The facts on transgenic crops

Celeste Falcon — doctoral candidate in applied plant sciences

Shelby Thomason’s recent letter to the editor in the Minnesota Daily, “Tell GMOs to GTFO,” is full of misinformation. First of all, the term “genetically modified organism” is not an accurate description of the technology it names. All agricultural products have been bred over several centuries, so, realistically, all farmed food is genetically modified. Modern crops have been developed from ancestral species through domestication and traditional breeding — processes which have produced changes in the organisms’ genomes. What Thomason is referring to can more accurately be called a transgenic plant, one that has had a gene from another species carefully added to its genome.

Second, many of the assertions made in her letter are not supported by actual information. What potentially harmful new strains of bacteria are referenced? Besides being carefully regulated as all transgenic research is, transgenic bacteria can be quite beneficial. For instance, they can be used to produce insulin for people who have diabetes. Also, what is the source for the assertion that consuming transgenic crops causes imbalances of dopamine and serotonin in the brain? Beyond a few blogs, which I would not consider as credible sources, I was unable to find information on this. And which chemicals are specific to transgenic crops? All foods contain chemical compounds regardless of whether they are transgenic.

Third, negative outcomes of transgenic crops per se have not been proven. Some groups, like the European Union, oppose transgenic crops based on the “precautionary principle,” which dictates that something must be proven absolutely safe before we adopt it. This is fundamentally different from opposing it because we have observed negative outcomes. If we were always to live by this principle, advances in technology would be slow to occur. Furthermore, in the U.S., transgenic crops are not released for use until they go through a long regulation process to curtail the possibility of negative consequences.

Fourth, genetic engineering does not necessarily reduce genetic diversity. The phrase “when genes are more diverse, they are more robust” does not have meaning, as genes themselves are not more or less robust. Plant populations can be more robust due to genetic diversity, but this diversity can be maintained if transgenic crops are used sensibly.

Fifth, certain transgenic crops require far less use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. For example, Bt maize, Bt cotton and other Bt crops require less pesticide application, as they produce their own insecticides. The world’s farmers have an incredibly difficult livelihood. Each season is unpredictable, and they are expected to front the cost of growing crops without assurance that they will turn a profit at the end of the season. Transgenic crops could mitigate the risks they face by reducing the need, and therefore the cost, for herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers and irrigation. Additionally, the reduced use of inputs helps us all as it is a more environmentally responsible way of growing crops.

Sixth, transgenic crops do not pass their genes to existing seeds. Once a seed is formed, its DNA cannot be altered without laboratory processes. Plus, plants do not breed amongst different species in the wild, so it is incorrect to say that a transgenic plant of one species could pass its genes to other species.

Finally, if a crop can produce more yield in less space or in space that was previously unfit for agriculture, then that crop does indeed exhibit increased yield on a per-area basis.

This is not to say I believe transgenic crops can solve all agricultural problems. I recognize valid issues with the way society uses them. While transgenic crops are certainly not the only answer to the world’s hunger or environmental problems, they could be an integral part of it. Railing against research on transgenic crops and their use will only limit our future options. Take time to understand the scientific evidence behind controversial topics before spreading an opinion.