The good, the bad and the ugly: how genetically engineered organisms affect the world, K-State

Jed Barker | Collegian Jesse Poland, adjunct assistant professor in the agronomy department, verifies the incoming sensor data of a newly developed field-based high-throughput phenotyping platform. The FB-HTP is outfitted with GPS and a variety of sensors that measure plant color, height and canopy temperature, among other things.

Author’s note: This is part one of a two part series on how Monsanto and GMOs impact farmers and the K-State community.

On March 26, President Obama signed a bill into law called the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013. This bill, which provides funding to various federal agencies until the end of the fiscal year, includes a controversial section that has revived the debate on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Section 735, known as the “Farmer Assurance Provision,” has been dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” by opponents. Essentially, the provision allows genetically engineered crops to be grown under temporary deregulation status and prevents courts from interfering in the review process. Supporters of the provision argue that this prevents innovations in agriculture from being delayed and protects farmers, while opponents argue that it protects companies who produce GMOs, such as Monsanto, and allows them to market products to the public that have not been proven safe for consumption.

Linda Yarrow, assistant professor in human nutrition and registered dietician, said the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics does not currently have an official stance on GMOs, as they have recently created a panel to review the subject of food technology. The debate of GMOs in the world of dietetics is “heated,” she said.

“The ones most vocal are the ones most against it,” Yarrow said.

An April 10 article by Stephanie Strom in the New York Times reported that Carole Bartolotto, a registered dietician from California, was recently dismissed from the AND panel. Bartolotto claims her dismissal was caused by expressing concerns about other members of the panel with ties to Monsanto.

While Yarrow understood concerns about having people with ties to Monsanto on the AND panel, she did not think they should be excluded from the debate on GMOs.

“I would expect people for and against to be represented,” Yarrow said. “Different viewpoints need to be represented.”

While the debate over the ethics and safety of GMOs has been ongoing, genetically modified crops have been used in the U.S. for years, and the percent of crops grown in the U.S. that are genetically modified has been steadily growing. According to an Oct. 30, 2012, article by Margie Kelley in the Huffington Post, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that nearly all of the corn, soy and canola grown in the U.S. is bioengineered.

GMO crops are on the rise worldwide, but many countries have created full or partial bans on the cultivation or import of GMO crops, including Peru, Japan, Russia and many European countries. In January, Poland was the most recent country to ban the cultivation of genetically modified crops. Other countries, such as Germany, allow GMOs, but have restrictions on how they can be used. Some countries, such as Austrialia, allow GMOs to be in their food, but require it be clearly labeled for consumers.

Yarrow said one of the reasons the U.S. was hesitant to label GMOs in food is because it can create misinterpretation of the facts. If a food is labeled as containing GMOs, while others are labeled as GMO-free, it can make some consumers believe GMOs are bad for them, even if scientific evidence shows it to be safe. In the late 1980s, Yarrow recalled that there was a brand of root beer that had “cholesterol-free” on their label as a marketing gimmick. This led some consumers to believe that other brands of root beer contained cholesterol, when this was not the case.

“I’m not against providing information on labels for consumers,” Yarrow said. “But many consumers do not know how to read and interpret labels correctly.”

Brian Lindshield, assistant professor in human nutrition, said that genetic engineering accomplishes things faster than traditional breeding methods do, but the end result is the same goal: crops that are resistant to certain pesticides, diseases, insects, drought or other dangers to higher product yield.

“I feel like if you understand the science of genetically modifying, it’s really not that different from traditional breeding,” Lindshield said.

Both Lindshield and Yarrow provided examples of how genetically modified crops, such as Golden Rice, can save lives. Golden Rice has been engineered to contain beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. In developing nations where malnutrition is a serious issue, Golden Rice could prevent millions of people from blindness and even death as a result of vitamin A deficiency.

While Yarrow said she was undecided on the debate of GMOs, products like Golden Rice had potential, as long as it was tested and proven to be safe.

“Give me something like Golden Rice that could change global health, and that could possibly change my perspective,” Yarrow said.

Lindshield said that with the rising global population, bioengineered crops would probably become more necessary in the future. Nutritionists often state that people do not get enough Omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.

The best source for Omega-3s is fish, but overfishing and pollution have begun to take their toll on that source. Monsanto is currently developing an engineered soybean crop that contains stearidonic acid, a long-chain Omega-3 fatty acid that is better utilized by the body than the short-chain Omega-3s found in other plant sources, such as flax seeds.

While GMOs have the potential to save lives and better serve an ever-growing population base, the growing usage of GMOs in the U.S. has led to some clashes with the rising demand for certified organic food.

Rhonda Janke, associate professor and extension specialist for sustainable cropping systems, said certified organic food could not contain GMOs. Farmers who choose not to use GMOs, however, have been running into problems keeping genetically altered material out of their crops and other products because of pollen trespass.

If a farmer is growing organic corn while a neighbor is growing GMO corn, the organic farmer’s product could be pollinated by his neighbor’s genetically modified crops, which would prevent them from obtaining certified organic status. Some farmers have resorted to tricks, such as barriers or planting later in the season, to prevent pollen trespass, but it does not always work.

Pollen from GMO crops have been shown to impact other plants, as well. According to an August 6, 2010, article by NPR, some samples of wild canola in North Dakota have been found to contain genetically altered DNA.

Pollen trespass can affect other products, too, such as honey. Janke has five beehives on her property, just north of Wamego, and her honey has been affected by neighboring farms that grow genetically modified alfalfa. There is no way to prevent bees from picking up pollen from GMO plants growing near their hives.

“As a beekeeper, I’m pretty upset about it,” Janke said.