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Professor: What exactly is this mythical ‘pristine’ alternative to GMOs that presents no risks?

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By Elaine Watson+

14-Jul-2014
Last updated the 17-Jul-2014 at 02:17 GMT

Professor: What exactly is this mythical ‘pristine’ alternative to GMOs that presents no risks?

When consumers think about GMOs, they tend to contrast them with “some hypothetical alternative food that is pristine”, when in most cases, going ‘non-GMO’ just means returning to a food production system that is less efficient - and worse for the environment - said experts at a public hearing on biotechnology.

Indeed, if big companies go non-GMO, they won’t all convert to organic supply chains, but will instead source ingredients from firms producing crops via conventional agricultural techniques - the failings of which prompted the development of GM crops in the first place, one professor told a House of Representatives subcommittee on Wednesday.

But when consumers understand the actual choices on a case-by-case basis, rather than the generic mythical ones (dangerous + artificial vs safe + all-natural) they weigh up their options differently, said David R. Just, Ph.D, Professor and director of the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs at Cornell University.

 “For example, consumers would rather buy poultry that has been genetically modified to resist diseases than chicken that has been fed antibiotics to accomplish the same purpose.”

Consumers tend to consider genetic engineering as a “monolithic technology with a single set of characteristics”

The problem with the catch-all term “GMOs” is that consumers tend to consider genetic engineering as a “monolithic technology with a single set of characteristics”, that is set up in contrast with some mythical all-natural alternative, when in fact it is a multifaceted technology spanning thousands of applications, he added.

Professor Just: Consumers tend to consider genetic engineering as a “monolithic technology with a single set of characteristics"

“Generally, when consumers consider GMOs, they tend to regard them in comparison to some hypothetical alternative food that is pristine and presents no perceived health risk”, he told the House subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture. 

 “In reality, GMOs are often introduced specifically to eliminate the use of pesticides or other chemical treatments that can present a health risk. This is the case with Bt corn, one of the products consumers are most likely to encounter.” 

Genetically modified eggplant in India is helping to reduce pesticide use

Meanwhile, anti-GMO activists in wealthy countries are also those who list concern for developing countries among their highest priorities, he said, which was ironic given that “some of the most successful introductions of GMOs have occurred in developing countries” where low agricultural yields and high levels of disease are a huge problem - and farmers’ health is at risk from excess pesticide spraying to tackle disease.

David Just, PhD: 'Some of the most successful introductions of GMOs have occurred in developing countries.'

“Genetically modified eggplant in India is helping to reduce pesticide use and to increase the yields of relatively poor farmers... Genetically modified corn in Africa has helped reduce the prevalence of Mycotoxin Fumonisin in maize, which has been linked to esophageal cancer and birth defects.”

Researchers in Uganda are using biotechnology to reverse the trend of Xanthomonas wilt

Calestous Juma, PhD, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard, added:“Researchers in Uganda are using biotechnology to reverse the trend of Xanthomonas wilt, a bacterial disease that causes discoloration and early ripening of bananas and costs the Great Lakes region approximately $500m annually.”

In Nigeria, meanwhile, the insect Maruca vitrata destroys nearly $300m worth of blackeyed peas and forces farmers to import pesticides worth $500m annually, she said. A GE pest-resistant variety could change this overnight.

There are similar benefits for developed markets, she said, citing transgenic papaya, “which helped save the industry in Hawaii” by tackling a virus that nearly decimated the industry. It now accounts for 77% of the papaya grown in Hawaii.

However, the biggest opportunity probably lies in the development of drought-tolerant maize, sugarcane, wheat, and rice, she said.

Click HERE to read more testimony from the hearing.  

Click HERE to read about the explosive growth in Non-GMO Project verification scheme. 

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5 comments

What about antibiotic resistance?

While this article makes a fairly reasonable claim for why GE foods exist, these researchers need to address what the most of the general public is concerned about when it comes to the consumption of GMOs, and that is their perceived ability to create antibiotic resistance in the body. Can this issue be addressed so that both sides can be presented and the individual can make an informed decision on whether buying organic and non-gmo is worthwhile or not.

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Posted by Kim Lucero
22 July 2014 | 23h00

If nature could not possibly do it, we should look carefully,

Introducing foreign proteins into a plant that could not otherwise have those proteins except for ge is a potentially dangerous thing to do to our food. Add to that the tendency to overuse pesticides and herbicides, and you have the cause of glyphosate in breast milk. Anyone with high school science can understand it, if explained correctly and honestly.

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Posted by Lydia Freund
18 July 2014 | 22h26

Who owns the food of the future?

Aside from conflicting reports about whether certain GM crops need more or less water/pesticides, the threat as I see it is who will own the products? When will it become illegal for me to grow any kind of food without paying for the right?

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Posted by Mrs. M
18 July 2014 | 18h08

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