Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in your food are hugely controversial with Americans.
In fact, there’s so much to talk about that I won’t be covering every facet of the debate. Instead, I’ll hit the high points and verify some of the major claims. That way you can get started on understanding the issue.
Let’s start on a Saturday at Klyde Warren Park in Dallas. A small group of protestors, about 15 people, gathered for an annual event called the March Against Monsanto.
These folks aren’t marching, but they are handing out literature to warn the public that GMOs are dangerous.
"I don’t want to eat something that's not from nature. Something that's coming out of a chemical lab, your body doesn't know what to do with that and how to process it," says Rhonda Kraft, who’s concerned that the public doesn’t understand they’re eating GMOs.
"What are you concerned about?" I ask another protestor, Gayle Barton.
"I'm concerned about there being poison in my food and I don't know about it," Barton said.
"I think they're terrible. I think there's no need for them," says Gabrielle Grandell, who's a Functional Medicine Dietician.
If you want a deep dive on the range of health concerns critics have, a report called GMO Myths and Truths is a good place to start.
Okay, so, what are GMOs? They are genetically modified organisms. Take GMO corn, for example. Farmer’s like it because it fights off certain bugs that like to eat it. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 92 percent of corn in America is GMO.
GMO science takes a trait from one organism, like soil bacteria that's toxic to bugs and introduces it into the corn. Now when the bugs eat the corn, they die.
John Paul Dineen is a farmer in Waxahachie, Texas. He’s also president of his local branch of the Texas Farm Bureau, which supports GMO farming.
Bugs and weeds? John Paul hates them.
"Are weeds just taking it right out of your pocketbook?" I asked John Paul while we walk through his corn field.
"That is the honest truth. They steal your nutrients, and they steal eight times the water that the plant does," he says.
To beat the bugs and weeds, John Paul plants genetically modified corn. In addition to the trait that kills bugs, it's also engineered with a second trait that protects the corn from a weed killer called glyphosate. With GMO, the glyphosate kills the weeds, not the corn.
Together, we’re going to spray several hundred acres of his field with glyphosate. To prepare, he has me pump the chemical into his crop sprayer, which mixes it with water.
"So this is the glyphosate? This is the Evil Empire over here?" I say to John Paul.
"This is Darth Vader personified," he jokes back.
"It’s slightly unnerving, I have to say. People say so many things about Round Up and glyphosate, and here I am just filling this giant bucket," I say.
Glyphosate is the generic name for Round Up, developed by the company Monsanto. Opponents say genetically engineered crops and glyphosate are a threat to water, soil, bugs, and plants.
Now I’m jumping into John Paul’s tractor with him as he sprays. A lot people think what we’re doing right now is bad for the environment.
For guidance, I'm relying on this 600-page landmark report from the National Academy of Sciences. What does it say about the water, soil, bugs, and plants?
Based on what's known today, the report says there is "no conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between (genetically modified) crops and environmental problems."
It also goes on to say, "The complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes often made it difficult to reach definitive conclusions."
John Paul agrees with that conclusion.
"It is so much less risky for me and for the public," Paul said.
And when it comes to spraying glyphosate, John Paul says he only sprays twice a season. On his non-GMO crops, he says he sprays up to four times. The NAS report says there's no data that proves farmers -- overall -- are spraying fewer chemicals.
"I'm holding GMO corn right now," I say to John Paul as we’re standing near a trailer full of GMO corn he grew. "There are people who think this is completely evil. What I'm holding is bad. What do you say to that?"
"We need to be respectful in agriculture of all the different ways we can raise these crops. Just because I choose and my neighbors choose to raise a GMO crop doesn't mean that we are the villain or doing something bad," he says.
Okay, now let’s move to our second question. How do GMOs affect human health?
I'm at the Institute for Plant Genomics & Biotechnology at Texas A&M University, where scientists actually make new varieties of GMOs.
I'm tweezing embryonic plant seeds, trying to get a single gene that's living in the petri dish gel to transfer from the gel and into the seed. This is part of a much larger process that is highly complex, hands on, and takes years.
I'm talking to Dr. Betsy Pierson with A&M's Horticultural Sciences program. She loves her some GMO.
"This is a technology that's solving problems," she says.
The technology is solving problems like hunger. At Texas A&M, for example, Dr. Keerti Rathore is modifying cotton seed. It’s toxic and he wants to make it edible. He’s been working on the problem for 20 years. If he succeeds, he believes they can feed 600 million people around the world.
"That's exciting," I say to Betsy about the cotton research. "There's nothing that's not exciting about that. But people might still reject that. In this country, they might say, 'I'm not eating that.'"
"Or, 'I'm not eating the cow that ate that,'" Betsy says. "'Is GMO safe?' Well, compared to what? Compared to the extra sprays to control the insects? Maybe. Compared to not having anything to eat? Maybe."
Why would she say maybe?
Here's the thing. Scientists don't like to make sweeping statements because science is always changing, but consumers want certainty. So, let's see what that NAS report says about the most basic points.
Opponents of GMO say it leads to increases in cancer, autism, Celiac-disease, and food allergies.
The report compared U.S. health data to the same data in England and Europe, where people eat far less GMO food. On page 19 it concluded... "No differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety" from GMO food.
"People hear, all the time, science saying this is really smart and works until it doesn't," I say to Betsy. "How do you know we won't say 10 years later, 'sorry, we kind of screwed that one up?'" I ask.
"There's absolutely no guarantee. There’s not a crystal ball. All we can rely on is our 16-year track record that says none of these bad things have come to pass," Betsy says.
So, what have we learned about GMOs?
The NAS report is careful to say that any kind of new food can have effects that can't be detected no matter how hard you look, and health effects can change over time.
But for now, the report says, when it comes to the health of the environment and the health of people, GMOs do not pose a risk.
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