Should We Paint GMOs Black or White?

February 16, 2016 in Food Economics, Foodland, General by Joyce Bunderson

When we’re young and before we are confronted with much of real life, we often see things in black and white. It’s good or bad; right or wrong; desirable or not; beautiful or ugly, to name a few. Actually, there’s something very alluring about a black and white perspective. It makes things easy. Easy is very attractive to me, but easy is not frequently the answer. The longer I live and the more I learn, tells me that life is filled with complexity. Today’s subject is certainly one of those difficult and complex issues – the issue of how to evaluate Genetically Modified Organisms.

We subscribe to Science News; the cover of their February 6, 2016 issue reads: GMOs Are Here: Assessing the promises and the risks of genetically modified foods. I was drawn to the cover with the orange salmon filet, sitting in the royal blue Styrofoam meat tray. I periodically read articles and have listened to conference talks on GMOs, but it is certainly not my most developed expertise. After reading a few of Rachel Ehrenberg’s articles on the subject, I have a much better perspective of the subject; and in addition, understand why it’s not easy have real expertise in this subject.

Let me just say a few words about Rachel Ehrenberg before I go forward. She has done such a splendid job in reporting on GMOs that I wanted to know if she were only a well-written journalist. But what I found out is that she has degrees in botany and political science (University of Vermont) and a master’s in evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan. She also graduated from the science-writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Ehrenberg was a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT. I’m impressed with her work and level of knowledge on this evolving field and hope to read much more of her work in the future in scientific journalism.

The articles that she has written for Science News are long and cram-packed with information about GMOs. Certainly, I highly recommend reading her articles. In a wide swath of take away from her writing on the subject, I’d say the biggest lesson that I learned was that GMOs are not simply good or bad; and the subject of GMOs is amazingly complex.

Ehrenberg builds a great case for drilling down into the specifics of GMOs. She says there are several reasons that the broad brush of painting all GMOs as evil “Franken” organisms or harmless tools for saving a world facing climate change and overpopulation is problematic. Part of that problem rises out of the foundation of the term itself, which she says is a catchall term. Ehrenberg says, the more reporting on GMOs that she did, the more she “came to see “GMO” as a squishy descriptor with very limited use.” In addition, to the myriad ways that products have been modified, there are also farming practices that have developed as a result of genetic modifications.

Meat, for example, is regulated by the USDA. GMOs are regulated by the FDA. The only reason that salmon is being regulated by the FDA is that the inserted genetic material is considered a drug. The complexity can make your head spin.

Some of the developing issues that need to be followed are the consequences of engineered genes escaping into the wild. For example, salmon that have been engineered to grow very large in a much shorter period of time, generates many questions of impact upon the wild salmon population.

So far it seems that the benefits of producing GMO products is benefiting the companies and farmers, but not consumers. But the promise of new crops, that can tolerate drought or excess salt in the soil, in a world that is facing climate change, holds promise for meeting the demand for providing food for more mouths, and doing so in difficult places for crops to grow.

One of my observations is that the top GMO crops are soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola (used for oil) (these crops total 99% of the GMO crops.) Not the cotton, but the soybeans and corn are often used as animal feed. If you want to limit, your intake of GMOs, maybe one consideration is to limit your intake of animal protein. If this is one of your nutrition goals already, the information that so many meat animals are fattened up with GMO crops may strengthen your resolve, if you have concerns about GMO’s on your health.

Ehrenberg shares a great example of the potential for benefits of GMO in her example of Golden Rice. The rice has been engineered to produce beta-carotene (a vitamin A precursor). Ehrenberg shares a map of the world showing the countries where more than 250,000 children become blind every year, and half of them die within a year of losing their sight. The beta-carotene in Golden Rice is converted to vitamin A when eaten. Unfortunately, when the trial plants were being grown in the Philippines, they were trampled and destroyed by anti-GMO protestors. People are so polarized and feel so much emotion on this issue.

One of the negative stories with which I was already familiar, was the story of the Roundup (glyphosate) ready seeds. Seed crops are engineered to withstand Roundup. It seems like a godsend, because the farmers don’t have to run their tilling tractors as much adding fewer carbon emissions and less soil erosion. But unfortunately, it has led to overuse. The overuse has led to Roundup resistant weeds. It works just like antibiotic resistance. In addition, of course, the consumers (both animals and humans) are getting more herbicides in their diet. When the farmer knows that he is not going to damage his crop with Roundup, he may pay less attention to the amount and frequency; leading to mismanagement, overuse, and more Roundup traces in human food.

Ehrenberg does a great job describing transgenic gene flow (GMO genes getting into wild plants or another crops). She says, “Herbicide resistance is predictable – that’s Evolution 101.” She’s an evolutionary biologist, so read her work. The point is, that it is possible for the genes to leak into un-planned products. Even if the risk is managed carefully, it is still possible.

The history of the huge companies like Cargill, Monsanto, and Dupont both selling pesticide-resistant seeds and the chemicals needed to grow them, doesn’t elicit trust. In addition, the US government’s long foot dragging in curtailing the use of the very toxic pesticide DDT doesn’t help either. So even if we feel like there can be potential benefits for GMOs, we should proceed with scientific information and not just speculation. If we don’t remember DDT, then we have this historical dark cloud hanging over and obscuring our memories.

One of the stories of the complexities of GMOs that Ehrenberg shares is about the microbe Agrobacterium. This bacterium has been useful in inserting bits of DNA into plants since long before humans knew anything about GMOs. This bacterium is responsible for making ancient sweet potato more attractive to humans. This happened in nature without the help of humans. Plus, there are long held practices like grafting that are considered modifying genes because the genomes can be swapped via the grafted plants. I call this breeding, an ancient practice, not GM of O. It works into the playbook of the GMO advocates to confuse it with something familiar and generally regarded as safe. What’s OK and what’s not? It’s a much bigger question than most of us ever supposed.

Now when scientists wants to do gene-editing they increasingly use CRISPER technology; they can quiet genes to not operate, add new ones and modify existing ones – all yielding traits that may have arisen in time via random genetic mutations. Ehrenberg makes a great case that without this ability we might still be collecting cheese-ripening enzymes from the stomachs of slaughtered calves, rather than using a more pure and arguably more human version made by genetically engineered microbes.

I wish I could offer a black or white answer regarding GMOs; but it’s not possible now to say ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ As a single concept we will likely never be able to answer the question of GMOs as being either black or white. Science doesn’t really have that answer nor does the government either, regarding the complexities of evaluating GMOs. The best that I can offer is to encourage you to read Ehrenberg’s work. You can, of course, grow some vegetables in your yard this spring and eat less animal protein. Don’t worry there’s going to be much, much more in this field. It’s only in its infancy.