The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

How Do We Talk About GMOs? Part Two

How Do We Talk About GMOs? Part Two

In the News

October 29, 2014

The topic of modifying food with science continues to be emotional and filled with misperceptions. Today’s food industry is grappling with the challenge of feeding many with many fewer resources, yet GMOs (genetically modified organisms), an important part of the solution to combatting major threats facing the global food supply, continue to spark debates and controversy. 

Last month, we sat down with a panel of experts and farmers brought together by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance to talk shop about GMOs. The group included Don Cameron, Vice President and General Manager of Terranova Ranch in Helm, California, Dr. Jim Gaffney, Strategy Lead at DuPont Pioneer, Dr. Bob Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist at UCLA, and Katie Pratt, a seventh generation Illinois corn and soybean farmer. In this second part of our two part series on GMOs, we delve into the challenges of government regulation, the looming food crisis in third-world countries, and the future of food biotechnology.

What is the reality of feeding many with fewer resources without GMOs? 

Gaffney: I have aparticular interest in Africa. I was in the Peace Corp in Cameroon, Central Africa. And I’m now involved in a couple projects working on Africa. One is improved maize for African soils, which is working on improved nitrogen and drought efficiency for corn hybrids in these African soils that are generally highly degraded, older soils, with very little organic matter. So we’re working on improving productivity in maize. We’re also working on a sorghum project (bio-fortified sorghum), increasing the iron and zinc availability, increasing the vitamin A, as well as not just the nutritional aspect of it but also increasing the productivity and the yields. Sorghum is still one of the major food crops for Africa, and if you look at what is coming out of climate change models, Africa is going to be hit harder, and sorghum is one of those crops that does well under these tough conditions. We’re looking at both traditional and GM means to not just improve the productivity of these crops but to improve the nutritional aspects as well. 

Pratt: When we think about how we frame these conversations, for so long in biotechnology we would talk about how it could benefit the farmer, but we’re now in a society that wants to know, “How is it going to benefit me?” And so it’s difficult to talk about how I can be more sustainable and use less on my farm and make that resonate with someone who was thousands of miles away from the cornfields of Illinois versus some of the things that Jim (Gaffney) is referencing in terms of increasing nutrient content of different food products. I think it’s about framing the conversation and making it more palpable for a non-farmer or a general consumer to understand.

Gaffney: GM is not the silver bullet here, it’s not the only tool we need. We need excellent agronomics, we need excellent genetics and the breeding behind it, and in lot of cases this genetic modification piece can really help in a number of different ways. There’s no way to improve vitamin A in sorghum without genetic modification. There’s not any amount of breeding in the world that would increase the vitamin A, so there’s some real breakthroughs that we can make here that are highly meaningful. It’s not just about productivity anymore either, it’s about environmental sustainability. Can we feed nine million people and still maintain a healthy environment? And I think genetic modification can help us do that in a number of different ways. We look at the productivity for farmers, we look at environmental sustainability, and of course safety is probably the biggest thing to look at when developing these products too. We look at safety for the environment and safety for human health.

Are GMOs and “sustainable farming” mutually exclusive? 

Cameron: We have quite a bit of organic on our farm, and there is a misperception that we don’t spray organic crops. We’ve grown organic sweet corn and we sprayed it with a crop duster every three or four days because the corn ear worms were vicious and people buying organic sweet corn in the store don’t want to see worms coming out of them. We know that we have a limited number of things we can put on organic crops, and one is them is BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) that we do spray on the organic crops and that’s the same BT that you have in a transgenic crop. If you put it into the plant, it’s a GMO and people get really concerned. But, if we apply it to our organic crop, there’s no problem. There’s really a lot of misinformation out there, and people don’t want to hear it.

Goldberg: That’s right. It’s ironic that the organic growers will spray their fields with the BT spores, which is the precise protein/gene that is put into GM corn plants to avoid the use of pesticides. Why is it unsafe to eat the GMO corn, but perfectly safe to eat the organic corn sprayed multiple times with the same product? There’s no logic to any of it, so that to me is the great tragedy and the great story of our time. 

If GM crops could save millions from malnutrition and starvation, then why are there so many government restrictions on their use/roll out? Look at the struggles of Golden Rice, for example.

Gaffney: I’ve been working through the regulations at DuPont Pioneer. If you look at our regulatory agencies in the U.S., the USDA, EPA and FDA, there are a fair number of regulations of course from these three agencies, but as they become more familiar with the GM technology, especially at the USDA, the timelines to deregulation or commercialization of a product in the U.S. is actually improving little by little, though we’d like to see them go faster. There are a set of studies that they require of us that now are pretty set, and rather than have more studies, because we know so much about biotechnology these days, we see the day when there could actually be fewer studies to conduct just because of transparency and the understanding becoming so much greater. All we ask of our regulatory agencies is for a science-based, objective view of the technology – in the U.S. I think we have that, and it’s getting better. 

The challenge we see globally is that we don’t see that same level of science-based objectivity. Part of my job is finding ways to work our way through the regulatory process, and the way we do that is creating greater transparency and creating greater familiarity with the technology. Through familiarity we gain acceptance. And we do this in different ways. We work with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance to create familiarity and transparency. We have a website called GMO Answers where we’ll answer any question that is sent to us in a thorough way. That’s one more way consumers can see what’s going on. USDA is another example of really good transparency. If anyone is interested, they can go in and see what’s going on and see studies and there is a public comment section there where people can comment on the technology ahead of commercialization. 

Goldberg: The regulatory climate is going to get better, and I think it’s rather tragic what’s happening with the regulatory climate in other parts of the world, particularly Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America, because that is where they really need this technology. But that’s really been more of a political issue, and nothing to do with science. From an example point of view let’s go to the medical realm. In gene therapy, that is engineering human beings with genes they weren’t born with, there are whole sets of regulatory oversights that had to be performed before you could give a gene to a patient in order to help them overcome a genetic disease. But over the past 20 years in which that technology has been used, there’s been so many studies carried out and they’ve been so successful, and the promise is so terrific, that within the last week or two, may of those regulations have just fallen by the wayside. The recombinant DNA Advisory Committee of the National Institutes of Health, which oversights these things, has said okay, well we really have so much data on gene therapy that we really don’t need to do this anymore. It’s more institutional oversight, personal consent by the patient, and that’s where the science has really proven to be a winner. 

I think that’s going to happen in the agricultural sense, as more and more science shows that there are better ways to put genes into plants every single day in laboratories around the world. There may become a time in which people will just consider these things to be just in the normal course of breeding just as it has been done for many thousands of years. The public has been really, in some respects, misled by the issue, because if you’re thinking about food safety, it’s not the GMO where you look, it’s E.Coli, Salmonella and other bacteria getting into the food supply. This is what can actually kill hundreds and sometimes thousands of people around the world. That’s really the food safety issue. There’s really never been anyone harmed by eating a canola oil which has been produced by a genetically engineered canola plant. There’s not one documented case of even a sneeze.

Gaffney: And to the contrary, DuPont Pioneer has what we call a Plenish™ high oleic soybean oil, a very low, almost no fatty acid soybean oil, so it’s a much healthier oil, so not only has there never been a safety issue, but now our products are creating even healthier foods. So again, in regards to Africa, we can really make some headway as far as human health and the environment goes in a number of different ways.

What do you see as the future of GMOs?

Goldberg: The future is science. This science is not going to go away. It’s not going to disappear because it’s making great strides and there are a lot of exciting things going on. It’s the most exciting time we’ve ever seen in plant biology, we’re doing things in the lab we never could’ve dreamed of a year or two ago. We’re discovering genes and processes that we dreamed of discovering 10, 15 years ago and we’re now understanding what they are. The science will move forward. We can’t stifle the progress of science. Science will simply march on. And as we go into climate change, 20 years from now, when you can’t grow corn in the Midwest because the conditions are not going to be sufficient for growing without rain, people are going to be screaming for the use of the best technology in order for them to maintain the kind of living that they are used to and the kind of society that we have. We have to apply science to food production just as we do in medicine and other aspects of our lives. 

Gaffney: So, can we feed the population without GM? In 1980, in Africa, there were 480 million people, and in 2010 this has more than doubled to a billion. It will double or more than double that in the next 30 years. At the same time their sorghum yields increased about 10 to 15%, maize yields increased maybe 25 to 30%, and yet their population is going up by 100%. Meanwhile, in the U.S. we see continual yield increases, year after year. I think we have tremendous technological answers for Africa. I don’t believe that they can get where they need to be without science, without technology addressing these issues. What does it take for acceptance? I’ve visited with these ministries of agriculture in a number of countries and the people that know what’s going on are begging for us to bring the technology to their country. So I do think there is a foothold for companies large and small and for modern agriculture to make a difference around the world.

Cameron: We export our crops to the rest of the country – produce and a lot of specialty crops. We’ve seen three years of drought here in California, and I’m sure we’ll have flooding coming up again as well. Looking ahead, if we see problems like this, I need every tool I can muster. I can’t move my farm, I have to farm in the location I’m at, and to take biotechnology off the table for me as a tool for the future, I really think we’d be lost without it. To not have the availability in the future, it would be just one more thing, another strike against trying to continue to farm. We rely heavily on traditional breeding; we talked about yield increases. Years ago we used to grow cotton, grain and alfalfa and that was it, and now we’re growing 25 different crops on the ranch. We have vegetables, organic seeds and vegetables, and we’re all about giving people a choice. We’ve had to sell organic crops in a conventional market because of over supply and I still have organic cotton that has been stored for two years because demand comes and goes, but we really need every tool we can have in our farming operation.

Pratt: In my little pocket of the world, when I think about five, 10, 20 years down the road, what will that look like? My husband and I and my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, when we sit and talk “farm talk,” we think about this often because we have our two children, and my brother and sister-in-law will be welcoming their second child, and they’re the 8th generation of the Pratt family that would have the opportunity to farm. And so we ask ourselves, “What are we doing today to make that possible for them tomorrow?” Our conversations don’t always involve biotechnology. There are a lot of other things that we talk about, like what’s coming next in equipment technology. For example, there are now tractors that drive themselves. The efficiencies we’ve seen just through that technology, and what we’re learning today and the strides that have been made in terms of soil health and fertility, these are things that we’re doing on our farm today that our grandfathers would not have considered doing and probably are laughing at us right now wondering, “What are those young bucks thinking planting radishes right after their corn?” But we’re starting to put in cover crops. Why? Because we need to increase our organic material and we know that that’s going to help our soil fertility. 

Down the road, who knows what will be available to us and how we will be farming, but what I do know is, we’ll still be farming. That what our family has done for generations and that’s we plan to continue to do.

Click here to read part one of our two part series where we asked the experts about common GMO misperceptions, how to better frame the conversation about GMOs, what the retailer role should be in communicating GMOs to consumers, and what GMOs may mean for extreme climate conditions like the California drought.