The University of Maine at Machias recently held a panel discussion on genetically modified foods, as a part of its ongoing “Food and Community” series of events. Panelists for the discussion were: Maine organic farmer Jim Gerritsen, president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association; John Jemison, water quality and soil specialist with University of Maine Cooperative Extension; Eric Jones, assistant professor of plant biology at University of Maine at Machias; and Andrei Alyokhin, professor and graduate coordinator with University of Maine’s School of Biology and Ecology. The panel briefly introduced their views on genetic engineering and its use in our food system, and then answered questions from the audience.
Types of Genetic Engineering
“All of the traditional vegetables that you eat are genetically modified organisms. They’ve been selectively bred to produce the types of things that we like,” Jones said. For example, broccoli, Brussel sprouts and cauliflower all were bred from common field mustard.
The difference with genetic engineering is that instead of selectively breeding — using the process of natural selection and sexual reproduction — genes are taken out of one organism and inserted into the genome of another. This leads to the creation of transgenic crops. “Now you can actually take genes from organisms that are not even in the same kingdom, and break down species barriers.”
Basically, scientists can now put together a gene piece by piece, building it the way they want it, and insert it into an organism, he explained. Jones is not opposed to genetic engineering per se. Diabetics, he said, often depend on insulin, which is produced via genetically modified yeasts. The yeasts are genetically altered by having insulin-producing genes inserted, allowing them to produce large quantities of needed insulin.
“It has great potential, I think, to help people,” Jones said of genetic engineering. “There are some really great things that can come out of this type of technology. A distinction needs to be made between the tool and how it is used.”
Alyokhin made the differentiation between three types of transgenic modifications which impact our food system. He believes that each should be addressed independently, in order to avoid “misunderstanding when all three are lumped together.”
The first type of transgenic plants is herbicide resistant. A plant is given a gene that allows it to be treated with an otherwise toxic herbicide without being harmed. Glyphosate resistance, or “Roundup Ready” seeds, fall into this category.
The second type of transgenic crop is that which contains a toxin to insects. This includes the popular varieties of Bt sweet corn. Bacillus thuringiensis, a very common soil bacteria which has toxic effects on some insects, is inserted into a plant genome so the plant’s tissues exude the toxin, and the plant is offered protection from the insect. Bt has traditionally been used in organic agriculture to control damaging insects. Genetic engineering has made it possible to insert the Bt, raised in fermentation tanks, directly into the plant’s genome, rather than sprinkle it on plants.
“Genes were moved from bacteria into plants,” Alyokhin explained, so the plant produces its own Bt. The toxins produced by the bacteria attack and kill insects, but “have no affect on humans” or animals, because of our “different gut structure” from that of insects, he said.
The third type of transgenic crop is a value-added product, where a certain beneficial trait, such as improved starch content or resistance to cold, is transferred from one organism to another, Alyokhin said. Food could be genetically modified to withstand floods or to provide additional vitamins, for example.
“The majority of all genetically engineered plants which are grown commercially, on millions of acres worldwide,” fall into the herbicide resistant or insecticide-producing categories, Alyokhin said.
Jemison said that is it relatively easy “to get a plant to produce a toxic protein,” but “a whole other issue to get plants to do more complicated things,” such as fix nitrogen or withstand drought. While there may be some areas where GE crops could fit a specific need, genetically engineered crops should not be the only tool in the box.
Outlook for GE Crops
“I see the least long-term promise for this one,” Jones said of the herbicide-resistant crops. Resistant weeds are already showing up across the nation, and the impact on the soil is detrimental. “Making soil toxic, is, I think, a bad idea,” Jones said. “Nutrient content of soils is very important.” When farmers plant the same crops in successions repeatedly, they are depleting the soil and building up large amounts of herbicide residue. Herbicide resistant crops can encourage this practice.
Gerritsen cited studies which raise the concern that long-term use of GE crops does have an impact on human health. Glyphosate “ties up essential minerals” in plants, and absorbing quantities of it over time can potentially add up to the same effect in humans. “There is the concern that the transgenic form of Bacillus is not just passing through” the digestive system, either, Gerritsen said.
Jemison voiced concern that genetically engineered crops are “the same, but different” than non-GE crops, according to the government’s own double-standard. They are “the same,” and therefore don’t require specific testing, but they are different, because they are awarded patents.
Genetically engineered crops are an issue with a lot of gray areas. Putting all of our resources into genetically engineered crops is not a helpful solution, Jemison said. He believes that “for the most part, a well-transitioned organic system can produce a great deal of high quality food.” Alternatively, “I can tell you a lot of specific cases where a transgenic crop could fit a need in somebody’s operation, to solve a particular problem,” he said.
“If you have a glyphosate resistant crop, you can guarantee that it is being doused with glyphosate,” Gerritsen said. Consumers have the right to know whether foods are grown from genetically engineered seeds, or contain such ingredients.
Gerritsen does not believe that labeling will be greatly beneficial to organic farming. Currently, the only way to know for sure that food is not genetically modified is to purchase certified organic products. By labeling food, a new player — conventionally grown, non-genetically engineered foods — will emerge to take a market share, and some consumers may abandon organic products for these conventionally-grown, non-genetically modified crops, he said.
In Europe, where food is labeled, imported products from the United States are made without genetically modified ingredients because consumers are not selecting products with genetically engineered ingredients. If food corporations are already using non-genetically modified ingredients where labeling is required, it follows that they will do the same in the U.S. if labeling is required, Gerritsen said.
Labeling will “allow the market finally to work,” Gerritsen said. “We deserve that freedom, that transparency, that right to know. The public does not want these GMO crops.”
All panelist agree that labeling is a must, so that consumers can make their own choices regarding genetically engineered crops. Consumer education and understanding of genetically engineered crops is another concern. None of the panelists believe that genetically engineered crops are needed to solve the world’s perceived food shortages. Banning genetically engineered crops may or may not be in our best interests, but the right of consumers to know what, exactly, is in their food is in everyone’s best interest, and was not in debate.