genetic engineering

GMO 2.0 Overview

GMO 2.0 Overview 

By Quamyia Foye

Quamyia Foye is an undergraduate at UConn and attended GMO 2.0: Science, Society and the Future and wrote the following summary of the event, along with her perceptions.

 

Overview of Risks and Benefits of Genetically Engineered Crops

Dr. Paul Vincelli, extension professor and provost distinguished service professor from the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Kentucky, presented a presentation touching on the benefits and risks of genetically engineered crops. In the first part of Dr. Vincelli’s presentation, he discussed non-GMO breeding/ conventional breeding which is a less precise, controlled and more disruptive form of growing agronomic and horticultural crops. Since conventional breeding leans more to the traditional side some people prefer this method over genetic engineering. However, Dr. Vincelli made a very strong point, that when it comes to genetic change what matters is not how it is made but what it does. Genetically engineered crops, crops whose DNA has been modified using genetic engineering methods, are typically seen in a negative light due to it being ‘man-made’ even though there is no current scientific evidence that shows any negative effects. The greatest concern when it comes to genetically engineered crops is transgene flow. A transgene is a gene or genetic material that was genetically engineered from one organism to another. ‘The introduction of a transgene (called “transgenesis”) has the potential to change the phenotype of an organism (A. J. Clark 2011)”. Based off of this information it can be seen that when it comes to transgene flow an individual’s main fear and concern is that a different gene from completely different organisms can be passed along to an unrelated crop which is viewed as unnatural and unsafe by some people. However, that is not the case. Two examples of crops being genetically engineered and having positive benefits are aflatoxins and tomatoes. Aflatoxins in its natural state are one of the most potent carcinogens but due to gene splicing its carcinogenesis traits was reduced making it a safe substance and a disease resistant tomato was created with a single gene from a pepper. Just by simply modifying/inserting a gene these two crops were improved which in turn can be beneficial for farming and human consumption. At the end of this presentation, Dr. Vincelli stated that there is no umbrella GMO and that there are different applications for each type of plant. When it comes to genetically engineering crops it should be taken on a case by case basis therefore, nothing should be excluded since everything is unique in its own way.

GMO Plant Technologies

Dr. Yi Li, a professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at UConn CAHNR, discussed GMO plant technologies and its positive benefits. At the beginning of the presentation, he explained the process of transferring specific genes to crop plants. An example Dr. Li gave was how drought tolerant low yield corn plant was ‘combined’ with a drought sensitive high yield plant which created a drought tolerant high yield corn plant. This process first begins when plant p1, drought tolerant but low yield, drought gene is isolated and then precisely inserted into plant p2, which is drought sensitive but high yield which then produced the drought tolerant and high seed yield corn variety. Dr. Li then goes on to discuss how GMO plants are not monsters and that transgenic plants can occur naturally. For example, in the genome of a cultivated sweet potato, there is Agrobacterium T-DNAs with expressed genes. Since 1997 we have been consuming GMOs, and since then, there has been an increase in the production of genetically modified soybeans, cotton, and corn. Nearly 100 percent of these crops planted in the US are GMOs and up to 80 percent of packaged foods contain GMO ingredients. When some individuals see such high percentages, they often question what is being modified in the food that they are consuming. Typically, the mass majority of food that is modified has beneficial properties. For example, genetically modified apples have a longer time span of freshness. Golden rice is modified to prevent blindness, cotton is modified to resist certain insects, and there are genetically modified papayas that are virus resistant. There are also studies that show and prove that planting Bt corn, a type of transgenic corn that “produce the insecticidal proteins that occur naturally in Bt” (Bacillus thuringiensis), reduces the use of insecticide. Even with there being scientific proof that there are beneficial properties in genetically modified organisms some individuals will still try to discredit it and state that since it is man made there is bound to negative side effects. However, what many people do not understand is that GMO and traditional methods of crop production are fundamentally the same. Both traditional and GMO breeding methods are involved in gene transfer. The only difference is that with traditional breeding the first plant, which has the desired gene, and second plant create a new plant type that has a combination of both of the plant genes which includes the specific desired gene. When it comes to GMO breeding methods only the desired gene from the selected plant is inserted into the second plant. This results in a new plant species that has an almost identical genetic makeup of the second plant except it has the specific desired gene now apart of its DNA. Overall, there are three major plant breeding technologies which are, gene editing, traditional breeding, and genetically modified organisms. When it comes to public acceptance and effectiveness GMO is the most effective yet least accepted, gene editing is in the middle with both effectiveness and acceptance and traditional breeding is the least effective yet the most accepted. Based off of these results it can be seen that when it comes down to what is actually beneficial the public tend to lean towards their belief than the actual veracity. We need to use all possible tools to improve crop yield in order to feed the current population because based on the data presented it shows that as the world population increases the area which crops are grown decreases which can cause significant problems pertaining to the demand of food and the population.

GMOs and Big Agriculture in the US

Gerry Berkowitz, a professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, at the University of Connecticut CAHNR program presented both his work and that of Robert C Bird, professor of Business Law and Eversource Energy Chair Business Ethics, at the UConn school of business. Dr. Berkowitz touched upon the effect of GMO’s on agriculture and how we need to question what is being presented to us. He stated that we need to be aware that what we consider the ‘truth’ is based on the best evidence available, but that is not always, or often not, the final story. When it comes to certain issues, the public’s perception will usually conflate, which is to combine several issues into one. For example, there was a case where a groundkeeper sued Monsanto after he developed Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma after using Roundup various times throughout the day at extended periods. Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, is a known carcinogen which Monsanto, its manufacturer, failed to provide warning and appropriate information regarding the potential danger of the product. The judge, in this case, allowed evidence from internal emails and experts warnings, as well as a 2015 WHO-IARC classification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. The groundkeeper went on to win the lawsuit. When it came down to it, there was not even solid scientific evidence that Roundup is actually carcinogenic. As mentioned previously, in 2015 the WHO-IARC stated that Roundup was ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. The US EPA concluded that Roundup was ‘not likely to be carcinogenic’. Since there is no solid conclusive evidence the judge based his decision on Monsanto’s failure to provide information on the possible carcinogen. Due to the public perception of companies such as Monsanto and the misconstruing of what the case was about, after and during the case there was a lot of backlash concerning Monsanto GMOs, and its agrichemicals when in actuality this case did not pertain to GMOs or the toxicity of agrichemicals. Mr. Berkowitz also brought up the controversial topic of GMO labeling. He asked do consumers have a right to know where they are spending their money towards food and to link this to their value system? In simpler terms, do individuals have the right to know exactly what is in their food and should they be able to associate this with their beliefs and or the worth of the food? In the US, nearly 80 percent of consumers prefer to have GMO labeling laws, yet many companies oppose it. One viewpoint was that if GMO labeling did happen there would be an increase in non-GMO food prices. Mr. Berkowitz disagrees. Since we already have certified organic labeling, he believes that the real reason is that if products with GMO were labeled, there would be a reduction in purchases. Currently, when it comes to GMO labeling, Congress has passed national labeling law preempting state standards which were directed by the USDA to establish a labeling standard which can vary from an actual label to a QR scan.

My perception of the event

In conclusion, this event exhibited various perceptions and methods of GMO and overall did a splendid job. All the panelists were passionate about what they were discussing and were able to explain their topic in a clear and concise manner. I also enjoyed the crowd’s participation and engagement with the panelists and how they did not stray from asking tough questions. For example, one participant asked in terms of labeling would they prefer if a product simply stated it was genetically engineered or it stated which type of genetic engineering was done. Dr. Vincelli said he was in favor of labeling genetically engineered foods for social reasons and not scientific. He stated that he really did not have a good answer to completely explain his reasoning and also commented that he would not be in favor of the product stating what type of genetic engineering was used because it would be too complicated for individuals. Dr. Berkowitz explained that he supports labeling simply because the public supports labeling however he does not believe that it should be for genetic engineering types because people have problems with the technology and not the type of engineering. Dr. Li then stated that he prefers to eat GMOs than conventional produce, so he supports both types of labeling. This type of engagement provided extra insight into GMOs and the panelist viewpoints as well as gave the audience time to process new information and be able to process and put everything together. Ultimately, this event was a great experience and provided much insight into GMOs and how people perceive them.

For more information visit https://gmo.uconn.edu/

When did GMO become a dirty word?

man shopping in a grocery store aisle
Companies place the non-GMO label on their product as a marketing tool, either feeding off the fear generated by misinformation, or the demands of their consumers. (Stock photo via Anthony Albright, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Do you know someone with diabetes? While most people may associate GMOs with food products, their use actually began in the medical field with insulin.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved GMO insulin for use in October of 1982 after rigorous testing, clinical trials, and review. Prior to that, diabetics used insulin obtained from the pancreas of cattle or swine. Supplies were dwindling, and there was fear that the insulin shortage would result in negative health ramifications for patients. The recombinant DNA technology used, that we now refer to as GMOs, provided a safe and effective alternative. In fact, GMO insulin is a closer match to human insulin, and patients who could not tolerate insulin from a cow or pig can utilize GMO insulin without negative side effects.

Despite the benefits of GMOs, 80% of respondents to the 2018 Food and Health Survey Report from the International Food Information Council Foundation are confused about food or doubt their choices because of conflicting information. The report found that context of GMOs influenced consumer judgment. The Pew Research Center found that 49% of Americans think genetically modified foods are worse for one’s health. In short, many people may fear or be suspicious of GMOs, but there is a history of important effects that most people would applaud. Insulin is such a case.

Scientists create GMOs by changing the genetic code of a living being in some way. Plant and animal genetics have been altered for thousands of years through breeding. New technology lets scientists select a specific trait, instead of changing the entire genetic makeup. The medical, agricultural, and environmental fields all have GMO products.

Accepting or rejecting GMOs is an individual decision. However, all decisions consumers make should be based on facts. An overwhelming majority of scientists believe that GMOs are safe, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Information from science-based sources can be hard to find in the flood of information available on the Internet.

With that in mind, experts in agriculture, health and natural resources at the University of Connecticut (UConn) have established a web site (https://gmo.uconn.edu/) providing science-based information to help consumers make their own decisions about GMOs.

A handful of food products have approved GMO versions sold in the United States. These include: apples, canola, corn, papaya, pineapple, potatoes, salmon, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets. Insect resistant and herbicide tolerant crops are the two most common features in GMO varieties. Only specific varieties have a GMO version in many of these products, for example, the Arctic apple. The Flavr Savr tomato was introduced in 1994 as the first GMO food product, but is no longer sold because it lacked flavor.

Consumers benefit from GMOs. Although the benefits aren’t always noticeable when you’re browsing the grocery store, they include:

  • Improving food safety of products,
  • Lowering consumer food prices,
  • Protecting food supplies from insects,
  • Limiting food waste on the farm and in your fridge,
  • Reducing the carbon footprint needed for food production, and
  • Keeping the environment healthy.

Despite the benefits, negative perceptions about GMOs are wide-spread. Consumer knowledge and acceptance of GMOs has not matched the pace of adoption by the agricultural community. Experts in the field concur that GMO communication campaigns have failed to answer the “what’s in it for me” question for the public. The majority of campaigns only cite the benefits to farmers, and feeding a growing global population. Consumers commonly reference changes to nutritional content, or the creation of allergens as concerns with GMOs, although there is no evidence of either.

I notice negative perceptions about GMOs in the supermarket, when foods are labeled as non-GMO even though it’s impossible for them to contain GMOs. Salt doesn’t have any genetics to modify, although you’ll find some salt labeled as non-GMO. Cat litter is another example of a product that can’t have GMOs, but is labeled non-GMO.

Companies place the non-GMO label on their product as a marketing tool, either feeding off the fear generated by misinformation, or the demands of their consumers. People without a clear understanding of GMOs spread misinformation on the Internet. Much of what is shared lacks science-based facts and the rigors of peer review. A common tactic is connecting scientists to biotechnology corporations. Ironically, many of the campaigners in the anti-GMO movement are paid to share these messages.

Consumers should form their own opinions about GMOs from the wealth of available science-based information and experts. Instead of accepting and spreading misinformation, shouldn’t we ask more questions, and turn to reliable sources instead?

Article by Stacey Stearns

The American Chestnut Tree: A GMO Story

American Chestnut Trees once dominated our landscape. Then, a blight wiped most of them out. Researchers are using science to try and discover a way to revive these majestic trees. Watch the video to learn more.

Funding for this animation is from the UConn Extension Bull Innovation Fund and Northeast AgEnhancement.