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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Peer Review

Genetically modified food issue ain’t black and white

When asked about collaborating on music with other rappers, hip hop artist B.o.B. asks, “Would you rather have genetically modified (flavor)-less strawberries be as big as your head but ain’t got no flavor in it, or would you want a real piece of fruit? The organic things… stick around the longest because they have the most substance.”

Proponents of organic food would agree, but keepin’ it real in agriculture is not so easy. Pests, disease and drought present serious obstacles to farmers and communities around the world, calling for the development of more efficient methods of agriculture.

Here in New Mexico, our beloved chile pepper has seen better days. Disease and cheap foreign competition have led to tough growing seasons throughout the past 20 years. Chile acreage decreased by almost 30 percent in 2010, resulting in a $15.8 million loss in pepper value.

Some say the answer to our state’s chile woes lies in genetically modified plants. Scientists at NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute are tackling this issue by researching how to improve the chile pepper genome. Institute director Dr. Paul Bosland claims that understanding the pepper’s genetic material opens “the possibilities of increasing disease resistance, enhancing flavor, and crop yield.”

However, Bosland’s — as well as other global efforts — are being met with intense opposition from anti-gm activists who claim that genetic modification presents health and economic risks.

These efforts are often well-intentioned but highly misinformed.

Here, I have outlined some of the controversies surrounding genetically modified foods and presented the scientific consensus on the state of genetic engineering.

Our shelves are already stocked with products that use genetically modified crops — from soybeans to papayas. But the chile pepper in particular has caused such controversy because it is ingrained in our state’s identity. It is not just another anonymous ingredient, it is a staple of our cuisine and culture. So when we get all fired up over the future of chile, it is important to understand the facts.

Myth: GM food is ‘unnatural’

Genetic modification is shrouded in misconceptions of weird, glow-in-the-dark cats and cabbages infused with scorpion poison.

In reality, plant genetic modification is simply the removal or addition of genetic material. These genetic changes will produce a plant that looks, tastes or behaves differently.

But why mess with nature when it works just fine on its own? Actually, humans have been genetically modifying crops since the dawn of agriculture. Through selectively breeding plants with certain beneficial traits, our crops have evolved to look very different than their ancestors.

Furthermore, GM food can help combat malnutrition crises worldwide. Golden rice includes corn and bacteria genes that produce a lot of beta-carotene. One bowl alone provides 60 percent of the recommended daily Vitamin A intake. The planned distribution of Golden rice in the Philippines is aimed at helping alleviate blindness from Vitamin A deficiency, which kills hundreds of thousands of children annually.

Myth: GM food is harmful to your health

No, it is not. There is no scientific evidence supporting documented negative health consequences of eating any GM food. Scientific and governmental organizations including the American Medical Association and the British Royal Society of Medicine have reached the consensus that GM food poses no greater health risks than non-GM food.

But how can we be confident that there are no unintended effects of messing with a plant’s genes? The short answer is that we cannot be sure, but we are also unsure of the effects of eating non-GM food.

Inserting genes with known functions is actually easier for us to control than the random genetic mutations and crossbreeding occurring in non-GM crops. Sometimes even natural breeding produces toxic varieties of plants. Furthermore, inserting natural anti-pest genes can reduce chemical pesticide use in crops.

Myth: GM foods always hurt local farmers

A major concern of anti-GM organizations — like Greenpeace — is the economic toll that commercialized GM crops could take on farmers in developing countries.

Biotechnology giants, namely the Missouri-based Monsanto Company, have long been criticized for dominating the global agriculture market. Seeds developed by Monsanto are pesticide-resistant, providing farmers who use them with a major advantage. However, Monsanto has patented these seeds and prevented them from being able to replicate, forcing farmers to buy the seeds annually from the company.

While concerns over the monopolization of agriculture should not go unheard, they do not negate the enormous potential of genetic engineering. What is important moving forward is global policy that facilitates the fair use of these technologies.

For example, the NMSU GM chile effort is not geared towards profits, but towards assisting local farmers struggling to grow their crops. Bosland cites the annual growers conference and teaching gardens available to NM growers through the Chile Pepper Institute.

The beta-carotene enriched Golden rice is developed by the non-profit International Rice Research Institute. The rice is adapted from local varieties and intended for free distribution to farmers in the Philippines.

But anti-GM activists have not ceased even without empirical support for the dangers of GM food or the persecution of local farmers. In early August, protesters backed by international extremist groups destroyed 1,000 square meters of golden rice on trial in the Philippines.

These acts of vandalism lead scientists to worry about how misconceptions may halt the development of crucial GM technologies. Dr. Kevin Folta of the University of Florida thinks that GM opponents have common goals, but scientists… “understand (GM technology) inside and out so… it does not scare us”.

Genetically modified foods have the unprecedented capacity to feed higher-quality food to more people with reduced impact on the environment. In New Mexico, chile research affirms our pride in the pepper as we work to ensure its success for generations to come.