Published: Nov 08, 2012 12:04 PM
Modified: Nov 08, 2012 12:05 PM
We are UNC Biology Department faculty members, community members, and parents, and some of us are also member-owners of Weaver Street Market. (Disclosure: Several signatories have financial interest in, or have had research funding from, agricultural biotechnology companies.) Recent signs in the store opposing genetically modified plants include misleading claims, and use the same kind of anti-science rhetoric as do global-warming denialists. In truth, transgenic crop plants have many current and anticipated future benefits, both here and internationally.
For millennia, humans have selected for beneficial plant genes. Traditional breeding has enabled phenomenal increases in crop yields, and underlies humankind’s (incompletely realized) ability to support recent population increases. Our numbers are still increasing, and continued sustainable population growth and ecologically responsible stewardship require various agronomic technologies including transgenic crops.
Transgenic plants carry genes from other organisms that can confer beneficial traits, and have more controlled and precise genetic changes than traditionally bred plants. To date, insect resistance and herbicide tolerance genes are the most widely used. Insect-resistant plants need less pesticide spraying, thereby reducing harmful chemical residues in the environment and on food. Herbicide tolerance allows farmers to kill weeds without tilling, thereby reducing soil erosion. Most maize, soybean, and cotton plants grown in this country carry one or both of these traits. Therefore much of our clothing and many ingredients in industrially processed food (high-fructose corn syrup and other additives) are made with ingredients from transgenic plants.
The first successful transgenic fresh produce are papayas and summer squashes that are resistant to devastating plant viruses. Papayas would not be grown in Hawaii today if not for the transgenic resistant variety. In the future, other traits may be introduced, such as resistance to bacterial or fungal plant pathogens, healthier oils, altered vitamin content, longer shelf life, drought tolerance, or improved flavor. Several of these traits will benefit consumers directly, not just farmers or seed companies.
Before they are approved, a considerable regulatory apparatus assesses new transgenic plants for possible harm to health or the environment. (Regulatory requirements are a principal reason why in general only large agribusiness companies have the resources to bring transgenic crops to market.) The Ecological Society of America emphasizes that genetically engineered organisms have many potential environmental benefits as well as risks, and supports a precautionary approach to their use (Snow et al. 2005. Ecological Applications 15: 377-404). After about two decades of use, no adverse human health impacts have arisen because of transgenic plants in agriculture(Key, S., Ma, J.K. and Drake, P.M. (2008) Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 101, 290-298; National Research Council (2004) Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. National Academy Press).
Labels on food indicating nutritional or provenance information help us choose wisely. True openness in food labeling would also include listing pesticides that are sprayed on fruits or vegetables to control disease, including “organic” pesticides such as copper salts or pyrethrins. Pesticide use labeling may be a productive and scientifically justified cause for those concerned about food safety to pursue.
Just as some plants are nutritious and others poisonous, there is no inherent benefit or detriment to transgenic plant technology. We are not afraid of transgenic plants, and would like to taste transgenic papayas or zucchinis for ourselves. We welcome further dialogue about these issues. For more in-depth discussions, see:
• Fedoroff, N.V. and Brown, N.M. (2004) Mendel in the Kitchen: a Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Food. The National Academies Press.
• Ronald, P.C. and Adamchuk, R.W. (2008) Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Oxford University Press.
• Iowa State University graduate student-run Biofortified blog: biofortified.org/
.This column was written by Jason W. Reed, Shawn Ahmed, Frank L. Conlon, Gregory P. Copenhaver, Jeffery L. Dangl, Patricia G. Gensel, Sarah R. Grant, Alan M. Jones, Joseph J. Kieber, Alain Laederach, Ann G. Matthysse, Charles E. Mitchell and Mark A. Peifer.
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