GMO Crops

Corn @Tacoma LAHI was reading an article about purslane (a weed). The author scolded anyone who would pull it up and toss it. She recommended eating it because it offers “amazing health benefits.” The article had a long list of these nutritional benefits (it was a little too good to be true, so I intend to verify them at some point), but the one that caught my eye was “It is GMO free, ….”

Of course it is.

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Genes from another organism are inserted into the DNA of the target crop. It’s different from the traditional method used in breeding new cultivars in that these genes typically (but not always) aren’t in that plant to start with, so there’s no way to select for them. They have to be introduced in a laboratory.

There are three main reasons why crops are genetically modified.

Yellow zucchini_IMG_20130708_142500The first is disease and insect resistance. For example, the two varieties of GMO squash are resistant to some viruses that previously decimated the crops. Adding the gene that codes for the toxin in Bt means that crops don’t need to be sprayed with pesticides. And by the way, crops have long been sprayed with Bt (which is approved for use on organic produce) or other, more toxic, pesticides. It’s just that the pesticide is now inside the plant.

In another example, genes from a wild potato plant are being introduced into cultivated potatoes to help them resist potato blight. In this case, work in the lab replaces decades of careful breeding, achieving results in only one generation.

MissouriBotanicalGardens-St.Louis-MO_LAH_3481Next, crops are altered to make them herbicide tolerant. Growers can spray the entire field with glyphosate-based herbicides, and only the weeds die. If you’re going to complain about GMO crops, this issue is the most problematic, as it encourages the use of glyphosate. While the science behind the recent rash of court decisions is decidedly sketchy, obviously there is widespread concern. I’m not going to go there in this post. Maybe I’ll get brave enough to target herbicides in the future.

The third reason for GMO crops is fortification. Recombinant DNA technology makes it possible to fortify staple crops with nutrients they normally do not have. This ability could significantly impact malnutrition in the developing world.

1989-6 Philippines rice paddies 079For example, billions of people rely on rice as a staple crop. This grain has plenty of starch and some protein, but it lacks zinc, beta-carotene, and foliate (leading to birth defects), and a serving contains only 1% of the iron we need daily. The absence of those micronutrients leads to severe malnutrition and often death.

GMO rice can solve this serious problem. Take beta-carotene, for example. Beta-carotene is the precursor to Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) causes a multitude of health problems.

To address this critical issue, scientists modified rice DNA, adding a pair of genes, one from corn and the other “from a very commonly ingested soil bacterium.” The result was Golden Rice, the same golden color as other carotene-rich foods such as carrots and winter squash.

Other nutrition-related crops under development include tree nuts with no allergens, wheat without gluten, and higher protein corn.

Sadly, the biggest barrier to overcome isn’t in the laboratory, but involves restrictions and red tape. According to Sir Richard Roberts of the Golden Corn Project,

Golden Rice has been accepted as safe for consumption by the Governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and USA, and registrations have been applied for in Philippines and Bangladesh. Yet, significantly due to rejection of science by activists, Golden Rice is not yet available to farmers and their communities as an additional intervention for vitamin A deficiency. And neither high folate rice, nor high iron rice, nor high zinc rice, nor Golden Rice could be developed without the use of GMO-technology.

Corn_DBG_20090915_LAH_0508Those who would benefit from GMO rice don’t have the resources to eat a varied diet rich in nutrients. How can we, who do have access to a nutritious and affordable diet, deny starving people food that could save them? I find it difficult to understand why anyone would argue against a crop that could save literally millions of lives.

With the amount of hype out there, you’d think that everything we eat has been genetically modified in a laboratory, but that is far from true. In fact, there are only ten plants that are available as GMO crops. Here they are, shown in the order in which they were introduced (from 1995 to 2017). I bet you’ll be surprised.

  • Squash: disease resistance
  • Papaya tree @SanAntonioBG 2003nov30 LAH 001Soybeans: insect resistance, herbicide tolerance
  • Field corn: insect resistance (esp. corn earworm), herbicide tolerance, drought tolerance
  • Sweet corn: insect resistance, herbicide tolerance
  • Cotton: Insect resistance, herbicide tolerance
  • Rainbow papaya: disease resistance
  • Canola: herbicide tolerance
  • Alfalfa: herbicide tolerance
  • Sugar beets: herbicide tolerance
  • Potatoes: reduced bruising and brown spot, non-browning, low acrylamide, blight resistance
  • Apples: non-browning

It takes a substantial investment to create a GMO version of a crop, so the focus is on crops that normally would need repeated pesticide applications. I understand that people are leery of anything “artificial” that may endanger our health and the health of the planet. But we need to balance those concerns with the pesticide usage, and malnutrition and the need for an adequate food supply to feed our growing population.

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