GMOs are not monsters

London’s Times Online had a great editorial about GMOs this past week, called “Frankenstein foods are not monsters.” It’s a sort of wake-up call to England and Europe, saying that the benefits of genetic engineering far outweigh hypothetical dangers that are based more on gut feeling than science and that still haven’t manifested. Unfortunately, the site’s comment feature isn’t working, but I’d like to give a “Bravo” to
The piece is full of scathing comments directed to detractors. Regarding the anti-GMO fervor:

The world has moved on. Food is no longer frivolous. It is serious and expensive and even if the price surges in wheat, rice and corn abate, the longer-term outlook for food is inflationary, with population growth and affluence stimulating demand for grain while climate change and high energy costs hinder farm output.

A shining example of the benefits of genetic engineering over conventional (and even organic) methods can be found in potatoes that are resistant to blight (the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine in 1845), and this is the example that this author chooses to use.
Resistance is the result of two genes from a wild potato relative. It is possible that modern potatoes could be crossed with the wild relative, but the results would be unpredictable. Many generations of breeding would be necessary to get the hybrid back to what we think of as a potato, and the result still might harbor natural poisons (potatoes are related to nightshade).
Biotechnology makes possible a “cut and paste” so we can have blight resistant potatoes right now, without any unwanted genes. Unfortunately, the potatoes will not be available for use in Europe until about 2014 or 2016 – due to the required 8 to 10 years of testing [Farmers Weekly].
What I didn’t know is that potato plants are often sprayed with fungicide as a preventive. Blight prevention is 7% of total growing costs, and includes: “two treatments of Epok (mefenoxam (metalaxyl-M) plus fluazinam), followed by Electis (zoxium + mancozeb) alternating with Ranman TP (cyazofamid plus adjuvant) up until desiccation [Dow UK].” Surely, this huge amount of chemicals can not be better than resistance genes from a wild potato relative!
According to “Eschewing modern fungicides, about 30 per cent of Britain’s organic farmers last year took the Victorian option of spraying bordeaux mixture, a solution of poisonous copper sulphate on their crop.” Copper sulfate is fairly toxic, especially in the long term. It’s certainly not something I’d want to expose anyone to – especially when there is a safe and chemical-free alternative.
The piece is concluded with the following:

There were riots last year in Senegal over food prices. In France, José Bové is on hunger strike to force the Government to ban GM crops. In Europe, we have the technology, the funds and the minds to solve problems, but our hearts are lost in the past.

I ask, who is this José Bové to dictate what other farmers in France and around the world choose to plant? He certainly has the right to choose which foods he wants to eat, what he wants to plant on his land, and even to speak out about his feelings on the subject – but I think it’s absolutely amoral to use your public influence to make people’s lives more difficult. The people hurt by his ramblings aren’t Monsanto and Syngenta (happily making money in the US, Latin America, and Asia) but poor farmers in Africa and India that could really benefit from the higher yields and decreased chemical inputs that genetic engineering has to offer. People like José Bové are all complaints and no solutions, which is not a very productive way to be.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

7 comments

  1. You say GMOs are not monsters .I tend to agree and say the Monsters are the AgBiotech industry bullies like Monsanto and Syngenta and the governments they have corrupted that wish to foist this unsafe, unproven, environmental folly down our throats.Nofarmer ever asked for this tripe. No consumer was ever demanding transgenic food be available. No grocer ever put the pressure on her suppliers for food that had exotic genetics so that some multi-national chemical corporation could patent the seeds and effectively own a life form and put farmers into bankruptcy or worse, cause them to take their own lives! Your precious GMOs are responsible for more than 250,000 farmersuicides in India because of false promises and untenable contraccts re: GMOs and the resulting petro-chemical inputs needed to make them grow, maybe.And there is not a single independepent study backing up the claims of the AgBiotechs that their GMOs have higher yields.But there is a wea;th of information that clearly shows whatever the yield there are health risks and environmental degradations. No ma’am, your sipposed saviour of GMOs are a non solution looking for a problem. And M Bove has the best solution going which is organic and bio-intensive.That is the future of agriculture in a post peak oil world.we don’t need to be switching genes from one species to another with no clear idea of what the total ramifications are and letting this loose in the wild. we need to study the soil more to truly understand and comprehend what makes a healthy soil and what makes it produce even under stresses like prolonged drought .Healthy soil is where the answers lie.
    And according to the FAO there is currently a food surplus on the planet.It’s not as if we need GMOs to feed the starving, 99% of the time that is a political problem, not a food crisis.

  2. “Biotechnology makes possible a “cut and paste” so we can have blight resistant potatoes right now, without any unwanted genes.”

    And not just a few varieties of potatoes. Those opposed to GMOs assume the result of genetic engineering will be a loss of genetic diversity, that only a few varieties of each plant will be grown, and that traditional varieties will be lost.

    Certainly not so for potatoes. Once someone has isolated the resistance genes, it is not difficult or even expensive to put such genes into different lines. Our laboratory, using a gene isolated by Dr. John Helgeson of the University of Wisconsin, has transformed at least five commonly grown varieties of potatoes, making them late blight resistant.

    And we are currently helping researchers in Asia transform LOCAL varieties, preferred by small local farmers, so they will be late blight resistant. This work will substantially reduce the use of fungicides, raise farmer income, improve yields, and preserve local culture. All very good things.

    Oh… and the farmers will be permitted to save and replant the tubers… they will not become dependent on a large corporation.

  3. It makes me very happy to hear about farmers benefiting from “simple” tweaks such as this. Why use fungicide when you can just have resistant plants?

    Your comment brings up a lot of questions for me. Because these potatoes contain only potato genes (the combination could be obtained by breeding), do you have to do all the testing that is required of other GMOs? How would they be distributed to farmers? Do you have to consider patenting of techniques such as Agrobacterium transformation before you distribute? I ask these questions because there are so many types of modifications that could be beneficial – but it seems like the only ones in the marketplace are BT and RoundUp Ready. I’m really looking forward to seeing more of these plants actually in use.

  4. nosmokes, I plan to make some posts addressing your concerns about genetic engineering. I had been writing a long comment, but decided it would be better to make actual posts about each topic. So, thank you for your comments, and I hope that you continue to read my blog so we can discuss the important issues concerning genetic engineering. I welcome your future comments, and hope that you will keep your mind open.

  5. I do try and keep an open mind regarding this but then I come across something like what John posted where he claims they simply *cut and paste* genetic information into a plant’s genome but it’s not nearly that precise is it, John? The new DNA is implanted by one of two methods, neither of which allows any measure of precision as to where this new strand of geneticmaterial will land and how it will interact awith and affect the already existing genetic material which has evolved over how many generations? and what are those methods? either blast the material in w/ a .22 calibre pistol or place it inside a virus and infect the plant with the virus containing the new DNA.We call that hit and miss on the farm where I come from.I would love to see all the so called promises of Ag Biotech come true.The sad fact is I have witnessed exactly the opposite.I believe strongly that releasing this technology into the wild w/o proper long range testing will prove to be one of our biggest mistakes ever. It’s ironic that we should have kept essentially sterile rocks from the moon under heavy duty security and lock and key and yet we allow some of the most criminal corporations in the world release new life forms that can interbreed with existing ones that form the basis of our food stock. It isn’t as if they couldn’t afford airplane style hangars that were set up with negative air pressure so contaniments stayed inside.I’m no Luddite, but I have yet to see a single case where a GMO lived up to it’s press release and I know of quite a few instances where the introduction of GMOs has been very harmful to everyone involved except the patent holder and a tragedy for the environment, The Moneyand energy put into Agricultural genetic engineering devoted to soil sciences and organic farming techniques then we would have really gotten our money’s worth.

  6. Hello nosmokes.

    I’d like to briefly comment on the precision of “cut and paste”, though Anastasia might be familiar with recent developments in transforming plants.

    The most common method we use is infection by Agrobacteria, which transfer a defined piece of DNA — right down to the last nucleotide — into a plant cell. We know the DNA sequence. Yes, it is randomly inserted. We regenerate plants from infected cells. At this point we can determine precisely where the new DNA is inserted, whether it is inserted into a functional gene, and whether it has undergone any changes during the infection/regeneration process. So, it is not a precise event, but the product is easily characterized so we know what has been accomplished.

    The other method we use is bombardment of cells with a gene gun, followed by regeneration of plants. We do not use a .22 caliber pistol! Defined pieces of DNA — again, right down to the last nucleotide — are attached to tungsten or gold beads. Helium is used to propel the beads into the plant tissue. Once it enters the cell, it is inserted via recombination into a precise location in the genome depenendent on the new genetic material’s DNA sequence. The researcher determine the insertion site. This can be easily confirmed for each regenerated plant. We created at least 100 plants by this method and the new DNA always ends up exactly where we expected it to go.

    I’m not familiar with the use of viruses for transforming plants, but given that viruses often contain signals directing DNA to specfic locations, I would not be surprise if the method was more precise than you imagine.

    I’m confident Anastasia has or will explain some of this in detail.

  7. Hello Anastasia.

    Replying to your questions about the potatoes…

    The genetically modified potato contains a gene not found cultivated potatoes, it is from a wild potato, so it has to go through the usual regulatory hoops. It also has to be tested for glycoalkaloids, but I’ve been told all new potato varieties go through such tests because simply breeding different varieties can affect the level of glycoalkaloids in the progeny. Sort of like celery, cross two safe plants and the progeny might contain a phototoxic chemical.

    The project in question is coordinated by Cornell Univiersity and funded by USAID. You can go to http://www.absp2.cornell.edu/ to find more information. Click around a bit and you will find the potato project, but I suspect you’ll be more interested in the other stuff going on.

    Regarding patents, I believe Monsanto is involved. But it is not clear to what extent they are donating rights to use patented technology, as they did in the case of the African scientist and sweet potatoes I mentioned elsewhere. Much of my information came directly from visiting scientist from Asia. If you want to know more, I suggest contacting the folks at Cornell.

    There is clearly a lot more going on than meets the eye. Not just Bt and RoundUp research. ABSPII is working on getting useful genetically engineered bananas, eggplant, groundnut, papaya, potato, rice, and tomatos to people who desperately need them.

Comments are closed.