How much do you know about GMOs? If you’re like most consumers, you’re probably aware of the non-GMO label that appears on so many organic foods. Organic farming and genetic engineering appear be on opposite ends of the political debate in agriculture. But in this episode of Unfold, we talk to two UC Davis experts who believe that organic farming and genetic engineering don’t have to be so antagonistic. They argue a blend of both types of agriculture is key to helping sustainably feed more people.
In This Episode:
Pam Ronald, professor of plant pathology in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Science and the Genome Center. She is recognized for her role in development of high-yielding flood-tolerant rice.
Raoul Adamchak, market garden and CSA coordinator for the UC Davis organic student farm. Both co-authored the book, “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food.”
AMY: We are in our basement studios, and I am now having my lunch.
ALEXA: See, this is the type of content that I feel like is going to get us more listeners, Amy.
AMY: I know it's super exciting, right? But, let me run down the list of what I am having. It is really good. I’ve got a non-GMO spinach salad with some non-GMO tomatoes, I got some non-GMO olive oil on it and sometimes I put a little non-GMO salt on it too.
ALEXA: GMOs OMG.
AMY: Right? I mean, people are afraid of GMOs. Before we launched this project, how much did you know about GMOs?
ALEXA: Honestly, it's pretty embarrassing, I barely knew anything at all. Now that I know what I know, I know I knew nothing.
AMY: Right, well I knew it stood for genetically modified organisms, but I wasn’t really clear on the science either. Although I was not afraid of it, necessarily.
ALEXA: But people avoid them anyways.
AMY: Yeah, I know, like those people we talked to at the Farmer’s Market in Sacramento.
AMY: Every Sunday, it’s packed with people and produce from all over California. You can buy organic food here, you can by conventional, or you can just listen to this guy play the cello. But we came here on this Sunday to find out what people really know about their food and the term “GMO".
AMY: What is a GMO to you?
SHOPPER 1: Um, I’m not sure.
AMY: If you don’t know the answer, you would not be alone.
SHOPPER 1: Yeah, exactly, genetically modified, I think that means, I don’t really know what that means.
SHOPPER 2: Obviously, non-GMO environmentally is a lot better choice to not have those genetically modified crops. They’re having a huge environmental impact and so choosing a product that’s using more sustainable ingredients is always a better choice.
SHOPPER 3: I never buy GMO.
AMY: So what’s the hesitancy with GMO?
SHOPPER 3: It interferes with my and my kids immune systems, it ruins their immune systems. it weakens it.)
AMY: It weakens your immune system? See how scary GMOs sound?
ALEXA: So that’s why you’re eating a non-GMO salad?
AMY: Nope. But I have to say I was wondering if I had something wrong about GMOs. Then I found this guy.
JOHN: I’m John Perry.
AMY: And he’s a Sacramento farmer.
AMY: So what do you farm?
JOHN: On the fresh market- vegetables, tomatoes, corn, kiwi, some fruit, pumpkins- on the commercial side- rice, wheat, safflower and sunflower.
AMY: I love California. Where else can you grow corn, rice and kiwi?
AMY: Is your corn GMO corn?
JOHN: No GMO. In fact, our entire ranch is non-GMO, and it’s kind of marketing. To me there’s nothing wrong with GMO products. But people have a perception that there is something, so we keep our farm entirely non-GMO. All GMO is, is a higher level of sophistication of plant breeding.
AMY: So we’ve got a farmer telling us it’s a way of breeding plants, then we’ve got consumers telling us it’s bad for the environment and we’ve got others telling us GMOs can interfere with our immune systems.
ALEXA: Which is why we’re calling this episode of Unfold, GMO OMG.
AMY: Raoul Adamchak is taking me on a tour of the UC Davis student farm on this windy day.
RAOUL: We are in the market garden at the student farm looking out over some eggplant and basil and some peppers covered with some shade cloth.
AMY: Raoul runs this farm and all the food growing here is organic.
RAOUL: We’re going to see if we can find some eggplants for dinner.
AMY: Tonight, this organic farmer is having dinner with a plant geneticist, who also happens to be his wife.
PAM: My name is Pam Ronald. I’m a professor in the department of plant pathology in the Genome Center.
AMY: I felt like starting this story: “A plant geneticist and an organic farmer walk into a garden.” You know, the arguments begin. It just seems like they can’t be part of the same team. After all, organic farmers can’t use GMOs. Not Allowed. And geneticists spend their time in a lab genetically engineering plants, right? Pam and Raoul say nonsense.
PAM: Every farmer needs plant genetics. And plant geneticists wouldn’t have a job without farmers.
AMY: The couple even met on a farm- Raoul’s, which happened to be next to a river.
RAOUL: I was trying to teach Pam’s friend how to roll a kayak. And that didn’t go that well. But we went up and went for a hike and looked at flowers.
AMY: Did you bond over the flowers?
RAOUL: We actually conversations about plants and about farming.
PAM: Plants and farming and kayaking and that’s still what we talk about.
RAOUL: That’s all we talk about now.
AMY: Pam and Raoul say they share the same goal- find more sustainable ways to grow food. And for Pam that entailed developing a rice that helps prevent poor farmers from losing their crops to flooding.
RAOUL: The farming practices that organic farmers use can help make agriculture more sustainable, and the work that Pam does on genetically improving crops can also make farming more sustainable.
AMY: Pam and Raoul are harvesting their dinner, looking for some of the last eggplants of the season.
RAOUL: There’s one, it’s a small one, but there’s still one.
AMY: The eggplants they’re picking are organic. So no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used.
RAOUL: They missed a couple of big eggplants. Why don’t you go over there and grab some of those?
PAM: I’ll take some back to my mother tonight.
AMY: The eggplants are also non-GMO. But Pam says that term is scientifically meaningless.
PAM: Everything we eat has been genetically improved using some method, everything has been developed through artificial selection.
AMY: Take classical plant breeding, for example. That’s when breeders artificially select the best genetic traits in similar plant species. Breeders can also cross related plants that wouldn’t normally reproduce in nature to create new genetic variations that never existed before. Then there are scarier sounding breeding techniques.
PAM: Some of the crops out here were developed using chemical mutagenesis or types of irradiation.
AMY: Chemical mutagenesis means exposing plant seeds to chemicals and irradiation mutagenesis means exposing them to X-Rays or Gamma Rays. Both techniques create random mutations in the DNA. More than 3,000 crops have been developed this way- including wheat, rice and Ruby Red Grapefruit. The breeding technique has been around for 70 years and you’ve likely eaten some, even in the organic aisle.
PAM: For people in agriculture, they’re not really new ideas but I think as fewer and fewer people farm and more and more people live in cities these old ideas are surprising to a lot of people.
AMY: SO, what consumers refer to as a GMO is a plant that’s been genetically engineered.
PAM: That’s taking a gene from one species, for example, a bacteria, and putting it directly into a crop.
Amy: Now that may sound scary, but this form of genetic engineering is no more risky than mutant breeding. Raoul says it’s the next logical step after breeding different varieties of plants.
RAOUL: There may be traits that you want that aren’t in those varieties or in any of the species that you’re working with. If you want a trait in corn, that kills the corn earworm, you’re not going to find that within the plant, so you have to go outside of it.
AMY: Genetically engineered corn uses a bacterium that kills the earworm, it’s called Bt corn. Most genetically engineered crops in the U.S. are designed to kill pests or tolerate herbicides. If you spray the weed-killer “RoundUp” on genetically engineered “RoundUp ready” corn, the weeds die, but the corn survives. Genetic engineering also prevents disease in plants. Pam’s favorite example is the papaya.
PAM: Something like 90 percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered to be resistant to a very devastating viral disease and it carries a snippet of the viral genome.
AMY: The disease would have put most, if not all, papaya growers out of business. Besides corn and papaya, there are only eight other genetically engineered crops on the U.S. market. That may be hard to believe given all the non-GMO labels you see.
RAOUL: People are putting the non-GMO label on products that there are no GMO examples of like salt or olive oil or water.
AMY: Water? Really? The other genetically engineered crops include cotton, alfalfa, canola, sugar beets, soybeans, squash, and most recently a disease-resistant potato and a non-browning apple.
RAOUL: For the vast range of all other foods to have a non-GMO label is a joke.
AMY: Here’s the other thing. There is scientific consensus that genetically engineered crops pose no health risks to humans. Some argue, it could improve health. Take golden rice, for example. It’s been engineered with genes from corn and a commonly ingested soil bacterium to produce more beta-carotene. It would give children in developing countries more vitamin A. So why do we care about vitamin A?
PAM: It’s estimated that 500,000 children go blind every year because of a lack of vitamin A and half of those children will die.
AMY: But golden rice isn’t yet being grown by farmers, partly because of the lengthy regulatory reviews required for genetically engineered crops. Only field trials have been conducted and only in the Philippines and Bangladesh.
AMY: Pam and Raoul step inside a shed and begin to bag their organic eggplants. We’re about to wrap up the interview, but something is bugging me. I mean, if all this is true about GMOs or genetic engineering- why are so many consumers opposed to GMOs? Pam says the non-GMO label hasn’t helped.
PAM: We’re all very susceptible to being influenced when someone tells us something scary and if we could just buy this or pay a little more money maybe we won’t have any risk and not really understanding that it’s no more risky than other types of food.
AMY: Raoul says no crop is risk free. For example, some earworms have developed resistance to genetically engineered Bt corn and weeds are beginning to develop resistance to herbicides sprayed on genetically engineered RoundUp ready crops. But Raoul says sustainable farming methods might have helped prevent that.
RAOUL: It would have been fairly easy to devise a strategy of either crop rotation or herbicide rotation that would have either prevented or greatly reduced the development of resistant weeds. I think it would have been more sustainable in the long run.
AMY: Raoul and Pam say ultimately, the debate over GMO crops is a misguided conversation.
PAM: I think discussions about the way the genes are moved in and out of crop plants are really a distraction of this huge challenge we have of how to feed a growing population without further destroying the environment. How can we reduce food waste and how can we really grow food in an ecologically-based manner?
RAOUL: In the grand scheme of things I think it’s going to turn out that genetic engineering of crops isn’t the big issue. The big issue is dealing with climate change. The big issue is dealing with an increasing population. Everyone should be trying to find solutions for the bigger picture.
ALEXA: It really sounds like consumers are much more concerned about the safety of GMO crops than scientists are.
ALEXA: So how do you suggest getting around such a huge debate?
AMY: Well I asked Pam that, and she said our focus should be on the principles that most people agree on.
PAM: We need to use land and water much more efficiently. We need to reduce applications of toxic compounds. We need to be sure the poor are well-nourished and we need to be sure farmers can make a living and we need to be sure that people can afford the food.
ALEXA: That actually makes a lot of sense. And don’t they have a book about that?
AMY: They do! Should we give it a plug? It’s called Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food.
ALEXA: So I guess you’re eating a non-GMO salad because they don’t make a GMO salad?
AMY: Yes! But I wouldn’t hesitate to eat a GMO-salad if they did make one, or an organic salad, which by the way, this may be. I think it is. I dunno.
ALEXA: Well don’t throw away any of it away, because I’ll eat it, if you don’t want it.
AMY: I’m going to eat every last bit, then I’m going to recycle the plastic container or maybe it’s compostable. Anyway, no food waste here.
ALEXA: Well speaking of which, next time on Unfold, we look at how reducing food waste may help feed a growing population.
AMY: Thanks for listening.