Musings from the In-Between: My Coming to Terms with the GMO Industry

by Laura Barley

Monotony. Uniformity. Cataclysmic Tragedy, Subsequent Death. As a self-identified liberal attending an institution built on the premise of promoting social welfare through nutritional outcomes, this is how Laura Barley has historically described images of technologized agriculture. Her take on GMOs now? Read on. 

As we’re all too aware, the genetic modification of food is one of the most polarizing innovations in agriculture, placing tech-absolutists against agro-ecologist hippies and scantly leaving room for anyone else in between. Quite honestly, it’s a cultural scandal and a public relations nightmare. Never before have humans been able to penetrate so deeply into the fabric of our consumption and manipulate it for our own gain. Think about it: scientists have figured out how to take splices of nanoscopic DNA from one species, most commonly Bacillus thurgensis, then coat those splices onto gold particles, and use a gene gun to blast the gene-coated particles into plant cells that will then replicate and express the desired trait(s). Kind of crazy, right? Frankly, it feels weird that we’d ever have to go to such lengths just to grow food efficiently, but I suppose I’m learning how far a psyche of reductionism can take us.

As esoterically impressive as this technology may seem, it’s been integrated into seeds sown across millions of acres of farmland in the United States and 28 countries across the world. The extent of genetically-modified corn and soybean’s success is apparent in the magnitude of its planting, but I’ve always been inclined to wonder—just because something is massively popular, does that make it inherently successful or positive? Besides concerns for biological safety, which have largely been debunked, the proliferation of genetically-modified food has elicited a persistent sense of ecological and cultural doom in the general public much more than it’s elicited any sense of technological optimism. Where exactly does this aversion stem from?

As ‘liberals’, we are inclined to believe that a sense of the common good should prevail over the interests of a small handful of individuals. Arguably, this foundation informs many of our deep suspicions of the heavily consolidated seed and agro-chemical business—that they must not care about small farmers, that they must not care about the impoverished citizens of the world, because they’re driven so singularly towards massive profits.

Through my work with Ellen Messer, the Friedman school’s impressively well-informed professor of anthropology, I’ve looked into the careers of various scientists and biotech institutions who’ve set the business of genetically engineering food into motion. And honestly, their sh*t didn’t stink as bad as I’d hoped it would. Perhaps my lips are red from the Kool-Aid I’ve just drunk, but underneath the dark, tainted veil of their corporate monikers, I can see that these people are simply scientists. Take, for instance, Beatriz Xonocostle, researching the genes involved in drought tolerance to preserve maize cultivation in an increasingly dry Mexico, or Dennis Gonsalves, the developer of Rainbow Papaya that revived the Hawaiian papaya industry after years of serious blight – are these people who I should consider ‘enemies’? These are people attempting to experiment with and innovate the most sophisticated technology possible to make growing food easier. When I get down to it, I see (mostly) earnest people doing the best they can to solve continual global problems of food insecurity and hunger quite literally from the inside out. Now, don’t get me wrong – I understand there are certainly much more vibrant ways of achieving food security that promote biodiversity and empower farmers at smaller scales. It all looks good and feels beautiful. I’ve simply begun to understand that there are tangible and highly nuanced reasons for the successes of agricultural biotechnology, and that these innovations aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

Conveniently, this moderation leaves me at the crossroads of empathy and apathy. In fact, nearly all of my classes at Friedman so far have. I seem to be sitting smack-dab in the middle of the ‘it’s complicated’ intersection, watching rush-hour traffic zoom around me. Given the wealth of information and perspectives lent out to me, I’m no longer afforded the luxury of advocating holistic remedies from my isolated Californian, organic-farming-community bubble. Instead, I’m left to look critically at individual successes and failures to determine exactly which agricultural circumstances merit the use of genetic technology, or any technological or political intervention at all for that matter.

My argument is this: we’ve got to understand these people and corporations both for the results they produce and the intentions they carry. It doesn’t behoove us to assume ignorance on their part; it only stunts our own understanding of the axioms on which the global food system rests upon. A crucial part of our education is to properly consider the sets of choices we will undoubtedly face in the various roles we will all play in our careers, as farmers, policymakers, advocates, consumers. The middle of the road can be an uncomfortable place to be, but I’m ready to embrace it for the responsibilities it renders.

Laura Barley is a first-year Agricultural, Food, and Environment master’s student ceaselessly curious about the complexity that global food systems has to offer. Further dialogue and questions can be asked at laurabarley88@gmail.com.

 

Can I Eat An Engineered Apple, Please?

by Delphine Van Roosebeke

The days of throwing your half-eaten apple away because it turned brown are over. Shiny non-browning apples are about to hit the consumer market in a few months. And this time, it’s not a fairy tale. Read on.

Cartoon from Pinterest

Cartoon from Pinterest

In 1812, the German Grimm Brothers created the shiny red apple in Snow White, featuring it as the symbol of evil given to Snow White by the witch on behalf of the jealous queen. The story was told to children to teach them not to trust strangers. Two hundred years later, it is the shiny green Arctic® Apple that brings people together to tell stories. This time, Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., a Canadian agriculture biotech company that creates new varieties of apples, has replaced the jealous queen. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t get poisoned as Snow White did, but you may be surprised by sliced apples that won’t brown for two weeks.

What are non-browning apples?

No matter how you slice, bruise or bite your apple, every apple turns brown eventually. When the apple’s flesh is cut, the oxygen in the air interacts with chemicals in the flesh of the apple. An enzyme called polyphenol oxidase, or PPO, makes melanin, an iron-containing compound that gives apple cells a brown tinge. The same type of ‘oxidative’ browning happens in the browning of tea, coffee and mushrooms. Within five minutes of slicing, browning can alter an apple’s taste and make it less aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn’t mean the apple is old or rotten.

To prevent this oxidative browning, Okanagan developed proprietary technologies to engineer genetically modified (GM) apples. The apples, called Arctic® Apples, produce reduced amounts of PPO. To achieve this, small gene fragments, called silencing RNAs, were injected into the apple seeds using bacteria. Such an insertion with gene fragments is a red flag for the apple cell, as it resembles the first step of viral attack. As a response, it chops up every sequence of DNA that looks like the suspicious fragment, and thus the PPO gene gets decimated. Because the PPO production is reduced to less than 10% compared to regular apples, the Arctic® Apple, even when sliced, will stay clear of browning for about two weeks. That’s roughly the same extended life span as apple slices from McDonald’s and Burger King, which use lemon juice and calcium ascorbate to prevent browning. Indeed, lemon juice and calcium ascorbate have a similar cosmetic effect to the silencing fragments inserted into the Arctic® Apples.

A regular apple, on the left, shows brown spots, while an Arctic® Apple has a clearer appearance. Photo by Okanagan Specialty Fruits

A regular apple, on the left, shows brown spots, while an Arctic® Apple has a clearer appearance. Photo by Okanagan Specialty Fruits

 Why do we need non-browning apples?

Is the world waiting for a non-browning apple or is this just another ‘we-can, so-we-do-it’ product that eventually may threaten the ecosystem or our bodies? Well, according to Okanagan, very few fresh-cut apples are available on fruit plates, in salads, in cafeterias, or on airplanes, primarily due to the browning issue. Anti-browning treatments are costly and often add an off-taste, the company says. But these treatments are not needed for Arctic® Apples, which is why Okanagan hopes to get their apples available in more places. Consumer research has suggested that apple products, such as bagged apple slices, are the number one produce item that customers would like to see more packaged versions of. Since apple slices are arguably easier to eat than whole fruits, this innovation could propel apple sales. Indeed, the simple convenience of baby carrots doubled carrot consumption, and Okanagan is endeavoring to achieve the same results with apples.

Another argument for bringing engineered non-browning apples to the consumer market is the reduction of food waste. According to the company, apples are among the most wasted foods on the planet, with around 30 to 40 percent of the apples produced never being consumed because of superficial bruising and browning. Given that 52 percent of fresh produce goes to waste in the U.S. alone, consumption of non-browning apples, such as the Artic® Apple, may be one small step in the right direction to shrink this enormous mountain of food waste.

When will you be able to eat them?
Cartoon from Pinterest

Cartoon from Pinterest

Non-browning apples have gotten the green light to get on the market, as both the USDA and FDA approved Arctic® Apples for consumption. According to Okanagan, the first commercial Arctic® Apple orchards were planted in 2015, but it takes a few years for newly-planted apple trees to produce much fruit. They expect small test market quantities from the 2016 harvest, followed by a gradual commercial launch starting in 2017 with increasing availability each year thereafter. The first two varieties that will be available to consumers will be the Arctic® Granny and the Arctic® Golden. Currently, Arctic® Fuji is next in line with others planned to follow!

Although Neil Carter, the president and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, has expressed in the New York Times that the apples will be labeled as Arctic®, they will not explicitly label their apples as GMO. Unlike other genetically engineered crops, Arctic® Apples do not contain foreign DNA but silencing RNAs to reduce the expression of the PPO gene. Therefore, Arctic® Apples are not effectively captured by the current regulatory structure on GMO labeling. According to the company, the label Arctic® is sufficient to create transparency and let the consumers decide whether they want GM apples that don’t brown.

Food for thought on non-browning apples

Despite the millions of dollars and more than 20 years of research that went into the development of non-browning apples, not everyone welcomes the new shiny green Arctic® Apples from Canada. Since we already have hybrid ‘low browning’ varieties, such as the Cortland apple, and successful preservative treatments, some people wonder whether we really need a genetically engineered apple that doesn’t brown. In fact, with the advent of the non-browning apple, the food industry has departed from the premise that GM foods are meant to increase productivity. Indeed, the Arctic® Apple is one of the few GM products that is developed to improve the product cosmetically, to match the media-driven image of a perfect apple rather than improving the crop’s yield or nutritional performance. However, despite the maintenance of a fresher look, the preservability of non-browning apples is similar to conventional apples as Arctic® Apples will eventually still brown due to the rotting process by bacteria and fungi.

Given that PPO is involved in the plant’s defense mechanism, it has been speculated that the mutation in non-browning apples could make the plant more susceptible to insect and microbial pest damage, thus increasing farmers’ reliance on pesticides. Although more pesticides might be needed to maintain productivity of the crops, if non-browning apples actually do reduce food waste, growing fewer acres of non-browning apples may be adequate to meet the market demand. Also, the primary market of the Arctic® Apple is sliced apples, which is a subset of all apples consumed. However, as sliced non-browning apples find their way into more products, demand could increase from, say, parents wanting to use these apples as a convenient and healthy snack in their picky eater’s lunch box. This may eventually drive the need for increased production. Given these market dynamics, the cost-benefit of non-browning apples for the society is elusive and it remains to be seen to what extent the Arctic® Apple puts a burden on the natural environment.

Delphine Van Roosebeke is a rising Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition graduate with a background in biochemical engineering. When she is not thinking about dark Belgian chocolate, she’s eating it! Delphine has a crush on nutrients and the magic they perform in our body, and loves to share her knowledge with anyone who wants to hear it in a fun and approachable way! 

 

 

Not Always Safe and Accurate

by Carla Curle

Safe and accurate? More like voluntary and confusing. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, also known by opponents as the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” Act, will only deepen consumer confusion surrounding genetically modified ingredients in food products if it becomes law in the coming months. 

It’s hard to argue with the fact that the topic of biotechnology, specifically genetically modified organisms (GMOs) present in the food we eat, has become a polarizing issue. No matter what source of media you rely on, it’s likely that GMOs have made their way into your daily headlines. The amount of time, money, and media attention that went to either side of the GMO labeling debate this summer has been monumental.

All of this culminated with the House of Representatives’ passage of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (H.R. 1599) on July 23. This bill was re-introduced by Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) in March of this year. After several modifications and approval from the House Agriculture Committee on July 14, the bill easily passed on the House floor with a final vote of 275 to 150. Following the approval by the House, all eyes turn to the Senate to see if anyone will act on the issue and work towards creating a companion bill. Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) has yet to find a Democrat co-sponsor, so it is unclear how the bill will move through the Senate in the months following August recess.

If Pompeo’s bill were to become law, it would:

  • Block existing mandatory state labeling laws, such as the labeling law passed in Vermont, from taking effect;
  • Create a national, voluntary non-GMO certification program through the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), but only for manufacturers who wish to use it; and
  • Prevent states from regulating “natural” claims on GMO products, in addition to several other provisions.

Proponents of this bill, which include the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Monsanto Company, and the Snack Food Association among hundreds of others, signed a letter from the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food to members of the U.S. House of Representatives in support of H.R. 1599 before the floor vote. The letter asserts that state GMO labeling initiatives would raise consumer confusion and increase food prices for American families by more than $500 a year for a family of four—a figure that has since been debunked and reduced after originally being published in a Washington Post piece.

If food and agribusiness companies are concerned about a patchwork state-by-state approach, then why would they not support a uniform federal standard for GMO labeling in the United States? They’ve had their chance to support legislation introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) in February of this year that would do just this, but it has fallen to the side without even being considered by the pertinent committees in the House and Senate. The easy passage of Pompeo’s bill through the House reveals that food industry concerns may sometimes weigh heavier than constituent concerns.

A consistent issue in the general discussion of GMOs is the narrow focus on the promise of biotechnology in answering the many problems farmers face, such as drought, pests, and soil loss, while ignoring legitimate concerns. These concerns include contamination for non-GE farmers, pest and weed resistance that accompanies these GE crop technology packages, and corporate control and homogenization of our seed supply.

While it has become increasingly clear that the majority of Americans may not understand what a GMO is, let alone DNA, it does not imply that we should limit the information available on the package based on the assumption that lack of understanding equates to fear-based rejection. Rather, we should exercise the same logic that we use with country of origin labeling, which is based on consumer access to information that can assist in purchasing decisions.

Much like consumers around the world, American consumers’ priorities vary from health, price, and preparation time, to taste preferences amongst many more. By adding a straightforward, back-of-package label to the ingredients list, such as “contains genetically modified corn,” of a food product, the United States would be joining 64 other countries that require labeling of genetically modified foods.

Carla Curle is a second-year AFE student. She is also involved in the interdisciplinary Water: Systems, Science and Society (WSSS) program and is a firm believer that systems approaches to addressing problems will be the wave of the future. Also a co-chair of Slow Foods Tufts, you can find Carla nerding out over coffee, fermented items of any kind, and locally grown veggies. You can contact Carla at carla.curle@tufts.edu.

The GMO Debate: A Case of False Dichotomies

by Hannah Packman

The use of genetic modification in our food system is a polarizing issue. However, the current discourse often ignores the grey areas, and may be detrimental to the public understanding of GMOs.

The ability and willingness to admit mistakes is often considered the typification of the wise and modest scientist. As science is an ever-evolving discipline, it is necessary for those within the field to adapt their thoughts and beliefs with emerging discoveries. Many are reluctant to concede their errors, as they worry it will threaten their scientific authority, but those who do are frequently lauded for their honesty and bravery in doing so. This phenomenon is generally observed in the context of divisive issues, such as climate change, antibiotic resistance, and carcinogenic chemicals.

Most recently, the use of GMOs has been the hot-button issue, not just within agro-ecology, but science as a whole. A number of researchers and journalists have publically “come out” on one side of the issue or the other.

Thierry Vrain, once a high-profile biotechnologist and genetic engineer, became an anti-GMO spokesperson upon retirement. He now warns of the dangers of genetically modified crops, urging that engineered soy and corn contain toxic and allergenic proteins. Vrain also questions the environmental justification of genetic modification; that these crops have higher yields and require less pesticides is unsubstantiated. Vrain is celebrated as a luminary by the anti-GMO camp, and is frequently quoted by organizations like GMWatch, Food Integrity Now, and Natural Society.

On the other side of the equation, Bill Nye, a previous GMO skeptic, recently came out in support of genetic modification after spending time with Monsanto’s scientists. The Washington Post, Business Insider, EcoWatch, and the Environmental Working Group all praised Nye’s conversion to a pro-GMO stance.

Admitting the error of one’s ways is certainly a courageous and admirable act. However, in situations such as these, perhaps an even bolder act is admitting ignorance. Given the contradictory evidence on the safety and effectiveness of GMOs, one would be remiss to conclusively choose either side.

True, GMOs hold great promise to solve our most pressing health, environmental, and economic concerns. For instance, genetically engineered crops can be manipulated to contain concentrated amounts of certain nutrients of concern in an effort to prevent deficiency-related disease. Golden rice, an engineered variety of rice with high levels of vitamin A, is the most obvious example. Vitamin A deficiency typically afflicts those in developing countries with limited access to food; annually, it causes blindness in as many as 500,000 children, and is responsible for 670,000 infant deaths. By providing necessary vitamin A, golden rice may be a valuable tool to promote ocular health and abate infant mortality.

Similarly, GMOs have significant potential to improve the environmental sustainability of agriculture by decreasing the use of land and chemicals.  Bt-corn is one of such engineered crops that have obviated the need for synthetic pesticides. This corn variety has been modified to express proteins from Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that acts as a biopesticide. As such, Bt-corn is poisonous to pests, who are killed after ingesting the engineered crop. (Bt does not appear to have the same effect on humans, and the EPA says it can be ingested without deleterious consequences.)

Because this variety of corn acts as its own pesticide, the use of additional chemical pesticides is not always necessary. This could decrease exposure to and consumption of potentially toxic chemicals. According to a 2012 study at Washington State University, Bt crops have reduced pesticide use by 123 million pounds since 1996. It should be noted, however, that overall pesticide use increased by 404 million pounds, largely due to genetically engineered, herbicide resistant crops.

There are a number of other salient arguments in support of GM agriculture.  Certain engineered crops enable farmers to implement no-till methods, ultimately reducing soil erosion and, less directly, water pollution and eutrophication. GM crops may be a more economically reliable option for farmers, as they are less susceptible to the contingencies of weather, weeds, and insects. Furthermore, engineered crop varieties often have greater yield than their non-modified counterparts. The benefit of this is twofold: farmers will be guaranteed a greater payback for the same amount of land, while unsuitable land can be retired without threatening food supply.

Given the aforementioned benefits of genetic modification, it seems that opposing these wonder-crops would be an act of irrational skepticism. But for every argument in support of GMOs, there is an equally compelling argument against. For one, there is the concern of safety. Although GMO proponents maintain that modified crops are safe for human consumption, the research that supports this claim are typically short-term, experimental studies. The long-term effects of consuming genetically modified foods are unknown.

Of primary concern is allergenicity, as introducing allergenic protein sequences into a non-allergenic organism could possibly render the latter allergenic. Whether allergenicity is likely to occur in GM crops is a contested issue; many argue that the probability is no greater than in non-modified foods. Regardless, the causes of food allergies are still largely misunderstood, and the research on the safety of genetically engineered crops is relatively nascent, making it difficult to accurately assess the possibility of allergenicity.

Even if allergenicity is not a problem, there are other health risks associated with genetic modification.  As previously mentioned, herbicide-resistant GM crops have resulted in greater overall application of weed killers in the United States. Glyphosate (popularly known as Roundup), the most popular herbicide in the United States is, was recently identified by the World Health Organization as a likely carcinogen. Because a large portion of our food supply is treated with glyphosate, it is reasonable to ask about the ramifications of ingesting trace amounts on a daily basis.  In large quantities, it can be fatal.

The toxicity of herbicides is hazardous not just to humans, but to livestock and wildlife as well. Liberal herbicide application can affect all flora and fauna within an ecosystem, poisoning pollinators, and hindering the growth of plants that rely on them. In turn, the animals that use those plants as sustenance or habitat may also be threatened, causing a chain reaction that can shatter an entire ecosystem.

The possibility of pesticide resistance is of additional concern. As we introduce more Bt crops, the number of resistant species increases. There are now five pest species that exhibit resistance, and that number is expected to grow. The issue of herbicide resistance is even more prevalent; there are at least 30 weed species worldwide that exhibit glyphosate resistance. Pesticide and herbicide resistance is not a matter of inconvenience. As weeds and insects become resistant to chemicals, they evolve into “superweeds” and “superbugs,” extremely resilient species that, in large enough populations, will threaten our food supply.

The intent of presenting these arguments is not to sway you towards or away from GMOs; indeed, it is just the opposite. Genetic modification is an extraordinarily nuanced issue, and each application varies significantly in its benefits and its risks. By framing it as a black-and-white matter, one ignores the hundreds of gradations between. It is clear, then, that the question at hand is not “yes or no?” but rather “when?” “how?” and “why?” And in allowing for greater complexity in our discussion of GMOs, we will be more pragmatic in our future development and use of biotechnology.

Hannah Packman is a first year student in the Agriculture, Food and Environment masters program. When she isn’t busy filling her head with food-related facts, she enjoys filling her stomach with food-related objects.