mutation is often associated with acute diseases such as cancer; thus, mutagenic substances can adversely affect human health[27]. However, it is possible to assess and compare mutagenesis to identify mutation-causing agents, allowing scientists to establish whether certain substances, including food, can increase the mutation rate[28] . Through the Ames test, which can track increased rates of mutations in a living organism caused by substances such as food and chemicals, scientists have demonstrated no correlation between GMF and increased mutation rates in living organisms[29]. Besides, scientists have established that modified DNA is not mutagenic[30]. Thus, it is rational to conclude that genetically modified DNA does not increase consumers’ mutation rate.

Besides mutation, there are growing concerns about the modified DNA’s ability to transfer to the consumer’s DNA and its ability to produce toxic effects. Depending on the degree of food processing, a given individual ingests about 0.1 to 1 g of DNA daily[31]. Thus, FDA considers DNA to be safe[32]. The International Life Sciences Institute reviewed the chemical characteristics, susceptibility to degradation, metabolic fate, and GMF-DNA allergenicity to establish whether DNA from GMF is safe for consumption as DNA from conventional foods [33]. In all cases, they found out that GMF-DNA was remarkably indistinguishable from the DNA of traditional convectional foods. Thus, GMF-DNA is no more likely to be transferred to the consumer than the DNA from conventional foods[34]. Consistent with these finds, others researchers established that GMF-DNA is not detectable in the consumers, despite numerous generations of exposure to the GMF-DNA[35]. These findings stipulate that neither is GMF-DNA transferrable nor does it result in adverse health effects to the consumer, making GMFs safe for consumption.

In conclusion, GMF foods and their derivatives have a high nutritional value, including essential minerals, and have longer shelf life than conventional foods. These qualities make GMFs necessary and safe for human consumption. GMFs are subjected to rigorous testing before mass production and distribution through the “farm to folk” quantum to address environmental and human health concerns.  Governmental and non-profit entities concerned with upholding human rights and dignity have confirmed that GMF’s do not subject the consumers’ health to potentially adverse health side effects. In particular, GMFs do not reduce vitality, damage the consumers’ vital body organs, or exhibit a buildup of toxicity to the immediate consumer generation or across other generations. Indeed, the GMF class of foods is no more likely to result in harmful health effects to the consumer than the conventionally bred and grown food sources. GMF-DNA is, in fact, indistinguishable from the DNA of traditional convectional foods upon ingestion by the consumer. Therefore, although it is arguably logical to conclude that the current GMFs are fit for human consumption, it is essential to analyze each new GMF product to establish its fitness. Ultimately, scientists should continuously research ways to genetically modify crops to increase the production of high-quality nutritional foods to enhance food security and curb malnutrition.

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