GMOs present controversy; Are they safe?


JASPER — Food production was the hot topic Friday morning at the second annual Southwest Indiana Agriculture Economic Summit.

Dubois Strong and the Dubois County Purdue Extension hosted the event at Vincennes University Jasper Campus and brought professionals from across the various aspects of agribusiness to present on issues facing farming including weather, business challenges, organic farming and GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.

In agriculture, GMOs are seeds that have had their genes edited to produce desired effects in the plant when it grows.

GMOs are a particularly controversial aspect of food production today due to a handful of studies that found possible health risks with the modified plants, such as cancer. Peter Goldsbrough, a professor in Purdue University’s Botany and Plant Pathology Department, came to Jasper to explain the new crops. His argument was that GMO foods are safe.

Goldsbrough said 88 percent of scientists think GMOs are safe for consumption, and 37 percent of the public agrees. He figures the disparity is because GMOs involve people’s food and genetics, two topics that can cause fear.

“We’ve done some not very nice things in the name of genetics in the past,” he said.

Scientists developed GMOs in the 1980s when they developed methods to transfer DNA from other organisms into plants to create various effects, most commonly herbicide, disease and pest resistance. Scientists generally use a bacteria called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which causes crown gall disease in plants in nature.

In the lab, however, scientists use the bacteria’s ability to remove and replace genes in plants to insert genes the scientists choose. The inserted genes can come from any organism, Goldsbrough said, though scientists generally use genes from bacteria.

To create herbicide-resistant crops, for example, genes that allow the plants to bypass the metabolic blockage caused by the herbicide or genes that speed up the metabolism to get the herbicide out of the plant’s system faster are inserted. To make insect-resistant plants, scientists insert the toxic protein found in Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil-dwelling bacterium. The toxin is deadly to insects when they eat the plant, but has been determined to be safe for mammals, despite some studies suggesting otherwise.

“It’s amazing stuff,” Goldsbrough said of the science behind GMOs. “Frankly, it is just mind-boggling.”

To determine if a GMO is safe for consumption, Goldsbrough said, scientific and medical organizations look at what changes are made to the plants, what those changes do to the plants and what happens when those plants are digested. There haven’t been any long-term studies on GMOs’ effects on humans, Goldsbrough said, but such studies aren’t required for foods like they are for food additives such as added dyes.

During the questions and answer session, several questions about the conflicting studies came up. Goldsbrough said that he isn’t a toxicologist and couldn’t speak about the health studies in depth, but he said many had been discredited. One study in particular, he said, reported that GMOs caused tumors in rats; however, the study was found to be flawed because the rats used were already susceptible to tumors and the sample was too small.

Despite the controversy surrounding them, Goldsbrough said GMOs, particularly insect-resistant crops, have helped increase yields for farmers and have improved health for farmers in countries like India where field workers spray crops by hand without proper protective gear. Studies in those areas have showed improved health for both farmers and their families because they aren’t spraying as often, and thus come into less contact with the pesticides.

“That’s unexpected, but really notable,” Goldsbrough said.

GMOs have also led to higher yields that help feed the world’s growing population. They’ve also caused economic changes. Farmers now use different types of herbicides, causing a change in the herbicide market. As GMOs became more prevalent, companies consolidated, causing a merge in the seed and agriculture technology companies. Neither change is unexpected, Goldsbrough said, but rather the result of how the economy works.

Goldsbrough acknowledged that consumers have deep concerns about GMOs due to beliefs that the modified plants are unhealthy, harm the environment and are unnatural.

On the last concern, Goldsbrough said, they’re “absolutely correct,” but he argued that most of what we eat is unnatural, or not the way it would be found in nature. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts, for example, are all variations of the same species created through generations of selective breeding.

Still, he doesn’t see the public’s concerns abating anytime soon.

“They don’t see much benefit,” he said. “All they see is a risk.”

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