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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 on 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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7 comments

Interesting but mostly irrelevant

I say irrelevant because it does nothing to calm the fears that have been stirred up over the GMO label and it does nothing to make the consumer more comfortable with the food they eat. The problem is the food industry has tried from the beginning to hide the fact that GMO foods are different. This was partially caused by the FDA and their requirements for extensive testing if GMO was declared to be different from other foods. For that reason, developers spent untold hours and dollars trying to show that adding a gene here or splicing the DNA there created no difference in the product. Hardly a believable result in my opinion.

This "cover up" has caused two problems. First, there were/are no long term (3-4 generations of animals) feeding studies to prove the safety of these products and in fact some companies have taken legal actions to prevent such studies. In addition, there were no public relations efforts to introduce this new product as a company would do if they introduced any other product improvement.

These two FDA created problems have caused the mess we face at present where the public is about to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. There are many good things that can be accomplished with the GMO process, but they will never be realized until we get over the current problem.

To this end I propose three specific actions 1 - Stop wasting money opposing GMO labeling efforts and embrace the activity. Get a national labeling law in effect that you everyone can live with just like those already in place some European countries. This will result in the loss of sales for a short while, but is necessary to get this problem out of the news and out of peoples minds. 2 - Start long term feeding studies and other test of the products. Allow, encourage and faciliate any one with the means to obtain seeds, products and other support to run any test they want on the product and publicize the results. 3- Begin a public relations champaign with the results showing the benefits and showing people that purchasing GMO products benefit them and society.

Until these steps are taken, educated people like me will continue to be fearful and feel the producers have something to hide. We currently have nothing but the opinions of "experts" like the ones quoted here to calm our fears and I am sorry to say that experts are easy to purchase with the kind of money available. This makes their testimony hard to believe no matter how sincere or truthful they may be.

Unfortunately these steps can not be taken at the moment because any such change in position will trigger the FDA to act so a change is law is required to get started, I suggest that everyone involved get started before it is too late and we wind up with thousands of disparate labeling laws at the state and even county and city level that completely kills the GMO process.

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Posted by Jerry W. Segers
07 August 2014 | 18h40

It's not True or False

Some GMOs have benefits that outweigh their problems, some do not. That's what we need to teach people, then we can have truth in labeling and it will be positive.

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Posted by Alex
26 July 2014 | 00h04

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

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