Genetically modified maize has significantly lower amounts of mycotoxins; that is to say, toxins produced by fungi that invade plants.
Tinkering with nature is rarely a good thing. That is why genetically modified crops, popularly dubbed “Frankenfoods” after Mary Shelley’s fictional scientist who decided in his hubris to play God, are serious environmental and health hazards.
Or so it is commonly believed. Yet a team of Italian researchers are challenging that view in a new study for which they conducted a meta-analysis of more than 6,000 peer-reviewed studies on genetically modified maize.
They did so by analyzing studies published over two decades between 1996, when the genetically modified corn was planted, and 2016. That approach allowed them to draw on voluminous research conducted around the planet from the United States and South America to Europe and from Asia and Africa to Australia.
The Italian researchers’ “unequivocal” conclusion: the cultivation of genetically modified maize has led to enhanced grain quality while genetically modified corn varieties have also increased crop yields by up to 24.5% as compared to non-modified equivalents.
In addition, genetically modified maize has significantly lower amounts of mycotoxins (that is to say, toxins produced by fungi that invade plants), which is a clear health benefit to people. Modified corn crops were found to have 28.8% lower levels of mycotoxins, 30.6% lower levels of fumonisins, and 36.5% lower levels of thricotecens.
The reason for this is that modified corn varieties have been genetically tweaked so as to be more resilient to damage done by insects, which can weaken plants’ immune systems. That more robust immunity in GM corn plants makes them more resilient to fungi that produce mycotoxins, which have been linked to serious ill-health effects in people and animals alike, including liver cancer.
“Mycotoxins remain a persistent health threat in the developing world,” explains Paul McDivitt, an environmental writer in the United States. “Although commercial corn is screened for mycotoxin contamination and rejected if high enough levels are detected, much slips through to consumers.”
However, despite the study’s conclusions, opponents of GMOs are unlikely to be reassured. Genetically modifies crops are widely seen, rightly or wrongly, as inherently dangerous both to people’s health and to the environment. Yet they are also very common. In the US alone more than half of crops grown locally contain GMOs while over two-thirds of processed foods contain at least one genetically modified ingredient, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington D.C.-based consumer advocacy group.