The finding, based on a poll of almost 2,000 US adults surveyed in May, underscores a substantial lack of knowledge at the consumer level about the basics of GMOs, let alone how they might impact human health and that of the environment.
This episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-to-Nuts podcast tackles some of the science behind genetic engineering, including what exactly it is, and how it compares to more traditional breeding techniques and the evolution of crops without human interference.
“Genetic engineering is the intentional modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material. So the concept is nothing new. Humans have been practicing genetic engineering for thousands of years. But what is new and continues to evolve is the tools that we have available to … make our crops more resistant to diseases and pests and sometimes to even make them taste better to us,” says Jill Wheeler, head of sustainable productivity in North America for Syngenta, a biotech company that conducts genomic research and produces agrochemicals and seeds.
She walks listeners through this evolution of genetic engineering from a time when all humans could do was observe crops and save the seeds to the ones they liked the best through the development of intentional breeding and hybridization in the 1800s and the discovery of DNA in the 1950s, which ultimately led to scientists discovering 20 years later how to cut and add DNA of one organism to another.
She also talks about more recent developments, such as marker assisted selection and the newest genetic engineering tool CRSIPR/Cas-9, which allows scientists to snip out DNA for unwanted traits.
Recognizing that genetic engineering can feel “frightening” to those who don’t know what it is, Wheeler further breaks down genetic engineering by comparing it to what happens in nature without human interaction and to more traditional breeding, which can include the use of chemicals, x-rays and gamma radiation to induce mutations.
Ultimately, she says, the latter options are less precise than genetic engineering.
“We talk about Frankinfoods, but remember Dr. Frankenstein had a fair amount of trial and error in his work and we are actually doing a lot better than that in our modern genetic engineering methods, which have far more precision and far more predictable results than chemical and radiation induced mutation or even natural plant cross-breeding,” she said.
How does farming GMO crops compare to that of conventional crops?
Brian Scott, who farms more than 2,000 acres of GMO and conventional crops in Indiana, also explains in this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-to-Nuts podcast, what it is like to grow genetically engineered crops side by side with those developed through breeding and other techniques.
He notes that the “contamination risk” of GMO crops mixing with conventional crops is in many ways less of an issue than the risk posed by his popcorn crops to nearby seed corn. And, in both cases, farmers can take basic precautions to protect the crops, such as spacing the planting so they are not pollinating at the same time and planting extra rows of crops around the outer edge of the field to create a barrier.
“There are quite a few issues out there that people seem to think are only related to GE, but it is more of a general practice and farming than whether or not the crop is Round-Up ready or Bt,” he said.
The impact of GE on human health
A major concern among consumers is that genetic modification is increasing the risk and prevalence of allergies, but Wheeler says that while genetic engineering can cause different proteins to be expressed by plants and that proteins can be allergens, GM crops are “rigorously” assessed for allergenic and toxic properties.
“Any new protein from a GM food has to pass three different tests that scan for potentially allergic reactions. So that is part of the reason that ag-biotech products are the most stringently tested food products on the market, and we actually know far more about them than any other foods that we eat including organic, many of which are produced by those other mutation processes,” Wheeler said. “From the research that we do know there have not been any substantiated instances of GM foods causing allergenic illness or reactions in people, and we believe that is because the standard of rigor in the R&D process.”
She also notes that scientists are using the genetic modification to identify which proteins in peanuts cause severe, life-threatening allergic reactions and ultimately create a safer peanut.
GMOs impact on the planet
Genetically engineered crops are changing how farmers, manage and harvest crops and their land, and in some ways providing environmental benefits, Scott and Wheeler say.
Scott notes that while he uses Round-Up ready corn, he rarely uses Round-Up and in many cases uses fewer other herbicides and insecticides than with conventional crops.
“So another big question that people ask is well then why do you buy the Round-Up ready,” Scott said. “Two reasons. A lot of times we found the hybrids we like the best that work best for us on our farm and they just happen to be Round-Up ready. Also you have that tool in your toolbox if you have something later on in the season …. So it is there if we want it, but that doesn’t mean we have to use it.”
Using GMOs also has helped Scott and others reduce the amount they till the land, which Scott explains can lead to soil erosion that pollutes nearby bodies of water. And, as an extension, reduce the amount of fuel used on the farm, Scott said.
Genetic engineering also can help farmers adapt with changes in the climate and weather patterns, Wheeler said. For example, she noted that some GMO corn fields can produce the same yield with less water than conventional corn and produce 15-17% more yield under drought conditions.
The full extent to which genetically engineered crops can benefit the planet and help farmers adapt “in some ways remains to be seen and a lot of it remains to be seen in terms of acceptance,” Wheeler said, adding: “There is so very much that we can do and a lot will depend on what we are allowed to do.”