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 One

How Do We Talk About GMOs? Part One

In the News

September 24, 2014

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. Even though virtually all foods have been genetically modified for millennia by the actions of mankind (changes in genes are the basis for things being different), the topic of modifying food with science continues to be emotional and filled with misperceptions.

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

How do we talk about GMOs scientifically and not emotionally? 

Goldberg: A gene is a gene is a gene is a gene, and we’ve been modifying crops for 10,000 years. You’re never going to see a corn plant growing in a natural forest and you’ll never see a large tomato plant growing in a natural forest. Every single thing that you buy at Vons or Ralphs or Gelsons, all of these things that you see are made by conventional genetic modifications, and so what’s been done is to take the natural variability out there – that is variability that arose spontaneously by mutations – and use that variability to make new crops.

Our ancestors had to do that because they had the same problems that we’ve had. They needed to feed their families, they needed to sell their crops to make money and they wanted to be able to make a crop which was healthy, and so they used the most empirical ways which are still used thousands of years later to make the wonderful vegetables and grains that we have in the grocery store.

What’s important to point out is that there are very few crops which you can buy in a grocery that are actually directly genetically modified. You can go in and buy your peppers, buy your apples, buy your beans and even most of the sweet corn, believe it or not, and they’re not genetically modified in the modern way but certainly you would’ve never seen those things in a market thousands of years ago because they didn’t exist. They do today because of our ability to manipulate genes using wonderful breeding techniques. In fact, orange, fleshy carrots have only been around for about 100 to 200 years. 

Now, let’s look at the tomato. If you want a large tomato, that can be done and has been done by breeding. The consequence of that, as you all know, has been not a very good-tasting tomato, because its been bred for uniformity in color and uniformity in ripening so customers can buy a nice ripe tomato. The consequence of that through classical breeding is that it manipulates a whole set of genes at one time so that in bringing in some of these good traits, you sacrifice some of the bad traits. Using modern genetic engineering technology that has been developed in the last 30 years, you can look at a tomato in a lab and gene by gene, isolate the gene we want (size, for example) and insert it in a small tomato and make it a big tomato. We’re not doing anything else. We can monitor the activity of that gene in a conventionally bred, large tomato and we can monitor the activity of that gene in a genetically engineered tomato. It’s the same gene. 

What I think is important to communicate to consumers is that this technology of genetic engineering has been around for a long time. It’s really no different than the technology that is being used to make human GMOs. There are humans walking around today that have genes in them that they weren’t born with and they are only alive because of genetic engineering. The technology that we use for food and for crops is exactly that technology, which is an old technology. So we’ve modifying things in plants and crops for thousands of years but we’ve only been using modern technology that was invented 40 years ago which is the same technology being used in modern drugs, to cure blindness, to cure deafness, hemophilia and a variety of other diseases with genetic engineering. We’re using it in a way in which we help farmers, such as Katie (Pratt) and Don (Cameron), to grow some really great crops with minimal inputs.

It’s also important to know that there was no consumer reluctance about genetically engineered crops from 1983 to 1996. There were these limited release genetically modified products in the grocery stores and people ate them and they were touted as the new green revolution at the time. Whole issues of magazines and papers were devoted to the promise of this technology. And I think the promise is still there, and the technology is phenomenal, but there’s a perception issue.

Pratt: Exactly, and coming to it from the mom perspective, my kids’ health and wellbeing trumps everything for me. When I go into the grocery store, I’m looking first at the nutrition label. Will this be healthy for my kids? I think consumers say that they want one thing (red, ripe tomatoes, for example) – but they also want their food to be this romantic version of what we had, or what they think that we had, so many years ago – we didn’t, but there’s this romantic version of fresh picked tomatoes and apples off the tree. Yet they want it packaged in a way that they can pop it in the microwave and eat in a minute and go about their day. I think that’s more of a societal shift in thinking about our food. If you want food a certain way, you have to work for it. The tools that farmers have available to us today are allowing us to give consumers these choices in the ways that they would like to consume their food. We have the choice of using this type of technology which means that consumers have their choice of a variety of foods on their store shelves.

Goldberg: I want to point out that the corn that Katie (Pratt) is growing on her farm yields about 200 bushels per acre or more and 100 years ago, she would’ve been lucky to get 40 to 50 bushels on her farm. We have an abundance of food now. We have a very safe food supply in the United States and in the western world. If there wasn’t very good science to be able to help us do that, we’d be facing a lot of serious problems. We never even consider famine in the U.S., which is an astonishing fact, and fortunately we don’t have to consider that but it’s really because we’ve had astonishing success in applying science and genetics and the science of agronomics, and we have great farmers that really know how to grow food in the most efficient ways. We have this perception about going to the forest to grow food in our backyard, but if we really did that, you would slowly see the quality in our foods go down because you’re not going to be able to grow plants without pesticides and fertilizer. 

This romantic notion of farming is what brought about the famine that killed millions and millions of people before the green revolution in India and other parts of South East Asia. It’s not very romantic. It takes a lot of work, a lot of effort and a lot of science to grow all this healthy and safe food that we have and that’s part of the perception issue I’ve been talking about. We go into the grocery stores and have an abundance of food, gorgeous food, cheap food, and so we can afford to think about organic versus conventional and conventional versus GMOs. But we have some serious problems coming up in the future and unless we solve them with good science, people are going to be asking “Why didn’t the science of the 21st century fix these things for us?”

You’ve probably heard that Whole Foods has stopped carrying Chobani yogurt because the company produces yogurt with milk from cows fed with GMO feed. What is the retailer role in messaging to consumers about GMOs? 

Goldberg: In the Journal of Animal Science, Sept 2nd of this year, there is a study that looked at livestock productivity and health from 1983 before GM to 1996, and then from 1996 to 2001 when GM was introduced and they were fed GM corn and soybeans. They looked at 100 million animals and concluded that there was no difference in the health and productivity of livestock that were fed with conventional soybeans and corn versus GM soybean and corn. And they indicated that there is no study that revealed any differences in the nutritional profile of any of the animal products derived from GM-fed animals. They said that there were no quantifiable traces in the products produced by these animals because they are digested in the animal’s system. None of this marketing about GMOs has anything to do with the reality of science. That’s really the tragic story in all of this.

Pratt: I visit the grocery store, sometimes multiple times per week, as a consumer. I find it incredibly frustrating. I understand the retailer and or food company have a product that they need to make better than the next person, so in terms of “Marketing 101”, that’s what they are going to do. But to continually perpetrate the falsities of what a particular science is or what a particular process is and to base their marketing on that, I think consumers should be outraged because of that, not because there might be a sugar in their food that has been derived from a genetically modified crop. That’s the same thing that they are doing with Chobani. The cows ate the corn that came from a genetically modified seed, but how far do we have to get away from the source of what the issue is? 

I wish as a consumer that the retailers and food companies would adopt this transparency that agriculture has been attempting to adopt in the last couple years in really opening up what we’re doing, why we’re doing certain things on the farm, and being more transparent in our agribusiness as well. We should be asking, “General Mills, why did you change one tablespoon of sugar in your original Cheerios formulation?” The news release said nothing about the fact that they think that genetically modified sugar is safe, and that was on their website and in their FAQs by the way, but that’s not what was put out to the public at all. I don’t mind that food companies make those decisions and make those changes, because it’s offering another choice for consumers, and I believe that just as farmers have choices, consumers deserve those choices too. But don’t do it under false pretenses, and don’t hold back certain information from us.

Speaking as a consumer, that’s what I find irritating with the marketing of food products. And as a farmer, in terms of my efforts in being transparent in what I do on the farm, I’m getting thrown under the bus by the end user of my product or commodity because they aren’t being transparent in the way they’re actually using my product.

Goldberg: I think the second story is: follow the money. You want controversy about GMOs? That controversy has simply been made by people who, for whatever reason, are opposed to this technology. You may or may not know that Whole Foods are the major funders of the anti-GMO movement, and that they were the originators of it. And its interesting to point out their profits have been going up step by step with the GMO controversy. And frankly, it’s done a lot of harm in a very successfully propaganda campaign. It has nothing to do with science, it has to do with economics. 

Unfortunately this marketing has done a tremendous amount of harm. It’s done harm to the excellent science of using molecular biology in agriculture, it’s done harm in Africa and Asia where they need the best technology because of a concerted, ideology-led, non-science based campaign again this technology, and it’s done tremendous harm in terms of the public. Our kids are talking to their friends and saying you can’t eat that stuff because it has a GMO, and it really has become so generic that it doesn’t have any meaning any more in terms of what it is. 

For someone like me, who has worked on this science for three decades or more, it’s very depressing, and it’s done tremendous harm to science. If you had seen the same campaign about genetically engineered drugs, it wouldn’t have lasted five seconds because people would’ve been outraged if perfectly safe drugs that had gone through clinical trials and were deemed safe to use didn’t go to the patient. Well, genetically engineered foods have gone through just as much testing and safety evaluation as any drug that you buy or prescription that you get from your physicians. Think about the irony behind that.

Gaffney: You would think there would be outrage when a retailer takes a product off the shelves because of GM-related concerns, and yet it’s accepted. The real story is being told, and the public just doesn’t hear it.

Specifically for the California drought situation, how can GMOs help? And how can GMOs help with drought worldwide?

Cameron: Living here in California, with the drought that we’ve had for three years, we’ve done everything we can to conserve water on our farm. We use buried drip irrigation, and above-ground drip irrigation for trees and nuts. We’re probably 80% drip and then we’ve changed over all our sprinklers to water efficiency standards that are much higher so that we’re conserving as much water as we can. With that said, we look to genetically modified crops where we can because we would rather plant a crop that would be free of weeds, instead of planting something that is going to be sucking the water out of the soil before the crop needs it. Anything we can do to reduce water usage in the crops we grow is a real benefit and we look at the RoundUp-ready traits as being a real asset in times like these. It’s another tool that we have available to us. We have a lot of tools that we use, but we definitely like the trait and the efficiency that we get from using it.

Pratt: And I think the other piece of that is that back in 2012 in the Midwest we also were in a drought situation, and while the genetically modified traits, or the seeds and crops that we planted, certainly assisted in our crops surviving the drought and allowed us to get a pretty decent yield when we probably shouldn’t have because of the lack of water, it still comes down to the foundations that we’re using. Your conventional, your hybrids that are already available, they are so good that we are able to do more with less. The addition of a trait into the corn or the soybeans or whatever crop it is you’re referring to, it’s like icing on the cake in a sense. It’s giving us just one more way to be even more efficient and to use a variety of tools on our farm. Certainly biotechnology is a great thing and a good tool but I don’t want to discount what we’re working with. The quality of the hybrids that we have on the farm that just come from conventional breeding are really good as well.

Gaffney: Katie (Pratt) mentioned that the hybrids are so strong. DuPont Pioneer, for example, has been working on drought tolerant hybrids for the last 60 years. In the 1950’s we really got busy with drought tolerance and worked hard at it through traditional breeding. Then we can add to that herbicide tolerant traits or an insect control trait that accentuates those genetics and protects them even more, and you have a pretty powerful product. Add to that agronomic services to help with just the right timing and the amount of nitrogen, for just the right plant populations, and you have a pretty strong mix. What’s coming in the pipeline then would be another type of genetically modified trait to add even more drought tolerance and even more nitrogen use efficiency to what we’ve been building up for 60 years now with really good hybrids. We see a bright future for genetic traits and production agriculture under drought conditions or under good conditions like we’re seeing this year in the Midwest.


In response to this article, Whole Foods Market provided the following statement:

"We’re committed to offering shoppers the widest variety of high quality products possible, including items shoppers simply can’t find anywhere else. As national demand for Greek yogurt has grown, so have the number of conventional Greek yogurt options. We challenged our Greek yogurt suppliers to create new, innovative options for our shoppers to enjoy -- including exclusive flavors, non-GMO options and organic choices. Chobani has chosen a different business model, so we phased the line out of our stores to make room for choices that aren’t readily available on the market."


Check back next month for part two of this two part series, where we ask the experts about the challenges of government regulation, the reality of feeding many with fewer resources, and the future of GMOs.