by Marion Nestle
Jun 18 2012

GM Myths and Truths: A critical review of the science

I’ve just been sent GMO Myths and Truths, a review of research on claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified (GM) foods.  The authors are Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson, and John Fagan, scholars with critical positions on GM foods.

I’ve been writing about GM foods since the mid-1990s, and am impressed by the immutability of positions on the topic.   As I discuss in my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, the pro-GM and anti-GM advocates view the topic in quite different ways that I call for lack of better terms “science-based” versus “value-based.”

In GMO Myths and Truths, the authors attempt to cross this divide by taking a science-based, heavily referenced approach to dealing with claims for the benefits of GM foods.

On the basis of this research, they argue that a large body of scientific and other authoritative evidence demonstrates that most claims for benefits of GM foods are not true. On the contrary, they say, the evidence presented in their report indicates that GM crops:

  • Are laboratory-made, using technology that is totally different from natural breeding methods, and pose different risks from non-GM crops
  • Can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts
  • Are not adequately regulated to ensure safety
  • Do not increase yield potential
  • Do not reduce pesticide use but increase it
  • Create serious problems for farmers, including herbicide-tolerant “superweeds”, compromised soil quality, and increased disease susceptibility in crops
  • Have mixed economic effects
  • Harm soil quality, disrupt ecosystems, and reduce biodiversity
  • Do not offer effective solutions to climate change
  • Are as energy-hungry as any other chemically-farmed crops
  • Cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes – poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.

Whether or not you agree with these conclusions, the authors have put a great deal of time and effort into reviewing the evidence for the claims.  This is the best-researched and most comprehensive review I’ve seen of the criticisms of GM foods.

Can the pro-GM advocates produce something equally well researched, comprehensive, and compelling?  I doubt it but I’d like to see them try.

In the meantime, this report provides plenty of justification for the need to label GM foods.  Consumers have the right to choose.  To do that, we need to know.

Please let’s just label it.

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  • Fernando

    how dare they make these claims, I agree that the thousands of tests that did not make the cut use more pesticides, or have lesser yields, and all the opposite of these preposterous claims, which would make them true, truth is we have been eating genetically modified foods for more than 2 decades if not more and we are just fine.

  • Matt

    Labeling is not being held back by pro-GM interests. It simply is impossible without some sort of ‘identity preservation’ system (, which is expensive, difficult and would raise the cost of food (if only slightly). No one in the food production chain is going to voluntarily take that on unless they know they have customers who will pay extra for it. The govt won’t require it so long as the evidence continues to demonstrate its safety.

  • Darren Kay

    Wow, this is great! I need to tell my homeopath about it, she told me all the time GMO is a deadly threat to humankind.

    (No, I’m not serious)

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  • Ana Maria

    Just got this from Medscape!!!! terrible don’t you think??? That is why I strongly recommend buying Unprocessed foods from farmers markets only!!!!! easier to live avoiding bodegas and supermarkets…

  • Maurice Hladik

    Check out my blog “The European Union Gives GMOs a “Like”: 500 research groups, 10 years an $425 million later!!

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  • Gabe

    So, I am making my way through the original document and I’m finding some alarming inconsistencies.

    For what is supposed to be a well researched white paper a very small percentage of the sources seem to be peer reviewed. I would be willing to grant them som leeway because they do include governmental and international reports, but still that information is part of the gray literature.

    The authors cite sources for some pro-GM claims, but then when talking about the dangers of GM they omit any sources.

    For example:

    “Even if the GM gene is not directly inserted into a host gene or its control region, its mere presence within an active host gene region can alter the ability of that region of the plant’s DNA to form chromatin (the combination of DNA and proteins that make up the contents of a cell nucleus) structures that influence the ability of any gene in that region to be expressed.”

    According to…? I am unaware of this and I looked in one of my genetics text books that includes a chapter on GM, that is not mentioned. If this is true or is a recent development this needs to be cited.

    I’m not coming down on one side or the other, but (so far) this is falling into the trap of being propaganda on the anti-GM side.

    Again, I’m only through section 1. If things change I will gladly update my observations.

  • Matto

    The healthiest thing anyone can do is freak out as much as possible about everything around them. The stress that this induces helps one “feel alive”.

    Remember, when we grow things like the olden days, everyone will be healthier and live longer, just like back then!

    Locally grown, organic beansprouts anyone?

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  • David A. Mbah

    As a geneticist, I know natural foods from plants or animals that are toxic or allergic to some people. We handle/manage the problem and go ahead with the consumption by those “resistant” to the problem and rejection by those “susceptible” to the problem. Nobody complains. Medicines do not only have positive effects(patients are cured/treated), they also have negative/side effects on the patients. Nobody complains. The problem is “managed”(and accepted) by the patients (who may have no better choice).
    The world is moving to a situation where the population must be fed
    from unexpanding land and increasing population. How do anti-GM supporters intend to solve the problem? Regarding “well researched” reports, have they read the reports from science academies(The Royal Society, UK; IAP study led by German Academies; The US National Academy of Sciences)? Medicare is benefiting from GMO pharmaceutical products(which like food are consumed)w; any complains?
    If electricity and penicillin were discovered today, the anti – GM group would be against their use.

  • Cathie Lippman, MD

    Thank you for your persistence in challenging the “OK-GMO” arguments and on insisting that “science-based” can actually go both ways. That is, value-based can use science to support it.

  • Cathie Lippman, MD

    PS I love the creativity of your logo.

  • NDF

    Unfortunately the report is riddled with incorrect and misleading statements. Important scientific work is missing. Many statements lack citations for verification.

  • JP

    Ah, the real problem is ignored again….

    “”Cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes – poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.””

    TOO MANY HUMANS– the real problem. Poverty, lack of access to food and lack of land are all symptoms, not the problems. GM foods are another attempt to cure the wrong problem. Unfortunately, the world economy requires growth, which requires more people, which ultimately means the humans are doomed. I say enjoy yourselves and stop worrying about future generations (which we are clearly doing as we fill our minivans full of new humans)– as long as we continue to overpopulate, GM food will be the least of our worries.

  • Vikky Firmiya

    @GM Foods,
    No laboratory test in the world could tell you whether food is kosher, but we label it for the obvious reason that some consumers want to know. Many American consumers want to know whether a product was “Made in the USA”, even if there is no evidence that a given product will perform differently based on where it is made. So we label domestic content.

    I consider many of the concerns of the anti-GMO movement to be grounded in mysticism rather than science, but it is still their right, and ours, to be able to make an informed choice. Just because one person thinks there is no practical difference doesn’t mean another person should be deprived of that information.

    The business lobbies that oppose labeling are, ironically, opposing the free market principles they usually claim to support. It is rank hypocrisy. If there are benefits to GMO food, let the marketplace decide what those benefits are worth.

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  • Jesse

    Wow! It is incredible. I have to question your understanding of scientific process, really. Do you understand peer review? Do you understand confirmation bias and cherry picking? Did you ever think to look at the opposing side to these arguments which happen to be held by the vast majority of the scientific community? Am I to believe that you are hurling the extremely large accusation of fraud on the overwhelming majority scientific community? Should I assume that you would not do any simple unbiased research on this subject, a subject that could have dire consequences on millions? With one fell uneducated swoop you will write off the green revolution? The thing that bothers me most is the fact that nobody mentions that our species is healthier, longer living, and has access to the highest quality food at the lowest cost in our history. All of this and there are more people than ever on the planet and fewer are starving. Oh and as to the final comment in this article about no advocate of GMO being able to produce an equally well researched study…… there are literally hundreds all peer reviewed here is just one.


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  • marcbrazeau

    Kosher and Made in the USA are voluntary labels carried out by independent groups.

    There already exists a voluntary GMO Free label. When consumers really want information about products the market responds, as Marion has pointed out.

    But there is no public policy interest at stake that calls for new government regulation and bureaucracy.

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