Facts, fears and the future of food: Asheville talks about genetic engineering

KEEPING OPTIONS OPEN: Ingles dietitian Leah McGrath, pictured in a field of GMO canola, says that despite opposition, GMOs could offer answers for global problems. “I think we have to realize that we need to have these tools in our toolbox and don’t have the luxury of taking anything off the plate,” she says.
KEEPING OPTIONS OPEN: Ingles dietitian Leah McGrath, pictured in a field of GMO canola, says that despite opposition, GMOs could offer answers for global problems. “I think we have to realize that we need to have these tools in our toolbox and don’t have the luxury of taking anything off the plate,” she says. Photo courtesy of McGrath

Asheville-based director and producer Jeremy Seifert’s  2013 documentary film  GMO, OMG  highlighted a major concern about the manipulation of the food supply — the belief that genetically modified organisms are dangerous. 

In 2015, Mountain Xpress reported how local restaurants were seeing an increased demand for non-GMO foods. Until a GMO labeling bill was signed into law in July 2016, locals like The Market Place chef and owner William Dissen were vocal, not so much about the dangers of GMOs, but about the importance of transparency when it comes to genetic engineering in our foods.

On Saturday, May 20, GMO Free NC will host the sixth annual March Against Monsanto, an Asheville public protest that organizers say aims “to raise awareness of the dangers of genetically modified organisms to our food, to our health, our children’s health and that of all living things on the planet.”

Even the National Academy of Sciencesthe  agency responsible for releasing the comprehensive May 2016 report that “found no evidence that foods derived from genetically engineered (GE) crops were unsafe to eat,” noted that “it is clear that the proportion of Americans who believe that foods derived from GE crops pose a serious health hazard to consumers has steadily increased, from 27 percent in 1999 to 48 percent in 2013.”

This trend pits those who are skeptical of genetic engineering against those who, alongside agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Academy of Sciences, believe that genetic engineering is not only safe but has the potential to be a powerful tool for food production in the future.

What is genetic engineering?

“Simply speaking, genetic engineering is a process whereby genes can be moved within a species or from one species to another,” says Jack Britt, an Asheville-based scientist, consultant and agricultural professor of nearly 40 years at institutions like N.C. State University and the University of Tennessee. “All of us have genes or pieces of genes that came from other species. Some have been introduced by viruses and bacteria, and some have been spread by biting insects and the organisms they inject into us when they bite. In the 1960s, scientists discovered how to excise and insert DNA (genes). The methods used by scientists are the same as those used by bacteria and viruses to move genes around among species, except that scientists do this more precisely than bacteria and viruses.” 

IMPROVING ON NATURE: Asheville-based agricultural professor Jack Britt says genetic engineering is a more efficient way of improving species through natural selection. “The methods used by scientists are the same as those used by bacteria and viruses to move genes around among species, except that scientists do this more precisely,” says Britt. Photo courtesy of Britt
IMPROVING ON NATURE: Asheville-based agricultural professor Jack Britt says genetic engineering is a more efficient way of improving species through natural selection. “The methods used by scientists are the same as those used by bacteria and viruses to move genes around among species, except that scientists do this more precisely,” he says. Photo courtesy of Britt

Essentially, the idea is that genetic engineering is simply a more efficient means of doing something that nature has always been doing since the dawn of time improving species through natural selection. “We now know that nature has created many GMO crops over millions of years. The same organism that is used by scientists to move genes into corn, soybeans, papaya, canola, alfalfa and other GMO crops has been moving genes across species naturally for a long time. When the sweet potato genome was sequenced a few years ago, it was discovered that it was a true GMO crop and that the same organism has left its footprint in the sweet potato thousands of years ago.”

Rather than improving species through what’s essentially rolling the dice, genetically speaking, genetic engineering is much more targeted. “With GMOs, there may be one gene altered. You’re not changing a host of genes. It’s very deliberate and very direct. It’s not like taking a Schnauzer and breeding it with a St. Bernard and seeing what we’re going to get,” says Leah McGrath, corporate supermarket dietitian for Ingles Markets.

The use of GMOs and genetic engineering is also more prevalent than many people realize. “Insulin is a GMO, so everyone who is a Type 1 diabetic relies on a product of genetic engineering,” says McGrath.

“Genetic engineering is used widely in processing and manufacturing of thousands of products that we all use every day,” says Britt. “Many cosmetic, health and other products are produced in fermentation vats using genetically modified E. coli. The technology that is used to produce GMO crops is used to make hundreds of products such as cold-water detergents, bread preservatives, many over-the-counter products and many pharmaceuticals.”

Despite the widespread use of GMO-based products, many of the foods grown today fall outside the realm of what is considered genetically modified. “Remember that there are no tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, kale, collards and many other vegetables that are genetically engineered,” says Fred Gould, N.C. State professor and chair of the National Academy of Sciences committee on GE crops. “So unless your farm is focused on commodity row crops, you probably don’t even have access to engineered crops.”

The current list of GE foods on the market includes corn, soybeans, cotton, Innate Potatoes, papaya, squash, canola, alfalfa, arctic apples, sugar beets and AquaBounty salmon, according to a report from bestfoodfacts.org.

The number of GMO crops out on the market is limited by  the  regulatory process they’re subjected to. “It can actually take almost 20 years to bring a GMO product to market. There are trials upon trials before that can happen,” says McGrath. Britt agrees, noting that “GMO crops are under much more control by FDA, EPA and USDA than any other farm products.”

McGrath says it’s important for consumers to understand which GMO foods are in circulation so there’s no risk of being exploited by unfounded, fear-based marketing. “When you have small grocery stores, even here in Asheville, that put out ads showing a tomato or strawberry with a syringe in it, implying that those products are GM, it’s important to understand that there aren’t actually any GMO strawberries or tomatoes on the market,” says McGrath.

Why all of the opposition?

Despite the fact that “every national scientific and medical agency in the world has declared that GMO foods are safe,” according to Britt, many people are still concerned and skeptical.

According to a recent video released by Kurzgesagt via YouTube, there are several common objections to genetic engineering, including gene flow (the concept that GM crops can mix with traditional crops and introduce unwanted new traits into them), the use of terminator seeds (which are essentially seeds that produce sterile plants, requiring farmers to buy new seeds every year) and the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, like the weed-killing herbicide glyphosate.

The use of pesticides and herbicides especially causes alarm among vocal critics in Asheville.

“Philosophically and ethically, I believe that ‘you are what you eat,’ and I do my best to source and cook ingredients that are local, sustainable and healthy. For me, the conversation about GE and healthy eating is the use of herbicides and pesticides in our food,” says Dissen.

“Agricultural communities suffer the greatest and most obvious effects of the ever-increasing amount of poison being sprayed,” says Chris Smith, community coordinator at Asheville-based Sow True Seed. “Glyphosate is showing up in groundwater. Studies show effects on beneficial insects and pollinators, not least because of the killing off of plants like milkweed, the preferred food of monarch butterflies. More emerging studies are linking health issues to people who get drift from aerial spraying. And that isn’t to mention the real threat to the biodiversity of food and other crops in nearby fields,” says Smith.

Anne and Aaron Grier run the 70-acre Gaining Ground Farm in Leicester and have been selling vegetables in Asheville since 1999. “We currently grow 14 acres of vegetables on land that we lease from immediate family. We do actively avoid GMO seed in our vegetable production. We actively avoid buying non-GMO seed from companies that also produce and sell GMO seeds. We worry about GMOs’ unintended impacts on insects and increased usage of herbicide in Roundup Ready-type applications,” say the Griers.

Britt seems less concerned than Dissen, Smith and the Griers about the use of chemicals like glyphosate. “The primary advantage of GMO corn and other GMO crops is that they simplify control of weeds and control of insect damage to crops,” says Britt. “In general, weeds are now typically controlled by a single herbicide (glyphosate) rather than multiple herbicides, and the GMO plants often include a BT toxin that kills insects that feed on plants.”

When Britt refers to weeds controlled by glyphosate, he is referring to genetically modified herbicide-resistant crops (think Roundup Ready), which have been engineered to survive exposure to glyphosate, the chemical (found in Roundup spray) known to kill weeds. The “BT” that Britt references is a gene borrowed from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which allows engineered plants to produce a protein that destroys the digestive systems of specified insect pests. So basically, the plant makes its own pesticide, and insects that eat it will die.

But are BT toxins bred into crops something to worry about?  “Unlike many pesticides, the BT toxin is not active in humans. The bacteria that produces the BT toxin is used by organic farmers to control pests in their organic crops. It is a natural product,” says Britt.

Britt counters concerns about the overall use of pesticides by noting that “now we spray much less than previously, and pesticide use in the U.S. has declined significantly over the last two decades. According to worldwide statistics, the U.S. now ranks around 43rd in the world in amount of pesticide used per acre of arable farmland. Fertilizer use has also declined, and we rank about 62nd in the world in fertilizer use per acre.”

For Gould, some objections to the current use of GE technology may be valid, but not those regarding the health or safety for humans and the environment. “The overall data doesn’t show that GMOs themselves cause human and environmental safety problems,” says Gould. “If you are against GMOs for ethical and societal reasons, I think it’s best to express your opposition in those terms instead of health and environmental terms.”

Shifting the conversation

Laura Lengnick, professor of sustainable agriculture at Warren Wilson College and author of the book Resilient Agriculture, says: “GE technology may be a useful tool in climate change adaptation, but not as it is used today. In general, GE technology is a great example of the overemphasis on technological solutions to food production challenges that characterizes industrial agricultural.”

Britt disagrees. “The first GMO on the market was Roundup-resistant corn, and that was really designed so that Monsanto could sell more Roundup. Now, while it definitely makes planting and growing corn simpler for the farmer, the company was primarily focused on selling more Roundup. So, ultimately, that was a product that made a lot of money for [Monsanto], farmers liked it, but it wasn’t necessarily a great step forward in terms of producing food more efficiently or meeting needs any better, except for maybe reducing the overall use of pesticides,” says Britt.

For Anne and Aaron Grier of Gaining Ground Farm, everyday shoppers carry a responsibility when it comes to farmers buying seed from companies like Monsanto. “We think that most of the responsibility rests with the consumer making decisions with their dollar. If consumers quit buying products that contained GMO crops, farmers would quit using GMO seeds,” say the Griers.

Companies like Monsanto are for-profit corporations with shareholders and board members to satisfy. Thus, consumer and agricultural concerns may be secondary to generating profits. This isn’t to imply that these companies are malicious or nefarious, however, but rather a reminder that profits are a top priority for many companies. “Which company does not have an intention to make profit?” Britt asks.

The future of genetic engineering

Britt says the GMO technologies we’re using today aren’t particularly enhancing the state of agriculture, as they have the potential to, but believes there is reason to be optimistic about the future of GE. “I think the long-term advantages of genetic engineering or gene editing is for things like drought resistance and salt tolerance,” he says. “Could you grow plants in salty water? If we could do that, we wouldn’t have to worry about irrigation water.”

Britt also believes GMOs may soon be a thing of the past. “My guess is that GMO will soon be replaced by gene-editing,” he says. “It’s quicker, easier to do and has a precision that is exceptionally high. With gene-editing, a specific gene is excised or cut from the DNA, and its replacement is inserted in the space that was cut out. Often the replaced gene is a slightly different version of the one that was cut out and often leads to improved health or some other benefit to the plant or animal.”

With growing concerns around global population growth and impending climate change, there is certainly reason to move forward with research and development of potentially effective GE technologies. “I don’t think you can draw a line in the sand and just say no to GE,” says McGrath. “I think we have to realize that we need to have these tools in our toolbox and don’t have the luxury of taking anything off the plate.”

Those critical of GE maintain that we need to proceed with caution, however. “Could publicly funded altruistic application of certain types of biotech help us in the future?” Smith asks. “Quite possibly. Will biotech be a golden wand that solves all our problems? Extremely unlikely. We need big system changes, which means human behavior needs to change and that relies on the most complex tool we have at our disposal​: our brains.”

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About Nick Wilson
Nick Wilson is a free spirited guy who enjoys curious adventures and seeing his consciousness evolve. A native of the Midwest, he attended Indiana University and recently moved to Asheville after 8 years in Los Angeles to focus on writing and deliberate creation. Follow me @njdwo

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5 thoughts on “Facts, fears and the future of food: Asheville talks about genetic engineering

  1. Jon Davis

    Excellent article, Nick. Great to see Xpress’s coverage evolve since the 2013 MAM by interviewing NC scientists, especially the chair of the National Academies report on GMOs. To gain the cred to criticize the GOP on science issues, we need to attend to the scientific consensus across the board. The article brings tasty nuance to the table.

  2. Steve Savage

    Nick, lots of good information here but I want to provide some perspective on your statement that Roundup Ready crops were developed so Monsanto could sell more glyphosate. The idea for a glyphosate tolerant crop came up very early in the small biotech start-up Calgene in the early 80s. The scientist who did the first proof of concept for that idea was straight out of academics with no commercial experience or connection to Monsanto. He just thought that the trait would be useful for farmers. He was right and farmers found great value for their operation with that and other herbicide tolerance traits. Farmers don’t spend money on things that don’t make sense for their business. Herbicide tolerance has also been extremely helpful for farmers wanting to shift to no-till and other more sustainable farming systems.

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