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The Dish on GMOs (Part 1)

This article originally appeared on Science Meets Food, the blog of the IFT Student Association (http://sciencemeetsfood.org/the-dish-on-gmos-part-1/).

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, have long been villainized by those in certain so-called “healthy eating” circles typically including followers of Dr. Oz and/or the Food Babe. But are GMOs truly as harmful as they are touted in the media?

One of the major drivers of markets, and regulations on those markets, is the consumer. A recent study performed by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics showed that about 80% of respondents support mandatory labelling of foods containing DNA. Curiously, a similar number of respondents (82%) supported mandatory labelling on GMOs. This coincidence implies that consumers are not clear on what exactly “GMO” means let alone the potential impacts of GMO products on health, the environment, or the economy. All foods from a biological source (fruits, vegetables, etc.) contain DNA, regardless of if they are genetically modified or not. So, what exactly are GMOs? How are they created? In the first installment of The Dish, I ask some experts in the field these very questions.

Origins and Advances

Selective breeding has resulted in the exposed corn kernels we are used to (right) from the small grass seed pods of the original teosinte (left). (Source: Gewin, 2003)

Before GMOs were ever on the minds of scientists and consumers, selective breeding was used to create plants and animals optimized for use as food sources. This was done by choosing individuals with desired traits: cattle that grow more muscle for meat or wheat that can grow in a drought, for instance, and breeding them to create a new generation with these desired traits. In fact, the corn we are used to seeing today is the result of selective breeding and hybridization (crossing of two related species) and does not resemble the wild grass from which it originated. Unknown to our plant and animal domesticating forefathers, this selection was possible due to genetics and the transmission of DNA from the parent to its offspring.

As the understanding of genetics advanced, so did the opportunity for technological applications of this knowledge. Transfer of genes between organisms is most common among bacteria. Bacteria can exchange genes through different mechanisms such as exchange of genetic material from one cell to another (conjugation), transmission of genetic material through a virus (transduction) or just by taking up free genetic material from the environment (transformation). This phenomenon has aided in the advancement of human health in numerous ways. For instance, insulin, a hormone which plays a key role in metabolism, is critical in the treatment of diabetes. Many diabetes patients have benefited from injections of insulin made by microbes that have been modified to artificially produce it. This type of genetic engineering has been used to create vaccines, antibodies, and other beneficial drugs (Avise, 2004)

Modern Modifications

Arctic apples were recently deemed safe by the FDA. Arctic apples (right) have lowered expression of the gene for polyphenol oxidase (PPO) which causes conventional apples to turn brown (left). (Source: http://www.arcticapples.com)

To gain more insight into the production of genetically modified foodstuffs, I asked Dr. Kevin Folta, professor and chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, about how and why genetic engineering is being used for food production. The first thing I wanted to know is how the genes are selected for creation of a GMO. Dr. Folta tells me that the genes were originally chosen to solve a problem particularly related to crop production such as insect resistance. “These were well-characterized bacterial genes where their function and safety were well established,” he points out. More recently, other traits have been implemented by genetic engineering such as stopping browning in apples and potatoes. This was done by modifying these crops to turn off the genes responsible for this process using DNA sequences from the plants themselves. Other traits can be modified to increase nutrition (such as increase Vitamin A in rice, cassava, and bananas) or increase resistance to drought, flooding, cold or heat. “The future will move more into these areas to fortify food,” says Dr. Folta. “The main idea is to be able to grow more with less.”

Clean Cut

So, how does genetic engineering differ from the selective breeding programs of yore? “It differs in the precision,” says Dr. Folta. “In traditional breeding we are mixing many genes together, in ways we usually don’t understand. We usually don’t move a gene, we move a trait, which could be controlled by many genes.” According to Dr. Folta, this means that in breeding, we are selecting for a specific trait (fruit size, disease resistance, etc.) but in doing so we are also unintentionally selecting for other genes associated with these traits that may not be immediately evident and may actually be detrimental to the health of the organism. Genetic engineering allows for the insertion of a specific gene sequence which encodes a specificprotein to introduce the desired trait without the genetic mixing of traditional breeding.

Genetically Modified Groceries

With all the outrage and negative press that GMO crops seem to be getting these days, one might suspect that everything we consume is genetically modified unless explicitly stated otherwise. However, Dr. Folta pointed out that there are currently only 8 commercially grown GMO crops that one might encounter – corn, cotton, alfalfa, soy, sugar beets, canola, Hawaiian papaya and some squash. Even as such, the products made from GM plants are chemically identical to their conventional counterparts. “Sugar from a GM sugar beet is the same as a non-GM sugar beet. Oil from soybeans is the same, GM or not. It is the plant itself that has the DNA and proteins to help the plant grow.”

When I asked Dr. Folta if there was anything else he wanted the public to know about the production of GMOs he had this to say: “I defer to the world’s most astute scientific organizations which all present a version of the following statement: ‘Transgenic crops pose no more risk than traditionally bred crops.’ That is important because it recognizes that even traditional breeding carries risk. There is nothing 100% without risk. The advantage of transgenic technology is that risk can be assessed before plant development, as well as during and after. This ensures a low likelihood of any negative health or environmental effects. Such low-risk is reflected in the perfect safety record, along with minimal environmental consequences relative to non-GM production.”

I hope I have provided a good basis for a better understanding of genetic modification and its role in food production. This is only Part 1 of a series of posts on GMO foods. Keep a look out for my next post which will focus more on a concept Dr. Folta touched on: safety of GMO food products.

References:

  1. Gewin V (2003) Genetically Modified Corn— Environmental Benefits and Risks. PLoS Biol. 1:8.
  2. Avise, J.C. (2004). The hope, hype & reality of genetic engineering: remarkable stories from agriculture, industry, medicine, and the environment. Oxford University Press US. p. 22.

Becoming Literate in Biotech

dna-1370603787LgYLast week I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to attend the Biotech Literacy Project Bootcamp which was put on by the Genetic Literacy Project and the Institute for Food & Agricultural Literacy (IFAL) at the World Food Center at UC Davis. A group of scientists and journalists came together on the UC Davis campus to discuss the state of science surrounding genetically engineered foods and how to effectively communicate these points to the general public. I have done a good deal of research in this area just out of personal curiosity as well as for a blog post for the IFTSA blog Science Meets Food (coming soon!) but I still learned so much more than I ever thought one could learn in just 2 or 3 days. As a food scientist, people expect me to know about everything related to food from GMOs to food additives to health benefits. I try to know as much as possible, but sometimes I need a little help from people more informed than me, which I got a lot of throughout this event!

Here are some of the key points I picked up on. (These are my thoughts and syntheses of what was discussed and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any of the parties involved in this event.)

1. The GMO debate is about so much more than the science. People understandably get worked up around sensitive topics. I am thoroughly convinced that the current state of research support the safety of transgenic foods. However, there are other powers at play in this debate besides scientific facts. There are political, emotional, and ethical aspects to this topic which are operating independent of the scientific consensus.

2. GMOs are some of the most highly studied organisms in history. With the amount of regulatory pressure on ensuring the safety of new transgenic products, nothing hits the market (or even gets close) without extensive testing. The amount of knowledge that goes into just the creation of a transgenic product is already more intensive than the knowledge of most conventional crops and the studies done through the certification just adds to the vast knowledge base.

3. There is a disconnect between what consumers want and what they think they want. Consumers, unsurprisingly, tend to want foods that are good for them and good for the environment but also want foods that are cheap and readily available. A portion of them also want non-GMO foods. But this overlooks the potential that transgenic crops have to help solve some of these issues. Plants can be genetically altered for insect, fungus, or virus resistance which allow for higher yields and a more sustainable food supply.

4. We have to make the consumers care about the implications. It’s easy to understand why people get wrapped up in the propaganda of the anti-GMO movement. They tell you these products will make you sick and give your children autism. In reality, the science does not reflect these concerns. Instead of focusing on the sensationalism and misrepresentation of data we should focus on what the real implications of GMOs: more efficient farms, foods with higher nutritive value, less pesticides in the environment, to name a few. The benefits of transgenic crops have been proven. Links to disease have not.

5. The real risk in our food comes from pathogens, not GMOs. In the US, an estimated 48 million people acquire foodborne illness of which 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die, according to the CDC. Genetically modified foods have been implicated in 0 illness in the time since their introduction. There is a perceived risk with transgenic foods which is not associated with real cases of negative effects. The real risk is from that rare hamburger or contaminated bean sprouts.

6. IMG_3052[1]GMOs are delicious! At the event I got the chance to taste a handful of GMO products including cake made with high-oleic soybean oil, virus-resistant Rainbow Papaya and the newly-approved non-browning Arctic® Apple. All were very tasty and none of them turned me into the Hulk*. Though maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing…

*The Hulk was actually created through exposure to gamma irradiation, which is indeed harmful, unlike GMOs which are not. 

Hello World!

Hello random stranger! I’m not sure how you stumbled upon this blog, but you’re lucky you did!

I’m a PhD student studying food science and have been in this exciting and unique field since I started college. As such, I have come across many different topics and feel that perhaps others may be interested to learn along with me.

This blog is meant to be a repository for all the random food science stuff that I find interesting. It could be a breakdown of a meeting I attended, a video I made on youtube or a review of the current state of science. Whatever it is, you’re sure to learn a little bit and hopefully share your newly found knowledge with your friends and family!

I hope you’ll stick around and enjoy what I have to share with the world.

-The Mad Food Scientist