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GMO Confusion

Valuable technology or frightening sci-fi?

November 7, 2013
Debra Lordan - Editor/General Manager ( , Maui Weekly

What started as a seed of an idea has blossomed into an entire issue.

The Maui Weekly has attempted to do something that is increasingly rare and possibly even unpopular--presenting facts and asking the reader to come to rational conclusions.

The Maui Weekly is not 100 percent anti-GMO, pro-GMO, anti-labeling or pro-labeling. As with most issues in today's increasingly crazy world, there exists many gradations between the extremes.

Article Photos

Debra Lordan
Editor/General Manager

This issue of the Maui Weekly was originally dedicated to the people whose beliefs are not already set in stone about genetically engineered (GE) food, also commonly called genetically modified organisms (GMO). But after listening to advocates and opponents, I am not convinced there is anyone out there who has not already drawn a line in the sand. Everybody eats, so everyone has an opinion--but not always based on fact or science.

Part of the problem may lie with those of us who played hooky during biology lectures, certain it would never apply to our daily lives. Well, that has changed. To understand completely the complexities of our modern day food chain would probably require at least a couple Ph.Ds.

So the challenge is, although farmers have been selectively breeding crops since the beginning of agriculture, now plants can be bred in a lab in a way that most of us don't understand. And then the experts--the brainiac biotech scientists--use language we can't comprehend without Wikipedia, and what we do manage to grasp sounds a lot like science fiction. What we may have here is a failure to communicate.

I have received letters to the editor filled with GMO questions, comments, confusion, concerns and conundrums. I condensed them here to just a few main topics, and I called upon some researchers I know and trust to help demystify the issues using solid scientific methodology and facts.

Crossing the species line

One of the scariest sounding of all concerns is the issue of crossing species. Genetic engineering can cross animal genes with plant genes, human genes with plant genes, insect genes with plant genes, etc., to produce transgenic organisms. Sounds creepy, right?

But the scientific reply to this concern is that the four main methods of plant breeding that have been used in agriculture--selection, hybridization, mutagenesis and genetic engineering--all involve genetic modification.

Nature's genetic engineers, viruses and bacteria, have been transferring DNA and genes across species boundaries for a couple of billion years.

In fact, viral DNA has been inserted into the human genome throughout our evolution, making you and I genetically modified organisms.

In the last few decades, scientists learned how viruses and bacteria genetically modify organisms, and this has been utilized to produce some great things that virtually no one objects to--human insulin in bacteria; rennet (for cheese making) from calves' stomach in bacteria; vaccines (hepatitis B, Gardasil); pharmaceuticals (dornase alfa for cystic fibrosis treatment); Interferon; Interleukin and Taxol to treat breast, lung and ovarian cancer; and Prourokinase for stoke victims. But the fact that they have also developed crops resistant to certain insects, diseases and the effects of some herbicides receives an inordinate portion of criticism.

Fertilizers and pesticides poisoning environment

The main GM crops have resulted in huge decreases in insecticide use, the adoption of safer herbicides and an increase in conservation tillage practices. The resulting rise in the availability of plant-protected GM varieties has reduced global ag chemical use by over 18 percent. Without the use of modern breeding practices, most farmers would revert to their higher chemical- and fuel-use practices.

GMO use worldwide

Farmers worldwide are using GM crops with zero issues of safety both in the field and on the table. Over 17,000,000 farmers used GM seeds last year--most of them farmers in developing countries.

But still, some say GM "frankenfoods" are hazardous to our health and the environment, with unknown future consequences--possibly as part of a conspiracy to depopulate the planet. Advocates of biotechnology affirm that the application of genetic engineering to crops is safe, will increase world agricultural productivity, enhance food security and move agriculture away from a dependence on chemical inputs, helping to reduce environmental problems, and contribute to feeding an expanding population.

It may prove just as detrimental to the future of humanity to ignore the scientific consensus on crop biotechnology as it would be to ignore the scientific consensus on climate change--another controversial topic that has its opponents despite the mounting body of evidence.

The emphasis going forward should be to continue to focus on what regulations should be attached to GM crop development and use to protect the environment and consumers.

While there's a popular belief that "flat Earth" was somehow a widely held "scientific" idea, Greeks such as Aristotle knew the Earth was round, as did Thomas Aquinas--pretty wise guys in their time. In short, most scholarship suggests learned men and women from the dawn of antiquity knew the Earth was round.

The Maui Weekly hopes this issue has provided at least some useful information to an akamai, open-minded and clear-headed readership.



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