GM(Wh)O(a) — An expert perspective
The reactions from students were mixed but the overlying mentality is that we don’t know everything about GMOs right now. To clarify some of my questions I interviewed molecular biologist, blogger, and contributor for The Genetic Literacy Project, Layla Katiraee.
Why do you think there is a debate about GMOs vs. Organic or natural produce?
I think that it’s because GMOs are feared as being “unnatural”. The idea of taking a protein from one species into another seems like something out of a science-fiction novel, particularly since the general population associates bacteria and viruses with harm and danger. This fear has been harnessed by activists into campaigns against GMOs. Some of these groups are organic food proponents, such as the Organic Consumers Association or Only Organic, creating a false dichotomy of GMO vs organic.
However, many farmers grow both conventional and organic crops. The dichotomy does not need to exist, and in fact, some GMOs could be grown using organic food production practices if the label allowed it.
Do you have a stance on the GMO vs. organic issue? How did it develop?
My stance on GMOs vs organic has evolved quite a bit. I never really had an issue with GMOs, so to be more accurate, my stance was with respect to conventional food vs organic food. The reason why I never had an issue with GMOs is because, as a molecular geneticist, I don’t view a protein or gene as “belonging” to a species. Genes get copied, erased, and shifted around all the time throughout the evolution of a species. So I actually view the process of transgenesis (which is generally used to make GMOs) as more accurate, because you can select exactly what gene you want to copy or erase rather than letting it happen randomly (which is what happens when we crossbreed). When I started reading the scientific literature on GMOs, my mind was completely put at ease about the GMOs in our food supply, so I eat GMOs and feed them to my family.
“Now, I’ve come to realize that all forms of food production have pros and cons. We need all forms of agriculture to create a balance.”
Regarding organics, when my son was born, my primary concern was the level of pesticide in our food. I began feeding him organic veggies, because I thought that they were pesticide-free. As I learned about our food and found out that organic food production does use pesticides, I felt that I had been scammed. I read the recommendations from the FDA and USDA, and learned that washing fruits/veggies with cold water gets rid of pesticides, regardless of the method used to grow the crop. So I wasn’t willing to pay extra for organic food to get the same end result. When I saw the actions of groups such as the Organic Consumers Association and the misinformation they spread about GMOs, I boycotted organic food entirely.
Now, I’ve come to realize that all forms of food production have pros and cons. We need all forms of agriculture to create a balance. So I try to buy what’s in season, I try to buy local, and I try to buy at the best price point, regardless of whether the food is grown organically or conventionally.
In your opinion should is it important for GMOs be labeled?
This is another topic where my opinion has changed a lot over time. I started out thinking that if the general public wants labeling, then it should be provided. I didn’t understand why companies would fight it. My opinion changed due to several reasons:
Risk perception: studies have been carried out examining risk perception and labels. A label stating “May contain GMOs” conveys the idea that GMOs may be harmful, which is why food manufacturers fight the label.
Cost to suppliers/farmers: if we’re going to start separating GM food from non-GM food, we’d have to start separating them from the source, and most of that burden will fall on farmers. They will have to have separate equipment, separate storage, separate transportation, etc for GM and non-GM crops, which will significantly increase the cost to farmers and the cost will probably trickle down to consumers. The cost of changing the label itself is not significant, but the cost of segregating crops will be burdensome.
Defining what needs to be labeled: I’ve spoken to quite a few people about what should be labeled, read the proposed labeling bills in a few States, and looked at the criteria for labeling by the Non-GMO project (which is a voluntary label). None of them match up. There are so many different criteria and examples: do we label the meat from a cow fed GM grain? What if the cow received a GM vaccine? Do we label sugar derived from a GM-beet, even though it contains no DNA or protein and is therefore indistinguishable from sugar derived from a non-GM beet? How much of a GMO needs to be present for an item to merit being labeled? There’s absolutely no consensus on what should be labeled.
Labels already exist: if individuals are genuinely concerned about GMOs, then they should just buy food under the USDA’s organic label, which already excludes GMOs, ingredients derived from GMOs, and animals raised on GM-grains. Why do we need to go through the expensive legislative and burocratic process of creating a label for individuals who want to avoid GMOs, when there’s already a label in place to meet their needs?
Arbitrary nature of the label: the demand to label GMOs is basically a demand to label how a crop was made. It doesn’t provide information on the amount of pesticide used, on the conditions the crop was grown in, or anything that might genuinely be informative. So why is there a demand to label transgenic crops, but not any other methods to develop crops, such as mutagenic crops (derived by radioactivity or mutating chemicals)? Crops derived through mutagenesis are accepted under the USDA’s organic label, so you couldn’t avoid them even if you wanted to. It doesn’t make much sense and seems completely random.
What is the number one misconception you hear repeated over and over again about GMOs?
“GMOs aren’t tested. We’re the guinea pigs”. There’s a very large number of publications on the GMOs in our food supply and they range from animal feeding studies to environmental impact studies to tests/assays on identifying GMOs in our food supply. I understand the hesitation to trust data generated from the companies that develop GMOs, but many of these studies are carried out by independent researchers. You can find many of these studies in GENERA.
Are GMOs harmful or helpful to our world’s food economy?
“GMO” is socially used to denote that a crop is made through transgenesis. But the gene/protein/trait introduced into the crop varies. So GMOs should not be lumped all together into a single category: their value, pros, and cons depend on the trait that was introduced.
For example, the Rainbow Papaya is a transgenic crop made to resist the papaya ringspot virus and revitalized Hawaii’s papaya industry. It has made a significant impact to the State’s economy and to its farmers. It’s a great example of how a transgenic crop can benefit a region’s economy.
What inspired you to begin writing about GMOs?
When California had its labeling bill on the ballot, I started seeing a lot of contradictory information in the media on GMOs, particularly in social media. I thought that the responsible thing to do would be to go and read the original research papers myself and find out the truth of the matter rather than rely on someone else to tell me what’s true. Soon after, my husband and I had the opportunity to travel to Cambodia, and I learned a lot about their struggles to rebuild and how they were working with the International Rice Research Institute to try to increase their yields. I wanted to learn about how it was done, and it was what I needed to buckle down and start reading. I started writing just to document my journey and to share it with family and friends, so it’s been a surprising turn of events that has led me down a path where I find myself writing for much larger audiences.
Where do you see the GMO labeling debate heading in the future? Do you think there will ever be an end to it?
I think that the solution might be a Federal law on voluntary labeling, and I believe that most agricultural biotech companies as well as food companies would support such a law. However, that won’t stop the campaign of misinformation about GMOs. I genuinely do not know what the solution is to the latter and doubt that there will ever be an end to it. After all, there are still people who believe that vaccines cause autism and there are still groups that promote such ideas, despite the overwhelming amount of information and data to the contrary.