Not all genetically modified foods the same

For years, I taught a course on genetically modified organisms.

First, we covered the biology behind GMOs so that students had the science background. Then we described agricultural systems so that they understood the challenges facing food production.

Next, we reviewed the applications of GMOs so that they knew the products being used along with their benefits and risks. And last, we discussed the controversy surrounding GMOs.

The objective was to develop students’ critical thinking skills so that they could make informed decisions.

Those students had time to engage in civil discourse with professionals representing all viewpoints and fields of expertise.

Most of us do not have that luxury. Currently, we are faced with impending legislation regarding GMOs with real-world consequences. Here is information I believe is useful.

We eat trillions of genes a day. All living organisms have many cells. Each cell houses DNA. The DNA contains genes. When you eat a piece of fruit like a banana, or a fish like ahi, you are eating millions of genes.

These foods may also have bacteria, fungi or viruses on or in them.

So, every day we eat a smorgasbord of genes from plants, animals and microorganisms. Eating DNA and genes is nothing new.

What also is not new is that most plants we eat today are different from their wild ancestors. These domesticated plants were intentionally bred by humans to have specific traits. For example, we have selected for higher yields and better disease and insect resistance. These traits are controlled by genes that are passed on from parents to their offspring.

Although plant breeding has been wildly successful, it has limitations.

First, it is initially imprecise. One starts with parents that have the genes you desire, but Mother Nature randomly mixes the genes up during the production of egg and sperm cells, so that individual offspring have a limited chance of receiving them. Consequently, it takes years of breeding and selection to get a variety that is improved for a given trait.

Second, the trait you are looking for may not exist in any of your parents. Then you cannot rely on breeding to make that improvement.

Scientists discovered ways to overcome these limitations to crop improvement. As the field of genetics matured, it became possible to isolate a single gene, from any source, and put it into a plant. This “genetically modified organism” (GMO) was new and first reported in 1983.

Subsequently, novel foods developed by genetic modification have been studied, tested and regulated, and rightly so, as it is paramount that they are safe for consumption and do not cause environmental problems. That is why GM plants can require USDA, FDA and EPA approval.

The technique of GM itself is not harmful. Focus should be on the safety of a given GMO and its use.

Not all GMOs are the same nor should they be treated as such. It would be short-sighted to have a blanket ban on GMOs in Hawaii when we are faced with the enormous challenge of food self-sufficiency.

New GM traits are aimed at reducing water use through drought tolerance, reducing saturated fats and allergens in foods, and increasing disease-fighting nutrients in foods. There is immense value to be gained using these types of crops.

In Hawaii, we produce only 13 percent of our food, and import the remainder. Our primary goal should be to increase the food supply in an environmentally and economically sound manner. To do that, we need all the safe tools that organic, conventional and GM farming can provide.

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