Every day, we decide what to eat. These daily decisions have profound impact on both our own health and the health of our planet. The mantra “eat your vegetables” is spoken by parents at dinner tables around the world, but not all vegetables are equally nutritious. Potatoes, for example, provide few nutrients and raise blood sugar as rapidly as a candy bar. It is also not clear that carrots grown by a local organic farmer or on a commercial farm thousands of miles away have the same impact on the individuals that eat them and on the environment that produces them. To add to these complexities, modern consumers must now consider the potential environmental and health impacts of GMO crops. Specialty grocery stores loudly advertise the absence of GMOs, and the presence of GMOs in our food has been villainized in recent movies, such as GMO: OMG. A forum organized by the Department of Biology and cosponsored by CEES, the Center for Molecular Signaling and Communication, and the Center for Bioethics, Health and Society, entitled GMOs: Fear, Facts, Farms, and Food, was held on November 19, in Byrum Welcome Center. The goal of the forum was to provide the Wake Forest and Winston Salem communities with the basic information needed to make informed judgments about this technology. A video of the forum is available online.
This public event focused on answering the most widely asked questions about GMOs, beginning simply with “what are they?” Panelists with expertise in farming, plant biology, bioethics, food regulation, corporate agriculture, and sustainability provided thoughtful answers to these questions. GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism, which is a term applied to a small subset of all possible genetic modifications. All the plants and animals that we routinely eat today have been genetically modified through breeding guided by human hands. In fact, every time a plant or animal reproduces the genes from the two parents are randomly mixed, which is a natural form of genetic modification. The term GMO, however, is reserved for organisms that have individual genes directly introduced into the genome. This technology is commonly used to produce proteins used as medicines beneficial to humans (such as insulin or human growth hormone) by introducing genes encoding these proteins into bacteria. A GMO plant is the result of similar technology, yet in recent years GMO crops have received extensive negative publicity. Farmers love them – as indicated by their rapid and widespread adoption – but consumers are less certain of the costs and benefits.
The panel considered many examples of GMO crops, including virus-resistant papayas! The wide reach of the discussion is best exemplified by the panel’s consideration of one very widely used GMO technology: BT. BT stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a species of bacteria that produces a toxin fatal to some insects that feed on plants. This bacteria is routinely used by organic farmers (and is USDA-approved for use on organic crops) to kill caterpillars (e.g. corn borers and cotton bollworms), while leaving beneficial insects such as honey bees and lady bugs unharmed. BT is also harmless to humans. Unfortunately, the bacterial treatments don’t last more than a couple of weeks, requiring frequent repeat applications. BT-GMO plants are produced by moving the bacterial gene that drives production of this toxin into plants, so that the plants are protected from herbivorous insects without the need for spraying. Between 79-94% of all of corn, cotton, and soybeans grown in the US have the BT modification1, and in India >80% of cotton is BT3. The product of the BT gene is consistently produced across the life of the plant removing the need for treatment with BT bacteria, and, even more importantly, reducing use of toxic chemical herbicides. The USDA reports that the usage of insecticides has decreased from 0.21 pounds/acre in 1995 to 0.02 pounds/acre as a result of use of BT corn and cotton2. This alone is a clear benefit of BT crops to the grower, the consumer, and the environment.
The potential for insects to develop resistance to the toxin produced by this gene and the ability of the gene to move into non-crop plants are of course concerns with BT crops. The problem of resistance is shared by all pest control methods, including crop rotation. Farmers can minimize the development of resistance and the possible movement of the gene into other species by planting refuge areas of non-BT plants between BT-containing crop plantings. Other topics on which the panel shared their views included the ethics of producing and selling GMO seeds, the health impact of GMO seeds on animals and humans that consume them, governmental regulations controlling production and use of GMOs, and the implications of labeling GMOs. The panel posited that understanding GMO technology is the first step in deciding whether the benefits of plants engineered to resist environmental stresses, pathogens, or to have improved nutrition exceed potential environmental costs. Another important conclusion was that each GMO crop must be evaluated on its own merits.
2 Choudhary and Gaur (2010) Bt cotton in India: A country profile. ISAAA. A series of biotech crop profiles. ISAAA. Ithaca New York.
3Fernandez-Cornejo et al. (2014) Genetically Engineered Crops in the US, ERR-162, USDA, Economic Research Service
Nancy King, JD, WFUHS Professor, Department of Social Science and Health Policy, CoDirector Center for Bioethics, Health, and Society
Kirk Mathis, Co-Owner Cranberry Farm, NC Farm Bureau, Board of Directors
Gloria Muday, PhD. WFU, Plant Molecular Biologist, Professor of Biology; Director of the Center for Molecular Communication and Signaling
Tichafa Munyikwa, PhD, Global Regulatory Affairs Lead at Syngenta
Eric Van Heugten, PhD, NCSU, Extension specialist in swine nutrition, Associate Professor of Animal Science
Andrew Wilcox, Master of Sustainability student at WFU, former Peace Corp participant and organic farmer
Vanessa Zboreak, JD, Food Law and Policy, WFU School of Law
Simone Carone, Professor and Chair of History, WFU