science

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.

GMO 2.0: Science, Society and the Future

GMO panel flyer

GMO 2.0: Science, Society and the Future

Wednesday, April 24th

7 PM, UConn Student Union Theater, Storrs, CT

Finding understandable science-based information on GMOs is challenging for the public. Our project goal is to bridge the information gap surrounding GMOs with farmers and the general public.

Moderator: Dean Indrajeet Chaubey, UConn CAHNR

Speakers:

  • Paul Vincelli, Extension Professor & Provost Distinguished Service Professor, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Kentucky (focus area: overview of risks and benefits of genetically engineered crops)
  • Robert C. Bird, Professor of Business Law and Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics, UConn School of Business (focus area: Ethical/Legal/Social Implications of GMOs)
  • Yi Li, Professor, Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, UConn CAHNR, (focus area: GMO technologies/CRISPR)
  • Gerry Berkowitz, Professor, Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, UConn CAHNR (focus area: GMOs and big agriculture in the US?)

Download the flyer.pdf.

The event is free, but RSVPs are appreciated.

Join UConn for a Panel Presentation on GMOs

UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources is offering two events on the science of GMOs next week that we welcome you to attend.

GMO 2.0: Science, Society and the Future is on Wednesday, April 24th in the UConn Student Union Theater on the Storrs Campus at 7 PM.

The panel features four experts that have research connections to GMOs, and will be moderated by Dean Indrajeet Chaubey from the UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. Panel topics include the risks and benefits of genetically engineered crops; ethical, legal, and social implications of GMOs; CRISPR and other GMO technologies; and the future of GMOs and big agriculture. It’s open to anyone interested in attending.

The goal of the panel presentation is to provide science-based, and unbiased information on GMOs, and the misinformation around them. The panelists will present information in a non-science format for those unfamiliar with the terminology and nuances of the subjects.

GMOs: Answering Difficult Questions from your Customers is being held on Thursday, April 25th at 7 PM at the Tolland County Extension Center, 24 Hyde Avenue, in Vernon.

This presentation is specifically for farmers, but all are welcome to attend. Dr. Paul Vincelli from the University of Kentucky will give a presentation on the risks and benefits of GMOs, and answering questions about GMOs. His presentation will be followed by a question and answer session.

Both events are free for anyone to attend, but registration is requested for planning purposes. For more information on the events, or to register please visit https://gmo.uconn.edu/events/ or call 860-486-9228.

4-H in the Summer: Libraries Rock!

By Pamela Gray

geology puddingEvery summer, New London County 4-H provides programming to our local libraries. These partnerships benefit the libraries as 4-H provides technological equipment that are not affordable to individual libraries (especially the rural libraries in our county) and a range of experiential learning activities not readily available to libraries with limited staff. 4-H activities are easily adapted to fit any age group and is beneficial to every individual, regardless of their learning abilities. The theme this summer, 4-H Libraries Rock!, was a 7-session summer program giving participants the opportunity to do STEAM-related activities (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math).

Instead of taking a two month break from school, participants continued learning over the summer, promoting greater learning at school, more enthusiasm in the classroom, and a desire for experiential learning outside of the classroom. 4-H Libraries Rock! encouraged youth to work as a team, taught how problem-solving leads to success, and gave a general understanding of STEAM concepts.

A successful experience from the Janet Carlson Calvert Library (Franklin) involved young adults with special needs. These individuals were able to take part in the activity “ROCKets to the Rescue”. Together they assembled rockets made out of cardstock and launched by stomping on a soda bottle connected by PVC piping to the rocket (aka air propulsion). It was a challenge for the special needs participants using large motor skills to stomp on the soda bottle. However, with patience and assistance, they were thrilled to see their rockets shoot into the sky.

4-H Libraries Rock! programs at Groton Library and Otis Library (Norwich) reach a diverse community. The central locations of the libraries make them available to ozobot rocknroll dance partychildren and families who do not have transportation and need to depend on public transportation or walking. The majority of the youth participating in these programs make up urban demographics and may not have caregivers who are able to enroll their children in costly summer enrichment activities. 4-H’s involvement in these communities encourage and enhance youth’s cognitive development through the summer.

Today’s youth rely heavily on technology to solve problems and for some youth, experiential learning is intimidating. The first week of 4-H Libraries Rock!, youth made foil boats. They pulled out their cell phones, googling the best way to make a boat that will hold the most pennies before sinking. The 4-H instructor asked “Why would you use someone else’s knowledge when you have a brain of your own?” The phones were put away, and never came out again for the rest of the summer. Other kids engaged in negative self-talk: “This is stupid.” “This is not fun. Can I leave?” “I can’t do this.” Encouraging positive remarks, from the 4-H leaders and from kids to each other, such as “Let’s try again.” “That’s so awesome!” “Can I have help?” were game changers for the youth. They brought family members into the library to see what they were doing, and started each week with a ‘can-do’ attitude, no matter the activity or how challenging.

For more information on 4-H STEM activities, or how to get involved in 4-H, contact your local 4-H Program Coordinator here.

First Place in Storytelling with Maps

screen shot of story mapLast week at the Esri International User Conference in San Diego, UConn Center for Land Use Education and Research‘s Emily Wilson and Chet Arnold received the First Place Award in the Science/Technology/Education category of the Esri Storytelling with Maps Contest. There were over 400 submissions to the contest and only 5 first place winners. Over 16,000 GIS professionals from around the world attended the conference. As a result of the award, Emily was asked to present in two sessions with audiences of about 500 and 300 people, respectively.

A story map is a simple yet powerful way to engage an audience that combines interactive maps, data, text, graphics and images. Story Maps have become a major focus of Esri, the industry leader in GIS technology. Our story map, called Connecticut’s Changing Landscape, highlights information from the 25 year land cover series produced at CLEAR. See the winning story map at the link: http://s.uconn.edu/ctstory

Extension App Challenge

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The UConn Extension App Challenge is a contest to develop innovative apps that tie UConn’s research to real life. Students are invited to work with a UConn Extension faculty member to develop software applications for smartphones, tablets, or web browsers that create greater community access to UConn science, research, and information. Students developing the most innovative and effective apps

Student Prizes:

1st Place: $1500

2nd Place: $1000

3rd Place: $500

Winners of the UConn Challenge will also be entered into a regional Extension App Challenge with the possibility of additional cash prizes.

Contest Details:

The contest will be conducted in 3 Phases.

Phase 1 – Idea Submission (October – November 2014)

UConn faculty will submit app ideas for inclusion in the Challenge. The applications will be evaluated by a panel of judges for potential innovation, impact, and value to extension programming. The panel will then select the top 5 to 10 app ideas for students to work on. Students interested in joining the challenge can then choose which App they would like to help develop. To submit an idea go here.(link to idea submission page)

Phase II – App Development (November 2014 – April 2015)

Students will work closely with faculty to develop a working prototype of the App. Apps can be created on any platform or for any browser.

Phase III – App Presentation and Selection (May – June 2015)

Challenge Teams will submit a working prototype of the App and a brief 1-3 minute video demonstrating the App to the Judges for review. Judges will review the submission and select winners based on the evaluation criteria.

Eligibility:

All current, full-time UConn undergraduate and graduate students are able to participate.

For more information, contact extension@uconn.edu.

4-H Saturday Science

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Youth at the 4-H Saturday Science program.

Denise Coffey of the Reminder News covered the first 4-H Saturday Science Program at Windham County Extension:

“The Windham County Extension Center in Brooklyn hosted the first 4-H Science Saturday on Nov. 16. Program Coordinator Marc Cournoyer led a group of youngsters through “Maps and Apps,” an exercise in map-reading and map-making. With nods to technology and Rand McNally, the kids were given a chance to design their own maps.

The program is part of a larger effort on the part of national 4-H to boost the scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical skills and interests of youngsters. “Maps and Apps” was the national 4-H science experiment held for 4-Hers across the country. The experiment on Saturday required participants to use geographic information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS), grid paper and their own creativity in coming up with a map they could call their own.”

Read more…

Tolland County 4-H STEM Mini Field Trips

STEM Mini Field TripThe Tolland County 4-H Program, which is part of UConn Extension hosted three fun and educational adventures close to home that focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Junk Drawer Robotics allowed youth to become an engineer with things from around the house! We constructed: tooth brush eco-bots, marshmallow launching trebuchets, and a mechanical arm. Youth also discovered how to think like a scientist, communicate like an engineer, and build like a technician.

Science in the Kitchen focused on muffin madness, discovering my plate, staying safe in the kitchen, baking soda balloons, and much more! Getting messy in the kitchen has never been so much fun! Youth discovered the science of cooking while exploring amazing ways to be healthy and safe with food.

During Lost in the Woods, youth went on an adventurous nature hike where we used GPS to identify trees, orienteered to find hidden messages in letter boxes and played games to learn about wooded habitats.