GMOs are not so mysterious

    Dr. Stephen Moose, professor of plant genomics in the Department of Crop Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, chats with Lexi Gomez, center, and Lorraine Claros, students from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, prior to our February meeting where he discussed biotechnology and genetically modified crops.

    GMOs are not so mysterious

    GMO (genetically modified organisms) or biotechnology is a process with which we have quite a bit of familiarity. Biotechnology is the use of a biological process to make a product, such as bread, cheese and wine, Dr. Stephen Moose, professor of plant genomics in the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, told the February 8th gathering of The Chicago Farmers.

    He noted that modern biotechnology uses DNA, the carrier of genetic information. Dr. Moose noted that biotechnology helps us improve upon nature. For example, it has helped scientists to reprogram gut bacteria to make human insulin for medical use. “Almost all insulin is produced in a lab using genetic engineering,” said Dr. Moose.

    “We have been doing genetic modifications for a long time,” he related. “Innovations in agriculture and our scientific abilities have allowed us to modify genetics to our liking. Human intervention has changed crops to what we have today, such as drought and insect resistant corn that grows well in the Midwestern climate. Technology improvements have continually increased corn yield and biotechnology is part of that.”

    Dr. Moose noted that if we understand the differences in genes, we realize that a gene from one plant can be programmed and used in another plant to develop a beneficial trait. “We are mixing and matching DNAs that work better than nature intended,” he observed.

    Almost all table squash are genetically modified, as well as soy beans that have been genetically engineered to improve cooking results. That brown color that appears on wedges of apples to discourage hungry insects? Apples are being engineered so that browning is “dialed down” to make the apples more appealing to people, Dr. Moose shared.

    Dr. Moose said that genetic engineered crops have a number of benefits:

    • more efficient in controlling weeds and insects
    • use less energy, chemicals and labor
    • reduce soil erosion
    • improve product quality
    • safer than spraying

    Concerned about ingesting DNA? Research has shown, Dr. Moose said, that eating DNA is not harmful. He points out that breast milk contains more DNA than anything else that people consume.

    Dr. Moose said that people’s concern about the development of superbugs in response to overuse of a chemical, is not completely valid. “It is possible, but that was happening prior to the use of GMO,” said Dr. Moose. “It is up to the farmer to be a good steward. Don’t overuse or abuse; resistant super bugs are not unique to GMOs.”

    Regarding GMO seeds, Dr. Moose said the testing of the seed is rigorous and there is oversight by the government. While the government plays a major role in getting an approved genetically engineered seed to market, it is the companies’ that fund the cost of development, and if there is an issue with the product, it is a company’s responsibility, not the government.

    Regarding labeling products that contain GMOs, Dr. Moose related that labeling is covered by the 1938 Food and Drug Act, which provides that the risks of an ingredient must be known before labeling can occur. He noted that several states have had movements encouraging labeling and Vermont did pass a law mandating labeling; however, this inhibits interstate commerce; trade barriers cannot be established in the United States. This matter is in the courts now.

    GMOs have gotten poor receptions in many areas due to the media campaign against them. Also, people who are not connected to food, do not know the benefits of GMOs. “The more people know about GMOs, the better,” said Dr. Moose. “In 25 years of using GMOs, the risks have not materialized, but we should still be cautious. There is a thorough review of products by the government, so we have not had problems.”

    Downsides of GM? The seeds are more expensive, is the value worth it? Also, a farmer may be paying for two traits in a seed when he only needs one of the traits.

    Dr. Moose was asked whether genetically engineered insecticides contributed to “sterilized” agricultural soils compared to neighboring woodlands. Dr. Moose said he does not support the notion that GMOs lower soil biodiversity. “Any managed environment will be different from what is found in the woods. GM would only be a part of differences in soil quality. Amendments are necessary.”