Transgenic Food: Functions and Potential Risks

Many people wonder whether transgenic foods are healthy. In this article, we'll answer all of your questions.
Transgenic Food: Functions and Potential Risks

Written by Editorial Team

Last update: 14 June, 2023

Transgenic foods, also called genetically modified (GM) foods, are those created by combining genes from different organisms through recombinant DNA technology.

This is usually applied mainly to fruit and vegetable crops, which undergo modifications in terms of growth, resistance, size, taste, and nutritional values. This technology is now seen as a key tool for addressing global food problems.

However, these foods have not been without controversy and concern. While some highlight their potential benefits, others question their safety for human health and the environment. So, what should you know about them? We’ll tell you more about the functions and possible risks of transgenic foods in this article.

Transgenic foods: What are they and what are their functions?

Transgenic foods contain a DNA alteration in their composition to achieve certain preconceived characteristics. Through genetic engineering, scientists transfer a gene from one organism to another to give it qualities that it doesn’t have under normal conditions.

According to a review in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, the first time it was known that DNA could be transferred between organisms was in 1946. Subsequently, in 1983, the first genetically modified plant was produced using an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant.

In 1994, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a transgenic tomato variety, the modification of which helped delay ripening after harvesting. Since then, genetic engineering has continued to work in this area and today it’s applied to several food species.

According to the above-mentioned source, some of the transgenic foods that are available on the market include the following options:

  • Soybeans
  • Potatoes
  • Canola
  • Cotton
  • Eggplant
  • Carrots
  • Tomatoes
  • Lettuce
  • Melon

However, as a National Library of Medicine publication makes clear, the process by which transgenic foods are created differs from selective breeding. The latter involves the selection of plants or animals with the desired characteristics and their breeding; thus, an offspring with the desired traits is sought.

In contrast, by applying genetic engineering to food, it’s possible to select a specific gene to implant. This not only prevents the generation of undesired traits, but also facilitates the creation of foods with new characteristics.

To date, transgenic foods approved by the FDA for human consumption are those of plant origin. There are no genetically modified animals approved for use as food.

The potential benefits of GM foods

For a long time – and even up to the present day – alarmist ideas were spread about the consumption of GM foods. The main controversies surrounding their cultivation and consumption have to do with their safety for human health and the environmental impact they generate.

And although this is an issue that continues to be debated, the reality is that in 25 years of commercial production, it hasn’t been possible to prove that they’re dangerous for our health. On the contrary, advances in biotechnology in this area have even led to some benefits that are now recognized.

A publication in the journal Nature highlights that the benefits of genetic engineering in agriculture include the following:

  • Increased food security
  • Increased crop yields
  • A reduced need for pesticide use
  • Medical benefits for the world’s growing population
  • Increased crop resistance to pests and diseases
  • A reduced costs in food and drug production
  • Improvements in the nutritional composition and quality of some foods

In addition, advances have been made in the development of crops that mature faster and tolerate aluminum, boron, salt, and environmental conditions such as drought and frost. In other words, genetic engineering is playing an important role in solving the conditions that impede crop growth.

Other benefits worth mentioning are the following:

  • Foods that are more attractive to consumers. This is because they’re less likely to turn brown or bruise.
  • Improved flavor.
  • Increased shelf life and thus decreased waste.

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The potential risks of GM foods

Talking about the potential risks of GM foods is often controversial. The truth of the matter is that opinions are quite divided and both proponents and opponents have their own arguments. Let’s take a look at what this discussion is about.

The main concerns about genetically modified organisms have to do with how they affect the consumer and how they impact the environment. In fact, in addition to this, there are economic and social consequences.

Through a publication from Science In The Newsof Harvard University, it’s explained that nutritional differences, allergic responses, possible toxicity, or gene transfer are the reasons why it’s believed that they can cause a negative impact on human health.

According to the document, these concerns have been discussed in more than 100 research studies in which the effects of conventional foods have been compared with genetically modified foods.

And although the results are mixed and have been taken into account in the regulation of these foods, health entities such as the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization have concluded that GMOs are safe for consumers.

But what are these potential risks? Why so much controversy with their presence in the market? We’ll answer these questions below.

Allergic reactions

There’s a small chance that GM foods may cause allergic reactions if the genetic change triggers the production of an allergen. In this regard, a publication in National Center for Biotechnology Information notes the following:

“One of the most frequently mentioned risks about transgenic crops is the possibility of ‘unnatural’ changes in the proteins or metabolic pathways of the plant, resulting in the unexpected production of toxins or allergens in foods.”

To exemplify, this can occur if engineers combine a gene from a Brazil nut with one from soybeans. If so, a person with a nut allergy may experience an allergy when eating products made with the genetically modified soybean.

However, as an article in Harvard University’s Science In The News explains, this is like any allergy; if the allergic person is exposed to the allergen, he or she will have an allergic reaction.

Even so, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are subject to strict regulation in an attempt to reduce these risks. Thus, not only are crops monitored, but companies are required to specify on labels whether a product has GMO derivatives.

With proper oversight, the technology used to engineer transgenic crops need not cause more allergic responses than conventional breeding. On the contrary, it’s expected to help overcome some of the toughest challenges to food safety.

~ Charles Xu, Science In The News, Harvard University ~

Cancer risk

As detailed in a review shared via Current Oncology, there are animal studies suggesting that the consumption of GM foods is causally linked to carcinogenesis. One of the arguments is that avoiding GMOs in one’s diet prevents the development of cancer.

However, there’s not enough scientific evidence to confirm this. On the contrary, this same publication, as well as entities such as Cancer Research UK point out that there are no studies that prove that genetically modified foods cause cancer in humans.

There are no good explanations as to how these foods can lead to cancer. When it comes to avoiding this disease, dietary recommendations include prioritizing the consumption of nutritious, fresh foods and limiting the amount of ultra-processed foods you consume.

Risk of toxicity

In 2009, animal research shared through Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition associated the consumption of GMOs with an increased risk of liver, pancreatic, renal, and reproductive toxic effects. However, to date, these effects have not been proven in humans.

On the other hand, advances in genetic engineering have reduced the risk of toxicity of some substances, since they have reduced the need for farmers to use aggressive pesticides and herbicides.

Resistance to antibiotics

This is perhaps one of the most debated effects of transgenic foods. Some GMOs have alterations that render plants resistant to antibiotics. Hence, it’s hypothesized that their consumption in both humans and animals may lead to resistance.

In this regard, a report shared through the Academics Review noted that the likelihood of such effects is very low. Regarding this, it stated the following:

“Current medical opinion is that antibiotic markers used in marketed cultures pose no risk of infectious disease.”

However, there are those who believe that this minimal resistance should not be underestimated. In an opinion piece shared in Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease, Tore Midtvedt argues:

“The history of antibiotics contains many examples of resistance that were initially reported as ‘rare events’ and then became nightmares around the world. So, in this context, a ‘rare event’ is certainly not so rare as to be ruled out.”

What is the impact of GM foods on the environment?

The impact of GM foods on the environment varies depending on the local conditions of the growing area. As with their effects on health, there are pros and cons that are debated and studied.

Potential benefits

The advancement of genetic engineering continues to progress and with it its contributions to reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture. In a comprehensive report shared by PG Economics, agricultural economist Graham Brookes highlights the economic and environmental benefits of genetically modified crops.

Collecting data from 1996 to 2020, the paper highlights the following environmental benefits:

  • Decreased greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. This allows farmers to adopt more sustainable farming practices. It’s estimated that in 2020, transgenics avoided the emission of 23.6 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide.
  • Reducing the need for the application of phytosanitary products. It’s estimated that farmers have minimized the environmental impact associated with crop protection practices by up to 17.3%. In other words, the need to use herbicides and pesticides has decreased.

In addition, many of these crops are easier to transport and store. Since their characteristics have been improved, they also have a longer shelf life and therefore generate less waste.

The application of genetic engineering in food is promising in the fight against climate change and weather phenomena that are affecting crops and production.

Disadvantages

A report shared by the World Health Organization (WHO) highlights the following environmental concerns about GM crops:

  • Increased risk of cross-breeding; i.e., genes from genetically modified foods being passed on to other crops.
  • Loss of biodiversity due to the reduction of other plant varieties.
  • Increased use of chemicals in agricultural practices.
  • Negative impact on wildlife.

Frequently asked questions and answers about genetically modified foods

Due to the large amount of information that has been spread about genetically modified foods, there are many doubts regarding their presence in the market, their cultivation, their impact on health, and other issues. Below, we will briefly answer some of the most frequent questions.

1. How can transgenic foods be identified?

In European Union countries, the regulation obliges producers to inform consumers if food is transgenic. This can be found on labels.

In addition, in the United States, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard makes it mandatory since 2018 to label transgenic products with labels such as “bioengineered derived” or “bioengineered”.

2. What are the most common transgenic foods?

In countries such as the United States, the main transgenic products include the following options:

  • Sugar beets
  • Summer squash
  • Cotton
  • Apples
  • Canola
  • Soybeans
  • Corn
  • Potatoes
  • Alfalfa
  • Papaya

It’s worth mentioning that many of these are used as basic ingredients in other products, such as corn syrup, cornstarch, vegetable oils, sauces and dressings, bakery products, and sugar derived from beets, among others.

3. Which transgenic foods should be avoided?

Despite being a very controversial topic, there is no evidence at present that transgenic foods on the market cause harm. Therefore, there are none that should be avoided. Before being marketed, they are subjected to strict tests in which their safety is evaluated.

Like this article? You may also like to read: Are there Benefits to Genetically Modified Food?

4. Are genetically modified foods a solution to world hunger?

One of the claims that have been made about genetically modified foods is that they can help solve the problem of world hunger; however, this idea is far from reality.

While it’s true that these crops have the potential to satisfy the large consumer demand, and also contribute to meet some nutritional needs, the path to eradicate hunger is much more complex.

A publication in Education, National Geographic Society, explains that GM foods are not a panacea against world hunger. The main cause of hunger is the unequal distribution of high-quality food among the poorest communities.

Added to this is the fact that GMOs are controlled by the private sector. Through patents, large private companies have genetic engineering to their advantage, limiting access in truly poor areas.

Genetically modified crops were not created because they’re productive, but because they’re patentable. Their economic value is not to help subsistence farmers feed themselves, but to feed more livestock to the rich who are already overfed.

5. What is the difference between organic and GM foods?

The main difference between organic and GM foods has to do with the method of cultivation. Organic foods use procedures classified as ‘ecological’, which use natural substances. In other words, the use of herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers is avoided.

They are free of antibiotics, hormones, heavy metal residues, artificial colors and flavors, and GMOs. They’re grown with practices and methods that conserve the soil and its nutrients; in addition, they make rational use of natural resources.

But although it sounds pretty good, access to these is more complicated. First, this is because they are produced in smaller quantities, since they are less profitable and usually present more difficulties associated with pests and diseases. On the other hand, it’s because they tend to be more expensive compared to those grown industrially.

At this point, it should be noted that most natural foods do not fall under the label of “organic”, precisely because of their industrial production, in which both chemicals and technology are used. Even so, they do not use genetically modified seeds.

As pointed out in an article shared by the Health and Food Professionals Association, there are no significant nutritional or health differences between organic and conventional foods. For now, there’s no evidence that one is better than the other, neither in nutritional values nor in taste.

Meanwhile, transgenic foods – as we have mentioned – encompass the use of genetically modified organisms with which better nutritional and organoleptic characteristics are sought. There is no evidence that they cause harm to health; moreover, their crops undergo a strict regulation process by government agencies and are subject to safety tests before being marketed.

What to remember about transgenic foods

The application of genetic engineering in crops has increased plant resistance to environmental conditions that in the past hindered their development. This has facilitated agricultural work to a certain extent. Not to mention the improvement of the physical and nutritional characteristics of foodstuffs.

Even so, it’s a subject that generates controversy and divided opinions. While some praise their contributions to agriculture and nutrition, others fear that transgenic foods may have a negative impact on health and the environment. For now, most studies conclude that they’re safe for human consumption.

However, their long-term health and environmental effects are still under investigation. It’s expected that advances in biotechnology will continue to enable improvements in this type of crop, both at the environmental, health, and socioeconomic levels.

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All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.



The contents of this publication are for informational purposes only. At no time can they serve to facilitate or replace the diagnoses, treatments, or recommendations of a professional. Consult with your trusted specialist if you have any doubts and seek their approval before beginning any procedure.