Fact check: GMO foods pose no added risk of editing genes, experts say

The claim: GMO food changes people’s genes

A March 29 Instagram post (direct link, archive link) shows a screenshot of a news release about testimony heard by the Missouri House of Representatives.

“GMO food like the type Bill Gates is pushing to manufacture in factories WILL alter your genetics,” the caption reads.

The post was liked more than 1,000 times in a week.

Follow us on Facebook! Like our page to get updates throughout the day on our latest debunks

Our rating: False

There are no recorded cases of human genes being changed by eating genetically modified food. Experts say it is unlikely to happen and the chance of it occurring is no greater than with non-GMO food.

GMOs are not used to change human genes

Published studies and experts who spoke with USA TODAY all say there are no reports of human genes being changed by eating genetically modified food, and there is no reason to think they could be. The acquisition of genetic material not inherited from a parent, known as horizontal gene transfer, is rare and appears no more likely from GMO food than from non-GMO food.

Bing Yang, a plant science professor at the University of Missouri, said there have been published reports of plant microRNA found in animal blood, which could be evidence of horizontal gene transfer. However, Yang said it has never been studied in a controlled experiment to determine how common it could be or if a transfer is actually taking place. He also noted the plants in those reports were not GMOs, which are plants or animals that have had genes inserted into their DNA to give them certain characteristics.

“I am not aware of any plant genes – natural or transgenic – through food that can change human genes,” Yang said in an email.

The small amounts of genetic material that could survive processing, cooking and digestion would face significant barriers to transfer into humans, according to an August 2022 article in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. It notes the small pieces of fragmented DNA from consumed plants found in mammals areunlikely to be functional and that no genetically modified DNA or protein has ever been found in the meat, milk or eggs of animals that ate GMO plants.

Fact check: Male and female animals used for meat, estrogen levels don't affect humans

The paper also notes small amounts of genetic material from consumed food that reaches the bloodstream do not necessarily get absorbed into other cells and usually are quickly removed from the body.

And the paper says only a small portion of the plant's genes are edited to create a GMO, making the chance of an edited gene getting transferred even less likely.

That finding was echoed by the U.K.-based Royal Society, the world's oldest fellowship of scientists, which noted a typical plant or animal cell has 30,000 genes but only around 10 are edited or added in a GMO.

The Instagram post links to a Substack article that claims biotech lobbyists admitted in a March 22 hearing of a Missouri House committee that GMO foods were tools for gene editing. It is unclear what that claim was based on because a log of testimony submitted for the hearing only shows agriculture and biotech industry advocates, lobbyists and researchers saying the legislation discussed in the hearing, HB 1169, improperly lumped GMO foods in with gene editing.

Kelly Gillespie, executive director of the Missouri Biotechnology Association, testified at the hearing and later told USA TODAY he has no idea how anything biotech and agriculture industry representatives said at the hearing could be interpreted as an admission that GMO foods cause changes in genes, pointing to the FDA's listing of forms of gene therapy.

“No methods presently exist in which food consumption or non-invasive methods can be used to deliver gene therapy,” he wrote in an email.

USA TODAY reached out to the social media user and the Substack author for comment.

Our fact-check sources:

Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app or electronic newspaper replica here.

Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: No, GMO foods do not alter genes of people eating them