Questions about Genetic Modification | Student Brings Attention to GMO in C-SPAN Documentary

C-SPAN holds an annual competition among high school students for the production of documentaries that address critical issues they believe need to be addressed by Congress. The 2014 competition highlighted a number of important topics with the most popular subjects being the Economy (16%), Gun Legislation (14%) and Education (13%). However, the winner of the High School – Central Division, Andrew Demeter, a Ohio 10th grader, focused in the important conversations surrounding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).

The 7-minute documentary touches on a number of topics surrounding the GMO conversations, including defining the issue, safety of the product, impact of farmers, and questions the need for labeling. Watch the video We The People, Genetically Modified?” below.

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How do we define GMO?

Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMO, are foods or plants created with the use of biotechnology. Janice Person has a great discussion and explanation of GMOs on her blog that is well worth a read. Her blog also points out a definition of GMO from the USDA Agriculture Research Service.

The term “genetically modified organism” (GMO) was originally used by the molecular biology scientific community to denote a living organism that had been genetically modified by inserting a gene from an unrelated species. Incorporation of genes from an unrelated species does not occur in nature through sexual reproduction and thus, various types of sophisticated technologies are used to accomplish this. These types of plants are generally called “transgenics”. Transgenic technology has been used in over 40 species of plants including corn, cotton, tomatoes, potatoes, soybeans, tobacco, rice, cranberries, papayas, raspberries, chrysanthemums, gladioli, petunias, poplars, spruce, and walnuts. In crop plants, the technology has generally been used to incorporate insect resistance or herbicide tolerance. More recently, transgenic rice strains having high vitamin A or high iron content have been developed. In the future, transgenic plants may be used as “bioreactors” to produce large quantities of inexpensive pharmaceuticals, polymers, industrial enzymes, as well as modified oils, starches, and proteins. via ARS : What are GMO’S?.

Is there Science that GMO crops are safe?

As mentioned in the video above, there are studies and scientists on either side of the issue that are not perfect. Many critics cry foul when they dislike the funding sources for certain studies or reports. Where the heck do you think money for science and research comes from? It doesn’t come out of thin air. Corporations and large entities do have budget lines for R&D and you don’t see most individuals coughing up the millions of dollars it costs to run a research lab. That’s why academic and industry scientists have ethic standards and peer review standards to abide by. See examples from the American Psychological Association, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, or the University of Minnesota.

The science behind the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms for use in the food supply has been around for decades (in use since the 1980s) and the supporting evidence continues to be stronger than ever before. As of 2012, there were more than 2,000 international studies on the importance, environmental impact and safety of GMOs in food production, many of them independent of seed or chemical companies so many people fear.

Other critics of GMOs claim that use of genetically modified feeds for use in livestock and dangerous and damaging to the animals and humans who consume those animals. For example, in 2011, the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology published an international 15-page review of studies mentioned above and found that “a 90-day feeding study… is generally considered sufficient in order to evaluate the health effects of GM feed. The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.” I have saved the paper in a google document for you to read.

If you’d like to do your own survey of the available research, I’d encourage you to start with a search on Google Scholar. Or you can view an earlier post I wrote with several Science Resources for Biotechnology and GMO in food.

Should we label foods containing Genetically Modified Organisms?

As I’ve said earlier on this blog, Don’t let labels dictate what you perceive as better food choices. Labels make us lazy. We don’t need to force labels on the greater population for a product that we dislike or fear. There is science both sides of the issue utilize and this is not an area where public policy needs to take place. There is nothing to be hidden, but if a label is to be utilized, place on the product with enhanced value, like the existing Process Verified Programs through the USDA. For those who claim to not be able to know whether or not foods contain GM ingredients, take a moment to educate yourself and don’t be lazy about it. Crop companies like Monsanto make it very apparent on their websites which crops are available with transgenic traits.

How do farmers feel about Genetically Modified Crops?

Farmers and ranchers do have a choice whether or not to plant GMO crops. No one is railroading these farmers or forcing them to plant only GMO seeds. Farmers take into consideration several factors and spend time studying on which seeds they want to plant. Thanks to biotechnology, there are many varieties of seeds out there that help farmers produce a better crop despite harsh conditions from drought, pest invasion, and weed competition.

Please see this earlier post where I go more in-depth about how farmers and ranchers feel about Genetically Modified crops.

Safety and Impact of Genetically Modified Crops in the Food Supply
Sorry Andrew, but that’s NOT how plants are genetically modified.

I think it’s apparent from videos like the one above that the use of genetically modified crops is an important topic of discussion in today’s society. Frankly, I believe this conversation desperately needs to be infused with more common sense and middle ground. It’s an emotionally charged subject that many people can get overwhelmed by. However, I think it’s critically important to recognize the fact that it’s not the only conversation occurring about our food supply today, and we definitely have other pressing issues that need our attention. I attended a global conference in Los Angeles this week that certainly opened my eyes to those conversations and I’ll be sharing more of that in my next blog posts.

Do you have more questions about the use of genetically modified crops in our food supply? Leave a comment below or submit your questions on the Ask a Farmer page.

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7 Comments

  1. Great post, Ryan. I totally agree that farmers are not forced into growing GMOs; on my farm, I choose to grow GM canola and soybeans because the varieties yield higher, have better weed control options, and in general create higher and more stable income for me. On the other hand, I also grow lots of other crops, like wheat, flax and peas that are not GMO because the varieties aren’t available. If public policy would stop interfering with science on this issue, we could get more GMO varieties that could solve many serious nutrient deficiencies in African (and others) children, not to mention higher yields with less impact on the environment. Labelling GMOs will not help to generate investment in these new varieties.

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