A conversation with Kate (Dr. Creasey) on the GMO controversy
Genetically engineered, bioengineered or gene-edit food is a topic fraught with controversy. Why is this?
A lack of understanding or education is perhaps the primary reason. Many people believe that genetically engineered food is not safe to eat. There are concerns for the environment and animal consumption. There is a lack of knowledge of the food industry and food production. As a society, we are too far removed from where our food comes from and how it is grown; we cannot appreciate a farmer’s struggle.
There is distrust of big agriculture, little transparency from industry, and a lack of information when new foods are commercialized. Fear sells in marketing and consumerism. And, historically, we have trusted chemistry and the use of chemicals to solve our agriculture problems. It is time to promote genetic solutions.
It is complicated to search for data, read through long reports, and interpret mechanistic details. Not only does this promote confusion, it obscures the facts. Unregulated and unqualified opinions due to a lack of familiarity and pseudoscience dominate the dialogue.
Sometimes a lack of understanding leads to a lack of empathy. Generally, people in developed countries are not starving; crops are not dying due to drought or lack of nutrients. But those living in impoverished countries suffer with food security, a problem that biotechnology can help solve.
The language is confusing: GMO, gene editing, bioengineering, genetic engineering, biotechnology.
The language is confusing, made more so by the media and opponents of technological advancements. GMO was coined by the media in the early 1990s, regulatory agencies use the term bioengineering. Industry uses the term biotechnology and overlap with scientists in their use of genetic engineering and gene editing.
How has society benefited from biotechnology?
Farmers facing pest or weed issues may consider their livelihoods improved. Society has benefited from academics enhancing a crops nutritional content, or prevent a species going from extinction from viral infection. Industry have also enabled traits to prevent bruising and browning, leading to less waste. Though medical applications of technology are celebrated in society, it is the opposite.
Walk us through the grocery store. Where might we find bioengineered food?
You might find papaya, zucchini, and plums that resist viruses; potatoes that resist bruising; apples that resist browning and cotton clothing that resists insects. You might have imagined sweet corn and tomatoes, but this is not the case. Those varieties are not being sold. But, you may find bioengineered corn in wall paper paste on your walls or as biofuel.
We have a choice, and if whatever farming practices align with your stance on the subject are able to provide enough, why not select. But for those who do not have the choice, why not provide food security?
You’re a scientist. How do you respond to the claim that bioengineered food is not safe to eat?
The same soil bacteria we use in the lab, agrobacterium, infected sweet potato during its evolution and passed on non-sweet potato genes. Generally speaking, domestication and selective breeding thousands of years ago caused massive changes to plant genomes (gene duplication, polyploidy). Decades ago x-rays and chemicals were utilized to induce lots random mutations so that we could select phenotypes. Now the most precise and tiny changes can be made to the genetic material of a plant and yet there is more fear and concern over the consequences.
Safety is the most polarizing and dividing issue, with the majority of scientists considering foods derived from biotechnology safe to eat, yet the opposite for society. There is a clear correlation with acceptance and level of understanding, or at least access to information. However, it is not enough to simply state that biotechnology is safe. We should do more to explain the entire process, animal and insect studies, toxicology, and allergenicity reports.
I do not believe that all should consider any food to be safe or not safe due to simply being told. We should consider evidence-based research that has been conducted by independent, third-party sources. I encourage all to examine the facts from non-conflict sources and judge for themselves.