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David Annis: GMOs continue to bring arguments from both sides of the issue

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David Annis

Have you wondered if genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe to eat? Do you wonder about the labels on the food that say "Natural" or "Organic" and what this means to you? Are you concerned about antibiotics in meats and dairy on your table? Where do you turn for the unbiased answers to these questions?

David AnnisCourtesy photo
David Annis
Courtesy photo

Join us from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 16 for "Path to the Plate" at the Denton County Election Administration building, 701 Kimberly Drive in Denton, to find out. Register at www.dcmga.com.

Let's face it. The debate — no, let's call it what it is — the fight both for and against GMOs have been going on for years. Nevertheless, did you know that we have been playing around with GMOs for thousands of years? Modifying crops, cross breeding animals, always in search of those that were best suited for the environment around them. These modifications reached the point hundreds of years ago that these plants would not survive without the help and management of humans. How did we get here?

Between 1850 and 1860, Austrian monk Gregor Mendel tinkered with the genetics of the pea plant. In the 1950s, scientists started using radiation in plant-breeding programs. This has produced thousands of useful mutants and a sizable fraction of the world's crops. These include varieties of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, bananas, cassava and sorghum. The mutant wheat is used for bread and pasta, and the mutant barley for beer and fine whiskey. 

In 1957, Cambridge University scientists James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick described DNA's shape and paved the way for genetic engineering. In 1972, Herbert Boyer at the University of California, San Francisco, and Stanley Cohen of Stanford University developed the procedure that allowed them to cut DNA from one organism and place it in another. 

The U.S. Supreme Court got into the act in 1982, stating that Exxon Oil Company could patent an oil-eating microorganism. The next year, Monsanto genetically modified plants that were tested five years later. In 1988, glyphosate-tolerant soybeans were created. Today, we have crops that are resistant to insects, diseases and herbicides. But what about risk?

Isn't it strange that all it takes to start a conversation is a question mark? Risk is the potential of gaining or losing something of value. However, taking risks are something that we gladly choose to do every day. To drive the vehicle or to walk? To climb the ladder or stay on the ground? To be a firefighter or a county extension agent — what is safer? Can we ever get away from risk? Medical researchers know that nothing can be really proven safe. One can only fail to turn up significant risk after trying to find it.

We're still seeing the same arguments from both advocates for and against GMO's that were brought up 30 years ago. On one side of the coin, proponents of GMOs say that it reduces the overall amount of pesticides that are applied to crops and can be used to increase the amount of food grown at a lower cost of production. Opponents make the argument that it is unnatural and unsafe to consume as we don't know the long-term effects. Absolute safety is a myth. However, genetically modified food only has to be safe as its traditional counterpart.

With all the hype, in foreign nations where the people go hungry, they are refusing to import lower-cost food that is the result of GMOs. No country has a plan to grow golden rice (a rice plant genetically modified to be a source of vitamin A) even though this crop has the potential of reducing millions of deaths annually and a half million cases of irreversible blindness in the developing world. Why?

Back to risk yet again. Medical researchers know that nothing can be really proven safe. One can only fail to turn up significant risk after trying to find it. Come join us on Sept. 16 for more information.

DAVID ANNIS is the agriculture extension agent with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. He can be reached at 940-349-2894 or via email at david.annis@ag.tamu.edu.