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Why detect ‘GMOs’ in food?

Corn at the market
Corn at the market

As soon as General Mills buckled under pressure from the irrational anti-GMO forces and said that it would be reformulating Cheerios so it did not contain “GMOs” the pressure groups immediately moved the goalposts and insisted that Cheerios should be certified by the NonGMO Project.

The only ingredients in Cheerios that existed in genetically modified forms were the sugar (which could come from sugar beets) and cornstarch, which could come from GM corn. But there are two problems: neither cornstarch nor sugar contains any genetic material any more: sugar is a pure compound and is the same chemical compound no matter where it is isolated from. Similarly, cornstarch is a pure starch (basically a polymer of glucose) and it contains no genetic material either. In fact, it is far from clear what a "GMO" actually is.

The other, bigger problem is why in the world anyone would care. Every national food safety organization worldwide and every major scientific organization worldwide has concluded that crops produced using GM breeding techniques are no more dangerous than conventional crops.

The anti-GMO pressure group(s) are trying to scare you to death by creating irrational fears about GM crops in spite of the fact that the safety of these crops is settled science, so you will buy the pricier but no more healthy organic-certified crops instead. In fact organic crops are much more likely to be contaminated by E coli than conventional crops.

But if these pressure groups insist that non-GMO certification is required, no matter how irrational, how in the world would the organization detect genetic material that isn’t there anyway? We took at look at their web site and discovered that they don’t just test the final foods: they require that you submit a list of ingredients. So all they do is check your list of ingredients for ones which might have been genetically modified. That’s not really very solid science.

But the idea that there is any solid science behind detecting GMO ingredients, which pose no danger is not very logical either.

Crops are genetically modified to improve insect resistance or to resist specific herbicides. This is not an ingredient you can detect: genetic modification is a process, not an ingredient. And years of research have shown these crops to be completely safe. Genetically modified crops undergo as much as 10 years of testing before they are approved. Conventional crops do no undergo any safety testing.

New GMO Test

An article this week in Digital Journal suggests that there is a new test that can detect GM ingredients in food. The article refers to an article in Analytical Chemistry which claim they can detect the presence of transgenic components in foods. And they can, if there is any genetic material there. But in most cases there just isn’t any, and the test is useless. Not on did Digital Journal (whoever they are) fall for this, the authors of the actual paper try to make you think they’ve done something significant, but they do finally admit it won’t work on processed foods. The ACS publication Lab Manager gets this wrong, too.


There is simply no evidence that transgenic crops pose any harm. Chemically, they are identical, and they have been thoroughly tested during development. There are no credible scientific papers showing any such harm, and as Nicolia showed, there are nearly 2000 showing no harm.

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