Plant geneticist on GMOs: 'Food's an emotional issue, and people need to be better informed'

By Elaine WATSON

- Last updated on GMT

If you plot them both on a graph, the rise in diagnosed cases of autism correlates closely with the rise in sales of organic foods. So do organic foods cause autism? Of course not.

But people claiming that an increase in intestinal disorders are ‘caused’ by GM foods are making equally simplistic assumptions that confuse correlation with causation, according to Dr Wayne Parrott, professor of Crop Science at the University of Georgia, who was speaking at a session on genetic engineering at the IFT show last month.

We should also pay close attention to dosages used in studies alleging substance X causes health problem Y, he said. For example, if you feed a mouse 10lbs of cheese, it will probably die: “So is cheese dangerous?”

Similarly, if Sprague-Dawley rats get tumors after being fed substance X over a lengthy period, it might mean that substance X is bad news, or it might mean nothing of the sort, he said, as Sprague-Dawley rats will develop tumors regardless of what they are eating after a certain period of time.

“We need to get some perspective. GM crops are the most tested crops in all of human history.”  

We have changed our crops so much that only a trained botanist could recognize wild versions of most popular crops we grow commercially today

What we should be focusing on is not the novelty of the technology per se, but whether the food crop it generates has unique characteristics and attributes that may present risks, he said. 

Indeed, much of Dr Parrott's presentation was devoted to explaining that genetically engineering crops is something we have been doing since time began, with modern techniques enabling the process to become more precise, and predictable.

“People think that food crops are just found somewhere and have always been as they are now, but modern strawberries tomatoes or corn are nothing like what we were eating 300 years ago", ​he said.

“We have changed our crops so much that only a trained botanist could recognize wild versions of most popular crops we grow commercially today. So we’ve been genetically modifying our crops for centuries. All of these crops are different at the DNA level.”

Ever since there has been agriculture, farmers have been in an arms race with weeds

But what about the issue of herbicide-resistant GM crops, and ‘super weeds’?

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at our booth after his presentation, Dr Parrott said that the issue of weeds developing resistance to glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide) is a challenge, but not one unique to GM crops.

“Ever since there has been agriculture, farmers have had an arms race with weeds”, ​he said. ”Farmers find ways to kill weeds and the weeds find a way to overcome it.

“Every 10 years or so they have to find a new herbicide to maintain its usefulness, and in that regard GMOs are no different.

“It’s more of a management issue, but there is a new generation of GM crops coming on that will allow farmers to have better rotations and management practices to keep these problems down to a minimum.”

GM crops will be an important part of food security, but only a part of it

As for feeding the world’s growing population, GM crops are not a silver bullet he said, just part of the toolkit: “GM crops will be an important part of food security, but only a part of it.”

Asked whether he felt optimistic that there is some middle ground in this debate given how polarizing it is, he said educating people about how plant breeding works will be key.

“Food is an emotional issue and everyone needs to be well informed.”

Click here to watch our interview at IFT with Dr Bruce Chassy, Professor Emeritus of Food Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, on GMO labeling.

Click here​ to see all of our coverage on the GM debate. 

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5 comments

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Food is our nutrition and medicine. Hippocrates

Posted by Eva Dickman,

Genetically engineered foods are made to survive herbicides like Roundup and make their own pesticides. They are not modified to make them more nutritional. Biotech firms modify crops to sell more herbicides and pesticides, patent seeds and control farmers for profits. The whole system poisons our food, land, water and people. It is not an emotional issue. It is a criminal and unjust pollution of our thousands of years of food heritage. I for one will not buy any food that is GMO, which means I do not eat corn, soy, HFCS, oils, flour, papaya, factory farm meat, milk, etc. I look for "organic" or "non-GMO" labels or I do not eat it. If we lived in a country that banned or labeled GMO, it would not be difficult to find real food at the grocery store. Since the FDA rubber stamps without testing and releases GMOs into our food supply in our country, we have to take precautions to avoid all this poison. Therefore, I have a garden and cook my own meals because I do not trust restaurants either. Chicken has arsenic in the meat to fatten them up for profits, so we must buy organic poultry as well.

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Facts instead of emotional attacks,

Posted by Klaus Ammann,

Dear Jennifer, what a pity that you attack Prof. Parrott in such a low level emotional way, instead of coming with some simple facts. read the highlights from my article cited below

 GMO regulation is built on false premises in the EU and the Cartagena biosafety protocols.
 Molecular processes of transgenesis and natural mutation are similar
 It’s time to change GMO regulation towards a science based product oriented legislation
 Some legislations like the one from Canada rely on novel crops, conventional or GMOs

hoping that you read this text:
Ammann Klaus (20130415), Genomic Misconception. A fresh look at the biosafety regulation of transgenic and conventional crops: a plea for a process of agnostic regulation, open source, final version, in: New Biotechnology, 30, 50 and typeset 17, Ammann K., Neuchatel, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1871678413000605 AND http://www.ask-force.org/web/NewBiotech/Genomic-Misconception-20130415-names-links.pdf AND typeset corrected: http://www.ask-force.org/web/NewBiotech/Ammann-Genomic-Misconception-corrected-final-20130514.pdf

if you need explanations, please write to klaus.ammann@ips.unibe.ch

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Umm, not so fast

Posted by David,

Actually, viruses and bacteria transfer genes between kingdoms constantly. This is how GM scientists learned to transfer genes in the first place; they learned how bacteria do it every day in nature. Moving genes between species is not a human invention and one might postulate, based on data, it is one way God built in nature to help species adapt to changing environments. Regarding gene transfer in our guts, this seems like a huge stretch to me given how DNA is instantly blasted to pieces by stomach acid. Conceivably some DNA could be protected within partially digested food and could move into the intestinal tract, but bacteria take up random DNA when they are stressed, and the population retains the gene when it confers a competitive advantage. Unlike some soil bacteria, a Bt gene confers no advantage to intestinal bacteria. Also, even if we believe gene transfer can occur to gut bacteria from food, then EVERY gene we eat is a candidate for gene transfer, not just one or two that are GM. Given we eat several pounds of DNA every year, we consume a lot of genes!

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