Genetically Modified Crops and Society
I was born in Europe and I have lived in several countries there, and I admit that I grew up with a sense of skepticism about GM crops and the food derived from them. But you never know what will happen in life! Several years later I ended up living in North Carolina (US) and working as a scientist for the Crop Science Trait Research division of Bayer as part of a team whose goal is to discover new genes (also called traits) that can be used for engineering crops to make them pest resistant.
I believe my perspective first started to change when my family and I moved to Hawaii, where I became a faculty member at a university. There, I learned about how genetic modification has been used to create locally grown papaya plants that resist infection by the insect-transmitted virus, Papaya ringspot virus. This was a major breakthrough for science and technology as there were no other sustainable ways to control the spread of the disease, which was devastating the papaya crop. I began to understand the potential opportunities presented by the engineering of crops, and I also had direct evidence that the technology is safe for us as consumers: my family and I had many opportunities to enjoy that fruit!
Pest Screening Associate Group Leader, Bayer
Even though it’s been more than 20 years since crops engineered to produce Bacillus thuringensis (Bt) derived proteins were first commercialized, I am still amazed by how they have revolutionized agricultural insect pest management. As an entomologist, I learned early on how the bacterium Bt has been used in organic farming to manage plant-eating pests. The bacterium can produce toxins that once ingested cause insect pests to die. Genetic modification has allowed the development of corn, soybean and cotton plants that produce Bt-derived proteins in the plant tissues, resulting in plants that defend themselves against attack by insect pests. It is very interesting to see how a product traditionally used in organic farming has been carried a step further to create inherently resistant crops. The high specificity of those proteins for certain insects makes them very safe. For instance, those proteins that kill plant-eating beetles have no adverse effects on caterpillar pests, and the converse also holds true. Animals and humans have efficient enzymes in their digestive systems that rapidly degrade and metabolize Bt proteins along with the rest of the plant components. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine recently reviewed a large amount of literature on the safety of several GM crops, including several Bt-derived ones, and they found no evidence that the food from them is not safe. In fact, they “found no substantiated evidence that foods from GE crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops” (http://nas-sites.org/ge-crops/).
Genetic modification has become a widely adopted approach to crop innovation. Some engineered traits are used to facilitate crop breeding, some to promote the tolerance of crops to herbicides, and some to improve the efficiency with which crops use water and nutrients. I recently attended a “Seed and Trait Safety Academy” workshop at Bayer, where I learned much about the scientific studies that the company performs in order to assess the safety of any new GM traits. Genes, the proteins made from those genes, and plants that make the proteins inside their cells, are evaluated in the laboratory and in agricultural fields. Extensive toxicological and nutritional studies are carried out to assess food safety and to make sure the new food is “substantially equivalent” to the conventional version. I learned that GM plants are the most scrutinized and studied crops in the world!
This is an exciting time for a scientist like me to be part of Trait Research. New and more refined methods of improving crops are being developed by the scientific community, and genetic modification of crops will likely continue to play a pivotal role in modern agriculture. These new technologies will be highly scrutinized and deeply assessed for their safety. As scientists in this field, we need to maintain good communication with the public and establish a positive dialogue to promote a better understanding of how crops are being improved, and how these technologies will ultimately benefit all of us.