When you hear the words genetically modified organism, GMO, or gen-mod food, what is your initial reaction? Does the thought of a scientifically manipulated fruit or vegetable make your mouth water? Or does it turn your stomach?
As a science writer, the topics I choose to cover vary from the mundane to the controversial, but I rarely see feather ruffling like I do when GMOs enter the conversation. Often the list of questions evoked is longer than the list of pros and cons we can draft on our own. Should we be tinkering with the genomes of plants to make them heartier, tastier, more nutritive? Does this process reduce their safety? Do consumers need to know whether their food has been genetically modified? And while we're at it, what exactly is genetic modification?
Seeking answers, I reached out to Dr. Kevin Folta, a professor in the plant molecular and cellular biology program at the University of Florida. His lab researches the role of novel genes in strawberries, and he's also a science communicator. He writes often about the role of GMOs in modern society, attempting to shed light on this often misunderstood science.
KEVIN FOLTA: I look at the scientists around me and the scientists I know, and you look at the anti-GMO activists, and we agree with them on just about every issue. We care about the environment, we’re into worker safety, we want to feed more people better nutritious food, we want to have sustainable ways to grow food, but we differ on this one area. And it’s really disappointing because we know a lot about it, we understand it, we understand it inside and out, so to us it doesn’t scare us.
CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. And that's Dr. Kevin Folta. He's a professor in the plant molecular and cellular biology program at the University of Florida, and his lab researches the role of novel genes in strawberries. He's also a science communicator. He writes often about the role of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, in modern society.
KF: Anytime a scientist comes out and says something positive about technology the first thing that comes is, ‘Well you must work for Monsanto.’ None of us or most of us never got a dime from Monsanto, yet we’re always accused of being on their side because we’re on the side of science. In reality, the problem with Monsanto and the issues with Monsanto is that they’re a company and they’re a huge agronomic company, a multinational company with many facets in agriculture. The company and their business practices and their social practices has to be considered separate from the science.
CSM: Speaking of the science, I was under the impression that pretty much everything we eat has been manipulated one way or another--genetically modified--with a goal of making better food. Kevin told me that although genetic modification refers to any means of manipulating an organism's genome, whether through age-old breeding techniques like hybridization or newer lab-based approaches, most anti-GMO activists speak out against transgenic plants, those who have received a targeted insertion or deletion of a single gene sequence.
KF: The controversy is really curious to scientists, because scientists like me really realize that we’ve been using all kinds of genetic manipulation techniques, whether it's plants have been subjected to radiation, they've been subjected to all kinds of chemical modifications for 50 years to get more genetic variation, which can be incorporated for improved plant products and improved plant performance. So the scientists, we think, well, this addition of one extra gene shouldn’t really matter. We’ve been mixing hybrids where 50,000 genes mix with 50,000 genes, and we don’t have any idea what those genes are doing. Yet that’s perfectly acceptable. But if you add one gene of known function that you can trace, and you know what it does, and you know what it encodes, somehow that’s causing controversy. That’s a real paradox to scientists who study this area.
CSM: At the top of the agenda for many anti-GMO activists is an initiative to include a label on all genetically modified food indicating it as such. The more we know about what we eat, the better, right? What could be wrong with that? But Kevin warns about the hidden downside.
KF: I think the major problem that we will see from the labeling initiative is that activists that have initiated this legislation, or this proposed legislation, will use a label as a warning label. And it won’t just be there for information, saying this product may contain genetically modified ingredients, what it will turn into is a way of targeting that particular product, by using all of the disinformation that’s out there, all of the bad websites, all of the bogus information that’s propagated in this area to leverage maybe a political or business agenda against the companies that create transgenic foods. And even in the absence of any scientific evidence that says they’re dangerous, they will go ahead and show and convince people that they’re dangerous. I think the problem that we have there is a supply and demand one. Once you’re able to scare people away from 70 percent of the food that’s out there, now you’re going to see higher prices and fewer consumer choices and that will affect the poorest people most first.
CSM: Did you hear that? 70 percent of the food on our shelves is transgenic. Now don't get me wrong, there are some risks involved. Since large quantities of herbicide are used on crops that were engineered to be herbicide-resistant, we're starting to see weeds that have developed that same resistance. These weeds can invade nearby farmlands and cause problems for local farmers. But, Kevin says that the benefits outweigh the risks.
KF: I think that there’s a tremendous benefit that we can see from, on so many levels, from being able to use transgenics in useful ways. We need to be able to feed more people higher quality food with less environmental impact, and to me all of those things are in the hands of being able to rapidly generate new plant lines and new production practices, whether it’s improved organic and sustainable practices, whether it’s better conventional practices, or conventional breeding, transgenics should be part of that.
CSM: What do you think about transgenic food? Sound off on Twitter, Facebook, or leave a comment right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!