Saturday, January 10, 2015

Misinformation in the GMO controversy: who's really doing the work?

If you read the social media, you’d believe that genetic modification of crops is being done almost solely by the big seed and chemical companies.

As with so much information in this controversial field, that’s wrong.

(Image: Nematode cysts on potato roots. Credit, Xiaohong Wang, USDA.)

A broad, diverse application of this technology is used in agriculture by government agriculture research centers, universities and private labs across the country and the world.

The seed companies clearly have a big impact in the field, because they’re working on the world’s major food crops, and they have developed some of the basic techniques in the field.

But around the world, the genetic modification techniques are being used to solve regional and small-crop issues—and the work is being done by regional and local institutions. And some of is being done to solve major global nutrition issues—without a profit motive at all.

Hawai`i’s Rainbow papaya is an example. When papaya ringspot virus wiped out the industry on the Big Island, it wasn’t Big Ag that stepped in, but Cornell University and the University of Hawai`i.   

Conventional breeding had been tried, but there was no natural resistance in papaya. Led by professor Dennis Gonsalves at Cornell, researchers used genetic engineering techniques to insert a bit of the virus into the papaya, so that the plant would be resistant. The resulting Rainbow papaya saved the industry.

And the seeds? They were given away at first, and later sold at cost.

Similar work is happening at universities everywhere. As an example, there’s genetic modification work going on in rice, corn, wheat, sugar beets, cotton, apples, walnuts and tomatoes at the University of California at Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the Division of Biological Sciences. 

If you listened to GM detractors, you might think genetic modification was all about selling weed killers. In fact, a lot of the work is about improving flavors, shippability, shelf life and disease and insect resistance.

And making the crops healthier for consumers.

That’s the story of golden rice. Researchers recognized that children in rice-eating areas were dying of vitamin A deficiency. So, what if you could put the vitamin A into the rice?  Ingo Potrykus, a researcher with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, was able to insert beta-carotene into rice plants, creating a fortified rice. Other researchers added to the science.

It has turned into a controversial issue, though, because of the genetic engineering. Potrykus’ view on that is a little later in this story.

In practice, adding vitamin A to rice is another example of the common practice of artificially increasing the nutrition of food.

Like adding iodine to salt. People were ailing from thyroid disease due to iodine deficiency, and the addition of iodine to salt resolved the thyroid problems associated with insufficient iodine.

Or selling flour fortified with iron, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and folic acid. Most flour sold today has these added nutrients.

One of the key goals of genetic engineering is to reduce the use of pesticides.

Nematodes are parasites that weaken plants by infesting their roots and underground structures. And insecticides targeting nematodes can be health risks.

When Hawaiian pineapple growers used heptachlor to kill nematodes, it got into the crop, and when pineapple bran was fed to cattle, it got into milk, creating a major public health crisis during the early 1980s.

Today, one of the holy grails of genetic engineering is to confer natural nematode resistance to crops, so pesticides aren’t needed. The big challenge is to get resistance into crops that don’t readily acquire that resistance through conventional breeding.

In Hawai`i, the anti-GM forces focus on chemical and seed companies and corn. But there is far more to the issue than the for-profit companies and their biggest crop.

Golden Rice’s inventor, Ingo Potrykus, clearly understands the controversy:

“Golden Rice…is an excellent example of how genetic engineering of plants can be of direct benefit to the consumer, especially the poor and the disadvantaged in developing countries, where GMOs offer many more opportunities for the improvement of livelihood than for those living in well-fed developed nations. The GMO opposition, however, is concerned that Golden Rice will be a kind of ‘Trojan Horse’, opening the developing countries to other applications of GMO technology, and for improving acceptance of GMO food.”

Nothing in this discussion is easy. The issues are complex and confused. Different logical concepts get twisted up like nematode-infested roots. And it does no one a service when advocates consciously misrepresent facts.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

(Note: an earlier version of this post misnamed Rainbow papaya researcher Dennis Gonsalves. It's been fixed in this version.)


Poipu said...

All, too true. We should all look past the politics

Rhonda said...

Excellent article. Thank you for this overview. I'm curious if you meant Dennis Gonsalves rather than Kenneth? I seem to remember Dennis as the father of the Rainbow Papaya.

Jan T said...

Rhonda: Thanks for the catch. It is Dennis, not Kenneth, and I've corrected it in the latest version of this post.