Let's talk GMOs: Part 1

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Let’s talk GMOs: Part 1 I will admit that about 5 years ago I was very skeptical about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food. To hear that there were round-up resistant crops made me uncomfortable and like many of you I want to make sure I am purchasing the best products for my family.  In fact I even was starting to make food purchases on a regular basis based on whether there were GMOs in the food, but then I realized something.  I realized that I was not a farmer and agriculture was not my profession, and I thought about how angry I get when people who are not familiar with my profession try to tell me what to do.  Then I took a different view.  I wanted to become educated on what a GMO was and try to understand benefits and risks beyond what was fed to me from biased organizations or sensationalized documentaries.  When I attended conferences I sought out sessions that discussed the issue so I could start learning more and I also started looking for studies completed with public funding rather than corporate funding.

Last October I attended the Food Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE), which is the national conference hosted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. I heard a speaker, Dr. Pam Ronald, who is a plant geneticist at University of California Davis and her husband, Raoul Adamchak, is an organic farmer.  She was not against GMOs or the use of genetic engineering (GE) and she had a very balanced approach to the topic.  I then started reading the book that her and her husband wrote “Tomorrow’s Table.”  I contacted her and she agreed to talk with me over the phone and answer some questions I had for her.  This is the first in a two-part series I am writing to help answer some of those questions about GMOs.

What is a GMO?

It is defined as a plant that has had their DNA altered in a way that does not occur in nature. According to Dr. Ronald this is a very broad term and can be confusing as it can mean something different to everyone.  Some feel that the process of “grafting” produces a GMO that has been occurring for centuries.  Grafting is when the stem of one plant is grafted with the rootstock of another, for example California Walnut farmers typically plant grafts of an English walnut (known for their taste) and the rootstock of a black walnut (resistant to soil disease).  Therefore, when the term “GMO” is used it is very broad and can include processes that have been used for years and may not be addressing what some consumers are concerned about.

What is Genetic Engineering?

Genetic Engineering (GE) is a type of GMO where well characterized, specific genes of one species (e.g. bacteria or virus) are transferred into a crop or plant. This is typically completed in a lab and there is great knowledge of the specific gene being transferred by the team involved.  There are various techniques for a scientist to perform GE.  Some GE crops are developed to make crops resistant to certain types of weather, resistant to disease, and seeds can be developed to reduce the use of herbicides, pesticides, or insecticides.

Who researches the safety of GE crops?

It has been stated that the only studies on the benefits of GE crops have been completed the private corporations that created them. However, according to Dr. Ronald, this is not true.  Many independent, non-industry funded studies have examined the safety of GE crops for the past 40 years.  Organizations that have reviewed and participated in these studies include the American Society of Plant Biologists, United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Academy of Sciences, which are independent scientific organizations and at this point they all agree that GE foods are safe.  There have been some advances from using GE.  Some of those benefits include decreased applications of chemical insecticides and a switch to less toxic herbicides.  One of the emerging concerns is that due to consumer demand of non-GE crops farmers have been forced to revert back to farming practices of the 1950’s.  At that time many of the sprays that were used were more toxic than the sprays that are used now.

What are the current GE crops produced?

The current GE crops grown in the US are corn, soybean, cotton, potato, squash, canola, alfalfa, apple, and sugar beet. This is important for consumers to know because many products in the grocery store like strawberries and lettuce (and water and salt!) have the non-GMO label on their packaging.  There is no need to pay more for that label on those products because none of these products were produced with GE.

As mentioned this was the first part of a two-part series of articles on GMOs. The first part was meant to provide facts and the second part will discuss considerations for use of GMOs and where you the consumer can look for unbiased information to make the best decision for your family.