MARQUETTE - In the last few years, genetically modified organisms have become controversial in connection to agriculture and health, though the technology has been around for almost three decades. Since 1986, it has led to the commercial production of genetically engineered crops on 250 million acres worldwide.
GE (or transgenic) plants have undergone a process by which a gene from another organism is introduced to the plant DNA to create a desired effect - like cold- or drought-resistance, sweetness, altered nutrition content and pest- or herbicide-resistance.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cotton, corn and soybeans are the most common GE crops. In 2012, GE cotton accounted for 94 percent of all cotton planted in the U.S., GE soybeans for 93 percent of soybeans, and GE corn for 88 percent of corn.
Millions of people, including the child pictured above, spoke up in protests and rallies in more than 50 countries and over 400 cities across the world on May 25, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Tanya Hawley)
So, while bioengineering has led to the production of more food, more efficiently, the question remains - do the benefits of GE crops outweigh the health risks? And, perhaps more immediately, should products containing GMO's require a label?
In May, Vermont became the first state to sign this kind of regulation into law, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, along with other industry groups, countered with a lawsuit last month. The state has lined up a legal defense team worth $1.5 million and expects to file its response to the suit next month.
Diane Lalomia, president and co-founder of the nonprofit No GMO 4 Michigan, is advocating for labelling regulations in Michigan too, saying it should be a consumer's informed decision whether to buy food containing or derived from GMO's. She said evidence of harmlessness is inconclusive.
"The concerns we have about GMO crops are based on the fact that there's no scientific consensus that they're safe," Lalomia said. "Policies in place now are based on industry-funded studies...that were not long-term."
But Christoph Benning, a molecular plant science researcher at Michigan State University, said the studies cited by GMO opponents are not credible and that industry-wide testing has been extensive.
"You can scour the literature forwards and backwards, and you cannot find a single case of a human being or an animal being harmed by this (technology)," he said.
The first example of modern bioengineering occured in 1982, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first genetically engineered drug, Genentech's Humulin, a form of human insulin produced by bacteria. Previously, doctors used pig insulin to treat diabetes.
In 1987, the first bioengineered crops (tobacco and tomato) were field tested in the United States. And in 1992, Calgene's Flavr Savr tomato, engineered to remain firm for longer, was approved for commercial production by the USDA.
But more controversial are the pest- and herbicide-resistant crops. The most famous long-term study cited by GMO opponents was published in France in 2012 by molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini, which found that GE maize caused tumors and premature death in rats. While it was the longest study conducted to date (two years, the lifespan of the rats), it was retracted in 2013, because peer review found the study ultimately inconclusive.
Meanwhile, the benefits of GE crops - according to Benning, who returned from China just last week - address the three most dire problems facing most of the world: population density, pollution and food costs.
For instance, pest-resistant crops can reduce or eliminate the need for chemical pesticides, by using genes (known as "cry" genes) from Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt), a soil-dwelling bacterium, commonly used as a biological pesticide. Cry toxins have specific activities against insect species such as caterpillars, flies, beetles, ants and bees, but are not harmful to people.
"Round-up ready" GE crops are herbicide-resistant, meaning that herbicides applied will kill the weeds without harming the crop itself.
"I see the risks as very minimal compared to the benefits that we can have for the environment and for the health of people, for feeding the world (and) for mitigating problems that we have created through global warming," Benning said. "I don't see that we have a choice in the long run, that we need to use these technologies to our benefit."
Might there be unintended consequences?
Yes, Benning said. But airplanes are still safer than cars, despite a perception to the contrary.
"There is no scientist who will say - with a complex system like a living organism that you start to intervene with - that you can predict everything. But when we put plants out in the field for the consumer, we have tested all those to the nth degree," he said. "The tests are so far-reaching, we can individually determine every letter in the genetic code of these individual plants...So the unintended consequence can be absolutley minimal, but we can never say that something's not going to happen...There's a risk in everything you do."
Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.