November 2016 Parting Thoughts

A look at GMOs

In college, I was required to take a colloquial-type class centered on conducting and discussing research. I was assigned to debate on why plastic bags are more environmentally friendly than paper bags, and I protested relentlessly. With a twinkle in her eye, my professor asked, “Have you done your research, or are you believing what you have seen online? Do you know which produces more pollutants? Do you know if paper can be recycled once it is wet?”

According to John Fitzpatrick, Organization Director of the Medina County Farm Bureau, misunderstanding and a lack of research may be to blame for the mixed public opinion regarding genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Fitzpatrick points out that humans have been modifying foods since the beginning of agriculture.

“Early humans were nomadic, and they followed animals as they migrated through seasonal changes. They would notice that crops that were safe to eat grew in the same place as they did the year before. Humans began to save seeds, and they moved them closer to where they were living. That created farming, and that created sedentary civilization.”

And, yes, early humans were particular about the seeds they kept. Seeds were harvested from the better tasting foods over less tasty foods, and over time humans began to practice cultivation and cross breeding. This allowed them to create crops that look very different from their ancient ancestors. Corn, he points out, looks very different from its ancestor teosinte, which is in the grass family.

Early humans utilized a process called selective breeding to improve their crops. They would choose crops with the most desirable features to use as a seed source, and over many generations, certain phenotypic traits became more evident. This process also has been applied to animals, and is also to thank for the diversity that exists in today’s dog breeds. Essentially, ancient crops with the most desirable features are to thank for the modern-day crops that we know and love.

Deliberate hybridization and understanding of the science behind trait inheritance began in 1854 when Gregor Mendel began experimenting with pea plants. He began to note rules of heredity, also known as Mendelian Inheritance, which provided scientists a basic understanding of how traits are passed from a parent to its offspring. His studies have been used to mathematically reinforce natural selection and evolution, and are partially to thank for today’s experimentation with the genetics of food.

Today, experts continue to modify food. In 1986, nearly a century and a half after Mendel’s experiments, the United States published Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology to regulate products produced through genetic modification. It states that genetically modified food must go through years of testing before it can be sold, and the science behind the modifications must be approved as well. These products are analyzed in their potential risks to humans, livestock, and the environment.

“I think people can take a lot of pride at the fact that we have a strong Department of Agriculture that does not allow products to be improved without them approving the science that is being applied to them,” says Fitzpatrick. “GMO crops have been used for over 20 years, and no one has ever gotten sick from a GMO crop.”

This is a statistic that is not supported by public opinion, but is indeed backed up by scholarly research. Thousands of peer-reviewed studies show that there is no evidence that GMOs present any more of a risk than traditionally bred crops. According to the Library of Congress, 93% of the soybeans, 90% of the cotton, and 90% of the corn grown in the United States were genetically engineered.

The best part of genetic modification, some may argue, is that genetically modified foods can reduce use of pesticide by improving intrinsic pest defense. Foods can also be modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate, which means that fields can be sprayed with herbicides to kill off weeds, and this will not inversely impact crop yield. It is also possible, with the assistance of genetic modification, to create crops that are more resistant to fluctuating weather patterns like drought. Genetically modified crops makes farming a much more profitable venture for agriculturalists, and risks associated with GMOs are considered to be very low, if there are any at all.

Unfortunately, public opinion reflects a low understanding of biotechnology. Sometimes one must step back and ask, “Have I done my research, or am I believing what I have seen online?