Food fight: From lab to dinner plate

How do GMO crops get into our food?

Second in a six-part series

By David Lichtenstein
KMKK-FM News Director

It was about 6,000 years ago when Native Americans domesticated a plant called tripsacum, the ancient forefather of modern corn. It looked nothing like corn, was hard to digest and produced only 10-20 seeds per plant.

Today’s corn plant can produce over 1,000 kernels and has been carefully bred to produce few of the undesirable traits of its wild ancestor. The manipulation of plant species, typically through the cross-pollination of hybrids, is practiced in all of our principal food crops.

But the 400-500 acres of Monsanto corn growing on Molokai at any given time is different. Some of the genes in Monsanto’s corn were inserted in a laboratory before the crop pollinated in a field.

Making a plant disease resistant

It has only been about 30-40 years that scientists have been able to identify specific plant traits through genetic engineering. The techniques have been refined so that scientists can determine the specific genes that control resistance to diseases. If a plant does not appear to be fighting off a particular disease or pest, this is where the bio-engineers step in.

Each corn seed contains thousands of genes, which are embedded in series of DNA strands. In the lab, scientists isolate the DNA strand and cut out a section of this strand that contains the gene to be replaced. A bacteria DNA that contains a disease resistant gene is cut and then mixed with the original DNA and regrown. This new gene is known as a transgene. If this transgene is able to grow in the presence of the disease, the experiment is successful and goes on to the next level.

After Monsanto — or any other biotechnology company or research facility — splices this transgene into a plant and tests it in a controlled greenhouse, it must petition the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to begin field testing. APHIS is a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that oversees the testing of all genetically modified crops as “regulated articles” through a permitting process.

After extensive review of the field tests, APHIS determines if this plant poses a significant risk. If the organism does not pose a risk it can be deregulated. At this point the organism can be moved and planted without APHIS authorization so that it can be developed commercially.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) steps in and regulates an engineered plant that produces a substance that “prevents, destroys, repels or mitigates a pest,” such as the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin. Commonly used by Monsanto, the Bt toxin is inserted into corn crops, allowing farmers to control pests without spraying pesticides.

From plant to food

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes over once the crop leaves the field. The FDA regulates all food applications of biotechnology, including crops, to make sure that all foods coming out of these new plants are safe to eat.

The FDA does not require labeling to show that a product includes a genetically modified ingredient. It was determined by the National Research Council Committee that assessing food safety based solely on how the food was produced is scientifically unjustified.

According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the process of genetic engineering and conventional breeding pose similar risks of unintended consequences.

So if you buy cornbread, or even make it at home, you are probably eating genetically engineered vegetable oil and cornmeal that may have originated with Monsanto corn seed.

Even with organic products, it’s hard to know if you are eating a product made from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Organic corn grown in California may possibly be the result of cross-pollination between organic corn and GMO corn. Testing is neither required nor encouraged by the USDA National Organic Program.

The problem with regulation

Local GMO opponent Steve Morgan believes the regulatory system is wholly inadequate. “It’s sort of a ‘don’t tell, don’t ask’ arrangement,” said Morgan. “If industry does not tell government what it knows or suspects about its GMOs, the government does not ask.”

As scientists get closer to identifying the genome — or entire genetic structure — of certain plants, technological breakthroughs will take place at a quicker pace. The fear is that the government’s regulatory agencies cannot adapt to the speed at which the industry is moving and developing new products.

The NAS has reported that regulation may be improved by making the process more transparent and rigorous. The NAS recommended enhanced scientific peer review, seeking more public input and better presentations of data, methods and interpretations.

(Tomorrow the series will look at the safety of working and living on an island with GMOs.)

David Lichtenstein is the News Director for KMKK radio. Listen to KMKK, 102.3 FM, Molokai’s only radio station, for Molokai news reports every weekday morning at 6 a.m., 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.