Are GMOs Making You Sick? 26 Years Later, The Answer Is Still 'No'

By Cameron English — May 20, 2021
The anti-biotech movement continues to warn that consuming GE crops makes people sick. A recent email blast from The Institute for Responsible Technology typifies the latest arguments coming from activist groups. How well do these stand up to the facts?
Image by Daniel Goehring

“Are GMOs making you sick?” That's the question posed by the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) in an alarming April 25 email blast urging consumers “to lead an organic lifestyle and shape the changing marketplace.” More than a thousand studies over the last 25 years have addressed IRT's question. After all that research, the answer is a resounding “no.” There isn't the slightest evidence that genetically engineered crops have caused so much as a headache.

But since people all around the world remain fearful of crop biotechnology, correcting the propaganda released by IRT and other sympathetic groups is worth the effort. How many falsehoods did IRT fit into its email? Let's take a look.

GMOs and rising rates of disease

The email is based on a slickly produced video IRT released in 2019. [1] It began with a series of graphs showing rising rates of diabetes, obesity, sleep disorders, schizophrenia, and a variety of other maladies. These striking increases paralleled the rise in the cultivation of GE crops beginning in the mid-1990s.

The somber-sounding narrator didn't offer an explanation of how consuming GE crops could cause any of these conditions—because there isn't one. “Correlations aren't proof,” the monotone voice concedes. “But consider this: More than 3,250 people reported getting better from 28 conditions after switching to non-GMO and largely organic diets.”

Those numbers came from a 2017 online survey conducted by IRT's founder Jeffery Smith. Participants were subscribers to his email list. We could surgically refute every conclusion from the six-question survey, but the anti-biotech activist group GM Watch covered the key flaws when it reported on the study four years ago:

Smith admits in his paper that this was a “self-selecting survey of a non-representative sample of the population.” He explains, “IRT is a leading advocacy group that educates people on the health dangers of GMOs. The results of this survey are therefore limited to a population that is already aware of GM crops and has been exposed to information about the negative health impacts. Some percentage of the respondents may be biased towards attributing health improvements to the elimination of GMOs based on expectations.”

In other words, the results were likely due to recall bias or the placebo effect; people with a preexisting health condition and a fear of biotech crops attributed their improvement to switching to a non-GMO or organic diet. We can't know either way, of course. Asking people if they experienced “Some Mild Improvement, Moderate Improvement, Significant Improvement, Nearly Gone, or Complete Recovery” after going organic is a non-starter. There's no way to quantify those outcomes or verify that they actually occurred.

This was no problem for GM Watch, though:

But in view of the scientifically proven power of the placebo effect, what’s not to like about the non-GMO diet? After all, it appears to be remarkably efficient at harnessing this phenomenon, with the end result that people feel better.

That would be fine. However, Smith wasn't trying to confirm the power of the placebo effect in 2017; he was trying to throw shade on GE crops. It's the same thing he's trying to do today. But he can't ignore more than two decades of evidence because his newsletter subscribers said organic food improved their “memory and concentration,” for example.

Glyphosate: the fallback bogeyman

The only other possible explanation IRT posited is that exposure to the weed killer glyphosate through food may be the culprit since it's commonly paired with biotech crops that resist its herbicidal effects. But this is equally impossible to quantify. How much of the herbicide were participants exposed to before they went organic? Unless they were eating 30 bowls of cheerios a day, they weren't consuming enough glyphosate to even possibly affect their health.

IRT can draw any sort of spurious correlation it likes based on preliminary cell-culture and animal studies. But if the group didn't collect any exposure information, it can't even begin to assess the health effects of glyphosate.

I wrote a series of articles two years ago purporting to “prove” that glyphosate cures cancer. It doesn't so far as we know. But my point was to illustrate how easy it is to reach unsubstantiated conclusions by relying on cherry-picked studies. You can create an association between almost any chemical exposure and health outcome if you mine the scientific literature hard enough and skip over any study that doesn't say what you need it to.

That's ultimately why IRT's claims are still baseless. It's also another reason none of us need to worry about consuming GE crops.


[1] I'm not linking to the video.

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